Thursday, 26 February 2015

Mark 8.31-end
Jesus Foretells His Death and Resurrection
31 Then he began to teach them that the Son of Man must undergo great suffering, and be rejected by the elders, the chief priests, and the scribes, and be killed, and after three days rise again. 32He said all this quite openly. And Peter took him aside and began to rebuke him. 33But turning and looking at his disciples, he rebuked Peter and said, ‘Get behind me, Satan! For you are setting your mind not on divine things but on human things.’
34 He called the crowd with his disciples, and said to them, ‘If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me. 35For those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake, and for the sake of the gospel, will save it. 36For what will it profit them to gain the whole world and forfeit their life? 37Indeed, what can they give in return for their life? 38Those who are ashamed of me and of my words in this adulterous and sinful generation, of them the Son of Man will also be ashamed when he comes in the glory of his Father with the holy angels.’

My text for next Sunday is written in Mark 8.36:
36For what will it profit them to gain the whole world and forfeit their life? 

It would appear that Mark starts a whole new section of the Gospel with this passage. Up to this point, Jesus has spent time saying and doing things; and it is all this that has caused people to ask the question: “Who is this man, who can teach as he teaches and do the things that he has done?” Jesus knows this and so puts the question to his closest disciples. Peter gets it right – and proclaims Jesus as the Messiah. One would expect Jesus to meet Peter’s answer with some enthusiasm, but we see in Mark’s account that Jesus’ response is ambiguous; he swears them to silence. It is also apparent that Jesus – at first – avoids using the word ‘Messiah’ for himself. This is probably because Jesus knew, all too well, that there were so many ideas about Messiahship going around that there was a real danger that many would have a misconceived idea of what this meant for him. There is a sense that – as most people expected the Messiah to be a military or political leader that would liberate them from earthly oppression – Jesus was not willing to accept the title and so he forbids (indeed rebukes) the disciples from using it for him. Jesus chooses instead the title ‘Son of Man’. At the time, this would have been less militaristic or political. He also makes haste to define more closely what this meant: ignominy, defeat and suffering – indeed the opposite to what popular views of the Messiah were.
This leads the disciples to rebuke Jesus in return and they try to dissuade Jesus form speaking in this way. This leads to Jesus using even stronger rebuking language because it is vital that the disciples understand. Denis Nineham writes:

“The blistering severity of Jesus reply is evidence enough that what is at stake is a matter of quite central importance …”

In the first instance, what Jesus was predicting was something that ‘must’ take place; there was no choice in the matter. To persuade Jesus to try to avoid these things was to tempt Jesus just as Satan had done in the desert after his Baptism. In short, it was to tempt Jesus to disobey the will of God.
In the second instance, it would appear that the disciples did not want Jesus to suffer because they would feel embarrassed to be seen as a follower of a Messiah who suffers. (This was a time of many different ‘Messiahs’!) It would go against the grain. Spectacular victories would seem ‘better’; suffering brings no kudos and offends the pride of natural man who would ask: “What is the point?” Nineham suggests that the reaction of the disciples reveals that “… their minds and wills are governed by the standards of this world, of the unredeemed natural man …”

They need to be taught that “God thinks otherwise …” and in ways that are often in complete reverse of the standards of the world. This truth needs to be known by everyone, and so here, there is no need for secrecy. The path to true ‘life’ comes through trusting in God and being obedient to His will. This can imply suffering in this world – even death. Our behaviour will often not make sense to those in the world. But, while this life is precious, it is nothing compared with the life to come.

Jesus being the Messiah means him being the ‘Son of man’ and this implies redemptive suffering and death. The disciples’ failure to understand was a sign of their hardened hearts and their domination by the standards of this world. The purpose of this passage is not to explain what happened when Jesus was first recognised as the Messiah, rather, to show all what is involved and demanded whenever this recognition takes place. To see Jesus as he really is and to know how to respond “… is always a gift of God in Christ …”

Jesus being the Son of man has implications for his followers as well.

We rejoice because our salvation is all of grace; unearned and undeserved, God’s gift to us. But as J C Ryle rightly suggests: “… all who accept this great salvation, must prove the reality of their faith by carrying the cross after Christ.” Part of this means upholding the faith which the world despises and a lifestyle which the world ridicules as too strict and too ‘righteous’. We need to crucify the flesh, mortify the deeds of the body, to fight daily with the devil, to come out from the world, and ‘… to lose their lives, if needful, for Christ’s sake and for the Gospel’s …’ Ryle rightly understands that these are hard sayings (he was writing in the 19th Century, it is even more so in our world of today). Or is it?

