The Power of Preaching

There is power in preaching.  If you were someone who struggled to believe that before Saturday’s royal wedding between Prince Harry and Meghan Markle, you surely must now.  After all, here we are some 48 hours or more after the event and people are still talking about Bishop Michael Curry’s ‘show-stealing’ sermon.  What makes Curry’s sermon even more remarkable is the fact that it is not just the choir talking about it.  It was on the front pages of this morning’s newspapers.  It was being discussed on the television and radio breakfast shows.  It was being set up to be the topic of conversation at the tea-break for workers up and down the country.  Perhaps it is only preacher envy, which leads me to wonder whether anybody has ever remembered (let alone commented upon) one of my sermons some 48 hours or more after its delivery.  Nevertheless, to paraphrase the apostle Paul, “What does it matter?  Christ is preached (to millions around the globe, at that!), and in that I rejoice!

So, why has Michael Curry’s sermon caused the stir it has?  Was it because he preached for twice as long as he was meant to, as the Daily Mailreported this morning?  I doubt it.  A 14-minute sermon might be 14 minutes longer than most Brits are accustomed to listening to, but it hardly counts as long—ask my congregation at Holy Trinity what they tolerate from me!  I believe Diana Evans, writing for The Guardian, is somewhat closer in her analysis, suggesting that “It was a sermon that will go down in history as a moment when the enduring seat of colonialism was brought before the Lord, and questioned in its own house.” Undoubtedly, Curry’s fiery delivery and informal demeanour were more apparent for having been unleashed in the Establishment’s own chapel.  Indeed, what a damning indictment of the state of preaching in the Church of England if Curry’s sermon confounds all popular perceptions of what a sermon ought to be: short, stuffy and stiff-lipped.

So, let me ask the question again: why has Michael Curry’s sermon caused the stir it has?  Unquestionably his identity as a black, Chicago-born American, who is known for speaking out on social justice issues including the campaign for ‘equal-marriage’, played a part.  Indeed, I suspect that his advocacy for LGBT rights helped secular listeners feel comfortable that they could endorse the ‘love’ about which he spoke.  Moreover, as I mentioned above, his delivery was also lively and engaging.  Although he had a script, a preacher like me can tell, at times he also ad-libbed to good effect (also helping to explain why he overran his allotted 7 minutes).  He preached from an iPad.  He used his body.  He modulated his voice for special emphasis.  Forgive the inappropriate analogy, but it was a good ‘performance’. It was not only the words he preached, but the wayhe preached, which conveyed the message.  Again, it makes me think that the caricature of Anglican sermons (heightened on grand occasions like this) is more akin to a lecture read by a knowledgeable but monotonous professor.

A factor I have not yet mentioned is rhetorical skill.  I heard somebody say that they counted 68 uses of the word ‘love’.  I confess, I have not checked the transcript for myself, but I can believe it.  There is no doubt about his message.  Love. Power.  Fire.  These are the words he repeats over and over again.  Thus, there is little room for mistaking his theme: love is powerful, like a fire.  Deliberate or otherwise, the rhetoric is simple, but profound (a laMLK himself).  So, have we at last stumbled across the reason for the sermon’s success?  Alas, no.  It was (thankfully for the sake of hope for the Church of England), the Archbishop of Canterbury Justin Welby, who hit the nail on the head, saying: “This was raw God and that’s the business.”  Indeed. as the apostle Paul tells the Christians in Corinth, the secret of preaching is not the lofty words or wisdom of the preacher, but the life-giving power of the Holy Spirit.

Any time preaching ‘works’, it is because the Holy Spirit has taken hold of the preacher’s words (eloquent or not) and made them more than the sum of their parts—an event of the Word of God Himself. Just as the Spirit makes bread and wine effectual signs of Christ’s presence in the Eucharist, so the Spirit makes human words a participation in Christ’s very own speech wherever He is proclaimed.  It is for this reason that the apostle Paul can rejoice that Christ is proclaimed, whether from ill motives or pure (Philippians 1:15).  John Wesley was surely right when he claimed that God can speak through even the worst preacher in London (and Huddersfield, also, I hope). This in no way to equate Curry with the worst preacher in London(!), but rather to emphasise that when preaching ‘works’ we must give credit where credit is due: to God—a rather fitting lesson to learn again on Pentecost weekend, when the Church remembers how the Spirit came and gave Jesus’ tongue-tied disciples a voice to proclaim ‘the mighty deeds of God’.

On Saturday, God spoke through Bishop Michael Curry, and millions of people in the United Kingdom and around the world, heard Him (though, doubtless, most thought they merely heard human words).  For that, I am immensely grateful.  And yet, I confess to having come away from the sermon with some questions of my own.  The imagery upon which Curry drew was clearly biblical, provided for him in that reading from the Song of Solomon, yet his sermon was not biblical in the sense of referring back to the text.  Does that matter?  I am inclined to say that this was a faithful, if rather loose, interpretation of the biblical text, which is understandable given the audience and context.  Developing a similar line of thought, was this sermon an example of preaching ‘religionless Christianity’ (to use Bonhoeffer’s phrase)? Curry’s use of the apparently universal word ‘love’ as his theme and his light use of explicit calls to God or Jesus spoke to people without assuming a ‘religious’ frame of reference.  Again, does that matter?  Perhaps.  It depends what we mean by ‘love’.

For me, the biggest critique I have about Curry’s sermon is its possible Christology (i.e. what is says about who Jesus is).  You see, I do not believe that ‘love’ is a word with universal meaning.  I believe that when Christians use the word ‘love’, we mean something very different to what other people mean when they use the word ‘love’.  That is not meant as a criticism of non-Christian understandings of love; instead, what I mean to say is that as a Christian, the word ‘love’ has no meaning or content for me outside of the person of Jesus Christ, who is, I believe, Love Incarnate (hence why it is an issue of Christology).  To be sure, Curry spoke of love as something unselfish, sacrificial, kind and just, and he rightly said that this is the way of Jesus Himself.  However, I would have liked Curry to go a little further still, for Jesus is not just a fine example of love in action, though He is that.  No, He is simply Love.  Full stop. In short, my Christological assumption is that the life, death and resurrection of Jesus is not just an instance of love, but the very paradigmatic measure and definition of love.

