Tomorrow’s calling, now – Sermon, 19/06/2016


(This is a sermon I preached on Sunday 19 July 2016 at Zetland Church, Grangemouth. The scripture readings were 1 Kings 19:19-21, Luke 9:51-62 and Galatians 1:1-12)

What do you want to be when you grow up?That was the question we were probably all asked all of the time as children, and continue to ask children today. What direction is your life heading? What are your dreams, aspirations, hopes for the future? Who will you become?

In my primary school, in East Tilbury, near the mouth of the Thames Estuary in Essex, most of the boys seemed to want to be long distance lorry drivers. We didn’t live far from the port of Tilbury (you could just see it from my classroom window) and that was the jobs many of their dads did. The odd one fancied being a car mechanic, or a soldier, but lorry driver was definitely the in thing at my school.

I, however, didn’t really have a clue. I’d have loved to have been a footballer, but I am comically bad at football. I liked the idea of being an astronaut, but I can’t even handle a roller coaster, let alone a rocket launch.

At one stage in my life I worked in a call centre. One of the managers had a picture on his desk of a little boy looking, wistfully into the distance and saying “When I grow up, I want to work in a call centre”. The humour in that derives from the fact that almost nobody grows up wanting to do that, or work in an office, or a shop, or as a delivery driver, or sweeping the streets… most of us either don’t know what we want to do when we grow up, or never really make it and end up “making do”. Dreams go unrealised, lives feel unfulfilled.

Sometimes the direction we had planned for ourselves, though, does seem to work out until something gets in the way and we end up changing path, or it all falls apart completely.

I have no idea what Elisha’s dreams for his life were. It may be that working on his father’s land for the rest of his days, ploughing the fields with his oxen, was exactly what he had in mind or, at least, was how he expected his life to pan out. It may be that he had dreams of building the family business up, acquiring wealth and status. It may be that he hated working the land and wanted to try his hand at a different job. I simply don’t know.

What I do think, however, is that suddenly upping and leaving his home to become an apprentice prophet to Elijah was probably not foremost in his mind. Just a few verses earlier God had told Elijah to find Elisha and anoint him as his successor. Now, here was the great man of God putting his cloak around Elisha’s shoulders and following God’s instruction.

Now, I want you to stop for a moment and think – if something like this happened to you, a clear indication of God’s calling, one which would leave your own plans in tatters and completely turn your life upside down, how would you react? Now you have answered the question I didn’t ask you in your heads, which is “how would you like to think you’d react?”, imagine how you actually would. This is not a small request. Elisha isn’t being simply offered another job with great prospects. He is leaving his home, his family, his job; he is leaving behind everything he knows.

I would like to think that I’d be able to follow God’s command, trusting him fully in whatever he was asking me to do. Trusting that I and those I left behind would be given the strength to cope with the change, and that I would be equipped in the Spirit for whatever task I was to carry out.

I’d like to think that…

In reality, I really don’t know. I don’t know how strong my faith is to do something like that. Whether I would go, or could go. Or would I spend weeks, or years, pondering what to do in the hope that, maybe, God might change his mind?

Elisha acts in the way I’d like to think I would. He leaves to follow God’s path for him. And he does it, apparently unquestioning. Stopping only to say goodbye to his family and to slaughter the two oxen. It’s an astonishing display of faith and trust in both Elijah and in God.

Jesus appears to ask even more of us, saying to his followers that they need to leave without burying their dead or saying goodbye to their family, to follow him to a life of apparent homelessness.

This life of discipleship is not an easy life, and neither is any job we are given to advance the Kingdom of God. It’s a life of sacrifice, self-denial and obedience; something we find increasingly difficult to do in this secular, self-satisfying world.

The Church of Scotland currently has an initiative called “Tomorrow’s Calling”. It’s a campaign to get people to look at jobs within the church as opportunities they may want to take, rather than something for someone else, someone more holy or talented. Much of it is centred around training for full-time ministry, but it goes much further than that as well into all sorts of diverse roles.

On their website there is a quote from a minister from Stornoway, who says,

“I would have done anything to be honest, other than be a minister, but God made it very clear that’s what he wanted from me. I knew it would be demanding. I’m on call 24/7. Although it’s challenging, the more you give to people the more you see the beauty and diversity of life. You never lose from that.”

So often we find ourselves called to the one thing we don’t want to be called to. When I was a student I had to deliver a speech, as a member of the Student Union executive, to a lecture hall full of first year students. I was terrified at the prospect, I hated public speaking. I completely froze. I opened my mouth and nothing came out. It was an awful and incredibly embarrassing situation.

