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A VIEW FROM THE MANSE
You diligently study the Scriptures because you think that by them you possess eternal life. These are the Scriptures that testify about me, yet you refuse to come to me to have life.” (John 5:39-40)
Why does every sermon end up being about Jesus? For answer see Jesus’ comments above. The whole Bible points us toward Jesus; both Old and New Testaments. This shapes our understanding of the Bible and its message. Sometimes people talk of God as if he has a split personality – the God of the Old Testament and the God of the New Testament; but Jesus provides the common theme between both Testaments, revealing the unity of God’s nature and being. Furthermore this changes our understanding of the differing Testaments, or covenants, within the Bible. Sometimes we can view the Bible as a compilation of changing plans which are adapted as circumstances change; but, Jesus makes it clear that the Bible is about one thing: him.
This focus on Jesus is counter-cultural; society is all about ‘me.’ We see it in the postmodern ethic: ‘I have to do what is right for me!’ Everything is subjective, and each of us becomes the arbiter of right and wrong, and woe betide anyone who tries to tell us otherwise. This subjective, personalised-scale extends beyond ethics and our personal sphere; everyone has an opinion on everything. Society courts such opinions; even the BBC news website encourages us to have our say on the news of the day, despite our lack of the facts. Sadly, this approach is increasingly employed to the Bible too. How often have you heard someone saying ‘for me the Bible means...’? As if the Scriptures point towards what we choose to point them toward.
If we are to take Jesus at his word, and if we identify ourselves as his followers then we really must, then it appears God’s message to us is to direct us toward himself, to Jesus. The verse I quote at the beginning of this article was spoken by Jesus to ‘the Jews’ who were persecuting him. The tragic irony of these comments is that they applied themselves to the study of Scripture seeking eternal life, but missed the point that is was all about Jesus who was standing in front of them. In what ways are we in danger of similarly missing the point? Perhaps it is with a focus on the church: either elevating the church as the place and source of personal comfort; or, even critiquing the church in some vain attempt at getting it right. Whatever the case church, like the Scriptures for the Jews, can become the cause to which we diligently apply ourselves and so miss the one who is the Lord of the church.
The Bible is not simply a source of information which we can read and learn, analyse and critique, and employ to somehow improve our lot, better ourselves or even acquire eternal life. The Bible, the whole Bible, points us to Jesus who is the one who possesses eternal life because he is life. The church is not an institution which we need to strive at somehow getting right, whatever that means, rather we are the community of disciples of Jesus Christ, who we collectively seek to follow. In the end it is all about Jesus, which is why every sermon ends up being about him.
“It is done. I am the Alpha and the Omega, the Beginning and the End. To him who is thirsty I will give to drink without cost from the spring of the water of life.” (Rev 21:6)
Your friend and pastor,
Jesus turned and said to Peter, "Get behind me, Satan! You are a stumbling block to me; you do not have in mind the things of God, but the things of men." (Matt 16:23)
On the face of it, it seems quite a harsh comment by Jesus. After all Peter had just spoken in Jesus' defence: following Jesus prediction of his death Peter, probably shocked at the suggestion, had said, "Never, Lord! This shall never happen to you!" To which he found himself on the receiving end of Jesus' withering rebuke. All this immediately after the ‘high’ of being called the rock by Jesus after Peter had confessed Jesus as the Christ, the Son of the living God. You might think, surely he deserved some credit for that.
The temptation might be to think about poor old Peter, and wonder at how Jesus could be so unnecessarily harsh. Yet this would be to miss the point: Peter’s fault was that he was following his own agenda. Jesus was talking about the things of God; Peter was talking about other things – things other than the things of God. Peter’s agenda was not simply missing Jesus’ agenda, but was directly opposed to it. I am sure he meant well, but his good intentions were contrary to God’s plans: the road to hell it seems really is paved with good intentions.
