It’s not often I would identify myself with Iain Duncan Smith MP. I certainly can’t square the recent benefit changes with his alleged support for social justice and his country house home. He went to the Royal Military Academy at Sandhurst, but the only places I have visited at Sandhurst have been Marks and Spencer and Tesco.
But I do share the odd trait with him. The politically aware among you may remember how there was a huge contrast in personality between himself as Leader of the Opposition and Tony Blair, as the charismatic Prime Minister. At the 2002 Conservative Party conference, Duncan Smith tried to make a virtue of the difference. “Do not underestimate the determination of a quiet man,” he said. Unfortunately for him, when he got to the House of Commons again, Labour MPs would put their fingers across their lips and say, “Shush” every time he got up to speak.
His quietness was derided, and that has sometimes been my experience in the church as well: a quiet leader can be derided. Either people want a larger than life minister or you find you have consistently made the same point in meetings, only for people at future meetings of the same committee to say that something has not been addressed.
Why tell you this? Do I want your sympathy? No. Well, not on this occasion. Our passage has a lot to do with the contrasts between wisdom and folly. The first image of wisdom we have here is that wisdom is quiet, but folly is loud:
The quiet words of the wise are more to be heeded
than the shouts of a ruler of fools.
18 Wisdom is better than weapons of war,
but one sinner destroys much good. (9:17-18)
There is no shouting, or aggression, let alone violence, that goes with true wisdom. It is quiet and gentle. It does not arrest you, it does not grab you warmly by the throat and shake you. It is the still, small voice of God.
I have told before the famous story about the former Liverpool football manager Bob Paisley, who spoke very quietly at press conferences. One day, a journalist asked him why he spoke so quietly. “I speak quietly, so that you will listen,” he replied.
Might it be that the words of wisdom are spoken quietly by God and by God’s people in order that we might listen? It would be nice and easy if wisdom were served up on a plate for us, brought to us by waiter service. But it isn’t. We have to go in search of it, tuning our ears in to its quiet sounds that frequently are drowned by the noise of sin in our world.
That means God isn’t just going to splash his wisdom everywhere. Yes, it is available to all, but it will only be found by those who have a heart to search for it. We must want his wisdom badly – badly enough to set out on a quest for it, determined not only to find it but to put it into practice when we finally discover it.
Now clearly some of this means we need to develop a dogged determination in our devotional lives to hear the voice of God. Yes, it does mean a regular commitment to a style of Bible reflection that is suitable to us. It does mean spending time in prayer. It does mean commitment to a small group as well as to Sunday worship, and so on. All these things I’ve mentioned before, and will continue to emphasise. It’s why I remain concerned at the findings of our worship questionnaire, where a number of people identified Sunday services as the only times they seriously engaged with the Bible. We just can’t do that and get away with it if wisdom is quiet. It’s no good giving up quickly on spiritual disciplines when we don’t immediately have a stunning experience of God. Like a lover, he woos us, but he also plays hard to get, because he wants us to be serious about him.
And that leads into the second image of wisdom the Preacher gives us: wisdom is rare, but folly is common. To take some representative verses:
As dead flies give perfume a bad smell,
so a little folly outweighs wisdom and honour.
2 The heart of the wise inclines to the right,
but the heart of the fool to the left.
3 Even as fools walk along the road,
they lack sense
and show everyone how stupid they are. (10:1-3)
A small bit of foolishness creates a big stink in society, says the Preacher, and fools parade their foolishness for all to see. It’s not hard to see that, is it? Some people seek the spotlight, but have very little of substance to offer society. Plenty of people who gain the dubious status of celebrity could fall into this category.
Or we have people who become famous and are thrust into the limelight, simply because of their abilities in one particular field, and who are then labelled ‘rôle models’ by tastemakers and cultural commentators for some questionable reason. Footballers who end up biting members of the opposition might be included here. It’s hard to know who is the more foolish: those who deem footballers to be rôle models, or fame-hungry sporting stars who lack the wherewithal to set an example.
When we live in a society like this, feeling outnumbered by a catwalk parade of idiocy, what are we to do? We bemoan the triumph of style over substance. We despair of how a little trivia becomes a major thing. Having spied the front page of a certain red-top tabloid this last week leading on the story of a boy band splitting up, because presumably they have a strong idea that is important to their readers, I share that same sense of exasperation.
But it’s never acceptable for the Christian to give up in the face of a folly-ridden society. It remains our missionary call to keep speaking the wisdom of God, whatever the odds. After all, according to the New Testament, Christ is the wisdom of God, and how can we not speak about him? How can we not see all the more clearly our society’s need of Christ when we witness the epidemic of foolishness around us, and are struggling not to become infected ourselves?
Yet it feels difficult to hang on and to remain consistently faithful when so much of what surrounds us makes it feel like we are paradoxically drowning in an ocean of shallowness. To that end, I find something that Graham Kendrick said over thirty years ago. He said,
“When the odds get too big, I just remember that Jesus plus me equals an invincible minority.”
Yes, we may be up against the odds, and things may not always be going our way, but as the First Letter of John puts it,
‘Greater is he who is in you than he who is in the world.’
Ultimate victory belongs to Jesus. God raised him from the dead and made him king of the universe. Whatever direction things are going at present, that direction is only the short term. We know the long term outcome for all creation. We are on the victory side when we witness faithfully to Jesus Christ, the wisdom of God.
The third and final picture of wisdom I want to share with you is this: wisdom is gracious, folly is wicked.
That sounds harsh on foolishness, doesn’t it? When someone is a fool, we either laugh at their idiocy or sympathise with their ignorance. But wisdom and folly are moral qualities in Scripture. Wisdom is not merely about intellect, and so in a week when the atheist scientist Richard Dawkins has topped a magazine poll as the world’s top thinker of the last twelve months, the Christian may accept the man’s intellectual abilities, but would never call him wise. After all, as one American theologian I know put it on Facebook this week,
his views on religion … are simplistic, ill-informed, and simply wrong.
Here is the part of the reading that makes this point:
Words from the mouth of the wise are gracious,
but fools are consumed by their own lips.
