Saturday, 11 December 2010

Inexplicable joy

Readings: Isaiah 35 v 1-10

                 Matthew 11 v 2-11

In the name of the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit. 

Once again, we have beautiful, hopeful images from Isaiah in our lectionary reading this morning.
Images of transformation.
All through this season of Advent, Isaiah has brought us hope.
His words, when they were spoken, to a people in exile, would have sounded every bit as strange as they do now.
His hearers then, as now, were weighed down, overwhelmed with bleakness, and needed encouragement.
Isaiah’s message was balm for hurting spirits.

Usually, in advent, I am drawn to the gospel readings, but this year, it is the prophecies from Isaiah that have sucked me in.
Not just with the beautiful images they have portrayed but also with their ability to speak through the centuries right to the heart of a world that needs to cultivate hope today.

Let’s hear again those hopeful words for today:

The desert shall rejoice and bloom, like the crocus it shall blossom abundantly…
and rejoice with joy and singing…
Strengthen the weak hands
make firm the feeble knees
Be strong, do not fear…
Here is your God
The eyes of the blind shall be opened
and the ears of the deaf unstopped
the lame shall leap like a deer
and the tongue of the speechless shout for joy
Waters shall break forth in the wilderness
and streams in the desert.

That image of the crocus blossoming abundantly stuck me this week – as I could just picture it.
Last spring, quite a number of you told me, to take a walk down to the park at Corsehill.
And what a sight there was there of crocuses in blossom.
I walked down Monument Road, accompanied by the noise of traffic – but, as soon as I stepped through the gates of the park, it was as though a hush fell over the world.
The sight and the atmosphere, for me, at that moment, was truly electric.
There was simply quiet peace and amazing beauty.
The dead leaves and bare patches of soil under the trees had been transformed into a carpet of crocuses.
That sight affected me both physically and emotionally.
That sight spoke to me of hope, of peace AND of joy.
It didn’t seem enough to simply breathe a prayer of thanks – I wanted to sing my heartfelt praise to a God who could cause such beauty.
And it’s those emotions that rushed back for me this week as I’ve sat with this Isaiah passage.
Hope, peace and joy – and an urge to sing!

The prophecy today speaks not only of hope, not only of peace, but also of joy - all three seemingly elusive qualities in our world today.

It’s a strange thing – we get the notion of hope fairly easily – we’d probably counter that we all need hope in order to survive.
In our darkest moments, in the dark corners of our world, hope is that light that flickers and sustains life.

And peace – we all long for peace – for a world free of conflict – and the freedom that can only be experienced through peace.

But joy seems to go a step further.
Joy, it seems, is a luxury, not an essential element for our well being.

So many people just now are going through the motions. putting a brave face on things, doing what is expected of them, but not really experiencing joy in the process.
- a bit like the Charlie Brown cartoon:
- “I think there must be something wrong with me, says Charlie Brown to Linus.
- Christmas is coming, but I’m not happy. I don’t feel the way I’m supposed to feel. I just don’t understand Christmas, I guess.”
- “ I like getting presents, and sending Christmas cards, and decorating trees, and all that, but I’m still not happy.

But the ancient prophecy speaks of joy and singing.
The crocus will not just blossom abundantly but the desert will rejoice with joy and singing.
The tongue of the speechless will not just be loosened but will sing for joy.

And those last words that we read – I’m going to revert to the words of a chorus we used to sing in Youth Group:
Therefore the redeemed of the Lord shall return
And come with singing unto Zion
And everlasting joy shall be upon their head
Therefore the redeemed of the Lord shall return
And come with singing unto Zion
And everlasting joy shall be upon their head
They shall obtain gladness and joy
and sorrow and sighing shall flee away
Therefore the redeemed of the Lord shall return
And come with singing unto Zion
And everlasting joy shall be upon their head

Everlasting joy.
That is what the prophet promises.
Strange as it may seem
As luxurious as it sounds.
That is the promise – of everlasting joy.

But what about now?
We long for a world where the blind can see, where the deaf can hear, where the lame can leap and the dumb speak.
And of course, when we see those things come to pass, we will rejoice.
How can we do otherwise?

But what about now – in our world as flawed as it is?
What about now, with the burdens and anxieties that weigh us down?
What about now, when we feel the chill of loss or fear the unknown?

How can we experience hope – or peace – far less joy – in daily life?

Maybe, just maybe, that picture of blossoming in the desert might give us a clue as to how joy gets in.
The prophet tells us that the wilderness and the dry land shall be glad and the desert shall rejoice and blossom.
Even in their desolate state, there will come forth something good.

