Blaming the fig tree

Some years ago there was a terrible earthquake in Azerbaijan. Local buildings were badly constructed, so the death toll was high. However many Azerbaijanis placed the blame elsewhere. I remember hearing an Azebaijani man on the radio explaining that the disaster was Allah’s judgement on the people for letting their religion slip.

I imagine that the person who came to Jesus, in Luke 13:1-9, with the news of an atrocity in the temple was looking for a similar response: mustn’t those Galileans have been awful to have died in such a way? All we know about the two tragedies in the reading is what’s written here. It seems that Pilate, the notoriously cruel Roman governor had ordered the killing of some Galileans despite the fact they were engaged in sacred duties. Siloam, in v. 4 is part of Jerusalem and it appears that a tower suddenly collapsed on a crowd.

From Jesus question in v2, we conclude that the people who came to him did indeed think it the case that those who suffered were getting their just deserts. Views like that enable people to keep a simplistic view of the world where bad things happen to bad or careless people, while those who enjoy good things can carry on doing so, confident in the belief that they must have earned them.

Perhaps they wanted Jesus to moralise. If so, they got a shock! He says: Do not judge one another, because in v.3: ‘Unless you repent, you will all perish as they did’. Jesus doesn’t condemn, instead he challenges his questioners on their attitude. Why judge?

Jesus makes it very clear: we cannot say that if people have suffered, they must be worse sinners. Bad things happen to anyone, regardless of how they act. The disasters and tragedies of life do not seek out bad people alone, we are all equally vulnerable. So we mustn’t judge.

Religious people can be particularly susceptible to that form of self-righteousness. Yes, we may come to church and may have responded to God’s call – but we never grow out of the need to for self-examination and confession. It’s easy to put that discipline in the past. Paul reminds his readers that the Israelites who followed Moses out of the desert had seen God’s power. They had experienced his salvation, followed his appointed leader and been fed by heavenly food.

Yet they still managed to turn away from God and his goodness. In the same way, we who have been baptised, who follow Christ, who receive communion must hear afresh God’s call. For all people are in the same boat, says Jesus. All humanity has sinned, and we all need to repent. Some may appear better people than others, but all have failed to do what God requires.

Imagine a machine which consists of a headset and a video screen. And when you put your head in it, it replays every event in your life for all to see. Would anyone volunteer to do such a thing? I wouldn’t. I have things of which I am ashamed. I expect we all do. And we also intuitively know that such things deserve God’s judgement. For if God is to be God, if he is to be good in a meaningful way, then he must act against evil. He must judge. And that includes the sin in our own lives.

Yet as a loving Father, God does not want any of us to suffer. There is a problem here, which is resolved when Jesus offered himself in our place. When Jesus hung on the cross, he suffered the penalty for human sin. Justice was satisfied. Love triumphed as God himself bore the pain of forgiveness. Through that death we can all be wiped clean. Yet to be forgiven, Jesus says we have to accept it and make it our own.

Every year millions of pounds from the National Lottery get put into a special fund used for charity. They’re not donations. They’re unclaimed winnings. Thousands of people out there have won. And I don’t just mean the odd tenner, some significant sums. The money is theirs. But they miss out, because they haven’t claimed it.

It is similar with God’s gift. Knowing that God offers forgiveness and new life is not the same as taking it. Many people understand that God is a God of love, and that he wants to forgive them. But do they then take him up on it? Do they ask for forgiveness? Do they invite God into their lives and commit themselves to him? If not, then that promise is unclaimed.

Each person needs to make a positive decision to be a Christian, a follower of Jesus. It doesn’t happen by default or by inheritance. Jesus says, ‘unless you repent, you will perish’. It is our choice, which Jesus makes very clear in the second part of today’s gospel.

I have a fig tree just like the one in verses 6-9. It was bought at some expense from a smart garden centre and for the first year it did nothing. Fair enough, I thought, it’s only new. Throughout the winter I kept it cosy indoors and come the spring little figs appeared. But in the Autumn one by one they dropped off. I lavished care upon the tree: repotted it, fertilised it, kept it warm under a fleece. Fig fruit, of course, take two years to mature. In Spring, there were lots of baby figs, but come the Autumn, they fell off until nothing remained.

It’s been doing that for years and years. We’ve decided in the end that it’s an ornamental. But last week there was a significant moment. Wandering round the garden centre, gift vouchers in hand, we saw a different variety. Well known for producing. And now we know that we shall be in Stanton for the time being – we have another tree. So I wait with interest to see what will happen. Will we enjoy our first figs? Or will that one turn out to be a dud?

At one level this could be a parable about patience. If we put ourselves in the shoes of the master or the gardener in the parable, can we identify a project in our lives which isn’t bearing fruit? Does it need more time and resources? Or do we need to set a deadline so we’re not throwing good money and effort after bad?

But there’s a deeper way of looking at this story, which is closer to Jesus’ original meaning. In Jesus’ parables, the authority figure, the king or the boss, usually represents God. If we read verses 6-9 in the context of what has gone before, on repentance, then I think it’s pretty clear that the fig tree stands, not for projects, but for human beings.

God looks for repentance, he is the gardener looking for good fruit. What happens if he finds none? Perhaps he will give us another chance. But Jesus says don’t try his patience. Don’t take his mercy for granted. Jesus says make sure you respond to God. Repent, be sorry for what you have done wrong, change your ways and do good.

