Sermon 15th April : Introducing Rev Alisa @ Broughty Ferry. ‘Called by God’

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Acts 9:1-19

No Preamble. No fancy dramatic illustration to capture your attention – we’re only a few seconds in to the sermon so hopefully I still have it.
Let’s dive straight into this story of Paul and Ananias – it is a fantastic story.
At its core this is a ‘Call Story’ – very much appropriate for this occasion today – it’s two ‘call stories’ in fact.
The dramatic calling of Paul’s epiphany is at the heart of the whole book of Acts. From persecutor to apostle – and it starts with the dazzling light, a voice from somewhere, blindness and then the regaining of sight. The rest – Paul’s teaching, preaching, faithfulness and church planting – is History we might say.
But the second story of the ‘calling of Ananias’, though much less dramatic, is equally, and perhaps more, important to us today on this Sunday of Introduction of your new minister.
There is also something I want to say today about spiritual blindness which is a big part of this story along with the whole concept of ‘the call’ of God.
Paul’s conversion is one of the great stories of the early church, and it has rightfully inspired Christians from every generation.

However, it is rarely found to be the story of you and I and the many other followers of God in the Christian Church. I have come across very few people in my time who claim a dramatic intervention of God in their life as the starting point of Faith.
There are some – maybe some of you here can point to a specific event occurring in your life, and such an event is undoubtedly dramatic. But for most of us, even if we pinpoint a moment in life when something changed in us. we recognise it was in fact part of a process – something was already there – brewing away in our life, and the event itself we point to is a catalyst that hurried something along.
For most of us I suspect – Faith has just been something that has progressed along – at varied speeds naturally – but generally – present for quite a while.
Paul’s Call story is one that may inspire us. It is also one that reminds us that in the life of faith we do encounter times when somehow God sends turbulence in our direction, or opens a doorway to a new path, and this is good – for sometimes we need direct intervention from God to put us on a new course – to jolt us out of ‘Blaise-ness’ – to correct a habit formed – to challenge us towards more influential service in our communities and world.
And as we see from Paul’s story – extreme as his shift is – God can do this; and God does do this.
I guess you, Alisa, will look back and say that a moment of intervention occurred in your life when you responded to a flyer saying there was an Associate Minister post available in a faraway city of Aberdeen, Scotland and something inspired and challenged you to send an e-mail of enquiry. And now look at you and your life path. A minister in the Church of Scotland – more than that the wife of a fine Scottish gentlemen and mother to two fine young Scottish (well half Scottish) boys.
We can all point to God breaking in on our lives – usually realisation comes with hindsight – most of us realise how God moves us along the paths of life.
Ananias story is even more important to us today.
We don’t know much about him of course but his ‘call’ is more likely the one most relevant to us – ongoing.
Ananias’ knowledge of Saul is that he is a persecutor, which he expresses in verse 13. The church in Damascus has been talking about Saul, and its members rightfully are afraid of him — he has, after all, been dragging Christians out of house after house, throwing them into prison, and desiring their deaths. Ananias didn’t know what had just happened.
He didn’t know that the risen Christ had confronted Saul on the road to Damascus just as Christ is now confronting him…”.
Though Ananias didn’t know about Saul’s epiphany, he did as God told him anyway. He trusted that Christ had a future purpose for Saul, even though Saul’s past, as he knew it, seemed to point toward a different future.
Ananias’ decision to go to the house of Judas on Straight Street to lay hands on Saul – was a decision to risk his life to do the will of God. The result of that reluctant leap of faith is that Saul’s eyes are opened, and he is baptized, becoming part of (and eventually a leader in) the very church he sought to wipe out.
Acts does not tell us Ananias goes on to proclaim the gospel to the Gentiles, found churches in urban centres across the Roman Empire, stand true to the gospel while on trial for his faith over and again, and end up under house arrest in Rome awaiting a trial before Caesar. But what Ananias did was obey God, strengthen Paul in prayer so he could do all of this.
What Ananias did was faithfully follow the lead of Christ, pray for Silas, and so play his part in the dramatic work that God had in store for Paul and of course the work of the Holy Spirit in the churches he established.
Now in case of any mistaken interpretation in what I am saying this morning.

I am not saying that all you good folks need to do as God ‘calls’ you to faithful service in this congregation is to pray for your new minister Alisa so that her eyes might be opened to all she needs to do, and all that can be done, and somehow like the superhero Paul do it all herself. Alisa is not Paul and we/ you are not Ananias in this story.
There is part of Paul and Ananias’s story in each of us – but most of the time we are most likely Ananias.
Those who are called upon to respond to God’s ‘call’ with obedience and faithfulness – even when God calls us into an unknown, or to do something, (or for someone), that appears ‘other’ than what we would normally accept as appropriate. For God has other ideas than what the world currently seems – the acceptable – and we, as God’s people, need to be led by God’s and not the world’s standards.
Like Ananias I think God is always calling you to prayer – to pray for your new minister – this means supporting her and her family and it means working with her. It also means challenging her and opening her eyes to ideas other than her own.
Like Ananias, God calls us make it a priority of our living to be faithful in service to God’s church and to the building of His Kingdom in the world.

Finally, I remind you that these Call stories today are contained within the whole backstory of spiritual blindness.
Paul dramatically lost his sight for a while. But, in the context of this story this is symbolic of his blindness to God throughout his life. Yet, his blindness to God was lifted in dramatic fashion. Ananias, as we said, did not know of Paul’s dramatic conversion on the road. He knew Paul as persecutor – and brutal at that. This was Ananias blindness. But, in a dream, God lifted that blindness and he faithfully went and laid hands on Paul.
Most of us have had a journey to faith that has been a slow progression with many stops and starts along the way. Some can point to a more dramatic intervention. Looking forward – I am sure we all recognise that the progression of our relationship with God is an ongoing process.
We might say it involves regular calls to conversion as God through his Spirit will continue to prod and cajole us along – sometimes dramatically altering our course – sometimes more subtlety.
In that journey of Faith there will be lots of light and clear vision, yet there will be also long periods of spiritual darkness. I like the expression ‘can’t see the wood for the trees’. It explains that sometimes we just struggle to see the best option, or see the clear solution, or decipher the best plan.
In faith terms these are times of spiritual blindness. Every individual Christian has them. Church members, Church ministers, have periods of haziness where pathways to solutions and the right course of action are hard to find.
Every congregation has them too – times in congregational life where the right courses in terms of style and relevancy, and engagement with different generations and with the community, might not be as clear as we would like it to be.
If we are in any doubt that times of spiritual blindness are the norm, consider the story of someone who to us might be the epitome of strong faith and consistency of faith.
10 years after the death of Mother Teresa, papers were published – the private letters – which revealed she recognised long periods of spiritual blindness in her life.
Listen to what she wrote, ‘Lord, my God, who am I that You should forsake me? The Child of your Love —— the one — You have thrown away as unwanted — unloved. I call, I cling, I want — and there is no One to answer — no One on Whom I can cling — no, No One’.
The rawness of these words are startling; yet it is a reminder to all of us that even having come to faith, living as a people of faith, there will inevitably be times when our relationship with God seems less certain, when our ability to hear God is harder, when our vision of God is hazy.
Yet, in the story revealed to us today we can take strength – knowing that time and time again in our life we can expect moments of conversation, when the blindness will lift, and God will once again reveal Himself to us and reveal His Will for us.
Alisa, I pray you every blessing on your ministry here in Barnhill. Good folks of this congregation – look after you minister, enjoy your new start.
May both you Alisa, and you the folks of Barnhill, know the ‘Call of God’ and respond faithfully to Him.
May you not fear in the moments of challenge, when the path forward appears hazy – for God’s Spirit is working away – He will lift you from those times of spiritual blindness and reveal the Love He has for You, and will make clear what path he wishes you to take in order to best serve Him.
Amen

 

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Sermon 18th MARCH – ‘Who am I?’