The joy of which the prophet speaks – that joy that comes from God – is not dependant on all the conditions being just right.
But it comes nonetheless.

God does not wait until we have stilled our fears and overcome our anxious thoughts.
God does not wait until we have emerged somehow from our sorrow or loss.
God does not wait until our hearts and lives are ready and fertile.
God bursts in anyway – with an inexplicable joy.

That’s why the image of the crocus blossoming in the desert is such a perfect picture.
After the snowdrop, Crocuses are among the first bursts of hope and colour to appear – sometimes even through the winter snow.
The crocus doesn’t wait until the frosts have gone and the ground is more welcoming.
The crocus simply appears and transforms the landscape.
It’s that kind of transformation that God cultivates in us.
A joy that’s not dependant on external conditions.
A joy that bubbles up despite our heaviness and oppression.
A joy that comes, unbidden, and changes things for us.
Not wiping out tragedy.
Not restoring loss.
Not turning the clock back to better times or rushing us forward to healing.
But a joy that just is – in the midst of whatever challenges
or sorrows afflict us.

May you be afflicted this week, whatever your lot in life right now, with that inexplicable joy that God promises.
And may the prophet’s words – of hope, of peace and of joy, bringing healing to your Spirit.
For the glory of God.

Sunday, 5 December 2010

The magic kingdom

Readings: Isaiah 11 v 1-10

                 Matthew 3 v 1-12

It was tempting, this week, to simply project those images portrayed in Isaiah and let the text – and the images – fire our imaginations and speak for themselves.

For the vision of community portrayed in Isaiah is so compelling and so attractive:

6The wolf shall live with the lamb, the leopard shall lie down with the kid, the calf and the lion and the fatling together, and a little child shall lead them. 7The cow and the bear shall graze, their young shall lie down together; and the lion shall eat straw like the ox. 8The nursing child shall play over the hole of the asp, and the weaned child shall put its hand on the adder’s den. 9They will not hurt or destroy on all my holy mountain;
Advent is a time for getting ready, for looking forward to Christmas. But it is also a time for imagining. Imagining what that kingdom that God sent his son to usher in would be like. 
In our reading from Isaiah, we have a picture of that kingdom. 
And what a picture.
Of peace and harmony never seen before.
A peace and a harmony that even goes against nature.
What is it we are preparing for this advent?
We prepare for Heaven touching earth.
The picture Isaiah paints is one of Heaven truly touching earth.
Wolf and lion and lamb and bear and small child – all playing peaceably together.
It is tempting to just stop there, with that image in our heads, with an indulgent smile on our face, tempting just to drink in that vision and long for the day.
But then we read Matthew’s gospel and are called to a very rude awakening.
Because into this picture of peace and calmness romps John the Baptist, trailing his own peculiar form of madness and austerity. 
Demolishing the tranquillity.
Calling us back to reality.
John is heralding, not the baby Jesus about whom we can all get quite sentimental but the man about to begin his ministry.
John is preaching in the wilderness, not about a baby who is to be born, but about a full grown Messiah who is about to embark on a ministry that will change people’s lives.
A ministry that will liberate a people.
And just as John attempted to alert people in the wilderness to the enormity of what Jesus had come to do, so he crashes with just as little subtlety into our Advent preparations and calls on us to wake up.
John the Baptist calls us out of our cosy reverie and confronts us with the stark reality that the baby we prepare to welcome grew to be a man who calls us to a very different way of living.
Calls us not just to imagine that wonderfully perfect kingdom but to do our best to create it alongside God. 
John calls us to hold a mirror to our intentions, to examine our motives in welcoming the Christ child.
To shake off the cosiness, just for a moment and ask ourselves – what is it we think we are welcoming.
Is it a little child who will plaster over the cracks and make everything better?
Or is it the challenger who calls on us to act, who makes demands of us not just to dream but to change?
John the Baptist’s words are very harsh.
He pulls no punches, calling the religious of his day “a brood of vipers”.
He is uncompromising.
But his last words are not words of condemnation.
He speaks boldly and starkly.
But alongside his condemnation, he offers words of hope.
The hope that, if we are ready to look at ourselves, if we are prepared to wake up and shake off our complacency or our romantic notions about Jesus’ birth.
If we are prepared to own how much of a part we play in the injustice that plagues our world, that traps people in poverty, that denies all equal chances.
If we can open our eyes to all that in honesty, then there is hope for us.
And there is hope for our world.
Because the child born in the stable, who grew to launch a challenging ministry offers us a way to join in restoring what he came to establish.
Jesus comes to change our lives.
And to give us hope that we can make a difference.
That that kingdom that Isaiah pictured will one day be a reality.
Heaven comes to earth – that’s what we prepare for in Advent. 
Are we prepared to change to make that a reality?
As we share in the sacrament of communion today, may the grace of God, conveyed through the simplicity of bread and wine bring us hope.
Hope that we can change.
And hope that God’s kingdom can be born in our midst.


