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Monday, 18 August 2014

I love Vicky Beeching

There are three reasons why I love Vicky Beeching.
First - she's a Christian, therefore she is my sister in Christ. She is part of the same family as me, adopted by God our heavenly Father out of his great love, sharing with me and all other Christians the wonderful inheritance of eternal life.
Second - I love her music. She is an immensely talented lady, I play her songs, both on my MP3 player and (less well) on my guitar as I use them in leading worship in my church. She has great insight and the gift of communicating it clearly and attractively, as can be seen in her career in the media. She has become a Christian voice of reason - a welcome sound amidst the more strident tones of extremism.
And third - I love her because she has been honest and courageous. Some have criticised her for attacking the church in the way she chose to come out (giving an interview to a journalist known for anti-church sympathies, speaking about the harm done to her by well meaning but misguided Christian counsellors in youth camps and conferences) but they have ignored the hurt she has suffered. I admire her and applaud her.
I'll be saying more about what I think on the gay issue and why later, but what I don't want to do is wade in to an edifying mess with yet more words of fairly dubious wisdom.
Gerard Kelly once said "Religion at its best opens us to God's presence. At its worst its rules shut us down. God help us trade rigidity for relationship."
All I want to say is - I love Vicky Beeching.

Sunday, 23 March 2014

The Samaritan Woman: a theological discussion with a lady of ill repute

Today's sermon was based on the passage from John 4 - Jesus' conversation with the Samaritan Woman, re-imagined as a text conversation.

I love the exchange between Jesus and the unnamed Samaritan Woman - it's such a great conversation on so many levels.
But of course, it should never have happened.
There are three good reasons why the two of them should never have spoken.
First off, an unattached man would seldom initiate a conversation with a woman, unless he thought the woman was a prostitute, and he was propositioning her. And she would never reply, unless she was willing to entertain the proposition.
Secondly, a Jew would never talk to a Samaritan.
And if that wasn't enough, thirdly, a rabbi would not talk to a woman of doubtful repute. Rabbis, as upholders of the Law, would not risk defiling themselves with unnecessary contact with sinners.
So Jesus defied the conventions that said you only talk to a woman if you want sex with her, you keep yourself racially pure, and you shun her if you think she’s shoddy goods.
Remember what we were saying about subtext last week? There's a very cheeky subtext going on here, at least for the first half of their dialogue. This has led me to think what their conversation would look like if it was a flirty text chat.
First of all, you might want to read the whole passage in a proper Bible, so you know where I'm starting from.

Here we go - Jesus launches in.

Although the woman's reply sounds dismissive, it wasn't, because as I've said., the very fact she replied means that she was willing to consider his proposition. So the subtext was "Come on pretty boy, let's see what you've got."

Jesus tries to move the conversation on to a different plane. I'm not exactly what you think I am, lady - that's his subtext.

The woman replies with the obvious point that she's the one with the water jar, and where is Jesus going to get this magic water from, anyway? But she knows her Bible - She recalls a time when someone else asked a woman for a drink – Jacob asking his future wife Rachel, and defending her against rival shepherds.

Jesus persists, using a common theme of his. Drink this water, and you’ll get thirsty again. Drink of me, and you’ll never thirst. Elsewhere, he talked about himself as living bread, satisfying hunger for ever. Here he paints the fascinating and attractive picture of a stream of living water, welling up from within a person's heart.

The woman is half hooked, but still not convinced. But she asks Jesus for water. Maybe I won't have to come out here on my own in the heat of the day. Of course, she only had to do that because the other women wouldn't have anything to do with her - she wasn't welcome for the girly chats that took place around the well first thing in the morning.

Then, suddenly Jesus plays hard to get. He asks her to pop home and bring her other half back so they can have a cosy family chat. This conversation is beginning to change tack.

In reply, the woman plays with the straightest of bats. Sometimes it's best not to give too much away.

The trouble is, with Jesus, the forward defensive doesn't work. He demonstrates that he knows an awful lot about her - far more than she could have imagined, or would be comfortable with.

So she deploys her diversionary tactics. This man's a rabbi, and a Jew - he won't be able to resist telling me that my Samaritan worship is all wrong. Clearly she is well practised  at deflecting unwelcome attention.