Our ‘credit crunch’ has made people realise that the so-called easy life is not that simple, and that having an abundance of ‘things’ is not the path to fulfilment and happiness. Our Lord knew that being one of his disciples would be difficult, but he also promises to give us the strength to life the life that will bring us blessing and fulfilment, beyond measure. Because what matters is not only the body, but also the soul – what the translators of the NRSV refer to as ‘… life …’ (verse 36)
Our ‘life’ is made up of more than things; it is made up of relationships – with others but especially with God. Being in relationship with others is sometimes going to mean facing difficulties, it is certainly going to require selflessness a denial of our selves; it is also going to mean sacrifice. Being in relationships  - those that bring blessing and fulfilment to ourselves and others – certainly requires sacrificial living, a sense of giving of ourselves. When we do this, we discover what real living means. Mother Teresa discovered this, as did countless others. I prefer the translation ‘life’ rather than ‘soul’ in verse 26 as the latter sometimes distracts us thinking that what matters here is our eternal lives. Even Ryle suggests that these verses should be seen in the light of going through things becoming worth it, because in the end our souls will live on in eternity. While this is all true, there is a danger of living for eternity only and not now also.  There is a sense that one might miss out on what it means to live ‘now’ – but living according to the way of Christ and not of the world.
Verse 38 also poses an interesting challenge. Many believe that they need to bring Jesus into every situation and conversation, for if they don’t it means that they are being ashamed of him. This, for me, leads to much embarrassment when this is wholly inappropriate, and in my view, brings our faith into ridicule especially when over-simplified solutions are suggested to complex problems – e.g. ‘… the Bible teaches …’

The bottom line for me is that this sort of behaviour has done so much harm, that people in Britain, i.e. those outside the faith, automatically switch off when they hear the words ‘Bible’ and ‘Jesus’ and so we need to opt for different tactics, indeed more challenging and even more costly ways. We need to live the life – walk the walk – in order to earn the right to talk the talk. Words can be easy, but I believe our Lord is calling us to carry of Cross of sacrificial living.
Words come easy, living the life is more of a challenge, but, especially in today’s world it is vital that people see how sacrificial living, the way of the cross, leads to fulfilment and real ‘life’. We need to show that we are not ashamed of Jesus’ words, by living them. As St Francis put it: “Take every opportunity to preach the Gospel, and where necessary, use words!”
It is quite possible for a person to make a massive success of their lives but in another sense to be living a life that is not worth living; the difference lies where one puts one’s values. Barclay offers the following thoughts:

(i)                 A person can sacrifice honour for profit. This can happened when people desire material things and when one is not over over-particular about how we get them. People used false scales in the ancient past, but there are a number of different ways in which the same principal applies still today. The question is: “How does life’s balance sheet look in the sight of God?
(ii)               A man my sacrifice principle for popularity. Barclay writes: “It may happen that the easy-going, agreeable, pliable man will save himself a lot of trouble.” But in the end the question we will all have to face will be: “What does God think of it? It is not the verdict of public opinion, but the verdict of God that settles destiny.”
(iii)             A person may sacrifice the lasting things for cheap things. It is always easier to have a cheap success. Authors can sacrifice writing a real masterpiece for the sake of cheap success. There are many other examples. Barclay concludes: “But life has a way of revealing the true values and condemning the false as the years pass on. A cheap thing never lasts.”

We may sacrifice eternity for the moment. We can avoid all sorts of mistakes if we always looked at things in the light of eternity.  Barclay concludes: “There is many a thing pleasant for the moment, but ruinous in the long run. The test of eternity, the test of seeking to see the thing as God sees it, is the realist test of all.” If we see things as God sees them, we will never spend our lives on the things that lose our souls. Jesus put it this way as recorded in Mark 8.36:

36For what will it profit them to gain the whole world and forfeit their life?


Wednesday, 18 February 2015

A reading from the Gospel according to Mark 1.9-15

9 In those days Jesus came from Nazareth of Galilee and was baptized by John in the Jordan. 10And just as he was coming up out of the water, he saw the heavens torn apart and the Spirit descending like a dove on him. 11And a voice came from heaven, ‘You are my Son, the Beloved;*with you I am well pleased.’

12 And the Spirit immediately drove him out into the wilderness. 13He was in the wilderness for forty days, tempted by Satan; and he was with the wild beasts; and the angels waited on him.

14 Now after John was arrested, Jesus came to Galilee, proclaiming the good news* of God,* 15and saying, ‘The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God has come near;* repent, and believe in the good news.’* 

One of my favourite quotations comes from William Wordsworth, who wrote:

… the best portion of a good man’s life is his little, nameless, unremembered acts of kindness and of love …

I want to issue a challenge: Lent is a time of new beginnings, and so let us be people who pay attention to the ‘... little, nameless unremembered acts of kindness and of love...’ If we do this – and I defy anyone to claim that it is not a good idea – then much goodness in our lives will fall into place. If all people did this, whole communities will be transformed. Our society will be a place where we all want to be.

But this does not happen easily; it certainly is no something that we can ever take for granted – in fact I contend that - it is one of the most difficult things for a community to achieve. But it is possible; and the recipe is provided for us in our Gospel reading. Jesus was about to begin his ministry to the people. We were reminded during Lent that John the Baptist had a vital role to play and it is this: the way people grow and develop is through facing up to the reality of who they are and what needs to be changed in their lives. As most people would agree that they are not perfect, there must be some challenge facing everyone at times like this, when we take stock of our lives. This is John the Baptist’s recipe:

Firstly, Mark states that John proclaimed a baptism of repentance for the forgiving of sins. These words are so seldom used these days that they can come across as harsh and strange. When people use them, there is a real danger of being labelled a “Bible basher” or fanatic. And I agree that they have been misused and even abused by some fanatics, but it does not alter the truth that is to be found in this message; a truth that can be life-transforming.