Sunday, 21 November 2010

Hail King Jesus!

Readings: Jeremiah 23 v 1-6
               Luke 23 v 33-43

In the name of the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit.
What is a king?
That’s certainly been a topic of discussion this week, with the announcement of the Royal Engagement.
I’m sure some of you are already tired of hearing about it – especially since William and Kate’s engagement was no sooner announced than there was talk of where and when the wedding would be, how soon they would be crowned king and queen and even how soon they would have children.
Not to mention all the commemorative tat that is already being talked of and the anticipated boost in the fortunes of the few remaining Staffordshire pottery businesses.
While, meantime, real news, is shunted from the front pages and the world stops turning.
Not the most helpful or positive portrait of a king.
Today, in the church, we celebrate Christ the King Sunday.
It’s the last Sunday of the church year.
Next week, Advent Sunday, marks the beginning of the new church year when the cycle begins all over again.
Recognising Christ as King seems a good way to end the church year.
So this IS as special day.
As well as celebrating Christ as King, today we mark the beginning of Guild week - The Guild motto – Whose we are and whom we serve – recognises Christ as king.
And we are also asked to mark this week as Prisoners week, reflecting on all those incarcerated at this time and those who serve and minister to them.
Jesus had a very revealing conversation with the two prisoners who were crucified alongside him at Calvary.
Even in the throes of death himself, Jesus threw one of the prisoners a lifeline.
To the prisoner who was repentant, who recognised Jesus for the king he was, Jesus said “Today you will be with me in paradise” 
THAT is the kind of king whose reign we celebrate today.
A king who sees individuals.
A king who has compassion on all who suffer.
A king who extends grace that is truly amazing.
I wonder how many of you can tell me WHO is prisoner number 24601?
Of course, it’s Jean Valjean from Les Mis.
That wonderful show, that’s been doing the rounds over 25years now, sharing wonderful music AND a wonderful story.
The story is set in Paris of the 1830s, amidst poverty and rebellion.
Jean Valjean, having served 19 years in prison for stealing bread, emerges angry and embittered.
His theft of silver candlesticks from a church finds him once again in a brush with the law.
But then, something really stunning happens:
The Bishop ( who could have him locked up again in an instant) gifts the candlesticks to Jean.
JEan is shown a remarkable and totally unexpected act of grace.
Jean Valjean goes on to make something of his life:
He builds a successful business and becomes mayor of his town.
Many folk have come to depend on him.
However, somewhere along the way, he has broken the terms of his parole, the law catches up with him and Jean Valjean becomes, once again, prisoner 24601.
It’s the opposite of that that we see Jesus doing in his encounter with the prisoners executed alongside him.
He raises them from the ranks of common, nameless criminals.
And, out of his grace he promises one of them: You shall be with me in paradise. 
It’s hard to see Jesus as king, when his sovereignty took him to a cross.But the kingship of Jesus confounds all our notions of that role.Jesus is a king who rides a donkey, as we sang earlier.Jesus is a king who frees prisoners and bestows worth on those whom society has written off.Jesus is a king who gives a name to the nameless.
Who kisses lepers.
Who washes feet.
A very different king.

The end of a year is usually a time for taking stock.
And that would be a useful thing to do this Sunday, the last week of the church year.
In case you haven’t noticed, for the past year, our gospel readings have been mostly from Luke.
We’ve followed Jesus through the eyes of the author of Luke’s gospel.
Each of the gospel writers tells the story slightly, sometimes VERY differently.
For Luke, the things that are important about Jesus are:
Jesus’ humanity,
the role of the holy Spirit in the unfolding events of Jesus’ ministry
and the joy of faith.
Luke is keen to emphasise how human this Son of God is from the outset.
Luke emphasises Jesus’ warmth and compassion with stories of how Jesus always had time to stop and interact with the people he encountered.

The Holy Spirit has a huge role in Luke’s telling of events.
Luke wants to make it clear that everything that happens, from the birth of Jesus to his death and then beyond that to the life of the early Christians, Luke tries to show how all this was planned, all this was the unfolding of God’s will.

Joy is also a theme of Luke’s gospel.
IT is clear that, for Luke, faith, once found was a source of excitement and joy.

