James 3:1-12

In Jane Austen’s novel Emma, there is a key moment when Emma and several friends go out for a picnic. To liven up proceedings, somebody suggests that they play a game: each person should say one very clever thing, or two moderately clever things, or three things very dull indeed.

A character called Miss Bates good-naturedly comments that she will have no trouble meeting the last requirement. Fired up by her own wit, Emma shoots from this hip: ‘Ah ma’am, but there may be a difficulty. Pardon me, but you will be limited as to number – only three at once.’

There then follows a tumbleweed moment. As a reader, you feel the pain. The humiliation of poor, boring Miss Bates. The embarrassment of the onlookers. The self-loathing of Emma once she realises what she has done. Her Freudian slip has revealed her pride and contempt. Will things ever be healed? And most of all, we feel our own pain – for I expect most of us have been there. Carried away by anger, or inflated by our own wit, we too have said things which can never be undone.

St James wants us to understand the dangers of careless speech. In today’s epistle reading he warns of the damage an uncontrolled tongue can do. In chapter 3, verses 1-12, a dramatic passage full of colourful imagery, he reflects on the power of words. We use words for many things – to bless and to curse; vows to marry, promises to bring Fred up in the faith, murmurings of love. Words good and bad. James’ point is that words make a difference.

In the last few weeks, as this church has followed a sermon series through St James’ letter, one point has become very clear.

Everyday living matters. It is in the simple daily actions that faith is made real and shown. What we do and say to those near us is not a little thing, it is one of the most profound tests of faith. For no matter how many things we believe, our insight is nothing if we do not care for the needy. It does not make much difference if our faith is incredibly strong, if it does not issue in practical love.

Someone once said that as you bring up a child there are two little eyes watching everything you do. Two little ears hearing every word. Today as Fred is baptised we shall make promises to bring him up in the Christian faith, to introduce him to the love of Christ – and so much of that is learnt in the home and from the family.

It’s wonderful when you see children pick up good communication. It’s lovely to hear a little voice singing happy songs through the house. It’s a beautiful thing when hear you them giving words of comfort or encouragement to a hurt friend.

Words well used can build us up. James points to the power and responsibility of a teacher in verse 1. In my time as a vicar I have known quite a lot of choir directors. Many of them are talented – but only a special few have a children’s choir. They are the ones who can encourage, give feedback without crushing, keep discipline without destroying a young person’s spirit. Their words nurture and grow.

Through music and speech we praise God. Yet as James reminds us in v.9, with our tongue we bless the Lord and Father, and with it we curse those who are made in the image of God. The image in v. 3 of a horse being guided by a bridle, or in v.4 of the ship being steered by the rudder speak strongly of how often we see a piece of gossip or an insinuation change the whole dynamic of a situation. A tweet by Elon Musk – and the share price of Tesla drops by 3%.

A careless word broadcast around the world by the internet is like the out of control forest fire of v.5. Our words have eternal consequences, v.6 tells us that we are accountable to God for the things we say. Let’s be thankful that it is also with our mouths that we confess our sin and are reconciled with God. James does not pull any punches in his rhetoric as he urges us to control the power of the tongue. But how?

Perhaps there are certain situations where you know you will get carried away. With a certain group of friends, or after the 3rd glass of wine. Be prepared, or avoid getting into that situation in the first place.

As James says in Chapter 1 v 19, Listen before you speak. We are given two ears and one mouth. Use them in proportion.

You could just put a sock in it. But if we continually stifle our feelings, pressure builds up and the boiler eventually bursts. It’s much better to release frustration in a controlled way. Rather than snap sarcastically at the end of your tether, say something constructive earlier on. I have to admit, I struggle with that. Even saying: ‘When you do that, I feel like this, so please do the other’ feels like conflict and quite a big deal. But it’s much better than clearing up the mess after the eventual explosion.

Going deeper, it’s good to tackle the underlying thoughts too. If we entertain resentment in our mind, if we allow bitter feelings to develop, then, as Emma found, they will eventually find their way to the surface. So let’s deal with our thoughts and address them early on.

Finally, ask for the gift of the Holy Spirit. Pray that we may be filled with God’s presence every day. In the baptism promises we say ‘With the help of God we will.’ For we need His help. With him, we can learn control. Inspired by God, our speech can be a blessing. With the help of God, we can praise him and raise children who know the power of kind and faithful words.

The good news of the gospel is that those wounds one day shall be healed. Those harsh words will be forgiven and forgotten. In God’s new creation they shall be no more, and if we start living God’s way now, then that future promise starts being made real in the present day. With that in mind, let us make our promises for Fred

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James 2

It’s amazing to see how many doors a wheelchair can open. To be sure, a family member who uses a wheelchair is, even today, restricted in many ways. But there are other opportunities that compensate – like the first class coach on the new Great Western trains to London.

