A Reflection for Palm Sunday

We’ve just had a long weekend in Jordan. Driving around I’ve enjoyed looking out for flocks of sheep and goats (sometimes with a shepherd), camels, and the occasional donkey. I’d like today to focus on the donkey ridden by Jesus into Jerusalem that first Palm Sunday.

What is Jesus doing commandeering somebody else’s donkey? Is it something he has secretly pre-arranged? Or is he just laying claim to the donkey, knowing that the owners will be OK with that? Luke doesn’t say.

But the real question is: who does the donkey actually belong to? Who is the real owner? Jesus tells the disciples to tell anybody who asks why they are taking the donkey that “the Lord needs it”. But the word could equally well be translated “the owner needs it”. That is exactly the phrase Luke uses of the human owners.

So who owns the donkey? Jesus or the people it lives with and who look after it? I think the way Jesus behaves and the way Luke writes the story we’re meant to realise that Jesus is the real and ultimate owner. The donkey is lent to the human owners. They get to take care of it and use it for their own benefit and the benefit of the community. But they are not its ultimate owners. They are stewards, managers, entrusted with somebody else’s property to use with all the wisdom, skill, knowledge and generosity that they can muster.

Jesus is King. That’s one of the meanings of the word “Christ”. That’s the point of his triumphal entry into Jerusalem. He is the anointed King sent by God to put the world back to rights. If we acknowledge Jesus as King then we acknowledge that our possessions, our property, everything we have, ultimately belongs to him. It’s on long loan to us so that we can make the very best use of it. We don’t really own anything in any final sense. We brought nothing into the world and we can take nothing out.

The point is reinforced when the crowds begin to throw their cloaks on the road underneath the donkey so that Jesus can ride over them. In the Old Testament that’s what people did to proclaim a new King. See the story of Jehu: 2 Kings 9.13. They are surrendering even their clothes to him.

Jesus has something of a habit of commandeering other people’s stuff. Think of the boy whose picnic lunch was used to feed the 5,000.

This is a good way to live. In the first place, whatever we have that we allow to be used for the Kingdom of God will in some way be blessed, given far greater significance, even multiplied. We become part of God’s story which is the best story there is.

And it’s liberating.

I once did a training placement with a vicar who had a bookselling business on the side. He said that if he lent a book to somebody and it wasn’t returned he concluded that his stewardship of that item had come to an end. He would refuse to fret over it.

If my house belongs to me then I must protect it. I have nobody to make sure it’s OK but myself. If, on the other hand, my house belongs to Jesus, then he will look after it for as long as he wants me to have it. Of course I will do my best as a good manager and steward to look after it, maintain it and insure it. But the ultimate responsibility is not mine. I can rest more easily because of that. I know that God will provide whatever I need. And he will do it with great generosity. There may well be times of deprivation and difficulty. But these will be in the providence of God and will in the long run serve his purposes.

Think of the people in Ukraine who are seeing their their property utterly destroyed. This was posted on Facebook today:

As the Ukraine war began a few weeks ago a great grandmother and her daughter packed a bag and started the long journey as refugees. Just before leaving, the older lady, who is a follower of Jesus, felt prompted to pack a small bag of seeds in faith. They were leaving their home of 60 years, their acres of land and their homeland as rockets were being launched by the Russians overhead.

She hastily packed the seeds believing she would one day plant them in safety and they set off.

Here in the U.K. [my husband] and I were getting ready to receive Ukrainian refugees. We had a home ready for a Ukrainian family who had served as pastors and were known to friends of ours. At the last minute they decided to stay in Germany.

A home on the farm was ready.

Then [my husband] heard of the plight of a Ukrainian mother and grandmother known to friends in a church in London nearby – who were praying for a place for these precious ladies to stay. The Lord had gone ahead of us all.

Two days later they arrived on a Red Cross flight.

With no idea of where the Lord might lead them they arrived to find a home prepared for them and specifically a place where those precious seeds could be planted.

We live in uncertain times. Knowing that we are in the end only stewards and not owners is a good thing. It is the best insurance policy you can have.

Father & Son: further reflections

Having written on Sunday about the importance of the Father:Son relationship in Christianity, I realised that this raises a number of issues which might be bugging some readers.

In the first place, is this just a projection of our own needs? In a hostile world do we make up a Sky Father who we hope will look after us? Something like this was the objection raised by the German philosopher Ludwig Feuerbach nearly two hundred years ago. It is true that for some of us some of the time (and for some people most of the time) faith can be a bit like this. We complain that God has let us down when things don’t work out the way we want. But for the writers of the New Testament, and for millions of Christian believers around the world today, this is far from the truth. For them Christian faith was and is a call to follow Jesus in suffering. Surely anyone inventing a Sky Father to look after them wouldn’t include taking up the cross every day as part of the deal!

I don’t think Christian faith in God as Father is a projection. The Fatherhood of God is not a metaphorical transference from human experience onto the divine. It’s the other way round. Human fatherhood and human families are a portrayal – an image – fitted to our lives and our reality of the primary reality, which is the Fatherhood of God. Fathers and families are given to help us understand the Fatherhood of God. I think this is what Paul means when tells the Ephesians:

I bow my knees before the Father, from whom every family in heaven and on earth takes its name. I pray that, according to the riches of his glory, he may grant that you may be strengthened in your inner being with power through his Spirit.

Ephesians 3.14-16

God comes first; we come after. We are made in his image, not he in ours.

So maybe not a question of projection. But in an age when fathers have so widely failed their families by being absent or abusive is it unfair and unreasonable to expect people to relate to God as Father? This is a real question. There are Christians who relate well to Jesus but not so much to the Father. For some this comes from problems in their own experience of being fathered – either not being fathered at all because their father wasn’t there, or being “fathered” in such an abusive way as to leave a permanent mark on their psyche. “Father” then becomes either just a blank space in their imagination or something to be avoided at all costs. I suspect that my slowness in grasping the Fatherhood of God was at least in part due to my father’s early death. “Father” was a bit of a blank for me.