Following these three important themes for Luke, then, this Sunday we can celebrate in Jesus:
A human king who always has time for others.
A king who is filled with the Holy Spirit, who is part of God’s plan, from the beginning of time.
A joyful king, for whom faith is exciting, never dull.

It is this king that we have been journeying with this past year in the church.

A king who has time for you and for me.
Who gets right in beside us and sticks with us, always holding out grace for us.

A king who sees our place in a bigger picture and who helps us fulfil out part in God’s plan.

A king who never lets things get dull but who keeps on tossing something else our way to lift us and keep us guessing what’s next?

I wonder which of these elements have touched you this past year?
Which aspect of Jesus has been most evident in your life?
Is it the Jesus who has time for you?

Is it the awesome Jesus who reminds you of the unique role you have to play in history.

Or is it the unpredictable Jesus, who keeps things exciting and often fun?

Perhaps it is all three.

But it’s likely that even if we have encountered Jesus this past year, as human and compassionate.
Even if we have been conscious of the working of the Holy Spirit in our lives nudging us to fulfil our unique place in the church and in the world.
Even if we have enjoyed the excitement of faith that always hold surprises this year.
Still it is unlikely that we will have thought much about Jesus as King.
His mirroring of kingship is so unlike any other king we have known or heard about.

From his birth in poverty in a stable to his coronation  with a crown of thorns lifted up on a cross, Jesus is a very unlikely king.
Yet on this last Sunday of the church year we are being asked to hail Jesus as king and celebrate his reign.
Even if all the images are wrong.
Even if he confounds our stereotypes of a king.
Celebrating Jesus reign is something we can happily do today.
For in the reign of Jesus – folk are seen and valued as individuals – each unique, each treasured, each with an important part to play in God’s plan for the world.
Prisoners – of all kinds are given names, not numbers and are freed from whatever it is that binds them and prevents them being whole.
In the reign of King Jesus we are encouraged to find again joy in our faith – a joy that is always new, instead of the old, predictable patterns that we have fallen into.
The Reign of Christ.

All this brings us way back to the beginning of Luke’s gospel – when Jesus set out his stall – and outlined the basics of his kindom:
Jesus said: The Spirit of the Lord is upon me. HE has chosen me to bring good news to the poor, sight for the blind, liberty for the captives – to proclaim that the Kingdom of God is come.

And so we have come full circle.
We have seen, through Luke’s gospel this year, those kingdom values being lived out in Jesus, all the way to his death.
Next week we get ready to take another gospel and begin all over again to welcome Jesus’ birth.

But, today, we celebrate Jesus as king and his reign among us.
We celebrate being part of a kingdom in which WE are valued.
A kingdom in which WE have a part in God’s plan.
A kingdom in which WE are invited into a joyful and unpredictable faith.
that IS a kingdom we want to be part of.
And Jesus’ is a king whose reign we want to celebrate.

So whether the thought of a British Royal wedding leaves you hot, cold or indifferent, today we do have something to celebrate –
A king who counts each of us as special.

A king who calls each of us to play a very important part in the kingdom – a part that only we can play.

A king who promises joy and excitement in the journey of faith.

A king for Guild members and prisoners alike.
A king whose reign depends on you and me playing our part.

So before we begin advent.
Before we get caught up in the Christmas rush this year.
Let’s pause today to celebrate Jesus as king.
Let’s take a moment at this the end of the Christian year to sit with Jesus at the cross before we rush on again to welcome him into the stable.

In the words of Graham Kendrick:
The king is among us, his spirit is here
Let’s draw near and worship, let songs fill the air

And now he is giving gifts to us all
for no one is worthless and each one is called

Our king, lifted up on a cross, was still filled with compassion and freed the prisoner who cried out to him.
Our king promises to be right beside us, helping us to carry  whatever weighs us down today.
Jesus the King knows each of us and calls us by name.
Jesus the king calls us to fulfil the special part that is ours to play in the kingdom.
Jesus the King promises us an unpredictable ride and joy in our faith.
Today, we hail King Jesus.

Sunday, 14 November 2010


Sunday 14th November 2010

Readings: Joshua 11 v 6-9, 21-23
Luke 7 v 1-10

In the name of the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit.
The centurion said to Jesus: I, too am a man placed under the authority of 
superior officers, and I have soldiers under me. I order this one go and he goes.

