Thursday, July 11, 2024

Guff

I had hoped to wrap up some Jude thoughts but unfortunately a 'flesh is weak' episode has grounded me this last week and pain has somewhat befogged my mind.  Last Thursday early morning I asked our surgery (by email) for help about my painful left knee.  Called in for a face-to-face appointment (a golden chance) I was told it was probably osteoarthritis etc. etc. Walking back to the central Cambridge car park with some effort, I crossed a road only for my left leg to lose power and catapult me into railings by the pavement.  The knee had decided enough was enough.

With an heroic struggle (!) I drove home prepared to lose the rest of the day in emergency care in hospital. Which is exactly what happened.  As I retold the story 7 times to a stream of enquirers I explained there was no fall, no sudden twisting, no apparent cause. The knee just gave way.   Xrays followed as did the ill-fitting of a very uncomfortable splint. Paracetamol is supposed to give relief. Supposed to. 

Today the damage was diagnosed as anterior dislocation of the knee requiring several weeks of healing and physio.  The latter is scheduled for 'sometime' in the future. 

I know some kind friends are praying for me - how I value your care.  I'll try to fit in finishing off Jude shortly having worked hard on that last sermon.  I want a post with some meat in it, not just personal guff. Sorry, this was personal guff.  Is that a word...guff?

Wednesday, July 3, 2024

Tough humility

I admit my last post on FAMILY was loosely hung on the text.  That's true of my second point too! When Jude describes himself as a Jesus' slave and a brother of James he does not appear to be pumped up with self-importance. I don’t want to push the evidence of one phrase but it seems that Jude is saying it really doesn’t matter who I am.  Whether he was a truly humble person or not, his self-introduction gives opportunity to sound out one of the most difficult challenges of Christian behaviour: HUMILITY 

That’s a staggering attitude for human beings to take. In humility consider others better than yourself. Each of us should look not only to your own interests but also to the interests of others (Phil 4:3). As Message  puts it: Don’t push your way to the front; don’t sweet talk your way to the top. Put yourself aside and help others get ahead. Don’t be obsessed with getting your own advantage.  THINK ABOUT YOURSELF IN THE SAME WAY JESUS DID. Of course ego is important. You need to know you have a purpose, you're not a wall flower. Yes, you are loved and special to |God but in God's sight you are not more special than others.  He makes you count more than ever before but never more than any other of his family. 

Honestly, we do tend to place ourselves in a ranking with some people more important above us and plenty of people who aren’t as important below us.  Wrong. So wrong. In humility consider others better than yourself   What a powerful contrasting way for Christians to live together Those with prime gifts are not more significant in the body of Christ than others.  

John Wesley set a high bar when he warned: Oh beware! Do not seek to be something! Let me be nothing and Christ be all in all.  A friend sent a message this week:  He wrote: 'I think this is true'. And underneath he copied a T.S. Eliot quote:  Most of the trouble in this world is cause by people wanting to be important.  I think that's true too. How many rampant egos have destroyed relationships and organizations? 

A story is told in the early church when Emperor Domitian ordered that any remaining physical members of Jesus' family should be rounded up. He wanted no future centre for rebellion  They found Jude's grandsons, arrested them and brought them to court only to find that they were such ordinary people - hardworking, unimportant peasants. They dismissed them as totally harmless and of no consequence.  It’s true that our local churches must appear to comprise such ordinary people who can be dismissed as harmless.  But when people live like Jesus in humility, counting others better than themselves, they are living a revolution which Scripture calls 'new creation'. And that cannot be dismissed, can it? 

Sunday, June 30, 2024

On the way with Jude

 As was evident in my last post my covid illness has hung around and I wondered about whether Jude would get a hearing today in Bluntisham Baptist Church. But the good Lord gave me stuttering improvement through this week. The eventual sermon emerged as different themes hit me in preparation. Some have looser connection with the text than others. Let me give you a couple of examples. First, I highlighted FAMILY

Thinking of James and Jude makes you think. How we wish we had mote detail. However, we do have that family list, as people began responding to Jesus' ministry. In Matt. 13:54 some people who clearly knew his family say: Where did this man get this wisdom and these miraculous powers? Isn’t this the carpenter’s son? Isn’t his mother’s name Mary and aren’t his brothers James, Joseph, Simon and Judas.  That last name gained a certain reputation (wonder why?) so the abbreviation Jude could easily be our writer. . 

All this raises questions about how Jesus' family behaved towards him.  All families have dynamics and sometimes dysfunction.  We wonder about that moment when part of the family group appears to treat Jesus negatively.  As Jesus gains popularity they arrive to take him away. They seem to use pretty unsupportive language: 'He's out of his mind (Mark 3:21).  Who knows the motive. Perhaps they were worried about his safety. Maybe they thought he needed psychiatric help!  Who knows what feelings of sibling rivalry might there have been? It really looks like his family is  having a hard time believing that big brother is all that these people are saying.  

How we wish we know more.  How the relationships develop as momentum grows in Jesus' ministry.  When the utter blackness of the cross seems to be the end there is terror and brokenness for his mother who is there. Maybe other family members are present too.  And in the glory of the resurrection when everything changes for the better it is wonderful to read about Jesus appears to James and to 500 people in 1 Cor 15. Within this family story its members have moved from puzzlement to conviction.  Transformed by the risen Jesus, James and his younger brother Jude seem overwhelmed in love as they throw themselves utterly into following Jesus as Lord and Saviour. In AD 61 James will be martyred. 

Reflecting on family dynamics, rivalries, relationship breakdowns going tragically wrong, how wonderful to see Jesus' physical family apparently coming together so well.  Mentioning physical families challenged me about my own brother - and how the relationship is. How is it with your brothers and sisters? How good it is when relationships come together well in our physical families!    


Saturday, June 22, 2024

Everything's an effort

Thank you to friends who have checked in about our covid recovery.  Having tested negative a week ago we have now entered the 'everything's an effort' stage. Energy bursts turn out to be trickles. Surges of activity (born out of half glass full optimism) are followed by fading and jading. Several times Carol and I have felt we have turned a corner to discover there's another corner backwards round the corner.

Frustratingly appointments have had to be cancelled and I wonder when I can go firmly with my next commitments.  In particular I am concerned about my next preach on June 30th.  I have the task of preaching on Jude in the Bluntisham series on Overlooked Books of the Bible.  It's not an easy task. Read it through and you realize why it's overlooked! Working out who Jude was requires some guess work and when you see some of his words, quoting books not included in the Old Testament there is much that is odd. Like the story (verse 9) about archangel Michael disputing with the devil over Moses' body  (in a book called the Assumption of Moses). Or his references to Enoch (verses 14,15) from the Book of Enoch.  In verse 18 he quotes the apostles though there is no record of them saying that.  So, why give over time to preach on Jude?   

I saw a headline two weeks ago: THE AGE OF JUDE.  Inside there was a double page spread about Jude Bellingham. A dense biography of this 20 year old footballer as he makes impact in the Euros. (As I write, not as much impact as the nation hoped...but there's time!) There was so much detail about his life - perhaps more than I needed. The thing about the NT book of Jude is that we only have one sentence. One sentence as a clue to who he might be.  And frankly it raises questions, involving a great deal of guesswork. 1 sentence only: v1 Jude. A servant of Jesus Christ and a brother of James.  

A servant of Jesus Christ opens up wide possibilities. Someone who belongs body, mind and soul in the service of Jesus. The servant word is close to slave.  But what about the second part? That is more specific: a brother of James. James was a popular name but there is one James more than any other who becomes leader of the church in Jerusalem and is the key figure in the early church. See  his role in Acts 15. We have his letter which is not one of the overlooked books of the Bible. Later he's known as James the Just. And what is the most distinctive thing about this James?  He is brother of Jesus. When Paul visits Jerusalem to meet Peter he describes how he met one apostle: Gal 1:19  James the Lord’s brother.  And that means that if Jude is a brother of James he also is a brother of Jesus. Now most early readers would know of James. So it makes sense for Jude to describe himself like this.

