The Heart of the Problem

Notes from a sermon on Mark 7:1-23 preached at Wormley Free Church on 27.02.11

Out, damned spot! out, I say!

So cries Lady Macbeth as she scrubs away at the blood she imagines staining her hand after the murder of King Duncan and Banquo, Macbeth’s former friend. But alas, in her fevered imagination, the mark will not go, and brands her as guilty of their deaths to all.

Every English school child has to study a Shakespeare play. For me it was Macbeth, and I loved it. It was the intrigue, the strange otherworldness and the darkness that appealed to me. Various scenes stuck in the mind, and this was one of them, the Lady Macbeth, having succeeded in her machinations, becomes haunted by what she has done to get her husband on the throne, and starts sleep walking, guiltily declaring through her frenzied hand washing what she has done to any who would take note.

There is sometimes the suggestion that we live in a free era where we no longer follow traditions or rituals. There is certainly no doubt that our society today is less formal than it used to be – my friends in Sierra Leone can’t get over the fact that we don’t use titles and ceremonies and procedures anywhere near as much as they do – but I have a sneaky suspicion that just because we’re less formal, doesn’t mean that we don’t have traditions and rituals. A great example is the one that today’s passage is all about, hand washing.

Think about it, wherever you turn in a hospital, you’re asked to wash your hands – or at least use an anti-bacterial spray. Our children have it drummed into them from an early age that they must wash their hands after going to the toilet or before eating. The pressure to conform to such rituals is enforced by TV advertising pushing various sprays, foams and wipes that kill all known bugs and nasties with one simple application. These rituals are of course important. If we don’t wash, then there is a fair chance that not only will we begin to smell, but our health will suffer. In hospitals this becomes more stark, if we don’t wash our hands then germs can be transferred from one person to another, spreading superbugs and other nasties.

I remember when we first got our Dyson vacuum cleaner. It has a transparent body so that you can see exactly what dirt and dust is being sucked from the carpet as you go. It was a scary thing the first time we used it, horrifying to see how much muck it was able to extract from what we had previously thought were clean floors! For a little while we took to vacuuming more frequently, religiously if you like – although I must confess, it didn’t last long!

There has been a growing trend to look for deeper cleansing if we are going to look and feel clean and healthy. We should adopt certain rituals such as regular exercise. We can call upon all sorts of potions and chemicals to deep clean our pores, and medical procedures to cleanse us inside as well as out! The link to diet is also raised. To be healthy and ‘clean’ you also need the right sort of diet – eat your five portions of fruit and veg each day, take certain yoghurts to promote good bacteria in your gut, and avoid fatty, greasy food which can clog up not just your pores, but also your arteries! After the Christmas binge comes the ritual of New Year’s exercise.

Strange how having gone through that list I am now feeling rather unhealthy and queasy…

Religion has also picked up upon the importance of cleanliness for healthy living. This goes with the instinctive feeling that we have that being clean requires more than simply washing. Many religions have rituals that involve washing – not just First Century Judaism as in today’s passage. Hand washing is also a feature of the Bahá’í Faith, Hinduism, Isalm, Shintō and Christianity (eg. Priests washing their hands as part of a eucharist service in more liturgical churches and of course baptism and christenings), and this is what Jesus got into a debate about with the religious leaders of his day in today’s passage.

In the Old Testament, there are various laws given for ceremonial washing which had become and been developed as part of everyday Jewish life. One of these was handwashing before eating. I remember when I stayed visited Israel and stayed at a Jewish hotel for a week that there was a special basin in the restaurant for visitors to use to wash their hands to fulfil this. On one particular occasion, Jesus’ disciples were caught eating without having washed their hands in this way, and Jesus was picked up on this. ‘Why do you let your disciples eat with defiled hands?’ The implication is that if they eat with defiled hands, that they become defiled, dirty.

It is worth noting before we get too far, that something new is happening here. Those who picked Jesus up on this were from Jerusalem. Up until this point, Jesus’ sphere of influence was restricted to Galilee and the surrounding areas, a country boy speaking to country people. Now, however, this has changed. In chapter 6 we read that King Herod had heard about him, and here his actions are causing others in the capital city to sit up and take note. There’s more at stake here than just showing that he was impacting both town and country. Jerusalem in Mark’s Gospel is identified with the centre of opposition to Jesus – this is why Jesus spends the first part of the Gospel hiding away in the country and telling people to keep what he is doing a secret – if word gets to the city too soon they will prevent him from achieving all he wants to achieve. This is where the plots to kill him are hatched. This is the place of his execution.

So how does Jesus respond to their accusations?

To begin with, he doesn’t try to deny them, or apologise for them, or make excuses. I wonder if maybe sometimes there is something that we can learn from this about our response when questions are raised about our beliefs and practises as Christians today.

But what he does do, however, is turn the argument against his opponents. To do this he uses another ritual to make the point. The Law says that you should honour your Father and Mother – they would agree with him on that one. However, there was a tradition of ‘Corban’ – if you dedicated something to God, it was exempt from other calls on it. This is a tradition meant to uphold the importance of sacrifice to God, of putting him first. Again, both Jesus and those opposing him would have been happy with that principle. There was a practise, however, of turning this into a loophole, and declaring things Corban, dedicated to God, that would otherwise be regarded as needing to be given to parents. This was seen as a legitimate way of holding it back from them, or rather holding onto things you’d otherwise have to give away. This Jesus, declared, is hypocrisy.

You say you’re seeking to honour God, and yet it is God who has said that you should honour your parents, and you’re disobeying his command on the basis of human tradition! Human tradition and practise, Jesus was implying, should be shaped by Scripture, not the other way around.

The same thing, he implies, is happening here with ritual washing – this is a practise set up by the Elders, i.e. it is human tradition – and so rather than honouring God is actually bringing him into disrepute by using him as an excuse to not honour parents!

Makes me wonder if we do similar things without realising it – how often do we read the Bible in terms of what we think it ought to say, reading it through the eyes of our prejudices, culture or misunderstandings, without letting it speak for itself.

The other side to his rebuttal is that of questioning the whole point of the hand washing rituals and the laws that inspired them in the Old Testament. What were they there for? Does washing your hands really make you clean and healthy? For that matter, looking at the food regulations, do they make you clean and healthy? As Lady Macbeth found out, there are some stains you can’t remove by washing. No these were simply signposts pointing towards the real agent of thorough cleansing…

Jesus speaks about these very things – sexual immorality, theft, murder, adultery, greed, malice, deceit, lewdness, envy, slander, arrogance and folly. All of these things come from within us and defile us. No soap will cleanse these, no ritual will take away the shame and guilt of having thought or done these things. There’s an even deeper level that just the effect of these things too. The very fact that we act in this way, or think in this way, is symptomatic of a basic fault in our making – something is broken inside humanity that causes or allows us to be like this – this is not how we were made to be. Will washing our hands deal with this?

No. The rituals are simply signposts, flagging up the problem and pointing towards a solution. God didn’t give an arbitrary set of laws to his people, they were there for a reason, to achieve something. If they don’t in and of themselves make a difference, they must lead the way to something that does.

Jesus doesn’t, however, reveal what the answer is here, and yet allows his disciples to eat without washing, without following the rituals.

Does this act of what the religious leaders see as tradition breaking, of defilement, actually act as another signpost? Is it pointing to the answer? Reminds me of the time when Jesus was brought up over his followers not fasting. His answer was blunt and to the point,

Jesus answered, “How can the guests of the bridegroom fast while he is with them? They cannot, so long as they have him with them” Mark 2:17

Rather than asking what is the answer, perhaps Jesus is forcing us to ask, who is the answer…

Take Nothing for the Journey

Notes from a sermon preached at Wormley Free Church, 20.02.11

Do you think you could be a missionary? Do you think you have what it takes to make a difference for God – if not upping sticks and travelling to some foreign country, maybe here in Wormley?  I don’t know about you, but there are times when I wonder if I know the right things. Can I afford to do it? Do I have the right background? I recently discovered the story of a local woman, Gladys Aylward from Edmonton, whose story of putting faith into action is quite inspirational, and casts my fears in a different light.

The first thing that struck me when reading her story was the realisation that there was in many ways nothing special about her. She wasn’t from a special background, but was a child from a working class background. She wasn’t affluent, working as a parlour maid from the age of 14, nor was she particularly bright or academically trained – her education described as being ‘adequate’.

When she was 18, she attended a church event where she heard a speaker talking about giving your life to the Lord’s service. This stirred something inside her. Later she heard about China, and a vision to go to work there for God began to grow.

She received various knockbacks to her vision, but in the end got a job as an assistant for an aging missionary there. Unfortunately she couldn’t afford the cost of the fare to sail there, the preferred method travel. She didn’t let this put her off. Instead she put her affairs in order and with only her passport, her Bible, her tickets, and two pounds ninepence, set off for a perilous, overland journey to the inland city of Yangchen, in the mountainous province of Shansi, a little south of Peking. An area where few Europeans visited and the people didn’t trust foreigners.

