Tag Archives: Bible

Just a Sunday School story..?

This sermon was preached at St. Andrew’s 8am and All Saints 10:30am Eucharist’s on 21st June 2015. The readings were 1 Samuel 17:32-49, 2 Corinthians 6:1-13 and Mark 4:35-41.

FEE-FI-FO-FUM! I SMELL THE BLOOD OF AN ENGLISHMAN….

David and Goliath. The ultimate sporting cliché, a true underdog story, one of those Sunday School classics – the ugly mean giant, the handsome little lad, the stones and the slingshot – we can close our eyes and let this one just wash over us, we’ve heard it so many times.

But when the authors put together the narrative history of Israel’s transition from a marginal company of tribes to a centralized state, as found in the two books of Samuel, they weren’t looking to tell fantastic tales to entertain the kids while the adults got on with the ‘real’ theology – and if we take the time to look again at this part of the story we find subtleties in the way it is written and a real depth of meaning that can help us in our role as God’s people, the Body of Christ, today.

Coming in at this part of the story misses out some of the important pointers for our journey.

At the start of the chapter we see that Saul, first and reigning king of Israel, is failing in his one primary task – to keep the Philistine threat at bay. This threat is then embodied in the description of Goliath himself – not a ‘giant’ in the Jack and the Beanstalk mould but still around 6 foot 9 of intimidating, arrogant Philistine muscle, a huge man for that culture, and dressed to kill in the literal sense, with the author taking his time to describe every last detail of his kit. No wonder the Israelite troops are left “dismayed and greatly afraid.”

So, enter David. The young, handsome eighth son of Jesse, who last week we heard has been anointed king in succession to Saul but is still very much under the radar, and left tending the sheep and serving his older brothers. He appears on the frontline with supplies for the fighting men, but is taken aback by both the sheer front of this oversized enemy shooting his mouth off and the terrified reaction of his fellow Israelites.

“Who is this uncircumcised Philistine that he should defy the armies of the living God?’” he asks – an innocent question of youth, befitting of a Sunday School setting maybe, yet one that reveals a great truth. The army of Israel, full of men supposedly bigger and stronger than David, are immobilised by fear as if the living God is irrelevant to the battle. David is not afraid precisely because God is never irrelevant in the lives of His people – it takes the innocence of youth, the boy described earlier in 1 Samuel as “after Yahweh’s own heart,” to be the one to state this deep theological truth. Maybe unsurprisingly, however, those older warriors – given voice by his own brother Eliab – don’t want to hear him. They rebuke him, ignore him, try to put him back “in his place” – but, in the case of his siblings, forgetting or deliberately avoiding the fact that his place since Samuel anointed him is as the chosen King.

So this is where we come in. David’s words are repeated to Saul, now a desperate man clutching at straws, willing to give an audience to a youth who, for all he knows, was just flapping his gums.

There must be part of Saul that is delighted to find even one boy in his camp, an army defeated by their own lack of faith, who still holds dear the innocent dream of the “living God” that Saul once swore to uphold.

David speaks first. Surely Saul, as king, should drive the conversation, but David is the chosen one, and our narrator wants to remind us again that David is now called to lead. His words are a declaration of salvation and solidarity, showing he is both Saul’s servant and willing to give his life for God’s people. Remind you of anybody?

At first Saul dismisses the idea – looking at David’s outward appearance, he judges him too young, too small. But as we heard last week, God is interested on what is on the inside – what is in our hearts – meaning the smallest of things can contain enough power to make a great difference. David is prepared to state his case, painting a picture of a brave shepherd in the face of wild bears and lions, delivering his flock from the assaults of the enemy. But then he does something amazing.

He shifts the emphasis from what he has done, to what God has done through him. Up to this point nobody has had the courage, the faith, to invoke the name of the living God, but David does now – The Lord, Yahweh, has delivered him from the bear and the lion, and Yahweh will deliver him, and His people, from Goliath and the Philistines. As it has been, thus it will ever be.

