Tuesday, March 30, 2021

Palm Sunday 2) B3

 The other word that I linked with COURAGE is MEEKNESS.  That sounds such an unlikely combination!  To our ears meekness sounds weak, soft and utterly unimpressive.  A headline in this past week's sports pages described a meek Premier Football team that was failing to show bravery, grit, determination and hardwork. That's what we think of meek.  But it's not how the Bible views it, how Jesus sees it.  For him it's a quality of  gentleness (yes) but with the strength of steel.  It's strength under God's control and it involves bravery grit, determination with huge restraint under aggression and provocation. And that is exactly what Jesus demonstrates through Holy Week.  The donkey he rides is a symbol of meekness.  We would expect a king entering a city to be seated on the biggest animal with a colour party and show of strength.  But that is not God's way. It wasn't at Christmas - a baby born in a stable.  It isn't at Easter, the king on a donkey.

What insights this gives us into the third Beatitude: Blessed are the meek for they will inherit the earth.  For Jesus goes alone to absorb  all the hatred and rejection of this week - betrayal, denial, abandonment, injustice, mockery, cruelty, pain, nails on a cross.  Hideous yet endured with such grace, forgiveness and love. With meekness.

The Beatitude seems a little extreme - promising that the meek will inherit the earth. How could this way of meekness be successful? To an aggressive grasping seizing society this sounds absurd. Some graffiti said on the top line: The meek will inherit the earth, and underneath If that's all right with the rest of you. But inherit is not about grasping and seizing but about receiving and accepting in God's purpose.  We have been brainwashed into thinking that happiness depends on grabbing as much to our self-advantage as possible. How could this rejected lonely figure whose broken body is taken down from public execution and sealed in a tomb possibly end triumphant?  Yet he will reign over a kingdom which will last forever, forged into history by a Cross and Resurrection. 

The implications of meekness are huge....... 

Friday, March 26, 2021

Palm Sunday ahead B3

We will need to listen to the noise because the procession is gaining more and more people, with children excitedly joining in  In the middle of the crowd, and difficult to see because he is riding such a small animal, is Jesus on his way into Jerusalem.  We shall never know whether the disciples had connected the dots when Jesus sent them to fetch the donkey. That they were helping fulfil the prophecy: Shout, daughter of Jerusalem, see your King some to you, righteous and having salvation, gentle and riding on a donkey, on a colt, the foal of a donkey (Zech. 9:9).  But we do know that all four gospels signal this is a big deal - the beginning of the biggest week in the story of Jesus. The crowd is caught up in celebration, waving branches cut down from the fields and shouting: Hosanna! Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord, Hosanna in the highest.  It's a crowd event acting out crowd behaviour.  And only one person there, one person, know what it is all about.  Only Jesus knows this begins the worst week in the history of the world which must be endured for the best ending in the history of the world.  We call it Holy Week and it changes the world.

What qualities do we see in Jesus riding a donkey.  In fact, it's a good question to ask about all he shows us through this intense week.  I need to stress two qualities.  First, and obviously, COURAGE. Sheer physical courage to initiate a week that will bring such pain, suffering and death.  Couldn't he have postponed it?  True, hatred against him in high places is on the rise but consciously, deliberately to ride into the city of death....that takes courage.  A fit 33year old at the peak of his powers, influence at a maximum, choosing to enter this city of death.  He warned his disciples his life would end on a cross and this is it!  Willingly he rides in knowing that he has to do this because God so loves the world that he is giving his one and only Son.

There's moral courage too.  For he will need such moral authority for the days ahead. For cleansing the temple,,,, standing alone for truth against the most powerful people in his society and their false judgement.  And on the donkey, with the pathos of entering a city that does not know what makes for peace when he weeps (Luke 19:41) while the crowd shouts Hosanna.  Six days later a crowd will shout Crucify.  And, hard for us to understand, there is spiritual courage, when he who knew no sin would be made sin for our sakes (2 Cor. 5:21). For the first time in his life he would be separated from his Father in the spiritual agony of abandonment on the cross.   The crowds cannot see it. This is the Lord of extraordinary courage.

Tuesday, March 23, 2021

Nearing Easter

I am so grateful that I have been given the opportunity to preach in my local church the next three Sundays.  While we are waiting for our new minister to arrive in September different people (mostly from our own fellowship) have been preaching.  And, knowing that Easter 2021 was coming up I actually pushed myself forward!  Why, so bold!  Because there's no Sunday in the year as significant and glorious as Easter Day!  It's the greatest day of the year.  A wonderful preaching day.

And what's more, the church leaders have announced today that the church will re-open on Easter Sunday with the same restrictions as before - masks, social distancing and a limit of 30.  So the majority will still join on zoom.  I have been preaching on zoom in our upstairs bedroom for the last four months, staring into the laptop camera imagining my hearers. What a difference it will be to gaze over a live congregation again.  Yes, the masks conceal some reactions but reading the body language of my listeners is so helpful.  I know I have commented before about the pluses and minuses of preaching on zoom but I am rejoicing in the live flesh event ahead!