When she arrived she dedicated herself to learning the language, slowly mastering it, and living amongst the people. This was a time of war between Japan and China, and she devoted herself to caring for orphans and wounded soldiers, sharing stories of Jesus as she did so. At one point she was forced to trek 100 miles with the children in her care to avoid capture by the Japanese, ending up seriously ill. This did not stop her. Before long she had set up a church and was continuing to tell others about Jesus, and demonstrating his love for them. She was known as ‘Ai-weh-deh‘, (Virtuous One) by the Chinese who grew to love this foreigner they initially distrusted.

If God can use her, then he can use anyone! And so it is in today’s passage. Jesus has been up into the mountains to elect the troops who will lead his revolution with him, a rag-tag bunch, and now he sends them out to work in a manner very similar to Gladys Alward’s journey to China:

Then Jesus went around teaching from village to village. 7 Calling the Twelve to him, he began to send them out two by two and gave them authority over impure spirits.

8 These were his instructions: “Take nothing for the journey except a staff—no bread, no bag, no money in your belts. 9 Wear sandals but not an extra shirt. 10 Whenever you enter a house, stay there until you leave that town. 11 And if any place will not welcome you or listen to you, leave that place and shake the dust off your feet as a testimony against them.”

12 They went out and preached that people should repent. 13 They drove out many demons and anointed many sick people with oil and healed them.

Go, do the same work that I’ve been doing! Take nothing! Heal, preach and cast out demons!

This is one of those passages that at times has inspired and terrified me. The demands Jesus makes of his followers can seem challenging to say the least. Go out to potentially hostile audiences to tell them about me and to demonstrate my power, and take nothing with you other than a staff and the clothes you’re wearing! Sounds a far cry from the comfortable work that we sometimes put on…

So what does this passage have to say about our work today? The first thing to say is that these are specific instructions rather than a general manual as to how to do mission. Just because Jesus sent out his first followers in this way, doesn’t mean that it is the blueprint for all work to come. This is for specific people in a specific context at a specific time to do specific work amongst a specific audience. That said, in a general way, we are called to demonstrate and declare the coming Kingdom, its power and God’s love as well. That endgame has never changed, even if the context has.

So what can we learn from this?

Many have read this passage and taken it to say that in mission work we should go out in complete dependence upon God, that he will meet our needs if we’re doing his will. There is something scary about this. Do we have the guts to say that we believe that God is calling us to do something, and then go and do it even if the resources we need don’t seem to be there? We touched upon this with the story of Gladys Aylward who had neither the obvious qualifications for the work, nor the resources – she didn’t have the money, couldn’t speak the language and so on – and yet in faith she went.

There are many other stories of Christians who have gone relying purely it would seem on God’s provision to be able to do what he is calling them to do. I’m sure many of our friends at All Nations could tell us stories of living on faith. I can remember times when at university I went on missions not really knowing how I would manage financially, and yet time and time again God provided the way. Catch is, as you grow older, this gets harder to do as you gain responsibilities – work, family, dependents and so on. When you club a number of us together in a group such as the church, it is too easy to add all of these reasons for not stepping out together. Risk is a great inhibitor of action, but risk-taking is also a hallmark of Christian living. Perhaps sometimes we need to embrace the joyful abandon of simply trusting in God when we seek to do his will, and discover the freedom that comes from his provision again. After all, isn’t that what he promises in Matthew 6:25-33;

25 “Therefore I tell you, do not worry about your life, what you will eat or drink; or about your body, what you will wear. Is not life more than food, and the body more than clothes?… 31 So do not worry, saying, ‘What shall we eat?’ or ‘What shall we drink?’ or ‘What shall we wear?’ 32 For the pagans run after all these things, and your heavenly Father knows that you need them. 33 But seek first his kingdom and his righteousness, and all these things will be given to you as well.

Going to Sierra Leone, however, has given me another dimension to this story – and many others – having been exposed to a way of living that is perhaps nearer to that of the people we find in the Gospel stories.

We stayed not in the isolated and Westerner ‘enclave’ of Aberdeen to the West of Freetown, but to the East in a small African village called Jui in a missionary organisations head quarters. Walking through Jui, I felt very conspicuous, although safe (different story on the ferry or in Freetown!) In small communities such as this, visitors and strangers stick out; you would be instantly noticed. So it would be for these disciples as they travelled through the towns and villages. I soon opted to leave behind everything except perhaps my passport for ID reasons. If I had no wealth on me, no important items, there was no chance of them being stolen or lost. Made me wonder as I read this passage there, is Jesus giving these instructions for similar reasons? Is he protecting his disciples from generating unwelcome interest? A staff could be used to help walking but also as a deterrent to attack. A bag, money, food etc. could be items bandits could become interested in (don’t forget the story of the Good Samaritan).

This idea is supported by the sections around it in Mark which tell of Jesus being a prophet without honour in his own town, and the beheading of John the Baptist. Not everything is plain sailing. The sense of opposition is growing. There is a clash of kingdoms and philosophies.

This picture of Jesus contrasts with many of Jesus where he is painted as super-spiritual and not down to earth. Here Jesus is shown as being concerned for the well-being of his followers, streetwise, aware of what might happen to them and the practical steps to reduce the risk as much as possible. Is Jesus calling us to be streetwise rather than naïve, to be aware of the culture around us and to work accordingly – embracing what is good to be embraced, adopting what is necessary for communication, but being wary of that which stands against the Kingdom?

We are living in the in between age, God’s Kingdom is coming, but isn’t fully here yet. To succeed we need to be alert to both worlds. This is not to say that we don’t trust God, as Jesus himself said:

“I am sending you out like sheep among wolves. Therefore be as shrewd as snakes and as innocent as doves” Matthew 10:16

To finish, there is one other element to this story. As was writing this I was very aware of the deadline of getting it done before the weekend came, and typed more urgently as time went on.  Equally, preaching it I am now aware of the urgency of getting the job done before time runs out! As time passes, it’s a case of abandoning the unnecessary detail and focussing on the essential. Like oversleeping and waking up late. Do you stop and have a full English and a shower before leaving? Do you sit down to read the morning paper? No! You throw on your clothes, down a quick coffee and dash for it.

So it is here. The Kingdom is coming, and the Disciples are sent out as forerunners. Time is short. They’ve got to get the word out to as many as possible. No time for packing, no time for goodbyes – out and on with it. Are people interested in hearing? Good, stay and talk. Are they not? Don’t stop to argue with them – no time – leave straight away and find someone who does, shaking the sand from your sandals as you go.

The Kingdom is coming! Time is short! Mission has got to be our focus, there’s no time for distractions. Are we seizing every opportunity to declare it in word and deed?

The Kingdom is coming, let us path the way with faith, pragmatism and urgency.

 

Isaiah 48 – Listen To Me!

Notes from a sermon preached on the 17th May 2009

When I get the chance I love to read the children a chapter or two before bedtime. We loved Enid Blyton, the Hobbit, Roald Dahl and Stig of the Dump amongst other great yarns and story-tellers. There are days though when I look up from the book to realise that they’renot really paying attention, and at these times I play a little game with them. Suddenly one of the Hobbits might change names to Rowan and might catch a plane to deepest trifle desert where they turn green and blow up the size of a swimming pool before being eaten by a passing Land Rower – you get the idea. Its always interesting to see how long I can go on making nonsense before they realise what I’m saying… I’ll have to try it one night when I’m preaching and I see you’re drifting!

Five times in quick succession God calls people to listen,
• 48:1 ‘Listen to this, O house of Jacob, you who are called by the name of Israel…’
• 48:12 ‘Listen to me, Jacob, Israel, whom I have called: …’
• 48:14 ‘Come together, all of you, and listen…’
• 48:16 ‘Come near me and listen to this…’
• 49:1 ‘Listen to me, you islands…’

‘Listen’ …A call for attention. An offer of something important. An invitation to open yourself up to what someone else has to say.

‘Listen’ …A call to put aside your agenda, what you were doing, what you were thinking and consider what is important to someone else.

‘Listen’ …A hint of mystery, something new is about to be revealed, to be shared. What is it going to be?

God says listen, drawing us out of our world into his, inviting us to pay attention, to prepare ourselves for something special. This ‘listen’ may have been spoken thousands of years ago, but it still sounds today with meaning and purpose, drawing us as it drew them.

Listening is probably one of the hardest tasks that there is.

