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Sunday, January 5, 2014

ALL AGE EPIPHANY TALK WITH EASTER EGGS


I’m hiding something in my pocket as a visual aid for what I have to say. It’s only small, and you may find it rather surprising, but it’s particularly apt for today: the twelfth and final day of Christmas and the Eve of Epiphany. Epiphany, remember, is when we remember the Three Wise Men and their gifts, and when we celebrate the truth that Jesus is God in human form.

I'll reveal my secret object in a minute or two, but first let me run through three things that you may wrongly be expecting me to bring out.

Firstly, I won’t be holding up a lump of gold. Of course, that would have been a great visual aid. Gold was and still is the gift of kings. And when the Wise Men held out their gift of gold to Baby Jesus, they were saying something very special: “However tiny you are, and however wrong a place this filthy stable is for you to be, you are a true king, and you are worthy to receive this gift of kings.”

Second, I’m not carrying any myrrh. That too would have been a brilliant visual aid and a fragrant one as well. Myrrh is an aromatic potion that was used to prevent the spread of infection and mask the smell of death and decay. And by presenting Jesus with myrrh they were symbolically anointing him for death and burial.

And finally, it’s not frankincense. That would have been another great visual aid, because for thousands of years and in many different cultures across the globe, incense has been the traditional offering to a deity. And in presenting the infant king with such a gift, the Wise Men were saying, “You are are not just a king; you are God himself come to earth in human form.”

So, if it’s not gold, myrrh or frankincense, what have I got in my pockitses? Well, today we do celebrate the visit of the Wise Men. And tomorrow is Epiphany, when we celebrate the central truth of Christmas – the truth to which their gifts of gold, frankincense and myrrh bear witness: the truth that Jesus is God come to earth to live and die as one of us. But the real message comes down to this: The party’s over. It’s time to take down the decorations, vacuum up the pine needles, consign the turkey leftovers to the freezer or better still the dustbin, and let the Baby Jesus grow up into a man. And here at last is the little epiphany – the word means revelation – that I promised earlier 

Speaker holds up a chocolate egg (I bought 15 Cadbury's Crème Eggs from the supermarket at 3 for £1).

A friend of mine has been complaining bitterly that Easter eggs are already in some of the shops. Actually, I think that’s quite helpful symbolism. Of course, there’s nothing exclusively Christian about chocolate eggs, but they do symbolise new life. And they do help us remember that once Christmas is over, Easter is (theologically as well as on the calendar) just around the corner. And as Christmas makes way for Epiphany, this is the point where we have to leave our mental pictures of Baby Jesus behind and focus afresh on the grown-up God-Man who died to bring us new life.

There are enough of these in a bowl at the back for each of the children to take one, and perhaps a few left over for grown-ups. And as you eat them, please remember the truth they represent: that the Christmas story ends with Easter.



Sunday, December 1, 2013

ADVENT: IT'S ABOUT MORE THAN CHOCOLATE CALENDARS


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This year, for the first time in many years, Kate and I have had the joy of taking a toddler out shopping in the run-up to Christmas. And mostly it really has been a joy – there’s nothing in the world quite as photogenic as a two year old with her eyes wide with fascination at all the festive shapes and colours and lights of a shopping mall in full seasonal swing. On the other hand, it’s not so nice seeing their excitement and expectations manipulated to fever pitch when Christmas is still two months away. It makes for a very long autumn!

At last, thankfully, we’ve arrived at the First Sunday of Advent. That doesn’t help to offset the sheer tackiness of the commercial build up to Christmas - indeed to our granddaughter it's mostly about opening the windows on her chocolate Advent calendar. But, let me hasten to add, her calendar has a Nativity theme - not Santa Claus, not Walt Disney, not The Simpsons, but Jesus. And the start of Advent does give us as Christians the moment to assert some kind of ownership of the season: To visibly and publicly prepare for our own Christmas, and to remind the world that Jesus is the Reason for the Season. Jesus, not Santa Claus, not Walt Disney, not Coca-Cola or John Lewis, not the winter solstice, and certainly not the corporate profit and loss account.

So, Advent has officially begun. But what does that mean for us? By the time I’d been a regular churchgoer for a few months, Christmas and Easter and Pentecost and even Lent all meant something to me. But it was years before I cottoned on to the meaning of Advent. Of course I knew it was a time of looking forward to Christmas, but it’s also a time of looking backward. In fact, if we really want to get the full flavour of Advent we have to do one of those double-takes so beloved of cartoon artists: Forward-Backward-Forward is how it goes. Confused? Let me enlarge on that.

