The Gospel in Miniature

Preached at Wycliffe Hall Chapel
16th February 2015: Morning Prayer
John 3:1-21

Gracious God, as we gather this morning around your word, we thank you that you are a God who speaks. Therefore with Samuel of old we say: “Speak, Lord, your servants are listening.” In the name of your Word made flesh, Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.

It’s week 5 of Hilary Term. We’re midway through an academic year at theological college. Naturally, therefore, I’m assuming that our heads are so caught up in essays on the Matthean understanding of mission or Abelard’s moral theory of atonement that we’ve forgotten what the gospel actually is. Thankfully, John 3:16 reminds us in just 25 words of Greek: “For God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son, that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life.” Martin Luther called John 3:16 the gospel in miniature. If you want a short, succinct, and (quite astonishingly for John’s Gospel) simple verse, telling you what the gospel is all about, then this is it. Let’s take some time now to meditate on this wonderful text and five things it tells us about the gospel.

I. The gospel is about God’s great love.

“For God…” It may sound obvious, but the gospel is about God. The gospel is not about us. It’s about who God is. It’s about what God does. Just as the creation story begins, “In the beginning, God…” so the salvation story begins, “For God…” God is the principal actor in this drama. Salvation is God’s self-assigned task. We’re here because we want to be faithful stewards of the gospel; but to be that we must remember that the gospel is not up to us, but up to God. Moreover, if the gospel is up to God, it’s up to a God whose name and nature is love. The word ‘love’ appears 56 times in John’s Gospel. Yet God didn’t just love, He so loved. This is abundant, extravagant, reckless love. The gospel is about a God who refuses to be alone; a God determined to be God with us—Immanuel; a God who calls to us: “Arise, my darling, my beautiful one, come with me.” (Song of Songs 2:10)

II. The gospel is about God’s great love for the whole wayward world.

God, the Creator, the Lord and Judge of the Universe, loves us; He loves the world. If God’s love is excessive in extent, then it’s boundless in breadth. In John, the word kosmos tends not only to describe the world or universe, but a world or universe set in opposition to God. That is the world God loves. In Hosea 1, God tells Hosea to go marry a whore. And we think to ourselves: “What kind of God would tell someone to do that?” Answer: the kind of God who does it Himself: “Love to the loveless shown/ That they might lovely be.” So often we love the idea of something more than the reality of it. Not so with God. Dietrich Bonhoeffer, writing in his Meditations on the Cross, says: “God does not love some ideal person, but rather human beings just as we are, not some ideal world, but rather the real world.” God knew exactly what He was getting into with us, and He did it all the same.

III. The gospel is about God’s great love for the whole wayward world, demonstrated in costly self-giving.

Missionary Amy Carmichael once said, “You can give without loving, but you cannot love without giving.” God demonstrates His love for us through an unparalleled act of self-giving. But, for love of our love, He thought it a price worth paying! God gave His one and only Son for you. Never has there been a Valentine’s Day gift like it. God doesn’t give proportionately. He doesn’t ask “What are you getting me?” or “This year, please can we agree a budget?” No. He gives with abandon. The gospel is about a God who gives Himself away without holding anything back—and to sinners of all people, to people who have no trouble playing the prostitute! Have you ever heard of such a thing? Yet this is the gospel. This is God’s loud, decisive and incomprehensible ‘yes’ to us in Jesus Christ. God is for us, or as the Nicene Creed puts it, He is “for us and for our salvation.”

IV. The gospel is about God’s great love for the whole wayward world, demonstrated in costly self-giving, made available to all by faith.

This salvation is available to all through faith. It is for anyone, “whoever believes” in Jesus. This gospel is for priests and prostitutes; teachers and truants; detainees and despots. And we are all equally unworthy of it because we receive it through faith, not by merit. In the words of Fanny Crosby’s hymn, “The vilest offender who truly believes/ That moment from Jesus a pardon receives.” The one criterion for receiving God’s blank cheque in Jesus is cashing the cheque. Faith doesn’t mean agreeing to a list of doctrinal statements about Jesus. It simply means trusting Jesus. It requires relationship. It means casting in your lot with Jesus and confessing that He is Lord. Faith like this demands our ultimate allegiance.