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John 19:1-16

I think Andy and Ada have helped us quite a bit this morning.
Helping us understand the politics and influences of the time. ‘Mob Mentality’- has a lot to answer for. It’s clear to me that Pilate was trying really hard to save Jesus from the death penalty. He was uncomfortable with Jesus innocence – certainly by Roman Law, he hadn’t broken any rules/ laws.
Yet, the pressure from the Jewish Leaders, influenced him with the realisation that to retain order, maintain his position, and protect the solidity of the Empire, one innocent life was required – his only sensible option.
He had Jesus beaten up , then parading this beaten man, trying one last time to convince the crowd of the ridiculousness that this ‘man’ – ‘here is the man’ – could pose any threat to them – but even that didn’t work. Jesus had to die. ‘Here is your King’.
This week we find ourselves in the same conversation ongoing between Pilate and Jesus that we introduced last week. Pilate trying to understand the nature of the man before him – ‘what is truth’ he asked. Last Sunday we considered this question.
We surmised that in our faith, in religion, we find the truths that science, philosophy and maybe history can’t answer. We considered that maybe Jesus Himself was ‘truth’.
What he taught, what he did, and ultimately His death and resurrection unlock the truth of our relationships with each other and with God.
Pilate this week continues to question Jesus – trying to understand him – I would say longing to understand him. There is some seed of intrigue in Pilate to ‘get it’ – he just can’t get over the line for me. Wants to – but just not quite able.
Where do you come from he asks Jesus? To which Jesus gives no answer, having answered this already in John 18:36-37 although Pilate did not understand. ‘From another place’, Jesus had replied then – ‘my kingdom not of this world’.
Jesus’ origins remain in question throughout the Gospel. That he is from Galilee is clear from John 1:45-46 and reiterated in 6:42 and 7:52. But even beyond the glorious mystery of the prologue, ‘the Word was with God’, it is clear that Jesus is also from God.
Nathanael knows it. Even Nicodemus, who understands precious little, knows it. The man born blind knows it. Peter and Martha declare it.
Perhaps even Pilate finally has an inkling because from deep into this moment of dialogue with Jesus he tries in earnest to release Jesus.
But to no avail.
Later, the crowds harangue Caesar, demanding to know who Pilate belongs to – The Emperor or not – who does this man Jesus acknowledge- Caesar or not?
Pilate has tried but the crowds have their way! ‘Here is your King’ – ‘crucify him’, the crowds convict.
This man, King to no one it appears, wearing a crown of thorns, is led away to His fate.
The more I allow myself to enter into this unfolding drama I am led to the question of identity. Who is this man? The question on the lips of many. The question in the heart of many of the actors. ‘Who is this man’. For some a nobody, for some a means of gratification as he’s paraded around like a circus clown, has he’s demeaned just as a prisoner is thrown into the coliseum arenas round the empire. For some he’s possibly somebody but they’ve given up trying to figure it out and for them it’s easier just to join the mob. For some he’s a threat – maybe they know who he is, who he could be, but they don’t like the possible consequences to their own authority – best to get rid. For few, very few he’s the son of God who warrants belief and loyalty. Who is this man?
I’m e too this is the question Jesus must have asked over and over again of himself – ‘who am I?’ Throughout his life he must have asked this? He must have long before this confrontation with Pilate he would have known. Yet, Who did he want to be?
There must have been times when he would have longed for an easier road – safer road of anonymity and self preservation. Here at the end – Pilate it seems is giving him an opt out. It’s as if Pilate is longing that Jesus might say – I’m Jesus of Nazareth that’s all – I’m nobody need to worry about. It’s been a just a story of misadventure – a wee drama but really I’m no threat and in fact I’m happy to say I’m sorry, I got it wrong and I’m going home now – home to the backwaters, to Nazareth a village where I’ll follow my father Joseph into business.
We can guess Jesus at times was anguished – immersed in a personal debate with self – in front of mirror. ‘Who am I?’
Can I be someone other, and escape this fated pathway. ‘Who do I need to be?’
Sometimes it’s in the human arts that we can best enter into the emotion of such personal self encounter or encounter between two peoples or groups.
It’s no surprise as I ponder the natural question Jesus may have asked himself I’m led to the song ‘Who am I?’ in Les Miserables’.
Most of you will know the book, musical, film but a little background. . ….. is on the run hunted by …….. since the day he was released as a prisoner ……… someone else arrested in his place and he has the chance to slip away and let this wrongly arrested and sentenced man take his place at the gallows. ……… confronts him, not recognising him.
Who am I?

(Play video) https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=izuD30Cp5Ao
I’m the end he decided the truth of who he is must dictate he hides not in the shadows, leaves an innocent man to take his snetnscne; he comes to the sense of ‘who he is’, who he is meant to be, and despite the possible consequences of the path ahead he leaves the safe path behind.
As we get closer and closer to Easter I put it to you – we must really fall on our knees in thankfulness for the fate Jesus took upon himself for us. Despite a possible route out he accepts who he is, his identity, his purpose and put His life in God’s hands. For us. All for the sake of the whole of humanity.
And so where does that leave us when we ask ‘who am I?’
Do we ask if enough – do we really look often in the mirror of self identification?
When we do, I think the story of God’s Word, the story and outcome for God’s son, becomes the mirror which reflects back the truest image of who we are. We are the people whom God loves. We are the people for whom Jesus accepted his fate. We are the people for whom Jesus accepted the identity of ‘who he was’ and did not deny it.
That is who we are. When we ask ‘who am I?’ let us find that the answer first and foremost be – the one who Jesus loved, the one loved unconditionally by God.

Amen

 

 

 

 

 

Sermon 25th Feb – Jesus washing the Disciples feet.

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John 13:1-17

Do we have any chiropodists here – any ex-chiropodists.
A perfect profession for today’s theme.
There are some jobs that make you think twice whether you would want to take them on. People often talk about a dentist in that way, but what about a chiropodist? Traditionally a chiropodist is someone who may have treated both hands (chiro) and feet (pod) but now the term chiropodist and podiatrist are commonly used as podiatry specialists deal with the feet.
The original term, chiropodist, and its connection between hands and feet might better connect with this week’s story as Jesus’ hands are brought to bear on the dusty feet of his disciples. A task usually reserved for servants is taken up by the leader who is not afraid to get his hands dirty in the process of bringing cleansing to others.
As with so much of John’s gospel, such as the healing of the blind man and raising to life of Lazarus, this story again is operating at different levels. You have the physical action of cleansing, the water and towel, the hands rubbing away the dirt, but you also have the recognition that all this is symbolic of something greater, deeper, more resonant with God’s will and the confidence Jesus had in that will.
But it is truly again a remarkable story and sets up the final days of Jesus journey to the Cross.
John, differs from other Gospels in that he takes chapters upon chapters to detail what Jesus did, and said, on these last days; he also differs in the fact there is no ‘Last Supper’, this is the moment for John – only the second dinner detailed (the first being the one with Mary and Martha and the use of perfume to bathe Jesus feet) – this is the moment of Institution of announcement of preparation – of symbolic love.
Love is the verb used here. The pure and simply is an act of Love. At two levels – the symbolic one – pointing to the future and the physical one matching the command to Love.
Let me deal with the symbolic meaning first. We know water was used in the Old Testament for purification acts. The sense that water not just physically cleans but for those faithful to God this act of purification has meaning in making ones’ whole life clean before God. As Baptism followed on from this in John the Baptist’s and ministry and Jesus own Baptism, this symbolism is carried forward to be the sign of belonging given to a follower.
The symbolism of this act is significant. In washing feet Jesus is saying that purification – cleansing from sin is something that is pre-paid for us by God’s servant – by God’s Son. Of course, Peter can’t understand this. He argues with Jesus. In time he will know what Jesus was pointing to and saying.
We have the rest of the story to read back into this symbolic action. Pure and simple – this action points symbolically to the fact that in Jesus’ death – God’s sacrifice of His son – we have already been made clean, and in the grime of life in all the hazards we face as human beings which trip us up and make us stumble a distance from the ways of God, God continues to cleanse us from all that we think makes it impossible for us as weak humans from standing before His gaze. As someone once said, ‘God’s Love is the best answer for all they stinky things of the world’.
This is quite a simple conclusion for us to recognise today and rejoice in. So too is the second.
At a physical level, perhaps this story is even more straightforward.
Jesus’ act of foot washing is an action parable, which he makes clear in verse 15: “For I have set you an example, that you also should do as I have done to you.” The description is full of verbs ‘rising, laying down, taking up, wrapping round, and pouring before he begins to wash and dry the disciple’s feet’. That the King of kings bends low to dampen the soiled feet of fishermen, tax collectors and zealots in an act of service and humility is without question an act of Love an action of Love.

