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

The Glory of God

Preached at Wycliffe Hall Chapel
20th April 2016: Morning Prayer
Psalm 135; Exodus 33; Luke 3:15-22

Gracious God, pour out your Holy Spirit upon us that in our poor speaking and weak hearing we may discern your voice and see your glory in the face of Jesus Christ, in whose name we pray. Amen.

“Show me your glory,” Moses asks the Almighty. He’s got some chutzpah, hasn’t he? Surely he was already pushing his luck pleading with God not to destroy the Israelites for their peccadillo with the golden calf. Their action, after all, was tantamount to committing adultery on the wedding night. And to make matters worse, we’re told they pawned their engagement ring to pay for their night with a prostitute—the jewellery they plundered from the Egyptians, the riches that were a down payment on richer blessings still to come.

God had paid for Israel. He had bought her freedom from slavery. And it was for that very reason that the first of God’s Ten Commandments was that he didn’t want them fooling around with other gods. Surely God was well within His rights to end it, to end them, right there in the wilderness. But Moses not only pleads for this ragtag band of sorry losers, he pleads for them by insinuating that dumping Israel in the desert would make God look bad, that it would play poorly in the Egyptian newspapers the next morning.

That Moses’ intercession should see the Lord relent of His white-hot rage was surely victory enough. But alas, it appears not. God tells the people to leave Horeb, to take possession of the land He had promised to their ancestors and to enjoy its milk and its honey. To push the matrimonial metaphor a little further, God tells the Israelites to take the wedding presents, go on the honeymoon and live in the marital home He’d prepared for them. Now to me, that sounds like grace. It is far more than this wretched people deserves. But the catch is: God Himself will not be going up among them.

Moses hears this for the disastrous word it is. Canaan may have been the land God promised to Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, but he knew there was no promise to be found in the land without the presence of God. And so, Moses does the unthinkable. He does something that most of us probably would hesitate to do in our pastoral counselling. He pleads the victim of adultery to come back and live with the partner who had defiled their marriage bed with a prostitute on their first night together. It’s not enough for God to send His angel ahead of them. Unless the very presence of God Himself goes with them, all is lost.

I wonder whether we hear God’s word for the devastating word that it is, or whether we are really more interested in God’s blessings than God Himself. Do we hear God’s words, “Take the house, take the car, take the money,” and mourn because God also says, “I will not go up among you”? The Israelites were at least able to recognise what a hole they were in unless God went with them. And so, they stripped themselves of their ornaments, the ornaments they used to fuel their sin, and dressed themselves before God as the poor beggars they now knew they were.

The camp now polluted, Moses goes and pitches the tent of meeting “outside the camp, far off from the camp.” The Israelites’ sin had thrust a wedge between them and God. And yet, grace upon grace, God continued to meet to with Moses there. The people would stand at the entrance of their tents, see the pillar of cloud indicating that God had not completely withdrawn His presence from them, and they worshipped. Here in this tent we meet a God who, though ineffably, unspeakably holy, simply will not be deterred from approaching us. Still God comes to His messed-up, good-for-nothing, deadbeat people. He will not be stopped.

Moses would not even contemplate going forward without God and he begs God to extend the favour he personally enjoys towards the people as a whole. Eventually, God relents. After all, this is a God whose desire is, and always has been, to be God-With-Us. It is as a pledge of the favour he has with God and that God truly will dwell among the people without destroying them that Moses makes his bold request, “Show me your glory.” In Hebrew, the verb is in the causative form, the hiphil: “Make me to see your glory.” Moses knows well enough that we don’t see God through any resources of our own. God is the Subject as well as the Object of revelation. All knowledge of God comes from the side of God.

“Show me your glory,” says Moses. And God says, “I will show you my goodness.” God’s goodness is His glory, a glory known more in mercy than in majesty. God’s goodness is God’s willingness to maintain His presence among a people who have so successfully demonstrated their skill at betraying Him. The goodness God shows to Moses is that He should deign to come so close as to brush past him as he hides in the rock. God’s glory is God’s presence. More precisely, God’s glory is God’s presence with us. That the Creator God should dwell among finite human beings is remarkable enough; that He should choose to be in relationship with those who have a track record of infidelity and betrayal is frankly astounding.

