An unequal covenant

Happy new year! This is the sermon I preached at BarnesPutney and Roehampton Methodist Churches, as we marked the start of the year with our Covenant Services. The texts for all three services were: Genesis 17:1-7; Jeremiah 31:31-34; Mark 14:22-25.

union-handshake-art-bf475c83f072bd2aIntroduction

For many years, Methodists have begun the year in a very distinctive way with the Covenant Service. It draws on the important concept of covenant that can found throughout the Bible, celebrating God’s gracious offer to Israel that, “I will be their God and they shall be my people”. This offer was then extended beyond Israel to all women and men in Jesus Christ, who also provides the supreme example of what it is to live in such a relationship with God.

This idea of Covenant was basic to John Wesley‘s understanding of Christian discipleship. He saw the relationship with God in Covenant as being like a marriage between human beings on the one side and God in Christ on the other (Ephesians 5.21-33). His original Covenant Prayer involved taking Christ as,

my Head and Husband, for better, for worse, for richer, for poorer, for all times and conditions, to love, honour and obey thee before all others, and this to the death

1246px-John_Wesley_preaching_outside_a_church._Engraving._Wellcome_V0006868Wesley recognised that people needed not just to accept but also to grow in relationship with God. He therefore emphasised that God’s grace and love constantly seeks to transform us, and so we should continually seek and pray to grow in holiness and love.

Over a number of years Wesley gradually saw the need for some regular ceremony which would enable people to open themselves to God more fully. He first created a distinctive form of service in 1755, drawing on Puritan examples. It emphasised both the individual and corporate nature of the covenant, and the earnest response required of all those who participated. From its earliest days, it was celebrated alongside Holy Communion.

Sermon

Thank_you_001Christmas is now long gone but we are still in the season of Epiphany, when we recall the visit of the Magi to the infant Christ child, and the gifts they brought. Sadly, we are unlikely to be the recipients of any gifts so late after the festive season. If we are lucky, though, we may be recipients of a thank you note for the presents we have given, especially to children. I have already received a number from my godchildren, and their conscientious parents.

Speaking personally, I always found writing thank you notes the very worst part of Christmas! My mother was very strict with my sisters and I, and insisted that letters had to be written promptly, offering fulsome gratitude for any gifts received. She was right, of course, but I used to dread the hours sitting at the dining table desperately trying to think of things to say to an elderly great aunt! As my mother would observe, though: “If you don’t want to write the thank you letter, then you’ll have to send the present back.”. In many ways, the gift and the letters illustrate a sort of covenantal relationship. The gift requires a response on the part of the recipient. If we are honest, many of us will make judgements about the quality or absence of letters when we send a gift, and they may determine how we act in the future. No thank you letter this January, no Christmas present next year!

rembrandt_harmensz-_van_rijn_079Within our scriptures, we can see something similar in the understanding of covenant. One of the challenges in studying and understanding Biblical covenants, ranging from the time of Noah to that of Paul, is that the concept develops over time. There is always a moral component to them, making an appeal to values like integrity and loyalty. Especially in the Old Testament, though, they are undeniably influenced by models of treaties and the legal language of charters from contemporary cultures. In these, a powerful king or overlord commits himself to meet certain obligations, in return for the continued loyalty and service of a lesser ruler or people. They are often couched in high-flown, diplomatic language but the basic relationship is a contractual one, imposed by a stronger power on a lesser one. This understanding, for better or worse, perhaps inevitably affected how the Israelites viewed their relationship with their almighty God: they must meet follow the laws given by God, if they are to retain their cherished status as the ‘chosen people’.

Despite what we know about the new covenant inaugurated by Jesus, it is still tempting to think of covenant in those terms – like the unwritten covenants of presents and thank you letters, a relationship of obligation that places commitments on both sides. On the one hand, we can feel that we are under an obligation to be worthy of this covenant with God. To fulfil our side of the bargain, we must be perfect people, never falling by the wayside, and thereby ‘earning’ our place in heaven. It is not, in fact, unlike that other great January tradition – the new year’s resolution, whereby we vow never to slip up even for a day on our promised ‘new start’. Such thinking has led numerous great Christians in history astray, Augustine, Luther, Wesley to name but three. All of whom tried to ‘earn’ their salvation by fulfilling their side of the covenantal ‘bargain’ to the letter.

On the other hand, there can be a temptation to place the obligations on God. In a few moments I will invite you to read again those beautiful expressions in the Covenant Service so loved by Methodists: “put me to what you will”, “put me to suffering”, etc. But is there an un-stated sub-text? “And in return, Lord, you will grant me my prayers, not actually ask that much of me, and give me eternal bliss after a long and happy life…” One of the most frightening features of 20th / 21st Century Christianity has the been the rise of the so-called ‘prosperity gospel’. Wikipedia provides a good, simple definition of its teachings:

a religious belief among some Christians, who hold that financial blessing and physical well-being are always the will of God for them, and that faith, positive speech, and donations to religious causes will increase one’s material wealth. Prosperity theology views the Bible as a contract between God and humans: if humans have faith in God, he will deliver security and prosperity.

This theology ignores large parts of the Bible, which teach something directly contrary, not least the book of Job. Such teaching almost seems to assume that we could take God to an ombudsman or regulator if he failed to keep his side of the supposed contract!

CovenantInterestingly, even in the Old Testament we find writers who are unhappy with this legalistic understanding of the term covenant, like the prophets Isaiah, Ezekiel and, as we heard, Jeremiah. As we heard, he famously spoke of a covenant that would be written on people’s hearts, not scrolls of paper or tablets of stone (Jer. 31: 33). That understanding of covenant is the one of which Jesus speaks: an organic covenant, we might say. For the new covenant that Christ ushered in was not an agreement carved in tablets of stone but a living, breathing covenant; a thing of the spirit, daily renewed and incapable of being pinned down by scribes and lawyers – then or now. At the heart of this new covenant was not a new set of rules and obligations, but a gift. And that, for me, is what lies at the heart of our covenant service – the response to a precious and costly gift, lovingly given.

The introduction to the Covenant Service in our worship book states that the service should be followed by a celebration of Holy Communion, and we shall do precisely that shortly. it is perhaps this latter part of the service that helps us understand the former, and illustrates what I am trying to say. For this is an unequal covenant, where one partner has given so much more than the other. As it states elsewhere in the Worship Book, in the service for baptism:

for you Jesus Christ came into the world;
for you he lived and showed God’s love;
for you he suffered death on the Cross;
for you he triumphed over death,
rising to newness of life;
for you he prays at God’s right hand:
all this for you,
before you could know anything of it.

In renewing our covenant promises today – or indeed making them for the first time – we are not signing up to a credit agreement or writing a thank you note, in the hope of gaining a better present next year. We cannot take God to court for failing to provide what we expect, nor can the gift we have been given be taken away from us, because we did not pen a good enough letter. Nor are we engaging in a ‘box-ticking exercise’ – telling God what we have done and reminding him to keep his side of the bargain. We are making an inadequate response to the greatest gift anyone can ever receive: the gift of God himself in Jesus Christ. Our Covenant is but a fumbling and wholly inadequate response to that gift. It is an aspiration to be worthy of Christ’s great sacrifice. It is a reminder of our high calling as Christians to be like Christ to all whom we meet. It is a token of our earnest effort to be the person that God truly wants each one of us to be.

I have no doubt that each of us shall fail to live up to that aspiration – I shall probably lead the way. I have no doubt that our response will often resemble my grudging, ill-written, childish thank you letters. But I also have no doubt that God shall keep his side of the bargain regardless. And that, brothers and sisters, is good news indeed. Amen.

wesley-covenant-prayer

“How silently, how silently”

Merry Christmas! This is the sermon I delivered at Midnight Communion at Putney Methodist Church. The texts were Isaiah 9:2-7 and Luke 2:1-14.

800px-Bernardo_Daddi_001One of the pleasures of Advent for me every year is to tell the stories of the season to children in schools and in our churches. To talk about our advent traditions, our wreath with its ‘four candles’, the nativity scene and all the things that make this season so special. I always begin by asking the children what the word ‘advent’ actually means – and sometimes I interrogate the adults too! – and I’m always impressed by the variety of responses I receive. Often, they have been very logically worked out by children, who observe the season from their own particular perspective.

One of the best answers I received was from a thoughtful young man at a primary school near my last church in Watford, who said he thought it meant ‘Countdown’. The more I thought about it, the more I thought how intelligent his response was. Because we all know that Advent, and the run-up to Christmas, can all feel precisely like that: a countdown to the last posting dates, the last chance to find the perfect present, the last chance to buy a pint of milk, and so on. It’s little wonder that so many of us find this season so stressful as a result!

There can be a temptation to think that it was the same with the first Christmas. Our Advent ring counts us down neatly to Christmas day: 4, 3, 2, 1, blast off! – it’s Christmas! We sing hymns like ‘Come thou long-expected Jesus’. We read very selectively from the prophets in the Sundays of Advent, all speaking of the coming Messiah – like the passage we just heard from Isaiah. We can come to imagine that Jesus’ birth was scheduled or even on a timetable.

Gaddi_Taddeo_AnnouncementNow, we know that there was certainly some messianic expectation around the time of Jesus’ birth from sources like the Dead Sea Scrolls. In reality, though, Jesus’ contemporaries had relatively un-defined ideas of what the Messiah would look like and where he might come from. I often reflect that it was definitely not like the X Factor or Britain’s Got Talent or similar programmes, which I used to watch occasionally in years gone by. If you have ever seen such shows, you will know that the most interesting episodes are the early ones, where you see huge numbers of contestants – with very different levels of talent – and we are meant to think that any of them could be the next ‘big thing’. Somehow, though, the camera always seems to know which people to linger a little longer on; with whom to spend more time, learning their back stories. And you immediately think, “We’re going to see more of them later.” It’s almost as if the programmes were heavily edited with the benefit of hindsight!

In our case, the truth is that if anyone had been filming in Judea in O AD they wouldn’t have been in Bethlehem despite the well-known prophecy from Micah that we hear each Advent (Micah 5:2):

But you, Bethlehem Ephrathah,
    though you are small among the clans of Judah,
out of you will come for me
    one who will be ruler over Israel

On the contrary, note how the Wise Men went straight to Jerusalem looking for the new-born “king of the Jews”. You also would not have picked out Mary and Joseph, the simple couple from Nazareth: remember Nathaniel’s first reaction to being told Jesus was the alleged Messiah in John’s gospel: “Can anything good come out of Nazareth?” (John 1:46). You certainly would not have picked the shepherds to be the first recipients of the good news – unclean, loutish men, who lived on the very outskirts of human society, in every sense of the word.

After Jesus’ ministry, death and resurrection, of course, it was a different story. Christians reading back in the Old Testament were able to see where prophets like Isaiah and Micah had indeed caught glimpses of the truth: that salvation would come through a child and he would be born in Bethlehem, for example. However, at the time, there were no camera crews waiting like ‘Springwatch’, or perhaps we should say ‘Messiah-watch’, in the borrowed stable in Bethlehem. Some Early Christians thought that this was shocking and felt that the world must have noticed this incredible event and they invented all sorts of elaborate background material, like the Protevangelium of James, detailing the lives of Mary’s parents, her courtship with Joseph, and the incredible infancy of their new child. None of these ever made it into the Christian canon and were quickly seen as forgeries. They demonstrated, though, that same interest that we now see in modern biographies in the early life of famous people after they are famous.

Lorenzo_Lotto_017The truth is that Jesus, the long-expected Messiah, the person who would turn BC into AD and whose birth is being celebrated this night in every corner of our globe was born in poverty and utter obscurity. There was no fanfare or pomp. No great master like Reubens or Rembrandt waiting in the corner of the table with his easel to capture the great moment. Jesus was a refugee child born in a borrowed bed, with no timetable or schedule, and not even Mary probably knowing exactly when he would arrive. As the carol we shall sing shortly, ‘O little town of Bethlehem’ puts it so beautifully: “How silently, how silently, the wondrous gift is given”.

