Behold, Your King! Pt. 2

Preached at Holmfirth Methodist Church
18th April 2014: Good Friday
Psalm 22:1-11; John 18:1-19:42

Today we have come to the coronation ceremony for God’s chosen King. Today a crown is set on his head, a purple robe is placed over his shoulders and he is installed on high for everyone to see. On Sunday, Jesus came into Jerusalem with palm branches waving, cloaks strewn before him and shouts of joy filling the air. We were there with him. We sang hosannas with the assembled masses. We hailed him as the Son of David, the true heir to Israel’s throne. We blessed him as the one who comes in the name of the Lord. All week we’ve been waiting for him to make his move, waiting for him to rise up and wrest control of the world back from the dark forces of evil and oppression, and today, at last, our waiting is over. My job today is simple; it is, in the words of Pontius Pilate, to bid you come, “Behold, your King!”

You might be forgiven for thinking that today is about a crucifixion, not a coronation. But the truth is that they’re one and the same thing. In John’s Gospel, the throne is the Cross. When Jesus enters Jerusalem, he says to his friends, “The hour has come for the Son of Man to be glorified.” When he prays for his friends shortly before his arrest, he prays, “Father, the hour has come; glorify your Son that the Son may glorify you.” We’re not meant to feel sorry for Jesus today. Today is the hour of his glory. He is no mere victim; rather, he is the Victor. Now that is profoundly challenging for us because this is not what we think victory is supposed to look like. And if this is glory, it is a very peculiar kind of glory. Never before, in fact, has strength looked so much like surrender, courage like capitulation, and triumph like tragedy. Yet such is the mystery of the day.

The Passion story, as John’s Gospel tells it, is laced with irony throughout. Inadvertently and unwittingly, it is left to Jesus’s enemies to reveal the most profound theological truths of that day and it is by their words, their deeds, that God communicates the lessons of that day to us. The soldiers weave together a crown of thorns for Jesus to wear. They put a royal robe on his back and bow down, hailing him as King. Pilate wheels the bloodied, bruised and battered body of Christ out in crown and robe to the assembled crowd and declares before them, “Behold, your King!” As if that wasn’t enough, he orders an inscription of the charge against Jesus to be written above his head on the Cross: “Jesus of Nazareth, the King of the Jews.” What’s more, he orders it to be written in Hebrew, Latin and Greek (the three languages of Roman Judea) so that everyone could read it:
ישוע הנצרי מלך היהודים
Iesus Nazarenus, Rex Iudeaorum
Ἰησοῦς ὁ Ναζωραῖος ὁ Bασιλεὺς τῶν Ἰουδαίων
And when the chief priests complain and demand it to be changed, Pilate says no, that it shall stand—about the only firm decision he makes all day. “What I have written I have written,” he says.

Have you got the message yet? This guy on the cross isn’t just some poor unfortunate soul who just happened to find himself in the wrong place at the wrong time. No. That is the King up there on that cross; our King. And reading the story of Christ’s Passion rightly makes us ask the question: “Who’s really in control here?” Because the more we look at it, the more we see that it’s Jesus. Everything plays exactly as he wants it to and I do mean everything.

When Jesus is arrested, for instance, he sees Judas and the soldiers coming towards him and he steps forward to hand himself over to them. At the trial, where Pilate is meant to be interrogating him, Jesus turns it around and starts asking Pilate the difficult questions, like: “What is truth?” After Jesus is flogged, mocked and humiliated, Pilate presents him to the gathered crowd as their King. As Jesus hangs dying on the tree, Pilate’s inscription translates the significance of events every language spoken in Judea. Jesus dies, but not because anyone takes his life from him; but because he gives up his spirit. Even the timing of the death is at Jesus’s prerogative, dying as he does before the soldiers have to break his legs so that he can be seen as the perfect Passover lamb without spot, blemish or defect. Be in no doubt about it: Jesus is no unsuspecting casualty here, he is the willing victim.

Jesus himself reminds Pilate: “You would have no authority over me at all unless it had been given you from above.” In other words, “You’re not in control here.” Or, as George Herbert in his poem ‘The Sacrifice’ puts it quite beautifully: “I him obey, who all things else command … I, who am Truth, turn into truth their deeds.” Here is truth nailed upon a cross and ultimately, this is what makes Good Friday so good: Jesus isn’t dragged off to the Cross kicking and screaming, he goes willingly for us. To quote the words of St. Augustine: “For our sake he stood to [God] as both victor and victim, and victor because victim; for us he stood to [God] as priest and sacrifice, and priest because sacrifice, making us sons and daughters to [God] instead of servants by being born of [God] to serve us.” It is the willingness of his self-sacrifice which is Christ’s glory. It is his readiness to suffer and die for love of our love which is his triumph.

Jesus could have revealed himself as King with power and authority by coming down from the Cross and proving wrong his doubters. He didn’t because if he did, we would have no choice but to believe him. We wouldn’t be wooed into loving him so much as we’d be forced into serving him. In that instant, he’d become the worst dictator imaginable. Rather, as Russian theologian Nicholai Berdyaev has said, “Truth nailed upon the cross compels nobody, oppresses no one; it must be accepted and confessed freely.” The Cross offends our sensibilities because not only does it confront us with the cost and the consequences of our sin, but because it also challenges us to re-evaluate what we mean by glory and victory. To see the Cross as anything other than an unmitigated disaster takes one heck of a paradigm shift, and that is a task that God alone can accomplish in us.

The crown of thorns Jesus wears today isn’t a substitute for some other crown made of gold and silver, adorned with expensive diamonds and sparkling rubies. Likewise the Cross on which Jesus is enthroned is no accident, nor is it simply a sick joke. No. Rather, these are the crown and throne of a King who breaks hearts with love, not fear: the King of love. It isn’t that the suffering itself is glorious, because it isn’t. It is that the suffering is glorified by love: that Christ loves us, that he hands himself over to us willingly, that he dies freely for our sins. Don’t weep today because you think Jesus is a helpless pawn in a game of imperial chess; rather, weep for the love which drove him to such desperate measures on our behalf. Jesus didn’t die because he was weak. He died because he was strong and courageous enough to embrace the path of sacrifice, to travel the road of costly self-giving, to walk the way of suffering love to the Cross that it may be for us the way of life and peace.