It’s a Lenten message. Produce fruits in keeping with repentance. And don’t delay! The message of this parable is: If you don’t act now, it may be too late.

Quite a lot of people take the attitude that I might get round to following Jesus sometime later on. It sounds interesting, but I’ve got other things on my mind. I think of myself as a Christian but each Sunday there’s something else to do. Or, like St Augustine, make me chaste Lord, just not yet! I’ll enjoy myself now and I can save religion for when I’m old and close to death.

But one never knows when the end may come. I’ve been in a bad car crash. There’s no time to put your spiritual affairs in order. It’s too quick. In the split second before impact my thoughts were: ‘Car! Brake!’ And, bizarrely, ‘If I survive this, it’s goodbye to the no-claims bonus.’ And then the airbags went off. Not very spiritual thoughts if that had been my last moments.

So let’s not wait for our dying day before making our peace with God. Even if we are granted plenty of time to prepare, the danger in delaying making a commitment is that every time you put it off your heart becomes a little bit more hardened. One becomes less likely to respond.

Perhaps that’s the negative side of the message. But there’s a positive side as well. There is so much to enjoy in following Jesus now. He came to bring us life in all its fullness, a life that we can enjoy on this earth, here and now. In the parable, a fig tree which isn’t bearing fruit isn’t really fulfilled as a fig tree. Making figs is what fig trees do. It’s their purpose. Similarly, only when we are in relationship with God will we find a deep and lasting satisfaction.

There has been a challenge in today’s reading: we all need to repent. No matter who we are, we need to say sorry and return to God. There has been a warning too – and Jesus isn’t above that. He speaks the truth, isn’t afraid of the hard word: don’t delay, it may be too late, don’t try God’s patience. The possibility of spending eternity without God is a terrible thing. But no one needs to. It is our choice. Do we accept God’s offer, commit our lives to him or not? I’m going to pray in a moment… For if we do there is also a promise: Come back to God, and you will find new life, a fruitfulness, forgiveness and meaning with him.

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Giving things up in Lent

Why do Christians give things up for Lent? It’s a surprisingly common practice by those who don’t go to church. When Chantal was a social worker, almost all the members of her team gave up something for Lent. Even those who at other times might be quite hostile to the Christian faith. I suppose for some people it can be another way of dieting, at least as much as identifying with Christ in the wilderness.

For many, giving something up for Lent is a way of making sure we are not getting too dependent on things. When I give up alcohol I need to find another way to wind down in the evening and not rely on a drink to relax (– apparently having a drink every evening is the most likely way to become an alcoholic); if you give up caffeine you soon find out whether you’re getting enough sleep to function properly during the day! Giving something up is a way of keeping bodily appetites under control – not being greedy with the cake or having more chocolate than is good for you.

But it also has deeper implications: if we get used to having what we want, when we want in a small way, we can easily fall into the attitude where we get used to consuming without regard for the effects on other people or on the world. We can unconsciously become self-centred.

So we can see Lent as a kind of training ground, where small victories over temptation build character and make it easier to resist when the big decisions come along.

Lent reminds us that it is fine to enjoy the good things of life, that God made a good world but also that we must not let such things get the mastery over us. This is part of what St Paul is talking about in our reading from the letter to the Philippians chapter 3 verse 17 to 4 verse 1 – something we don’t hear much about today: how it is important to keep the physical appetites under control so we can keep spiritual things in mind. It would be good to have the reading in front of you as I speak.

The Apostle Paul begins with the most astonishing statement, in v.17: ‘Join in imitating me’. I don’t know about you, but I would find it very hard to stand here and say, if you want to live like a Christian, copy me. I feel I make too many mistakes.

But even if I did live the life of a saint, saying: ‘Copy me’ – it just wouldn’t feel right. After all, if someone compliments you on, say, your singing ability (which never happens to me, by the way!) you’re meant to make light of it: ‘oh, it’s nothing really.’ ‘I’m just lucky, or well taught.’ To accept the praise, and especially to presume to offer advice, ‘Thank you – and you know, if you were to take deeper diaphragm breaths you’d be a bit better’, well it seems perhaps a bit off?

It wasn’t like that in the ancient world. If you were good at something, it was perfectly acceptable to acknowledge it. The modern English approach might be seen by them (rightly?) as false humility.  We ought to ask ourselves, putting aside the fact that English people don’t usually say this, could we say: ‘Live as I do’? And if not, why not?

We certainly wouldn’t want to be in Paul’s alternative category in v.18. There are those who live as enemies of the cross, for whom Paul weeps with tears of compassion because they are distancing themselves from God and heading for self-destruction. What is this terrible thing they are doing? The answer is perhaps surprising.

In v.19: their god is their belly; their glory is in their shame and their minds are set on earthly things. In other words, the problem is that they are living for this life alone. If this earthly existence were all there was, then that might make sense: ‘Let us eat and drink for tomorrow we die’. But if there is a life after this one then that can be a great hope. Being clear about eternal life transforms what we do now. If, as Paul says in v.20, our citizenship is in heaven, then the promise of heaven affects our behaviour on earth. We have something worthwhile to live for. In a world which is very pessimistic, Christians are characterised by hope.