13 At the beginning their words are folly;
at the end they are wicked madness –
14 and fools multiply words. (10:12-14)
We are equally not exercising wisdom in the church when we use our knowledge or cleverness to put someone else down. We are using wisdom – the wisdom which ultimately is Jesus Christ himself – when grace is our theme and our motive. We show wisdom when we speak with grace about grace.
It is surprising how often grace is excluded from Christian conversation. After the recent convictions of Mick and Mairead Philpott for the killing of six of their children, I saw within a short time on the Internet Christians putting messages that they longed for them to burn in Hell. Where is the grace there? It is as if what we really think goes something like this: we are good, other people are bad, and we will get to Heaven because we are good. Nothing could be further from the Gospel, yet this lie goes round in church circles.
None of us would be here but for grace. The people we look down on in the church family are recipients of the same grace. The people in our society who commit terrible, yes, wicked acts, are in need of that grace. That grace is centred on the Cross of Christ. And the Cross is a divine foolishness that outranks human wisdom, according to Paul in 1 Corinthians 1. It is indeed the wisdom of God.
We have said already that wisdom is a quiet voice and a minority voice. Well, nowhere more than here, where wisdom is characterised by grace is it a quiet, minority voice, even sometimes in the church. It is time to come back to the Cross, if we have strayed away. It is time to remember our experience of being humbled by love at the Cross. And when we recall our own humbling at the feet of divine love, then would it not be normal for us to begin extending that same grace to others within the church and beyond?
In a few minutes, we shall come to the climax of this service in the central act of gathered Christian worship, when we take Holy Communion together. Let our eating of the bread and our drinking of the wine this evening remind us of the grace and love God poured out for us in his Son.
Along with that, can we also recall that every Sunday is an Easter Day? Every week, the fact that the Christian church moved the Sabbath from Saturday to Sunday reminds us of the history-changing events we mark on Easter Sunday. God calls us back to that empty tomb constantly. For there we see the grace of God every bit as much as we do at the Cross itself. At the empty tomb, God by his grace and power transforms hope-drained people into hope-filled people.
This is the source of our life, our life in Christ. I pray that it will feed us, and – through us – feed others, too.
Have you ever forgotten something you know you should have remembered and then said, “Silly me, I was having a ‘senior moment’”?
Sometimes we can laugh at ourselves when we fail to remember. But at other times, not remembering is painful. I think of Hubert, in the early stages of dementia, not always remembering that Vera is his wife. Some of you have been through experiences like that with a loved one.
And in 2 Peter 3, we hear how important remembering is for our spiritual health. We too face scoffers who mock our faith, and we too need to hear how the writer says,
I am trying to arouse your sincere intention by reminding you that you should remember the words spoken in the past by the holy prophets, and the commandment of the Lord and Saviour spoken through your apostles (verses 1b-2).
The early Christians faced scoffers, and we do, too. In our day, it ranges from friends and acquaintances who think we can’t possibly be serious about believing what we believe to sophisticated and organised atheist scoffers. Only in the last week the National Secular Society, an organisation of less than 10,000 members, have called for RE to be banned in schools. Richard Dawkins is always claiming you have to choose between evolution and a Creator God.
So it is worth us today hearing what Scripture says to us about how to stand firm when others mock our faith. To this end, 2 Peter 3 calls us to remember – to remember some things we already know, because they will fortify our faith. What are they, and what should we do about them?
Firstly, we remember what God has done – because what God has done in the past gives a sign of what he will do again. When you know what someone has done previously, it gives you hope for the future. God is not silent. He has not resigned. He is still up to the job. When we remember what he has done, we stand with hope in the face of mockers.
In particular, 2 Peter points to two things God has done in the past, and their counterpoints in what he will one day do again. Those two events are the Creation and the Flood. Just as God once judged the world in a flood of water (verse 6), so one day he will judge it with a flood of fire (verses 7, 10-11). And just as God made the heavens and the earth (verse 5), so in the future he will not simply destroy creation with the flood of fire, he will remake the new heavens and the new earth (verse 13).
How specifically does remembering these twin themes of Creation and Flood help us in the face of mockery? Let us take creation first. The fact that God has acted in creation (whatever means he chose to accomplish it) points to the new creation he will usher in at the end of all things as we know them now. Our Christian hope is not simply of ‘going to heaven when we die’; the biblical hope is that we shall receive resurrection bodies and live in a renewed creation. This is our destiny. The God who created, and who goes on upholding even this broken creation, will one day make all things new – including the heavens and the earth. And that renewed creation will be our home for ever. Remembering God’s work in creation firms up our faith in where we are going.
One thing Debbie and I did in preparation for moving here was that we bought sat-navs for our cars. They have been a great help in our first fortnight here. We know we only have to punch in the postcode and perhaps the door number of where we are doing, and – provided we follow the instructions – we will arrive at our destination.
Occasionally, of course, they go wrong. I had to educate mine to recognise that the postcode for this church did not put it in an unnamed road, but in Station Road! And occasionally, too, we go wrong. I did on Friday night, when we drove back from the circuit welcome service. We arrived at a roundabout in Chobham, I think, where I was instructed to go straight on. Only problem was, you had to go left or right. I knew I had been on a roundabout like that a few days ago, where the same thing happened, and the correct solution was to go right. In the dark, I thought I was at that roundabout.
Well … I wasn’t. Turning right led us ultimately down a narrow country lane, where further progress was blocked by a ford. Debbie is better at reversing in tight circumstances than I am, so she took the wheel and eventually the sat-nav recalculated a route home for us and we made it back.
The life of faith can be rather like that. We can end up on detours caused by our own foolishness or the actions of others, but when we live by faith in Christ, arrival at the ultimate destination is still certain. God’s creation and the promise of his new creation tell us that. And knowing that gives us a reason to stand firm when others mock us. We have reason to believe in a hope-filled future.
But you’ll remember it wasn’t just the Creation to which 2 Peter pointed, it was the Flood as well. As God once judged people’s sin in a flood of water, so this chapter tells us he will also one day judge with a flood of fire.