Truly, this is what makes him our King. Thanks be to God. Amen.

Behold, Your King! Pt. 1

Preached at Wooldale Methodist Church
13th April 2014: Palm Sunday
Matthew 21:1-11; Matthew 27:11-54

“Who is this?” they asked, for the whole city was at fever pitch, awash with excitement and confusion at the sight and sound of a man who came riding into Jerusalem seated on the back of a donkey. What an experience it must have been; crowds thronging the streets, people shouting and singing, a noisy buzz filling the air like a thick fog as those who came out to see what all the fuss was about started turning to one another and asking each other the self-same question: “Who is this?” That’s the question, isn’t it? “Who is this?” It was the question then and it’s the question now as well. “Who is this?”

The history books have recorded this event as ‘The Triumphal Entry,’ but the truth is that the Romans knew a thing or two about triumphal entries and this was nothing like it. When a successful commander returned from the field, having won some great military victory, they might throw him a triumph to celebrate the achievement. They’d crown his head with a laurel wreath. They’d throw a purple robe around his shoulders. They’d lead him in a four-horse chariot through the streets of Rome with the prisoners and spoils of war going before and his soldiers going after. All the while he’d be greeted by the roaring adulation and applause of the massed crowds. For a day, he’d treated like a king, even like a god. For life, he’d be known as the uir triumphalis—the man of triumph.

Look again at the scene when Jesus enters Jerusalem. This is no conquering military hero; victors in battle do not ride into their capital cities on an ass, they ride in on a mighty stallion of a warhorse—something which demonstrates their power and authority. There’s no army in sight, either; just a misfit group of disciples—men, women, children, tax collectors, prostitutes, former-lepers, those newly repossessed from demons. It’s an odd group, that’s for sure. As triumphs go, it’s really more of a parody. And yet still the crowds received him like a king, waving palm branches and spreading their cloaks in front of him. No wonder Jerusalem was in a stir when he entered town; everyone must have been very confused about what was going on.

“Who is this?” That’s the $64,000 question. The crowds hailed him as a king, but if he is he’s no ordinary king. This king will not triumph through force of arms. This king comes not to be served, but to serve. “This king,” theologian Stanley Hauerwas says, “triumphs not through violent revolt, but by being for Israel the one able to show it that its worship of God is its freedom.” The crowds shouted “Hosanna!”—a cry which means, “Save now!” They looked for a king who would deliver them from the distress of Roman oppression. They looked for a king who would cleanse the Temple and purify the true worship of God. They looked for a king who would bring God’s rule to earth and make the whole world a better place. What they got was Jesus. It’s hardly surprising that they pointed to the man entering Jerusalem on a donkey and asked, “Who is this?” as if to say, “He’s not who we’re looking for. We’re after a king.”

And yet it was to be acknowledged as king that Jesus came into Jerusalem. His is an unmistakeably political act insomuch as it forces us to make a decision, to answer that question that everyone in the city was asking: “Who is this?”

There’s no doubt about the claim Jesus was making for himself as he entered the city. In Zechariah 9:9, the prophet has a vision of God’s chosen king coming into Jerusalem humble and riding on a donkey. Later in the same book, the prophet declares that God will stand on the Mount of Olives to take back Jerusalem from his enemies. To this day, there are huge Jewish cemeteries on the Mount of Olives because the expectation is that when God comes to put things right, that’s where he’ll begin. And so Jesus stands on the Mount of Olives surveying the city he’s intent on capturing; not with mighty armies and weapons of war, but with a cross and with love outpoured. Jesus’s concern is not for prisoners or spoils of war, but for winning hearts back to God. As William Barclay has excellently pointed out, “It was not the kingship of the throne which he claimed it was the kingship of the heart.”

“Who is this?” If we’re after a king who will kick some serious Roman backside, we’ll be disappointed. If we’re after a king who will parade before us in the finest silk and satins, we’ll be disappointed. If we’re after a king who will make life easy for us, we’ll be disappointed. If we’re after a king who will be a kind of puppet ruler that we can tell what to do, we’ll be disappointed. If we’re after a king who acts as a kind of constitutional monarch who is little more than a figurehead and a tourist attraction and who doesn’t really get involved in our affairs, we’ll be disappointed. Jesus isn’t that sort of king and he never will be. Jesus challenges our very notions of power and kingship. If you’re singing today because you think Jesus will destroy death and evil by sheer brute force, you just wait for Friday when you see him nailed to a tree and killed like a common criminal. The truth is that it’s only on Friday that’ll we see what kind of a king Jesus really is. And when we see it, those who shouted “Hosanna!” today will be shouting “Crucify him!” then. We don’t want Jesus for our king; that’s precisely why we need him.

Soon after the Roman Empire converted to Christianity, artwork of the time depicted Christ looking like an emperor dressed in all the finery and sophistication of the imperial court. The irony is that his kingship couldn’t have been more different. Jesus didn’t come riding on a fearsome warhorse; he came riding on a donkey. And in some ways, he has more in common with the donkey or the ass—he is humble, lowly, unassuming; he is used to carrying heavy loads; he is a beast of burden who works for the benefit of humans like us. This is challenge offered by the words of the prophet Zechariah, which Matthew quotes: “Behold, your king is coming to you, humble, and mounted on a donkey.” We ask ourselves again, “Who is this?” The answer bears a striking similarity to Eeyore from Winnie the Pooh! Our king not only comes riding on a donkey, but even resembles a donkey in the kind of hard, manual labour he does for us. “Behold, your King!” Matthew implores us.

“Who is this?” This week, that question won’t go away. It’s a question we will all have to grapple with and come up with an answer for. But perhaps we should wait till Friday to give our answer, once we’ve seen him betrayed, sold for thirty silver pieces; once we’ve seen him flogged, mocked and stripped naked; once we’ve seen him condemned, crucified and laid in a cold stone tomb. Then may God give us the eyes of faith to see Jesus as he really is, falling down and worshipping him as King. We read from that story now… (Matthew 27:11-54) “Who is this?” May God reveal the answer to us this Holy Week.

