Sunday, 24 December 2017

Silent Night - Christmas Eve 2017

There’s a saying, ‘It’s not what you do, but the way that you do it.’ This is particularly appropriate when it comes to the Christmas story. In so many parts of our lives, the way that we do things says far more about us than the actions themselves. There is a world of difference between a graciously given gift and a grudgingly given one - even if the gift itself is exactly the same.
The bare fact of the Christmas story - according to Christian tradition - is that God’s son was born in a human family. There were many stories in ancient mythologies of gods having children. The thing that makes the birth of Jesus stand out is the way that it happened. The demi-gods of Greek and Roman myth were the result of assaults and affairs by arrogant and manipulative deities. The story of Jesus’ birth, however, throws a very different light on the author of the Universe.
Putting aside the iconic images of a stable, a donkey, a kindly innkeeper and a star that could be seen even in daylight (these are all later, European embellishments), consider the baby, wrapped in strips of cloth, and lying in an animals’ food trough because there was no space in the house.
There are indeed a few remarkable and miraculous events in this story: an army of angels appeared, but only a handful of shepherds saw them; a significant star was spotted in the eastern sky, but only by a small group of mystics. Mostly, the story of Jesus’ birth is remarkably unremarkable.
One important detail is generally taken for granted: that Jesus was born in the middle of the night. A world-changing event was happening in Bethlehem, and 99.9% of the people in the neighbourhood were fast asleep at the time.
It’s not what you do; its the way that you do it. God did the most remarkable thing in human history so quietly that almost nobody noticed it had happened.
At Christmas time we are highly sensitised to the many traumas in our world. It is natural for us to ask what God is doing about such things. In answer to that question: whatever God is doing, he is almost certainly doing it very quietly, because that’s the way God does things.
Happy Christmas.

Tuesday, 19 December 2017

God's New Brand - Sunday 17th December 2017

Names are always important. Whether it’s parents choosing a name for their child or the launch of a new business, a name says something. The internet age has brought us a new generation of sassy and witty company names, designed to express the ethos of the brand, to be easily remembered and to appear at the top of the search engine lists. Back in New Testament times, names were no less important.
In ancient Jewish culture many people were given names that were a complete sentence in themselves, in much the same way that some on-line businesses do today.
In English, the name ‘Jesus’ doesn’t really mean anything. It’s just a word. But if you scroll back through the Latin (Iesus) and the Greek (Iesous), you get to the name that Mary and Joseph actually called their son: Yeshuah. They didn’t choose the name themselves; it was picked by God, who gave specific instructions through Archangel Gabriel. “You shall call him Yeshuah”.
To an English speaker, the name Yeshuah has no more meaning than the name Jesus, but Mary and Joseph weren’t English speakers. To them the archangel’s instruction was, “You shall call him ‘God Rescues’". Just like many companies today, God chose a name that went straight to the point.
Imagine the scene: on a hot, sunny day in ancient Nazareth - countless times - Mary must have stepped out of her kitchen and shouted for all the village to hear, “God Rescues, your supper’s ready!” Years later - also countless times - Mary’s son would have done the ancient equivalent of offering an introductory handshake while saying, “I’m God Rescues.”
God’s choice of name doesn't specify what he rescues us from. Like much of Jesus’ teaching, that is left open ended. It is enough for his name to assure us that God is on our side, and cares for us, and doesn’t want to leave us in the mess or a muddle of our lives.
God chose a powerful brand name. It's rather a shame that we have lost its impact through the meandering journey between languages.

Wednesday, 13 December 2017

Something Quite Different - Sunday 10th December 2017

Have you ever been in the classic situation, when speaking with someone who doesn't understand your language, of talking louder in the hope that they will then be able to understand? It seems to be a natural reaction to the situation, but we all know it doesn’t work.
The Christian Church and its message has been failing to resonate with the majority of people in the westernised world for many years now, and we are not going to solve this problem by delivering the same old messages again and again, but louder.
This challenge, that Christians face in many parts of the world, is nothing new. The prophets of the Old Testament had a similar experience; no-one was listening to them. God addressed this situation by doing something quite different. Enter John the Baptist.
John the Baptist walked away from the centuries-old Jewish traditions of divine law and sacrificial ritual. He made minimal reference to either law or ritual. His message was still Judaism, but Judaism-lite, very ‘lite' indeed. "Change your approach,” John challenged the crowds who were drawn to this new teaching. “The influence of God is all around you.” John had dispensed with Temple and synagogue, with law and tradition, and with sacrifice and regular worship. He replaced these staples of religion with a super-simple message of generosity and decency, combined with a zero-expense faith-action that anyone could do anywhere - emersion in water.
John’s Judaism-lite was an instant success. His message spread far and wide across the Jewish networks of the day. By the time that Matthew, Mark, Luke and John sat down to to write their Gospels, each in their own way began by saying: you’ve already heard about John the Baptist; now learn about Jesus.
John came as a warm-up act for Jesus, and we still need him today. Traditional Christianity has lost its potency. We won’t achieve anything by saying the same things, but louder. We need to follow John’s lead; we need to dispense with the over complex moral and religious packaging of our traditions. Instead we need to focus on the oh-so-simple message of John and Jesus: be honest, be caring, be generous, be forgiving - for this is the way of God.

Tuesday, 5 December 2017

Clearing Up the Mess - Sunday 3rd December 2017

The world is full of mess. We know that. From the rubble of Syria to the floating islands of plastic in our oceans there is plenty of evidence that our world is in a mess. Is it a hopeless mess? Or - as we limber up for the Christmas season - is there a thread of hope that things can, and will, get better?
The core message of Christmas is that God came into the world to address this problem, to deal with the mess. This sounds like good news, but how does his clear-up work?
We have a tendency to think of God as a divine chief executive of the heavenly council. We expect God to devote his infinite resources to a large scale clean-up of humanity’s messiness. Then we look around us and wonder what on Earth God is doing about the problems that we see.
One quick look at the Christmas story shows us that God didn’t come as a political power broker; he came as a powerless child, born into poverty and obscurity. God didn’t show himself to be an all achieving chief executive, instead he came into this world with just a proverbial bin bag and a sturdy pair of figurative gloves.
When we see litter in our streets, we can hope that the council will pay someone to clean it up. They may. We can lobby the council to devote more funding to street cleaning. They might. Alternatively, we can bend down and pick it up ourselves. This is the approach that God took in the birth of Jesus. He came among us as one of us and taught us to care for and forgive one another.
There is hope. We are that hope. If we want our world to be less of a mess, we need follow God’s example, and roll up our symbolic sleeves, and start making a difference.

Tuesday, 28 November 2017

Who Owns Christmas? - Sunday 26th November 2017

Love it or hate it, Christmas is coming. In Christian circles the arrival of Christmas is accompanied by a raft of complaints that the birth of Jesus has been squeezed out, that commercialism has taken over, and that Christmas isn’t about Jesus any more.
The truth is that Christmas didn't start out as a Christian festival. Long before Christianity came to northern Europe, people celebrated Yule on midwinter's night. They decorated their homes with evergreen plants, and lit lights to mark the resurgence of the sun and it’s victory over death and darkness. In Scandinavia, they believed that the god Odin rode across the sky that night on his 8 hoofed horse, reassuring humanity that light and life were on their way. With the arrival of Christianity, the traditional Yule decorations were reinterpreted as symbols of God’s light coming into the world, and Odin was rebranded as St Nicholas.
As Christmas didn’t originally belong to Christianity, Christians don’t need to feel resentful about it’s secular features. We would do better to follow the good example of our forebears, who accepted the enduring popularity of the festival and used it as an opportunity to draw attention to the good news about Jesus.
The European winter festival has always been about hope and good news. Deep in the heart of Yule was a belief that good is stronger than evil, life is stronger than death, and light stronger than darkness. These same themes lie at the heart of the Christian good news. As St John put it, "The true light, which enlightens everyone, was coming into the world.”
The key task for Christians at Christmas-time is to draw attention to the real hope that the world can be a better, brighter place if people follow the example and teaching of Jesus. And we need to do that, not by getting grumpy, but in the same quiet, humble and gentle manner that God came into our world.

