Monday, 19 December 2016

God's Self-portrait - Sunday 18th December 2016

What is God really like?
Words and images concerning God infuse our consciousness from early childhood and combine in to form a potent but unexplainable impression. For those who pray, that impression governs the way we pray. For those who consciously seek to serve God, it governs the way we live our lives. Meanwhile there are others who simply can’t believe in a god like the one they imagine, and opt out.
So what is God really like?
Many of the images that shape our understanding of God are expressions of power. Christianity features terms like: Almighty; omnipotent; King of kings; all seeing; all knowing; Lord. These terms have their roots in the dynamics of human politics. God is presented as an absolute and unrivalled power broker - President of the Universe.
Is that really what God is like?
This week we celebrate the birth of Jesus. If you look through the glitter and greenery of the ancient winter festival, you will catch a glimpse of a newborn child, wrapped in strips of cloth by inexperienced working class parents, and lying in a manger because all the beds were taken by others. There is no hint of power or wealth in this image, yet this is how “the Word became flesh and made his dwelling among us.” This, therefore, is what God is really like.
The Christmas story is God setting the record straight. God wants us to see that he is not at all interested in wealth and power. He is only interested in faithfulness and love.
The story of Jesus’ birth is God’s self-portrait. This is what God is really like.

Monday, 12 December 2016

Tough Lessons - Sunday 11th December 2016

Why doesn’t God make life easier for us? I suspect we have all asked that question.
I feel a lot of sympathy for Joseph. God sent an angel to Zechariah to announce John the Baptist’s birth. He sent an angel to Mary to announce Jesus’ birth. But no-one told Joseph what was about to happen. The first thing that Joseph knew was that his fiancee was pregnant, and the baby wasn’t his. Heartbreak!
Why didn’t God make it easier for him?
Joseph then faced a dilemma: he was a man who closely followed a religious law which required that Mary should be severely punished (even be stoned to death); but Joseph loved Mary deeply and didn't want to hurt or shame her. It was a painful dilemma which probably consumed his energy for a considerable time. After much heart searching, Joseph resolved to divorce Mary as discreetly as possible. It was only then that God sent an angel to explain what was going on.
Why didn’t God contact Joseph sooner?
Joseph’s dilemma is one that leads to the very heart of Jesus’ mission: law and/or love. Jesus’ message - in word and action - was that God does not deal with us according to our failures; he deals with us according to his great love for us. If Joseph was going to bring Jesus up and be his father, he needed to learn this truth right into the very core of his being.
God’s desire for each of us is not that we have an easy life. His desire for us is that we learn to be loving and forgiving. That requires a learning process that cuts right to our hearts.

Monday, 28 November 2016

Letting Go - Sunday 27th November 2016

We all have things that are precious to us despite their actual use or value, and we all do things that have become so much a part of our life that we have little or no idea why we do them. These quite normal dynamics of human existence inevitably feature in faith and religion, and when they do we lazily assume that we have or do these things because God requires them.
If you were to visit ancient Jerusalem, around 600BCE, you would consider them to be a devout and religious people. The skyline was dominated by the inspiring architecture of Solomon’s temple; the rhythms of life revolved around numerous religious feasts and fasts. Into this apparently faithful setting, the prophet Jeremiah cast a disturbing message: This city is about to be totally destroyed - the Temple included - you will all be carried off into exile as slaves, and (this is the crunch part) this is God’s deliberate plan.
The destruction of Jerusalem was not an act of wanton vandalism by God. Far from it. It was a lovingly planned revitalisation project. "I know the plans I have for you, says the Lord, plans for your welfare and not for harm, to give you a future with hope.” But for this to be achieved, Jerusalem, its Temple and it’s ancient customs had first to be completely dismantled.
Who would buy a new television or washing machine, then set it up next to the old one and continue to use the old one, even though the new one is better? Nobody! But in our religions we often do just that.
Jeremiah’s message was that in order to gain God’s promised future, the past would have to be lost. Surely, the same is true today, on some levels at least. In order to fully engage with the future, we sometimes need to let go of the past. Our attachment to old ways is often rooted in insecurity. God is not insecure. God knows that his love is good and fresh for each new generation. He will not be honoured if the habits of the past distract us from the promise and opportunity of today.

Monday, 21 November 2016

Financially Committed - Sunday 20th November 2016

Most of us have a long list of financial commitments which counterbalance our regular income with essential outgoings. By time we have paid our utility bills, insurance premiums, tax obligations and much more, we often feel reluctant to commit ourselves to additional, voluntary commitments to charities or churches.
The Old Testament shares a charming story of a woman who one day invited Elisha (the man of God) to supper. At the end of their meal she extended the invitation by offering to feed him any time he was passing by - which he accepted. In the course of time she extended the invitation further, offering Elisha and his assistant a bed for the night. Then, after they had become frequent house guests, she extended her invitation further still by building and furnishing a guest room especially for Elisha, which he was welcome to use at any time.
No doubt this was a great help to Elisha as he sought to carry God’s call for justice around ancient Israel. And was also, no doubt, a significant commitment for the woman and her husband - in both money and time - for many years. Their commitment was noted by God, who blessed the couple with a long-hoped for son in appreciation for their generosity.
God notices when, in addition to our unavoidable financial commitments, we commit ourselves to some cause or causes that lie near the heart of his care for the world. It may stretch our budgets at times, but - if we choose carefully - the world will be a better place for our commitment, and God will smile.

Monday, 14 November 2016

Shopping Reconsidered - Sunday 14th November 2016

When we shop, we generally like to get as much as possible for as little as possible. It is the selfish engine that drives the market system which, in turn, rules the world. But a system built on selfishness is fundamentally flawed, undoubtedly ungodly, and needs to be held in check by robust laws.
Trading standards legislation is nothing new. The book of Deuteronomy which, in parts, dates back 3.5 thousand years, contains clear instruction on swift payment, animal welfare and standard measures - all issues that are at the forefront of trading standards today.
However, while trading laws are a good thing, they are constantly under pressure from the lust for profit (on one hand) and for a bargain (on the other).
But there is another way to think about shopping. Turn your thinking around. Rather than asking: which shall I get? think: who shall I pay? I have just tried it. Driven in search of a coffee shop by unexpected rain, I made myself think differently. I put aside my usual thinking: who’s coffee do I prefer? or, who’s coffee is cheapest? Instead, I asked myself: which of these coffee providers shall I hand my money to, and why?
Every time we shop, this question is there for us. Which shop shall I support? Which manufacturer or producer? Which country of origin? These are powerful questions, and if we answer them wisely, we have power to change the world for good.
So, next time you buy something, don’t just think about what is the best or cheapest product. Also consider what is the best or most laudable supplier. If you do that, an underpaid, overworked, undervalued labourer - possibly in some distant corner of the planet - will be better off. And God will smile.

