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Sermon For The Second Sunday In Advent: Telling The Prophetic Time

Wristwatch

Wristwatch by Dan Iggers on Flickr. Some rights reserved.

Mark 1:1-8 with Isaiah 40:1-11

You may have noticed that I do not wear a watch. Contrary to popular opinion, this is not so that I can preach for an interminable length of time, it is because I developed an allergy to nickel a few years ago. I could not wear a watch without getting a rash, and I found the plastic digital watches awful as an alternative.

Somebody told me there was a way to prevent the nickel back of a watch from irritating me in this way. I should coat it in clear nail varnish. This would save my skin from contact with the offending metal.

Debbie came with me to a branch of Boot’s. She took great delight in announcing loudly as she gave the nail varnish to the cashier, “IT’S FOR MY HUSBAND!”

Oh, and after that, it didn’t work anyway. Three coats of nail varnish on the watch. No success. If you ask me the time nowadays, I consult my phone, because it is connected to an Internet clock. Or maybe I’ll look at my iPad for the same reason. (Although the iPad is a little large to go on my wrist!)

Our readings this week in the Second Sunday of Advent are about telling the time. Not ordinary calendar and clock time, for which we use conventional timepieces, but God’s time. In this second week of Advent, we traditionally celebrate the rôle of the prophets, and their job is to proclaim God’s time.

The particular prophet in focus here is John the Baptist and his use of Isaiah, and if you know your Four Sundays of Advent, you’ll be aware that John is usually under the spotlight in Week Three, not Week Two. So we’ll leave the more specific features of his ministry for next week – you can think then, if you like, about his dress code and his diet – but this week simply see him as a model of prophecy.

Exiled

Exilado / Exiled by Edlago Quinco on Flickr. Some rights reserved.

There is a specific chiming of the clock in God’s time that John the Baptist comes to announce, according to Mark’s Gospel. According to John, the time in God’s schedule has come for the end of the Exile.

What do I mean by ‘the end of the Exile’? You will remember how God’s people were taken from the Promised Land into Exile as a result of their persistent defiance of their God. Ten of the tribes were taken captive by Assyria in 722 BC, and never heard of again. The remaining two were defeated by Babylon in a series of waves, culminating in 586 BC, when Jerusalem was captured, the Temple destroyed, and most of the survivors were taken to the land of their conquerors. This was the Exile.

But some decades later, when Babylon itself had been conquered, the Jews began returning to Jerusalem and Judah. This return is prophesied in Isaiah 40, which we heard. Nehemiah leads the rebuilding of Jerusalem, and prophets such as Haggai urge a commitment to rebuilding the Temple.

Yet it wasn’t a ‘happy ever after’ ending. In the centuries since, God’s people had been oppressed by the Greeks, and now they were under occupation in their own territory by Rome. Many of them said it was like still being in exile. They might be within their national borders, but they had no power to rule themselves and the land.

You have heard how rebel leaders arose from time to time, bidding to overthrow the Romans, and how they generally met grisly ends. But now comes a different kind of prophet – not a soldier, but a preacher. And Mark says that John arrives on the scene in fulfilment of Isaiah 40. Just as that chapter in Isaiah had begun the prophecies of hope that heralded the return from exile of God’s people in the sixth century BC, so now this prophet proclaims the return from another exile.

Of course, many people in that day would have hoped that this return from exile would deliver what the failed freedom fighters (or terrorists, as Rome probably regarded them) had aspired to: deliverance from military occupation. But as we know, John doesn’t come with that message, and nor does the Messiah he is introducing, namely Jesus. This return from exile is of a different kind. It is a return from exile where God gives his people not so much what they want as what they need. It is not freedom from occupation by Rome, but freedom from occupation by sin. It moves the question of blame and responsibility away from outside enemies, and makes God’s people look at themselves.

Yet even if that sounds challenging, it is still good news. We can be set free! Whatever the external circumstances, there is a freedom to be had here and now in God’s time. ‘Now is the time for God’s salvation,’ says the Apostle Paul in 2 Corinthians. This truly is God’s time, says the prophet. There may be things you want, and there will be times when God will give you those things, but major on the things you need, and especially this one. ‘Come home,’ says God, ‘It’s time.’

So what is solved by God saying through the prophets that the time for the end of the exile has come? I think we can take an image from the experience of the Jewish people in Babylon. Exile was the most terrible trauma for them. It was the end of their faith as they knew it, just as the destruction of the Second Jerusalem Temple in AD 70 that Jesus prophesied would be devastating to the Jews of his generation and the next. In exile, they struggled to have faith. They felt far from God, because they could no longer go to the Temple where God had said his Name would reside, and even if they could get there, the Temple wasn’t standing. No wonder in the red-raw language of Psalm 137, they sang of weeping by the rivers of Babylon and asking in the echo of their captors’ taunts, ‘How can we sing the Lord’s song in a strange land?’ To be in exile was to be far from God, perhaps even cut off from God.

Therefore to come home from exile was to come back to God, and draw near to him. We might criticise their locating of God’s presence in a particular special place, and indeed the Old Testament itself does, even and especially when King Solomon dedicates the original Temple. They know that God cannot be confined to places built by human hands. His Temple is the whole created order.

We too fall into a similar trap at times. We delude ourselves that God is more to be found in a religious building than in his world. As a result, we miss a lot of what God is doing in our generation.

But we can hear the ‘end of exile’ invitation to come back to God and draw close to him again. We can hear the ‘end of exile’ message that we need not stay away. However much we may know that our sins put us outside of fellowship with God, when the prophets declare the end of exile with the coming of Jesus the Messiah, they say to us, you can draw near to God because he has drawn near to you! This Messiah is not simply a human champion (although he is, if in a different way from common understanding): he is God in the flesh. He is Emmanuel, God with us. When we feared we would have to stay at a distance, or we didn’t know our way back to him, God made the move towards us.

And this is the nature of God’s love towards us in Christ. He says, “You don’t have to stay in exile anymore. You don’t have to keep your distance. I am coming close to you in my Son. Do not be afraid. I am bridging the gap. I am dealing with the sin that has driven us apart. Hear my invitation to walk with me in freedom.”

Now if God has come on a journey from heaven to earth in his Son to draw close to us, how do we walk towards him? The passage tells us, and it has a typical prophetic theme: repentance. Like the Old Testament prophets, there is powerful enacted symbolism – in this case baptism. John proclaims a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins, and when people are baptised, they confess their sins (verses 4-5).

What’s more, this too is backed up by the reference to the end of exile in Isaiah 40. There, the prophet imagines the need for a royal highway on which God can lead his people back to their homeland. Hence ‘Prepare the way of the Lord, make his paths straight’ (Mark 1:3b). Smooth everything out, get rid of the potholes, put down new tarmac. It’s like the way a locality is decorated or improved before the Queen visits. God’s highway must be smooth and straight.

However, Mark applies that prophecy in a different way. If it’s end of the exile time now, then it is the people who need to straighten out their own paths. The way to walk towards God is by straightening out our lives in repentance, the repentance for which John gave, as I said, the powerful prophetic symbol of baptism.

Watling Street

Watling Street by David Jones on Flickr. Some rights reserved.

And this would have made sense, not only at the time of John’s coming, but also to Mark’s first readers, who were almost certainly Christians in Rome. I’m sure you remember the Roman reputation for building long, straight roads. We even lived in a turning off the famous Watling Street when I served in my circuit before last. The Romans made straight roads, and they made roads straight.

Repentance is not simply saying sorry. It is being sorry enough to desire change, to straighten out our lives. The word means ‘change of mind’, and repentance involves a whole change of mind about right and wrong, about who comes first in my life, and what gets priority.

We associate repentance with coming to faith in Christ at the beginning of the Christian life. Rightly, we recognise the need for a complete change of mind, a U-turn, if you like, in order to become a disciple of Jesus, because his ways are so different from those of the world.

Basilea Schlink, Repentance: The Joy-Filled Life

Basilea Schlink, Repentance: The Joy-Filled Life

However, it would be wrong to limit the call to repentance to the commencement of Christian faith. God regularly calls us to repentance as a means of drawing us closer to him. Perhaps that is why one saint, Mother Basilea Schlink, wrote a book entitled ‘Repentance: The Joy-Filled Life’. It’s not what we expect, is it, for repentance and joy to be linked? But they are, because repentance brings us nearer to God and therefore to all the joy that knowing him bestows upon our lives.

It is why we need to be converted over and over again. Like certain motorways and ‘A’ roads I could name, our lives have semi-permanent roadworks on them. God is calling us to that straightening out of our highways.

And perhaps it is those who least feel the regular call to repentance about whom we should be most concerned. For the disciples who make it their business to draw near to God find as they edge closer that the  nearer they get to him, the more they realise what sinners they are. If they are not careful, they feel hopeless, because they think, “Will this ever end?” but the more proximate we get to the holy love of God, the more we shall realise how far short we fall, and how we yet again need to turn from our selfish ways if we are to prepare the way of the Lord.