V. The gospel is about God’s great love for the whole wayward world, demonstrated in costly self-giving, made available to all by faith and for the purpose of bringing new life.

Jesus’s conversation with Nicodemus is all about new life: “No one can see the kingdom of God without being born again” (v. 3); “No one can enter the kingdom of God without being born of water and the spirit” (v. 5); “You must be born again” (v. 7). Our condition is so serious it requires the birth of an entirely new person; a few lifestyle adjustments here and there won’t cut it. Apart from God, we’re dead. This isn’t just some kind of post-mortem death. We’re dead now; spiritually dead. But Jesus comes to make us alive to God in the Spirit. “This is eternal life,” Jesus says, “that they may know you, the only true God, and Jesus Christ whom you have sent” (John 17:3). We’re saved to know God. American scholar Will Willimon writes: “[Salvation is the] invitation to share in a particular God’s life here, now, so that we might do so forever.” To know God means to start becoming like God.

Sometimes we evangelicals make salvation sound like a get-out-of-hell-free card. We focus so much on the need to be born again, we forget why. We know what we are saved from; but do we know what we are saved for? Being born again is just the start; it’s only how our new life begins. We are saved to know God, to be with God and to become like God. So what are we waiting for? Let’s take hold of that for which Christ took hold of us. Let’s take hold of eternal life now—life in conformity to our crucified, risen and glorious Lord. Amen.

The Awful Truth

Preached at St. Helen’s Church, Dry Sandford
8th February 2015: 5th Sunday after Epiphany
Matthew 7:1-6

“Judge not, that you be not judged.”

It sounds so easy, doesn’t it? I remember my parents quoting it to me like a proverb when I was a child, almost to say, “What goes around comes around.” Read like that, Jesus’ words just sound like simple, sound, and sage advice. Albeit rather, naïve advice. After all, how would it work in practice? Does Jesus mean to say that we have no need for a legal justice system in this country, that sex offenders should be free to walk the streets unrestricted, or that we should turn a blind eye to the brutal violence done by IS and Boko Haram? Absolutely not! Jesus here isn’t giving nice people advice on how to be a bit nicer. No. Jesus here is confronting all of us with the problem of our hypocrisy. We all want to see justice done; just not when it catches up with us.

“…with the measure you use it will be measured to you.”

John Wesley, leader of the great 18th century evangelical revival in England, called these “awful words”—awful in that traditional sense of the word, meaning ‘inspiring awe.’ He went on to say that, “We may, as it were, choose for ourselves, whether God shall be severe or merciful to us.” In other words, in response to Jesus’ words here, we have the opportunity to decide for ourselves the terms on which God will judge us. God will give us the opportunity to use our scales, our measures, when weighing our lives in the balance. Truly these are “awful words”, indeed. And awful in the more familiar sense of the word (fearful or terrible), if the measure we use isn’t very generous. The question I want to ask, then, is whether these words of Jesus are Good News, or Bad News?

At Wycliffe Hall, where I’m training, everybody has a job to do around the college. I am one of the chapel wardens. Ordinands are required to attend six chapel services a week and one of my tasks as chapel warden is to count and record the number of people in worship. There is a question, however, of when you do that. A few weeks ago, I decided to count the number of people in worship towards the start of the service, about 5 or 10 minutes in. 36, I counted. Afterwards, one of my fellow chapel wardens was counting too and said he got to 39. I told him, I hadn’t included in the numbers those who turned up more than 10 minutes late. A couple of days later, I was cycling into college for Morning Prayer (as I usually do), when I hit a pothole and got a puncture. I had to wheel my bike home and get a lift in with my wife. I came in the back of chapel and sat down. I was late. Sitting next to me was my fellow chapel warden, register of services in hand.

“…with the measure you use it will be measured to you.”