Monday, 7 November 2016

Joyfully Taxed - Sunday 6th November 2016

How do you feel about paying tax?
It may seem like a stupid question, considering the universal consensus that paying tax is a bad thing. But think again.
The undoubted opinion of the greatest minds in the Bible is that the work of God, and the worship of God, is to care for those who are not able to care for themselves. In Biblical terms that was widows, orphans and migrants.
James wrote: "Religion that is pure before God is this: to care for orphans and widows in their distress." Jesus expressed a similar theme in his teaching on the judgment of the nations: 'The righteous will ask, “Lord, when was it that we saw you hungry and gave you food, or thirsty and gave you something to drink? And when was it that we saw you a stranger and welcomed you, or naked and gave you clothing? And when was it that we saw you sick or in prison and visited you?” And the king will answer them, “Truly I tell you, just as you did it to one of the least of these, you did it to me.”'
These are the very things that the majority of our tax goes towards - social security, healthcare, support for refugees, prisons etc. And these are the very things that God delights to see us doing. So, next time you think about the tax you pay, don't resent it, but joyfully remind yourself that you are doing the work of God.

The Right Gift - Sunday 6th November 2016

We all know the experience of receiving a gift that we neither liked nor needed. Sometimes we receive such gifts with gracious delight, like when a young child presents us with their latest artwork. On other occasions we look at the miss-chosen gift with a sense disappointment that someone who knows us so well, understands us so little.
As people of faith, our religion is our gift to God, so it is wise for us to consider what kind of gift God likes to receive. Is your choice of worship something that genuinely delights God, or is it simply your own preferences that you are following?
This question goes back a long way, and it seems that we humans have a bad habit of giving God what we like, without considering what God likes. Through Isaiah, God said to the worshippers in Jerusalem, "I do not delight in the blood of bulls or goats. Incense is an abomination to me.” Through Amos he said, "Take away from me the noise of your songs; I will not listen to the melody of your harps.”
So what does God like? Isaiah, Amos and the the other Old Testament prophets all give the same answer. Jesus’ brother, James, put it like this: "Religion that is pure and undefiled before God is this - to care for orphans and widows in their distress.”
If you really want to put a smile of God’s face, give some of your time or money to help someone who is not able to help themselves.

Monday, 31 October 2016

What's it worth? - Sunday 30th October 2016

Whenever we buy something, we do a calculation in our heads concerning what it will cost us and what it is worth to us. Different people value things differently. We did a test. We took a look at Picasso’s painting "Nude, Green Leaves and Bust”. The most anyone in St Catherine’s was prepared to pay for it was £200 - a long way short of the $106.5 million that someone else paid for it at auction in 2010!
So, how does God value our financial offerings - be they to a church or to any charitable cause?
Jesus was seated near the Temple treasury, teaching his disciples, while worshippers and tourists made their obligatory financial contributions. He saw a poor widow put in two very small copper coins and drew his disciples' attention to it. “This woman has given more than all the others,” he observed. "They gave out of their wealth, but this woman has given all that she had to live on.”
God is not interested in the numerical value of our donations, but is interested in what our offering is worth to us. God doesn’t measure in sterling, euros or dollars, but in love and generosity. When we consider how much to give to a church or charity, it is not enough to look at the numbers; we need to look into our hearts. Often we give just enough to satisfy our conscience. That's not very satisfying. But if we give just enough to put a smile on God's face, we might find that the smile will visit our face too.

Monday, 10 October 2016

Treat yourself - Sunday 9th October 2016

It’s so easy to take life for granted, and once we get into that habit, we start to assume that we have an inalienable right to be healthy, wealthy and happy. How can we prevent ourselves from slipping into that thinking?
When Moses was preparing the Israelites for their new life as peasant farmers in their own land, this was one of the factors that needed to be addressed. His proposal was to establish two points in the year for some deliberate thankfulness. These were not to be solemn occasions in which people were expected to grovel before God saying “I am not worthy.” Not at all. These moments of gratefulness were intended to be indulgent parties. Moses instructed: 'With money secure in hand, go to the place that God will choose; spend the money on whatever you wish - oxen, sheep, wine, strong drink, or whatever you desire. And eat there in the presence of the Lord your God, you and your family rejoicing together.’
In so many Christian communities, the ‘tithe’ (a tenth of one’s income) is used as an intense fund-raising tool, as people are requested to make a substantial donation to their church. The line is: 'God gave you this money, now you must give 10% of it back.’ That is not what Moses was suggesting. Moses, in partnership with God, was calling for a massive and joyous feast. What parent would give their child a sum of money for their birthday, and immediately ask for a tenth of it back? Our heavenly father is not like that. He provides for us and asks that we devote at least a tenth of that provision to treating ourselves. God is not glorified by his people tightening their finances in submission to a religious law. He is glorified when his people loosen their proverbially tight belts and give themselves and each other a treat in his honour. 
God is our heavenly father, not our heavenly tax inspector.

Monday, 3 October 2016

So Well Known - Sunday 2nd October 2016

We know more about King David than any other character in the Bible. Not only do we have a wide range of surprisingly honest stories, spanning from his early teens to frail old age, we also have a stack of poems - lyrics to songs - that are reliably attributed to this remarkable man. So we don’t just know what David did, we know how he thought, and how he felt.
Many of David’s psalms reveal the insecurity of power, and show us a powerful man who was constantly looking over his shoulder for fear of attack. But there are other psalms that reveal David, son of Jesse, to be a deep and passionate thinker, attentive to the most fundamental questions of life.
In Psalm 139 David reflects on the experience of knowing, and being known by, God. "You know when I sit down and when I rise up; you discern my thoughts from far away. Even before a word is on my tongue, you know it completely.” He further contemplates God's inescapable knowledge: "Where can I flee from your presence? If I take the wings of the morning and settle at the farthest limits of the sea, even there your hand shall lead me.” Then David switches from that wide poetic perspective to one of extreme intimacy: “You knit me together in my mother’s womb. My frame was not hidden from you, when I was being made in secret. Your eyes beheld my unformed substance.”
There have been many occasions in the history of religion when the all-knowing nature of God has been used to frighten people into submission. But David expresses no fear. For him, the eternal presence of God is like a thick duvet on a cold night. God’s presence is the only place that he feels safe and secure.
Jesus, on occasion, was called ‘Son of David’. This can’t have been because Jesus was a warrior or a politician because he did not model himself on those aspects of his famous ancestor. Jesus was the ‘Son of David’ because he too opened people’s eyes to the gently powerful, merciful love of God. To employ the most famous poetic reflection of the young shepherd turned great king: "God is my shepherd. I will lack nothing."