Tuesday, 14 November 2017

A Better World - Sunday 12th November 2017

Is the world becoming a better place or a worse place than it used to be?
There seems to be a feeling around that things are getting worse. This is sad. It is also worrying for Christians, because we have a message to proclaim that Jesus came to show us a better way of being in this world. If the world is getting worse, then those of us who are custodians of Jesus’ message aren’t doing our job very well.
Jesus showed very little interest politics on any level, neither did he get involved in the legal process of his day - even though other rabbis were central to the legal system, and many of them were active politicians. The essence of Jesus’ message (in both word and action) was that politics and law will not make this world any better. What is needed is for ordinary people to take more responsibility for caring for those around them - especially those in particular need.
If we want our world to be better, then we need to start by making it better for the next person we meet, and the person after them, and so on. Every time we encounter someone we have the opportunity to make their day better or worse. If we achieve the former, then the world is a better place.
What we see and read in the news is not an accurate measure of whether the world is a better place or not. Jesus told his disciples, “There will be wars and rumours of wars, but that is not the end of it.” Two thousand years later, there are still wars and rumours of wars (there’s not a lot that you or I can do about that), and the world still hasn’t ended.
What you and I can do is to make the world a better place, at least for a short while, for the people we meet this week. Let’s do it.

Tuesday, 7 November 2017

Fighting Back - Sunday 5th November 2017

I get very irritated by the inconsiderate and impatient drivers who speed around London, pushing to the front of traffic queues. Their rudeness brings rudeness out of me. When they try to push in front of my car, I try to squeeze them out. I get cross and agitated, and express my annoyance. I don’t think I’m the only one.
Jesus advises a different way of responding to the irritations around us. He didn’t have to cope with London drivers, but - having walked around the narrow alleys of ancient Capernaum - I suspect that tempers got stretched there just as much as they do in our over-crowded streets.
Jesus advised the ordinary folk of Capernaum: “Don’t resist tedious people. If someone slaps you on one cheek, let them slap the other. If someone sues you, give them more than they are asking for. If someone forces you to go out of your way for them, go even further. And if anyone asks something of you, give it to them." (See Matthew 5:39-32 for the official version.) In short: go around this world with a generous heart.
We like to feel in control of our lives: our time, our bodies and our money. When we do not feel in control, we get stressed: our heartbeat rises, adrenaline flows, our fight/flight instincts take over. Jesus proposes a different way. We don’t need to be in control. We don’t need to protect our dignity. God loves us, and he loves those challenging people just as much as he loves us. ‘An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth’ is not God’s way.
Jesus didn’t just teach this different way, he lived it. When 5000 people gatecrashed a quiet day out with his disciples, he loved them, taught them and fed them. And ultimately, when the Jewish authorities decided that he had to be killed, Jesus let them do even that. That’s how he chose to save the world.
We don’t have to push back. We don’t need to resist. There is a better way. God loves those annoying and demanding people, and he wants us to love them too.

Monday, 23 October 2017

Real-World Belief - Sunday 22nd October 2017

We have a set of new chairs at our church. They look robust and comfortable, and I believe that they will hold my weight, but just believing that doesn’t mean very much. For my belief in the chairs to be of any real value I need to trust my backside to them and sit down. That’s what chairs are for. If I do lower my rear end onto a new chair, I will be taking a risk. If it isn’t robust, I might end up on the floor in an undignified clatter of broken wood. It's a risk. But it's a risk I have to take or my faith in the manufacturer will be nothing more than a pointless waste of money.
In the Christian faith we talk a lot about believing in Jesus. That’s only a start, like ordering a chair on the internet, believing it will be what is needed. The next stage is the critical one: trusting our lives to Jesus’ message and teaching. That’s the risky part. If it doesn’t work, we might end up on the floor in an undignified clatter of broken expectations.
Jesus' message was real-world insight, not a selection of fanciful sacred mysteries. He told people they could trust God’s love and forgiveness, that they didn’t need to be afraid of breaking religious rules or missing religious rituals. He taught that the only thing which ultimately matters is loving and forgiving the people around us. Jesus was liberating people from the fear and oppression of overbearing religion, and drawing them into real-world relationship with his loving heavenly father.
In today’s world we have different fears. We fear that life may be meaningless, that we may just be a cosmic accident. We fear that if we are not happy, we might be wasting our lives. We need to trust Jesus. Life does have meaning; we are loved; and the purpose of life is to love other people, not just ourselves.
If we lean on these principles, we risk failure. Trust always involves risk. But my experience is that Jesus’ teaching, when put to real-world test, won’t let you down.

Thursday, 19 October 2017

On-Call - Sunday 15th October 2017

When and where are you most likely to receive instructions from God about what he would like you to do?
I rather suspect that the most common reply to that question would indicate praying as the activity most inclined to make us aware of God's purpose for us, but the story of the Bible suggests otherwise.
Moses heard God’s call when he was tending his family's sheep, as did David, and probably Amos. Gideon heard it when threshing grain. Elisha while ploughing a field. Peter, Andrew, James & John were called by Jesus while fishing. All these people were called into God’s service while they were at work. Isaiah may seem like an exception; he saw a vision of God while he was in the temple. But Isaiah wasn’t there for his personal devotions. He was a priest. He was at work.
There’s a definite pattern here. In almost all the Bible stories of people being called by God to do a particular task, that calling took place when they were at work. Jacob and Elijah are an exception - they were running away from trouble. Samuel and Jeremiah were only children at the time, and Paul was busy hunting down Christians.
It almost seems that the message from God is, “Don’t call me; I’ll call you.”
Our primary calling in life is to work hard for our families and our communities. By carefully serving those around, we serve God. If there’s something extra that God needs us to do - he will let us know.
Consider yourself to be on-call.

Thursday, 12 October 2017

The Good, the Bad & the Ugly - Sunday 8th October 2017

When things go right for us, we like to think that it is because we have done well and are reaping our just rewards. If we include God in this picture, we like to think that God is blessing us because he is pleased with us.
When things go wrong, on the other hand, we quickly assume that someone has fouled up and we are suffering for their mistake. Some of us will be inclined to take the blame on ourselves; some will tend to point the finger of blame at others. If we include God in this picture we conclude that either God has inexplicably failed to look after us, or that we are being punished for our (or someone else’s) failing.
This is normal human behaviour. We learn this process of apportioning blame and credit from an early age.
Jesus sees it differently. He said, “[God] makes his sun rise on the evil and on the good, and sends rain on the righteous and on the unrighteous.”
God is indiscriminate when it comes to blessing people. If we are enjoying God’s blessing, it doesn’t mean we are better than anyone else. If the rain falls on us at just the wrong moment, it doesn’t mean we are worse. God delights to bless all his people - good and bad alike, and that’s how he wants us to treat each other.
Let us not be judgmental about who we help, who we support, and who we devote our energies to. We are children of the God who provided for Adam and Eve both before and after they disregarded the one and only rule he had given them. We need to follow his example.

Wednesday, 4 October 2017

Right Tool for the Job - Sunday 1st October 2017

It always feels good to have just the right tool for the job. Whether it be a kitchen knife or a chisel, dressmaking scissors or a screwdriver, any task is easier if you have the right tool in your hands. When you stop to think about it, we all have a staggering collection of tools around us, from tin openers to marker pens, vacuum cleaners to smart phones, and we have a fairly good idea of which tools are needed for which jobs. You’re not going to try fixing a hook to your wall using a potato peeler!
There is a sense in which each of us is a tool in God’s tool kit of love and grace. Like all our different tools, we are each different before God. Some of us are good for one thing, some for another. Indeed, looking across the entire human race, God’s tool kit has no duplicates. Each one of us is just what God needs to complete intricate parts of his design for the world.
The Christian church has a long history of homogenising people, causing us to become more and more like each other. You can see this in our worship. We all stand to sing; we all sit to listen; we all kneel to pray. In churches where people raise their hands in worship - everyone raises their hands. In churches where people cross themselves to pray - everyone crosses themselves. This seems to run counter to what we learn of God through the Bible. Moses saw a burning bush, but God didn’t use that method again. Gideon saw an angel sitting under a tree - unique. Isaiah saw angels flying around the temple - unique. What we see is that God calls everyone in a unique way, and in doing so calls them to unique tasks. He never repeats himself.
You are unique. You have skills and opportunities to share God’s love that nobody else will ever have. Just because you don’t have a sense of calling like this person, or don’t do the things being done by that person, doesn’t mean you are not called, or do not have things to do for God. You are called to be you, not to be them. There’s no point trying to be like them, because they will always be better at it. What no-one else can do as well as you, is to be you.
God delights in difference. Every tool in his toolkit has a unique purpose. You - with your own assortment of strengths and weaknesses, fears and insecurities - are just what God needs to do something wonderful. So do it!

