Whoops. I seem to have forgotten to upload two or three sermons lately. Sorry.
While walking down the street one day a corrupt Senator was tragically hit by a car and died. His soul arrives in heaven and is met by St. Peter at the entrance.
“Welcome to heaven,” says St. Peter. “Before you settle in, it seems there is a problem. We seldom see a high official around these parts, you see, so we’re not sure what to do with you.”
“No problem, just let me in,” says the Senator.
“Well, I’d like to, but I have orders from the higher ups. What we’ll do is have you spend one day in hell and one in heaven. Then you can choose where to spend eternity.”
“Really? I’ve made up my mind. I want to be in heaven,” says the Senator.
“I’m sorry, but we have our rules.”
And with that St. Peter escorts him to the elevator and he goes down, down, down to hell.
The doors open and he finds himself in the middle of a beautiful golf course. In the distance is a clubhouse and standing in front of it are all his friends and other politicians who had worked with him. Everyone is very happy and in evening dress. They run to greet him, shake his hand, and reminisce about the good times they had while getting rich at the expense of the people. They played a friendly game of golf and then dine on lobster, caviar and the finest champagne.
Also present is the devil, who really is a very friendly guy who is having a good time dancing and telling jokes. They are all having such a good time that before the Senator realizes it, it is time to go. Everyone gives him a hearty farewell and waves while the elevator rises.
The elevator goes up, up, up and the door reopens in heaven where St. Peter is waiting for him, “Now it’s time to visit heaven…”
So, twenty-four hours passed with the Senator joining a group of contented souls moving from cloud to cloud, playing the harp and singing. They have a good time and, before he realises it, the twenty-four hours have gone by and St. Peter returns.
“Well, then, you’ve spent a day in hell and another in heaven. Now choose your eternity.”
The Senator reflects for a minute, then he answers: “Well, I would never have said it before, I mean heaven has been delightful, but I think I would be better off in hell.”
So St. Peter escorts him to the elevator and he goes down, down, down to hell…
Now the doors of the elevator open and he’s in the middle of a barren land covered with waste and garbage. He sees all his friends, dressed in rags, picking up the trash and putting it in black bags as more trash falls from above. The devil comes over to him and puts his arm around his shoulders.
“I don’t understand,” stammers the Senator. “Yesterday I was here and there was a golf course and clubhouse, and we ate lobster and caviar, drank champagne, and danced and had a great time. Now there’s just a wasteland full of garbage and my friends look miserable. What happened?”
The devil smiles at him and says, “Yesterday we were campaigning. Today, you voted…”
Now, I find that joke rather delicious as we approach a General Election in six months’ time. But I didn’t tell it for political reasons this morning. I told it, because it assumes the traditional teaching that our destiny for eternity is either heaven or hell.
And that’s a mistake. The New Testament doesn’t teach that.
Really? Did you hear that right? The minister is saying that heaven or hell is not our eternal destiny?
Well, you did hear me correctly, but I still believe in ‘heaven and hell’. It’s just that I believe – as Tom Wright has put it – that ‘heaven is important, but it’s not the end of the world’.
What the New Testament teaches is this: when we die, we rest in either Paradise or Hades. Jesus tells the repentant thief on the cross, ‘Today you will be with me in Paradise.’ In the parable of the rich man and Lazarus, he envisions the evil wealthy man as suffering in Hades, the place of the dead. These are resting places, or waiting rooms, until our final destiny.
And our final destiny is not to float on clouds, plucking harps. The end of all things in the New Testament is God making all things new – the heavens, the earth, and our bodies. God’s kingdom in all its fullness constitutes a whole new creation. That’s why at the Last Day, we shall be raised from the dead physically. The idea that the physical and material doesn’t matter, and all that matters is our ‘soul’ is not originally a Christian idea: it comes from Greek philosophy, and from heresies that the early Church rejected. It’s why C S Lewis said that ‘Christianity is the most material of all religions’.
Now plug all that into the Lord’s Prayer, and especially into the lines
your kingdom come,
your will be done,
on earth as it is in heaven. (Verse 10)
The first line – ‘your kingdom come’ – is explained by what follows – ‘your will be done, on earth as it is in heaven.’ When we pray for God’s kingdom to come, we pray for his will to be done here on this earth, just like it is in heaven, his dwelling-place. We are longing for that kingdom where heaven and earth have been made new, and human bodies made new in resurrection, and where God’s will is done as fully and wholeheartedly as it is in his immediate presence.
So if we want to pray for the coming of God’s kingdom, we do something like this. Knowing what we do of God’s will, we imagine what our world as we know it would look like if people were doing the things that give God pleasure.