To listen means forgetting yourself for a while, not rushing to answer, to butt in with your own thoughts. To listen requires careful attention to what is being said – there’s a world of difference between hearing something and actively taking it on board – I only have to think of the weather forecast to realise this. So often I put the weather on as I need to know what its going to be like, only to realise after its finished that I didn’t actually pay it any attention and missed it completely, even though I was sitting there staring at the screen!

To listen means to make yourself vulnerable. It is easy to assert ourselves and push our views on others, but to listen means allowing others to shape and inform your thought, potentially changing your mind or values or plans.

To listen is an act of trust – do I trust the other person not to abuse me when I make myself vulnerable in this way.

You’d have thought that listening to God would be easier wouldn’t you, but its not the case is it. This is why the book of Isaiah was written to start with. God saw that trouble was coming for them and so spoke through Isaiah to warn them of the consequences of their current actions. Stop paying lip-service to me in worship whilst abusing others, place your trust and hope in me rather than other nations and your own military and political strength. If you do this, he’d said, then all will be fine – in fact more than fine

17 This is what the LORD says—
your Redeemer, the Holy One of Israel:
“I am the LORD your God,
who teaches you what is best for you,
who directs you in the way you should go.
18 If only you had paid attention to my commands,
your peace would have been like a river,
your righteousness like the waves of the sea.
19 Your descendants would have been like the sand,
your children like its numberless grains;
their name would never be cut off
nor destroyed from before me.”(Is. 48:17-19) 

Note that here God reveals the purpose of prophecy, not so much about predicting the future, but giving his people direction and understanding.

Fairly clear message you’d have thought, easy to grasp and respond to, and yet had they listened? They’d heard the words of course, but they’d continued living as they were, placing faith in themselves and others but not God, and consequently what God had said would happen, happened. They were defeated and carted off into Exile. How is it that God describes them here, as people whose sinews in their necks were iron and their foreheads bronze. They were a stubborn people and had heard yet not listened.

It is easy for us to sit here and look back at them and think how foolish they were. Why didn’t they do what God had told them! But if we’re honest with ourselves, are we any better? God gives us the same message doesn’t, trust in me, place your hope in my provision, my ways. Most of the time we know exactly what God wants of us, but how quick are we to listen, to respond, to truly place our trust in him?
Why is it so hard?
• Maybe it’s because we can’t see God?
• Maybe it’s because everyone else around us is doing the same thing?
• Maybe it’s because our culture says this we’ll be alright if we live this way?
• Maybe we think we know best?
• Maybe it’s because we know what we already see and do and feel safe there?
• Maybe it’s simply habit?

Isaiah brought this prophetic warning well ahead of time, so that when trouble came, they would be able to look back and realise that he was trustworthy, that he was worth listening to. When they first heard, it didn’t seem possible that they could lose their land, but it happened just as God had warned them it would. No idols told them this, only he foresaw it – no model of iron or stone, no philosophy or ruler.

Sometimes God calls us to something do something new, or to think in a new way. Sometimes he does something new that we haven’t seen before, or is outside how we usually think of God. This can be difficult. We don’t like to be moved from our comfort zones. New things make us worry – there are plenty of ‘what ifs…’ that can be provoked on our lips. But here God is telling us that we needn’t worry. Instead, if we look back to other times in our lives when God has been at work, we can find encouragement from them.

The Israelites could look back to the Exodus – here was something new. God had promised to rescue them, and he did. They could look back to the Exile, as God did in this passage, and remember how what God had warned them about had come to pass. I look back to times on mission when God paid our shopping bills out of the blue, or when I came to Westcott, my last church, so many things that needed to fall into place did so, or FUSION events or Youth Conference events which I felt out of control of, but God came up trumps as he had promised to do so. Perhaps we can look back to some of the great things God has done amongst us as a church family in the past. When God has called us to new things, he has never let us down. Why should he suddenly start doing so now!

So what’s the new thing he’s calling them to listen to, to be prepared for? What’s God planning that he hasn’t done before? He’s going to defeat the Babylonians and prove to the world that he hasn’t abandoned his people. He’s going to rescue them and send them home. Again he is saying it far enough before it happens so that when it does happen, everyone will see that it is his work – ‘Leave Babylon, flee from the Babylonians! Announce this with shouts of joy and proclaim it. Send it out to the ends of the earth; say, “The LORD has redeemed his servant Jacob.’ (48:20). History tells us that it was Cyrus who defeated the Babylonians and set the Israelites free. If it wasn’t for this writing written in advance, all might say that he was the cause of their freedom, but this writing proves otherwise. His was no normal earthly defeat and liberation exercise, but this was God at work!

But was this the whole of what Isaiah was talking about when he said something new was about to happen?

Isaiah was not the only one or I think the first to suggest God would rescue the Israelites from captivity. This was not a totally new idea. Is there something else going on here, another greater fulfilment?

We assume that the Lord’s chosen ally against Babylon in verse 14 is Cyrus, for that is the servant he talks about in earlier chapters, but if you read on to the following chapters, the nature of the servant gradually changes from the mighty king Cyrus to one who will achieve greatness through his suffering and standing up for and in the place of the afflicted and sinful. This is another great liberator, someone completely unlike any who have gone before. Totally unexpected!

Jesus – for this is of course who he’s talking about – doesn’t fit in so many ways. The Cross seems nuts. His teaching turns our values upside-down, and changes the way we see ourselves and our world completely. God knows he wouldn’t make sense to the Israelites, and he knows he doesn’t make sense to us today, but by telling them about him so far in advance, and reminding them about how he has always proved true in the past, he reassures them – and us – that we can place our trust in this peculiar, unique and wonderful man.

1 Samuel 4-6 – ‘God in a Box’

Notes from a sermon preached at Turner’s Hill Free Church on 10.05.09

3 hints…

As I have already given away through the emblem on the front of my tunic from Sierra Leone I am an ardent Liverpool Football Club Supporter. Liverpool are the most successful English football club, and this season after a decade of waiting for a return to form, the glory days suddenly seem just a whisker away. In case you want to quibble with my claim about their greatness, how’s this for a record: they have won the European Cup 5 times, the top flight league 18 times, and on top of that 7 FA cups and 7 League Cups. This year it looks as if they may be pipped to the Premiership title by Man. Utd and a handful of points, but title number 19 is getting very close. When they win it, it will take pride of place on the trophy cabinet to underline their claim as the top team in English footballing history, and wheeled out to make the point whenever required!

I bought myself a new toy a couple of years ago in a bid to get my life organised, a Palm handheld computer. On it has a diary into which I can put my appointments, set alarms to remind me when to do things. It even synchronises to my PC at home too so that I’m never without my list of tasks to do. Putting in a new appointment or job to do is easy. You just tap the ‘new’ button, scrawl in the job or meeting, and chose the type of event or job it is from a drop down list of options. This way I can quickly locate all church events, or personal tasks or SLM related activities.

If you go to Google and look up ‘in a box’ the search engine will tell you that there are about 16,400,000 webpages that it knows of with this phrase. You can get ‘lunch in a box’, ‘a band in a box’, ‘a rocket in a box’, a celebration in a box’, ‘a monster in a box’, ‘a farm in a box’ and even ‘liposuction in a box’! Pre-packaged and prepared for ease of use, a thousand and one commodities are ready for our use in these readymade and convenient packages. All you need to do is open the box and within it discover everything you need to fulfil your wishes in one easy location.

You may be wondering what these three topics have to do with 1 Samuel 4-6, but be patient, all will become clear!

First of all, let me give you an overview of the three chapters – they’re a bit long to read out fully, but I do recommend that you go home and check them out, it’s a great story.

In 1 Samuel 4 the Israelites are beaten in battle by the Philistines, taking some 4000 casualties. This is a fairly desperate state of affairs. Like we may do here when the campaign in Iraq is finally finished, they held an enquiry to look into what went wrong. Blame games aside, the major question was what could they do to get their own back? It didn’t take long until someone pointed out the one big weapon that they had that the Philistines didn’t – God! They could take the Ark of the Covenant with them, and God would ensure that they were victorious. Men were sent to Shiloh where Eli’s sons were attending to bring back the Ark.

The shout that went up when the Ark was brought to the camp was earth-shattering. They were so excited, convinced that because God was now with them that they were invincible. Catch is, the Philistines heard the shout, and when they learnt what it was about, it focussed them all the more, stirring them on to greater acts of bravery and violence on the battlefield. This time the Israelites not only lost, but 30,000 of their men were slain. Total destruction. What’s more, the Ark was lost, captured as a trophy by their enemy. Eli’s sons, Hophni and Phinehas killed. Hearing the news of the loss of the Ark Eli collapsed, breaking his neck in the fall and dying.

It would seem that not only were the Israelite’s weak, but their God was too… Back in their lands, chapter five tells us that they placed it in their temple to Dagon in Ash, like a trophy in their trophy cabinet. Look what we’ve won, look how great we are! Look how mighty our god is!