But being a brother to Jesus - WOW.  I guess this is why they had to include this letter in the canon. 

 


Sunday, June 16, 2024

Covid hits

Two Sundays ago I was merrily in fellowship with shared responsibility for a busy prayer corner after the morning service and a good healthy feeling about life. But, later that same day I was hit hard by flu like symptoms with sore throat, head ache, coughing, nausea and exhaustion.  Unaware of having been in any unhealthy places, I struggled the next couple of days to wade through the symptoms, hoping Carol would stay free. Alas, on Wednesday she succumbed!  It then dawned on me that this was a heavier issue than a cold/flu.

I dug out the boxes of Covid tests that were left over from the height of the pandemic 18 months ago.  One large box had dried out completely.  The other expired last September but a couple of test tubes still had some liquid in them. When I tested myself I was unsurprised that the two bars shone positively and instantly.  No doubting this was the real deal!  Neighbours bought some up to date tests to use for Carol.  The same positive result emerged instantly.  In spite of me having all the covid injections on offer somehow the latest variant has sneaked through the defences.  And it is utterly miserable.  I have slept large slabs of time since which at least is a good escape mechanism.  But it's taking its toll.

We tested again with the same positive results three days ago but I have just emerged into negative territory.  Carol has been behind in recovery but is at last making progress.  I know that so many others have been through these suffering cycles - perhaps including you. It has interrupted several plans and appointments but how we deal with interruptions is an indication of our maturity and patience ( or lack of them!)  Seeking to be mature and patient!

Wednesday, June 12, 2024

A last Hurrah!

Denuded of my preaching library and with fewer outlets for research, I pondered whether I could offer any words of value to this volume. But then a thought struck me! In 2014 the US seminary where I was teaching was chosen by the Lily Foundation to contribute research to its national project titled: ‘Strengthening the Quality of Preaching.’ I seized the opportunity to design a response called ‘A New Kind of Preacher (NKP)’ which resulted in conferences, peer learning groups, two books and shared fieldwork influencing a few hundred pastors. However, owing to a change of seminary personnel, the books were never published and, sadly, the programme lost momentum with my work disappearing.  I wondered whether a compressed essay in this festschrift might give this lost work one last Hurrah!  

I admit my thinking was absurdly ambitious. Instead of concentrating on the task of preaching and the act of sermon making, I dared to question the role of sermon makers, probing theological questions about who preachers are in relationship to God, to their congregations, and to the surrounding culture. Not so much about what they preach as to how and why they preach. On the persons of preachers.

To encapsulate the project’s concept as well as its structure I proposed this definition. The Preacher thinks and feels deeply about God, has self-knowledge, and is called by God to pastor the congregation as a lead worshipper, proclaimer, collaborator, community builder and missionary.

 It begins theologically, with concern that preachers have a lively understanding of Trinitarian dynamics not only for seeing more of how God works in the world but experiencing how he is involved with them in the preaching act. Pivotal for integrating five roles, I use the term pastor to express the foundational relationship with a congregation.  The five roles define dimensions of the preacher’s ministry. Not all hold equal significance. Lead-worshipper, Proclaimer and Missionary are prime roles with Collaborator and Community Builder playing indispensable supplementary roles. Whenever any one of these roles is diminished so is preaching. 

A range of preaching genres is closely connected with these roles. Traditionally, sermon preparation concentrated mainly on words (focus) in order to retell a passage’s meaning with appropriate application.  However, more recently a revolution has occurred in biblical interpretation about how God encounters us in Scripture. He not only says words in messages but also does things (function) by those messages. Rhetorical studies of Scripture have shown how different genres move us to varying responses. Some are well known such as evangelistic, prophetic, pastoral and doctrinal.  To these I add: celebratory, liturgical (recognizing that ‘liturgy’ applies to any order of worship from highly formal to wildly informal), salvation history, and missional. Together, these eight complement each other in the five dimensions of the preacher’s ministry.

So, dear Stephen's festschrift gave me one last chance for this preaching vision to see the light of day before I ride off into the sunset.  Thank you for the opportunity Stephen!

 


Friday, June 7, 2024

Honouring a friend

When notable academic colleagues retire one special way of marking their contribution is to publish a festschrift (from German celebration and writing) in their honour.  Rev. Dr. Stephen Wright - a noted New Testament and Homiletics scholar - recently finished at Spurgeon's College after beginning there in 1998. He started as Director of the College of Preachers but was to continue as a vital leader of the Spurgeon's community. For over 25 years he has been such a wise, gentle, humble, gifted teacher, educator, pastor, author and friends to so many of us. So, a very worthy candidate for a festschrift.

When the editor asked me to contribute a chapter I wanted to say 'Yes'. I have contributed to others' celebration writing and since I was involved in Stephen's appointment I particularly would have liked to chip in a word. However, all my academic books had already been shipped out and familiar academic props were missing.  I felt academically bereft!  Therefore I declined to take part.

However, the Editor came back to me.  His second ask was insistent. Didn't I have special responsibility at Stephen's beginning?  Surely something could emerge!  Reluctantly, with mixed results, something did emerge and I'll post about it next. But the wonderful aspect of presenting any final publication like this is that, at its best, the whole exercise has been conducted in utmost secrecy.  When the presentation is eventually made on a public occasion, the book should be a total surprise. A shock of the best kind. 

Last week the presentation ceremony was scheduled at Spurgeon's College Chapel. It was too early for me to attend in person but fortunately it was streamed (and what a gift online service gives us)!  Though we were ready for the start at 10:30 am and the camera showed friends gathered in the chapel, Stephen was absent and blissfully unaware. He arrived some 10 minutes later and was utterly stunned .  By his wife and daughter, who had been involved in the planning, yet who had somewhat misled him about their commitments that morning! And by the group of friends and colleagues.  Beginning with lively worship and prayer we came to the moment when Stephen was handed his own festschrift.  You could see the genuine surprise and delight as he held it and as video tributes and written greetings followed.  It was a shock of the best kind.

What a great way to honour a deserving scholar. To top it all he was told that in the afternoon he would be at Lambeth Palace with the Archbishop who had written the book's foreword.  It's worthily called: Well Done, Good and Faithful Servant. 

Friday, May 31, 2024

Y = TRUTH

Right from the beginning of this short letter John links LOVE with TRUTH. Just look at the word's frequency. Whom I love in the truth - and not I only but also all who know the truth - because of the truth which lies in us and will be with us forever (vv1,2)   It has given me great joy to find some of your children walking in the truth. (v4). But it's only some who are walking in the truth. That deeply concerns him.

There are truths with a capital T and the biggest is who Jesus is, the Way, the Truth and the Life (John 14:6). Scripture reveals the extraordinary truth that God has revealed himself to us in flesh.  That Jesus is born in Bethlehem. He is God incarnates, identifying with us. Yet at the same time he is God's Son. 100% divine and 100% human. To sensible people this belief is nonsense! Ever since the church began sensible people have taught either he is more God than man or man that God.

For this new young church some have come with a particular teaching: 'Many deceivers, who do not acknowledge Jesus Christ as coming in the flesh have gone out into the world' (v7) This church is clearly in danger of listening to false teaching. This Gnostic thinking with many variations likes behind several New Testament letters. It seem this particular teaching refused to accept that God who is spirit and utterly pure and good could be mixed up with the material, impure and evil world.  So, if Jesus is truly God it’s nonsense to claim that he was born in flesh and that he actually died. No, Jesus became God at his baptism and left the man before the crucifixion.  

There has always been controversy about who Jesus is. Always.  Someone came up to me at church a couple of weeks ago:  'We have a group of Christians who meet at work and we have this bloke who is a Christadelphian.  And don’t they have strange teaching about Jesus? ' Well, their approach is to say that because there is one God, Jesus is not divine with the Father. There's no Trinity. I happened to be preaching this last Sunday which to many in the world church is set apart as Trinity Sunday. After the Spirit has come at Pentecost the fullness of God's three persons is revealed. New disciples will be baptised in the name of the Father, Son and Holy Spirit. Trinity Sunday always pushes us to think beyond human wisdom and ask for spiritual wisdom which is truth beyond reaston - transrational.  It's spiritual truth which God wants us to open our hearts and minds to in wondering faith that  accepts God's thoughts are not ours. 