David’s faith moves Saul – even giving him the courage to speak the name of the Lord – but still Saul wants to do things on his terms. He hasn’t grasped yet how radical David’s trust in God is. Saul wants him fit for battle, to dress and behave like any other soldier in any other army. But David refuses, and walks out in faith – leaving the comfort and protection of armour and tradition behind to stand in the light of the Lord with just five smooth stones rattling in his bag and the fire of God’s love blazing in his heart.

Unsurprisingly Goliath is less than impressed. He has been playing the crowd so long he is not going to back down to this cheeky bairn. He runs his mouth like an American wrestler cutting a promo before a match – calling on his gods, explaining in detail how little of David will be left when he’s finished with him.

Imagine being an Israelite soldier standing on the front line, seeing little unarmed David stride forward, hearing again Goliath’s terrifying, graphic declarations of his power. You’d give David seconds before he was nothing but a smear on the landscape.

But David’s speech is better, more compelling. He shows no fear in his lack of conventional weapons, no doubt that he will not just defeat but humiliate his enemy, and evokes memories in the Israelites around him of God’s faithful rescues of the past.

“It isn’t me you are insulting, but Yahweh. It isn’t any army you face, but God’s chosen people. And God will be glorified throughout the world when he saves his people again – not by the conventions of human warfare but by his own mysterious ways.”

Basically it is David the missionary, urging Israel to rediscover their faith, turn back to the living God and begin walking in his light once again.

Then, after all the, build up, the fight itself is almost an anti-climax. One smooth stone from a little creek bed hits Goliath on the head – whack whack sword cut off his head, the giant now is dead.

Yet this is the bit we are used to focussing on. This briefest of sections runs through popular culture – as we said earlier, everyone knows a David and Goliath story when they see it. But as we noted with the Holy Trinity a few weeks ago, the common perception wildly misses the point. Without the speeches and the backstory it is just the little guy getting lucky, or being brave, or displaying amazing intestinal fortitude, and sticking it to the big man. When you scratch the surface, it is the final act, the cherry on the icing on the cake, of a long reminder of the power and presence of God with His people, and His great saving love for us.

For God is bigger than any of the giants we face, any of life’s storms. That can be really hard to believe sometimes, especially when you are caught in the middle of them – but, from experience, I can tell you He truly is there.

Just as David did we need to let our relationship with the living God inform and impact how we face all life throws at us. Take the families of our Christian brothers and sisters brutally murdered at a Bible study in Charleston just a few days ago. They have gone to great lengths to rise up through their pain and anguish to speak words of forgiveness to the man accused of the killings. And this comes as a surprise to many people, making as many headlines around the world as the hate crime itself. But it really shouldn’t. The BBC quoted Dr Alton Pollard III, Dean of the Howard School of Divinity, in their report –

“God is always greater and because of that, even in horrific conditions, we can still be faithful… Because of faithfulness, we have the capacity to forgive.”

Chris and Camryn, the children of murdered Sharonda Singleton, summed it up simply –

“Love is stronger than hate.”

When we stand in faith, when we have the courage to let God strip away the things the world says are important, the things we hide behind or even battle to uphold, and just give ourselves over to the Lord in love and trust, it changes the game. It does not make the situation just go away. It may not make it less terrifying or less painful or at all ‘easier.’ But all three of our passages today show God has brought those who have faith in him through many, many battles and storms – and that same God is with us in ours, surrounding us with His great love and inspiring us to show the same to all who we meet, to bring them to faith in Him who will save us and take us home at the end of our final chapter.

Not bad for a Sunday School story, eh?

Amen

David Goliath

Advertisements

God looks at your…

This sermon was preached at St. Andrew’s 8am Eucharist on 14th June 2015a and All Saints 10:00am Eucharist on 17th June 2015. The readings were 1 Samuel 15:34-16:13, 2 Corinthians 5:6-10, 11-13, 14-17, Mark 4:26-34.

Many of you will know that, not long after I came to faith I travelled to the North East of Brazil to work as a volunteer with the Baptist Missionary Society. Part of the role was, on our return from 6 months overseas, to tour the UK for 3 months speaking in churches, schools, youth clubs – anywhere that would have us really – encouraging people to support prayerfully and financially the work of the organisation, and to look at the mission possibilities in their lives, both overseas and on their doorstep.