So should we ditch the Fatherhood of God? Some people really want to do this – re-writing all the key texts to bring us in line. But there is a cost to this. Presumably we would have to re-write the Lord’s Prayer. Do we really know more about prayer than Jesus did? More about God himself? Surely the answer to hurt is healing. Prayer (supported as necessary by counselling and psychotherapy) can help hurting people into a joyful discovery of God as Father. Our culture has a tendency to exalt victimhood. But we don’t have to be victims of our history. Jesus came to set the captives free, not to make them contented in captivity.

One more thing: is it sexist to call God Father? Shouldn’t we call him Mother too? Is the New Testament guilty of patriarchy?

There are images of motherhood applied to God in the Bible. Here, for instance, is Jesus lamenting Jerusalem’s rejection of his motherly love:

Jerusalem, Jerusalem, the city that kills the prophets and stones those who are sent to it! How often have I desired to gather your children together as a hen gathers her brood under her wings, and you were not willing!

Luke 13.34

If the Bible is sexist in its language about God the sexism works both ways. Consider the fact that the church is described as the bride of Christ and the consummation of God’s purposes as a wedding. Where does that leave men? We have to adjust our minds to the fact that, as C. S. Lewis somewhere says, “we all are eternally feminine to Him”.

Kenneth Bailey was a distinguished theologian and missionary to the Arab world. He issues this warning about abandoning the Fatherhood of God:

Christians have often used the word father and given that word meanings based on experiences with human fathers. This is a form of idolatry. However, God is personal, and there are two kinds of persons, male and female. To address God with both male and female titles opens a path back to the ancient Middle East with its male and female gods and goddesses. The way forward is to ask, Did Jesus define the term father in any of his teachings?

In the famous parable of the prodigal son, Jesus is best understood to be defining the word father for the use he intends to make of it. In that story Jesus breaks all bounds of human patriarchy and presents an image of a father that goes beyond anything his culture expected from any human father.

Kenneth E. Bailey, Jesus through Middle Eastern Eyes, p99

The Fatherhood of God is something to rejoice in. Abandoning it would be a terrible mistake.

Father & Son: Luke 3.15-22

It’s the season of Epiphany, which means “Manifestation” or “Revelation”. And this Sunday we get to the baptism of Jesus, where the crowds – themselves waiting to be baptised – hear the voice from heaven proclaim “You are my Son, whom I love”.

This Father:Son relationship is at the heart of Christian faith:

  • the Creeds are structured round it;
  • it is the key to the universe – it is through the Son that the Father created the cosmos;
  • it is the bedrock of Jesus’ identity. Every one of his recorded prayers addresses God as “Father…” (“Abba” in the original language). There is only one exception: the cry of dereliction from the cross: “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me..?”

The revelation of his Sonship was not a new idea for Jesus. His first recorded words are his gentle rebuke to his parents over the incident when he gets left behind in the Temple at Passover:

Did you not know I must be about my Father’s business?

Luke 2.49

To be the Father’s Son was and is the central thing in Jesus’ life. Throughout the Gospel of John he refers to himself as “the Son”. His sonship and the Father’s fatherhood were the deepest reality of his life, the core of his identity and his sense of purpose.

He comes to share that reality with us. His mission is to bring us into the same relationship with the Father that he enjoys. Risen from the dead, he tells Mary Magdalene:

‘Do not hold on to me, because I have not yet ascended to the Father. But go to my brothers and say to them, “I am ascending to my Father and your Father, to my God and your God.”’

John 20.17

He gives us a special prayer which encourages us to live in that father-child relationship.

Paul writes that God’s purpose was that:

… he [Jesus] might be the firstborn among many brothers and sisters.

Romans 8.29

How does this work? How do we enter into that relationship? It’s significant that Jesus’ Sonship is revealed at the moment of baptism. And it is closely associated with the gift of the Holy Spirit. One of the key ministries of the Holy Spirit is to impart to us a personal knowledge of God as Father. Paul writes in Romans 8:

… you did not receive a spirit of slavery to fall back into fear, but you have received a spirit of adoption. When we cry, ‘Abba! Father!’ it is that very Spirit bearing witness with our spirit that we are children of God.

Romans 8.15-16

Paul seems to be suggesting that there are two options: you either live in fear or you know God as Father. Knowing God as Father gives us the assurance that we have a place and a purpose in a universe that could otherwise seem cold, frightening and indifferent.

My father died when I was four years old. My mother did a great job of looking after my brother and myself. But I still remember an undercurrent of anxiety throughout my childhood, a sense of being unprotected, of being vulnerable to whatever a hostile world might throw at us. Undoubtedly my mother protected us in many ways. But she herself (I now realise) felt unprotected and vulnerable, so she could not provide the sense of secure protection which I think comes most fully from the presence of a loving father.

I only discovered the felt reality of God as Father when I asked a Christian leader to pray for a deeper work of the Holy Spirit in my life. I wasn’t asking to know God as Father, but that’s what I got. It wasn’t a flash of lightning, just a gradual realisation over a period of weeks that I had discovered a fresh dimension to faith in Jesus Christ.

I think that fatherlessness is one of the deepest wounds in Western society today. In the news recently there has been talk of the increasing incidence of teenagers and young men being stabbed to death in London. I suspect this is mostly gang-related. Why do young males join gangs? Because gangs provide a sense of identity and protection. My guess would be that most gang members and many young males who resort to violence lack the presence of a loving father in their lives. Certainly there is good evidence for that in America.