Many will no doubt think me pedantic here. Perhaps I am being pedantic.  But, to me, there is a potentially important issue at stake.  God is not just, as Curry rightly said, the source of love; God is also the sustaining power of love.  In other words, God is not simply love’s origin, which we then appropriate for ourselves.  God is Himself love’s Power.  Curry certainly gave a rousing appeal to the power oflove, but I was left asking, “But where is the Power tolove?”  Curry was right.  Love ispowerful.  Love isa burning fire.  But the power of love can only be unleashed where people receive the Power to love, which is Christ Himself through the Holy Spirit.  Perhaps Curry could have been more clear here.  Perhaps Curry could have been more explicit in saying that we love because God first loved us.  Perhaps he could have drawn out Jesus’ words in John 15 that apart from Him, we can do nothing. Though, I acknowledge that he went over his time as it was!  My fear is that people could go away thinking, “You know what, love is powerful. I need to love a little more”—ultimately, a form of love-moralism.  Like I said, perhaps, I am just a pedantic preacher not wanting people to go away hearing the wrong thing.

In Mere Christianity, C. S. Lewis wisely observes that what many people “mean when they say that God is love is often something quite different: they really mean ‘Love is God’.  They really mean that our feelings of love, however and wherever they arise, and whatever results they produce, are to be treated with great respect.”  Love is not an abstract principle or idea by which God is measured or to which God is held accountable.  When Christians speak about love, they are speaking about “the living, dynamic activity of love [that] has been going on in God forever and has created everything else.”  They are speaking about the eternal self-giving love of the Godhead of Father, Son and Holy Spirit, which was revealed once and for all in the total event of Jesus of Nazareth.  There is a subtle but crucial difference between someone who typifieslove and someone whose very life islove.  Christians believe that Jesus is the latter.  He does not merely give us an approximation of love in unselfish sacrifice. He Himself is, in the poetic words of Charles Wesley (much loved at weddings), Love Divine, all loves excelling. However, I suspect that had Bishop Michael Curry uttered such a bold, foolish-sounding and exclusive claim, his sermon would have met with much more scandal than its merely being 14 minutes long.

 

 

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The Yes and No of God

Preached at Holy Trinity, Huddersfield
30th October 2016 (10.45am)
John 7:53-8:11

Come, Holy Spirit, take hold of these feeble words of mine and let them be for us the words of eternal life spoken by God through the Word made flesh, Jesus Christ, His Son, our Lord. Amen.

Guilty. She was guilty, as charged. She knew it. Her accusers knew it. Even Jesus knew it. After all, she had been caught in the very act of committing adultery—in the very act. There was nothing circumstantial about the evidence. The case was cut and dried. She had been found by at least two witnesses in bed with a man who was not her husband. She was guilty, and she didn’t even bother denying it. According to the Law of Moses, the judgement was clear: she was deserving of death. As legal quandaries go, this one was pretty easy.

What happens, though, is nothing short of scandalous. You would think you could trust Judge Jesus to reach the right decision, but no, He lets her off the hook! A woman found brazenly cheating on her husband is let off scot-free, while the good religious folks who are just trying to uphold God’s righteous laws are sent packing with their tails between their legs. What is going on? It doesn’t seem fair. It doesn’t seem right. We could, perhaps, understand it if the woman had showed some kind of contrition or remorse about what she’d done. But she doesn’t.

This story of Jesus’ encounter with a woman caught in adultery brings us right to the beating heart of both the beauty and the scandal of the cross. God says Yes to us in our sin, Yes to us in the disastrous messes we make for ourselves, Yes to us in the condemnation that results from carrying on in our own godless ways. Yes, yes, yes! Guilty, as we may be; suffering the consequences of our own bad choices, as we may be; living under the self-imposed death penalty of being cut off from the God who is the source of our life, as we may be; God shows us in the life, death and resurrection of His Son Jesus Christ, that He is for us.

God is for us. This is so important I want you to turn to you neighbour right now and say to them, “God is for you.” God is for you. It doesn’t matter what we’ve done, who we’ve hurt, how many people we’ve hurt, God is for us. Take a look around you. The person you just spoke to is a sinner just like you. In the film Shawshank Redemption, Red (played by Morgan Freeman) calls himself the “Only guilty man in Shawshank.” Here in Church, it’s the other way around. It’s the person who thinks they’re innocent that’s the odd one out. People have sometimes asked me what I think the Church is like and I think the best answer I can give is that it’s like a hospital for sinners. Not one of us in here is healthy, but that’s why we’re here—to be made well by the great Physician of our souls.

The scandal of Jesus’ encounter is all the more apparent as we consider the wider context of the story. The scribes and Pharisees didn’t bring the woman before Jesus because they were struggling to recall what the Law said about the punishment for adultery. They were doing it because they wanted to test Jesus. It says that in v. 6: “They said this to test [Jesus], so that they might have some charge to bring against him.” Jesus was sat in the temple courts, surrounded by people listening to His teaching. By asking Jesus what was to be done with the adulterous woman, they sought to trap Him in His interpretation of Scripture—with dozens of witnesses to boot.

Just a few verses earlier in John 7:38-39, Jesus had incited the anger of the chief priests and Pharisees by claiming to be able to provide the living water promised by God to His people. In doing so, He appeared to be fulfilling the words of Isaiah 55:1-3 in which God says, “Ho, everyone who thirsts, come to the waters; and you that have no money, come, buy and eat! Come, buy wine and milk without money and without price.” Such was the audacity of His claim that while some were convinced He was the Messiah, others wanted to seize Him right there and then. The Pharisees’ authority had been challenged. They had to stop Jesus. This adulterous woman was their chance.