The idea that God might call me to a form of ministry that primarily involved public speaking would have been ridiculous to the 19 year old me, but here I am. And I’m here because, over time, not only has God equipped me to serve in this way, but has actually changed my heart from within to the extent that I’m never happier than when up here speaking to a church full of people.

You see, that’s what he does. He calls us to do things for him, not because we want to do them, but because he sees something in us that can be used to do his will. He chooses us, not because we are perfect for the job, but because we are perfect for the job only with his intervention. He chooses us and changes us and soon, without us even noticing, his will becomes our will.

Every single one of us is being called to service for God. Some have answered, some are denying it and some still haven’t heard it, but we are all getting that call.

Elisha got the call in a very obvious way, and he followed. For most of us that call is not so obvious, not so clear. We need to take time in prayer, not only to talk to God, but to listen to him as well. To sit, or walk, or drive or however you feel most comfortable doing it, in silence, just listening for the voice of God to guide you and to call you.

The call may come in other ways. You may find that people you know well and trust will give you that guidance. You may find that odd “coincidences” take place which seem to point you in the right direction. Any number of things could happen which answer that age old question to God “Please, Lord! Give me a sign!”

And then we need to be ready to actually answer it. If anything, this is the difficult part. Hearing a call can sometimes be fairly easy, but being ready and answering it is a whole different matter.

I think I first heard the call to preach about 15 years ago, but I either ignored it, or disbelieved it, or was just “too busy” to do anything about it. I wish I’d answered it sooner, but I did eventually. As another minister on the Tomorrow’s Calling website said,

“If you feel a sense of Calling in your heart you can’t run away from it.”

You only need to see the story of Jonah to understand that. Running from God is impossible; wherever you run to, he’s already there.

Elisha, however, was ready and willing. All he wanted to do was say goodbye, which he did with a meal consisting of his two oxen, and he was off on his journey to become the next great prophet of Israel.

We aren’t all being called to be a great prophet. Well, it’s possible none of us are, of course. We’re not all being called to preach, although some of us definitely are. But we are all being called, and Elisha is a wonderful example of what to do when it comes – We need to listen for the call, get ready for it coming and just act on it. Don’t run from it, or ignore it, but embrace it. God will be with each one of us every step of the way, guiding us and equipping us for his work.

And, above all, remember that to be called by God, by the creator and sustainer of the whole universe, to do his work is the most wonderful privilege we could ever hope for. He doesn’t need us to do his work, but he wants us for it because he wants to work with us, to share in our lives, our battles, our rest, our triumphs, our failures, our sadness and our joy. And, in return, he wants us to share in his glory and majesty.

If that’s not a reason to take a leap into the unknown, into God’s great adventure, then I don’t know what is.

Amen

Fight the power – Sermon: 29/05/2016

myth-bird-on-sign

This was a sermon I preached on Sunday 29 May 2016 at Zetland Church, Grangemouth. The lessons were 1 Kings 18:20-39 and Luke 7:1-10.

 

In 1961, in a basement at Yale University, psychologist Stanley Milgram carried out one of the most famous, and infamous, psychological experiments ever conducted. Inspired by the recent trial of Nazi war criminal Adolf Eichmann, as well as stories of guards carrying out atrocities due to “only following orders” he asked volunteers to read word pairs into a microphone to another volunteer in a different room. They would then read on word out and the person in the other room had to give the word it was paired with. If they got it wrong, the volunteer reading the words would press a button to administer an electric shock to the person in the other room. With every incorrect answer the voltage in the shock increased, finally reaching 450 volts.

What the volunteers administering the shock weren’t aware of was that the person they were shocking was actually an actor and no shock was actually being given. Milgram anticipated that just over 1/10% of the subjects would go so far as 450 volts, bearing in mind the screaming and pleading for mercy which would be heard from the actors in the next room. Amazingly, however, 65% actually went to the final shock, despite it being evident that they were killing the person in the next room. Many of the subjects displayed extreme stress and distress, but still carried on pressing the button at a wrong answer.

This experiment has been replicated, with similar results, on several occasions. In each experiment the reason for continuing was that they were being told to continue by a man in a white lab coat, holding a clip-board. They were obeying an authority figure. It shows how even ordinary people are prepared to commit inhuman acts when told to by those with authority.

Authority is an incredibly powerful thing. It can lead to people doing things they wouldn’t normally consider or dream of. It can be used, as the Nazis discovered and as Stanley Milgram demonstrated, as a tool for evil destruction. In the wrong hands, authority is dangerous and to be challenged and mistrusted. Even in the right hands, because it is in the hands of mere human beings it can still be misused or badly misguided.

