Advent 4: Mark 9:33-37

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X Factor, I’m A Celebrity, Strictly Come Dancing… all the big reality TV competitions end during the Christmas season. Who is the best amateur dancer who acts in a soap? Who is the best Z-lister at eating kangaroo testicles sautéed in camel urine? Who is the nation’s favourite wannabe pop star as chosen by a deified panel of moderate talent?

All this is added to the big question of who will win the TV ratings; pain and misery in the East End of London, posh woman falling over, 2000 year old shapeshifter or postwar birth pains?

Christmas has become trying to be the biggest and best in unimportant mediocrity. Our focus is shifted towards that which doesn’t matter in a way which makes it seem like the most important thing ever.

Christmas, though is about the total opposite. It’s about the most important, powerful being making himself normal, everyday thing imaginable. God became our servant as an example to all of us, to show that this constant rush to make ourselves the greatest and most important is not the way to be.

We lose sight of the joy of giving when we concentrate on the task of taking. We lose sight of the joy of others when we concentrate on the cult of self. But, when we look to Jesus, we see everything we were meant to be in all its fullness.

That’s what Christmas is about, what life is about. It’s about the last being first, the least being the greatest, becoming a servant of others because self-adoration is empty. And the baby whose birth we celebrate is the one who still shows us that today.

Lent Day 19: Mark 15-16

Desmond Tutu recently wrote this piece in the Guardian about forgiveness. As a man who grew up witnessing his father abusing his mother, who explains the story of putting his father off of a conversation until the following day only to find that he died overnight, ans who lived through the brutal Apartheid regime in South Africa, he knows a lot about the subject. So when he writes the following, we need to take note,

“Retaliation gives, at best, only momentary respite from our pain. The only way to experience healing and peace is to forgive. Until we can forgive, we remain locked in our pain and locked out of the possibility of experiencing healing and freedom, locked out of the possibility of being at peace.”

Forgiveness is at the heart of emotional healing. It is the key to giving us peace and it is the cornerstone of Jesus’ actions at the cross.

Many of the new atheists see this as a vile thought. Richard Dawkins, speaking on the Premier Christian Radio show ‘Unbelievable?’ said that the idea that God could only forgive our sins by torturing himself was “revolting”. Others state that it’s ridiculous to suggest that God feels the need to do this to save us from himself.

All of this is to miss the point about forgiveness. This is the ultimate act of forgiveness, not only because it allows for everyone to be forgiven everything, but on the many levels that forgiveness happens.

The one thing everyone thinks of is God forgiving us. That is, of course, the main thing. Jesus took the punishment we were all due so that we could come to him and ask for forgiveness. He is our proxy and our way to the father. It is an amazing act of self sacrifice that was  needed because sin had, and has, such a hold in this world that only a massive act would break it’s power. We can all be forgiven, if we ask.

But being forgiven and seeing the power of sin broken don’t just mean that. It also gives us the power to forgive. Jesus is our example in this. He didn’t think about the personal cost, he knew that this forgiveness was God’s will and he obeyed. We now have a new way.

Jesus quotes this passage in Exodus,

“Eye for eye, tooth for tooth, hand for hand, foot for foot, burn for burn, wound for wound, bruise for bruise.” (Exodus 21:24-25 NIV)

This is what people of the time will have seen as their moral code; retribution and revenge. Jesus turns it round, though,

“You have heard that it was said, ‘Eye for eye, and tooth for tooth.’ But I tell you, do not resist an evil person. If anyone slaps you on the right cheek, turn to them the other cheek also.” (Matthew 5:38-39 NIV)

Forgiveness of others is at the heart of his action. Not just forgiveness of the little things, either, but of evil. He knows it’s hard, look at the agony he has gone through to show us, but it is God’s will, so we should follow. If we want forgiveness, we should always be willing to forgive as well.

This isn’t a natural thing for us to do. If it was then we wouldn’t see extremism sprouting up in the face of injustice. If it was then we wouldn’t see baying mobs outside courts where suspected killers or paedophiles were being tried. If it was then we wouldn’t see so much conflict in the world.

On 8 November 1989, during a Remembrance parade in the Northern Ireland town of Enniskillen, an IRA bomb went off and killed 12 people. One of those was a young nurse called Marie Wilson.