Some people have given up making Lent resolutions because they claim that they never work. Others say that – “… this is who I am, I cannot change, and so people must just accept me for who I am …” I want to suggest that this is sad, because none of it is true. It is only true if the person has never discovered what it means to repent. The Greek word used is metanoein which literally means ‘to change one’s mind’. Valid though this is when one looks into the message of the whole of the New Testament, it means ‘… to turn back’ implying a ‘coming to one’s senses’, a deliberate turning away from one’s sinful past towards God …’ a complete change of conduct.

Rowan Williams provides some further insight. The reason why people sometimes do not change is because they do not really want to; they do not want to repent. This happens when a person only focuses on consequences. They do not really dislike what can be changed; they just dislike the consequences when they are found out! We have all said “Sorry!” when we have been in trouble, and we have really felt sorry because we are in trouble but would not have been if we had not been found out. Rowan Williams explains this in stark, clear language. He writes:

Repentance means that the person who was in love with sin comes to hate sin because of its exceeding sinfulness.

Life transforming change comes when true repentance is part of the equation; without it, we all too easily fall back into our old ways.

Secondly, it involves making a decision. Making a decision to live a better life is one of the secrets of a truly happy and fulfilled life. Professor William Barclay, the late Professor of Theology at Glasgow University writes:

In every life there come moments of decision which can be accepted or rejected. To accept them is to succeed in life; to reject them, or to shirk them, is to fail. … The wasted life, the frustrated life, the discontented life, and often the tragic life is the undecided life. … The drifting life is the undecided life …

King Duncan offers the following thought entitled: It Might Have Been

In the 1800s, poet John Greenleaf Whittier wrote one of his most quoted poems in the English language. The poem was titled, "Maud Muller."  You've never heard of it?  Actually, not many people remember this sorrowful poem, but generations of people have quoted two famous lines from its final stanza.

"Maud Muller" is about a young maiden who, while working the fields one day, sees a handsome young Judge riding by on horseback.  She offers him a drink of cool water.  Their encounter lasts only a few moments, but it makes a deep impression on both of them.  Maud is greatly attracted to the Judge, and she dreams of marrying someone of his gentleness and integrity.  She could leave the fields behind and live as the wife of a wealthy and powerful man.

At the same time, the Judge is attracted to Maud.  He is tired of his career, and he dreams of marrying a warm, compassionate woman like Maud and settling into a simpler life in the country.  But neither Maud nor the Judge acknowledges their attraction to one another.  They are from different social classes---they cannot risk breaking the bonds of social conformity.

Maud later marries a man who brings her much pain and hardship.  The Judge also enters into a loveless marriage.  In the final stanza of the poem, Whittier offers us this warning: "For of all sad words of tongue or pen, The saddest are these: 'It might have been!'" 

Today is a good time to make decisions about our lives and how we are going to live them.
Today is a good time to make decisions about our relationships, particularly those with the members of our family. Perhaps there might be bridges that need to be built or maybe there is a need to state clearly what we have assumed to be known: When last did you say to the members of your family that you love them?

Today is a good time to make decisions about our relationships with our friends. Here too there might be a need for bridge building, apologies, commitments … This leads to my last point

Lastly, it involves identification. Jesus, by his baptism, identified with what John the Baptist was doing and what he stood for. Professor Barclay states:

The really great identification is when a person identifies themselves with a movement, not for their own sake, but for the sake of others.

I want us to be involved in the good things, I want us all to take every opportunity that comes our way with both hands and enjoy them and get the most out of them, but at the same time I want us to repent when we go wrong, not just because we have been found out and the consequences are horrible, but especially because you have got away with it, simply because you know it is wrong. I want us to make decisions that are for the good of ourselves and especially for others, especially our communities but also wider afield as well – not just the big things, because they are not the most important – as Wordsworth has reminded us:

… the best portion of a good man’s life is his little, nameless, unremembered acts of kindness and of love …


Saturday, 14 February 2015

Apologies for lateness ... I have been ill all week!

2 Kings 5.1-14
The Healing of Naaman
Naaman, commander of the army of the king of Aram, was a great man and in high favour with his master, because by him the Lord had given victory to Aram. The man, though a mighty warrior, suffered from leprosy. 2Now the Arameans on one of their raids had taken a young girl captive from the land of Israel, and she served Naaman’s wife. 3She said to her mistress, ‘If only my lord were with the prophet who is in Samaria! He would cure him of his leprosy.’ 4So Naaman went in and told his lord just what the girl from the land of Israel had said. 5And the king of Aram said, ‘Go then, and I will send along a letter to the king of Israel.’
He went, taking with him ten talents of silver, six thousand shekels of gold, and ten sets of garments. 6He brought the letter to the king of Israel, which read, ‘When this letter reaches you, know that I have sent to you my servant Naaman, that you may cure him of his leprosy.’7When the king of Israel read the letter, he tore his clothes and said, ‘Am I God, to give death or life, that this man sends word to me to cure a man of his leprosy? Just look and see how he is trying to pick a quarrel with me.’ 8 But when Elisha the man of God heard that the king of Israel had torn his clothes, he sent a message to the king, ‘Why have you torn your clothes? Let him come to me, that he may learn that there is a prophet in Israel.’ 9So Naaman came with his horses and chariots, and halted at the entrance of Elisha’s house. 10Elisha sent a messenger to him, saying, ‘Go, wash in the Jordan seven times, and your flesh shall be restored and you shall be clean.’ 11But Naaman became angry and went away, saying, ‘I thought that for me he would surely come out, and stand and call on the name of the Lord his God, and would wave his hand over the spot, and cure the leprosy! 12Are not Abana and Pharpar, the rivers of Damascus, better than all the waters of Israel? Could I not wash in them, and be clean?’ He turned and went away in a rage. 13But his servants approached and said to him, ‘Father, if the prophet had commanded you to do something difficult, would you not have done it? How much more, when all he said to you was, “Wash, and be clean”?’So he went down and immersed himself seven times in the Jordan, according to the word of the man of God; his flesh was restored like the flesh of a young boy, and he was clean.