The trap the scribes and Pharisees devised was an ingenious one. They challenged Jesus either to publically agree or disagree with Moses, the great lawgiver. As they saw it, Jesus only had two choices. Either He says, “Yes, stone her,” in which case He gets Himself in trouble with the Roman authorities who denied the Jews the right to put anyone to death, or He says, “No, don’t stone her,” in which case He’s accused of contradicting the Law of God. Either way, as the scribes and Pharisees see it, it’s a win-win situation. And by the way, doesn’t it tell you something about Jesus that they seem to assume His proclivity towards being merciful?

Perhaps the best the Pharisees imagined Jesus might do was to say something like, “Well, we all know the Law, but the political situation being what it is, we’re just not able to apply it in as strict a fashion as we’d all like to.” Such an answer would then either be taken as cowardice or an outright denial of His being the Messiah, the Anointed One who would establish the Kingdom of God over against Roman occupation. It’s fair to say, then, that in the situation in which Jesus finds Himself, He is between a rock and a hard place. There is no easy way out. And even Jesus’ clever response that the one without sin cast the first stone is not uttered without great personal cost.

“Let anyone among you who is without sin be the first to throw a stone at her” (v. 7). Well, of course, there’s only one sinless person there, and He’s the person saying it! Now, you don’t often see the Gospels giving credit to the Pharisees, but we have to give credit to the Pharisees here because, led by the elders, they acknowledge that if they were to pass judgement on the woman in accordance with the Law, they would, by the Law’s same standard, be condemning themselves. Isaiah 53:6 says, “All we like sheep have gone astray; we have all turned to our own way.” Ecclesiastes 7:20 says, “Surely there is no one on earth so righteous as to do good without ever sinning.” In light of such texts in their sacred Scripture, which of them would dare pick up a stone?

Kenneth Bailey, who has written a cultural study of the Gospels called Jesus Through Middle Eastern Eyes, helpfully points out that with the pressure now on and a big decision needing to be made, the natural thing for people in the Middle East to do would be to turn to the eldest person there for an answer. What we’re told is that one-by-one, the crowd dispersed, “beginning with the elders” (v. 9). The woman in the story was just a pawn. The scribes and the Pharisees had set out to publically condemn and humiliate Jesus, and instead it is the scribes and the Pharisees who are publically condemned and humiliated.

Jesus doesn’t take any pleasure in condemning and humiliating His opponents, but nevertheless, nobody likes being shamed out in the open. Minutes earlier, the crowd of scribes and Pharisees were baying for the woman’s blood; now, their anger is directed squarely against Jesus. Minutes earlier, we were expecting the woman’s brutal death; now, for what He has done for this woman, we are left expecting the unrestrained rage of the powers of sin and death to be unleashed against Jesus. Jesus becomes, if you like, a lightning conductor, taking into Himself and absorbing the full force of the storm. An adulterous woman goes free and Jesus has a big red ‘X’ painted on His back.

The Judge is judged in our place. The sinless one endures God’s judgement on sin, which we rightly deserve. In Jesus, the holy love of God entered the realm of judgement and death and in so doing, broke sin’s power forever. As Scottish theologian Tom Smail writes, “Jesus on the cross takes the whole situation of humanity, justly condemned to death as a consequence of its sinning, and transforms it by opening it up again to the God from whom it has been alienated.” In the perfect obedience of His own humanity, Jesus takes not only our sin, but also the whole of sinful humanity with Him to the cross. As Paul writes in 2 Corinthians 5:14, “one died for all, and therefore all died.”

The woman caught in adultery didn’t escape death when she met Jesus that fateful day in the temple courts; instead, she died along with every other sinner the day Jesus was nailed to the cross. This is God’s No to sin, God’s No to the way we’re living without Him, God’s No to what our self-will is doing to well being of His good creation. No, no, no! And this is the greatest scandal of all: God’s loud, clear and unreserved No falls on the One who has only ever heard God’s resounding, gracious and loving Yes. The consequences of sin are real—the events of Good Friday leave us in no doubt about that—but only God’s righteous Judge endures God’s righteous judgement.

God hates sin. God does not sit passively watching us destroy the world, one another and ourselves with sin, injustice and oppression. That’s why, when the woman is left all alone with Jesus, He doesn’t say, “Hey, don’t worry about it; it’s no big deal” or “I love you just the way you are, don’t change a thing.” No. Rather, He says to the woman, “I’m not going to condemn you; but leave here and stop sinning.” Jesus doesn’t condone her sin or excuse her actions, just as He doesn’t explicitly forgive her sins. What Jesus does is offer her a new ending to the story, a path to a future that honours God’s will, and an opportunity of life lived in all its fullness.

In His costly demonstration of unexpected love, Jesus has already done everything necessary to accomplish the woman’s forgiveness. All she has to do is accept Jesus’ representation on her behalf and take hold of the new life offered her—something we Christians call repentance. God doesn’t love some ideal ‘us’. He loves the real ‘us’—exactly as we are. But He loves us too much to leave us as we are. Sin is sin. And not only does it deserve death, but it is itself death—it alienates us from the light and life of God. And so God says No to sin and evil in the world because He says Yes to the world: God’s No is an expression of God’s Yes. God hates sin because He loves us and hates what sin does to us.

And if we are to hear God’s Yes, we must be prepared to hear God’s No. Only as we know sin as sin will we know grace as grace. If we are to know God’s love for sinners like us, we must also know His loathing for our sin. God says, “I hate your adultery. I hate your lusting after porn. I hate your use of sex, even within marriage, as glorified means of self-gratification.” God says, “I hate your self-righteousness. I hate your use of people as pawns. I hate your hypocrisy, seeing only the sins of others and never your own.” We don’t want to hear this, of course we don’t. But we must. If we want to hear the deafening roar of God’s Yes to us, we must also brace ourselves for His resolute No to our sin.