Monday, 26 September 2016

Depths of Mercy - Sunday 25th September 2016

It feels easy to trust God when things are going well. We lazily assume that they are going well because God loves us and we are pleasing him in the way we are living. But what about when things go badly? What about when things go badly through our own fault? How easily can we trust God then?
Towards the end of his life, King David seriously offended God by conducting a detailed census of Israel’s potential army. Almost as soon as the census was complete, David realised his error: he had failed to trust God, trusting - instead - the strength of his military force. God took action to discipline the ageing king, and demanded that David choose from three proposed punishments. David made his choice immediately. He opted for the third, three days of plague, stating: “Let’s fall into the hand of God, for his mercy is great; but let me not fall into human hands.”
Even though David’s trust in God had evidently become somewhat flakey, he was quick to trust God’s discipline. He did not think of God as being terribly vengeful, but as being essentially merciful. One of the features of David's story is that he was evidently an experienced sinner, and as such, understood more than many people the depths of God’s mercy. If he was going to be punished, David had no doubt that he wanted to be punished by God.
It is when we entrust God with our failures and our disasters that we begin to experience the depth of his mercy. And it is as we begin to experience the depth of God’s mercy that we learn how to show mercy to others.

Monday, 19 September 2016

Emotional Dilemmas - Sunday 18th September 2016

Emotions are part of being human. In addition to our intentions, understandings and beliefs we have feelings which can scoop us up and sweep us off in unintended directions. Some emotions are desirable companions: joy, laughter and love. Others are unwelcome guests: sadness, anger and grief.
After King David was driven into exile by his son, Absalom, the only way he could return to his home was if Absalom was defeated. Before the inevitable battle, David pleaded with his generals to be gentle with the young man. The generals ignored the king’s request. Absalom was dispatched; David’s reign was restored, but his son was dead.
David collapsed into searing grief. It is perhaps not a surprise, as he was a poet, that his grief was hauntingly poetic: “O my son Absalom, my son, my son Absalom! Would that I had died instead of you, O Absalom, my son, my son!”
It was good for David to express his grief. Grief needs to be expressed. But there was a problem. Because David was grieving loudly and publicly, his victorious troops were sneaking back to the city like defeated men. The chief general, Joab, gave David a stiff talking to, the gist of which was: ‘If you don’t get your act together and show some appreciation for your soldiers, you will lose your kingdom a second time.’
Emotions are great asset to human society, but they can also be a challenge. Their great power can be a force for either good or ill. Some people are emotionally manipulative; others are emotionally repressed.
David needed to express is grief. He also needed to pull himself together and do his job. We all face such moments. The best guide in the emotional jungle is, love. Jesus’ advice is hard to beat: “Treat others as you would have them treat you."

Monday, 12 September 2016

When things go wrong - Sunday 11th September 2016

Things go wrong. Occasionally they go horribly wrong. The news is filled with such moments, but we don’t need to look that far. In our own lives, something goes wrong most days. The question is: what happens next?
Do you dissolve into tears or flare into anger? Do you look for someone to blame, or blame yourself? When things go wrong we experience an urgent need to respond somehow.
When King David was well settled into middle age, things went horribly wrong for him. His son, Absalom, usurped his kingdom, causing him to dash into exile. As David hurried away from Jerusalem, his life’s work in tatters, he was followed by an old enemy, called Shemei, who threw stones and curses at him in equal measure. One of David’s generals offered to kill the man. David was indignant at the suggestion. “It may be,” he replied, “that God has told Shemei to curse me.”
In the middle of intense disaster, David was trying to discern what God was doing in the situation. Perhaps God had raised up Absalom. Perhaps David had had his time. Perhaps Shimei was right to curse him. On the other hand: perhaps God would restore David to his throne, and repay him with good for the cursing he was receiving. David needed time to answer those questions.
Ancient European religion believed there were two sets of equally matched spiritual forces in the world: good and evil; life and death; light and darkness. Much of that primitive thinking has seeped its way into Christianity. King David, however, had no such thoughts. For him there was only one significant spiritual force: God. And he had learned to trust God when things went badly just as much as when things went well.
Christians often assume that nice things come from God, and nasty things come from sin or the devil. That is far too simplistic. When things go horribly wrong - and they inevitably will at times - we would do well to follow David’s example: trust God, and pause to consider what he might be doing.

Monday, 5 September 2016

Failure & Potential - Sunday 4th September 2016

David, Israel’s greatest king, the writer of psalms, ‘man after God’s heart’, revered as a prophet…saw a beautiful woman - Bathsheba - taking a bath, learned she was married, invited her to his bed, made her pregnant, fell in love with her, and killed her husband so he could marry her.
That would bring a sudden end to most people’s careers, whether or not they were a political or religious leader (David was both).
God moved swiftly. David’s multiple crime was uncovered, and severe punishment detailed.
It is here that the story takes a surprising turn. David apologised, quickly and unreservedly. God, equally quickly and unreservedly, forgave him. David continued to be Israel’s greatest king, a writer of psalms, a man after God’s heart, and revered as a prophet.
And there’s more: David’s relationship with Bathsheba was accepted and blessed by God. The child of their adultery died, but their second son - Solomon - went on to be Israel’s next greatest king, and was the ancestor of Jesus.
When God forgives, he forgives totally, because he values our strengths above our weaknesses, our potential above our lapses, our achievements above our failures. God knows that we sometimes sink to dismal depths, but he also knows that we can rise to soaring heights. He doesn’t want our failings to get in the way of our potential.

Tuesday, 30 August 2016

Promises, promises - Sunday 28th August 2016

I wonder how many promises I have made which I have never fulfilled, and long forgotten. Plenty, I’m sure.
Some time after David became king of Israel, he remembered a promise he had made years earlier. The promise had been made in private to someone who had long since died. He could easily have set the memory aside. But he didn’t. Also, to keep this promise was likely to cost David a vast amount and could significantly benefit his political enemies. Nonetheless, he went out of his way to fulfil the obligation he had made.
The promise had been made to Jonathan, son of the then king of Israel. David had become locked in a deadly rivalry with Jonathan’s father as it became clear that David, not Jonathan, would be the next king of Israel. Facing the prospect of his own death in that process, Jonathan asked David to care for his family. David promised that he would.
However, when Jonathan and his father, Saul, died in battle, David’s political supporters were quick to assassinate all King Saul’s immediate heirs. The family was wiped out and the new king, David, took over all their land and property.
Some 15 years later, David remembered his promise to Jonathan. He could easily have dismissed the memory. Instead he searched for any remaining relative of Saul and Jonathan to whom he could show kindness for Jonathan’s sake. He discovered a crippled grandson of the former king, who had been rescued from the slaughter by his nurse, though permanently injured in the process.
David met the disabled young man and restored to him all the land and property that had belonged to King Saul. David kept his promise, not to an acceptable minimum, but to the maximum. That is the kind of man David was.
St Paul described David as a man after God’s heart. David was honourable, generous and forgiving. That’s what God is like.