The obvious starting point is that we’re looking forward to Christmas. And today, with or without the aid of a chocolate Advent calendar, we start the countdown: 24 days during which we prepare to celebrate the birth of Jesus – the stupendous event in which the infinite and eternal God broke into our space-time universe.  And Christmas certainly needs preparation.  Firstly, practical preparation. Nobody has found this an easy year financially, but most of us will do what we can to decorate our homes and churches and work places, to send greetings and possibly buy gifts, and maybe to turn up our socializing a notch or two. So a lot of physical preparation is called for. But Christmas also requires spiritual preparation.  That’s a dimension that can easily get lost in the hustle and bustle, but for Christians the build-up to Christmas has always been about spiritual growth.  It’s a time to repent of our past offences and commit ourselves afresh to living as though God really was about to come into our world for the first time.

So the first thing we do in Advent is to look forward to each Christmas and make preparations. But we also have to look backwards – not just to the events of that first Christmas 20 centuries ago, but to the centuries of Jewish dealings with God that led up to it. How can we grasp the life-changing, world-changing impact of Christ’s birth if we don’t reflect on what it meant to his contemporaries? And so, over the next few Sundays we’ll be looking again at the ancient teachings, especially the majestic Old Testament prophecies that foretell and explain the coming of the Messiah. One such passage is the reading from Isaiah we heard earlier (Isaiah 2:1-5). It looks forward to a time scarcely imaginable to the pre-Christian world: where God will once again be present on earth. In that day, his Law and his glory will be revealed not just to a single chosen people but to all the world, and all the world will experience a new era of peace and goodwill to all humanity under the Messiah’s banner.

Sadly though, when we look around the world we don’t see the reign of peace of goodwill. Rather, we see a world characterised by conflict, suffering and greed. And so, it’s not enough to look forward to Christmas, or back to the Nativity and the glorious promises in Scripture. We have to look forward again, not just to next Christmas or to Christmasses future, but to the time known only to the God the Father at which Christ will be sent back into the world to put it right.  And fittingly, Advent has always been a time for thinking about the Second Coming of Christ.

Bible passages about the Second Coming are invariably difficult - full of dense symbolism, and I’m not going to fall into the trap of trying to unpack them in detail. However, I can make two brief points with confidence:

Firstly, the Bible makes clear when Jesus comes again, it will be utterly unexpected – so unexpected that not even Jesus knows when it will happen. And to convey just how unexpected and shocking it will be, he uses some vivid and slightly unsettling illustrations. For example, people don’t expect their houses to be broken into. We normally lock up at night, of course, and most of us insure our possessions, because we don’t take our security for granted. But an actual burglary always comes as a surprise and a shock to the victims. And in our Gospel reading this morning (Matthew 24: 36-44), Jesus says that when he comes again it will be as unexpected and shocking as a thief in the night.

And here’s another thing we can be sure of about the Second Coming: it represents a challenge to the way we live out our faith here and now. Two thousand years ago, Jesus came for the first time, inaugurated a new heavenly kingdom on earth and empowered the Church to carry on his work. We’ve had two thousand years in which to build on the foundations he laid, and in spite of some key advances the world is still a mess. Perhaps we have another two thousand years, or for all we know Christ could come again any day now. And he has promised that he will come not as a vulnerable infant but as a conquering king, to eliminate conflict and suffering from the world and establish his kingly rule forever.

When Christ comes again, whether it’s not for five thousand years or whether it’s tonight, what will he find? All our work will be seen for what it is. How much of it will prove good enough for him to build on? How much will be blown away like chaff?

And so, at Advent we look forward and backward and forward again. We reflect on our past successes and failures, both as individuals and as the church. We look forward to tasting again at Christmas something of the joy and excitement of Christ’s first coming. And we commit ourselves once again to pushing out the boundaries of his kingdom in the light of the glory that will be fully revealed only when he comes again.

As Christmas draws ever nearer, may the excitement and the joy and the peace and the challenge of the season fill our hearts, and may we commit ourselves afresh to doing Christ’s work in the challenging months ahead.

Sunday, November 3, 2013

THE HOPE TO WHICH HE HAS CALLED US (All Saints & All Souls Day)

(Ephesians 1: 11-23)

I wonder how many people here know that Thursday this week (31st October) was Reformation Day. It’s not called that in the Church of England calendar. It’s officially the festival of Martin Luther – the German monk whose protests against the Church of Rome in the 16th century sparked off the Protestant movement. But in the Protestant churches of continental Europe and the USA, Reformation Day is a major event, and in parts of America it offers a lively alternative to the big secular spookfest that is Halloween.

Here in the Church of England (and Chichester Diocese in particular) the historical Reformation (with a capital R) has not been seen as quite such an unalloyed blessing. But Anglicans of every persuasion can join together in celebrating the theme of reformation and renewal as ongoing processes in the church and in individual lives. It’s a time to think about the changes God is able to bring about in us through the Gospel and inner work of the Holy Spirit.

This reflection on inner transformation is timely, because it helps prepare us for the deeper meditations of All Saints and All Souls that we have been observing since the beginning of November. Firstly, this is a time when the worldwide church thinks about itself and its place in history. Some find it helpful to meditate on the difference between the church as we see it (sometimes referred to as the Church Militant) - struggling with persecution, apathy and its own internal human failings - and the church as God sees it: the triumphant and resplendent bride of Christ. But more importantly for us here today, the conjoined festivals of All Saints and All Souls provide an opportunity to bring those loved ones who are no longer with us reverently, affectionately and prayerfully to mind.