This is not an attempt to do a hatchet job on poor old Peter. He is neither the hero of this story (as ever that role goes to Jesus), nor is he the villain (well no more than the rest of us.) And therein lies the rub, we are all inclined to promote our own agenda over God’s. Our natural tendency is promote our own ideas, however we may dress them up; and, in so doing find ourselves facing the same rebuke as Peter. We tend to talk about the things of men as they are the things we have in mind; whereas Jesus has the things of God in mind and wants us to be talking about them.
All of this is a long winded way of saying that we will be starting GodTalk up again this autumn, as an attempt to practice thinking and talking about the things of God. It is not that GodTalk reveals the secret of the things of God; it is simply an opportunity to consciously try and think about the things of God by looking at the Bible and examining our own agendas to try and turn our minds to the things of God. It may not be the antidote to our self-absorption, but it hopefully provides an opportunity to make a start. Come along on Sunday 16 September, 4-5.30pm and give it a go.
Speak to one another with psalms, hymns and spiritual songs. (Ephesians 5:19)
Your friend and pastor,
‘Now to him who is able to do immeasurably more than all we ask or imagine, according to his power that is at work within us, to him be glory in the church and in Christ Jesus throughout all generations, for ever and ever! Amen.’ (Ephesians 3:20-21)
There is a story about Alexander the Great receiving a petition from one of his underlings, requesting an enormous sum of money to maintain some part of Alexander’s Empire. Alexander’s advisors tried to persuade him not to consider the petition since the sum involved was so large. Alexander the Great dismissed the advice telling his advisors that the request demonstrated two things: firstly the petitioner’s reliance on Alexander; and, secondly a recognition of the magnitude of his imperial resources.
This story seems to be a pretty good metaphor for prayer. Not that we look to Alexander the Great, or any other human being – however powerful or rich they might be. However, in prayer, we recognise our dependence on God, and the immeasurable extent of his abilities and resources to supply our needs and equip us for the work of his kingdom. Hence the purpose of our recent day of prayer; 24 hours spent recognising that together we rely on God.
Yet that reliance does not simply mean that we can treat God as a sort of spiritual Amazon or eBay; that if we enter a catalogue of items on our wish list God will simply give us everything we want. Part of the arrangement is that we recognise God’s authority too. As Jesus taught us to pray: ‘your will be done, on earth as it is in heaven.’ All too often though, this can lead us to see prayer as a bit of a guessing game, in which we make a wish and see if God will answer it. Whereas it seems to me that the point of prayer is an encouragement to learn what God’s will is, so that we can participate in it – in prayer and in action.
So, having undertaken our day of prayer it is not a case of sitting back and seeing if God will answer; it is a case of continuing in prayer as we get ready to see how God will answer. Our role now is to look for how God is prompting and directing us to participate in the fulfilling of his will. Prayer is not simply a one-way conversation directed at God, but opening ourselves up to the ways and the wonders of what God is doing. Having asked much of God I wonder if our attitudes are the same as Alexander’s minion: do we recognise that we rely on God; do we recognise that God has limitless resources to meet all needs; do we expect to see God act?
‘If any of you lacks wisdom, he should ask God, who gives generously to all without finding fault, and it will be given to him. But when he asks, he must believe and not doubt, because he who doubts is like a wave of the sea, blown and tossed by the wind.’ (James 1:6-7)
“But when you pray, go into your room, close the door and pray to your Father who is unseen. Then your Father, who sees what is done in secret, will reward you.” Matthew 6:6
I have been thinking a lot about privacy recently. The implementation of the General Data Protection Regulations has taken up a lot of my time and attention. It is a piece of legislation designed to protect personal data, and private life. Privacy is a contentious subject in our society. It is not so long ago that we were all exercised by the rights and wrongs of press freedom, concerned with where the media was crossing the line into the personal lives of private individuals. There again there was a court case in France of a chap who brought a lawsuit against Uber for causing the break-up of his marriage. It transpires that a ‘bug’ in the software alerted the chap’s wife to the fact he was having an affair. It seems he sees no harm in his private affair, and blames the damage to his marriage on the fact that Uber made it known to his wife.
