Monthly Archives: November 2013

Sermon For Advent Sunday: Dawn Is Breaking

Dawn over Redcliffe Jetty

Dawn Over Redcliffe Jetty (3) by Sheba_Also on Flickr. Some rights reserved.

Romans 13:11-14

On most days of the week, I am the first person up in our household. My alarm clock rudely interrupts my sleep, I switch it off and lie in bed for as long as I think I can get away with, before coming down, unlocking the front door, opening the curtains, feeding the cats and making drinks for everyone. It doesn’t come naturally – I am constitutionally a late night person and am also usually the last to bed as well as the first up.

As Paul gets us to prepare for the second coming of Jesus Christ in Romans 13, he gives us an image of the early morning. He gives us three images of preparing for the day that help us know how to live in the light of the fact that Christ will appear again one day.

The first question is, what time is it? As you may know, a hobby I enjoy is photography. One of the most important factors to consider as a photographer is the light. Some people think that the bright light of the middle of the day is the best light for taking pictures, but to many of us it isn’t. It is harsh, and it causes dark, unforgiving shadows.

No: light is better at the beginning or the end of the day. The times around sunrise and sunset are the most interesting. And just as we speak about there being twilight around sunset, so there is also twilight around sunrise. In fact, as I learned from reading an article the other day, there are three phases of twilight just before the sun rises. There is astronomical twilight, when the centre of the sun is twelve to eighteen degrees below the horizon, and the light is dark blue – even still seeming like darkness. Then comes nautical twilight, when the sun’s centre is now between six and twelve degrees below the horizon. Orange and yellow hues join the dark blue. Finally, there is civil twilight, when the centre of the sun moves between six degrees below the horizon to sunrise proper itself. Now the light is a mixture of pale yellow, neon red and bright orange. Only after that is sunrise itself, and the first hour afterwards is called the ‘golden hour’, because red light turns gold at this time.

Why am I telling you all this? Because Paul tells us that we are living between twilight and sunrise.

Besides this, you know what time it is, how it is now the moment for you to wake from sleep. For salvation is nearer to us now than when we became believers; 12the night is far gone, the day is near. (Verses 11-12a)

If you remember the stories in the Gospels about the Resurrection of Jesus, you will recall that it happened in the early morning, before the dawn. Paul effectively says that as we now live in between the Resurrection of Jesus and the Second Coming, when all will be raised from the dead and God’s light will shine everywhere without opposition, we live in between first twilight and sunrise. We live now at a time when the light has begun to come but the darkness is still around. However, the longer time goes on, the closer we get to the full sunrise, when darkness will flee away at the full brilliance of the sun.

This image gives us a reference for our lives. Living as we do between the morning twilight of the Resurrection and the full sunrise of the Second Coming, we know that our world consists of both light and darkness. It can be frustrating and demoralising when it seems like we are surrounded more by darkness than light, but the good news for us is that the light has come and that the sunrise is on its way. It is prefigured even in the Christmas message, as when the apostle John says, ‘The light shines in the darkness and the darkness has never come to terms with it.’

So next time you are discouraged, remember everything to do with Jesus. He came as the light of the world, and the darkness couldn’t cope with him. Darkness thought it had got rid of him on Good Friday, but in the morning twilight of Easter Day we learned that wasn’t true. Now we are waiting for the sunrise. We may be tempted to think it’s pointless doing the right thing, because evil seems to be rampant, but living between the Resurrection and the Second Coming means that it is always worth aligning ourselves with what is good, beautiful and true. Be encouraged by the breaking of the dawn.

The second question is, what shall we wear? The alarm clock has woken you. A good supply of tea or coffee, pumped intravenously into you, has got you going. A shower has brought you closer to full humanity, and now you must decide what clothes to put on. How will you face the world today?

Paul has two images concerning this in the passage: ‘put on the armour of light’ (verse 12b) and ‘put on the Lord Jesus Christ’ (verse 14a). So – two sets of clothes! Let’s think about each set.

