History and life- is it a circle or a spiral?

Image result for those who study history

Looking backwards should help with moving forwards… Knowing what happened then should help us with what is happening now… time moves on, not just around in a circle.

A wonderful friend of mine, Jeremy, once tried to teach me about the Maori way of telling stories- they don’t just have a beginning, middle and end, but they return to themes and points of reference again and again, but each time the story has progressed- its not a straight line, nor is it just a circle, but its more like a spiral…

This year seems to have had more than its share of nervy moments in national and international news, and the cartoon pic I’ve used expresses concerns I know are held by many, but we need to make sure that we don’t just focus on the worrying news, that we don’t ignore the things that we can do…

It would be easy to put your hands in the air and stand back, proclaiming your helplessness, but that isn’t going to lead anywhere good. So get stuck in, get passionate, get involved, because this world, this life, this stuff is important. The Bible doesn’t speak of hope in heaven or salvation from this life- it starts here and now, with the things that we do in our lives… and so Paul writes to encourage and help Christians in that…

I was speaking on Romans 15, verses 4-13, which may well be the official reading for next Sunday morning, but hey, I was excited by it, so there you go…

‘Everything that was written in the past’- Paul is writing about the importance of Scripture here, but of course he’s writing about the Jewish Scriptures- our Old Testament. The New Testament as we know it barely existed- Paul and others were writing it and collating the stories of those who’d met Jesus. But what he writes is true of both. The purpose of Scripture, which is God-breathed, is to teach us. There are rules and commandments- the 10, the 2, the 300… but actually Paul says here that the purpose of Scripture is to teach us to endure and to be encouraged- its purpose is to give us hope. This is not the ‘obey the Law’ understanding that we may have, but much wider- what is the story that the whole of Hebrew Scripture tells us?

God’s creative power- yes; God’s love for his creation, including humanity- yes; mankind’s flawed and fallen inconsistency- yes; God’s persistent intention to love and redeem mankind- yes, yes, yes.

God does not give up, and has spoken over the years through the prophets of his intentions. God has called mankind back to him many times, and has sent judges, kings, prophets, prophetesses etc to bring that word of love, so that through his chosen people the whole world may be blessed- the Jews and the gentiles may sing God’s praises together.

But Paul knows from his own people’s history how hard it is to endure, to remain faithful… and so he prays that his readers, the Roman Christians and us, may be given a spirit of unity. This is not simply accept one another as Christ accepted you- though it is that. Paul invites us to model ourselves on Jesus- that is the basis for our unity, our being accepted by Christ and our acceptance of others… The promises are linked to the command. Jesus came and was a servant to bring the promises made in Scripture to fulfilment, and to confirm them for the Gentiles… This is the purpose of his coming.

Over the course of this letter Paul has set out and developed his understanding of God, of Jesus, of the Holy Spirit and of what it means to be a Christian in more depth than anywhere else, but here in this verse he summarises why Jesus came- Christ has become a servant of the Jews on behalf of God’s truth, to confirm the promises made to the patriarchs, so that the Gentiles may glorify God for his mercy.

If we can get these things right, they act as foundations- helping us to flourish, to be ourselves, to stand strong. Its one thing to stand, its another to stand strong- one is simply stubbornness, the other has a purpose. I was reminded of the Prayer meetings in DDR in the 80’s- they’d had prayer meetings at St Nikolas’ church in Leipzig every Monday from 1982, but somehow the meetings in Leipzig were different, by May 1989 the police were barricading the roads to keep the congregation away, but it had the opposite effect… by October the numbers had reached epic levels- the leader of the DDR government described the prayer meetings as ‘the counter-revolution’ and had ordered them stopped by any means- but the riot police were not ready for candles and prayers. On October 9th the police did nothing as 70,000 protestors- Christians and atheists together quietly walked through the city. The numbers doubled and doubled again each week, and a month later the Berlin wall came down- the DDR was over. Sometimes waiting, showing strength by constancy is more powerful than anything else.  Trusting in what you are doing, in the rightness of your beliefs. Being encouraged by what has happened to continue to hope for the future.

So, in the words of the prayer written by Paul- ‘may the God of hope fill you with all joy and peace as you trust in him, so that you may overflow with hope by the power of the Holy Spirit’

Have a good week, hold onto hope, and bring a blessing where you can.