Monday, 25 September 2017

Father of the Bride - Sunday 24th September 2017

I write this in the warm but tired afterglow of my eldest daughter’s wedding. As father of the bride it was my ceremonial duty to walk my daughter down the aisle. At the end of the day it was my practical duty to oversee the clear-up of the reception venue. In between times it was my joy to tell her how wonderful she is, and my choice to deal with an unfortunate misunderstanding with the venue management. All in all, it was my delight and my duty to be there, to be there in an active and supportive way, but it was her event and it was wonderful.
God repeatedly promises to ‘be there’ for us. From Genesis to Revelation, the promise is repeated, “I will be with you”. Indeed, God’s name - Yahweh - (which is sadly airbrushed from most English translations) carries an implicit promise of God’s constant presence. It is no surprise to note Jesus’ parting words to his disciples in Matthew’s gospel: “I will be with you always, to the end of the age."
The idea of God's presence, on its own, could be either a promise or a threat. At times God has been presented as one who is watching us constantly, meticulously recording our every mistake. That is not a reassuring presence and is not a helpful image of God.
Jesus spoke of God as being our loving father - like the father of the bride. He is walks silently beside us when we are nervous; he praises us when we do well; he gently directs us when we are worrying about things; he works discretely behind the scenes to help us out; and he willingly clears up our mess at the end of the day.
In a formal way at the wedding I let my daughter go, to live her life with her lovely husband, equipped with the principles of her upbringing, and reassured that I will be there for her whenever wanted or needed. I suspect God has a similar approach. He doesn’t micro-manage us. He shares his principles with us and then lets us go into our lives, reminding us that he will always be there to share our joys and our struggles whenever wanted or needed.

Monday, 18 September 2017

An Undesirable Job - Sunday 18th September 2017

Being a shepherd on the arid hillsides of the middle east is not a romantic occupation. Anyone who has visited that part of the world will be familiar with the sight of young men, standing in the middle of nowhere, with a long stick slung across their shoulders, surrounded by sheep. It is a boring job which involves long hours outside in the heat of the day. And, being a task that requires little skill or agility, it generally falls to teenagers or old men.
This situation was no different in the ancient world. When Jesus spoke of himself being a 'good shepherd’ he was playing on people’s prejudices against those who worked on the lowest rung of society’s ladder. Western art presents the image of Jesus as the Good Shepherd as a romantic icon, but that is not at all how the idea resonated when Jesus first said it. John’s gospel tells us that the immediate reaction of Jesus' audience was to exclaim, ‘He's out of his mind!’
By likening himself to a shepherd, Jesus was expressing astounding humility, presenting God's care and provision as an act of lowly service. By casting himself as a good shepherd, Jesus was stressing that he was proud to fulfil such a role, and do it with unprecedented care. The nearest equivalent in our modern world would be a toilet attendant who doesn’t just clean the toilets but who polishes them as well.
This is our God! God gladly takes on the undesirable role of looking after the human race, and does so with a wholehearted dedication and affection which borders on absurdity. God is proud to be a shepherd, and a good one at that.
As you go about your business, be sure to notice the low paid, low status workers - those who do the tasks no-one else wants to do. Pause to appreciate them. These are Jesus’ sort of people.

Monday, 11 September 2017

Forgiveness, Up Front - Sunday 10th September 2017

There is a long established understanding in western culture that forgiveness needs to be asked for. Just like groceries have to be paid for, forgiveness comes at a price. In order to be forgiven, you have to apologise, and you have to give reasonable assurances that you won’t do it again (whatever it was). This transactional approach to forgiveness runs deeply in our everyday lives. We allow relationships to fall into ruin while we wait for the other person to say 'sorry' - firm in our resolve that we can't forgive until they repent. 
This is not how God understands forgiveness.
In Jesus’ parable of the Prodigal Son, the young man finally sees the error of his ways and carefully constructs a proposal that he hopes will bring about a partial reconciliation with his father. (It appears that ancient Judaism had a similar idea of forgiveness to ours). However, as soon as the young man came within sight of his home, Jesus departs from the usual script. The young man never gets to express his apology or to propose his compromise. Instead, his father runs down the road to welcome him with a vast embrace and showers him with gifts. No apology is needed, nor any promise of reform. In Jesus’ story, forgiveness is an expression of the father’s love, and not the fruit of the son’s contrition. The young man had been forgiven all along, but only came to know that when he finally went home.
This idea that forgiveness is given, not asked for, is played out in the story of St Paul’s ‘conversion’. While Paul was actively working on the downfall of Christianity, God reached out to him and recruited him as missioner to the Gentile world. Any apologies or promises of reform came later in the process; what came first -for Paul - was God’s overwhelming forgiveness.
When we hold back, waiting for apologies and promises, we allow valuable relationships to shrivel and die. Godly forgiveness is pro-active. It is given before it is asked for. And, if the offender fails to reform, God asks us to keep on forgiving them.
St Peter asked Jesus how many times it was reasonable to forgive a repeat offender - as many as seven times? “No” Jesus replied. (I suspect with a wry smile.) “Seventy times seven times.”
Waiting for people to reform before we forgive them is not God's way. God’s way is to keep forgiving people until they reform.

Wednesday, 6 September 2017

Sing a New Song - Sunday 3rd September 2017

The psalms of the Old Testament repeatedly urge us to ‘sing a new song’. Of course, from the point of view of ancient Israel’s song writers this was a good way of promoting business, but there is more to their repeated lyric than that. These encouragements to sing a new song (including one in the book of Isaiah) all come from the period after the destruction of Israel and Judah, when the spiritual leaders of the Jews were looking to rebuild their nation and their faith.
That’s why they needed a new song. The old songs had failed. They needed something new.
Singing played a central role in ancient societies. It was a primary means of communication and information storage. Before people had books or wrote letters, they shared and remembered ideas using songs. After the total disaster of the collapse of their nation, their culture and their religion, the ancient Jews were very much in need of a new song.
We live in an age when organised Christianity, once supremely influential in Europe and beyond, is in ongoing and prolonged decline. Organised religion, which once commanded universal respect, is now considered with deep suspicion.
We need a new song.
The rising generation of young people have almost no interest in visiting exclusive religious institutions to sing exclusive religious songs.
We need a new song.
That said, this new song - whatever it may be - may not be a song at all. Communal singing in general has declined in recent decades. What we need is a new communication, a new way of placing the knowledge of God’s love and God’s way into the hearts and minds of ordinary people. For too long, churches have plodded on in the hope that people will come back. They won’t. Time doesn’t go backwards.
Whether of not it actually involves singing, we need a new song.

Saturday, 2 September 2017

The Stuff of God - Sunday 27th August 2017

To read this, you are using (or have used) a devise that has metal at its heart. Have you ever paused to wonder where metal comes from? Metal can only be formed when a very large star explodes in a supernova. (Our own star, the Sun, wouldn’t be nearly big enough). So, what you are looking at right now is the direct result of an immense explosion in space. Quite literally, you are holding a piece of star dust. Indeed, you yourself are made of star dust.
That is amazing, but it is not the most amazing thing about us human beings. Far more amazing than the atoms that make up our little bodies is our capacity to care for each other, to disadvantage ourselves for the benefit of another person. Metal is relatively common in the universe, but as far as we can currently tell, the only place you will see love in action is right here on this rocky little planet we call Earth.
Where does love come from? Love is not forged in the heart of a dying star (romantic though that notion sounds). We may be made of star dust, but our faltering acts of love and care have an even more astounding place of origin - God.
Jesus’ disciple, John, summed up the essence of his rabbi’s message like this: “God is love. Whoever lives in love, lives in God, and God lives in them.” Sweeping aside all the ins and outs of religious law and tradition, John reduces human meaning to its most fundamental ingredient - acts of practical love. Love comes from God. Love only comes from God; it has no other source. And only love comes from God. Love is the very essence of God. When we chose to love and care for our fellow human beings, we are doing the work of God. And when we fail to love and care for our fellow humans, whatever our claims to have faith, we are nowhere near God’s page.
Love is the stuff of God. When anyone is doing love, they are doing God stuff, an God is working directly through them - whatever their background or belief system.
I’ll let John have the last word. “ Friends, let us love one another, because love is from God; everyone who loves is born of God and knows God. Whoever does not love does not know God, for God is love."