 

There is much excitement if our train that pulls into Chippenham is a big sleek green class 800. For the only wheelchair spaces are in the First Class coach. Even if you paid standard, wheelchair users get to travel First, and often the whole party travels together with the disabled passenger. So we all get enjoy the big comfy seats, the extra leg room, the complimentary coffee and biscuits, the refined atmosphere of peace and quiet – or at least it was until the Bryan family arrived.

 

Part of the enjoyment is that it feels like a freebie. In this country we’re used to getting different levels of service depending on how much you pay. So if you get an upgrade, it’s something to celebrate! Culture widely accepts that if you are willing to pay more, you can get more. And I suppose if someone wants to pay £25 extra for a cup of coffee on the way to Paddington, then why not? In fact, you could argue that if airlines didn’t charge astonishing prices for business class, they’d have to raise the cost of economy to compensate. I bet you’d never thought of British Airways as a mildly socialist form of wealth redistribution!

 

We’re used to money talking. As were the people of New Testament times. But the reading we’ve just heard from the letter of James brings us up short. Imagine, says the writer, a noteworthy benefactor comes to church and is made a great fuss of. At the same time someone sleeping rough slinks in, and is put out of harm’s way at the back. ‘Have you not made distinctions among yourselves and become judges?

 

It’s particularly ironic because v.5 hints that many of the people in the church James was writing to were poor themselves – they were the ones who had been chosen by God. If anything, God has particular concern for those who are poor because they are starting from a disadvantage. God seeks justice. The recipients of James’ letter were fawning over the rich – yet v. 6 indicates that wealthy people were oppressing the Christians and taking them to court. In response, James quotes the saying of Jesus: ‘Love your neighbour as yourself’. Rich or poor, treat as you’d like to be treated. v.9: ‘If you show partiality you commit sin’.

 

What then does it mean to show partiality? What kind of fair treatment is envisaged? How do we enact justice today?

 

Are there times when the ability to pay more is just part of life’s variety? Part of a healthy economy which enables people to make choices about what they spend their money on? Are there times when that’s basically harmless? And when is it not?

 

For instance, some say it’s wrong that you can buy a better education for your children. Others retort: I’ve paid my taxes to fund education, if I want to pay again then why not? …What about healthcare? My own father benefitted from the private health insurance provided by the Civil Service. When he needed a back operation he could have endured pain for months, or he could have seen the same surgeon within a week. At one level it’s a no-brainer, yet would it be fairer to use society’s resources to improve outcomes for all?

 

Perhaps when we think about a particular example we should ask: is this a zero-sum game where allowing a few to buy better service reduces the opportunities available to others? Or is a given example part of a symbiotic diversity where the process of creating steak also creates sausages? And what effect does inequality itself have on people’s wellbeing? Research suggests that the wider the gap between the richest and poorest, the less happy and stable that society will be.

 

Clearly, whether we’re dealing with First Class or Economy, a Christian should look beyond the ticket and treat each person as a fellow human being. Not diminishing their significance, polite to all.

It is particularly important in the church. For the Christian faith teaches that all people have been created equal. God is Father to us all. We have all equally sinned – as v.10 says if we keep all the law but fail at any one point we become a law-breaker. No matter how upright our morality, if we do make distinctions and judgements in the way James describes, we still end up breaking God’s perfect law. The Christian faith calls us to honesty and realism : none of us is better than any other because although we were all created in God’s image, each one of us has marred that image through the various things we have done wrong.

 

Yet the good news is that Christ came to offer all of us salvation. Just as we are all equally in need, so healing is offered equally. Jesus bore the sin of every person, so that we could be equally restored when we ask him to forgive us. In the church we are therefore all redeemed sinners – and we are all destined for the same glory – there are no second class citizens in the Kingdom of Heaven.

 

Of course churches are made up of broken human beings, they are hospitals for sinners on the way to being saints. So, as we are all on a journey of transformation, we do still see hierarchies, power plays and all the rest. Yet with a little effort, churches can become signs of the Kingdom of God, pointers to a deeper, inclusive reality. I know a church near here which has grown from a small handful to a regular fifteen because everyone who comes is accepted for who they are.

 

The steps we can make are quite simple: for instance I make a point of not knowing who gives how much to the church. Otherwise it would be easy for the Vicar to think, I’d better listen to so and so, he’s a generous donor. Or person Y is always making a fuss but never puts her money where her mouth is. I don’t want to be thinking those things, so only our Treasurer knows who gives what.