Is this just a case of saying that those who disagree with us have got it coming to them? No, it’s more than that. This chapter tells us that the reason some people don’t merely disagree with our convictions but specifically scoff at us is because they ‘come, scoffing and indulging their own lusts’ (verse 3). In other words, some people who vehemently mock Christianity do so because to accept Christian faith would be to invite judgment on their morally dubious lives. The Christian speaker, author and activist Tony Campolo tells a story of how a student who had previously been well disposed towards Christianity came up to him one day and said that he’d been having doubts about God for about six months.
“Is that when you started sleeping with your girlfriend?” Campolo replied.
And he was right. The student’s intellectual objections were a cover for his rejection of Christian sexual ethics.
It isn’t that every objection to faith stems from that motive – of course not! But 2 Peter 3 reminds us that some of our opponents have hidden, unworthy motives for attacking our faith. The more mocking they are, the more likely it is. And they won’t get away with it in the long run. God sees their lives and their hearts. This is not anything for us to gloat about – in fact, we should be stirred to pray for such people. But it is a reassurance that we serve a God whose ultimate purposes are justice.
So the first step in coping with mockery of our faith is to remember what God has done and recognise what he will do. We gain confidence in God’s good future for us, and in his justice.
Secondly, we remember God’s character. The original readers of this letter were being mocked for their belief that Jesus would return and that God would judge creation. “Where is the promise of his coming?” (verse 4), they taunted. So 2 Peter 3 reminds them of Psalm 90,
that with the Lord one day is like a thousand years, and a thousand years are like one day (verse 8 )
and from that draws the conclusion that God has delayed his final purposes in his divine patience, because he does not want any to perish, but to come to repentance (verse 9). He does not want to have to judge the mockers – he would rather they found new life in Christ. Nor does he want Christians to fall away – he desires that we resist that temptation and stay faithful, even when it would feel more comfortable to disown our Lord and Saviour.
What, then, do we need to remember about God’s character? One word: grace. We would not know God in Christ were it not for his grace, his unmerited favour extended in love to us through Jesus and the Cross. God wants to demonstrate that same love even to those who ridicule his Son and our faith in him.
Every now and again, I read discussions on the Internet about the existence of God. Some of the comments from atheists are arrogant and hateful. My instinctive feelings towards such people are not good. But I need to remember that these are people for whom Christ died, and had God not been gracious to me I would never have known him. It is when we forget truths like this that we may be most likely to slide away from true faith into a parody of true religion that is full of self-righteousness rather than God’s extravagant love to the world through Jesus Christ.
Sometimes we need to remember just how much God has forgiven us, and let that fact inform the way we relate to difficult or hostile people. God wants them to know him. He may well want to use us in reaching them. That will have implications for our words, our actions and our attitudes.
The third and final thing we need to do is to remember God’s call. If we have a future in the new creation, and if God is both just and gracious, what kind of people does he call us to be? Let me just draw together a couple of fragments.
In verse 13, where we read about the new heavens and the new earth, we learn that the new creation is a place ‘where righteousness is at home’. If we want to be at home, we need to lead a consistent life, a righteous one. And to that end, the final plea of the letter in verse 18 is that its readers might
grow in the grace and knowledge of our Lord and Saviour Jesus Christ.
What does this amount to? If we believe in God’s coming new creation, then we need to live in harmony with it. That means righteousness (and justice – the Greek word covers both). And if we believe that God is gracious enough to want even his enemies to find his love and put their faith in him, then we need to grow in grace – to become more like him, especially in becoming more full of grace to others ourselves.
All that amounts to a tough call. In the face of opposition and mockery, God calls us not to give up or mingle with the crowd, but to live righteous and just lives that are full of grace for the most undeserving of sinners. But how else are we going to live a convincing witness to Jesus Christ in the world? We are deluded if we think all we have to do is provide the right answers to people’s questions – although that is important. Jesus calls us to a difficult assignment, but an important one: to live the life of faith, even and especially when we are under fire.
But he’s simply asking us to do what he did when the heat was on, and the good news is that he gives us the Holy Spirit in order to do his will. When I read the claims of atheists on the Internet, I realise they not only need to hear reasonable answers from Christians, they need to see Christians show by their lifestyles that a different way is real and possible.
And that’s a good place for me to end my first sermon here, with that challenge. Our calling is to live different, Jesus-shaped lives in the midst of the world and not just in our religious ghettoes.
Who is up for the challenge?
I’ve been aware through mailshots and emails for a few months that the Christian missionary charity Focus has been putting together a new resource called ‘God: New Evidence’. With contributions from scientist-theologians such as John Polkinghorne and David Wilkinson, there are videos you can embed in your own blog or site free of charge, which are also available on a DVD for £14.99 (currently UK PAL only – NTSC following later). You can view them on the site or on YouTube by searching for the user ‘godnewevidence’ (omit the quotation marks). Here by way of a taster is the first one:
You can also become a Facebook fan or follow the project on Twitter. Bible translator and former biologist Eddie Arthur commends it here, as does Anglican priest Doug Chaplin here (with the reservation that he thinks cosmology might be more sympathetic to faith than evolutionary biology).
This is an encouraging and worthwhile resource. We should be careful not to claim too much for it in response to Dawkins hysteria. Just because Dawkins and his friends claim science can disprove God, we shouldn’t rush to assume scientific research can prove every aspect of Christian doctrine. (Not that I’m suggesting Focus think this, I’m more thinking about how people might try to use the material.)
What can we claim? Passages such as Romans 1 make it clear that an appreciation of the world carries with it a basic revelation of God – but no more. The Focus material is therefore an excellent argument for the existence of God, and forms a foundation which the Holy Spirit can use in further revealing the Good News of the Kingdom in Jesus’ incarnation, death and resurrection. In short, rational evidence gives us not complete proof but enough evidence for trust in God. The latter requires the work of the Spirit in a person’s life.
I want to introduce you to a new religion. It will involve cannibalism, vampires and the overthrow of cherished ancient traditions. Are you interested?