God’s glory is to be seen in His self-deprecating willingness to be God-With-Us; to be born in poverty, to grow up in obscurity, to live the life of a restless peripatetic, to be mocked, betrayed, denied and abandoned, and finally to die on a cross beside two criminals. The cross is the inevitable consequence of God’s decision to be God-With-Us. For this is our response to love. For God to be God-With-Us is for God to be vulnerable with people He knows full well are going to hurt Him. But God’s goodness is His refusal to be safe. If a holy God was going to dwell with wretched sinners like us, it was clear that one of us was going to die. We just didn’t expect it to be Him.

In Jesus’ life, death, resurrection and ascension, we see a better Moses pleading the case for God’s presence among sinful humanity, and His intercession being heard. Moses could only see God’s back, the “afterglow of the effulgence of His presence,” as Robert Alter puts it. Anybody who has looked into the face of Jesus Christ on the cross has seen God’s glory head-on. Is it any wonder, then, that so many should turn away in horror from the sight of a God whose glory is a cross? It is a truly terrible sight, and one that only God can make us to see the glory of.

We adore you, O Christ, and we bless you, because by your holy cross, you have redeemed the world. Amen.

A Hymn for Easter Day

Let us with gladness enter
The joy of Christ our Lord;
Let first and last together,
Receive His love’s reward;
If any now are weary,
Let them in Him find rest;
If any now are strangers,
Let them be Jesu’s guest.

Come now, the feast is ready,
The Table is prepared;
For Christ has made the banquet
And no expense is spared;
Come one, come all, together,
Alike, come rich and poor;
Let no one go home hungry,
But eat, all, and adore.

Grieve no more your poverty,
The kingdom is for you;
Mourn no more your frequent falls,
Forgiveness has won through;
Hollow is Death’s boasting now,
For on that hallowed tree,
Death and Hell discovered God
And He has set us free.

All hail the mighty Conqueror,
O’er sin and death and hell;
For tasting our Redeemer’s flesh,
Death’s strong dominion fell;
And now is hell in uproar
For Christ has now it mocked;
And captive now to Jesu’s love,
Its gates have been unlocked.

Sing now, for Christ is risen,
The pow’r of Death is done;
Celebrate the victory,
That Christ our Lord has won;
Christ is risen and the tomb
Is emptied of its dead;
Christ is risen, life shines forth
In Christ our risen Head!

Tune: Ellacombe

Inspired by the Easter Homily of St. John Chrysostom

A Hymn for Palm Sunday

Blessed is He who comes to us
In the name of the Lord;
Who, with the angel throng above,
By children is adored.
Who, with the angel throng above,
By children is adored.

Hosanna in the highest heights
From deepest depths resound;
This is our God, who comes to save,
To seek us ‘til we’re found.
This is our God, who comes to save,
To seek us ‘til we’re found.

City of God, receive your King
And welcome God’s own Son;
See in the faces of His crowd
The fruits of battle won.
See in the faces of His crowd
The fruits of battle won.

Embarrassment to those who seek
A King in Caesar’s ways;
Behold His legions armed with love,
With worship and with praise.
Behold His legions armed with love,
With worship and with praise.

Witness the playful parody
Of all we know as might;
For seated on that lowly stead
Is this dark world’s true Light.
For seated on that lowly stead
Is this dark world’s true Light.

He mocks the greatest pow’r on earth
With his display of peace;
This is the King who rules the world,
Whose reign shall never cease.
This is the King who rules the world,
Whose reign shall never cease.

There are no captives in His train,
For all in Him are free;
The only pris’ner of His fight
With sin and death is He.
The only pris’ner of His fight
With sin and death is He.

His triumph ends with sacrifice
And death upon a tree;
We see Him as the Victim now,
But Victor He shall be!
We see Him as the Victim now,
But Victor He shall be!