That’s effectively what Isaiah does in chapter 29 that we heard read before the Lord’s Prayer. Isaiah imagines the dry land of Lebanon becoming fertile, even like a forest. He imagines deaf people hearing God’s message, and the blind seeing again. He envisions the humble and the needy having cause for great joy, instead of being trampled down by the unjust. In fact, he sees a time when such ruthless people will vanish, when mockers will be no more, and when there will be no more evil people manipulating the justice system to their own twisted ends. He sees shamed people standing in awe of God, and wayward spirits and habitual moaners accepting instruction (verses 17-24). All this imagining becomes a vision for the future, and therefore a captivating image to stimulate prayer, and ask God to bring these things about.
Now let’s plug all this into our lives today, because we can do something similar. And we need to, because one aspect of the poor reputation Christians often have today is that we are a bunch of moaners. We are the people who are only known for the things we are against, the things we complain about. One reason Christian MPs can have a hard time in Parliament is because they and their colleagues are subject to hectoring letters and flame-filled emails.
So – rather than just bewailing all that is wrong with our world (and I wouldn’t deny there is a lot that is at odds with our faith) – why don’t we instead start exercising a prayerful, holy imagination to conceive how we would long the world to be. Rather than railing against the way people use the Internet in negative ways, such as verbally attacking others, or accessing pornography, ask in the presence of God what the Internet would look like if it were used in a pure and kind way. Rather than sitting around as barstool Prime Ministers declaiming against a society that is obsessed with money, possessions, and buying the latest thing, prayerfully consider what our culture would look like if spirituality and relationships were dominating values, and the poor were not all derided as scroungers.
In short, for Christians to pray ‘Your kingdom come, your will be done on earth as it is in heaven’ is to serve notice on the ‘moaning minnies’ version of religion that we often serve up, and commit instead to imagining a better world, praying for it, and working for it in the power of the Holy Spirit. I believe that’s what Jesus wanted of his followers when he taught them the Lord’s Prayer.
And there is a specific application to make in this particular sermon and teaching series that we are following. We’ve been thinking about what we’ve called our ‘frontlines’, those places where we are no longer cossetted among our fellow Christians, but interact with those who don’t share our faith. It may be our workplace, our families, our next-door neighbours, or where we spend our leisure time, from the health club to the U3A.
These locations, too, are often far from what we would ideally like them to be. Much as we enjoy the friendship of others there, these places may be centres of gossip, sharp practice, back-biting, and unjust behaviours. Even if it’s not that bad, they can become mundane and meaningless, and hence the parody of Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs that we sometimes use to describe our paid working life: ‘I owe, I owe, it’s off to work I go.’
So here we choose not simply to carp about the things that annoy us, or stay permanently on a downer about the people who get our backs up. Instead, we employ a holy imagination, and ask ourselves this question: ‘From what I know about Jesus’ teaching, what would this environment look like under the reign of God?’ And then we dream what it would look like.
And having established our ‘kingdom dream’, we then pray it: ‘Your kingdom come, your will be done on earth as it is in heaven.’ Little by little, we shall see signs of transformation as we do so.
Now maybe asking us all to be dreamers – even kingdom of God dreamers – will not go down well in some quarters. Dreamers have a bad reputation. They are detached from reality; they are not practical people. And we have seen worldly dreamers who garner a bad reputation. You only have to think of John Lennon singing, ‘You may think I’m a dreamer’ in his execrable song ‘Imagine’ – a song where he exhorts us to ‘imagine no possessions’, all the while being filmed singing the song in his Ascot mansion. Any dream won’t do.
But kingdom dreams are wonderful things. It isn’t for nothing that the Bible often links dreams with visions. They can give direction. Used prayerfully, they can lead to transformation.
So – er – imagine that you are in Washington DC, and a great crowd has assembled to hear you speak. And as you speak your prepared words, you hear the Gospel singer Mahalia Jackson call to you, “Tell them about the dream!”
And you change your speech on the hoof to tell them about the dream. It won’t fire you for much longer, because soon you will be dead. For Mahalia Jackson actually called out, “Tell them about the dream, Martin,” and you are Martin Luther King, and your speech becomes “I have a dream.” It’s a kingdom of God dream, and it will inspire many to take the torch relay on from you.
This week, then, when you leave the service, I am sending you out to be dreamers. Dream what your frontlines would look like if they were under the kingdom of God, and then pray that God’s will may be done there.
Yes – dream sweet dreams. And change the world.
