Looking ahead…

Last weekend we were away- not just me slacking off, but a bunch of folk from our churches, having a retreat/holiday/weekend break at a place called Lee Abbey, on the North Devon coast. I think it’s fair to say it was amazing for everyone in some form- whether the walks along the coast, the teaching and input, the company of friends, being catered for and eating with 100 other people (without having to wash up!).

So, as a result, I’ve nothing to share in terms of ‘here’s what I said…’

I could share some of the things I heard at the weekend, all about identity, about knowing we each matter as individuals to God our father, about how being secure in our identity is worked out in what we do (and why we do it!), but at the moment its all floating round and needs to settle down… maybe another time.

Instead, I’m going to advertise, blatantly, something we’re doing this weekend. Obviously I’d love anyone reading this to come and join us, but equally, if you’re in Hungary, Canada or Suffolk then you might not be able to. But that doesn’t mean you can’t do the same-

In both our churches it is traditional for us to remember the birth of John the Baptist, which is celebrated on June 24th each year. This year we want to remember and celebrate our own baptisms as a way of recommitting ourselves to live in hope, working to bring peace and to restore relationships with those around us. Some of us have been baptised as adults, others as children (which we often call Christening- but they are the same thing). In baptism, Christians around the world promise to turn away from evil and to turn towards what is good, and to hold Jesus as our guiding light as we do this. At this time, with so much bad news and uncertainty, we want to hold out something that is good and life-giving to our community. We warmly invite anyone who has been baptised, particularly if it was in either of our churches, to take this opportunity to refresh their baptism, and to come along with Godparents, parents and anyone else. Many of us, over the years have been asked to be godparents, and this is also a chance just to remember what we, as godparents, are part of.  Each church will, as usual, be decorated by our amazing volunteers who turn the windowsills into a riot of colour and celebration, and the services will be followed by serving of Fairtrade refreshments.

A child's baptism at Newport 2015

I’m hoping the churches will be full, with friends visiting and folk saying ‘yes, I’m in’ for the first or the 40th time. I’m hoping that for us this will be a time when we say that we are aligning ourselves with the prince of peace and the kingdom of hope, and standing against the evils of hatred and injustice.

And, wherever you are- whether you happen to be near a church called ‘St John the Baptist’ or aren’t near to a church at all, you can do the same.

 

Simple is the new innovative.

At this point in the year we’re doing the church equivalent of New Year (not resolutions)- things we would want to be doing and working on through the year- as a leadership we’re looking at stewardship of our finances, we’re starting a couple of homegroups for those who want to learn to study the Bible and grow in faith together, we’re having our annual prayer morning and we’re trying to sort a church weekend away… no wonder it feels busy round here!

And in the midst of all this, I’m having this resounding message in my head ‘just keep it simple’… so, that’s what I tried to do last weekend. My notes, below, from when I spoke on the baptism of Jesus as described in the Gospel of Matthew are, as usual, a vague version of what I actually said- the recording on our website here would give you the real deal.

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So…

What gets us excited? Often it’s the simple things… What gets you excited?

‘Look, the Lamb of God- this is the one I meant’… John gives his testimony- I saw the Spirit come down… And the next day… the same thing happens… ‘Look, the Lamb of God’

 

(what does that phrase mean- Lamb of God points towards the sacrifices made at the Temple- the blood of an innocent shed for the forgiveness of sins, and beyond that towards the sacrifice of a lamb at the Passover- the night when God rescued his people from slavery in Egypt, an event that we remember every time we come to Communion- Jesus death on the cross was how he took away the sins of the world- by taking them onto his shoulders. But although he took the blame, the punishment for those sins- death and separation from God, would not remain on him, for he was totally innocent. At this stage of the Gospel John (the writer) is highlighting to us what John (the Baptist) has said- that though he preached forgiveness it is through Jesus that forgiveness is received.  John’s 2 disciples would most likely have had some idea what this meant, but it might also have sparked their curiosity… and so they followed Jesus.