But I think St Paul is saying even more than that. He says our citizenship is in heaven. That’s a key word ‘citizenship’. It means that heaven is where believers in Jesus really belong. And if we really belong there, then we should live as citizens of that place.

If you were one of the people who first heard this letter, a resident of Philippi, then that would make a lot of sense. Philippi was a Roman colony. The city had a special legal status. It was much more significant than other parts of the Empire. A ‘colony’ was like a microcosm of Rome. The laws were Roman, the taxes were low like in Rome, the clothes were Roman, so was the language. A colony was a little outpost of Rome in foreign parts. If you want to understand it, think of Gibraltar! More British than the British, I’m told.

Paul says that’s what it’s like being a Christian. We are citizens of an outpost of heaven. It simply doesn’t make sense to live for this world alone, because we don’t actually belong here. There’d be no point in a citizen of Philippi returning to live according to the harsher laws of the surrounding countryside – that would be a backward step. In the same way, why would a Christian follow the customs and priorities of a mixed up world when you have a much greater citizenship and future?

Our destiny, as it says in v.21, is with Jesus. To quote: ‘He will transform the body of our humiliation so that it may be conformed to the body of his glory’. In other words, our mortal, earthly, limited and broken bodies will be transformed by Jesus into a body which is whole and glorious, heavenly and eternal. People sometimes imagine of heaven being full of disembodied souls. But this passage tells us the body matters. The body too has a future.

I think that is a wonderful idea. The Bible speaks of healing for our brokenness, redemption of our flaws, the ability to accept our bodies as something God given.

Sometimes, sadly, the church has spoken and acted as if the physical body was unimportant. Sometimes people have been encouraged to mistreat and despise their bodies. In trying to set people free from an ‘I want’ attitude, our predecessors have at times disregarded people’s real and genuine needs.

Today’s Bible passage is a corrective to all that. It teaches us that the body matters, that we have a glorious future, and precisely because of that we should not live for this earthly life alone. Instead, as in our final verse, we should stand firm in the Lord. Because the body matters, it matters what we do with it. Treat your body well; accept it as a gift from God, even if flawed by sin; enjoy life’s blessings but do not let them get the mastery of you; look forward to the final healing of the body in heaven. Stand firm in Christ, persist in his love and grace, live as a citizen of heaven’s outpost on earth.

Haloes

Have you ever wondered where haloes come from? In Christian art, there are two different haloes – one is the familiar little ring above the head, like a circlet suspended in mid air. That’s a later stylized derivation from the another depiction which is much older. In this version the halo is more like a glow surrounding the whole head.

 

The origin of the halo may well come from today’s readings. The Old Testament reading Exodus 34 describes the radiant face of Moses, after he had been in the presence of God. It comes from the time when he had been up Mount Sinai, met God, and received the 10 Commandments. In v.30: ‘Moses did not know that the skin of his face shone because he had been talking with God – and all the Israelites were afraid to come near him’ So he had to cover it up, to protect onlooker’s eyes, putting a veil over his face.

 

It sounds an incredible thing – yet have you heard of a radiant bride? Someone who is so full of joy on her wedding that she seems to glow with joy. Sometimes when people have been with God, when they have been worshipping their faces do seem to reflect a joy. The Early Church described it happening with the martyrs as they died for what they believed. It is incredibly attractive, but in Exodus there’s a hint of danger too – for Moses has been with God.

 

Do you remember some years back there was an eclipse of the sun? We’d all been urged not to look directly at it – lest the brightness blinded, but to use special sunglasses. At the time Chantal and I were on holiday in France. The shops had sold out of sunglasses, but we were really keen to see the eclipse. So we tried using a pin hole camera, making a hole in a sheet of paper, and you could see the little crescent of the sun projected onto another sheet of paper held behind.

 

But that wasn’t interesting enough, so we started doing the unthinkable, squinting at the sun itself. Pretty soon a woman sitting next to us had got so concerned that she lent us her sunglasses! In that eclipse, we were drawn to it, but there was a sense of danger too.

 

Holiness is like that – a fire which draws us to its warmth, and yet can also blaze up. The Old Testament in particular expresses that conviction that humanity has to be protected from the holiness of God: At Mount Sinai, with the giving of the Commandments, the Lord appeared in cloud and darkness. As the hymn ‘Immortal, invisible’ says: ‘tis only the splendour of light hideth thee’. In a time of lightweight religion, it is good for us to remember that God is holy and awesome, mysterious, greater than we can ever imagine.

 

Does our worship take seriously the grandeur, holiness and power of God? In our prayers we certainly have access to God through Jesus,  and Jesus taught us to call God Father, but that is an awesome privilege, bought at the cost of his blood shed for us on the cross. Being able to come into God’s presence is not to be taken for granted, or presumed upon. We do need to prepare properly for worship, and we do need that reminder that God is not to be trifled with.

 

He is a great God – yet he allows human beings into his presence, and when he does, they reflect his glory. There’s two points I’d like to make about Moses in the Exodus reading.

 

Firstly, if you’ve looked at very old stained glass, or carvings on a font, you may have seen Moses with horns. He looks rather like a little devil. But it’s not anti-Jewish. It comes from a misunderstanding of the Old Testament Hebrew. The word for radiant is rather like the word for horned – so the early translators thought that when Moses came down from Sinai he had horns!