1 Corinthians 9.24-27
24 Do you not know that in a race the runners all compete, but only one receives the prize? Run in such a way that you may win it. 25Athletes exercise self-control in all things; they do it to receive a perishable garland, but we an imperishable one. 26So I do not run aimlessly, nor do I box as though beating the air; 27but I punish my body and enslave it, so that after proclaiming to others I myself should not be disqualified. 

Mark 1.40-45
Jesus Cleanses a Leper
40 A leper came to him begging him, and kneeling he said to him, ‘If you choose, you can make me clean.’ 41Moved with pity, Jesus stretched out his hand and touched him, and said to him, ‘I do choose. Be made clean!’ 42Immediately the leprosy left him, and he was made clean.43After sternly warning him he sent him away at once, 44saying to him, ‘See that you say nothing to anyone; but go, show yourself to the priest, and offer for your cleansing what Moses commanded, as a testimony to them.’ 45But he went out and began to proclaim it freely, and to spread the word, so that Jesus could no longer go into a town openly, but stayed out in the country; and people came to him from every quarter.
My text this morning is written in Mark 1.41:

41Moved with pity, Jesus stretched out his hand and touched him, and said to him, ‘I do choose. Be made clean!’ 

In Jesus's day, leprosy was a dreaded disease because there was no known cure for it. Some strains were highly contagious. This had been the case for hundreds of years as we were reminded in our Old Testament reading this morning. The best way for us to understand what leprosy meant for the people of that day is to compare it with AIDS in our time. Drastic measures were required to monitor leprosy because every precaution was needed to ensure that the disease never spread. The priests banished the infectious cases to beyond the city boundaries, in order to avoid its spread. They also remitted lepers whose disease was in remission. So great was the dread of this disease that Jewish law required all sufferers to call out 'unclean' so that passers-by could give them a wide berth. Lepers had no way of earning a living and so were totally dependent upon charity. The psychological effects of this disease were as serious as the physical. The people felt defiled, dirty and constantly ashamed, even though it was not their fault.

People can feel excluded for many reasons. In our Old Testament reading we come across a young servant girl who had been captured in wartime and taken captive into Syria. Naaman, her master alienated himself from others by considering himself to be better than others. He was so filled with pride, that he almost robbed himself of God’s blessings as a result. The Assyrian king too completely misunderstood the way to find God’s blessing; he thought that he could order things and they would just happen as he wanted them to happen – thinking that the things of God could be bought. But notice the example of a young, in the eyes of the world at the time, seemingly unimportant, yet remaining faithful to God in the ordinariness of the daily life. And she was the source of great blessing to the people at the time, and still us today, as we are reminded of her example.

In our Gospel reading, the man who approached Jesus was suffering from an advanced case of leprosy. In Luke’s account the man is described as being 'covered with leprosy'. He had more than likely lost a great deal of bodily tissue. Leprosy destroyed nerve endings and so people unknowingly damaged fingers, toes and noses. But still, he believed that Jesus could heal every trace of the disease. Morris writes: ‘He had no doubt about Jesus' ability to heal, but he was not sure whether He was willing.’ And so the man said to Jesus: ‘If you choose, you can make me clean.’

Notice what Jesus did for this most despised and rejected of people. Verse 41 records: ‘Jesus touched him ...’ Jesus must have been the first normal non-diseased person to have touched the man in years. Barclay writes:

That is what Jesus did and does ... it is the very essence of Christianity to touch the untouchable, to love the unloveable, to forgive the unforgivable. Jesus did and so must we.

Quite often we consider people who are diseased or handicapped to be repulsive and untouchable. We need to touch them with the love of Christ. Often we also feel repulsive about ourselves. We too need to know the comfort of the touch of Christ's love.

Verse 41 continues: ‘I do choose. Be made clean!’

Notice how the leper did something in order to receive Christ's touch. He took himself to Jesus, probably ringing a bell and shouting "unclean, unclean" and facing the rejection by the people. He did what he needed to do to come to the Lord, receive his touch and be made whole once more. How often do we deny ourselves God's blessing because we do not take the opportunities available to us to come to Christ with our needs? How often do we find excuses for not coming to church, for not attending bible studies, prayer meetings and other channels whereby God administers his love and grace to people? If we too want to be cleansed and made whole we need to take every opportunity to come to our Lord to receive his grace.