It’s about dressing for the occasion, or dressing for the conditions. That we are urged to put on the ‘armour of light’ indicates the conflict we are in. Yes, we know that the light will win, but the darkness is not giving up easily. The forces of darkness will seek not only to fight against us, beat us down and demoralise us; they will also try to infiltrate us. That is why Paul says, after telling us to put on the armour of light,

let us live honourably as in the day, not in revelling and drunkenness, not in debauchery and licentiousness, not in quarrelling and jealousy. (Verse 13)

We are not living in the light of our coming King when we resort to these sins. Now you may think that several of these are quite irrelevant to us, and that you have not witnessed any debauchery here in Addlestone Methodist Church. Well, neither have I (unless it has been kept well hidden!), but listen to what Tom Wright says about this verse:

We should not forget that “quarrelling and jealousy” are put on exactly the same level as immorality; there are many churches where the first four sins [revelling, drunkenness, debauchery and licentiousness] are unheard of but the last two [quarrelling and jealousy] run riot.[1]

The church infested with quarrelling and jealousy might just as well be the one that is rife with sexual scandal and drug abuse, in the eyes of the apostle. Think about it. When we let our tongues behave loosely in our conversation before or after the service, we are a deeply immoral church, filled with darkness. We must protect ourselves against this by wearing armour – the armour of light.

What does that mean? I suggest it involves disciplined efforts with the help of the Holy Spirit to concentrate our minds and our affections upon all that is good, worthy and noble. We resist and we cut down the attempts to infiltrate our minds with darkness. This requires filling ourselves with all that is good, starting with the Scriptures. It involves building our lives around the Gospel and all that it implies – the undeserved grace of God, his sacrificial love in Jesus Christ, the power of the Holy Spirit, the benefits of peace with God and others, and so on.

And having established that, the other clothing – ‘put[ting] on the Lord Jesus Christ’ (verse 14a) – complements that. What is the emphasis here? Tom Wright helps us again:

Frequently when Paul uses more than one name or title for Jesus the one he wishes to emphasize is placed first; here, by saying, “put on the Lord Jesus Christ”, he seems to be drawing attention to the sovereignty of Jesus, not simply over the believer (who is bound to obey the one whose servant he or she is), but perhaps more particularly over the forces of evil that are ranged against the gospel and those who embrace it. … The assumption must be that he is urging them, as a regular spiritual discipline, to invoke the presence and power of Jesus as Lord of all things to be their defense against all evil, not least the evil toward which they might be lured by their own “flesh”.[2]

Jesus, then, has power over the evil that threatens us, and when we are tempted to give way to the darkness that denies the coming of the light, we invoke him, we call upon him and are then able to resist and align ourselves with the breaking of the dawn rather than the powers of the night.

The third and final question is, what appointments do we have today? Our reading ends with these words:

and make no provision for the flesh, to gratify its desires. (Verse 14b)

The NIV speaks about us not thinking about how to gratify the flesh. It’s about excluding appointment requests from our diary, not including. I usually look at my diary for the day and consider what is in there. It affects decisions I make during the day about what things can claim my time. I try to check my diary carefully when I receive requests for appointments in the future, too. Do I have too many demands on a particular day? Does  this fit with what a minister should be doing? Why does this request appeal to me, and is that for good reasons or selfish ones? Why does this next request not appeal to me? Is that for good reasons or selfish?

Likewise, we have influences who want to take up our time in life, and our decisions on who and what we will give time to may well affect how much we align ourselves with the coming daylight of our King. Paul knows that one way in which we end up making wrong, sinful choices is when we give over our time to things which play on our own self-centred desires. Sometimes it’s the casual way we allow ourselves to idle time away, thinking casually about things that then start to take a hold on our minds, until eventually we end up thinking, doing or perhaps saying things contrary to our faith, and which bring us a deep sense of shame.

You can see this in Bible stories like that of David and Bathsheba. David was supposed to be leading Israel’s army in battle, but he gazed at Bathsheba bathing naked on a nearby roof. Why she used her time to bathe like that where she would be seen from the palace is also questionable. We know the horrifying results. David so wants Bathsheba that he arranges the death of her husband in battle. She becomes pregnant, and they lose the baby.

Now that may be the furthest thing from your mind, but think of how we allow the agenda of advertisers to dominate our thinking until we are dissatisfied with things that previously contented us. We then end up exercising poor stewardship of our money. What about when we give our time over to entertaining gossip? Or how about the occasions when we allow our thoughts to be inflamed by the sly prejudices of certain politicians, journalists or television commentators?

No: if we are dressed in the armour of light and we have put on Jesus Christ as Lord, we cannot imagine that we are going into a bright day where there will be room in our schedules for those things which seem harmless but which grow from tiny specks to great swathes of darkness. Advent Sunday is a time to remember that the light has been breaking through, especially since the Resurrection of Jesus, and today’s twilight will soon become the glorious dawn of his second appearing. May we live, knowing what time it is.

[1] ‘Romans’, New Interpreter’s Bible Volume X, p 729.