In the name of the Father, and the Son, and the Holy Spirit. Amen.

The Value of Dry Bones: Resurrection in the Church

A Talk for the Wesley Guild, Shepley
7th April 2014, 7.30pm
Ezekiel 37:1-14

Put yourself in my shoes for a bit, won’t you? There I was, minding my own business, when this giant, invisible hand picked me up, plucked me like a grape from the vine and plonked me down in the middle of this huge, abandoned valley. I rubbed my eyes and looked around. Everywhere I looked there were bones; nothing but dry, brittle, lifeless bones. In fact, there were so many of them that it looked like a blanket of snow was covering the earth. The sun reflecting off the brilliant white carpet of the bony valley floor made me wince. And the silence, the silence was deafening. You could have heard a pin drop. I’ve never been somewhere so quiet before. It was eerie. Then, as if to make a point, God gave me a guided tour of the graveyard. He took my hand and led me around the bones so that I could get a proper look. Yep. They were dead alright. No doubt about that.

But then God asked me: “Can these bones live?” he said. Can they live? What a ridiculous question! He can’t be serious, can he? I mean, they’re bones, dry bones, very dry bones. There’s no flesh on them. The vultures picked these bones clean a long time ago. Since then they’ve just been lying there, getting bleached by the hot midday desert sun. “Can they live?” Yeah, right! Can pigs fly? Hah! I suppose they’ll be getting up in a minute doing the Macarena, won’t they? Hah! Fat chance! Wait a second, maybe it’s a trick. You know, a bit like QI. Whatever you do, don’t say the obvious answer… That’s a point. I should probably give him an answer, shouldn’t I? He’s looking at me. Quick, Ezekiel, think of something—something pious, something religious-sounding. You know the score. Well, I s’pose if these bones are going to live it certainly won’t anything to do with me, will it? So I’ll say something like that. That’s true. That’ll sound good, won’t it? Ok. And I answered: “Lord, only you know whether these bones can live.”

It feels like that in church sometimes, doesn’t it?—like God’s insulting our intelligence, pointing to someone or something that is clearly a lost cause and then going and proving us wrong by doing what we all full-well know is impossible as if just to spite us, just to make us look silly. God loves confounding our expectations. He loves breaking out of the neat little boxes we try to keep him in. God, as Easter reminds us every year, is in the business of bringing life out of death. And with a God like that, the word ‘impossible’ loses much of its meaning. So where am I going with all this? A while ago when I was exploring a feeling I had of God calling me towards ordination, someone asked me why I wanted to be ordained to serve a Church in almost constant decline. I said, “Because I believe in a God who can raise the dead, who can bring life out of death. I believe that, with God, there is value in dry bones.”

And so, that’s the title of my talk tonight: “The Value of Dry Bones: Resurrection in the Church.” We’re all very well aware, I think, that the Church in this country and many other Western countries are struggling. Attendance is falling. Average age is rising. Income from churchgoers is going down. Costs of maintaining old buildings are going up. And, despite the assertions of the honourable Secretary of State for Communities, Mr Pickles, it is abundantly clear that this is no longer a Christian country, if it indeed it could ever truly be said that it was to begin with. Although according to the 2011 census 59.3% (down from 72.1% in 2001) of UK adults call themselves Christian, what that means is actually pretty questionable. For instance, the English Church Survey found that of over 50 million people in England alone, only around 6% (3 million people) would usually go to church on a Sunday. The data also revealed that between 1998 and 2005, the Methodist Church lost 24% of regular Sunday churchgoers. These are huge numbers we’re talking about and it all seems to point back to a fairly pressing question, “Can these bones live?”

Sometimes, I think, preachers can be tempted to ask the same question. By which I don’t necessarily mean that it feels like you’re talking to a pile of dry bones, though I must confess that there have been times and places that I’ve felt like that. No. What I mean is that it’s easy to look from the front and see a smattering of mostly grey and white headed folks dotted all over the place to such an extent that you could shoot a canon through the church building and still not be in any danger of hitting anyone. It’s then that we preachers can sometimes feel like Ezekiel being led around the valley floor and being interrogated whether or not we think these bones can live. I hope so. But I’m with Ezekiel on this one: if they are going to live, it won’t be because of me; it’ll be because of some miraculous working of God’s Spirit.

What I think is so interesting about this story of the valley of dry bones is that before anything else, before prophesying to the bones and before the bones miraculously come together, God leads Ezekiel among the bones so that he can get a good look. Before new life starts to emerge, God wants Ezekiel to acknowledge and accept the reality of the death that is right in front of him. The road to new life begins with a rather blunt and sober assessment of the facts on the ground. It’s no use pretending things are fine. It’s no use trying to say that things are rosier than they are. The best thing we can do when confronted with something like this is name it for what it is. There may be shock, there may be denial, there may be anger, there may be bargaining, there may be grief—all the typical responses to a bereavement; but where God begins with Ezekiel is acceptance. The bones are dry, very dry. When it comes to thinking about Church decline, I think it’s important we try to do the same.

So let’s go with Ezekiel for a statistical walk around the dry bones. By 2020, forecasters are predicting that on present trends, church attendance will have fallen by 55% of what it was in 1980. In 2005, 65% of the population were non-churched; that is, people who just haven’t ever been to regular churchgoers. There were 26% who at one point in their lives went to church and who have since slipped away. All of which leaves just 9% of people who go to church monthly or more. Of all these, because the cross-section of the people who do go to church are generally older, the percentage of non-churched people in the population is increasing all the time. Last year it was estimated that the average age of churchgoers in the Church of England was 62. I haven’t found figures for the Methodist Church this year, but based on previous years and projections, they are at least comparable—something which seems to be backed up by anecdotal evidence.

In my last circuit there was a church with less than 15 people regularly in attendance, of whom the youngest was in their 70s. In October 2012, soon after I arrived here, I asked people in churches to help me get a feel for the place by filling in questionnaires about their church experience. Just 5% were from people under 40. 83% were from people over 55. The other day, Angie was at a playgroup with Jed and she got talking with another young mum there. In the course of the conversation, she told her that she was a Christian, that she’d come over from the States to study here and that I was about to go and train to be a Vicar in the Church of England. She automatically assumed I was American, not just because my wife is, but because she doesn’t know anybody her age in this country who is religious. This is the reality we find ourselves in.