Monday, 22 August 2016

Passionate People - Sunday 21st August 2016

Some of us are practical, some are spiritual, some intellectual, and some of us are passionate. King David was a passionate man. His passions got him into trouble at times (more of that in two weeks time) but his passions were also a great asset. Among David’s great passions, he was passionate about God.
When David finally brought the symbol of Israel’s God (the Arc of the Covenant) into his new capital, Jerusalem, he danced with all his might and all the people danced with him. We don’t often see our national leaders behaving like that!
Not long after, David looked up the hill from his new palace to the old and shabby tent which housed the Arc of God, and his heart stirred again. He wanted to build God a fantastic new home, at least as magnificent as his own.
And here’s the significant bit: God declined David’s offer. He didn’t want a magnificent Temple and was content with the tent. However, David was not criticised for making an inappropriate suggestions. His passion for God was acknowledged, appreciated, and gently redirected.
We need passionate people. We need people to be passionate. But passion requires freedom, and freedom requires a generous supply of forgiveness. David could be passionate because he knew that God was forgiving.
If we - as society - are not able to be forgiving, passion will be stifled, caution take over, and life will lose its dynamic edge.
We need passionate people, and we need to be quick to forgive them.

Monday, 1 August 2016

Fear & Hope - Sunday 31st July 2016

Fear is a powerful thing. Many of us are constrained or defined by our fears in one way or another. In the story of David and Goliath, the giant Philistine’s most potent weapon was neither his sword nor his hefty spear, but the intense fear that he stirred up in his enemies. Every day Goliath taunted the Israelites, demanding that they send someone to meet him in single combat. The Israelites were lured into Goliath’s trap. They looked at the 8 foot tall warrior and believed what he wanted them to believe: that he would cut them to pieces before their short sword-arms could get anywhere near him.
Goliath’s fear offensive was winning the war effortlessly, until the teenage shepherd, David, turned up. David had two weapons of his own. The first, an even stronger weapon than fear, was hope. David believed that God had a bright future for himself and the Israelite people, and therefore they would not be defeated. Alongside this hope, David had a highly potent long range weapon with which he was highly skilled - a sling-shot. He knew he could floor Goliath long before he came within the range of the Philistine’s sword or spear.
The sling-shot was a common military weapon at the time. The Israelite army would have had a whole battalion of sling shooters, and any of them could have defeated Goliath if only they hadn’t been paralysed by their fear of the huge warrior.
Fear is a powerful thing. Many of us are constrained or defined by our fears in one way or another. We don’t need a sling-shot to defeat our own personal Goliaths; we need hope. We need to remember that God wants the best for us and for our world. We need to remember that love and forgiveness are much stronger than selfishness and revenge. We need to remember that though fear may afflict us, it will not overcome us - unless we let it.
(This blog will be taking a break for a couple of weeks. Bye for now.)

Monday, 25 July 2016

Inside out - Sunday 24th July 2016

We all make judgements based on outward appearance. It’s inevitable. Whether we are simply choosing who to sit next to on a bus, or appointing an employee, or even selecting a potential lover - we base much of our judgement on what we can see.
When God sent the prophet Samuel to anoint a new king for Israel, he instructed the old man which town and family to visit, but did not advise him on which of Jesse’s sons to choose. Samuel took one look at the eldest son, Eliab, and quickly concluded that he had found his man: a tall, dignified, mature warrior - obvious king material! But God gave Eliab the ‘thumbs down’. “You humans look on the outward appearance,” God told Samuel. “I look at the heart.”
Samuel worked through all seven sons present and God rejected them all, leaving Samuel to ask Jesse if he, by any chance, had any more sons. Jesse responded, “There’s the youngest, but he’s only a shepherd.” (Clearly not king material!)
David was brought. He was young and inexperienced, but it was his heart that God was looking at. He was the man.
When it comes to yourself - God doesn’t love you because of your skin colour, your age, your choice of clothes, your height, or your weight - of course he doesn’t. But we still follow Samuel’s error and judge other people by such things.
Next time you meet a stranger, do your best to look beyond the obvious externals and try to perceive what they are like inside. Look at them as God looks at them. You may be surprised.

Monday, 11 July 2016

Tender & Humble - Sunday 10th July 2016

Middle-Eastern emigration into Europe (via Turkey) is nothing new. It was happening in the 1st Century as many Jewish people sought a new life in the established Roman cities of western Turkey. Among those migrating Jews were many who embraced the teaching of Jesus.
These migrants, like others before and after them, held firmly onto the customs of their homeland, in particular to their God-given law. This determined difference caused suspicion and tension, and there were repeated attacks on the migrant communities. (This is an all too familiar story!)
St Peter wrote a letter to the oppressed migrants, which is as remarkable for what it does not say as for what it does say. He said nothing at all about maintaining the Law of Moses, which was so important to his fellow Jews. He did not advise the Jewish-Christians to stand out in either their Jewishness or their Christianness. Instead, he simply advised them to accept and respect their new surroundings, and live well and honourably.
Peter was applying the message and example of Jesus into this situation. For Jesus, the measure of godliness was not in explicit religion but in ordinary, practical love. Peter summed up his advice to the unhappy migrants saying: “finally, all of you, have: sympathy; love for each other; a tender heart; and a humble mind.”
This is a glorious gem of practical advice. Whenever we find ourselves in stress or conflict, we need these words to echo in our minds: “have a tender heart and a humble mind”. That will mark out the path that Jesus trod before us.

Monday, 4 July 2016

Common Hypocrisy - Sunday 3rd July 2016

Hypocrisy is common. When St Peter visited the Christians in Antioch (Galatians 2), he was keen to endorse the multicultural community of Jesus’ followers there. He ate and drank with them without showing any concern for the strict food laws that he personally valued. Well done Peter!
However, when a group of strictly-observant Jewish disciples arrived from Jerusalem - representing Peter’s co-leader, James - Peter did a sudden U-turn. He didn’t want these influential visitors to see him eating with ‘Gentiles’. St Paul was furious at Peter’s hypocrisy, and publicly criticised him for his shallowness.
Needless to say, Christianity survived Peter’s hypocrisy. The teaching of Jesus continued to spread around the world, even though - sadly - the Jesus movement eventually separated from mainstream Judaism.
The root cause of Peter’s hypocrisy was simply that he wanted to be liked by the people on both sides of the current dispute, but he couldn’t please both groups at the same time. We all fall down that gap on occasion.
Hypocrisy is common, particularly among people who hold strongly to a certain set of values. It is very hard to promote the challenging values of Jesus’ teaching, and not fall into hypocrisy. If we tried to purge all the hypocrites from our churches, we would soon have no-one left. It is better that we be gentle with our criticism and quick with our forgiveness.
Hypocrisy is common. Gracious forgiveness must be even more abundant.