Challenging authority is a necessity. History is laden with tales of ordinary men and women who fought against the powers of the time, even against the prevalent views of the time, in order to defeat evil and injustice, often putting their lives on the line for such actions. The Peasants’ Revolt, the anti-slave trade movement, the Suffragettes and many others either directly or indirectly brought about social and political change for the better by rising up against the authority of the day and saying “this is wrong”.

Elijah was such a man. He was a hunted man whose life was at risk from the Baal-worshipping king of Israel, Ahab. However, he had returned and presented himself before Ahab in an extreme act of defiance and faith in God. This one man, the only prophet left of the Lord of Israel, challenged the four hundred and fifty prophets of Baal to demonstrate the power of their god.

On the face of it this seemed like utter madness. Not only could the king and his men just take Elijah, but to the people of Israel who were watching this unfold he was also trying to overcome insurmountable odds. Surely the prophetic action of the 450 worshipping Baal was so much more powerful than this one man invoking the name of a deity who, they thought, was on his way to being consigned to the history books.

But Elijah knew he was right. He knew that standing up to the earthly powers that be was nothing to fear if he had the ultimate power guiding him every step of the way. And, of course, so it proved. The altar to Baal remained intact whilst the altar Elijah built, and had doused in water, burned brightly. The onlookers could see who the true God really was and immediately started worshipping him.

One man, listening to God and allowing himself to be guided by him, stood up to all the power and might Ahab and the prophets could muster and he prevailed. That God-given certainty in his actions gave him the strength to challenge the authority of the time and, in doing so, allowed God to change an evil, Godless society into a righteous, God-fearing one once again.

We stand at the brink of the same precipice which Elijah stood at on top of Mount Carmel. How often have you watched the news or looked on the streets or heard stories from friends and family and thought “this is wrong!”? How many times have you said to yourself that you wish you could do something, but you don’t really think you can make a difference? How often have you wanted things to change so badly, knowing that they are far from God’s intentions for his creation, but just feel that fighting big industry, or the media, or government, or even society itself is just too difficult, too much of an impossible task?

Imagine what would have happened had Elijah had those same moments of doubt, of insecurity, of hoplessness. Of course, he may well have done. But he didn’t allow himself to be overwhelmed by them. He didn’t let figures of authority, who were clearly in the wrong, dictate his actions in the way those who took part in the Milgram Experiment did. He stood up and let himself be counted. He listened to the voice of God talking to him and acted in the way in which he knew he had to, with little or no regard for the consequences this may have for him. As the line said in the intro to the 80s TV series Knightrider, one man can make a difference.

We are called to be Elijah. We live in a world no less broken than the one he found himself in all those centuries ago and God is calling us to stand up against it.

There is a song by the theologian and former songwriter Vicky Beeching which encapsulates what I mean by this. It’s called Break Our Hearts and some of the lyrics are as follows:

“It’s time for us to live the songs we sing

And turn our good intentions into action

To bring the kind of worship You desire

And move beyond our self-absorbed distractions

 

It’s time to move outside our comfort zone

To see beyond our churches and our homes

To change the way we think and how we spend

Until we look like Jesus again

 

Break our hearts

With the things that break Yours

Wake us up to see through Your eyes

Break our hearts

With the things that break Yours

And send us out to shine in the darkness

 

Here I am send me

To be Your hands and feet

Here I am send me I will go”

 

This needs to be our own prayer as we go out into the world, for God to break our hearts for the things that break his and for us to allow ourselves to be changed and moved to action as a result of it.

And, in challenging earthly authority, we need to submit to real authority. The Roman Centurion Luke wrote about recognised this authority when he sent his men to speak to Jesus. This was a man whose entire life revolved around following those in authority or exercising authority over others, so for him to realise that Jesus would simply be able to say the word and his servant would be healed, from a distance, was remarkable. Jesus himself was struck by the level of faith demonstrated by this gentile and holds him up to the crowd as an example of what faith should look like.

This is the same example being held up to us today. To recognise real authority, through Jesus Christ, and to allow ourselves to be led and changed by it, even if that means acting against the earthly authorities around us.

Ultimately, we are God’s hands and feet in this world. Scripture, prayer and the Holy Spirit all lead us to his will and we need to look at our world through the prism of all three of them to see it through his eyes. When we do that, we can have no other reaction than to stand up and, with his help and guidance, to change it.