Hail Him as King whose crown is thorn,
Whose purple robe is blood;
And as He takes His crossly throne,
Remember He is God!
And as He takes His crossly throne,
Remember He is God!

Tune: Coronation

Cling To The Water

Preached at St. Mary Magdalen, Oxford
14th February 2016: First Sunday of Lent
Deuteronomy 26:4-10; Romans 10:8-13; Luke 4:1-13

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

The rather jarring convergence of Valentine’s Day and the First Sunday of Lent reminds us just how peculiar we Christians are. Lent offers a markedly different picture of love than that given us by Lindt the master chocolatier, whose indulgent treats will today be widely enjoyed. Lent is a radically counter-cultural season, and has been from its origins as a time of preparation for baptismal candidates. Indeed, it only really makes sense to the baptised. Prayer, fasting, abstinence, self-examination, penance, and almsgiving—these are not the typical expressions of love our culture prizes. Lent proclaims, quite unapologetically, our continual need for conversion. It reminds us of our mortality and confronts us with the reality of our sin. These are the things we usually spend our life running away from, but here in Lent they are brought right up into our face.

Baptism is at the heart of what these forty days are about. In our Gospel reading, we are told that Jesus enters the wilderness with His hair still dripping wet from the waters of the Jordan. No sooner does the Spirit descend upon Jesus than that same Spirit leads Him in the wilderness. No sooner does the voice of the Father name Jesus His Son, the Beloved, than the devil seeks to find out what that title means to Him.  The fact that Luke prefaces the story of Jesus’ temptation by telling us that He was “full of the Spirit” and “led by the Spirit,” makes clear that His time in the wilderness was no accident. This explicit mention of the Spirit’s activity demonstrates that it was a necessary precursor to Jesus’ ministry.

This is made all the more apparent by the fact that Luke interrupts the stories of Jesus’ baptism and temptation with a frankly rather tedious account of Jesus’ supposed ancestry through Joseph. It seems odd, strangely out of place. That is, until it names Jesus, “son of Adam, son of God.” In Jesus’ baptism and purported lineage we see two competing narratives of what it means for Jesus to be God’s Son. The question is: from which will He live? Will He live from the narrative of His baptism, a narrative of obedience and submission to God? Or, will He live from the narrative of Adam, a narrative of disobedience and mistrust of God?

As we will see, the primary purpose of the temptation story is as a foil, showing us what Jesus’ ministry will not look like, in preparation for the positive message He will preach in Nazareth (immediately afterwards) of what it will look like: “good news to the poor… release to the captives… recovery of sight to the blind… the oppressed go[ing] free… the year of the Lord’s favour” (4:18-19). It is in this context that we must hear the devil’s opening and closing gambits, “If you are the Son of God…” or perhaps better, “Since you are the Son of God…” The issue is not whether Jesus is Son of God, but what being Son of God means.

“If you are the Son of God, command this stone to become a loaf of bread.” Jesus has not eaten for forty days. He’s hungry. In effect, the devil is saying, “If you are really God’s Son, prepare a table for yourself right here in the wilderness.” Like most of Satan’s devices, it sounds harmless enough. But the temptation is for Jesus to use His authority to serve Himself. Instead of manifesting unwavering trust in God for His needs, the devil proposes Jesus take matters into His own hands. Jesus refuses. He shows us that to be the Son of God means living with God’s self-revealing Word as our centrum, the one fixed point on which we are focussed, on which we stand and on which we depend.

So the devil changes track, showing Jesus all the kingdoms of the earth in their power and glory. “You’re the Messiah, aren’t you Jesus?” he says. “Isn’t might and dominion what you’re all about?” That was what most expected of the Messiah—a political and military hero. Jesus came to claim a kingdom for God, it’s true, but He will not bow the knee to anyone other than God to do it. The end does not justify the means. “My kingdom is not from here,” Jesus will go on to say (John 18:36). What Jesus is not doing is making a division between the ‘spiritual’ and the ‘political.’ Rather, He is saying that His kingdom is not like Caesar’s, created and sustained by fear and violence. Power and glory in His kingdom means serving rather than being served; it means stripping off, bending down and washing dirty feet.