In the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus collapses the distinctions between different kinds of sins. He says, “You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall not commit adultery.’ But I say to you that everyone who looks at a woman with lust has already committed adultery with her in his heart” (Matthew 5:27-28). Here He says, “Let anyone among you who is without sin be the first to throw a stone at her” (v. 7). We would do well to remember this before we start throwing stones (physical or otherwise) at other people. What is God’s No to adultery is also God’s No to any sexually degrading thought, word or deed. And so it is with every sin. “Vengeance is mine,” declares the Lord (Deuteronomy 32:35). Jesus is our Judge. There will be a day when each of us, like the woman, will be left all alone with Jesus to give an account of ourselves before Him. Just as we entrust ourselves to His mercy, let us also entrust each other to His mercy—for such is the meaning of our prayer, “Forgive us our sins, as we forgive those who sin against us.”

So then, we come back to God’s Yes and God’s No. God’s Yes to you is God’s Yes to every other sinner. God’s outrageous grace says Yes to the adulterer, Yes to the paedophile, and Yes to the terrorist. If we can’t handle that, the simple fact is that we have no business hanging around with Jesus, for as Christians we have to eat with anyone Jesus drags in the door. In the life, death and resurrection of Jesus Christ, God shows us beyond any shadow of a doubt that He loves us—all of us—and that He is for us. God’s desire is, and always has been, to be God-With-Us. And such is God’s determination to be God-With-Us, that God gives His only Son to be with us, even in our sin and in our death.

But God’s love for us is too strong to leave us there. God’s judgement is not the opposite of His love; it is the consequence of it. It is because God loves us that He hates the sin that denies and disfigures His love. Jesus may not condemn us, but He neither does He condone our sin or excuse our actions. “Go your way,” He says to us, “and from now on do not sin again.” Don’t think that God is soft because He let the adulterous woman off the hook. He’s not. As far as sin goes, He operates a zero-tolerance policy. There is no more definitive evidence of that than the cross—there is God’s No to sin writ large.

We can come to God—in all our sin, in all our shame, in all our disgrace—in the confidence that God says Yes to us just as we are. God loves us. We never come to God without this prior assurance; His No would be too frightening otherwise. But as is so often the case, the words “I love you,” spoken by someone we have hurt can convict us more powerfully than any condemnation. Similarly, God’s Yes is able to expose our sin in such a profound way that it serves the effect of a No. And God does say No. But He says No in order to say Yes. Yes is the first word and Yes is the last word. “I love you,” God says. “You are a sinner, and I hate your sin. But I love you and I can’t stop loving you, and I will die to take away your sin.” Can you hear what God’s saying? He’s saying, Yes! Yes, yes, yes, yes, yes!

Amen.

MP3 Audio Recording available on the Holy Trinity Huddersfield website:
http://www.holytrinityhuddersfield.com/sermons/yes-no-god/

 

 

Gratitude That Saves

Preached at Holy Trinity, Huddersfield
25th September 2016 (9am): Harvest Celebration
Luke 17:11-19

Lord, none of us have come here today to hear me speak. We want to hear you speak. So send your Holy Spirit among us that we might hear your living Word, Jesus Christ, addressing us and calling us to yourself. In His name, we pray. Amen.

“Steve,” Mike asked, “how do you feel about preaching at Harvest?”
“Sure, that sounds great” I said. “What’s the theme this year?”
“Toilet twinning,” Mike said.
“Toilet twinning?” I asked.
“Toilet twinning,” Mike said.
“Thanks,” I said. “Thanks a lot.”

So here I am today, tasked with preaching on the story of Jesus cleansing the ten lepers at a Harvest service at which the focus is toilet twinning. How on earth am I going to accomplish this daring feat of interpretive acrobatics, you may be wondering? Well, the simple answer is that I’m not, not if I want my preaching ministry here to be more than a flash in the pan…

But, I’m pleased to say that when it came to write something, I put my hand to paper and I was really on a roll… But before you’re all flushed away by the predictability of these puns, let’s get to the text—a text which, as I hope you will soon see, brings us not only to the very heart of what our Harvest celebrations are about, but even to the very heart of what our worship itself is about.

Next year marks 500 years since the start of the Reformation, which many of you will know began in earnest when Martin Luther nailed his 95 theses to the door of the castle church in Wittenburg. Once when this great Reformer of the Church was asked to describe the nature of true worship, he gave this short, sweet and succinct answer: “the tenth leper turning back.” The tenth leper turning back—that is what true worship looks like, Luther said.

Jesus is on His way to Jerusalem. He’s on His way to the cross. And as He makes His way to that ultimate showdown, He passes through a village on the border of Galilee and Samaria. Socially, this is a murky area Jesus is walking into. The Samaritans were regarded as heretics, foreigners, even enemies of the Jews. Most Jews would have kept their distance from Samaria, preferring to walk around it rather than to go anywhere near it. Jesus approached when others stayed away.

But then the boundaries are muddied yet further when ten lepers approach, coming as close to Jesus as they dare while still keeping their socially prescribed distance. They shout out to Him for mercy. Jesus sees them. And seeing them, He tells them to act as if they’ve already been healed, He tells them to go and show themselves to the priests (who acted as the health inspectors of the day) to verify that they were indeed free from their leprosy.

In faithful obedience, they do as Jesus says. And as they go, they’re all healed. One of them, though, sees what has happened and immediately he turns around and starts singing and praising God. He runs and falls at Jesus’ feet and starts thanking Him for what He’s done. Jesus, however, is rather disappointed. “Where are all the others?” He asks. His disappointment is only compounded by the fact that the one who comes back to thank God is the one everybody would least expect—a Samaritan.