Surprise surprise - Jesus lets himself be diverted. Or maybe he wanted to talk about this all along. Either way, he tells her that a new day is dawning, when it won't matter if God is worshipped on this mountain or that mountain, but God the Father is seeking worshippers in Spirit and in Truth. He speaks as if it is an invitation - you could be one of these new worshippers, you know. God is looking for people like you.

And then she reveals her deepest hope. One day, Messiah will come, and he will explain everything. One day, someone will answer all my questions, tell me why my life has ended up like this - five times betrayed, now not daring to trust any longer, ignored and ostracised by my neighbours. One day, someone will come and show me a way out of this.

If this was a game of chess, we would shout checkmate. But this hasn't been a battle, it's been a friendly contest of conversational wit, and both parties end up as winners. This Samaritan lady has met her Messiah. Jesus has a new believer. She rushes back, not just to fetch her partner, but to call out the whole town to see this man "who told me everything I ever did."

And with the end of the passage we see the outcome. Jesus has made this woman into an evangelist. She fetched the whole town out, and they invited Jesus to stay.
They - the Samaritans - invited Jewish Jesus to stay in their houses, and eat their food and talk to them about himself. And they understand what the dense disciples don't yet - Jesus is the saviour of the world. In the verses before the final quote, we see the disciples in one of their classic dim misunderstandings: "Oh, has someone else brought him some sandwiches?"
What Jesus promised this lady came true for her – there was indeed a spring within her, out of which came streams of living water, to the delight and refreshment of all who heard her.
This is the amazing privilege that we share, you and I. As Christians, we are not Jesus himself, we can’t necessarily do the things he did, but we can bring his refreshment and peace to others.
Would you like to share in this ministry? It is one of the most thrilling things to do, as a Christian, to meet people, talk to them, and have them find a well of refreshment that doesn’t come from you, but comes with you, that comes in alongside you. We can offer comfort, peace, encouragement, hope to people, not because we are skilful counsellors or trained listeners. We can do it because we bring Jesus with us into the room.
We bring his refreshment, his streams of living water, his promise of new life that surprises and delights.
It's wonderful.
Come and discover it afresh. Come and join in with Jesus' joyful harvesting of the fields that are ripe for the picking. Doesn't matter if you haven't done the groundwork - you'll find out it has been done for you, by others or by God himself. Just come, with the living water that God's Holy Spirit has put within you, and share it with the thirsty people all around us.

Nicodemus & Jesus: an elderly theologian discusses gynaecology

Today a Twitter conversation ended up in my promising to blog my sermon on the Samaritan woman Jesus met by a well.
But before I get there, I need to post last week's sermon. Stick with me if you can - the two are linked.

John’s gospel has some lovely ironies in it. One of my favourites is that in chapter 3, Jesus is in conversation with an elderly male religious scholar. In chapter 4, which we will be reading next week, he talks to a woman who has had at least five relationships, and who was a bit of a social outcast.
He talks theology with the Samaritan Woman, and he talks gynaecology with the religious scholar.
Poor old Nicodemus is doing his best. He is very open minded, compared to many of his colleagues, and he desperately wants to know if Jesus is genuine. But he’s afraid of what others will think, so he comes to Jesus at night.
Next week, we meet someone who comes to Jesus in the day, but she’s also coming at the wrong time, because everybody else fetched their water in the early morning. Because she was an outcast, she had to wait, and come in the heat of the day.
So two very different people both come to Jesus at the wrong time and get the right answer. I won’t say any more about the Samaritan Woman, I’ll save her for next week, but now it’s time to look at what Jesus said to an old man about childbirth.
Childbirth is a messy and painful business. So I’m told. What would I know? We were discussing it over the meal table the other day, and my daughter Ellie was wishing that humans laid eggs, because that sounds a lot less painful. I think if I was female, I would entirely agree.
When the Bible talks about it, it emphasises the pain and the danger involved. And before medical advances and painkilling drugs, that’s exactly what it was. But the Bible references to childbirth aren’t overwhelmingly negative – they talk also about the joy of bringing new life into the world. But it’s a joy that’s tinged with sorrow and anxiety. One very significant woman in the Bible dies in childbirth – Rachel, as she gave birth to Benjamin, Jacob’s youngest son, and years later, at one of Israel’s lowest ebbs, another woman dies in childbirth and names her son Ichabod, which means “the glory has departed,” so prophesying that Israel were enduring dark days indeed.
Jesus himself, later in John’s gospel, expresses the agony and the ecstasy: “Very truly I tell you, you will weep and mourn while the world rejoices. You will grieve, but your grief will turn to joy. A woman giving birth to a child has pain because her time has come; but when her baby is born she forgets the anguish because of her joy that a child is born into the world. So with you: Now is your time of grief, but I will see you again and you will rejoice, and no one will take away your joy.” He’s telling his disciples about his impending death.