 

 

James told a story about seats, because where you sit matters. If visitors get the feeling that they might put a foot wrong, they can easily feel excluded. For the same reason I’m a little wary of processions – those carefully choreographed sequences of various ministers and robed bigwigs – can easily send a message of knowing your place, of people who are and aren’t important.

 

Positively, the church can be a great witness. The Parish Share system, where wealthier parishes support those who are worse off, is a wonderful sign of the Kingdom in action.

 

When Chantal wrote in Jonathan’s book about how the local church responded to a family crisis and filled our freezer within an hour, the publishers who read it were astonished. That kind of practical help can be a really powerful witness and example to our society. For when we don’t show partiality but do love one another in practical ways, we live out our faith and make it clear what we believe.

 

Real faith is practical. James imagines another picture. What good is it, if one of you sees a brother or sister without adequate clothing, who doesn’t have enough to eat, and says to them: ‘Go in peace, keep warm and eat your fill.’ If you don’t also supply their bodily needs, then those are empty words. So faith by itself, if it has no works, is dead.

Here James seems to be correcting a misunderstanding of St Paul’s teaching. In Romans and Galatians Paul teaches that we are put right with God, or justified, because of God’s mercy to us. We don’t get into heaven by doing more good things than bad things! It’s because Jesus gave himself on the cross that we can return to God. Faith is when we accept what Jesus has done for us. But some people seem to have been saying that if you have this faith, you can do what you like. James corrects this misunderstanding: how can it be real faith if it doesn’t also affect the way that we live? How could we be serious about following Jesus if we didn’t allow the Holy Spirit to change us for the better? Real faith is lived out.

James is not giving us a complete theology of social action here. What to do in a particular situation involves a lot of practical wisdom. James’ point is much simpler yet also profound. He cuts to the heart of the matter: don’t just believe, act. Show your faith by what you do. Be consistent – treat people equally in accordance with what you believe. Live out your faith in practical love, that way you will know it is real.

 

 

James 1:17-end

I wonder when the last time was that somebody was really generous to you? One of the joys of living in a vicarage is that the Church of England takes its duty of care seriously. The Diocese is good at sending someone to sort things out – if a tree is rotten, or squirrels are eating the electrics, you come back from holiday and find the problem has gone.

There is a flipside though: early this year the gas man came to inspect the boiler. While he was at it, he decided to look at our cooker – and promptly decided it had to be condemned. It’s 3 o’clock on a Friday and we’ve got guests coming – what do we do? We did not end up eating takeaways for two months – instead we were blessed with generous offers.

Here, borrow my halogen oven, my slow cooker. Use our kitchen if you want. Join us for a meal – the generosity from God’s people was amazing. As it says in our reading from the letter of James, v.17: ‘Every generous act of giving, with every perfect gift, is from above, coming down from the Father of lights.’

We can be generous because God has been generous to us. Everything we have comes as a gift – even the things we’ve earned and bought come from our talents, which are given to us. God is the source of all giving. The whole creation is one massive act of generosity – for God did not create because he had to. He did not bring life into being because he was missing something. God needs nothing, he creates out of love, out of a desire to bless and bring life. 

He is the father of all. The lights in v17 may be the planets. Whereas they change and move, there is not variation or shadow of change with God. He is constant. Forever reliable. Trustworthy.To be sure, there are parts of the Bible which suggest that God changes his mind. Frequently in the Old Testament we hear that God planned to do something but he relented.

Often, as in the book of Jonah, judgement is threatened on wicked people. They then repent. God changes his mind and forgives them. God is always like this – consistently he acts against evil. He always wishes that people would return to him, and if they do he promises to forgive them. God is therefore consistent in his attitude to human action. He does not change his character –even if we change our response to him.

 Through the ups and downs of the Bible, God is working his purpose out. As it says in v.18: ‘In fulfilment of his own purpose he gave us birth by the word of truth so that we would become a kind of firstfruits of his creatures.’ 

 Our reading describes the greatest gift of all. From the beginning God intended to send Jesus as our Saviour, so that when we believe the word of truth about Jesus, we can become part of the renewal of creation.

 As God breathes that newness into us, we become more like him. How often we end up having arguments with people, when if we could sit down with them and talk it calmly through we’d understand each other! How much better it is to do what v.19 says, and be quick to listen, slow to speak! Don’t reply to that snide Facebook remark with words you’ll regret, don’t send the email written in haste. It’s amazing how many things don’t seem that important 24 hours later.