One radio programme when the Archbishop talked with various people about Christianity involved the comedian John Cleese who expressed interest. . But then he said: 'What I don't understand is wh yJesus had to die!'  That's raw human wisdom declaring how something makes no sense. It is foolishness (1 Cor 2:13). It's only by spiritual wisdom which opens up to the possibility that Jesus truly is the Son of God  that the Cross begins to make spiritual sense.   

John writes to this church about being careful about who you have to teach and challenge you. It means keeping alert.  Don’t let minor byways distract you from the major truths of the gospel and Jesus as Lord, Son of the Father, with the Holy Spirt as Trinity is as major as they come.

Monday, May 27, 2024

X = TOUGH LOVE

It’s tough love. Tough love is the practice of being very strict with someone to help them correct their behaviour.  Jesus as Lord commands us to love in his ways. He commands us to walk together in love.

Nicky Gumbel, the inspiration behind the Alpha programme, has recently posted a couple of quotes on Facebook from Alice Cooper, the American rock singer. Almost as old as me (!) Cooper used to plaster his face with lurid black make-up. An old picture of him accompanies the quote: Drinking beer is easy. Trashing your hotel room is easy. But being a Christian is a tough call. That’s real rebellion.  Yes, real rebellion.

Doing stuff that Jesus calls us to do is tough There’s an act of compassion, someone who could really benefit from us giving them some time. We just don't feel like doing it. Jesus says: 'Do it for me.' There’s a commitment that I know Jesus would like but I don’t feel like doing it. Jesus says: 'Do it for me.' When my home group discussed keeping commitments recently (I mentioned this in a post) we saw the challenge between the practical commitments that are required in our daily lives - paying bills, keeping appointments, doing jobs and the voluntary commitments that Jesus requires.  Those commitments reveal our willingness to obey with tough love. Jesus love. Agape.

Local churches work by tough love - when their congregations make commitments to each other and their neighbours that Jesus requires, commands.  And I know it as an itinerant preacher.  When you visit a church for the first time, sadly, sometimes you can feel the tensions where people are working an organization rather than working at love. Sometimes it has almost seemed that aliens had come and sucked out life spirit from people and left soulless bodies.  

It's obvious that the formula for a spiritual strong church needs LOVE. X.  And in this letter John keenly links love with one other vital requirement. Y.  It's mentioned five times in the first four verses.....

Friday, May 24, 2024

X = LOVE

The first word in the formula X + Y = a spiritually strong church is so obvious, and it is especially a John, the apostle, word. There’s an old story (which means you have probably already heard it) of John preaching his last sermon.  He was so old, his voice was weak and he was frail. Because they so revered him the crowds squeezed in tight to hear this apostle who’d actually been with Jesus. |What would his last words be?  With a quavering voice he said: Little children love one another. Little children love one another. Little children love one another. And then again, and again, the same words. People became restless. Some said it was such a shame. Was it a sign of dementia?  Was this all he was going to say?  Some people understood. It really was the most important thing of all for them to hear. And some, in their shame, knew John was probing deeply about what mattered most about their own behaviour.  

You can hear John's love for these people  It says 'the chosen lady and her children' and it could be a family group whom he loves  v1.  Or it could be his way of speaking to a local church a sister church full of brothers and sisters . In fact, it’s suggested that the details are left vague so that in those  days of persecution disciples couldn’t be identified. But I think he knew their names and he loves them. He cannot wait to see them face-to-face v12. To belong to a group of people who love and care for each other is the greatest gift.

Love  is such a warm, popular yet elastic word. It extends over a wide spectrum from the superficial at its lowest end. Carol and I happen to love Lentil and Bacon soup which at the moment means we have a small store. And we say we love it.  We can say that with meaning about favourite food, football clubs, pop stars and the a heap of things. Moving along the spectrum love becomes heavier and more engaging.  We can fall in love - love of partners, family, friends, It can be highly emotional. Of course we can also fall out of love. But at its highest, and it really is the highest form of love, is Jesus love, Agape. That's the word in John 2.  It's never highly emotional. It cost Jesus everything to love us and it costs us everything to love him back.  We have to make him Lord and say in the power of the Spirit that we want to love other people like Jesus loves us.  It’s a commanded love, that needs our hearts, souls, minds and will.  John says it often: it’s not a new command but one we had from the beginning. I ask that we love one another and this is love: that we walk in obedience to his commands. As you have heard from the beginning, his command is that you walk in love. (vv5,6).

It's a tough love. 

Monday, May 20, 2024

A church formula

Keeping commitments (to follow a recent theme) involves me preaching a couple of times in the next few weeks. Back at Bluntisham, still in awaiting a new minister, I am hooked into their current preaching series -‘Overlooked books of the Bible.’ My two dates coincide with John 2 and Jude. My records (not necessarily hyper-accurate you understand) suggest that I have never preached on John 2 though I have intensively focused on John 1.  Jude has only one outing.  That's in over 60 plus years of preaching. So, overlooked they certainly are!

I was reminded of the old green Baptist Hymn Book, published in 1954. My father as Baptist minister set his heart on making sure that none of the nearly 800 hymns were overlooked. As a teenager I got to know the hymn book – some golden oldies and new ones. Not new as in Kendricks, Gettys, Redmon, Hillsong etc...but new for the 50's.. In the tune book on the piano he began to write the dates against the days he chose particular hymns.  If he felt the tune was a barrier he’d find a another tune with the same metre. And some had to be introduced tune and all. He said he wanted to make sure we didn’t stay with the popular ones but sang ones we didn’t know. I guess some people might have been fed up. 'Look at the words carefully' he would say. ' We shouldn’t miss this one out.  It’s chosen because it says something that matters'.  

Now, with Scripture it’s different because big choices were taken as to which books were important for telling out God's story, but a similar principle applies. Look at the words carefully. We shouldn't miss this one out.  It's here because it says something important. So, what matters in John 2?   

Certainly something mattered to the apostle John when he wrote this.  He’s the elder and as he addresses this young church two issues really matter.  Which of course means they matter for any church, like ours. I think that together these two themes almost amount to a formula for a spiritually strong church.. X plus Y equals....



Thursday, May 16, 2024

Keeping Commitments 3)

Our group meeting always ends in group prayer but I wanted every member to be able to share from the beginning. So I split our study session into two parts.  Part 1 asked members to name a commitment they have to keep and, as I mentioned two posts ago, I began with my foot exercises. Certainly no one else named that issue (though two group members have suffered in the past).  As we went round the room people particularly identified commitments to family, especially grandchildren. One highlighted their belonging to a church choir, another referred to their list of friends with whom to keep in contact. Someone spoke about their commitment to a weekly church outreach programme involving young families in the village. And yes, there was honest disclosure. Someone described how their desire to move from couch to 5K run was a failed commitment!

|We reflected on these and many other kinds of commitments and placed them in four categories.        

First - our vows to God  

Second - vows in marriage, to family, to friends 

Third - required practical commitments like paying bills, maintaining contracts, getting to work on time, projects keeping appointments.

Fourth - voluntary commitments - involvement with others offering help, showing compassion, mercy, which are extra to duties of daily life.

Part 2 reviewed some set questions about Hosea's marriage modelling God's broken relationship with Israel yet his enduring love, and with this in mind focused on the list above.  Because God's love for us calls for our commitment to him to be so serious that it affects every level of commitment.  As one group member said: 'It really challenges me to think that everything that we do matters to God - all commitments at every level! '.

As we prepared to pray together one person shared how they were particularly burdened with a decision about further leadership involvement in the church.  About how difficult it is to discern at the fourth level how much more we should do in busy lives. 

We always value time together. I know this challenge about keeping commitments has a sharper edge as I plan my diary ahead. 

Monday, May 13, 2024

Keep Commitments 2)

My home group date is tomorrow and I admit I have been exercised about how best to approach the evening. Truthfully, the choice of Hosea as the set Scripture was a great surprise.  It's not the obvious choice when thinking about biblical help on keeping commitments! 