And in my experience that is how God mostly works in our world. God almost invariably chooses the still small voice over the earthquake. The poor peasant woman to the local celebrity. The inclination of a human heart instead of divine lightning bolts.

At Christmas, we are remembering how God works through the everyday and the mundane to reach out to his creation. Through kinds hearts and deeds of simple generosity. Through patient acts of pastoral care and neighbourly support that go unnoticed by the television cameras. Through heartfelt, simple prayers. Through the everyday goodness of millions of individuals, trying to make their little corner of the world slightly better. Through bread and wine. Through you and me.

Like the prophets, and like Mary and Joseph, we usually have no idea what our actions or our words will lead to. We may feel ignored by the world and believe that what we are doing is pointless. But the message of Christmas – the supreme message – is that when we labour in the name of Christ, he walks by our side and gives purpose and meaning to everything we do. God works through the everyday and the normal with us, silently bringing in his Kingdom, like a child born in the night: unnoticed, ignored, in obscurity. But it is God himself, in the person of Christ Jesus, who dwells with us and within us, and I pray that you may know and feel him at work this holy night, and every night. Amen.

Charles_Le_Brun

Looking backwards and forwards in Luke

St_LukeAmid the excitement of advent and the busy activity of nativity plays and carol concerts, it is good sometimes to reflect more deeply on what our Biblical texts actually tell us about the birth of Jesus. To think about how the two different evangelists who chose to write about Christ’s nativity presented their material. What they included and what they did not; their style and mode of presentation; and what these opening chapters tell us about their larger stories about the life of Jesus.

This is precisely what we did tonight at Putney Methodist Church, as we listened to, and then reflected upon, the opening chapter of Luke’s gospel. We heard it read by David Suchet, in his excellent audiobook version of the NIV, to allow us the opportunity to really soak in the text. We then spent time discussing our thoughts and questions. What follows below is my summary of our discussion, with some editing and additions.

The first thing that we noted was how much of this chapter felt quite ‘Old Testament’. There are fewer explicit quotations than Matthew, who seems almost obsessed with the fulfilment of Old Testament prophecy but allusions abound. Perhaps most notably to the story of Abraham (Gen. 11-21).  Mary, like Abraham, is described as a “servant” of the Lord (Gen. 17:17, 18:11-12 / Luke 1:38, 48); she shows humble obedience, like so many faithful Israelites before her (e.g. 1 Sam. 1:11, 25:41); and has found favour with God, like Noah, Gideon and other scriptural heroes (e.g. Judges 6:17 or 1 Sam. 1:15).

Fra-Angelico-The-Naming-of-John-the-BaptistElizabeth and Zechariah are also very similar to both Abraham and Sarah (Gen. 18), and Hannah and Elkanah (1 Sam. 1). All faithful Israelites, older in years, and longing for a child. God hears their prayers and responds with a seemingly miraculous birth, bringing forth a child destined for a vital role in God’s plan of salvation.

There are other important links to the Old Testament as well. A significant portion of the action takes place in the Temple, where Zechariah serves as a “descendant of Aaron” (Luke 1:5). There is no questioning here of the role of sacrifice or predictions about the destruction of the Temple (as we find in Luke 21:20-24). Instead, we seem to be in the same world as the high priests of the Old Testament, with Zechariah carrying on an unchanging tradition dating back centuries.

We also noted the beautiful songs within this opening chapter: the song of Mary, the Magnificat (1:46-55), and that of Zechariah, the Benedictus (1:68-79). Songs do not really feature much in the New Testament but they abound in the Old Testament. Someone has listed them all here, and they include songs sung by Moses and Miriam (Exodus 15), by Deborah and Baruk (Judges 5), by David (2 Sam. 1:17-27) and many others. The books of Psalm, Lamentations and the Song of Songs are literally full of songs!

Crucially, this chapter serves as a vital bridge between the Old and New Testaments in the role it gives to prophecy. The experience of Zechariah, named after one Old Testament prophet, seems to have been clearly foreshadowed by another, Malachi:

See, I am sending my messenger to prepare the way before me, and the Lord whom you seek will suddenly come to his temple. (Malachi 3:1)

The prophecy then goes on to describe someone who acts in a very similar way to that of the son of Elizabeth and Zechariah, John the Baptist, whose fiery ministry will be like “a refiner’s fire and like fullers’ soap” (Mal. 3:3). The age of the prophecy was meant to have ended, but here, Luke clearly shows us, it is active once more. Even an old man like Zechariah is now prophesying, like the sages of old (Luke 1:67).

199ad6ac18206f61989ede7cedf74a0b copyFinally, Luke emphasises the continuity between his gospel and the Hebrew scriptures in a way that is hard for us to spot in our English translations. That is his use of Greek. Luke was clearly a very well-educated and literate man, whose grammar and syntax is amongst the best in the New Testament. His opening prologue (Luke 1:1-4) is a highly polished and stylish piece of writing that would place him in the same literary league as many of his famous Graeco-Roman contemporaries. However, from 1:5 to 2:52 he switches style, and his Greek becomes deliberately anachronistic, aping the Greek of the Septuagint (the Greek translation of the Hebrew scriptures that was widely used at this time by Jews). It is as if I suddenly started dropping ‘thee’s and ‘thou’s into my blog post!

This was a very deliberate decision by Luke – a skilled, and careful author. He wanted his first readers / listeners to treat his opening chapters as a continuation of the Hebrew scriptures, with which they were so familiar. This was the same story, of the same God, he seems to be saying, intervening in the life of his world, just as dramatically and forcefully as he had done before, with a very similar cast of characters. Only at 3:1 does he slip back into the Greek of his own day, and many scholars have noted how you could quite easily start Luke’s gospel at that point. He is emphasising that now a new chapter has begun in the story of God’s people; one with a glorious new central character – the long-promised Messiah, God’s own son, Jesus!

We also noted, though, that this opening chapter very much anticipates what is to come in the rest of Luke’s gospel. It acts as a ‘taster’ for many of the themes we shall encounter again in the book. For example, Jesus begins his life in a backwater hamlet, Nazareth (1:26), born to a lowly woman of no family (1:27). Throughout Luke’s gospel, God’s chosen Messiah will continue to demonstrate a great concern for the poor and those on the fringes of society, clearly demonstrating that salvation has come to all.

We also see clear evidence of Luke’s especial interest in the role of women in the ministry and life of Jesus. Unlike Matthew, he emphasises Mary’s role in the story, actively saying ‘yes’ to God and being a vital part of his plan for universal salvation (1:38). Women will continue to play an important role afterwards: funding Jesus’ ministry (8:1-3); caring for him (10:38-42); acting as virtuous examples (15:8-10); and remaining with him faithfully to the end (23:27-31, 24:1-12).

ANGELICO,_Fra_Annunciation,_1437-46_(2236990916)It is through the agency of the Holy Spirit that Mary will conceive (1:35) and the chapter also reflects the vital role that the Holy Spirit plays in Luke’s account of Jesus. It fills John the Baptist (1:15, 17, 80), Zechariah (1:67), Simeon (2:25-27); and the early church (e.g. Acts 2:1-4), and supremely Jesus is a man of the Spirit – conceived by it, empowered by it (3:22) and baptised in it (3:16).  Mary’s over-shadowing by the Spirit (1:35) also links her not only backwards to some of the dramatic appearances by God in the past (e.g. Ex. 16:10, 24:15-18) but also forward to the Transfiguration (Luke 9:34) and Pentecost (Acts 1:8).

Crucially, though, in this passage Luke makes his Christology – his answer to the key question ‘who is Jesus?’ – clear in a number of ways. He establishes that Mary’s child is much greater than John the Baptist.  There are obvious parallels between the two annunciation stories (Luke 1:5-25 / 1:26-38). While John may be destined to be “great” (1:15), though, and both will be filled with the Holy Spirit, the titles and relationship applied to Jesus far outstrip those attached to John. He will be David’s true successor, but also much greater than him. David was an adopted son of God (Ps. 2:7) and beloved of YHWH, but Jesus is the actual Son of God. Not just a “Son of the Most High” (1:32) but explicitly the “Son of God” (1:35); a unique relationship to God.

Luke also makes clear that Jesus is the Messiah anticipated in scripture. Specifically, we see Jesus being connected to the great Davidic line of kings, a crucial part of contemporary Messianic expectation.  Gabriel is explicit that he will be given “the throne of his ancestor David” and that he will reign over Jacob forever (1:32-33). In Jesus, the promise made to David of a throne that will be established forever is fulfilled (2 Sam. 7:12-16; cf. Dan. 7:14).

Finally, he makes a clear distinction between the virgin birth of Mary, on the one hand, and Elizabeth and other miraculous births in the Old Testament (Gen. 18:14, 1 Sam. 1:20, Jdgs. 13:3, Luke 1:5-25). In the latter cases, God intervenes to help those who are struggling to bear a child, while Luke makes clear that Mary is not only young but capable of producing children with Joseph of her own (Acts 1:14). More than that Joseph, will play no part in the child’s conception, a point underlined by his virtual absence from Luke’s narrative (see 3:23 and compare with Matt. 1:18-25).

There is much more we could say about this one, fascinating chapter of Luke. However, I hope that what I have written has demonstrated the riches of our scriptures and how there is so much we can learn from the Bible by studying it together. Most importantly, I hope that these few paragraphs have demonstrated how the story of God’s salvation cannot be broken down into neat ‘halves’ or chapters. The Old and New Testaments are all part of our stories. The story of how God has never left his people alone in the darkness but has kept sending prophets and guides to show us the way, most importantly in the person of his son, Jesus Christ. That story continues today, as women and men across the world continue to be filled with the same Holy Spirit that filled Zechariah and Mary, challenging injustice and bringing joy and hope. I pray that we may know our place in that great story, and know the power of the promise of the coming Christ in our lives, this Advent season and always.

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The Bible Course: a review

This is a personal review of a recent resource produced by the Bible Society called ‘The Bible Course‘. I hope it’s helpful to others either considering running it, or those looking for new teaching material for their churches. 

The problem

https_2f2fcdn-evbuc_-com2fimages2f470966182f209564212222f12foriginalOne of the greatest challenges I face as a preacher and small group leader is helping people to ‘join the dots’ of the Bible. The sad truth is that many Christians simply do not know their Bibles as well as they should, and many only experience it on Sunday mornings in worship. This is far from ideal. The lectionary can be a great aid to preachers but it can also leave people feeling confused, wondering what on earth is happening in the readings. Generally, we are all right with the gospels, because the stories are fairly well-known and come in nice bite-sized chunks. However, I am repeatedly told that people simply do not understand the Old Testament passages, without a great deal of explanation. Even the epistles – which were, of course, really meant to be read in one sitting – can be hard. Someone described hearing parts of Paul’s letters as like walking into a pub halfway through a fight!

I was delighted, therefore, to learn that the Bible Society had produced a new resource expressly designed to give people the ‘big picture’ of the Bible: ‘The Bible Course’. Instead of focussing intensively on a few verses or even a single book, it takes people through the scriptures from Genesis to Revelation. It aims to show them the arc of its narrative and how the different parts inter-relate. I have just finished leading the Course for the first time at Barnes Methodist Church and am delighted to report that it really exceeded all my expectations.

The course

s_thumbnail_v1The course is based around a high-quality video presentation by Dr Andrew Ollerton, who apparently developed it originally to help people in Cornwall new to the Christian faith. He is a very well-informed and engaging presenter, who greatly helps the whole course to come alive. It is accompanied by a booklet (also good quality), which contains useful notes, an overall plan of the series and a series of daily readings for participants. The films can be downloaded free from the Bible Society’s website after you register but the booklets must be ordered by post. They are not expensive, though, and our church simply footed the bill for everyone.