 For ‘your anger does not produce God’s righteousness.’ Can you think of any time when being angry has made a situation better? Perhaps if there’s an issue of justice at stake – like Jesus and moneychangers – but even then you or I get angry we often end up having to apologise for it. A couple of weeks ago the letter to the Ephesians reminded us that anger is inevitable, but we can learn to control it. Anger will happen, but it doesn’t have to lead to sin, and don’t let the sun go down on it.)

 So with the help of the Holy Spirit we can get rid of all wickedness, and) as verse 21 says ‘welcome with meekness the implanted word that has the power to save your souls’.  

How do we accept God’s Word? For me as a preacher, that means I need to think about what it means in my own life before I dare to speak it to others. Welcoming God’s word with meekness means I respect its authority – this is the word from God, and, rightly understood, it reveals God’s will for our lives.

We all need to get the best out of God’s word, the Bible, which means actually picking it up and reading it. Praying about it, asking God to show us what it means. Reading it in a translation which makes sense. And above us working out what difference it makes in real life – how what you have read will affect the things you do this day. 

For the Bible does make a difference. It is there to change lives. Yes, we read the Bible because it is entertaining –great stories, beautiful poetry. Yes, we read the Bible because it is the foundation of our community and culture – far more than many people realise. Yes, we read the Bible because it is interesting and a fascinating study in its own right.

But it is no good telling, say, the story of the rich fool dramatically, giving a theologically integrated account of Jesus’ teaching on wealth, no good studying the history of the impact of those beliefs in our culture and sitting in a group talking about it, it’s no good doing any of that if the story of the rich fool doesn’t change the way we use our own money.

We must be ‘doers of the word and not merely hearers’. For to be otherwise is to deceive ourselves. James imagines someone inspecting their reflection in the mirror. What would be the point of looking in the mirror if you didn’t also straighten wayward hair and wipe chocolate away from the edge of your mouth? Looking into the Bible and not acting on it leads to a spiritual hardening of the arteries – sadly it becomes more difficult to hear what God is really saying.

If we look into the perfect law closely, we find that v.25 is true. We discover that God’s commands are not a restrictive set of rules, but rather a law that gives life.  We discover that we will be blessed when we persevere in the face of boredom, weariness and temptation.

This may not sound very spiritual. The letter of James, which we’ll be looking at over the next few weeks, has been criticised because it is so practical and down to earth. Yet this is what real faith looks like. James’ whole message, which he drums into us again and again, is that real faith is practical. Real faith is lived out. Real faith makes a difference in the world. What we believe matters, of course it does. But James challenges us: does what we believe change us? If it doesn’t, what’s the point?

V. 26 is typical of James’ message: ‘If any think they are religious and do not bridle their tongues, they deceive themselves and their religion is worthless.’ Gossip, harsh words, the things we say matter. ‘Religion that is pure and undefiled before God the father is this: to care for widows and orphans in their distress and to keep oneself unstained by the world.’

That’s how Christianity spread. The appeal of Christian faith wasn’t just that the teaching was better than the sordid tales of naughty Roman gods. It wasn’t solely down to the hope of resurrection and healing, in comparison to the noble but resigned Greek philosophy. Christianity spread because the Holy Spirit enabled people to live in a different way. Ordinary people began looking after their neighbours; the church cared for its vulnerable members; generosity was sacrificial, partners were faithful; martyrs faced death courageously. Lives were changed.

And as we look at our society, people are crying out for examples of authentic living. Ours is a world which is both ignorant of Christianity and yet feels that it has heard it all before. We cannot gain a hearing by insisting on ancient privilege, or assuming a self-evident superiority. In a world which looks for integrity, which is desperate for a vision to live by, Christians need to point to the word of Christ by a radical lifestyle. As we live out the gospel of Jesus, its power will be seen.

 

 

Ephesians 5:15-20

A few years ago now, WWJD bracelets were all the rage among teenagers. These were little cloth wristbands, with, woven into the fabric, the letters W, W, J, D. It stands for What Would Jesus Do? So young people finding themselves in difficult or potentially challenging situations would stop up short and think, what would Jesus do? How would he approach this?

 

Excellent idea, particularly as teenagers need all the help they can get in living a distinctively Christian lifestyle. In fact, there were plenty of adults who took it on too!

 

However there’s also a teenage rebel in me who says ‘Yes but… How does knowing what Jesus would do help me?’ After all, Jesus was Jesus. He could do all sorts of things I can’t. Jesus could turn an argument around with a clever question, he could cut the Gordian knot. Faced with 5000 hungry people, the disciples suggested buying food, but Jesus worked a miracle. Jesus could heal, raise the dead. What Would Jesus Do? Something incredible! What should I do? Not sure.

 

To which Jesus might respond, in John’s Gospel: ‘Anyone who has faith in me will do greater things than I have been doing.’