Or are you shocked? Because that is what the first followers of Jesus thought he was proposing. ‘Those who eat my flesh and drink my blood abide in me, and I in them,’ he said (verse 56). They were offended, and many on the fringes of belief turned away from him in this reading. They were scandalised by his claims.
He called people to eat his flesh – well, who wants cannibalism? And he said they were to drink his blood. Remember that Jews never drank the blood from a dead animal, because it was thought to contain the life of the creature.
Vampires? OK, actually no. I just wanted to underline the shocking nature of Jesus’ words about drinking his blood. But maybe you get a feeling for how Jesus’ first hearers felt scandalised by his teaching. We may find it hard to appreciate that, because two thousand years of familiarity have changed our perceptions. But in its original context, the person and message of Jesus were offensive.
And today, for all our familiarity with Jesus, it is just as possible to be offended by him, his words and his deeds. If we look at what upset those early disciples, we might get some clues to some issues today. Who knows? We might be the ones who need to change. Let’s see.
Firstly, Jesus himself and his teaching is offensive:
When many of his disciples heard it, they said, ‘This teaching is difficult; who can accept it?’ (Verse 60)
You might think that gentle Jesus, meek and mild would respond with a word of gentle explanation, but no:
But Jesus, being aware that his disciples were complaining about it, said to them, ‘Does this offend you? Then what if you were to see the Son of Man ascending to where he was before?’ (Verses 61-62)
What if you were to see the Son of Man ascending to where he was before? This is not only about the Ascension itself, but also about what leads up to it, for in John’s Gospel, Jesus ascends to the Cross. This is therefore about the Cross, the Resurrection and the Ascension. This is about the deity of Jesus, and what he accomplished in his atoning death and resurrection before he returned to the Father’s right hand.
How is that offensive? Let me recount a story.
In one past church, an elderly couple joined the congregation. They began worshipping with us every week. After a while, I visited them and they raised the question of church membership. In the past, they had been active members of a Baptist church, but must have lapsed for a period of years. Having plied me with tea and cakes, they asked, “Are we good enough to join your church?”
That is a question that can only be asked by people who don’t understand the Cross, or who find the Cross offensive. Like a fool, I paid insufficient attention to it and chose to explain it away. I brought them into church membership, and it was a terrible mistake. The husband in particular spent every week’s home group ripping to shreds the previous Sunday’s preacher. Week after week, until the two leaders of the group could take it no more and resigned. We ended up having to close the group.
All because I didn’t pay attention to a couple who didn’t understand the Cross, and who later showed in their behaviour that they didn’t appreciate grace. I should have let them be offended by the Gospel.
The trouble is, a Jesus ascended on a Cross humbles us. We have to lay aside the pride of our respectable lives, and kneel before him as sinners needing forgiveness.
I’ve seen it not only in the respectable but also in the intellectual. People want to find God by their own cleverness, but God will not have that. I have seen such people harbour all kinds of destructive behaviour, all because they will not kneel at the Cross.
Those who are merely interested in Jesus may well fall away, like the crowds here. Those who are willing to meet him at the Cross are those who will be his true disciples.
Secondly, the work of the Holy Spirit is offensive to some. Jesus goes on to say:
‘It is the spirit that gives life; the flesh is useless. The words that I have spoken to you are spirit and life. But among you there are some who do not believe.’ (Verses 63-64a)
We may only come to know God through the work of the Holy Spirit, who makes the presence of God real to us and the Word of God alive to us. Normal human abilities – ‘the flesh’ – are ‘useless’, says Jesus.
This too is an affront to many people. We have lived through several centuries of scientific discoveries, breakthroughs and advances. Human society has benefitted hugely from many of these things. The idea has arisen that the human mind will ultimately solve all problems. Thus today, leading atheists like Richard Dawkins, Christopher Hitchens, Daniel Dennett, Sam Harris and others mock the thought of anything that cannot be perceived by human reason. If it does not originate from reason, then it is superstition.
But these ideas are false. Yes, society has seen great wonders, not least in medicine. But the same human reason is fallen through sin, and science has given us nuclear weapons and climate change. Ultimately, the thought that reason can solve everything is pure arrogance and idolatry. God is not against the use of the mind at all – in fact it can be properly used to his glory – but he knows how we idolise our reason and so, in the words of John Arnott, ‘God offends our minds to reveal our hearts.’
And indeed the Gospel is not merely available to intellectuals – thank God! It is revealed by the Holy Spirit, whose work is available to all.
In our tradition of Christianity, we are so used to emphasising human free will (and I’m not saying we should ditch that!), but sometimes we stress it so much that we forget the life of faith is impossible without the prior work of the Holy Spirit. The Holy Spirit draws people to Christ; only then do we make response.
Listen for reference to that work of the Spirit in part of a testimony from a friend of mine:
‘I wasn’t raised in a Christian household, I was saved in a summer camp when I was 14….one night afterwards, I was dialing my radio around and found a Christian radio station. As I listened, I could feel the Spirit inside me awakening, and that station was basically how God “fed me” while I was at home. When I got old enough to drive myself, I was able to go to church myself.’
Once again, we see that it is our pride that gets offended – this time by the need to rely on the Holy Spirit for life in Christ. But also, this has implications for our evangelism. The prime need in our outreach is not the latest techniques, but prayer – prayer that the Holy Spirit will go ahead of us, working in people’s lives before we get there. Let us be released from having to think up new clever (and possibly manipulative) schemes, and instead remember that the Holy Spirit does the spadework. Let us call on the Spirit in prayer to do that in the lives of those who need Christ.
Well, if we’ve talked about the Cross of Christ and the ministry of the Spirit in the first two points, it won’t take a brain surgeon to work out that the third and final area in which people find the teaching of Jesus offensive is in what he says about God the Father.
And he said, ‘For this reason I have told you that no one can come to me unless it is granted by the Father.’ (Verse 65)
Now again, that’s the kind of verse to make those of us in the Wesleyan Arminian tradition, who believe in the importance of human free will, to get rather nervous. It gladdens the hearts of Calvinists, who believe that some people are predestined by God to salvation, while he predestines the rest to damnation. But all it really stresses is another version of what we’ve just said about the Holy Spirit – namely that the first move in salvation is God’s.