So when Jesus chooses being born as a metaphor for becoming a Christian, it’s got a whole shedload of subtext that Nicodemus would have been aware of.
What is subtext?
I'll let Mitchell & Webb explain.
So Jesus is saying, Yes this is a wonderful thing, but it’s going to be disruptive. Things are not going to stay the same, Nicodemus, this will be hard.
Perhaps Nicodemus can’t cope with this straight away, and so he takes refuge in not understanding what Jesus is talking about, prompting the discussion about being born of the Spirit, about the wind blowing where it wills, about or need to let go of control over what God is doing, and try instead to catch the breeze of the Spirit and be blown along in his direction.


We’re making changes at the moment – modifying our building to make it more welcoming, more suitable for our vision. Change is never universally welcomed, and perhaps some of us feel uneasy about what has been done. But it is important to remember why we are doing it. Two years ago, as we went through the Mission Action Planning process, one image grabbed us, and caught our imagination.
It was this – the image of an open door, and the light from within spilling out. It’s an invitation, which is for us to walk in and find all that God has got for us, but also that we might become like that to our community, the sort of place that people can come in to and find a welcome, find a home, find the love of God. We identified that we are a welcoming church, and we want to build on our strengths, build on what God has given us already. We want to do better, we want to be more welcoming, more including, to make it still easier for new people to come and fit right in.
So we need to remember that vision, and shape our building and our life together to fulfil the vision. We want to be blown along by the breeze of God’s Spirit.

Nicodemus – got some things right

But I don’t want to be too harsh on Nicodemus, because he he has gone out on a limb here, And it seems that he was convinced by Jesus. He is a secret supporter of Jesus for the rest of the story. He is not able to prevent the Jewish Council arresting Jesus and condemning him to death, but he does argue against it. And after Jesus’ death, he comes out and organises his burial, together with Joseph of Arimathea. So he moves a long way, if not quite all the way, as far as we see him in the story.

What did he have to do to get this far?

Yesterday I was on a men's conference with two other guys from church, and the speaker used the following illustration:

Kenny Dalglish once said: "don’t get lucky, get into position."
He talked about someone who got his positioning all wrong, and someone else who got it right.
David positioned himself for failure, Samuel positioned himself for success.


What are we looking for in church? Can we be more like Nicodemus, ready to look out for God’s new movement, ready to listen, ready to move, at least a step, towards what God intends? Perhaps we can.

Saturday, 22 March 2014

Vicars - the happiest people?

Yesterday my son sent me a link to a news story saying that vicars have the job with the greatest satisfaction rating in the UK. Publicans have the lowest.

I wasn't sure what to make of it. At first I felt smug, then I decided that wasn't a proper reaction. I thought about the similarities between the two jobs - we both live over the shop, we know large slices of the community, and many people choose to tell us their woes.

I thought about my own situation, how I'm doing the thing I feel that God has called me to, that I was made for, that fits me like a well made shoe fits a foot.

I thought about doing something that involves never being alone, about how spending time praying to the Creator of the Universe counts as work, about how I don't get judged on results, like some people do (football managers, teachers, engineers), and about how I don't have to worry about redundancy.

Then I thought about how I often feel guilty for not praying enough, anxious that my congregation is not growing, or not growing very fast, about what the future holds for the church in this country, and realised that I put myself under the same pressure.

Then a crazy idea came to mind. Perhaps I should swop jobs for a day. I wonder if Dave or Gill would fancy being a vicar for a day. How about it guys?

Monday, 17 February 2014


We're having a short series of sermons entitled "All are called." This is the middle one of the three, which takes a look at the Biblical idea of priesthood.

First we heard this passage from 1 Peter.

Living Stones

The first point Peter is making here is that we are living stones, being built into a house to give to glory to God. Its a powerful image – a fine stone building, imposing and magnificent, but not built out of lifeless lumps of rock, but out of people. While Paul often uses the idea of a body to represent the church (as we’ll see next week) Peter here gives us a building.