Tuesday, 22 August 2017

Household Rules - Sunday 20th August 2017

Rules and laws come in a variety or shapes and sizes, from international law down to local custom. They tell you what you can or cannot do, threatening punishment to anyone who steps out of line. From speed limits to dress codes we are used to our lives being boundaried in this way, and are generally aware of the sanctions that will be applied if we don’t obey.
Laws come in a pecking order: international law is at the top, then European law, then national law, all the way down to the places we work or the clubs we belong to. At the bottom of this legal ladder we have our own household rules - the way we expect things to be done in our homes. At their best household rules require no threat of punishment. The message is simply: this is how we do things here; if you are part of our family, please do things our way - thank you.
And then there is God’s law. How does that fit into this picture? Religion and law have gone hand in hand as long as there has been religion, and religions have a bad habit of placing their laws high above all others. The threatened sanctions of religious law are no less ambitious: if you don’t keep within this god-given law (as we interpret it) you will be eternally damned. No pressure then!
In his letter to first century Christians, John, like Jesus and Paul before him, sought to turn this right upside down. We are not God’s subjects or his servants, such that we would be subject to his laws. We are God’s children. There are no laws for God’s children, and if there are no laws there can be no law-breaking (sin), and if there is no law-breaking there is no fear of punishment.
As God’s children we are not threatened into submission, we are loved into loving.
As God's children, all we have to do is follow two household rules: Love God (who loved you first), and look after each other. (You achieve the former by doing the latter.) This is how God does things; if you are part of his family, please do things his way - thank you.
Sadly, down the centuries, those who have claimed to be following Jesus have failed to keep it that simple. Laws have crept in, lots of them, with the religious leaders claiming that the laws came from God.
They didn’t.
God doesn’t do law and punishment, he does love and forgiveness. There's just the house rules. That’s all.

Wednesday, 16 August 2017

God Goggles - Sunday 13th August 2017

Most of us have a wish list of things we would like to have, places we would like to go and things we would like to do. Every time we turn our our televisions or our computers we get bombarded with new ideas to add to the list. The world around us wants us to have more stuff, to do new things and go to different places. It’s good for the world’s economy.
With this constant bombardment of potential wants, our wish list can easily turn into a life plan. The things we want become the things we need. The places we’d like to go become the places we must go. And, little bit by little bit, our wishes take over our lives.
John (Jesus’ beloved disciple) wrote a letter to the followers of Jesus scattered across the Greek speaking world. In it he did his best to express the essence of Jesus’ message. No surprise - it is all about love. John reminds us that loving people needs to be a higher priority to loving the things that the world has on offer.
Imagine going about your daily business wearing a pair of glasses that only showed you people, and not things. Your view of the world would be very different. None of the stuff, or fashion, or style would show up - just the people. Then imagine a further feature to these remarkable glasses, so that people’s primary needs were highlighted. You would see the loneliness of the lonely person, the hunger of the hungry person, the sadness of the grieving person and the fear of the scared person. Imagine that view. You would go about your business with your attention continually drawn to the things you can do to be practically useful to the people around you.
This is how Jesus looked at the world around him - indifferent to wealth or status, yet keenly alert to people’s needs.
Sadly, such God Goggles are not available on the internet. Instead we need to develop godly vision by going about our lives with hearts that are open to God and to the people we meet.

Monday, 17 July 2017

Who to Choose - Sunday 16th July 2017

Imagine yourself in a familiar place where there are a number of other people as well as yourself. Then imagine that Jesus walked into that place. Who would he go to first? Who would Jesus sit with, or stand with, or talk with?
The general practice of Christian worship is that people sit in rows while the leader addresses everyone at once, so the scenario above doesn’t come quickly to mind when we think about Jesus. But we know from the Gospels that he did a lot of his ministering on a one to one basis, often ignoring the larger gathering to focus on an individual.
So, in your imagined situation, who would Jesus go to?
A year or so into Jesus’ public ministry, John the Baptist was having second thoughts. It seems that Jesus wasn’t being the kind of Messiah that John was expecting. So he sent some of his disciples to Jesus to double check. Was Jesus the one whose arrival John had been proclaiming, or should he look out for someone else?
Jesus drew the visitors’ attention to the rag-tag assortment of humanity that surrounded him. "Go and tell John what you have seen and heard: the blind receive their sight, the lame walk, the lepers are cleansed, the deaf hear, the dead are raised, the poor have good news brought to them.”
The emphasis here is not on the miracle cures, but on the people themselves: those who are blind, or lame, or disfigured, or deaf, or dying, or poor - the disenfranchised people who begged a living on the suspicion-clouded fringes of ordinary society. These people - as Jesus saw it - were the shining stars of God’s kingdom. And the fact that they were being loved and helped, was the best available proof that God’s anointed one had indeed arrived.
When Jesus walked into a place, he looked out for the person who most needed his love - be that a blind beggar, or a staggeringly wealthy but guilt-ridden and lonely tax collector. As we seek to continue his work in our daily lives, we need to do the same.

Wednesday, 12 July 2017

What's the Point - Sunday 9th July 2017

What is the key to true religion? If you consider the world’s major faiths, the central features of religion seem to be: iconic buildings, long-followed traditions, regular rituals, frequent prayer, and particular beliefs. Whatever order you may rank these features in, 21st century Christianity fits the pattern with its church buildings, its services of worship, its customs of spirituality and its core beliefs.
What does God make of all this?
In the final days of Jesus’ life, he laid out to his followers the criteria by which God will judge all the people of our little planet. His message was quite clear. God will assess us according to how we have responded to the practical needs of those in greatest need who are not managing to care for themselves. To make the point quite clear, Jesus repeated it four times. (See Matthew 25:31-46). With that point made, his message makes no mention whatsoever of beliefs, prayers, or patterns or places of worship. These things simply do not feature.
Some decades later, Jesus’ brother, James, turned his attention to the same theme. He expressed a similar understanding to that of his much more famous brother: "Religion that is pure and undefiled before God is this: to care for orphans and widows in their distress”.
Put simply - if our acts worship, our prayers and our beliefs encourage and enable us to offer practical care to those who need our assistance, then they may be of some value. But if our practice of worship and our understanding of God does not lead us into practical care, then our religion is quite pointless.

Monday, 3 July 2017

Immigrants - Sunday 2nd July 2017

Immigration is a major issue across the world at present. It has been a key factor in recent elections including Britain, France and the USA. Italy is expressing major concern about it. This is nothing new. Immigration was a significant issue back in the days of Moses.
As the Israelites were preparing to live in their own land for the first time, God gave them comprehensive guidance through Moses as to how they should conduct themselves. The subject of how they should treat immigrants features repeatedly. That divinely inspired guidance is just as pertinent today as it was over three thousand years ago.
The first instruction is that there should be one law for everyone, native and immigrant. This repeated instruction gives immigrants equal rites and it also gives them equal responsibilities. Immigrants are to be treated no differently from anyone else. This equality extended to worship. All immigrants were invited (but not commanded) to take part in Jewish worship.
The second instruction set up a welfare provision to meet the basic needs of all immigrants who had yet to settle and make provision for themselves. It amounted to a 3.3% tax on all income to provide for people in immediate need of support - whether native or immigrant. There was a parallel requirement on businesses to allow a margin of inefficiency in order to provide for those who were disenfranchised.
All this provided a robust and generous welcome to immigrants in Israel, but Moses’ instruction goes even further. "The immigrant who resides with you shall be to you as the citizen among you; you shall love the immigrant as yourself.”
This instruction to love immigrants as we love ourselves leaves no room for doubt in how we need to approach this controversial issue.
There is a natural fear of uncontrolled immigration which touches us all in one way or another, but God calls us to rise above it. All the people on this planet are loved by God, whoever they are and wherever they are. We must love them too.

Monday, 26 June 2017

Sorted! - Sunday 25th June 2017

Jesus’ judgement-related parables do not make comfortable reading for a 21st century audience. There was a time when the fear and threat of divine judgement was the staple diet of western Christianity, but in recent decades churches have tended to shy away from the theme.
What makes us feel uncomfortable is the mental image of God as a high court judge, condemning and sentencing the guilty. However, that is not the image that Jesus was trying to convey. They didn’t have that kind of judge in his day. A judge’s task was to settle disputes and resolve muddle.
One of Jesus’ parables presents a fishing net, full of all kinds of fish. The part that God’s kingdom plays is to sort out the catch, putting the good fish into baskets and getting rid of the bycatch. In another parable he talks in terms of wheat and weeds, but the message is the same. When the right time comes, God will sort it all out. The good grain will be preserved, and the weeds disposed of.
Jesus’ message is - as always - down to earth. What is kept is everything that is fitting, real and genuine. What is thrown out is anything which is tedious, painful or grievous. (This is the true meaning of the words usually translated as ‘righteous’ and ‘evil’)
Putting aside the unhelpful image of a vengeful judge, it would be better to see God as a loving and concerned parent, tidying up their child’s messy room. When the time is right, God will tidy up this world. He will put all the useful stuff in its rightful place, and will deal appropriately with all the rubbish, the dirty washing and the mouldy sandwiches.

