We all need a rest

Matt 11

This is one of those weeks which I knew I was getting myself into when I applied to be a Reader in Training for the Church of Scotland.

I have an assignment due in by the end of this week (only 500 words and, in a rare moment of organisation and good time management, I have actually done it). I am driving the 160 miles from work at 5pm on Friday to the college I’m studying with in Dingwall in order to be at a conference day on Saturday. I have a week’s worth of studying and a lecture (plus, of course, a full time job). Oh, and I’m preaching on Sunday for the first time at my placement Church, so I also have a sermon to write.

All mixed in with being a taxi for my kids.

It genuinely feels like there aren’t enough hours in the day sometimes. You are pushed from pillar to post as your nose is constantly stuck in a book, or you’re glued to a computer screen or you’re behind the wheel of a car. It’s almost as if your life amounts to less unless you are constantly busy, always on the go; like the proverbial fly with the blue backside.

But sometimes you just need to stop. You need to have a break. You need to push through that guilt you feel for not working towards the next thing on your to do list (as if I’m ever organised enough to have a to do list!!) and just rest. Modern life gives us too much to worry about and not enough to just sit back and enjoy; it’s our responsibility to do that for ourselves. Nobody is a robot – in case you are, in which case no, I’m not Sarah Connor, now go away – we are flesh and blood and that needs to rest occasionally.

I need to remind myself of this as the work really starts to ramp up. Yes, I’ll work hard, I’ll give all I can give to it all. Not, however, at the expense of my wellbeing or family life. If I did that, I’d be no use to myself, my family, to my workplace or to God. Even he rested on the seventh day (or, arbitrary period of time, considering the creation story in Genesis is just an illustration).

So, I watched the Rugby this afternoon after doing my assignment. Then I did more reading. Now I’m doing this, just to get some stuff out as a therapeutic measure.

 “Are you tired? Worn out? Burned out on religion? Come to me. Get away with me and you’ll recover your life. I’ll show you how to take a real rest. Walk with me and work with me—watch how I do it. Learn the unforced rhythms of grace. I won’t lay anything heavy or ill-fitting on you. Keep company with me and you’ll learn to live freely and lightly.” (Matthew 11:28-30; The Message)

Yes, we all get tired and burned out. We all need to rest and be refreshed. So I will stop and enjoy life, I will watch a bit of sport, I will chat with my family and I will just spend time with Jesus.

Anyway, I have a sermon to write…

Advent 16: Matthew 2:1-12

Herod is one of those well known, almost pantomime style, villains of our childhood stories. The evil king who tries to trick the wise men into revealing where Jesus has been born so he can… well, the Nativity plays rarely expand on what he intended on doing. He was thwarted by an angelic dream, however, as Mary, Joseph and their newborn son escape his clutches.

What happens next is definitely not mentioned in any school Nativity play,

“When Herod realized that he had been outwitted by the Magi, he was furious, and he gave orders to kill all the boys in Bethlehem and its vicinity who were two years old and under, in accordance with the time he had learned from the Magi. Then what was said through the prophet Jeremiah was fulfilled:  
“A voice is heard in Ramah, weeping and great mourning, Rachel weeping for her children and refusing to be comforted, because they are no more.””
(Matthew 2:16-18 NIV)

Wow. That’s far removed from the fluffy, tinsel covered angels and children singing Little Donkey. It shows the kind of danger and evil which was present in those times. Thank heavens we don’t see that kind of thing today…

Tell that to the people of Peshawar. Just when you think you’ve seen every kind of evil a group of hate filled fanatics burst into a school and massacre over 100 innocent children. And they claim to do it in the name of God.

This is not the God worshipped in Mosques around the world by peace loving Muslims.

This is not the God worshipped by wisdom seeking, peaceful Sikhs.

This is not the God worshipped by enlightenment seeking, loving Hindus.

This is not the God worshipped by devout, priestly, chosen Jews.

This is not the God worshipped by me and billions of other Christians.