In one school we took a lesson with a group of primary age children, and decided to write out some of the words, albeit in a different translation, that we heard in our Old Testament reading this morning. 1 Samuel 16:7b:

“man looks at your outward appearance, but God looks at your heart.”

A group of children each had a board with one of the words written on it, and the remaining bairns had to arrange them, one move at a time, to form the complete passage. Sounds easy, doesn’t it? Each move I read out the resulting sentence with great gusto – which was fine until, too late, I realised they had arranged it so it read

“man looks at your outward appearance, God looks at your but(t)”

– howls of laughter followed.

So that verse has stuck with me ever since. But that’s quite a fitting way to remember it, I think. It seems to me that now more than ever before the world wants to judge people, especially women, by their outside appearance. The advent of social media and the internet as a whole has fuelled this, but advertising, TV, films, newspapers, gossip magazines all seem obsessed with “the body beautiful,” dismissing personality, intellect or emotional skills to focus on mammary glands and posterior parts, hair, teeth and eyebrows of any female who puts her head above the parapet and dares voice an opinion. As a father to three daughters this worries me, as I don’t want them to see how you look or dress as they key to happiness. As a father to a son it worries me, as I don’t want him to fall into the trap of looking at women that way & missing out on the depth of relationship both they and he deserves.

As Christians we can sometimes outwardly judged ourselves. We are stereotyped as boring, irrelevant, mad even, for declaring a faith in God, or coming to church. Some of us may even feel tempted to keep our heads down and avoid the gaze of others, lest we stand out & are ridiculed.

But as a church, we too need to be wary of how we look at those we meet. It’s easy to raise an eyebrow at the hair and hemlines of those who come to us for wedding and baptism services, to be put off or even scared of people who dress differently, behave differently, who are just….different. How can we communicate the Gospel to them – they won’t be interested, they won’t understand…

God looks at your heart. God looks at their heart too. As God’s children we are blessed by the Holy Spirit, empowered to share the good news to whoever we meet, however young or old, however different they seem.

By showing love not fear, warmth not distance, care not judgement, we can be the first step on somebody’s journey to faith – or even the last step on their making a commitment to Christ. After all, although I’m everyone in this room dressed sensibly, never listened to loud ‘unsuitable’ music, behaved impeccably and understood all there was to know about Christianity and Jesus love for the world just like that (finger snap) from day one… I didn’t – and if it wasn’t for the love and acceptance of Christian folk who were different to me, I never would have.

David was written off because he didn’t look the part – too young, too small. Look where he ended up. As the current Bishop of Durham says, “Never underestimate the small.” Our small actions, our small prayers, our small acts of love, driven by what we may even see as the smallest amount of faith can and will be the big difference in somebody’s life, the tiny mustard seed which grows into the massive tree of life, spilling out from us to our neighbours to their neighbours to our world.

Paul urged the Corinthians – urges us – to “walk by faith not sight.” Because, he says, “from now on…we regard no one from a human point of view; even though we once knew Christ from a human point of view, we know him no longer in that way. So if anyone is in Christ, there is a new creation: everything old has passed away; see, everything has become new!”

Let us always strive to show all our neighbours, those we welcome into our church and those we go out to meet, the chance to find that fresh start, that healing touch, that amazing love made available to us by the life, death and resurrection of our Lord Jesus Christ.

Amen

God looks at the heart

How do you solve a problem like the Trinity…

This sermon was preached at St. Andrew’s 8am and All Saints 10:30am Eucharist’s on 31st May 2015 – Trinity Sunday. The readings were Isaiah 6:1-8, Romans 8:12-17 and John 3:1-17.

I have here a bag of crisps. I am a huge crisp fan – they’re kind of my Achilles heel when it comes to healthy eating. Everything in moderation…

But these didn’t really do it for me: “Tyrrells summer butter & mint flavour. According to the back they comprise “the finest spuds, a dab of butter, a snippet of mint – summer’s holy trinity.” I’ll let you tell me at the end of the service if you think they live up to the first part of that billing as we’ll share them over coffee, but isn’t the “Holy Trinity” bit interesting?