Knowing God as Father is the great privilege of those who follow Jesus Christ. We only have to ask (“how much more will your Father in heaven give the Holy Spirit to those who ask him!” – Luke 11.13). It is also one of the most healing and life-changing gifts which the gospel offers to our world.

Advent 2: Repentance in Malachi & Luke

John the Baptist came to prepare the way of the Lord. To make straight paths for him – straight to the hearts, minds and lives of the people of God.

How should we respond today? In this season of Advent, as we prepare to celebrate the first coming of the Lord and we anticipate his second coming, what are we supposed to be doing?

John focuses on repentance. What does that look like?

When John challenged the crowds to bear fruit in keeping with repentance, they asked what they should be doing. His response was in terms of economic justice: share with those in need; if you’re a tax collector don’t cheat people by taking more than you should; if you’re a soldier be content with your pay. He exhorts them to concern for those less fortunate, to fair dealing and to contentment.

That’s a pretty good check-list to apply to our lives. Do we relate our expenditure to the needs of others who may have much less than we do, locally and globally? Are we careful not to exploit those who are economically dependent on us? Are we cultivating contentment, acknowledging that enough is enough?

God is not a killjoy and Jesus was known to enjoy parties. Life is meant to be enjoyed. But it will in fact be more enjoyable as we cultivate concern for the challenges presented by John. In so doing, we make a path for the presence of God with us.  

In Malachi’s time the people were asking questions of God: “Where is the God of justice?” they asked (Malachi 2.17).

They were putting God on trial. Why are the promises of God so long delayed? What does he think he’s doing? God responds by saying that he will send his messenger to prepare the way for his own coming, and he will indeed come to fulfil his covenant promises and bring his Kingdom to reign.

But there is more to justice than they realize. Malachi has God saying:

‘So I will come to put you on trial. I will be quick to testify against sorcerers, adulterers and perjurers, against those who defraud labourers of their wages, who oppress the widows and the fatherless, and deprive the foreigners among you of justice, but do not fear me.’

Malachi 3.5

God seems to care a lot about economic justice.

Our faith doesn’t exist in a sealed-off compartment which doesn’t touch the real world of money, business, politics and so on. Luke locates the coming of the word of God to John in the wilderness to the world of power and politics in Rome and Judea, the places where people think the big decisions and the key events take place. But Luke is telling us that what really matters is what you and I do and think today and tomorrow.  

Jesus wants a straight path into the whole of our lives, including the quite large part of our lives which involves our money and how we spend it, our readiness to care for the poor, our willingness to enjoy what we have without always restlessly wanting more.  

Repentance is not just about things we do or don’t do. It also encompasses how we think: it involves a change of mind, a mental shift, a reassessment of  our thoughts about God and ourselves.

Ever since the Garden of Eden humanity has had a distorted idea of itself and of God. We don’t think properly.

This is an extract from the diary of a junior doctor:

Tuesday, 5 July 2005: Trying to work out a seventy-year-old lady’s alcohol consumption to record in the notes. I’ve established that wine is her poison. Me: ‘And how much wine do you drink per day, would you say?’ Patient: ‘About three bottles on a good day.’ Me: ‘OK . . . And on a bad day?’ Patient: ‘On a bad day I only manage one.’

Adam Kay, This is Going to Hurt: Secret Diaries of a Junior Doctor (Picador, 2017) p26

This person is radically confused. She needs a total rethink of her life.

The problem isn’t confined to alcoholics or addicts. Despite a good education I didn’t really learn to think till I came to faith in Jesus Christ. Why is it that so often Jesus didn’t give a straight answer to a straight question? Because he wanted people to learn to think.

In Malachi chapter 3 God confronts people’s questioning of him with a question he addresses to them:

‘ … the messenger of the covenant, whom you desire, will come,’ says the Lord Almighty. But who can endure the day of his coming? Who can stand when he appears? For he will be like a refiner’s fire or a launderer’s soap.

Malachi 3.1-2

When the time came, Israel didn’t do very well in responding to the Messiah. How is that? How did Israel manage to miss their Messiah? How did they get to crucify him when they had the scriptures to guide them, John the Baptist to prepare them and Jesus himself to heal them, feed them, raise the dead, cleanse the lepers, deliver those oppressed by demons and teach them the truth? How is that so many took offence at him? At one point even John himself, languishing in Herod’s dungeon, wasn’t sure that Jesus was the real thing. Jesus sends a message back to John citing the amazing things he was doing and challenging John not to take offence at him (Matthew 11.1-6).

John was puzzled because things weren’t working out well for him, or so it seemed. We can take offence at God when things don’t work out well in our lives or the lives of our loved ones. This can be immensely painful. And God doesn’t expect us to enjoy the pain and he wants us to articulate that pain in prayer. He also wants us to trust him. To trust him that, somehow, in the long run, he will work all things for good. Not immediately, not necessarily so that we can see that in this life, but in his time and in his way.

The other way people take offence, then and now, is because they don’t like the picture of God we find in Jesus and his followers. The Pharisees didn’t like him eating with the riff raff of Jewish society. They thought he was far too lax about the law. Some people took offence because he didn’t seem to be interested in booting out the Romans (that may have been the problem Judas had). Some people took offence because he treated women and children as just as important as men. Some people took offence because he ministered to Gentiles as well as to native Israelites.

Probably none of those are our issues. But we can still have issues. We can take offence when we come across things in the Bible which we don’t like or don’t understand. Some people just give up on the Bible at that point. But that is a mistake. Don’t take offence. Be open to the possibility that you might come to understand something which seems difficult. There is a repeated prayer in Psalm 119 for understanding. Ask the questions, do the research. Be prepared to wait for understanding. But don’t take offence. Repentance involves a renewal of the mind, a willingness to let our minds be shaped and changed to conform to the mind of Christ.