Statistics, however, only tell part of the story. The goal is not simply more ‘bums on seats’ even though we would love to see every seat taken. When we ask the question, “Can these bones live?” we are confronted by the issue of what it means to live. The reality is that there could be a church full of people and it still to be full of dry bones. The kind of life Jesus talks about is eternal life, abundant life. He says in John’s Gospel, “I came that they may have life and have it abundantly.” Likewise in John’s Gospel he said, “And this is eternal life, that they know you the only true God, and Jesus Christ whom you have sent.” As far as Christians are concerned, then, life means being connected with God through Jesus. “Can these bones live?” Perhaps we also need to be asking whether what we are currently doing in our churches is really helping people to live in that deeper, fuller kind of life. Are we in our Sunday worship, in what we do during the week, helping people connect with God through Jesus? That’s a question we need to be asking.

Again, thinking back to the questionnaires people filled out around the circuit when I first arrived, when people were asked what they thought were the major issues facing their church in the future, a significant number of people said trying to recruit more people, especially younger people to come in and take over some of the jobs. That is perfectly understandable and of course, if churches are to carry on, there do need to be people willing and able to take up positions of leadership and responsibility in the life of the church. The danger, though, is that we want people to come because we want them to do the jobs we’re tired of doing and that our emphasis isn’t on wanting people to come so that they too can be connected with God in Jesus Christ. The Church isn’t the building or the institution; it’s the family of people who are serious about being followers of Jesus. It sounds obvious, but we need to remember that because if we don’t there’ll be nothing of substance there to keep new people even if they do come.

“Can these bones live?” Yes, I believe they can. First, however, I think we need to be realistic about where we are. Second, I think we need to be clear about what we mean when we talk about living. And third, I think we need to be prepared for resurrection being a rather messy business…

What strikes me straight away about Ezekiel’s experience in this story is that God asks him to do something which looks completely insane: to go out and preach to a valley full of dry old bones. It’s the Old Testament equivalent of talking to brick wall. I think we all sometimes have those experiences where we think that we’re talking to someone and they’re just completely non-responsive. Usually, however, we don’t set out to do it. Here God actually tells Ezekiel to go out and deliberately start speaking to a load of dry bones knowing full-well beforehand that they are just that—dry bones. God asks Ezekiel to do something which by all accounts might make him look a bit foolish. God asks him to take a risk. He asks him to do something which defies common sense simple because God has told him to do it. Imagine a church spending its money on something which doesn’t seem to have a hope of encouraging anyone new to come on a Sunday morning, but doing it simply because they heard God telling them it was the right thing to do. Mission is risky because you can throw all this seed out on the ground and there’s a chance that none of it will take root. Ezekiel could stand there and preach the finest sermon in the world to those dry bones, but there’s a chance that they’ll stay the same—and that’s where we need to learn to trust God because nothing will happen unless he is in it, unless his Spirit is filling those dry bones with breath. The challenge for us, then, is seeking to know and hear God’s voice well enough that we understand where God’s wind is blowing and get on board with it.

This, however, also comes with a health warning. When Ezekiel prophesies over the bones and there’s a sound and they all start rattling and coming together, that word for rattling also the word for an earthquake. Resurrection is a dangerous thing. What’s more, it’s not simply a case of new life, but of renewed life. The same dry, dead bones are taken up and transformed. There is continuity between the old and the new, but there’s also change. Those dry bones are not tossed away for God to start again from scratch; he picks them up and incorporates them into the new bodies that he’s making. Resurrection involves being changed. Perhaps in order to see renewed life in our churches, we will have to make some potentially quite painful decisions. In some instances, for example, closing a church might be a courageous way of looking for growth. A 2007 survey of Christian experience conducted by Tearfund found that churchgoing was strongest in churches of between 51 and 200 members. There seems to be a sense that a critical mass of people, resources and energy helps prepare the conditions for growth. Would a church be courageous enough to close not out of defeatism but out of the faith that with God these bones can still live in a different way and this might just be a way of cooperating with God’s work of doing that?

“Can these bones live?” Absolutely they can. If Easter teaches us anything, it’s that the word ‘impossible’ doesn’t mean much where God’s concerned. These bones can live, but are we ready for resurrection? Because the truth of the matter is that resurrection isn’t as easy as it’s cracked up to be. However, it is most certainly is worth it. As we approach Easter and the single most important celebration of the Christian calendar perhaps a question we need to be asking ourselves is what resurrection might look like in the Church, because we know that with God, no matter how bad things might seem, there is value in dry bones. “Can these bones live?” God knows they can. The real question is: do we?

Dangerous Grace

Preached at Holmfirth Methodist Church
3rd April 2014: Shoppers’ Service
Psalm 139

“O LORD, you have searched me out and known me.” Now is that good news, or bad?

Surely, it’s a wonderful thing to be searched out and known by the living God. There are times when we can feel so small, so insignificant and unimportant that we wonder whether anyone cares about us, whether anyone would notice if we didn’t exist. Psalm 139 says God would. He has searched us out and known us. God would care. God would notice.

“You have searched me,” the psalmist says. Really, it’s much stronger than that. The word has the sense of digging into or excavating something very thoroughly. It’s the word used to describe mining for precious metals and minerals. What the psalmist is saying is that God conducts a thorough investigation of us; that he is infinitely interested in us and that we are endlessly enthralling to him.

Similarly, when the psalmist says, “You have known me,” what he’s talking about is something of the utmost intimacy. The same word describes the kind of knowledge that two lovers have of one another. It means being uncovered, exposed, naked. Before God, we’re like an open book. His gaze penetrates every corner of our lives. It’s like an x-ray, looking straight through us and into our hearts—our thoughts, our feelings, our intentions. Nothing is concealed. He is the One “to whom all hearts are open, all desires known and from whom no secrets are hidden.”