Jesus was not yet ready to have his true identity revealed because he knew the people would not understand and so, like the demons and others earlier in his ministry, he told the healed man not to tell anybody about what had happened. Jesus also told the man to go through the prescribed procedure of being declared healthy by the priest. Here too, we learn and important truth. Jesus still heals people today. But he also uses others to assist in the healing process, people like doctors, nurses and other medical professionals. We need to trust God to use whatever means He chooses to make us well. We also need to go through the correct procedures to get confirmation that we are well. You might remember the case in America. It was televised in dramatised form. A diabetic child's parents believed that he had been miraculously healed. They stopped his insulin doses and the child died. The Christian who believes that God has healed them needs to get a doctor to confirm that this has happened before doing anything irresponsible - or else only they can be blamed for further suffering - not the doctors, and especially not God.

But who could remain silent? How many of us are able to contain good news? When something like this happens we want to tell the whole world about it. And now we should - because our Lord has been revealed and is risen and we take every opportunity to give all the glory to Him.

The following are a few closing thoughts to meditate on from this passage:

Notice the man's request - it was not to be healed - it was to be made clean. It is important to note that leprosy also symbolised sinfulness in Jewish culture because Isaiah the prophet had made the link in 1:4-6:

Ah, sinful nation, people laden with iniquity, offspring who do evil, children who deal corruptly, who have forsaken the Lord, who have despised the holy one of Israel, who are utterly estranged! Why do you seek further beatings? Why do you continue to rebel? The whole head is sick, and the whole heart faint. From the soul of the foot even to the head, there is no soundness in it, but bruises and sores and bleeding wounds; they have not been drained or bound up, or softened with oil.

Leprosy made a person isolated, not only from other people, but also from worship. Some even went so far as to suggest that leprosy was a sign of divine judgement for the person's disobedience[1] and so they were outlawed from worship because they were believed to be cut off from fellowship with God.[2] Yet Jesus was prepared to touch him - an action that automatically meant that Jesus made himself unclean.[3] Over Easter we remember yet another time when Jesus was willing to become unclean for the sake of those whom he loved - when he took upon himself the sin of the world and was cast from the Father's presence. The leper had his priorities right - he wanted to be restored to God, he wanted to be cleansed so that he could enter God's presence in the temple and synagogue. Do we always have our priorities right or do we come to our Lord with selfish motives? Is our relationship with God and our growth in that relationship the most important thing in our lives - or do we worship other Gods because other things are often more important to us.

We often rob ourselves of blessing upon blessing because we do not come to our Lord; we do not avail ourselves of his grace, especially as we neglect our quiet time with him in silent, private prayer. We need to follow the example of the young servant girl and the man with leprosy and take every opportunity we can find to come to meet with our Lord and when we do we know that he will be ...

41... moved with pity, Jesus will stretch out his hand and touch us and say to us too: ‘I do choose. Be made clean!’


[1] See Numbers 12; 2 Kings 5:19-27; 2 Chronicles 26:16-21.
[2] Miller, Layman's, p. 69.
[3] Wiersbe, Be Compassionate, p. 53.

Saturday, 7 February 2015

Mark 1:29-39

Mark 1:29-39

Jesus Heals Many at Simon’s House

29 As soon as they* left the synagogue, they entered the house of Simon and Andrew, with James and John. 30Now Simon’s mother-in-law was in bed with a fever, and they told him about her at once. 31He came and took her by the hand and lifted her up. Then the fever left her, and she began to serve them. 32 That evening, at sunset, they brought to him all who were sick or possessed with demons. 33And the whole city was gathered around the door. 34And he cured many who were sick with various diseases, and cast out many demons; and he would not permit the demons to speak, because they knew him.

A Preaching Tour in Galilee
35 In the morning, while it was still very dark, he got up and went out to a deserted place, and there he prayed. 36And Simon and his companions hunted for him. 37When they found him, they said to him, ‘Everyone is searching for you.’ 38He answered, ‘Let us go on to the neighbouring towns, so that I may proclaim the message there also; for that is what I came out to do.’ 39And he went throughout Galilee, proclaiming the message in their synagogues and casting out demons.

In today’s Gospel we encounter a lovely domestic scene. Jesus must have been exhausted after the dramatic nature of what had happened in the synagogue and looked forward to a meal with friends and some wonderful rest. I know, each time after I have led Sunday worship, I feel totally drained and have always had to lie down before preparing for the next service. This was especially true when I expounded on a passage on Luke in the morning and Revelation each Sunday evening! But what a pleasant and fulfilled exhaustion it always was.

It is important to note that Jesus cares deeply for all people who come to him. He does not need a crowd to witness his miracles, just people who bring their needs to him. At the time, there were all sorts of formulae and rituals that were prescribed to deal with exorcisms and healings, but Jesus used the simplicity of his words.

A mother-in-law was ill and ‘… they told him about her at once …’

I have the great privilege of a prayer ministry. It is an honour to bring people before the Lord in prayer and to know it is because of who we pray to and not because of our prayers that people are blessed. When I pray, I am often reminded of the friends of the paralysed man, persevering and lowering him down through the roof, because the house was so full – and Jesus saw their faith and healed the man. The age old hymn has it in a nutshell: “Take it to the Lord in prayer”! How often we go without, do we struggle, do we fail, because we have not taken it to the Lord in prayer?