I have also been thinking a lot about prayer recently, and just how vital it is to the life of discipleship both personally and corporately. Toward the end of this month we will be holding our day of prayer, from midday on Friday 22 to midday on Saturday 23 June. I have made the call to make this a priority, and consider how each of us can participate as we seek God’s guidance and direction for the future of Alcester Baptist Church. I expect this will be an important time in our life together before God as we seek to learn what new things Jesus is doing in us, with us and through us.
Perhaps you begin to see why I have quoted the verse from Matthew’s gospel at the beginning of this piece: although you may think it has a lot more to do with privacy than corporate prayer. The verse seems to suggest that prayer should properly be a private matter, undertaken alone rather than together. Well that is simply not true, the Bible is full of examples of, and encouragement to, corporate prayer: Acts 1:14 talks of the disciples gathered together praying in the lead-up to Pentecost; Acts 4:23-31 relates an example of an early prayer meeting in the Jerusalem church; Acts 12:12-17 tells the rather comical tale of a prayer meeting during which the disciples prayers were answered much to their surprise.
Corporate prayer is part of the life of any healthy church; Jesus' words are about praying with integrity. The passage begins with a warning against prayer as performance; as a show to impress people. Prayer should be consistent across life; do not pray well-crafted prayers in public if that does not match your personal, private prayer life. The call is not to be a closet Christian, but rather an integrated Christian, the same in public as you are in private. The call is to avoid pretence, not to be one person in public and another person in private; not to be two half-people, but to be one whole person.
Pretence can take two forms: firstly the public display intended to impress, followed by the secret private life which is inconsistent with the public display, making it a sham; and, secondly hiding your light under a bushel, or being a Christian in secret, but living in a way that makes no reference to Christ in public. Both paths are inconsistent with the life of discipleship, since they are at odds with God’s nature. God is entirely consistent; he is always the same God. As God’s people, as God’s family the call is to recognise ourselves as wholly his, and live as one person – as God’s child.
‘Hear, O Israel, the Lord our God, the Lord is one. Love the Lord your God with all your heat and with all your soul and with all your strength.’ Deuteronomy 6:4-5
Your friend and pastor,
Some years ago I was on a team helping run a Christian holiday for young people. One year I remember arriving feeling a bit tired, more in need of a holiday for myself than helping to deliver one for young people. I arrived at the venue to learn that my allocated task for the week was to be part of the team delivering the evening entertainment. When the team met together I found I was not alone in feeling a bit flat.
As we sat around the table with a blank sheet of paper which was not going to fill itself our low spirits began to sink. It was not a good start and it did not get any better, as we each shared how lacking in ideas or energy or enthusiasm we all felt. The only silver-lining to hitting rock bottom is that there is nowhere further to fall. However, knowing we were expected to produce a programme to entertain almost 100 14-18 year-olds did not leave us rejoicing over this silver-lining.
Perhaps we should have come to the decision to pray earlier than we did, but suffice it to say we finally talked ourselves out and more for want of something else to say I chipped in with ‘Perhaps we could pray about it.’ The response could not be described as enthusiastic, more of a ‘okay then’ than a wholehearted ‘yes!’ Yet the muted response made the subsequent transformation all the more astounding.
Our prayers where honest and authentic, well there was little point in pretence after our moan-fest. But here is the thing, when we started praying from our position of uselessness the prayers seemed to gather a momentum which none of us had expected or could have manufactured. The energy in the room lifted and those first stilted prayers were replaced by flowing prayers one after another until all prayed out we turned again to the daunting prospect of planning a programme of evening entertainment.
After praying the dearth was replaced by a deluge, as each of us were throwing in ideas one after another, sometimes at the same time, sometimes making suggestions that developed initial ideas. Within less than half an hour we had an ambitious programme planned which we went on to deliver to the enjoyment of all. The point being that prayer really does change things, and there is nothing too big or too small that God is not interested in.
I mention all this by way of advanced notice for next month’s day of prayer. If God could transform a planning session for an evening entertainment programme for a children’s holiday, what do we think he will do for Alcester Baptist Church.