We speak often, in the church, about peace.
Indeed, Sunday by Sunday, we pray for peace.
Repeatedly we condemn war and the horror of war.
And this is entirely appropriate, since Christ has charged His people to be peacemakers in a world that is weary of war.
It concerns me, however, that in our anxiety to find alternative, non violent ways of achieving peace, we alienate our military personnel – the men and women on the front line, constantly preparing for and suffering the consequences of the wars in which our country is engaged. Often, it seems as though we have little to say to the very people who risk and give their lives. 
Soldiers, navy and air crews seem lost in the melee as the church grapples with the huge issues of nuclear war and global peace.
It's time we said something on behalf of our service men and women.
It's time we spoke about peace, not just in political or moral terms, but in human terms as well.
It is time we spoke before God about good soldiers and bad wars.
It would be easy to leap on to the somewhat trendy band wagon of condemning war – as we must – and, in so doing, carry our condemnation to extremes - overlooking those who serve and have served.
Indeed, recently, I was involved in a discussion at the Boys Brigade – the boys were raising money for Holly Bush House, a local facility that cares for military personnel affected by the trauma of war.
A few of the boys wanted their fund raising efforts to be channelled elsewhere because they were opposed to war.
It took some effort convincing them that while non violent resolution of conflict was a goal worth continually pursuing, we still had a duty to those who have served their country.
So how do we maintain that tension?
The tension of holding peace as a state worth striving for and honouring all those who have served and continue to serve their country in war?
We might begin by considering some of the things that draw people into military service - the benefits to be gained by being a soldier.
Peace activists in the church are often too elitist to see this, but for many of our young people, the armed services offer training and a career which they in all probability would not otherwise be offered on civvy street.
When I was at college, I remember vividly talking to a man in a housing scheme in the East End of Glasgow.
It was during the time of the build up to the Falklands war.
This was a young man, with a young family, who had never been employed since leaving school.
A young man who was desperate for war so that he could enlist and give his family a regular income and something to be proud of.
He wanted to go to war to make his family proud.
For many, joining the military is an attractive alternative to joining the ranks of the chronically unemployed.
In the forces, young folk are allowed to realise their potential and their lives are given direction and discipline. They learn habits and lessons in the armed forces which serve them well for the rest of their lives.

It is this sort of discipline that we see in the Roman centurion who talks with Jesus.
In his case, he is a soldier whose military experience has taught him something important about faith.
Picture him as he makes his way towards Jesus and imagine how the crowd murmurs its disapproval.
They don't want this soldier of Caesar anywhere near their Jesus!
But the crowd's disapproval gives way to confusion and then astonishment, because this centurion seems different.
He isn't cursing them and pushing them around as the other soldiers do.
He speaks respectfully, even reverently, to Jesus.
Most incredibly of all: a Roman centurion is calling Jesus, "Lord!"
The centurion said to Jesus: "Lord, I know how Your people hate me. They hate everything I represent; they despise the empire I am sworn to defend. With all the evils of Roman rule, I know I'm not even worthy to ask you into my home! But please, Lord Jesus, my beloved servant is very ill and lies near death. If you would just stand here and say the Word I know he can be healed."
Then the centurion uses his own military background to explain his faith.
He goes on to say, "I am a man under authority with soldiers under me. When I tell them to go, they go and when my superiors tell me to come, I come. So, too, Jesus, can you order my servant to be healed"

The centurion's world is governed by a chain of command. And because this is the world he lives in, this is also how he understands his faith.
Just as a captain has authority over a private and a general over a captain, so, too, does Jesus have authority over all things, seen and unseen.
Jesus is the ultimate Commander-in-Chief.
Simply by issuing the order, He can heal the centurion's servant.
The Roman soldier has learned his faith through the language and lens of the military, but the faith he has learned is nonetheless true.
He has learned that Jesus is Lord, a Supreme Officer to be obeyed.
And Jesus is impressed by this faith.
He says to the centurion, "Not even in Israel have I found such faith. It is done for you, your servant is healed as you believed."

Today, we live in a society which teaches us in so many ways to love ourselves and to "look out for number one." Well, that's not what Jesus taught, is it; and that's not what people learn in the military, either.
Jesus said, "Greater love has no one than this, that he should lay down his life for his friends", and countless soldiers have done just that over the years!
They have thrown themselves on top of grenades, cleared mine fields, covered the flank on a dangerous mission, or in some other way paid the highest price.
They died young, on fields of battle all over the world. They are  examples of courage and self-sacrifice to us today, us with our faith that is "neither cold nor hot"  an example to us who live our faith somewhere between comfort and commitment.
Military personnel have learned important lessons about love and loyalty
 They love each other completely, even with their lives. More so than most Christians, many of our military personnel have the kind of love Jesus talked about.
So, in the church, when we talk of war and peace we ought to recognize the Christ-like values which can be found in our armed forces.
Recognising these values, we might then be compelled to ask - What happens to these military personnel, who have learned such important values?
And the answer is: they are sent to fight in evil wars.