What we all need to hear is the prophetic call that the time for the end of exile and coming close to God is not only the time for an ending but the time for a beginning: the beginning of the Holy Spirit’s availability to all flesh. The coming Messiah ‘will baptise you with the Holy Spirit’ (verse 8) says the prophet John. And in that promised gift of God’s nearness comes the experience of divine holiness, which is both awesome and terrifying, but also the promised power to turn our lives into straight streets.

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Sermon: Jesus The Alarm Call

It’s been two or three weeks since I’ve posted a sermon. This weekend I’m not at one of my churches, and I’ve been asked to preach from the Lectionary. My study of this passage led me to what I found to be a surprising twist on the meaning I had always thought it had. See whether this sheds new light on a familiar story for you, too.

Mark 1:21-28

[Sermon begins with sound effect of an alarm clock.]

It’s OK, I’m not trying to wake you up before the sermon sends you to sleep. (Although I hope it won’t.) Were it not for copyright laws, I would have played you the beginning of the song ‘Time’ by Pink Floyd from ‘The Dark Side of the Moon’, which begins with a cacophony of alarm clocks.

But if I gave you an unwelcome foretaste of Monday morning, it was for a reason. You heard an alarm clock. And I want to suggest to you that in the synagogue at Capernaum, Jesus’ listeners heard a first century alarm clock – ringing in their hearts and minds.

How so? Robin read, ‘They were astounded at his teaching’ (verse 22). When we read passages like this one in the Gospels, we get a sense that the people are amazed and impressed by Jesus. Indeed, that’s how we tend to interpret the statement at the other end of the story in verse 27, ‘They were all amazed’.

And if the alarm clock makes me think of Pink Floyd, the sense of amazement takes me to Kate Bush and her old song ‘Wow’, with its chorus, ‘Wow, wow, wow, wow, unbelievable!’ That’s what we think the people are saying about Jesus: ‘Wow!’ ‘Unbelievable!’

But the bad news, is that here we side with Pink Floyd rather than Kate Bush. It’s alarm, not wow. Mark has six different words he uses for this sense of amazement, and the one he uses here means not ‘wonder’ and ‘amazement’ but ‘alarm’[1]. Strictly speaking, we should translate verse 22 as ‘The people were alarmed at his teaching’.

Why should the synagogue congregation be alarmed at Jesus’ teaching? We don’t know what Jesus taught on this occasion, but we do know from earlier verses in Mark 1 what the general tenor of his teaching at this time was. Take verses 14-15:

Now when John was arrested, Jesus came to Galilee, proclaiming the good news of God, and saying, “The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God has come near; repent, and believe in the good news.”

Most of this should not cause alarm to his hearers. Good Jews were waiting for the time to be fulfilled. They longed for the kingdom of God. They wanted good news. They were being ruled over by Rome, whose emperor (‘king’) claimed to be the Son of God, and who claimed that the rule of Rome was good news. The announcement of a new emperor was called a ‘gospel’. The Jews don’t like this. Here is someone whom Mark calls in the first verse of his Gospel ‘the Son of God’, rather than Caesar. He is proclaiming that God, not Caesar, is King. Can you not imagine the cheering? This is good news to believe in!
But … there is one word hidden in the midst of all this that will alarm them. ‘Repent.’ God’s people weren’t meant to repent. It was pagan, Gentile sinners who were supposed to recognise their sin and change. God’s people were the oppressed. They were the ones who were going to be vindicated.

Yet no. Jesus comes and addresses them with the word ‘repent.’ “What? Us? You’re kidding! How dare you!” Sound the alarm. There’s good news, but to receive it you need to change. They didn’t expect that.

And maybe as a community that is a decreasing minority in a society that no longer understands us, a culture that is far less sympathetic to us, maybe we in the Western church want Jesus to ride into town with an angelic cavalry and vindicate us, too. However, what if he did show up here this morning and he made all sorts of gospel promises to us, but they are the bread around the filling of repentance?

Don’t get me wrong. I am sure God is concerned about the decline of the western church, just as I am convinced he cared about Israel suffering oppression. But his main concern may not be to come to us and say, “I’m OK, you’re OK.” He may need to challenge us.

The other day the BBC and various newspapers carried coverage of a report from the University of Essex which plotted the decline in honesty and integrity in our society over the last ten years. To take just one statistic from among many, a decade ago 70% of people agreed that extra-marital affairs were always wrong. Now, only 50% agree with that. In the comments that readers contributed on the BBC website about this story, one person asked, ‘Where is the church in this?’ An avalanche of replies said that the church had little credibility in the honesty stakes, given the way she had covered up child abuse by priests. Now I know that some people use the child abuse scandal as a stick with which to beat the church, and I also know that the vast majority of churchgoers are not culpable, but the fact remains that our claims to integrity are tarnished in the world and it therefore may well be that Jesus comes to us with a message of repentance.
If you remember the comedy series ‘Are You Being Served?’ you may recall the scenes where the elderly and doddery owner of Grace Brothers Department Store, the so-called Young Mr Grace, would turn up on the shop floor on the arms of his beautiful young nurse and tell the staff, “You’ve all done very well.” Sometimes I wonder whether that is the only message we are willing to hear from Christ, when he may have reason with us, like ancient Israel, to slip the word ‘repent’ in amidst all the good news.

We may hear the alarm call to repent, to change our minds about the way we are living, to do a u-turn in our direction. However much we would like to see churches growing numerically again and with a greater proportion of younger generations, one thing is sure: it is not going to happen while we keep on doing the same thing. Albert Einstein had a famous definition of insanity. For Einstein, insanity was to keep on doing the same things while expecting a different result. As someone else has said, what got us here is not what is going to get us out of here. It is going to require change. That won’t just be about techniques, methods and strategies: it will probably involve repentance as well.

If these are some of the implications of the initial observation that the people ‘were astounded’ [alarmed] at his teaching’ (verse 22), then we need secondly to think about the time they repeat their amazement after Jesus expels the demon from the afflicted man:

They were all amazed, and they kept on asking one another, “What is this? A new teaching—with authority! He commands even the unclean spirits, and they obey him.” (Verse 27)

Take those words – which I said we normally interpret as meaning, wow, what an amazing guy! He’s fantastic, so much better than the regular guys – and think about it again. If they were not so much impressed as alarmed, you see it in a new light. What if they were alarmed that Jesus taught with authority, and that even unclean spirits obey him? Let me illuminate it by sharing with you a strange pet theory I have.

It’s this: I think that secretly, a significant number of churchgoers actually prefer boring preachers. I know we hear plenty of complaints about boring sermons, a good deal of it with justification, but I think there is a group of people in many congregations who are clandestine supporters of the tedious preachers whose sermons lack considerable lustre.

Why? Not just so they can catch up on sleep after Saturday night. Not merely so they can get a good blood pressure reading at the doctor’s on Monday morning. No: if the preacher is mind-numbing, then they aren’t challenged. They don’t want to be confronted with the need to change, which a lively preacher might do, and so they can keep on with their own sweet way of life. Repentance and other ugly things that are really for those who are altogether too enthusiastic about religion can be side-stepped.

These people will be alarmed at a preacher who has authority, to whom people respond with changed lives (and even unclean spirits have to get up and leave the building). It gets a bit too close for comfort.
This manifests itself in other ways, too. Tom Wright has pointed out in his recent book ‘Simply Jesus’ that scepticism about the miraculous can be used by people precisely to avoid the challenge of Jesus. He says this:

In Jesus’ own day, there were plenty of people who didn’t want to believe his message, because it would have challenged their own power or influence. It would have upset their own agenda. For the last two hundred years that’s been the mood in Western society too. By all means, people think, let Jesus be a soul doctor, making people feel better inside. Let him be a rescuer, snatching people away from this world to “heaven.” But don’t let him tell us about a God who actually does things in the world. We might have to take that God seriously, just when we’re discovering how to run the world our way. Skepticism is no more “neutral” or “objective” than faith. It has thrived in the post-Enlightenment world, which didn’t want God (or, in many cases, anyone else either) to be king. (Pages 58-59)

The Jesus who teaches with authority is an alarm call. The Jesus whose authoritative teaching leads people to change their attitudes and actions is a subversive, if not a revolutionary. He unsettles the status quo.

The thing is, it’s not enough to tick all the boxes, follow the rules of the church culture, sing the right hymns and say the creeds. In our story, the unclean spirit knew who Jesus was. He is the Holy One of God, who has come to destroy evil (verse 24). But was that sufficient? Not in the slightest. Unless encounter with Jesus leads to the response of a changed life, it is worthless.

You see, Jesus’ fame spreads around Galilee after this incident (verse 28), but what do you do with the fame? You can offer adulation to a famous person, but big deal: look at the vacuous nature of celebrity culture in our day. But what practical, positive and healthy difference does celebrity worship make in the life of the fan? Little or none, I would suggest. You can become a Jesus fan, but still not be changed, and so not be aligned with the revolutionary project of his kingdom. You can’t around the alarm of having to follow Jesus by substituting the shallow veneration of a fan.