This is a call for each of us to step up and pray earnestly, seeking God’s purpose and pleasure for his church. I want to call each of us to make this day a priority, to commit to coming to the church building for some serious prayer. This is a call for all of us to be part of seeing what new thing Jesus has in store for this church. I hope you are feeling excited about the possibility; but if it all leaves you feeling a bit flat, let me tell you about some years ago when I was on a team helping run a Christian holiday for young people...
‘Elijah was a man just like us. He prayed earnestly that it would not rain, and it did not rain on the land for three and a half years. Again he prayed, and the heavens gave rain, and the earth produced its crop.’
You may remember the television advert featuring Harvey the dog, who produced his own promotional video to win over prospective owners visiting the dogs’ home. The actual television advert was promoting the power of television advertising. I have recently been reminded of the power of television following the broadcast of Pilgrimage: The Road to Santiago on BBC2. Since the show started airing I have lost count of the number of people who have spoken with me about it, and how it compares with my experience last year.
I have to say that my experience was very different to that of the ‘celebs’ on the show. There are some points of contact, they are walking some of the same route I walked, they have stayed in some of the places I stayed, and the encounters with other pilgrims are part of the shared experience of everyone who walks the Camino. However, the celebs seem to be operating in a different sphere, which we might want to term a celebrity bubble. I was slightly dismayed by their conduct at the wine fountain (yes it does really exist.) The protocol is to have a drink from the fountain to fortify the weary pilgrim along the way; filling a bottle to supplement your wine intake is bad form. Mind you they may have had special treatment, since the wine I sampled from the fountain was best drunk in small measures.
The most significant difference to my mind is that they are trying to cover the full 500 miles from St Jean Pied de Port to Santiago de Compostela in just two weeks. Inevitably this means that they have to skip large sections of the route and journey by bus. I think this is quite sad as it misses the point of the journey as a metaphor for life; they would probably have been better off starting further along the route and covering that shorter distance completely by foot. It is not that I am affronted that they are cheating, but it inevitably reduces the experience and the benefit by only covering the edited highlights.
In the most recent episode our celebrity pilgrims were struggling with the mountains to the west of León and the climb into Galicia. As a result of bypassing the largely flat tableland of the Meseta they had missed the opportunity to build up their strength in preparation for the mountains. On the Camino as in life there are no shortcuts, and there is no substitute for experience. Like the butterfly who must struggle to break free of the chrysalis in order to strengthen its wings so it can fly, the struggles of life serve to build strength of character from which we can draw to face the challenges of the future. Misguided attempts to help the butterfly escape the cocoon will stunt its growth and leave it incapable of flight.
In the same way discipleship demands a confrontation of the challenges that following Jesus will present. The temptation to seek the easy path or a shortcut, or a misplaced desire to rush in and ‘help’ the struggling disciple can likewise lead to a stunted spirituality. The call to discipleship is a call to sacrifice and a call to the whole of life; shortcuts and bus rides rob us of the opportunity to develop as followers of the Lord Jesus Christ. Jesus invites us to follow him, not to meet him further along the road, not to catch-up later on when we are ready; discipleship is the journey, the relationship is a journey.
Then Jesus said to his disciples, “Whoever wants to be my disciple must deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me.” (Matthew 16:24)
The entire month of March will be part of Lent this year. Lent is the time of preparation for the celebration of Easter, when we remember the resurrection of the Lord Jesus Christ. Before we celebrate the resurrection we remember Jesus’ passion and crucifixion; as he surrendered to death on the cross to pay the price and set us free from our sins. So before we celebrate we observe this time of preparation, as we recognise our part in the ordeal Jesus chose to face.
Preparation is all about getting ready, but it begs a couple of questions: for what are we getting ready; and, how are we getting ready? In many ways the ‘what’ will determine the ‘how’. If you are getting ready for a race your preparations will involve physical training and exercise; if you are getting ready for an examination your preparation would be involve revising and practice exam papers.
