Tuesday, 13 February 2018

Being Yourself - Sunday 11th February 2018

There is an intriguing story from the final days of Jesus’ life, that relates a moment when one of the many Marys anointed his feet using some staggeringly expensive perfume, causing a embarrassed debate amongst his disciples. John’s account of the incident states that the perfume was worth a year’s wages, and identifies Judas as the disciple who questioned whether it would have been better for the perfume to be sold and the proceeds given to the poor.
I find myself to be firmly on Judas’ side in this. Surely, to pour such an extravagance over Jesus’ feet was a pointless waste of resources which could have been used to much better effect elsewhere.
Jesus, however, defended Mary - boldly and strongly. And so I find my own attitude to be lovingly rebuked, along with Judas.
The story shows Jesus to be a man who is very comfortable in his own skin. Most of us would be hideously embarrassed to have someone attending to our feet in the middle of a dinner party, but Jesus seems untroubled.
Despite the moral outrage being expressed, Jesus allowed Mary to be herself, and to proceed with the action that she, in her own wisdom, had chosen. He made no attempt to control her, or correct or redirect her actions.
This is a consistent theme throughout Jesus' life. He did not attempt to control people, or tell them how they should behave. He allowed people to follow the paths that they have chosen, and continued to love them. Even on the last day of his life, Jesus did not interfere with the actions of the high priests, Pontius Pilate or Herod. He let them be themselves, even though that would lead to his death.
The history of religion (including Christianity) is very much a history of control. Religion regulates and restricts people’s lives, telling them what they may or may not do. Yet Jesus does not. He defended Mary’s choice - outrageously extravagant though it was - and commended her for it.
Our religions seek to limit and control our choices in so many ways, but God - it seems - loves for us to be lovingly and generously ourselves.

Wednesday, 17 January 2018

A Beautiful Message - Sunday 14th January 2018

We all know something beautiful when we come across it. Although each of us has a unique taste for beauty, there is a surprising consensus across the whole human race when it comes to identifying something as beautiful.
In English speaking Christianity, we are familiar with the word ‘Gospel’, but it is a word that has no independent meaning in our language outside its New Testament context, so it makes little impact on us. The word that St Paul used (on 60 different occasions) was a word that had immediate meaning to his readers - it meant ‘beautiful message’.
During Paul’s 30 year mission, the growth in Jesus’ followers across the Roman empire was enormous. One of the key factors to that exponential growth was the fact that Paul’s message was a beautiful one. Paul had a message that delighted people’s hearts, that eased their guilt, that guided their lives. Almost everywhere Paul travelled, there was an instant response to the simple beauty of Jesus’ message.
In the centuries that have followed, Christianity’s message has not always been beautiful. The church has repeatedly condemned and accused, threatening people with punishment rather than showing them divine love. Christian leaders have been quick to forbid, but slow to forgive.
The message of Jesus was beautiful, and immediately recognisable as being so. We human beings love to be encouraged, affirmed, loved and forgiven; we dislike being criticised, judged, threatened or condemned. Today, we are the messengers of the ‘Gospel’; we are the ambassadors of Jesus. If our message as a church or as individual Christians is not recognisably beautiful, then it is not ‘Gospel’.
Say something beautiful to someone this week.