Ultimately, no manoeuvres are possible. We come face to face with Jesus, and we have to do something. We need to make a choice. Sitting on a fence is painful. Going down the middle of the road only gets you run over. It has to be one side or another. Either we stay with our alarm and our fear, and we end up joining the opponents of Jesus (and the opposition in Mark’s Gospel begins in the very next chapter). Or we recognise that the Jesus who claims to be the true king and Son of God rather than Caesar is one who claims our allegiance. His reign as king will turn upside-down the values of human empires. The poor, not the rich, will be blessed, and so on.

And as he turns human values upside-down (or right way up), so he will upend our lives. When we meet Jesus, the only constructive response is to repent.

Let us make no mistake. Let us not be imprisoned by the fear of our alarm that he calls us to repent as part of his good news.

Jesus is worth a complete change of mind.


[1] William L Lane, The Gospel of Mark, p72 n110.

On Being Wrong

What a wonderful talk by Kathryn Schulz from TED2011. Essentially, her reasons why we try to maintain we are right amount to various ugly forms of pride. And the Gospel says, that pride needs to be brought low in the humility of saying in confession to God, “I was wrong.” Then, it is God who makes us right – in theological jargon, he ‘justifies’ us.

I would add to that an issue of fear: when we are afraid of how someone might react, we defensively entrench ourselves in our position of ‘rightness’, even when we know in our hearts we are wrong. So how liberating the Gospel is that we can confess our wrongness to a God of grace and mercy. It is the character of God that makes an admission of our wrong more possible.

Then note how right at the end of the talk she links her theme to the rediscovery of wonder. To quote her exact words:

if you really want to rediscover wonder, you need to step outside of that tiny, terrified space of rightness and look around at each other and look out at the vastness and complexity and mystery of the universe and be able to say, “Wow, I don’t know. Maybe I’m wrong.”

That’s profound, isn’t it? We don’t get to a true sense of wonder through our own rightness. It involves acknowledging we are wrong – just as major scientific advances often happen not by incremental improvement on previous foundations, but on paradigm shifts from what was previously accepted. In Christian terms, it again goes hand in hand with accepting God’s outlook on things.

Or am I wrong? 🙂

Sermon: Unwrapping Discipleship

This Sunday, I get to preach at one of my colleagues’ churches. So I’m reverting to the Lectionary for one week only. There are a few things in this sermon that have appeared before, notably in the first point. Please excuse that if the odd bit is something you’ve read from me before.

Matthew 4:12-23

Both Debbie and I had our main Christmas presents after the big day. I had asked people for money or vouchers that I could put together so I could buy an Amazon Kindle e-reader. Debbie followed a similar route, and when she had finally weighed up the options and dismissed the idea of a new phone, she ordered a new camera. Like me, she ordered her present online from Amazon.

Being cheapskates – or as we like to think of it, good stewards – we ordered both products on Amazon’s free Super Saver Delivery. Effectively, that means second class post. Amazon gives you an estimated date by which your order should be with you.

I had ordered my e-reader first. I memorised the due date. I counted down, like a child. The due date came. And went. I phoned the local sorting office to see whether it was there and got a jobsworth who really couldn’t be bothered. Eventually, it turned up two days late, left outside the front door by the postie, even though we weren’t in. Debbie’s camera was a similar story. Apparently it was all down to a backlog they were still trying to clear since the snow of November and December.

We waited for the time of fulfilment and were disappointed. In that respect, we were like the people to whom Jesus came. Matthew tells us that his house move from Nazareth to Capernaum was fulfilment of the prophetic hope (verses 12-16). Just as Debbie and I (OK, particularly I) were wondering when our packages would come from Amazon, so God’s people were wondering when the Messiah would come and inaugurate God’s kingdom. Now, at last, the package arrives, and he’s called Jesus.

So – if the package has arrived, if Jesus the Messiah has come, bringing the kingdom of heaven – what do we do when we unwrap him?

The first action is repentance. The opening tone of Jesus’ message is,

Repent, for the kingdom of heaven has come near. (Verse 17)

What is repentance? We know it has to do with being sorry for our wrongdoings, but there is more to it than that. If it were only feeling sorry but without any change of heart or change of lifestyle, it would only be remorse. And remorse doesn’t change anything – apart from maybe persuading a judge to give a more lenient sentence in response to mitigation.

Repentance is bigger than that. In the Greek of the New Testament and even in English it means ‘a change of mind’. It means to ‘rethink’. Those of you who know French will recognise where the English word ‘repentance’ comes from. Remember penser, to think, so repenser is to rethink, to change your mind. The Greek metanoia is similar. When we repent, we change our minds about the way we live.

It’s like doing a u-turn in a car. We know we are going the wrong way, so we change our minds and our direction. Repentance, then, means a change of mind, so much so that we are sorry enough to change our actions.

So that unpacks one problem we have in understanding repentance. It is not simply being sorry, it is a change of mind that leads to a change in our actions. That is why it is also not the same as condemnation, which simply tells us how terrible we are but leaves us desperate and desolate about ourselves. Repentance brings positive change and hope.

Another problem we have with repentance is that we associate it with conversion and the beginnings of Christian faith, but not always with the ongoing life of Christian discipleship. Yet we do not make all the changes we need to make in our lives all at once, when we first encounter Jesus Christ. We don’t even make all the essential changes before we die.

My point is this: repentance is not a one-off change of direction, it is an ongoing process in our lives. One of my favourite stories to tell about this involves the Local Preacher who was always the most popular preacher among my youth group in the church where I grew up. John Evill was born in Wales in 1902, two years before the Welsh Revival. He preached like the revival was still going on. In one sermon, he asked the congregation: “Have you been converted?” Then he added, “I’ve been converted – many times.” His point wasn’t that he’d regularly slipped back and denied Christ, it was that time and time again Christ had to call him to change.

So it is with repentance. It is a change of mind that leads not simply to one change of action, but to repeated changes of action in our lives, until our dying day. Paul tells the Philippians that God who began a good work in them will complete it on the day of Christ Jesus (Philippians 1:6). Or, as the t-shirt slogan puts it:

Please be patient with me. God hasn’t finished with me yet.

When we unwrap the kingdom Jesus brings, then, the first thing it involves is a lifestyle of ongoing change, reorientating ourselves to the ways of God from our selfish ways.

The second thing we do when we unwrap the Jesus package is we follow. Having turned around, we now start positively and actively going in our new direction, the direction in which Jesus is travelling. To Simon Peter and Andrew, he says,

Follow me, and I will make you fish for people. (Verse 19)

Then he calls James and John and we read,

Immediately they left the boat and their father, and followed him. (Verse 22)

I find the nature of Jesus calling these fishermen to follow him utterly amazing. For one thing, I am staggered by their immediate decision to leave their family businesses and go with him. Some people have said that they may already have known Jesus in the area, but it’s still quite a decision to go off like that. Why would they do it?

Here’s one theory. As I’m sure you know, it was common practice for Jewish rabbis to call certain young men to follow them, learn their teaching and emulate their lifestyles. However, they tended to pick the cream of the crop, those who showed promise from a young age. If you got as far as getting into regular work – as Simon Peter, Andrew, James and John had – then you certainly weren’t among the elite. You were among the rejected. You were among those who were not considered up to the task of following a religious master.

But Jesus sees it differently. He calls these men. To him, they are not rejects, they are people who are every bit as capable of following him as anybody else. Why? Because – as the old catchphrase puts it – it’s not your ability that matters, it’s your availability. You don’t need great gifts and talents in order to follow Jesus, you just need to be willing to say ‘yes’ to him. And that’s what these four guys do.

So imagine you are one of them. Imagine you have been passed over by other rabbis as not good enough. Now this one comes along when you are at an age when you no longer think such an opportunity exists and he says to you, “Follow me.” What does that do for your self-esteem? I like to imagine the four young men striding off from their boats with their heads held high and their chests puffed out.

Translate that into our church context. One of the things that saddens me as a minister is the time many church members speak of how inferior they feel to ministers. “You can do {X, Y, Z] because you’re more learned than me,” some say. However, in Jesus’ eyes, it’s not the alphabet soup I have after my name because I spent six years studying Theology that matters. It’s whether I say ‘yes’ to Jesus. I hope I can bring benefits to people by sharing my learning. But what matters in the end is one simple matter that puts everybody on an equal following, regardless of gifts, talents, opportunities, wealth or privilege. It’s this: will we say ‘yes’ to Jesus? All we need to be concerned about today is whether we are saying ‘yes’ to him in the places where he is calling us to follow him.