 

Secondly, the radiance of Moses comes from God alone. Have you ever heard the expression ‘is your halo polished?’ It’s often used to poke fun at someone who seems a goody goody, perhaps a bit self righteous. In the Bible, the halo comes, not from the good deeds that we do, but from the reality of God in our lives. It’s a general Biblical principle, isn’t it, that it is not our goodness that gives us credit, but the grace of God. We do not need to try and impress God – who could impress such a God? Instead, as forgiven sinners, we must humble receive his love.

Which is what the New Testament reading says. 2 Corinthians chapter 3 is not easy to follow, but essentially Paul is comparing faith in Christ with the Old Testament. He says in v.7. and 8 ‘if the ministry of death came in glory, so that the people of Israel could not gaze upon Moses’ face, how much more will the ministry of the Spirit come in glory?’. If Moses had a radiant face, how much more glorious is the good news of Jesus! If the law which brought awareness of sin came with glory, how much more glorious is the forgiveness we have in Christ!

 

The radiance of Moses is a mark of the holiness and divine inspiration of the Ten Commandments, which have been such a foundation of our morality and culture. Yet, as Paul points out, they have their limitations.

 

There was a church I knew which had some very imposing Ten Commandments boards. They were broad and high, written in Gothic script, and framed in dark oak. At the front of the church, fixed either side of the altar, they were very prominent. Except that they were hidden behind a curtain – because they looked intimidating.

 

That‘s indicative: the Commandments often make people feel bad. They show us right and wrong. They convict us when we have sinned. They pronounce God’s condemnation. That’s not comfortable. Nor, in itself, can the law make us do right. As Paul says: the law is good, God gave it. Yet because we fall short of it, it condemns us. So in verse of 7 he refers to the Old Testament law as ‘the ministry that brought death’ – because no one could keep it and it only revealed human failing. It just makes us aware of judgement, and that we need to be forgiven.

 

By contrast, in verse 9. ‘How much more will the ministry of justification bring glory’. Justification means putting us right with God. Christ offers himself as a ransom, to buy back humanity from slavery to sin. Christ provides the way to God. Rather than us keep all of God’s laws, which no one can do, Jesus made it possible for us to come to God by trusting in Jesus’ own death on our behalf. Jesus was the only person who fulfilled the requirement of the law, and by joining ourselves to him, we benefit from his obedience and self offering.

So through Jesus, the way to God is open to everyone who will turn to him. It’s glorious good news. And it has several applications.

 

In v.12: ‘Since then we have such a hope we act with great boldness’. Our confidence is founded on God. Because he has done so much for us, we have nothing to prove. Our standing in Christ is secure. Paul had the confidence to stand trial before kings and governors, to face down angry mobs and preach the gospel wherever he went. Where did it come from? From his knowledge that God was with him.

 

He did so with honesty and openness, as he writes in Chapter 4 v2: ‘We have renounced the shameful things one hides, we refuse to practice cunning or to falsify God’s word; but by the open statement of the truth we commend ourselves to the conscience of everyone in the sight of God’. It’s sometimes tempting, isn’t it to veil the glory of the gospel, to keep quiet about some of the things we believe because we fear they may offend or appear outdated. But the truth of the gospel must shine like a lighthouse. We must try to explain the difficult things well, not hide behind jargon, always speak in love and compassion. We should not hide our light under a bushel.

 

Finally, in verse 18, Paul says that we reflect the glory of God. ‘All of us with unveiled faces, seeing the glory of the Lord as reflected in a mirror, are being transformed into the same image from one degree of glory to another by the Spirit’. That’s incredible. We become more like Jesus, more his image, sharing his glory. Have you ever met someone whose life was suffused with the love and grace of God? Sometimes people who become Christians say that the thing which motivated them was that they met someone and ‘he just seemed to have something I didn’t have, but I wanted – an inner peace, or grace, or joy.’ There are even accounts in Christian history of people who did literally shine like Moses. We too can let the light of Christ shine, and draw people to God.

 

So, Haloes. We may not have them until heaven, but in this life, may the glory of Christ shine from us.    Amen.

1 Corinthians 15:12-20

The old lady was seriously ill, confused and in hospital. Her family had were gathered round, come to say goodbye. It was a difficult time. For although the lady herself was a lifelong Baptist, her husband had nothing to do with the chapel and three of her grown up children were scornful about faith. They were bright, intellectual individuals, successful in their chosen spheres, but now they were lost. Illness and grief were unfamiliar territory and they were all at sea. I’ve seen it so many times – people without faith who appear so fulfilled, you wonder ‘is there really a God shaped hole?’ And then bereavement comes, and as far as they concerned it’s the end, they have no hope.

 

The other daughter had married a Catholic – ‘shall we call the chaplain’, he suggested. When she came, she was quietly confident, gentle and assured. All the family held hands as she said the last rites, and something from their schools days stirred as she led them in the Lord’s Prayer. The old lady died at that moment, but when the chaplain eventually went she left peace behind her.

 

Our conference speaker – for he was the Catholic– now sees his father in law attending the Baptist chapel. And the brothers and sisters have stopped their snide remarks about faith.