Listen to these words, written by a soldier looking back on his own experience of war:
What kind of war do civilians think we fought, anyway? We shot prisoners in cold blood, wiped out hospitals, killed or mistreated enemy civilians, finished off the enemy who were wounded, tossed the dying into a hole with the dead, boiled the flesh off enemy skulls to make table ornaments for sweethearts or carved their bones into letter openers. Not every British soldier, or even one percent of our troops, committed unwarranted atrocities, and the same might be said for the enemy. But the war necessitated many so-called crimes and the bulk of the rest could be blamed on the mental distortion which war produced... -
The "mental distortion which war produced."
These words were written by a veteran of World WAR II, a veteran of Iwo Jima and Okinawa. He fought in what we often call "the good war, the just war."

In our text from Joshua this morning, we see how wars were fought thousands of years ago.
Israel plundered cities and burned them to the ground. When enemy soldiers ran for their lives, the Israelites tracked them down and slaughtered them.
They killed every man, woman and child they could find. The Bible says that "they did not leave any that breathed"
General Sherman said, "war is hell" and so it is.
Soldiers of every age have known it.
War brings hell to the land, to innocent civilians and to the soldiers themselves.
War is hell.
Some would still argue, even in the face of all the evidence to the contrary, that war might be necessary on occasion, but don't call it "good."
War is always evil.
 Christians who want to justify war often cite texts like this one from Joshua to justify war.
"The Bible is a violent book," they say, "and God is a God of war.

But what about Jesus’ teaching?
And what about all that the Old Testament says about the evils of war and the blessings of peace?
Wherever the Old Testament seems to bless war, there is usually a little clue somewhere to make us stop and think and keep war in a more sober perspective.
Here in Joshua, the clue is in the chariots. When the battle is over, God tells the Israelites to burn the chariots they have captured from the enemy.
Now, why would Israel do that?
At a time when wars were fought hand to hand and on the ground, the chariot was a kind of ultimate weapon, the nuclear bomb of its age, if you will.
It was certainly a great leap forward in the technology of death.
So why would Israel burn these chariots and voluntarily give up an important advantage in the arms race of their day?
They did it to make sure they wouldn't use this new weapon!
To the Israelites of Joshua's day, war was fought under God and God was the nation's security, not the latest weapon.
The minute they trusted in themselves for their defence they were doomed; and this is precisely what happened later, during the age of the prophets.
They acted faithfully with a form of unilateral disarmament.
Of course, chariots became crossbows, crossbows became cannons, cannons became machine guns and machine guns became missiles.
Today, our chariots are called "Strategic Defence," or "Star wars."
Whether we admit it or not, we are just like every other nation on earth in this respect: we find our security in our weapons, not in God.
We pay lip service to God but look to ourselves for strength.
And just like ancient Israel in the age of the prophets, our nation is not eager to hear what God's servants would faithfully say:
Our nation has it all wrong insofar as things military are concerned. We should be celebrating our soldiers and condemning war. Instead, we condemn our soldiers and celebrate war.
Oh, I know we often hear politicians and business leaders praising the courage and sacrifice of our soldiers. But whenever I hear those speeches, I want to cry out in protest, because that is the sound of patriotism and hypocrisy mixed together! How can we as a nation praise veterans one day and then cut their benefits and ignore their problems the next?
It seems we are willing to profit by sending them to war, but unwilling to share our profits with them in peace. And so, they are mistreated and ignored.
This is cynical and callous.
We've got it all wrong.
We hate the good and love what is evil.
We treat our military personnel shabbily and we glory in the profits and passions of war.
Remember the centurion who came to Jesus – and all our serving men and women today.
And remember how, even in its most violent episodes, the Bible does not bless our vision of war.
God's Word requires repentance and a national leap of faith, because it says that righteousness must be our armour, and God our defence, even in a dangerous world.
You will notice a startling and revealing phrase at the end of our text in Joshua. When the long battle is finally over, the text says, "And the land had rest from war."
Israel crushed her enemies with force, but there was no peace for Israel, only a rest from war.
That's all we have ever had in this world: a rest from war. Today, we don’t even have that.
Our patriotic bluster and our lack of real faith in God keep us blind to the paths of peace.
God have mercy on us and on the souls of all the good folk who have died in bad wars. And God have mercy on the soul of our nation. Amen