The course divides the Bible into eight sessions:

  • Introducing the Bible
  • Creation & Covenant
  • Exodus & Promised Land
  • Judges & Kings
  • Exile & Prophets
  • Jesus & the Gospels
  • Acts & the Church
  • Revelation & Review

Each session is then presented in the same format:

  • a welcome from the host (in this case, me), with suggested ‘warm-up’ questions
  • a 15 minute teaching video
  • discussion time
  • another 15 minute teaching video
  • time for personal reflection

In practice, we did not always follow this strictly. We found that the video prompted so many questions that we generally had another discussion time at the end as well!

Review

At the end of the course, our group had a feedback discussion, where we reflected on what we had learned and our feelings about the course as whole. The response was overwhelmingly positive.

A good overview – Everyone (including me) felt the course had definitely achieved its stated purpose. It had really helped give folks an overview of the Bible as a whole, “not just a random collection of books,” as someone put it. The timeline of the Bible that Dr Ollerton had created, and which was used throughout the series and the booklets, really helped people put the different parts together and understand the genres of literature we find in the Bible (prophecy, history, etc.).

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Excellent for the Old Testament – People felt the course had particularly helped their understanding of the Old Testament. This is undoubtedly the part of scripture that confuses people most and about which I tend to get the most questions. It was inevitably quite a challenge to fit everything into four sessions and the latter half of session 5, which had to tackle everything from the Exile onwards, was the only part of the course that felt hurried. However, people definitely emerged from the course with a much greater understanding of how the Old Testament was created and how it relates to the New Testament.

Good for all levels / ages – The course is primarily aimed at those who are newer in faith and, as the writers say, it would be good for those who had recently done an Alpha Course or similar. The group I led was mainly composed of people who had attended church for most of their lives. I wondered if the course would be too easy for them but apparently not. They all found a great deal in it that consolidated existing knowledge and extended it. They liked the tools the course gave them to interpret scripture on their own, and to think about things like context and application. One participant, who has studied her Bible for decades, stated that she could, “happily watch it all again,” which I thought was praise indeed!

Conviction – We all felt that one of the greatest selling points of the course was the infectious enthusiasm for the Bible that Dr Ollerton and his co-host brought to it. They were clearly absolutely convinced of the importance of scripture and of its message of good news, and they convinced us! The stories and examples Dr Ollerton gave were relevant and  accessible. There were also a number of good personal testimonies about the power of scripture to change people for the better.

l_buy-manualGood quality – Vitally for me, the whole course looked and felt professional. Sadly, so many church publications look rather dated and cheap, but this one was unashamedly modern and attractive. To paraphrase General Booth, I see no reason why the Devil should have all the best publicity!

Different interpretations – My greatest fear starting the course was about the particular interpretation of the Bible that the course might carry with it. Coming from a liberal background, and knowing the general tenor of some Bible Society productions, I wondered if it might be theologically very conservative, with unhelpful assumptions about certain controversial aspects of faith and practice. I am pleased to report that, with a very few exceptions, this was not the case. Dr Ollerton clearly comes from a different place on the theological spectrum to me, and to many of my church members, but he spoke with great enthusiasm about his own convictions and did not attempt to denigrate others’ views.

The only warning point I would really make about the course, flowing on from this, is the important role of the host. My group felt that it had been very helpful to have a course leader who made it clear from the outset that different people had different views on some subjects, and encouraged free-ranging discussion. We actually found the videos helpful for provoking debates about issues such as miracles and faith healing, which revealed a range of responses. It was vital, though, for people to be given permission to disagree with the presenters’ views and with one another, while recognising that we all valued the Bible in our own way.

It also might have been helpful for the course to have mentioned how different interpretations of the Bible have arisen over the millennia. The course unashamedly presented the Bible through a particular hermeneutic, reading all scripture through the lens of Jesus. Had time permitted, it would have been good to have mentioned some of pitfalls of such an approach, and to have mentioned some modern perspectives on Biblical interpretation, notably perhaps feminist readings and the insights of Liberation Theology. I recognise, though, how easy it is to criticise, and how hard the producers had worked to squeeze everything into only eight episodes.

Conclusion

Overall, I would thoroughly recommend this to all churches and Christians. So many house groups and Bible study groups I know struggle desperately for good material, and I think this could be a real God-send for them. I would even say that every church should consider running a course like this at some point, if they are serious about helping people understand their own scriptures. I shall finish with the response of one of my older members, who gave the course his highest praise:

So many courses are like the Doxology. During, it’s all, “Glory be to the Father, and the Son and the Holy Spirit,” but afterwards it’s, “As it was in the beginning…”. This one, though, will really change us all, I think.

Amen to that!

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Our everyday (Advent) God

Lighting a candleThis is the sermon I preached today at Putney Methodist Church. It is Advent Sunday today, traditionally the start of the Christian liturgical year. The set readings were Jeremiah 33:14-16 and Luke 21:25-36.

“There will be signs in the sun, the moon, and the stars.” (Luke 21:25) Our readings this morning are a vivid reminder that we are very firmly entering the season of Advent – and not Christmas. The season of the year when we remember a two-fold ‘coming’. Not just the birth of the coming of the Messiah as a child two thousand years ago in Bethlehem, but also the promise that Christ gave his followers that he would come again.

This two-fold nature of Advent is a perennial problem for preachers. At one of my old churches, we always used to have an Advent parade service with the local Scouts and Guides on this Sunday. Of course, they did not want to hear dismal readings about prophets and waiting for the Second Coming, they wanted stables, carols and Christmas right now!  Sadly, the readings and hymns for these first Sundays in Advent are so full of portents and worrying language, that they can seem completely unappealing to most children and, if we are honest, adults too!

This Sunday is no exception. Over the last couple of weeks, as I have worked my way through the lectionary, I have had to speak at length about some very difficult passages. I have talked about the nature of apocalyptic literature, which we find in Biblical books like Daniel and Revelation. I have spoken about the historical context of these passages and the disturbing nature of their message. Don’t worry, though, I promise not to repeat myself today!

I will just simply note that we have the same kind of literature this morning. Today, it comes from the gospel of Luke, a book that is usually much ‘fluffier’ and gentler than this, with its stories about shepherds, prodigal sons and so forth. Here, though, Luke is recording some of Jesus’ last words before his death. As with the other gospel writers, he records Jesus using that same kind of apocalyptic language at this point in his ministry – language full of mystery, awe and wonder.

Yet importantly, even here, in this most mysterious and apocalyptic of passages, Jesus uses the language of the everyday. He does not speak in the language of systematic theology or complex philosophy. Instead, he picks the most simple and straightforward of metaphors:

Look at the fig tree and all the trees; as soon as they sprout leaves you can see for yourselves and know that summer is already near. So also, when you see these things taking place, you know that the kingdom of God is near. (Luke 21:29-30)

00-159-167_ps1He tells his disciples to look at the trees, for signs of the coming of the Kingdom of God. Just as we might look to the bulbs poking their heads through the ground to give us hope of spring. Jesus urges us to see his promise that the Kingdom of God is truly coming with power in the everyday things of life.

That is exactly what we need to do too this advent season. I would not urge you to gaze across the stars, looking for signs and portents, comets and apparitions. Instead, let us look at the world around us. Look for God in the mundane and everyday. Fig trees are not as common in Putney as they are in Palestine but I firmly believe we too can catch a glimpse of God’s coming in the everyday things of life. In the world of nature around us. In the kindness and generosity of strangers for people whom they will never meet (as shown by our donations to the Foodbank today). In the simple pleasures of our life together.

Earlier this week, I met up with a man who is contemplating a complete change in the course of her life. He is a father with three children and has a very demanding job in the City of London, and we actually had to meet in a café near to his work in order to find time for the chat. He asked me questions and I told him a little about life in the full-time ministry. I urged him, though, to reflect fully on the nature of ‘vocation’. Too often when we think of Christian vocation, our thoughts immediately turn to people in dog collars and funny clothes! Yet all Christians have a vocation. We all have a calling to witness to the love of God wherever we are. Be that in the office, at home or wherever. We have a calling to bring God into the everyday of life, not just Sunday mornings. So many of the problems in our world and in our history have come about because folks have forgotten that fact. I would be delighted if he entered a process of discernment and found out that he was meant to be a minister in God’s Church. But I would be equally delighted if he discovered a vocation to work in a city bank, or a solicitors’ firm, or a care home, so that people could see signs of God’s coming in the everyday business of life.

IMG_0687One person who has witnessed to this profoundly is the Christian writer, Paula Gooder. She is not an ordained priest and writes profoundly about our ‘Everyday God’, in her book of the same name:

The God who came to earth to live among us was not, and is not, afraid of the ordinary things of life. He does not need find settings or loud noises. He came to earth not offering abstract ideas or fancy theology but the essentials we need to survive. He came yearning to draw us back into relationship with himself, and with one another, and used every means possible to achieve this … The every day God whom we worship was not squeamish and calls us similarly not to steer clear of the ordinary things of life but to embrace them, and through them to bring transformation to the world.

[Paula Gooder, Everyday God: The Spirit of the Ordinary, London: Canterbury Press 2012, p 85.]

Those words were drawn to my attention this year by another Christian writer, and someone who preached here at Putney not long ago, Rev’d Dr Philip Richter. He was leading a wonderful retreat I went on in May, entitled ‘Photography and Spirituality’. Of course, it helped greatly that the course took place in Rome during a wonderfully warm May! But the challenge he gave us was very similar: to find God in the lens of our cameras. Not just in the grand ecclesiastical and imperial buildings of Rome, but in the everyday things of the city. We were mostly Methodist ministers on the course and he encouraged us to do the same when we returned to our places of work. To find God in Putney, in Croydon, in north Wales and everywhere. It’s a challenge I have tried to reflect upon whenever possible.

So, I would like to finish my reflection today with a hymn and some images. The images are a few of my snaps from over the last year, which speak to me, but may not speak to you, about finding God in the everyday The hymn is a relatively new one in our books by the Christian writer and musician, Bernadette Farrell. And I leave you with the same challenge this Advent season. This season of signs and portents. Where do you see our everyday God in your lives? Where is God’s Kingdom breaking through into our own? And if you do not see any signs, is it because God is not there, or because we are not looking?

Earth’s creator, everyday God – Bernadette FarrellOLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

Earth’s creator,
everyday God,
Loving Maker,
O Jesus,
you who shaped us,
O Spirit,
recreate us,
come, be with us.

In your presence,
everyday God,
we are gathered,
O Jesus,
you have called us,
O Spirit,
to restore us,
come, be with us.

Life of all lives,
everyday God,
love of all loves,
O Jesus,
hope of all hopes,
O Spirit,
light of all lights,
come, be with us.

In our resting,
everyday God,
in our rising,
O Jesus,
in our hoping,
O Spirit,
in our waiting,
come, be with us.

In our dreaming,
everyday God,
in our daring,
O Jesus,
in our searching,
O Spirit,
in our sharing,
come, be with us.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAGod of laughter,
everyday God,
God of sorrow,
O Jesus,
home and shelter,
O Spirit,
strong and patient,
come, be with us.

Way of freedom,
everyday God,
star of morning,
O Jesus,
timeless healer,
O Spirit,
flame eternal,
come, be with us.

Word of gladness,
everyday God,
word of mercy,
O Jesus,
word of friendship,
O Spirit,
word of challenge,
come, be with us.

Gentle father,
everyday God,
faithful brother,
O Jesus,
tender sister,
O Spirit,
loving mother,
come, be with us.

20180525_154450Our beginning,
everyday God,
our unfolding,
O Jesus,
our enduring,
O Spirit,
journey’s ending,
come, be with us.

Alleluia,
everyday God,
now and always,
O Jesus,
alleluia,
O Spirit,
through all ages,
come, be with us.

