Tag Archives: Prayer

Last Friday…

This sermon was preached at the St. Andrew’s 8am & St. Peter’s 11am Holy Communion services on 15th November 2015. The readings were Daniel 12:1-3, Hebrews 10:11-25 and Mark 13:1-8.

Our readings today direct our thoughts to the time when Jesus will return in glory to this world, His world. It’s appropriate for us to look at this today for a few reasons – next week we celebrate Christ the King, then enter Advent as we prepare ourselves for the coming of the King of Kings born into the world as a poor, homeless peasant child; and today we cast our minds back to this time last year as we bid our dear Ian farewell as he went on ahead of us to wait with Jesus for the end times.

Alongside that we have the devastating attacks that have taken place in Paris this Friday, where at least 129 people were brutally murdered while doing nothing more than enjoying an evening out.

At times like these it’s not unusual for our thoughts to turn to the end times – not just our own time, but the end of everybody’s time. On most days this seems so far off as to be inconsequential – but at others it seems so real, the line between this world and the next so thin, that we can almost touch it.

For some this is a comforting thought, for some it is downright terrifying. For some it would depend on what day of the week you asked them.

All three of our readings have elements of Jewish apocalyptic writing – a style that usually anticipates a great crisis to befall the world, but in light of a current crisis afflicting the people it’s written for.

It looks to explain what’s happening in the material world by talking of what is happening in the parallel spiritual realm, with everything happening on earth representing and matching up to a larger, heavenly struggle between good and evil. So it reads into earthly events cosmic significance, and anticipates future events on earth in light of the coming battle between the forces of God and the devil.

This attempt to make sense of current events and experiences by casting them in a larger, cosmic framework should, theoretically bringing comfort or reassurance to people who find themselves suffering or being oppressed. The problem with this style of writing comes, however, when the words are taken out of context and applied to any given situation being faced in a person, or peoples, lives. This is one of the biggest mistakes we make with the Bible full stop –  taking the words away from their original usage, meaning and intended audience & try to apply them with a large trowel to any situation we see fit.

This is not to say God does not speak to us through the Bible, that we won’t find passages that encourage, challenge, strengthen or comfort us, but to understand how they apply to us & what God wants us to take from them requires an understanding of why they were written in the first place. Otherwise it’s like taking the instructions for a washing machine & applying them to a tumble dryer – they’re both big white boxes with a window in the front, but they have different purposes despite their similarities.

And this is the point Jesus is making to His disciples in our Gospel reading today – not the thing about washing machines, obviously, but the warning not to try to lay specific words given for one situation over a different one, even if there are similarities.

To set the scene, chapter 12 of Mark’s Gospel has Jesus challenging the perceived authority of the religious elite at the temple.

Obviously Jesus is secure in the knowledge that God has supreme authority, but for his disciples to hear Him openly criticising the scribes and the Pharisees in public must have been a big indicator, a big wake up call, that their friend and teacher really was prepared to live and ultimately die to give glory to God the Father. With this in mind, I tend to hear the disciples acclamation about the wonderful stones and buildings in a tone of voice that says, “Teacher, have you seen this place. Are we seriously going to take this on?” In response to this, Jesus immediately plays down the perceived permanence of the Temple – after all, while the ancient holy place may have seemed immovable only God Himself is eternal, meaning everything else is temporary in comparison.

He then sits down with His closest companions and answers their very obvious follow-up question – when is this going to happen? To understand His answer again relies on knowing the context Mark was writing in. This Gospel is seen as the earliest of the four in the New Testament, probably written between AD 65-70, and is generally accepted to be the good news as recalled by Peter, which Mark wrote down. So, in light of the Roman-Jewish war of 66-70, which led to amongst other things the destruction of the Temple, this passage seems to be specifically addressing a given point in history.

Contrary to popular expectations in Jewish and Christian apocalyptic circles, war, catastrophe, persecution and the fall of Jerusalem and desecration of the Temple were not sure signs of the end of the world. Though these things had just occurred, ‘the end is not yet.’ The end of history is instead to be associated with the coming of the Son of Man in glory. From now on, for Christians, the return of Jesus replaces the Temple as the focal point of hope for the full realization of the Kingdom of God. The intention of the text is therefore to call the followers of Jesus – those sitting on the Mount of Olives, those reading the Gospel as the Temple was destroyed, and us sitting here today – to hope for the coming of the Christ the Lord.

You see, our situation today is similar to that of the first readers in at least one important respect: The historical signs which many people associate with the end of the world have occurred countless times by now, but the final coming of the Son of Man still lies in the future.

We should call Mark 13 to mind whenever we see news articles, hear broadcasts or even come across people or preachers brandishing calculations that conclude, “This is the time!…” When we read about the Paris attacks, when we see the news footage, it’s easy to believe the world is broken and it’s time to scrap it and start again. But this is where our historical situation is quite different from that of the first readers. The cosmos did not collapse, nor did the Son of Man come in clouds with great power during the lifetime of the Twelve, or during any of horrific events of the past, meaning our Gospel passage offers us a balance. It both gently corrects and reigns in apocalyptic enthusiasm on one hand, while challenging jaded scepticism on the other.

