Advent 10: Matthew 1:22-23 Isaiah 7:10-15 John 1:14

There are religious wars, religious terrorists, religious extremists in government and religious bigotry in this world you can see why people don’t feel they need religion.

They’re right, too.

We don’t need religion. Religion is a man made construct. Religion is a set of constrictive rules which reflect the values of those who made them. Religion is a useful excuse for conflict and oppression.

People don’t need religion.

People need hope. People need love. People need caring. People need guidance. People need food and shelter. People need protection. People need a better way. People need grace.

People really need someone with real power, mercy and glory to enable all of this.

People need Immanuel.

God with us.

Advent 6: Acts 20:35 & 1 John 4:10

We live in the ultimate age of greed and self. People don’t want their “hard earned taxes” going to scroungers or migrants. The idea of helping those in need is fine, as long as they’re the right type of people. We often hear,

“I don’t want my taxes spent on…”

They are destroying my way of life”

“We spend too much on welfare and international aid.”

And, at the same time, we live in the ultimate consumerist age. You must be seen with the right phone, telly, bag, shoes, car and, if Black Friday is anything to go by, are prepared to fight for them. Physically.

So, to hear about helping those in need from Jesus jars with the spirit of the age. To hear that it is better to give than receive sounds like the type of thing one of these “lefties” who are “destroying our once great country” would say.

But here’s the thing, he knows what he’s talking about. He carried out the ultimate act of giving. He sacrificed his life in an unimaginably violent and painful way for us. Because he loves us. And because to give this gift, this sacrifice, to save us from our own selfish desires, is the ultimate act of love and joy.

It really is better to give than receive. Take it from the one who knows better than anyone.

Lent – Good Friday: John 21

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You’ve been following a guy around for about three years, learning from him, eating with him, travelling with him. You gave up everything to follow him, put yourself in danger for him, saw him perform miracles you could never have imagined, heard him say things which changed lives all around you. You accepted him as the long awaited Messiah, God’s own son. You watched him arrested for a crime he didn’t commit, tried before those who wanted him dead and die a death he didn’t deserve. You also saw him again, miraculously raised to life, and worshipped him as you now, finally understood who he really was.

So, when you’re out fishing and he shouts to you from the shore, you’d recognise him.

Right?

“Early in the morning, Jesus stood on the shore, but the disciples did not realize that it was Jesus.” (John 21:4 NIV)

Oh, ok. Maybe not.

It’s not the only time this happened. When he encountered two followers on the road to Emmaus (Luke 24:13-35) they didn’t recognise him either. It took him breaking bread in front of them for them to realise.

So, if these people who spent time in his company when he was on Earth struggle to recognise him, what chance do we have? We encounter Jesus every day. Every single one of us, whether we realise it or not, whether we believe in him or not, encounter Jesus every day. It may be an opportunity which seems almost too good, it may be someone who unexpectedly comes to our aid, it may be the prick of conscience guiding us, it may be an opportunity to do good for others. We encounter Jesus every day.

But, so often, we don’t recognise him. We may be too wrapped up in ourselves, or in the world. It may be that we don’t want to recognise him, it would be an inconvenient truth which we wouldn’t want to handle. We may have a particular belief system which discounts the idea of Jesus. We may be expecting something more supernatural or spectacular. But it’s him, and we don’t recognise him.

The thing is, the signs are always there. He gave us the commands about loving each other. He gave us the teaching that, when we help others, we are helping the Father (Matthew 25). He gave us directions for our lives in the Sermon on the Mount, in his parables and in his actions. He told us that he would be with us, always, even to the end of the age. He told us where he would be and how to recognise him. It should be easy.

If you choose to ignore, disbelieve or mock, that’s entirely prerogative. But if you want life, love, fellowship, freedom and wisdom beyond anything this world has to offer then he simply has two words.

“Follow me.”

Lent Day 39: John 19-20

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Do you ever get the feeling that you’re missing something? It’s not Good Friday until tomorrow, but here I am writing about the crucifixion and resurrection already. And it’s in a blog post entitled “Lent Day 39” when it’s only day 38 ( I missed a number out near the beginning!).

When the film “The Passion Of The Christ” came out I, like millions of others, went to see it at the cinema. It is a brutal, uncomfortable, but probably intensely real telling of the story of Jesus’ betrayal, trial, torture and crucifixion. It’s not a film for the faint hearted as you see Christ’s flesh being flayed by Roman whips, his head bleeding from the crown of thorns, his hands and feet have large nails driven through them and his agonising death on the cross. It is incredibly visual, bloody and emotionally draining.

What looks like being the last shot, just before the screen goes dark and the credits roll, is of Jesus’ lifeless body, having been taken down from the cross, laying in the arms of his grief stricken mother, Mary. Through her tears, she looks directly at the camera, breaking the fourth wall with an angry, accusatory look at the audience. In her silence she seems to be saying “This is your fault. You did this to my son. Your sin, your arrogance, ignorance, greed and selfishness have taken him from me.”. And you sit, looking back at her, dumbstruck. Trying to comprehend what you have done to deserve such a look, such a charge.