What do we want…

ME_113_Patience

“Why is patience so important?”
“Because it makes us pay attention.”
Paulo Coelho

On Monday I had my final exam of the academic year, a 90 minute paper on the Pentateuch, the first five books of the Old Testament. it’s been, as you may expect, very hard work, the language and some of the stories are very difficult for a 21st century mind to grasp. However, it was also very interesting work to look back at the stories, culture and religion of a Middle-Eastern tribal people from around 3-4000 years ago, which so massively influences the lives of many people today.

A great deal of the course centred around a quote from the theologian David Clines,

“The theme of the Pentateuch is the partial fulfilment – which implies also the partial non-fulfilment – of the promise to or blessing of the patriarchs. The promise or blessing is both the divine initiative in a world where human initiatives always lead to disaster, and a reaffirmation of the primal divine intentions for man.” (David JA Clines (1997) The Theme of the Pentateuch, Sheffield – JSOT Press)

The gist of this is that God created the world with a specific intention, but humanity screwed up royally and let sin into the world. God met this sin with judgement at every turn, but also demonstrated grace towards humanity at the same time. This happens over and over, not only throughout the Pentateuch, but throughout human history.

The question I had in the exam regarding this was to to with what is known as the “primeval history”; the first 11 chapters of Genesis from creation and Eden, through the Fall, the Flood, and culminating with the Tower of Babel.

The answer I wrote (which I really hope was right/good enough!) was that this pattern of sin, judgement and grace is repeated several times in the primeval history:

  • God creates the heavens and the earth, tells the first man and woman they can eat any fruit, except from the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil, or they will die. They eat it anyway, but the punishment is banishment from paradise and separation from God; death will be over 900 years away.
  • Cain, upset at God favouring Abel’s offering over his, kills his brother. Again, the punishment is banishment, rather than death. And God puts a mark on Cain to show he is not to be harmed.
  • Humanity goes totally off the rails in a way which means God decides to wipe them out and start again. But, he saves humanity again in the form of Noah and his family, even going so far as promising never to do something so drastic as the flood again.

Sin, judgement, grace. Over and over again.

Then the people of Babel decide they want to be like God by building a tower so high that it signifies an attack on Heaven itself. Again the judgement comes, the people’s language is confused and muddled. They are scattered across the world. Humanity’s unity is gone.

And the grace? Well, nowhere. Nothing. It looks like God has finally given up.

Of course, he hadn’t. He brings Abraham, followed by his descendants, to a promised land (via Egypt) with the promise that “all nations on earth will be blessed”.

Obviously my answer was a bit longer than that, this was just an overview. It came back into my mind with a couple of other things this week, though.

Firstly, I read an excellent article in Christianity Magazine by Jamie Cutteridge about the need for instant gratification in the age of the Internet, smartphones, tablets etc. We have become an impatient generation; What do we want? Everything! When do we want it? Now!

Secondly was the preparation for the festival which some colloquially call “the birthday of the Church”, Pentecost. The disciples, having come back from the brink following Jesus’ crucifixion and galvanised by his resurrection, face more uncertainty as he ascends into Heaven, leaving them by themselves again.

However, Jesus promised that he would send the Holy Spirit to them and, on the day of Pentecost, that promise is fulfilled,

Suddenly a sound like the blowing of a violent wind came from heaven and filled the whole house where they were sitting. They saw what seemed to be tongues of fire that separated and came to rest on each of them. All of them were filled with the Holy Spirit and began to speak in other tongues[a] as the Spirit enabled them.

Now there were staying in Jerusalem God-fearing Jews from every nation under heaven. When they heard this sound, a crowd came together in bewilderment, because each one heard their own language being spoken. Utterly amazed, they asked: ‘Aren’t all these who are speaking Galileans? Then how is it that each of us hears them in our native language? Parthians, Medes and Elamites; residents of Mesopotamia, Judea and Cappadocia, Pontus and Asia,[b] Phrygia and Pamphylia, Egypt and the parts of Libya near Cyrene; visitors from Rome(both Jews and converts to Judaism); Cretans and Arabs – we hear them declaring the wonders of God in our own tongues!’”

(Acts 2:1-11 NIVUK)

These fishermen, tax collectors and serial Messiah followers, none highly-educated, can suddenly speak different languages, proclaiming the Gospel to Jews from all over the region.

Finally! God promised land, he promised nations, he promised he would be the God of Abraham’s people and he promised that they would be a blessing to all nations. And here, with sin already being defeated on the cross, we see a reversal of the events at Babel. The unity of humanity is back once more, a mere 1500 or so years after the people were scattered.