When St. Paul wrote to reassure and encourage the Christian community he had planted in Ephesus, he addressed both aspects - the struggling church and the problem of human suffering and loss. There’s not time to go through this morning’s entire reading from the letter to the Ephesians, but we can look at the centrepiece of Paul’s exhortation: the concise and eloquent prayer in which he asks God to give his people a deeper understanding of just what they have inherited as members of the Church of Jesus Christ:


I pray that the eyes of your heart may be enlightened in order that you may know (1) the hope to which he has called you, (2) the riches of his glorious inheritance in his holy people, and (3) his incomparably great power for us who believe.” There are three things there that Paul prays for God to implant firmly in people’s minds. Let’s look at each of them in turn and apply them to our own situation.

Firstly, Paul wants us to know the hope to which God has called us. Now "hope" may sound a bit wishy-washy, but that’s just the way we tend to use the word in modern English - for a vague wish that is probably going to end in disappointment: "I hope it doesn’t rain at the weekend," or "I hope your Auntie Mabel isn’t coming for Christmas dinner again." But the word the Bible writers use indicates something quite different: When they talk about hope, they mean a confident expectation based on past experience. And in the case of God, past experience shows that he is unfailingly faithful to his promises in Scripture. God never promises that we will not suffer tragedy or loss, and when it happens, he never promises that it won’t hurt. On the contrary, God himself in the person of Jesus weeps when confronted with the death of his friend Lazarus. And yet God does promise comfort. He does promise that we will eventually come to discern and rejoice in his wisdom. Above all, he promises that all things will work together for good in the lives of those who trust him; he promises that good can ultimately come of tragedy, even as it did for humanity in the aftermath of Jesus’ own suffering and death. So, in summary, Paul wants us to know the confident hope to which God has called us.

Secondly, Paul wants us to know the riches of God’s glorious inheritance in us, his holy people. Getting to grips with their inheritance was crucial for the Ephesian Christians he was writing to, because so many of them were Gentiles who had come into the Church with no awareness of the hundreds of years of God’s gracious dealings with the nation of Israel before them. Put simply, they didn’t know God’s track record: all the love he’d shown to his people, the crises he’d faithfully brought them through. And we too, regularly, blind ourselves to God’s track record by ignoring our inheritance as the church. It’s easy to miss the relevance of Christian art, music and  writing to our modern lives. But if we do set aside all that: the stories of saints and martyrs, the poetry and paintings, the music, the philosophical and devotional writings - we cut ourselves off from the testimony our ancestors have left behind to the saving and live-giving activity of God down through the ages. By ignoring the riches of this glorious inheritance, we impoverish and weaken ourselves when it comes to dealing with adversity and loss. But to look on the positive side, we need do no more than scratch the surface of that inheritance to find overwhelming evidence of God’s faithfulness in transforming the direst of situations.

Thirdly and finally, having reminded us of the hope to which we’ve been called and the riches of our inheritance, Paul wants us to know God’s incomparably great power for us who believe. And he goes on to characterise and give the measure of that power. Imagine, he says, the kind of awesome power it took to raise the crucified Jesus from the dead and seat him in Lordship over the universe. That, he says, is the same power God exerts in the lives of those who believe: to renew them, give them new life, reconstruct them when life’s adversity has left them feeling destroyed. If the horrific suffering and death of Jesus - the very creator of the universe - can be the gateway to new life and hope, is there any situation imaginable that can’t be rescued from despair by the working of that same resurrection power?


In conclusion, while nothing can assuage the grief of those who have lost a loved one, we in the worldwide Christian family have this season of reflection every autumn. We try to turn our backs on the cheap, commercial flurry of monster costumes and fireworks, and to focus on the real meaning of death and loss and hope and new life. We give thanks for those we have loved and see no more. We meditate on the hope to which God has called us. We embrace the God’s promises in Scripture and the astonishing faithfulness to which the cultural inheritance of the church bears witness. And we await the reworking in our own lives of the mighty resurrection power that brought Jesus back from the dead to place him in sovereignty over the universe that was created through him. 

This afternoon at 4.00pm, there will be a service here in church at which we remember our departed loved ones by name, and we hope many will come to share the celebration of their memory. But in the meantime, whether you are still grieving the loss of loved ones, or are now at a stage where you can give thanks with peace in your heart for all they meant to you, you can be assured that across the world right at this moment there are millions of Christians standing alongside you in prayer….   

Let’s bow our heads in a prayer of our own….