There’s a preacher in the States who told a story about a man who came to his church, struggling with an alcohol addiction. The man explained how, whenever he was late for worship, he always felt the stares of the congregation boring into him as if to say, “Look at him. He’s been at it again. He’s such a mess that he can’t even make it to church on time.” The man contrasted it with the reception he received at his AA meetings. “If I’m late there,” he said, “they were just really happy to see me because they thought I wasn’t coming, because they thought I almost didn’t make it.” Wouldn’t that be a great attitude for us to have in church? Instead of tutting at the parents with the young kids who run in flustered during the first hymn, or murmuring under our breath about the baptism party fidgeting, eating crisps, and checking their phones during the service, simply saying, “You know what, we’re just really happy to see you, because you might not have been here and you are”?

“…with the measure you use it will be measured to you.”

So what are we going to do with these “awful words” of Jesus? Jesus, in the verses which follow these rather stark announcements, explains that being people who don’t judge others is about more than a New Year’s Resolution we’re just going to try really, really hard to keep. Our attitude to judging people is closely related to how well we’re seeing things. Being people who don’t judge others, people who use a generous measure in their judgements of other people, is about how we see: how we see ourselves, how we see others, and how we see God. I want to spend some time thinking about each of these three things.

First, then, being people who don’t judge but use a generous measure is about how we see ourselves. Jesus asks, “Why do you see the speck that is in your brother’s eye, but do not notice the log that is in your own eye?” (Matt. 7:3) We need help to see the log that is in our eye. American theologian Stanley Hauerwas writes, “We are able to see ourselves only through the vision made possible by Jesus—a vision made possible by our participation in a community of forgiveness that allows us to name our sins.” In other words, we are only able to see ourselves as we are because the love of Jesus in going to the cross for us proves beyond all doubt that we are loved unconditionally just as we are—warts and all. It is the knowledge of that unconditional love and forgiveness which Jesus offers that gives us the security to lower the drawbridge, take down our defences and confess our sin.

Apart from Jesus, we’re blind to our own sin. It is only in the face of unconditional love that we find the freedom to know ourselves. It sounds non-sensical that someone could have a beam in their eye and be unaware of it; but the fact is that we are the same with our sin. We carry all kinds of evil around in us that we don’t see because we’re too afraid that if anyone finds out, they won’t love us, they won’t accept us. Not judging people is about learning who we really are, seeing ourselves as we really are. No one gives a more generous measure than the person deeply persuaded of their own need of it. A non-judgemental person is humble; somebody who knows that they themselves require of a lot of latitude, both from God and from others. If you don’t think that’s you after reading the first two chapters of Christ’s Sermon on the Mount, then I suggest you go back and re-read it!

Second, being people who don’t judge and but use a generous measure is about how we see others, which as we’ve already noted is linked to how we see ourselves. Again, Jesus asks, “How can you say to your brother, ‘Let me take the speck out of your eye,’ when there is the log in your own eye?” (Matt. 7:4) John Wesley, who I mentioned earlier, as he progressed in his journey of faith, reflected, “The longer I live, the larger allowances I make for human infirmities. I exact more from myself, and less from others.” He encouraged his listeners to do likewise. The humility that recognises our need for a lot of latitude will seek to extend that same latitude to others, while being hard on our own shortcomings. Matthew Henry writes, “That which charity teaches us to call but a splinter in our brother’s eye, true repentance and godly sorrow will teach us to call a beam in our own.”

I was greatly affected by reading G. K. Chesterton’s Father Brown stories a few months ago. If you haven’t read them, Father Brown is a crime-solving Catholic priest. In one of the stories, Father Brown is asked how on earth he manages to unravel the mysteries of all these crimes, to which he replies, “I am a man, and therefore have all devils in my heart.” As we learn to name our sins, we learn to see with sympathy the sins of others as our own. Dietrich Bonhoeffer, once wrote, “By judging others we blind ourselves to our own evil and to the grace which others are just as entitled to as we are.” When it comes to judging others, the only advantage Christians have over anybody else is the ability to confess their sinfulness and their need for grace from a generous God.