 

As St Paul writes in 1 Corinthians 15 verses 12-20, the hope we have as Christians can transform our attitudes to life and death. The gospel is wonderful news when we are faced with mortality: Christ died, but was raised, and if we trust in him we will live with him. We will still grieve at the parting from loved ones, but it need not be the end for there is the promise that where Christ has been we shall follow. Perhaps we shall still fear death, or at least what’s involved, but it is no longer the final enemy. It is an enemy that Christ has beaten.

 

The Resurrection is such a wonderful, inspiring, life changing and comforting belief. Yet it seems that quite a few people in the church in Corinth didn’t believe it.

Perhaps we may be able to sympathise. I know people who find it incredible – dead men don’t generally rise after all. It depends on the supernatural intervention of God – but that’s precisely the point. Only God could do it, and he did so to vindicate Christ. It’s not a miracle that operates within the general way the world works, instead it’s a completely new order. The Resurrection is a turnaround of the laws of nature, showing that God’s new world has begun. The significance of the Resurrection lies in the fact that it is so incredible.

 

The odd thing about the Corinthians is that they seem to have believed that Jesus was raised, but that the rest of us wouldn’t be. Paul responding to them says in v. 12 ‘Now if Christ is proclaimed as raised from the dead’ – in other words his resurrection is taken for granted as common ground – ‘how can some of you say there is no resurrection of the dead.’ So they believed it for Jesus but not for anyone else.

 

This is the complete opposite of what many people believe today. More people believe in life after death than believe in God. You’re much more likely to find that a particular person believes in the general idea of heaven than in the specific Resurrection of Jesus. It’s described in all sorts of forms: ‘Mum’s gone to be a star, an angel. Grandpa’s looking down on us, I’m going to come back as…’but relatively few accept the Biblical account of Easter.

 

Perhaps it’s worth stopping for a moment and asking what exactly does Paul believe? If we look closely, the phrase in this passage is not ‘going to heaven’ or ‘life after death’ or even ‘the soul lives on’ or any one of a host of things that we might imagine Christianity teaches. What Paul actually says, in v.13 and elsewhere is ‘The resurrection of the dead.’

 

This is thoroughly Biblical language, which begins in the Old Testament, carries on in the centuries after, and fills the New Testament with a substantial hope. If we take all those references together we can build up a picture.

One day Christ will return and bring in his Kingdom, renewing all creation. Those who have died will be raised, not as disembodied spirits but body and soul. As the world is made new, all sin and evil will be destroyed for ever. Those who cling to their sin will be swept away with it – there will be a judgement and we need to warn people about that while also holding out the hope that Jesus brings.

 

For those who have trusted in Jesus, those who’ve accepted the forgiveness he brings will live with him for ever as part of the new creation. They will be recognisably themselves, yet also transformed. They will be free from all sin and its consequences: in the words of Revelation Chapter 21 sickness and mourning and crying and pain will be no more, every tear will be wiped away from their eyes.

 

This is a very physical thing. Biblical faith anticipates a real, exciting eternal life. It is not a disembodied existence, or being lost in the sea of the divine, nor is it the vague shadowy Hades that the Corinthians’ contemporaries expected. Christianity looks forward to a glorious physical and spiritual existence. Our faith is not overworldly. We must not devalue nor abuse this creation, for it is a gift of God and it will continue, healed and restored, into the new creation.

 

It’s a glorious hope and it’s clearly connected to Christ’s resurrection. He died and so will you and I. He was raised, and so will we be. Where he has gone, we shall follow. As v. 20 describes it, he is the first fruits of those who have died.

 

When you pick blackberries you find that the fruit grow in loose clusters. At the end of each cluster is a particularly large juicy fruit – apparently it’s called the King Blackberry – and it’s always the first to ripen. When the King Blackberry is ripe, you know the others are not far behind. Describing King Jesus as the first fruits means that we follow in his footsteps. He’s like a lead explorer hacking a jungle path for the others to follow.

So, Paul says in v.14, if Jesus isn’t raised then your faith is in vain. We might think this is a bit strong. It makes sense that if Jesus isn’t alive then the promise of eternal life isn’t there. That’s what Paul says in v.18 – if Christ is not raised then those who have died in Christ have also perished. But that’s not the only reason for faith – surely Christian ethics and values still stand? The beauty of Jesus’ teaching is everlasting. Wouldn’t we still have the Holy Spirit and prayer?

 

Are you sure about that asks Paul. In v.15, if Christ is not raised then we have misrepresented God. We would have been telling lies, not just about an event on the first Easter but also about what it means. For God raised Jesus as a vindication of all that he said and did. The Romans and religious authorities thought they had got rid of Jesus, they thought they had proved him wrong by executing him in a shameful way. If Jesus is not raised, then he is indeed just another teacher. There’s no certainty that his teaching is better than that of any other, there’s no indication of whom God approves. Christian ethics, values and teaching are all very well, an interesting idea.

 

But God’s verdict is a great big Yes to Jesus! God gives Jesus life. Therefore his teaching is a rock on which we can build our lives.

 

There are more consequences. In v.17: If Christ has not been raised, you are still in your sins. In other words, it is the Resurrection which proves and completes our forgiveness. If Jesus is not raised then his death is just a tragic end. The cross would mean nothing, a martyrs death at best. There would be no new life, no gift of the Spirit.