Saturday, October 19, 2013

THE PUSHY NEIGHBOUR (drama sketch)


THE PUSHY NEIGHBOUR (Luke 11:5-13)

Characters:
 - Narrator (in pulpit)
 - The Father (Zack. Could also be mother, e.g. Rebecca, depending on gender of actor)
 - The Neighbour (David, speaks from offstage. An Eric Idle type, wheedling and a bit nerdy)
 - Several children (mostly non-speaking extras, names intercheangeable)

Props:
 - Sleeping bags or duvets on the floor beside the organ or other obstruction.
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Scene: A tiny one-bedroom flat. Sleeping bags litter the floor.

Enter the Father, visibly weary as he gently ushers in a number of children. As the Narrator sets the scene, they make their way to the bedding, where the Father starts getting the children into bed.

Narrator:         It is midnight in Zack’s tiny one-bedroom flat, and he and his children are very, very tired. It’s a hard life for a single Dad. He’s been at work all day and half the night, earning money to feed them. And he’s already had a rocket from the child-minder for picking them up so late.

Narrator sinks down into the pulpit. (An older or less flexible person could alternatively turn 180 degrees so that his/her back is to the congregation.)

Father:            [Tiredly] Come on all of you. No, nothing more to eat, Joshua, it’s bedtime now. No, you’ve had a drink, Mary. Oh, Daniel, do you really have to? Go on then, but be very quick.

One of the children goes round the corner for a few seconds while Father gets the rest settled and lies down himself on the inside, right against the organ. The child returns and gets into bed on the outermost side.

Father:            Did you remember to wash your hands… Well done. Be sure to switch the light out. Night night everybody. Sweet dreams. [Children can optionally reply.]

There is silence for a few seconds. Then there is a loud knock on the door. Nobody reacts, and after a few more seconds the knock is repeated. When there is still no answer, the Neighbour shouts out.

Neighbour:      Come on Zachary, I know you’re at home; I saw you come in [Pause]. It’s me, David. You know, your friend from next door [Pause]. Look, I need a favour.

Father:            [In a loud stage whisper] What do you want, David? Look, it’s way after midnight. Why don’t you come back in the morning?

Neighbour:      It’s no good, I can’t wait till morning. I need something now! Go on, mate, it won’t take a minute.

Father:            Come on David, be reasonable. I’ve only just got the children to sleep. You’re going to wake them up in a minute!

A Child:            [Wailing, half asleep] D-a-a-ddy?!

Father:             [To child] Shhhh. It’s OK, Danny, go back to sleep.

Neighbour:      Zachary, are you still there? I need something. My brother’s turned up after a long journey, and I haven’t got any food in the house.

Father:            For goodness sake, keep your voice down. If you pop round first thing in the morning I’ve got some bread and stew you can have. But we’re in bed and I’m trapped on the inside. I couldn’t get up even if I wanted to.

Neighbour:      He hasn’t had anything to eat all day. He’s feeling faint from hunger. Please help us. You’re my only friend in the street.

Father:            [Coming to a decision and getting up onto his knees] No surprises there, if this is how your friends get treated. But I guess you’re not going to be quiet and let me get to sleep until I’ve sorted you out.

Father begins to pick his way over the children, who begin to stir and sit up and ask questions.

Narrator:         [Drily, after popping up in the pulpit] And so, not for the sake of friendship, but simply to shut the pushy neighbour up and get his family back to sleep, Zack gives in and goes to the door.

All freeze for a few moments, then exeunt.



Sketch to be followed with Bible reading and a brief explanatory talk.

THE PERSISTENT WIDOW (drama sketch)


THE PERSISTENT WIDOW (Luke 18:1-8)

Characters:
·         - The Judge
·         - The Woman
·         - The Clerk of the Court
·         - Two guards (non-speaking)

Props:
Table, chair, carafe, glass, black robe, wig, gavel, whip.

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Scene: A courtroom. Table up on chancel steps. A chair behind it facing the congregation. On the table, a flask of water, a glass and a gavel.

Clerk:               All be upstanding for the Judge… etc.

Clerk runs up and down aisle as necessary, continuing to instruct everyone to stand and making sure everyone does so.

Enter Judge at rear of church. He makes his way to the front with a swagger. Sits down on the chair and raps the gavel.

Judge:              Be seated. The Court is now in session.

Waits for everyone to sit, pours a glass of water, takes a swig direct from the carafe, burps loudly, then jadedly sweeps his eyes over the congregation.

Judge:             (Condescendingly) Ah, the usual scruffy rabble, I see. What’s it going to be today? (Imitates whiny voice of a supplicant) “Please, your Honour, me neighbour won’t cut his hedge.” And “Please, your Honour, the…”

Judge is interrupted by a woman shouting from the back row:

Woman:           Please, your Honour, me Landlord’s stolen me goat. I’m just a poor…

Judge cuts her off with a rap of his gavel.

Judge:             Silence in court! So, what have we got on the agenda today?

Woman:          I tell you ‘e’s taken me goat. I’m just a poor widow…

Judge:            (Raps gavel) Silence in court! I won’t warn you again, Madam. (Clearly irritated by now) Can we have the first case, please! Some time before Christmas would be good if you can manage it!