Sunday, 18 June 2017

Silently effective - Sunday 18th June 2017

One of my domestic pleasures is baking my own bread. I maintain a small blue pot containing a live yeast culture. All I have to do, each day, is to mix half of my yeast culture into some flour and water, add a little salt, knead it all together, and leave the dough to slowly rise until the loaf is light and fluffy and ready for baking. This is the very same method for baking bread that was used in the ancient world.
Jesus said that God’s work is like yeast, which when mixed into flour, silently leavens the dough.
Christians often make the mistake of muddling up the church and the kingdom of God, assuming that Jesus’ parable is about the growth of the church (their own church in particular). It is not. Jesus parables about God’s kingdom are not about the church as an organisation, but give us insight into how God is working in this world, day by day, community by community.
God’s kingdom is not showy or attention seeking; it does not draw attention to itself in any way. It works silently and unseen to bring life, love and forgiveness to the world.
When I carefully shape my daily bread into a loaf, I cannot see the yeast, or hear it, and it’s effect on the dough is so slow that I cannot see the change taking place. But as long as the yeast is there, doing it’s discreet work, I know my bread will rise and - come lunchtime - I will have a lovely crusty loaf.
We do not need to announce to the world what we are doing in God’s name. We simply need to mix ourselves into our communities and make a godly difference.

Tuesday, 13 June 2017

Buried Treasure - Sunday 11th June 2017

I’m guessing that you have at some point in your life indulged in a fantasy about discovering buried treasure, which solves all your financial worries for life. It's a common human daydream and one that goes back a very long way. People had similar fantasies in Jesus’ day, so Jesus composed two parables on the subject.
In his first treasure story, God’s kingdom is likened to treasure buried in a field. Someone discovers it, and pools all their financial resources in order to buy the field and claim the treasure. Like all Jesus’ parables, there are numerous strands to pull on.
The stuff of God is treasure, but it is not ostentatious, showy treasure. God’s treasure is buried; it's hard to notice. Most people don't ever realise it's there. If we are going to notice the things that God treasures, we will need to look very carefully, and we will need to understand what it is that we are looking for: not the things that humans treasure, but the things that God treasures.
In his second treasure parable, Jesus turns the image around. This time God’s kingdom is not like the treasure but like the treasure hunter - a merchant looking for fine pearls. When he finds one of great value, he sells everything he has in order to buy it.
God is a treasure hunter too! God has a fantasy of discovering an unmatchable treasure among the human race. But he isn’t looking for something that will ease his financial anxiety - quite the opposite: God would give up everything to obtain such a treasure.
What is it that God is looking for? Who is it that God is looking for? Perhaps it’s you.

Monday, 5 June 2017

Small and Plain - Sunday 4th June 2017

How do you imagine the Kingdom of God? You may not have a specific visual image for it, but take a moment to consider what images the idea of the Kingdom of God brings up in your mind.
Now picture a seed - not a massive seed like a coconut, nor a beautifully feathered one like a dandelion, nor a tasty one like a sunflower - just an ordinary little brown seed that you might plant in a garden.
Jesus said that the Kingdom of God is like a seed - not a grand or beautiful one - but like a mustard seed, which was the smallest seed commonly used in farming in his day. It is a deliberately anti-heroic image. The kingdom of God is like a small, plain, brown thing - but a small, plain, brown thing that grows.
It is a common error to imagine the things of God as being bright and spectacular. Ancient philosophers spoke of God as being greater than the greatest being imaginable. But remember the story of Elijah: there was a great wind, and an earthquake and a fire, but God wasn’t in any of these; then there came a gentle whisper, and Elijah heard the voice of God. Jesus’ parable of the mustard seed recalibrates our perspective on God. The kingdom of God is like a tiny seed.
Like all of Jesus’ parables, this parable can lead our imaginations down numerous intriguing paths. Here is one of them: the work of God in this world is made up of tiny opportunities - opportunities to love, to care and to forgive. The work of God is not made up of grand gestures, and ecstatic visions, but of the small and plain moments when we choose to do the godly thing. These barely noticeable incedents of godliness are like seeds; they grow and they bear fruit, and they change the world.
Consider yourself going out into God’s world equipped with a pocketful of small, plain seeds. Keep on the lookout for opportunities to plant them in the everyday needs and struggles of the world around you. This is the kingdom of God.

Monday, 22 May 2017

Size Matters - Sunday 21st May 2017

In the world of education, size matters. The larger a class, the less efficiently pupils learn. Wealthy families pay significant sums of money to put their children in schools with small classes. Political parties promise huge sums of money to reduce class sizes in state run schools. Smaller is almost always better when it comes to learning groups.
Jesus knew this. As a rabbi, he was part of an adult education system that was committed to delivering high quality, wholistic, learning. But Jesus faced a serious problem: his teaching and message was so popular that he soon had too many pupils (disciples). As a result, his educational mission risked becoming inefficient and ineffective.
Rabbinic tradition advised that no rabbi should have more disciples than he could effectively teach. Following this principle, Jesus robustly cut his class size down to just twelve. There must have been a lot of disappointed men and women that day, but Jesus wasn’t trying to build a large movement; he was trying to teach a renewed philosophy of life and faith. At key moments Jesus cut that group down even further, to just three: Peter, James and John.
Most Christian churches fail to be Christlike in this matter. Churches like to be big, and big churches are considered to be successful. But the bigger a church grows, the less efficient it becomes at delivering Jesus’ teaching. Some growing churches wisely sub-divide themselves into small groups where effective learning can take place.
As a teacher, Jesus knew that size matters - smaller is better.

Tuesday, 16 May 2017

Wonderful Disagreement - Sunday 14th May 2017

It's a rather obvious point to make, but a lot of things look very different when seen from different perspectives. Take a simple thing like a cork, for example. Look at it from one angle and you see a circle. Turn it round a bit and you see a rectangle. Two people looking at the same cork from different perspectives could have an intense debate about what shape this thing is. They would both be right - to an extent, and they would both be wrong - to an extent. The truth is that there is more to a humble cork than can be seen from any one viewpoint.
In life, society, church, faith, politics etc. we need differences. Things are complex; no one person's opinion or perspective is complete. Without disagreement we can never grasp the truth. However, human beings have a strong tendency to gather around those people who see things the same way that they do. This happens in churches as well.
In the traditional model of church life, one point of view dominates all others - that of the minister. When that happens, no matter how insightful and saintly the minister may be, there will be important perspectives that are missing. To make the situation worse, there is a high chance that the people who hold those important alternative perspectives will leave and seek a church that sees things their way.
We need differences of opinion, but they are not easy to manage. Moses did not work alone; he worked in partnership with his sister, Miriam, and his brother, Aaron. At some points in their story, the contributions of Miriam and Aaron were essential; at other points their judgement was less good. Stresses developed and God had to take the three of them aside to get their relationship back on track. Forgiveness was required.
We need different perspectives, preferences and priorities in our communities, but that doesn’t mean it will be easy or comfortable. Forgiveness will always be required.

Monday, 8 May 2017

Small is Beautiful - Sunday 7th May 2017

When four young students in ancient Babylon began to meet together to discuss their shared love of the food, customs and beliefs of Jerusalem (their place of birth), something started which had a positive impact on the future of both cities for generations to come.
When four young Galilean fishermen - who often talked together about their hopes for the future of their nation and their faith - decided to take a holiday to listen to the teaching of John the Baptist, something started which continues to have an impact across this planet, even today.
It is amazing what God can do with a handful of people who share a common interest and have the determination to put their ideas into action.
Human culture is frequently obsessed with size. Be it in business, politics or religion, we assume that bigger is better. God appears to see things differently. More often than not, when God does something wonderful its origins lie in efforts of a small group of people who got together around a common interest.
Churchill famously said, “Never was so much owed by so many to so few.” He was referring to the efforts of the Royal Air Force, but the same words could just as well be applied to those whose determined efforts have brought the the good news of God’s love to our corner of this world.
In big church congregations our potency for God’s kingdom is easily lost or diluted. It is when we get together in small groups that things begin to make a difference. Small is indeed beautiful in God’s eyes.