God knows us through and through. He knows even the smallest things about us—our quirks, our habits, our eccentricities; he knows it all. He knows us better than we know ourselves. And that’s a good thing because sometimes we feel like we don’t know ourselves very well at all and it’s reassuring to know that God does, that he understands us. There are times when we sit down to pray and just don’t know what to say, how to begin. How comforting it is to know that’s ok because this is the same God who finishes our sentences before the words have even come into our head.

What a wonderful thing it is to be searched out and known by God!

And yet, how frightening also. A God who sees everything sees some things we’d rather not anyone see. We have skeletons in the closet—things we’re ashamed of, things we’re insecure about, things no one else knows about but us. And the fact is: we don’t want to be known quite that well. A God to whom the darkness is not dark and to whom the night is bright as the day is a God who shines a searchlight into every dark and dingy corner of our lives. The thing is, though: they’re dark and dingy for a reason; we don’t want anyone looking into them!

I’ve had the experience of being searched before and let me tell you, it’s not particularly pleasant. I’ve been to the airport to catch a flight, walked through the metal detector at security and heard that loud, persistent beep, beep, beep that no one wants to hear. I’ve been pulled over, patted down and probed in some rather personal places. I’ve had someone riffle through my bags, dumping everything out, swabbing it for traces of drugs or explosive and handing me back the jumbled pile of my possessions. And even though I had nothing to hide, you can feel the eyes of the other passengers boring into you, looking at you and thinking, “I hope he’s not on my flight…” It’s invasive. It’s humiliating. You come out feeling violated. Being searched can be a rather uncomfortable experience.

In the same way, because being known to someone is like being naked, it brings with it a high degree of vulnerability. When you share some very personal bit of information about yourself, you’re taking a risk on that person. Knowledge is power. It doesn’t take much for someone to use what they know against us if they wanted to. I’m sure that any husband or wife knows enough about the other that they could seriously embarrass them if they wanted to. To be fully known is a dangerous thing. If we’re to be fully known, we want to make sure it’s by someone we can trust.

“You hem me in, behind and before, and lay your hand upon me.”

You encompass me. You surround me. You besiege and beleaguer me. You press hard upon me and encircle me. You tie me up and seal me in. I look ahead of me—you’re there. I look over my shoulder—you’re there too. I can’t get away from you. You lay your hand upon me, but is it a hand gentle with blessing or a hand heavy with authority? I can’t tell. Maybe it’s both at the same time. Nevertheless, what I do know is that I don’t want you to take it from me, not even for a second. “Here I am,” I say. “Send me.”

What kind of God is this? This is the God to whom no one is anonymous. This is the God who’s like a shepherd with a hundred sheep, who when one wanders off and goes missing, leaves the other ninety-nine in the open countryside and goes off searching for it till he brings it back home safely. This is the God who’s like a woman with ten silver coins, who when one goes missing tears up the whole house up trying to find it and won’t give up till she’s got it back. This God goes after us relentlessly, won’t go away and won’t leave us alone; he pursues us until we give in, let go and surrender to his love.

What a wonderful and fearful thing it is to be searched out and known by this God!

God won’t be contained. He doesn’t want an hour of your Sunday mornings. He wants you, all of you. Every day. Every hour. Every minute. Every second. God wants it all. He wants you when you’re driving to work. He wants you when you’re doing the washing up. He wants you when you’re in the supermarket. There are no half-measures here. St. Augustine once said that because God made us for himself, our hearts are restless until they rest in him. Perhaps we should rather say that because God made us for himself, his heart is restless until ours rest in him.

This is dangerous grace. It’s dangerous because it means undergoing the discomfort of being searched. It’s grace because it’s God doing the searching. It’s dangerous because it means for us the vulnerability of being known. It’s grace because God became vulnerable to be known to us. It’s dangerous because God hems us in and encamps around us on every side. It’s grace because the call for unconditional surrender is met with unconditional love. It’s dangerous because God’s searchlight will expose the sordid depths of our sin. It’s grace because God doesn’t love us any less for seeing it. It’s dangerous because our sin will take us to the cross. But above all, it’s grace because Jesus went to the cross willingly for our sake.

“Search me out, O God, and know my heart;
try me and examine my thoughts.
See if there is any way of wickedness in me
and lead me in the way everlasting.”

May God give us the courage of sweet surrender to make this prayer our own. Amen.

Mother Church

Preached at Trinity Methodist/URC, Honley
30th March 2014: Mothering Sunday (AAW)
John 19:25-27

What is a family? Who is in your family? What does your family look like?

Someone a few years ago gave us a tea towel saying: “Friends are the family we choose for ourselves.” Friends are also part of our family. Sometimes they can even be closer to us than our real or biological family. There’s a proverb in the Bible that says the same thing: “There is a friend who sticks closer than a brother.” It’s possible to have friends who are more like family than family are.

It’s one of the amazing things about the story we’ve just read that even as Jesus was in terrible pain and about to die, he was thinking about other people and more worried about their problems than his own. Jesus looked down at his mother and his best friend standing next to her at the foot of his cross and in love he entrusted them to each other. There at the cross, Jesus created a new kind of family; a family where all of Jesus’ friends became brothers and sisters to one another.

There’s a story in another place in the Gospels when Jesus is told that his mother and brothers are outside looking for him and he responded by asking, “Who is my mother? Who are my brothers?” He then pointed to his friends sat around listening to him and said that whoever lives the way God wants them to live is his brother, his sister and his mother. This is God’s family; a family of people like Mary and John who are willing to stand with Jesus to the end even through the pain of the cross.

Jesus gives us a whole new picture of what it means to be family. It is a family of all different sorts of people; people from every place and country, people from every age and ethnicity—men and women, old and young, rich and poor, black and white. This is a family of people tied together by more than genes; it is a family of people tied together by the love of Jesus and a desire to follow him in living lives that make God happy. In this kind of family, God is the Father and we are the children.

This is a family like no other. A third century Christian teacher called Cyprian once said: “You cannot have God as your Father unless you have the Church for your Mother.” And like any of the families we’re born into, you can’t choose your siblings; some you’ll get along with, some you won’t. In the Church, we are related to everyone who is a friend of Jesus. As a Methodist minister in America, Will Willimon, put it so wonderfully, “We have got to eat with anybody Jesus drags in the door.”