And yet our present context does not always make it possible. Whenever a minister visited someone at home or in hospital in South Africa, it was expected of them that they would: “Lees en bid …” (read and pray). But in some areas here in the UK, it seems unnatural and often unwanted. I remember when I was first in pastoral ministry here, I heard of a member who had gone into hospital for an orthopaedic procedure. Still following my South African training, I went, at my first opportunity, to see him and to commend him to our Lord’s keeping, only to be met by the sincere comment: “O God, is it that bad!” At first I thought it was a joke and made things worse by treating it like that; but it was meant is all seriousness. I have also been told expressly by some, that they do not want to be visited or prayed for. In my early ministry I was affirmed in my visiting and prayerful care in addition to my expository teaching role. I remember Professor Brian Gayber, the Dean of the faculty, at our valedictory Chapel service at Rhodes University saying in his sermon – (I paraphrase):

“You have studied the mysteries of theology, you have gone into the depths of biblical study and philosophy … … but I have a secret to reveal to you: successful ministry requires you to visit and get to know your people, teach them from Scripture and pray for them …”

For good reasons, school chaplains cannot work in this way, because our congregations have been told to be there. This requires a complete paradigm shift which does not give us the liberty we enjoy in a more overtly Christian environment. But I am richly blessed: I work for a committed Christian man who joins me for prayer most weeks and I have a number of staff and students who do the same. I believe our school is blessed because there are many who bring it to the Lord – each day – in prayer. Sadly I am not sure that the rest of Britain does the same. I do not write this in a judgmental spirit, but out of love for the people and this land. Britain misses out on so much because people do not bring their needs and those of their loved ones to Jesus in prayer. (I have just heard on the news that a nurse has been suspended because she offered to pray for a patient. In this case, the patient did not mind but told a friend who reported it, and the nurse is in trouble and might even lose her job!)

Barclay records a touching example of a simple, unassuming Christian minister, who never let a person leave without praying with them. Barclay writes of a friend of this pastor who explained that he was

“…struck by the extreme simplicity of the old man’s prayers. It seemed just a continuation of an intimate conversation that the old saint was carrying on with Jesus.” (page 30)

Jesus is alive! We all too often worship the Jesus of history and forget that he is the Christ of faith who “… walks with me and talks with me along life’s narrow way …” (as the hymn writer put it). Barclay adds:

“He is a friend with whom I can discuss everything that happens in my life. He shares my joy and my pain, my hopes and fears … Therein lies the very essence of the Christian life. … ‘Take it to the Lord in prayer’.” (page 30)

Peter’s mother-in-law also sets an example. She used her recovery for renewed service. “Jesus helps us that we may help others.” She served – willingly – and out of gratitude.

Again I am touched by the simplicity of this lovely scene and the way our Lord cares for all of us, even though, in the eyes of the world, we seem so utterly insignificant. For the creator and sustainer of the universe, we all matter; there is no one who does not matter – we all are important. Amen.

So the people brought all who had need to Jesus, the sick in body and mind – and they were all – the nameless many - touched and blessed.

Have you noticed how often the different evangelists comment on the frequency of Jesus going out to be alone to pray? It was early in the morning, it was still dark and Jesus sought out a deserted place ‘… and there he prayed …’ He needed to pray – I need to pray - for without it I am lost. But prayer is – in my mind at least – often mistaken as being a time of words. I find rather that it is more a time of ‘being’. I love sitting in our school’s chapel all alone in the stillness and just being. True, I say the Morning Office and I love the privilege of the time of intercessory prayer, especially as God blesses me as I pray in this way; but there is something refreshing in just being there; being immersed in the presence of God.

I have not only experienced this in places of worship. I remember visiting a Methodist mission high up in the mountains of Lesotho and being left on a plateau. In the distance I heard the sound of a bell, but it seemed as though there was nothing to make the sound, until I noticed a shepherd with his sheep, climbing up the side of the mountain. They were so far away they appeared to me, the size of a match box. I was simply filled with the numinous experience of the beauty, the simplicity and the peace.

I remember also a time in hospital when I was awaiting surgery to remove the tumour from my pancreas (as well as most of my digestive system) and the onslaught of the most exquisite pain that lasted for hours on end – the visit of my Superintendent Minister – and then a while later the pain simply and inexplicably disappearing. I was enveloped by the presence of God and the most amazing and wonderful peace.

There are many others, often taking me by surprise because the ‘ordinary’ is so filled with them. All kairoi moments!

Jesus needed them – and if he needed them – so do we all even more so.

It would appear that Jesus reached out to meet the needs of all who came or were brought to him. But he was drained and needed to be replenished, so he sought the presence of his heavenly Father.

The more we give out – the more we need to be replenished. The busier we are, the more we need to pray. Barclay writes: “Not to pray is to be guilty of the incredible folly of ignoring the ‘possibility of adding God to our resources’.” (page 33)

The disciples just never got it – not at his stage at least. They were filled with excitement; they were befriended by this wonder-worker and they wanted to see more. They thought it was good news for Jesus that even more people were seeking him out. If they were really perceptive to his needs, they would have left him alone.

Jesus did not want to become famous as a worker of wonders; he had good news to proclaim, the Kingdom of God was at hand. Before the misconception could take hold, he set out on a preaching tour of the synagogues of Galilee. Mark uses one verse to make this point; it probably took weeks, possibly months. Where he preached, he met personal and material ordinary needs as well.