But then Jesus says something rather odd. He tells the former leper to get up off the floor and go on his way, saying, “Your faith has made you well.” But hasn’t Jesus already made him well? Isn’t that the point of the story—that all ten lepers were healed? So why single out this one and tell him that his faith has made him well? Unless the blessing Jesus confers on the tenth leper is something other than that which all, including the other nine, had previously received.

That this is the case is suggested by the fact that Luke chooses the Greek verb sozo, translated here, “made well,” to report what Jesus says to the former leper. Sozo certainly means ‘to make well,’ but it also means much more than that. It means ‘to heal,’ ‘to restore,’ ‘to make whole,’ ‘to deliver from harm,’ ‘to save.’ What we have before us, then, is a story of ten lepers being healed and one being saved. There is a health, a wellness, a wholeness, beyond the restoration of their physical condition, but it is only the tenth leper who returns to Jesus praising God who receives it.

Why? What makes the tenth leper different from all the others? Well, he was a Samaritan. We know that. But that doesn’t explain why he returned and all the others didn’t. It merely shows up the lack of response from among the Jewish lepers, who everybody would have expected to show some gratitude. No, the real difference between the tenth leper and all the others is that he saw that Jesus had healed him. It seems breathtakingly obvious, doesn’t it? But it’s true.

Ten lepers were healed, but only one saw that healing as a gift from God, and as a result of that seeing, returned to praise God at Jesus’ feet, through whom the gift of healing came. Giving thanks to God is what our worship is all about. We say ‘thank you’ to somebody when they do something for us or give something to us. The words ‘thank you’ are a response; they are words we use to acknowledge a gift—the receipt of something from outside ourselves. The tenth leper worships God because he recognises that his healing is God’s gift.

The tenth leper worships God and he is saved. He is not saved because his worship of God is something good he has to offer God. He is saved because his worship of God names what it means to be saved. We were made to worship God. And so, when we worship God we are made whole—we are saved. Worship is our salvation. The faith that saved the tenth leper, the faith that saves us, is the faith that acknowledges our utter dependence on the God who is our Creator, our Redeemer and our Healer.

The real blessing Jesus offers the lepers is not their healing (as real and significant as that is); it is the freedom, made possible by their healing, to see their lives as the gift of God. Worship flows from such seeing. But worship also teaches such seeing. We come to Church every Sunday to learn to see things as they truly are. We come to Church every Sunday to learn to see everything that exists as God’s gift to us to make Him known and make our lives a communion with Him. We come to Church every Sunday to have our lives continually turned back to God in grateful dependence, just like that tenth leper.

All is gift. In worship we learn that and in worship we celebrate that. The German mystic, Meister Eckhart, once said, “If the only prayer you ever say is ‘thank you’ it would be enough.” And the reason he can say that is because when we give thanks to God we acknowledge our lives as being made possible by His gift. Worship is fundamentally about gratitude—the gratitude of the creature to the Creator, the redeemed to the Redeemer, the healed to the Healer. In worship we are reoriented to the reality that all is gift, and as, by faith, we enter into that reality, we are saved.

It is no accident therefore, that Luke tells us that this healing happened on Jesus’ way to Jerusalem, on Jesus’ way to the cross. Similarly, it is no accident that the central act of Christian worship is and always has been the Eucharist, which literally means “thanksgiving.” It is the gift of God through Jesus Christ at the cross that makes life with God possible for all of us. Like the lepers, Jesus’ death is sufficient for the healing of the whole world; but it is only those who respond in faith by worshipping the God that heals them who are saved by it.

Worship teaches us to see all things coming from God’s hand so that the world might know Him. And that includes us. Just as everything exists as God’s gift to us, so we also exist as God’s gift to the world. The gratitude that sees everything as God’s gift to us would make us God’s gift to others. And so it is also with the Eucharist. We do not come to the Table to be filled up purely for our own benefit. No. We who share Christ’s body are to live His risen life; we who drink His cup are to bring life to others; we whom the Spirit lights are to give light to the world.

Today, on this day of Harvest celebration, we are asked to see something so mundane and trivial as our toilets as God’s gift to us. 2.5 billion people (40% of the world’s population) don’t have a clean, safe place to go to the loo. To give you a rough idea of how many people that is, it’s enough to fill the John Smith Stadium over 100,000 times. Will you join me, then, in flushing your money down the toilet in an act of gratuitous praise to the God who makes our life possible? Are you willing to risk worshipping a generous God? Amen.

Come and See

Preached at Holy Trinity, Huddersfield
11th September 2016 (10.45am): Trinity 16
John 1:35-51

Hello. My name is Peter. Simon Peter—yeah, that’s right, ‘the Rock,’ as Jesus liked to call me. You may remember me from such glorious episodes as walking on water, confessing Christ at Caesarea Philippi, and that sermon at Pentecost. You may also remember me from some slightly less glorious episodes such as sinking in the water, telling Jesus He had no business washing my feet, and denying three times I ever knew Him. Either way, I expect you’re wondering how on earth I got involved in all this. Good question. I’m not entirely surely myself. It just, sort of, happened. I’ll tell you the story, if you like?

Well, it all began a few years ago. It was about 4 o’clock in the afternoon and I was at home cleaning the nets after a hard morning’s fishing. Then, out of nowhere, my brother Andrew comes crashing through the door like a hurricane. “Simon, Simon! The Messiah—we’ve found Him! I’ve seen Him. Quick. Grab your coat, you’ve got to come, see.” Well, he was speaking so quickly I couldn’t understand a word he was saying. “Slow down,” I said. “You’re not making any sense. What’s happened? Where have you been?”

Still trying to catch his breath, he tried again: “The Messiah—we’ve found Him! We’ve found the Messiah!” I couldn’t believe what I was hearing, and I didn’t mind telling him so. “Andrew,” I said, “don’t be so stupid! If the Messiah has finally decided to make an appearance, wouldn’t everybody know about it already? Besides, what on earth would the Messiah be doing around here? What on earth would he be doing with the likes of a fisherman like you, eh? Shouldn’t he be in Jerusalem sorting out the Romans, giving Herod a good kick up the backside or something? Honestly, I’ve never heard such rubbish.”