And that leads us to my third and final point: being people who don’t judge but use a generous measure is about how we see God. If we think that God loves us on the basis of what we do or what we have, we will be people prone to judge. As long as we think our right-standing with God is up to us, something for us to achieve through our own good works, it may well produce what, on the outside looks like lot of very good, moral behaviour, but, on the inside, it will fill us with self-righteousness and insecurity. We will always be comparing ourselves to others because then, we can say to God, “Look, I’m better than so-and-so.” Yet at the same time, we’ll forever feel like we’re not good enough. The Gospel of grace completely undermines all such tendencies. After all, what right have I, as someone saved by nothing but sheer grace, to judge anybody?

Stanley Hauerwas says, “Following Christ requires our recognizing that the one I am tempted to judge is like me—a person who has received the forgiveness manifest in the cross.” It is at the cross that all human sinfulness is judged, and it is for that reason that Maximus the Confessor could say, “The death of Christ on the cross is a judgment of judgment.” As disciples of Jesus, we don’t judge because the judgement that matters has already taken place. In the Incarnation of Jesus, God said a loud, unqualified and loving ‘yes’ to us just as we are; but at the cross, He also said a firm, decisive and resounding ‘no’ to way we have been living without Him and the mess we’ve made of the world as a result. The generous measure we all need is the generous measure God has already given us in Christ.

In Christ, we are all forgiven sinners. That is who we are. That is what we need Jesus to show us. Only then will we be people who don’t judge but use a generous measure; for the same people Jesus speaks these words to, He also teaches to pray, “Forgive us our sins as we forgive those who sin against us.” So are these words of Jesus Good News, or Bad News? The ‘awful’ truth is: it’s up to us. It all depends on how we see things: how we see ourselves, how we see others and how we see God. Therefore, let us ask Jesus to restore our sight that we might see ourselves as forgiven sinners and create a community of forgiveness in which others might also experience that kind of unconditional love.

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

For All To See

“When they saw the star, they rejoiced exceedingly with great joy.” (Matt. 2:10)

There has been much rejoicing in our house today also, for aside from being the Feast of the Epiphany it is our son Jedidiah’s second birthday. Like the wise men, Jed also kept us waiting and as parents, we love the fact that his birthday coincides with their visit. This year, however, the convergence of the two celebrations has seemed especially striking to me. Though the magi are frequently depicted at the stable with the shepherds, it’s most likely that Jesus was around two years old (like Jed) by the time they arrived—quite a remarkable thought! Somehow, it almost seems more impressive to me that God should manifest Himself in the form of an adventurous, inquisitive and rambunctious toddler than as an innocent, sweet and sleepy baby.

Often Epiphany gets lost among the discarded wrapping paper, recycled cards and boxed-up decorations of Christmas. For some, the twelfth night simply marks the time by which all the festive trappings ought to have been cleared away and stored away for another year. Epiphany, then, consigns the significance of the Incarnation to history. Even where Epiphany is remembered, it is often conflated with Christmas. We see this in our Nativity scenes and on our Christmas cards (assuming you can still find religious-themed ones), where the shepherds and magi together adore the newborn Christ lying in a manger. Jed’s birthday forces us to keep Christmas and Epiphany apart—never, for example, do we want to commit the ‘sin’ of using Christmas paper to wrap his birthday presents (as can be so easy with children whose birthdays fall so close to 25th December)! Evelyn Underhill writes that there has always been a “deep instinct” in the Church to keep the two celebrations separate. For sure, they are related; but they are two celebrations, not one. Epiphany, in its own right, is cause for rejoicing exceedingly with great joy.

The Greek word epiphaneia literally means ‘a shining forth’ or ‘a manifestation’. In the Western Church, the primary focus tends to be the manifestation of Christ to the Gentiles signified by the visit of the magi. In the East, however, the celebration focusses more on the baptism of Jesus as the definitive manifestation of the Son of God to the world. The common theme is that Epiphany celebrates the revelation of God the Son, the second person of the Trinity, to the world as the human being, Jesus Christ. In essence, then, the Feast is all about seeing Jesus, and through Him seeing God. He is, after all, “the image of the invisible God” (Col. 1:15), who Himself proclaims that if we have seen Him, we have seen the Father (John 14:7). Epiphany, therefore, is about God appearing among us for all to see. And not only does God appear for all to see, but He appears to all as Saviour.