Like most families, the Church family can be dysfunctional at times. It too has its fair share of spats and quarrels; but what makes the Church family unique is that it always keeps coming back to sit and eat with one another around the Lord’s table. Because we are related to one another by the simple fact of being Jesus’s friends, it means that if we want to sit and eat with Jesus, we also have to sit and eat with anyone else Jesus chooses to sit and eat with. It is the love of Jesus which holds us all together, which binds us as family.

Now I want to stay with the idea of the Church as our Mother for a bit longer. I want you to think for a moment of what that means. What do our mothers do for us?

There’s a huge long list we could make: they love us, they care for us, they forgive us, they pick us up when we fall down, they change our dirty nappies when we’re babies, they feed us, they cook for us, they clean for us, they wash our clothes, they nurture us, they tell us off when we’ve done something wrong, they give us a hug when we’re feeling down, they encourage us, they spend time with us, they talk with us, they play with us, they eat with us, they laugh with us, they cry with us, they watch over us, they protect us, they give us the freedom to make mistakes, they teach us things, they show us how to do things. The list could go on, I’m sure.

Something else they do for us that we haven’t mentioned: they give birth to us. We are all here today because a mother gave birth to us; they carried us in the womb and gave birth to us. The Church is our Mother because it is the place where Christians are born, where people begin life in relationship with God. Now when I talk about ‘the Church’ I’m not talking about a building, but about people, about the Christians who come together to worship God and centre their lives on Jesus. None of us get connected with Jesus by ourselves; we come because other people show him and share him with us, we come because Jesus reveals himself to us through God’s other children, through his family. It is through the Church we learn the life of faith.

The Church is the place where Christians are born. And like the love of our heavenly Father, Mother Church loves us and accepts us just as we are; we are welcomed and cherished without doing anything to earn or deserve it, but simply for being ourselves. Sometimes, like children, we come home with a scraped knee and mud all over us and it is the Church our Mother who cleans and dresses the wound, washes and changes our clothes. It is in the family of the Church that we learn both to receive forgiveness and to give it as well. Sometimes our mothers tell us off for doing something dangerous, selfish or unkind and sometimes Mother Church will do the same. We are loved as we are; but too much to allow us to stay infants forever.

The Church, like a mother, also teaches us to speak. She shows us who we are and why we’re here. She tells us our story, our family history. She explains why we’re special, why we’re different and why we don’t behave like everyone else does. Mother Church names us as God’s children and helps us work out what it means to live as God’s children. She instructs us in what’s right and what’s wrong. She feeds us and nourishes us with the food of God’s word in the Bible and God’s presence in the bread and wine of Holy Communion. Mother Church helps us grow and flourish as the people God made us to be. She holds us in her land like a clutch of helium balloons and releases us to soar upwards into God. She rejoices when we rejoice and when we’re sad she puts her arm around us and comforts us.

This is the family Jesus creates at the cross for anyone who will be his friend. It’s not exclusive little club for holy Joes; it’s a Sunday school for children learning how to walk. Mother Church is our home away from home; it is the place we come in order to find God’s presence, power and purpose for our lives, preparing us for the day that home is here to stay. The question for us this Mothering Sunday is this: The kettle’s on and the food is in the oven; but are on our way back home to God?

In the name of the Father, and the Son, and the Holy Spirit. Amen.

Back to Basics

Preached at Gatehead Methodist Church
16th March 2014: 2nd Sunday of Lent
Psalm 121; John 3:1-17

“For God so loved the world, that he gave his only Son, that whoever believes in him should not perish but have eternal life.” (John 3:16)

This verse is the Gospel; it is the Good News of Jesus Christ. God has shown his love for the world once and for all, by giving his only Son Jesus to live among us, die for us and be raised among us, that through him we might be made alive to God. If ever you wanted to explain in a sentence what Christianity is all about, then this is it. This is where it all starts; this is where God starts with us and this is where we start with God. As Christians, there are all kinds of truths we can discover about who God is and what God does in our lives, but there is no more important truth than this: we are reconciled with God and with one another only by the infinite love of God which we see revealed in the person of Jesus Christ. We can know all there is to know about being a follower of Jesus, but everything comes back to this unshakeable foundation.

Thomas Merton once wrote: “To know [God’s] love is not merely to know the story of his love, but to experience in our spirit that we are loved by him.” Today I want to take us back to basics in the hope that we will learn God’s love for us all over again. The season of Lent is a great time to do this because Lent is all about going back to basics. It’s a time of simplicity, for clearing away the clutter, for doing some spring cleaning in our lives. The Lenten journey is, in many ways, about taking us back to where it all begins; it’s about gradually stripping away the outer layers until we arrive back at the cross on Good Friday aware of our sense of sin, knowing our need for healing and forgiveness, and feeling naked, helpless and heavy-laden in search of a suffering Saviour. When we get there, we’ll discover all over again that wonderful truth: “God so loved the world, that he gave his only Son, that whoever believes in him should not perish but have eternal life.”

Our theme for this morning, therefore, is simple: the love of God. On this one thing our whole faith depends and on this one thing everything else is built. God’s love is the reason that we exist. God’s love is the reason Jesus came into the world. God’s love is the reason we are in church today. Apart from God’s love, there is nothing good. All that is good springs from the love of God. What’s more, God loves not because he is forced to or obliged to but because it’s in his nature to. Love is an intrinsic part of who God is. God is love. God’s love isn’t earned, it isn’t bought and it isn’t deserved; it simply flows majestically forth from God being who God is. We see this especially in the object of God’s love: the world. God so loved the world: not a perfect world as he made it, not a world filled with all good people who love him; but the world in all its indifference to his presence, in all its rebellion against his power, in all its waywardness from his purpose. God didn’t just love the world, he so loved the world; enough to love what was most unlovable in it.

To know God’s love for us expressed in the giving of his Son Jesus to us is the starting point of every Christian’s walk of faith. In this time together now, I want to invite you to come back to the beginning with me so that we might re-learn and re-discover that wonderful love of God which is forever yearning for us and calling us back home to himself, and in particular, I want to focus on just five truths about God’s love revealed in this verse.