It’s funny, but across our now supposedly ‘secular’ society it’s a phrase that still gets heavily used. A few months ago a headline read “Businessman buys £3m ‘Holy Trinity’ of supercars.” The paper explained that “Paul Bailey is believed to be the first British car enthusiast to own a McLaren P1, a Ferrari LaFerrari and a Porsche 918 Spyder.” Lucky boy. A quick Google showed me people’s opinions on the holy trinity of rock, holy trinity of advertising techniques and even a Sun headline that read “Historic picture shows holy trinity of 3 Popes together” – Pope John Paul II, Pope Benedict XVI and Pope Francis, in case you were wondering.

I find this fascinating. Common parlance seems to show that a ‘holy trinity’ – note it is always a ‘holy’ or ‘unholy’ trinity, not just a trinity – is three similar things, or at least three things linked in some way – Cars, foodstuffs, pontiffs. And there is a danger when speaking of THE Holy Trinity that we Christians fall into the same trap.

It’s understandable – someone like me gets tasked every year to stand up and speak on Trinity Sunday, trying to proclaim afresh this great declaration of our faith, one we repeat every Sunday in the words of the Nicene Creed. And over the years I have heard many ideas on what the Trinity is ‘like.’ This is nothing new – St. Patrick supposedly used a shamrock in his attempts, meaning he is also Patron Saint of All-Age worship services. Some of us may have heard it explained as like an egg – shell, yolk & white yet still one egg or, and this could be my favourite, the Jaffa Cake – chocolate, sponge & smashing orangey bit.

The problem is, although analogies can be a good thing in this case they are always found wanting – and actually lead us down the well-trodden path of believing ancient heresies instead.

But it seems that we need something to hang concepts and experiences on to. When we eat unusual food we don’t say “I just had frog – it tastes of frog!” We say “It tastes a bit like chicken,” (which it does!) When Jilly Goolden tasted wine on Food & Drink – remember that? – it would be “Oh, I’m getting liquorice, I’m getting pear drops, I’m getting used petrol from a 1984 Ford Capri, I’m getting right on your nerves aren’t I?!”

Yet this is God we are talking about – the fact is nothing is truly ‘like’ God. We cannot ever truly comprehend the divine this side of heaven.

A story, credited to Edward J Yarnold, a Jesuit scholar:

St. Augustine of Hippo, the fourth century Bishop and theologian who wrote among other things the huge treatise On the Trinity, was pacing the Mediterranean shoreline of his native North Africa when he noticed a young boy scooping seawater into his small hands and carefully pouring it into a hole he had hollowed in the sand. Puzzled, Augustine watched as the bairn repeated this again and again. Eventually, curiosity piqued, he went over to introduce himself and ask the lad what he was doing. “I’m emptying the ocean into this hole,” came the reply. Augustine was dismissive – how could such a vast body of water be contained in such a small hole? The boy was equally dismissive in return – how could Augustine expect to contain the vast mystery of God in the mere words of a book…?

So, how do you solve a problem like the Trinity? Is it a leap of blind faith which we need to just accept & move on, or ignore & hope nobody asks about? Or are we approaching the whole thing from the wrong angle? If we view the Trinity, as 20th century theologian Karl Barth appears to, as an explanation of God’s revelation of Himself, we find that instead of being a problem to be solved, the Trinity becomes a framework which puts our efforts to understand something of God into a proper perspective. Rather than seeing the Trinity as a concept or idea about God, if we see it as God’s way of revealing Himself to humanity, God speaking to us, our questions move from “how do we understand the Trinity” to “what is God saying to us – to me – through His being Father, Son and Holy Spirit?”

John 3:16, possibly the most famous verse of the New Testament, is bound up in Jesus revealing it takes a Trinitarian God to work out our salvation, to repair our relationship with our creator & restore in us the promise of eternal life. By being born again in the Spirit we enter the kingdom of God the Father. We are born of the Spirit by faith in Jesus, the Son sent by the Father, who dies and is raised for us, lifted up to be gazed upon in faith and trust as was the bronze serpent that saved the Israelites from earthly, physical death in Moses time.