The third way we unwrap Jesus is by imitation. Hear again the final verse in the reading:

Jesus went throughout Galilee, teaching in their synagogues and proclaiming the good news of the kingdom and curing every disease and every sickness among the people. (Verse 23)

The playwright Murray Watts tells a yarn that might explain how some of us feel about this verse:

An evangelist was so successful, he converted his own horse. He decided to develop his ministry with animals and took his horse to market, to exchange it for another. A farmer came riding along, on a very old horse, and the evangelist begged him to swap animals. The farmer looked at the fine fettle of the evangelist’s horse and agreed, delighted with his bargain. As he mounted his new steed, the evangelist explained to him about the horse’s religious zeal. The farmer looked at him incredulously.

‘It’s no good shouting “giddyup!” or “whoa, there, boy!”’ the evangelist went on. ‘To start, you have to shout, “Praise the Lord! Hallelujah!” and to stop you have to shout, “Amen!”’

The farmer now realised that he was dealing with a nutcase, but he decided to humour him. The horse was in excellent condition and he accepted. As the evangelist trotted away on the famer’s ageing horse, the farmer shouted ‘Giddyup thar!’ to his steed. There was no reaction. He whipped the horse, but there was still no reaction.

‘Go on tharr! Get going!’ he screamed, digging in his heels. The horse refused to budge. The farmer scratched his head.

‘Perhaps that old preacher wasn’t so crazy after all,’ he thought, ‘oh well, no harm in trying.’ He took a deep breath and shouted: ‘Praise the Lord, hallelujah!’ Immediately the horse galloped off. The astonished farmer clung on for dear life as it sped along the road.

‘Whatever its religious quirks,’ he mused, ‘this is some horse!’ On and on the pious creature went, crossing fields, jumping gates. At last, hearing the sound of the sea in the distance, the farmer knew they were approaching the cliffs of Dover.

‘Whoaa there, boy!’ he called. ‘Whoaa there!’ He yanked the reins. The horse sped on regardless. ‘Silly me,’ thought the farmer, ‘I’ve got to say that special word.’

‘Blessing!’ he shouted. ‘No, that’s wrong. Faith!!’ he called, urgently. ‘No, that’s not right either.’

The sound of the sea came nearer, and try as he might, the farmer could not remember the right religious word. Suddenly, within yards of the cliff edge, he remembered.

‘AMEN!!’ he screamed. The horse stopped, inches to spare. The farmer mopped his brow and, lifting his eyes to heaven in gratitude, murmured, ‘Praise the Lord! Hallelujah!’[1]

Maybe when we hear that Jesus went around preaching, teaching and healing, and when we realise that the call of the disciple is to imitate the teacher, we might feel like we are riding an out-of-control horse. Are we about to go over a cliff?

Disciples of a Jewish rabbi knew their call was to imitate the way their master lived. Some took that to considerable extremes, and if I mentioned specifics some of you might cry out that modern cliché, ‘Too much information!’[2]

So those first disciples of Jesus, watching him teach, preach and heal would have been making mental notes. This was their vocation, too.

But it contains scary aspects for us. Some of us are nervous about ‘proclaiming’ our faith. We would not feel able to ‘teach’ the faith. And as for healing people, well where do we begin?

I think there are two keys to embracing this. The first is to recognise that when we become disciples of Jesus, then we receive the Holy Spirit into our lives. And the Holy Spirit brings all sorts of gifts to us that we did not previously have. If we are open to the empowering of the Holy Spirit, then we shall find ourselves equipped for Jesus-like tasks that we would otherwise be unable to do.

The other key is this. Only together are we the Body of Christ. You will contribute some gifts towards copying the ministry of Jesus. Your friend will offer other gifts. I will bring different gifts of the Spirit.

So yes, imitating the ministry of Christ is daunting – but only if we view it purely humanly. If we put ourselves at the disposal of the Holy Spirit, all sorts of things become possible that previously were never even on the radar of our imagination.

Let’s pray.


[1] Murray Watts, Rolling In The Aisles, p 90f, story 153.

[2] See Michael Griffiths, The Example of Jesus.

Sermon: Love, Jesus-Style

John 13:31-35

One thing you learn early as a preacher is when to turn the lapel microphone on. In my case, I check that the sound operator will fade my microphone down during the hymns, as I wouldn’t want to add to the congregation’s agony by inflicting my singing on them. Many and legion are the stories of preachers who turned on the microphone too early, disappeared to a small room before the service, only for the entire congregation to learn where they had gone.

Sadly, our Prime Minister has not learned that lesson. This week, Gordon Brown has been The Preacher In The Loo.

I refer, of course, to what has become known as ‘Bigotgate’. I pass no comment on whether Gillian Duffy’s question about eastern European immigration was racist, nor on whether the PM was right to call her a ‘bigoted woman’. Nor do I deny that many people in all kinds of occupations let off steam about difficult individuals when they [think they] are in private.

But what I think cannot be denied is that the Prime Minister was two-faced. When talking with Mrs Duffy, he praised her to the heights, but made his disdain for her known afterwards. If he had simply maintained a level of politeness with her publicly but not told her how wonderful she was, this might have been a lesser incident, rather than a potentially defining moment in the General Election campaign. Anyone who holds a position of responsibility that depends in some way on the favour of those you are meant to lead will surely have some sympathy with Mr Brown, because you sometimes find yourself having to be polite to someone when you’d rather not be. But Gordon Brown went beyond that to the point of contempt, in my opinion.

At the same time, isn’t it frightening to reflect on all those who have been quick to criticise, as if they wouldn’t do anything of the sort? Some chance. No doubt they are correct to say that the Prime Minister is a man with a hot temper – there seem to be too many other stories confirming that. But are we to imagine he is the only politician like that?

Isn’t it something, then, that we come to a famous passage in John’s Gospel this week about love? There’s never much love lost in a General Election campaign. The handshakes at the end of the televised leaders’ debates have to rank amongst the most insincere you will ever see.

But what about us in the church? Let’s go back to those words of Jesus:

I give you a new commandment, that you love one another. Just as I have loved you, you also should love one another. By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another.’ (Verses 34-35)

I simply want to reflect on two aspects of this teaching about love. Firstly, what is ‘new’ about this new commandment? I think that’s a fair question to ask. It’s not the first command to love in the Bible. It’s not even the only reference to it in Jesus’ teaching. Elsewhere he was asked what the greatest commandment was. He replied that it was to love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your soul, with all your mind and with all your strength. He then sneaked in a second one: love your neighbour as yourself. So hasn’t he already made the command to love plain?

I find that comes over to me strongly in one of the Methodist communion services, where we speak of hearing the ‘commandments’ before we confess our sins. What commandments do we read? These two – to love God wholeheartedly and to love our neighbours as ourselves. Then, tacked on after them, we hear the command in today’s reading, to love one another. How in heaven and earth can Jesus add a new commandment onto the two he has given as combining to form the greatest commandment? As the great theologian Tom Jones might put it, “What’s new, pussycat?

Principally what is new here is a new standard of love. Our standard for love is the example of Jesus. ‘Just as I have loved you, so you should love one another’ (verse 34). If we want any idea of what love means, we need to look at Jesus and how he loves. It wouldn’t take us long to think about a number of ways in which the love of Jesus challenges us to deeper love.

To begin with, take the way in which he took on human flesh and lived among us to bring God’s redeeming love to us. ‘The Word became flesh and dwelt among us’ (John 1:14) or in Eugene Peterson’s paraphrase, ‘The Word became flesh and blood and moved into the neighbourhood’.

When I was serving in my first circuit, there was a painful split at the local United Reformed Church. Some had good and necessary reasons for leaving a damaging situation. Others left, they said, to set up a new church on a poor housing estate where there was no church building. They began to hire the St John’s Ambulance hall and hold services on a Sunday afternoon. However, they made little impact on that community.

It wasn’t hard to see why. None of these Christians moved onto the estate. They commuted in from their more comfortable estates every week. They weren’t prepared to pay the price of love that Jesus paid in becoming flesh and dwelling among the very people he wanted to love.

Because that is what love looks like, according to Jesus. You can’t love from a distance. Jesus loved close-up. It’s why I say we can’t expect to spread the love of God in this community unless we are taking that love into the community, rather than simply putting on attractive programmes here and expecting people to flock to our doors. Love Jesus-style doesn’t work like that.

It’s the same in terms of love for any person in need. In another previous church, we once had a mission team visit us for a few days. They partnered some of our members in visiting local houses and pubs, looking for opportunities to share the Gospel.

At the end of the time, we held a service, and afterwards I was sitting down, talking with a young mum who had just joined the congregation, along with her husband, daughter and son. She was telling me how she had lived in fear for the previous six months, because she had found a lump in her breast. Worse, by profession she was a radiographer and she was sure she knew what it was.

Sitting in the row in front was one of the mission team. He overheard this and swooped in with all sorts of platitudes about how she was failing to trust in God. Today, eleven years later, the memory of that incident still makes me mad. That mission team member made no attempt to get alongside Carolyn in her pain and fear. He just launched sentiments and Bible verses like missiles. He didn’t ‘dwell with’ Carolyn, as Jesus would have done. But that’s love ‘as he has loved us’. Hands get dirty. Time and energy are spent. Money and possessions are deployed for others. Because we move into the neighbourhood of those who need love.