They didn’t feel quite so smug the next morning when they found the statue of Dagon lying prostrate before the Ark. Carefully they raised it back up to its rightful place, putting it down to an accident, or pesky kids or something. Next day Dagon was prostrate again, but this time shattered, only the body intact.

This left them with a quandary, what to do with the Ark? How should they respond to what God was doing in their midst? Does this change their view of Dagon and Yahweh?

In the end they decided not to abandon Dagon and switch to worshipping the Israelite’s God, but instead to move the Ark out of the temple and to a city called Gath. From there they moved it again to Ekron. In both places the people were afflicted with tumours, in Ekron many died as death swept through the city. Just as God had proved himself to be greater than Dagon, he proved himself to be more powerful than the people too. The chapter ends with the people calling out for the Ark to be sent away.

And that of course is exactly what happens in Chapter 6. The Philistines load up a cart with the Ark and gold gifts – gold tumours in fact, just like the ones God had given them, gold rats too as it seemed as if diseases were not enough – strapped it to oxen and sent it on its way.

The cattle knew the way to go, and the Ark was returned to Israel accompanied by much rejoicing! When they found it, the Israelites broke the cart up and used to offer the cattle as sacrifices – sacrifices of thanksgiving and no doubt repentance too. Most of Israel celebrated that day, but not all, for some looked into the Ark. You’ve heard the phrase ‘curiosity killed the cat’? Well that was certainly the case here.

So what is going on in this story? What is it trying to tell us about God, the Philistines and the Israelites?

It doesn’t take much imagination to see does it! It’s all about who God is, how we see him and what we make of him. Remember those three topics I mentioned at the start? Three pictures of different ways in which we can see or treat God.

We can see him as a trophy. We are told that we should boast in our God. The Israelites certainly did – that’s just what they were doing when they brought the Ark into battle, ‘You think you’re good do you? Well just look at who’s on our side! Now do you think you’re the best!’ Thing is, we’re supposed to boast about him, not about ourselves using him as some status symbol that we possess. The Philistines did the same thing when they brought the Ark into their temple. They didn’t place it there to worship, but instead as a trophy, ‘Look what we’ve won! You thought you were the clever ones didn’t you!’ By placing it at the feet of Dagon, they were simply rubbing salt in the wound, ‘Our God is better than ours, we’re better than you…’.

This is why Eli collapsed when he heard that the Ark had been seized. Partly because he knew the prophecies about him and his family were coming true, but also because he realised that the thing he had gained his status from, his position of power and authority, had been snatched away. His trophy was gone. This was why God toppled the statue of Dagon, again he was saying I am not confined to a box or you narrow vision of who I am.

God is not some trophy to be wheeled out like the Premiership title in bragging contests between rival fans. God is not there for our benefit – although in his mercy he chooses to love us and care for us. No, we are here for his benefit, to bring him glory, to worship him through our words and deeds.

In what ways do we treat God as a trophy? As a status symbol? Do we use our relationship with him to look down on the world, to see ourselves as better than them as we have God? We may not articulate it that way, but I’ve observed it so often in the way we speak about ‘the world’ and our non-Christian neighbours, especially those we perceive as living sinful lifestyles. We are better than them because we have got God. No actually, we are no better than them, and that’s the point of the Gospel. We are all sinners, none of us are worthy of God. Our position in Christ has nothing to do with us, and everything to do with Jesus’ grace.

Do we use our relationship with God in order to gain special benefits in the world, to be treated differently as if it is our right? I think of some of the ways as Christians we have demanded our rights as Christians and I wonder sometimes if we have got our priorities right…

This leads onto the second picture I used. Why didn’t the Israelites take God with them into the first battle? Put aside the whole ‘God in a Box’ thing for a moment. Was it that they didn’t think they needed God then? Did they think that God was to do with worship, with sacrifices and priestly type stuff, whereas combat had nothing to do with him?

There are many occupational hazards with my job. Too many cups of tea when visiting! Strangers phoning me and knowing where I live. That feeling of being watched all the time, on show, under the microscope… I think the worst hazard though, is what it can do to my relationship with God though. On a Sunday morning I go to church to work. Mid week Bible studies are work. Reading the Bible is in order to get ideas for sermons. Prayer becomes about the church and its problems. Do you see what’s happening? The danger is that I end up relating God to my work, and so when I leave work behind at the end of the day, I also leave God behind too.

We live in a world full of competing demands. We’re all juggling too many things – work, family, friends, church, and so on. There is the danger for all of us that we add God to this list and make him something to be compartmentalised and fitted in like an entry in my electric diary.

We can treat him as ‘a god in a box’ to be bought out and used when it suits as, on our terms, for our needs. Freddie Mercury quote – made disposable pop, to be listened to and then thrown away. So easy to do this with God.

For the Israelites, they made the mistake of thinking that God was literally ‘a god in a box’, the Ark. They believed that God was contained within it, and that he was therefore in someway under their control. He went where they took him, and therefore if they took the Ark into battle, there god would come too and fight on their behalf.
In what ways do we wheel God out when it suits us, and leave him behind when we think we don’t need him?

The bottom line? Our God is no trinket to be trifled with, we cannot confine him to an Ark, a box or compartment in our lives..

We are privileged to be his children – but this is not through right or merit, but through his grace and love alone. This does not take away from who he is though. He remains the King of kings, the Creator of all things, the Beginning and the End, before whom all glory and honour are due. Let us learn from the mistakes of the Israelites and Philistines and give him the position in our lives he deserves – the Centre. He is not ours, ‘God in a box’, but instead we are quite simply his.

Isaiah 44:24-45:25 – Of, Through & For the World

Notes from a sermon preached on 26th April 2009

Arriving at the service this morning was a strange experience. The first thing I saw was not the doormen who usually great me as I arrive, but blue and white tape announcing to the world that I was entering a crime scene. My first thought was that they’d caught up with me at last! Then I learnt that a young lad had a broken bottle shoved in his face at a 21st birthday party at the community service last night. The scene of crime officers were there this morning looking for any forensic evidence.

It was fascinating watching the effect of their presence on the congregation. It changed the dynamic of the start of the service dramatically. Folks didn’t seem to want to take to their seats, and were instead clustered together in the hall, near the doors, but with the doors between them and the police officers closed. Some were clearly nervous of them, others were fascinated, some tried to engage them in conversation and others still wished they weren’t there. Like it or not, we weren’t able to escape from the fact that they were there.

A… was leading the worship this morning, and she commented on this coming together of the world and the church, and this got me thinking. In many ways this episode was like a little snapshots of the way Christians see the world.

In many ways, this is the very question that today’s passage spends time looking at. How does God relate to the world, and how should we, his people see the world. There have been many answers to these questions. I wonder what yours would be?

Is the world something you’re part of? Want to embrace it? Want to avoid it? Is it important or unimportant to you? Are we more important to God than the world? Is the world neither of these, instead there, but of little impact upon your life?

Now forget what you’ve just answered, and ask yourself the question again. Maybe we think we know what the right answer is, but how do we actually act towards the world and relate to it? I wouldn’t be surprised that if we were honest with ourselves, that the theory and the reality don’t always match up.

This passage looks to the time when God’s People were exiled, defeated by the Assyrians and Babylonians, forcefully relocated from the Promised Land to alien homes, and the Temple where God dwelt and where they met with him destroyed. This is a dramatic clash between the world and God’s People. To God’s People it felt as if God had abandoned them to the world, or even that God had been defeated by the world – this was an era when the strength of a nations god was measured by who they conquered – if your nation beat another in battle, then your god was greater than theirs.

The World here is the enemy, a threat to God’s People and their ways, threatening to overcome them, to defile them, to destroy their faith and freedom to practise their religion. Some might see echoes of this in the confusing relationship between immigration, multiculturalism and the influx of other faiths today. As what is sometimes referred to as ‘Christian’ England is exposed to other ways of life, and the rise in secularism as well as other faiths (although I would argue that secularism is a faith in its own way). Sometimes it is portrayed as if these other faiths are eroding away our Christian identity challenging our faith. The World is a threat and we need to take care not to be defiled by it, or lured away by it from our walk with Christ.

The language of this passage in Isaiah supports this picture of the World as a threat. God refers to himself as their ‘Redeemer’ – one who will rescue his people (44:24), one who promises to bring them out of the world and bring them home – Jerusalem will be inhabited, the towns of Judah rebuilt and the Temple restored (44:26-28)

Remember that like now, then there were many god’s believed in, many ways of seeing the world, many competing truths. Over these, God asserts that he is in fact the only God. There is no other. He alone created the heavens and the earth. He alone is the source of power and authority. He alone knows what is true and wise. He alone knows what will be and is faithful to all his promises. There is no competitor, no rival to his position. He, and he alone, is God. Anything else set up as a god or authority apart from him is in fact an idol. Worth nothing. Lesser than him, and leaving their followers ignorant.