Tuesday, 2 May 2017

Servant of Servants - Sunday 30th April 2017

The resurrection of Jesus was not simply a matter of resuscitation. Jesus, after his death and resurrection, was different to his former self. For a start, he seems to have looked a bit different; people didn’t immediately recognise him (though that may have been because they were not expecting to see him). Also, the post-resurrection Jesus doesn’t seem to to have been subject to the laws of nature in the same way. He appeared and disappeared suddenly - even when the doors were firmly locked for fear of the Jews. In his resurrection, Jesus hadn’t returned to his old life; he had moved on to a new life.
But physical features are not that important. What really matters is character and personality because these are the foundation of our relationship with him. Was this the same Jesus as before? Or a different, heavenly version?
The story of Jesus meeting his disciples by the Sea of Galilee, early one morning after an unsuccessful night’s fishing, shows us that the post-resurrection Jesus was very much the same old Jesus. As he ever did, he surprised and confused his disciples. As he ever did, he cared for and provided for his disciples.
In his resurrection, Jesus hadn’t reverted to being an all-powerful super-being, to be treated with terrified deference. Far from it. After his resurrection, Jesus - who had once washed his friends’ stinking feet - cooked breakfast for them. Jesus hadn’t transformed into a king of kings. He remained, as he had ever been, the servant of servants. And so, we should assume, he remains to this day.

Monday, 24 April 2017

Forgiveness, forgiveness, forgiveness - Sunday 23rd April 2017

When Jesus returned from death on Easter Morning, he caused a lot of confusion. For most of that day his former disciples didn’t know what to make of it, or who to believe. Come evening Jesus finally met up with a group of his followers and demonstrated that the unbelievable rumours of his return were indeed true.
With that fact established, Jesus’ next task was to unfold to them what it had all been for. They had been through a deep trauma, and that trauma had had a clear purpose. Now was the time for him to make that plain (as much as was possible with a group of confused and frightened people).
Most often, when we think about the meaning of Jesus’ resurrection, we think in terms of life after death. That is the obvious conclusion to come to. But that is not the part of it that Jesus saw as being most important. In both surviving accounts of that Easter evening meeting Jesus’ focus was on forgiveness. Luke reports him saying, “forgiveness of sins is to be proclaimed in [my] name to all nations.” John reports him saying, “Receive the Holy Spirit. If you forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven.” Forgiveness is the key to all that happened in those bewildering days of crucifixion and resurrection.
Christian people need to be Easter people. And the key to Easter is forgiveness. We carry on the work of Jesus, not so much by telling the story and persuading people of its truth, but by demonstrating forgiveness and promoting it in the world around us. We need to be campaigners for forgiveness, enthusiasts for forgiveness, champions for forgiveness.

Monday, 10 April 2017

Somewhat Ridiculous - Sunday 9th April 2017

Jesus decided to ride into Jerusalem on a donkey. Normally, he would have walked, but this was no normal day. The excited Galilean pilgrims wanted to crown Jesus as their king; the frightened political elite of Jerusalem wanted to have him executed. It was important that he set the right tone in order to avoid a blood bath - so he decided to ride into Jerusalem on a donkey.
Christian art and iconography shows this event with Jesus sitting with regal dignity on his chosen mount. However, you may like to take a brief break from reading this, and do a Google image search of ‘man riding donkey’. You will quickly see that regal dignity is not the look that goes with donkey riding. Men riding donkeys, the world over, look somewhat ridiculous. The other thing that the Google search reveals is that, aside from tourists and comedians, donkey riding is generally the province of old men who - presumably - struggle to walk. The donkey is the mobility scooter of non-technical society.
Jesus decided to ride into Jerusalem on a donkey. He knew it was important that he set the right tone as he entered the city, so he chose to look somewhat ridiculous; he chose to identify with the arthritic old men; he chose to look un-regal and un-dignified.
As Christians, we are committed to following Jesus as we make our way in a society that is highly image-conscious. So, from time to time, we need to remember to choose the donkey -  to belittle ourselves - to make ourselves look somewhat ridiculous. This is the Jesus way.

Monday, 3 April 2017

Call me 'I Am' - Sunday 2nd April 2017

Names are important. Different people address us differently, depending on their relationship to us. We are familiar with the uncomfortable feeling it leaves when someone addresses us inappropriately. 
In English Bibles, throughout the Old Testament, God is referred to as ‘The LORD’. In the New Testament, the same title is attached to Jesus. But ‘Lord’ is not a title that either God or Jesus encouraged or accepted. The title ‘Lord’ is an impostor, brought into our Bible by careless translation. The people who wrote the Bible were expressing something quite different. 
At the burning bush, Moses asked God his name, and God replied, ‘I am who I am.’ Then God said, ‘Say to the Israelites, “I Am has sent me to you.”’ And in the next verse God adds, 'This is my name for ever, and this my title for all generations.’ In accordance with that instruction, throughout the Hebrew scriptures, God is referred to as ‘Yahweh’ (I Am). But in almost every English translation, by the very next sentence, God’s chosen name, ‘I Am’, is replaced with ‘The LORD’. Throughout the Old Testament, God’s name has been expunged by the translators and replaced with a term from the medieval feudal system, and most English speaking Christians are not even aware of this. 
The same blight affects our New Testaments. The Greek word ‘Kurios’ which was used to address Jesus, is a general term of respectful address for any man - just as English uses ‘Mister’ before a name, or ‘Sir’ in place of it. The same word is still used in Greece today, exactly as we use 'Mister' and ‘Sir’ in English. However in all English translations, instead of translating the word ‘Kurios’ to ‘Mister’ or ’Sir' it is replaced by the title, ‘Lord'. 
Over centuries of Christian tradition, and through decades of our own personal experience, repeatedly addressing God and Jesus as ‘Lord’ has had a profound effect on our faith and our culture. Lordship is about superiority, ownership and control. So when we address God as ‘Lord’ we express ourselves as being inferior, owned and controlled. But this is not how God wishes to relate to us. God’s name, I Am, simply expresses his presence among us as our companion and our guide. And in Jesus God chose to live among us as our brother and our friend. 
Why do we find this so hard to accept? Mostly, I believe, it is simply an engrained habit. People defend the practice by saying that the title, ‘Lord’, expresses our respect for God and Jesus. However, surely it would be more respectful to use the term of address that God himself requested. And God said, ‘Call me I Am'

Monday, 27 March 2017

Universal Motherhood - Sunday 26th March 2017

Everyone has (or had) a mum. But it’s not just us humans who are blessed by motherhood, every animal on this planet has (or had) a mother, and, without exception, those mothers go to remarkable lengths to ensure the best future for their offspring.
And that is only the beginning. Motherhood is not just a biological status. It is a way of living. You don’t need to have biologically reproduced in order to express motherhood; you don’t even need to be female (look up sea horse reproduction!).
In the ancient Jewish story of Ruth, the role of motherhood changes hands several times. To begin with, Naomi mothers her two sons. Then she extends her mothering to their wives. After the death of her sons, Naomi continues to seek what is best for her two daughters-in-law. And then the tables turn: Ruth, recognising her ageing mother-in-law’s need, begins to mother Naomi. She commits herself to caring for Naomi, travelling with her, living with her, and providing for her. Naomi wasn’t the only person to appreciate Ruth’s love; Boaz noted it too. Seeing this, Naomi took the opportunity to mother Ruth, arranging her long term security in marriage. At the end of the story, motherhood opens into a new generation with the birth of Ruth and Boaz’s son, Obed, and Naomi begins the adventure of grand-motherhood. The story is a glorious celebration of motherhood in its broader sense.
But I mustn’t stop there. Motherhood is not even limited to the residents of Planet Earth. Far beyond whatever life may thrive in other parts of the universe, the fundamental theme of motherhood leads to God - the source of all love and life, and therefore of motherhood.
Jesus, frustrated at the ineptness of his nation’s religious leaders, expressed the love of God saying: ‘Jerusalem, Jerusalem, the city that kills the prophets and stones those who are sent to it! How often have I desired to gather your children together as a hen gathers her brood under her wings!’
God is a mother too.