It has always been the case. The first missionary in the Bible was God, walking in the Garden of Eden in the cool of the evening, calling, ‘Adam, where are you?’ God called Abraham and the patriarchs as he formed a people for himself. He called Moses, the Judges and the prophets. Finally, he sent his Son.
And how good it is that God has always made the first move. For as Leon Morris has put it, writing on this verse:
‘Left to himself, the sinner prefers his sin. Conversion is always a work of grace.’
It is God’s work to bring us to the possibility of salvation. It does not mean he is capricious: he wants all to be saved. But remembering what we have already learned about the need for humility, that comes into play here again, for if God makes the first move, we must pay attention. John Wesley thus commented on this verse:
‘Unless it be given – And it is given to those only who will receive it on God’s own terms.’
The Good News is that God sets out to rescue those who, by their own instincts, would always prefer to remain in sin. The Good Challenge is that we must accept God’s remedy. We must come on God’s own terms. Therefore that means not only welcoming Christ as God’s Saviour, but also bowing before him as Lord. If we can only come to Christ because God the Father makes the first move, then we end up coming to God not only for the blessings, but also for the obligations.
We can ask ‘What’s in it for me?’ and the answer will be about salvation from the penalty of sin, the practice of sin and the presence of sin. But to ask that question alone is to indulge in religious consumerism. Because the Father makes the first move there is another question: ‘What’s in it for God?’ And the answer involves him incorporating us into the People of God, because his desire has always been to form a people for himself, a new community that lives under his kingly reign. And therefore we must rise to the challenge and make the Church just such a community, instead of fighting and plotting against one another, and settling for cliques instead of community.
In Conclusion, then, God the Father, Son and Holy Spirit takes the initiative in saving the human race. This brings us to humility at the foot of the Cross and in dependence upon the grace of the Father and the power of the Spirit. We lay aside everything we trumpet about our respectability and intellect. But this news frees us from other tyrannies. No longer need we rack our brains for new methods of evangelism, when instead we begin in prayer for the Holy Spirit to move. And in the converted life, the Father who has graciously reached out to a world of persistent sinners not only saves us but makes us his subjects. Our only proper response is grateful obedience.
May we have the grace not to be offended, but to become God’s loyal servants and friends.
 Leon Morris, The Gospel According to John, p387. Exclusive language unchanged from the source.
 John Wesley, Explanatory Notes Upon the New Testament, p330.
I am Bob Fleming.
It wasn’t until my early twenties when I went to see my GP about something else and she said, “Good grief, you’ve got a horrible cough there” that I realised it was abnormal not to spend the first two hours of every morning clearing my sinuses and coughing. I kept Kleenex in business – what was so unusual about that?
She sent me to see an ENT specialist. “What’s your problem?” he asked.
“I don’t think I’ve got a problem,” I replied.
The frustrated consultant questioned me more until I explained the back story. “Well,” he said, “the x-ray shows you have a polyp in your left nostril, but it’s clearly been there from birth and it’s evidently benign, so if you’re not worried I don’t see the point of surgery to remove it. Besides, it’s a rather messy operation.”
Now if a doctor says an operation is messy, I guess it’s very messy. Being offered the chance not to have a grotty procedure, I was glad to be discharged from the clinic. Later doctors put me on a repeat prescription of Beconase to keep the polyp down and deal with the allergic symptoms it gave me (it’s like having hay fever all year round).
And that was my situation until just before Christmas. At our current doctor’s practice, all repeat presscriptions are reviewed every six to twelve months. I had a review of my Beconase with one of the GPs. I said I wondered whether we ought to look at the question of my sinuses again. He assured me surgery had come a long way, and we might even just be looking at keyhole surgery by now to deal with the polyp.
So this morning, I had an out-patient appointment at the local hospital ENT clinic. A specialist inflicted local anaesthetic on both nostrils and then sent a camera up each of them in turn.
The verdict? There is no polyp. I don’t have a sinus problem, but I have a genuine breathing problem. The reason is that my nasal septum is out of shape on the left nostril side, and this makes gunk collect rather than dissipate easily. And no, you can’t explain my damaged septum by cocaine use. I’ve never been near the stuff. The doctor thought I had been this way since birth.
It’s possible that all the years of Beconase have shrunk the polyp out of existence. The curious question is why the consultant I saw in my twenties didn’t notice the out of shape septum. But that’s mucus under the bridge now.
I have been changed to a new nasal spray in place of Beconase. I await an x-ray appointment. Three weeks after that, I shall return to ENT and discuss whether to have surgery that will correct the kink in the septum.
All these years I have been living under a medical misapprehension. It’s amazing how often we do live under misconceptions in life. Only yesterday, our daughter wanted to have a conversation with me about Jamie Oliver the footballer.
“He’s not a footballer, he’s a chef,” I said.
“No, he’s a footballer,” insisted Rebekah.
“Well, you might have seen him kicking a ball on television and perhaps he enjoys football, but really he’s a chef,” I replied.
She wasn’t convinced, so I got Debbie’s copy of The Return Of The Naked Chef off the bookshelf. Showing her some pictures of recipés convinced her I was right.
The preacher in me can make a sermon illustration out of this – how people live under delusions and need convincing of the truth. Ultimately, it is the work of the Holy Spirit to do that work of convincing.
So people live under the delusion that their goodness will earn them a welcome from God. The Gospel shatters this with a message of grace and mercy. Richard Dawkins publishes ‘The God Delusion’ and only proves he is living under the greatest delusion of all, where even human wisdom is foolishnes in the eyes of God.
And we still live under delusions in the Church. We are on a lifelong (maybe even eternal) journey of having our delusions shattered, as the Light of the World shines into our darkness. When we receive and pass on a tradition without understanding it, we fall foul of the old maxim that the seven last words of a dying church are, “But we’ve always done it this way.” We practise Einstein’s definition of insanity, in which we keep doing the same things while expecting a different result.