The cornerstone

Then Peter focusses in on one stone in particular. Paul, with his body idea, calls Jesus the head of the body. Peter calls Jesus the cornerstone, the most important stone of all. He quotes a verse from Isaiah, and applies the words to Jesus. Then he points out that the important people of Jesus’ day in fact rejected him – they had him crucified – but that far from finishing off Jesus, this made him an even more formidable force. And he digs out two more apposite quotes from the Scriptures.

Chosen people

Finally, he goes on to say some wonderful things about us. We Christians are a chosen people, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, God’s own possession. Calling to mind the story of the prophet Hosea, who God commanded to name his children prophetically: you’re not loved, you won’t receive mercy, you are not my people … now, says Peter, you are very much loved, you are God’s special people, and God has poured out his mercy on you.

A royal priesthood

Now let me focus in on one phrase. Peter calls the church a royal priesthood. Back at the beginning of the chapter he had called them a holy priesthood. It may not sound much to us, but this was a revolutionary idea. He is saying that the priests aren’t just a little subset of the people of God, but that all God’s people are now priests. To understand this, we’re going to have to have a history lesson. We have to get out of our minds the image that the word priest conjures up.

This is not the Biblical picture of a priest.

Nor are these guys. Called the priests, they are a singing ensemble, and Sony gave them a recording contract in 2008. They are big business! But they are actually priests, and Fr Eugene, Fr Martin and Fr David have a very unique contract that specifies that they must have sufficient time to continue their pastoral work in their parishes.

But this is the Old testament idea of a priest. When Moses led the children of Israel out from Egypt, and began to prepare them for life in the Promised Land, he passed on God’s instructions to them, and amongst those instructions, God made it clear that one of the 12 tribes, the tribe of Levi, wouldn’t be getting any land to live on when they reached Canaan. The other 11 tribes were all given their own territory, and in the rich and fertile land, it was plenty for them to grow and prosper, and grow their crops, tend their animals and make lives for themselves. But the tribe of Levi weren’t given any land. Instead, they were given the task of organising the nation’s worship. And amongst the Levites, some of them were to be priests, whose particular job was to offer sacrifices on behalf of the people, and to be their mediators, to do business with God on everybody else’s behalf.


It’s about mediation. What God told them was that while the rest of people are working, some of you need to think about worship. Some of you need to be free from your preoccupations about the seedtime and the harvest, and the famine and the footrot and all the rest of it, free to concentrate on God.  The priests were fully aware of the things of God, they held on to the things of God, and they held the hand of the people, and they brought the two together. Their job was to bring God and the people together. They were to bring the worship of the people to God, empower the people to worship God, and speak to the people on God’s behalf.
Now – just remember that this cannot be translated into contemporary church leadership – it’s not the same thing. Jesus has changed everything. We’ll come on to that in a minute. Just think about the priests a bit longer.

Illustration – arc welding. You build up a huge electric charge in the welding rod, you earth the piece of metal that you want to weld, and as you bring the two together, the charge jumps the gap and releases an explosion of energy. This provides the heat for the weld.
So the priest said to the people: Bring your life a little bit closer to the presence of God, and I will bring the presence of God a little bit closer to you, and as they approach each other, a spark will happen and heaven will pour into your life.
Now – let’s update this picture to how it looks after Jesus has come and changed things.

Jesus cleansed the Temple – why was he so angry? The priests were using the court of the Gentiles to buy and sell, and any seekers who were trying to pray would be doing so in the midst of a market. He was telling them – you don’t care about these people, because you’ve got your special bit – the Holy of Holies. You don’t care about the people on the edge, but you should – you’re not doing your job of bringing the presence of God close to them. “My Temple will called a house of prayer for all nations.”