They fall into conversation and he asks them to come with him- at the end of the day the first thing Andrew does is? Find his brother Simon and tell him, and bring him to Jesus…

Jesus meets Simon and sees him- sees him truly and loves him truly. Jesus sees the fisherman standing before him, and sees straight through him all the way- through the bravado, through the insights that God would give him, through the determination, the denials, the self-hate, the leadership he would give, all the way through. And he names him- Peter- sometimes we might prefer to think of that as meaning Rocky, The Rocky, ol’Stoneyface or any other way of translating it can think of.

 

There are times in the gospels and throughout the New Testament when things are unclear- where the writers use imagery (like the Lamb of God) to help express the depth of an idea- to link what they are saying into the bigger story of God and the world… but there are also times when things are pretty simple- the gospel itself… the response of Andrew and the encounter between Jesus and Simon Peter.

 

There are times when in our attempts to explain things and put them across, to engage people and communicate ideas and vision we accidentally go the wrong way- instead of making it clear we confuse, instead of engaging people we distance people. And we do that in our churches as much as anywhere else.

 

So here’s the thing- The church is about worshipping God for all that he is and all he’s done, for the forgiveness for our sins that we’ve received and the relationship we’ve been invited into. And about making that known to the world, about extending the love we’ve received to others. That’s why Christians must care for the weak, give to the hungry, work for peace. Just as John the Baptist did, we point others away from ourselves and towards Jesus…

 

Our plans and strategies, vision documents and relationship with other churches are all to help with that simple thing- we want to come and see Jesus, and we want others to do the same.  Everything else is to help with that- the way we use our buildings, the style of worship we have, the midweek ministries and homegroups… Amen.

Hope for growth- Hoffnung fur alles!

Maybe its just because its the new year, maybe its because in many ways 2016 wasn’t such a good year (though there are a number of lists around that highlight the amazing things that did happen in 2016- measles ending in the America’s, peace in Colombia, the end of the Ebola epidemic to name just 3), maybe there’s something in the air, but it seems as though hope is on the horizon, or at least in the air.

Some folks prayed with me last summer, for a season of breakthrough that would start in 2017, some others I know have been praying for a renewed spiritual hunger in our churches and communities an so on… when you use language like that its easy to lose touch with folks who’re operating on a more practical day-to-day level, but its important to recognise that hope for peace and love, hope for compassion and forgiveness to grow in our lives, that’s the kind of hope that isn’t limited by a specific faith, and its will be a blessing to everyone- so bring on the hope!

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Last Sunday morning we were gathered at the very beginning of the year, and we spent some time thinking, talking and praying about our hopes and intentions for the year- those things we’d like to see, those differences in our own lives that we’d like to attain- in different areas. And today we are thinking about beginnings again. Today is the first Sunday after the Epiphany- when we remember the final action, as it were, of the nativity- that Jesus was, as a young child, visited and worshipped by wise men from the East- we don’t know their names for sure, we don’t know that they were kings, but tradition has grown up and developed around the text to give us the camel-riding (and shades wearing if you’ve ever seen them here) Melchior, Caspar and Balthasar, coming according to an early Armenian tradition from Arabia, Persia and India. We don’t know the details for sure. But we do know that this, the ending of act one, was also the beginning- even at this point in his life Jesus was the cause of something that had never been seen- These men came to worship the Son of God, without intermediary or having to become Jews first. Even in the early years of his life Jesus began to open up the promise and the blessing that had been given to Abraham to include others… the beginning of the kingdom.