Each of us probably feels more drawn to, more able to ‘get,’ one of the persons of the Trinity over the others. That again is human nature, and says more about us than it does about God. Hopefully we use this starting point to explore the whole of God in Trinity, not just the person of His revelation that we feel most ‘comfortable’ with, which will then deepen and strengthen our relationship with Him.

But I think if allow ourselves to believe, as the Athanasian Creed so aptly puts it:

“we worship one God in Trinity, and Trinity in Unity; Neither cShield-Trinity-Scutum-Fidei-English_svgonfounding the Persons; nor dividing the Essence. For there is one Person of the Father; another of the Son; and another of the Holy Ghost. But the Godhead of the Father, of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost, is all one; the Glory equal, the Majesty coeternal…”

we find ourselves on the right track. Just because we cannot fully explain something does not mean it doesn’t work – I can’t explain how my laptop works but I wrote this sermon on it, so it must.

Paul reminds us in 1 Corinthians 13 that

“now we see in a mirror, dimly, but then we will see face to face. Now I know only in part; then I will know fully, even as I have been fully known.”

God has chosen to reveal himself to us in Trinity. If that’s good enough for Him, it’s good enough for me.

Amen.

rublev

 

A Birthday to Remember

This sermon was preached at St. Andrew’s 9:30am Eucharist on 24th May 2015 – Pentecost Sunday. The readings were Acts 2:1-21, Romans 8:22-27 & John 15:26-27; 16:4b-15.

Tomorrow is a big day in our house. No, I’m not just talking about the events that will unfold at Wembley Stadium as my beloved Canaries seek to re-join the great escape artists of Sunderland in the Premier League – it’s also my middle daughter’s 7th birthday! Where does the time go?!

Birthdays are a funny thing really, aren’t they? We long for them as a child, maybe squashing down a bit of jealousy when a friend or sibling has theirs but anticipating the gifts and celebrations to come on our special day. Then as we get older, we maybe don’t relish them as much as we used to – possibly they’re just a reminder of another mile on the clock, another year older and hopefully, but not necessarily wiser. But if we allow ourselves, birthdays can afford us a good opportunity to look back over the life of ourselves or a loved one and see how far we’ve come, how we’ve grown, what made us who we are today.

I guess this fits in nicely with our Pentecost celebration today, as we read once again Luke’s account of the birth of the Church as recorded in Acts.

But his account also serves to help us look back at the real birth of Christianity – the birth of Jesus Himself. Luke spends more time describing the beginning of the Incarnation, the word becoming flesh, than any of the other Gospel writers – he wants us to see that in the origins of a person there is an indication of the direction that person’s life will take. With this in mind, there are parallels between the opening chapters of Luke’s Gospel and the opening of Acts. Both stories begin with the arrival of the Holy Spirit, though in both the Spirit seems to be at work in the period before. In both the promise given is contrasted with John the Baptist. Knowing Theophilus and any other readers will have seen his original Gospel, Luke is indicating to us we can expect to learn much from this second infancy narrative – that of the first community of believers, our Christian ancestors.

It’s important to hold this in our minds as we explore Pentecost – Acts is very much rooted in what is written in Luke, and the dramatic events of Pentecost are bound up with the events recorded in Luke 24. Pentecost follows hot on the heels of our Ascension celebrations, and inside the Easter season, because all three are inextricably linked to one another. At the Emmaus road encounter, Cleopas and his colleague reported Jesus was “made known to them in the breaking of the bread,” and that he “opened their eyes to understand the scriptures.” Afterwards he told his disciples to “stay in the city, until you are clothed with power from on high.” At Pentecost we remember that same power of God, made known at the resurrection and ascension of Jesus, is given to the people of God – his closest disciples, the Jews from every nation who hear them preach the Good News and listen to the message, even to the Gentiles. Yes, even to the gentiles, us, allowing us to also have an encounter, to be strengthened, healed and empowered by the Holy Spirit of the living God.