Having confronted the priests, Jesus became the High Priest – he has become the mediator, the only one we need, dying on the cross for us. Then he inaugurates a whole new priesthood. As a result, the priestly role as seen in the OT, is now the role for every single one of us. We mediate the presence of God to people. Wherever we go, God goes. Wherever we see a person who is seeking after God, we don’t put them off by our inward looking behaviour, by our busyness and noise, but we create a sacred space for them to meet God.
That’s our job.
We bring the presence of God close to them, as they bring themselves close to him, and then the spark can come, and heaven can tumble down to earth once again.
Now do you see what this means? It means that we can’t blame the state of our churches on our leaders. We can’t sit in the pews and say, I wish our church was better, it would be if I was in charge, but that professional Christian up the front, he won’t listen!
You can’t blame the leader. Not exclusively. We are all priests, we are all mediators, we all carry the most amazing treasure about in our earthen vessels, and it’s all of our responsibility to share it, not just mine. We are carriers of God’s grace, called to distribute it wherever it is asked for or sought after. We are all called to this task, to be like the Levites and priests, who didn’t have a share of the land and all the responsibilities that went with it so they could be free to concentrate on God – now we are all called to care less about our mortgage deeds than our neighbours because we know we have an inheritance in heaven, and the earthly things don’t matter so much.


What does it mean to be a priest? Love God, love people, love life. We need to say to God, we will bring people to you and you to people, and we will let them know that every effort they make to seek you and know you is valued and received. There is something gentle and beautiful about a priesthood that notices. Where people don’t necessarily mention God, or use the name Jesus, or talk about religion, but in what they say you know that they are expressing a longing for God in their lives. It was said of Jesus that he would not break a bruised reed, or snuff out a smouldering wick. And this is it – not crushing someone’s tentative reaching out to God, but honouring it, holding it as sacred, and helping them to give it a different kind of language. It’s beautiful. We are priests, helping people to find God.
A royal priesthood, a holy nation, belonging to God … but here for everyone else.

Monday, 27 January 2014

An old inscription

When we removed three brass memorial plaques from the church wall for cleaning, we found an old inscription behind one of them. It was a verse from the Bible and it inspired my sermon last Sunday.

We must all appear before the judgement seat of Christ.

2 Corinthians 5:10

I displayed the words on the big screen from the very start of the service, without comment.


What do you think about having this message in your face? If you are a regular, you probably just thought to yourself, I wonder what Nick is up to now? If you're a visitor, perhaps you are sitting there thinking, how soon can I leave?
Because it isn't a very welcoming message, is it? It's a bit stark, a bit uncompromising. Okay, it's from the Bible, and quoting the Bible is a good thing, but there are other parts of the Bible that sound a little more friendly, aren't there?
And for a small, welcoming church, with a small welcoming congregation, and a small, welcoming vicar (hello, that's me!), surely we could have come up with something better.
Perhaps that's what people thought in the 1920's, when this Bible text was painted over and covered up with a plaque to commemorate Florence Barclay, the most famous vicar's wife of them all.

Because we discovered this week, when the plaques on this side of the church were taken away for cleaning and restoration, that this was what people had to look at before.
So why did one of the first two vicars of our church decide to put this verse up on the wall?
To answer that question, I decided we should hear the passage that it comes from read out today.

Now and then

The first thing I want to point out to you from this passage is that it paints a contrast for us. A contrast between what life is like now, and what life will be like one day.
Tent and a palace
If life now is like being in a ropy old tent, one day, we'll have a room in a palace. And in this respect, it's doing a very important job for us.

Pulled both ways
As Christians, where we are in the present is defined by how we see the past, and the future. We need to hold to both the past, and the future.
It may not seem a very comfortable place to be in, but actually it's very important. As Christians, we inherit an amazing story of God's dealings with the world chiefly through a people that he chose and brought into being, and then through one individual member of that people group, who became the means by which we all have hope for the future.
This is our story. I've begun reading the Bible through in a year again this year, and I've been struck by the number of times the Bible tells its own story. It's told once, repeated, summarised, little details expanded on, and the whole great arc repeated and hammered home again and again. It's the story of how God called one man, Abraham, and made an audacious promise to him, that he would be the father of a great nation, and that through him all nations would be blessed. And this promise came to Abraham when he was 75, and probably thinking about slowing down, and taking what was left of his life easy. And he had no children. And this old fellow had to leave home. Go to the country that God told him his descendants would inherit, have a son, and launch his son off as the patriarch of a whole new dynasty.
Quite a step. But he went, and it happened, just as God said, and a nation was born, and they lived in the Promised Land, and God looked after them until he got fed up with their lack of faith and allowed them to be conquered and taken into exile, and then he brought them back, and gave them their land, but they were never as powerful, always at the mercy of bigger empires, always longing for God to finish the job and send them someone who would set them free.
And in the end God sent that someone, who didn't free them by military conquest, but freed them more truly and deeply than they could ever have imagined, by making it possible for each and every single one of them, and not just them but anybody the world over to have a new relationship with God himself, free from their mistakes and their failures and their brokenness, free suddenly to be the people they had always dreamed they could be, free to work with him to bring heaven's rules down to earth as well.
Free to say to people who felt like they were living in fragile tents that were letting the weather in, that there was a secure shelter awaiting them. No longer at the mercy of the tides and currents of the world, but standing strong and confident in God's love. And because we're anchored to this story, it gives us confidence. We know who we are, because we know whose we are.