 

And our two readings this morning continue that- in Jesus’ own baptism, and the encounter between Peter and Cornelius which, if you continue a few verses concludes with their baptism…

 

The growth of the kingdom of God starts with a meeting- Jesus comes to John, Peter comes to Cornelius, the magi came to Bethlehem… each one of us has at some time come for the first time to a place where we have encountered God…

 

At this point in the church year we remember Jesus’ own baptism, we remember our own baptism, or the day of our confirmation,  our coming to faith… those significant moments which mark the start of our journey of faith- Over the years here and in different churches baptism has been seen as both the very start point of our relationship with God- coming into the family, and also, along with confirmation, the point at which we choose, at which we choose that we are for God… Jesus baptism came at the very beginning of his ministry, the baptism of Cornelius and his household came at the start of the church’s growth amongst the gentiles- that next chapter in the kingdom of God…

 

And during his baptism it was evident to all those around that God had chosen Jesus- the voice spoke from heaven, the Spirit descending like a dove- an image that you’ll find not just here but in many churches to illustrate the presence of God’s Spirit among us- as Peter spoke the Holy Spirit came down and filled Cornelius and all his household… and so the meeting, led to baptism, which showed God had chosen to act…

 

For us at this time of the year, we can pause and reflect on our own journey- those three aspects. Where we are on that journey- for some much lies in the past, for others its all recent while for a few here we’re looking at planning a service in the next few months of baptism and confirmation…

 

These things, and all that is our Spiritual life are things we live- that grow in us.  As the hopes that we spoke of last week need to be spoken and shared and then acted upon, so our hopes for our faith need to be spoken, and then acted on. Last week in our other congregation I spoke about not having resolutions- I find that they always make me feel guilty, because I know I’ll fail. Even while I’m still holding to them, I know that I’ll fail and so I already feel guilty. Jesus said in the Sermon on the Mount- do not swear by anything on heaven or on earth, but let your yes be your yes and your no be your no…  This year I’ve decided to try and read the Bible. Not just a bit of it, but the whole thing. It’s not my resolution, but it is my hope. I want to do this so that I can know God more, and so that God will be shown and known more in every aspect of my life. I strongly suspect that I won’t manage the daily readings each day, but its my hope that by trying I will walk closer to God… I’m telling you so that you can help me- not to beat me with it, or to make you feel guilty that you’re not doing the same, or to impress you, but because I’d like your help.  The thing is that I’m no busier than last year or the year before… and I’m just as lazy, but I’m simply choosing each day to do something that will help me, and I’m already noticing it.  Just yesterday I met someone who said they were a Christian but that they didn’t feel the need to go to church- which is, to an extent true… but if you never go to church you’re like a car that is never refueled, a doctor who never sees a patient, a footballer who’s stopped going to practice…  that car still remains a car, that doctor might still be a doctor and a footballer could call themselves a footballer- but none of them are fulfilling their purpose, nor being all they could… there are times for each of us when its all we can do to just hold position- in our work, relationships and spiritual lives… that happens. But that isn’t what we hope for, it isn’t our longer term aim.

 

My hope is that this year all of us will be growing in our faith- in our practice of it, in our service of others and in our being fuelled for the rigours of life…

 

The gospel that we hear in these passages from Scripture is simple enough, the question it poses for us is simple enough, and so it remains for us to work out our response to that question in our lives- and so we have our hopes for the year, for ourselves and our families, our church and our community…

Jesus has died, but Jesus is alive. Meeting the risen Lord on a snowcapped mountain

Coming back from a wonderful holiday with family and friends, I told myself that I mustn’t just stick loads of holiday memories into my sermons for the next few weeks… well, that didn’t last.

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We’ve been looking at the passages in Luke’s gospel that follow on from his resurrection- last week we heard about the conversation on the road to Emmaus, this week I was talking about the time when Jesus met his disciples in the evening, in the room where they were all gathered- its in Luke chapter 24.