The Feast of Epiphany, when Christ was revealed to the Gentiles in the visit of the Magi, is one that sometimes gets overlooked in Methodist churches, because it frequently clashes with the annual Covenant Service. Today, I thought I would try combining the two. The Covenant Service is the time when we renew our commitment to Christ, and the Magi are a great example of that. They arrive in Jerusalem saying they have come to pay homage to the child born to be king of the Jews (verse 2) and when they finally get to the house where the child is, they get down on their knees and do exactly that (verse 11). This morning I want to highlight some of the elements in this story that make them into true worshippers that we can emulate in our way in our day.
Firstly, they were listeners. They were more attuned than anyone else in the story to what God was saying and doing. They are the least likely candidates for that, yet that is true of them. They are pagans, they are Gentiles. They are astrologers, following a practice condemned in the Old Testament in the prophecies of Isaiah. They come to the land of God’s chosen people, yet they are the ones who are keen to know the purposes of God and act on them. You might think that Herod would know the Scriptures, but he hasn’t a clue and he has to call in the experts. You might think that those experts, the chief priests and scribes of the people (verse 4), would know their Scriptures. Well, they do, and they quote them. But they do nothing about them.
In this respect, it is sad to say that too many of us in the church are like either Herod or the experts. Either we don’t know our Scriptures at all, or we know them but we don’t put them into practice. It is a scandal that many professing Christians only engage with the Bible in a Sunday morning service. They listen to it being read but never pick it off the shelf in the week. And even among those who do read the Bible frequently, it is too common an attitude to read it and forget it.
In other words, we are shamed by people with less knowledge about the faith than we ourselves have.
In my youth and early adulthood, a relative we used to visit often as a family was a woman we called ‘Auntie Rene’. She wasn’t really an auntie, but she was a relative: she was my Mum’s cousin. But rather than get into complicated discussions about what kind of a cousin that made her to my sister and me, we called her ‘Auntie’.
She had poor health. In 1969 she was given six months to live, but – despite smoking – she stretched that six months out to eighteen years, and she finally passed away in the Spring of 1987. Sometimes we wondered about where she stood on matters of faith, but when she died, someone (I think it might have been my sister) discovered that by her bedside was a Bible. She had been reading Jeremiah.
As we talked about this, we came to the conclusion that in her life Auntie Rene had responded to as much light as she had come across, whether that was the full Gospel of Jesus Christ or not.
I suggest to you that the Magi are a group of people who respond to as much light from God as they find. It starts with following the star, it continues with going to Bethlehem when they hear about Micah’s prophecy and it ends with their obedience to the dream that leads to them avoiding Herod on their way home.
Now if that’s the case, what excuse do we have – we who have had decades of Christian experience? Maybe we feel we don’t know much about our faith – well if that’s the case, can we like the Magi start by responding to what light we already do have?
And if we do have some Bible knowledge, then will we start putting it into practice, unlike the chief priests and scribes? Christian teaching and learning is not simply about filling our heads with knowledge, it’s about assimilating what God wants us to do and then getting on with it.
Now that leads to the second element I want us to consider about the Magi: they were pilgrims. In other words, they went on a journey, a spiritual journey. Based on what light they had received from observing the star, they left their homeland. Based on what light they received when they heard Micah’s ancient prophecy, they travelled from Jerusalem to Bethlehem. Based on what light they received in their dream, they took a different route home. We would never have heard of them unless they had been willing to travel on a journey – that is, to be pilgrims.
Now surely the point about a pilgrim is that you travel somewhere with spiritual intentions, but in doing so you leave behind the familiarity of your home in order to arrive at somewhere unknown and in the process to encounter God. To go further in the spiritual life as a pilgrim requires getting off our familiar home territory to go to new places.
And that’s the challenge. How many of us are willing to move away from the places where we feel safe and comfortable in order to draw closer to Jesus Christ? Isn’t one of the problems with the church the fact that too many of us just want to keep everything familiar and cosy? Jesus calls us to an adventure. He calls us to what the Methodist Church called a few years ago ‘Holiness and Risk’.
There are so many areas where our unwillingness to be pilgrims onto new, uncharted ground means that the church withers. It can be in the area of evangelism, where any small efforts we make are all based on the assumption that people want to come to where we feel comfortable, in a church service, rather than us being willing to go to where they feel safe.
It affects our general profile in the community. Only the other day I was having to explain why the regular ecumenical lunch time meeting of the Knaphill ministers happens in a pub, rather than in the Christian coffee shop in the village. We feel it’s important to be off home territory and visible in the wider world. But some Christians think that anything other than doing things with overtly Christian tools is somehow wrong. Back in the 1980s, the Christian musician Steve Taylor satirised this in a song called ‘Guilty by Association’ with lines such as, ‘You’ll only drink milk from a Christian cow.’