The third test Jesus faces is a symbolic anticipation of the ultimate test. “If you are the Son of God, throw yourself down from here.” Perhaps we can hear the subtle echo of Eden, “You will not die” (Genesis 3:4). The devil seems to insinuate that being the Son of God means protection from harm. And thus, this third temptation bears an uncanny resemblance to the words Jesus will face on the cross, “If you are the King of the Jews, save yourself!” (Luke 23:37; cf. 23:35, 39) The crucifixion embodies Jesus’ response. He will not test God. If being the Son of God means dying, then Jesus will be obedient to it because He trusts that divine rescue may come not only from suffering and death, but even through suffering and death.

If Lent is all about learning to live as the baptised, then Jesus demonstrates what it means for us to live as those made members of His Body through baptism. Our baptism tells us who we are. It speaks to us God’s word of love, forgiveness and adoption. It says that God has chosen us before the foundation of the world, claimed us for His own people, washed us in the blood of the Lamb, gifted us with His Spirit, and commissioned us to become co-workers with Him in taking back the world. In Lent we are reminded that to be baptised is to be continually dying to our identity in Adam and continually led by the Spirit to embrace our identity as God’s beloved sons and daughters in Christ.

No wonder Martin Luther encouraged people to “cling to the water” when the devil was tempting them to despair. God would have us do the same. When we’re tempted to make our life about serving our own needs and wants, we must cling to the water. When we’re tempted to seek a kingdom whose power and glory looks suspiciously like that of Rome rather than a Roman cross, we must cling to the water. When we’re tempted to seek a less costly form of obedience than daily taking up our cross and following Jesus, we must cling to the water. During Lent, we are invited into the wilderness with Christ to (re)discover who we are and what it means to be ourselves, and for that we must (help me, people), cling to the water.

“[Lent] can be a pretty depressing business all in all,” warns Frederick Buechner, “but if sackcloth and ashes are at the start of it, something like Easter may be at the end.”

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

The Wounds He Inflicted

Preached at Wycliffe Hall Chapel
8th December 2015: Morning Prayer
Isaiah 30:19-33

Lord Jesus Christ, our great High Priest, take these words, bless them, break them open to us and, by the transforming and life-giving power of the Holy Spirit, use them to feed a hungry multitude; to the glory of God the Father. Amen.

I have a confession to make. I really don’t want to be standing here preaching to you today. Now some of you are probably sat there thinking the same thing—“Oh no, not him again!” In which case, I have these very pastoral words to offer: tough luck, because here I am! Others, perhaps a bit more charitably, might be thinking to yourselves, “Well, you didn’t have to preach. They asked for volunteers to preach this week in chapel. Nobody forced you to do it.” And, of course, on one level you’d be right; but on another level, I do feel compelled to stand here today. So please let me explain…

I have a rather chequered history with Isaiah 30. You see, before coming to Wycliffe, I spent two years poring over this chapter of Scripture (and in particular vv. 18-26) for a PhD. I dissected every word of the Masoretic Hebrew text. I compared and contrasted it with the Great Isaiah Scroll from Qumran, the Greek of the Septuagint, the Aramaic of the Targum and the Latin of the Vulgate, as well as tracing its subsequent reception history. But after all that, I’m even more baffled by this passage than I was before.

The fact is that the time I spent wrestling with this passage left me thinking, “This is not the way, and I don’t want to be walking in it!” My research was a real struggle (and not just because doing a PhD isn’t all that easy). For all sorts of reasons including the sinfulness of trusting in the Egypt of my own academic abilities, my studies left me well and truly crushed, to the point that I had to walk away from it unfinished. Sadly, those years of unhappy labour on this passage has cast a shadow over this section of Holy Scripture for me. Thus, when we were emailed to ask for volunteers to preach in chapel this week and I saw the texts for today, I knew I had to offer myself for it.