 

But the fact that Jesus is raised shows that the cross was God’s plan. Throughout his earthly life Jesus prepared his disciples for what he was about to do. He predicted his suffering, but told them it had a purpose. ‘The Son of Man came not to be served but to serve and to give his life as a ransom for many.’

By raising Jesus, God vindicates what Jesus said he was doing: offering his life to buy back sinners. Jesus took the penalty that we deserve for the wrong things we have done. He took the condemnation so that we might be free. Raising Jesus shows that the power of death is broken. Sins are forgiven when we turn to Christ. We are free. We can invite people to respond to the love of God shown in Christ, knowing that it really works.

 

It is that confidence in Christ and in the life to come which has given Christians throughout the centuries strength to face sacrifice, persecution and even martyrdom. It is that knowledge that this life is not the end which has enabled millions to put their own desires to one side and give their lives in service to others. It is that faith in the resurrection which has comforted countless people when faced with their own mortality, or the loss of loved ones. Christ has been raised, and so shall we!

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Love

1st Corinthians 13 must be one of the most popular and best loved passages of the Bible. Surely everyone here must have been to a wedding where this has been read. After all it says such a lot of wonderful things about love. But I do wonder what people make of it.

 

Take verse 4. Love is patient, love is kind. v. 8. Love never ends. How beautiful, how apt for a marriage day! Mind you, though, this stuff about prophecies and tongues seems to be a bit strange. And when it gets on to speaking like a child and looking in mirrors – well I’ve known couples miss that bit out, because it just doesn’t fit. It seems like a big digression, until we come back to the point in v.13. Faith hope and love abide, these three, but the greatest of these is love.

 

Paul would have been very surprised. For he certainly did not have marriage in mind in writing it. Paul would have made it sound something like this. LOVE IS PATIENT!!!

 

We’re in the headteacher’s study. Paul is telling the Corinthians off. For that church in Corinth was rather like some City companies, or certain girls boarding schools – full of multi-talented and outwardly charming people, very capable, but intense, competitive, even cruel. They could do anything, and they let you know it.

 

If you look in the left hand column of the same page in the Bibles, verses 20-22 you’ll see an example, what was happening at communion. Communion in those days took place during a meal, and it’s obvious that the rich people brought their hampers and champagne, and the less well off or those who came late from shifts went hungry. There are all sorts of examples throughout the letter which show that love was in short supply.

 

Yet in many ways these were very accomplished people. Going through the first few verses: how many of us are multilingual, let alone can speak the tongues of angels? How often have we heard prophecy?

Many of these things are qualities we admire. How wonderful to be able to understand all mysteries and all knowledge! Yet how many great minds belong to people who are abrasive or insensitive.

 

Paul alludes to Jesus, who tells us to have faith which removes mountains! And in v.3. what admirable generosity to give away all your possessions! What immense courage to hand over your body, to be martyred for the faith – yet if I have not love I am nothing.

 

All the human capability that the Corinthians had, even all their Christian achievements, were as nothing because they did not have love. That ought to give us pause for thought. Many of us are professional, capable people. Do we show love? Do we care for those we don’t really know? Do we get impatient with our nearest and dearest? We get things done, we meet our targets, but do people lose out on the way? In God’s eyes, I might be the CEO of an international company, I might be meeting all my review objectives, I might be active in the church and community, but if I have not love I am nothing.

 

This ought to inform that way we regard the most vulnerable people in society: the disabled, the elderly, the incapable. We shouldn’t rate people by what they can do. What they are matters. And they are people made in the image of God, able to receive and to give love. When it comes to children, what messages do we send out? Do they know that they are loved however much, or little, they achieve? Or do our expectations weigh upon them? Are they in danger of thinking that what matters to their parents are their grades, their music exams, getting into Oxbridge, their careers? Are they loved for who they are?

 

So, what is love? Well, to some extent physical deeds are important. Generosity and sacrifice can show love. As Jesus says, No-one has greater love than this, to lay down one’s life for one’s friends. Love is much more than an emotion. If it’s only an emotion what proof is there that it is real? Love must be practical to have any meaning. What Paul wants to emphasise is that it’s not just the grand gestures that count as love, it’s the way we treat people that is important.

No doubt you’ve heard of the parent who lavishes gifts and toys on their offspring, but has no time or inclination to play with them. It’s so sad to see those children who have all the physical things money can buy – but really just want to kick a football around on a Saturday morning with Daddy.

 

Similarly, St. Paul shows us that generosity and talent can exist without love. Real love is revealed in the way that we treat people. In v.4 ‘Love is patient, love is kind, love is not boastful or arrogant or rude.’

 

Have you ever found yourself heading off to do something, rushing past people, ‘sorry haven’t got time to chat’? Just think: is it really that important? For it’s great to be focussed on tasks. The world needs people who get things done. Just remember though, tasks are there to serve people, not the other way round.

 

Love is kind. Thoughtfulness makes such a difference. Courtesy. The small gestures of appreciation. The effort made to see a matter from another’s point of view. Note to self: next time you get stuck behind one of those duffer drivers ambling down the A429 at 40, be kind. Mr flat cap’s reactions may not be fast. He may not know the road. And what use is five minutes more at home if you end up feeling stressed?

 

Love is not envious. Or boastful or arrogant – how insensitive it is to bang on about our successes if others are struggling. Love should encourage. It is not rude – difficult to put into practice when telesales phone up during supper and try and flog you double glazing. Be firm yes. But don’t have a go at them. They’re human too and I’m sure they’d rather do something else if they had the choice.