The prophets were an extraordinary group of people, inspired by God to challenge the people by word and sometimes in action. These actions were like action symbols where prophets vividly lived out the message. And Hosea ranks as one of providing the most unusual symbol - his marriage and children!  His message is a judgment on Israel which is in the throes of the last tragic years before Assyria overthrows the kingdom.  It's hard to believe how far the leaders and people have drifted from God's love and authority. All six kings in succession are disasters with 4 murdered, 1 captured in battle and only one succeeded by his son. The whole Northern kingdom has failed God in the great sin of  unfaithfulness. 

To demonstrate the message of their unfaithfulness, Hosea is told to marry Gomer. We have many questions about her because it's clear that whether she began as a good wife or not she became adulterous.  Some even suggest, a prostitute. The story of love, and one commentator calls this 'a love story that went wrong,' shows Hosea naming three children (perhaps two of them not his own) with symbolic names - all dire pronouncements on the future of Israel.  Incredible to think of naming children 'No Longer Love' and 'You are not my people'!  As you read on you see how his marriage and his words illustrate the rejection God feels as his people reject his love for them. 

The study guide sets questions about Hosea's marriage and how it demonstrated God's unfailing love in spite of hurtful rejection and asks  us how we might begin to imitate God in one of our commitments.  I shall report on how the group responds!

Monday, May 6, 2024

Keep Commitments

A brief follow-up to the last post.  It's not much to boast about but I can report that, so far, I have been disciplined in following my foot exercises. Are they making much difference to the pain? Well, not as much as I hoped but I have a long way to complete 12 weeks.  And the exercise plan emphasizes that I must not give up even when I feel better.

Yesterday, I saw the lady at church who first uttered the words Plantar fasciitis.  I told her that I too was suffering and had been given this action plan of exercises.  'Oh', she pulled a face. 'They're awful!'  'Like the one where you have to stand on tiptoe on a step and then lower your heel to the floor,' I replied, grateful for a fellow pilgrim along the way. ' Oh, I'm afraid I haven't done much of that stuff!' she said. 'I am just hoping that it will get better eventually.  I think it is!' 

So not a fellow pilgrim!  Part of me is not surprised she's given up because I have known several people who found the sheer slog of following physio exercises is not much fun.  And it really isn't!  It's also true that maintaining a pattern of discipline when there's little evidence of improvement demands real effort of will.

I was amused by a connection this makes with the next home group Bible study I am leading.  It's called 'Keep Commitments'.  In the study booklet leaders are told to begin the session by asking group members to name different commitments in their lives. Like: marriage vows, projects, appointment, bill-paying, due dates, getting to work on time, promises to children.  Encouraging a wide range of commitments, with some of them light-hearted, is intended to prod the group's thinking about the wide array of commitments in normal life and the way we handle these. In fact, group members should name commitments that are not named by anyone else in the group.

I shall name my plantar fasciitis exercises!  I think I shall be the only person with that commitment.  But I guess it will be a surprise to discover that the Scripture chosen for this study is Hosea 1:1-2:1,3.  Really? Next time.

Tuesday, April 30, 2024

A foot problem

Sunday mornings after worship we meet for coffee and chat. Three weeks ago I saw a lady who had been ill and out of action. I asked her about her illness in that general way that avoids too much prying yet expresses some compassion. If you know what I mean!  She explained that she had been hit by severe plantar fasciitis in her feet. I asked her to repeat the diagnosis.  It was the first time I'd heard it. She explained that the pain was so acute it made walking excruciating, though she has a dog so that forced her to take some steps daily however badly she felt. I sympathized and hoped it would improve.

Strangely, even as I was talking to her I was also suffering pain in my left foot.   Somehow I had bruised my heel and sole. Seeing a pharmacist (as recommended by our under pressure NHS) I was recommended a tube of lotion which, after a week, had made no difference. Consulting another pharmacist I received exactly the same advice. After a further week it seemed to be getting worse.  

So, on the Monday after I had my coffee conversation I emailed my surgery, explaining the problem. The doctor phoned me back and said the symptoms clearly led to one diagnosis: Plantar Fasciitis. He sent me details of exercises for the next 12 weeks. The model who poses these exercises is lithe and slim. For her it's effortless, rising upon a step before touching her heels to the ground. The rigor increases with a haversack full of heavy weights necessary after two weeks which is further increased in weights after six weeks.

I know my blog is odd. Spiritual thoughts jostle alongside unpleasantness. Which of course they always do. I am still seeking to be an Easter person as I grind out the exercises.  It's too early to detect much relief but my sympathy for that poor lady at church is heartfelt.

Saturday, April 20, 2024

Claim it

 

YOU WILL BE SAVED

When the inside belief is married to the outside claim then the apostle Paul asserts you can be sure YOU WILL BE SAVED.  The language of being saved is not so often heard today. It’s easy to mock.  Unsophisticated. It’s a strong rescue word and most people laugh at the idea that they need rescuing from anything.  Someone who does 100 press-ups a day, plays squash 3 times a week, and walks 15,000 steps and whose fit life is as fulfilling as the next persons, scoffs at the notion they need saving:  'That's a guilt trip put on me by Christians...I'm as good as anyone else. I don't need rescuing, redeeming...any of that stuff.'

But when you grow closer to God, you begin to realize that there are possibilities you are missing out on. Again, its about SW spiritual wisdom – when you open up to spiritual reality of how different your life could be.  How there are messed up areas inside us and between us but, more radically, how our relationship with God is dead.  He remains totally beyond our world and our experience because for us there is no other reality but what we see.  We put our trust in human wisdom.  

Being saved is about bringing the messed up lives and relationships to God. The negative areas of our lives.  I love what someone said: I rather attend church with messed up people who love God than religious people who dislike messed up people.  We who belong together in church are fellow messed-up disciples.  That's why the words forgiven, cleansed, reconciled are vital and why confession is so necessary.

Being saved is also gloriously positive. It's about living large with God and his people and its progressive. 1 Cor. 1:18 stresses being saved - the process by which God's Spirit is helping us work out Jesus Christ character in our lives and communities. It's a profound ongoing journey. As Jesus put it: Life, life abundant.  

In our tough times especially, this spiritual wisdom reality of God's biggest purpose holds us together with everything else. My mother died in Addenbrookes Hospital, aged 57.  In good health she suffered a freak accident falling down the stairs and the hospital declared her brain dead.  On a life support machine we sat with her, read and prayed. She was a strong believer and a great influence on me. When I went in to be with her as they switched the life support off,  I read Scripture and prayed asking God to keep her safe. It was unbearably sad.  Looking out of the window, high up, I saw traffic on the main road and, in the distance, a train going to London. And in the bleakness of the parting came this conviction that Jesus is Lord. He is Lord over death, Lord over the world I could see, over my life as I returned to home and work.  The totality of his love, his claims are overwhelming.  We live in a larger world. Once and for all, at Easter, God has revealed himself in Jesus dying and rising, to bring us together to himself.

As C.S. Lewis wrote: Christianity if false is of no importance, and if true it's of infinite importance. The only thing it cannot be is moderately important. 


 

Tuesday, April 16, 2024

Say it!

CONFESS WITH YOUR MOUTH: JESUS IS LORD

It’s vital that this faith commitment is not just some inside thing, but we say it out loud.  At believers' baptism, where we stand is made clearly and boldly. And whenever we are together it matters to say it out loud, because you never know how much someone needs to hear you.  One of the earliest ways that Christians spoke about Jesus was wonderfully simple but so big: JESUS IS LORD.  They said it to each other as their basic affirmation truth, and for them it was dangerous. Because, contemporary with Paul’s writing, Nero was Roman emperor and his people were meant to say 'Lord Nero'.  Much archaeological evidence has come to light of inscriptions: 'Nero is Lord'. One even reads: 'Nero, Lord of the entire world'.  To say this was overreach is a massive understatement but when Jesus is risen it's no overreach.  His kingdom embraces everything - Alpha and Omega. 

