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......