Which means also that Jesus-style love is sacrificial. For, as we know, ultimately he loved us by laying down his life for the world. Love is a lot more than dewy-eyed teenagers looking forward to another romantic liaison. Love comes with a cost. It cost Jesus everything. It is hardly likely to cost us any less.

We know how seriously the early church took this. Famously one Christian from around the end of the second century to beginning of the third called Tertullian said, “We share everything except our wives.”

Another early story is of the Christian craftsman who, in order to make ends meet, had accepted a job to make idols for a pagan temple. When challenged about this by a church leader he replied, “But I must live!” The leader replied: “Must you?”

We could find countless examples from other places and times of Christians who knew that real love meant a willingness to sacrifice, even to lay down one’s life – because that is what Jesus had done in love for the world.

And that is why the second aspect of Jesus’ teaching in this passage is about the outcomes of love. Loving one another according to the pattern of Jesus isn’t just a new standard of love, it’s about a new order. The outcome is described in verse 35:

‘By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another.’

The mark of the Christian community, according to Jesus, is love. It is what distinguishes us. Just as Jesus and the Father were so united with each other, so the Christian church is to be bound up as one with each other in mutual love. As the pagans looked at the early Christians and wondered, “See how these Christians love one another!” so that is not meant to have changed.

Some of you have told me examples of when such sticking-together, sacrificial love has been the gift of this church to you in times of need. Most notably I have heard people speak about such love here in bereavement or in chronic illness.

Nevertheless, it’s always good to be challenged and stretched. As Christians we cannot be complacent and opt for the kind of faith that is merely comfortable and just looks all the time to be patted on the back and sent on our way rejoicing. Given the importance Jesus places here on the world being able to tell that we are his disciples by our love for one another, it seems apt to raise a few simple challenges about our love for one another.

Let’s name a few, then. If Jesus and his Father were and are so at one in their love for one another, isn’t it time to drop all the talk about whether we are ‘pro’ or ‘anti’ a particular person?

Or – if we see how wrong Gordon Brown’s behaviour was towards Gillian Duffy, is it worthy of us to tell people to their faces how wonderful they are, all the while behind their back running a campaign against them?

Similarly, if we truly believe in love like Jesus did, can we treat people as objects, or as means to an end, or even just as bait to attract others?

And if love unites us, can we entertain the idea of cliques in a church?

Oh – and by the way, if these examples shock or surprise you, I have based every one of them on incidents or attitudes I have witnessed in Methodist churches.

What should we do? If we have hurt someone else and they know that it was us, then we need to ask their forgiveness. The sharing of The Peace in a few minutes’ time could be a time for that. If the boot is on the other foot, and we are the wronged party and the other person knows they have hurt us, then in love we need to offer forgiveness. Again, The Peace would be a good time to do this.

Naturally, if one party does not know about the hurt, that might not be advisable. If the other party is not present today, loving offers of reconciliation in repentance or forgiveness need to be offered outside this service.

If one party does not know about the hurt, then perhaps it is best simply to settle this privately with God, unless he directs us otherwise.

But however God leads us, let us remember this. It is not by our beautiful buildings that the world will know we are Jesus’ disciples. It is not by our attractive programme of events that the world will know we follow Jesus. It is by the quality of our love that the world will see our devotion to Jesus.

Nothing could be more important.

Sermon: Advent Preparation In The Wilderness

Luke 3:1-6

For the second year running, a group called Beyond Church has organised an outdoor Advent calendar. It’s a series of beach huts on Brighton beach. Does anyone fancy Brighton beach in December? They had a hundred people turn up on the first night. But if you don’t fancy that, you can follow it online or follow the daily coverage in The Independent and stay in the comfort of your home.  If, however, Brighton in winter isn’t challenging enough for you, then you can travel north to Bridlington, where local Christians are doing the same on their beach. Brighton or Bridlington, though, you’re talking about bleak places at this time of year.

But Advent is about God doing great things in bleak places. Today’s Gospel reading offers us precisely that, as it describes the essence of John the Baptist’s ministry. John’s ministry not in a cold, bleak place but a hot, bleak place – the wilderness – prepared the people of his day for the coming of Jesus. We too may discover a profound meeting with God in the bleak places.

The first thing I want to share is to do with our significance to God.

When I candidated for the ministry, my Superintendent Minister at the time gave me a piece of advice. It began with the word ‘Read’, and you know that’s a favourite word of mine! But he went on to say, ‘Read political biographies and learn all you can from the people who exercise power.’

There is some virtue in this, of course. It is good to understand the way things work and the motivations people have. What I wasn’t to know was that he was a man obsessed with getting to know the well-known and the powerful – admittedly in the small pond of Methodism – and that his interest in the influential was about climbing the greasy pole of preferment in the church. He succeeded – for a short while.

And you might think when you hear the beginning of this reading that Luke has a similar interest:

In the fifteenth year of the reign of Emperor Tiberius, when Pontius Pilate was governor of Judea, and Herod was ruler of Galilee, and his brother Philip ruler of the region of Ituraea and Trachonitis, and Lysanias ruler of Abilene, during the high-priesthood of Annas and Caiaphas, the word of God came to John son of Zechariah in the wilderness. (Verses 1-2)

Emperors, governors, rulers, high priests. Indeed when you read Luke’s Gospel, you often find him setting events in historical context. But you know, Luke isn’t too bothered about the Emperor Tiberius or Pontius Pilate or Herod, Philip, Annas or Caiaphas. He isn’t star-struck. Luke knows that God has a special place for the poor and marginalised, for those whom this world doesn’t regard as powerful or significant. So Luke recognises that the true action doesn’t take place in a palace or a temple, but in the wilderness. The same Luke who tells us about the manger and the shepherds takes us to the centre of God’s purposes where the red carpet is made of sand.

Here, then, is this country boy, John, living in the middle of nowhere, probably undetectable by sat-nav. And he is God’s person for this strategic moment in history. He gets to be the compère for the long-awaited Messiah.

Now if this is true of John, what might we take from this? I suggest it’s time to challenge all the ideas that some of us might not be valuable to God or able to be used by him. So often I hear people saying, “I can’t do that, I’m not a minister. I don’t have your knowledge. I’m not special. I’m not anyone.”

To that, God says a great big NO! Because to him you are significant, you are made in his image, you are redeemed by his Son, the Spirit of God lives in you. And what matters is not your ability but your availability. This year, learn that you are significant to God. He isn’t waiting for you to be rich and famous. He isn’t impressed by celebrity culture. He is just waiting for you to say ‘yes’ to him, because he loves you and he has a purpose for you that nobody else can fulfil.

You are significant to God.

Secondly, John in the wilderness shows us the importance of God’s word.

Two things in this reading point to this. One is that John’s ministry begins when ‘the word of the Lord came to [him]’ (verse 2). The other is that Luke sees John’s ministry as a fulfilment of the prophecy in Isaiah 40 (verses 4-6). Between them, these help us in our call to hear the word of God.

How John receives the word of the Lord isn’t explained to us, any more than it is in the Old Testament when we read similarly that the word of the Lord came to a certain prophet. We know ourselves that there are many ways that we hear God’s message. The common theme, surely, is that John was listening. And focussed listening is a great challenge in our society, when we are being bombarded by messages from here, there and everywhere. You have turned your mobile phones off before the service, haven’t you?

The (American) author of a book I’m reading tells this story about a visit he and his wife made to the cinema:

There were three people in the rows in front of us who had their cell phones open during the entire movie. They were text messaging and surfing the Internet and otherwise annoying people. As I saw those cell phone screens open during the movie, I observed that the people using them were not fully committed to being anywhere during those two hours. They were physically sitting in the theatre, even sitting with others who accompanied them, but their minds and hearts were all over the place. They were not fully present, in terms of their attention, to the visual and auditory experience in front of them, they were not fully present to their friends and family that they were sitting next to, and they were not geographically present to the people they were text messaging. They ha a hand and foot in several different places that were disconnected, leaving them as some sort of radical amputees. They were everywhere and they were nowhere. (Page 68f)

Everywhere and nowhere, radical amputees. Because they couldn’t or wouldn’t be fully present to one source of communication. A page before this, the author quotes a magazine article in which the writer argues that the rise of new technology has adversely affected people’s ability to concentrate for a long period of time on reading. Now people get fidgety after two or three pages.

Now you know I am not exactly adverse to new technology, and I know not all of you use it, but we are all affected in some way by the increased number and speed of communications today. But if I really want to reflect deeply on a Bible passage, then it’s not enough for me to look it up on the Internet and display it on my computer screen as I do when preparing sermons, because if I do that there are plenty of distractions at hand which disturb my concentration. I have to go away from the computer and ensure that I am only focussing on that Bible passage. It’s the same with a book. I can’t read one at the desk where the computer sits.