But Andrew wasn’t deterred. He wasn’t having any of it. He was adamant. “Simon, shut up and listen to me,” he said. “We’ve found the Messiah, you’ve got to come and see.” By this time, I remember beginning to get a little spooked by it all. I mean I’ve never seen Andrew in such a state. He was just so insistent. He really did seem to think that he’d found the Messiah. Something had clearly happened. I didn’t know what yet, but I thought, at least for his sake, I ought to hear him out. So that’s what I did. I said to him: “Andrew, just tell me what’s happened. Tell me where all this is coming from.”

“We’ve found the Messiah—that’s what’s happened!” he said. “I was out with John and…” “Hold on,” I interrupted. “You don’t mean John the Baptist? I’ve told you before about hanging out with him. He’s not right in the head. The guy wears clothes made of camel’s hair; he eats locusts for crying out loud! I should have guessed that loony was behind all this nonsense.” But Andrew wasn’t put off. “No, you don’t understand,” he said to me. “John’s a prophet—he’s the one Isaiah spoke of all those years ago, the one who would make straight the way of the Lord. Well, today, I was with him and suddenly he stretched out his bony finger towards a guy walking past in the distance and started yelling, “There He is, there He is—the Lamb of God!” So I went.

“Yeah? And then what happened?” I asked. “Well, me and my mate who was there with me, we both started running. We ran over to Him and started following. Then He turned around and asked us, “What are you after, boys? What are you looking for?” Well, we were both a bit tongue-tied, but it was getting late so we asked Him, “Where are you staying, Teacher?” I was going to invite Him back home, you see. Can you imagine it—the Messiah under our roof? But before I got the chance to say anything else, He told us to come and see. So we did.”

“Yeah? And then what?” I asked Andrew again. “Well, we saw where He was staying, we stayed with Him the rest of the day while He talked to us about God’s Kingdom, and then I came out here to get you, so you could meet Him too. So are you coming, or not?” I sat there, stunned. I didn’t know what to make of it all. I still wasn’t sure I believed him. But he’s my brother. I know him. We grew up together. Of course he told a few white lies back when we were younger. Yeah, he played a few practical jokes on me before. But this was different. He was convinced I needed to meet this man, this Jesus of Nazareth.

“Just come and see,” Andrew pleaded again. “That’s all I’m asking. If you still think I’m crazy, fine. But you’ve got to come and see.” After a slight pause (I remember it, as if it was yesterday), he asked me, “Simon, what have you got to lose? If I’m right, do you really want to say that you had the chance to meet the Messiah, but you were sat at home fiddling with the fishing nets?” He was right, wasn’t he? I knew it. The stakes were just too high. If this guy really was who my brother seemed to think He was, who John the Baptist seemed to think he was, the least I could do was to meet Him and find out for myself.

“Come and see,” Andrew reiterated. Jesus had obviously made quite an impression on Him. So I stood up, grabbed my coat, and no sooner had I done that than Andrew took me by the arm and started pulling me down the road to where Jesus was. When we got there, let’s just say Jesus didn’t disappoint. I’ve never met anybody like Him before. Jesus took one look at me and said, “Ah, Simon, John’s boy—you’re going to be my Rock, just you see.” He just has this way with people. He knows them before He’s ever even met them. It’s incredible! Well, it’s fair to say that from that moment on He had me hooked.

Andrew and I stayed with Him that evening and He talked on into the night. We completely lost track of time. The next morning when we woke up, Jesus was there, bright as a button, saying, “Get up you two, we’re off to Galilee!” We barely had time to rub our eyes before we were on the road. Jesus was a man on a mission. We struggled to keep up. Philip, a friend of ours from Bethsaida, was up ahead. All of a sudden, Jesus called out to him, “You there, you, follow me!” And he did. Just like that. I’d never seen anything like it before.

I remember standing there and thinking, “Wow! This guy’s got something. His words have power. He says, “Follow me,” and people just drop everything and come, just because He’s the one saying it.” And do you know what Philip did then? He ran on ahead as fast he could to find his friend Nathanael. “Nate!” he cried, bursting with excitement. “Nate, we’ve found the One, the One all the Scriptures speak of, and His name is Jesus—Jesus, Joseph’s son from Nazareth.” Nathanael looked puzzled. “Nazareth?” he scoffed. “Can anything good come from a small little Galilean backwater like Nazareth?”

By now Philip’s words were sounding all too familiar. “Come and see,” he said, “why don’t you just come and see.” When Jesus saw Nathanael walking up the road with Philip, he said to us who were with Him, He said, “Our ancestor Jacob, the father of our nation, was a liar and a cheat, but look, here comes an Israelite who know how to tell the truth!” Nathanael overheard what Jesus said and replied, “I’m sorry, have we met before? How do you know me?” Jesus answered, “I saw you coming. I saw you sitting comfortably in the shade of a fig tree long before Philip even called you.”

Well, you should have seen Nathanael’s jaw drop. He couldn’t believe it. There in front of him was someone who knew him better than he knew himself. “Teacher,” he stuttered, “you are the Son of God! You are the King of Israel!” Looking back on it, that must have been what Jesus meant when He told us that Nathanael was an Israelite who knew how to tell the truth. But Jesus wasn’t finished yet. “That’s nothing,” Jesus said to Nathanael, “If you believe simply because I told you I saw you under the fig tree, then stick around me a while longer and you’ll see things that’ll blow your mind.”