But more than that, this passage also reminds us that, in reality, Jesus will return. Maybe the trumpet is set to sound in about 6 billion years, when scientists predict the Sun’s core will run out of hydrogen, leading it to collapse then grow in size, consuming the orbits of Mercury, Venus and eventually the Earth as well. Or maybe the world will end tomorrow, or the next day – “No one knows when that day and hour will come” as Jesus reminds us in Matthew’s Gospel. So there is never a better time to seek to repair, restore, or even begin a relationship with Jesus – than right now.

This understanding of the need to watch, expectantly, for the return of Christ should help us realize that we really do need to be mindful of God’s presence in our own lives, and allow Him to act through them.

It may be that some of us here need to start believing, really believing, that actually Jesus really does love you; that He really did die for you and would have done even if you were the only person to ever have existed.

Some of us may need to realise that our sins can, and have, been forgiven.

Some of us may need to reach the conclusion that there will never be the ‘right’ time to have the conversation about faith with our friend, loved one or work colleague that we keep putting off, despite the Holy Spirit tugging at our sleeve like a toddler wanting a biscuit every time we see them.

But all of us need to realise that whatever we are facing at the moment, whatever trials or triumphs, pains or pleasures fill our waking and our sleeping, Jesus is right there with us through them, and is preparing us each day for the journey home to be with Him.

Friday’s atrocities may seem like the beginning of the end – in the apocalyptic narrative they serve as a reminder of the fragility of our earthly existence. But the Good News of Jesus Christ should remind us – should convict us – that no matter what happens in this world, the cosmic battle between good and evil has already been won. Death has been destroyed by the resurrection, so we can stand with confidence and proclaim that these terrorists, committing acts of evil while hiding behind a false interpretation of the Islamic faith, may at worst destroy our mortal bodies, but can never take our eternal soul.

The writer to the Hebrews captured this perfectly in our reading today.

“We have a great priest in charge of the house of God. So let us come near to God with a sincere heart and a sure faith, with hearts that have been purified from a guilty conscience and with bodies washed with clean water. Let us hold on firmly to the hope we profess, because we can trust God to keep his promise. Let us be concerned for one another, to help one another to show love and to do good. Let us not give up the habit of meeting together, as some are doing. Instead, let us encourage one another all the more, since you see that the Day of the Lord is coming nearer.”

Our hope is founded on the glorious reality that Jesus lived, died and rose again to set us free from sin and death.

We can confidently welcome the stranger, stand firm with the oppressed and marginalised, whatever their background or beliefs, and all because our hope does not rely on mortal men but on the grace and power of the eternal God.

An easy way “to help one another to show love and to do good” is by example, by the way we talk about those who are fleeing the very terrorists who are claiming responsibility for the Paris attacks, or by how we relate to those in our communities who, over the next few weeks, will find their lives made even more difficult purely because their faith has been hijacked, twisted and defamed by people looking for an excuse to kill and destroy.

As Martin Luther King Jr once said:

Darkness cannot drive out darkness; only light can do that. Hate cannot drive out hate; only love can do that.”

Our job, especially as we approach the reflective season of Advent, is to listen to Him, help those around us to do the same, and shine His light of love into the darkness of our world as we continually watch for His return in glory.

Amen.

MLK jr

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Amazing Grace

This sermon was preached at All Saints midweek Eucharist & St. Andrew’s Evensong on Wednesday 1st July & Sunday 5th July 2015  respectively. The readings were 2 Samuel 5:1-5, 9-10; 2 Corinthians 12:2-10 and Mark 6:1-13.

This week I heard two renditions of Amazing Grace within 12 hours of each other. Not a very dramatic opening, I know, being a vicar & all. The first was the amazing clip of Barak Obama, arguably the most powerful leader in the western world, breaking into a rendition of the hymn as he delivered the eulogy of Reverend Clementa Pinckney, the pastor of the Mother Emanuel church in Charleston who was among the 9 Christians murdered there recently. The second was the choir of St. Anthony’s school at the official opening of the groundworks at St. Peter’s on Monday.

The two renditions were very different. To say the President’s singing wasn’t in the same league is to underplay how good the young ladies of St. Anthony’s were – it’s more accurate to say they weren’t even playing the same sport. But what Mr Obama lacked in tuning he made up for in passion, using the hymn as a rallying point to call out the names of the others killed in the attack & speak of their faith & the Grace they had received from their heavenly father.

It was interesting to have these two experiences of the same piece of music – the President’s at the end of a period of great sadness and tragedy for a community, the students at the beginning of a new phase at St. Peter’s, hopefully bringing new life to our community.

And I guess hearing them so close to each other got me thinking – it’s inclusion in both these events reminds us of the amazing gift of grace we have available to us through a relationship with Jesus Christ. You see, however clichéd it sounds, we all know full well that throughout our lives we have highs and lows, times of great joy and greater sorrow.

We missed St. Paul out last Sunday, as he shares St. Peter’s feast day, but it is his words we just heard, written originally for the people of Corinth but echoing through the ages to ring true for us today, that remind us of the power of God’s grace in our lives. Whoever we are, however weak we feel, however battered we have been by life’s storms, however distant we may feel from God at times, He is right here with us.