Judgement based on deeds

We're the people who have been set free to face Christ in his judgement seat, and not quake with fear. Free to stand in court before him, and when the question rings out, “how do you plead?” to say “Not Guilty.”
Anchored at both ends
How can this be? Well I've told the story, and said that we are the people who have this as our inheritance. This is one of our anchors in life. But we need more than this. My brother in law lives part of the year on a houseboat, and to keep it secure at its mooring, it needs two anchors – front and back. A few years ago, when our family went to France on a cross channel ferry, we saw that even a huge great ship like that
still needs to be anchored, front and back.
With good old ropes.
In the same way, we need to be anchored not just to the past but also to the future. And this passage talks, doesn't it, about what the future looks like for us. It promises us hope. And hope is essential to our life. Without hope, we're nothing, we might as well give up.
We know who we are because we know where we've come from, we know in whose line we stand. But we also need to be anchored to the future, through our hope. The Bible does this for us in all sorts of ways, and one of the things it makes clear is that the story isn't over yet, it's still being told. The Bible places us, not at the end of the story looking back, but in the middle of the story, still shaping it.
The Philippians Creed
Let me give you a for instance. This is one of the the oldest fragments of Christian liturgy that we know about. It's an early Christian creed. Before any prayer books, before the New Testament, before the gospels were written, before Paul wrote his letters, or Luke wrote the Acts of the Apostles, Christians were meeting and saying these words together.
Have this mind among yourselves, 
which is yours in Christ Jesus, 
who, though he was in the form of God, 
did not count equality with God a thing to be grasped, 
but made himself nothing, 
taking the form of a servant, 
being born in the likeness of men. 
And being found in human form, 
he humbled himself by becoming obedient 
          to the point of death, 
even death on a cross. 
Therefore God has highly exalted him 
and bestowed on him the name that is above every name, 
so that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow, 
in heaven and on earth and under the earth, 
and every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, 
to the glory of God the Father.
And what's really interesting about it is that the tense changes two thirds of the way through. This wonderful declaration of faith tells us that Jesus has emptied himself of heavenly glory, has become obedient unto death, has been raised, is seated at God's right hand, has been give this glorious new name … but that at this name every knee will bow, and every tongue will confess that he really is the Lord of everything: heaven earth, and the depths below the earth. Everything will bow to him.
It hasn't happened yet. We're still waiting, still praying, still working for the day when it will be true. As Paul said, now we groan, longing to be clothed with our heavenly dwelling.
So we're anchored to the future, waiting for it to come to pass.
All Creation Groans, by Candice Snyder
Paul says elsewhere that all of creation groans, waiting for the sons and daughters of God to come into their own. He also says, there are times when we don't know what to pray, and the Spirit intercedes through us with groans too deep for words. There are times when we face something that's so horrific we don't have words. There are people whose lives have been so trashed that there is nothing we can say. It's no good saying to them, don't worry, one day you'll go to a better place.
There are times when all we can do is groan, the Holy Spirit inside us sensing the pain of the world and groaning out to God, longing for the day when heaven's rules will apply on earth. That day is coming. 
We will stand before the judgement seat of Christ.
And in the meantime, if there's no abuse in heaven, then let's have no abuse on earth, if there's no slavery in heaven then let's pray for no slavery on earth, if there's no desperate poverty in heaven, then none here too. Because that's what we pray: "Your kingdom come on earth, as it already is in heaven.” Jesus said: if you give so much as a cup of water to one of these little ones, you will not lose your reward.


There is a day coming when all this will be true. It's a day of judgement. 
Now we don't like that word. It makes us feel uncomfortable.