Graham Kendrick’s song “Make way, make way for Christ the King” includes the line:

Fling wide the gates and welcome him into your lives.

We are invited to open up the gates of our hearts and minds to him, allowing him to shape both our actions and our thoughts. That is the heart of repentance.

Building for the Kingdom

In my last post I talked about the Christian hope of resurrection – of heaven coming to earth at the second coming of Christ so that the whole creation is healed and purged of evil and suffering forever.

That hope raises some questions. If it’s true, then what are we meant to do now? How are we supposed to live? What should we do about suffering and evil? To take the issue which is high on most people’s agenda at the moment: what should we do about the planet? If God is going to put the whole thing right one day, should we just wash our hands of any responsibility for its welfare and continue to exploit and pollute it?

That (or something like it) has been the attitude of some Christians at various times. Not usually in the light of the hope of resurrection but in response to the true but incomplete version of the Christian hope which tells us that Christians who die go to be with Jesus in heaven: full stop, end of story. As I have tried to say (probably too often for some people’s taste), the hope of heaven is true but it is far from the whole story; and it is not what the New Testament puts centre stage. Centre stage is always the return of Christ, the resurrection and the renewal of all things.

If that (larger) version of the Christian hope is true, then we need an answer to the question I posed earlier: how should we live? What about care for the planet?

At various points in the New Testament we are told that what we do today has eternal significance. Whatever we do in this world that is founded on Jesus Christ and springs from faith in, and obedience to, him will last; it will find its place in the renewed creation which God plans for the future. The classic text for this is 1 Corinthians 3.12-15:

If anyone builds on this foundation [that is, Jesus Christ] using gold, silver, costly stones, wood, hay or straw, their work will be shown for what it is, because the Day will bring it to light. It will be revealed with fire, and the fire will test the quality of each person’s work. If what has been built survives, the builder will receive a reward. If it is burned up, the builder will suffer loss but yet will be saved – even though only as one escaping through the flames.

How this works – how our efforts today will be preserved in eternity – is largely beyond our comprehension. But the New Testament is full of examples and exhortations around doing “good work[s]”. Paul’s letter to Titus repeats that theme multiple times as the duty and calling of all Christian people. Jesus himself is of course the supreme example. He went about “doing good” (Acts 10.38).

Professor Tom Wright has an image which I think helps us to get a handle on what Paul is talking about:

The image I have often used, in trying to explain this strange but important idea, is that of the stonemason working on part of a great cathedral. The architect has already got the whole plan in mind, and has passed on instructions to the team of masons as to which stones need carving in what way. The foreman distributes these tasks among the team. One will shape stones for a particular tower or turret; another will carve the delicate pattern that breaks up the otherwise forbidding straight lines; another will work on gargoyles or coats of arms; another will be making statues of saints, martyrs, kings or queens. They will be vaguely aware that the others are getting on with their tasks; and they will know, of course, that many other entire departments are busy about quite different tasks as well. When they’ve finished with their stones and their statues they will hand them over, without necessarily knowing very much about where, in the eventual building, their work will find its home. They may not have seen the complete architect’s drawing of the whole building with ‘their bit’ identified in its proper place. Nor may they live to see the completed building, with their work at last where it belongs. But they will trust the architect that the work they have done in following instructions will not be wasted. They are not, themselves, building the cathedral; but they are building for the cathedral, and when the cathedral is complete their work will be enhanced, ennobled, will mean much more than it could have meant as they were chiselling it and shaping it down in the stonemasons’ yard.

Tom Wright, Surprised by Hope (SPCK, 2007) pp220f

We’re not building the Kingdom; only God can do that. Only he has the overview, the wisdom and the knowledge for that supremely great work. But we can and should build for the Kingdom.

So what difference does that make? It means that whatever your calling, whatever your position in life, whatever the limits there may be to your opportunities, what you do matters: caring for an elderly relative, helping to relieve poverty, shopping with ethical issues in mind, preaching the gospel, planting churches, reaching out to a colleague at work in distress… If done in dependence on God and his Spirit, these things will not be forgotten, they will not disappear into the abyss of time but will have a place in God’s future.

Take the issue of climate change. What difference can my very small effort to care for the planet actually make? If (for example) China is going to continue building coal-fired power stations for decades to come, what possible value can there be in my decision to buy green energy? It would be easy to give up in despair. This is where Paul’s teaching comes to the rescue. My/your contribution, small as it may appear to be, has value. It is noticed by God himself; he will find it a place for it when the Kingdom finally comes in fulness.

To repeat: we are not building the Kingdom, but we can build for it.

Advent Sunday

If you asked most Christians what the Christian hope for the future was they would probably say something about going to heaven when you die. That is the assurance given to those who put their trust in Jesus Christ. The man crucified with Jesus who turned to him in faith was promised that he would be with Jesus in paradise that very day. The same promise holds good for us too. Going to heaven after death is good news.

But it’s not the whole good news. It leaves too many questions unanswered. It gives no answer to the question of evil and suffering: when, if ever, is God going to do something about that? Nor does it answer the question of what God is going to do about his spoilt creation: is he just going to chuck it in the bin? Will heaven be all that is left? The full Christian hope answers those questions. Christ will return to complete what he began on earth. His plan is nothing less than “the renewal of all things” (Matthew 19.28 [NIV]).

We affirm it in the liturgy and the Creeds and we read about it in the Scriptures. But do we believe it? In my experience, the answer is mostly: not really! Or at least we don’t think it has much relevance to us…

Why is that?