This is where everything is turned on its head. This is where Jesus actions merge with what he says later in the chapter – giving the world the new commandment, “Just as I have loved you, you also should love one another.”
Jesus’ example suggests that loving as he has loved means taking the role of a servant, caring for the needs of others without expecting anything in return. His example suggests that it is to do this not only for those who treat us well, but even for those who disappoint and hurt and betray us. Can Jesus really expect us to do this, to love and serve even those who fail us or stab us in the back? Are we not allowed even a few exceptions to the love commandment?
Jesus’ commandment to love one another is not a commandment to feel affection, but a commandment to act in a loving way, even when we would rather do otherwise. Of course, we always fall short of God’s perfect love, but that cannot be an excuse to nurse grudges and wallow in unloving behaviour. As we are washed by Jesus in God’s deep and generous love, our hearts are stretched to love more completely, fully, unwaveringly.
It is good this week, still near the beginning of Lent, to spend time with this story. No doubt part of John’s desire in including this moment at the start of the journey towards the cross is that it encourages us all to think about our own attitudes and lives. Are we cleansed and prepared, ready to journey with Jesus to the cross? Are we in a frame of mind that is ready to receive the radical edge that the gospel provides? Are we ready to have the dust and grime washed away from our thoughts and attitudes so that we are prepared to meet Jesus along the Way? Are we ready to take the basin and the towel and become servants of our neighbours in the world – ‘loving them in the way Jesus Loves us’?

 

 

Sermon 18th Feb – “Good Grief”

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John 11: 1-44

It’s a certainty that all of us die. There is nothing in our humanity to deny that this is reality.
We might also say it’s a certainty that in life we will all experience the grief of someone close to us dying.
A box of tissues will need opening as people shed tears at our passing – a box of tissues we will reach for when someone close to us passes on.
Today, this story of John’s Gospel is so apt; so intensely and emotionally pertinent to each one of us – some more so than others at this specific time.
Do we run from talking about our experience and reaction to death and grief in the church – aware of the hurt, the rawness felt by some present at a given service? Or, do we, with them, enter a subject with all its emotional risk, to see if the promises of God, and the Spirit of companionship and support we can create, can uncover a salve for the wounds we bear?
I think for us all – this is a most necessary subject to deal with and reflect on.
The healing of Lazarus as we know its title, is a passage which on ‘big picture’ terms we know well. The embedded parts of the story in terms of what it might be saying to us is often lost in the midst of an astonishing story of someone being brought back to life.
So, what is this story – is it a healing – is it resuscitation – is it resurrection – is it a miracle of Jesus?
Is it not more appropriately described as the account of a conversation Jesus had (with Martha essentially), which sheds light on the person of God and teaches us a lesson for life lived in relationship with God?
The story begins within the dark, deep and foreboding emotions of grief but in conversation with Jesus, the mood by the end changes to optimism and hope – ‘finding hope in sadness’. Martha, the onlookers and us, as readers, are quite surprised at the unfolding of the conversation and the results. We might exclaim ‘Good Grief’ in an exclamation of our surprise – and ‘good grief’ too, in the sense of the possibilities of a grief healed – of light and life found in darkness and death.
The conversation begins with Martha and her palpable grief. Mary, her sister, was so consumed with grief that we are told – she stayed away.
We can understand this – if we’ve not known a grief there is enough understanding from our lives experiences of how painful loss can be, and how deep grief can make claim on a person. Jesus on hearing of the situation goes and visits Mary and with Martha tears flow as they meet. Not just the tears of sisters but, not insignificant, the tears of Jesus too – ‘And Jesus wept’.
The Johannine Jesus — the Word from before time, one with the Father, ever in-control — is overcome by grief. The one who is the resurrection and the life, weeps for his beloved Lazarus. He is so moved that some in the crowd exclaim: “See how he loved him!”
This is powerful. Reading back into the History of this encounter this is Huge. Here is God, here is the Son of God openly weeping alongside those who grieve. Not distant – not remote – not unthinking – but the Holy One – the Creating God – shedding tears. The divine tears and the human tears merging in sorrow
This is the sign of God present. This is the sign of the Creator God in relationship with his creation and deeply connected into the realities of life’s painful moments. God present in the heart of grief. God grieving too.
In conversation, Martha hearing Jesus words is at first unsurprisingly, interpreting Jesus as pointing to a resurrection of their brother at sometime in the future. But Jesus quickly brings her back to the present. “I am the resurrection and the life. Those who believe in me, even though they die, will live, and everyone who lives and believes in me will never die”.
Those who believe will never die?
Of course, they will die.
Everyone dies.
Lazarus will die again (especially if the high priests have their way; John 12:10). Even Jesus will die.
Jesus seems to speak in contradictory terms, but then again, such is the way of the gospel and contrast is what God is all about. Without God it is like this – yet with God it can be like this. In this case ‘hope in the midst of grief’, is laid out as possibility.
In fact, it is Jesus’ death in John that introduces the great paradox: victory in death. Jesus doesn’t promise physical life without physical death. He promises an experience of abundant life that swallows up the sting of death. And that abundant Life is the Life offered by the person of Jesus.
Sometimes we tend to ‘over miraculize’ the miracle stories, ‘the signs’ of Jesus. We sentimentalise the outwardly active and awesome God who invaded, and who might yet invade, our earthly world – life and experiences – with extraordinary awesome activity. But actually, what I think the Gospel is trying to teach, mirroring the Old Testament, is defining the miraculous not as invasion from the outside to the inside but instead existing as woven into the everyday. The miracle is that God is present in everything – that God can be present in the wonder of nature, in the new creation of infancy and yet present to in death, grieving, illness, pain, hunger and human poverty is the true miracle of the divine.
We might often cry to God with the sisters, “if only you had been here!”
Martha’s conversation with Jesus, encourages us to believe that God is the one who moves into the world — with all of its darkness, brokenness, and grief.
Martha reminds us that even in unanswered questions and unmet requests, we are not alone.
Katrina and I watched The Shack on Amazon Prime this week – a sensitively made film of the book of the same name. Many of you will know the story. Mac’s daughter is abducted and dies. His pain and grief runs deep. Making a visit to place connected to her abduction he visits with God, Jesus and the Holy Spirit in the persons of three people. In a scene the Holy Spirit takes a tear from the grieving father and puts it in a little glass bottle. Later in the story the Holy Spirit is working her garden with Mac helping. She takes this bottle out and pours some water from it (clearly tears) onto seeds which transform into new life of beautiful colourful and fragrant flowers. It stuck me that from one tear of Mac’s a whole load more liquid was poured out than the volume of one tear. For me symbolically this glass bottle contained the tears of God who openly cries tears of grief over each one of his children who dies.

The story within the novel and film ‘The Shack’ remind us I think, of God’s presence at the very root of our human experience. He is present – He smiles when we smile, He cries when we cry. More than that of course the Shack in addition to confirming on us God’s presence in our own experiences reminds us of God’s presence with those we love who have gone on from earthly life. This brings us comfort too. In that comfort and assurance of God’s benevolence is the source of new hope, new life for us – even in our grief.
Like Martha, we all grieve – we will all grieve. And like Martha, we are invited to give that grief the space it deserves. Like for Martha, there is a strong desire to escape the present grief by looking far ahead to a time when we will be reunited with those we miss or gazing back to the past and wishing we can turn back the clock. Like Martha, we are invited to find hope even in the grief. It’s natural to feel like that.
Yet this story provides a Hope even now – for the now, the present – as Martha claims,
“I believe that you are the Messiah, the Son of God, the one coming into the world” (John 11:27).
It is the presence of Jesus, the one coming into the world, that gives Martha hope amid grief.