Saturday, 6 November 2010

Live the interruptions


Sunday 7th November 2010

Readings: Job 19 v 23-27
               Luke 20 v 27-38

Have you ever had one of those days when everything you start to do gets interrupted?
At the end of the day, you’ve done loads of things, but nothing that you actually set out to do?
It seems to me that I’ve not had a day like that, or even a week or a month, but at least a year.
But-  those places and situations that we consider temporary or simply way stations often turn out to be the places or situations that hold the most significance for
Henri Nouwen once said that in his ministry he found himself becoming frustrated and resentful that his work was constantly being interrupted by people who wanted or needed something from him, until one day the Lord spoke to him and revealed that his real work was in those interruptions.
Don’t we all have days when it seems there just isn’t enough of us to go around?
Maybe we have to pay more attention to those transit points on our journey.
It just may be that we'll discover someone, perhaps even
ourselves, who is out on a limb and needs some attention.

That last week of Jesus’ life was a week of interruptions.
Interruptions in which Jesus revealed to us the whole point of his being among us.
It doesn’t make comfortable reading.
There are harsh lessons to be learned in the teaching that Jesus gave then.
He made the most of the interruptions to make clear the challenging path that we are called to embark on for the sake of the kingdom.

I spent Thursday and Friday this week, working with some friends on a new all age worship curriculum.
We were putting together material for next Lent and Easter – publication deadlines mean we have to write it now.
As we considered the lead up to Jesus’ death, we were thinking of all those things we have read that emphasise Jesus’ mildness and Jesus’ innocence - that almost make Jesus sound inoffensive and ineffectual.
Jesus was anything but!
Jesus constantly rubbed people up the wrong way, upset the great and the good, provoked strong reactions.
So, it is not hard for us to see why people would hate Jesus.
So much so that they crucified him.
Yes, he loved and healed.
He was, in essence, a pacifist.
But Jesus constantly challenged the old ways.
He hung out with the wrong folk.  
Jesus predicted the destruction of the Temple and when he drove the moneychangers out of the temple, that cast him as anti establishment.

So, it was that in the last week of Jesus’ life, a conference was called not in an attempt to plot to assassinate Jesus but rather to discredit him.
The authorities did not want a martyr on their hands. They would much prefer to make Jesus look like a fool.
Let’s give him enough rope and he may just hang himself. Thus, they decided that each group would in turn ask him a question, not because they thought that they could learn from him; they did not think that Jesus could teach them anything.
But they hoped to trick him.
They were hoping for that one slip of the tongue.
Each group would ask him a question that would be dear to their cause.

So as Jesus nears the end of His ministry, wave after wave of religious storm troopers launch their attacks on Him.
He’s just silenced a combined assault of Herod’s supporters and Pharisees about paying taxes.
The Sadducees were watching the whole thing and now that the other groups had been driven off, they decide to launch their assault – and they had a good one – a theological brain teaser. They had probably used it many, many times before. It had always stumped their competitors. Surely it would have the same results with Jesus, this carpenter from Nazareth.
So we have that question from the Sadducees that we read this morning.
They asked Jesus a hypothetical question about a woman who was widowed seven times in succession.
In heaven, whose husband will she be?
The Sadducees did not believe in the resurrection.
And to them this was a question that pointed out the total absurdity of the thought of an afterlife.
Jesus answered the Sadducees’ question by saying: In the resurrection people will neither marry nor will they be given in marriage.
In other words, Jesus is saying that heaven is on another dimension.
It will not be there like it is here.
The Sadducees’ question is based on the assumption that heaven will be based on something we can recognise – based on life here on earth.
Jesus gives them their answer about marriage.
But then Jesus goes on to address the real issue that is being raised.
Jesus said: God is the God of the living and not of the dead.
That is the real issue.
Jesus is saying to the Sadducees: You are concerning yourself with the afterlife and the problem is that you have not yet learned to live life here and now.
Heaven is not our responsibility. That is God’s responsibility. What is our responsibility is how we live life here and now.
How we deal with the interruptions.
The Sadducees were at a loss for words, and quietly they returned to their seats.

God is the God of the living, not of the dead.
Of course our family responsibilities are very important on this side of heaven.
A minister was speaking to the children one day about the things money can’t buy. “It can’t buy laughter and it can’t buy love” she told them. Driving her point home she said, “What would you do if I offered you £1000 not to love your mum and dad?”
Thee was silence for a moment. And then a small voice queried, “How much would you give me not to love my big sister?”