Why go into all this? Because if we, like John, are to hear the word of the Lord, we need to do some radical things in terms of aiding our concentration in listening. We need to set aside time for the Scriptures and prayer that are away from other distractions. That’s why a set time of personal devotions is good. Get away from whatever might tempt you with a stream of other messages or information, whether that’s the computer, the television or the phone.

Luke may not have had modern communications tools, but I feel sure the only way he would have concluded that John the Baptist fulfilled the prophecy of Isaiah was that he – as a Gentile interested in Judaism – had given concentrated time to the Scriptures. And John probably only heard the word of the Lord because he had put himself away from distractions, too. In his case it was the wilderness. In our case it might simply be another room in the house. But whatever it takes, do it – because we need to hear the word of the Lord.

Thirdly and finally, John in the wilderness shows us the importance of repentance.

John proclaims ‘a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins’ (verse 3), and Luke adds imagery to this from Isaiah 40: the way of the Lord is to be prepared by making crooked paths straight, dealing with bumpy roads by filling valleys and lowering mountains, and smoothing out the rough ways. It’s what we all wish the Highways Agency would do for the A12.

Now that’s more than a cheap joke. Many of us know what it’s like to drive stretches of the A12 and feel the suspension of our car tested. The section from around about Witham to Colchester is particularly taxing. We long for a straight, smooth road. No wonder it was dubbed Britain’s worst road in a 2007 survey.

God longs for a smooth, straight road, too. His desire is that the potholes in our lives be filled in, that our crooked ways are made straight, and that when people encounter us we don’t damage their suspension!

In the wilderness, away from other distractions, we find ourselves unnervingly face to face with ourselves, and the disguises with which we cloak our sins are gone. Spiritually naked before God, we know what we must do. John’s baptism (which is not quite the same as Christian baptism) gives us the symbol of washing to be made clean and new.

So what are our crooked ways? Where are we not on the level? What are we hiding in our valleys or covering with mountains? Let’s not pretend that just because we are churchgoers and Christians that we are fine. Most, if not all, of us, need straightening out by God in some ways. If we just see Advent as a time when the anticipation and excitement ramps us towards the 25th, we are seriously mistaken.

For repentance is fundamental to our Advent preparation. If the King is coming, we need to make a straight and smooth highway for him in our lives. And repentance is essentially two things in the Bible. In the Greek of the New Testament the word means ‘a change of mind’, just as our English word ‘repent’ is related to the French repenser, which means to think again. So repentance first of all means we have a change of mind, a complete rethink about our lives. Jesus is not just a bolt-on to an existing Western lifestyle. Meeting Jesus means thinking again about the whole direction of our lives.

And the second thing it means, more so in the Aramaic and Hebrew behind the New Testament culture, is related to that. It means ‘a change of direction’. Because if we have had a change of mind about our lives, it can’t stop with the thinking: the thinking must lead to action. If we continue with the imagery of the road, this is not about a straight road but about a U-turn. God’s sat-nav is pointing some of us in a new direction, and our spiritual health depends on us following the new route instructions.

In conclusion, someone once said that Advent is a mixture of promises and warnings. We have had both in our reading today. In appreciating our significance to God, we have a promise of grace. In hearing the call to repentance, we have a warning. And in coming to God’s word, we have a message that is both promise and warning.

What is the Holy Spirit bringing to us this morning? Promises? Warnings? Or both? Let those with ears to hear, hear what the Spirit is saying.

Baptism Sermon: Anticipating The Future

Acts 2:38-39

Many of us will have heard all sorts of stories about baptism. A friend of mine, when he was an Anglican curate, really did baptise the wrong end of a baby! Me, I just worry about the baby grabbing the radio microphone – or, worse, my glasses. Or there’s the story of the minister telling the congregation before a baptism, “The water isn’t anything special or magic, it’s the same water we’ll use later for making the coffee.”

But what, in all seriousness, shall we say about baptism today on Holly’s big day? Early in the baptismal service, I read two passages from the New Testament. The second was from Acts chapter 2. I prefaced it with these words:

‘On the day of Pentecost, Peter preached the Gospel of Christ’s resurrection. Those who heard the message asked what they should do. Peter told them:’ (Methodist Worship Book, p89)

And then I read what he said:

‘Repent, and be baptized every one of you in the name of Jesus Christ so that your sins may be forgiven; and you will receive the gift of the Holy Spirit. For the promise is for you, for your children, and for all who are far away, everyone whom the Lord our God calls to him.’ (Acts 2:38-39)

I want to say this is all about anticipating the future. We anticipate future events. For example, later in the year we shall be conscious that Christmas is coming, and will make our plans. We shall ask people what presents they would like, buy special food, make arrangements to see family and so on – all because we are anticipating a future event. We want to get ready.

When Peter preaches ‘the Gospel of Christ’s resurrection’ he’s using that to make people think of the future. The resurrection of Jesus is a sign of the future, when God will raise everyone from the dead and he will reign unopposed over all creation. And what Peter calls his hearers to do is anticipate that future. In what ways?

Repent
Last Sunday morning I asked people how good their French was. It’s similar with the word ‘repent’. ‘Re’ means ‘again’ and ‘pent’ is from penser, ‘to think’ – like our word ‘pensive’. So to repent is to think again, and that’s what the New Testament Greek word translated here means, too. When Peter calls the crowd to repent, he’s telling them ‘think again’ – about the way you live your life, and change where needed.

I used to preach at a church that was on the ‘wrong’ side of a dual carriageway from the direction in which I lived. Every time I took a service there, I drove beyond it on my side of the road, to the next traffic light junction, where drivers were permitted to do a u-turn from the filter lane.

Repentance is like a u-turn. When we encounter Jesus, he makes us think again about the way we live our lives, and we do a u-turn in our lifestyle.

What does that have to do with anticipating the future? I think the point is this: when God raises us all from the dead, judges us and reigns without opposition, we need to be in line with his will. We need to start now – by doing a u-turn.

Be Baptized
Last month, every class from Broomfield Primary School came here during the week to look at our building and ask me questions. One of the things I showed them was the font. They were intrigued by our small, portable font, in contrast to the large stone font at St Mary’s.

We talked about what it meant. They knew we put water in the font, but not necessarily why. So I asked them what we use water for in everyday life. Some said for drinking, and I could have made something of that answer. But I concentrated on those who said that water was for cleaning ourselves. I tried to explain that the water in baptism is a symbol of God cleaning us from sin.

That’s what the symbolism of pouring water on Holly has been about today. It has been to show that God wants to clean us from every sin. Have you ever felt dirty inside after doing something wrong? God wants to remove that from us.

And it’s done, says Peter, ‘in the name of Jesus’, because these gifts come to us from God through Jesus, and especially his death on the Cross, where he died for our sins, in our place. That’s why we need faith in Jesus – to receive this cleansing from all our sins that are a barrier between ourselves and God.

What does this have to do with the future? It means that at the Last Judgment, God will – amazingly –deliver a verdict not that we are guilty but that we are in the right with him, all through Jesus.

And that leads onto the third element:

Forgiveness
I guess everybody knows that the central message of the Christian faith is about forgiveness. But what is forgiveness? Some people think it is pretending that a bad event didn’t happen. Others think it means excusing people’s actions, by explaining away their conduct. Others think it is about suppressing our anger when we have been wronged.

I don’t think it’s any of these things. True forgiveness looks the person in the wrong squarely in the eye, knowing where the blame lies, not excusing their actions, nor pretending we are not angry. But then, despite laying the blame where it rightly belongs, the one who forgives refuses to pass sentence on the wrongdoer.

And that is what God does for us in Jesus. He knows our actions are wrong, and he doesn’t pretend otherwise. He knows we are blameworthy, but he refuses to sentence us to what we deserve, which is life and eternity without him. He discards the sentence and invites us into his family, which we do but handing our lives over to him.

Again, this is about anticipating the future. Trust your life to Jesus Christ and follow him, and you need have no fear of God’s verdict on you, either now or in the future. He knows where we are in the wrong, but he refuses to pass sentence. In fact, the Greek word used for ‘forgive’ in the New Testament means ‘to set free’. We are like prisoners, expecting to be sentenced for our crimes. But instead, the Judge sets us free by forgiving us.

Our call, then, is to receive that by giving ourselves over to Jesus Christ, and then to set others free as we forgive what they have done to us.

The Holy Spirit
So far we’ve had two commands – ‘repent’ and ‘be baptized’, plus one promise ‘the forgiveness of sins’. 2-1 to commands, then. But finally, we have an equaliser from promises: all who repent, are baptized and receive the forgiveness of sins receive God’s own presence in their lives – the Holy Spirit. Why?

At the secondary school we attended in north London, my sister and I had an English teacher who worshipped at a high Anglican church in central London. My sister once asked him why he went there. “I’m just a terrible sinner and I need to feel forgiven,” he replied.

“Don’t you feel that God can change you?” my sister enquired.

“No,” he said.