That’s part of the story of the incarnation – God rolling up His sleeves and getting in amongst our pain, our struggles and sticking by us throughout, enfolding us in His undying love; God rejoicing with us in the good times & giving us the strength to find out and actively seek to be the people He has called us to be, and help others do the same.

We may not feel worthy of this grace. It’s OK, we’re not. If we were – if we could earn our salvation solely by ourselves, we would not have needed Jesus sacrifice made once for all upon the cross. You see, President Obama’s singing was beautiful and inspiring not because of his voice but because of the heart and message he was conveying. Our lives are blessed by God, not because we are perfect but because we are the crown of His creation and as long as we seek to live in Him He lives in us; as we look to forgive we ourselves are forgiven; as we seek to bring people to know and love Christ our knowledge and love of Him deepens.

“Amazing Grace! How sweet the sound, that saved a wretch like me.
I once was lost, but now I’m found, was blind but now I see!”

Amen.

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

More Questions than Answers?

This sermon was preached at St. Andrew’s 6pm Evensong service on 17th May 2015, the Sunday after the Ascension. The readings were Acts 1.1-11, Ephesians 1.15-23 & Luke 24.44-53.

I was once told there is no such thing as a stupid question – only a stupid person. I don’t subscribe to the latter part, but I think one of the great things about our Christian faith is we have the ability to – are hopefully encouraged to – ask questions about it.

You may not be surprised to hear I often end up chatting to people – in the street or at the school gates or wherever, and something that has been asked a couple of times is how I as a Christian avoid doubt, or can have “blind faith.” But I don’t think doubt is the opposite of faith – fear is the opposite of faith, just as it is the opposite of love. And as we explored a few weeks ago, perfect love – agape, God’s divine, self-giving love – casts out fear. But questions are healthy, as they hold us to account and stop us getting too blasé about our faith, too comfortable in our small Christian bubble, and encourage us to explore God’s understanding and perspective of things instead of just ours and our friends.

So there’s a part of me that loves the confusion in the ascension story. The disciples, the people who have been closest to Jesus throughout his ministry, the guys who have listened to all he’s had to say, seen the miracles he has performed, grieved for his death and celebrated his resurrection and have now been taught by Him for an extra forty days still have questions – still don’t seem to really understand. After all He’s said and done, they can’t quite believe He’s leaving without doing the big Messiah thing they had expected right from the start.

“Lord,” they say, “all the other stuff sounds brilliant, but is this the part where we start the revolution & overthrow the Romans? After all, what have the Romans ever done for us?!”

It’s quite comforting really – to think that 2000 years ago those who were the first to hang around with Jesus were still left scratching their heads in a similar way to us as he rose into the clouds, dust trickling from his feet and his final instructions ringing in their ears.

And there a chance that, in our enlightened times and with the benefit of hindsight, we could think it was a bit of an odd, even a daft question. But I’m wondering – if it would have been us standing there, listening to Jesus and contemplating His impending departure, what would we have asked Him? I’m not going to put anybody on the spot, but what springs to mind?

“Lord, how do we respond to so much need in this world?”

“Lord, did you really mean that love your enemy thing?”

“Lord, are Sunderland going to stay up?!?”

Because, if we’re honest, there is a fair chance we would find ourselves asking about things that are more specific to our lives, our immediate concerns.

“What is the future for our church?”

“Why didn’t you heal my friend, loved one…”

“If this Church grows again will it change – will I feel a stranger in my own pew?”

These are all perfectly good questions – I’m sure that the many, many more flitting around your heads like butterflies right now are equally as good. And the example of the disciples shows we are justified in asking them. The amazing thing about our relationship with God our Father through Jesus His son in the power of the Holy Spirit working in us and through us is we are allowed to come to Him with whatever is on our hearts – whatever troubles us, excites us, builds us up or destroys us and lay it at the foot of His cross in prayer.

“Come to me, all you that are weary and are carrying heavy burdens, and I will give you rest,” says the Lord.

The trick, as they say, is then to stay around and listen for the answer. Because one thing I think many of us have experienced is that prayer is not always answered in the way we expect, or the way we would have planned or chosen. In this instance, Jesus answers the disciples question with what appears to be a frustrating vagueness – but notice He does not deny that the kingdom will be restored, and backs up His earlier promise of help. What He does ask them to do is wait…

Luke uses two languages in Acts to describe what has happened to the world in and through the incarnation, God becoming man, word becoming flesh. One is the language of resurrection, of victory over death; the other is ascension, of Jesus sitting at the right hand of God. Next week, when we celebrate Pentecost, we see these two motifs meet in the life and power given to the disciples in the Holy Spirit. But for now, the disciples had to be patient – and as we wait with them to mark the outpouring of the Spirit, let us give thanks that we have a God so mind-blowingly awesome that He can transcend life & death, time and space, yet merciful and gracious enough to listen to us, to walk amongst us, die a cruel, torturous death for us, and reside with us in our hearts this day and always.

Amen.

Ascension-Day-Of-Lord-3