1. God’s Love as a Gift

The first thing is that God’s love expresses itself through giving: “God so loved the world, that he gave his only Son.” The Christian missionary Amy Carmichael once said, “You can give without loving, but you cannot love without giving.” Love costs us something, for love is a giving of ourselves, an emptying of self for the sake of another. One of the reasons that the institution of marriage is faltering in this country is, I believe, because we have confused love with the romantic notion of being in love. Love is not just a feeling or an emotion; it is that costly commitment to another for better, for worse, for richer, for poorer, in sickness and in health. The husband who devotedly cares for his elderly wife in the advanced stages of Alzheimer’s, the wife who takes back the husband who’s cheated on her with another woman, the friend who stands by your side when you’re down and not much fun to be around. That is love. Love which costs nothing is not real love. The true measure of love is in what it is prepared to give.

Consider, then, what is means to say that “God so loved the world, that he gave his only Son.” God spared nothing, but freely gave what was most precious to him in order to show the vastness of his love for us. Jesus is God in human flesh. God’s gift, therefore, was no less than himself. He could give no more. He gave all that he had to give in order to love us. God in Christ became poor, became weak, became vulnerable; he gave up the rights of divinity and became one of us. God spent everything in a wild attempt to win us back from our self-induced exile. Jesus suffered and was rejected, was despised and humiliated. God sent his Son to be born in a stable, to grow up in a backwater village in Galilee, to be watched and conspired against by the scribes and Pharisees, to wander from place to place with nowhere to lay his head, to be betrayed and abandoned by his friends, to be mocked, whipped and crowned with thorns, and finally to be killed like a criminal as an innocent man. And all this for his enemies, for people who had decided they could do without God in their lives, who decided they could do a better job of running their lives than God could. If it’s true that those who love much give much, then there can be no greater love than this. In Jesus, God has given his very self to us and he continues to give himself to any who believe in him today.

2. God’s Love as a Gift Received by Faith

The second thing this verse shows us is that God’s love is a gift received by faith. God gave us his Son “that whoever believes in him should not perish but have eternal life.” If it is the gift of Jesus which reveals the extent of God’s mighty love for us, it is by trusting Jesus as God’s way of salvation that we experience his mighty love for us in our lives. We know God’s love for us when we have faith in who Jesus is and what Jesus came to do. Jesus, as we’ve said before, is God’s gift of himself; God’s Son, the image of the invisible God, the flesh and blood depiction of who God is. Moreover, what Jesus came to do was to rescue us from death and to give us life.

What it means to believe in Jesus, therefore, is to trust him as our way back to God, our way back to that relationship for which we were made and in which lies our greatest happiness. Such belief is the conviction that Jesus came to show us who God is and what God is like and that in his death on the cross he freed us from the consequences that our rebellion against God and rejection of his ways rightly deserved. And yet, the kind of faith which saves us isn’t just about believing the truth of a these things; it’s about accepting the truth of it for ourselves, knowing in our hearts that Jesus died for my sins, that he loves me and that he gave himself for me as if there was only me to love. After this, what it means to believe in Jesus is to entrust ourselves to him, to hand our lives over to him and let him rule and change our hearts. Christian faith means trusting that nothing other than being made one with Jesus Christ can bring us back into harmony with God.

3. God’s Love as a Universal Love

The third thing this famous verse shows us about God’s love is its breadth and universal scope. God’s love is inclusive; it is for the whole world. All need to be saved. All can be saved. All can know they are saved. All can be saved completely. All, all, all, all: God’s love is for all; his salvation is available to “whoever believes” in Jesus. The love of God is so wide that it takes in everybody—old and young, rich and poor, male and female, model citizen and notorious criminal. There is no limit to God’s love, no one who is excluded or left outside in the cold, except those who refuse to believe God’s love when they see it poured out in the life, death, resurrection and victory of Jesus.

That means that if there is someone who has committed some of the worst crimes imaginable, someone so wicked that they should be treated like a moral leper and avoided at all costs; if that person believes in Jesus and entrust their lives to Jesus, they shall be washed clean and shall not be cut off from God forever for their sins. In the words of the well-known hymn (regrettably doctored for publication in the Methodist hymnal Hymns and Psalms), “The vilest offender who truly believes, That moment from Jesus a pardon receives.” It doesn’t matter how long it has taken a person to come to Christ, it doesn’t matter if they have much faith or little; we are simply told that “whoever believes in him should not perish but have eternal life.”

4. God’s Love as Deliverance from Death

The fourth way in which this the love of God is revealed is in the deliverance of believers from death. The question is, then: what does it mean to perish? Clearly what it does not mean is that Jesus stops us physically dying; even among the Church there is still a 100% mortality rate as far as I’m aware. No, the kind of death this is talking about it being cut off, separated and estranged from God; it is about not knowing God, being far from him and incomplete without him. Jesus came to bridge the gap between us and God and to get rid of all the bad stuff that gets in the way of our relationship with God by dying on the cross. To perish means not knowing who we are in God, not knowing what we’re here for, being alienated from God who is the source of everything good. To be delivered from death means having the guilt of our sins taken away and entrusting our lives to Jesus for him to dwell in us, change us and direct the course of our lives in the future.

5. God’s Love as Life

Finally and closely tied in to our fourth point, God gives us Jesus to deliver us from death and bring us to new life. The gift of God’s love to all who believe in Jesus is eternal life. Now, by eternal life what is meant is not just life that will go on forever, but life lived in union with God. Later on in John’s Gospel, we’re told that eternal life is to know God and to know Jesus as the one God has sent into the world. The kind of life we’re talking about is that of Christ living in us and through us; it is to be born into a new way of life directed by Jesus and in tune with God; it is to know in our hearts that we are God’s children, dearly loved by him; it is to have the spark of God’s own life burning within us; it is to see our sin and long to be freed from each of our evil tendencies, no matter how small. Eternal life is the life of God. The love of God for the world is seen in his passionate yearning to bring the world into his very life and being. To be so joined with God is a life that will outlast us should we live to be 100 and even when our long-dead bodies lie rotting in the ground. To gift of God is that through Christ we may be united with him in a life which begins here and now and shall go on as long as God is God.