Bernadette Farrell (b. 1957). Reproduced from Singing the Faith Electronic Words Edition, number 45
Words and Music: © 1996 Bernadette Farrell.  Published by OCP Publications, 5536 NE Hassalo, Portland, OR 97213, USA.  All rights reserved.  Used with permission.

 

 

Not fake news, but good news!

newspaperThis is the sermon I preached at Putney Methodist Church on Sunday, 25 November. This is the Sunday usually called ‘Christ the King‘ in the Christian calendar. It is the day when we reflect on the Kingdom of God, about which Jesus preached so often, and what it means for us as Jesus’ followers to acknowledge him as our Lord and King. The set readings were Revelation 1:4-8 and John 18:33-38a.

“Everyone who belongs to the truth listens to my voice.’ Pilate asked him, ‘What is truth?’” (John 18:38). Like some of you, perhaps, one of my pleasures in life is to sit over my breakfast in the morning, listening to the radio and reading the newspaper. I now read the paper on my iPad but little else has changed since the days when we were not allowed to disturb my father until he had worked his way through The Telegraph every morning as children. It is one of the little morning rituals that allows me to face the day ahead!

On Thursday, though, I did something that I have not done for a long while, and that was skim through the paper and then simply put it down. I simply could not face the seemingly endless articles about the state we were in as a nation, and the lies that seemed to be routinely accepted as the truth in our mixed-up world. Instead, I did what I should have done beforehand anyway and began to reflect on the Bible readings for this Sunday. What, if anything, I wondered have they to say to our age of ‘Fake News’?

The truth is often hidden

The first thing I think they have to say is fairly obvious: the truth is often hidden from us.

On Friday, we finished the ‘Bible Course’ at Barnes Methodist Church. This excellent course has taken us through the entire Bible in eight weeks (no mean feat!) and in the last session we looked at the book Revelation. I had been slightly dreading this section but the course actually gave a very good introduction to a very difficult book.

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Patmos

Revelation is probably the best example of apocalyptic literature in our Bible. The key to interpreting it, is to understand its context. It was written by someone called John in exile on the Greek isle of Patmos during a time of severe repression in the Roman Empire, probably under Nero or Domitian. It was written in a climate of fear and a time of repression. It was an era too of ‘fake news’ – Christians were used as convenient scapegoat for a whole raft of empire’s ills and lies about this strange cult were commonly accepted as truth. For example, that Christians were actually cannibals, eating flesh and drinking blood in strange night time rituals in the catacombs of Rome.

In this febrile atmosphere, John does what all apocalyptic writers sought to do: to reveal the hidden truth about the world. As the Bible Course reminded us, ‘apocalyptic’ actually  comes from Greek apocalypto meaning ‘revelation’. It is meant to be like drawing back the curtains, a revealing, showing the truth behind the facade (like the reading from Daniel we had last week). In this case, John was seeking to show his readers that the world was not as they immediately saw it. Despite the immense power of the emperors and the Roman imperial system, it was not Caesar who was Lord, but Jesus: “Jesus Christ … the ruler of the kings of the earth.” (Rev. 1:5). It was Jesus Christ, the spotless lamb upon the throne, who actually held the fate of nations in his sway and who judge the nations with justice and grace.

“Hold fast!” he says to his persecuted readers. “I will show you the real truth about this world. Fix your eyes not on the things of this world, but on the world to come.” And he goes on to show them the real truth about their future. Not more oppression and fear but of an end to bloodshed and tears, and a time when women and men will live in harmony with their God (Revelation 21:3-4):

God himself will be with them;
he will wipe every tear from their eyes.
Death will be no more;
mourning and crying and pain will be no more,
for the first things have passed away.

This is the truth of how the world really is, John is saying to his first readers. This is the eternal truth and hope to which we cling, and which will remain when all the powers and dominions that you now see have passed away.

Christ before Pilate (Duccio, 1311)Although coming from a different part of the Bible (and almost certainly a different John), we see something not wholly dissimilar in our gospel reading. There again, things are not what they first seem to be. Pontius Pilate, the Roman governor, seemingly represents power and authority in this scenario and the penniless, itinerant preacher in front of him should be grovelling for his life. Instead, of course, it is actually Christ who holds the balance of power here; he is in charge of his own fate and the confusion in the conversation is only too clear: “Jesus answered, ‘My kingdom is not from this world. … Pilate asked him, ‘So you are a king?’ (John 18:36-7)

On this Sunday, ‘Christ the King’, we are recalling that Jesus is a very different kind of king to the one that Pilate, Herod, and even the disciples envisage. The truth is hidden from them all and will only be fully revealed on the first Easter Sunday morning, when the curtain is drawn upon the empty tomb

In our own day and age, the hidden nature of truth is only too evident, and I could have picked a hundred news stories from the last few days to illustrate my point. Too often, the truth is hidden from us, often because those in power do not wish us to have a moment of revelation, sadly. Many of you will have read or seen news items about the visit of the UN Special Rapporteur, Professor Philip Alston, who recently undertook a 12-day tour of the UK, examining poverty and its causes in this nation. Like John in the book of Revelation, he drew back the curtain on the true condition of some of the poorest in our own country. A country that simultaneously boasts of being one of the largest economies in the world, whilst one in four of its parents admit to having skipped meals in order to feed their children. Shocking truths that shame us all. (See the churches’ response to the UN report here.) No wonder that many people in authority have preferred to shoot the messenger, and have criticised Professor Alston or telling us the truth rather than engaging with his report.

Good people, on all sides of the political spectrum, wish to reveal the truth to us. We – like Pontius Pilate – must decide whether or not we wish to stay to hear that truth.

Christ wants us to know the truth

The second thing that I think these readings have to say to us today is that Christ wants his followers to know the truth.

The book of Revelation, and apocalyptic literature in general with its strange language and complicated imagery, has always given rise to some, shall we say, esoteric interpretations. If you Google most passages of Revelation on the internet (and I strongly advise you not to!), you will come up with some truly bizarre web pages that tell you how Barack Obama is the Antichrist and the world will end next Tuesday teatime! This is nothing new and for centuries people have been using the book of Revelation to peddle their distorted version of the truth.

One of the earliest, and most persistent Christian heresies was indeed based on this idea of secret knowledge. It is generally referred to as Gnosticism, from the Greek gnosis meaning ‘knowledge’. It’s actually a portmanteau term referring to numerous beliefs and cults in the first centuries after Christ. They nearly all shared a common characteristic, though, and that was the idea of secret knowledge, or hidden meanings within scripture, or private information passed down orally, outside of the Bible. If you joined the cult and took the prescribed actions, you too could share in this knowledge. The same thing has happened for 2,000 years with similar cults and conspiracy theories, ranging from the interpretation of the Dead Sea Scrolls to the Da Vinci Code. And all of them are, of course, complete nonsense!

Alpha and OmegaBiblical writers like John the divine and John the evangelist actually wrote with the express purpose of giving people the truth, not hiding it. That’s why the last book of the Bible is called “Revelation’ not ‘Hidden’! John, writing on Patmos, wanted us to know the truth, that we worship the one who is “the Alpha and the Omega … who is and who was and who is to come, the Almighty” (Rev. 1:8). And when people came to Jesus seeking guidance and healing, he did not offer them secret words and amulets. He did not insist they pass through a series of trials, each more difficult than the last. Nor did he force them through complicated initiation rituals. He simply said ‘follow me’. He taught and spoke using simple language and memorable stories about everyday things. Jesus did not write theological tomes but gave us all the information we ever need to know about how to live a good life in two sentences: “love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind … [and] love your neighbour as yourself.” (Matt. 22:37-38). Jesus wanted people to see the truth about our world: to see that life is more than what we eat and drink, and our possessions; to see the possibilities of healing and forgiveness; to realise that God wishes to be in a relationship with each one of us.2560

Sadly, though, in our own day and age, too many people seem to want to prefer the route that the Gnostics took and believe that we are not meant to know the truth. One newspaper reported this week that 60% of us believe at least one conspiracy theory. This ranged from conspiracy theories about alien contact to Muslim immigration. The results underlined the sad truth about how little we seem to believe those in authority, especially our politicians, journalists and company bosses. The article reminded me of nothing so much as the 1990s television series ‘The X Files’, with its strap-line: “the truth is out there”!

The real truth, though, is that just like the Gnostics’ claim to secret knowledge and all the mad cults throughout history, these theories are all lies and nonsense. What is worse they give people the excuse to do nothing about the state of the world and instead just pander to all their worst and most sinful prejudices. Instead of attempting to make the world a better place, we can just hold up our hands and say there’s no point even trying because it’s all the fault of the Jews / the Muslims / the Socialists / the Bilderberg Group / or whomever.

As Christ’s followers, we are called to pursue the truth and to seek it out with all our heart and soul, for as Jesus said, elsewhere in John’s gospel: “If you continue in my word, you are truly my disciples; and you will know the truth, and the truth will make you free.” (John 8:31-32) Christ does not want us to sign up to crazy conspiracy theories or shirk our duty to learn the real truth about our world for ourselves. Christ wants us to know the real truth about our world – the truth that is often staring us in the face – so that we may be truly free.

The truth will cost us something

That leads me to my last, and final point: the truth is a precious commodity and greatly to be valued. But like all precious commodities, it will cost us something.

We see this very clearly in the book of Revelation. It is a book written by a man forced into exile, taken from family and friends, and from his Christian community. He is a man living in fear of his life in a time of terror and persecution. A man who took enormous personal risks in order that we might know the truth about our world, and hear the good news of Jesus Christ. Revealing that truth cost John dearly, just as it cost Peter and Paul, and so many Christian apostles and missionaries over the last two millennia.

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Paved street in ancient Laodicea

Learning the truth, though, did not just cost John the author something, it cost his readers something too. Earlier this week, we celebrated the installation of the new vicar at St Margaret’s Church, Rev’d Dr Brutus Green. Rather bravely I thought, one of the Bible readings for the service came from a few chapters later in this book of Revelation, when John is writing to the seven churches in Asia. There he tells them the honest (and often brutal!) truth about themselves – and, as we all know, the truth can be painful. Perhaps most famously, he was unafraid to pass on the Almighty’s damning verdict on the church in Laodicea: “‘I know your works; you are neither cold nor hot. I wish that you were either cold or hot. So, because you are lukewarm, and neither cold nor hot, I am about to spit you out of my mouth.” (Rev. 3:15-16). That was a hard truth and to accept it would have cost that church a lot. Far easier to ignore it and, as with the UN rapporteur I mentioned earlier, simply shoot the messenger! Down to our own day and our own community here, how costly it is for churches to hear and accept the truth about themselves

antonio_ciseri_ecce_homoThis truth is perhaps best illustrated by our gospel reading, though. Jesus is in chains, facing torture and execution because he has brought the truth to his contemporaries. He is ready and willing to pay the ultimate price in order that we might all know the truth and, through it, be free: the truth that even death cannot separate us from the love of God. Unwillingly into this scene comes Pilate. “Jesting Pilate” as Francis Bacon famously described him, who asked that most timeless of questions, “What is truth?” but who “would not stay for an answer”. Pilate knew the truth – that Jesus was an innocent man, facing trumped up charges from the petty politicians who wanted this troublemaker out of their hair. They speak a different language and wore ‘funny’ clothes, but they are no different to the Mafia or the drug lords of our own day, bringing innocent women and men to the corrupt local police chief to silence them. Pilate knows all this and desperately tries to get out of having to make a decision that he knows to be wrong – to execute an innocent man. Upholding the truth will cost him something, though, and he knows it. The chief priests and his cabal threaten him with an appeal to Rome, an appeal that could lose him his job and his position (John 19:12). Pilate is not willing to pay such a stiff price for the truth and washes his hands of the responsibility. Better to let a falsehood stand, than risk your career, seems to be the moral of his sordid tale.