But the Good News is that change is possible. It isn’t just that God forgives us and cleanses us. As the saying goes, God loves us just as we are, but he loves us too much to leave us as we are.

And that’s why Peter promises the Holy Spirit to those who become disciples of Jesus. So that not only may God forgive us in Jesus Christ, he may also start the long work of making us be more like Jesus Christ. In that sense, God is anticipating us for heaven. The Holy Spirit fits us for the life of God’s kingdom, where everything will conform to his will.

Conclusion
Two thoughts as I close. Firstly, I don’t want our regular churchgoers here to think this doesn’t apply to any of them. Remember that Peter addressed these words to devout religious Jews in Jerusalem for a major feast. Sometimes, those who have been involved in religion all their lives need to hear the call to conversion as much as anybody.

Secondly, what does any of this have to do with one-year-old Holly? She can’t repent, she can’t understand her baptism yet as washing her clean of sin, she can’t appreciate the forgiveness of sins, let alone the power of the Holy Spirit to live a new life.

But today, Ruth and Mike make the promises for her, on the basis of their own faith. They do so, because they aspire to Holly making this kind of commitment for herself, when she is old enough to do so. Today, we promise to pray and prepare so that becoming a disciple of Jesus one day seems the most natural thing in the world for Holly.

Sabbatical, Day 31: Links, Lent, Movies And Books

Before today’s news, here are some links. Let’s kick off with a survey. What kind of technology user are you? The Pew Internet and American Life Project has a quiz. I am an ‘ominvore‘. (Via the Comodo Monthly Insider email.)

The Evangelical Alliance has a resource launching on 5th March entitled ‘Square Mile‘. To quote their email:

Mercy: demonstrating God’s compassion to the poor
Influence: being salt and light in the public life of the community
Life Discipleship: equipping Christians for missional living as workers & neighbours
Evangelism: faithful and relevant communication of the gospel
Square Mile is an exciting initiative, designed to catalyse and equip the UK Church to take a truly integrated approach to mission in partnership with the Alliance and Community Mission.
Square Mile resources include a new DVD-based course designed for small groups, which explores these four areas of mission. Featuring insights from: Shane Claiborne, Mark Greene, J John, Tim Keller, Elaine Storkey, Jim Wallis and N.T. Wright, as well as examples of grassroots projects around the UK. A journal is also availabe containing daily readings, reflections and activities covering four weeks – ideally used alongside the DVD course.

Ruth Haley Barton has an article for the first week of Lent: Practising Repentance.

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If it isn’t one, then it’s the other. Mark went back to school today, and Rebekah was off sick. She had diarrhoea in the night and this morning. I’ll spare you further grisly details. 

Thus today I have been a teacher and an entertainer. Not that far removed from ministry, is it? I helped her with her reading, her spelling homework and her Maths game.

As a reward, we allowed her to paint a mug. Not one of our existing mugs, one that came in a box with paints and brushes. She has decorated a couple before, but I put the last one in the dishwasher and the paint began to peel. If everything King Midas touched turned to gold, most things I touch shatter into several pieces.

Either side of lunchtime, Debbie, Rebekah and I watched ‘Chitty Chitty Bang Bang‘ on DVD. It came out in 1968, and I saw it at the cinema first time around. If I didn’t feel old enough already, what with the fact that tomorrow I enter the final year of my forties, I felt even more decrepit remembering that fact.

As I watched it, I mused on this thought. Today, we are used to discussing serious themes in films. Organisations like Damaris Trust and others produce first class material to help in that matter. Usually, the movies chosen are not children’s titles. Yet Chitty Chitty Bang Bang has some simple ideas that would bear some exploration. Here are just a few. 

Career-wise, do you follow your dreams, imagination and creative talent, even into penury that affects you and your family, in the hope it will work out in the end, or do you just take a routine mundane job? (Caractacus Potts)

How do you deal with the fact that evil is sometimes blatant and other times disguised? (The Child Catcher)

How do you hang on in the face of evil while injustice reigns? (The villagers keep their children underground, not seeing the sun, while the Baron and his forces seek to eliminate children.)

Can you have successful marriages and relationships across wide socio-economic barriers? (Caractacus Potts doesn’t propose marriage to Truly Scrumptious until he realises his invention of Toot Sweets is going to make him wealthy, just as she is.)

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And finally, just a little tiny bit of sabbatical work today. Some of that was reading the terms and conditions for signing up to Survey Monkey. I’m glad I read these. I have to be very careful how I word emails in which I invite people to complete my survey, and include various items to avoid Survey Monkey deleting my account. Clearly they are protecting themselves against use by spammers. I have to include an ‘unsubscribe’ link and my snail-mail address. The problem with ‘ubsubscribe’ will be that I may not be using a mailing list full of individuals, so I’ll need to think of a way around that.

The other thing that has happened is this. You may recall my recent series of posts on The Starfish And The Spider. There was another similar book I also wanted to read. Well, at last, after several weeks on order and being number one in the queue to read it next, ‘Here Comes Everybody‘ by Clay Shirky found its way to North Melbourne Library today, and it is sitting on my desk at last. I had taken to reading something that is not sabbatical related, but which is thought-provoking on a general theme: ‘The God I Don’t Understand‘ by Chris Wright. I may need to return to that later now.

Sermon: The Urgent Claims Of Jesus

Mark 1:14-20

On Friday, by the wonders of the Internet, I listened to a podcast of my old college tutor giving a Bible Study on Isaiah 43. In it, he made a provocative statement. He said that many modern worship songs were like adverts for toilet paper. What he meant was this: the typical advert for toilet paper will tell you how soft it is and how strong it is, but it will never tell you what it is for. No advert for toilet paper tells you its purpose is for wiping your bottom. Similarly, some of our worship songs say how loving, kind and gentle Jesus is, but they never say what he came to do.

And I suggest – if it’s not too provocative for you – that we have treated our passage from Mark like an advert for toilet paper in a similar way. We have thought about the coming of Jesus, the call to discipleship and the invitation to make ‘fishers of men’ [sic] in a soft and strong, comforting way. But when we do, we miss dangerously what Jesus came to do here. I want to set that within these headings: coming, calling and commissioning.

Coming 
Quick Bible trivia quiz – no one who has studied Theology is allowed to answer: which one of the four Gospels has none of the Christmas stories? Answer: Mark, the Gospel from which we have heard this morning. Mark is more concerned with the coming of Jesus in terms of his arrival on the scene as an adult, and that’s what happens here:

Now after John was arrested, Jesus came to Galilee, proclaiming the good news of God, and saying, ‘The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God has come near; repent, and believe in the good news.’  (Verses 14-15)

At Christmas that in Christ God had come near to us. He is Immanuel, God with us. Mark shows us Jesus putting that into practice. In not just the birth of Jesus but his ministry too, God comes near. He comes near in space and near in time. In space he comes close – ‘Jesus came to Galilee’. And he comes close in time – ‘The time is fulfilled’.

Now here I want to suggest the ‘advert for toilet paper’ principle comes in again. Because that’s the way we sometimes talk about the coming of Jesus at Christmas. All the nice warm and fuzzy bits, but forgetting what Jesus came to do and why. Well, here is his coming portrayed by Mark not through the lens of Dickensian Christmas cards but through the closeness of his coming. And the closeness of Jesus’ coming in space and time makes things urgent.

Put it this way. If Jesus turned up physically in our midst today, how would we react? My guess is it wouldn’t be anything like the way we talk at Christmas. We might be nervous. We might think of our sins and failures. We might get down on our knees. We might not even dare to look at him. Because if the living God comes close, I think that’s a more likely reaction.

When Jesus comes to Galilee and announces that God’s time is fulfilled, then anyone who catches half a glimpse of who he is and a little bit of what this might mean is not going to sing Jingle Bells. No, there is something urgent about the coming of Jesus. In his coming, the kingdom of God is coming near. He is here on God’s business. Like a space mission perfectly timing the launch of a rocket to leave Earth’s orbit and land its lunar module at the right part of the Moon, so Jesus has come on God’s mission with precision timing. So we’d better believe this isn’t just the spiritual equivalent of ET showing up, or reruns of Robin Williams goofing around as an alien visitor in Mork and Mindy. The coming of Jesus is serious. It’s about the salvation of the world and all creation. Mark is telling us we’d better listen up. So what should we do? That follows in the second and third elements of the passage.

Calling 
Well, if Jesus’ coming displays a sense of urgency and seriousness, it will be little surprise if the call he issues to people is of the same tone:

‘The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God has come near; repent, and believe in the good news.’ (Verse 15)

Repent and believe the good news. There is good news to believe about a God characterised by love, grace and mercy. But the route to receiving that good news is via repentance. That’s urgent. That’s serious.

Before very long we will hit Lent, and with my sabbatical I shall have no opportunity to share anything on that theme with you this year. However, the Lent themes are highlighted here: repent. We have to get beyond the giving up of chocolate, because this is about serious lifestyle changes (much as not eating chocs will be lifestyle alterations for some of us). Repentance is more than being sorry. It is about being sorry enough to commit to change. It is about taking a u-turn in our lives.