But a word we do like is justice. The day of justice is a day when righteousness is honoured and seen for what it is. When wickedness is seen for what it is. When God ultimately tells the truth about everything and nobody will be saying "that's not fair." God will say, "this is what goodness looks like, this is what righteousness and compassion and love look like." 
Nobody will say that's not fair, because they will know it to be true, and they will be really surprised who God is pointing at as he says "this is what beauty is, this is what compassion is, this is what goodness is."
As for me, I want to stand before that judgement seat. 
I want to hear those words. 
I want to see who Jesus is pointing at, and I want to rejoice with him at the people who never got noticed, but went about making his kingdom come a little sooner that it might have done. 
And I want to believe that some of you will be the ones he is talking about. Because we're still living in this story. We're still shaping it. And we are called to work with God to make his kingdom come.
So take heart. You may groan in your earthly tent, but God's got a plan.You may be afraid of his judgement seat, but it's all about justice. God will right every wrong, he will wipe every tear, and right now he is calling us to play a part in his glorious solution to all the problems of our sorry world.

Sunday, 12 January 2014

The Baptism of Christ

Someone on Twitter asked me to post my sermon. So, @pilgrimexplorer - this is for you!

Baptism of Christ

Question – why did Jesus get baptised?

He didn't need to – he wasn't a sinner. I've often felt for John the Baptist at the moment when Jesus turns up. Recognising the Messiah before him, he's clearly thinking, you don't need this – what are you doing here? John was baptising people as a sign of their repentance from their sins. So when the sinless one stands before him, he doesn't know what to do. Why does Jesus ask to be baptised? He is the one person alive at that time, or at any time, who doesn't need it.

Digression - The baptism furore

The argument has been about the “dumbing down” of the liturgy, and the removal of any reference to the devil.

Actually, I quite like these words – I think they can make sense to people. They are real about the fact that in life we all experience evil, without mentioning things that might cause sniggering.

Why does baptism matter?

Why does it matter? Because we all know that our lives are broken and incomplete, that we have made a mess of things, and that God through Jesus has done something about it. John in his letter says, “If we claim to be without sin, we deceive ourselves and the truth is not in us. If we confess our sins, he is faithful and just and will forgive us our sins and purify us from all unrighteousness.
But there is a problem in all this that if we're not careful can tie us up in knots. Even after we have received God's forgiveness, even after we have been set free from the past in such a wonderful way, the fact of the matter is that we still mess up, We still sin. What's going on? How is it, that after God has forgiven us all our sis, and purified us from all unrighteousness, we aren't changed for ever completely? If we allow ourselves to think, or to say to people, “But the Bible says we don't sin any more, once we've come to Christ,” then as John goes on to say we make God out to be a liar and his word is not in us.
Or perhaps, when we find that we've slipped back into our old ways, that the things we longed to be set free from have still got us trapped, we panic, we think it hasn't worked. Perhaps God doesn't want me. Perhaps he isn't there.

Broken down cars – a wonderful illustration of what a physicist would call entropy – that things left to themselves don't automatically get better, they get worse. Things don't go from a disordered state to an ordered one, they tend towards chaos. Left to itself, everything breaks down. If you just let things run their course, if you don't intervene, things don't move towards a more perfect world, but towards a more broken, chaotic, disordered one. This is the world we live in.
So we can't afford to think of sin in black and white terms – either you're a sinner or you're forgiven and righteous. That isn't the way the world is. None of us have ever met a group of people who so live in such a cloud of righteousness and perfection that there is no sin in them. So what is the point in getting baptised? What is the point in going through this ritual that speaks of being cleansed from all kinds of dirt and brokenness if at the end of it, we're just as dirty and damaged as we ever were? Why are we deluding ourselves?

Transforming the rubbish

To help us understand the answer that God has – the real answer that God offers us to our situation, I want to tell you about a place in France that Gerard Kelly told me about last year when I was at Spring Harvest. He was one of the speakers at Spring Harvest, and he lives in Normandy, near the city of Caen, where he works with a community of Christians who do all sorts of mission work all over Europe, and who are particularly involved in starting a new church in that city.