Her father, Gordon, was with her, but survived. You would expect and understand if he wants revenge. If he was consumed with hatred and a desire for retribution. I can’t say that I wouldn’t be if I were in his shoes. He said, however,

“I bear no ill will. I bear no grudge.”

He forgave the bombers, prayed fir them, then strove and worked fir peace in Northern Ireland until his death in 1995.

That is forgiveness! That is God’s will and the example of Jesus.

There is still more to it than that, though. Being forgiven by God and by others is amazing. Forgiving others is freeing and healing. But how hard is it for us to forgive ourselves?

Many of us spend our lives tearing ourselves apart over things we have dine in the past. We see ourselves as worthless, weak, evil, dirty. We dwell on those thoughts until they consume us and affect the way we live our lives.

Jesus says stop. He has forgiven us, the father has forgiven us. We are clean. We are right again. We need to see that in ourselves.

Coming to the cross is not a way to ease our conscience, rather it is a way for us to truly change. It allows us to move on from the past, from the person we have been, and to move forward with a clean slate. Our past sins aren’t forgotten, but they are forgiven. They are lessons, to ourselves and others, in what to avoid, how to avoid and how to move on.

If we can’t get past our own failings, how can we expect others to? How can we expect to be able to truly forgive others?

Jesus died so that we are all forgiven. By God, by others and by ourselves.

He died so that we all forgive both others and ourselves.

He died so that we can learn and move on together.

That’s not revolting! It’s the most amazing thing you’ll ever hear.

Lent Day 18: Mark 13-14

I’d love to be able to say that I always do the right thing

I’d love to be able to say that I always practice what I preach.

I’d love to be able to say that I’ve never hurt anyone.

I’d love to be able to say that I never feel shame over my actions, words or thoughts.

I’d love to be able to say that I live my life differently to those around me.

I’d love to be able to say that I don’t let the world affect the way I choose to live.

I’d love to be able to say that I always trust God.

I’d love to be able to say that I can talk about my faith, about Jesus, openly and without inhibition.

I’d love to be able to say all of this and more.

But I can’t. I’d be lying to you and to myself.

I fail every day. I fall away every day. I do, say or think the wrong thing every day.

This isn’t some man-made structure forcing guilt and shame on me in the way that many would tell you. It’s not even depression convicting me of things which won’t bother me once I’m better.

We all know that we do the wrong thing, we sin, day after day. The ability to know and feel that is in each one of us. We know that things are wrong without a human hierarchy heaping guilt and shame on us, because God has put that there for us.

“You will all fall away,” Jesus told them, “for it is written:   

“ ‘I will strike the shepherd,  and the sheep will be scattered.’” (Mark 14:27 NIV)

Jesus knew his disciples would fall away. They would run, deny knowing him, hide away and pity their misfortune. They’d let the cares of the world in and get between them and him. They would sin.

However, he also knew they’d pick themselves up, with his help, and come back again. And again. And again…

The measure of us and our faith isn’t how many times we fall. It’s how we pick ourselves back up again. Do we struggle to our feet, worry about the rips and dirt on our clothes and head off in our own direction? Or do we let Jesus help us back up, clean us, mend our clothes then lead us back along the right path?

We need help in life. With God’s help we can have the right guide, rescuer and teacher. Eventually we will fall less often. We will learn where all the potholes are and how to avoid them, or to get through them without tripping. We’ll still stumble and fall occasionally, we can’t avoid that, but he’ll always be there to pick us back up if we ask him to.

I’m fed up of having my face in the dirt. I need a hand.

Lent Day 17: Mark 10-12

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I know my place!

Class and status. We are totally obsessed by it. From studies categorizing our social class to surveys showing which jobs are the happiest (mine is 46th, apparently!).

Our politicians split us into “shirkers and strivers”. Social mobility is the greatest aspiration in the eyes of many. Others seek fortune and, in particular, fame, as shows like X Factor, Britain’s Got Talent and The Voice trot out a never ending stream of people crying over their “last chance” to escape normal life. Most are too young to have even had a first chance!

What house you live in, what schools your children go to, what car you drive, what job you have, where you go on holiday, how many Twitter followers you have, how busy you are, how influential you appear to be; these seem to be the driving forces behind people’s lives. Yes, money comes into it, but only as a means to these ends. We want to be successful or, more importantly, to be seen to be successful.

This can lead to real success for some, who end up finding that it’s not enough. Once you have a taste for the high life you want more and more.