Then, as all seems lost, there is one last shot. A closed, rocky tomb, filled only with the body of a young man, suddenly radiates with intense light. As the light dies down you see a glimpse of Jesus, no longer dead, stand up and walk.

When I saw the film there were maybe 100-150 people in the cinema with me. You could have heard a pin drop as we walked out in silence, stunned by what we had just seen. The silence was finally broken by one young lad piping up,

“Wow, they’ve really set that up well for a sequel, haven’t they?”

It’s a comment which still amuses me now. But he’s right. The film concentrates only on part of the story of Jesus’ last few days on Earth; the pain and suffering he went through. And rightly so, because he did it for a reason. Mary’s accusatory look towards us at the end is justified because it is our fault. We have let our sin, our pride, arrogance, greed, lust, hatred and all the other self-centered feelings of the world to take over our lives. He went through that agony to break that.

But it wouldn’t have worked had the last bit, only tantalizingly glimpsed in the film, not happened. Jesus rose again! He defeated death and the power it had over us because our sin was killing us all. The resurrection is where the real triumph comes from and where our real hope comes from.

So, that young man in a cinema in Dorset was spot on. They did leave it open for a sequel. The thing is, the sequel has been and is being made. We are all living it, right now. Every moment on Earth has been changed as a result of what happened that weekend 2000 years ago in Jerusalem and is all geared towards a happy ending beyond anything even Hollywood could dream of. We have the script, we just need to take part in the film, because it is more real and wonderful than we ever imagined it could be.

Lent Day 38: John 17-18

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Back in 1998, the Welsh rock band Manic Street Preachers released an album entitled This Is My Truth, Tell Me Yours. It was an album title which always intrigued me as it seemed to show truth as a fluid, subjective concept which was almost personal to the individual or specific circumstances, rather than an undeniable fact which is set in stone. The idea that two people can have a different truth is one which throws the whole idea of truth into question.

However, there is no doubt that truth is different for different people. Look at people’s views of certain politicians or parties. You may see a politician as benevolent, hard working, successful and good because, for your specific circumstance, their actions have improved your quality of life and that of your friends, neighbours and family. Someone in a different part of the country or the world, however, May think that particular politician is uncaring, unfeeling, unsympathetic and evil because their actions have brought deprivation to their area and great financial and social hardship to them and their loved ones. Both, to those individuals, would be true. But they would, in isolation, only tell part of the story. They are only a glimpse of the truth.

So, when Pontius Pilate asks Jesus “What is truth?”, he is asking a question we all need to ask.

Jesus’ followers saw him as a great teacher and God’s own son. The Messiah.

The crowds welcoming him into Jerusalem saw him as a great leader who would save them from oppression. The king.

The chief priests saw him as a dangerous subversive who threatened their power base and their legalistic approach to worshipping God. The revolutionary.

To those who saw Jesus, read the scriptures and interpreted the signs of the times, there was a different view of what the truth about him was. They all thought they knew the truth and acted accordingly.

So, which “truth” was Jesus speaking of when he said,

“You say that I am a king. In fact, the reason I was born and came into the world is to testify to the truth. Everyone on the side of truth listens to me.” (John 18:37 NIV)

Well, he meant all three.

Jesus is the revolutionary. He has come to sweep away the self interested, legalistic approach to worshipping God with one easy idea. Love. Loving Jesus means loving God. Loving God means loving each other. Simple. He invites us to love and to live I’m that love. In his love. This isn’t about not helping people because of what day of the week it is. It’s not about condemning and stoning people for doing wrong. It’s not about ignoring groups in society because you see them as being worth less than others. It’s about loving and being transformed by that love.

Jesus is the king. Not in the way the Palm Sunday crowds though. He wasn’t the military ruler, come to overthrow the evil Roman occupation and free Israel. He is bringing God’s kingdom on Earth. Showing us how to live with him as our king, free from the shackles of the world and able to live alongside each other in him.

Jesus is the Messiah. He is God’s own son, come from the Father and part of the Father. He fulfils the roles of revolutionary and king by being Messiah, and the disciples were gradually learning this. They still had a way to go before they fully understood, that would happen over the next three days. But they knew that he came with the power, authority, love and grace of the one who created everything and is in everything. So much more than the nearest man in the sky of popular culture. The father, God, is all around us and inside us. Jesus came to show us and to help us to connect with that and have a relationship with the Father through him.

Finally, we see God. The truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth.

This is our truth. The only truth we need.

Lent Day 37: John 15-16

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I have come across a lot of anger towards religion, particularly the Church recently. Anger caused by the actions of people down the ages who claim to be acting in God’s name. To be fair, I can fully understand where these views come from, after all, religion has been used as the justification for much evil; holy wars, witch hunts, persecution, brainwashing, legal control, psychological abuse, sexual abuse, physical abuse, slavery, racism, greed, subjugation of women, terrorism and many other horrendous acts have been perpetuated by the Church or those acting on its behalf for centuries.

It’s shameful, disgusting and evil.

But it isn’t the fault of religion, or of Jesus. It’s the fault of human beings.