How to vote, but not which way

FB_20160616_12_28_13_Saved_PictureLast Sunday we were thinking about the celebrations of the Queen’s 90th birthday, and also looking at 2 passages from the Bible- one in Luke chapter 7 verse 36- 8:3 and the other in Galatians 2:15-21. As well as this I wanted to respond to some questions I’d been asked about the referendum, but without telling people which box to tick… so this is what I ended up writing. If you prefer to listen, go here.

In the days since last Sunday I’ve been reading and thinking more, and have concluded that I’m going to write a post about which way I’m choosing to vote and how I’ve come to that conclusion… hopefully that will be up tomorrow.

So, last weekend:

Very often when we look at someone else’s position in life, we see their rights and privileges, but when we look to our own lives, we see our responsibilities and burdens- we look at the Queen and we see palaces, the largest personal fortune in the country and more outfits than you can count… we don’t see the 40hr working week of a 90yr old pensioner, the lack of privacy for someone who is not a natural extrovert, the framework of ‘how things must be done’ that hold her in place as much as allow her to influence others. We look at our own lives and see the hard work, the health and financial worries, we feel that no one listens to us and that we deserve more… how rarely do we consider the simple truths that having spare change in your pocket and taps with clean water, access to a car and a roof over our heads puts us in the top 20% of the richest and most privileged people in the world. The fact that we live in a society where men and women have the vote without having to prove their ‘right’ to vote, where sexism and racism are recognised as problems even though they still exist… that we have so much time that most of us can choose between leisure activities rather than simply work then sleep…

The Bible passages that we have heard this morning both speak of privilege, and of what it means to forget what that word means…

The Jews of Paul’s time understood themselves as being God’s chosen people- on a good day that meant to be chosen to bring God’s blessing to the whole world, in a world where everyone had their own gods and it was safest to worship them all, to proclaim through their words and lives that there is one God who is worthy of worship, and all others are nothing compared to him. On a good day. On a bad day that knowledge turned to arrogance and the desire for serving God turned to an abhorrence of the rest of the world- looking down on everyone who wasn’t one of ‘us’… As Simon the Pharisee who invited Jesus to dinner implied- If Jesus knew what sort of a woman was washing his feet he wouldn’t let her touch him… Jesus’ response highlights the risk that faces all of us who have any kind of privilege- that we can forget what we have been given, and that it has usually come to us undeserved- God chose the people of Israel, not the other way around, and not because of what they already were, but because of what God would help them become… and Jesus could, and so frequently did as we see here, choose to go beyond that- to extend the kingdom of God into the lives of people he met with the words ‘your sins are forgiven’.  If we don’t recognise the need we all have for forgiveness we can easily forget what a wonderful gift that was for her, and what a wonderful gift it is for us. Similarly an ‘accident of birth’ makes one person royalty while another is a refugee. This month many people are taking part in celebrations of the Queen’s 90th birthday, while a great amount of energy is also being spent discussing the forthcoming referendum, and in the background, all the while, the homeless are struggling to carry on in our own nations and refugees are risking their lives to cross borders and the sea.  Life as a refugee is worth the risk- not because our benefits are so great but because what they have left is so bad. A life of faith is worth it, not because every single day is paradise but because life without God is meaningless. [BT only- As her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II once said- ‘I know just how much I rely on my faith to guide me through the good times and the bad. Each day is a new beginning… I draw strength from the message of hope in the Christian gospel.’ There are some here who are great lovers of the Queen and the Royal Family, others are less so- I’m not trying to cause offense or convert you to a different viewpoint on the Queen, but she does seem to stand as someone who has so much, and uses it for good. She could quite easily have been a caricature queen- something ridiculous in a modern age. But because of how she has held herself, how she has been herself her life and her faith have been taken seriously.]

Our passage from Galatians takes up this point- We are justified- made right with God, by our faith, not by our birthright… its not about where you’re born but how you live- Paul is talking about Jews and Gentiles- the one group born with a sense that they are God’s people, the other discovering that they can become God’s children. One group justified by their adherence to the laws that have come down through their culture- the laws of Moses given to him by God and developed over the years into a full legal system that could answer every question of what was right or wrong, the other justified by their adherence to Christ Jesus and him alone.