 

But the serious point is that you and I are not called to be Jesus. What we are called to be is more like Jesus.  We become more like him in love, compassion wisdom and following God. As we do so we also become more fully ourselves. Jesus does not take us over and force each person into an identikit mould, a little copy of himself. Instead he helps each one of us become a more Christ like version of ourselves.

 

That is the second key doctrine of Christian vocation: that we are called to be ourselves. Whether father, brother, uncle, priest, farmer, retired, sick or well, our vocation is to a particular station in life, and to fulfil that role as a disciple of Christ. God has a plan for each person’s life.

One implication of this is that the activities we enjoy, the work that gives us pleasure may well be the very same things that God is calling us to do. God often speaks to us through our innate talents and loves.

 

I said the fact we are called to be ourselves is the ‘second key doctrine of Christian vocation’. The first is in Ephesians chapter 5 v15-20 where Paul commands that we understand what the will of the Lord is. And what is the will of the Lord? Those sentences could be summed up in the word ‘worship’. Above all, our calling is a response to God, we are created for his pleasure and to worship him.

 

When we think of worship we should consider more than what we do on Sunday. Worship is the whole of life. In v.15 Paul writes: ‘Be careful then how you live’. The word ‘then’ tells us that we need to look at what has gone before. Paul has been talking about how Christ will return, evil will be judged, and those who have trusted in Christ will live with him forever.

 

So if evil will be destroyed, don’t live that way! If the Kingdom of God begins now and lasts for ever, start living God’s way now! That’s why Paul tells us to live as those who are wise, not as those who are unwise.

 

‘Make the most of the time’. Do you ever find yourself wondering where all the time went? What happened to the day? The internet can swallow time up, so can television and gossip. More subtle things can end up occupying more of our lives than is healthy: the endless quest to make the house or garden just that little bit more presentable. It’s the good things like that which can get in the way of the best – sometimes we need to be disciplined and stop so that we can focus the right thing.

 

That needs discernment. So in v.17 ‘Do not be foolish, but understand the will of the Lord’. As we read the Bible, pray and listen; as we reflect on God’s word to us and our experiences; as we seek to live God’s way then our characters become more like that of Jesus.

One example is ‘Don’t become drunk on wine, which leads to debauchery.’ What’s the opposite of drunkenness? Not what you might expect! Paul doesn’t say ‘Instead be sober. Be dull boring.’ In v. 18 he writes ‘Do not get drunk with wine, instead be filled with the Spirit’. One type of Spirit replaces another! The Holy Spirit brings joy, satisfaction, sufficiency. Rather than drowning our sorrows, the Holy Spirit brings them to God who strengthens us and gives us joy even in the midst of them.

He enables us to sing the song of God’s people. One of my favourite tasks as a priest is when I have enough time to choose hymns well. Not rushed, but really thinking through what will work with this Sunday? How will these themes fit with the Bible reading? What tune will be well known and lift people’s hearts? When I have done that, I end up humming through the rest of the day.

 

Music captures our emotions, provides a way of communicating to God without words. If we are prone to negative thinking or obsessing over things, music replaces the voice in the head with something positive. It gives a language which sums up any human experience, even those that are too deep for words.

 

Perhaps it’s ironic that I’m saying this at a said service where we have no music. I wonder if we ought to be more confident and willing to sing up – there are styles of music which do not need accompaniment. The Bible says make a joyful noise to the Lord – tuneful is good but joyful is most important! We are so blessed nowadays with music to hand – radio, CDs, MP3, so put something good on. Enjoy and praise God.

 

Perhaps music is important because it can be such a pure form of worship, with no purpose other than, as it says in verse 20 ‘giving thanks to God the Father at all times and for everything in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ.

 

That is a call to put worship and prayer at the top of our priority list. Our Christian vocation is not chiefly about the work we do, nor about our various ministries in church. Our Christian vocation centres on our relationship with God, mediated by worship and prayer. It is in communion with him that we find out who we really are. It’s as we praise him that we find ourselves transformed and renewed.

 

 

 

 

Ups and downs, a spiritual rhythm

About a year ago, I decided that I was going to take daily walk. Whenever I could, whatever the weather – within reason, I would go for a twenty minute march. It’s been good for me – helps concentration, often I meet people. What’s been a really lovely bonus is seeing the changes in the natural world.

One day it is all bare twigs, the next catkins are in flower. The bullocks in the field are lively when they are first let out, but as they grow they settle down. A few days of dry weather and the little stream becomes cracked mud. Over the year I’ve observed a rhythm to the seasons, a pattern of growth and change, variation held within stability.