Monday, 27 June 2016

Holy Muddle - Sunday 26th June 2016

Life does not always go to plan. We all know that. When Herod Antipas started arresting and executing Jesus’ disciples, we can only imagine the thoughts and feelings of those early Christians. Acts 12 gives an account of how Peter was miraculously sprung from prison by an angel. At first reading, it is a positive story, but - given a bit more thought - it raises some questions.
It is wonderful that God sent an angel to rescue Peter. But what about James? James was also one of Jesus’ inner group of three favoured disciples. But he was executed. Why didn’t God rescue him?
Why did God wait until the night before Peter’s scheduled execution before he effected the rescue? Peter had been in prison for at least a week. But then, this isn’t the only incident of God leaving things to the last moment. What does that show us about God?
And then, having successfully rescued Peter, the angel might have given him some instructions or advice. But it didn’t. It simply vanished, leaving Peter alone and confused in the middle of the street, in the middle of the night. What does that show us about God’s way of dealing with us?
This is not a neat and tidy story. And the muddle continued when Peter arrived at his chosen destination, only to be left in the street while those praying for his release failed to believe that their prayers could have been answered.
What we discover is that working within God’s plan can be a confusing experience from the human perspective. What God may see as perfect order, might well look and feel a lot like muddle to us. Be prepared!

Monday, 20 June 2016

A non-exclusive offer - Sunday 19th June 2016

Religions easily become exclusive, and like most exclusive offers the cost of exclusivity can be high. If you want the spiritual benefits, you have to join up and fit in. You are expected to keep the rules, take part in the rituals, and generally become like the other adherents.
The earliest Christians believed that the teaching of Jesus was a exclusive offer, only available to Jews. Jesus’ message had slashed the traditional cost of being part of God’s chosen people (in terms of laws and rituals), but his followers still maintained a ring of exclusivity. This bargain offer of God’s freely given love was only available to Jews.
But then God intervened. Acts 10 tells how God opened Peter’s mind to grasp that all human beings are God’s people, not just Jewish ones. Afterwards, Peter declared, 'I truly understand that God shows no partiality, but in every nation anyone who fears him and does what is right is acceptable to him.’
Over the 20 centuries since, Christianity has gradually woven a web of exclusivity around itself which is similar in many ways to that of 1st century Judaism. Those who seek the spiritual and eternal benefits of the Gospel are expected to join up and fit in. There are moral rules to keep, and rituals to follow. People are expected to ‘become Christians’ in order for their salvation to be secured. Christianity has become exclusive.
However, Jesus' message was inclusive, not exclusive. He sought to remove the traditional barriers that kept people away from experiencing God’s love. Anyone who prayed to God, and supported those in need was counted in - even a centurion in the Roman army.
Our task as Jesus’ disciples is not to make people into Christians. It is to urge all people to love God, and love their neighbours - whatever their cultural background. That is all God requires.

Tuesday, 14 June 2016

'the way that you do it' - Sunday 12th June 2016

The song goes: “It ain’t what you do, its the way that you do it”. It is a sentiment that resonates well with Jesus’ teaching. When Peter encountered a paralysed man called Aeneas, and was then called out after the death of a woman called Tabitha, he was very careful to do things the way that Jesus did. He told the, now cured, man to sort out his bed, and in Tabitha’s house, he copied what he had seen Jesus do after the death of Jairus’ young daughter. Peter was not just doing what Jesus did, he was consciously doing it how Jesus did.
Life throws us into all sorts of challenges, and it is not always easy to know what we should do. At such times, perhaps, the key thing is to do our best to do whatever we do in the way that Jesus did something similar. When Peter found himself surrounded by the grieving friends of a much loved and now-dead woman, he didn’t immediately know what to do. So he remembered how Jesus had handled a similar situation and followed his example.
We can’t achieve this armed with a few cherry-picked Bible verses. In order to follow Jesus’ style, we need to know what Jesus’ style was. And we can only know that by reading, reflecting on, and re-reading the stories in the four Gospels. It is time well spent. The more we understand Jesus, the more we follow his way of doing things, the more fruitful our lives will be.

Tuesday, 31 May 2016

Uneducated & Ordinary - Sunday 30th May 2016

When Peter was interrogated by the chief priests in Jerusalem (for causing a stir in the Temple after healing a crippled man), the elite of the Jewish society were somewhat surprised to note that Peter was “uneducated and ordinary”.
Most of Jesus’ disciples were uneducated and ordinary when they met him, so this comment can easily be overlooked. But it is worth a second thought.
After three years of being Jesus’ disciple, Peter still came over as being ‘uneducated’. That’s interesting because discipleship was primarily an educational process. Clearly, Jesus did not teach the intellectual intricacies of their religion, or at least, not in a way that other intellectuals recognised.
In a similar vein, after three years of following Jesus - witnessing the extraordinary things he did, and doing some fairly extraordinary things himself - Peter still came across as being ordinary. Jesus wasn’t in the business of taking people away from their roots into a rarified sanctity. His message was that God’s kingdom could be found right where they were. After three years of Jesus' company, Peter was still ordinary.
The medieval church was obsessed with saints - extraordinarily holy people. The Church of England today expects its clergy to have a university degree. But God chooses to do his work using ordinary and uneducated people. Do you qualify?

Monday, 23 May 2016

Miracles & Strangers - Sunday 22nd May 2016

Miracles! Some people believe in them, some people do not - and there are a good many people somewhere in between. People of faith heartily endorse the miraculous, while people of no faith resist the idea. Both sides are perhaps a little over-keen to prop up their own presumptions. Truth and fact easily get lost behind the smoke of personal propaganda.
The New Testament accounts of miracles are not blatant propaganda. Jesus routinely asked those he healed not to tell anyone about it. He was not in the business of drawing attention to himself. He had a different agenda.
It is interesting to note that almost all the people who were miraculously healed by Jesus or his disciples were strangers to them. These events were not an outworking of faithful prayer for loved ones in difficult times. There was something quite different going on - something bigger and broader. Jesus was not introducing a heavenly health service, nor was he declaring war on sickness and suffering. These miraculous events were an outworking of God’s love for the people who were consistently rejected and ignored by polite, religious society.
Jesus’ example does not lead us to pray fervently that God will rescue those we love from suffering (though such prayer is a reasonable and appropriate expression of our love). Jesus’ example leads us to consider the plight of total strangers who are rejected and abandoned by our society, and to ask God what he expects us to do for them. And to do it. This is the work of the kingdom of God.