Guards drag someone out of the congregation and frog-march them up to the front… this should be improvised based on those present. The following exchange is just an example.

Clerk:            Your Honour, this [man] was seen during the hours of daylight [wearing an offensive waistcoat calculated to induce eye-strain and nausea on the part of innocent bystanders. It is further alleged that he did....
                       .....occasioning emotional trauma to some of those present].

Judge:          Have you anything to say before sentence is passed? (Leaving no time for an answer) No, I guessed not. (To guards) Take him away and flog him.]

Guards hustle the accused away. Judge picks up the glass and takes a swig, then looks at the contents with disgust.

Judge:           Isn’t there anything stronger in the cupboard?...No?...Hmm, pity! What next?

Woman:        (Still shouting from the back) I was just a week behind with me rent, an’ ‘e took me goat. And now I’ve paid up…

Judge:           (Bangs gavel) Guards, remove that woman from the Court.

Guards go and firmly escort the woman out to the porch. All the time she is protesting:

Woman:        It’s not fair… I demand justice… He took me goat. I’ve paid him now, but he  won’t give it back. And I’m just a poor widow…

The door is shut firmly, and she is cut off. The judge mops his brow with a handkerchief, takes another swig of water and looks scornfully at the contents.

Judge:          Clerk to the Court, are you sure there isn’t anything a little stronger? (Pause) No?... Guards! Take him away and flog him!

The guards frog-march the Clerk away.

Woman:          (Bursting in at the back and shouting) I saw that! What kind of judge are you? You’re supposed to care about justice. I….

Judge:             (Bangs gavel). Silence, woman! Approach the bench. (She does so, and stands with her head bowed at the foot of the steps with her back to the congregation) Justice? Don’t talk to me about justice. My job is to keep the peace, not to worry about what people like you think is fair or unfair. For two pins I’d have you taken out and flogged as well. But I’m sure you’d soon be back shouting the house down. And you’re giving me a headache already. Guards!... Guards!...

After a moment, one of the guards comes running, still carrying a whip.

Judge:              Guard! Go with this woman and find her landlord. Get her goat back. And give him a flogging for the sake of the headache she’s given me. (Bangs gavel. Picks up the carafe and waves it at the congregation) The Court is in recess while I go and find something a little stronger.

Exeunt.


To be followed with a reading of the Bible passage and an explanatory talk.





WRESTLING WITH GOD

What might it mean to wrestle with God? To me as a young Christian, the very thought would have seemed bizarre, even inappropriate. I grew up as part of a church where the leader was seen as having the power to interpret scripture, and expected everyone else in the congregation to live by his teaching from the pulpit. There was no room for wrestling with his interpretation, let alone with God.
And yet in the OT reading today we see Jacob, one of the three great Hebrew patriarchs, physically wrestling with God. And this story’s by no means unique. In different passages of the Bible we see Abraham arguing with God. We see Job in his agony challenging God’s idea of justice. We see Jonah calling God's judgement into question. We see the writers of many of the Psalms crying out in despair at a God who doesn’t seem to be living up to his promises. We see Jesus himself, in agony on the cross, echoing the words of the 22nd Psalm: “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me”.
Of course, in every case there is a point to the story. In each case the person crying out in anguish eventually sees and submits to God’s wisdom. But in each case their cries of anguish are an indispensable part of their journey to understanding. And there is no reticence on their part, no sense of impropriety in pouring out their questions, their arguments, their challenges. Neither is there any sense of disapproval on the part of the Bible authors who recorded their words and actions. And I can’t think of a single case in the Bible where God himself shows anger or contempt for honest questions and doubts. Even when people, to use that rather appealing modern phrase, really throw their toys out of the pram. 
Jacob’s story is a case in point. Remember that the Hebrews have an age-old taboo regarding the face of God. From the earliest days, they’ve believed that seeing God face to face results in instant death. And yet in this very ancient story, Jacob not only meets God face to face but touches him. Not only touches him but fights him. Not only fights him but wins – at least until God kind of cheats by disabling him. Do you remember this from the reading earlier?
It says that Jacob is left alone, and a man (who we are given to understand is God in human form) wrestles with him all night. When God see that Jacob isn’t going give up, he dislocates his hip, but still Jacob won’t release his grip. “I’m not letting you go until you’ve blessed me,” he insists. God asks, “What’s your name?” Then he says, “Your name will no longer be Jacob, but Israel, because you’ve struggled with God and humans and have overcome.” And lest we are in any doubt that this is God speaking, the story ends with Jacob saying in wonderment, “I’ve seen God face to face, and lived to tell the tale.”
So what can we learn from this? Do this story and the others like it give us permission to question, to challenge, to struggle with God?
We have to be careful in answering a question like this. God is God. He is holy, perfect in wisdom and righteousness. Our most basic duty as Christians is to submit humbly to his will. And yet many of us, at some point in our lives, will face situations in which we really cannot understand what he is doing. Some-times we can’t feel his hand on our lives even when we know as an abstract truth that he is there. Sometimes, even as we acknowledge his supreme wisdom, we can feel angry at what he has allowed to happen: the loss of a loved one, a large scale loss of life somewhere in the world, or the relentless grind of poverty and hunger and oppression in which the poor continue to suffer and the guilty never seem to get punished.
And then, I believe, God is pleased for us to be honest, to cry out to him, to ask him what on earth he was doing allowing such and such to happen. To admit that we don’t understand. To confess that we are angry. To plead with him time and time again to show us the love and power that we associate with his name.
This morning, the children in the 10.30 congregation are thinking about the lovely parable of the persistent neighbour: the pushy fellow who keeps hammering on a neighbour’s door in the middle of the night shouting, come on, open up, I need a favour. He goes on and on, ignoring the householder’s pleas to be allowed to go back to sleep. Until in the end, Jesus says, the disgruntled householder gets up and gives the pushy neighbour what he wants. Not for the sake of friendship, Jesus adds, but for the sake of peace and quiet.
Jesus tells this story with his tongue firmly implanted in his cheek, of course. The grumpy householder is meant to represent God. But Jesus isn’t saying that God is like a grumpy neighbour who gives us what we ask for just to shut us up. He’s making a more subtle point: If a grumpy human neighbour will get up in the middle of the night to help you just because you keep on nagging him, how much more will our loving father God respond to those who keep on and on talking to him.
Thus it’s not just in the OT that we see people being persistent in their dialogue with God. Jesus himself gives us permission to keep on and on asking for what we need. He never promises that God will give us exactly what we ask for. I’ve know so many people ask God for cars, exam passes, freedom from the consequences of their actions… God will not automatically grant our precise requests. But where Jesus does give us assurance is that if we carry on talking to God, if we carry on putting our case, if we ask God searching, honest questions and go on and on asking for the things we need, two things will reliably happen.
Firstly, he will give us what he knows in his wisdom that we need. Secondly, in the course of that open, honest dialogue with him, we will come to understand his purposes, We’ll see answers to prayer in ways and places we never expected. And above all, we will feel his hand, his peace, his blessing on our lives.
Let’s bow our heads in prayer….