Because a good birthday celebration is not just about looking back, living in the past. We need to also look forward, to our future, to what is to come, what we feel God is calling us to do next, how we can develop to be the person or people God has created us to be – how we can be the Church, the Body of Christ, that God has called us to be. And this part of Acts shows us that anything is possible in the power of the Holy Spirit. Luke highlights this in a very subtle way, a way that even those of us who are long in the faith can miss. The story of Peter in this chapter shows that wherever we feel we are with God, however powerful or insubstantial we feel our faith to be, a relationship with Jesus and the awesome power of the Holy Spirit can truly transform us into the person the Father sees as He looks at us. This same Peter, who could only follow at a distance as His great friend was taken away, who denied even knowing him to the maid who insisted he must, and who left the courtyard weeping, broken and in the full knowledge of his betrayal – this same Peter is the first to raise his voice, to confront those who wish to pour scorn and derision on the amazing display of God’s grace and love occurring in front of them, and to boldly proclaim those word which only weeks before he could not bring himself to quietly say to a lowly serving woman in the dark of night.

In the beginning, Genesis 2:7 tells us the Spirit of God breathed life into dust and made a human being. In Acts 2:1-4 this same Spirit breathes life into a broken and cowardly disciple and creates a new, emboldened and empowered man, who cannot restrain himself from sharing the Good News that Jesus is Lord, that Jesus is the promised Messiah, that Jesus is the Christ who takes away the sins of the world and has set us, each one of us here free – free to live, free to know God, free to be loved.

Anything is possible in the power of the Spirit – and we have access to that same Spirit right here, right now. And that can seem a bit, I don’t know, a bit scary. Because in Acts we see the Spirit move by wind and fire, making the church visible and public, reaching out, changing lives, provoking wrath and confusion in some and bringing hope and empowerment to others. The crowd respond to Peter’s words, crying out “what must we do to be saved?” And everything changes. Their little group suddenly expanded massively. But, if we look further into this chapter of Acts, people set aside their differences and unite for the common good, living as those who love Jesus above all else. As I’ve said before, John reminds us perfect love casts out all fear. If we faithfully call on the Spirit He will move afresh in us, in our church and our parish, and He will help us once again to bring people to that knowledge of the love of Jesus Christ that will make their lives complete.

So let’s make this birthday our best birthday ever – our re-birthday. Let’s unite in calling on the Holy Spirit to once again fill our hearts, fill our lives, fill our brothers and sisters who we are with here today – and ultimately fill our Church with our brothers and sisters who do not yet know the risen Lord. We, like Peter, can be changed, strengthened and empowered to carry that amazing Good News out with us and proclaim it to all – today, tomorrow and forevermore.

Amen.

 Come_Holy_Spirit_Yvonne_Bell_1

Surprises in the familiar

This sermon was preached at St. Andrew’s 8am Eucharist on 10th May 2015. The readings were Acts 10:44-48, 1 John 5:1-6 & John 15:9-17

“This is the one who came by water and blood, Jesus Christ, not with the water only but with the water and the blood. And the Spirit is the one that testifies, for the Spirit is the truth.”

One of the things I find exciting about being a Christian is spotting things I haven’t seen properly before – a verse or a phrase that stands out all of a sudden in a book or letter that I’ve read countless times, that moment when it seems God is speaking afresh to me through the scriptures. Some of us may find this when we try Lectio Divina, the Benedictine method of prayerfully meditating on the Bible. Some of us may just be flicking through scripture & be drawn to a certain section, or be reminded of a passage we once read by a hymn, song, piece of music or just in everyday conversation.

That enigmatic verse, the beginning of the end of John’s First Epistle, caught my eye as I was looking through today’s reading during the week. It may sound a bit like a riddle at first glance, but I find it gives an intriguing snapshot of the importance of two of the great sacraments we have been gifted by God – Baptism and the Eucharist.

The author seems to presuppose an understanding of Jesus life, and as some see this Epistle as almost a commentary on the Gospel of John that is understandable. So think of the two bookends of Jesus earthly ministry. His baptism in the River Jordan, the Holy Spirit descending on him like a dove, witnessed by and testified to by John the Baptist in John 1:29-33. His crucifixion and death, his side pierced so water and blood poured out, witnessed by and testified to by an unnamed man in John 19:31-35. These two hugely significant events in Jesus life, given extra credence by John recording witness statements to ensure people saw their truth, and now handed on to us as Christ’s body on earth. And they are now hugely significant moments of our earthly walk with Jesus – but like so many things, repetition and familiarity can make their significance, I don’t know, fade or seem diminished. I need, and I think we all need, to remind ourselves of the importance of Jesus life and death on a daily basis.