Sometimes in life, you find yourself in a place where you’re out of your comfort zone, where everything you’ve gone through so far hasn’t prepared you for what’s in front of you now. The disciples, Jesus’ friends, found themselves in exactly that situation in the passage we just heard- they’d known Jesus, followed Jesus, seen him do amazing things, but they were not prepared for this… just that morning they’d been getting ready for a burial, then the body was missing and the women who’d gone to the tomb were talking about him being alive rather than missing… some of the group were already dispersing, leaving Jerusalem to head home and then this… the disciples are talking, and suddenly Jesus appears among them- he speaks, they’re terrified. He invites them to check that it is him- look at my hands and feet, and they still don’t believe because- he was dead. They hadn’t got an ‘ology’ yet to explain all this- the framework hadn’t yet been put together to explain how Jesus could rise from the dead, but there he was… he’s not a ghost, he’s really there, he’s not a hallucination because he can explain things to them, and they’re all experiencing the same thing… I once had concussion and began seeing things- hallucinating red and green snakes crawling across in front of me. But even while I was seeing these things, I knew that they were not there- I can still recall seeing them, but there were no snakes… I’m afraid of snakes, but I wasn’t afraid of these hallucinations. Jesus friends were afraid- this was something beyond their comfort zone, way out. But they were going through it, experiencing it, and afterwards they tried to make sense of it, to see how it worked…

I was trying to think of something that would help me draw some parallels between the disciples experiences and our own lives, and my mind drifted back to the holiday I’ve just come back from… and a morning spent skiing on one of my favourite mountains. One side of it is in France, the other in Italy- its called Chenaillet, but is more usually known as Eagle’s Rock or Rocher de l’aigle… on this particular morning I found myself, along with 2 others, skiing down one of the less skied sides- away from the main routes. I’d been there a couple of days before, and on previous occasions, but I found myself standing at the top of a particular spot that I hadn’t skied down before. To my left was the route I’d come down a few days ago, and to my right was a fairly clear line, but right in front of me was a steep, narrow passage that I’d never skied before… at this point, you may be thinking that the story will go one of two ways, and as I’ve not got my leg in plaster it’s the gloriously wonderful success that seems more likely than the crash… but it was something in between… I tried to be careful, cautious, and suddenly found myself about 2ft from quite a large rock, knowing I had to turn around and that falling over would result in an embarrassing, and probably quite painful slide/fall around 40ft of chute… in that situation the only real option was to go for it- to embrace the reality of it, that I was skiing down this narrow passage and so I really better do everything properly. And 10 seconds later I was skiing out of the bottom, a big grin on my face.

At the moment where I was standing at the top, I had to commit, if I was going to make this work. In the same way, Jesus followers, faced by the risen Jesus, had to commit to what was in front of them- and try to make it work. The thing is, that underlying their experience of meeting Jesus like this, was all the background- they’d known Jesus, they’d lived with and walked with Jesus, they’d heard his teaching and shared food with him… and that had stretched their understanding of what God could do… In a similar way, I spent years learning the basic skills of skiing- how to ski across the mountain, how to weight the skis and turn. And there’s one lesson that I hold to beyond almost all the others- when it gets scary and you want to hide, to avoid the hill or the turn… if you do that you’ll fall and hurt yourself. It’s a bit counter-intuitive but its really important. I guess it could have been tempting for the disciples to hang back, to wait for someone else to say that they believed Jesus first, but where would that have left them?

Jesus is alive, we believed he was dead. For most of us who would say that we’re Christians there has been a moment where we’ve discovered that to be true… what did it feel like for you… if it was a long time ago or you were v young, you may not remember it, but thinking of some other area of life where you’ve had an eye-opening experience… remember that sensation… for some of us its connected with our baptism- particularly for people who have been baptised as young people or adults, there is a close connection between becoming a Christian and being baptised. For others who, like Bentley, have been baptised as a young child or infant, it will be later on that we become conscious of the truth of Jesus’ resurrection.

If you’ve not yet discovered the truth about Jesus, you’re in the same place as those disciples were… and they needed to discover that it was true. And they couldn’t do that by hanging back in the corner- they had to come forwards, to touch Jesus and speak with him, to listen to him…  But what does that mean today for us? You may be able to think of a time when you’ve met with Jesus…or may be wondering how I can talk about meeting Jesus today. what does that mean? …We can encounter Jesus through worship, in prayer, when you’ve been reading the Bible, just talking with someone etc.