In the end, he announces, before him every knee will bow, and by him every tongue will swear.

God is King and he is Lord of All, of and over the World who stands against him.

*****

But things are not as black or white as this might suggest.

God has made this promise to rescue his people from the World, but wait a minute, who is it that he uses to rescue them. Will he raise up a prophet like Moses? A Warrior like Samson? A King like David? No. Instead he uses Cyrus…

Cyrus is the King of the Persians. He is a foreigner who neither knows or cares about the Jew’s God. You can hear the protests can’t you! You can’t use him God. He’s not one of us. He’s your enemy, a foreigner. He’s of the World – a threat to us who will lead us astray. How can this be!

The Church is the carrier of God’s Word. We are the ones who know God, who have committed ourselves to him, who know his will and follow him. What does the Bible describe as standing against us? The World, the Flesh and the Devil. Apart from God we can do no good, the only way we can do good is through the renewal of our minds and lives by the Holy Spirit who transforms us to be like Christ.

To make it worse, Isaiah refers to Cyrus as God’s Shepherd. What do you think of when you hear that word? Maybe David, the Shepherd King? Maybe Psalm 23 where God is our shepherd? Maybe the priests who Zecharah calls shepherds – good an bad. With this sort of background, you can hear the fury of God’s People when they hear Isaiah using this name. Is this blasphemy? It’s certainly close. How dare Isaiah afford an unbelieving foreigner this status?

God’s reply is a strong one. Who are you to tell me who I can or cannot use! I am the one who made you – read 45:9-13. God can use whoever he wants to, and here he chooses Cyrus.

This has implications for us. Doing God’s will is not restricted to the Church. The World can work for God, know and complete his will, demonstrate his truth.

Have you ever wondered about why Jesus talked about the Kingdom of God rather than the Church. Are they the same thing? Passages like this make me believe that they are not. The Kingdom of God is wherever God’s will is being done – this could be by God’s People, but also by those who are outside God’s People, in other words the World. Wherever people stand up for injustice, that is God’s Kingdom at work. Wherever people show compassion – that is God’sKingdom. Wherever truth is held over dishonesty, that is God’s Kingdom.

This calls for humility from us.

It calls for humility from us in our theology – what we believe and say about God. Who are we to restrict what God can and cannot do.

It also calls for humility in our dealings with others outside the church. Doing good, and doing God’s will is not restricted to the Church, the World also have a part to play. Does this suggest that we should not be so quick to dismiss the world as our enemy, or unimportant. Perhaps there are times when it is right for us to seek partnership with the world in the business of the Kingdom. Should we be looking for others who are aiming for similar things in their work and supporting each other? Perhaps the Council might fit into this position – not always, but at times. Or maybe High Trees? Or the local school? Maybe local environmental groups? The list could cover many varied groups, businesses and individuals.

Maybe this passage calls us to watch our language (World vs Church) and to think in terms of conversation instead of confrontation.

It is interesting to note, though, that God says that he has called Cyrus to work for him, for the benefit of his People – 45:4. Does this suggest that the Church is superior or more important to God than the world?

***

When Jesus came striding onto the scene and Paul following in his footsteps, they caused the same sort of outrage that Isaiah was causing by sharing these words of God’s. By this time, the Jewish faith had accented the importance of God’s People over and above the World, that the World, the Gentiles were the enemy, to be looked down upon. They caused an outrage because they argued otherwise. We don’t hear the shock value behind John 3:16 because we have got so used to the words that we miss the implication. God so loved THE WORLD. Jesus and Paul in their own ways were reminding God’s People that they had been called not for their own benefit, but to bless the world – wasn’t that the Promise that all those many years ago God had made to Abraham? That through him all nations would be blessed?

This passage says the same thing. Yes it says that God will subdue the nations, that every knee will bow before him, but shortly before that it says in 45:22 ‘Turn to me and be saved all you ends of the world’. He may be King of and over the World. He may use the world to grow his Kingdom and serve the Church, but his ultimate purpose is to save and redeem the World.

The World is no perfect – then again nor are we. We are not called to stand against it, or see ourselves as superior to it, but in humility we are called to work with the World and for the World, to grow God’s Kingdom.

Luke 24 – Experiencing the Risen Christ!

Notes from an All Age Easter Celebration Service, Easter Day 2009 (12.04.09)

When today’s passage was first written, it was a brand new story and that was the problem, which was why Luke had to stress that Jesus’ death and resurrection had always been intended.
• The women who went to the tomb were told by the angels that Jesus had promised them that he had to be crucified and would then rise again. (24:7)
• Stranger on Emmaus Road explained how the Moses and the Prophets explained what would happen to the Christ. (24:26-27)
• Jesus opened their minds so that they could understand the Scriptures – that the Christ would suffer and rise (24:44)

But Luke also knew that the time would come when it would no longer be a new story, but an old one. Now the story is two thousand years old. It’s all very well and good Luke saying that Jesus was raised back to life, but how can we know that this is true?

Luke doesn’t try and prove the resurrection by reasoned argument or scientific proof. Instead, he does something even more exciting. He tells us a number of different ways in which we can get to know the risen Jesus for ourselves today!

Series of items – to add to the Garden step by step…

EASTER GARDEN: Bring on the plants!
o Every year we tell this story, we remember how Jesus rose from the dead.
o The same thing happens in this chapter. Time and time we have the story being told and retold, with the resurrection as its ending. The women tell the disciples, the two on the road to Emmaus tell the stranger who joins them, then they tell the disciples when they discover the stranger is Jesus. As you finish the chapter with the disciples heading back joyfully to worship in Jerusalem, you also get the impression that they are bubbling to tell everyone they meet!
o By telling the story, we remember that Jesus is alive, and share that with others!

BIBLE:
A good book is more than just words. As you read a good book, the characters in it and the places and situations they experience come alive, that’s what it’s supposed to do. Through the voices in this passage, Luke is telling his readers that this is what the Bible is there for too. As Jesus talks to the two men on the road to Emmaus, he explains all that the Law and the Prophets had to say about him. The Law and the Prophets was an expression that meant the Old Testament as we now know it. Luke tells us that as he spoke to them, their hearts burned within them. He is also showing us that as we read the Bible today, that God will bring Jesus to life through its words for us, our hearts will also burn as we read it, the divine speaks through its pages.

COMMUNION CUP:
It wasn’t until Jesus joined the two men on the Road to Emmaus for diner that they realised who he was. What was it that gave him away to them?
o As they ate he took the bread, broke it and gave thanks and gave it to them? Does that phrase sound familiar to you? It’s just like the Last Supper isn’t it, where Jesus took the bread and wine from the Passover Meal and used it to talk about who he was and what he was going to do for them, for us. No doubt they recognised the words. For us, I’m sure that like me, you thought about taking Communion where we regularly read those same words. Is Luke saying that we can come to know the risen Jesus in communion? How?
o Powerful symbol of what Jesus did for us – how he died so that we could be reconciled to God, made friends with him again.
o Promise of what to come – life after death!
o Opens our imagination and awareness of God in the present

£20 NOTE:
What is this? It’s a bit of paper with some pictures printed on it and some writing. Doesn’t sound particularly amazing does it! What’s it worth? Not much I wouldn’t have thought.
o What does it say on the note though? I promise to pay… Does that change anything? Still looks like a piece of paper to me! How am I supposed to know that its worth something? How do I know if it is really worth £20? By trying it. It is only by testing the promise that you can find out if it’s true.
o When the disciples first saw the risen Jesus in the room they were scared. They didn’t know if he was really who he looked like he was. Maybe he was a ghost? An Illusion? A delusion? That’s why Jesus told them to touch his hands and feet. By touching him they would be able to see that he was who he promised he was.
o Luke is telling us that at the end of the day, the only way to discover if Jesus is real is to test his promises. If we try to live by his promises, if we test him, touch him, we shall find that he is indeed trustworthy.

DOVE/FIRE:
The final way in which we can get to know the risen Jesus today is found at the very end of the chapter. Jesus tells the disciples to go and share the great news of Easter with the rest of the world, but before they do so, they are to wait for God to give them power to do this – the Holy Spirit.
o Jesus is not with us now, he has left us, ascended into Heaven
o But the Holy Spirit is his way of being with us today,
 reminds us what Jesus taught us
 helps us to become like him
 and enables us to continue his mission of love in action

The story of Jesus rising from the dead may be an old story, but that doesn’t mean that we can’t know him today. We can know him through retelling the Easter Story, letting the Bible bring him alive for us, finding him in Communion, testing his promises, and enjoying his Presence through the Holy Spirit.