And that’s the point I realised. The events of Pentecost are a reversal of the judgement at Babel, something made possible by the events weeks earlier on the first Easter. But that reversal wasn’t a quick process, it took centuries after the initial judgement for humanity to be in a position for them to be ready for this.

That’s a difficult message for us to hear in an age when our news, music, food and coffee need to be instant. Yes, we need to wait and sometimes the answer to prayer is “not now”. But sometimes, “not now” means “not in your lifetime”, or “not in your children’s lifetimes” or “not for many, many generations”. How on earth are we expected to take that when we can’t even accept a YouTube video buffering for 5 seconds?

Well, I don’t have a quick fix for that. It would miss the point by a mile if I did, obviously. My patience is appalling and this need to wait on God challenges me all the time. But I do have examples to look back on to see how to cope with it. When I read Genesis I read stories of the patriarchs, especially of Abraham and Jacob, who sometimes displayed a lack of patience and decided to take things into their own hands (which didn’t go too well for them), and also displayed real patience and faith in God, waiting for the fulfilment of a promise they knew would not happen in their lifetime.

The times they coped with the long wait was when they were nearer to God, speaking to him and listening to him. That assurance they got from his presence allowed them to keep that patience because they knew that God would make good on his promise.

At Pentecost, we remember that God is closer to us than ever, since the Holy Spirit was sent to the disciples and continues to work in us today. This divine presence strengthens us and focuses us on God’s will, not ours. But it can also help us to galvanise our faith that God will do what he promised; to bless all the nations and to redeem his people.

Ok, it may take another 1500 years, or more, before it’s fully realised. It may take decades or centuries for the fruit of our own work to bloom.

But what’s a few hundred years compared to an eternity?

Growing up – Sermon 24/04/2016

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This is a sermon I preached on Sunday 24th April 2016. The readings were:

John 13:31-38
Acts 11:1-8
Revelation 21:1-7

I love reading the Bible. That’s just as well, really, otherwise the Church of Scotland would have cause to seriously worry about its decision to let me train as a Reader.

I love it for many reasons; I love the hope that it shows us, I love the endless instructions to love others, I love the amazing poetry of the Psalms, I love the comedic moments (there’s actually a talking donkey in here! It’s brilliant!) and, of course, I particularly love reading about the life and teachings of Jesus. This collection of 66 books, letters and poetry collections is a rich, wonderful mixture of all good the things God has in store for us.

The problem is that, as much as I love reading all the good stuff, on many occasions I’m left scratching my head, wondering how this book with all of these great examples of a loving God, can also seemingly justify so much suffering, legalism, violence and death. God seems to be wrathful and angry a lot of the time, punishing people in incredibly severe ways, and directing them to awful acts. Many opponents of Christianity seize on these things as examples of how the Bible, far from being a book of love and hope, is actually an outdated and irrelevant book of hatred and oppression, and should be ridiculed and ignored as such.

To be sure, a cursory look at much of the Old Testament would seem to support this view. On many occasions God tells his people to commit genocide and other (by today’s standards) heinous acts of violence whilst binding them up in ridiculously stringent laws.

Here’s an example for you. Leviticus 11 gives laws regarding clean and unclean foods,

“The LORD said to Moses and Aaron, ‘Say to the Israelites: “Of all the animals that live on land, these are the ones you may eat: you may eat any animal that has a divided hoof and that chews the cud. ‘ “There are some that only chew the cud or only have a divided hoof, but you must not eat them. The camel, though it chews the cud, does not have a divided hoof; it is ceremonially unclean for you. The hyrax, though it chews the cud, does not have a divided hoof; it is unclean for you. The rabbit, though it chews the cud, does not have a divided hoof; it is unclean for you. And the pig, though it has a divided hoof, does not chew the cud; it is unclean for you. You must not eat their meat or touch their carcasses; they are unclean for you. ‘ “Of all the creatures living in the water of the seas and the streams you may eat any that have fins and scales. But all creatures in the seas or streams that do not have fins and scales – whether among all the swarming things or among all the other living creatures in the water – you are to regard as unclean. And since you are to regard them as unclean, you must not eat their meat; you must regard their carcasses as unclean. Anything living in the water that does not have fins and scales is to be regarded as unclean by you. ‘ “These are the birds you are to regard as unclean and not eat because they are unclean: the eagle, the vulture, the black vulture, the red kite, any kind of black kite, any kind of raven, the horned owl, the screech owl, the gull, any kind of hawk, the little owl, the cormorant, the great owl, the white owl, the desert owl, the osprey, the stork, any kind of heron, the hoopoe and the bat. ‘ “All flying insects that walk on all fours are to be regarded as unclean by you. There are, however, some flying insects that walk on all fours that you may eat: those that have jointed legs for hopping on the ground. Of these you may eat any kind of locust, cricket, cicada or grass-hopper. But all other flying insects that have four legs you are to regard as unclean. ‘ “You will make yourselves unclean by these; whoever touches their carcasses will be unclean till evening. Whoever picks up one of their carcasses must wash their clothes, and they will be unclean till evening. ‘ “Every animal that does not have a divided hoof or that does not chew the cud is unclean for you; whoever touches the carcass of any of them will be unclean. Of all the animals that walk on all fours, those that walk on their paws are unclean for you; whoever touches their carcasses will be unclean till evening. Anyone who picks up their carcasses must wash their clothes, and they will be unclean till evening. These animals are unclean for you. ‘ “Of the animals that move along the ground, these are unclean for you: the weasel, the rat, any kind of great lizard, the gecko, the monitor lizard, the wall lizard, the skink and the chameleon. Of all those that move along the ground, these are unclean for you. Whoever touches them when they are dead will be unclean till evening.”