Would we have acted differently, I wonder? What value do we place on the truth? Are we really willing to hear the truth about ourselves, our nation, our politics? One good friend of mine still reads a newspaper whose views he stopped agreeing with a long time ago. When I ask him why he still puts up with all its lies and mistruths, he always smiles and replies, “Well, I’ve got used to the way their crossword compilers work now, and it would be very hard to start again elsewhere.” For him, the cost of learning how to do a new crossword puzzle is too high a price to pay for reading something closer to the truth each day! What is too high a price for us to pay, I wonder?

Conclusion

The challenge of today’s readings is what value do we place upon the truth?

  • do we really want to pull back the curtain to reveal the truth about the world in which we live?
  • do we prefer to live with half-baked truths and conspiracy theories?
  • are we willing to pay the price of learning the truth – of sacrificing long-held preconceptions and habits in order to open our minds to the reality of our world

As Christians, the answer to all those questions must be ‘yes’. We believe in ‘good news’ not ‘fake news’! Too many women and men have died in order that you and I might know the truth and that that truth might set us free. Free form hatred and malice. Free from envy and prejudice. Free from fear itself. For we know the greatest truth of all, brothers and sisters, that this world is not all there is. That one day heaven and earth shall pass away but we shall not. That we are forgiven, loved and free because of what God has done for us in Christ Jesus. Let us not be afraid of the truth, as Pilate was, but lead our lives bearing witness to it, and sharing its power with the whole world.  Amen.

Truth will set you free

Texts for troubling times

Are these the ‘end times’? Despite appearances, probably not! This is the sermon I preached today about some of the apocalyptic writings we find in our Bible, at Barnes Methodist Church. The texts were: Daniel 12:1-13 and Mark 13:1-8.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAIntroduction

“There shall be a time of anguish, such as has never occurred since nations first came into existence.” (Dan. 12:1) Reading those words on Thursday, as event unfolded at Parliament and in the Cabinet, I began to wonder if our reading from Daniel was referring to Brexit. But then I read on and knew it definitely was not: “Those who are wise shall shine like the brightness of the sky [and] lead many to righteousness”! Instead, our two readings today take us to two very dark periods of Biblical history, times that might even make Mrs May believe that things could always be worse!

Both readings come from times when the very existence of God’s people seemed in doubt and when the future was very uncertain. Both come from what is called the ‘apocalyptic’ genre of Biblical literature – from the Greek ‘apocalyto’ meaning ‘to reveal’ – and they sought to provide some insight into the heavenly truth behind the grim earthly reality faced by their first audiences. We shall seek this morning to understand a little of what lays behind these confusing writings, and discern whether they have anything to say to our own, troubled times.

The Temple

Solomons TempleWe need to begin with a little history and particularly the history of the great Temple in Jerusalem, which is central to the interpretation of both passages. I promise to be as brief as possible, though, and to illustrate what I am saying with some photos from my own time in Jerusalem a few years ago.

The first temple in Jerusalem was, the Bible tells us, built by Solomon, perhaps around 1000 BC or so. The scriptures provide a fairly detailed description of its dimensions and what it looked like, and there are numerous ‘artist’s impressions’ of its appearance on the web. By the time of the last kings of Judah it had become the centre for the worship of the one true God, Yahweh (or Jehovah). Around 586 BC, however, the Temple was destroyed by the invading Babylonians and left a pile of smouldering ruins, where faithful Israelites came to weep and lament (see Psalm 79).

After the return from Exile, the Temple was rebuilt, and is often referred to as the ‘Second Temple’. What it looked like we do not know, because no descriptions from that time have come down to us. All we can say is that the lack of money and resources after the disaster of defeat and exile meant that it was certainly not as impressive as its predecessor. As we read in Ezra, at its dedication, “old people who had seen the first house on its foundations, wept with a loud voice when they saw this house” (Ezra 3:12). Not the greatest architectural review! However, worship resumed and Jerusalem was once again the centre of the Jewish religion.

The ‘desolating sacrilege’

Antiochos_IV_EpiphanesA degree of mystery also surrounds what happened in the Temple a few hundred years later around the year 168 BCE. This is important because it is these events that lie behind much of the book of Daniel. At that time, Judea and a large part of the Middle East was under the rule of King Antiochus IV Epiphanes (here seen on one of his coins), the ruler of the Seleucid Empire. (The Seleucids are most easily described as the descendants of Alexander the Great and his army.) Judea had lived peaceably under their Hellenistic overlords for many years by this point, and had been allowed to live and worship their strange god in relative obscurity. For various reasons, though, they seemingly rebelled against this particular king. In turn, he sought to crush their insurrection and, we are told, in a fit of anger effectively tried to eradicate the Jewish faith. The inter-testamental book of 1 Maccabees tells us that he ordered the Jewish people to “profane sabbaths and festivals … to build altars and sacred precincts and shrines for idols, to sacrifice swine and other unclean animals, and to leave their sons uncircumcised” (1 Macc. 1:45-48). All who refused to obey were threatened with execution.

The king also, we are told, defiled the great Temple in some way. The book of 2 Maccabees tells us that he polluted it by re-dedicating it to “Olympian Zeus” (2 Macc. 6:2). Our reading from Daniel today adds to this by telling us that he caused “the abomination that desolates” to be set up in the Temple (Dan. 12:11, cf. 9:27, 11:31), also known as the ‘desolating sacrilege’. Now, the trouble is that whatever was done in the Temple was so distressing, so blasphemous and so ‘abominable’ that no Biblical writer could quite bring himself to actually record exactly what the king did in the Temple that was so awful. Most people assume that the king ordered a statue of the Greek god Zeus to be erected on the temple mount but we are not completely sure. All we do know is that whatever the king did was considered so bad that the whole temple had to be purified and re-dedicated afterwards (2 Macc. 10:1-8).

Understandably, all of this caused great distress throughout the land, and it was against this background that much of the book of Daniel seems to have been written. Not the earlier stories in the book with which we are most familiar – Daniel in the lions’ den, the fiery furnace, etc. – but the later chapters, like the one we heard from today. Chapters that are written in strange-sounding language, often using allegory and complicated imagery to describe what is happening. I could go into much greater details about all this, but suffice to say for now that, for Daniel’s first audience, this was indeed, “a time of anguish, such as has never occurred since nations first came into existence” (Dan. 12:1). A time when their lives were threatened and their very existence as a separate people seemed in doubt. Ultimately, though, the popular rebellion was successful and, against all the odds, the little kingdom of Judah managed to regain its independence for some time.

The Temple in Jesus’ day

Second_Temple_viewIf we fast forward two hundred years or so to the time of Jesus, then the Temple in Jerusalem looks very different. It has been enlarged, enriched and greatly beautified by King Herod the Great. (Famous from the story of the Three Wise Men, of course.) In a bid to win popular support, he had initiated a massive building project on the Temple Mount some years before Jesus’ birth, which would not be completed until long after his death. It is this Temple that may be most familiar to us through pictures of reconstructions and models, like this famous one at the Israel Museum in Jerusalem.

Arch_of_Titus_MenorahAs you can see, it was indeed an incredibly impressive structure and no wonder the disciples marvelled at it as they wandered through its precincts in Mark’s gospel (Mark 13:1). As we heard, though, Jesus warns them that all of this will soon be destroyed and in 70 AD that is precisely what happened. Once again, Judea is under the rule of a foreign empire, this time the Romans. Once again, the people rebel but this time ultimately unsuccessfully. And so, once again, the Temple is destroyed – this time never to be rebuilt. Whether Mark wrote his gospel before these terrible events or afterwards, we are not sure. It seems hard not to believe, though, that Jesus’s words on the Mount of Olives took on a much greater significance once his prophecy about the Temple’s destruction had come so distressingly true.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAToday in Jerusalem, it is possible to get some idea of how the Temple may have appeared and glimpse some of the destruction wrought by the rampaging Romans. The most famous surviving part of the Temple is, of course, the Western, or Wailing, Wall. This was not the wall of the Temple itself – which stood on top of what is now called Temple Mount – but the great supporting wall, built under King Herod to enable the massive extension of the Temple complex. Soon after the destruction of the Temple, scholars believe, this became a site for Jewish pilgrimage and prayer, primarily to lament the destruction of the Temple and the dispersion of the people, and it continues this function OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAtoday. You can also catch sight of part of this wall underground in Jerusalem – a fascinating place to be in such an ancient city! – where the tour guides will happily show you some of the “large stones” that Jesus’ disciples marvelled at, one of which is allegedly the same weight as two fully-laden jumbo jets! You can also see the some of the stones of the Temple that were pushed off the mount by the Romans during its destruction and which have lain undisturbed ever since. It brings home vividly the scale of the devastation that Jesus warned his hearers about in our passage from Mark.

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How long?

That is more than enough history and holiday photos for one Sunday morning, you will be delighted to hear! I hope, though, that that has given you some insight into the realities that lay behind our two passages today. And it is vital to stress that word, ‘reality’. What we have heard about today are not picture book fantasies. These were real people, living in real times and places, and facing real times of terror and persecution. Just because we do not have live footage from the BBC or CNN of their suffering does not make it any less real. These passages are clear examples of God’s Word breaking through into the reality of our won word, and it is vital we recognise that.

It also vital that we recognise how both passages are linked in so many ways. Both speak of the Temple. Both talk about times of terror and persecution. Both are addressed to audiences living in fear of the future. Both centre upon the seeming survival of the people of God. And both are also written in the strange, elliptical language of apocalyptic literature, which is so hard to understand.

1200px-Jerus-n4iCrucially, in both people want to know how long their suffering is going to last. The disciples quiz Jesus on the Mount of Olives: “when will this be”? (Mark 13:4). In Daniel, one of the mysterious figures standing by the river asks, “How long shall it be to the end of these wonders?” (Dan. 12:6). How long until a Brexit agreement is signed, ask our newspapers and commentators? In all cases, the answers are unclear and confusing!

In Mark, Jesus does not give the disciples a precise date and time, as perhaps they had hoped. Instead, he warns them about false teachers and describes some of the signs of the tribulation that is to come: “wars and rumours of wars …. earthquakes … famines” (Mark 13:7-8). Words that have been applied to every nation and every age since.

In Daniel, we come across a regular feature of apocalyptic writing: the use of numbers with apparently hidden meaning to denote individuals, events and particular time spans. The most famous example of this is ‘666’ in the book of Revelation. At times, this seems to have been used as a sort of code to protect the authors and readers at times of persecution. At others, though, we simply do not understand what lies behind verses like those we heard today from the end of the book of Daniel, and its references to 1,299 days and 1,335 days (Dan. 12:12). It has not stopped endless speculation, though, and I strongly discourage you from Googling these references on the internet. If you do, you will immediately discover that they refer to the Pope, Hitler, President Obama, the EU or pretty much anyone else you could imagine, and that the world ended last Thursday tea time! Instead, we need to echo Daniel’s prophetic words: “I heard but could not understand.” (Dan. 12:8). These are deeply mysterious writings, whose full meaning we shall not discover in our own lifetime, I believe.

Abiding hope

What on earth, then, are we meant to take from this confusing mess of history, temples and strange writings? Well, we take the other factor that links our two readings today.