[2] Ibid.

Thanksgiving: Two Messages On Gratitude

For my American friends on Thanksgiving today (and indeed for others), here are two very different reflections on gratitude.

The first is a meditation by Max Lucado, in which he reflects on the power of expressing gratitude to God for the simple, everyday things in leading us through difficulties. Read it here.

The second comes from a tradition very different from my own. Benedictine monk David Steindl-Rast claims there is a lot of common ground between Christianity and Buddhism – a view of which I am sceptical.

But gratitude is a big theme of his. He is a co-founder of ANG*L (A Network for Grateful Living) and here is his TED Talk on how gratitude leads to happiness. See what you think.

Whatever you think, may you give thanks to the One who is worthy of all thanksgiving.

Talking Books Christmas Message

I know, I know, it’s not even Advent until next Sunday. It’s one calendar month to Christmas Day. But this afternoon I am recording a short message for a local Talking Books service. I hope this will do.

Last December, our daughter sang in the choir at a school Christmas production based on Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol, imaginatively called Scrooge.

My wife would claim that I have a certain affinity with Ebenezer Scrooge when it comes to the Christmas season. No, it isn’t that I want to take advantage of the poor like he did with Bob Cratchet, but it is that I can seem to do a rather convincing ‘Bah, humbug’ routine at this time of year.

What? A Christian minister doing ‘Bah, humbug’ at Christmas?

Yes, really. Because I get fed up and tired out by the rush, rush, rush in the lead-up to Christmas Day. We have so much to cram in. There are all the everyday responsibilities as well as the presents to buy, the Christmas letter to finish and the cards to send. My colleagues and I are having trouble finding a date in our busy schedules to go out for a Christmas meal together.

In my case, it’s complicated by the never-ending run of church services, equalled only in intensity by Easter. At this time of year, it’s carol services followed by Christingles followed by Midnight Mass followed by special Christmas Day services. All the time, I am meant to be the personification of jollity. For you, there may be other pressures. But on my first year as a minister over twenty years ago, I got past Christmas lunch and fell asleep on the bed.

Rush, rush, rush. Bah, humbug indeed.

But I guess it was like that for Mary and Joseph. Forced off to Bethlehem by the occupying Roman power. No room for them in the guest room at their relatives’ house there (sorry to disappoint you, but ‘no room at the inn’ is a dubious translation). The baby born in less than hygienic conditions. The first visitors, shepherds (who were regarded in those days rather like people might treat gypsies and travellers today). Yes, later come the beautiful gifts of the Magi, with their gold, frankincense and myrrh. But then comes the hurried evacuation to Egypt to avoid the blood lust of Herod, whom we know from other sources to have been a violently paranoid ruler.

I think they could be forgiven a bit of ‘Bah, humbug.’ Was it worth it? Really?

And maybe that’s what we’re tempted to think, not only in the run-up to Christmas, but at other times, too. Is it worth it when I suffer from a disability? Is it worth it when I am penalised by the bedroom tax and face financial meltdown? Is it worth it when I am bullied, or when people take advantage of me?

I mean, why not just say ‘Bah, humbug’ to it all?

Except what the Christmas story brings to us in the midst of all the darkness is a chink of light. The poetic description in the beginning of John’s Gospel about the coming of Jesus says, amongst other things, ‘The light shines in the darkness and the darkness has not come to terms with it.’

Jesus and indeed the whole Christian message is real about the existence of darkness in our lives, within us and surrounding us in the world. But there is also this note of hope. Light is shining in the darkness. That light is Jesus himself, entering our human frailty with all he comes to do.

A favourite singer of mine is a Canadian artist whose profile is somewhat obscure in this country (although he is fêted in his homeland). His name is Bruce Cockburn, and he put it like this in one of his songs:

‘Redemption rips through the surface of time in the cry of a tiny babe.’

Happy Christmas. You can put the humbugs away.

PowerPoint For This Morning’s Sermon

I didn’t have time to add the PowerPoint for the sermon I posted earlier today. Here it is. Once again, I have used that marvellous iPad app Haiku Deck. It also now comes as a web browser app, but so far my experiments with using it that way have been unsuccessful and I have returned to using my tablet.

Sermon: What Makes You Beautiful (Philippians 4:2-9)

Again, there has been a long gap since the last blog post. I had a week off, then had two consecutive Sundays where I led all age services and the material wasn’t suitable for posting here. Also, the situation with my parents’ health remains stressful and time-consuming. However, I am back to regular preaching today, and here is the sermon.