This passage within Galatians has parallels in Romans, where Paul similarly argues that the law doesn’t bring salvation or righteousness, but an awareness of sin… a structure isn’t necessarily the solution to a problem but is a first step towards finding a solution. The structure helps, as a means to an end, but its not the end in itself. Realising that we are still sinners while we are seeking to be justified in Christ- that’s another way of saying ‘doing our best but still messing up’, and Paul, in this passage is quite clear that a)that doesn’t mean sin is ok, but equally b)that there is still grace and forgiveness… we are seeking this, we’ve not yet arrived… the church and all of us within it, is not yet perfect… but it is the means that God has chosen to share the message of his grace and love with the world.

I’ve been asked by several people in our church and elsewhere to share some reflections on the approaching referendum. And I’ve been quite hesitant to do so, because I believe quite strongly in the responsibility and the privilege of the democratic process- we each have the right to make our own decision, to come to our own conclusion, and to vote as we choose. But my preparation for today, and the amount of material I read on both sides of the argument has brought me to the point where I feel it is right for me to speak on this. I do not want to tell you how to vote, but maybe to encourage you in how to think about this, as Christians, as people who take our privilege and our responsibility seriously. Some of us are staunchly committed to voting one way or another on 23rd June, I don’t want to cause offense to any of you. The church nationally has no public stance- the Archbishop of York has made his intention clear, while the Archbishop of Canterbury, though commenting strongly on the comments of Nigel Farage has refused to say whether he’ll vote in or out (note: in between my writing and preaching this, he publicly stated his intention to vote remain).  In reality this is no different from how we, as Christians, should approach any significant decision- whether something in our own lives or in the shared life of our community and nation. Because of Christ’s death on the cross, our understanding of the world is changed- compassion for the weak, kindness to strangers, and love for the natural environment are not peripheral interests but guiding principles… they are how we live out the gospel in our daily lives and so they should inform our decisions. So we need to ask ourselves how does my vote show compassion for the week, kindness to strangers and love for the natural environment… and, and this is the big question… how do I know that?

There’s been a lot of talk about the economy and finance… both sides making similar claims… and both missing the point- Money is not everything.

There’s been people weighing in with their views, claiming expert knowledge one way or another… and we need to be wise to the fact that politicians and businesses always have a vested interest.

There’s been pretty pictures and lies, damn lies and statistics… we know that a picture and a graph can be made to say anything.

But, there is one thing on which I am certain- we have this responsibility. We have the privilege of making this decision. And we have to make it. If we don’t, others will, and we will be bound by their decision, for good or ill.

When you leave today you’ll probably remember the last few minutes more than the whole of the rest of this service… if I’ve made you think about how you vote, then I’m happy, but that pales into insignificance next to the decision, the vote, that we each of us make when we respond to Jesus- when we become made right with God by faith in him- when we hear those words ‘your sins are forgiven’ and know that they are said for us.

Christian Mindfullness- contemplative prayer at the end of the week

Last Sunday evening we had a slightly different time in church- there was no organ or worship band, nor even a CD or ipod. On arrival the small group of us sat facing the back rather than the front, and when we started there were no notices… what is going on?

We were gathered for our monthly time of worship and prayer, where we’ve been learning some new songs and praying together, often in ways that allow us to be more vulnerable and be more supported than is often the case in our gathered times. On this occasion, however, I wanted to try using some of the ideas around mindfulness, but from a Christian perspective, which has been described by Shaun Lambert appropriately as ‘mindfullness’- not just being aware of what is going on in your head and life, but also filling yourself with God as you do so and orienting your thoughts and actions in response to what you see of God.

This was fairly new to me, and not something I’d led before, so we were all doing something new together- and to honest I was quite glad that only a few folks had come along! But it seemed to go well, and we’ll do it, or something similar, again in the near future. The reason, BTW, that we were facing the back of the church is that we used the Parable of the Good Samaritan from Luke chapter 10 as something to aid our thinking, and we’ve got a large stained glass window depicting that parable a the back of the church…

so:

Mindfulness- consciously stopping to observe and become aware of our thoughts and feelings, in order to move from a place where they control our actions and lives to a place where we are mindful of our intentions- living and acting proactively rather than reactively.