Luke 19:28-48 – The Visit of the King

Notes from an All Age Service Talk on Palm Sunday, 2009 (05.04.09)before a prayer walk around Wormley

Lot’s of fuss earlier this week about Obama visiting the UK. Did you see his car! (Show picture)

Observers say the car is likely to include:
• bullet proof glass
• armoured body,
• a separate oxygen supply,
• completely sealed interior to protect against a chemical attack.
• Some joke the car is so tough it could withstand a rocket-propelled grenade.

David Caldwell of General Motors who made it joked: ‘One of the specifications is that we don’t talk about the specifications’. What a contrast to Jesus coming into town, not in ‘The Beast’ but on a donkey…

But like the coming of Obama, Jesus coming to Jerusalem caused great celebrations!
• Cloaks on road – like red carpet
• Joyful praise!
• Other versions – palm branches, waving flags

But like Obama coming to London, not all were happy. The protests then were by the Pharisees who told him to make his disciples be quiet.

Why?
• Jealous? Afraid that the crowds might shift their allegiance from them to him?
• Afraid? Afraid of what the Romans might do? Would they decide that the Jews were crossing the line?
• Didn’t think it was right – should be celebrating Passover, God’s rescue, not Jesus

I wonder what Obama felt this week about all the fuss? How did it make him feel? What did it make him do?

Jesus looks over the city as he came, and cried over it
• Not self important, but concerned for people
• Prayerful
• Upset as Jerusalem didn’t recognize him for who he was

I’m always struck by this part of the passage. Struck by the humanity of Jesus, the emotions he feels. Struck by the depth of his feelings too – even for those who he knows are against him, or will turn against him in a few short days. Always challenges me to ask how much I care for those in my communities. Do I see through those outside the school, or in the shops or at the doctors, or even judge them? Jesus didn’t…

As we walk in a moment – try and see Wormley as Jesus does. Pray for the people and places we see. Pray that they might enjoy God and recognise him.

But was Jesus just concerned about that town, those people, his people?
He was inclusive, concerned for foreigners, those who came from elsewhere – turning over tables so that the Gentiles could pray and meet with God.
As we walk, let’s pray for those of other cultures and backgrounds in this area, that they might be made welcome. Pray too that we might be open to those outside the church

Luke 22:66-23:56 – Who Was That Masked Man?

Notes from a sermon preached on Good Friday 2009 (10.04.09)

For many the sound of the William Tell Overture will conjure up memories of radio and TV westerns with a masked man with American Indian companion confronting conflicts and problems, with the famous question, ‘Who was that masked man?’

Whilst the Lone Ranger may now be a figure of the past, others queue up to take his place. Superheroes with their secret identities are all the rage on the big screen right now, with Spiderman, Superman, the Hulk, X-Men and Watchmen generating big bucks at the box office. Again the question is asked by those who come across them, ‘Who is that masked man?’

There is another such figure who has hit the screens again in recent years whose identity prompts the same question – who is that man? Films such as the Da Vinci Code and The Passion by Mel Gibson have thrust him back into public consciousness, if he ever went away. Last year at this time, the BBC made their own adaptation of the passion story, the last week of Jesus’ life.

There are many haunting portrayals of Jesus’ final week before his was crucified, not the least those of the Gospels themselves. Whenever I read them I am left asking that same question, who was that man? In many ways, that’s what the rest of the New Testament is about, trying to answer this riddle that the Gospels present. Who was he? What did he stand for? Why did he die? What did his death achieve?

Today’s passage in many ways focuses no this mystery as Jesus is jostled from one kangaroo court to another.

The Council of Elders
It starts with the chief priests and the teachers of the law, the council of elders. They are the ones who have detained Jesus with the help of the Temple guard. Jesus is thrown before them at first light, and they demand of him, ‘If you are the Christ, tell us.” In other words, who are you? Are you just a man? Or are you God’s chosen one, the one sent in his power and authority that has been long awaited?

This figure of the Christ is one that emerges gradually in the Old Testament. Hint by hint, the suggestion of someone coming in God’s power and authority develops, one who will restore Israel to her former glory, a king like David, a prophet like Moses. One who will set her people free! And yet this Messiah remains in the shadows, unclear, disguised. They do not know what he will look like and when he will come. At the time of Jesus, many thought that in those days of occupation by the Romans, the time for the coming of God’s Saviour was nigh…

Was Jesus that man? The religious leaders pose the question that was on many lips, and it hangs there in the air for us today. Was Jesus the Christ, God’s appointed one?

Of course, they had already made up their mind. It was not Jesus. This question was just to give them, the excuse they were looking for to dismiss him, to remove him. If he said no, then it was all over. If he said yes, that was blasphemy.

Are you the Christ?… They did not expect the answer they got, ‘I’m not going to tell you, as you wouldn’t believe me even if I was!’ They certainly didn’t expect what he suggested next…

Pilate
Off to Pilate. Again the question rears its head. Who is this man? Here’s a trouble maker who preaches rebellion against the state… There’s a contemporary ring to that isn’t there. Pilate, here’s someone preaching race hate, campaigning against taxation, radicalising the people. He claims to be the king! So goes their suggestion – not what they really think though is it. Pilate is a sharper politician than they thought though. He wants to find out for himself. Perhaps he sees through their motives…

‘Who are you?’

Perhaps he sees in Jesus a deluded preacher. Perhaps he sees him as a challenger to the religious leaders, but no more. He certainly doesn’t see him as a threat. ‘I find no basis of a charge against him!’ But the Council won’t back down. They press their allegations, and to Herod he goes…

Herod
Herod’s heard of Jesus. He’s heard of the walking on water, the feeding of the five thousand. Maybe even rumours of Lazaras. News like that spreads. Jesus is the hot property on the entertainment circuit, the darling of the Tabloids and Glossies. Eat your heart out David Blaine they announce. This man is the real deal, a true magician!

You know what they say about meeting your idols? Herod was disappointed. Jesus was nothing like the figure he’d been told about. The hype failed to live up to the reality. No tricks on show here. No illusions. No response to his demands or questions. ‘Who are you?’ When no answer comes, no display of power, Herod concludes he’s a joke. He’s got one illusion of his own, and egged on by the jeering troops and priests, he drapes a royal robe upon Jesus’ shoulders – look, the masked man has become a king indeed!

Back With Pilate
But Pilate’s not into jokes right now. Perhaps being woken first thing has put him in a bad mood! He just wants shot of the Jews and their accusations. I see nothing wrong with this man. I’ll humour you by having him flogged, but that’s it, then he’s out of here. But the gathered crowd aren’t so keen…

The BBC’s Passion last year suggested that the crowd were in fact a rent-a-mob gathered together by the Jewish leaders. Although the Gospels don’t say as much, it makes sense. Not everyone is against Christ – there’s a crowd that follows him to his crucifixion, mourning his loss – but here not a voice cries out in his support. How else would they know about Jesus being presented to Pilate?

Remember Peter the night before warming himself beside a fire, whilst denying three times that he knew Jesus? What follows is a strange contrast. The crowd keep calling for Barabbas to be released instead of Jesus. Three times Pilate appeals to them, saying that Jesus is innocent. The crowd cannot be appeased though, and Pilate finally relents. Jesus, the innocent one, is locked up awaiting execution, whilst Barabbas, the guilty on, goes free. Isn’t it strange that unlike Peter, the Jew, Pilate, the Roman Gentile resists the temptation to deny Jesus. And yet, despite this, in the end both Jew and Gentile abandon Jesus to his death… What is Luke trying to say here? In the innocent Jesus taking the guilty Barabbas’ place? And in Jesus being denied by Peter, and yet defended by Pilate? But how about when Pilate finally gives in, and surrenders Jesus to his fate?

The Jewish Leaders are guilty. Pilate is guilty. Herod is guilty. The crowd are guilty. Both Jews and Gentiles are guilty. Even the disciples are guilty – Peter as well as Judas. Jesus, the innocent man, is killed because no one stopped it from happening. Jesus is killed because no one was prepared to find out who he really was…

But Who Is He Really?
The danger of thinking about Jesus is that we decide who he is. As with the characters in this story, we look for what we want to see, what our labels suggest, and what our prejudices want – or don’t want. Rather than us trying to decide who he is, perhaps we should let him talk for himself.

• What does it say about Jesus that we find him hanging between two Criminals rather than in the court seated alongside Herod, or presiding over the ceremonies alongside the priests?
• What does it say that as the voyeurs watch him, the rulers sneer at him, the soldiers mock him, and one of the criminals throws insults at him, what does it say about him when Jesus says nothing, does nothing?
• Why does Luke point out the humiliation of Jesus losing even his clothes which are gambled for by the guards below?
• What does the irony of the sign ‘King of the Jews’ above a man hung on a tree, cursed by God, reveal about him?
• How about when he dies? The sky goes dark, the earth shakes and the curtain separating the people and God in the Temple tears in two – what does this mean?