Monday, October 7, 2013

WHAT IS FAITH AND HOW CAN WE HAVE IT?


These are the notes for a recent Alpha Course session, based on the corresponding chapter from Nicky Gumbel's study book "Questions For Life" but adapted for the more open theological context of a typical parish church. The session lasted just over an hour and a half including time for prayer at the beginning and end.

I value Alpha, but feel that the material as it stands is too heavily oriented to the needs of middle class urban Evangelical churches (not unlike HTB itself). I personally think that the following approach offers enquirers and new believers a more accessible and encouraging action plan than sticking closely to the original.


Setting the Scene

·      Brainstorm
Think of a one-word synonym – a different word as close as possible in meaning – for faith.   
Come back here at the end of the study, and see if you have changed your mind.

·      Silent reflection
Let me stress right away that there’s no right or wrong answer to this next question, but here goes: Can you say that there was a certain moment in your life when you started to be a Christian? You may not be able to remember the specific date and time, but was there some moment in the past before which you didn't see yourself as a Christian, and after which you did?

Of course, you may be one of those people who can’t remember a time in their life when they weren’t Christian. Or perhaps you know for sure that you are not a Christian. Then again, you may be one of the countless people who are unsure whether the word Christian applies to them or not.

Either way, think about your answer and in particular think how you feel about it. As I said before, there’s no ‘right’ or ‘wrong’ answer, but is your answer reassuring to you personally, or does it cause you some kind of discomfort. Don’t be afraid to discuss your thoughts with someone trustworthy.


Puzzled With Faith (a personal testimony)

What I’m going to say may sound strange, because we encounter so many church-people who are assertive about their beliefs to the point where they can make us feel uncomfortable. But I think one of the biggest problems facing the Church is that it is crammed with people who are uncertain as to whether they’re really Christians at all.

Let me introduce you to Gladys (an imaginary person). She goes to church regularly. She reads the Bible. She prays. And she has a desperate urge to belong. But then every Sunday she looks around St. Ethelburga’s or wherever it is she goes, and she sees others who are so much more involved than she is, so much more on fire with their faith, seemingly so confident and assured and at peace. And every week she thinks, “Am I really a Christian? Am I really saved? Do I really believe enough of the right stuff? Am I doing enough of the right stuff?” The problem is, Gladys has never heard anyone else express the same doubts and questions that go through her mind, and as long as she thinks she’s the odd one out she’s never going to step out in faith.

This was very much my own early experience of faith. There was definitely a time before which I wasn’t a Christian at all, at least not what I now think of as a Christian. But even after my conversion experience, I simply didn’t feel as if I had any real faith. I wanted to believe all the supernatural stuff. Sometimes I almost convinced myself that I did; more often I didn’t. But I never let on because no one around me seemed to share my doubts or questions.