Philippians 4:2-9

Yesterday, Debbie took Rebekah to the cinema to see the recent film about her (Becky’s, that is) favourite pop group, One Direction. When I was titling the sermons in this series after songs, I thought I would please my daughter by picking the title of a One Direction song for this week: ‘What makes you beautiful.’

In these verses, Paul is telling the Philippians about some attitudes of heart that will make them beautiful in the sight of God and of other people. He seems to have a ragbag collection of thoughts for a motley crew of Christians in Philippi, but the common thought is about the attitudes that make for spiritual beauty.

Firstly, unity makes you beautiful.

I plead with Euodia and I plead with Syntyche to be of the same mind in the Lord. Yes, and I ask you, my true companion, help these women since they have contended at my side in the cause of the gospel, along with Clement and the rest of my co-workers, whose names are in the book of life. (Verses 2-3)

We don’t know why Euodia and Syntyche had fallen out, but all the various theories about who they are and what they might have argued about assume that they were leading members of the congregation, and that their disagreement was serious. Paul calls them ‘to be of the same mind in the Lord’, which implies that they are to share the same broad Christian aims. Somewhere they had taken their eyes off the ball. They had stopped ‘making the main thing the main thing’.

So here’s the thing for us. We know that in our society when the church fights over something (let’s say, the Anglican agonies over women bishops), it doesn’t look beautiful to the watching world, it looks ugly. There are bound to be certain things where we disagree, but if we are to break fellowship with each other it really only ought to be over something pretty fundamental. If the church stops preaching the Gospel, then divide. If the church denies the historic orthodox teachings about Jesus Christ, then divide. If the church starts calling sin righteousness or vice-versa, then yes, I think it is permissible to split.

But other things – lesser things – are not permissible grounds for schism. When people tried to divide one of my previous churches over styles of music, that was unacceptable in the light of God, I believe. When people don’t get their own way, pick up their ball and stop the game, that’s not on for Christians. Believe me, if I as a minister were to go off in a huff every time a congregation didn’t accept something I passionately believed in, I’d be half way to Antarctica by now.

No – if we are to look beautiful to the world and to God then we need to be committed to holding together on the fundamentals about God and the Gospel. We may need outside help to get beyond our divisions, just as Paul asked his ‘true companion’ to ‘help these women’, but it is a priority for our witness.

Secondly, rejoicing makes you beautiful.

Rejoice in the Lord always. I will say it again: rejoice! (Verse 4)

Let me say right away that we should not use this famous verse to promote a certain brand of Christianity that seems to expect the followers of Jesus to engage in pretending to be happy when they are downcast, because on that view the Christian who is not full of joy is a sub-standard believer. This is not about playing games of pretend. This is not about putting on a mask when we are struggling.

But Paul does urge us to rejoice in the Lord. Just as Euodia and Syntyche were to agree ‘in the Lord’, so are we all exhorted to rejoice ‘in the Lord’. What does that mean? I believe it is an encouragement for us when we are down in the dumps. Perhaps the Philippian church was in some way discouraged. I do not believe that Paul would have wanted them to be hypocrites: in other places, he is only too frank about his own experiences of suffering and the struggles that accompanied them.

So I take the view that Paul is giving us a way to find joy even in our darkest hours. We rejoice ‘in the Lord’. When we dwell on who he is and what he has done, then even if the dark clouds remain in our lives, the light of God’s Son shines through and reminds us of his great love for us, the world and all creation. That will give us heart when we are lingering in the shadows.

But this is not just for us in our troubles. The fact that we can have some joy when life is hard is beautiful to others. If you ever get the chance to see or read the testimony of the Australian Nick Vujicic, do so. He was born without any limbs and attempted suicide at the age of eight. He told God he would only come to him when he had an answer to the question, why was he born this way. God’s only reply was a request to trust him.

Yet if you see, hear or read Nick Vujicic you will encounter someone who is full of joy. Why? Because that joy is what Paul here calls ‘in the Lord’. It comes from realising that God has forgiven him, and that he has a purpose for his life. It does not ease his physical difficulties, still less heal him, but Vujicic has learned that true joy is in the Lord and that is what makes him a powerful witness.

Thirdly, gentleness makes you beautiful.