The Greek word for repentance, metanoia, means to change one’s mind. In repentance, we change our minds about God, our lives and the world. We turn around a go a different way.

Now something as major as that is urgent and life-changing. To speak of ‘repenting at leisure’ is an outright contradiction. To wait for a death-bed conversion is playing fast and loose with God, even a merciful God. 

You might think this just has to do with conversion and the initial discovery of faith in Jesus. It does have to do with that, but it is something that needs to become a habit. It’s no good thinking, ‘Phew, I got all that challenging repentance stuff done and dusted when I found Christ’ and then sit back for the ride with our ticket to heaven, because God will not be mocked. Repentance is the Christian’s regular habit. Not because we are people with a permanent downer about ourselves – ‘I’m just a worm’ and all that. No: it’s because God has set about a lifelong project of transforming us.

Jesus calls us to keep short accounts with God. Repentance is like a commitment to pay our bills on time, not to let our debts build up. I’m not saying, of course, that we would still pay for our sins: when we ‘repent and believe the Good News’ that is completely taken care of through the Cross of Christ. But I am using this as a metaphor: if God calls us to account about something, then are we in the habit of responding to him quickly?

And by the way, let us note also that when God calls us to repentance it is for something specific. It is never a general condemnation, as if he says, ‘You are worthless, hopeless and useless’ – that is the work of the enemy. He puts his finger on something in particular. And for that, he calls us to urgent action in changing our minds and making a u-turn.

Might he specifically call us to repent of those sins which undermine our life together as Christian community? Isn’t that why he has so much to say about the spiritual sickness of unforgiveness? Is it not the bitterness and petty quarrels that sometimes stain our churches that are worse denials of the Gospel than any arguments by atheists? Repentance becomes an urgent task for the sake of having a credible witness.

Commissioning 
We move from the general message Jesus gave when he began his ministry, to the specific one he issued to Simon and Andrew (and presumably to James and John, too):

‘Follow me and I will make you fish for people.’  (Verse 17)

Whenever I’ve quoted that saying of Jesus in a sermon, I’ve usually given a little reminder of the old chorus ‘I will make you fishers of men if you follow me’ and talked about how the disciples’ working life as fishermen was not wasted, but was a preparation for their ministry with Jesus. I’ve done that in this pulpit.

I still believe that. But this week as I prepared, I discovered something else about the call to be ‘fishers’ in a spiritual sense. It’s another ‘advert for toilet paper’ moment, where we may have missed the force of the meaning.

For once again, there is something urgent about this summons from Jesus, this commission to ‘fish for people’. There is an Old Testament background to this expression. It’s more than Jesus just making a clever play on words, based on their profession. No, the prophets see God as the great ‘fisher for people’, and whenever they speak that way, there is an ominous tone of judgment. Jeremiah 16:16, Ezekiel 29:4-5 and 38:4, Amos 4:2 and Habakkuk 1:14-17 all speak this way. 

Combine that Old Testament context with the unusual sign of Jesus calling people to follow him, in contrast to the way the rabbis of his day waited for potential disciples to come to them, and you can’t miss the urgency of his words here. ‘Follow me and I will make you fish for people’ is a way of saying that if the kingdom of God is near, then not only is it time for us to get our lives in order, we need to find ways of calling other people to do the same. It’s the call to be evangelistic and prophetic in the world.

That kind of call is never popular or easy. Jesus came with his message ‘after John was arrested’ (verse 14) – arrested for condemning adultery in high places.

It is no easier today. People say, ‘Who are you to say that to us?’ Sadly, they are sometimes right to do so, given the track record of Christian hypocrisy. They call us ‘self-appointed moral guardians.’ Others say that we each have our own truth and we mustn’t impose whatever works for us on others.

So we’re tempted to backtrack, be very British and keep our religion to ourselves – just as our critics want. Yet isn’t there an alternative that falls in between strident judgmentalism on one hand and being ashamed of the Gospel on the other?

I think there is. It involves actively living out our faith in the world in such a way as to earn our right to be heard. Tony Campolo used to tell a story about a poverty-stricken nation close to his heart, the Dominican Republic. In one village where the communists were highly influential, a Christian doctor would spend his days treating the sick, especially from the poorest groups who could not afford to pay for medical care. By night he would go around the village, preaching the Gospel. The local communist leader grudgingly admitted that the doctor had earned his right to be heard.

I believe we are called to something similar. It involves us living out a full-blooded compassionate lifestylee in the world, so much so that people want to know what makes us do it. Then we tell them about Jesus, no holds barred.

I can’t guarantee such an approach will protect us from criticism – Jesus warned us that goodness will always face opposition. But I can suggest that this is a Christlike response to our commissioning that can get under the radar in a society that is decreasingly sympathetic to the Good News. 

In a recession, we might just have what they need. After all, the ‘atheist bus campaign’ with its advertising slogan ‘There’s Probably No God.  Now Stop Worrying and Enjoy Your Life’ looks a bit sick in these economically straitened times, doesn’t it?

So isn’t it time that we responded again to the urgency at the heart of Jesus’ coming, the urgency in his call to repent and believe, and the urgency of taking up his commission to be and to share Good News in our communities?

I Made It Up

What to do on New Year’s Day with the children yesterday? We began with a return to ‘the world’s least crazy crazy golf course‘. After freezing there, Debbie offered to buy lunch the local branch of Wetherspoon’s.

Wetherspoon’s may not do flashy food, but they are family friendly. So Debbie and I didn’t worry if our mixed grill was tough enough to suggest the animals had put up considerable and recent resistance: the monkeys were happy. They had activity books to decorate while we waited for the food.

And it is the activity books given by Wetherspoon’s that are central to this story. Rebekah is used to ‘spot the difference’ puzzles, but Mark had his first encounter with one on this occasion. Rebekah found the eight differences between the two drawings with little difficulty; Mark found five.

Suddenly, however, he had found eight, like his sister. However, they weren’t the same.

“Where did you find those differences?” we asked him. 

“I made them up,” he replied, laughing – and we joined in.

Sometimes, making it up is fun, especially when you are a four-year-old comedian like Mark. It is also part of that cherished part of childhood where the imagination is valued.

But sadly the currency of imagination is devalued as we grow older, even though poets and artists often have special insights on life. In that respect, ‘making it up’ has wrongly earned a bad reputation in a scientific culture, where to make something up is of lesser value than ‘hard facts’. That is something the church has imbibed. While there are many parts of Scripture where historicity is of vital importance, there is no loss to faith and truth, for example, if the book of Job is a literary creation to grapple with the problem of suffering in an artistic way.

Yet there is also a rightful concern to protect against a wrong kind of ‘making it up’. Imagination is fine, false witness is not. Not that Scripture condemns all forms of lying – see the example of Rahab the prostitute of Jericho at the beginning of Joshua, for example. But bearing false witness against your neighbour, as the commandment puts it, is most definitely out. And it is here that we have a problem, both on a large public scale and on the more personal level.

In terms of the public, it is easy to think of scandals. Like last August, when Michael Guglielmucci was found to have faked cancer (even writing a song called ‘Healer’ and performing with a tube in his nose), all deriving from a porn addiction. 

And yet it’s easy to get self-righteous about those types of incident when we do the same thing on a smaller scale, where fewer people are affected. From the modification of a CV to finding all those subtle ways in which we present ourselves in the best possible light, making it up is a curiously popular pastime for those of us who profess to follow the One who called himself the Truth.

Naturally I don’t mean that in the sense that a Richard Dawkins would allege against us. It is not a wilful attempt to believe a lie. On the contrary, our faith is based on reasonable evidence, and with that in mind we enter into a relationship of trust. But relationships of trust require honesty in order to flourish, and that’s where the fantasy stuff becomes dangerous.

I suggest our problem, at its root, is that we don’t believe the Gospel enough. If we believe in grace, do we need to perform? Do we need to appear like we reach a certain standard? The fact that we do suggests we have developed cultures that are not soaked in grace. We are not free to be ourselves, with our foibles and weaknesses.

Not that I seek to justify sin, you understand. But the lack of acceptance that we need in order to face change and growth in holiness is disturbing. If I feel I am going to be judged all the time, I shall go on the defensive and spend time justifying myself, even when in my heart I know full well I am in the wrong. As such, a judgmental culture does not bring greater righteousness but a deeper retreat into sin. If I know I am loved unconditionally, then I feel able to face what is wrong in my life.

What would it take to create a culture in the church where we don’t have to make it up? It would require that we actually believe the Gospel of God’s free grace in Christ, and that by such grace we may face the need to repent of our sins and co-operate with the Holy Spirit in the project of sanctification.

It would also surely free us from the religious celebrity culture which contributes to the public scandals by creating an expectation of the spectacular or dramatic. When you are nurtured by grace, you don’t need to be an immature thrill-seeker. You are thrilled by God instead.