Monday, 16 May 2016

Wonderfully human - Sunday 15th May 2016

Christians generally assume that Jesus was able to do miraculous things because he was divine. But that is not how Jesus understood it. Jesus understood that he was able to do wonderful things because he was a human - a human who lived in excellent relationship with God.
This distinction is important. If Jesus only did what he did because he was the 'Son of God', then the moment of opportunity has passed and we are only left with a memory. But if Jesus did what he did because he was the ‘Son of Humanity’ (the term that he consistently used to describe himself), then the moment of opportunity remains open for as long as humanity remains - yourself included.
Jesus told his followers that they would do the same things he had done, and - indeed - they would do more wonderful things (John 14:12). All that was required was that they be human beings in good relationship with their heavenly father, just as he had been.
On Sunday we celebrated Pentecost, a miracle of communication - a moment when a bunch of Galilean fishermen were enabled to speak numerous unfamiliar languages in order to share the message of Jesus with visitors from foreign cities. It was a new miracle - not one they had seen in Jesus. It was just what was needed on that particular day.
If we live in good relationship with God, God will do amazing things through us - not because we are special, but because we are human, and because God loves to move and work amongst humanity.

Monday, 9 May 2016

Straight line thinking - Sunday 8th May 2016

When considering the best route is between two points (A and B) the obvious solution is a straight line. That, of course, is the shortest route, but it isn’t necessarily the best route. When we travel from one place to another, we may take the shortest route, but we might also choose a route that is faster though longer, or a more attractive route, or we may chose a route that takes us via certain friends or places of interest. The shortest route is not necessarily the best.
We humans like straight lines. Just look at a map. Whether it is railways, motorways or canals - wherever possible we opt for straight lines.
God, however, is not so given to straight lines. Think of a river: over the centuries and over the miles, rivers twist and turn with every obstacle they encounter. The wisdom of nature is that the shortest route is not necessarily the best one.
After Jesus ascended into heaven, Peter’s first inclination was to replace Judas - a like for like substitution. Interestingly, we never hear of Matthias, the substitute Apostle, again. It was ‘straight line’ thinking. A few days after this little administrative fix, God’s Spirit came. Then Peter and his colleagues were led on a twisting turning journey, the likes of which they could never have imagined. That is God’s way of doing things.
In our daily lives, every time we meet an obstacle, our human inclination is to blast it out the way and continue along our predetermined straight line. But if we pause to see the moment through God’s eyes, we may well see it as an opportunity to change direction and do something new and unexpected. God is not a God of straight lines.

Tuesday, 3 May 2016

Unconfident - Sunday 1st June 2016

Most people feel unconfident. It is normal to feel unconfident. We feel unconfident about all sorts of things, particularly our relationships. So it is no great surprise that we feel unconfident about our relationship with God and about the things God calls us to do for him. And it is all too easy for us to look across at the few people who appear to be capable and confident, and let them do all the work. 
In the story of Peter, it was not his lack of confidence that was the problem - quite the opposite. Peter’s problem was that he was too confident. He wasn’t going to abandon Jesus. He wasn’t going to be afraid. He was going to stick by Jesus’ side to death and beyond.
“O really Peter?” was Jesus’ response. “I don’t think so."
Peter failed. He stated categorically, three times, that he didn’t even know who Jesus was. And he did it when Jesus was seated just a few feet away from him. But here’s the unexpected part: it seems that Peter needed to fail.
The next time Peter met with Jesus he was a lot less confident. And that was a good thing. Jesus didn’t mention what had happened. He didn’t criticise Peter in any way. He simply asked, three times: “Peter, do you love me?”
God is not primarily interested in our confidence or our capabilities; he is interested in our love. Most people feel unconfident. It is normal to feel unconfident. God does not expect us to be full of confidence. What he wants to know is: Do you love him?

Monday, 25 April 2016

Honest Sinners - Sunday 24th April 2016

St Peter is widely heralded as the founder of the Christian church, a great among the great saints of Christianity. However, like many people who become celebrated, his beginnings were very ordinary.
A quick read of Peter’s story can lead to an assumption that Jesus simply turned up one day, said, “Follow me”, and off Peter went. But that isn’t how it was. Peter encountered Jesus at various times and in various places over those opening months, and while Jesus repeated his invitation for Peter to become a disciple, Peter remained unconfident about his own suitability. By the time Jesus guided Peter to an astounding catch of fish which nearly sank his precious boat (Luke 5), Peter had been hanging around Jesus, on and off, for some months. Still Peter felt himself to be unsuitable: "Go away from me, Lord, for I am a sinful man.”
However, Peter being a ‘sinner’ didn’t disqualify him from Jesus’ group, and neither did his underlying insecurities. Jesus expected to be working with sinners, and preferred honest ones.
Many of us, like Peter, disqualify ourselves from actively serving God. We tell ourselves, and God, that we are not good enough. We may convince ourselves with this message, but we won’t convince God.

Monday, 18 April 2016

Suitably unqualified - Sunday 17th April 2016

God does not always choose the most obviously qualified person, when he is looking for something to be done. Indeed, God seems to be more likely to choose the someone who is evidently unqualified. When he was seeking a leader for his chosen people, he opted for Moses - a murderer on the run. When he was looking for a mighty warrior to defeat the encroaching Midianites, he chose Gideon - who was hiding in a wine press. When he was seeking a king for Israel he selected David - a shepherd boy. And when he was seeking someone to spread Jesus’ message to the gentile world, he picked Paul - the chief persecutor of Jesus’ disciples.
There is a pattern here.
So, when we are considering what God might do in our church, or in our community, there is no point waiting for him to send along the perfect person for the task. That isn’t his style. More likely, God may be measuring you up for the challenge. And if you feel desperately unqualified for the task, you may just be the person God is looking for.
What is God asking you to do for him?

Monday, 11 April 2016

Soaked in God - Sunday 10th April 2016

As soon as Jesus’ disciples had begun to come to terms with his resurrection, he gave them something to do - and it was no small task. He placed his whole mission in their hands. Up to that point, they had been his disciples, and he had been their rabbi. Now it was time for them to become rabbis and teach disciples of their own.
Our task as Christians is to teach: to teach what Jesus taught, and to teach how Jesus taught: in word and action; gently, passionately and with good humour.
In his typically colourful way, Jesus sent his disciples on their way using a metaphor: soak people in the knowledge of God as Father, and Son, and Holy Spirit. (Matthew 28:19)
Jesus did not send them into the world to make converts, to win arguments, to impose new laws, to build a religion, or to establish a political regime. He sent them to soak people in the knowledge of a loving God.
In the same way, he now sends us.

Tuesday, 5 April 2016

Proof & Faith - Sunday 3rd April 2016

Jesus’ tomb being empty didn’t really prove anything. The discovery of the empty tomb only left Jesus' friends and family feeling frightened and confused. What made the difference was when those friends and family finally met Jesus - alive and well - two days after seeing him executed, certified dead, and buried.
In the 21st century it can be hard to hold up our faith under the demand for physical proof which our scientific age has come to expect. However the most important part of Jesus’ resurrection does not lie in the physical facts but in the restoration of relationship. This can be seen in the story of Thomas: when he met finally met with Jesus, he no longer needed the hard proof of putting his fingers in the nail holes in Jesus’ hands.
After that first Easter, Jesus made no attempt to prove his resurrection to the people who had rejected him. His consistent priority was to reestablish relationship with the people who loved and trusted him.
As we consider Easter, what matters most is our relationship with the risen Jesus. It is a relationship that is founded in love and trust more than on evidence and proof. And in the everyday realities of live, love and trust are the factors that really direct and motivate us.