This Gospel reminds us that God joined our human experience of loss and death. Jesus’ movement toward Jerusalem is a move toward his death. Those who follow Jesus are not spared from suffering; we join him in it.
However, the presence of Jesus brings a quality of life that numbs the significance of death. With the OT figure Hosea, we can ask, “Death, where is your sting?”
Even though we die; we live. Even when we grieve, we hope — for we are not alone. God is there!

 

 

 

Sermon 28th January: ‘Follow the Light of The Son’

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John 3: 1-21

It doesn’t see so long ago that here in Mannofield we were measuring the height of sunflowers as part of a fundraiser.
Do you recall the height some reached? Given the lack of sunshine in Scotland I think it’s a miracle that some of the sunflowers reached beanstalk heights!
For me sunflowers remind me of the few holidays we’ve had in France; driving South through France and in the area where we’ve holidays, we’ve often been captured by the beauty of the fields of sunflower and the drama that enfolds depending on the time of day – how these sunflowers (to an individual plant) turn and face the sun as it travels across a blue sky.
Today I want you to hold onto, or imagine, that image of a field of sunflowers turning to face the light, the sun, as it rises in the east – following it all the way round to the West. Perhaps in this image we have a metaphor for the invitation Jesus makes to Nicodemus in this story today and the invitation He makes to all of us – turn and face the ‘Son’ – turn to Him, be born anew in Him and live in His light.
‘You must be born again’. It is impossible for anyone
now to hear these words without conjuring up the image of an elderly man in sandwich boards proclaiming a call to repentance while his helpers hand out tracts to reluctant shoppers.
The context of the words as they were originally spoken by Jesus or heard by Nicodemus, the Jewish leader who sought Jesus out under cover of darkness, embarrassed
or fearful of others knowing about his interest in the new
teaching, is easily lost.

We have all met people, I’m sure, who have no qualms about describing themselves as ‘born-again Christians’ (now that’s all very well and I wouldn’t want to seem critical of a person’s personal experience, but the issues sometimes arises that these people can appear so taken with their own conversion that they see it as the only way God works with people. Sometimes even the implication is that if you’re not ‘born again’ you are somehow of lesser status, or not real Christians at all. They probably don’t mean to make other people feel like that but it’s a consequence of the type of language – almost cliché -that has grown around this famous story and its words from John.

This is a story of Jesus exchange with on man. However, it is intended by the Gospel writer as an exchange between God and us all. A continuation of the grand themes that are never far from the surface in John’s gospel: light and darkness; life and death; seeing and not seeing; the identity of Jesus and the unpredictable movement of the Spirit.

Underneath all the complicated theology is the simple yet
profound statement at the very heart of the Christian gospel:
“God loved the world so much that he gave….” The initiative comes from God, the motivation is love, and the intention is not to condemn but to rescue.

Nicodemus is a man of the Pharisees. So as not to be seen by his own people he sneeks up on Jesus from the darkness. This darkness is a metaphor too for his general perspective of life which is influenced by a teaching that is closed to light and wonder and the spirit of God that blows where it wills. It’s likely that Nicodemus is not so much questioning Jesus but taunting him with satirical over-play – trying to trip him up.

Jesus responds to Nicodemus, a most incredulous opponent, with an invitation to think differently. Jesus invites him to a new way of thinking. Jesus explains: One must be born anothen (from above, again) and from pneuma (wind, spirit) to see and enter the Kingdom of God. Nicodemus makes the mistake of seeing this in physical terms, so Jesus corrects him – using a word picture that powerfully utilizes the double-meaning of pneuma — spirit, wind.

By connecting spirit to wind, it’s as if Jesus says, “You don’t know where the wind comes from or where it goes, but you experience the wind. Even if you can’t comprehend re-birth of the spirit, from above — come experience it, come and see!”

Jesus seeks to divert Nicodemus away from a very brazen, one directional, singularly focussed and one-size-fits-all perspective of religion based on his Pharisaic model to a whole new approach based, less on teaching, and instead on experience – the experience a person is led to by God’s Spirit.

Let’s go back a bit – to the nitty gritty of the familiar words at the centre of this exchange – ‘be born anothen (from above, again) and from pneuma (wind, spirit)’.

Since the beginning of the Gospel, we have seen that Jesus comes anothen — from above, but he was also ‘born again’ in the incarnation.

Jesus, originally from above, underwent a second birth — a physical/fleshly one.

The invitation to Nicodemus flips the script: to be born from above, Nicodemus must be born again.
Nicodemus, like the rest of us originally born physically – of the world (yet having God’s image within (but that’s a sermon for another day) – and as we mature being very much influenced by the thinking of the world and so we require a second birth. Jesus originally, with God of the Spirit, experienced a second physical birth, yet our requirement is the opposite – a second spiritual birth, in contrast to the physical birth Nicodemus, and we, already experienced upon entry to the world as a baby.

Jesus is the bridge for humanity. For Nicodemus and for us. I think God recognised that since his contract with humanity and all through the centuries of wandering in the desert – the ancient peoples and the so-called people of God were struggling to lift themselves out of the influences and confines of their own humanity, and world inhibiting perspective, not able to move from dimness and turn to the light that would open the doors to new thinking and enable the intended relationship with God and each other. So, Jesus came as the Light of the World. The bridge – or the doorway from darkness to light. Jesus is the complete system reboot.

The Good News is its never too late to take up the invitation to move into the light of Christ. And I am not just meaning once – as in one life-changing conversion experience.

What this story reveals, is that Jesus’ system reboot is available for us always and eternally.

Often, we become trapped in the darkness of thinking one-way – confined by influences, or by the challenges life, and struggling to view life through the wider and more liberating perspective. We become set in our – or the world’s ways – living in the safe and familiar.
Yet Jesus own invitation to us is succumb to the promptings and energy of the Spirit and all it wants to accomplish in us… not just once, but whenever we get clogged up with the world, or humdrum life, or too much religious certainty that we lose sight of what really matters: turning to the light again and again in a continuous process of spiritual heliotropism – like sunflowers facing the sun as it rises in the east, and following it all the way round until it sets in the west.
In a world dominated by division and fear, we need more
than ever to be brave enough to come out into the light, joining people of all faiths and of none who ‘do what is true’, who face the light – who shine the light.

As the conversation comes to an end, the main lights dim, John leaves the story open ended and we are left wondering — did Nicodemus take the invitation?

Nicodemus reappears a few chapters later, advocating among his peers (who have tried to arrest Jesus) to give Jesus a fair trial (John 7:49-50). Maybe here, Nicodemus appears to be stepping outside of his own community to defend Jesus. Might he be beginning to see things differently? John suggests this trajectory when Nicodemus reappears to join Joseph of Arimathea in giving the crucified Jesus an honourable burial.

We are left to fill in the blanks, but I see Nicodemus walking toward the Light – pushing through is ideological inherited boundaries and moving toward a new way of thinking.

Jesus invites us to move likewise towards and into the light – forever turning to face Him and encouraged to be re-born spiritually when existing in those moments when we are dim to the possibilities and potential of God working in our life and world.