‭‭‬‬‬‬‬‬
This chapter was read, in its entirety, at a readers in training conference I went to last year and the room was filled with a lot of very serious faces. Mainly because everybody, including the reader and the person who chose it for that session, we’re trying hard not to laugh. I really hope I’m not struck down by lightning for saying that! Seriously, though, there’s no denying that it sounds utterly ridiculous to our ears now. But why? Why do these laws seem so strange to us and some of the actions in the Bible seem so unacceptable to us, yet we use this as the basis for the faith through which we live our lives, claiming that it is a book, and faith, of peace and love.

I work in financial services, specifically, I work in pensions and annuities.
Please try not to fall asleep!
Part of my job is to train people to deal with new kinds of work. Once the period of training is done they start performing the work, but they aren’t expected to do it as fast as experienced people, or get as many cases right, or to do it without a lot of support. They go through a period where they are still learning as they work, getting a bit of leeway as they do so as they can’t possibly be expected to be perfect in their work straight from day one. But gradually that leeway is reduced until, once they are competent in their job, the expectation becomes for them to carry out the job as well and as quickly as people who have been doing it for a long time.

That is what the Bible is like. Remember that God had wiped out humanity, barring the family of Noah, due to the level of sin in the world. He had scattered them and made them speak in different languages when they decided to build a tower so high they could become like gods. He had considered wiping out Israel and starting again with Moses when, despite rescuing them from slavery in Egypt, they made a golden bull and worshipped it.

Humanity was so sinful, so far from God, that He needed to account for it in the way he dealt with them. One example of this is the apparent acceptance of slavery. Robert Keay in this month’s Christianity magazine talks of the Bible seemingly allowing slavery, saying,

“Slavery can exist only in the world of fallen, sinful humans; it will surely not exist in the kingdom that Jesus inaugurated and will reach fulfilment in the future. It is right for Christians to seek abolition, despite previous biblical allowances due to accommodations to human sinfulness. Such allowances were not expressions of God’s ultimate intention for humanity, but expressions of his patience and wisdom in dealing with hard heartedness and moving people towards genuine humanity as was most fully revealed in Jesus.”

In other words, humans were so sinful, so broken, that they were totally unable to live a life even approaching the way God designed them to live, so he had to make allowances. Allowances which were gradually reduced as people moved closer to the time that they would have Jesus with them, as the demonstration of true humanity.

The same goes for the laws. The less likely or able you are to be able to do something, the more support and guidance you need. The laws were there because step by step instructions were needed in every area of life, from how to live in relationship with God and others to basic hygiene and farming rules for their own protection. It’s a bit like the old school rules we had to live by. The reason you don’t run in the corridors isn’t because teachers are picky (they are wonderful human beings with impeccable taste in marriage partners!) but it’s because children seem to love running everywhere and corridors are narrow and crowded; if you run down a busy corridor you are very likely to bump into people, knock folk over and hurt them, or yourself. In other words, it’s dangerous. Adults know this now, but when we were 10 or 11 we needed to be told, otherwise we’d just go haring off, leaving scattered bodies in our wake. We don’t have it as a rule in adult life because we know it’s dangerous, so we just don’t do it..

When Jesus came, these laws were no longer needed. Not because they were wrong, but because people had moved on enough to be able to live in the manner which the laws were directing them. The law was still in place, Jesus himself said that not a single stroke of the pen would disappear, but we are ready to live in the spirit of the law as it is written on our hearts, not on papyrus. Instead, Jesus had come to fulfil the law, showing us what all of the law pointed to, him as the perfect example of God designed humanity.