Monday, 21 March 2016

Death's Message - Sunday 20th March 2016

When Jesus rode into Jerusalem on a donkey, surrounded by an excited crowd, he was intending to die. He had come among us, and to Jerusalem in particular, in order to show us what God is like. And to show us what God is like, he needed to die.
We prefer to think about God as all-powerful and all-knowing, in control of the destiny of the universe. These things may be true, but they are not important. The really important things about God are best seen in the death of Jesus.
That ugly, painful, dirty cross on which Jesus slowly died from the world’s injustice and indifference, is God’s message to humanity.
His message is one which we all need to hear - that we long to hear from childhood onwards: “Whatever you do, I will always love you.”
Look at a cross and soak in that wonderful message from God.

Monday, 14 March 2016

Loving Idiots - Sunday 13th March 2016

The people among whom Jesus’ lived were afraid of God. They had been told too many times that God would punish them if they did this, or didn’t do that. When Jesus sat down on a Galilean hillside to unfold his understanding of things, one of his core messages was: God loves you, you idiots!
Jesus presented God as being like a good parent.
There are children in our world who live in fear of a parent’s anger or punishment; God is not that kind of parent. There are children who live in the dark shadow of a parent’s judgement and criticism; God is not that kind of parent. There are children who are given anything they ask for by insecure parents; God isn’t that kind of parent either. And there are children whose parents are too preoccupied to attend to them; God isn’t like that.
God is the kind of parent who wants their children to talk to them about anything, to express their concerns and their needs. God is the kind of parent who understands their child’s shortcomings and is quick to forgive when they get things wrong. God is the kind of parent who wants their children to thrive and fulfil their potential.
To put Jesus’ words into a contemporary idiom: "If even you idiots know how to care for your children, how much more does your heavenly father love you!"

Tuesday, 8 March 2016

Changing times - Sunday 6th March 2016

It was wonderful, on Sunday, to have so many visitors from St Catherines' past as we celebrated our church's centenary. It was good to be reminded how other people have served God before us. It was inspiring to discover that, over 40 years ago, an energetic young vicar had come to an ageing congregation, had scratched together a small group of young adults, and that that group still continues to meet today, even though they have all moved away and grown older.
Society has changed enormously over the past few decades, and we need to ask again what it means to serve our community with the knowledge and experience of God’s love. 
Jesus lived among people who had a strong belief in God, who believed that God favoured the righteous and the rich. He challenged that assumption: God loves the poor people, the disabled people, and those who’s lives fall short of social correctness. Jesus demonstrated that message in his actions. 
Today’s Western culture has different concerns. People do not worry about the consequences of their sinfulness, as Jesus’ contemporaries did; they search for happiness rather than righteousness. Also, belief in God has been stretched thin by the advance of science. 
How can we best serve this generation with the knowledge and experience of God’s love?
One central question in today’s society is: what is the meaning and purpose of life? The Gospel of Jesus can contribute to that conversation. The meaning of life does not lie in possessions or technological advance. The key to a good life lies in good relationships. That leads us directly into the heart of Jesus’ message.

Monday, 29 February 2016

Religious Rules - Sunday 28th February 2016

Religions define themselves by their rules. Specific requirements concerning dress, food, personal behaviour, intellectual belief and religious ritual are the defining features of every religion. If you want to be part of the religion, you have to keep the rules. And, to keep you on your toes, you are reminded that these are not random rules, they are God’s rules. Christianity, as a religion, is no different.
But Jesus rejected that approach. He didn’t dismiss the religious laws; he exceeded them. “You have heard it said, ‘You shall not murder’. But I say to you that if you are angry with someone, you will be liable to judgement.” Jesus quite deliberately set the qualifying mark so high that no-one could reach it. "You have heard that it was said, 'You shall not commit adultery. But I say to you that everyone who looks at a someone with lust has already committed adultery.”
Jesus calls us to to stop defining ourselves as being good enough, because we can never be good enough. Only perfect love is good enough, and none of us are perfectly loving.
This would be disastrous if God wields a divine clipboard on which all our faults and failings are minutely recorded. But that is not what God is like. God is perfectly loving, and, being perfectly loving, he loves us even with our imperfections. God knows what we are like and still loves us. And - better than that - the more we get into a mess and a muddle, the more God loves us. That is what perfect love is like.

Tuesday, 23 February 2016

The Blessed - Sunday 21st February 2016

What do you want for your life, or for your children’s lives? Few people would disagree with a desire for health and happiness, with enough to eat and a secure home to live in. These are fundamentals we all aspire to.
Armed with these aspirations, we think of those who have enough to eat, and plenty to laugh about as people who are blessed. And we think of those who fall short of that standard as people who have either failed in life, or been failed by life.
In religious cultures God gets woven into these assumptions. Those whose needs are amply provided for have been blessed by God. Those who fall short of society’s basic standard are assumed to have incurred God’s displeasure.
Jesus turned that thinking on its head. “Blessed are you who are poor, or hungry, or grieving, or excluded; the Kingdom of God is yours.” Then comes the uncomfortable bit: “But woe to you who are rich, or well fed, or happy, or popular, for you have already received your consolation.” (Luke 6:20-26)
Jesus sees this world very differently from us. God is primarily at work among the very people who are routinely dismissed by polite society. If you want to see God at work, look among those who are poor, hungry, sad and excluded; they are the soil where the seeds of God’s Kingdom flourish.

Wednesday, 17 February 2016

Testing times - Sunday 14th February 2016

Temptation and testing are not the same thing. When we are tested, our weaknesses are explored. When we are tempted, they are exploited. When Jesus was led into the wilderness by God’s Spirit it was in order to be tested. It seems that before he could embark on his public ministry, Jesus needed to pass some tests.
He faced three tests: 1) would he use the power of God simply to serve his own needs, 2) would he take short cuts to achieve his goal, and 3) would he be more interested in impressing people, than in helping them? These are fairly fundamental tests that we all need to face in some way.
During Lent, it is customary for us to test ourselves. This is a good thing to do. The thing with tests is that the gain is not so much from passing them, as in learning from our failures. One of my sons is currently preparing for his GCSE exams. His school are giving him regular tests so that he can learn from his mistakes. That’s how tests work.
Jesus spent 40 days sitting the devil’s tests, and he had is pretty tough time. But that is what he went into the wilderness for.
During Lent we will gain from letting ourselves be tested. However, don’t choose a test you will easily pass. Choose something that will push your limits, that may well involve failures, that will help you to be a human being better.