 

 

Sermon from Petercoulter 21st January: Jesus Cleansing the Temple

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John 2:13-25

We have a Predisposition I think to protect ourselves. This may be from physical harm – survival of the fittest is an example of this from the world of nature. It may be emotionally – and I think we know what that entails – we seek contentedness and stress-free living where possible. I think economically and in terms of life’s comforts we seek the best for ourselves not just for the present, but we take a lot of time to plan for the future.
As humanity we are focused on building and then maintain a certain standard and standing
You might say, it is all very ‘marketplace’. We invest time, energy, sometimes money, definitely a lot of effort, in investing in this marketplace of life in the hope we earn return on this investment.
This is a good thing. I am a great believer in the ‘no pain no gain mentality’. I keep encouraging my boys to buy into this in sport terms and schoolwork. To no avail in sport anyway.
I run – I enjoy it – it keeps me physically, emotionally and spiritually fit I think. In the marketplace I invest time and energy to run – and in return I get something out of it.
That a good use of marketplace potential I think.
In wider society we know about marketplace in other arenas – notably commerce and business.
This is the time of year when the financial figures of our institutions are published and of great interest to many are the figures for the Christmas sales period.
Marks and Spences, Morrisons, Tesco, Sainsburys, Next and others have all released their figures. For some its been a decent return, for others the period has been disappointing in terms of Profits.
Particularly for those with disappointing results, but also for those seeking to continue their good run, we know the Executives of these Businesses will be meeting in Boardrooms and ruminating on how to regain and protect their place in the marketplace – please their investors and shareholders as they move through 2018.
This might mean adjustments – focus changes – new ideas – all to keep the institution that is their brand – their company strong.
This marketplace is as important as the more personal one mentioned earlier.
Many jobs depend on it of course – so its not all just league tables, and dividends for shareholders and executive salaries and bonuses – the protection of jobs is important – a lifeline for employees and their families. Just ask the employees and wider supply businesses of the major company Carillion this week.
And no matter whether we are direct employees of any of these companies, or shareholders, we understand, that in addition to the products we need from the marketplace, we know that a strong economy is good for all of us.
Our Gospel story today is about marketplace I think. In the other Gospels when this story appears I think the emphasis is on the thievery and abuse of the rights of the poor who were being fleeced by extorsion by those who were selling rights and putting a wee bit on top of all sales to take some for themselves. Jesus in these other stories saw through this and protected the rights of the poor.
In John the story is a little different.

When Jesus arrives at the Temple, everything is as it normally would be. It is Passover festival time and therefore the city is busy, and the Temple is at the centre of it all. Stalls are set up in order to enable pilgrims to pay their tax and make the required sacrifices. This is all quite normal.

In John’s Gospel, the focus of the dispute that Jesus enters, is that He finds the Temple has become a marketplace for the wrong things.

For the Temple, as it was structured, to work properly, there must be an exchange of goods; for someone to make a sacrifice, they needed the appropriate animal or grain and these animals and grain had to be pure and there was a price for ensuring that was the case.
Indeed, the Temple was all about this sacrifice and the workings of this marketplace were necessary to ensure the system kept ticking over and the Temple retained its significance as the most important building of the city, and its officials retained their influence and power.

In this case Jesus isn’t arguing about the courtyard being a den of robbers, but He is upset about the shape that the marketplace of the Temple had become. It is as if Jesus is saying that all that goes on there, the sacrifice and the system that is in place to support and maintain the Temple Authority and bolster the power lying in the hands of corrupt Temple Officialdom is wrong. Jesus is saying the way the Temple focused on self-interest was irrelevant at best and an abhorrence at worst.

The Temple was the institution of Jewish order and brand in the age of Jesus. It was seen as God’s house; and to maintain itself the institution needed the money from sales.
Everything was based on sacrifice – sacrifices could be bought in temple – so it’s a cycle of maintenance and order for Jewish Faith.
All of this to keep the Temple and the Jewish hierarchy intact as supreme rule of society.
This marketplace saw everything invested with the objective of maintaining ground – protecting self-interest.
There was no sense of dividend paid out, in terms of a wider goodness shared amongst the faithful; or provision of access to God through deeper spirituality; there was no sense of looking after the inhabitants of society at large – particularly the poor, the diseased, the foreigner.
It was inward looking. The marketplace that had been created was alien to the open economy of abundance that was God’s Love for all.
In the exchanges that follow Jesus’ outburst, I wonder what Jesus is meaning, by saying his body is now the Temple?
The physical Temple of Jerusalem and the religion which it promoted, had become a Marketplace for Jesus which was self-interested, and which prevented free availability of the Love of God to most.
Access to God had been limited to a minority who could afford it or who were thought special enough to receive it.
Jesus then is essentially saying that He is the presence of God: right in front of people and without the attendant ritual and sacrifice.

We become complacent about this easy presence but we
ought not to. This is a remarkable claim that God is among
us and is one of us. Given that this insight comes right at the beginning of John’s Gospel we know that the following pages of the Gospel will likely go on and explore this idea and uncover God among us regularly. And that is exactly what John does.

As the idea grows that Jesus is now the Temple and is out
and about and ‘in our neighbourhood’ as Eugene Peterson
famously paraphrased John, then God has suddenly become very public.

There is no one place more holy than any other; nor is God limited to one part of the day, but is found in all parts.

God not one place – but every place.

This is perhaps an insight for our church today which
finds herself in ever increasing denominations arguing over
pinheads and falling numbers: we have essentially become a marketplace intent on arresting decline and retaining position or at best regaining a little ground. We tend to do this as a Church by a little nudging and tinkering here and there to protect ourselves.

As we’ve said, in many ways such emphasis on protection and maintenance is perfectly naturally.
However, the risk is that in doing so, and letting this need influence our thinking, we limit ourselves to 57 varieties when in truth God asks us to let him travel further and deeper than we do when we seek to control God within an existing structure.

Letting go control is not an easy thing. Keep the reins tight is often preferable.

Yet, when we believe God is not centred on any one place but everyplace, how we live, give, speak, decide becomes the public place of encountering God.

I’m heartened as I look at the picture of the church in our corner of Presbytery. I think the churches of our cluster group share a progressive methodology of ‘doing Church’, where we are investing time, talent, money and prayer in the right marketplace. I don’t think any of us are intent only on repair and maintenance of a particular church structure and tradition.

Instead I sense we are investing in the marketplace of God’s abundant presence and love for all.

God is not confined to our denomination – to our buildings – instead He is not one place He is every place.

Yes, I suspect as always, we might conclude that we could still do better.

In the coming years no doubt we will continue as churches to have to take bold decisions about the emphasis we place on our traditional forms of ministry and I hope we will invest in the marketplace potential of new ways – working together, partnering the communities within which we sit, and seeking to improve life for all.

It won’t be about expecting people to come to us on our terms to introduce them to God, but instead continuing to move outwardly that we meet with people, and introduce them to the God, who is already with them where they are.

Amen

 

Sermon 14th January: The Abundance of God and Equality (Wedding at Cana)

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John 2: 1-11

Mary, mother of Jesus, often described as poor and humble, meek and mild; yet very much front and centre of the goings on at the famous wedding of Cana, in Galilee.
Not only that, but given that the only other time Mary is mentioned in John – it is as she laments her aching heart and sheds tears of grief at the foot of the Cross that bears her son – we might reflect on the significance of Mary’s central role at both the beginning of Jesus Ministry (the so called 1st of John’s Signs pointing to Jesus significance as Christ/ God’s Son) and at the end as He becomes the sacrifice for God.
Mary’s heart ached as she saw her dying Son near to death. It’s not inconceivable that she berated herself – thinking back to the Wedding where she pleaded/ demanded Jesus do the spectacular – so revealing Himself – asking the question if she hadn’t pushed so hard, if she hadn’t been the spark to ignite Jesus standing out – maybe it would not have come to this. Speculation, but not inconceivable that a heart-broken mother might blame herself.
Yet, the Cross is still many weeks away. In the timeline for Jesus we are at the start – the very start and full of vigour and passion and hopefulness Mary is a central figure in this moment of Gospel revelation.
Here Mary, she of travel by Donkey and a birthing suite of a smelly stable, of poor and humble station sparks a scene that becomes the 1sy Sign of Jesus power and divinity. She does so not through any sense of feminine vulnerability and weakness – not by being a woman to be pitied who needs a strong son to bail her out – but through a decisive interjection of strength. For Jesus the time might have been ‘not yet mother’ – but for Mary it was time for the world to see. She knew – she knew – and it was time for the world to know of God’s Son. This was Mary in full strength and conviction – not meek and mild.
This poor and humble reference to Mary we often make the mistake of taking as some sort of theological statement – churchy summary – of her significance as a woman in comparison to the importance of all the men who appear as if taking the centre stage in the story of God in the Old and New Testament and in the histories of the church since. Such a condescending view. Poor – humble Mary.
Yet in fact the poor and humble references we have often made are better suited to describing the physical reality of Mary and not he theological standing in this extraordinary story. Poor, and from a humble family and strata of society is what she was. As to would befit a description of her husband – or any of her friends – male/ female – from the village where she lived.