People were still sinful. The reading we heard from John’s Gospel is from immediately after Judas left the last supper in order to betray Jesus and includes Jesus telling Peter that he would deny his Lord, so there is no escaping sin even here. But humanity was ready, it had grown, matured, moved further in its relationship with God. However, it still needed Jesus to be that final, central piece of the puzzle. We had gone as far as laws would allow, we had moved past the time where any more allowances for our sin could be given, we needed Jesus’ teachings of love and justice and we needed his death and resurrection, to finally see what we were meant to be.

That is why Peter was told to kill and eat all of that forbidden, previously unclean food. It showed how the laws which were so restrictive had led to untold freedom. It helped Peter to see that Gentiles were to be included in this new kingdom of God, and for him to persuade others of that. I do love the idea of him sitting down to a meal of roast screech owl and monitor lizard. I reckon he may have decided to stick with kosher food after that.

It’s so easy to pick bits out of the Bible to make it look like whatever kind of book you want. We are all guilty of this, and atheists and fundamentalists can be particularly adept at it. But when you look at the whole thing, the entire story of God’s developing relationship with humanity, his crowning creation, the one made in his own image, you see one of a father helping his child to crawl, then walk, then run towards becoming the person he knows he can become. You see him discipline his people when they go wrong, support them in times of trouble, guide them in times of uncertainty, making allowances for their immaturity whilst helping them towards maturity. Finally, he shows them, in coming to Earth himself in the person of Jesus, what being human is really all about.

And it all works towards that wonderful reading from Revelation. The goal, the culmination of all that work over those thousands of years, is a “new heaven and a new earth”, where God will live amongst his people, making everything new. He will lead us to that paradise we read of him creating in the very beginning. All the pain, suffering, mourning and crying our sin causes will be gone and it will just be him and us in the Holy City forever.

This book is so much more than we could possibly describe. God is so much more than our limited minds could possibly imagine. But if we really look, stop worrying about the bits which don’t look so good to us at first glance, and delve into the whole story; past, present and future; we discover just how rich and exciting life is really supposed to be.

Stumbling blocks – Reflections on Spring Harvest 2016, day 2. #SH2016

  
It’s 9 o’clock in the morning and my wife and I are walking to breakfast. Suddenly, my foot encounters a slightly raised paving stone and gravity starts to do its thing. This is not a good thing when you have your hands in your pockets. I got them out in time to break my fall by the tiniest amount, but not by enough to stop my head hitting the ground.

For a while, I don’t know how long, I just lay there, groaning and groggy. I can hear voices, particularly my wife’s, but I’m too stunned to react. Slowly, though, I start to focus and to try to sit up. That’s when I notice that both of my hands are totally covered in blood, which is now pouring onto the pavement. Cloths arrive, brought by people who are rather blurry – not because my vision is damaged by the fall, but because my glasses are broken and lying on the ground – and I start to get mopped up. The first wider arrives, cleans me up and says I should go to the minor injuries unit.

Of course, being a man and, therefore, totally stubborn in these matters, I just went back to my chalet and had a cup of tea. A couple of Band Aids later and I’m getting on with my day. Albeit, much more carefully as I also hurt my right knee, right elbow and left wrist in the fall.

In an odd way, this is a metaphor for the whole day. I have been to a seminar led by Justin Brierley about whether science points to God. For many, this whole thorny issue has become a stumbling block to being able to believe or to be able to share faith with others. The mistaken belief that science and God are somehow mutually exclusive has become such a prevalent narrative in modern society that the idea that science can actually enhance faith or bring about opportunities for evangelism seems impossible to some.

Then, in the evening session, Abbih Oloyede spoke about praying over loved ones, friends and colleagues as we sought to bring them closer to God. She spoke of  Jesus sending out the 72, equipping them to share the Gospel with all those who they met. In the time of prayer afterwards, however, Cris Rogers concentrated on overcoming the stumbling blocks which are in our way, many of them internally. Those things which hold us back from sharing our faith with others, be it fear, unpreparedness or difficulty in talking which means that we find it difficult to discuss our beliefs, to tell others the good news.

Those stumbling blocks are all around us. Eventually we will hit one and fall face first into the pavement, just as I did this morning. Whether we fall or not is not the issue, it will happen and we need to accept that. The important thing is what we do afterwards – do we just lie there in a groaning no, bloodied heap, or do we get up, clean ourselves off, work through the pain and get on with the job in hand? This is our choice, but not one we need to face alone. God will always be there with the sterile wipes, band aids and cloths to help us to clean up and get patched up in order to carry on. 