“For God so loved the world, that he gave his only Son, that whoever believes in him should not perish but have eternal life.” (John 3:16)

The most important question we need to ask ourselves is this: Do we, to use Thomas Merton’s words, experience in our spirits that we are loved by God with a love like this? May God bless us and make it so.

(An attempt to update and re-write Charles Spurgeon’s sermon on John 3:16, entitled “Immeasurable Love”)

Anger Management

Preached at Holmfirth Methodist Church
13th March 2014: Shoppers’ Service
Psalm 137

“There are some psalms,” John Wesley once said, “that are unfit for Christian ears.” This is surely one of them. “Blessed shall be he who takes your little ones and dashes them against the rocks!” You don’t expect to hear such vicious, searing anger in the Bible. Doesn’t Jesus say, “Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you”? Doesn’t he say, “If anyone slaps you on the right cheek, turn to him the other also”? Doesn’t he also teach us that we should forgive others when they sin against us as we have been forgiven by God? Indeed he does. So what, therefore, are we to do with a psalm like Psalm 137?

Some people would rather this psalm were not in the Bible, or at least that the last few verses of it were printed in so small a font as to render them unreadable. I believe these verses are a gift and that if we try to gag the psalmist, we’ll be missing out on something God wants us to hear. This is the word of the Lord. And I am convinced there is something in here for which we can say, “Thanks be to God.”

First, however, we need to tell it as it is and acknowledge that these are not nice sentiments at all. I have got a small one-year old son myself and the thought of someone snatching him from me and smashing his head open on the rocks makes my stomach churn.
This is a horrible thing we’re talking about and the idea that someone might be called ‘blessed’ for doing it is even more repulsive and disturbing. This is white-hot rage we’re dealing with here and quite frankly, it’s a pretty horrifying sight.

And yet, before we judge the psalmist too quickly, before we move to denounce this as the barbaric outpouring of an ancient and primitive ancestor in the faith, there are a couple of things we need to bear in mind. First, the prayer is one of someone in the throes of their own intense and deeply-felt sense of loss. “Blessed shall be he who repays you with what you have done to us!” Jerusalem, their beloved city and spiritual home, had been razed to the ground; they had been exiled and forced to live far, far away in a foreign land; what’s more, the suggestion is that they themselves had watched on helplessly as their own children were brutally slaughtered. If that had happened to me, perhaps I would have wanted to pray this prayer too.

The second thing I think we need to bear in mind when reading these words is that they’re words directed to God: “Remember, O Lord, against the Edomites…” This is not a prescription for how to act when someone hurts you. This is not a policy statement advocating what they or anybody else ought to do. This is the cry of a wounded person saying that if there was any justice in the world, then those wicked people who hurt them so badly would get a taste of their own medicine. Don’t get me wrong, that’s nasty enough; but this is not the song of a lynch mob out to get their own back. This is a prayer, said by the victim of vicious violence, crying out to God for justice, for vengeance, for a righting of the wrong done to them.

A couple of weeks ago at this service Keith Kitson spoke about the disabling effect of anger; how it builds up and builds up and puts barriers between us and God and us and one another. The question which I think this psalm raises is: What do we do with our anger? What’s the proper outlet for it, especially when we too are on the wrong end of some injustice?

Just over a week ago, there was a piece in the news saying that angry people are at a high risk of suffering heart attacks or strokes, particularly if they have pre-existing cardiovascular problems. The long and short of it was that too much anger is bad for your health. The fact is that we all get angry, some of us more than others, some of us more easily than others; what matters, though, is what we do with it. Psalm 137, I believe, offers us a really helpful model of what to do with it.

Often anger is played out in one of two ways. The first is in the search for revenge; it is the seething, vindictive sense that justice needs to be got and we’re going to go out and get it. The second way anger is commonly expressed is by turning it in on ourselves; it is that grief which broods over the wrong done to us, becoming a festering bitterness in our soul leading to depression. There is a Native American proverb which says: “Before you embark on a journey of revenge, dig two graves.” Anger fed and nurtured ends up killing you if you let it. The psalmist here chooses a third way: to let it all out by crying to God and handing it over for him to deal with. “Vengeance is mine,” says the Lord. The best thing we can do with our anger is to give it to God, to trust that he’s even more upset at injustice than we are; it is to let him be the judge and know that he is big enough to deal with even the most raw of our emotions.

Anger in human hands can be a dangerous thing. I’m sure we’ve all had moments when we’ve said or done something rashly in a burst of anger and later come to regret it. In a fit of rage, we can do things we didn’t know we were capable of; it has a way of possessing us. And yet, anger itself is not always a bad thing. When we get angry about something it can often be because we know instinctively that something isn’t right, that something isn’t as it should be. Sometimes apathy is worse than anger; it would be a worse thing to see some terrible injustice and not to be bothered by it. The fact is we should get even angrier at some of the things that go on in our world than we currently do. What’s important, as ever, is where we direct our anger. Prayer really is the best form of anger management around.

And yet, I think this psalm has something else to say about how we channel our anger. We do so knowing that God is angry with the wrong we do as well as the wrong we suffer. We may be crying out for God’s vengeance, but we do so also knowing that we need God’s mercy. In the Lord’s Prayer, we ask God to “forgive us our trespasses” and it is because we recognise our need for mercy that we also ask God to make us merciful, saying: “as we forgive those who trespass against us.” All of which, as with this Lenten journey that we’re on at the moment, leads us to the cross. For it is at the cross that we see God get angry with the sin of the world; it is at the cross where, as the hymn goes, “heaven’s peace and perfect justice kissed a guilty world in love.”

During the Second World War, in 1940, when Coventry Cathedral was bombed in a Nazi air raid, Provost Howard had the words “Father, forgive” inscribed on the wall behind the altar of the ruined building. In the light of the cross, this is the best prayer we can pray when we’re angry because it’s at the cross we see what it means for God’s perfect justice to be carried out in love.

In the name of the Father, and the Son, and the Holy Spirit. Amen.

* With thanks to the insights of William Willimon.  For further reading, I highly encourage you to read Willimon’s book, Sinning Like a Christian: A New Look at the Seven Deadly Sins.