 

Love does not insist on its own way because of pride or pretend to make a stand on principle. It is not irritable or resentful – so hard not to be snappy or sarcastic to the slow one in a Team Meeting. Or to give up with the person who just doesn’t get the point. Hardest of all to apply the same standards of patience at home – perhaps it’s because it’s the place we go to relax, and we feel entitled for home to run our way.

Love does not rejoice in wrongdoing – although that might not sell many papers! Love believes all things, one suspects that Paul does not mean love is gullible and indiscriminate in what it believes, nor that love is blind to faults. It most probably means ‘love keeps on loving.

 

And that’s why love is so important. It lasts. When we get to the new heaven and the new earth – life after death with God, what will really matter? Look at v. 8. Prophecies will come to an end – what need will there be to look into the future, or to apply God’s will when we shall all know it perfectly? Tongues will cease – we will all speak the language of heaven.

 

Knowledge too will come to an end in the sense that v.9. explains it. We know only in part but when the complete comes the partial will come to an end. Life here on earth is like a partial foretaste of heaven when everything becomes complete. On earth we know God through prayer and at particular times he might seem very close. In heaven we will be in his presence so prayer will be different. And some of the abilities and gifts that we need now to help us will not be needed.

 

I suppose it’s a bit like being on a provisional licence as you learn to drive. Whenever you go out you have to have an instructor. The car has to have L plates warning other drivers. It might well be dual control. And you’re restricted in what you can do – no motorways until you’ve passed. And then, o happy day, the old way of doing things passes away. The complete has come and the partial has come to an end.

 

Paul uses two illustrations. In verse 11, the child’s way of doing things passes when you become an adult (in theory. Although it’s nice to be young at heart sometimes). And then in v.12, the analogy of the mirror. Now we see in a mirror dimly but then we shall see face to face. In Roman times polished metal was used for mirrors. But of course, brass or bronze doesn’t give a perfect reflection. Tarnish clouds the image. Imperfections in the surface distort reflections. Looking in a mirror you would see incompletely, less well than your friends would see you face to face.

And that is similar to the way that we know God now. Incompletely and through a glass darkly. For the time being we need teachers and mystics and faith. But one day we shall see face to face. V.12.b says Now I know only in part then I shall know as I am fully known.. So, gifts and skills are needed now for our faith, but one day in v.13 Faith hope and love abide and the greatest of these is love. Love will remain, for it is love which is in the nature of God.

 

Love lasts. In this well known but often misunderstood passage, Paul tells us that no matter how accomplished we are, if we are without love we are nothing. He then tells us what love is, and his focus is not on grand gestures or deep emotions. It is plain and simple: very much on how we are with individual people, straightforward kindness and patience. He then winds up by showing us that everything else will fade away, but love will remain.

 

How then should we respond? Just this: in our everyday dealings, with people we know and those we do not, to act with real, true love.

 

 

 

 

 

 

He’s not the Messiah, he’s a very naughty boy!

Reading Luke 4:14-21 reminds me of when Shelley Rudman won gold in the Winter Olympics skeleton bob. Returning home to her little Wiltshire village, she was given a hero’s welcome.

I wonder if Jesus’ return to Nazareth was like that? Word about him was just beginning to get round. There were rumours about miracles he had done, claims he had become a great teacher. I expect the synagogue that day was packed out in anticipation. What message of encouragement would he have for his home town?

They could not have anticipated how shocking it would be. For this ordinary country boy stands up and says ‘I am the Messiah’. It really is just like our own reader ends the reading by solemnly announcing ‘This is the Word of the Lord – which means me. I wrote it’ Or if our churchwarden were to take the Bishop’s chair, pop it on the chancel steps, sit on it, and announce that this is the Last Judgement and she’s in charge.

What Jesus said is like that! You can imagine what people thought: ‘We’ve known you, Jesus, since you were knee high to a grasshopper, running around in nappies, making mud pies. Who do you think you are?’; ‘Messiah? You and whose army? If you’re God’s chosen all-conquering king, what are you doing out here as a country teacher?’

When Jesus says in v.21 ‘Today this Scripture is fulfilled in your hearing’, he means that the Scripture he quoted is about him. Verses 18 and 19 in the gospel are an extract from Isaiah 61. To understand what Jesus was saying we need to look at that passage.

Isaiah 61 originally spoke to a time when the Jewish nation had been defeated in war. Most of the people had been taken captive, only a few remained in a devastated and poverty stricken land. They lived a hand to mouth existence under enemy occupation.

But here God promises a dramatic turn around in their fortunes. God promises to save. Not a purely inward and spiritual salvation but an outward and practical rescue too. And when he speaks it’s clear that God’s kingdom is not just in the future, but here and now. Finally, God’s servant brings in his Kingdom – but often in an unexpected way.

Firstly, God’s salvation is physical and practical. Just listen to this: v.18 That’s about freeing the prisoners from the enemy. It’s about the poor having enough to eat. It’s about comforting those who grieve. God promises, through Isaiah, that he will rescue his people. That concrete action forms the basis of salvation in the New Testament.