The same is true of our own lives. We live within time, and to exist in time means change. There is a natural fluctuation, a rhythm. Sometimes the reasons are obvious – weight goes up when you eat more cake. Sometimes the reasons are less clear – moods go and up and down without necessarily having an obvious cause.

This happens in our spiritual lives too. As we continue our sermon series on prayer, this week we look at the joys and the sorrows, the agony and the ecstasy that comes in following God and particularly in our prayer lives. Do you know what I’m saying? Do you get that variation too – the fact that some days prayer is easy and I want to spend time with God, but other days a Facebook feed or an old magazine is all it takes because I half want to be distracted? One week we’re keen to find God’s will for our lives, another week following him feels like a burden.

That rhythm is natural. What goes up also comes down. And vice versa. So after a great spiritual event, like an ordination, it’s inevitable there will a period of just getting on with it. But those more challenging times are very important. Those are the times when God teaches us self-discipline. We learn to follow Him, not like a dog which gets a treat every time it performs, but as free individuals who know what’s right.

So it you make a great step forward in your faith and then run into a difficult period, don’t despair. It’s not a sign that your faith is weakening – far from it, this is designed to help you grow. Keep praying, keep living for God. However don’t acquiesce to the change and accept it as the new norm. Don’t lose your ambition. For it won’t last forever. And when you emerge from the desert, you’ll be stronger.

Few people knew this better than St Paul. He had been through immense challenges, and also some incredible high points. If anyone had met with triumph and disaster, it was Paul, and he describes it in the reading we heard from 2 Corinthians 12 v2-10.

It’s not immediately obvious what’s going on. It seems that the people in the church at Corinth had an issue with Paul: they felt he wasn’t particularly impressive, not the charismatic leader they wanted. The Corinthians knew of ‘super-apostles’, people who’d had interesting spiritual experiences – and talked about them. So in this passage Paul is pushed to defend himself. He doesn’t want to, he seems quite diffident about it. He starts talking about ‘another person’ who’s had a remarkable spiritual odyssey – but it becomes clear this man is actually Paul himself.

He says he was ‘caught up’. In other words, a spiritual experience is a gift. Whenever we have a particular insight or moment with God, a sense of his presence, it is a grace from him. Not something earnt. Techniques of prayer can help open us up to the way God wants to meet us – but nothing forces him to act. Prayer is not an ABC checklist that always leads to a particular result – it’s a relationship. Remember that.

In verse 2 Paul talks about the third heaven – traditionally there were believed to be seven levels. And in v.3 he’s not sure whether he went ‘in the body’ or not. In other words, it can be hard to describe a spiritual experience. Is it a vision? A dream? Are you physically there? This difficulty can actually be a sign of what is genuine.

Whatever it was, Paul saw and heard things that ‘he is not permitted to say.’ We don’t know why, but Paul is not allowed to go into any detail about what he’s heard or seen. This is important. Real spirituality is like this: humble, consistent, doesn’t show off. There were many alternative spiritualities around in Paul’s time, just as there are today. Gnosticism, Mysticism, Kabbala, the Occult. Their practitioners went into great detail about what they thought they had seen. They tried to draw people in with the promise that you too can share in this secret knowledge.

Fake spirituality makes much of revealing secrets, of boasting about special experiences, giving techniques to the initiates. But Paul says true spirituality is rooted in Christ. If we’re given an experience of God, it’s there to encourage us. To build faith in him. Not to be an end in itself.

Spiritual experiences help give substance to our hope. They inspire us, encourage us, as we put our faith in Jesus. But the point is: our faith is in Jesus. The experience points to Christ, it is not an end in itself. So be wary of any spirituality which seeks after experiences for their own sake. Don’t be always chasing the latest high.

For faith is meant to make us love God and serve others. And sometimes faith is strongest when we are most challenged. Paul ends by saying that it is not the visions and ecstasy that he boasts of. Rather, he boasts of his weakness. For it’s through his weakness that the power of Christ is shown to be strong.

The English phrase ‘thorn in the flesh’ comes from this passage. We don’t know what it was Paul suffered from – an illness? A temptation? Three times he pleaded with Lord to take it away, but the Lord replied ‘My grace is sufficient for you. For my power is made perfect in weakness.’ It is the grit in the oyster that produces the pearl. So in v.10, Paul is ‘content with weakness, insults, hardships, persecutions and calamities for the sake of Christ, for whenever I am weak, then I am strong.’ In other words, it’s the challenges that reveal and strengthen faith, as much as, if not more than the high points.

We can see this in the gospel reading too. The disciples did amazing things. They healed people and preached to crowds, but Jesus anticipated that they would be rejected, because he was. When Jesus returned to the village where he was brought up, the response was not pride at the local lad made good, it was ‘Who does he think he is?’