The thing about lords is that everyone has lords of one kind or another.  Your particular Lord is what you concentrate on, what matters more than anything else in your life. Some people make Money, Pleasure, Success, Fitness and Health all important motivations in their lives. But there are many other lords which sometimes sound eminently reasonable - Friendship, Family, even Local Church – where we can put all our effort. So often it's what we have chosen.  The humbling revolution involved in confessing the risen Jesus requires voluntary submission to his lordship. What he chooses! So that seeking and obeying his will and purpose overarches everything else about our lives.  

In an earlier post I mentioned how I had contributed a quote for our recent church Easter installation. It was from a missionary hero of mine, E. Stanley Jones whose encounter with Jesus overwhelmed him with gratitude. He often wrote quotable quotes!   About the words Jesus is Lord he wrote: The most narrow, divisive, all claiming words that ever fell upon human ears. To say these words truly focuses attention like nothing else, and the moment you let him be Lord, everything changes for the better.  Life begins to add up as making spiritual sense. For then we have found who holds life together and gives it meaning and purpose. Life find’s its Lord,  

  

Saturday, April 13, 2024

To the point

 

One of the astounding single sentences in the New Testament puts it:  IF YOU CONFESS WITH YOUR MOUTH: JESUS IS LORD AND BELIEVE IN YOUR HEART THAT GOD RAISED HIM FROM THE DEAD, YOU WILL BE SAVED.  (Rom 10:9)

 1. BELIEVE IN YOUR HEART THAT GOD RAISED HIM FROM THE DEAD, 

The one that thing that matters above everything else is that Jesus rose from the dead.  You can believe all sorts of religious things: that God made this world.  Things about God – about his benevolence and how heaven might work out in the end.  Many people speak about their faith. How it matters to them when times are tough. And sometimes they have constructed that 'faith' themselves. The truth is that Christian faith has one essential as its foundation - that God raised him from the dead. 

When Scripture says heart, it means your thinking HQ. It’s to do with IQ your intelligence, your EI emotional intelligence, even IT intelligence about all things digital (like my grandchildren have!)  Yet what counts most for the 'heart's' understanding, a vital extra dimension, is SW. Spiritual Wisdom, which works in a completely different dimension to worldly wisdom. As the apostle Paul puts it (1 Cor 2:13) when we are thinking God thoughts it's not human wisdom but spiritual wisdom. Human wisdom thinks spiritual wisdom is nonsense, foolishness.  Human wisdom doesn’t get it! It’s been called transrational wisdom, bigger than our comprehension. It’s  spiritual truth. God desires us to grasp it by faith and so gain spiritual conviction as you allow God’s spirit to work in your heart. To open up to the possibility of a spiritual realm where God is real and prayer works! 

There can be great tension between human wisdom and spiritual wisdom. We are always growing. When I  was baptized in my early teens I belonged to a red-hot youth group, involved in preaching, open air work, giving out Victory tracts. But when we moved to Cambridge and I went to sixth form college I was faced with hostility which stoked problems. Especially about the resurrection. A form teacher ridiculed intelligent people accepting this and others in the class laughed at my gullibility I really doubted. I had to work hard with God, to read, pray, share with others.  I had to learn the lesson  that I was trapped in human wisdom. I had to know that believing in my heart means being open to God and to his truth, and to living with other transformed Christians.  When I came through, God's Easter truth deepened and transformed me. It vindicated all Jesus' actions and promises. 

Because if Jesus rose from the dead it’s true that Jesus is who he says he is;…God’s son.

It’s true he was born in Bethlehem to live among us

It’s true he taught about God being his father, our father, and His love is at the centre of the universe. 

It’s true that he died on a cross to bear away our sin – and that we can be completely forgiven

It’s true when we stand behind the coffin of someone we loved deeply – there is resurrection beyond.

It’s true that he is forming a family of people who live differently together because he lives with them.

 He’s alive.  Once and for all God has revealed himself and acted decisively for us. He has won a new future in ways we shall never comprehend this side of heaven. 

Monday, April 8, 2024

Conspiracy Theory

I am so grateful for the privilege of preaching yesterday. To preach around Easter time is hallowed ground for enlivening faith.  I had to begin in Matt. 28. didn't I?

There have always been fake news, and conspiracy theories. Sometimes it’s vital to call out something as a  hoax.  And never has it mattered to powerful people as much as at the first Easter to call it all a hoax. When the guards tell the religious leaders that the tomb was empty, and a group of women were spreading the news :Jesus is risen, the leaders had to kill the news stone dead. If this was widely seen as a hoax then this Jesus would be forgotten as just another Messianic dreamer with big God claims who made absurd promises - especially about rising on the third day. They bribe the soldiers to confess they had fallen asleep while the disciples came and stole the dead body.  And the leaders promised to explain to the governor the reason for the story so to keep the soldiers out of trouble.  And it was a good story widely circulated.  Much easier to believe than a dead body had come alive again. Believe this version and you could jettison any claims about Jesus as Lord.

 Ever since, clever people have known that if they could prove the resurrection is a hoax and the rest of the New Testament with the apostle Paul as fake news, they could smash up Christianity. Maybe you know the story, for example, in the eighteenth century when two young Oxford students set out to destroy Easter.  Gilbert West and his cousin Lord Lyttleton reckoned the New Testament Easter claims were absurd. West said he would demonstrate Jesus never rose from the dead, Lyttleton said Saul of Tarsus was never converted to Christianity and the New Testament record is a nonsense. They were serious.  They did their research.  In embarrassment they met later. Independently they had come to the disturbing conclusion that Jesus really did rise from the dead and Saul of Tarsus became a new man in Christian faith.  West wrote a massive book: Observation on the history and evidences of the resurrection of Jesus Christ and Lyttleton wrote: The Conversion of Paul.  Both were transformed because if Easter is true then everything that’s important about who we are - our purpose and future is changed.

The whole point of Easter is not so give a holiday break or boost chocolate sales but to change the way that the world believes and behaves. (To be continued).

 


Thursday, April 4, 2024

Low Sunday

I find myself on preaching duty this Sunday. It's known as Low Sunday and if you google asking what  it means it says: After all the joy of celebrating Christ's resurrection, the Sunday after Easter can seem like a let down.  Some call it Low Sunday because attendance often decreases along with worshippers' enthusiasm.

Our pastor asked me to preach a few weeks ago but then talked with me last week in some panic.  He could find no one available to lead the service and had only just been able to locate a musician.  While I am prepared to lead (though out of practice) I was thankful I wasn't  responsible for the music as well! So it looks as though attendance will be down....it's just vital that our enthusiasm isn't! 

I am given free reign for text and theme and have brought together Matt. 28:11-15 with Rom. 10:8-13. It's a first for me.  Matthew's account of how powerful people start a conspiracy theory is not normally part of the Easter message but how necessary it was for the religious leaders to construct a counter story to the resurrection.  They knew that if they killed the story that Jesus is risen then they would kill off hopes of his lasting impact.  And the story they construct that soldiers fell asleep and disciples stole the dead body is a credible story.  Much more credible that claiming a dead person had come alive!

My link with Rom 10:9 emphasizes how critical the true story is: If you confess with your mouth, 'Jesus is Lord,' and believe in your heart that God raised him from the dead, you will be saved.  I am still working on the sermon for Sunday but its title is: EVERYTHING THAT'S IMPORTANT DEPENDS ON THIS.  It does!

Sunday, March 31, 2024

Easter flashback

The front of our church building in Histon this Easter is really attractive.  Actually its architecture and lawns always appeal and this year's floral Easter's installation gave me a flashback. When my father was pastor in central Gloucester at Brunswick Baptist Church I remember its external appearance lay at the other end of the scale from beautiful.  There's no other way of describing it. It was ugly with its stone work covered in grime TripAdvisor would mark it down, down.  The main church building was set sideways on a busy main street with rows of windows either side of a main door and for the gallery on the second floor.. It was on the same road as some large municipal buildings. None of them attractive. 