Epiphany underscores the universal significance of Christ, God’s King. The visit of the magi, as pagan travellers from a distant land demonstrates that salvation in Jesus extends to all who are far off—both geographically and spiritually. Indeed, the star that appeared in the sky to those wise men only goes to show that the significance of the Christ-event is not merely national, or even global, but cosmic. There was a new light in the heavens. Beyond earth, there was recognition of the enormous significance of the Incarnation. Jesus is not just the Saviour of Israel, nor even the Saviour of the world, but the Saviour of the universe. This is Christ Pantocrator, Christ the Ruler of All. And the revelation of God’s King spells doom for all who claim to rule in their own authority and whose authority is opposed to God’s. Matt. 2:3 says that when Herod heard the news, he was troubled and all Jerusalem with him. Rightly so, for if Christ is Lord, then Caesar is not. The revelation of Christ challenges our every loyalty, our every commitment. It is a question of our ultimate allegiance. To whom do we answer—God or Caesar?

Like Advent, during which we remember the first coming of Christ and look for His return, so at Epiphany can we remember Christ’s manifestation to the world (whether as an infant, or as a grown man in the River Jordan) and look for His final manifestation to the world, when every knee shall bow and every tongue confess that Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father (Phil. 2:10-11). Then, shall Christ be made undeniably manifest to the world and all the Herods of the world shall tremble in fear. The earth will be filled with the knowledge of the glory of the LORD as the waters cover the sea (Hab. 2:14)–the final revelation. Epiphany trains us to pray for a fresh vision of Christ to our hearts, that having been born in us by His Holy Spirit, through us He might be manifested to the world. It teaches us to love and long for the appearing (the same Greek verb, epiphainen) of the reign of God in Christ over all things (2 Tim. 4:8).

In Christ, God appeared for ALL to see. Wise men seek Him still. In this season of Epiphany, therefore, let us also ask for wisdom enough to seek the Lord that, seeing Him afresh who is our Saviour and the loving Ruler of All, we too may come to rejoice like we’ve never rejoiced before!

Are You Gonna Go My Way?

“Thinking he was in their company, they travelled on for a day…” (Luke 2:44)

Read the story of the boy Jesus at the Temple and you’ll see where the perennial Christmas film Home Alone gets its inspiration. A chaplain at a women’s prison once told of how she’d read this story with a group of the residents, causing quite a stir. “How could they?” they asked incredulously. “If that was one of us, Social Services would have had us for neglect and taken Jesus into care.” It’s a fair point. Strangely enough, it wasn’t something that had ever really occurred to me about the story before. Interesting, isn’t it, how our experience of life shapes the way we read Scripture?

Last night, I was reading this story again and the line struck me, “Thinking he was in their company, they travelled on for a day…” The Passover Feast is over and everyone’s on their way back home, but Jesus stays behind. As Mary and Joseph and the rest of the relatives and extended family make their way back, the 70 mile trip, to Nazareth, they are completely unaware of Jesus’ absence. They simply assumed He was with them. As I read this story anew, I was profoundly challenged. “How often,” I heard the Spirit asking me, “do you also just walk off without checking to see if Jesus is with you? How often do you start travelling on a certain road and just assume that Jesus is keeping company with you?” The honest answer is: “Probably, quite a lot.”

As 2015 approaches, it’s a time for many New Year’s Resolutions to be made and it strikes me how easy it is to make our plans and set our stall out for the year without first making sure that Jesus is coming with us. It’s so easy to head off in one direction or another without checking that God-With-Us is actually with us. So often we can think that something is what God wants for us, that it is a God-mandated journey we’re embarked upon, but we haven’t actually stopped to see if Jesus is actually in our company, that it’s a road He is walking too. It took Mary and Joseph one day to discover that Jesus wasn’t with them—one day going in the wrong direction. Sometimes, it will take us a lot longer.