As we prepare for Lent there are any number of opportunities for how we can prepare: there are the Lent groups when we gather with others from the churches around the town to follow a programme aimed at reflecting on the meaning and impact of Easter on our lives today; during Holy Week there will be midday prayers when we gather to pause in the day as a community following the traditions of other communities; on Good Friday there will be the walk of witness as we publicly profess the sacrifice of Christ on the cross; and, on Easter Saturday there will be the service at the daffodil cross. Lots of ways to answer the question ‘how are we getting ready?’ That simply leaves the question ‘for what are we getting ready?’
On the one hand the answer is fairly obvious, and I have already referred to it. During Lent we are getting ready for the celebration of the resurrection. Yet the resurrection is not something we celebrate just at Easter; the resurrection permeates our whole life as disciples of Jesus Christ. Every day should be a day of celebration and a day of preparation. So, for what is it we are getting ready?
Our friends in the Methodist church shared an urgent message that came down from their leadership recently. The national head of the Methodists posed a question for each of the churches, asking what they were planning: for mission; or, for closure. It seems a stark choice, and I suppose it is, but it is the choice facing all Christians, all churches. Keeping things going is actually a recipe for managing decline not maintenance. Mission is the purpose of the church, and as we prepare to celebrate the resurrection of the Lord Jesus Christ we need to remember that the celebration is something to share not simply enjoy.
“you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, and in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth.” (Acts 1:8)
Your friend and pastor,
‘He who was seated on the throne said, “I am making everything new!”’ Revelation 21:5
Our theme for the year, as indicated by the verse we have chosen for our motto this year, is renewal. The idea of the Lord Jesus Christ making all things new might seem an appropriate idea at the start of a new year, but how will the theme of renewal feel by the time we get to Christmas? There again taking a longer view, how does the theme of renewal feel to you right now? You may feel that whilst it is the start of a new year, life goes on at an ever-increasing pace (sobering to realise we have already arrived at February!) It might be that rather than thinking about renewal you are more preoccupied with the inevitable onslaught of wear and tear; it might feel that things are inevitably getting older rather than being made new.
This is where some context comes in to play, as the passage actually comes at the end of the Bible, and the end of time, when one would expect everything to be old and worn out, not new. The book of Revelation is a difficult book to read and understand with its heavily symbolic language. Apocalyptic literature is often misunderstood; its defining feature is that it reveals what is going on behind the scenes in the spiritual realm, and so the language is inevitably symbolic. That said, the conclusion of the book is about the end times, when Jesus returns to wind-up history.
We talk about the Day of Judgement, and it can have negative connotations to do with punishment – as in judgment of a court of law. However, the day of judgement is more about putting things right: yes that means evil will be confronted, but it also means all the hurt and pain associated with that evil will be undone. The verse preceding our motto verse reads: “He will wipe every tear from their eyes. There will be no more death or mourning or crying or pain, for the old order of things has passed away.’ (Revelation 21:4) This picture of the Day of Judgment gives a hint of the scope of renewal: the end of death and mourning; the end of weeping, the end of pain; all the old things have come to an end.
This promise of renewal, of everything being made new, is more important as time goes by, not at the beginning of things. The promise of renewal gives us reasons to hope, as we face pain, as we face infirmity, as we face bereavement and death. The promise of renewal tells us that all these things are not the last word; that God has the last word and it is a new word. The promise is given and so we are invited to trust and to hope. Trust and hope are not glib words, but can often be a challenge. In the face of grief and pain, hope can be difficult to muster, which is why we need to learn to trust Jesus in the good times, so that we can hold on to his promise in the hard times.
At the end Jesus promises to make everything new, and that is something we can rely on. We can rely on the promise because it is made by Jesus, who is God. We can rely on Jesus because he has shown his power and his compassion in his life, death and resurrection. We can rely on the promise of God, because he is entirely consistent; his message is the same throughout time and eternity. The words of Jesus as the end of time are the same as the prophecy of God through Isaiah, around the 6th century BC:
“Forget the former things;
do not dwell on the past.
See I am doing a new thing!”
Your friend and pastor,
‘A cold coming we had of it,
Just the worst time of the year
For a journey, and such a long journey:
The ways deep and the weather sharp,
The very dead of winter.'