To recall our own baptism, or our first communion, may not be easy in the literal sense – most of us will have been a mere bairn when we got ‘done,’ and with weekly Eucharist’s our first becomes one of many, especially if it wasn’t given the same prominence it would receive in the Catholic Church. But every time we reaffirm our faith in the words of the creed we remember our participation in the death and resurrection of our Lord through our baptism. Every time we drink the cup we remember his torturous, agonizing, life-giving death for each one of us. And each time we gather together, each time we spend time in prayer, each time we open the Bible, we can call upon the Holy Spirit to testify that this is the truth – that Jesus lived and died and rose again to bring us life in all its fullness, to the glory of God the Father.

As we gather around the table this morning, let’s ask the Sprit to move afresh in us, in our Church, to encourage and excite us by His presence once more. He will speak to us in the liturgy, in the scriptures, this day and every day, if we have ears to listen and a heart to love.

And through us He can, and will, restore our faith and revitalise this Church, this city, this fallen world. Yes, through each one of us. After all, “Who is it that conquers the world but the one who believes that Jesus is the Son of God?”

Amen

 

God Is Love

This sermon was the final in our “Still Valued and Valuable” series, preached on the Last Sunday after Trinity, 26th October 2014, at St Andrew’s 8am & 9.30am and All Saints’ 10.30am. The readings were Deuteronomy 34: 1-12, 1 Thessalonians 2: 1-8 and Matthew 22: 34-46.

Love. It seems to be right at the heart of so many things. Pop songs, romantic story lines on the television, films and books. (In 2011 the novel, Fifty Shades of Grey was the best seller in the UK – outstripping even Harry Potter. In it the writer was trying to demonstrate that it had, at its heart – for all its controversy – love relationship between a man and a woman). I did actually try to read it, to see what all the fuss was about, but couldn’t get beyond the first fifteen pages. Just not my sort of book I guess.

Love is seen as something valuable by most people. Something almost everyone wants. Something most people miss when for whatever reason it seems not to be there. Something which is fundamental to who we are as human beings.

Which is why it’s at the very heart of the message which God gives us through Jesus. Our own human attempts through music, books, films and so on – even though they are often sort of on the right lines – always fall short of what love truly is. We probably know much more about love from our own personal experiences – family, friendships, marriages. Maybe particularly when tough experiences are shared or the realities of hurt or our different personalities, view points, self-centredness and so on require lots of patience, compromise and forgiveness.

Love – real love – it seems, can be hard work. Requiring a lot of giving, sacrifice, selflessness, costly service. It can be really, really demanding, really draining.

We know this from our own experience.

St Paul in his famous first letter to the Church in Corinth – still a standard reading for weddings, and I think for good reason – wrote: “love is patient, love is kind, love is not envious or boastful or arrogant or rude. It does not insist on its own way; it is not irritable or resentful; it does not rejoice in wrongdoing, but rejoices in the truth. Love bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things”. Keeping all of that going all the time… it’s blooming hard work!

If we needed reminding a good test at home is, perhaps to read that passage from 1 Corinthians 13, replacing the words “love is” with “I am” and see how it sounds! How hard we do need to work!

In the reading we had this morning from another of Paul’s letters – one of the very early ones he wrote, to the Church at Thessalonika – it’s clear that it was really, really hard work. Paul and his companions, as they shared the good news of the love of God in as many places in the known world they could get to, were opposed almost at every step of the way.

Misunderstood, ill-treated, imprisoned, beaten up. Making it clear that they themselves had no ulterior motives, had nothing to gain, but relied wholly on the strength provided by God, “we were”, Paul writes, “gentle among you, like a nurse caring for her own children. So deeply do we care for you that that we are determined to share with you not only the good news of Jesus but also our very selves, because you have become very dear to us”.

There is something about real love which persists, through the hard work, the let-downs, the disappointments, the sense that we may be getting nowhere.