I am reminded of Brother Lawrence, the 17th Century monk, and his lovely work entitled: “The Practice of the Presence of God.” In his monastery kitchen he discovered ‘… an overwhelming delight in God’s presence …’

I trust that we will enjoy the ‘… presence of God …’ in the ordinariness of our day. If Brother Lawrence can experience it in the banality of the dirty dishes and preparing food, I am sure we can do the same as we mark hundreds of scripts or in some other simple activity of a teacher and pastor.

Wednesday, 4 February 2015

Colossians 1:11-20 (NRSV)

Colossians 1:11-20 (NRSV)

11May you be made strong with all the strength that comes from his glorious power, and may you be prepared to endure everything with patience, while joyfully 12giving thanks to the Father, who has enabled* you* to share in the inheritance of the saints in the light. 13He has rescued us from the power of darkness and transferred us into the kingdom of his beloved Son, 14in whom we have redemption, the forgiveness of sins.*

The Supremacy of Christ
 15 He is the image of the invisible God, the firstborn of all creation; 16for in* him all things in heaven and on earth were created, things visible and invisible, whether thrones or dominions or rulers or powers—all things have been created through him and for him. 17He himself is before all things, and in* him all things hold together. 18He is the head of the body, the church; he is the beginning, the firstborn from the dead, so that he might come to have first place in everything. 19For in him all the fullness of God was pleased to dwell, 20and through him God was pleased to reconcile to himself all things, whether on earth or in heaven, by making peace through the blood of his cross.

My text this morning is written in Colossians 1:15: “He is the image of the invisible God, the firstborn of all creation ...”

How are people to live in such a way that they get the most out of life? In his letter to the Colossians, Paul suggests that we need to be made strong because life sometimes requires us to endure difficult things and we need to be able to see them through to the end, especially if we are going to face injustices and wrongs. This is not all: Paul adds that we need to add joy to the process. Hunter comments: “The temper called for is no grey and close-lipped Stoicism which can only grin and bear it, but true Christian serenity which, born in suffering, meets the world with cheerfulness and abounds in thanksgiving.”

We see then that Paul adds to strength and joy the need to always be thankful – a central theme of all his writings. This thankfulness ought to be part of our lives because of God’s inestimable love shown to us in our redemption. Paul explains from verse 13:

13He has rescued us from the power of darkness and transferred us into the kingdom of his beloved Son, 14in whom we have redemption, the forgiveness of sins.*

This is not something we have earned and it is not something we deserve, God has qualified us for this by His grace.

To live in such a way that we see meaning and purpose in our lives and how we can live with a sense of fulfilment therefore implies that our lives need to be in a state of constant transformation; a process that is dynamic and continuous. We need to do those things that enable us to gain strength. We need spiritual nourishment that comes from a regular study of Scripture, regular participation in the Sacrament of Holy Communion, and daily to be found at the source of strength, in a time of quite reflection and prayer. In order to be made strong we need to be in the presence of God who can make us strong; in order to be able to endure and even find joy in all times of our lives, especially the difficult times, we need to be found in the presence of God, because we need to be rescued from the power of darkness and, to use Paul’s lovely image, we need to be transferred into the kingdom of light. Since the 1960s people have been told that you can be a Christian and never attend church. I would challenge this for unless we are found with God’s people, being nourished by the Word and Sacraments, we are in danger of dying spiritually, or only just surviving because we are trying to live on starvation rations.

Our salvation is not merely a future hope; it is a present blessing – we have been rescued from the power of darkness. I pause here because this is something that seems foreign to many modern people in the UK and Europe. For Paul, this kingdom of darkness was a realm full of sinister, superhuman forces menacing people’s lives, and Paul identified them with the Devil and his minions. But, as A M Hunter points out, we hardly use this sort of language anymore and we talk rather of people being in the grip of economic forces, things that can more easily be explained. But this does not make what Paul is saying an outmoded myth. Hunter continues: “We have begun again to talk of the ‘demonic’ in our world, as well they might who have seen with their own eyes the depths of devilry to which great nations can descend and the savage bestiality of men to their fellow men.” Is this not sadly most vivid at this time when we have remembered the horrors of war in our Remembrance Services? Is it not also true that the word ‘evil’ is being used more in law courts (and elsewhere) to describe some of the terrible things people are doing to others?

But Paul has stressed that we are no longer at the mercy of this kingdom of darkness because we have been transferred to the ‘kingdom of his beloved Son.’ This means that our sins have been forgiven; the chains that once bound us have been broken and we have been set free from our guilt. This is especially foreign in the minds of most in our society because, while they might have a renewed understanding of the notions of ‘evil’ and the ‘realms of darkness’ there is little awareness of personal sin.

A reason for this is that modern people tend to see sin as being only about “doing”. While it is true that there are actions that cause hurt and suffering to others and from which we need to repent, but it is more; sin is about “being”; it is because of who we are that we fail in our love for God and others. It is the selfishness that makes people think that we live in a vacuum, and that we do not need to care about the plight of others, that plunges one into darkness. I believe we in the west need to repent of our arrogance in thinking that we are so superior to others in the world; I think our bankers and their obscene bonuses are just an extreme example of the sickness that prevails. I have even heard those who vehemently condemn these bankers say that they would think differently if they were in receipt of such wealth.