·      Can you identify with that feeling? Or can you remember being made to feel that way in the past?

The question for this study is, “How Can I Have Faith?” And that’s a critically  important question, because the church is crammed with people struggling to feel as if they really belong. And being assured that we belong to God and one another is the birthright of every Christian.

·      Read 1 John 5:13 – then see if you can state John’s reason for writing this letter in everyday English.

We should aim to go away from this discussion with a clearer idea of what real faith looks like and feels like. Then we should be able to recognise and give thanks for the faith we already have, and also have a clearer idea of what to aim for in the months and years ahead. We need to have some idea of the strategies for growing our faith. And our starting point has to be thinking about what faith really is. That’s the cue for a thinking question:

·      The great religious reformer Martin Luther intensely disliked one particular book of the Bible: the Letter of James (to be found near the end of the New Testament). Indeed, he went so far as to question whether it should ever have been included in the Bible. And most of his dislike came down to one particular verse.

By way of explanation, Luther had single-handedly rediscovered the great doctrine that salvation is based on faith rather than on being a good person. He’d taken massive personal risks to spread his teaching. The political repercussions of his work were so devastating, there were calls for him to be put to death on sight. He could not afford for his protectors and patrons to waver in their support for him. And yet there in the Bible was a passage that seemed to directly contradict his teaching.

Have a look at the two short passages from the NT attached as an appendix (one from Ephesians which sums up Luther’s view, and one from James) and see if you think there is really a contradiction.


What is ‘Faith’ really about?

In the Alpha course book, “Questions of Life”, Nicky Gumbel takes care to explain that being assured in our faith is like a tripod – a tripod whose three legs are the three members of the Trinity: God the Father, God the Son and God the Holy Spirit.

Firstly, the work of God the Father.
Nicky explains that if you were to ask him for evidence that he’s married, he would show you the documentation, i.e. his marriage certificate. And if you asked him for evidence that he was a Christian, he would similarly reach for documentary evidence – in this case the Bible.  He goes on to remind us that our knowledge of God is based not on feelings but on facts. And the key facts are God’s promises scattered throughout Scripture. Our feelings are deceptive, treacherous even; they go up and down according to our moods and all the things going on in our lives. In contrast, the promises of God are unchanging from day to day and from age to age. We can spend a lifetime exploring and claiming God’s promises in the Bible, but Nicky points to one famous quotation as really summing up what they are all about.

·      Read Revelation 3:20 – what is being promised here?

Once you know you’ve said Yes to God, you can be sure that you’ve have inherited all God’s promises regardless of whether your feelings back you up.

Secondly, the work of Jesus, God the Son.
What is Jesus’ role in giving us faith and assurance? Going back to the marriage illustration, Nicky says that if his marriage certificate wasn’t good enough for you, he’d refer you to the historical events of his wedding day. In my case that would  be the 25th May 1991, when several dozen people witnessed Kate and me saying ‘I Will’. Several of those people recorded the event in photos, videos and written messages at the time. And most of them are still around to act as witnesses to what actually happened.

Similarly, our faith is based on actual events that took place in the past. Like our wedding, those events were witnessed by real people, some of whom were still around decades later to answer questions and correct any misunderstandings.  Christianity is an historical faith, based on historical facts. And one verse above all sums up what was going on.

·      Read John 3:16 – what is being stated here?

What it boils down to is that God offers peace and belonging as a free gift to anyone who will accept it. The central truth about Jesus is that in Him, God himself was coming down to experience human life and absorb the consequences of human rebellion. Faith properly understood is not struggling to believe unbelievable stories as a way of trying to earn a place in Heaven. Rather, faith begins when we accept that Christ has already done everything necessary and we choose to live our lives in a fitting way.

That’s the importance of what James writes in the Bible. Just believing something doesn’t necessarily change our behaviour or our relationships or our status in God’s eyes. One of the Bible authors points out that demons have no trouble believing the truth about God, but it doesn’t do anything for them – it simply makes them shudder.

Yes, believing the claims Jesus made for himself is important. But learning to believe is part of our journey of faith. And getting us demoralised over the parts we can’t believe at this point in time… that’s one of the ways in which the Devil tries hardest to undermine our faith. The confusion that so many people experience is due  on a mis-understanding of what the Bible authors meant by belief, and we’ll come onto it in a minute.

Thirdly and finally, the work of God the Holy Spirit. In talking about the evidence that he’s married, Nicky Gumbel referred firstly to the documentation and then to the historic events of his wedding day. And finally, for anyone demanding yet further evidence, he talks about his experience of being married, of living with his wife and being in a special relationship with her. And the final pillar of faith and assurance is similar: the experience shared by countless Christians of knowing God personally through the Holy Spirit living inside us.

In simple terms, from the moment we say Yes to Jesus, we carry a spark of the divine right within us. And according to St. Paul we can be certain that we have that seal placed upon us because no one can say yes to Jesus without the Spirit’s prompting.