That the son of God be encouraged to come out of the closet as it were – be revealed/ introduced – by someone so poor and humble as Mary, is significant – not because of her gender but because this implies a God who doesn’t care about Social Standing and Formalities and Power but who cares only about the welfare of the whole of humanity and who chooses to reveal the abundance of the Gospel, and frame the priorities of the Gospel, in a way he chooses and not as the world might choose it. And he chose Mary to do the honours.
Often, as we seek to make sense of what the Bible exposes, we turn to everyday affairs – our experiences – those things happening in our world today – stories often revealed in the headlines of the news – as reference points through which we might relate what the Bible unveils to our existence today.
In thinking about Mary as perhaps the central character in this story – as the star of the show as it were – I couldn’t help but think of the tremendous show of feminine strength and solidarity that we met in the early part of the week as the Golden Globe Awards Show was dominated by the energy behind the move to address the humiliation of women in that industry by moguls and executives over the years who have subjected women to terrible abuses, harassment and favours in order to be chosen and in order to pursue careers.
Oprah Winfrey summed up the mood, saying “a new day is on the horizon”, going on to say, “For too long, women have not been heard or believed if they dare speak the truth to the power of those men. But their time is up. Their time is up!”
Dressed in Black the audience showed solidarity in a statement that cried our for fairness, and equality.
On the same day a BBC Journalist wrote an open letter to the License Payers after resigning from her job decrying the unfairness of a systemic position on pay within the BBC which leaves women underpaid compared to male counterparts doing the same job. This news story grew and grew as people spoke out and the BBC was called to defend itself.
2018 some say is to be the year of women. When they will become respected as equals and treated with the dignity they deserve not as women but as human beings.
We live in a disjointed and absurd world, when we must establish crusades and movements to right the wrongs of those groups who have been discriminated against and treated as second class to other. Maybe 2018 will be the year of Women. Maybe 2017 was, or should have been, the year of the poor. Maybe 2016 needed to be the year of all who were oppressed under dictatorship. The year before the year for those who were discriminated against on account of sexual orientation, or race, or skin colour.
That our world exists with such inequality acceptance is tragic. And who can argue that such a world is not at odds with God’s intention.
The stories contained in the Book in which the Word of God treasured and protected – the Bible – all point to the actions of a God for whom inequality and abuses of power are unacceptable. And yet the world has created and then turned a blind eye to so much wrong it seems. God story in the Old Testament it seems to me is about restoring the sense of God’s sovereignty over all things and humanity’s special relationship with Him.
The thrust of the Spirit’s work is the restoration of proper order in the Universe and within humanity where all are protected under the unconditional love of God; where opportunities are made available for all.
The New Testament shares the story of God’s intervention into a world that continued to exist in a fractured state and unveils that for the world of 2000 years ago and the world of today there is a new thrust to God’s work in the world.
God’s whole work before and through Jesus it appears to me is about bringing those people who are forced to live on the margins of life, for whatever reason – poverty, discrimination, limited opportunity – and growing the centre to be the place where all – all – get to share in the abundance offered by God, through His Love for all.
As we journey through the 4th Gospel we will see that the author makes it His work to continually point people to the truth of what God has achieved in Christ. We remember that these Miracle Stories are better interpreted as Signs. The detail of the magnificent feats of Jesus don’t matter. They are signs signposting Jesus.
Here in the Fourth Gospel we encounter extravagant abundance as the hallmark of this first sign of Jesus. The wine created from the water is clearly superior in quality. Yet the key to this story is that this transformation is of God and points to God. Transforming the water into wine is not just delightfully mysterious or an act of extravagant abundance; it declares the glory of God.
The Gospel witness is emphatic that in Jesus, there is always the promise of superabundance. And this abundance is protected not just for a few but is offered to all.
When we are in invited to a wedding we take it for granted that the hosts will feed us and provide us with something to drink. In the days of the wedding at Cana it was more a case of BYOB. Just as well as the wedding generally lasted days if not weeks and I am not sure the Bride and Groom could fit the Bill otherwise.
In this story we know Mary like some others were not well off. Maybe some were embarrassed at not having anything to drink on account of not being able to afford to bring any wine or their limited wine having run out. Some scholars suggest that it was out of embarrassment that Mary asked Jesus to intercede; embarrassed at being shown to inferior to other gusts who were able to afford to bring with them much wine and of decent quality.
Reluctantly Jesus acquiesced. The conclusion is this wine shared with those who perhaps had little, began to flow and it was of the best quality. This take on the story is very similar in conclusion to the miracle of the feeding of the 5000.
It is a signpost to the abundance of God – who in His richness gave the new wine – Jesus to the world – and makes available the abundance of His Love to all.
This sign that Jesus performed challenges us, and our faith communities, to engage in everyday living and practice that will make a bold witness to the world that the resources given to us through God’s awesome abundance must serve those who have very little – that the richness of life’s blessings must not be limited only to a comparative few.
The superabundance of God’s grace is spectacular and the signposting to this truth apparent in such Signs as this story must drive us to work for such a world where inequality and lack of opportunity for some are not tolerated or propagated.

It took the special intervention of Mary in this story to Notice the inequality, to become Intercessor so publicly, to make the connections between Jesus and the servants as the starting point of putting the matter right.
Mary – poor and humble in her physical background but thankfully not spiritually or in the eyes of God. She proved herself a match for anybody – male or female – in the story of God and that too is a reminder for us in this age that discrimination between male and female isn’t acceptable and the abuses of power of one sex over another even less so.
Amen

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Sermon: Watchnight Service Christmas Eve 2017

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In the very moment of time when Jesus was born something of significance -great and eternal significance – was established. This was the Incarnation of “Gospel”.
Quite literally, Gospel means ‘Good News’. It would be near enough 100 years before the writings we know as ‘Gospel’ would materialise but there that night – under stars, a ramshackle dwelling for animals, or the basement of a house, “Gospel” – “Good News” – came to earth and was planted like a seed within the fertile longings of a humanity under pressure.
Martin Luther says the Bible is the Manger that holds the “Good News” of the birth of Christ and the Love of God for His people.
After Jesus is born in Bethlehem and placed in the manger by his mother Mary, Luke switches attention to the hills around Bethlehem and to some shepherds keeping watch over their flocks at night. An angel, a supernatural messenger from heaven, appears to them and makes this announcement:
“Do not be afraid. I bring you good news of great joy that will be for all the people”.

 