That’s why Jesus could do no miracles there. It wasn’t that his power was limited, it’s that people had closed themselves off to him. Don’t believe those who say ‘You’re not healed because you haven’t got enough faith’. That’s wrong. Jesus can work wherever there is any faith – even a tiny amount. Remember the man who said ‘I believe, help me in my unbelief.’ If we’re willing to work with God, he can work with us, no matter how small our faith. But those people had closed themselves off, they refused to accept him.

Even today it’s hard to establish your own identity if people think they already know who you are. But it’s crucial that those who are growing in faith are given the space to develop, the freedom to try things out, the liberty to succeed or fail in a supportive environment.

Looking out for one another is key. For as we’ve heard in the Christian life there are great joys. Closeness to God, blessing, times when what we do is effective. Yet there are also times where, despite faithfully following God’s will, we experience challenge, opposition, spiritual dryness even apparent failure.

We’ve thought about the reasons for this. The natural ebb and flow of our energy. External forces beyond our control. Our openness to God. But sometimes the reasons are not obvious – and maybe those times of challenge strengthen our faith through perseverance and learning to trust God when we can’t see the way ahead.

So in those times we should be aware of what’s going on, take care of one another, make the challenges a subject of our prayers, and also rejoice in what God is able to do with us.

For God is with us in the triumphs and the disaster. God is in the agony and the ecstasy. One day the set-backs will fade, never to return. And we will be in his presence for ever.

 

 

Repentance

Giving a name is a task fraught with difficulties. For instance a baby’s name should be something the parents like – but have you thought about what happens when you shorten it? Christopher becomes Chris, which is ok, but some parents don’t like their Albert being called Bertie. Does the first name complement the surname? It’s always worth doing an internet search to make sure you’re not about to lumber your offspring with the same name as an American psychopath.

And if you’re naming a building, you might want to honour a famous benefactor – but what if society’s view of that person changes? More on the Colston Hall later.

Finally, does the name have a meaning? Is it one that you intend? In Biblical times children were often named after their father, as we hear in verse 59 of today’s reading from Luke’s Gospel. Surely he will be Zechariah? But the little boy’s mother wants to name him John. This is a shortened form of Johanan, which means God is gracious.

Perhaps that’s because this particular baby had been long awaited. However, there’s more going on here. Naming this boy John is an act of repentance, it is a sign that Zechariah is obeying God and doing what he was told. Repentance means turning back to God and doing his will.

Zechariah was a priest, and his number had come up. In those days there were so many priests that their duties were assigned by a lottery. Statistically, a priest had a once in a lifetime chance to serve in the temple. Zechariah’s big day arrives, he goes in and promptly sees an angel who tells him that, despite great age, he and his wife will have a son and they are to name him John. Perhaps years of disappointment have sapped Zechariah’s faith, because his response is to ask ‘How can I know that this will happen?’ For his lack of belief, he is condemned to be struck dumb until the day those things occur.

So when in verse 62 Zechariah asks for his communication aid, and writes on his tablet ‘His name is John’, his tongue is freed and he is able to speak! Through this practical action of naming the child, Zechariah commits himself to God’s will, and demonstrates that he has repented of not believing the angel. He acknowledges that his words and actions were wrong, he asks God’s forgiveness and wants to change. That’s what we mean by repentance.

As we continue our sermon series on prayer, thinking about repentance is really important because it opens the door to God in our prayer lives. Becoming aware of what we have done wrong, saying sorry, turning around, resolving to do better by God’s help is a really important part of prayer. That process of repentance is cleansing for the soul, and it’s a necessary preparation for the rest of our prayers to be really effective.

For it’s no good asking God to rain down blessings upon us, if we’re hiding from him under a great big umbrella! So often the way that God answers our prayers, showers good things onto us, is through our obedience. Which means that if we continue doing the wrong thing, persist in sin, it’s like digging up the seed we so carefully planted. Or our lives are so full of baggage we’re like a stream sweeping along so much dead wood and plastic bags that it can’t flow properly anymore.

Do you know what really annoys me? Really gets me going? It’s when someone asks me for help, to show them the solution to a problem, and then promptly ignores it! I’d rather not be asked in the first place than waste my time telling and showing, and then being disregarded. Yet I know I do that to God all the time. We need to ask the Holy Spirit to give us more self-knowledge, better insight into what we do, honest realism before God. We can’t hide anything from God – but the amazing thing is: however far gone we are, if we are open and honest with him, he accepts our confession and forgives us. Because Jesus died for us, took our sin on himself on the cross, repentance becomes for us the path to life. Properly understand, repentance is good and healthy.