The Holy Spirit makes his presence felt in two particularly important ways:

1.     He transforms us from the inside, making us grow more and more like Jesus.

o   Read Galatians 5:22-23 and think about this: Why are these ‘fruits of the Spirit’ such reliable evidence of faith?

We should start seeing some of the fruits of the Spirit as soon as we place  trust in Jesus. It doesn’t mean that we immediately stop doing wrong, but as time goes on we experience a growing appetite to learn more about God and get more involved in his work. And in a similar way the Spirit will prompt us to take more interest in other people for their own sake; to seek peace, to relieve suffering and challenge oppression and injustice. If you see any of this happening to you, even in a modest way like coming along to a study group, you can be sure that it’s the Holy Spirit working in your life.

2.     The Holy Spirit brings us an inner experience of God. He allows us to directly experience his presence, and gives us fresh insights into areas that would once have been closed to us. Sometimes he endows us with gifts and skills that we were never aware of having in the past.

To give a personal example, I was a Christian for decades before I had the slightest inkling that I could stand up and speak in front of an audience. I was too self-conscious, too tongue-tied to even consider it. Then, just as Kate and I were settling down together and looking for a new direction in our lives, I was sent on a long management course at the end of which we would each have to give a forty minute presentation judged by a director of the company. I was anxious for weeks leading up to the big event, but on the day I just found myself in the zone, and nobody was more surprised than I was when mine emerged as one of the slickest performances of the whole two-day event.

This wasn’t just a new skill; it was part of a conversation in which God answered my questions as to what I should be doing with my life.  I began exploring Christian vocations, and that process has eventually led both Kate and me to where we are now. Most importantly of all, it was the point at which I finally accepted that God really did have a purpose for my life. That was assurance. That was faith. But by that time the most important question was no longer “Does God really exist?” but “What does He want me to do?”


Is Faith the Same as Belief?

Nicky Gumbel is very keen to drive home one particular point: There is nothing arrogant about being sure that we belong to God and his church. Assurance is no more than a humble recognition of what God has promised, what Jesus died to achieve, and what the Spirit is doing in our lives.

But in spite of all these sources of assurance, we can still get hung up on that issue I mentioned earlier. If salvation is for those who believe, what does it mean to believe. I’ve known people certain that there’s a God but tormented with the fear that they don’t believe firmly enough to be saved. In contrast, I’ve known people  desperate to follow Jesus, who despaired of ever being able to accept the reality of anything invisible or supernatural, much less a God or an afterlife.

And the problem people face is precisely this: The 19th and 20th centuries have conditioned us to use the word belief in a sense that would have been unfamiliar to the Bible writers and the great Christian thinkers of history. To the modern scientific mindset, we can only know something if we have physical evidence for it. And in the absence of physical evidence there is no such thing as half-knowledge, no such thing as a safe assumption. Faith and belief are increasingly dismissed by our society as primitive, immature, even irrational, even to some people (e.g. Richard Dawkins) actually immoral.

But the Bible writers rarely if ever stopped to ask, “Is this true? If so, what’s the evidence for it?” Of course they experienced times of questioning and doubt – the Psalms are full of it. But when the Bible authors talk about believing in Jesus, when they call on people to have faith, they’re addressing a completely different issue: not one of evidence but one of commitment and trust. Not “How can you eliminate doubts and questions?” but rather this: “How do you show your commitment to the truths you have decided to live by?” or this: “What does trusting that Jesus has done everything necessary mean for the way you should live your life?”

Do you see how this take on belief and faith is profoundly challenging but at the same time profoundly reassuring?

It’s challenging because it doesn’t leave us free to sit on our backsides ignoring the needs of others while we take refuge in our so-called religious beliefs. As the epistle of James so shrewdly puts it, it calls us to action.

But at the same time it’s reassuring, because it doesn’t require that we sit agonising over which bits of theology we accept as factually true – the very issue that’s the biggest stumbling block for most modern people. It simply says, accept that you’re a Christian and get on with acting like one. And the beautiful thing is that the more you act like a Christian, the more you get involved in his work, the more you step out in trust that God has a purpose for your life, the more you find yourself believing.

·      Imagine someone who is in the position I was a few years ago: wanting to be a Christian in the fullest sense of the word, but struggling to believe all the details in order to feel certain of being saved.  Come up with three practical suggestions that will help their faith to grow.



APPENDIX:   MARTIN LUTHER AND THE LETTER OF JAMES

For it is by grace you have been saved, through faith—and this is not from yourselves, it is the gift of God— not by works, so that no one can boast.
                                                                              (Ephesians 2:8-9)


“What good is it, my brothers and sisters, if someone claims to have faith but has no deeds? Can such faith save them? Suppose a brother or a sister is without clothes and daily food. If one of you says to them, “Go in peace; keep warm and well fed,” but does nothing about their physical needs, what good is it? In the same way, faith by itself, if it is not accompanied by action, is dead.
                                                                                                (James 2:14-17)