What is most important in that passage from Daniel is not the talk about strange figures beside the river or the bewildering numbers. It is the hope that is given to Daniel of ultimate deliverance – the hope of the resurrection:

There shall be a time of anguish, such as has never occurred since nations first came into existence. But at that time your people shall be delivered, everyone who is found written in the book. Many of those who sleep in the dust of the earth shall awake” (Dan. 12:1-2)

For the first time in the Old Testament, a prophet is offered the hope that the dead shall not simply descend to Sheol, never to see the light of God’s brilliance again. (See, for example, Job 30:23.) Instead, there is the promise of eternal life: “Those who are wise shall shine like the brightness of the sky … like the stars for ever and ever.” (Dan. 12:3) We see clearly the unfolding revelation that is granted to God’s people in our scriptures; a God who continually reveals new truths about his plans for his people: “plans to prosper you and not to harm you” (Jer. 29:11, NIV).

resurrection-pieraThis promise to the prophet Daniel is realised and fully revealed in the person of Jesus Christ. The same Jesus who sat on the hillside of the Mount of Olives, gazing down upon the splendour of the Temple. Who, like the martyrs of Daniel’s day and the good people of Jerusalem when the Romans destroyed the city, faced the reality of terror and murder at the cruel hands of those in authority. But who took the horror of the cross and turned it into the glory of the resurrection, by triumphing over the grave on the third day. An event as historical and real as any we have discussed this morning.

The writer of Hebrews, in one of the other set texts for today, expresses it far better than I ever could:

when Christ had offered for all time a single sacrifice for sins, “he sat down at the right hand of God,” … And the Holy Spirit … testifies to us …  saying … “I will remember their sins and their lawless deeds no more.” Therefore, my friends, since we have confidence to enter the sanctuary by the blood of Jesus … let us approach with a true heart in full assurance of faith … Let us hold fast to the confession of our hope without wavering, for he who has promised is faithful. And let us consider how to provoke one another to love and good deeds … encouraging one another, and all the more as you see the Day approaching. (Hebrews 10:12-25)

Daniel’s confidence, Christ’s confidence, and our confidence does not lay in our knowledge of history or of secret numbers. It does not lay in temples, buildings or institutions, for as we shall sing shortly: “Tower and temple fall to dust.”. It lays in the promise and the reality of what God has done through his only Son, our Saviour, Jesus Christ. In his life, death and resurrection. It is that which allows us to speak to all peoples, in all times, in all places, offering hope in seemingly hopeless situations. It is that hope which allows good people to oppose evil and fight for justice even today in our world, where the tyrants are no longer kings and emperors but presidents, generals and dictators.

We are not meant to know the future, brothers and sisters. We are not meant to scan the pages of our scriptures or the distant horizon, looking for “wars and rumours of wars”. We are not meant to be prophets of doom, warning people that now, truly, the ‘end times’ are upon us. We are meant to point to the hope that Daniel offered his contemporaries and which Mark offered to his. The hope that lies in a God who is faithful and just, and who will ensure that in a world that often seems so violent, confusing and fallen, ultimately justice, truth and grace will always triumph. Let us seek to follow Daniel’s example, therefore, and in a dark world “shine like the brightness of the sky … like the stars for ever and ever.” (Dan. 12:3) Amen.

Subversive God,
deconstructing
temples of power
in which we would keep you
trapped and tamed:
lead us through violent times,
unafraid to speak for peace,
untempted by those
who promise easy answers;
may we follow him alone
who renews the world in love;
through Jesus Christ, who sits at God’s right hand.
Amen.

(Prayer taken from ‘Prayers for an Inclusive Church‘.)

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Have we been moved?

This is the sermon I delivered today at Putney Methodist Church. Today is Remembrance Sunday and, of course, the hundredth anniversary of the end of World War One. The set texts were: Micah 4:1-7 and John 15:9-17.

2010, May 23 Iarmaroc Fest-13As a church here in Putney, we should be very grateful to one of our members for his hard work in ‘breathing life back into our war memorial’. He has spent a huge amount of time and effort researching the 22 names on our war memorial, and shedding new light on their lives and their service for this country. The results are fascinating, and you will have a chance to see the fruits of his labour after the service in the exhibition he has mounted. I commend it to you.

War memorialEarlier this week, I spent an afternoon taking David’s hard work and putting it onto our church website, making it a resource for a much wider audience. (See here.) I found the experience of reading through the stories of these young men – the vast majority of whom died in the first world war – a profoundly moving one. I was amazed at how our little war memorial here was at one and the same time so local and yet so global. The men came from houses that are mostly still standing today and in streets that are largely a few minutes’ walk from here – Oakhill Road, the Upper Richmond Road, Fanthorpe Street, Hotham Road (literally a few hundred feet from where I am standing now). They walked along the roads we shall take as we leave church today, with their packs on their back, waving goodbye to loved ones perhaps as they left, probably heading to Putney Railway Station, which most of us know so well, to begin their journey to the war. Yet they served across the world: by land, by sea and by air. They died in the mud of the Western Front, the deserts of Mesopotamia, the icy cold depths of the North Sea. They served in battles whose names we know so well – Ypres, Gallipoli, Jutland – alongside some of the most famous names of their day – General Allenby, Lawrence of Arabia, Admiral Jellico. Their service covered the entire length of the war, with one, Gerald Chick, dying a few months after Britain entered the war in November 1914, and another, John Rogers, dying just 17 days before the armistice was signed, in October, 1918.Austin T C

Inevitably, individual stories stand out. The youngest casualty on our memorial: Henry Gee, who died aged just 17, along with his entire ship’s company of 900 men, at the Battle of Jutland, and who has no grave but the North Sea. The families who lost not one but two sons to the conflict: the Chicks and the Heaths. Ernest Heath’s body was actually retrieved from no man’s land during the Battle of Loos by two other members of this church, we believe: men who had enlisted together, like so many “pals’ divisions”. A particularly poignant story for me is that of the first name on our list, Captain Thomas Austin, the son of the then minister of this church, Rev’d George Beesly Austin. He died in one of the greatest military disasters of a disastrous war, the siege of Kut in what is now Iraq. I can only imagine how his father and mother must have felt as the messenger, bringing the fateful telegram that so many families received, stopped outside the manse.

As I said, a deeply moving experience, and a deeply poignant snapshot of a global conflict. A moving experience that stands alongside so many moving experiences associated with this time of commemoration, as the focus of our remembrance focuses, rightly, on that terrible ‘war to end all wars’.

11_poppy-(Read-Only)For some of us, it have been personal research projects on members of our own family who served in the war, and I am sure that many of us will have seen numerous stories about research projects like David’s across the nation. For others, it may have been engaging with some of the numerous events, talks and television programmes over the last four years. Perhaps we watched the Festival of Remembrance last night from the Albert Hall, or plan to go to the special concert this afternoon at St Simon’s. We may have visited the Tower of London, either a few years ago, with the ceramic poppies marking each casualty of the war, or this year, with the sound and light display: ‘Beyond the deepening shadow’. We may even have witnessed one of the numerous local displays 171090128about today’s anniversary, like this one at Etherley Methodist Church in Bishop Aukland, where members decorated 2,000 plastic bottles to make this stunning poppy display (right). All moving displays of personal commitment to remember the events of a hundred years previously, and the sacrifices made.

For me, my most moving remembrance experience took place a few years ago, when I went with a number of other clergy in training to tour the battlefield and cemeteries around Ypres in Belgium. The tour was organised by the successor of the Toc H movement, which some of you may be familiar with, and aimed to help ministers reflect upon the themes of peace and reconciliation. Any of you who have travelled to the sites of the old Western Front will know that you cannot help but be moved by what you see and experience there. As you come across the cemeteries dotted around the Belgian countryside and the seemingly endless rows of neatly-arranged graves, it brings home – as nothing else can do – the huge number of casualties experienced by both sides in the war. So often, they bring home the futility of it all too. Tyne Cot, the largest Commonwealth war cemetery on the Western Front, contains graves from both the opening months of the war and its last, reflecting how little the front lines moved over the entire four years of the conflict.

IMG_1292.JPGAll of us on that trip were deeply moved by what we saw and experienced but we also were changed by it. All of us had at least some of our preconceptions, and perhaps even prejudices, challenged by what we encountered. We all noted how Christians crosses on the tombstones, mingle with Stars of David, Muslim crescents and other religious symbols, reminding us of the vast multinational and multi-religious effort involved in the war. We noted the age of so many of the war dead, so often not even seeing their 21st birthdays. We visited the place of execution for so-called cowards, and stood in the condemned cell, where they had spent their last night. We noted how even in death, divisions of race and ethnicity still seemed to prevail. In the corner of many cemeteries, you will find graves like this one (above, left): a Chinese ‘coolie’, brought across the world to fetch and carry. And perhaps most striking of all the distinction between the Commonwealth and German war cemeteries. The former being immaculately laid out with as much space as was needed for each body: the land made as a perpetual gift to the dead. The latter being buried in mass graves, containing up to 10,000 dead.

Crucially, though, we were not just emotionally moved by what we saw. By moving in time and space, by undertaking this pilgrimage, we also moved our viewpoint upon war, conflict and the world. We were different people from those who had begun the journey together from Cambridge. Our opinions, attitudes, even beliefs were not quite the same because of that shared experience. Because we had come face to face with the reality of war and its consequences. And that is the journey that all of us are called upon to take this day, and each Remembrance Sunday, if we are to create the vital space necessary for peace and reconciliation in our world. It cannot just be an emotional response – just to be moved for a moment and then carry on as if nothing had changed – Christ calls us to move, to shift our viewpoint and be changed by what we have experienced.

81P6suQo84LSadly, that transformative journey is one that too few people seemed, or seem, willing to take. Four years ago, as we marked the centenary of the outbreak of war, I read this fascinating tome: The Sleepwalkers: How Europe went to war in 1914 by Christopher Clark. In incredible detail, it sets out how Europe slid into war without seemingly intending to. It goes beyond the old clichés about Prussian militarism and British heroism. It sets out how the leaders of Europe placed concepts like national honour, economic gain and territorial ambition, over the interests of their own flesh and blood. It reminds us how demagogues and newspapers were able to exploit and enflame racist stereotypes and ethnic divisions to justify conflict and hatred. It points the finger of blame for the deaths of the young men listed on our war memorial firmly at all the nations of Europe and their leaders.

1001004001820890This year, as we prepared for the centenary of the armistice, I took up another book that I would heartily recommend to you all: Peacemakers by Margaret Macmillan. It describes the bizarre world of the Paris peace talks in 1918-19, which culminated with the signing of the disastrous Treaty of Versailles. What is utterly depressing, is how seemingly nothing had changed between these two dates. We meet different leaders, and we encounter some half-hearted idealism, but there seems to have been no recognition that anything was different. We find the same unbridled nationalism and imperialism, the same racist prejudices and stereotypes, the same belief that an elite group of white men in Paris could draw lines in the map of the world and claim ownership of peoples they have never even heard of. The same ignorance, the same justifications for war and domination. There seemed to be no self-awareness nor even the slightest desire to move perspectives and opinions. No desire to reflect meaningfully upon the terror that had been unleashed upon the world. Little wonder that so many of the problems we face today – from Israel and Palestine to unrest in the Balkans – can be traced back to this war to end all wars. What makes it even more distressing is that neither book, in describing the ‘golden age’ of Christian Europe, when our churches were full and nearly everyone was nominally a Christian, indicate that faith in the risen Christ affected our leaders and their actions one jot!

Too often, as people over the ages, and today, gather to remember conflict they make the same mistake. They may say prayers, and hear words from holy books, but they move not one inch from the prejudices and opinions that launched the conflicts in the first place. The fact that this week we celebrate not only the 100th anniversary of the end of World War One but the 80th anniversary of Kristallnacht should teach us something.

imgID10398964By contrast, I hold up the example of ‘Woodbine Willie’, a man known by reputation to many of you, I am sure. Properly titled the Rev’d Geoffrey Studdert-Kennedy, he was one of the numerous clergy who volunteered for the army chaplains’ department during the war. He soon became a familiar sight at the front line and elsewhere, dispensing Bibles from one haversack pocket and Woodbine cigarettes from another, hence the nickname Woodbine Willie. Like too many clergy, Studdert-Kennedy embraced the war with enthusiasm in 1914. He wrote in his parish magazine in Worcester:

I cannot say too strongly that I believe every able-bodied man ought to volunteer for service anywhere. There ought to be no shirking of that duty.