Contemplative prayer, coming into the presence of God, losing ourselves in worship, Lectio Divina and other Christian traditions all use this same idea, and it is based on things we see Jesus doing and the NT church practising.

It is similar to secular and Buddhist mindfulness in the same way that all chairs are things to sit on, but they are not the same chair- each form of mindfulness has its own structure and intention, but they share some commonalities.

Why specific Christian mindfulness? Because as Christians we want our intentions to be informed by and sustained by God’s love and will for our lives rather than anything else.

What can mindfulness do? Help us pray, help reduce anxiety and stress, help us to perceive God in the world, help us to live as Christians… or none of them if we choose not to…

What are the pitfalls? Mindfullness isn’t Christianity, it doesn’t replace being part of a church or following Jesus- it’s a useful tool, not the end goal

Some main points:

Being aware of your Body

Observing your thoughts, body and feelings

Accepting them and being Aware of them more fully

Adopting a Compassionate attitude towards ourself and the world- non-judgmental and forgiving

COAL as mnemonic for Bible reading: Curiosity, Openness, Attentively, Living it out

Others like to talk about Lectio Divina… at its heart is reading the Bible so that its truth enters into you rather than you trying to make it fit your truth…

Luke 10.25-38- Parable of the good Samaritan…

I’ll read the passage, then we’ll have some quiet while we each allow it to speak to us- you’ll want to have a Bible to hand, and be sitting somewhere where you can comfortably read, or look at the window…

During the quiet I’ll give a few invitations to how you might like to progress your thoughts

As our time draws to a close we’ll take the opportunity to put down anything- both in terms of things you need to release and let go of, and also to put down on paper any thoughts that you need to retain and reflect on further.

Remembering the past and hoping for the future

The last few days I’ve spoken at several remembrance services and school assemblies, in varying formats, with over 1000 people in our small bit of the world.  This is what I said yesterday morning in church, or at least what I’d planned to say until someone reminded me that this weekend also marked 25 yrs since the fall of the Berlin Wall. I ended up going off on one about that for a while, but at least part of the following text was used:

When we, or anybody, tries to remember something, its essential that we do two things- we have to find its context (where it comes from) and we have to find its connection (where it touches us)- if not, it won’t make sense. This morning we’re thinking about Remembrance, and we’re using the Bible passage we just heard to help us think about the Christian response- what a faith in God helps us to say in this situation.

Remembrance is, of course, not just about remembering things- its specifically about remembering those who have fought, been wounded, suffered and died in conflicts and wars across the world. In particular this year we’re thinking of those who fought and died in WWI.

6 million British Soldiers fought in WWI which is a huge number and one we can’t really get our heads around- of those soldiers 1% suffered from shell shock, what we’d now call severe PTS, 3% became POW’s, 28% were wounded and 13% died- only half came home in one piece, but their lives were changed forever by what they had experienced.

We remember them not to honour or glorify war- what is often described as ‘the final and most desparate of political means’- when all else fails, but to honour their sacrifice, and to honour the hope that they fought for. Although wars and conflicts have continued around the world since the end of WWI- there has never been a single year of global peace, and its questionable whether there has been a single day, and yet they fought for the hope of peace and freedom. In the face of suffering and violence, hatred and fear, men and women still stand to protect ideals of peace and freedom, to protect the weak.

Why? Because of hope. Hope that one day we will bring those ideas to completion- the kind of hope that keeps you going at the beginning of a long week at work, or at the start of a massive project…

The Bible passage we heard, part of a letter written by St Paul to the church he’d founded in the city of Thessalonica- he’d only been able to stay there for 3weeks before being driven out of the city by people who disagreed with him… so it was written to a group of people in a tough place, somewhere it was really difficult to be a Christian. I’ve never lived in a country where you might lose your job or face violence just for saying that you go to church, but I remember when I was at school some people who just liked to find any excuse used to give me grief when I became a Christian in yr8- that was probably as close as I’ve ever come to the sort of situation these Christians were in… and what encouraged me was knowing as a Christian I could trust Jesus even in some tricky times… I had hope. And so Paul’s talking about how one day, even though things seem really difficult right now, it will be ok- the promise that Jesus will one day return to bring peace and justice, the promise that when we die we will have new life with God- those promises are bigger than the threats that they faced. They are bigger than any fears we might have. Paul was writing to the church in Thessalonica to give them hope. ‘Encourage one another with these words’… today those words can give us encouragement- the world is a mess, and there seems to be violence growing everywhere when you look at the news… there seems to be nothing I can do, and so I might despair… but- ultimately it will be ok- I can have hope even in the darkest of times.  This was the hope that many soldiers found in the trenches of WWI and have found during conflicts and wars since then- Strong men who saw their friends suffer and witnessed terrible things came to realise that the hope, the words of the Bible, were a source of guidance, of comfort and strength.