I suppose I was 9 or 10 years old when I realized my Dad was building something in our garden outhouse. There was sawing, banging, and eventually I saw that he was making flowerboxes.  He painted them green, filled them with earth and planted some daffodils. I didn't pay much attention to the whole process but a couple of weeks before Easter I saw his cunning plan.  At each window of this grimy building he placed a box and I remember him hoping they would flower bright and beautiful in time for Easter.   

But I hadn't really paid attention.  There were little hooks at the front of each box.  On Easter morning we were at church early for church breakfast and my Dad had some flat pieces of wood, also painted green. Before people arrived he reached up and put these signs up on the little hooks.  He had painted in large yellow letters HE HAS RISEN. On each box where daffodils had flowered in time there was this Easter message for Gloucester to see.  It made an impression on me.  Going public with the message the women told out 2000 years ago Matt. 28:7).

The prayer in my meditation book for today: 

Risen Lord, we rejoice today that you have triumphed over death and that the victory is yours.              Help us to rediscover what it means to be Easter people.                                                                          May we be messengers of hope and heralds of righteousness.                                                                  Deliver us from fear to speak your word of peace as we live your risen life.

Bless you as Easter people!


Wednesday, March 27, 2024

Easter garden meditation


On the church front lawn the installation is up! A path leads diagonally across the lawn to the three crosses with their themes for meditation: Gratitude, Grace and Generosity.  Either side of the path are flower boxes, six on each side, with benches to encourage us to sit, meditate and spend time with others.
  

The vision of Spring flowers is fulfilled. Our planted bulbs have come to life.  That's the message that Kate wanted us to see - that at Easter new life explodes as creation unfolds, revealing a vast array of colours, shapes, and forms.  An explanatory note about the display and its variety of blooms reminds us how we also are all created different and all experience birth, life and death. And how, in the power of Easter - Jesus' death and resurrection - how we can know new life. For Jesus said: I have come that they may have life, and have it to the full

On the main board there's explanation about the straight path between these blooms.  Citing Proverbs 3:5-6 we are encouraged to walk down the path with these words in our minds: Trust in the Lord with all your heart and lean not on your own understanding. In all your ways acknowledge him and he will make your paths straight.  We are reminded to take time and reflect: 'Who am I placing my trust in? Whose wisdom do I listen to?'  Easter truth leads to the cross and beyond. As believers in the Risen King we place our trust in Jesus and look to his wisdom in our lives today, with the chosen emphasis of showing gratitude, and generosity in response to his grace.

You have to admit it is different!  Already many people have walked the path as we prepare for the Easter weekend.

Saturday, March 16, 2024

Easter crosses

The art installation with its 3 themes Grace, Generosity and Gratitude required some quotes where people with impactful testimony referenced these particular themes.  Kate asked me, with others, whether we could think of anyone.  I had recently been re-reading the so-called spiritual autobiography of E. Stanley Jones titled A Song of Ascents. He is one of my heroes.  Kate liked the quote which she agreed did justice to the theme of Gratitude but she didn't know who he was (and she would be in the majority). So she asked me to give a brief summary.

E. Stanley Jones (1884-1973) was utterly transformed by meeting Jesus when he was 17 years old. He surrendered his gifts .as an extraordinary thinker, imaginative writer and, passionate speaker to serve Jesus, becoming a world-famous Methodist missionary to India. A friend of Ghandi, he had remarkable influence in India and as an evangelist impacted thousands across 6 continents. In his spiritual autobiography A Song of Ascents he tells about how Jesus became his everything The quote below comes from his book and captures the sheer wonder on his knees before Jesus and the difference it made to him and the world.

The actual quote which I offered bubbles with wonder at his conversion.  Its a good testimony about gratitude. The idea as visitors walk past all the flowers to meditate at the crosses they will have an opportunity to sense how others experienced Jesus' death for them. 


How did this happen to me? I felt so undeserving and so unworthy and...yet the wonder has turned into a life wonder. I gaze at him and wonder and wonder until my knees bend in gratitude. But I'm soon up on my feet again with a divine compulsion to share this with everyone, everywhere.

Apparently the installation has now been put in place so tomorrow (Sunday) we shall see how the vision has developed!  Some of it sounds ambitious like the provision of QR codes for visitors to view background details to the quotes, like the E. Stanley Jones stuff above.  I'll let you know how the project  is working out, though it really needs prayer and openness these next days leading up to Easter.

Friday, March 8, 2024

Easter Crosses

Our minister's wife, Kate, is gifted with a highly charged imagination which further takes quantum leaps at Christina festivals.  |Every Christmas and Easter she has visions.  Even as Christmas was just over she had a picture of a fresh Easter installation.  A couple of years ago we had 7 giant painted Easter eggs telling out the Easter story.  I posted about my little part within this display which attracted a huge amount of interest..

This time she envisages three 6ft high crosses set in the corner of the church front lawn with a straight path leading up to them. Flowers in specially made boxes will line the path.  You might expect the crosses to be reminders of Calvary with Jesus central and thieves on either side.  But No.  Each cross is to be a place of meditation. On each will be one of the key words that our minister has stressed this year:  GRACE, GENEROSITY, GRATITUDE

At today's coffee morning I asked Kate how it was all going. She told me how thrilled she is that when she has an idea, people in the church rally round.  In particular, one skillful member has offered his carpentry expertise to make the crosses and another church member, who happens usefully to be a professional sign-writer, has been working on the painting and lettering.  The carpenter has also made flower boxes which will line the walkway up to the crosses.

Several weeks ago, the whole church was invited to plant some bulbs at home and they are to be brought to church this Sunday ready to be planted in the boxes next week.  I bought some tulip and narcissus bulbs.  The picture on the packet looks exotic but their three pots showed no sign of life until very recently.  At least you can see some foliage but Kate assured me that they will be on display for 1 month and she is sure they will blook around Easter.  

And I have been involved in another way too......

Friday, March 1, 2024

Pictures please

One of our church members is on the cusp of publishing her book on telling the Bible in 60 minutes. The title is Telling the Big Story and the publishers (Kevin Mayhew) have given her permission to invite people to draw one of a number of internal small images for the book.  26 of us have been asked across the spectrum from children up to...well I guess I'm one  of the oldest.  The images really are small.  We were asked to draw simple line drawings in boxes no larger than 7.5 cm by 7.5 cm which would then be reduced further to fit in with the text.  

Lucy asked me to draw a queue of exiles in profile and to inspire me she sent a copy of an Assyrian bas  relief sculpture off the internet.  Being an Assyrian sculpture the exiles were dressed in Assyrian helmets and clothes!  I had never pictured how the Israelites might appear in profile on the way to Babylon but I guess they would be carrying some of their essentials.

With hesitation I sketched out a line drawing.  The Assyrian guard brings up the rear behind three laden exiles.


Forgive the reproduction quality with its dark shadow but you get the idea.   It's another first in the rich tapestry of life!


Monday, February 19, 2024

Lenten Prayer

 My Lenten meditations include a prayer of Henri Nouwen's which not only sets the scene for these 40 days leading up to Easter, but expresses so much honesty and desire about making daily choices Jesus gives us.  It is a fitting coda to my last couple of posts. It really challenges me.

Lord Jesus Christ

It is time to be with you in a special way, a time to pray, a time to fast, and thus to follow you on your way to Jerusalem, to Golgotha, and to the final victory over death.

I am still so divided. I truly want to follow you, but I also want to follow my own desires and lend an ear to the voices that speak about prestige, success, human respect, pleasure, power, and influence.  Help me to become deaf to these voices and more attentive to your voice, which calls me to choose the narrow road to life.

I know that Lent is going to be a very hard time for me. The choice for your way has to be made every moment of my life. I have to choose thoughts that are your thoughts, words that are your words, and actions that are your actions. There are no times or places without choices. And I know how deeply I resist choosing you.

{;ease. Lord, be with me at every moment and in every place. Give me the strength and the courage to live this season faithfully, so that, when Easters comes, I will be able to taste with joy the new life which you have prepared for me.

Amen.