The church has lost its grip on the hope of the resurrection. In Philippians 1 Paul talks about the real attraction of dying and going to be with Jesus. But having thought it through he decides that there is still work for him to do on earth, so he will stay. In Philippians 3 he talks about resurrection. About this he is unequivocal:

I want to know Christ – yes, to know the power of his resurrection and participation in his sufferings, becoming like him in his death, and so, somehow, attaining to the resurrection from the dead.

Philippians 3.10-11 (NIV)

There is no question what he wants and longs for. Resurrection is the restoration of the whole created order in such a way as to put it beyond harm of any kind. It is the final overthrow of evil. The hope of going to heaven when we die is wonderfully reassuring. But there is more to look forward to: a hope that is compelling and satisfying – spiritually, emotionally and intellectually.

Then there is the problem of delay. Reading the New Testament you get the clear sense that the hope of resurrection was very much real and alive. Two thousand years later it’s easy to suggest that this might have been a mistake. But the problem of delay was real then too:

The Lord is not slow about his promise, as some think of slowness, but is patient with you, not wanting any to perish, but all to come to repentance.

2 Peter 3.9

But there is one other reason, I think, which above all others makes a lively hope for resurrection hard for us. It is the culture we live in. For more than two hundred years, since the eighteenth-century Enlightenment, religion has been largely removed from public discourse and relegated to a private sphere. Going to heaven when you die fits nicely into that scenario. It’s a personal thing, which you can believe if you like. It’s not going to make much difference to anybody else. And it’s not testable (you can’t see if somebody has gone to heaven), so it doesn’t much threaten those who choose to think otherwise.

Resurrection is different. Resurrection says that one day, at a time of his choosing, God is going to intervene in his world, bring an end to evil and suffering and restore everything to glorious perfection. Not only that, but this perfection will be forever immune to any further invasion of evil, pain, suffering or death. This will not be a private moment but a very public event. And that challenges our whole culture. There will come a time when people will no longer be able to go their own way, a time when the world will be called to account, a time for judgment. For some people, particularly for those who are doing well with life as it is, this is a very unwelcome idea.

The hope of resurrection is the hope that one day God will heal the rift between heaven and earth, between his world and ours, between the physical and the spiritual. This is not a side issue in the Christian vision of God’s purposes – it is central and foundational. Here, in one of his most magisterial expositions of the purpose of God, is how Paul puts it:

With all wisdom and insight he [God] has made known to us the mystery of his will, according to his good pleasure that he set forth in Christ, as a plan for the fullness of time, to gather up all things in him, things in heaven and things on earth.

Ephesians 1.8-10

Stephen Kuhrt describes how he explains to children God’s plan to restore all things in Christ. He recounts a conversation with a boy who had built a very impressive Lego castle:

‘Did anything go wrong when you were making this?’ I asked him. ‘Yes, quite a few times,’ he replied. ‘Then why didn’t you throw the whole thing away?’ I asked, to which the boy responded by speaking with some indignation about how valuable and important his castle was.

Stephen Kuhrt, Tom Wright for Everyone (SPCK, 2011) pp70f

If we don’t preach and don’t believe the hope of resurrection we sell the gospel short. We run the risk of presenting a God who began something (his creation) but wasn’t able to complete it. Faced with the spoiling of his world by the invasion of evil, he threw in the towel and decided to wind it up and decamp to heaven with his followers. I don’t believe it; or rather, I don’t think it’s what the Scriptures teach us.

The hope of resurrection is the assurance that one day the Kingdom will come on earth as in heaven, as Jesus taught us to pray. Meanwhile, as we pray and work for that kingdom, we can see glimpses of it here and now. Going to heaven when you die is good; heaven coming to earth is even better.

Daniel 12.1-4: Wisdom or Knowledge?

Do you believe in progress? Whether civilisation in general has progressed is an open question. What is not in question is that we have increased in knowledge. As Daniel says:

Many shall run to and fro, and knowledge shall increase.

Daniel 12.4 ESV

That’s the best brief history of the world I know: lots of running about and an undeniable increase in knowledge.

We naturally assume knowledge must be a good thing. But in the Bible it’s not that simple. The demand for knowledge goes back to the Garden of Eden and humanity’s desire for a knowledge which would make us like God – equal to him and therefore independent of him.

Knowledge is double-edged. It enables us to tackle cancer but it increases our anxiety about getting cancer. Knowledge enables us to understand the physical processes which operate in our world but it enables us to exploit the planet and kill and maim our fellow humans. Knowledge enables us to communicate face to face with our loved-ones on the other side of the world but it enables government and Big Tech to keep us under permanent surveillance.

Will more knowledge solve our problems? It’s not obvious that this is true. Because we believe in knowledge we tend to think that education is the answer to changing the world. British Prime Minister Tony Blair made “education, education, education” his government’s top priority. But education doesn’t always deliver what we want. Where education fails we resort to legislation: making more and more things illegal, thrusting the long arm of the law ever-deeper into our lives. And those who think that legislation is not enough, or not quick enough, resort to intimidation. Think of the Professor of Philosophy at Sussex University who was hounded out of her job for expressing supposedly “incorrect” views on transgender issues.

There is a Russian proverb: Меньше знаешь крепче спишь. The less you know the better you sleep.

What about wisdom? Daniel commends wisdom as the key to a life well-lived:

Those who are wise shall shine like the brightness of the sky above

Daniel 12.3

What is wisdom? Here is a good definition:

Wisdom is the ability to make good decisions, good decisions come from experience and experience is the result of making bad decisions!

That’s why older people are supposed to be wiser than young people.

But wisdom is not just for the old. It is available to any who ask, according to James in the New Testament. It was a characteristic of Jesus in his youth. According to Paul, it is a gift of the Holy Spirit. He tells the Colossians that all wisdom and knowledge (you can have both) are found in Christ.