(Quoted from Woodbine Willie: An unsung hero of World War One – Bob Holman (2013), 31.)

If we are honest, Christians like Studdert-Kennedy had not done enough to speak out about the horrors of war and Christ’s call for peace and reconciliation in the years before 1914, and too many effectively became recruiting sergeants once war had broken out. People remembered this fact in the years after the war, and it is little wonder that many commentators trace the beginnings of the decline in church attendance in this country to 1918.

Studdert-Kennedy followed his own advice, though, and served throughout the conflict, as close to the front line as possible. Unlike the politicians at Versailles, though, he was a changed man by 1918. He had not only been deeply moved by the horrific suffering and senseless slaughter he had encountered but his whole outlook on the world had moved. One of his most famous poems sums up the change in his perspective since his days in Worcester:

Waste

Waste of muscle, waste of brain,
Waste of patience, waste of pain,
Waste of manhood, waste of health,
Waste of beauty, waste of wealth,
Waste of blood and waste of tears,
Waste of youth’s most precious years,
Waste of ways the saints have trod,
Waste of glory,
Waste of God.
War!

Like so many of those who served in that war, and wars ever since, he had been moved in a way that went far beyond a mere emotional response. He was not just moved; he had moved.

IMG_1277.JPGAnd that is what is required of us today, if we are serious about a belief in peace in our world. If we wish truly to turn our backs on the lies and half-truths that created the conditions for the conflict that took those 21 men from their families in this church a hundred years, and indeed most conflicts. We must be moved – not just emotionally but mentally. We must undertake a journey, whereby we see the world from a different perspective. As we look at the history of peace-making in our world, and think about the end of conflicts such as that in Northern Ireland, we see that peace does not come about when the warring sides think and act in exactly the same manner as when the trouble began. Real peace comes about because those involved have been changed by the conflict, and have begun  shift their perspective and perhaps just begun to glimpse the world from the viewpoint of their sworn enemies. As one of the canons of Coventry Cathedral, Sarah Hills, wrote recently – a place which has chosen to become a centre for reconciliation – it is a long journey that is so often required. A journey involving “truth, acknowledgement, remembering, story-telling, lament, repentance, forgiveness, justice” and restitution.Jerusalem War Cemetery

As I bring my remarks today to a close, I should like to return briefly to our own list of war dead here in Putney and to one name in particular: Private Clifford Marels, who died in November, 1917. He served with General Allenby and T E Lawrence in the Palestinian Campaign against the Ottoman Empire, a campaign made famous by the film ‘Lawrence of Arabia’. He died during the first British attack on Jerusalem, trying to seize a hill that at the time was of enormous tactical importance but which is now just a hill outside Jerusalem. When I Googled an image of his last resting place, I discovered this photo. It shows the usual immaculately-kept Commonwealth War Grave Cemetery but this time in the blazing heat of Israel, and with an incredible view over the Old City of Jerusalem. From here, I think you could glimpse the sites for many of the mast famous incidents from the life of Jesus Christ, not least the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, the site of Christ’s crucifixion and resurrection. I wonder how a local lad from Putney would have reacted to that view.

As Christians, we are invited to share Private Marels’ perspective on the world. To see the world through the vision of the life, death and resurrection of our Jesus. To reflect upon the magnitude of Christ’s suffering;  to recognise the magnitude of what God has done for each one us through Jesus’ voluntary sacrifice; and, most importantly, to be changed by that experience. If we come here to worship today, if we encounter Jesus in our reading of scripture, if we meet him at the communion table, and are not changed by that experience, then it means nothing. Just as if we come to our war memorial with the same prejudices and hatred and ignorance then it means very little. The invitation this Sunday, and indeed every Sunday, is not just to be moved emotionally by what we have seen and heard: to have a form of sensory experience that temporarily moves us to tears or uplifts us to joy. It is to be transformed heart and soul: to be moved in our whole being – our thoughts, our opinions, our hopes and joys. To see the world from the perspective of Christ’s cross, and to open our arms wide in embracing all of God’s creation, just as Jesus did.

This Remembrance Sunday, let us not just be moved by what we have seen and heard. Let us be transformed through the power of Christ’s love and resurrection, offering hope and the possibility of reconciliation and renewal to a world that so desperately needs to hear good news this day. Be moved today but move as well, and see this world through the eyes of Christ, the prince of peace and God of love.

Heavenly Father, whose heart is selfless love,
Take pity on our divided world
And grant that we may follow in the steps of your Son
In giving ourselves to the service of others
And reaching out to the marginalised and despised,
That peace and justice may triumph
And your kingdom come on earth.
In Christ’s name we pray.
Amen.

 

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Sabbath rest

Can some of the most ancient texts in our Bible still speak to our modern culture about the need for rest and renewal?

SabbathOver the last few months, I have explored with various congregations in my area the meaning and importance of ‘the Sabbath’. This is a concept referred to throughout our scriptures, which has been a prominent part of Jewish and Christian religious practices for thousands of years. But what relevance, if any, does the idea of a ‘day of rest’ still have for us today in our 24/7 world? Well, quite a lot, I believe.

In the beginning … was the Sabbath

The idea of some sort of sabbath rest appears on practically the first page of our Bible, when we read about God’s work of creation. In six days, we are told, God has created the world and all that is in it. On the seventh, though, God does something different (Genesis 2:1-3):

By the seventh day God had finished the work he had been doing; so on the seventh day he rested from all his work. Then God blessed the seventh day and made it holy, because on it he rested from all the work of creating that he had done.

adam_s_creation_sistine_chapel_ceiling__by_michelangelo_jbu33cut-0Whatever our views on the creation narratives in Genesis, the belief that somehow God rested on the seventh day of creation had a profound effect on the Israelites’ understanding of themselves and their deity. How God could ‘rest’ at all is, of course, a profound mystery. How can an omnipotent, eternal God, who stands outside all human notions of time and space, possibly take the day off? This is a debate that has raged for millennia, and was an active intellectual topic at the time of Jesus. (Indeed, it probably lay behind some of the stories in the gospels that centre on sabbath controversies.)

We should be careful about reducing God to the status of a created being, who needs time to potter round the garden or have a Sunday afternoon nap in front of the TV! Yet, we are clearly told that God somehow chose to rest after his work of creation. As one member of my congregation in Roehampton observed, in an inspired moment: “And God created rest!”.

Crucially, this single verse reveals a wonderful piece of good news for us all. It means that humans should have a time of rest too because we are made in the image of God (Gen. 1:26-27). This is the most important truth of the Genesis narrative. Not the trivial sideshow about evolution vs creationism, but the fact that we are made in the image of our creator and have something of God’s divine spark within us all. And that means we need to take God’s message about rest seriously!

Sabbath rest for everyone

A few pages later in our Old Testaments, we find one of many passages that speak about how the Sabbath should be observed, which flow directly from the creation of that seventh day of rest in Genesis. Here we find it enshrined in one of the most important of the Israelites’ legal codes, the Ten Commandments (Exodus 20:8-11):

Remember the Sabbath day by keeping it holy. Six days you shall labour and do all your work, but the seventh day is a sabbath to the Lord your God. On it you shall not do any work, neither you, nor your son or daughter, nor your male or female servant, nor your animals, nor any foreigner residing in your towns. For in six days the Lord made the heavens and the earth, the sea, and all that is in them, but he rested on the seventh day. Therefore the Lord blessed the Sabbath day and made it holy.

The people were commanded to remember God’s great gift of creation by setting aside one day a week and making it special – “holy” –  for the Lord. It was a day for remembering all that God had given them: plants, animals, even the very air they breathed. It was a day to remember their special place in creation, and their status as creatures made in the very image of God.

rembrandt_harmensz-_van_rijn_079What is so remarkable about this injunction, though, is its all-encompassing nature. It was not just rich, religious men who were to enjoy sabbath rest. It was everyone: women, children, slaves, servants, foreign visitors, even the animals! Time and again, in fact, the Old Testament makes clear that all parts of God’s creation, including the animal kingdom, should enjoy the blessings of God’s gracious commandments.

Importantly, we know that this commandment was obeyed. We not only have the evidence of the New Testament – where Jesus repeatedly got into trouble for breaking the sabbath in minor ways – but written records from non-Jewish sources (Greeks, Romans, etc.). Many of them remarked about the extraordinary practice of the Jews in not working on one day a week and how it marked them out from their contemporaries. Indeed, in the inter-testamental book of 1 Maccabees, we even find Jewish armies getting into terrible trouble because they refused to fight on the Sabbath! (1 Macc. 2:28-38)

Sabbath of sabbaths

The Bible does not stop there, though, when speaking about sabbaths. In Leviticus, we find the same concept applied to ‘sabbath years’ (Leviticus 25):

The Lord said to Moses at Mount Sinai, “Speak to the Israelites and say to them: ‘When you enter the land I am going to give you, the land itself must observe a sabbath to the Lord. For six years sow your fields, and for six years prune your vineyards and gather their crops. But in the seventh year the land is to have a year of sabbath rest, a sabbath to the Lord. Do not sow your fields or prune your vineyards. …

Count off seven sabbath years—seven times seven years—so that the seven sabbath years amount to a period of forty-nine years. … It shall be a jubilee for you; each of you is to return to your family property and to your own clan. The fiftieth year shall be a jubilee for you; do not sow and do not reap what grows of itself or harvest the untended vines. For it is a jubilee and is to be holy for you; eat only what is taken directly from the fields.

jubilee2b1The regulations go on to detail how this concept of sabbatical and jubilee years will work in practice. It includes provision for those who have had to sell their family land or property because of debt or misfortune. They must have the opportunity to reclaim it in the year of jubilee. Similarly, anyone who had had to sell themselves into slavery or indentured labour (something that still happens today) should be made free in the jubilee year.

Biblical scholars are unsure whether or not any or all of these regulations were ever put into practice, unlike those relating to the sabbath day. However, as with the verses from Genesis, the theological truth behind the text is much more important than the historical details. It speaks, again, of God’s desire that creation should have rest but in this case, not just humans and animals – the land should have rest too. And not only should people have rest from their labours, but rest from their debts and rest from their misfortunes too. These are truly radical verses!

Sabbath over time

The sabbath has remained a vital part of Jewish life up to the present day. I spent some time in Jerusalem a couple of years ago and was amazed at how rigidly it was observed there. As sunset on Friday approached, you could see people rushing home to enjoy shabbat with their families. Shops closed, the trams stopped and on Saturday morning the streets were absolutely deserted. My flight home from Tel Aviv airport was actually on Saturday afternoon and I had enormous difficulty even getting there!

In the Christian world, Sunday soon became regarded as the ‘Lord’s Day’ after Christ’s resurrection on the first Easter Sunday. For some time, many faithful Christians continued to observe the Jewish Sabbath but gradually, most came to regard Sunday as the new sabbath day. Cæsarius of Arles (470-543) observed that:

the whole glory of the Jewish Sabbath had been transferred onto Sunday, so that Christians had to keep it holy in the same way as the Jews had their own day of rest.

Most of the rigid dictates of the Old Testament regarding working on the sabbath, though, were not regarded as applying to Christians.

a057a6dd3b959c50da58d55c9a2c8f74The major change in Christian teachings about the Sabbath in fact came during the Reformation in the Sixteenth Century. It was then that ideas about Sunday being treated in the same way as the Jewish sabbath – with businesses and shops closing, and an abstention from all forms of work and ‘unsuitable’ activities (drinking, theatres, etc.) – really began to emerge. This ‘Sabbitarianism’ would have a massive effect on Protestant Christian culture down to our own time.