Jesus went on, “You mark my words, and you’ll see heaven open and angels going up and down upon the Son of Man as if by a ladder.” We all stood there dumbstruck, “He couldn’t mean… Could He?” You see, it’s written in the Scriptures that once when our ancestor Jacob was on his way from Beersheba to Haran, he stopped for the night and had a dream of a ladder reaching up to heaven with angels going up and down on it. He woke up with a start and said, “Surely the Lord is here in this place, and I’ve been completely oblivious!” So he called the place “the Gateway to Heaven.” At the time, I had inkling that Jesus was special, but here He was calling Himself the Gateway to Heaven… Wow! The rest, as they say, is history.

And that’s how it happened. That’s how I am where I am. I know that a lot of people talk about me—Peter, the Rock—as if I’m some kind of spiritual ‘big cheese’, but I’m not. I’m not here because I was anything special. I’m here because my brother Andrew met with Jesus and wanted me to meet with Him too. I’m here because my brother Andrew had his life changed meeting Jesus, and he knew that Jesus would change my life too. I’m here because my brother Andrew spoke three simple words to me: “Come and see.” Since the Spirit’s come, I haven’t stopped saying the same thing to other people: “Come and see—there’s someone I need you to meet.” So the question is: are you coming, or not?

MP3 Audio Recording available on the Holy Trinity Huddersfield website:
http://www.holytrinityhuddersfield.com/sermons/come-and-see/

Dressed for the Battle

Preached at Holy Trinity, Huddersfield
31st July 2016 (10.45am): Trinity 10
Ephesians 6:10-24

“Pray for me,” Paul says, “so that when I speak, a message may be given to me to make known with boldness the mystery of the gospel, for which I am an ambassador in chains. Pray that I may declare it boldly, as I must speak.” (vv.19-20)

Saints, would you pray this for me this morning? Let us pray:
Gracious and loving God, we thank you for the mystery of the gospel, the mystery of the Good News that you have reconciled and united all people and all things in your Son Jesus Christ. Give me power through your Holy Spirit to proclaim this gospel as boldly as I ought, not because I have confidence in my own words, but because I have confidence in Him whom I proclaim, your living Word, Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.

Good. Now if it’s a bad sermon, it’s your fault for not praying!

We come, today, to the end of our current series of sermons working through Paul’s letter to the Ephesians. Paul has explained the greatness of God’s purpose from eternity to unite all things in Christ and to create a new, united community in Him (the Church). He has underlined what a high calling it is to be part of this new community and the importance of living a life “worthy” of it—the whole of their lives and every single relationship, from the home to the workplace, are to be influenced and shaped by their new identity in Christ.

Now, at the end of this great letter, Paul warns the Ephesians that if they are truly going to be a new community in Christ, it won’t be easy. In fact, it will bring them into a spiritual battle of cosmic proportions. It will require them to stand up and fight against foes of unimaginable strength and unspeakable evil. If you thought being a Christian was about going to church, keeping your head down and generally trying to be ‘nice’ to people, think again. Being a Christian is something that requires us to “put on the whole armour of God.”

“Be strong in the Lord and in the strength of his power.” (v.10)

Why would Paul say this unless the Christian life was something for which we needed strength? It may come as a surprise to some, but the overriding message that God wants to impress on us here is that there is a war going on and that by virtue of being Christians, by virtue of our baptism and incorporation into Christ, we are part of it. Indeed, we acknowledge this every time somebody is baptised. After the decision for Christ is made and the person is marked with the sign of the cross, the person leading the service addresses them and says: “Do not be ashamed to confess the faith of Christ crucified.”  At which the whole congregation joins together, saying: “Fight valiantly as a disciple of Christ, against sin, the world and the devil, and remain faithful to Christ to the end of your life.”

To be a Christian, to be a disciple of Christ, enjoins upon us the need to fight. The Good News, the Gospel, the εὐαγγελίον, is the announcement of victory in battle. It is the announcement of Christ’s victory over the powers of sin and death, the victory of God’s kingdom with judgment for God’s enemies and salvation for God’s people. To be baptised is to be made a member of God’s people by being brought into the company of the crucified Christ. And because it is to be brought into the company of the crucified Christ, it is to be brought into Christ’s conflict with the powers that crucified Him.

A new community in Christ that owes its sole allegiance to God is a threat to the Devil’s dark dominion. He will do everything he can to stop it. He will sow seeds of sin and sedition that sprout and spread until they destroy the new society God has made. And the Devil is wily. It starts subtly—with a bit of grumbling here, or with a bit of coarse joking there, or with the odd power play rearing its head in our relationships. Satan knows how to divide people. He’s been doing it since he turned Adam and Eve on God and on each other. If God is creating a new community in Christ, don’t expect the Devil to take it lying down.

Living a life worthy of God’s high calling upon us is no mean feat. We are in a battle. But it isn’t for us to defeat sin, the world and the devil; that’s what God does in Christ. Our job is to join with Christ in His resurrection-rage against their death-dealing dominion. Therefore, Paul says: “Be strong in the Lord and in the strength of his power. Put on the whole armour of God, so that you may be able to stand against the wiles of the devil.” (vv. 10-11) There is a battle. We are part of it. But the strength we need comes from God, and not ourselves.

And it’s just as well because our enemies aren’t blood and flesh. Our battle isn’t against other human beings. No. Our battle is bigger than that. Our Enemy is more powerful than any human enemy. The enemies we see are real enough, but spiritual forces of darkness that we can’t see animate them. We are involved in a cosmic conflict. Evil is organised, it’s strategic, and it’s deeply embedded in every structure, every system and every institution. Therefore, to combat such a powerful, cunning and unscrupulous Enemy, we need all the strength that God, and God alone, can supply.

“Our struggle,” Paul says, “is against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly places” (v.12). The word he uses for ‘struggle’ describes a wrestling match, hand-to-hand combat, a soldier’s close-quarter grappling. Our Enemy might be in the heavenly places, but the war waged against us is very close to home, it’s right here on our doorstep. Hiding in the trenches is not an option. There are no neutral parties in this war. Instead, there are only two options: to stand and fight with Christ, or to collude with the Enemy either actively joining his ranks, or passively let him get about his business.