Elias Chacour is a Palestinian Christian leader. He tells the story of a conflict between one of his churchwardens and another member of the congregation. The conflict came to a head over a vine which this other person had planted in the pastor’s garden. The churchwarden was so incensed by this that he demanded that Chacour dig it up and get rid of it. This is how Chacour describes his response:

I thrust my chin out stubbornly. Anger and exasperation boiled up inside. My thoughts blistered with accusations of stupidity and small-mindedness. And at the same moment, amazingly, a small, almost unheard voice somewhere inside prayed, “Father, let me speak with your tongue, not my own”.

Almost before I knew what I was saying, I replied evenly, “Bring me a bucket of water”.

Triumphantly, the churchwarden sent one of his men hunting for a bucket supposing I meant to loosen the soil so the vine could be uprooted. When the man returned, lugging water from the outdoor tap, I had only just determined what to do with it.

 He thrust it into my hands, and I stooped, spilling water over the leaves in slow, ritual fashion. Setting the empty bucket aside, I raised my hand over the vine. In as serious intonation as I could manage, I said, “I baptize you in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen”.

 The men stared at me as if I were dangerously insane. “There”, I addressed them warmly, “now this is a Christian vine. You cannot uproot your own brother. So he stays”.

Indignantly, they turned on their heels and stomped away.

Elias Chacour, Blood Brothers

Knowledge tends to create problems. Wisdom solves them. Wisdom often comes from left-field, astounding and sometimes confounding the hearers. Remember how unpredictable and unanswerable was Jesus’ response to the question about paying taxes to Caesar.

Our world desperately needs wisdom. Whether we’re responding to climate change or refugees crossing continents in search of safety or handling the Covid-19 pandemic, we need wisdom as well as knowledge. So does the church. So do all of us. According to James in the New Testament, we only have to ask. The answer doesn’t always drop into our minds just as or when we would like. We have to wait for God’s time, which is often not ours. Chacour didn’t know just what he was going to do with the bucket of water he’d asked for till the last minute. And we may have to put aside our natural inclinations and our pride in order to receive and act on it.

Revelation 21.1-6: A Vision of Hope

Today is All Saints Day so I’m going to talk about hope.

What is hope? In everyday speech hope is by definition something we’re not sure about, something about which we have no great assurance or confidence.

In the Christian faith hope is exactly the opposite. Hope in the New Testament is not wishful thinking: it is a solid, well-defined vision of the future which we are commanded to get our heads round and to hang on to.

What is that vision for the future?

First of all, it’s the promise of a new world: a new heaven and a new earth. In other words, a new everything. A new cosmos. But a particular kind of new. The Greek word means renewal rather than replacement. The new world will be recognisable but also gloriously different. There will be both continuity and discontinuity. Just as was the case with the resurrection body of Jesus. Sometimes he was easily recognized but sometimes not. Always he was able to do both ordinary things like making breakfast on the beach and extraordinary things like walking through locked doors.

God himself speaks:

I am making all things new.

Revelation 21.5

… which is not the same as making all new things. He is going to take what he has created and fill it with new life and possibilities. He is not going to chuck it in the bin.

Apparently there will be no sea. For lovers of the sea that sounds like bad news. But we need to understand the symbolic meaning of the sea. For Israel, the sea meant chaos, nature in rebellion against humanity. So when the Sea of Galilee threatens to drown Jesus and his disciples he “rebukes” it: he tells nature to behave, to get back in its box (Mark 4.39). The absence of sea is a promise that nature will finally be subject to us as God’s co-workers that he always intended us to be. We will be in charge; nature will do our bidding. That should be quite something!

Then there will be a wedding; but not just a wedding but the wedding, the wedding for which all our weddings are merely a foretaste, an amuse-bouche.

Why a wedding? The wedding reminds us, if we needed reminding, that the story of God and humanity is a love story: the passionate love of God reaching out to humanity to draw us into loving union with him. A wedding is also a celebration of a great future which the couple will forge together. This is a story which has only just begun. There is so much more in store. Think of Paul’s image in Romans 8 of our present struggles as the birth pangs of God’s new world. Labour pains are a sign that something new and glorious, a new future, is about to burst on the world – a whole new miraculous life full of promise and possibility.

What can we learn about the bride? Here is what Revelation tells us:

Let us rejoice and be glad and give him glory!
For the wedding of the Lamb has come, and his bride has made herself ready.
Fine linen, bright and clean, was given her to wear.’ (Fine linen stands for the righteous acts of God’s holy people.)

Revelation 19.7-8

Every bride prepares for her wedding. She may even have a vision for that day in her mind for years. She doesn’t just put on her jeans and trainers to walk down the aisle!

We are meant to be prepare for the wedding. Losing weight to get into the dress: not literally – but cutting out of our lives things that aren’t good. Sins, whether great or small. Waste, excessive consumption…  plastic! And putting into our lives love for God and other people. Note that the clothing the bride is given is the righteous acts of God’s holy people. She has had a part in it. She has sent her clothing on ahead of her, the fruit of a life lived in love and holiness before God.

What we do now will last. We can contribute now to God’s future. We are daily investing in that future – for good or ill. David Attenborough says that if COP 26 doesn’t get it right it will be too late. He may be right. I have no way of knowing.

But one day God will put it right. This is the Christian hope. So do we just sit back and not bother? No, we put effort into contributing whatever we can to that future. Which in the meantime will make a contribution to making the present better too.

Finally, we are promised the presence of God among his people. His presence will no longer be hidden but immediately accessible. The rift between heaven and earth, between God and humanity, which started in Genesis 3 in the Garden is now definitively healed, repaired. The easy intimacy and friendship with God which was always his purpose is there for all to enjoy.