As we read these words and others like them in the Bible, it can be a real challenge for us- these images of angels and trumpets and the dead rising and meeting Jesus in the clouds… is this accurate? I don’t know for certain, and neither did Paul. I do know that more than one writer in the Bible uses this same sort of language, but I also know that when we try to describe spiritual experiences or pictures that we feel come from God, it can be like tying down fog… the best we can do is give a loose idea.  But I also know, and all of us who’ve experienced anything of the presence, the power, the love of God know this too, that its all beyond our understanding… this is no harder to understand than the idea that prayer can somehow allow me to relate to God. Everything about our faith is beyond our normal understanding- its something that gradually makes sense as we go along… but those concluding words we can hold on to- ‘we will be with the Lord forever’… so let us encourage one another.

I guess at the heart of what I’m saying to folks is that what we remember- the thing that lies behind the poppies and the parades, is more important than them. But more importantly than that, more important than the practice of remembering the sacrifice and determination of others, is to let it affect how we behave now and in the future- if their sacrifice impels me to work for peace, to grow freedom and to encourage others to stand against evil, then it has been worthwhile.

on the job learning- serving your apprenticeship with the Holy Spirit

Barnabas -one of the coolest people in the whole Bible- if you ever want to emulate another Christian, he’s a good choice- for starters he led the church in the first place where believers were called Christians, and he was a legend at spotting potential- he was the guy who called Saul from his home town in Tarsus and took him on his first road trip… And here they are in Antioch, praying and listening. Asking the question ‘how can we best serve you God?’, and taking it seriously- they were fasting and praying and waiting, as part of a group. Its a really good model for how we make big decisions- in the midst of worship when our hearts are focussed on God, in the context of prayer and with that commitment that fasting indicates (its not about depriving ourselves of food or losing weight, or a health kick thing, fasting is about prioritising time… maybe I’ll write a post about that soon).

Anyway, today, looking at Acts 13 & 14, we see how these two are called to go on another trip, and as we read it we get to see the development of their relationship. At the start its ‘Barnabas and Saul’, then there’s the moment when Saul steps forward, his new name Paul is used for the first time (Paul, derived from ‘small’ in Latin would mean ‘little one’, but it could also have come from his encounter with the pro-consul of Cyprus who became a Christian following their meeting). And then through the rest of the trip, from Cyprus to mainland Turkey and then back to Antioch in Syria, Barnabas takes the back seat- he’s the more mature believer, the more experienced apostle and church planter, but he’s willing to stand alongside while Paul speaks to the Jews in the synagogues, the Gentiles in the markets etc. Often its ‘Paul and Barnabas’ did something- maybe it was a more open discussion, but its always Paul that is reported as giving the main address.

And that is how it is when we’re being apprenticed- whether by a genius like Barnabas, or by the Holy Spirit. God can do all things without us, but chooses to invite our involvement. And as we try to follow him, we find that God is waiting for us, drawing us on, giving us chances to do things we never thought we could… and when we do, when we take those chances, we grow in confidence both in God and in our ability to hear God… we realise we were right to trust God, and so we’ll be better able to do so again.

And that’s key to our own relationship with God, to our flourishing as Christians, and to our engagement in God’s mission in the world.

E100- Sometimes its not what you say but how you say it…

 

So, looking this week at some of the miracles that we can see in the Gospels, the things that Jesus apparently did, which seem to run contrary to our normal expectation of what can happen- supernatural events which if taken literally defy explanation. Today I was reading a passage in Matthew 14 where Jesus walks on the water (well, actually first of all I was reading a passage in Matthew 15 about someone’s daughter being healed, but that’s because I’m a numpty and can’t find the right page… but anyway).