The Enemy wants us to break ranks and run, preferably without even fronting up. God encourages us to take up His whole armour so that we might stand our ground, remain in the battle and fight (v. 13). We are to go out like heavily armed soldiers, like people who know that their Enemy is going to throw the kitchen sink at them. One preacher told his congregation that he didn’t want any Christian streakers running around his church. It wasn’t enough to wear “the helmet of salvation,” they must wear the whole armour of God. I’m sure I speak for Mike in saying that neither of us want to see any kind of streakers in this church.

Put on. Take up. These imperatives dominate vv. 13-17. Each is plural and each implies that activity is required on our part. The struggle is not an individualistic one. The struggle belongs to all the baptised. We are in it together. God supplies the strength. God supplies the armour. But it’s up to us to stand in His strength. It’s up to us to put on and take up His armour. The armour of God doesn’t just fall on us like rain. It has to be claimed. We have to make it our own. Sometimes I wonder if we don’t spend so much time polishing our armour that we never actually make it to the front line.

“The apparel oft proclaims the man,” says Polonius in Shakespeare’s Hamlet. In other words, the way we dress says something about who we are. The call to “put on” and “take up the whole armour of God” is the military version of clothing ourselves with the new self that Paul talks about back in Ephesians 4:24. As there, so here Paul says that baptism confers on us a new status, which is marked by the wearing of a new set of clothes—the whole armour of God. To be dressed like a Christian, then, is not to wear a dog collar, or a cross around our neck, or even a t-shirt that says, “I love Jesus.” No. To be dressed like a Christian is to be dressed for the battle.

“Fasten the belt of truth around your waist”—any lack of integrity between your faith and your action will hinder your movement. “Put on the breastplate of righteousness”—let Christ’s righteousness protect your innermost parts until it becomes your very own. “As shoes for your feet put on whatever will make you ready to proclaim the gospel of peace”—God’s kingdom advances as the Good News is spread and new converts are won. “Take the shield of faith”—let your unwavering trust in God extinguish all the Devil’s fiery arrows. “Take the helmet of salvation”—hold up your head with confidence, knowing that God’s final victory is assured. “Take the sword of the Spirit, which is the word of God”—yield God’s word, the word that speaks of Jesus, as your only weapon, and remember that it’s only as the Spirit points people to Jesus that it’s effective.

We must be dressed for the battle. And therefore, we must pray: “Pray in the Spirit at all times, in every prayer and supplication. To that end keep alert and always persevere in supplication for all the saints” (v. 18). Prayer is an expression of our dependence on God. And because we are completely dependent on God, our prayer must be comprehensive, which Paul indicates by the use of four uses of the word ‘all’: we are to pray at all times, in all ways, with all perseverance, for all the saints. It’s not enough to pray at some times, in some ways, with some perseverance, for some of the saints. Prayer must be all encompassing if God’s armour is to fully encompass us.

We are in a battle. We must be dressed for the battle. And the means by which we (the Church) take hold of God’s armour is prayer. When we enter the new community of Christ through baptism, we come as those who have been conquered, enslaved and trodden down by sin, the world and the devil. Sunday by Sunday, however, we’re sent out as pardoned, liberated and fully-armed soldiers of God, whose vocation it is to fight valiantly against sin, the world and the devil through an indomitable, unrelenting and indefatigable campaign of love at Christ’s command.

The words, “Go in peace to love and serve the Lord,” are not just nice words intended to send us out with a warm fuzzy feeling as we leave the church building. No. These words are our battle cry! These words remind us who we are, and what we’re here for. The Church’s task, strange as it may sound, is not to change the world. The Church’s task is to be the Church—to be that new community in Christ who, having been released from slavery to sin, have peace with God and are free to do what they were truly created to do: to love and serve the Lord. By doing that, God will show the world what the world is meant to be.

Peace, not violence; love, not hate; service, not power—these are the strategies of God’s holy war. Therefore we fight the spiritual forces of evil every time we forgive someone who’s hurt us, every time we pray for our enemies, every time we open our hands and give to the poor. When we walk out of church, we are to go in God’s strength, as God’s people, free to live in God’s world in God’s way. This is our battle. The question is: are we dressed for it? Let us pray that we might be, and then let us stand and fight like the soldiers of God we are. Amen.

 

A Hymn for Ascension Day

Christ is now gone up above, Alleluia!
Our victorious Lord of love, Alleluia!
Human flesh brought into God, Alleluia!
Pleading for the earth He trod, Alleluia!

Christ’s redeeming work complete, Alleluia!
God and Man in Him now meet, Alleluia!
See His hands, His feet, His side, Alleluia!
Wounded Man now glorified, Alleluia!

See Him at His Father’s side, Alleluia!
He whom we had crucified, Alleluia!
He whom we condemned to die, Alleluia!
Prays for us our cause on high, Alleluia!

Hail Him there, our Great High Priest, Alleluia!
Sacrifice, who makes the feast, Alleluia!
Enter we within the veil, Alleluia!
Where His prayer forev’r prevails, Alleluia!

Set we, then, our hearts above, Alleluia!
Where Christ is: our Life, our Love, Alleluia!
For in Christ our Head we know, Alleluia!
Where He led we too shall go, Alleluia!

Christ has left us not alone, Alleluia!
Pours He blessing from His throne, Alleluia!
Promise of the Father giv’n, Alleluia!
Frees for us the Pow’r of heav’n, Alleluia!

In the Spirit, may we rise, Alleluia!
Dwell with Christ beyond the skies, Alleluia!
Bond of sacred unity, Alleluia!
Show us Him we long to see, Alleluia!

Come, Creator Spirit, come, Alleluia!
Come, Lord Jesus, quickly come, Alleluia!
Christ has died, and Christ is ris’n, Alleluia!
Christ will come again from heav’n, Alleluia!

Tune: Easter Hymn