When we have that experience, or that opportunity… the basic things of knowing how to pray, knowing the Bible, feeling reasonably confident in doing those things… they stand us in good stead when Jesus says ‘come beyond your comfort zone’, our thinking is flexible enough that we don’t get tied in knots but are able to journey with Jesus- to go on a spiritual journey, that starts with the sort of things we celebrate in baptism, but it doesn’t end there.

Have a great day.

It ain’t what you do it’s the way that you do it

I can’t remember who wrote that song in the 80’s (I know, I could google it, find the video and paste it here but I won’t), but there is a certain truth in it.

Except of course, when it isn’t true.

According to Woody Allen who, whatever you think of his films or relationships, is a genius of the pithy one-liner, ‘80% of life is simply turning up’- it isn’t how you do or say things, its simply that you do them or that you say them.

I was put to thinking about this as a result of a workshop I attended today on welcoming families to church, and how the little things we do or don’t do speak volumes. When a parent rings to ask about having their child christened, that probably isn’t the appropriate time to talk about how the term ‘christened’ fails to fully encompass the true magnitude of the blessing that baptism is… instead the answer is ‘that’s great news, lets see what we can sort out’. In the same way, when welcoming a family into church it doesn’t matter how compassionately you say ‘we’ve a children’s room at the back for when your child is restless during the worship’- you’re relegating that child and parent to the back room (At present our equivalent space has sofa’s and a speaker and we’re looking to install a screen- I expect to find most of the congregation crammed in there one week!).

Sure, integrity is key. Meaning what you say is absolutely essential. But if you don’t say it in the first place your good intentions and hopes don’t make any difference.

When the cat’s away…

So, we baptised two of my friends this morning- it was awesome, and a huge privilege to not only be there with them, but also to baptise them and pray with them. We were also looking at Acts 11, verses 1-18, where Peter gets back to Jerusalem and is hauled in front of a review committee after he not only shared the gospel with gentiles (what!?!) but also baptised them (aaarh, does this man have no idea!)…

I wanted to speak about the Holy Spirit, and here’s what I had written down. It bears barely any resemblance to what I said…

The work of the Holy Spirit in us… Baptism… coming to faith, being born again, becoming a Christian, getting on the train, make a commitment, following Jesus, owning it… the ways of describing the transition from before to after are as many as there are churches, but they all add up to the same thing… at one time we were all lost, and now we are found. Once I lived in darkness, and having become firstly aware of the light, I now choose to follow the path where I am guided by the light- Jesus the Son of God. But those phrases all share one idea in common- that of movement or change. For some of us this change is slow- 9yrs may be nothing! And there will be periods of faster and slower movement- times when we’re finding out things about our faith, and other times when we’re just managing to avoid losing our faith, or feel so caught up in the pressures of life that we don’t have time to do any more than hold position, but that forward movement, that effort, is important.

There are also times of breakthrough, when it feels as though we’re flying. If you’ve spent much time sailing or on boats you may know that experience when the boat rises onto the plane… suddenly it requires less effort to go just as fast, and all you have to do is hang on… but the ride is thrilling.

Peter was hanging on, following the lead of the Holy Spirit, and he’d ended up in the house of a gentile soldier… where, following what felt to him like a clear leading from God, he’d shared the gospel as he understood it, with his new understanding that it was for everyone. The thing is- it wasn’t a new understanding, it was just something that had been overlooked. Abraham (father of many) was to bring God’s blessing on all people… but somewhere that had been lost. The gift of love had become a set of rules.

So what does the Holy Spirit do… really.  The first thing that the Holy Spirit does, before we’re aware of it, is convict us- convict us of the existence of God, and of the gap between us and God. At times this may be a conviction of sin- something in our lives that needs to be addressed, sometimes this may be a conviction of God’s love for us, or a conviction of God’s reality, God’s power… but it’s a certainty… an intuition that needs to be listened to. When Peter arrived in Ceasarea, this had already happened. When anyone comes to faith, its because this has happened… without this first activity of God, we’re going nowhere.