One day, some of the members of his community came back saying that had found a really good place to go and pray for Caen. They described a park they had discovered, built on a hill just outside the city, called Colline AuxOuiseaux, the Hill of the Birds.
They talked about the lovely trees there, that there was a rose garden, with apparently their own new variety of rose, there were playparks, even a little zoo, and lovely views over the city. So the community started to go there regularly, to sit amongst the peace and pure air, and pray for the city. Then Gerard found out the history of the park. 40 years before, it had been the city rubbish dump, and for hundreds of years, people had brought all their rubbish out of the city, and piled it up here, building up this hill. But as the city had grown, this smelly, messy hill wasn't suitable any more – houses were getting closer and closer, and the smell was not something that people wanted to live with. So they stopped dumping the rubbish, and set to work transforming it into a park. And what had been a horrible place, became something beautiful where children went to play. In one place, they have dug into the hillside to reveal what it looks like below the surface.

It didn't happen straight away. It took twenty years for it to look anything like a park. The trees that were planted, didn't grow overnight. The rose garden, it didn't grow overnight. But what did they do? Did they sack the tree planters, the rose growers? Did they say, well I thought you were planting some trees, where are they? Where’s this rose garden then? No. They knew it took time. Now if it takes 20 years to sort out a rubbish dump, why should we think God can sort us out in 10 minutes?
It takes time in our lives to resow forgiveness and peace where bitterness and anger have been. But given time, with the time that God spends on us, we will no longer be known as a rubbish dump, we will no longer be known for our brokenness. The life of God will grow to displace our brokenness. This is the life to which baptism is the gateway.
Every day we have a choice – whether to live the old way, doing things out of our brokenness, or to live the new life that is opening up before us, of forgiveness and peace.

Growing the fruit

Now how does this come about? The picture that the Bible give us is of fruit, isn't it? But if you want to be a fruit, you don't go to a fancy dress shop and hire yourself a costume. That won't make you a tomato, or a bunch of grapes, no matter how good the costume. You cannot simply put on a bunch of behaviours and say “I am now a nice person.” You have to let God transform you from within. It's about growth, not manufacture. God sows good things into our life, he waters them, he wants us to nurture them as they grow, and then you see the fruit.

Guilt and shame

Now there's one final thing. And it's guilt. How we deal with guilt can be very helpful and wholesome, or it can bring us down into the dust.
Contrary to what you hear said sometimes theses days, guilt can be good. I know there are people who will say you should never feel guilt, you should never beat yourself up. But there is nothing wrong with feeling bad about doing something bad! If I've let someone down, or behaved badly, I want my conscience to tell me about it, before someone else points it out to me. I want to know for myself that I've been a jerk, rather than have to rely on my wife or my friends or my children having to say “Nick, when are you going to get your act together?” So guilt can be good. Conscience can be good.
But false guilt is a different matter. False guilt is a dangerous cancer that can destroy our relationship with God. If we allow the awareness of how broken we are to paralyse us, to stop us from taking action to change, it will cut us off from God. And here's how.
When God was walking in the Garden of Eden, saying “where are you Adam?” and Adam said I was hiding because I was naked and afraid, God said “Who told you that you were naked?”
When I was a young Christian, I used to feel guilty when I'd done wrong things and let God down. Sometimes I felt that because I had done such things, I had no right to come before God, as if I was pretending that nothing had happened. So I should keep my distance. And as the days went by, I began to feel even more guilty because my relationship with God had been wrong for so long. So it became harder and harder to pray, to go to church, to get back to where I should be. And what was God thinking?
I'll tell you what he was thinking. Nick, who told you that it's a good idea to stay away from me? I'm the only person who can really help. Who told you that when you do something you regret I don't want to talk to you? Who told you that you have no right to come into my presence when you've messed up? I didn't, the Bible didn't – where did it come from? Who have you been listening to?
So if you ever feel that your life is a mess, and you just can't come to church until you've got yourself sorted out, do you know what I'd like to say to you? Don't be so daft! The most useful thing you can do with the mess in your life is talk to God about it! Call me a hypocrite, call me what you like, but I'm going to keep coming back to God because he's the only one who can get my life sorted out. I'm not going to let shame keep me out of God's presence because it isn't God who tells me that I need to stay away.

So – why was Jesus baptised?

God wants to open a gateway to a new way of life in us. He wants to plant good things in us that will outgrow the bad stuff. Jesus endorsed this process by submitting to baptism himself. He was saying, this is the way that God is going to sort out the mess of the world. This is the way to do it. We submit to baptism, to enter through the gateway into this new life. The life that has begun in us is greater than the garbage it is beginning to displace and in due course, it will become the dominant force in our lives, if we let it. This is the Christian life. Let's live it.