In that simple statement – we have a summary of the great depth, meaning, promise and hope of Incarnation. It’s contained there in one line “Christmas” – it’s significance wrapped like a present in the wrapping paper of a few words – that hide the eternal promise gifted to the world.
Now you will see that the verse naturally divides into three. The announcement of “Gospel” – “Good News” bookended before and after with phrases that give explanation, acknowledgement and assurance (the before), and challenge and intention (the after).
Do not be afraid/I bring you good news of great joy/that will be for all the people.
Therefore, I want us to think about the Good News in 3 parts.
1. We do not need to be afraid.
The very first thing the angel says is Do not be afraid.
This, you will discover if you look, is a typical phrase to be found in the mouth of Angels. The words identify that part of being human that is the experience of fear. In this case the angels were specifically scared of the ethereal vision perhaps of an unusual appearance before them. But underlying this, this is the description of a fear that underlies the shepherds fear of troubling world where they recognised the hazards and warning signs of the time.
Part of the Christmas message is that we should not be afraid. Sometimes the world inadvertently stumbles on this truth and understands a little of it.
If you know the lyrics of the Band Aid single “Do they know it’s Christmas?”, The first line is a rather predictable “It’s Christmastime” but then, rather unexpectedly there is the angel’s line “there’s no need to be afraid”. Further on in the song we are encouraged to “say a prayer” to “pray for the other ones”.
The truth is that many now are fearful – in a world that can be quite dreadful. We all know fear at certain times.
This Gospel brings a message of Good News to the fearful. The Manger holds not just an infant child but Good News. An acknowledgement that God understands our human fear – how scared we are about much of what we see and experience in our world.
Be it personal struggle, lack of confidence in the politics and leaders of our world to rise above self-interest and divest more selflessness into their governance; be it climate change effects leading to the overheating of our planet – breaking up of polar ice caps and more extreme weather patterns – that leave us worried about planetary issues, the assurance of the Gospel of Good News is that firsts and foremost God understands and He enters with a note of Assurance. He responds!
2. That response is good news – good news of great joy.
I bring you good news of great joy ….
Now the birth of a baby is always good news, but this was a very special baby, of course, who had been born. This was the birth of the Lord Jesus Christ himself – the one who would grow up to be the Saviour of the World. This is good news and it should fill us with joy – Good news from heaven not from earth.
God takes control of the situation – God gives the answer/ the solution.
These days there seems to be a lot of bad news in the world. Many people are struggling economically. Some people are even losing their homes. The winter weather has been treacherous in spots. Wars are still raging in numerous locations all over the globe.
God has sent his one and only Son into the world to save the world through Him.
This is the focus of Christmas meaning; the good news of the birth of the Lord Jesus Christ, the one who can save the world from self-destruction of a kind that varies according to whether we are thinking of human struggle, fractured national and race relations, or the geography of the planet.
What greater good news could there be? What joy it is, what great joy, to know that God so loved this world that he gave his one and only son in response to our problems.
This is no mere sentiment to say this. Some might say well how exactly is that going to change things.
The point I make is – for me as the Gospel evolved into story and book, it does so – framed around the words, and stories featuring this Son of God; which also shines a light on the truths of the Old Testament too. With the result our whole scripture becomes a true Word of God for all times. A living Word. A living Gospel. It’s a manual for how to fix the world’s problems, reshape human relations that spawn Hope, establish wider justice.
Yet, unlike other text books/ manuals this Word to the world comes with living promise – energy of hope. Jesus is born to show us God’s Loves us. A Spirit of Good News was given embryonic birth and that Good News lives on today.
Christmas also shows us the way to truly Love.
Do not be afraid here is good news of great joy – and……..
3. This good news of great joy is for everyone who will hear.
That last phrase is very significant. This is Good News of great joy for everyone.
It’s for us – those of us who gather in church in celebratory and reflective mood. It’s for those who are not here. It’s for those who call themselves Christian; its for those who follow another religious path; and those who follow none. It’s for those who have reason to celebrate and find it easy to do so be so because life for them, for us, is good.
Most of all it’s for those who find it difficult to celebrate, those who feel the world doesn’t care or has forgotten about them – those who feel excluded and judged.
This Gospel of inclusion challenges the over comfortable. It challenges us.
The manger holds the child of refugees; the first visitors include poor shepherds from a group in society often overlooked; other visitors are included in the story who come from a different culture/ religion. A Gospel of inclusion and a challenge this day to those who hear the Good News – to create and build and extend Good News across humanity and planet.
“Do not be afraid. I bring you good news of great joy that will be for all the people”.
Christmas wrapped up in three layers.
Fear not – though life seems confusing and troubled.
God responds – God enters our struggle as Love – great Joy is discovered in him. Gospel is unleashed Good News in word and Spirit/ Energy.
All who hear, are challenged to include everyone in the Joy that is Christmas as we take on the commands of Gospel to make sure Love is extended to all.
Merry Christmas.

 

 

Sermon 1st Sunday of Advent HOPE

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Daniel 3:1,8-30

As we enter Advent, Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego
provide us with a wonderful story that is full of imagery
and colour. Typically, in Advent we of course look for the
light of Christ breaking into darkness. Whilst the energy of a blazing fire intended to consume the lives of our three friends is perhaps not the usual entry point into the themes of the season, nonetheless in the story – we will see that the burning fire provides for the dramatic intervention of God, and mirrors many other such stories where God becomes present in the most surprising of circumstances.

God’s intervention in the affairs of the world – of our existence as His people is pretty much after all what the season of Advent is about.

‘O come O come Emmanuel’ ‘make safe the way…. close the path to misery’, ‘disperse the gloomy clouds of night, and death’s dark shadows put to flight’.

Come thou long expected Jesus,
Born to set thy people free,
From our sins and fears release us.

Hark the glad sound! The saviour comes
The Saviour promised long.

This story from Daniel, shares similarities with many other fiery stories from the Old Testament.

Instantly we might recall back to Moses and
the Burning Bush (out of which God revealed Himself) or Elijah showing off to the Priests of Baal
as he fired up the furnace seven-fold, yet the holy ones were unharmed because God was revealed as present to protect His people).

Whilst we might say that this story of a King ordering the burning of three young men is a departure from the
usual Advent message of light breaking into darkness and the typical themes of the Sundays of Advent—Hope, Peace, Joy and Love – we will likely have come to know by now that the Advent season is all about the surprises that God makes known. Part of Faith is to be surprised by the way God reveals Himself – the way God is revealed in the stories of the Bible and in our human life.

Perhaps we are all ready to pick up on the ‘joyous message of Advent and Christmas’ perhaps we have come to be comforted and inspired by the familiarity of the themes we expect to hear – messages of prophets, the stories of the John the forerunner to Jesus, of Mary a young mother and her encounter with an Angel, of Shepherds. And so we should – for it is in this wonderful season we discover all these wonderful hope-filled encounters.

Yet the magnificence of Advent is in its grounded-ness in the world’s real experience. Advent is not a Disney or Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer inspired production that is far removed from the nitty gritty of real -life experience.

It matters to us because of how it speaks to the way we actually experience life and the need we have God.

Should Advent solely be about the joy of impending Christmas celebrations and a concentration on the happy themes of how blessed we are?

The very fact that our traditional Advent themes feel so
appropriate and needed in our life and world—past or present— is because they contrast with the direct opposite.

Reflect with me on this.

Light is not so big a deal if we have no experience of darkness.

Hope is life-giving and transforming because it replaces despair.

Peace is what we long for when the experience of warfare, terror or personal struggle drains life of what it is meant to contain.
Joy feels so good because we know how much of a struggle
it is when it is not present or when other things in life make
it elusive.

And the experience of love feels so good and right
because when it is absent it feels like a huge hole exists in our very being.

Advent is a season of promise because of the contrast unveiled between one existence and another, between one outlook and another.

When you consider these experiences or emotions – the experience of life being full of Light, there being reason to feel Hope, the sense of Peace, the presence of Joy, and the gift of Love we realise that for those people who struggle to capture such feelings – and for some as fear it’s absence of all of them at once – life is so very, very difficult. Preparing for this service I googled these emotions/ experiences and it struck me how immediately I was in a list of stories describing real people’s experiences of being mired in the absence of what so often we take for granted as being present.

This story in Daniel is a colourful, clear and unforgettable story of contrast. It connects to Advent because of this contrast.

 

It contains first a straightforward encouragement to ‘trust.’
This ‘trust’ asked for is not focussed on the ways and practises and priorities of the world, nor in the worship of icons and idols made of human hands, but instead to stay faithful to the ways of God.

Daniels audience were in trouble – persecuted and held captive in a foreign land. I am not going to go into the fact that actually what Daniel was doing was telling a story for the current time of Persian captivity by setting it into a previous time of Babylonian captivity for at the end of the day he did this for effect and to make a point of encouragement for those currently in a challenging place.

Daniel 3 thus details the exemplary behaviour of these faithful believers who, despite the worst kinds of trials and tribulations, remain faithful to God and refuse to give up their religion.
It is in God that deliverance is made most real: deliverance from such experiences as darkness, despair, the existence of war, terror and injustice, despair and the absence of love. The miraculous nature of the men’s survival leaves no doubt that it is only because of God’s intervention that they did not succumb to the empire’s attempts to wipe them out.