Let your gentleness be evident to all. The Lord is near. (Verse 5)

I expect you can see immediately that for Christians to display gentleness in an aggressive world is an act of counter-cultural beauty. Yet what we are dealing with here is all that and much more. The word translated ‘gentleness’ in the NIV is a word that carries with it ideas of magnanimity and of sweet reason. It is, if you like, about gentleness in a specific context, when someone can

remain reasonable and unperturbed when confronted by difficult people and to treat them calmly and fairly … it is the opposite of a quarrelsome nature; instead of being irritated by other people, the Christians are to treat difficult people with sweet reasonableness.[1]

Now can you imagine if this is what the world experienced when it encountered Christians? What if the Christians, by virtue of this kind of gentleness, were the ones who were known for their peaceable characteristics and who could be called upon when there was tension to help effect reconciliation? Imagine if the Christians were the ones who could defuse the tensions that arise in a workplace from time to time.

Or more than that: what would we look like to outsiders if this were the attitude we brought every time someone attacked the church or Christian values or beliefs (as happens more these days)? Would we not be thought of more positively than we often are – perhaps even as beautiful?

This kind of gentleness requires walking the way of the Cross as we absorb hatred and anger directed at us and at others. But if we are followers of Jesus Christ, then it must be possible.

Fourthly, prayer makes you beautiful.

Do not be anxious about anything, but in every situation, by prayer and petition, with thanksgiving, present your requests to God. And the peace of God, which transcends all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus. (Verses 6-7)

We have an epidemic of stress and worry in our society. It affects relationships, the ability to work, the NHS drug budget and many other things. We speak about the invention of labour-saving devices, but all that happens is that we cram more into our lives and wonder when we are going to schedule sleep.

We Christians are not immune to events and circumstances that have the potential to put strain on our lives, either – and I speak as one who inherited a family predisposition towards high blood pressure.

So what if there were a way for Christians to be attractive in such a climate? The answer comes in prayer. But of course many in our culture pray, especially when the pressure is on.

Yet Paul here commends Christian prayer that taps into other values. Prayer can reduce our anxiety, because our lives are in the hands of God and he has good plans for us. That is why we can bring our requests not only with peace (that again!) but also with thanksgiving. We pray from a perspective of gratitude to God. We pray, knowing that he has answered in the past, and that brings a positive attitude to our prayers, even when the petitions we bring are those which have every reason to increase our worries. We do not only pray when we are at panic stations: we pray at all times, and this tunes us in more closely to God’s wavelength. This gives us more of his perspective, and that enables us to find a greater serenity than if we only turn to God when a crisis hits us. It is, perhaps, this on-going commitment to prayer that makes us beautiful.

Fifthly and finally, thinking makes you beautiful.

Did you hear me aright? Yes, thinking makes you beautiful. But don’t some thinkers just become annoying, smug clever clogs? Yes, they do. But according to Paul, thinking makes you beautiful if you direct your thinking appropriately:

Finally, brothers and sisters, whatever is true, whatever is noble, whatever is right, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is admirable – if anything is excellent or praiseworthy – think about such things. Whatever you have learned or received or heard from me, or seen in me – put it into practice. And the God of peace will be with you. (Verses 8-9)

The challenge Paul gives us is in how to focus our minds. This is not about being an intellectual, it is about a positive way of conquering sin and becoming more Christ-like. We may  not all be academics, but we all have a mind and we can all use our minds for good or for sin. The trick, says Paul, is not to leave your mind vacant. One of the objections I have to the meditation techniques of eastern religions (sometimes found in practices such as yoga) is the tendency to empty your mind. Paul knows that an empty mind is one that is vulnerable to invasion. So instead he urges us to fill our minds, by concentrating them on ‘whatever is true … noble … right … pure … lovely … admirable … excellent or praiseworthy’.

But it isn’t just a problem for those who might be seduced by the unhelpful elements of other religions. It’s a difficulty for us when we choose to fill our minds with trash. While it’s important for us to engage with our culture and understand it – Paul isn’t assuming here that we can exist in a safe Christian bubble where, in the words of one satirical singer, ‘You’ll only drink milk from a Christian cow’[2] – it is only to easy for us to entertain ourselves with the trivial and the trashy. The late Martyn Lloyd-Jones used to counsel preachers about their reading that they didn’t have time to read good books, they only had time to read the best[3], and I think the same advice could be passed on to all Christians. By all means read the best literature and engage with the best art and entertainment, but don’t swim with the flotsam and jetsam that our culture offers.

And as well as that, make sure you engage with the best reading that the world of Christian literature can offer you. How can we expect to radiate Christ unless we fill ourselves with his wisdom? It is this that can help us put into practice good Christian living and fill us with the peace of God.

And wouldn’t that above all make us beautiful?