The delusion-breaking work of regeneration is essential. But it is not the last word. It is God’s first word. He who began a good work in us will complete it on the day of Christ Jesus, says Paul in Philippians 1: the shattering has only just begun. We need to welcome it as it continues throughout our lives, for it is a critical component of discipleship.
Hope is in short supply right now. Increased unemployment. Home repossessions threatening to hit 1991 records. Banks, the backbone of our economy, in turmoil. Many suffering fuel poverty as gas and electricity prices stay high, even when petrol prices have reduced. You know the rest. We could do with some hope.
In the time of John the Baptist, Israel could have done with some hope. You’ve heard it enough times. In their own land, yet feeling like exiles, because they were occupied by Rome. Every now and again, someone popped up to offer hope in terms of an uprising. Every time, Roman legions quelled the rebels and executed them publicly.
Well, you root yourself in another time when the people of God needed hope. The time addressed in Isaiah 40. Most of God’s people had been deported to Babylon, and had been there a few decades by this point. A handful had been left in Jerusalem.
Then, a prophet in the Isaiah tradition turns up in Babylon, addressing the dispirited exiles and the desolate residents of Jerusalem. Using three metaphors from the physical world around him – wilderness, grass and mountains – he offers God’s hope to those lacking it and most needing it.
And this theme of hope complements what we thought about last week, on the first Sunday of Advent. Then, our theme was waiting. Today, it is hope, which is the content of Christian waiting. Had we read to the end of Isaiah 40, we would have heard – depending on which Bible translation we used – about those who will renew their strength by either ‘waiting’ or ‘hoping’.
So – without more ado – how does the Isaiah prophet help us to hope, using these images of wilderness, grass and mountains?
Last week, as we considered the theme of waiting, we wondered how we live when it feels like God is absent. Isaiah 40 is bold in response to this: you may feel that God is not here, but God is coming! He gives us a picture that is a bit like the building of a new road (hopefully without the environmental concerns we have about such a project in our society). Prepare God’s way in the wilderness, make a straight highway in the desert, raise the valleys, lower the mountains, and smooth out the rough terrain, and you will see God’s glory (verses 3-5).
So – in a time of God’s apparent absence, the good news is that God is coming. In a time of spiritual darkness, the good news is that you will see God’s glory. Music, surely, to the ears of disillusioned exiles in Babylon, and beaten-down people in Jerusalem. This is a message of comfort. Your punishment is over. Enough is enough (verses 1-2).
We may not know when things will change for the better for Christian witness in our culture, but we can hear similar echoes of hope in Advent. Our waiting and hoping is for Jesus who is called Immanuel, God with us. God is coming. We are not alone. Christ is coming. Christ came. The Father sent the Spirit of Christ. Our sense of aloneness is only apparent. It is not actual.
Of course, we must be careful: proclaiming that in Christ, God is with us, can make us sound like we have a religious superiority complex. This is not a matter of our deserving special rank. It is a matter of grace, God’s undeserved favour to sinners. The Son of Man came to seek and save the lost. It is not the healthy who need a doctor, but the sick. Jesus, God with us, came for lost and sick people – including us. Yes, God is with us in Christ. But we hold that knowledge humbly. And as we share it, we do so as one beggar telling another where to find bread.
And the wilderness was specifically to be a place where God’s glory would be seen. Would God’s glory be seen in raining down fire and brimstone? No. It would be seen as he led a raggle-taggle bag of exiles back home.
Similarly, Advent is a time when we wait in hope for the glory of God. His glory will be seen and sung about in skies over Bethlehem. His glory will be seen, in the words of Bruce Cockburn,
Like a stone on the surface of a still river
Driving the ripples on forever
Redemption rips through the surface of time
In the cry of a tiny babe
It’s a different kind of glory. It’s wilderness glory, a manger at the back of a house in Bethlehem, not a palace in Jerusalem. It’s the glory of God humbling himself into human flesh, one who later as an adult would not grant the wish of two disciples known colloquially as the Sons of Thunder, who wanted to unleash damnation on enemies.
Yes, come to unexpected dry places like a wilderness – like a manger – and find that God is present in strange glory. Come to Broomfield and find him? Why not?
When the prophet speaks about the people being like grass, I think he has wilderness grass in mind. It withers and fades in the heat of the wilderness, so when we hear about that happening when the breath of the Lord blows on it (verse 7), I think we’re meant to imagine that the Lord’s breath is hot and intense. The breath of the Lord, the Spirit of God, is not here life-giving but life-taking. The judgment of God had fallen upon the people with the Babylonian invasion and exile; now, like grass in the hot sun, they are withering and fading.
It’s not difficult to find similarities in later generations. In the days before Jesus was born, Israel was withering under oppression from Rome. In our day, we in the western church (especially in Europe) feel like we are withering and fading. What word of hope do we find here? It comes in verse 8:
The grass withers, the flower fades; but the word of our God will stand forever.
Whatever happens to us, the purposes of God are not thwarted. Whether we wither due to divine judgment on our faithlessness or whether it is general oppression or persecution, hear the promise that ‘the word of our God will stand forever’.
A story was told during the time when Russian communism ruled Eastern Europe. Soldiers raided the home of a Christian family and made some arrests. To humiliate them, they threw the family Bible on the floor. But a soldier noticed that one page didn’t burn. It contained the words of Jesus: ‘Heaven and earth will pass away, but my words will never pass away.’ That incident was key in the soldier’s conversion to Christ.
There will be many attempts to destroy God’s word from its place in our society, and some of those attacks will focus on the church. But we are in Advent, the season of hope. The word of the Lord stands forever, and the gates of hell will never prevail against the church of Jesus Christ.
None of this is a reason for complacency, but it is a reason for hope. Therefore, it’s here to boost our faith and fuel our prayers for God to renew his wonders in our day.
So God is present in his strange glory, and he is speaking and will not be silenced. Those are grounds for hope, but they are not very specific. We need a vantage point. The herald, the preacher (who by the way is female in the text), needs to ‘get up to a high mountain’ to see things as they are and be several hundred feet above contradiction in preaching good news to discouraged people (verse 9).
