Monday, November 30, 2020

An emergency Advent sermon

Preaching on zoom in our church involves a practice with the zoom master (a new liturgical term) at 9:30 am, which involves all those taking part to ensure seamless interchanges between different speakers in their homes. I was ready to join on time when my laptop announced that I had no internet connection.  Fortunately, this happens rarely. Fairly calmly I rebooted the house internet.  This has worked before!  Not this time.  Less calmly, as an IT rabbit, I attempted to reconnect as Carol kept urging me to call John, our main church zoom master.

Eventually, I did call and John immediately invited me to preach from his own office housed in their attic. Readers of this blog will know of my GPS fortunes (!) and I put his postcode in the Garmin with a little foreboding as time was running out.   And, alas, I was led to the wrong house though John charged down the road to retrieve me.  I was the first person in their home since lockdown but John (masked) said to me (masked) this was an emergency and surely allowable. 

His equipment is professional though I needed to be careful - since I like to stand I had to mind my head on the sloping roof!  And so, in surprising circumstances, I was able to share in a very well planned service led by two friends from Brazil who lit the first candle and shared something of Advent in Brazil.  My sermon on Luke 1:1-35 was on 5 names and 4 births.  The 5 names are obvious though it remains remarkable that Gabriel's God-zapping intervention lasted only a few minutes and the rest of the story is of God working through ordinary human ways to change history.  

It's worth asking also how many births matter at Advent. Obviously, Jesus (though too often he is ignored). Luke's history insists that John is critical too with his being the first advent nativity. Then it's you and me - in God's long term planning we are included. And the fourth birth is the second birth, being born anew in the love, forgiveness and power of Jesus.  I was able to include the testimony of one of our housegroup members to illustrate how God's Spirit works through ordinary human ways to change history and change us.

Angelus Silesius put it this way: Christ could be born a thousand times in Galilee....but all is vain until He is born in me.

Thursday, November 26, 2020


One of the high points of our US experience was the annual Thanksgiving Day (today - the last Thursday of November) when families and friends gathered over a traditional meal in thankfulness.  I know I have posted on this before because Carol and I never got over these delicious times of being positive and consciously finding reasons to be thankful and sounding them out to others.  Since returning to the UK we have continued the festival, inviting friends to our Cambridge home.  Over the meal Carol recounts the origins of the celebration in the early travails and harvest success of the Pilgrim Fathers before each of us around the table shares something they are truly thankful for.

I say truly thankful because I guess thanks may not always be truly!  That song line: Give thanks with a grateful heart has always posed the question to me: Can we give thanks with an ungrateful heart?   And I think we can....perfunctorily, as duty, we can say thank you without allowing enough pause and thought about the kindness, effort, and love involved. 

On this Covid-clobbered day Carol and I will  share Thanksgiving alone.  She set the table last night complete with a model Pilgrim Father and (of course) thanksgiving napkins.  Putting the photograph on Facebook we were astonished at the greetings and likes from all over the place.  We know we have so much to give thanks for with genuinely grateful hearts.  Thanks to God for all his love so powerfully expressed at Advent and for the love shared with family and friends.  We hope to banish anything  perfunctory or duty!  And enjoy the turkey.

Wednesday, November 25, 2020

A tough sermon

I knew preaching last Sunday would be tough. Part would be OK.  Rev. 21:1-7 describes the ultimate picture of what lies ahead for this world and us. Its description is glorious: a new heaven and a new earth, with God in the midst and no more death, mourning, pain because the old has passed away and the new has come. Sometimes used at funeral services its a wonderful picture.  But move onto verse 8 - shock and horror! How often do we hear about the 'fiery lake of burning sulphur' and God's judgement! I confessed on Sunday that in an earlier sermon I only used v1-7 with its upbeat theme of those who will be overcomers as they stayed true to Jesus.  Linking the encouragements given overcomers in local churches in chapter 2 (and to us today) with the final picture of a new heaven and new earth where again overcomers (21:7) are encouraged to see their inheritance - ultimate glory with heaven and earth transformed as God is in the midst - sounds out such a positive picture.

However, verse 8 is necessary to see the whole of  God's Project Big Picture which shows him not only as the God of Love and Mercy but also of Justice.  And you cannot have justice without judgment or mercy without justice.  Everyone is accountable to God (2 Cor. 5:10) but those who reject him to destroy his creation and its relationships face dire judgement.  How uncomfortable this message is.  How rarely do we talk about. 

I recounted how C.S. Lewis as an atheist rejected God because the universe seemed so cruel and unjust. But how had he got this idea of just and unjust. He wrote: 'What was I comparing the universe with when I called it unjust. If the whole show was bad and senseless from A to Z so to speak, why did I, who was supposed to be part of the show find myself in such violent reactions against it.   Of course I could have said my idea of justice was a private idea but if I did my argument against God collapsed.  Thus in the very act of trying to prove that God did not exist – in other words that the whole of reality was senseless - I found I was forced to assume that one part of reality – the idea of justice was full of sense.   Atheism is too simple. If whole universe has no meaning we should never have found it that is has no meaning'.  Later he put it this way: 'There are only two kinds of people in the end: those who say to God, ‘Thy will be done’  and those to whom God says in the end ‘Thy will be done’….. Without that self-choice there could be no Hell.'