Wednesday, February 14, 2024

WIJDWU

I should have added this to the earlier post because What Is Jesus Doing |With Me Now is necessarily individual.  That's where discipleship begins. But in our hyper-individualistic culture it is vital to add the all-important corporate dimension.  Disciples belong to the body of Christ. When we gather together, seeking to be imitators of God, He desires us to be his holy people sharing in his mission.  We need to ask: What Is Jesus Doing With US now?

How important it is to ask what God is asking of us as his church!  Our daily prayer life should always include community issues about which the gathered church is asking WIJDWUN  Where is God leading us now as his local church?  Too often we act as though we know exactly what God's agenda is. We keep doing what we did last year.  We assume we know how to run church efficiently. Same as, same as!  But so often we don't know what God could do with us and through us as his community, alive with Jesus Christ.

So, I need to add WIJDWUN to my prayer life. 

Second point!

Sorry for the delay if you were waiting for the second truth that must accompany the first (last post).  But you will know what it is anyway!

The second truth: Jesus is alive and by his Spirit walks the narrow way with us. For real. Because of his great love for us God, who is rich in mercy, made us alive with Christ (Eph.2:4). I am sure I have mentioned before about WWDJ and the way that it still emerges from time to time. It's based on a older book of fiction that imagined the vast difference it would be if people analyzed seriously their daily actions by asking What Would Jesus Do?  But it seems to miss the essential truth that we don't have to try and imagine how different things would be. It almost assumes that the first point about Jesus asks us to make a hard choice is all about me. No. 

It's much clumsier but it ought to be WIJDWMN!  What Is Jesus Doing With Me Now.  We are so often going to drift from the narrow way. That's why confession with repentance and fresh starts are essential to Christian living. But if we are going to be really different we need to set our minds and hearts intentionally (and that's a loaded word) by saying to Jesus every day: Help me.  Intentionality means that we set our minds and will to act on what we believe. Being Jesus' disciples today, being imitators of God, doesn't just happen. It's not some vague spiritual state - we really need God's help to desire being different. 

Jesus said: The greatest command is to love God with all your heart and all your soul and with all your mind  and with all your strength (|Mark 12:10).  Copying the world comes easily.  God wants us to be as his best.  For our own sakes, and so vitally for our church communities and neighbours too.

Oh yes, WWJDWMN!

Tuesday, February 6, 2024

Deja Vu Preaching 3)

When I wrote there are two vital truths that we should not forget, let me be clear - that I should not forget! As I reread these verses about the nitty-gritty of effective Christian living I felt the challenge acutely.

First, Jesus asks us to make a hard choice. There is no better way of living than to follow Jesus and to live among people who take the command to imitate God seriously in being like Jesus. It is the way to eternal life.  His love and his grace are the world's best news BUT he asks each of us to make the toughest choice to enter by the small gate and follow along a narrow road. Matt 7:14 gives a graphic picture.  The small gate is highly unpopular for the narrow way involves restrictions and high expectations. Jesus demands disciples with discipline!  After all he is Lord.  

What a contrast with the wide gate and broad road which is as wide as contemporary culture, allowing us to move with maximum choices about how we live. The broad way goes with the flow of culture - how the majority of people think and behave. It involves everything - habits, ideas, customs, values, and it's subtly insidious, creeping in everywhere.  The more secular culture becomes the more it minimizes God, and the more it allows self choice and self-assertion. 

In the States I learned the expression attractional church.  Often larger churches, they blacked out any windows with seating as comfortable as a cinema's.  In fact, the whole experience was rather like being in a movie theatre with spotlights on the front stage, where a music group would be singing to the audience, before an articulate amusing preacher came on stage.  Coffee and doughnuts were constantly available with movement when refills were required.  And the preacher winsomely spoke of the love of God expressed in Jesus, who died for us that we might be forgiven and receive eternal life. 

But not one word about a small gate and narrow word.  About restrictions and high expectations of following Jesus.  Nothing about the intentional hard choice required to obey the Lord.

I know I am guilty of some parody here but the contrast between the narrow road and broad way is a critical challenge today, isn't it?  


Tuesday, January 30, 2024

Deja Vu preaching 2)

I do believe that repeating sermons is permissible.  In fact, when I was itinerant with a full-time job, it was my Plan B.  But, with the theme: Be imitators of God, I knew I needed a fresh word. Rereading the whole passage, immersing myself, putting aside commentary helps or past sermon efforts I focused on Gal 4: 29-5:7, though the rest of chapter 5 is vitally involved too..

Among the many responses possible, it struck me how many imperatives crowd in - almost in a shouty way!  Recently, my local church has started singing the Phil Wickham song: Yahweh, Lord of all the earth we shout your name, shout your name. Some psalms encourage shouting and certainly my church lets rip. Right through the song it's SHOUT your name.

We should note how some passages of Scripture also shout at us.  Many words are to be heard in bold,  action words to make us sit up and take notice. Megaphone words.  Like WAKE UP (5:14). stop sleep walking. They come thick and fast: Be imitators of God (v1), Walk in love (v2), Don't partner disobedient people (v7), Be very careful how you walk (v 15), Don't be foolish (v17).  There is urgency and seriousness. It really matters to God that we behave better.   The Message paraphrases Be imitators of God: Watch what God does and then you do it, like children who lean proper behaviour from their parents.  Much of Chapter 5 is about proper behaviour and the crunch question comes: IS IT WORKING?  

After all, the gifts of God's love in Christ should result in different living. I remember one senior minister confiding in me: Michael I have been preaching to this church for years now about the difference Jesus makes but they never seem to change for the better. You can never tell the difference sharing good news can make, but our nitty-gritty behaviour shows whether we behave as God copiers. That's a continuous challenge to us as disciples, together.

There are two truths in particular that we should never forget.

Tuesday, January 23, 2024

Deja Vu preaching

As is obvious from my postings I am rarely invited to preach nowadays.  For this I am mostly grateful - only too aware that nearing 80 others should take my place.  But, in a couple of weeks I have another opportunity and, strangely, the Bluntisham church preaching plan gives me the same chapter in Ephesians as I preached in 2022.  Chapter 5!  I no longer have my notes so I thought I would dig out the recording on our church web site. My first thought was that having prepared a sermon I could recast it!  However, the listening experience was dismal. I knew that my voice has lost much power but, in addition, I seemed to be suffering from an irritating cough that, frankly, was extremely irritating to hear. With moderate self-criticism I confess the content it did not feed my soul though, in common with many preachers, I admit my general dislike of hearing myself..  

At the same time, my daily devotions came to Acts 14:1-7 as Paul and Barnabas continue their pioneering missionary preaching tour to reach Iconium. The NIV translates the end of verse 1: There they spoke so effectively that a great number of Jews and Gentiles believed. I had missed that word effectively in past readings.  How extraordinary to use a quantitative word like that.  Presumably, the opposite applies that we can preach ineffectively!

I immediately went to find out what the original word is. All of us who preach long to be effective. What characterizes this particular preaching event?  I found the word effectively was an attempt to translate four Greek words, literally, to speak so as to believe. The KJV translates literally: They so spake that a great multitude both of the Jews and also of the Greeks believed. 'So spake' expresses a particular quality of speaking that God things happened. I guess that the NIV translation 'effectively' is as good as any way of expressing this particular quality. 

It is clear in Acts 14 something special occurred. God's Spirit moved in a powerful way through their speaking. God's involvement is strikingly confirmed  by accompanying signs and wonders. Yet their preaching was essential.  The bearing of immediate spiritual fruit in faith responses remains a glorious sign of effectiveness and, of course, there are  other desirable outcomes of biblical preaching, especially its role of upbuilding Christ's people.

However, the conjunction of hearing an old sermon with a challenge to effectiveness gave me a much needed jolt.  So I am working afresh, asking the Lord to wake me up to the new things he is saying to me that I should share.  Perhaps it might be worth sharing and who knows, past preparation may be leaking into the process!

Monday, January 15, 2024

Olive tree, soap, antibiotics

When I take down our Christmas cards I always dilly dally, spending time absorbing pictures and messages before disposing of them.  And among them are charity gift cards where friends have made donations in our name.