Before then, Palm Sunday requires zooming on March 28th.  So, much to prepare for.  I have held over the third Beatitude in my preaching series: Blessed are the meek for they shall inherit the earth.  It seems highly relevant for Palm Sunday.  I'll keep you in the picture.


Wednesday, March 17, 2021

29 years later

Early in the 90's I was given a book by an American colleague - Handbook of Contemporary Preaching.  Published in 1992 its 55 chapters ranged over a vast range of preaching issues written by 50 authors many of whose names I recognized.  However, like other reference books it sat on the shelf. Only occasionally I dipped into its chapters.  

Suddenly, come 2000 when I was transplanted to teach preaching in the USA this book, and many others, became tools of the trade.   Several of the authors became known to me and the world of homiletics opened up in fresh ways.  As I mentioned in an earlier blog, now I have moved into retirement phase, I am downsizing my books (including this handbook) though the pandemic has slowed down dispersal. 

And then, out of the blue came the news that a new edition of the handbook is going to be reissued, 29 years on! I was invited to write the overview chapter introducing the section 'Preaching and the Ministry'. You can imagine my surprise and delight...and relief that I still had some of my library to consult. The essay is called: The role of preaching in ministry.  I have just sent it to the General Editor. 

With this writing task over these last few weeks I have been reminded of what can happen over a period of 29 years!  How much we can learn and grow! And for me, how much I thank God for the new opportunities he gave me.  Actually, we don't need that long to look back and be grateful, do we?   

Saturday, March 13, 2021

Remembering Luis Palau

I have been reading the tributes to Luis Palau, who died this week, and I share gratitude for this gifted man of God whose evangelism touched the world. Christianity Today Weekly focused a series of articles reflecting on his remarkable ministry.  As one of Billy Graham's prominent successors he preached to millions in more than 80 countries leading many to make personal faith commitments to Christ.  His world influence was spelt out by several big names who remembered him with affection and gratitude. 

A memory flashed into my mind from the 90's from the heady days when I shared in Spring Harvest's ministry.  On this occasion a 'Pastor's Stream' with parallel meetings had been organized to focus on the needs of those in ministry.  This particular day had two consecutive sessions.  I was invited to lead the second one on 'Coping with pressures in ministry'.  I cannot remember the exact title for the previous session but it was about relationships and it included the word 'sex'.

And guess who was speaking?  Luis Palau. I arrived from another commitment just as he was finishing his session, which held the packed tent enthralled (as you can imagine)  There was a short break before I took over.  It was the first time I had met him face-to-face   We greeted each other and I asked how his session had gone (as you do!)  His reply was unforgettable and went something like this. 'Well, I don't know anything about the subject but I managed to speak for one and a half hours!'  I roared with laughter.  What an extraordinarily disarming thing to say!   Warmth, humour and self-depreciation were all trademarks of this man and in one sentence he showed it. 

It was just a passing moment but it revealed much!

Thursday, March 11, 2021

Sermon evaluations

Someone wrote to me last week and at the end of their message put: Thank you for your messages and looking forward to hearing many more demons in the weeks to come.  S is close to d on the keyboard...anyone could make the mistake!  

It reminded me of the story of the young preacher who was preaching his first sermon in front of a senior minister.  'Well, he inquired' did it do?'  To which the answer came 'Do what".  It is the preacher's longing that in preaching a sermon God will take it and use it to good effect.  

Today I received an urgent plea on behalf of a pastoral search team in  a US church I know, following the retirement of a gifted pastor/preacher.  They have received over 100 applications and have been trying to sift through them using  a very detailed Candidate Sermon Evaluation Form.  I think evaluations forms are invaluable in the classroom (I used them all the time) but how vital it is to discern beneath its questions. For what it's worth I wrote back....

So much more is at stake when considering a new pastor such as their pastoral love for people, their openness to God, their vision for mission and their continued commitment to grow in discipleship with others. Too often the mechanics of analysis can obscure the heart of the preacher. Aspects of performance can cloud judgement. So much depends on whether God may be calling this particular person to your church. Is it evident how seriously they take preaching as an exercise in loving, leading and learning under Christ with their congregation?  How prayerful and worshipful are they in their whole approach? I believe some of these key issues are seen when a person preaches in person but they need discernment.  Such as:

 Have they lived in the text so it is real to them and can become alive to the hearers?  (Is it first-hand experience of God's word?)

Is there love in their approach, their words, but also relevance with a willingness to speak harder words?

Do illustrations show wider curiosity, reading,  (rather than generic and personal stuff)?

Is there expectation of compliance in responding to the sermon's impact?  Is the preacher expecting God to work in particular ways with his word in this sermon? 

So, there's no escaping the need for spiritual discernment..

And we could add so much more, can't we?


Tuesday, March 9, 2021

Climbing a hillside 12) B4 Rebuke at Lent

During Lent we can consciously spend time on this Beatitudes's learning curve ... recognizing where we are spiritually parched and empty.  When I lived in South London we belonged to a small Baptist church. We met in the church hall because the main building was in disrepair.  On this particular Sunday an older man, whom I didn't know, was sitting on the chair next to me. The service had seemed routine to me (largely leaving me in my own thoughts!) so I was startled when after it was over he turned to me and asked: 'How's your walk with Jesus?'  Oh, how that took me to the essentials - how close was my relationship?  How satisfied I was in my life?  How was my appetite for God and his righteousness?  As is clear, I have never forgotten the shock and importance of that question.