We may carry the scars of the falls with us, but these aren’t signs of our falls and failures, but of our survival and resilience. We need to bear them proudly as they demonstrate that we are not perfect, we will always get it wrong, but that, ultimately, we can do all things through Christ who gives us strength. We can face any failure of our own, because we know that the victory we are working towards has already been achieved, on the cross.

So, forget the stumbling blocks. They’ll happen. Just remember to get back up again.

Oh, and keep your hands out of your pockets.

All I am is yours – Reflection on Spring Harvest 2016, day 1

“So I’ll stand with arms high and heart abandoned

In awe of the One who gave it all

So I’ll stand, my soul Lord to You surrendered

All I am is Yours”

We sang The Stand by Hillsong United during the first evening celebration at Spring Harvest tonight. I was caught by the last line of the chorus, “All I am is yours”. There we were, around 2-3000 Christians in a tent, singing this line of utter commitment to God, but how many of us would actually follow through with it?

My guess, not too many.

But just imagine if we all did…

Imagine that many people all saying to God, “OK, you can have everything. The lot. Just tell me what to do and I’ll do it. Tell me where to go and I’ll go there. Tell me what to say and I’ll say it. Anything. All I am is yours.”

That’s what is being asked of us. We heard Gavin Calver of the Evangelical Alliance talking about Moses, a very ordinary man with a speech impediment, putting himself in that very situation. By doing so he freed an entire nation from slavery; or, rather, by doing so he allowed God to free an entire nation from slavery. He then led them to the very edge of the land God had promised all those years ago to Abraham.

One man said “all I am is yours” and all that was achieved.

Multiply that by two thousand. Three thousand. One hundred thousand. One million…

Imagine every single Christian, actual practising Christian, in the UK said to God “all I am is yours” and then did it. 

The Matt Redman song says “Send revival, start with me”. Well, revival is already here, if we really want it. But it’s up to us to step up to the plate. The more of us who put our lives where our mouths are and trust God enough to go out there and do his will, not our own – to walk in real faith rather than a Sunday morning piecemeal version of it – the more real and powerful and world changing that revival would be.

It’s so easy for us to say that all things are possible with God, then leave it all up to him to do it all. For that real revival, that game changing movement we need in this nation and this planet, we need to be people of real faith-filled action. The time of sitting back and waiting, of our westernised sense of entitlement and comfort, must end. Now.

The burning bush is in front of us. The cross and the empty tomb is in front of us. The risen Jesus is in front of us. They all call us to action, to giving our lives for God’s Kingdom. To listen for God’s will in our lives and to fully commit to following it.

It’s easy to say. Let’s see how easy it is to do it…

A prayer for Lahore 

  
(Photograph: Arif Ali/AFP/Getty)

Heavenly Father.

Why?

Why does your creation just want to destroy itself?

Why do we use you as our excuse for evil?

Why are families, gathering to celebrate the glorious resurrection of your Son, torn apart by such evil?

Why do you allow such joy to turn to such horror?

Why? Why? Why?

I know that we are a broken, fallen people. I know that battle between good and evil rages within all of us. I know we are all capable of inhumanity.

But I will never get why. 

I sit here in a nice, comfortable chair, in my warm home, surrounded by my family. I sit here knowing that this death and destruction are thousands of miles away. I sit here, detached from the violence and hatred that so many are subjected to on a daily basis.

But I want to forgive.

I have no right, I have not and will probably never be affected by this terror. I haven’t seen my wife, children, friends killed or maimed. I haven’t had my life destroyed by mindless barbarity.

But still, I want to forgive.

I want, on Resurrection Sunday, to demonstrate to those who would carry out these acts what true devotion to you means. I want to tell them that death is not the end for any of us. I want them to know that forgiveness that isn’t just for those of us whose sins are those of greed, or pride or any of the everyday sins I battle against; I want them to know that Jesus died so that even they can be forgiven for the most inhuman, evil, hate filled acts.

I want them to see the Christians they tried to destroy remain strong in their faith. That this and other violent acts will not turn them from you. That the Christian community in Pakistan come together, to help and strengthen each other – and to know that Christians around the world are praying for them and standing with them.

And I want them to forgive. I want them to hear your Son’s words on the cross

“Father, forgive them. They don’t know what they are doing.”

And to live his example. For this is where evil is defeated, at the cross and at an empty tomb.

I have no right to ask.

But I know that your grace gives me the opportunity.

So, please. I plead and beg that in all of this evil, death and terror that your will be done.

Forever.

In Jesus name.

Amen.