This year, unusually, one told us that an olive tree has been sponsored on our behalf which (hopefully) will be planted in Palestine in Spring 2024.  The card explains how for the Middle East planting olive trees is an act of hope and resilience as they grow, bear fruit and provide sustenance for generation.  Healthy olive trees help the Palestinian people maintain their ancient ties to the land and preserve an important source of income.

An accompanying card had to be registered in our names and sent off to the organization Embrace the Middle East which promises to send a Planting Certificate telling the story of the farmer we have supported. What a great idea but what a tragic context. I cannot help but see the signs of devastation on the current news.  I wonder when it is going to be possible for farmers plant freely with all the destruction around them. I eagerly await that Planting Certificate as a sign of  hope and promise to celebrate in a posting.

Another friend sent two colourful charity donation cards telling us of antibiotics and hygiene kits that Christian Aid is given to people in emergency disasters in our name.  I feel very grateful and extremely lazy that such vital gifts are going to needy places this year courtesy of such kind good friends' thoughtfulness.  It's a powerful reminder of how little us can make a difference in a world of need because Jesus Christ is Immanuel. And a challenge to my priorities in 2024.


Friday, January 12, 2024

The importance of alignment

For the last three weeks our front door was out of order.  We left home having locked it after setting the alarm only to find that it refused to open when we returned. The key failed to turn more than a quarter of the way. Fortunately we had a back door key, though I couldn't reach the alarm before its shrill loudness did it's best to awake the neighbourhood.   A kind neighbour who is something of an engineering genius, though his specialism is veteran racing car engines, managed to unjam it and proceeded to unscrew bits of the long strip running down the length of the door.  Its design has locks at top and bottom as well as at the handle.

With some huffing and puffing he diagnosed internal trouble with the lock mechanism itself.  Just as he was giving up he used brute force to free up the lock mechanism. 'Well, if in trouble just hit with a hammer' he said.  Alas, two days later it jammed again. 

The fitters agree to send an engineer in three weeks time.  Yesterday he arrived, having drivne from Great Yarmouth.  He drove a large orange van but came in with a screwdriver and a can of oil.  To my astonishment he didn't touch the door at all.  With some deft turns of the screw driver at the hinges he opened and closed the door several times.  Than squirted oil into the lock as he pronounced it was now operable.

Over an Americano I expressed surprise that it had taken only a couple of minutes. 'Ah' he said. 'It's all about alignment. It wasn't properly aligned so I had to work with the hinges.'  Of course, I am no longer a regular preacher but what a gift about the most important alignment in life.  Alignment to God's will, seeking first his kingdom. We know how easy it is to be misalligned (is that a word?) and jammed up, but what joy, in confession, to know his Spirit is ever ready to help us make adjustments and open ourselves up to his renewing work.  And there's fresh anointing possible too.

Monday, January 8, 2024

To Ponder

Its language is dated but this thought from George Morrison (related to Isa 46:8,9) is worth pondering:

Of all the powers that God has given us, none is more wonderful than memory. It is a twofold power - the power that gathers in the past, crowding in twice ten thousand things that we have learned. And the power that out of the crowded storehouse calls them to mind. There is no religion which lays such an emphasis on memory as Christianity. It is the glory of Jesus that He pressed all powers in his service: thought, hope, imagination, fear. But he exalted memory in religious service as it had never been exalted by another teacher. And he recognized its moral character as it had never been recognized before.

We call Christ's sayings memorable words. Not merely words that we remember but words so chosen and set that they make an instant impression on the memory. Like barbed arrows.  And when we sit at the Lord's table what do we hear? This do in remembrance of me. There at the very centre of the Gospel the dominant note is memory. It is not hope, though I am hopeful there. It is not knowledge, not even faith. It sets a crown upon memory, showing what Christ expected of it: more than a gift or aptitude. It is a moral power, a religious force.

What a daring thing it was of Christ to lay such an emphasis on memory.  It is the glory of Christianity that it has a message for your past. As life advances, memory grows richer.  In age it is memory that plays the larger part. I only know that seeing all the past shaded and filled with the pardon and love of God, I shall be readier to cast my crown down at his feet.  Happy that we can remember Calvary tonight!

Thursday, January 4, 2024

And one more response

To finish off the sermon I have to mention - the sheer hatred of Herod the Great.  Called 'great' because of the impressive buildings of his reign, but known in history as a paranoid, bestial tyrant  whose distrust of potential rivals led him to murder even members of his own family, including his wife. When he was dying he instructed that leading citizens of Jericho be killed so that there would be weeping at his funeral. His behaviour in Matthew 2 is sadly in character.  Furious that his trickery with the Magi is unmasked as they are warned not to return to him, he gives orders to kill all the boys in Bethlehem and the vicinity who were two years old and under, in accordance with the time he had learned from the magi. V16.

Why in the history of the world have there been such authority figures whose cruelty and sheer wickedness can unleash such violence to cause such appalling destruction?  Why are we constantly faced by power-hungry arrogant men who can pursue such bestiality?   In this broken, fallen world we know this remains a constant factor in sinful humankind's existence.  This is the normal world for so many today.

When we ask 'After Christmas - what?' for Jesus, we see a refugee baby with a price on his head, escaping to the south into Egypt. To the south of Gaza and Israel where refugees flee today, in a world of violence and grief.  A voice is heard in Ramah, weeping and great mourning. Matthew wants us to know that all grim reality was prophesied. God intended entering the world of pain and brokenness. There's no point in arriving in comfort when the world is in misery; no point in having an easy life when the world suffers violence and injustice.  If Jesus is to be Emmanuel, God with us, he must be with us where the pain and violence is. Though he escapes cruelty and death this time, he will meet it head on on the cross.  

That smiling cynic who dismissed Christmas as a story of a baby which is happy but means nothing, could not be more wrong.  For the truth is that Jesus has come weirdly and wonderfully into our world, our normal world. The Lutheran pastor in Bethlehem explained in the Christmas TV news about the nativity scene which set Jesus amidst rubble this year. 'That's where Jesus is with us', he said. What a conviction in response to the devastation around his people.

I ended my sermon with a challenge in our easier lives in Histon, and a call that in saying the Covenant Prayer we might identify together with a deep personal response for 2024. 

 


 

Monday, January 1, 2024

another response

I have woken up to sunshine as the New Year opens, so welcome after days of gloom. But whatever the weather for you may today begin a significantly good year with God. I preached yesterday on the good news as wise men worshipped because they had found Christ.  But I also pushed into the story to find another very different response - a religious response.

It is striking how summonsed by Herod on a three line whip - all the chief priests and teachers - to answer the question about where this child born to be king of the Jews is to be found, they get the right answer. Did they know the prophecies about the coming of the Messiah? YES.  Could they see Jupiter and Saturn or the comet or whatever was bright in the sky?  Probably YES. Do they have authority so that the King orders action on their words? YES.   Everything is lined up on paper. They  really know their stuff.  They know that the outcome of all the Old |Testament yearnings focusses on the coming Messiah.

Yet when the Magi set off they don’t. They can look up the facts, get them right, but not move a muscle in response. They stay in Jerusalem as these searchers move on.  This is the utter tragedy about knowing some facts about the Christ but rejecting any possibility of meeting him. They could pass examinations on Scriptural interpretations but they don’t want any spiritual experience. 

The evangelist David Watson used to say that the number one reason why people reject Christianity is because they don’t want to change.  Bluntly, they feel if you should take Jesus seriously nothing will be the same again. They know about him but they don't want to know him personally. 

I saw a cartoon two weeks ago.  It was a science class and the teacher had all these squiggles on the blackboard.  And he was saying :  Along with antimatter and dark matter we’ve recently discovered doesn’t matter which appears to have no effects on the universe at all.         

The behaviour of these religious leaders is a reminder that religious people can behave as though the coming of Christ has no effects on the universe at all.  Certainly not upon them!  What a challenge to those of us who come to church and over the years have heard so much about God yet keep him at arm's length. Please, let's be more open to him in our lives and community in 2024.

And there is one other more obvious response in the story......