So there will be an end to tears, pain, suffering and death.  God himself will come personally to each individual to heal their pain, wiping away their tears. You can’t wipe away tears en masse – it has to be done one person at a time.

The old order has passed away. At least that’s how the NIV translates it. In fact the verse says: “The first things have passed away”. What happens after the first things? Presumably the second things and then the third things and then… Paul hints at something like this in his letter to the Ephesians:

God raised us up with Christ and seated us with him in the heavenly realms in Christ Jesus, in order that in the coming ages he might show the incomparable riches of his grace, expressed in his kindness to us in Christ Jesus.

Ephesians 2.6-7

There are many ages – many planned phases – in God’s future. This life is only the first part of the story – perhaps the first chapter. But there are many more chapters to come. The real adventure is yet to be revealed.

So what is hope? It is both the concrete vision of the future God has planned and our hold on that future in our hearts. It is not a feeling. It is not a matter of temperament, like being an optimist: glass half full rather than half empty. It is a virtue. A muscle we have to develop until it becomes second nature. We have to practise hope, like practising the piano or golf. We practise the virtue of hope through worship and prayer, through reading the scriptures, through consciously holding on to the promises of God for the future.

And, most importantly, we practise hope by preparing for God’s future in tangible and practical ways: purifying our lives as a bride prepares for her wedding day. Getting rid of whatever doesn’t fit in God’s new future. Investing in things, particularly love for God and other people, which will last forever.

Acts 2.14-41: How not to bore people with sermons

I was recently asked to preach a sermon about preaching sermons.

Sermons do not have a good reputation. The novelist Anthony Trollope wrote in Barchester Towers:

There is no greater hardship inflicted upon mankind in civilised countries than the necessity of listening to sermons.

Must it be so? Do sermons have to be boring?

I don’t think so. But, in order to avoid being boring, preachers need some guidance. The following thoughts come from Peter’s sermon on the day of Pentecost. They’re meant to help those who preach to know how to preach and those who listen to know what to listen for (and how to pray for their preachers).

The first requirement of a sermon is relevance – that is, it must reach people where they are, it must scratch a real itch. Peter’s sermon at Pentecost did just that. He gave a commentary on the outpouring of the Spirit which had drawn a large crowd wanting to know what was going on. The crowd was already engaged, seeking an explanation. Above and beyond that, as the sermon would in due course make clear, this was the crowd which had played a shameful part in sending Jesus to the cross at the hands of the Roman authorities. Peter had little trouble in making his words relevant to his audience.

Relevance comes in various forms. A preacher is relevant when addressing someone’s already-aroused curiosity about God. I started listening to sermons because I made a friend at university who had something I didn’t have but wanted to have and which clearly had a lot to do with his Christian faith. I was primed and prepared to listen to a preacher with due attention. His testimony created openness in me; testimony in the context of worship can make the difference between relevance and irrelevance for the preacher who follows it.

A preacher is relevant when addressing an issue of current concern: where is God in the pandemic? what about assisted dying or climate change? Some of these are complex problems without easy answers. But scripture and Christian theology still have something important to say.

A preacher is relevant when addressing the perennial concerns of human beings: relationships, sex, gender, marriage, family, work, money, what the future holds…

The second requirement of preaching is revelation. A sermon is not an opportunity for the preacher to air their own opinions and prejudices. A sermon should reveal what scripture has to say on the topic being addressed. On the day of Pentecost Peter tells the crowd: “This is what was spoken by the prophet Joel”. Here, before your very eyes, scripture is being fulfilled. Not many of us get to speak so directly into the fulfilment of scripture but we can still relate present experience to the story of God’s purposes in the Bible, where he is taking us and how he works in our lives.

Chrissie Chapman spent twenty-five years working as a nurse and midwife in Burundi. For thirteen of those years she lived through the country’s long-running and brutal civil war. Here she tells of one night during that time:

One evening, David [her co-worker] and I were sitting on the front doorstep of my small mud house, gazing at the moon and the stars and wondering what the future held. Gunfire sounded all around us and we could hear crying and terrified screaming coming from the hills. You could feel and almost touch the terror in those screams. As we sat praying and crying out to God for His help, peace, and protection, David suddenly stood up and began to praise God. He was saying over and over, “Thank you, Jesus, thank you, Jesus.” He cried out to me, “Chrissie, just look on the walls.” I couldn’t see anything and didn’t know what he was talking about. David put his hands on my eyes and prayed that God would open my eyes to see what he was seeing. As I opened my eyes, I saw dozens of huge angels standing shoulder to shoulder on top of the six-foot high wall that surrounded the perimeter of our healing centre. These strong, shining heavenly beings clothed in full armour with gleaming breastplates were standing on top of the wall in a complete circle with their backs to us, looking outward. They looked so huge and strong. I was filled with so much awe that every bit of fear drained out of my body and could no longer touch me.

What do you make of that? Is it credible or just too fantastic to take seriously? How are such things to be tested and evaluated?

What makes the story credible to me is the close parallel (to which the author makes no reference) between this account and the account in 2 Kings 6 of the time when Elisha, surrounded by the horses and chariots of the hostile king of Aram, prayed that God would open his servant’s eyes to the hills full of horses and chariots of fire – the Lord’s army come to protect them. Preachers need to look for those times when scripture and contemporary experience match and mutually corroborate each other. The scriptural text and the missionary’s testimony reinforce each other and confirm to us what God can do.

A sermon should reveal good news to the hearers. The punchline of Peter’s quotation from Joel is:

And everyone who calls on the name of the Lord will be saved.

Acts 2.21

God has a good purpose for the hearers in the extraordinary events they have witnessed. He is calling them to receive God’s forgiveness and the gift of the same Spirit that they have seen poured out on the disciples.