Secondly it contains an invitation to see the activity of God – even amidst the turmoil and turbulence of life’s worst moments.

Appearing in the flames there is a fourth figure. Is this figure an angel, is it God?

It is a figure, regardless of any specifics offered, very much central to the deliverance of the three friends as they emerge unhurt from the flames.

Perhaps it is in this mysterious fourth figure that we see the introduction of the protective God we seek, and the foreshadowing of Jesus in our narrative of incarnation – which confirms God as the one who comes to rescue the world and His people from a life where Hope, Peace, Joy and Love are absent.

 

Sermon Remembrance Sunday 12th Nov 2017

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John 15: 12-13

John 15:13 – “Greater Love”
Have you been busy brushing, raking, bagging leaves? Why do leaves fall?

Leaves can only make food when they have enough sunlight…

Most deciduous leaves cannot survive freezing temperatures…

Trees lose water through their leaves. If deciduous trees kept their leaves when the ground froze, they would continue losing water…

Many leaves are damaged by leaf-eating insects, eggs and larvae…

Basically, the leaf has become useless + a liability = “the weakest link”!

So, the tree protects itself from the leaf, which it abandons to the winds!

 

Connection with Remembrance Sunday?

I going to take a text today from John 15: – Particularly verse 13 –

‘I am the true vine, and my Father is the vine-grower. 2 He removes every branch in me that bears no fruit. Every branch that bears fruit he prunes[a] to make it bear more fruit. 3 You have already been cleansed[b] by the word that I have spoken to you. 4 Abide in me as I abide in you. Just as the branch cannot bear fruit by itself unless it abides in the vine, neither can you unless you abide in me. 5 I am the vine, you are the branches. Those who abide in me and I in them bear much fruit, because apart from me you can do nothing. 6 Whoever does not abide in me is thrown away like a branch and withers; such branches are gathered, thrown into the fire, and burned.

12 ‘This is my commandment, that you love one another as I have loved you. 13 No one has greater love than this, to lay down one’s life for one’s friends.

 

Jesus knows what is about to happen (arrest, trial, death, resurrection, ascension). He impresses on his disciples their need to remain in fellowship with him + true to him… He speaks of the vine and branches.

I have spoken of a tree and its leaves. The point is, Jesus (unlike the tree that casts off the leaves which are its weakest links) – Jesus the vine or the tree – does not cast off his branches or leaves! Nobody is useless to him. Sometimes we act in ways that make us useless to God’s desire to shape, and restore the world to the Kingdom of peacefulness and justice He wants.

And I think this that in addition to Remembrance Sunday being the chance to Remember and acknowledge those who have fallen in war and who serve in our armed forces, it is also the chance for us to think about our own willingness to follow Jesus commands to love the world, strive for peace, and restore God’s justice in creation.

To help us consider this I want us to focus on the image of fallen leaves.

 

1 – Fallen Leaves

Today we honour those who laid down their lives for us…

Untold numbers in two World Wars and conflicts since – including N Ireland, Falklands, the Balkans, Iraq and Afghanistan

Fallen leaves – not shed by their nation, but who we might say “laid down their lives for their friends”!

Today, we honour their memory. We recall their sacrifice. We thank God for the freedoms they have won for us at such cost.

It is said that a soldier fights to the death for his/ her mates/friends. He will do anything for them. They are a team – a family.

I think of the great love shown by those whose names we honour today. We assess the measure of their love by the sacrifice they made.

And it’s interesting for me that their sacrifice for others very much mirrors the command of Jesus:

‘This is my commandment, that you love one another as I have loved you. No one has greater love than this, to lay down one’s life for one’s friends’.

2 – The First Leaf

Jesus is not just the tree – he is also a leaf that fell. When Jesus speaks of the love that lays down its life, he is not committing us to a path he has not himself trodden. (What a lesson in leadership!)

Where in all the world do we see greater love than the love of the Lord Jesus, who laid down his life for those – whom he names his friends?

He left the comfort of being with God, to come to a world of darkness, suffering, sin and death – to bear the taunts and rejection of men and women who questioned his motives and challenged his authority.

And why? To open the way for us and all people to know peace with God and each other!

I ask you today, in considering those men and women who took literally the challenge of Jesus words, have you considered Jesus was Himself the fallen leaf? Sacrificing Himself for us?

 

3 – Take Leaf out of His Book

From the words I have used from John, I see Jesus bids you and me to follow the example he has set,

‘This is my commandment, that you love one another as I have loved you. No one has greater love than this, to lay down one’s life for one’s friends’.

He calls us to mirror his great love –

Not only those who have served, or serve, in war, but each of us is called to take a leaf out of Jesus book – the example of Jesus

How can we measure up to this calling?

Not by the strength of our own inner resources, but by the power of his life within us! And by the power of the Spirit working through us.

The Gospel of Jesus Christ is the very power of God! He does not call us to go where he himself has not gone, nor where he will not go with us. The call may be daunting, but he will give us strength. God is rich and abundant in his kindness to all who put their trust in him!

Some have sacrificed life to die for their friends. Their friends have not sacrificed them, – God has not sacrificed them. But their willingness to look out for others has resulted in the ultimate sacrifice.

The rest of us have been called to live in the freedoms that the sacrifices of others have paved the way for. There is still a commitment. There is still a cost. Mayne not going to war, and the sacrifice of death, but other commitments we make to follow Jesus commands: ‘This is my commandment, that you love one another as I have loved you. No one has greater love than this, to lay down one’s life for one’s friends’.
For as long as people have sought to follow God’s teachings and influence creation towards being closer to God’s own vision for it. There have been people who have stood out as those willing to speak a message – give a word of challenge – to others in order that God’s voice will be heard above and over the other noises and influences in our world.

The prophets – and there are many – are such a people. Amos is a star amongst them.

Who is a prophet? Amos is a good example of the special
people of God who study what is around them; what
is going on in their world, and their time, and seek to
express a ‘Godly’ point of view. Sometimes this is issued as
a warning that comes with a demand for things to change.

A prophet is someone who interprets the circumstances of their
time through the eyes of God, and who then in his or her words
seeks to aid others to envision the world God seeks for his
people.
When we think of war, and particularly the wars we are drawn to
remember on this Armistice Sunday, we can reflect on whether
those who fought, those who governed, and those who waited
for the safe return of their loved ones, considered a view of
what was going on in their time along the same mantras as that
which Amos looked towards in this passage today: “seek good
and not evil / hate evil and love good.”
Those willing to sacrifice their own security in situations of
conflict may have had in mind some aspect of looking ahead;
doing what they were doing for the sake of the future. Giving up
so much for what they believed was right.
As Amos would understand, and all of us today who live by
the convictions of Christian faith would surely agree with him,
the normal order in God’s world is that justice, righteousness,
love and mercy should roll down through humanity and be the
natural state of things. It is when there is a problem, a blockage
(which might be a person, dictator, ideology), that the natural
flow is interfered with, and the prophet’s call for ‘change’
becomes necessary to hear and enact.
All of humanity deserves life. The UN Declaration of Human
Rights has affirmed this. Yet Amos recognised that the reality
for some is often different. Some groups within humanity were,
and are, denied the liberty that is the birth right of all.
Our faith, calls us to seek justice for all: “Let justice roll down like
waters, and righteousness like an ever-flowing stream.”

Justice is not vengeance – pay back for what others have done. It is not warmongering for the sake of flexing power and protecting self-interest.

History describes how sometimes war and military action in
the past was inevitable. But after times of conflict we must
recognise there comes a time for the pursuit of real justice
as livelihoods, human confidence, earth’s landscapes, and
relationships demand to be restored.
Just because we might recognise the inevitability of war and
conflict in the past based on the prevailing momentums of
the time, we do not need to accept, nor should we, that such
conflict and action, and ultimately destruction, is inevitable in
the future.
The pursuit of Amos’s vision for God’s world, as described in
our lectionary verses today, present us with a working model
for the activity of faithful service and discipleship in the world
today as we seek to establish true justice and righteousness
within humanity.