Monday, 20 March 2017

Not Fake News - Sunday 19th March 2017

How much can we trust the Bible? Fake News is big news at present, with stories of prominent people making unsubstantiated claims to suit their political agendas. Many of the people around us - I don’t doubt - generally assume that most of the Bible is similarly fake news, cooked up to support an ancient religious agenda.
I came into active Christian faith through a tradition that presented the Bible as ‘The Word of God’, insisting that every sentence was true, whether or not it fitted with the discoveries of science. But it seemed to me that the people who called the Bible ‘The Word of God’ were making a claim that neither the Bible nor any of its key characters supported. Jesus is the Word of God. The Bible is something different.
Years of study and investigation have shown me that the Bible does not need us to puff it up with inflated claims; it stands firmly on its own. Picking a random story from the Old Testament last week, I researched the Battle of Mediggo in which King Josiah of Jerusalem died, as recorded in 2 Kings 23. Within an hour I had confirmed that Mediggo definitely existed, that Pharaoh Neco (Necho II in Egyptian records) had indeed marched north in 609BCE to support the ailing Assyrian Empire which was under pressure from the expansionist Babylonian king, Nabopolassar, (who’s son, Nebuchadnezzar is mentioned over 50 times in the Bible. The dates, the names and the places all match up as Israel’s account dovetails in with those of Egypt, Assyria and Babylon. I was even able to see what Nabopolassar and Necho looked like.
The Bible is not fake news. Neither is it a collection of other-worldly fables or far-fetched myths. What impresses me is that the people who wrote the different parts of the Bible took great care to get it right. They researched their story using official records, and double checked their sources. As Saint Luke expressed it at the outset of his Gospel, "I decided, after investigating everything carefully from the very first, to write an orderly account” based on the testimony of "those who from the beginning were eyewitnesses”.
We can trust the Bible, not because it is the result of some undefined miraculous process, but because the people who wrote it worked hard to get their story straight.

Monday, 13 March 2017

A Life Compass - Sunday 12th March 2017

If you ask someone to list the 10 Commandments (you may like to try this yourself before reading any further), more often than not, they remember the ‘Do Nots’ first. It seems that we think of God’s commands as if they were a map laying out ‘No Entry’ zones. The underlying feeling is that if you stray into these forbidden areas you are in trouble.
The 10 Commandments, however, are much too brief to serve as any kind of map. The ancient Israelites had grown up under Egyptian rule which had a sophisticated legal system, some of which we still follow today. By giving just ten commands, God was offering something very much simpler. This is not so much a map as a compass.
A compass cannot tell you where you are, but it can help you to work out which way to go. Like the 10 Commandments, a compass needle points in two directions: one end points in the direction you do want to be going, while the other end points to where you do not want to be going. In the same way, the 10 commandments indicate both positive and negative directions.
When following a compass bearing, there are always obstacles that cause you to change direction. The vital part that the compass plays is to inform you when you are going the wrong way and to help you to select a suitable path forwards. If the landscape didn’t have such obstacles, you wouldn’t need a compass. Similarly, God gave us the 10 Commandments because he knows we need them.
The 10 Commandments were the first part of the Bible to be written down. They are there to inform us when we are heading in an unhelpful direction, and to guide us back to a better path. They do not lay out God’s punishment programme; there are no punishments mentioned. They are a simple to use compass to help us navigate the inevitable distractions and difficulties of life - a life compass.

Monday, 6 March 2017

Face to Face - Sunday 5th March 2017

Most of the knowledge and insight that guides our lives does not come from books. Almost all the important stuff comes to us by word of mouth from people we know and trust. Western society outwardly places a high value on literacy, but the reality is that even in the age of the internet, face to face communication reigns supreme.
2000 years ago, Jesus lived in a society in which literacy was highly valued (among men, at least). Religious teaching was routinely done with a scroll at the ready, and handwritten messages were carried by a highly efficient, international communications network. Jesus himself was fully literate - probably in at least two languages. However, when he set about sharing his message of God’s forgiving love, he did not write down a word of it. Remarkable!
Jesus could easily have written his message down and posted it to every city in the vast and expanding Roman Empire. But he didn’t. He chose to do all his teaching in person - face to face - voice to ear. Why?
Jesus’ message to the world was not an idea or a philosophy, neither was it a set of principles or laws. His message was about relationships: our relationships with one another, and our relationship with God. Good relationship relies on loving, personal encounter.
The truth of God can never be satisfactorily expressed in writing; it requires the direct experience of being known, and loved, and forgiven.
Most of the Bible was passed on by word of mouth before it was ever committed to paper. Our literacy-obsessed perspective tends to distrust that part of the process. But the truth is that written ‘scriptures’ can never be more than an architect’s monochrome plan. The full message of God’s love can only be communicated in the 3D technicolour of real relationship.

Monday, 27 February 2017

Politely Different - Sunday 26th February 2017

Being different is a fundamental feature of any religious commitment. Faith leads us to a different perspective on life, to different priorities, different principles, and these call us to step aside from the default behaviour of those around us. When this happens, the manner in which we go about being different is at least as important as the difference itself.
The prophet Daniel was taken away from his home and marched 1000 miles to a strange city where he knew nothing of the language, the culture or the customs. Having been identified as a young man with great potential he embarked on an intensive course of cultural transformation. He was given a new name, learned a new language and was thoroughly trained in the ways of Babylon.
However, Daniel did not want to lose his Jewish faith, and sought to be different in some significant way. So he resolved to keep to the dietary customs of his national and religious heritage. He declined the rich food and drink of the Babylonian court, and resolved to eat only vegetables, and drink only water.
The important part of this story, however, is the way in which Daniel went about this. He was polite, and courteous. He discussed the idea with his superiors, and adapted his plan to accommodate their concerns. He also proposed a trial period after which his plan could be reassessed. This was far from being a defensive or self-righteous protest.
In the decades that followed, Daniel held firmly to his dietary difference and his routine of private prayer. He did so politely and discreetly, and earned great respect for his beliefs at the highest level.
It is to be expected that people of faith will be different in some aspects of their lives, but this is not a justification for imposing our opinions or our practices on others, nor inconveniencing them in the cause of our own beliefs. We need to be helpfully different, respectfully different, self-sacrifically different and - like Daniel - politely different.

Monday, 20 February 2017

Excuses Excuses! - Sunday 19th February 2017

In the long history of the human species, God has heard a lot of excuses: Moses claimed he was too 'slow of speech'; Isaiah described himself as someone of ‘unclean lips’ - perhaps too quick to speak; David was ignored for being only a shepherd; Gideon excused himself for being too weak and unimportant; Peter ruled himself out for being a sinner; Esther was afraid of the consequences; Abraham and Zechariah both insisted they were too old for the task in question; and Jeremiah said he was too young.
In each case God dismissed the excuse. To Jeremiah he replied, ‘Don't say, “I'm only a boy” … Don't be afraid, for I am with you.’
It shouldn’t surprise us to realise that God sees us quite differently from how we see ourselves. Our own sense of what we can achieve is narrowed by our assumptions and aspirations, and limited by our fears and insecurities. Moses was running away from Egypt; Gideon didn't want to risk standing out from the crowd; Abraham was resigned to being childless; and Jeremiah was only a boy. But God could see beyond these limitations.
All of us are called to be prophets to some extent, to express the purposes and priorities of God as we understand them. But almost all of us excuse ourselves with convincing reasons why it is best for us to do nothing, or say nothing, and leave God’s work to someone else.
What's your excuse? Don’t expect God to agree.
God knows what you are capable of, and you will be surprised. It isn’t always easy or comfortable to follow God’s calling. Jeremiah knew that better than anyone. But don’t stand motionless on the starting line, paralysed by the limitations that you, or other people, have placed on your life. If God says ‘Don’t be afraid, for I am with you’, you can do it.

Monday, 13 February 2017

Message & Medium - Sunday 12th February 2017

To be a prophet - in any age - it is not enough to have a God-given message, you also need an effective medium - a means of getting that message across. Isaiah - the greatest of the Old Testament prophets - was a songwriter. When he first grasped God’s message, the events he was called to announce were still 155 years away from happening. During those 155 years his message was not remembered because it was right. In fact it was very unpopular. Isaiah's message survived because people remembered his songs.
We don't know what Isaiah’s music was like; we only have his lyrics. Those lyrics are exquisite. Isaiah was a world-class poet. Because his songs were so beautiful, his message lodged in the minds of ancient Jews until the day came when everything he had sung about finally happened. After that, a succession of admirers followed the great man’s example, expressing the mind of God in beautiful poetry and song. 700 years after Isaiah died, his poetry and insight was still catching hearts and minds, and found a new fan in Jesus.
Jesus quoted Isaiah more than any other prophet, and consciously modelled key parts of his ministry on insights from the great poet/songwriter. But Jesus was no poet. There is no record of him singing, nor did he compose any poetry. Nonetheless, Jesus understood that God’s message requires a robust medium if it is to catch in people’s minds and stay there. So he became a story teller. Whereas Isaiah engaged people’s hearts and minds with music, Jesus made up stories. And those stories are still told across the world today.
We are all called to be prophets - to share our insight into the ways of God with others. But it is not enough to want to tell people about God, we need to find a way of doing so that will capture their attention and open their hearts.

