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.