Some people think life is all about getting, when it is meant to be all about giving. How many children are encouraged to be acquisitive because of the way we have allowed Christmas to lose its real focus of sacrifice and care and become something that plunges poor families into even greater debt because they do not want their children to feel left out? Even our economy is based on debt and spending and selfishness because at the core of capitalism is the notion that if you are looking after yourself first and foremost, you will indirectly be looking after others. I believe that too many still think that our current economic plight is the fault of others – like the bankers – “doing” and not the system itself – “being”.

The kingdom of darkness seems attractive because it does not appear to be darkness at all. It is like Plato’s allegory of the cave: because this is all people know, they seem quite contented with it and when one wants to show them the light, they rebel and reject it. But we have a duty of love to reveal the nature of the darkness and to show the world the kingdom of God’s son, not by dumbing things down, and trying to give people what they think they want, but by honestly speaking in a language that people understand and which reveals the world without Christ as it really is.

The joy of it all comes from knowing that the status quo is not what it has to be. It is also not that we are left to guess or experiment to try to find the secret, or achieve enlightenment or nirvana. The truth of God, humanity and human existence has been revealed to the world in Jesus Christ and is explained in our reading this morning. God has been made known to the world in the person and work of Jesus Christ.

Verses 15-20 must rank as some of the most profound truths ever expressed and I never tire of reading them here and as they are expressed elsewhere, most notably Hebrews 1:3 which reads:

He is the reflection of God’s glory and the exact imprint of God’s very being, and he sustains* all things by his powerful word.”

The NEB does really capture the essence of this truth in the most wonderful way, translating this verse as:

“… the Son who is the effulgence of God’s splendour and the stamp of God’s very being, and sustains the universe by his word of power …”

“Effulgence” refers to “shining brightly” and therefore more than a mere reflection, but more a highlighting of the nature of God. Jesus, the Son, is the perfect representation of God, the perfect revelation of who God really is – he is the visible likeness of the invisible God as the TEV translates it.

I spend a great deal of my time thinking about the nature and existence of God. As a teacher of philosophy, we explore the various arguments and ponder the imponderable. We define God and struggle to get our heads around “… that, than which nothing can be conceived or thought or even imagined …”

But God is not understood because this is impossible; it is impossible for our finite minds ever to understand the infinity of God – the truth of God is revealed. The infinite God, who is beyond our comprehension, became one of us and made Himself known to us – revealed Himself to the world - in the person of Jesus of Nazareth – the Messiah of God. This does not mean that that we do not have to grapple with this because we do; we do not turn our minds off as we enter Church and suspend our intellect – we leave it all on in fact we amplify all our senses. We know that we are not mere bodies and minds; we are souls and spirits as well, and in order to know truth we need to approach it with all that we are, and not mere compartments. The world seems to have lost sight that we are much more than mere rational minds alone.

As Barclay reminds us, salvation is not found through intellectual knowledge; it is rather redemption and the forgiveness of sins. We know through reason but we also know through faith; the one is not better than the other, they are just different, and both are vital. I believe that there are certain things that we will never understand using reason, no matter how human knowledge develops, simply because being human, our knowledge is going to be finite and flawed and imperfect; and ultimate truth is infinite and beyond our reach. Paul, in this passage acknowledges the mystery of God. Simply expressed: “To see what God is like, you must look at Jesus …”

This is most explicitly explained in claiming that it was Jesus who created the world and it is for Him that it is created and that He was before all things and in Him all things hold together.

Everything else is contingent –  which means it does not have to exist – but the only thing that has necessary existence is that which brought all contingent things into being – Jesus! Jesus ‘… holds all things together …’ because what we know as the laws of science which make sense of the universe are in fact an expression of the thought of God and are therefore divine laws.

I believe the essence of what it means to live is, to quote C S Lewis, ‘… to love and be loved …’ God is love – and this is always going to be non-cognitive and beyond rational explanation. What can be known has therefore been given a practical demonstration in the life teaching and ministry of Jesus. To make life full and meaningful, we need to be reconciled to God and to others. Paul puts everything into a nutshell in the last two verses of this passage where we read:

19For in him all the fullness of God was pleased to dwell, 20and through him God was pleased to reconcile to himself all things, whether on earth or in heaven, by making peace through the blood of his cross.”

Many modern people really struggle with the last phrase: “… making peace through the blood of the cross …” To the modern reader the whole idea of Jesus’ death being a sacrifice seems bizarre. Why should that be necessary? Here again, Barclay provides some useful insight. He writes:

“In the death of Jesus, God is saying to us, ‘I love you like that. I love you enough to see my Son suffer and die for you. I love you enough to bear the Cross on my heart, if only it will win you to myself.’ … the Cross is the final proof of the love of God … If the Cross will not waken love and wonder in men’s hearts, nothing will.”

Now, as always, perhaps more than for many years, the world needs to hear the truth of salvation in Jesus, but not in language that they cannot identify with or understand, language that confronts head on the reality of modern existence and with it the challenge that it can be different, it can be better, it can be transformed, we can move from darkness into the light, because God has revealed the way in Jesus Christ our Lord for he is “He is the image of the invisible God, the firstborn of all creation ...”