More generally, our unwillingness to get away from the safe and the predictable afflicts any possibility whatsoever that the church might innovate in a creative way. Perhaps you’ve been told what the seven last words of a dying church are? ‘But we’ve always done it this way.’
Real disciples of Jesus are willing to go on pilgrimage. They will leave home territory behind to venture somewhere new as part of their longer journey to the New Jerusalem. It goes right back in our heritage to Abram, when he was called to leave his homeland. It is there in the incarnation of Jesus, who left the glory of heaven. We see it here in the account of the Magi. Why, then, do we not see it much in the life of today’s church? Might the New Year and our renewal of the Covenant be the time when we finally take this part of our Christian inheritance seriously?
Thirdly and finally, the Magi were givers. We had a bit of fun with this at Knaphill during the Christingle service on Christmas Eve. Following a throwaway comment, we based the whole service on the theme of ‘Elf and Safety’. We retold the Christmas story in dramatic form, but every now and again an elf would appear and object that something broke ‘elf and safety’ rules. For example, the donkey should not have been allowed to cover so many miles in such a short time, and it should have had a tag on its ear.
When it came to the arrival of the Magi, another elf sprang out when they produced the gold, frankincense and myrrh. He wanted to know whether they had an import licence for these goods.
I think some of us have trouble with the gifts of the Magi. They are so expensive and extravagant. Surely they are beyond us? Or maybe we don’t want to be challenged. So we resort to ancient explanations that the gold symbolises Jesus’ kingship, the frankincense his priestly role and the myrrh his death. We do so, despite Matthew never claiming that meaning in the text and despite none of the major commentaries seriously entertaining that interpretation.
But perhaps the key to understanding this example of devotion is not the contents but the container, not the gifts but the treasure box. The Magi ‘[opened] their treasure-chests’ (verse 11), and I think that is the call to us. What are our treasure chests? What are the things we treasure – which might be money, possessions, talents or a whole lot of other things? Our treasures may well not be gold, frankincense or myrrh, but there are aspects of our lives that are inordinately precious to us, and the Christian disciple lays them down before Jesus as an act of worship and commitment.
I believe that is something well worth thinking about as we make our solemn vows again this year in the traditional words of the Covenant Prayer. Our treasures may not be just money, talents or possessions. They may be people, ambitions or dreams we have had for our lives. All these we bring to the feet of Christ and say, “Here is all that is most precious to me. I offer it to you. Use it as you will.”
That was what made the Magi different. Herod was desperate to clutch tightly onto what he considered to be rightly his. The chief priests and scribes had great intellectual gifts, but those talents were not offered to the true King of the Jews. They were just intellectual dilettantes, not servants of God’s kingdom.
There may be ways in which our churches are mixtures of mini-Herods, priests and scribes and Magi. We have little Herods who secretly find Jesus a threat to their whole way of life. We have priests and scribes who are full of religious knowledge but empty when it comes to practical obedience. But we also have Magi, people who may not be the likely suspects but who actually are more committed to Jesus Christ than anyone else in the neighbourhood.
But in truth, each one of us may be a mixture of the three. Sometimes we are antagonistic towards what Jesus wants of us. Sometimes we are apathetic. And sometimes – thankfully – we are as passionate for Christ as the Magi were.
Let us identify these different aspects of ourselves this morning, so that we may put aside our Herod tendencies and our priestly and scribal complacency, in order that we may renew our to listen for God’s will and obey it the best way we know how; to strike out on the pilgrim way, even if that means going far from what we would call home; and to offer our treasures in devotion at the feet of Christ.
May that be the attitude of our hearts in a few minutes’ time, when we come to recite again the – truly – awesome words of the Covenant Prayer.
Today is Epiphany, the day millions of Christians have traditionally celebrated as the appearing of the Christ. It is particularly associated with the visit of the Magi.
Yet in the UK today marks less an appearing than a disappearing. The last Woolworths shops have closed their doors tonight. That is especially poignant in our house. They were my wife’s first employer, initially when she did a ‘Saturday job’ while at school. Then, when she left school, they took her on full time.
A couple of weeks ago, we walked through the Chelmsford store and tried to explain to our small children that it would be closing forever. This place where they had enjoyed getting a tub of ‘Pick and Mix’ sweets,and where we had bought toys and cheap Ladybird clothes for them, would be no more. Rebekah cried inconsolable tears. How do you explain ‘recession’ to a five-year-old? I’m no economist (which is partly why I’ve been loath to say too much on the subject), and I find it hard to understand.