For others, it’s an aspiration which is utterly destructive. Just look at the credit crisis we have been going through recently. Personal debt is at an all time high, partly due to people struggling to make ends meet in the first place, but mainly down to people chasing an unattainable dream. There’s a lifestyle we aim for, but it’s usually beyond our financial means. Easy credit has made it possible, but the cost of this has been unaffordable debt and global financial collapse.

The desire for a higher social status, to look good in from of our peers, is ruinous. It tears us apart as we move further away from who we are and who we are meant to be whilst trying to become someone that our society demands that we be if we are to be somebody. It’s unhealthy and damaging.

Jesus warns us against this when he speaks of the religious teachers of the time.

“As he taught, Jesus said, “Watch out for the teachers of the law. They like to walk around in flowing robes and be greeted with respect in the marketplaces,  and have the most important seats in the synagogues and the places of honor at banquets.  They devour widows’ houses and for a show make lengthy prayers. These men will be punished most severely.”” (Mark 12:38-40 NIV)

What they are doing isn’t real. They look important, have a high status, the respect of many, but it’s a sham. They teach God’s Law, but they don’t live within the spirit of it, treating others as if they are beneath them. They live to be important, not to be God’s people.

Jesus has already taught us how we are to live. It’s not for our glorification, but for that of God. It’s not to further ourselves, but to help others. When asked about the most important commandment, he says,

“The most important one,” answered Jesus, “is this: ‘Hear, O Israel: The Lord our God, the Lord is one.  Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind and with all your strength.’  The second is this: ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.’  There is no commandment greater than these.” (Mark 12:29-31 NIV)

Love God and love others. Self promotion, self satisfaction, self interest doesn’t come into it. It’s not about looking up to some and down on others. It’s not about being seen to be important or successful. It’s about loving and respecting others and God. That’s all its ever been about.

I know my place.

Lent Day 16: Mark 7-9

The other day I was watching football on the telly. It was Manchester United v Liverpool, a game which, for Liverpool fans like myself, is one of the biggest games of the year. For the first time in years Liverpool went into the game ahead of United in the league. Not just ahead, but a massive 11 points clear and as the form team in the country. Pundits were queuing up to predict a comfortable Liverpool win, despite the fact that they hadn’t won away against United in five years.

And yet, I was pessimistic. I could see that form counts for very little in games like this. I envisaged United suddenly turning their season around and coming good with a big win. I could see a nightmare for Liverpool.

Then, my kids pointed out that I always do this. I always look pessimistically on situations (unlike the tablet I’m typing this on, which just tried autocorrecting “pessimistically” to “optimistically”!). I’m always being all doom and gloom and never believing that the best will happen.

It’s true. I think it’s partly to soften the blow of any potential disappointment, but I do this a lot. Not just with football, but with life in general. I wonder if “Murphy’s Law” could be renamed after me sometimes, as I seem to believe so strongly in it.

Then I read these wordsand see, not only myself, but also Jesus’ answer to me.

“Jesus asked the boy’s father, “How long has he been like this?”  “From childhood,” he answered. “It has often thrown him into fire or water to kill him. But if you can do anything, take pity on us and help us.”    “ ‘If you can’?” said Jesus. “Everything is possible for one who believes.”    Immediately the boy’s father exclaimed, “I do believe; help me overcome my unbelief!”” (Mark 9:21-24 NIV)

The boy’s father asks Jesus to help him overcome his unbelief. This is what I need, too. I need Jesus to help me overcome my pessimism and believe that things can and will turn out for the best. Even if it seems that it actually has gone wrong, I need to believe that He will make something wonderful out of the ruins.

He does it all the time. He takes broken situations, broken people, broken lives and makes the most wonderful image of humanity, love, compassion, sharing and giving that you can imagine. He has done it with me, and many others I know, so many times in the past that I have no excuse for any unbelief. As he says, “Everything is possible for one who believes.”.

As usual, I was wrong in my pessimism about the football. Liverpool won 3-0 and, frankly, it could have been more. They put in a fantastic performance which United were blown away by.

More importantly, though, God constantly puts in a fantastic performance which we are blown away by. He always comes through, in the end. We just need to believe.

With God you’ll never walk alone.

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Lent Day 15: Mark 4-6

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Apparently, Britain is a Christian country.