This is not the God who came down to Earth to teach us, lead us and save us from our own desires, arrogance and hatred.

I don’t know the god the Taliban, Am Qaeda and Islamic State claim to worship, much as I don’t know the god who bigoted extremists who claim to follow Christ claim to worship.

I know the one who inspires his followers to love him each other as his greatest commandments. I know the one who humbled himself and put himself through unimaginable agony for us.

And I know the God who, right now, is weeping tears of sorrow for the victims of the innocent victims of hatred in Peshawar as well as the victims of hated and bigotry around the world.

These acts are carried out by people. Badly flawed, selfish people influenced by evil. The response from each and every one of us can and should be influenced by the God who loves us all.

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 8: Matthew 25:31-46

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Just under a year ago I read this passage and thought about how much it clashed with what so many members of our political and media classes cry out for whilst claiming Britain is a “Christian country™”.

As a result, I wrote this post, the words of which were as follows,

Then, the King said,

“I was hungry and you told me that it was my own fault for being lazy and believing that I was entitled to help from hard working families and that I’d probably spent all of my money on alcohol, cigarettes and drugs anyway.

I was thirsty and you assumed that I was desperate for gin or vodka, rather than water.

I was naked and you said that I would have more chance of a job if I took more care of my personal appearance, even though I wore all I could afford.

I was poor and you told me I was a scrounger who just wanted to sponge off the state and put stories about me on the tv and newspapers, despite knowing nothing about my circumstances.

I was sick and you denied me any help, told me to go back to work and assumed I was faking illness in order to scrounge.

I was in prison and you demanded that the key was thrown away and that I was kept away from all respectable, law-abiding members of society because I was a bad person who could never change.

I was a stranger and you ran, scared of me, told me to go home, that your country was full and that I was only there to steal your money, possessions and jobs.

For I tell you, whenever you did this for one of the least of these brothers or sisters of mine, you did it to me””

This struck a chord with a lot of people. My average number of views per post is about 100-150. This post received over 8000 from all over the world. I received a lot of messages telling me that this was exactly how they felt things were going in the whole western world right now, that our God given mandate to help and care for the weakest and most vulnerable in our society is being ignored for self interest and fear.

We have more and more right wing, populist politicians; from the US Tea Party to UKIP in Britain; who are shouting loudly about how migrants are the source of our problems, or poor people relying on handouts, or those who are working hard to help these people make the most of their lives. The sad thing is that these political groups also position themselves as the guardians of Christianity in an increasingly secular world.

Thankfully, we also see groups such as the Trussell Trust, Street Pastors, Crossreach and others who truly do portray the image of Jesus in a modern, broken selfish world. They go out and help, feed, clothe, support those they find in need, whilst, in some cases, railing against the fact that this need is even there in some of the richest societies on the planet.

The time has come to stop blaming, punishing, demonising and marginalising. The time has come to start helping, feeding, encouraging, educating, mentoring, listening, befriending and running our societies in a new way.

A new way which was put forward 2000 years ago, but we have sadly failed to replicate since the plan was made for us.

A way where our responsibility is to look after others, safe in the knowledge that others will look after us.

To welcome strangers, not to run from them.

To feed the hungry, not to tell them it’s their fault because they cant cook.

To lend a hand to the dispossessed.

To care for and listen to the suffering.

To house the homeless.

To love each and every person on this Earth as the unique and amazing creation they all are.
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Advent 2: Matthew 1

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Today, Christmas is seen, more than anything else, as a time for family. That time of year when Mum, Dad, Granny, Granddad and all the kids come together to spend time together eating, drinking, playing and, quite probably, arguing. We do it because we know that family is important. Politicians spend much of their time talking about families (especially “hard working” ones) because they know it speaks to a central part of our being, of our collective and individual consciousness.

The New Testament, the story of Jesus and those who followed him in the beginning, starts with two very different images of family.