What good news? That God is victorious over the enemies of his people, that he comes in conquest, with his people as his booty, and with the gentleness of a shepherd caring for ewes and lambs (verses 10-11).
Israel’s hope was the end of captivity in Babylon. The hope in Jesus’ coming was in his resurrection from the dead. Our hope, based on that resurrection, is that of God’s final victory when he appears again, not only to claim his own, but to renew all of creation, with a new heaven and a new earth.
There are always reasons in the world to make us gloomy. At present there is a plethora of reasons. There are also reasons to be pessimistic about the western church. You would think there were few grounds for hope. But when you get up the mountain to see things from God’s perspective, the situation looks different. You see hope in the promises of God, who has acted decisively in the past, who will do so again, and who one day will make all things new.
It’s rather like the old story told by Tony Campolo. People give him all sorts of reasons to be negative about the state of the world and the church. But his standard reply is, “I’ve been reading the Bible. And I’ve peeked to see how it ends. Jesus wins!”
So let the world write us off. Let our friends regard our faith as irrelevant. Let Richard Dawkins describe religion as a virus. But see God’s view from the mountain: Jesus wins. Let that fill us with Advent hope.
And while we’re on the mountain, let us – like the female herald in Isaiah 40 – proclaim it to all who will hear. Let us encourage one another in the church. Don’t be dragged down by the lies and limited perspectives of the world: Jesus wins.
And let us also proclaim it to a world sorely in need of hope. To people who thought they could trust in money, until the banks blew up. To people who gained their sense of identity from their job, until redundancy hit. To people struck down with disability or chronic or terminal illness, whose lives had been based on the vigour of their bodies. To all these people and many others, proclaim that Jesus wins. It is promised in the actions of God and especially in the Resurrection. We have a hope worth trusting in. Why be afraid? Why be dismayed?
You may recall I’ve said that my first circuit appointment was in the town of Hertford. There, the Methodists regularly quoted John Wesley’s Journal regarding several of the visits the great man made to the town on his preaching travels. They were fond of quoting one entry in particular, where Wesley was utterly discouraged. It said, ‘Poor desolate Hertford.’ Those words hung like a curse over them.
But you may also remember how I have talked of being involved in ecumenical youth ministry in the town. Somebody gave me the complete set of Wesley’s Journal, and I looked up all the entries on Hertford. They weren’t all doom and gloom. Some were, but one in particular wasn’t. In it, Wesley recounted coming to preach at a school in the town. To cut a long story short, he saw a revival break out among the children.
You can imagine the impact that story had on us as we gathered to pray about youth ministry. Never mind ‘poor desolate Hertford’. There was a heritage of Holy Spirit work among young people in the area. God had not been absent or silent. He had been gloriously present, proclaiming Good News.
So I want to say that the Advent hope is like that. It is time to cast off the darkness. The great Advent text in Isaiah 60 says, ‘Arise, shine, your light has come’. This Advent, might we just dare to believe and to hope in our God?
And might we find that in this hope we have something beyond riches to share with a world, whose own versions of hope have plummeted in value?
Mark’s favourite word at present is ‘Why?’ We had heard that all children go through a ‘Why?’ phase. Mark’s, however, is different from what other parents have generally told us. It isn’t a case of ‘Why must I do that?’ or ‘Why not?’ It’s more academic. He deploys ‘Why?’ to ask questions about the world. And when we’ve answered why one thing happens, he asks why that is so. Relentlessly he pushes back our logic, sucking our brains dry. On Friday afternoon in the car, he wouldn’t stop in his quest to know more about speed cameras. I am convinced that one day soon, we’ll have to explain the Big Bang to him. And questions are at the heart of our Lectionary Gospel reading today. The Pharisees send a lawyer to ask Jesus a question. Jesus asks the Pharisees a question. Furthermore, it’s the climax to a series of questions between Jesus and his critics. Questions – and how we handle them – are vital in spiritual growth.
So today I want as much to explore the use of questions in general as I do the particular questions in this exchange.
People Questioning Jesus
There are all sorts of reasons, good and bad, for asking Jesus or God a question. The Virgin Mary asked a question of the Archangel Gabriel when he turned up with his world-shattering news of her pregnancy. However, it was a question allied to a spirit of obedience to God. When we question out of a desire to pursue our faith and discipleship further, that is a good thing.
Job questioned God as a result of his suffering. He didn’t get an answer to this question about why he as an innocent person suffered. He only learned that, yes, innocent people do suffer. And although he receives a kind of rebuke from God, he is nevertheless rewarded for a faith that is not contradicted by asking hard questions.
Even the lawyer in this story might have had good intentions. In Mark’s account of this story (which is most likely Matthew’s source), Jesus commends him for not being far from the kingdom of God. Yet in Matthew, he is just out to test Jesus on behalf of the Pharisees (verses 34-45). Was he a stooge of the Pharisees? We don’t know.
What we do know is that the Pharisees had unholy reasons for questioning Jesus. Matthew is only interested in noting this sense of conflict, where the Pharisees not only think they can put one over Jesus, they are keen to succeed where their rivals the Sadducees failed (verse 34). Their motives are not good. This is all about pride and putting one over their opponents.
When I first studied Theology, it was among Anglican ordinands. I had more theological knowledge than some of them, due to my Local Preacher training. There were two occasions during early lectures when I asked questions of the tutors, less to learn and more to show off. Once it was when a New Testament lecturer was giving an outline of Luke’s Gospel, and I made sure everyone knew I realised that Luke gave a special place to women. The other was in an Old Testament class, where the tutor recommended a particular Bible atlas and I said, “Oh, the one you edited?” They were unworthy moments and I am ashamed of them.
If we are not careful, we might ask questions that are less to do with wanting to draw nearer to Christ and more to do with pride. They might involve puffing up ourselves and putting others down. Before we question Jesus, it is worth questioning ourselves. What are our motives? Do I ask out of humility, a desire to learn and if necessary a spirit of repentance? If so, I am asking a question in such a way that spiritual growth has a real chance to happen.