I’m not about to look at arguments about Christianity usurping Paganism and absorbing some of its festivals and rituals. I’m also not going to look at Church attendance (which has started to rise, slightly, after years of decline).

But it’s a line which is trotted out on many occasions. Britain is a Christian country and should be proud of its Christian heritage.

It’s safe to say, therefore, that if this were true then Jesus would feel right at home here. Amongst his people. He would look around and see many people, his “bride”, his family, all following his teachings. God’s Kingdom being lived out on earth.

He would look at people who heard the good news and allowed it to take root, to grow, to bear fruit. He wouldn’t see people who have allowed the worries of the world and wealth to push faith aside.

He would see how His people are happy to go without. To support each other in times of need as they bring the good news to others. How they would travel with the bare minimum, living off of the generosity of others through God’s spirit.

He would see how, when people have no food, his people would take compassion and feed them. That they would see what they had, not as their own to be jealously guarded, but as a gift to be shared for the benefit of all. Especially the most needy.

He would see that they look on the outcasts of society with compassion rather than fear and distrust. How they would be moved to help, comfort and heal them. How they would work to make them, not outcast, but part of a wider family.

This is what he would see if Britain was a Christian country. This is what he would see if this was his home.

But, I guess that “A prophet is not without honor except in his own town, among his relatives and in his own home.”.

I think, if we were a truly Christian country, we would do all the things Jesus himself demonstrates in these verses. We wouldn’t moan about what was being done with OUR money. We wouldn’t see strangers as a threat to OUR way of life. We wouldn’t see the poor, weak and vulnerable as scrounging off of OUR hard earned cash.

We would share. We would comfort. We would befriend. We would heal. We would help. We would teach. We would show compassion. We would respect. We would love.

We would realise that people’s needs go far beyond bingo and beer. They are much deeper. People need to be treated as human beings, not labels. People need to be given a chance to live. People need respect, love and support. Sometimes financial support, from our pockets. Sometimes practical support, from our time

If we can do all of that then maybe, just maybe, Jesus will look at this place as home.

Lent Day 14: Mark 1-3

So, we start the story over again. I love the fact that there are four Gospels. Four different accounts of the same story. It gives you a much fuller picture of things, like listening to four different eyewitness accounts of an event, or hearing news from four different outlets.

In fact, it’s exactly like that. This is news. Good news. Mark starts off right at the start by telling us,

“The beginning of the good news about Jesus the Messiah, the Son of God” (Mark 1:1 NIV)

He wants to grab our attention. This is good news, and it’s about the Son of God. Mark knows he has a story that we need to read, so he lays it out for us at the very beginning. No dressing it up or beating around the bush, this is worth reading. Have a look.

He then gives us a bit of a whistlestop tour of the same stories Matthew gave us; John the Baptist, Jesus’ baptism, the calling of the first disciples, many healings, many challenges from the religious leaders.

During this time, one thing saddens and angers him. Here is the good news. The same good news that Mark feels so compelled to commit to paper (or papyrus, or clay. I’m not really sure.), but people are constantly trying to catch him out because they have “stubborn hearts”.

He cast out demons. He must be one himself.

He tells a man that his sins are forgiven. That’s blasphemy!

He picks grain on the Sabbath. He’s breaking the Law.

He heals on the Sabbath…

Umm…

They have no answer. Jesus always has the answers to them, but they keep coming back. Not because there are holes in what he says and does, but because they can’t, or won’t, accept it. Their hearts are stubborn and will not give up on their outmoded, man made ideas, even in the face of good news.

I always know better. There’s always a reason for me to behave in a certain way or do (or not do) a certain thing. Even though I’m being told by all quarters that I’m wrong, I’m also stubborn and won’t give in.

I’m not always like this, but I sometimes am. We all are, if we’re not too stubborn to admit it to ourselves. Pride and bloody-mindedness all too often get in the way of progress. We come out with excuses,

“We’ve always done it this way.”

“It’s what I feel comfortable with.”

“I tried it once and it didn’t work, so I’m not doing it again.”

“If I did that, I wouldn’t be true to myself.” (That one makes me want to rip my own head off in frustration! What you mean is that you’ll only do what you want to do. Horrible phrase!)

We all need to open ourselves up to new things. To the endless possibilities we are presented with. To the freedom that comes from not being tied down to the routine and hopelessness that the world tries to tie us down to. To one who gave up everything so that we could gain life.

This is Good News!