To the women following him, he tells them to mourn for what is about to happen to them rather than what is happening to him. About those executing him, he asks his Father to forgive them as they don’t know what he is doing. To the criminal who asks to be remembered by Jesus in his kingdom, he says he will be there with him in paradise. And as he dies, he cries out, ‘Father, into your hands I commit my spirit!’

Jesus identity is marked by power, but not power as the religious leaders and political top-cats know it. It is marked by the power of extreme forgiveness, forgiveness offered to friends and enemies. It is marked by surrendering the chance to save your self in order to save others, including those who’ve betrayed you or let you down. It is marked by the wealth of relationship, the Son offering relationship that lasts beyond even the grave, security in the Father.

The apparent end of this King is marked by irony. The King of the Jews is so different from the kings of his day – and indeed ours – that he is rejected; not recognised by his religion or by his country. But this is not to say that all reject him. A Centurion – a Roman occupier – announces him as a righteous man, and the women, so often rejected by their time, are those mourning him before and after his crucifixion.

All that is left is a question. Who is that masked man?

Isaiah 41 – The Sovereign God’s Salvation

Notes from a sermon preached by surprise on 22.03.09pm

Background to Isaiah
So what do we know about Isaiah?

We’re told in chapter 1:1 that Isaiah prophesied during the reign of Uzziah, Jotham, Ahaz and Hezekiah, kings of Judah (the Southern Kingdom). Uzziah reigned from 786 BC, Hezekiah, 697BC. Chapter 6:1 tells us that he started in the year that Uzziah died, ~736BC.

These were difficult days for the Kingdom of Judah, days when the Assyrian kings began to threaten and advance upon them. Ahaz was tempted to join a coalition against the Assyrians, but in the end asked them for mercy. His successor, Hezekiah, against Isaiah’s advice, led a revolt against the Assyrians. This was a disastrous move ending up with Judah being destroyed in 701BC, except for it’s capital, Jerusalem. Jerusalem eventually fell to the Babylonians in 586 BC with them being thrown into captivity in Babylon. This lasted until 539BC when Cyrus, King of the Persians, defeated the Babylonians, and the Jews were allowed to return home.

The book that bears his name can be divided up into three sections:
• Chapters 1-39 are set in the 8th Century BC – these are the years leading up to Judah’s defeat by the Babylonians and their exile into Babylon, and explain why God allowed them to be Exiled.
• Chapters 40-55 are set in the 6th Century BC – these contain prophecies that bring words of hope to his exiled people.
• Chapters 56-66 are set in 539BC onwards and speak to the Exiles who had returned to Judah

As you can see, this book covers an extraordinary scope of time and situations. This scope, and also the way it falls into these three distinct sections has made some wonder if it was written by more than one author. Perhaps Isaiah wrote the first section 1-39, and others following in his school of prophets (a bit like painters in the Renaissance had schools, learning from a master, and students paintings being named after their master). Other say that the first section is Isaiah speaking into his own time, and the other sections being future predictions God had given him.

To be honest, it doesn’t matter which it was. What is important to us is what this book has to say to us in its entirety as we’ve received it.

So what’s Isaiah about? Some have called it the Gospel in the Old Testament.

The first section talking about why they were exiled looks at human sinfulness, individual and corporate, and the consequences of that.

The second section where God brings the exile hope, talking about their being brought back home, talks about salvation, God’s plan to restore us and our world. One thing that is startling about this is the sheer expanse of salvation. It’s not just about me and my eternal life, it’s far bigger than that.

The final section where God brings words of challenge to those that return from Exile, talks about Christian living and what it means to live in the light of God’s salvation.

Isaiah is a large book, and we’re going to look at the second and third sections. Tim’s was supposed to be doing this opening sermon today, but as he’s unwell, I’ve going to look at Isaiah 41 as I was going to next week – maybe Tim might be able to come back to Isaiah 40 then instead!

41:1-7 – Invitation to the Nations Rejected in Favour for Idols
The chapter opens with an invitation from God to the world to come and meet with him. Islands and nations is a way of describing the whole of the Gentile world. It talks about meeting in the place of judgement, but this is not about judgement, but about making a treaty, building a relationship together.

The meeting begins with God describing his power and influence. He talks of a commander who is moving across the world, defeating all in his path, subduing their kings. His power is awesome. He turns them to dust with his sword, to windblown chaff with his bow. ‘Who is behind this?’ God asks, ‘Does he do this on his own? No, he is my servant, and I am the one who has called him to it and empowered him to do it’

This commander isn’t named here, but he is clearly a figure of power who changes the shape of the world. The point is clear though, God is involved in the world, planning, moving and controlling. His sovereignty is over all.

This is who I am! God is declaring. I am the sovereign God! Trust in me, side with me.

What happens now reminds me of the opening chapter of Romans 1:18-20:

18The wrath of God is being revealed from heaven against all the godlessness and wickedness of men who suppress the truth by their wickedness, 19since what may be known about God is plain to them, because God has made it plain to them. 20For since the creation of the world God’s invisible qualities—his eternal power and divine nature—have been clearly seen, being understood from what has been made, so that men are without excuse.

Although God’s power and sovereignty is clear, and his invitation to them has been made, they instead say to each other that they are good enough without him, that they are strong enough. Instead of God they trust in the idol that they have just formed on the anvil and nailed down to the floor so it doesn’t topple.

Here is a warning to the nations, and an encouragement to the Jews in exile. God is in charge, and non-can withstand him. He moves nations as he will, blowing them away as if they don’t exist. His people may have done wrong, which is why he has allowed them to be exiled, but if the nations mistreat them or revile him, then he can move against them in power that they cannot withstand.

Three Pictures of Consolation
The scenery now changes, moving from the scale of the nations, to look to the Jews in exile, with three descriptions of the salvation God is going to bring to them.

1) 41:8-13 – The Victorious Servant
The first description is of the Jews as God’s victorious servant.

At this point in time, the Jews must have been feeling rejected and scorned by God. They had been thrown from the Land he had given them, cast into a foreign nation, away from their Temple and worship, everything that gave them their identity and relationship with God. They must have been afraid that this was it, God was angry with them, furious at what they’d done. Perhaps they thought they’d blown it. Perhaps they felt afraid of God, fearful of what he might do to them next.

Maybe there are times when you feel like this? That you’ve let God down, that he’s angry with you, or abandoned you?

Perhaps as the church today in the West, this speaks a bit into our situation where the church has moved out of the mainstream to the edges of our society? Has God abandoned us? Is the world against us? What hope have we got?

‘Do not fear’ says God. Listen to the descriptions God uses to talk about them:
• ‘O Israel my servant’
• ‘Jacob, whom I have chosen’
• ‘descendents of Abraham my friend’
• ‘I took you’
• ‘I called you’
• ‘I have chosen you and have not rejected you’

Do not be afraid, let me take you by the hand and help you. What a wonderful picture of a parent and child. On their own a child might be frightened, scared, lonely, but when a parent takes them by the hand they become invincible, confident and determined. God takes the Jews by the hand.

And what does he say about those who stand against them. I often find that if you pick out the descriptive words you get a great sense for what is going on:
• ‘ashamed’
• ‘disgraced’
• ‘nothing’
• ‘perish’
• ‘you will not find them’

Everything is turned upside down. No longer will they be the fearful opposed nation, but the confident triumphant one.

2) 41:14-16 – The Transformed Worm
The second description that of the transformation of the Jews.

The first picture talks about how God sees them – not as his enemy to be rejected, but as his chosen children. The second picture looks at how they see themselves.

When things have gone wrong for us, our estimation of ourselves tends to go down. The Jews must have had a rock-bottom opinion of themselves. They’d blown it big time – lost their homes, jobs, friends, nation, religion, maybe even their God himself. It couldn’t have got any worse.

In verse 14 God calls them a worm, little Israel. That must have been how they felt. Ever been there?

Was digging yesterday, creating a vegetable patch, removing turf and turning over the soil. Found worm after worm. Totally helpless and prone. A worm could never defeat nations. A worm could never be rich or powerful. A worm could never be on the cover of OK magazine. Bottom of the heap.

But this little helpless creature is transformed. From a worm to a mighty beast with many teeth, great strength and vigour, before whom all fall. He threshes mountains, crushing them, smashing hills to chaff, blowing them away. What a change!

Remember Gideon cowering in his winepress, scared witless of the Midianites? What did the angel say when he came to him? ‘The Lord is with you Mighty Warrior!’ We might be the smallest of the small – on our own – but with God we can be metamorphosised into something so much more brilliant.

3) 41:17-20 – The Needy Sustained
Finally the picture moves from the national scale to a more individual scale. God is not just concerned with the transformation of nations, but the plight of the individual.