A sermon should reveal the presence and power of Jesus Christ. Peter moves on from his quotation from Joel to talking about Jesus, about the crowd’s complicity in the travesty of his crucifixion and then on to his resurrection and current reign as Lord of all. Wherever we are in the Bible, whatever topic we may be addressing, Jesus is already there and we need to make clear his presence. That’s what he himself did as he talked to the two disciples on the road to Emmaus. If, for instance, we are talking about the pandemic we need to be remind people that – despite all that has gone wrong and may yet go wrong in our world – Jesus is Lord. That doesn’t solve all our problems or produce easy answers, but it does give us a hope that is sure and certain. Preaching is primarily good news not good advice. If preaching doesn’t turn us to Jesus then it is little more than human wisdom.

Finally, preaching is meant to generate a response. Having listened to Peter’s sermon, the crowd ask:

Brothers, what shall we do?

Acts 2.37

Peter then tells them what they must do. A sermon is an event. It makes things happen; or rather, God speaks through his word and he makes things happen.

Ideally, the response should be immediate. Telling people to go away and think about what they’ve heard may sometimes work, but too often I suspect the moment is lost and the impact is wasted. The response can take different forms. It may be to get up and do something – a symbolic action perhaps – which has been carefully prepared by the preacher. It may be to invite the Holy Spirit to come and do what he wants to do in the congregation, creating a safe space for him to work in people’s lives as they open themselves to receive.

Some ingredients of a good sermon:

  1. Relevance
  2. Revelation:
    • scripture
    • good news
    • Jesus Christ
  3. Response

There may be other important ingredients. But these seem like a good place to start.

Malachi 3.10-12: The Promise of Tithing

It has been said that there are five Love Languages – ways we express our love: words of affirmation, quality time, physical touch, acts of service, and receiving gifts.

One of the ways we express love for God is by what we give to him. Ourselves, our faith, our time, our obedience and, somewhere in there: our money.

Giving is not meant to be a chore or a burden but a joy and a privilege. Of course we don’t always instinctively feel like that. We are often scared of missing out in some way if we become generous givers.

Two brothers, Kevin and Ryan, aged seven and five, were fighting over the last two pancakes, one being much bigger than the other. Mother decided this was time for a good moral lesson.

So she said: ‘Boys, don’t you think Jesus would let his brother have the first choice?’

Kevin responded quick as a flash: ‘Ryan, you can be Jesus’.

I remember one Sunday morning in Oxford around 50 years ago. I was regularly worshipping at St Aldate’s church. During the service the Rector, Keith de Berry, said he wanted to see all the undergraduates present in the vestry after the service. So we all obediently trooped into the vestry. There he talked to us about giving a tithe, a tenth, of our income to the church. We were fortunate enough in those days to have student grants so we weren’t poor but we weren’t enormously rich either. What I realise now is that Keith wasn’t after our money. This was a large church with a prosperous congregation. Keith explained that because many people tithed their income the church didn’t have any money problems. A tenth of our student grant wasn’t going to revolutionise the church’s finances. But he knew that if we did what he was asking it would revolutionise our lives. I don’t remember now what a tenth of my grant came to, but I did what he asked.

It was one of the most significant steps in my discipleship.

Tithing was an obligation under the law in Old Testament times. It’s not a law for us. And it’s not a tax. It’s a promise. Paul tells the Corinthians:

No matter how many promises God has made, they are ‘Yes’ in Christ.

2 Corinthians 1.20

It’s a promise of God’s blessing on our finances and our material well-being:

Bring the whole tithe into the storehouse, that there may be food in my house. Test me in this,’ says the Lord Almighty, ‘and see if I will not throw open the floodgates of heaven and pour out so much blessing that there will not be room enough to store it. I will prevent pests from devouring your crops, and the vines in your fields will not drop their fruit before it is ripe,’ says the Lord Almighty (Malachi 3.10-12).

Test God?! This is meant to shock. The Old Testament law said “you shall not put the Lord God to the test” (Deuteronomy 6.16) and Jesus endorsed this when tempted by Satan at the beginning of his public ministry. So the promise of Malachi is the exception which proves the rule and suggests that somehow this exception is important.

Why does it matter? What is the real significance of tithing? Is it just a way of financing the work of the church? I don’t think so.

Photo by VisionPic .net on Pexels.com

Tithing is a way of putting yourself and your finances into the hands and under the protection of God. His economy is not the same as ours. He does things differently. So it always is in his Kingdom. The world says “Get and you will get more”. Jesus says “Give and it will be given to you”.

A friend of mine spent a year in France as part of his Modern Languages degree. While there he got involved with a small Protestant congregation. He got to know a single parent family who clearly didn’t have much money. Somehow he discovered that the mother was in the habit of tithing her income to the church. So he asked her how she could possibly afford to do this. Her response was swift, brief and emphatic: “I can’t afford not to tithe”.

God doesn’t need our money – what he wants is for us to learn to trust him. To grow in faith. Tithing our income is a wonderful way to experience the faithfulness of God in the nitty-gritty of life.

At its deepest level tithing acknowledges that we are stewards or managers not owners. All that we have is on trust from God. He wants us to learn to handle money well. Jesus makes it clear that there is a larger long-term purpose in God’s trusting us with money:

If you have not been trustworthy in handling worldly wealth, who will trust you with true riches? And if you have not been trustworthy with someone else’s property, who will give you property of your own?

Luke 16.11-12
Photo by Pixabay on Pexels.com

He is telling us that God’s purpose is one day – in the new creation – to put real resources into our hands to do with as we please. Stuff that we will actually own, resources which will truly be ours. If we have learnt to handle well what is only lent to us, we will be ready to receive what truly belongs to us. We will be totally trustworthy: we will do with those resources all and only what would please God and bless other people.

The journey to that goal starts now.