In the story Zechariah acts and he speaks. He writes John’s name on a tablet, and then he praises God. It is important for us to do both of these things. It is good for us to confess our sins, like we do in general terms in church, and privately, more specifically, to God in personal prayer. It’s right that when we have confessed our sins, we then make an effort, with the Holy Spirit’s help, to live differently in future.

Either one of these is incomplete without the other. Words without actions are hollow. There is a real spiritual danger here: because the more times we say sorry for something but don’t change our behaviour, the weaker the effect of that confession becomes and the harder it is for us to be genuinely transformed. Words without action become an unhealthy turning over of the past, a dwelling upon things, or a superficial ‘sorry!’ on your way to doing the same thing again.

Perhaps it’s less obvious how actions without words are also incomplete. If the school bully changes and stops thumping the other children then everyone heaves a sigh of relief. But if that person has never said sorry, then they’ve never really acknowledged the harm their actions have done. Nor have they opened the way to forgiveness and face-to-face reconciliation. Often we’re satisfied when someone’s actions have changed, but words open the way to a deeper healing.

It’s this deeper healing that we see in the ministry of John the Baptist. Our reading from Acts summarises, in verses 24 and 25, what John did. He preached a baptism of repentance for all the people of Israel, preparing the way for Jesus. He turned people’s hearts back to God so that Jesus would receive a ready welcome. And then in verse 26, we find that this message of salvation has been sent to us.

So how does that happen? The good news that we can change if we admit our need of God affects us at different levels. Individuals, the church, the nation.
Like Zechariah the priest, the Church sometimes needs to repent. Pointing to Christ on earth it needs to hold to the highest standards. That’s why there’s been a review of the Church of England’s approach to child protection. Doing DBS checks and safeguarding training takes up a lot of time – but it is part of the church’s response to historic failures. It shows that there is corporate repentance for what has happened in the past, and demonstrates a resolve that such things will not be allowed to happen again.

There is also the question of the nation. Can a country say sorry for the things its ancestors did wrong? Recently a pardon was issued for the wartime codebreaker Alan Turing, which was very right and proper.

But words are easily said. Action is more difficult. And action is untargeted if we don’t think deeply. So for instance, we need to ask why the 18th century Bristol merchant Edward Colston was widely seen in his time as a good chap, a generous benefactor and philanthropist?
Why did someone who appeared to be a Christian just not see that there was a problem in having business interests which included the slave trade? How did he possibly think that was ok? How did he justify it? Did it even occur to him that it needed to be justified?

Until we ask those questions and engage with the history then we learn nothing. All we get good at is judging others by our own standards. The mistakes of the past will not shed light on our own times, or help us to discover our own hypocrisies and failings. Do we know what shares our pension funds own? How is it possible to buy a suit and shoes for £80?

Words which express regret are fine, but ‘what do we do?’ is a more difficult question. Is compensation appropriate to those directly affected by an injustice? Or to their descendants? What are we doing about racial equality and other forms of inclusion today? What about those who cannot speak for themselves because disability means they have no voice, or who cannot speak because they’ve not yet been born?
Repentance as a nation is complex, yet sometimes a whole society does realise it has taken a wrong turn. Sometimes nations do recalibrate, change their priorities and act. When we look back through history we see that national repentance often follows a change in the church, which itself follows on from repentance in the lives of individuals.

John the Baptist spoke directly to individuals in ways which were relevant to them. ‘Tax collectors, don’t take more than you’re entitled to. Soldiers, don’t use force to take stuff from the population. Rich people, share with the poor’.

He called everyone to repentance. Individuals, the religious establishment, the nation. How effective was it? Several times in the New Testament we read that the real sinners, the tax collectors and prostitutes, responded to John’s message. They knew they were doing wrong. They didn’t need anyone to point it out. They could see the good news, love and mercy in the message of Jesus and John.

But the religious professionals, the Pharisees and scribes didn’t. They thought they were doing ok. Their problems were less obvious but no less real: greed, self-righteousness, double standards. The challenge for churchgoing Christians today is obvious – religious commitment brings its own temptations. May we never be proud of our religious credentials. God forbid that we are proud of being Christians.

God can speak to each one of us. He can shine his gentle light into our hearts, showing us the places where we can change. If we ask him to, God will send the Holy Spirit to open our eyes and help us understand ourselves. He will give us self-knowledge and the desire to be transformed. Like taking out a rotten tooth, the process may not be comfortable, but you’ll be better off when it’s done! And if we encounter resistance within ourselves, then make that the subject of your prayers. For repentance is a gift from God, a way to life, and a core principle of prayer.