The people are thirsty, desperately in need of water, sustenance. Their tongues are parched, but wherever they look for water, they find none. All they can see are barren heights, desert and parched ground. There is no water here, no hope for sustenance.

When times are tough, it’s always the poor that suffer most. The rich and powerful can provide for themselves, but here Isaiah is portraying the plight of those in the most difficult positions. But just as al is not lost for the nation, so hope is not lost for these in dire straits. God sees their need and the barren wastelands burst into water! The deserts are transformed into rich verdant gardens. All can see and know that God is at work here – can anyone else do this?

What does this picture suggest to you? I suspect that Babylon wasn’t a desert, suggesting that this is more of a symbolic description. Does it relate to the barrenness of their lives? Or their need for spiritual sustenance? Or their lack of hope? Whatever it might be, or whatever your need might be, this tells us that God is capable of bringing the sustenance that is needed in impossible ways.

41: 21-29 – Futility of the World’s Trust in Idols
Not time to go through this in detail, but having talked about these three pictures of the salvation that God will bring his people, Isaiah returns to the meeting between God and the nations. The nations have rejected him in favour of their idols. But what can these idols do? What can they say? Nothing…

But instead there is a hint of what is to come for the nations, God has stirred up one from the north, a new commander, and he’s heading their way… Good tiding for Jerusalem.

Colossians 1:24-2:5 – Do You Want to KNow a Secret

Notes from a sermon preached on 22.03.09am

Listen,
Do you want to know a secret?,
Do you promise not to tell?, whoa oh, oh.

Closer,
Let me whisper in your ear,
Say the words you long to hear,
I’m in love with you.

I’ve got a secret for you, do you want to know it?… Just by saying those words I’ve got power over you haven’t I. You want to know what it is, and the only way you can discover it is if I tell you.

Usually secrets only for those in the know. Those with the money. Those in the right positions. Those in the right countries. Those in the right social class. Those with the right looks. Those in the know have power over those who don’t. The haves and have nots

Life itself is a mystery.

Where does life come from? Does it have meaning beyond survival? Is there a Creator behind it? If so, what is this god like? Do we have to earn his favour? If so how?

These are the secrets at the heart of existence. Religion has always claimed answers to these questions.

So often, though, religion has sadly used this as a source of power.
• Priests become those who have the power to bring the people to god and so can use this position to gain favour, influence and finance. Abuse of their position.
• We, those who belong to this religion, are better than those who are not. Or indeed, we who belong to this religion, hate those who do not.
• To be part of our religion and discover our secrets you have to behave a certain way, undergo particular rituals, behave like us, talk like us, dress like us, put your brain to one side and blindly take on all that we say…

It’s not wonder than people say that religion has been the cause of so much ill in the world, is it!

So what does the Bible have to say about this? Where does Christianity fit into this? Sitting in his cell, writing to the Colossians, Paul has a lot to say about that. As Michael and Alison have said before me, a teaching was beginning to influence the church there, talking about inner secrets of faith available for those who were permitted to them, superior Christians.

What does he say: 1:24-27 ‘Now I rejoice in what was suffered for you, and I fill up in my flesh what is still lacking in regard to Christ’s afflictions, for the sake of his body, which is the church. 25 I have become its servant by the commission God gave me to present to you the word of God in its fullness— 26the mystery that has been kept hidden for ages and generations, but is now disclosed to the saints. 27To them God has chosen to make known among the Gentiles the glorious riches of this mystery, which is Christ in you, the hope of glory.

Paul acknowledges that at the heart of our existence are these big questions about meaning and significance. He answers that the answers to these questions have remained hidden for ages and generations. For all time human beings have looked to the skies and asked if there is a god, wondered what life was all about. For all time we have endured suffering and pain and called out in frustration if it will it always continue and complained that it is not fair. There is wisdom in this. There is the danger when talking to people that we rush to our answers and the gospel without acknowledging their struggles and their questions. This can come across as rude, and says that we don’t take what they’re saying and feeling seriously.

But Paul then says that the mystery that has been hidden away, stored out of sight, until the time came for it to be revealed – has now be revealed! He says in verse 26 that the mystery ‘is now disclosed to the saints’ But wait a minute! Doesn’t that sound like the same old story? The mystery is given to a select group who can then use it as power over others? Not at all!

In verse 27 Paul talks about it being revealed to the Gentiles. In the Old Testament, the Jews turned the revelation of God from something that was to bless all nations into a national possession, a close held treasure that made them superior to others, a well guarded mystery. But God, in Christ, has over-turned that. No longer is the mystery of God disclosed just to the Jews through their priests, but in and through Christ, this mystery is disclosed to all people, even those outside the ‘People of God’. When in verse 25 Paul talks about the word of God being presented in all its fullness, what does he mean by this fullness? I believe on the one hand he is talking about the revelation of God in Jesus being a complete, perfect one – Jesus is the manifestation of God – but more than that, by fullness, Paul is talking about the all encompassing nature of the revelation, that perfect revelation of God, being for all people, not just the Jews. Through Christ, God has overturned the exclusiveness of faith, opening it to all people.

This is at the heart of our faith. The Gospel is not just for the select few, but for all people. Jesus offered himself to religious leaders such a Nicodemus, women of allegedly dubious nature such as Mary Magdelene, foreigners such as the Centurion and the Samaritan woman, thieves and collaborators with the enemies of God’s People such as Mark, the tax collector. He even offered himself, dare I say it, to a terrorist being executed alongside him, offering him a place in paradise.

This is what is behind what Paul says in Galatians 3:28: ‘There is neither Jew nor Greek, slave nor free, male nor female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus.’ There are no barriers, no rituals to fulfil, no background checks. You don’t need to come through any other person but Jesus.

Peter writes something similar in 1 Peter 4:10 when he says, ‘Each one should use whatever gift he has received to serve others, faithfully administering God’s grace in its various forms.’ The word here for various forms is pikilos which literally means many-coloured. God’s rainbow coloured grace is for all people, it is not monotone or restricted in its scope.

But what is to stop the same thing happening now that happened before to God’s revelation to the his people in the Old Testament? What is to stop the religious leaders, the scholars, those in power, those in church, in the know, using it as a tool to power, to position, holding on to it and not sharing it? This was one of the concerns behind the Reformation, that too much power was being invested in the Priests who because of their privileged position could hold sway over their laity and general populace.

The heretical teachers at Colossae were saying that they had a higher knowledge than that possessed by ordinary believers. Paul cuts through that. The mystery he says is now ‘Christ in you, the hope of glory’ (27).

Jesus Christ offered his life to all people, so that they may have a relationship with God. Today, through the Holy Spirit living in believers, all may have that direct relationship with God. No other intermediary is needed. This indwelling of Christ, the Holy Spirit coming to live in all believers is an incredibly liberating thing! There are no people prohibited from faith, and no people prohibited from knowing God, anyone can have the Spirit in them. By hope of glory, Paul is referring to the security of our eternal relationship with God that the Spirit brings us, that goes beyond this life and into the next.

So much of what we do and how we live is about securing our positions at the expense of others. Gossip is about putting others down, so that we can be promoted at their expense. Politics is often about seeking the best for us and those like us at the expense of others. Our economics is set up in such a way that those who have money can enjoy that which those who don’t can’t. God and his gospel however, are not like that, instead it shatters the barriers and liberates, bringing all who want to respond directly to God. In this God is saying that all are equal, all are valued, all count.

As this is the way we normally behave, its easy to revert to type. Its too easy for us to kid ourselves into believing that Jesus wants us to sign up to a list of behaviour, a list of doctrines, to wear the right clothes, to speak the right language, to go to the right services and sing the right songs, but this is to miss the point and to try and convert Jesus’ liberating message into a power tool again of we’re in you’re out.

This was the big lesson that Paul had to learn on the Damascus Road. Paul was the one who was so sure that following the rules was what it was about, the one who was so proud of being part of the chosen people who God had called and yet, on the Damascus Road when he met with the Risen Jesus, this was turned upside-down. His value system was thrown out as he was told that God loved the world, everyone, and wanted all to have a relationship with him. It was not about following the rules but accepting that love and beginning to love in the same way. Paul literally became a new man, revelling in his new freedom. This explains why he wrote:

We proclaim him, admonishing and teaching everyone with all wisdom, so that we may present everyone perfect in Christ. To this end I labour, struggling with all his energy, which so powerfully works in me.’ (28-29)

Paul is so often misunderstood as saying these are all the things you must do to follow Jesus, but that’s not it at all. Instead his revolutionary message is that there is nothing we need to do to follow Jesus other than say yes. There are no barriers, no conditions, no sense of some being better than others. God’s Gospel is for all. Yes Paul calls us to holy living – but that’s not as a prerequisite, but instead as a response, a thank you, not because we have to, but because we want to, for what Jesus has done for us.