Monday, 6 February 2017

Two-way Forgiveness - Sunday 5th February 2017

As Jonah sank down into the stormy waters of the Mediterranean, he thought he was about to die and he knew he deserved it. He was running away from God’s call, and the storm - which was threatening the lives of everyone on board the ship to Tarshish - was focussed directly on him. Jonah understood his guilt and decreed his own punishment. He was thrown overboard, and as he sank into the turbulent water he called out to God to spare him.
Then came the famous whale. God, who had who had sent a deadly storm against Jonah, had also sent a whale to save him. As Jonah discovered himself to be surprisingly alive in the belly of the whale, he discovered the depths of God’s forgiveness.
Take: 2. God called Jonah once more. This time the prophet obediently made his way to Nineveh - the heartland of his greatest enemies - and dutifully proclaimed God’s impending judgement. Jonah knew about God’s judgement from his own recent experience. With his mission accomplished, he settled down to watch the great city’s downfall.
But nothing happened. The people of Nineveh had called out to God to spare them, just as Jonah had, and God resolved to do just that.
Jonah was not pleased. He had not travelled all that way only for nothing to happen. He had done it to see his enemies destroyed. He was furious at God's graciousness. This prophet, who had gratefully accepted God’s forgiveness a few weeks earlier was not willing to extend the same mercy to the people of Nineveh.
God needed to teach Jonah a lesson, and did so by employing a plant and a worm (Jonah Chapter 4). The point of the lesson was simple. Forgiveness is a two-way process. If you want to be forgiven, you have to be willing to forgive.
Jesus put a clause to that effect in the Lord’s Prayer.

Monday, 30 January 2017

Lessons from Pain - Sunday 29th January 2017

When our lives become difficult and painful, we tend to jump to the conclusion that things have gone wrong and departed from their God-intended script. Not necessarily.
The prophet Hosea had an undoubtedly difficult and painful life. His wife was a prostitute who was repeatedly unfaithful to him. In the course of their turbulent relationship she had three children who’s paternity was uncertain. Hosea even named the third child: Not-Mine. This was not a happy home, but, still, he loved his wife, Gomer.
In the midst of Hosea’s pain an anguish, he came to understand the heart and mind of God. He grasped that just as Gomer had been repeatedly unfaithful to him, so the nation of Israel was being repeatedly unfaithful to God. Just as his wife was 'sleeping' in too many men’s beds, so the nation of Israel was worshipping in too many sanctuaries. And Hosea realised that just as he continued to love his wife and children dearly, so God still deeply loved the Israelite people.
In and through all this, Hosea believed that God had called him to marry a prostitute, in order that he might have these struggles, in order that he might come to understand the heart of God.
So, when our lives become difficult and painful, before we jump to the conclusion that God has abandoned us, it would be wise to pause, and wonder whether God might be trying to show us something.

Monday, 23 January 2017

Amateur Prophet - Sunday 22nd January 2017

Do you see yourself as someone who might, at times, articulate the priorities of God to the people around you? It seems that as far back as the 8th century BCE this was generally seen as a job for the professionals.
When Amos popped up in the ancient city of Samaria, and announced the impending destruction of the city because of their lack of care for the poor, it was assumed that he was a professional prophet. Amaziah the priest told Amos to go and peddle his miserable message somewhere else. But Amos replied, “I am not a prophet, nor was my father. In fact, I’m a herdsman and a part time pruner of fruit trees. It was God who called me away from the sheep and sent me here to deliver his message.”
Over the centuries, the business of religion has consistently professionalised priesthood and prophecy. The underlying assumption is that the stuff of God is complicated and potentially dangerous, and so is best left to the experts. God, however, does not appear to subscribe to this idea. Amos, in today’s terms, was a man with no formal qualifications who worked for the minimum wage on a zero-hours contract performing a low status task. Yet he was the man that God chose to speak up for the plight of the poor in Israel.
Jesus, with his band of fishermen, took a similar path. He himself certainly wasn’t a paid priest and, as far as we can tell, had no formal education.
In the 21st century, with declining Sunday attendance, Christian churches still opt for professional ministers. I am one myself, with my high-brow degree in theology. But God, it seems, is more likely to speak though someone like Amos than someone like me. Do you see yourself as someone who might, at times, articulate the priorities of God to the people around you?

Monday, 16 January 2017

Be a Lamb - Sunday 16th January 2017

'Behold the Lamb of God’ - John the Baptist announced, when he saw Jesus walking towards him. I can’t read those words without my brain supplying a grand musical backing from Handel’s ‘Messiah’. Handel’s music presents the moment with a bold and monumental theme, but that is a long way from the sentiment that would have been in John the Baptist’s mind when he said those words.
There were many grand and monumental phrases that John might have used to announce arrival of the one he was waiting for: Behold the Son of David; the King of Israel; the Ancient of Days; the Messiah of God; the Creator of the Universe; the King of kings; the Lion of Judah. These would have been grand introductions, but John used a new phrase which holds no grandeur whatsoever - the Lamb of God.
There is nothing grand or dignified about a lamb. Lambs are small, weak and vulnerable creatures. John and Jesus lived in a society where sheep farming was one of the primary industries. Many families owned a flock of sheep. The sight of a lamb would have been utterly ordinary. Further to that, lambs - particularly male lambs - were useful for just two purposes: their meat and their hide. Then as today, the lifespan of a male lamb was brief. It was fed up until it reached optimum size and then slaughtered.
“Behold the Lamb of God” was a surprising commentary for the appearance of God’s Son.
Being called to follow Jesus, we are called to be lambs in the society around us. We are called to humility, weakness, harmlessness, ordinariness, and to willing self-sacrifice for the benefit of others. This is the way of Jesus. This is ’the Kingdom of God'. So go out into the world today, and be a lamb for God!

Tuesday, 10 January 2017

A Fresh Start - Sunday 8th January 2017

Do you know that feeling of climbing into bed and realising that the sheets really need washing? Or looking at your floor and knowing that the time has come to get out the broom or vacuum cleaner? We muddle along with our lives, one day after another, until a moment arrives when something nudges us to make a change.
Jesus was working on the flourishing building sites of Galilee in the year 29AD. He had followed his step-father into the building business in his early teens, and that had been his life for the following 17 years. But when rumour reached Galilee of a new teaching, which was emerging from the area of the River Jordan, Jesus realised that the time had come for a new start. He knew that he was called to teach people the truth about God. The appearance of John the Baptist was the cue he needed to leave the familiar graft of the building industry. He journeyed south to listen to John’s simple but powerful teaching. Then he insisted on being baptised to mark the fresh start in his life, becoming a rabbi/teacher and proclaimer of God’s love.
We all need a nudge from time to time, something that will prompt us to reappraise our familiar routines and consider a new start, following the call of God. Take a moment to put your ear to the proverbial ground of your spirit, and listen for the rumble of God’s call. Perhaps the moment has come for you to make a fresh start, and turn your attention to something different, that God has been gently calling you towards for some while. If you know that the time has come for you to make a fresh start, it may help to mark the moment in some tangible way, as Jesus did.

Tuesday, 3 January 2017

Not to Plan - Sunday 1st January 2017

What do you have planned for 2017? I don’t need to be a prophet to inform you that things probably won’t turn out as you expect. Whatever it is that you have planned, you are likely to run into frustrations and complications along the way. C’est la vie!
When Mary and Joseph had to pack up their things in the middle of the night and hot-foot it to Egypt, it was not the first time that one of God’s chosen servants had made an unwanted detour to the Kingdom of the Nile. Centuries earlier, Abraham had to leave the land that God had called him to, forced out by famine (Genesis 12). Abraham’s great grandson, Joseph, who had been born to inherit Abraham’s vast wealth, got unceremoniously bundled off to Egypt when his brothers sold him into slavery. Two centuries later, Moses escaped from Egypt, only for God to send him back there to engage in a long and frustrating tussle with Pharaoh.
In the Bible’s story, Egypt repeatedly stands out as a place of unwanted delay and frustration. When St Matthew recorded Jesus’ impromptu visit there as a young child, he paused to observe how appropriate it was that God’s son should suffer a similar frustration to his famous ancestors.
It is, it seems, quite normal for God’s people to suffer detours, delays and frustrations. So, if these things come your way during 2017, don’t overly panic, just remember that it may be your turn to take a trip to ‘Egypt’.