Looking on as an adult consumer, it’s easy to see where Woolies fell down. They fell betwixt and between, a Jack of all trades, master of none, with no clear vision. What kind of a shop was it? Something of a hotch-potch in recent years, doing several things reasonably but none of them well.
And that makes them sound like many churches. They try to do this, that and everything, because X, Y and Z are all things that a church should supposedly do, but they overstretch themselves and do few of them well. I received a good piece of advice early on from a minister friend called Paul Ashby. He said, “No church is the complete Body of Christ.” We don’t need to do it all. I don’t see anything wrong in an individual congregation specialising. It happens to an extent, even when we don’t acknowledge it, simply through the kind of people in a said church and its location.
Yes, there are shops that want to do a bit of everything, notably the major supermarkets, which have gone way beyond groceries. However, they have done so from positions of economic strength and market dominance, much in the way a large church can cover a lot of bases. But we aren’t all large supermarkets or megachurches.
Likewise, we’ve had the news in the last twenty-four hours that Waterford Wedgwood has gone into administration. Who’s buying bone china tea services any more? Not us. When we moved from our six-bedroom manse in the last circuit to our small three-bedroom house here, we had to downsize considerably. Not without cause did we call ourselves Mr and Mrs eBay. Among the possessions to go were our cups and saucers. We decided to rely entirely on mugs. They are far more acceptable today than the day when it seemed like only builders drank from one. Moreover, when we hear about the need to take in sufficient fluid, who wants a small cup? Even some churches are dispensing with the hideous green crockery! Besides, I need a pint mug of tea to get me going first thing in the morning.
All of which implies for me that a company like Wedgwood has had too narrow a vision. I can best illustrate what I mean by reproducing a story I found in the December 1990 edition of the now defunct MARC Newsletter. It came from an article entitled ‘Doing research with eyes to see’ by Bryant Myers:
There is a story of a company that manufactured drill bits for over forty years. It had been very successful, but the industry was maturing and profit margins were getting thin.
The son of the founder attended his first senior staff meeting after his father died.
“What business are we in?” he asked the older men, who had served alongside his father for many years.
“We make drill bits!” came the exasperated answer. “Our customers need drill bits.”
“No. Our customers need holes,” the young man quietly replied. Today the company is again successful. In addition to drill bits, it manufactures lasers that make very precise holes.
And maybe that too has been a problem in many churches. We have made drill bits instead of holes. I’m not arguing for some corporate-style approach to vision and mission statements, but I am saying that a time of crisis is one that should make us remember the basics of why we exist.
That’s where I get into my usual points about the fundamental orientation of the church being missional. Too often, if you ask church members what the purpose of the church is, they will answer ‘worship’. And while if you push them they will accept that worship is more than the Sunday service, it is everyday lifestyle, really the heart of the answer betrays an assumption that the Sunday morning gathering is the main event.
I don’t wish to disparage Sunday worship at all. But defining ourselves by worship has ironically turned us in on ourselves instead of focussing on God, who is the object of our worship. When the disciples were filled with the Holy Spirit at the first Pentecost in Acts 2, it is hard to know where you draw the line between worship and mission that day.
What I’m saying, then, is that the pressure of the recession has exposed problems of confused vision in companies. The confused vision on its own hasn’t taken them under, but it has left them vulnerable at a time when the economy stopped swinging. Sadly too it is often only a crisis that makes us notice the confused vision in our churches.
There is much more to be said about the moral dimension of the recession itself. I particularly commend a blog post from Sunday by Dave Perry, in which he notes the remarks of a secular journalist who wonders whether the recession will make us a better country. ‘Can we spend our way out of emptiness?’ asks Dave, implying of course a ‘no’.
Similarly, I commend a podcast of a sermon by Ken Costa entitled ‘Surviving The Financial Tsunami‘. Costa is a church warden at Holy Trinity Brompton and chair of Lazard International. As well as some gentle pastoral advice for those facing financial woes at present, he identifies the current crisis as a ‘shaking’ from God, yet eschewing any easy claims to it being divine judgment. Having said that, the sermon carries a clear call to a fundamental change of the values by which we live – as individuals, as commerce and as nations. There is a useful comparison with the downfall of Tyre in Ezekiel 27.
What happens if you mix that most popular of Internet phenomena, the social networking site, with the in-word in many western Christian circles, ‘missional’? Why, you get a social network for those involved in the missional approach to Christianity. It’s called Missional Tribe and has launched overnight.
It is good to see something like this ‘appearing’ on the Feast of Epiphany. I shall be signing up in just a moment. Thanks for the circular email, Rick.