It was, therefore as I hope you can now appreciate, with quite a sense of foreboding that I heard a word from behind me, a forsaken voice from the past, saying, “This is the text; preach on it!” My years of working with these verses left me battered and bruised; through them I felt that the Lord had inflicted a painful wound on me. And yet, that wound is also now the very reason that I’m here at Wycliffe Hall training for ministry, which leads me very neatly onto our text for today:
The moon will shine like the sun, and the sunlight will be seven times brighter, like the light of seven full days, when the LORD binds up the bruises of his people and heals the wounds he inflicted. (Isaiah 30:26)

It’s an incredible vision, isn’t it? The moon will shine like the sun. The sun will shine seven (yes, seven—the Hebrew number of perfection, completeness, shalom) times brighter than usual, like the light of seven days squeezed into one. What’s promised is a veritable explosion of light, a supernova no less. And this to a people who have been devastated, to a people who have rejected the word of the Lord and been left naked and exposed like a lonely banner on a hill. The entire created order participates in God’s restoration of His people. It’s incredible.

And yet, there are four words at the end of this verse to make even the apologists among us squirm: “the wounds He inflicted.” We like the idea of the Lord binding up our bruises, don’t we? That fits brilliantly with the psycho-therapeutic gospel that we think people might buy into. But the Lord healing the wounds that He inflicted? Now that is a much harder sell. The problem is that it doesn’t sound like good news. In fact, it sounds like bad news. You can imagine the evangelistic appeal: “Come, give your life to the Lord. He’ll wound you, but don’t worry, he’ll heal you again.” You can hear the stampede of people rushing forward, can’t you?

But what if this really is good news? The blinding luminescence of the sun and moon and the healing of the wound the Lord inflicted are linked. And notice also what is described in the first half of that verse. It’s not a simple return to the way things were. No, on the day that the Lord heals the wounds He inflicted, the light will be seven times brighter than it was before. The light is even more glorious for the darkness that God made His people endure. As strange and as unpopular as it might sound, it seems that God has a special way of using pain to mediate His grace to us.

I can certainly testify to that in my own experience. As painful and as agonising as my time studying Isaiah 30 was, I firmly believe I am in a better place for it. Through it the Lord shattered the illusion of my academic abilities as something worth trusting in. He showed my intellect for the splintered staff it is. And I am better for it. Oh, it hurt. It hurt like hell at the time. But thank God he inflicted that wound because through it I heard once more the word we are always rejecting, always turning our backs on, always casting behind us to trust something else—“In repentance and rest is your salvation, in quietness and trust is your strength.”  But I, like Israel before me, you would have none of it.” (Isaiah 30:15)

The truth is that God’s salvation doesn’t look particularly convincing. In the face of the overwhelming might of the superpower of your day, going to Egypt and stocking your arsenal with chariots looks a much better option than the passivity of repentance and rest, quietness and trust. We want a salvation that is much more front-foot than the weak salvation the Lord offers us. But when we go our own way and we’re battered and bruised as a consequence, it’s then that we hear that wonderful voice pointing us back to the cross of Jesus Christ and saying, “This is the way; walk in it.”

“The wounds He inflicted” sounds like bad news. But maybe this verse says that actually it’s good news. And it’s good news because it is the Lord who inflicts the wounds upon us. The rich young man of whom we read in the Gospels heard Jesus’ words to go and sell everything he had as severity; He couldn’t comprehend that it might be grace. And it’s grace because when the Lord heals, He doesn’t just restore us to our former glory, our pre-wounded state; but makes us infinitesimally more glorious than before, healthier than before He wounded us.

The fact is that if we hang around God long enough, we will be bruised and He will wound us. He will ruthlessly destroy every illusion that we so foolishly and persistently cling to that there is some security or strength that exists apart from Him. By making us eat the bread of adversity and drink the water of affliction, He would show us where truth is to be found. The wounds He inflicts would send us running back again and again to the cross of Jesus Christ. The Lord wounds His people; but unlike the wounds He afflicts on Assyria (vv. 27-33), He wounds His people in order to heal them, to heal them of their self-sufficiency. And that is good news—very good news.

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