And the camels galled, sorefooted, refractory,
Lying down in the melting snow.
There were times we regretted
The summer palaces on slopes, the terraces,
And the silken girls bringing sherbet.
Then the camel men cursing and grumbling
and running away, and wanting their liquor and women,
And the night-fires going out, and the lack of shelters,
And the cities hostile and the towns unfriendly
And the villages dirty and charging high prices:
A hard time we had of it.
At the end we preferred to travel all night,
Sleeping in snatches,
With the voices singing in our ears, saying
That this was all folly.
Then at dawn we came down to a temperate valley,
Wet, below the snow line, smelling of vegetation;
With a running stream and a water-mill beating the darkness,
And three trees on the low sky,
And an old white
horse galloped away in the meadow.
Then we came to a tavern with vine-leaves over the lintel,
Six hands at an open door dicing for pieces of silver,
And feet kicking the empty wine-skins.
But there was no information, and so we continued
And arriving at evening, not a moment too soon
Finding the place; it was
(you might say) satisfactory.
All this was a long time ago, I remember,
And I would do it again, but set down
This set down
This: were we led all that way for
Birth or Death? There was a Birth, certainly
We had evidence and no doubt. I had seen birth and death,
But had thought
they were different; this Birth was
Hard and bitter
agony for us, like Death, our death.
We returned to
our places, these Kingdoms,
But no longer at
ease here, in the old dispensation,
With an alien
people clutching their gods.
I should be glad of another death.
Journey of the Magi - T S
My Advent theme
this year is, perhaps unsurprisingly, journey.
The Christmas story is full of journeys: Mary’s visit to her cousin
Elizabeth; Mary and Joseph’s trek to Bethlehem for the census; the shepherds’
abandoning their flocks to see Jesus; the flight of Jesus, Mary and Joseph to
Egypt; and, of course, the wise men coming to see the fulfilment of centuries
old prophecy. The journey of the wise
men forms the basis of the above poem by T S Eliot. Today Christmas is still full of journeys,
visits to family and friends to exchange greetings and gifts.
interest in journeys owes much to my sabbatical journeys earlier in the
year. Much of my journeying was a
delight, with breathtaking scenery and fascinating experiences. On the other hand some of it was a challenge
and ordeal. On my last day of walking my
journey took me from Wooler to Holy Island (Lindisfarne) in the rain. The last leg of the day was a walk across the
pilgrim path over the sand at low-tide.
was drenched and tired, walking over an exposed path in the driving rain. It would be safe to say I was feeling a
little bit low as I trudged along doggedly toward my destination. As I made my way across the sands I did
question myself as to why I was doing this.
This self-examination started a train of thought in which I reflected on
the pilgrims who had walked this path over the previous years. My thoughts turned to the Celtic monks who
established the monastery as a mission station from which to share the good
news of Jesus Christ. It occurred to me
that however arduous the journey was for me, those former monks would have made
the crossing in equally, or even more difficult circumstances. This in turn led me to ponder, ‘what sense of
purpose drove them to face such difficulties?’
poem offers a perspective on the Christmas journey which appears at odds with
our traditional viewpoint. Rather than a
cosy, charming picture, we are presented with a journey that is strenuous and
draining, filled with frustrations.
conclusion of the journey seems underwhelming; describing it as ‘satisfactory’
appears ironic since the journey ends with a common-place event, the birth of a
child. The only thing that makes the
scene stand out is the squalor of the situation. Yet that journey is satisfactory because it
the journey is worthwhile because the birth changes everything.
birth of Jesus is inevitably associated with death; it is a beginning and an
end. Jesus’ birth would inevitably lead
to his death; but his death would become the precursor of his resurrection the
event which transforms death and heralds in eternal life. Jesus changes everything and his birth is the
event which separates history. He is
worth a look; however arduous the journey he is worth coming to see.
Word became flesh and made his dwelling among us. We have seen his glory, the glory of the One
and Only, who came from the Father, full of grace and truth.’ John 1:14
friend and pastor,
- Church Street
- B49 5AJ