Second, when someone comes to faith, the Holy Spirit enters them- they’re sealed, marked if you like… God’s family, a child of God, part of the kingdom.  Sometimes its almost possible to see this in someone- its like someone glows with an inner light…

Thirdly, the Holy Spirit causes fruit to grow in us- as we’re filled and the Holy Spirit overflows, so our actions become more like those of Jesus- we have patience beyond our normal ability, we develop self-control, compassion, kindness etc

Fourthly- the Holy Spirit gives us gifts. These are to be used- with care, yes, but they’re to be used. By using them, they grow and develop. And if they’re not, just like any skill or ability or muscle, they diminish over time. What are the gifts of the Holy Spirit? In prayer, in mission, in serving God… wisdom, discernment, healing, praying in different languages, prophecy. These are the more immediate- sometimes unsettling things that the Holy Spirit does in the lives of Christians. This is what Peter observed, and as a result he changed his understanding. The Holy Spirit wasn’t just at work in the hearts of Cornelius and his family… Peter was changed just as much as they were.

In all these things, the Holy Spirit is at work, along with each of us, to bring us to our full potential as the people that God has made us to be, and to transform us to be more like Jesus. In doing so, we don’t stop being us- we become the best us that we could.

If we’re at that point of considering the Christian faith- there is nothing to lose by asking.

If we’ve been a Christian for some time but never felt comfortable asking for God to fill us more with his Spirit- there is nothing to lose by asking.

If we’ve been asking for a particular gift of fruit but don’t feel that God has answered our prayer- there is nothing to lose by asking.

But if we don’t respond, don’t open ourselves, don’t ask… we lose out.

I guess I’m hoping that as individuals and as churches, we’ll be willing to ask a bit more of God: to have higher expectations of God combined with a greater humility before God. I’m aware that’s slightly scary ground, the unknown place of trust, but I’m willing to risk going there, especially if my friends will come with me!

Holding the door open for friends

A friend once told me about their experience of becoming a Christian, and spoke of her desperation to get into God’s presence once she’d realised what it meant. Another friend is always encouraging others to go before him in every situation… he’s often making the case for why Christianity makes sense in conversations with people- although he has yet to make that decision for himself.

Sometimes when we hold open a door for others its to allow them to join in, at other times we invite them to go first, and on occasions we know we will miss out because we’ve allowed others to go ahead.

On two occasions in the book of Acts Peter holds open a door for others. And on both occasions he risks being shut out himself as a result.

When he healed the lame man, he invited that man to move from being a ‘sinner’ and ‘unclean’ to being accepted by God, and he stood in front of the council and told the why. The result? Both the man and Peter were told their behaviour was unacceptable. Peter was being threatened with exclusion from the faith community of his people.

And later, as we read in Acts chapter 11, he’s done something even worse- he’s gone to the house of a gentile (yuck!) and entered it (yuckier!), shared food (defilement!) and shared the gospel of Jesus (what!!!??), and then after all that, he hasn’t even had the decency to clean himself. Instead, he’s baptised them- he’s brought the gentile family and friends of Cornelius into the people of God.

And once again, he’s being warned off.

Both times Peter gives a similar answer- Who am I to oppose God? Should I listen to you or God?

And the rest is history…

So what would it mean for you to risk listening to God? To hold the door open or to step through it yourself? If the worst that can happen is we make a mistake, why are we so scared of the possibility of being right?

E100- over halfway, and tempted to give up…

In long-distance running there is a phrase ‘hitting the wall’. Its when you get to a certain point where you just don’t see how you can continue. Your legs are lead (not jelly- that was a few miles back), your tank is empty and you just want to curl up on the floor, close your eyes and for it all to be over.

Well-trained runners know its going to happen and have techniques for getting through that stage. They might be able to go further before it happens, and it might not be so terrifying… but its still out there.

This week, in the long distance Bible Challenge of the E100, we’ve passed the halfway mark- we’ve gone from Old to New Testament… for some it might feel that its an easier ride now (at least in terms of getting your heads round it), but for others who’ve struggled through Proverbs, the prophets, Kings and Exodus there may be a sense of ‘what? we’re only halfway?’