Thursday, 11 January 2018

Good for the Universe - Sunday 7th January 2018

God exists in the universe with good purpose, and that good purpose extends to planet Earth and to the human race. The life and teaching of Jesus was, and remains, an eloquent expression of God’s good purpose. If you want to know how God engages with his universe and with humanity in particular, then the life of Jesus is an expression of that in terms of reference that we minuscule humans can grasp.
The life and teaching of Jesus is just as pertinent today where we live, as it was in Galilee two thousand years ago, though the immediate example of Jesus himself is no longer there. But we needn’t panic; God has a plan for that. God has a plan for there to be a living example of his good purposes, this very week right where you are. That plan is you.
We would all be wise, at this point, to remind ourselves that there is no way that any one of us can be the living continuation of Jesus. We can’t. But we can be the living continuation of one small but significant part of what Jesus did and represented. And then, if we link together with other people who represent other aspects of Jesus’ life, God’s good plan is still in business.
St Paul understood the effectiveness of godly people as being akin to a human body. Each one of us is like a particular limb or organ. Each one of us has a significant part to play. And each one of us needs the others around us to play their different, significant parts for the whole organism to operate effectively.
God exists in the universe with good purpose, and that good purpose involves you. When each of us does what we can of Jesus’ work, in active partnership with one another, God’s universe is a better place.

Tuesday, 2 January 2018

Ready for the Future - Sunday 31st December 2017

Each of us has hopes and expectations for the year ahead. We hope - of course - that our lives will be fruitful and comfortable, but we don’t actually know what awaits us on our journey through 2018.
Anyone with a basic knowledge of the Bible's story knows that God doesn't promise an easy path for his people. Jesus said on the matter, “The gate that leads to life is narrow, and the road is hard.” So please forgive me for pointing out this obvious truth: there will be challenges and difficulties in the coming year.
When Jesus was a small tot, his mother, Mary, had been through a tough year. In addition to the usual discomforts and indignities of pregnancy, she had seen her proposed marriage teeter on the verge of divorce; she had been forced to relocate to an unfamiliar town, 100 miles from home; and she had ended up laying her newborn son in an animals’ food trough because there was no space anywhere else. She must have been hoping that the coming year would be a bit easier. Little did Mary know that the paranoid ruler of Judea, Herod the Great, was about to order the execution of every baby boy in Bethlehem.
God doesn’t promise an easy path for his people. Not even for his own son.
However, God doesn’t simply abandon us to disaster. He may not protect us from difficulty, but he does provide for us when it comes. The day before Mary was forced to flee, a group of wealthy priest/magicians turned up at their home. These unlikely visitors affirmed Mary in the importance of her little child. They also provided her with valuable trading goods (frankincense & myrrh, along with gold). Little did Mary know, as she received those unexpected gifts, how useful they would be in the very near future.
God was not going to spare his loved ones from life’s difficulties, but he did ensure that they were suitably provided for as they fled to Egypt in the middle of the night.
We have no idea what lies ahead of us in this new year; it won’t all be easy, for sure. God won’t insulate us from difficulties, that’s not his way, but he will ensure that we have what we need to get through them.

Sunday, 24 December 2017

Silent Night - Christmas Eve 2017

There’s a saying, ‘It’s not what you do, but the way that you do it.’ This is particularly appropriate when it comes to the Christmas story. In so many parts of our lives, the way that we do things says far more about us than the actions themselves. There is a world of difference between a graciously given gift and a grudgingly given one - even if the gift itself is exactly the same.
The bare fact of the Christmas story - according to Christian tradition - is that God’s son was born in a human family. There were many stories in ancient mythologies of gods having children. The thing that makes the birth of Jesus stand out is the way that it happened. The demi-gods of Greek and Roman myth were the result of assaults and affairs by arrogant and manipulative deities. The story of Jesus’ birth, however, throws a very different light on the author of the Universe.
Putting aside the iconic images of a stable, a donkey, a kindly innkeeper and a star that could be seen even in daylight (these are all later, European embellishments), consider the baby, wrapped in strips of cloth, and lying in an animals’ food trough because there was no space in the house.
There are indeed a few remarkable and miraculous events in this story: an army of angels appeared, but only a handful of shepherds saw them; a significant star was spotted in the eastern sky, but only by a small group of mystics. Mostly, the story of Jesus’ birth is remarkably unremarkable.
One important detail is generally taken for granted: that Jesus was born in the middle of the night. A world-changing event was happening in Bethlehem, and 99.9% of the people in the neighbourhood were fast asleep at the time.
It’s not what you do; its the way that you do it. God did the most remarkable thing in human history so quietly that almost nobody noticed it had happened.
At Christmas time we are highly sensitised to the many traumas in our world. It is natural for us to ask what God is doing about such things. In answer to that question: whatever God is doing, he is almost certainly doing it very quietly, because that’s the way God does things.
Happy Christmas.