It's an appropriate rebuke for this period leading up to Easter which many in the world church mark as a time of making fresh commitment in walking with Jesus to the Cross.  Traditionally it's a time of renewed prayer, fasting and almsgiving. But that doesn't come easily to most of us. Motivation is difficult. Desire doesn't just happen. Recently I read a challenge: 

Prayer cannot work without desire and desire cannot grow without meditation on God. You have to spend time with God for the Spirit to kindle desire within us. "As the deer pants for the water, so my soul longs after you" (Ps, 42:1,2) God cannot be grasped in hasty glances or by feverish clutches but by a process which God himself maintains God quietly reveals himself to those who wait on him. (From R. F Horton: The Open Secret).

Many in my local church have committed themselves to spent more time with God as we approach Easter. Some of us are using The Little Book of Lent to guide daily meditation and prayer.  What an opportunity God is giving us afresh. How is your walk with Jesus?

Wednesday, March 3, 2021

Climbing a hillside 11) B4 water....WATER

On a hot day, when this attractive, vivacious, confident woman goes to a well to fetch water she needs it as a daily necessity. It's the bottom level of the pyramid of needs. We have no idea how satisfied she is with the rest of her life in terms of emotional needs and self-actualization.  When this stranger by the well asks her for a drink she knows this is wrong. She points it out: You are a Jew and I am a Samaritan woman. How can you ask me for a drink? (John 4:9).  Meet her and he will be ceremonially unclean.

We could never guess how the story continues. And it's a pivotal point. Jesus tells her that if she knew who he is, she would ask him for a drink and he would give her living water.  Isn't this total absurdity?  Sitting by a well, which she points out is deep and he has nothing to draw up the water, Jesus is offering her a drink! We don't blame her for not understanding. She points out the impossibility and chides him for thinking he is greater than Jacob who gave the well.  Jesus replies that those who drink the well water will be thirsty again but those who drink the water he will give them will never thirst. Indeed the water I give him will become in him a spring of water welling up to eternal life. And this makes no sense either.  Is it with a mocking tone that she responds how this will be good so she won't need to keep coming back to the well?

And then the conversation suddenly turns.  Because we have just considered righteousness we know that Jesus is concerned about all of our lives.  When he asks her to call her husband she replies she has no husband. To which Jesus agrees and reveals the truth of five previous husbands.  She can live in a better way. This is the challenge that matters - behaving well, behaving God's way.  Righteousness matters.

Conversation deepens and the wonder of her learning is summed up in verse 20.  Then leaving her water jar the woman went back to town and said to the people: Come see a m an who told me everything I did. Could this be the Christ. (I once heard a sermon just on this verse). She went for water but this is now secondary. She has met Jesus.  She's not quite the full poster-girl for this Beatitude but she's on her way.

The learning curve from water to LIVING WATER is steep.  The disciples don't get it either when Jesus tells them he has food to eat that they know nothing about.  For all of us whose lives are summed up by the pyramid of need it's a huge step to think of yearning for righteousness. 

Monday, March 1, 2021

Climbing a hillside 10) B4 Righteousness - two sides

Righteousness is a very big God word, occurring so often through Scripture, because it is a key way of describing who God is and how he acts.  The word can be understood in two ways. 

First, it's about doing right and living right in God's way.  About ethics and behaviour. Living justly according to God's will.  We notice in the Christmas story that because Joseph was a righteous man and did not want to expose Mary to public disgrace, he had in mind to divorce her quietly (Matt 1:19).  Joseph wanted to do the right thing.  Righteous living seeks to follow the 10 commandments and when Jesus radicalizes these so that anger in the heart is akin to murder and lust as much to be condemned as adultery (Matt 5) we realize that right living in God's way sets a very high bar indeed.  We know from past experience that we can never keep good behaviour up for long.  We are biased towards selfishness and away from God. We can never get over that high bar.  We long to do better but always mess up.  Consistent right living is technically impossible.  What human has ever done this?  Ah....the second aspect.

Second, righteousness is a gift - the gift of a right relationship with God because of what Jesus has done. Jesus came the righteous for the unrighteous.  You may have a favourite verse;

For Christ died for our sins, once for all, a righteous man on behalf of unrighteous sinners in order to lead us to God (1 Pet 3:18) 

God made him sin who had no sin to be sin for us, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God (2 Cor 5:21).

I once repeated this last verse when I was preaching and a student bounded up to me afterwards, eyes flashing.  He came right up to my face.  'That cannot be right', he said. ' That's wrong. That thing about God made Jesus sin'.  And I had to say it is so wrong and yet this is what Jesus does on the cross to win the liberation he gives us at Easter, to be people who know God's forgiveness, love and promise of eternal life.

Living rightly, justly only becomes possible in the gift of righteousness through Jesus Christ. He promises us his help and the Holy Spirit and that makes all the difference.