Anyone who has ever lost a child (even for a few seconds) will know the feeling of blind panic that must have befallen Mary and Joseph when they realised Jesus wasn’t with them. No public address system announcement in the supermarket. No filing a Missing Person Report with the police. Discovering that he’s not with any of the relatives, they do the only thing they can do—go back to where they last saw Him. After three days, they find Him. Three days. Can you imagine—searching for your lost 12 year old boy for three whole days? It must have been the longest, most guilt-laden, most excruciating three days of their lives. The simple neglect of failing to check that Jesus was with them was a costly mistake. It cost them much worry, much time, much stress, much shoe leather, and probably much money as well. This three day absence of Jesus surely anticipates those dark days after the crucifixion and before the resurrection. This is what it is like to be without Jesus. If only they’d done a roll-call before setting off!

There’s a warning here for us as we look ahead to 2015. We must beware of setting off too quickly without making sure that Jesus is going with us. What this story points us back to is the absolute necessity of prayer to ground our lives. We need to spend time with God, seriously seeking and discerning God’s will for our lives. To quote the title of Bishop Stephen Cottrells’ book, we need to “Hit the Ground Kneeling”. If we need to learn how to walk before we can run, we need to learn how to kneel before we can walk. So how about making that our New Year’s Resolution—learning how to constantly set our paths before the Lord and seek His presence with us. To quote that well-known theologian, Lenny Kravitz, the question we need to be asking of Jesus is: “Are you gonna go my way?”

Lord Jesus, give us grace to seek You in all our journeying through this next twelve months, that You may ever be with us and we with You. Grant that in this New Year ahead, we may travel not one day without You in our company. Amen.

Draw Near

Draw near with faith, receive your King
In broken bread and outpoured wine;
For us He made this offering
Of God, to make mortals divine:
So eat and drink with grateful hearts
And feast on all His love imparts.

Draw near, O Lord, through sacred sign
And by Your grace Yourself convey;
Conceive in us the life divine,
Lord Christ, be born in us, we pray:
Come quick, make haste, do not delay
Let this be our new Christmas Day!

Draw near with power from above
To plant in us the life of God;
There let it grow in perfect love,
Your flesh be ours and ours Your blood:
So as we eat and drink, consume
Our hearts, that they may be a womb.

Draw near, O Son of God, draw near,
And share with us divinity;
Incarnate in Your Church, appear,
Revealed in full humanity:
Let us be now Your guise on earth
Through which You bring new life to birth.

Draw near to us, Immanuel,
Godhead and man in You made one;
Come, dwell in us, in You we’ll dwell,
So we may share the name of son:
Forever God to us is bound,
That all in Him may e’er be found.

Draw near and cast the veil aside
That faith alone can penetrate;
With baited breath, Your ransomed Bride
Waits You Your vow to consummate:
For this You did the heavens leave
That God to us as one might cleave.

Draw near again at last and make
Complete the work in us begun;
Grant then that we of God partake,
Conformed in likeness to the Son:
From glory, still more glorious,
Till You are all in all in us!

Sing, Enlarge, Establish

Sing, barren woman, sing
And you who bore no child,
Good News to you I bring
Of sinners reconciled!
God was in Christ,
For us to save,
Whose life He gave
In sacrifice.

Enlarge your dwelling place,
And stretch your curtains wide;
Make room for God’s free grace,
Let Love in you reside:
For God became
As we are, so
That we might grow
As Him the same.

Establish righteousness
As the foundation stone,
Through which you will possess
The nations as your own;
For this our call:
His reign to swell,
His love to tell
On earth to all.

Sing to: Love Unknown

Inspired by St. Aldate’s Church (Oxford) preaching series.

Divine Descent

Down, down to the depths He dropped:
Into His creation came the Creator
Vestured in the form of a slave.
Incarnate God for our salvation sent:
Naked and bare as a newborn babe,
Entered He fully the life He us gave.

Did we miss the child of heaven?
Expected we much more than this,
“Show us your glory!” we cried!
Condescending, He heard our appeal:
Exposed He the wounds of His love,
Naked and bare, on the Cross, He replied
To make us heirs of His divine descent.