Tuesday, 19 December 2017

God's New Brand - Sunday 17th December 2017

Names are always important. Whether it’s parents choosing a name for their child or the launch of a new business, a name says something. The internet age has brought us a new generation of sassy and witty company names, designed to express the ethos of the brand, to be easily remembered and to appear at the top of the search engine lists. Back in New Testament times, names were no less important.
In ancient Jewish culture many people were given names that were a complete sentence in themselves, in much the same way that some on-line businesses do today.
In English, the name ‘Jesus’ doesn’t really mean anything. It’s just a word. But if you scroll back through the Latin (Iesus) and the Greek (Iesous), you get to the name that Mary and Joseph actually called their son: Yeshuah. They didn’t choose the name themselves; it was picked by God, who gave specific instructions through Archangel Gabriel. “You shall call him Yeshuah”.
To an English speaker, the name Yeshuah has no more meaning than the name Jesus, but Mary and Joseph weren’t English speakers. To them the archangel’s instruction was, “You shall call him ‘God Rescues’". Just like many companies today, God chose a name that went straight to the point.
Imagine the scene: on a hot, sunny day in ancient Nazareth - countless times - Mary must have stepped out of her kitchen and shouted for all the village to hear, “God Rescues, your supper’s ready!” Years later - also countless times - Mary’s son would have done the ancient equivalent of offering an introductory handshake while saying, “I’m God Rescues.”
God’s choice of name doesn't specify what he rescues us from. Like much of Jesus’ teaching, that is left open ended. It is enough for his name to assure us that God is on our side, and cares for us, and doesn’t want to leave us in the mess or a muddle of our lives.
God chose a powerful brand name. It's rather a shame that we have lost its impact through the meandering journey between languages.

Wednesday, 13 December 2017

Something Quite Different - Sunday 10th December 2017

Have you ever been in the classic situation, when speaking with someone who doesn't understand your language, of talking louder in the hope that they will then be able to understand? It seems to be a natural reaction to the situation, but we all know it doesn’t work.
The Christian Church and its message has been failing to resonate with the majority of people in the westernised world for many years now, and we are not going to solve this problem by delivering the same old messages again and again, but louder.
This challenge, that Christians face in many parts of the world, is nothing new. The prophets of the Old Testament had a similar experience; no-one was listening to them. God addressed this situation by doing something quite different. Enter John the Baptist.
John the Baptist walked away from the centuries-old Jewish traditions of divine law and sacrificial ritual. He made minimal reference to either law or ritual. His message was still Judaism, but Judaism-lite, very ‘lite' indeed. "Change your approach,” John challenged the crowds who were drawn to this new teaching. “The influence of God is all around you.” John had dispensed with Temple and synagogue, with law and tradition, and with sacrifice and regular worship. He replaced these staples of religion with a super-simple message of generosity and decency, combined with a zero-expense faith-action that anyone could do anywhere - emersion in water.
John’s Judaism-lite was an instant success. His message spread far and wide across the Jewish networks of the day. By the time that Matthew, Mark, Luke and John sat down to to write their Gospels, each in their own way began by saying: you’ve already heard about John the Baptist; now learn about Jesus.
John came as a warm-up act for Jesus, and we still need him today. Traditional Christianity has lost its potency. We won’t achieve anything by saying the same things, but louder. We need to follow John’s lead; we need to dispense with the over complex moral and religious packaging of our traditions. Instead we need to focus on the oh-so-simple message of John and Jesus: be honest, be caring, be generous, be forgiving - for this is the way of God.