These acts were carried out by people whose motivation was not holy, no matter how warped their idea may be. Their motivations were power, money, control and hatred, all of which would have found another outlet had religion not been there. In many cases these acts have been carried out with no use of religion as a tool at all.

So, I can understand the anger towards religion, towards the Church, for the evil done in their name down the years. But it’s misdirected anger.

The church is not a bunch of power crazed people at the top, controlling the masses (although it has looked like that in points in history and in some parts of the world today). The church is simply the people of God. Each of us who follows Jesus.

Jesus is the founder, focus and direction of the Church. He is the leader and commander, and his command is simple,

“This is my command: Love each other.” (John 15:17 NIV)

Love each other. Not abuse, persecute, control, lie to, hate or kill each other. Love each other. Simple as that.

If we love him, as he says, we will obey his commands. We will love each other. If we are in him and him in us we will bear fruit. We will love each other. If we love him then we will love the Father and do his will. We will love each other.

But, if we don’t obey his command, if we don’t love each other and act accordingly, then we don’t love him. Then he isn’t in us. Then we’re not in him. Then we don’t love the Father. And if this is the case, if we don’t love, but are moved by hatred and self interest, then he will say to us that he doesn’t know us. He will tell us to get away from him. We will be like branches which bear no fruit, are pruned, thrown away and burnt. We are not his Church.

Anyone who acts in their own interest, with their greed, lust for power, hatred and prejudice are not the Church. Even those who are “the Church” as people understand it are not his Church. He doesn’t know them. He shuts them out and cuts them off.

Whenever evil has been, or is, carried out in the name of the Church, then Jesus will say that they aren’t his. They aren’t the Church. They are liars and frauds who the rest of us need to call to account for their actions and refuse to follow.

His church is built on one main principle. Love each other. If we don’t do this, if we don’t live, breathe, eat and sleep this command, then we need to stop calling ourselves part of the Church and look at how we can change.

The church is not a lie, an instrument of evil or control. It’s the bride of Christ. It is steeped in love.

So should we be. Love each other.

Lent Day 36: John 13-14

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When I was at school I played football (soccer, for those who think football is an egg-shaped ball game) in the playground nearly every lunch break. Sometimes it was on concrete with a tennis ball, sometimes on the playing fields with a football. We played as closely to the proper rules of football as we could, but with three noticeable differences.

Firstly, we had no pitch markings. I went to a boys’ grammar school which didn’t actually play football as a school sport, we played rugby (no, I’m really not as posh as that makes me sound). We had some rough markings we could use on the concrete tennis courts, but on grass it was impossible. This meant that determining when the ball went over the line for a corner, goal-kick or even a goal was always a matter of argument. Throw ins just didn’t happen, there was seemingly infinite width to the pitches.

Secondly, jumpers for goalposts. I know that there are people who hear that phrase and are instantly transported back to their childhoods. In truth, we usually used schoolboys. This meant that judging if the ball was wide or not was tough. And as for shots over the crossbar, the rule of thumb was that the crossbar was as high as whoever was in goal could jump with their arms outstretched.

Thirdly, no offside. Now, if you don’t know the offside rule in football I am not about to try to explain it. Suffice to say that, without linesman at the sides of the pitch, offside would have been impossible to police.

This last rule led to me taking up my specialist position. The position of all kids for who being in defence or goal was a liability and midfield was pointless due to a lack of running or tackling skills. I wasn’t a marauding full-back, wizard on the wing or a typical English centre-forward. No, I was a goalhanger. My job was to stand close to the opposition goal, hoping for the ball to break outfield to give me a chance to score.

It’s a position you won’t find in the Premier League, or anywhere else who play to the official Laws of the Game, because you are always offside, so it’s pointless.

In fact, goalhanging is a huge reason for the offside rule being there in the first place. Goalhanging spoils the game as a spectacle, is quite inspiring and encourages those with little or no ability (like me) think they’re better than they are. In short, offside is a rule which irritates, confuses and frustrates, but is there for the good of the Game. It makes the Game fairer and more enjoyable.

The same goes for God’s laws, as taught with such clarity through Jesus. The commandments he gives to us are simple, some would say common sense commands which we don’t need to be told. Loving, respecting, helping others are all things which we “instinctively” know, as are most of his other commands.

They’re not so easy, though, when we’re told not to judge, to love our enemy, to put others before ourselves. Even the supposedly common-sense, instinctive ones seem beyond each of us on occasions, and beyond some most of the time.

Why? Because sometimes we don’t want to follow them. Sometimes our immediate reaction to events is selfishness, vengeance, anger or greed. Following Jesus commands feel far from instinctive, more like hugely inconvenient and restrictive.

But they are there for a reason. Like the offside rule stopping useless cloggers like me barely get by flourish on the football field and, instead, helping football be more like the “beautiful game”, so Jesus commandments do that in life. They curb selfish impulses in order to make life on Earth better for all of us.

It’s not about controlling masses or gaining power over them, it’s about really living life. That’s why, if we love him, we will keep his commandments and help others to do so as well.

No matter how hard that may be.