The thing is, I’ve read this passage a dozen times over the years, and it fascinates me- did he do it? how did Jesus walk on water? Was it a mass hallucination? The answer I have for all those questions is what I’m looking at on Sunday morning, so you’ll have to wait for that.

However, there’s a phrase that sticks with me, something that Jesus says to Peter: ‘you of little faith’.  And the reason it strikes me is that we can read it so many different ways… Bear in mind, Peter has seen Jesus walking on the water in the middle of the night, and has said ‘if its you, tell me to get out of the boat and come to you’… and he has actually walked on water as if it were solid, until his doubts get the better of him and he becomes afraid. At that point, as he starts to sink, he calls out ‘Lord save me!’ And Jesus response? catching hold of him, he says ‘You of little faith’

You of little faith, shouted over the noise of the wind, to a fool who should have known better than to get out of the boat if he was going to be afraid?

You of little faith, called to a follower who keeps putting his foot in it and never seems to learn the lessons his teacher puts in front of him so often?

You of little faith, spoken to a friend who has so much to learn, so far to journey?

You of little faith, almost whispered to a man who is like a child in his arms, who thought he was about to drown but has been saved?

You of little faith, an admonishment that is a term of endearment at the same time?

You of little faith, but from little faith we will build a church?

You of little faith, but at least you had enough to climb out of the boat?

There are times when I read this passage, and I hear the voice as one telling me off for my own over confidence, and at other times I hear it as one lifting me out of my fears… 

Its not always the words we use, its how we say them that expresses their meaning…

How are you hearing that voice, those words, today?

(with thanks to Mike Pilavachi and John Ortberg for their wonderful teaching on this passage). For more by either of them, go look at stuff for Soul Survivor or here

Jesus, that man’s got attitude!

Sorry, couldn’t resist that… so this morning we were looking at the Beatitudes, which crop up in Matthew chapter 5, at the beginning of the sermon on the mount. I had the interesting challenge of doing a talk that was for all ages at the beginning, with children hiving off after a few minutes, and if that wasn’t hard enough I was speaking on a passage which, the last time I did some teaching on, took 5 evening sessions and even then seemed crammed. I’m going to have words with the guy who sets the preaching rota in our church…

Anyway, here’s the gist of what I said:

Attitude- good attitude, bad attitude, someone with ‘attitude’… it’s a word that describes how what is inside you can be seen…  (dictionary- a settled way of thinking, a physical position of the body showing a mental state, uncooperative behaviour, individuality and self-confidence.  a good attitude isn’t necessarily being good at something, but its how you carry yourself- whether you’re a champion or a steady mid grade… Sometimes people refer to the beatitudes in that way- as Jesus’ description of how we should be- the ‘be attitudes’. If that’s so, what do you think are some important attitudes for us to have as Christians? How should we be? And what attitudes would we be wise to try and avoid?

 

Here’s a few- Proud   Humble       Kind    confident        uncertain        grumpy

 

Or if we want a list from the Bible-in Galatians 5 these are called the fruit of the Spirit, but they’re also the attitudes of a Christian:

 

Loving     joyfilled       peaceful         patient        kind     good     faithful        gentle     self-controlled

 

In this passage Jesus talks about how his followers should live- not so much the way to be, but the way to blessings… some translations actually use the phrase ‘happy are you when…’ but its not really a kind of ‘don’t worry be happy’ or a Pharrell Williams song, its about something much deeper… if you want… the chances are that for most of us, something this past week made us happy- made us smile and lifted our spirits… it might have been a joke or a flower or child or whatever… but what makes us feel deeply blessed- content- joyful… that’s the kind of happiness Jesus means (and actually I think its what Pharrell Williams is trying to talk about)…

 

Its actually quite a radical manifesto both in terms of what it talks about and what it asks…

 

This is a manifesto for the kingdom of heaven- which is not a place on a map but a place in our hearts- its our attitude… when we take these phrases, those virtues listed as the fruits of the Holy Spirit in the lives of Christians, and we live them out- as we begin to try and live by those values ‘the kingdom is near’.