Firstly we have the genealogy of Jesus. The messianic family tree starting with Abraham, the father of nations, through King David and on to Jesus Himself. It show Jesus’ pedigree as a Jew, but also as Messiah as the scriptures stated that He would come from David’s bloodline. This idea of family has great importance for this reason. It establishes that He is of the right stock, has the right blood coursing through His veins.

But then we see a different side. A man torn between his love for his fiancée and his honour as a man. Joseph is engaged, but his bride to be is pregnant. It seems like an impossible situation, but would actually have been very easy for a man of the time; ditch the woman in disgrace and retain your own honour. Joseph, though, has a dream. This is no disgrace, but a gift from God. Joseph chooses to believe, whether due to faith in God or love of Mary or a combination of the two. He doesn’t have to do this, but Mary and this baby are his family now. Not through genealogy, but by love.

Jesus himself gives another view of family,

“While Jesus was still talking to the crowd, his mother and brothers stood outside, wanting to speak to him. Someone told him, ‘Your mother and brothers are standing outside, wanting to speak to you.’ He replied to him, ‘Who is my mother, and who are my brothers?’ Pointing to his disciples, he said, ‘Here are my mother and my brothers. For whoever does the will of my Father in heaven is my brother and sister and mother.’” (Matthew‬ ‭12‬:‭46-50‬ NIVUK)

Family is not necessarily even defined by blood or marriage relationships. It is those whom you love and who love you back. Those for whom you would do anything, and know they would do the same. This is Jesus’ new definition of family. It is one of love, respect and understanding.

So, whoever we see as our family, whether it be our immediate relatives or something wider than that, then cherish that. Hold on to what that means to you, because it defines you as much as you define it. It is a gift from God, one which no law, politician or outside influence can take from you.

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 13: Matthew 27-28

This feels so familiar to me. The part of Jesus’ life which, ultimately, defines why those of us who choose to follow him do so.

All seems totally lost. Abandoned by the disciples at Gethsemane. Disowned by Peter outside the temple. Condemned by a crowd agitated by the religious leaders. Discarded to his fate by Pilate. Mocked, whipped, beaten, paraded through the streets and, finally, nailed to a cross and left to die the most agonising death you could imagine.

All seems totally lost.

He dies.

Then, drama. The ground shakes. Rock splits open. The dead are raised to life.

And my favourite part. The temple curtain, the piece of fabric separating the holiest part of the temple from the masses, keeping ordinary people from God’s dwelling place, is torn in two.

We are no longer separated from God. Jesus’ death has seen to that. He has taken everything which was killing us, keeping us from God, and it has died with him. He has given us the ability to turn away from the evil which has found its way into the world, into our hearts, and be reunited with God.

But, there’s more. Much more. He beats sin and evil, but that’s not enough. He has to beat death itself.

So there, by an empty tomb, with unconscious Roman guards replaced by an angel, stands Jesus. Alive, as he said he would be.

He returns to the disciples. They react as the world has reacted for the last 2000 years. Some readily accept. Some seriously doubt. But he’s there, they can see him, so they all, eventually, believe.

Then he gives them what has become known as the Great Commission,

“All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me.  Therefore go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit,  and teaching them to obey everything I have commanded you. And surely I am with you always, to the very end of the age.” (Matthew 28:18-20 NIV)

As a follower of Jesus (at least, I try to be) I believe that what we read in the last two verses of Matthew is the most important event which has ever happened, both globally and personally. I believe that it really happened, no matter how fantastical it seems. I believe that this gives me, not only the incentive, but the ability to get past everything which is bad about me as a person and to improve. To grow closer to God. To view and treat others with love and respect.

I am not perfect. I do things which I know are wrong every day. Some little things and some really big things, but I keep coming back to this moment at the cross and it helps me to move on. To stand up to temptation and refuse it. To recognise when I’m doing wrong and to do better in future.

I believe that Jesus will come back, because he said so. I believe that God’s kingdom will come to earth, because He said so.

And I believe that, in my own ham-fisted way, which may or may not make sense to people, that I should share the news that Jesus died so that we can all live.

Because he did. And because he said so.