But if I want to show off in front of others, or if I am deluded enough to think that with my intellect I can impress God, then the chances of growth are less than zero. Indeed, to have such concerns is to show no interest in growing in grace.
What, then, of the actual question here? The lawyer asks for one ‘greatest commandment’, but Jesus gives him two. Jesus won’t be confined by our questions. Sometimes we ask the wrong questions.
Let me make brief observations about each of his two ‘great commandments’. With regard to the first commandment, I find it interesting to read this passage in a week when we have heard about the first atheist advertising ever to appear on London buses. One of its most prominent supporters and financial backers is – surprise, surprise – Richard Dawkins. In supporting the campaign, he was stupid enough to say this:
“This campaign to put alternative slogans on London buses will make people think – and thinking is anathema to religion.”
Thinking is anathema to religion? What he surely means is, you haven’t thought unless you’ve come to the same conclusions as me. Sixth Form arrogance. Against that background, I read Jesus saying that we are to love the Lord our God with all our heart, soul, mind and strength. The word ‘mind’ is additional to the original (although the Hebrew will have implied that the total person is involved in loving God). I cannot find God by thinking, but I can dedicate my thinking to God as an act of loving worship. Be trusting of God, but the Sunday School song never said, ‘Jesus wants me for a zombie’.
The second commandment is about love of neighbour. One of the problems with the atheist bus campaign – along with religious advertising, too – is that it reduces everything to slogans. That’s exactly what Jesus doesn’t do. The proof of his ‘campaign’ to love God is not a slogan. Proof comes in love of neighbour.
In early September, the American ministry journal Leadership has this poll on its website:
When it comes to evidences of true worship at your church, which of the following do you pay most attention to?
- People singing enthusiastically.
- People praying fervently.
- People fully attentive to the sermon.
- People coming for confession or prayer afterward.
- People committing or recommitting themselves to Christ.
- People serving others during the week.
- People so captivated that they invite others to join them at church.
Other: click here to let us know what indicates to you that people are worshiping
Much as I like enthusiastic singing, fervent prayer and close attention to the sermon, I can’t understand any measurement of true Christian love that is less than a measurement of action that happens afterwards. People who put their faith into practice after church – they can ask questions.
Jesus Questioning People
In my early years as a Christian, a popular slogan was ‘Jesus is the answer’. There was a famous song with that title by the gospel singer Andraé Crouch. It’s a comforting song about the hope troubled people can find in Christ, and of course I believe that.
However, I have come to believe also that it is just as true to say that ‘Jesus is the question’. He didn’t always spoon-feed his listeners. He told parables that would only make sense to the spiritually curious and committed.
And in this passage, Jesus questions his critics. He throws in a theological conundrum. It’s a little biblical hand-grenade that is meant to blow apart their preconceived ideas, their limited vision and their prejudices. In summary, it’s this: if the Messiah is the son of David (as was commonly accepted), how can David call one of his own descendants ‘Lord’ (verses 41-45)? The problem was that in Jewish tradition a father could not call his son ‘Lord’. Yet here was Scripture saying just that. And if it were true, what possible grounds could there be for denying the Lordship of the Messiah? And if Jesus were the Messiah, what would that mean for the Pharisees’ treatment of him?
To change the metaphor, it’s checkmate to Jesus (verse 46).
And Jesus is still about the business of asking questions as a means of either eliciting spiritual growth or letting people confirm the hardness of their hearts. Sometimes, we are seeking his guidance and he doesn’t appear to be answering. That may be because he is making us wait for an answer, but is it also possible we are not hearing what he is saying? So set are we on receiving an answer that will make everything fit into place that we miss what he is saying. Instead of giving us an answer, Jesus replies with a question.
Not only that, it’s something Jesus calls his followers to do, too. Take the rôle of the minister, for example. One traditional expectation of a minister is that this is the person who will dream the big dreams, see the great visions and impart them to the congregation. One Anglican rector friend told me he believed his job was to be like Moses coming down from Sinai with the tablets of stone.
But what if that isn’t the minister’s calling? Suppose instead the minister invites people to engage their situation with a holy imagination? That may be more effective, because it will help call forth what God is already doing in the midst of the congregation.
Or take the rather modern preoccupation that the exposition of Scripture in a sermon or Bible Study group is meant to be a way of reading answers off the page to today’s dilemmas, or coming up with a set of biblical principles on how to make life work. Is that right? Might it not be more faithful to the Bible if instead the minister preaches the great story of Scripture to the people, saying, this is ‘the story we find ourselves in‘. If that is the case, then how do we see our world? [Source for last 3 paragraphs]
If we allow Jesus to question us, he might shake up some of our cherished beliefs and practices. Those moments when we sense a discomfort, that something doesn’t quite fit – those are times when we might well need to be especially attentive to the voice of Christ. Is he asking us a question that will take us on a journey into deeper biblical faithfulness and away from those human traditions which have become unhelpful?
I believe Jesus is asking us big questions about our fitness for mission in today’s world. Do our structures, traditions, practices and even some of our cherished doctrines which we clam to have ‘received’ fit with a biblical reflection on where we are today? I for one am not sure they do, and I believe Jesus may be asking us awkward questions.
But then that’s just the sort of thing that might preoccupy me as a minister. For others, it might be other questions. He might be asking many people about their place, situation and calling in life. The spiritual writer Frederick Buechner observed that our call is the place where our deep gladness meets the world’s deep need. If some of us are misfits on those grounds, then is Jesus asking us challenging questions about where we might best serve him? Has Jesus given us a passion for something that we are not using? If not, then what questions might he be asking us?
The alternative to Jesus asking us questions is simply for him to give us pre-packaged answers. But if he does that, then that is the end of the conversation. Orders have been given from on high, and that’s it. Now he has a perfect right to do that. He is Lord. But I suspect he often asks us questions instead of giving us answers, precisely so that he can engage us. Questions properly given and received promote conversation. Jesus asks us questions so that he can stimulate a combination of prayer and action.
And come to think of it, aren’t prayer and action the very things that drive us to ask the best questions of him? Will prayer and action be the reasons we have a relationship of questioning faith with our questioning Lord?