Interestingly, today’s passage from Matthew 3 talks about the baptism of Jesus, and then his time in the desert… from the highs of a close encounter with God to the time of temptation and difficulty… When you’ve made a commitment to do something, or just started out, there may be a first flush of enthusiasm but what keeps you going when that fades? How do we keep committed for the longer term? Talking about discipline and routine is helpful in once sense, but it can also allow us to forget that reading the Bible is part of our relationship- if we’re following Jesus we’re not just in a training regime.

For me its always about remembering the big ‘why’… why do i pray? why do I read the Bible? why do i live as a Christian? because of God’s love for me, my love for God- because of the relationship rather than the specifics… just as in my relationships with people I may meet them in different places and share life differently with them over time, so my relationship with God is growing and dynamic because I am a living creature.

What does it prophet a man if he is held by fear?

No, not a typo- prophets and fear, not two ideas we often put together because we see the prophets in the Bible as the wild-eyed fearless types.  But what if they were afraid? Surely that never happened? Take a gander at the beginning of Jeremiah, before he gets going on the prophecies of disaster that will unfold (and btw he was right), and you’ll see, in chapter 1, that Jeremiah was full of fear. Until…

Well, that’s what I was speaking about this morning, at our all-ages service with 40 guests from a family new to the church, and so I couldn’t have a full script to talk from with the children right there… more of a vague map to give me a direction and a starting point.  Which is a slightly nervy place to be when you’ve a church-full… And not to mention that I’d had the daft idea of asking God to speak to us today- so not only was I going to be without a script, but I was also expecting God to show up and get me out of trouble.

Anyway, here’s the scribbled ‘map’:

This morning we’re thinking about what young people can do and how we can hear from God, and we’ve just heard a really famous example- Jeremiah, one of the prophets in the Bible, was a man who felt nervous and worried because he was so young. He thought people wouldn’t listen to him. God spoke to him and encouraged him- I knew you before you were even born, before you were even formed in your mummy’s tummy… I had a plan for you right back then… and that helped Jeremiah.  I guess that most of us have been encouraged or helped by someone- maybe our parents or friends, or a teacher- often we think it’ll be someone older who helps us, but sometimes it can be someone much younger than us…

When I became a Christian- sharing faith with my own parents… what really mattered was the change they saw in me (not that I was perfect, far from it)- If my mum’s reading this I’m sure she’ll put me straight on this and remind me that I became a truly awful child for the next two years.

When Rob and Kate first came to this church, it was Harry that brought them!

When my own first child was born, even before she could do anything, she showed me how powerful love is.

When I’ve listened to the prayers that children write, sometimes they make me smile (Dear God, can I have ice cream for tea and can Man U always win) but often I’m amazed, challenged and encouraged by the faith they show- the trust that God will hear and can respond.

God doesn’t seem to have the same understanding that we often do that with age comes greater understanding and improvement- the phrase ‘elders and betters’ isn’t in the Bible, though respecting parents is! Instead God takes those who are willing, whatever their age, and equips them for the work, for the things that he calls them to. Jeremiah was to be a prophet before his whole people, speaking God’s words at a really difficult time.

Children ministering/praying for their parents is something I’ve seen a few times… it’s a real privilege to be prayed for by someone who trusts God like a child… who better than an actual child?

When I’ve finished I’d love to hear from anyone, particularly the children- tell me something that you found interesting or surprising in what I’ve been saying, so listen really hard for anything that stands out to you- grown ups might want to write something down on your notice sheet…

And the coolest thing was, that although I had to leave pretty much straight after the service, one of the kids came up to me before I left with a prayer that she’d written for peace in Afghanistan- we’d not mentioned it at all during the rest of the service… thank you God.