The question the Sadducees posed that day was absurd.
It was based on the presupposition that life in the resurrection is an exact counterpart to earthly life.  
They were trying to demonstrate the absurdity of the resurrection by this type of anomaly it might cause in a future life.
They were not truly looking for an answer -  they just wanted to stump Jesus.
But by asking their question, they instead demonstrated two things about themselves:
They demonstrated that they were ignorant of God’s Word, and they were ignorant of God’s power.
The Sadducees were supposed to be the teachers in Israel!
They were supposed to be teachers of the Word but they were ignorant of the Word – not only ignorant, but also irrelevant.

Let me ask you:
When you use aluminium foil, what side do you leave out – Is it the shiny side that has to be on the outside – or the dull side?
We all have an opinion.
But, in fact, it doesn’t matter:
Because, when aluminium foil is made, it’s rolled. One side of the foil becomes shiny because it comes in direct contact with the heavy roller. The other side stays dull because it never makes contact with the roller...but both sides produce the same results!

Similarly, most of us today will happily debate trivialities in God’s Word while God just wants us to use it and apply it to our lives. Then we’ll know God’s Word and God’s power!

We often make the same mistake the Sadducees were making, we create heaven in our the image of earth.
Their perceptions of heaven had evolved through what they knew of earth.
Folk have always done that.
Native American hunters looked at death as going to the “Happy Hunting Grounds.”
The Vikings, who were warriors, saw death as “Valhalla”, where they would fight all day, and where at night the dead would be raised and the wounded healed so that they could battle again.
Muslims see death as a place where folk would live in a place where every physical and sensual pleasure would be satisfied.
Our tendency has always been to conjure up a heaven from our earthbound experiences.

The Lord Jesus was an advocate of a “new age” movement. While “new age” has confusing connotations today, the fact remains that Jesus was teaching a “new age” that was very distinct from the “old” order.
Resurrection is not the restoration of life as we know it; it is entrance into a new life that is different.
What is this new life going to be like?
There will be no marriage in heaven and no concern about past husbands and wives, but that does not suggest in the slightest a reduction in love.
There will be no death in heaven. Marriage and procreation are essential to this earthly life so human life can go on. But since there is no death in heaven (we “no longer die”), marital intimacy will be surpassed by spiritual intimacy. Heaven has no coffins or cemeteries. There will be no gray hairs or bald pates on the heads of God’s immortals.
We will be like the angels. Now Jesus does not say we will be “angels” but like them.
Like the angels, our character will be faultless. The angels perfectly do God’s will. We now have to pray “Your will be done on earth as it is in heaven,” there we will always do God’s will!
Like the angels, we will perpetually worship God.

So in heaven we will worship God for all eternity.
Wouldn’t we do well to start practicing down here?
I like the church billboard that said:
Come on in and we’ll help you revise for your final exams.

The living God is the God of a living people.
Our hope and confidence in the resurrection rests upon the Word of God and God’s infinite power.
To believe the Word of God and to trust in the power of God is much more than a head game – it should change both our beliefs and our behaviour.
Our confidence in the resurrection should radically change the way we live.
So - Do we really believe in the resurrection?
The degree to which we believe in the resurrection of the dead will determine the way that we presently live.
If we truly believe in the resurrection, then we will boldly stand for Christ.
If we believe that this world is not the end, we will look at this life very differently.
It will totally change our “investment strategy” – of our time, our money – our very lives.

Today we are still asking the wrong questions and trying to find out the right answers.
We talk about pollution and race relations and war, and world hunger and all the while we skirt around the really important question: what does it mean for us  to be called children of God?
How do we show in our daily lives our faith in the God of the living?

The story is told of a preacher attempting to put the finishing touches on his Sunday sermon but who was constantly being interrupted by his 6-year-old daughter.
I know the feeling well.
Anyway, to keep her busy, he found a picture of a globe and he cut it up into little pieces, thinking that that would keep her busy for a long time.
To his surprise, within minutes she had completed it. Asked how she did it so fast she replied: Simple, there was the picture of a man on the back, so, once I put his face together the world fell right in line.
That is what Jesus was saying to the questioners and to us as he was interrupted that last week of his life.
God is the God of the living.
Live believing that and other things will fall into place.
Jesus called on his followers to be peacemakers, and told them that they would be called the children of God. This promise still exists for us today. 
These are simple but powerful words. 
If they worked in Christ’s time, why shouldn't they work today as we struggle to rid the world of terror? 
It is easy to pay our taxes, abide by the rule of law, and otherwise dutifully give to Caesar what is Caesar’s. 
In the end, only when we each become a peacemaker will we achieve the unity that politicians of all stripes are fond of giving lip service to.
God is the God of the living.
How that manifests itself in your life and in mine will determine how our world will be shaped.
God is the God of the living.
May we live as children of the living God, in all of life’s interruptions - for the glory of God.