 

As we hear the beatitudes, the intention isn’t that we should pat ourselves on the back… yup, got that one, nor that we should beat ourselves over the head for our failure- I’m not hungry enough for righteousness, but that we should recognise our intentions and that they fall short of our own hopes. By recognising that we fall short, we come without pretence or false confidence to God… and because of God’s grace we are provided with all we need… to take the first phrase ‘poor in spirit’… is one of those phrases that we ‘get’ without often understanding- what does it mean to be poor in spirit? Poor… lacking in what you need- not just a bit short when it comes to the holiday fund, but struggling, unable to pay the bills or for necessities… but we live in a world of credit and short term loans… the poor are fooled or forced into behaving as if they haven’t a worry… Spiritually poor, means without the spiritual resources to get by- and those who understand that they are spiritually poor are those who’re most eager to receive all that God has for them- if I know I’m poor, then I want all that God has for me… and I’ll grow in faith etc… the kingdom of heaven becomes clearer in my life and my actions… Those spiritual resources being the basic disciplines of the Christian life- intimacy with God, worship of God, sharing the love of God in the world…

 

Intimacy through personal prayer, fasting, Bible study

 

Worship through corporate acts, glorifying God through our lives, putting God first

 

Sharing God’s love through practical action, through being with people, through standing against injustice, through sharing our personal stories of God…

 

Blessed are the poor in spirit- does that mean I should avoid those things so that God will bless me? No- when we realise we are poor, we’re open to receive… God blesses us when we realise we have held back from a real, close relationship with him. God blesses us when we worship fully in all our lives. God blesses us when we give all we have… we receive things we never hoped for.

 

By raising the bar, Jesus isn’t making a relationship with God even more exclusive than the Pharisees or the religious authorities he so often clashed with. No- he’s making it clear how impossible it is for us on our own, and promising that God will help us to reach those heights- so let us mourn instead of feeling a bit sorry, lets humbly recognise our own spiritual poverty, lets desire a right relationship with God as if it was water in the desert, lets offer mercy when it sticks in our throat, lets be willing to step into a conflict and create peace, lets be persecuted for our faith… because Jesus promises that we will not be let down by God when we do.

 

Oh, and I was very well behaved- the idea of including the sermon on the mount scene from Monty Python’s the life of Brian was very tempting… but I didn’t. If you don’t know what I’m referring to, or just want to see it again, here it is:

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.

E100- all quiet on the heavenly front

So you live in a society where God apparently guides you, and is the leading force behind your people’s culture. Where for a period of time the leaders understood themselves as standing in the gap, hearing God for the people and with the responsibility to lead the people towards God, and where on occasions they had understood that blessing to be for and on behalf of the wider population- the whole region rather then just their own people group… but its all been quiet for a long time on the heavenly front. No kings, no judges, no prophets, or at least none that were shown to be faithful to God by their words and actions.

What does it mean to be the people of God when God seems to go quiet? Does it mean that you’ve been given all you need, all the guidance that a people can reasonably expect and so now you just need to get on with it? Does it mean that God has turned away and left you for good this time- and if so why? Is it a test? Is it just one of those things- you have to wait for some things in life, like exam results or the sunrise.

And then, in the silence, a voice speaks- first in one place, and then in another- first in the Temple to a priest (where you might expect it) and then in hicksville to a young woman (which was definitely unexpected).

You know how at the end of the night, when the sun has yet to appear, things often go quiet, and the light changes so slowly and night shifts imperceptibly towards day… and then there is the first moment when the sun itself peeks over the horizon.

The passage I’m referring to is Luke chapter 1– the beginning of his account of the life of Jesus. The priest is Zechariah and the young woman is Mary and the beginning of the new day is the message that the great prophet John the Baptist is soon to be born, and the dawn that is coming is the birth of Jesus- a new day dawning on the world, the coming of the kingdom of God in a new way where there is no silence between heaven and earth.  And we still live in the beginning of that kingdom- on the brink, with sorrow and fear and tragedy and loss beside us even as we see the growing signs of the light, the love, the healing and the life of the promises coming into being around us each day.

And I’m aware that this all sounds a bit crazy, as if I’m living in Narnia or another fairy land. But the thing is that I know in the last day, in my normal life, I’ve seen God touch the life of a sane intelligent man, I’ve prayed for miracles in the lives of desparate strangers, and I’ve had my own prayers answered through conversations and phone calls. God works in the ordinary and the humdrum, bringing his Kingdom into our lives… and the sound is breathtaking.

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.