Sometimes being faithful to God's word requires all the verses in a text! Tough! (Anyone wanting to follow this up can find the sermon on Histon Baptist Church website under resources!)


Monday, November 16, 2020

Bible use/misuse

Thinking about that spider story, purportedly from the Bible (last post), I can't help but think back to past days when going to church often meant carrying a Bible.  I remember jokes in the 50's and 60's about the bigger the Bible you carried the holier you were!  And some people did carry big Bibles!  It was certainly encouraged in my youth and teens with the express intention that when the Scripture reading was announced you located the verses and followed along.  And, then, most importantly when the preacher began speaking, Bibles were open again so that the sermon's exegesis helped open up the text in front of you.  

At its best, this meant that in a piece of Scripture God freshly spoke to you.  We were sometimes encouraged to make underlinings and keep accompanying notes. But at its worst, it would raise awkward questions about key points missed or other bits skated over. And, I suppose, whether a story about spiders was even there!  Today, obvious Bible carrying seems less, though scrolling the Bible on smart phones works for many.  Clearly churches with screens carrying the text have substituted using your own. However, attentiveness to open Scripture while listening to sermons often seems missing.

Preparing next Sunday's sermon I realize how attentive Bible readers would have given me a much harder time in the past.  My text is Revelation 21: 1-8 - God's promise of a new heaven and a new earth.  Looking back I see that I have preached a sermon 'The Overcomers' with delight in God's glorious vision for the future.  But, to my horror, I chose only Rev. 21:1-7.   Anyone with a Bible open when I was preaching would have noticed how I had missed verse 8 with its judgement ending in the 'fiery lake of burning sulphur.'  It's obvious why I stopped short!  Who wants to hear about judgement?  My preaching was aimed positively for Overcomers.  But God's project big picture holds together love and justice.  So that's why right now I am preparing this sermon firmly including verse 8.  And calling it: God's project big picture.

Sunday, November 8, 2020

Where did the spider come from?

I was intrigued to read Bob Woodward's book 'Rage' last week.  At the beginning he describes some background details in the lives of political characters caught up in the Trump story. He writes about  keen Christian friends, Mike Pence and Dan Coates together with their wives who met for a lengthy prayer session in their concern to follow God's guiding about their political futures. 

On this occasion Pence recounted the Old Testament story of David, who was hiding from King Saul in a cave when God sent a spider to weave a web across the cave opening. On seeing the web, Saul did not enter the cave. The spider had concealed David's presence and saved his life.  The story showed that even a spider might be an instrument of great salvation in the hand of God. 

Marsha Coates, whose grandparents were ministers, had never heard a sermon as serious and deep. The story raised obvious questions. Could a spider normally a cause for fear, bring salvation? (Page 25). 

You can guess why I was intrigued?  Two reasons (at least).  First, it's not in the Old Testament!  1 Sam. 24 certainly tells of David in a cave, but while he is hiding, the pursuing Saul comes into the same cave to relieve himself!  Oh, no spider?  David's men want him to kill Saul, but instead David cuts off a corner of Saul's robe, only to be conscience stricken and to confess to Saul leading to an extraordinary reconciliation.  

Second, where did the spider come from?  I immediately thought of the story I learned at school about Robert Bruce in the cave witnessing a spider at work and marvelling at its patience!  Surely not that! So, where did the spider come from?  Was it some misheard sermon or illustration that became confused with the bible story.  Did Bob Woodward misreport it?   Somewhere along the line biblical illiteracy is at work - all the more seriously if this is the most serious and deep sermon ever heard. 

Sunday, November 1, 2020

120 letters 4) Big regret

I must cease further commenting on these letters because trawling through them has triggered too much else that is of little or no interest to others.

However, I do have one very big regret.  Apart from sending a handful of replies I deeply regret that I did not write  return letters to most of these friends, who had sometimes spent a great deal of effort describing events and relationships in my past with some delightful reflections.  As I have read them again I realize just how much I should have replied properly giving back with some quality time and thought.

I know I can make excuses that time was pressurized (and it was) and that several told me not to bother to reply.   But how splendid it would have been to match these handwritten letters of support with grateful thankyous!   Sending thankyous was imprinted on my childhood manners.  My mother insisted that as soon as I received something I should immediately write a thank you note.   I remember the inevitable birthday mantra - ' 'Have you written those thank you letters yet?'  I think it is good practice....but sadly recognize I largely missed the opportunity back in 1993.   A bit late now, but a jolt to future behaviour!