Monday, 8 February 2016

Quietly does it - Sunday 7th January 2016

The day that 5000 people gate-crashed Jesus’ attempt to give his exhausted disciples some rest gives us some insight into Jesus’ priorities. The event occurred shortly after John the Baptist’s execution by King Herod (just a few miles away round the lake shore), and that vast crowd came to Jesus intent on overthrowing Herod and making Jesus king in his place.
It was a pivotal moment. Jesus could have gone with the crowd. He could have joined the revolution. It would probably have led to a blood bath, and we will never know how it would have ended. But he didn’t.
Jesus had a different plan. He talked to the people about God, using his usual mix of crazy and thought provoking stories. Then, after a few hours, when they were all tired and hungry, he fed them with a simple meal generated from one boy’s picnic. Then Jesus slipped quietly away.
The power of God, seen in Jesus, is not the political power of laws and armies, of influence and control. Jesus employs a much quieter and humbler power: the power to look after people’s basic needs.
Throughout history, Churches and Christians have often been seduced by offers of power and significance. It is a fundamental human weakness, but it is not the nature of God. As the season of Lent calls us to review our lives and our attitudes, we will do well to follow Jesus’ example, to discretely address people’s fundamental needs, and then slip quietly away.

Tuesday, 2 February 2016

Quiet Action - Sunday 31st January 2016

On one of his visits to Jerusalem, Jesus went to the pools of Bethesda, which were believed to have healing properties. There were a large number of sick and disabled people there, but Jesus only spoke to one of them - a man who had been disabled for nearly 40 years. As they talked, it emerged that this man was alone, and had no-one to help him when the opportunity for healing was presented by the volcanic waters being stirred. Jesus simply said to the man: “Get up, pick up your mat, and walk.” And he did.
There are three things worth noting:
1. Jesus did not attempt to cure everyone, but only this man who had no-one else to help him. We easily get overwhelmed by the scale of need in the world, but it seems that God does not expect us to sort it all out. He does, however, desire us to be attentive to those who have no-one else to help them.
2. The man cured promptly got into trouble with the religious authorities for carrying his mat on the Sabbath Day. Jesus was not inclined to let traditional religious law get in the way of the work of God. It is all too easy for us to use law and tradition as excuses for not doing God’s work. Caring for people in genuine need must always be a higher priority.
3. After healing the man, Jesus disappeared into the crowd, and the man had no idea who had healed him. This was typical of Jesus. He did not help people to draw attention to himself or to promote his message. He helped people because they needed help. We need to be wary of doing things because they will promote our faith or our church. If we follow Jesus, we will do what needs to be done and then melt into the crowd.

Monday, 25 January 2016

Talking with Jesus - Sunday 24th January 2016

What would it be like to talk with Jesus?
Looking at the story of his encounter with a lone Samaritan woman beside her village well (John 4), we get an insight into what a conversation with Jesus might be like.
The first point to note is how free from prejudice he was. Asking this lone Samaritan woman to give him a drink crossed a number of established social, racial, moral and religious boundaries. Jesus appears unconcerned about such things.
Next, it is well worth noting the gentle way he engaged in the conversation. To begin with, Jesus worked with the subject immediately to hand - drinking water. He was neither dogmatic nor doctrinal, but subtly shifted the conversation from the physical to the spiritual, contrasting well-water with ‘living water’. It sparked a lively conversation. Then, when the woman changed the subject onto places of worship, Jesus went with her and took a similar approach. He engaged her with an intriguing and unexpected perspective on her chosen subject. He did something very similar with his disciples when they arrived and started talking about food.
Jesus did not attempt to control or dominate these conversations. He went with the flow and used the matters in hand as metaphors for spiritual realities. He didn’t change the subject; he raised the subject onto a different level.
Perhaps we should expect God to speak to us in a similar way, reflecting on the mundane things around us, and challenging us to see them as metaphors for more important matters.

Monday, 18 January 2016

Under the radar - Sunday 17th January 2016

Imagine you are at a birthday party and, when the moment comes to bring out the birthday cake, it is found, splattered over the floor, with the dog helping itself to the pieces. Disaster! After sharing the news with a few people, you walk into the kitchen to discover the largest, most splendid birthday cake you ever saw. The candles are lit, and duly blown out. And, as everyone tucks into their slice, there is universal agreement that the cake tastes just as amazing as it looked. But no-one knows where it came from. All the caterers can say is that one of the guests told them to look in a back room, and there it was, ready and waiting.
That - more or less - is what Jesus did at the wedding party in Cana.
There are two things to note: firstly that Jesus solved the crisis with remarkable quality and quantity (he produced a lot of very good wine); secondly, he did it very discreetly (only the servants knew what had happened). That was Jesus’ style, how he usually did things. And that, therefore, is God’s style. God does amazing things but does them amazingly discreetly. The Christmas story carries the same hallmark.
People of faith often like to make a big splash of God’s behalf. If God does something, they want everyone to know. But that isn’t God’s style. Jesus did God’s work without any fanfares, and only the servants knew. That - it seems - is how God tends to do things.

Monday, 11 January 2016

An Animal Perspective - Sunday 10th January 2016

When Jesus was baptised in the River Jordan, there were two animal references: the Spirit of God descended on Jesus in the form of a pigeon (most Bibles use the nicer sounding word “dove” but pigeons and doves are the same thing); and John the Baptist pointed out Jesus to some of his disciples saying, “here is the lamb of God”.
Pigeons and lambs are notably low status animals, which rest at the bottom end of the food chain. They were common creatures in that part of the world.
There is a long association of animals with deities in the history of religion. As a general rule, deities were associated with strong and powerful animals: lions, bulls, eagles etc. In the coming of Jesus, God was doing something quite different, and these two animal references express it. God does not come among us in power and strength; he comes among us in a lamb and pigeon sort of way - quietly, humbly, peacefully, gently and vulnerably. 
God chooses to meet us on at lower end of life’s pecking order.

Monday, 4 January 2016

Noticing the Star - Sunday 3rd January 2016

There is nothing in the Bible to suggest that the star which the Magi saw was particularly bright. Indeed, the fact that so few people seem to have noticed it would imply that it wasn’t particularly bright at all. God did an amazing thing, putting a new star in the sky, and yet only a handful of people seem to have noticed. The same pattern is there in the story of the shepherds: a whole host of angels appeared to announce Jesus’ birth, but only a handful of lowly shepherds saw them.
God was doing something amazing, but only a few people knew. (Possibly no more than 10.) Which raises a question: Why them?
Millions of people celebrate Christmas, and there a billions of people on our planet, but only a relatively small proportion take much interest in what God was actually doing in the birth of Jesus. Are we special? The shepherds weren’t. Perhaps, like the Magi, we are the ones who cared to look, and bothered to respond. But they weren’t necessarily the wisest of wise people, and neither are we.
As Christians, we may be a small minority. But if, by some accident of circumstances, we have become linked to Jesus’ story, then we have a part to play. The Magi and the shepherds got off their backsides and did something. So must we!