In our first reading, from the Old Testament, we heard about Moses. Now there’s someone who was stretched to the very limit. Put by God in charge of a huge group of people – the Israelites – to lead them out of slavery in Egypt, through all the discomforts of the desert of Sinai towards a “Promised Land” – a trip which, ultimately, took forty years. “Will we ever get there?” must have been a prevailing emotion. Moses, as we heard, didn’t actually make it in his lifetime. The people were unruly, complaining, moaning, bickering from the first and throughout.

The people were demanding, blaming Moses for their discomfort, driving him almost to distraction: “Why have you given me this lot to have to deal with?” Moses implored God, in the Book of Numbers, chapter 11. In one translation Moses says to God, “I can’t carry all these people by myself! The load is far too heavy! Do me a favour and spare me this misery!”

And yet he carries on. In one sense he had no choice. As we don’t, really, in caring for those committed to us – because of a promise we have made in marriage perhaps, or because they are members of our family, or because we are compelled by compassion or because we simply love them. Moses carried on. Loving God’s people. Serving them. Guiding and caring for them literally to the end of his days.

Loving is “doing”. And loving God – in doing what he asked in carrying on loving, serving his people – even though sometimes it was a right royal pain! – was what Moses was simply getting on with. While he was doing it, it probably felt far from the noble, gracious thing it actually was. No doubt he wanted to throw in the towel and run away a dozen times. But he didn’t. He kept on going.

When, in this morning’s Gospel reading, Jesus reminds the Pharisee lawyer of the greatest commandment: “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind – this is the first and greatest commandment – and the second is like it: you shall love your neighbour as yourself”, he is telling us what it is all about. That we must go on loving and serving others, even when it is hard. Even when we get nothing in return. Even when it seems not to be appreciated or even noticed. Even when we don’t like the person we are called to love. We must treat them with the same consideration, gentleness and dignity as we need ourselves.

But how? How on earth do we do this? How, when we think it is beyond our strength? Our endurance?

Well, there is only one way. But it is a sure way. To know that we ourselves are loved by God. “We love God”, writes John in his first letter, chapter four, “because he first loved us”. There is no doubt about that. It is a fact. God loves us, each one of us, so profoundly, so passionately that he gave himself, in his Son Jesus, to die for us. If any of us was the last person in the world he would still have died for us.

So when loving is hard in our own lives we have the knowledge, the simple, wonderful reality of God’s love for us (and maybe the knowledge of what he has had to put up with from us, maybe over many years!). A love which will keep on going. A serving, patient, giving love (for that is what love is all about).

So when it is hard we need to remember that God loved us first. Always will. Actually through Moses, we see God. Bearing with, caring for, loving and guiding his people to freedom. So much more through Jesus. And not only does he give us an example to follow, it gives us a strength which nothing else can. To know that we are loved – that we are, each one of us, the apple of God’s eye.

I know it doesn’t make sense but it is as if each of one us is his favourite child! He delights, utterly, in each one of us. Loves us with a passion. And to know that. To rest secure in that knowledge, just as Jesus, himself, did when he was on earth makes all the difference when the love we offer to others and the world seems to be rejected, not appreciated or to make any difference. To know that renews our strength to go on loving.

Today is known as “Bible Sunday”. Hence, the special collect we had today. “Blessed Lord, who caused all holy scriptures to be written for our learning; help us so to hear them, to read, mark, learn and inwardly digest them that, through patience, and the comfort of your holy word, we may embrace and forever hold fast the hope of everlasting life, which you have given us in our Saviour Jesus Christ, who is alive and reigns with you, in the unity of the Holy Spirit, one God, now and forever. Amen.

The God who loves us is there, shown throughout the Bible. Through the lives of ordinary people, like you and me. It is true that some people think that the Old Testament shows an altogether different God: a God of anger, of coldness, of distance. A fearsome God. But if you look more closely, whether at Moses, David, Ruth, Esther or countless others your will see, yes, a God of strength and purpose and holiness but also a God of tenderness, of grace, of patience and of love. And in the New Testament all of this brought together in one person, Jesus.

If the Bible was a stick of rock we would find the words running all the way through the centre: “God loves you”. God is love.

And Jesus calls us to follow him.

Amen.