Turning things upside down- Jesus stories and #Somersault14

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I spent most of this last weekend at the Somersault festival, just up the road from where I live, and my friends Ian and Jane (see one of hers above) have put some pics online here and here. In the midst of the festival I preached at my home church on the Sunday morning about the stories that Jesus told… how they turned everyone’s expectations upside down… he was talking about something you have to experience to comprehend… and I was struck by how festivals are like that- to people who’ve never been to one they are completely foreign and strange, but you have to go in order to understand why people enjoy them so much… and baptism, becoming a Christian, the whole life of a disciple of Jesus, is a bit like that too… you have to experience it for yourself as well as hear what others are saying.

Anyway, here’s what I said, or at least what I planned to say:

The kingdom of God, its not what you expect… its like a story that you think you know… but you find out that you don’t… not revisionist story (like the new Hercules film where he’s not a hero at all), more redemptive (like Maleficent, except that this isn’t about the redemption of something previously understood as bad (like an evil fairy/witch who can turn into a dragon) but something that is already understood as being good, just inaccessible).

The kingdom of heaven/God- not somewhere we can go, but somewhere that someone else can… in his teaching Jesus used words like ‘near’, ‘close at hand’… but in the parables, the stories that he told, he used the word ‘like’… its like: a field where weeds have become mingled in with the crops, and the farmer decides to leave them all alone until harvest time and then separate them out… and there’s a certain logic- the root systems are all mixed up etc… but actually, what would you do? What do we do? We pull the weeds up as soon as we see them (or use Round up or some other weedkiller), we don’t leave them to take nutrients from our crops or limit their growth… the kingdom of heaven is like a field where the farmer isn’t worried about how things are now, but about how they’ll end up… maybe, the kingdom of heaven is like a field where the weeds sometimes change- that would seem to sit alongside my own experience of God…but its certainly not the normal farming practice: just grow whatever grows and then see how it tastes…

And then there’s the next farming parable- the kingdom of heaven is like a mustard seed planted in a field and left to grow until it becomes a shelter for the birds- great if you’re trying to provide a habitat for birdlife, not so great if you’re growing crops which might get eaten by those birds… or even the whole idea of the mustard seed becoming a tree: trees are big things, 60-100ft tall, yes? They’re impressive because they are… big. Every tree is big in comparison to its seed. A mustard tree is more of a bush… not very tall, more sprawl…really dense growth, like a hedge, filling every space… the kingdom of heaven is like a plant that grows from something tiny, and fills the space really well, and from being something vulnerable it becomes something that provides protection even though its not super strong…

And the third, the baking parable- who’s mixed dough by hand? Is it easier in small amounts or larger amounts? How large? You want a batch that you can handle… not 22bags of flour at once. Yeast is one of those amazing things in nature- it is essential for baking and brewing and yet is a bit of a mystery… the kingdom of heaven contains a mystery that changes things; its on a scale that is beyond our normal understandings…

This barrage of images and ideas seems overwhelming, and overall the impression is that we don’t fully understand the kingdom of heaven, but actually its about experiencing it… and the same can be said of baptism- the beginning of the Christian life, the way in which we celebrate an individual’s becoming a part of the people of God- which is how we might define the kingdom of heaven here and now- the kingdom of heaven is the people of God being the people of God…

Baptism is a symbol of new life, of welcome, of freedom from our past, of being part of a wider family, of the start of the Christian journey… but all those things are best understood as they are experienced, as they are lived out…

In the same way this weekend, at the Pilton and Somersault festivals are happening… what are they like? You really have to go there and experience it…

The Kingdom of heaven? You have to try it and find out for yourselves.

And then I got to thinking about the passage from the beginning of the book of Judges (which is where I’ve got to in the E100 series, give or take a few passages that I missed on holiday), and the whole experience of the people of Israel who’ve forgotten what happened to their parents, and what their parents had experienced of God… and it made me reflect on the importance of continually being present in the lives of people in all sorts of places, on how the church needs to just be in the same places as people, to be in relationship with as many communities as possible, even if those communities only last for 4 days like the festival… and all the complex links between simply being present, speaking and listening, demonstrating love through action and also creating spaces and ways for people to meet with God… lots to mull over that I want to come back to…