Many older members of my congregations grew up with this kind of reality. For most of them, they reported, Sabbath conjures up memories of the days when nearly all the shops were closed on Sundays and the only forms of entertainment permitted were visiting relatives, sleeping off the Sunday lunch or attending church (at least twice!). When we discussed this practice many expressed regret about the way in which Sunday had become “just like any other day”. They spoke about their sadness over the loss of this day of rest and relative calm, and the busy-ness of Sundays now, with grandchildren engaged in numerous activities that took them away from church.

wa_1940_1_92-aThere were, however, those who admitted that Sundays could be extraordinarily dull when they were young. They were days when there was little to do, and all sorts of ‘fun’ activities were prohibited. Many were also well aware that they had been sent off to afternoon Sunday Schools by parents keen for a bit of peace and quiet! One, when asked to describe Sunday afternoons in his childhood, said it could be summed up by the Sickert painting Ennui – boredom!

It is certainly arguable that some of the Sabbath observances of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries came close to the legalism that Jesus railed against. When he and his disciples were criticised by some Pharisees for the seemingly innocuous picking of a few heads of wheat on the sabbath (Mark 2:23-28), he gave his famous epithet on their stiff-necked judgement:

The Sabbath was made for the good of human beings; they were not made for the Sabbath. So the Son of Man is Lord even of the Sabbath.

As a faithful Jew, Jesus observed the Sabbath but clearly felt that the spirit of the festival was more important than its minute regulation. In the same way, hearing some of my older folks’ stories, I find it hard to believe that the Lord would be truly offended by children playing games on a Sunday, or even having a good time! Too often the focus on ‘Sabbatarianism’ seemed to miss the larger point. For example, as we observe the centenary of the end of World War One, it is interesting to note that amidst the mass carnage and horrendous suffering, one of the military padres’ chief concerns was flying on Sundays by the newly-formed RAF!

The Sabbath today

What does this mean for us today? Arguably, nothing at all. Ancient commandments about a day of absolute rest do not sit comfortably with our 24/7 – 365 day a year culture. We live in a society that increasingly relies upon people working on Sundays, and indeed actively expects them so to do. Most people are no longer paid extra for working on Sundays and regulations limiting the Sunday opening of shops have been steadily eroded in recent decades. Mobile apps and the internet do not observe a Sabbath: why should we?

what-is-sabbath-should-we-keep-the-sabbath-day-or-the-lord25u2019s-dayInterestingly, though, almost all of the people to whom I spoke in my congregations agreed that the concept of rest as being somehow ‘sacred’ remained important. Several made the link between the words ‘rest’ and ‘reset’: the Sabbath functioning as a much-needed opportunity to pause and reflect in a hectic world. They were impressed too at the extension of the concept to other parts of creation in the Bible, and many immediately saw the relevance with so modern concerns and scientific discoveries about the human body’s need for regular rest.

We discussed how, in so many ways, we have had to rediscover ancient truths about the need for rest. Matthew Walker, a professor of sleep, presented an unanswerable case for the absolute necessity of proper rest for human welfare in his 2018 best-seller, Why we sleep?. Agriculture has rediscovered ancient ways of letting the land rest in order to replenish its essential nutrients and the dire consequences of simply exploiting it without interruption. The Jubilee 2000 movement, and subsequent Jubilee Debt Campaign, was directly inspired by the teachings of Leviticus and its message of hope for those enslaved by debt. Working across boundaries, it successfully liberated thousands of people from the curse of unfair debt in the developing world.

Together, we thought about what the concept of sabbath rest might look like for all of our creation:

  • low-paid workers – struggling to make ends meet and either unable to take a proper break or not allowed proper time off by companies desperate to maximise returns and minimise overheads.
  • people in debt – desperate for a break from excessive interest rates, stuck on a treadmill of ever-increasing indebtedness.
  • families – coping with ever-lengthening work days, with women and men often holding multiple jobs or working on insecure ‘zero hours’ contracts, desperately trying to keep food on the table and a roof above their heads.
  • children at school – facing more and more testing and homework, with teachers leaving the profession everyday owing to overwork.
  • refugees – desperate for a place to lay their head and a chance to rest in peace and security.
  • animals – factory farmed to produce ever greater yields.
  • the land – pumped with chemicals and artificial agents in order to allow ever greater exploitation.

I am sure you could add many more to the list, and could think of new applications. In my role as a minister, I meet too many people who desperately need a rest – from work, from worry, from guilt and so much more. More than ever before, I feel it vital that we as Christians affirm wholeheartedly God’s gracious gift of rest. Even if we could, the stories in our Bible tell us that we are not meant to work every hour God gives. We are made in the image of God and are meant to enjoy the rest that he has hard-wired into his creation. Let us reject contemporary notions that base people’s worth solely on what they produce and how many hours they work. The Lord of the Sabbath offers all his creation the precious gift of rest. Let us treasure it and share the good news with all the world!

Sabbath

 

 

 

 

Oscar Romero: an outspoken saint

This is the sermon I preached today at Holy Trinity Roehampton Anglican Church, part of the Roehampton Ecumenical Parish. The set texts for this this day were Hebrews 5:1-10 and Mark 10:35-40. It was inspired, though, by the recent canonisation of the Central American priest and martyr Oscar Romero.

James and John in our lesson today dream of glory and power. They have seen the enormous crowds that Jesus draws, witnessed his miracles and can bask in the glow of his popularity. Like too many women and men over the centuries, they think too much of the benefits of following a great leader and too little of the costs. Jesus warns them, though about the realities of what they are asking for (Mark 10:38):

But Jesus said to them, “You do not know what you are asking. Are you able to drink the cup that I drink, or be baptised with the baptism that I am baptised with?”

Ceremonia de Canonización de Monseñor Romero.Last week in Rome, enormous crowds gathered in St Peter’s Square to celebrate the life of a man who sought to follow in the footsteps of Christ but who paid the ultimate price for his discipleship. A man who truly drank the cup of sorrow and suffering that Christ drank from, and who, in so many ways, gave “his life [as] a ransom for many” (Mark 10:45). I am, of course, talking about the Central American priest and martyr, Oscar Romero, who was formally canonised last Sunday by Pope Francis. Saints and priests do not always figure highly in Methodist theology but Romero is a truly inspiring figure, from whom I believe we have much to learn.

Archbishop Oscar Romero, as he would eventually become, was born in 1917 in the impoverished Central American country of El Salvador. Before he was born, and during his lifetime, El Salvador endured chronic political and economic instability characterised by coups, revolts, and a succession of authoritarian rulers. Ultimately, this culminated in the devastating Salvadoran Civil War (1979–1992), which was fought between the military-led government and a coalition of left-wing guerrilla groups. Needless to say, it was, as always, the poor and marginalised who suffered most during these conflicts and even today the country continues to struggle with high rates of poverty, inequality and crime.

Picture2Romero was born in a poor, eastern province of El Salvador, and was one of seven children. He had a very basic schooling and his father taught him the noble skill of carpentry, as he thought he should have a trade in life. Early on, though, he displayed a vocation to the priesthood, and entered a seminary aged 13. After studying in Rome during the Second World War, he took up a simple parish priesthood and then served in the large city of San Miguel for 20 years before becoming a bishop, and ultimately Archbishop of the capital, San Salvador in 1979.

When he became Archbishop, many people in El Salvador were disappointed. They thought he was too bookish, too intellectual, too conservative. This may have been true but but his experiences among the poor and needy had changed him. In particular, one incident affected Romero deeply just a month after his appointment. That was the assassination of Rutilio Grande, a Jesuit priest and personal friend of Romero, who had been working diligently among the poor. Romero later stated: “When I looked at Rutilio lying there dead, I thought, ‘If they have killed him for doing what he did, then I too have to walk the same path’.”. Grande’s murder led to Romero revealing an activism that had not been evident earlier, speaking out against poverty, social injustice, assassinations and torture. A little later he would he make a famous speech that included words which still challenge all of God’s Church – including us here – today:

In less than three years, more than fifty priests have been attacked and threatened. Six are already martyrs – they were murdered. … But it is important to note why [the Church] has been persecuted. Not any and every priest has been persecuted, not any and every institution has been attacked. That part of the church has been attacked and persecuted that put itself on the side of the people and went to the people’s defence. Here again we find the same key to understanding the persecution of the church: the poor.

(Óscar Romero, Speech at the Université catholique de Louvain, Belgium, 2 Feb 1980.)

Picture3Meanwhile, national events were rapidly over-taking Romero and his country. In 1979, the Revolutionary Junta came to power amidst a wave of human rights abuses by paramilitary right-wing groups and the government in an escalation of violence that would soon become the Salvadoran Civil War. Romero criticized the United States for giving military aid to the new government and protested to President Jimmy Carter personally, but in vain.

Picture4Whilst others would have kept their heads down in such a difficult situation, Romero spoke out more and more about the terrible injustices he witnessed every day. In particular, he used the Catholic Church’s national radio station to preach a weekly sermon that soon garnered audiences of around 60% of the population. One reason for the sermons’ popularity was the fact that it was one of the very few places where people could actually hear what was going on in their nation. In these sermons, he would list disappearances, tortures, murders and much more each Sunday. The only time he stopped was when the radio station itself was bombed off the air, which happened more than once.

assassination_of_oscar_romeroUltimately, those in power decided that they had had enough of this ‘turbulent priest’. On the 23rd March, he gave a public sermon in which he called on Salvadoran soldiers, as Christians, to obey God’s higher order and to stop carrying out the government’s repression and violations of basic human rights. The following evening, he was celebrating communion at a tiny chapel in a Catholic hospital in the city, when armed militia men burst in and shot the Archbishop, while he was holding the chalice to bless the wine. The blood of Christ and Romero’s blood mingled together on the altar. His murderers were never – and have never been – brought to justice.

Romero’s life and sacrifice have not been forgotten. His words and his example continue to inspire people across the world. Not long ago, St Alban’s Abbey – a place that I am fairly sure Romero never even knew existed – unveiled seven new statues of martyrs on their rood screen. (The first such statuary to be installed in an English Cathedral since the Reformation.) Oscar Romero is one of those martyrs.

Picture1In 2014, he was officially beatified by the Catholic Church in a ceremony in San Salvador that attracted a congregation of a quarter of a million people. To the people of El Salvador, he was already known as ‘San Romero’ – Saint Romero. As I said, last week in Rome that status was officially confirmed, when he was canonised in an open-air ceremony presided over by his fellow South American, Pope Francis. It is interesting to note, though, that this ceremony has been a long time coming. For too many in the establishment, his words about the church’s responsibility to the poor and his attacks on the rich and powerful remained simply too controversial.

Like many other martyrs, Romero had a choice about the direction of his life. As I said earlier, he was by nature a quiet, bookish man. It would have been very tempting for him to stay in his study or at the university, reading and writing, and leading a quiet life. Even as archbishop, it would have been relatively easy for him to remain quiet – to ignore quietly the wicked deeds perpetrated around him and stay on good terms with the various political leaders of the day.

That same choice has faced God’s leaders and people ever since the day of James and John. Too many church leaders – not least in the 20th and 21st centuries – have preferred the easy path of glory and power. They have forgotten the stern words of Jesus in today’s passage (Mark 10:43-45):

whoever wishes to become great among you must be your servant, and whoever wishes to be first among you must be slave of all. For the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life a ransom for many.

Picture5In Oscar Romero, we see someone who took those words to heart. A man who, in the words of our other passage from Hebrews, was “subject to weakness” (Hebrew 5:2) as we all are. But who, as a faithful priest in the order of Melchizidek, was not afraid to witness with his very lifeblood to the liberating message of Christ Jesus.

If any person deserves the accolade of saint, then I think Oscar Romero does. I pray that we may be worthy of his example and follow in his footsteps of fearless witness and Christ-like sacrifice. I close with his words now:

A church that does not provoke any crises, a gospel that does not unsettle, a word of God that does not get under anyone’s skin, a word of God that does not touch the real sin of society in which it is being proclaimed – what gospel is that?

And the people say: Amen!

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