You know the picture of heaven you see on cards – angels playing harps floating around on clouds. It looks so dull! How bland, boring and wrong the popular idea of heaven is. According to the Bible, what happens after death is not a disembodied spiritual existence in a place up there – but Resurrection at the end of time to live in God’s new heaven and new earth. It’s physical. Not purely spiritual and inward, but tangible too.

And it makes a difference now. The new life we enjoy for eternity makes a difference on earth. God does not want us only to comfort the poor and suffering with promises of a heaven to come. He does not take the view that it’s all o.k. because any injustice will be made up in the future. God’s salvation is global, encompassing every area of life! He calls us to assist in that work of salvation, to be midwives in the labour of his Kingdom.

one day the Kingdom will be fulfilled, the whole creation will be renewed, and Christ will reign. In the meantime the Kingdom of God is present, here and now, like a growing seed. We look for its signs, do what we can to nurture the growth

Think of the Rugby, or Cricket World Cup. Those tournaments haven’t yet officially begun – but in many ways they have! The qualifiers were held ages ago. Now the posters, magazines and press speculation are growing in intensity. Matches, injuries and form happening now are, in effect, part of the tournament. They affect its outcome.

In a similar way, the Kingdom of God is not fully here, right now. But through his Holy Spirit, God is bringing it in. We see it when He reigns in individual lives. People undertake things for his glory. The Kingdom of God is present as a growing seed, getting bigger and bigger all the time. So if God’s salvation is physical as well as spiritual, and if it’s growing all the time, what does that mean for us? Fundamentally, it means that physical things matter to religion, that faith is concerned with the body as well as the spirit.

In 18a: We might bring good news to the poor through our charitable giving, or through volunteering. We might also let faith affect politics. The Archbishop of Canterbury’s latest book is sharply critical of the divisions of wealth and aspiration in society. It’s been quite controversial. No doubt some people will say that religion and politics shouldn’t mix. But if Isaiah 61 is right, then faith should inform policy. You don’t have to agree with every detail of the bishops’ economic analysis – but you can’t put faith in one box and politics in another.

Releasing the prisoners might, say, involve supporting the work of Amnesty International or Christian Solidarity International. Isaiah even speaks about building up ancient ruins, repairing ruined cities.

Could the current craze for doing up old houses be part of God’s mission? Well, yes. Reusing an old building rather than knocking it down and putting up new ones is better for the environment.

And the vision of re-occupying places laid waste is exactly what God planned for his people Israel. He wanted them to be a kind of ideal society: an example of how good living under God’s laws could be; a witness to the nations. A whole community, mediating and showing the love of God. In doing this, they would be led by God’s Servant.

That was the plan. God would save – in a physical and visible way, in history and through his servant. But that didn’t seem to happen. Sure there was a return from exile under Ezra, and a renewal led by Nehemiah and Haggai. Some time later Judah even got a measure of independence under the Maccabean dynasty. But that soon fell apart. By the time of Christ the Jews were scattered throughout the Mediterranean, the Holy Land trampled by the Roman Army’s sandals.

So when Jesus says ‘today this Scripture is fulfilled in your hearing’, what did people hear? They heard him claiming to be God’s Servant. They expected him to bring in that perfect society. And of course, they understood that to do that, he would have to get rid of the Romans.

But did he say that? When Luke records Jesus quoting Scripture, he actually leaves some bits out! Isaiah 61 on the mouth of Jesus is incomplete. There are some key omissions – did Jesus leave them out?

Jesus says ‘to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favour’, and stops there. Isaiah goes on to say. ‘and the day of vengeance of our God’ So it seems that Jesus says now is not after all the time for God’s vengeance. The last judgement will come later, but his ministry is the time of grace. Today Jesus still calls us back to him, now is the time to respond.

By ending the quotation at that point he also omits anything to do with the nation or people of Israel. Isaiah sounded a bit nationalistic in places. But Jesus misses those bits out. Later on in the Luke account, the villagers take offence. I’ve often wondered why they so suddenly turned against him. Was it just ‘who do you think you are’ – or was it also that Jesus was already holding out love to the Gentiles? Sensing rejection, Jesus reminds them that in the Old Testament God’s message often came to Gentiles, not just the Jews. The prophets were rejected and often found a warmer welcome outside the fold.

Jesus shows us that all people can share in God’s blessings, that the offer of the Kingdom of God is open to everyone, that those people Isaiah imagined working in Israel’s fields and vineyards are not unwilling foreign slaves, but co-workers, sharing in God’s goodness.

That was the thing that really wound the Nazarenes up. Jesus listeners imagined that justice could only come if the hated Romans were defeated. They thought God’s kingdom had to involve vengeance. How could a perfect society involve Gentiles, who did not keep the law? They got so angry with Jesus’ inclusiveness and love that they even tried to kill him.

They had to learn that a better world did not lie in eliminating the enemy, but in learning to live together. It sounds so simple, yet how often do we see people making that very same mistake today? I fear that we are sliding into an ever more polarised society, where genuine debate has ceased, where one half refuse to listen to the other half and vice versa.

It is insane to imagine that everything would be o.k. if only that lot weren’t around. For how are their voices going to disappear? However difficult it is we have to work together. Is that too political? I don’t think so – it’s where faith is grounded in the world.

For salvation is not just future, but now. It affects not just our spiritual souls, but our bodies, the world around us too. It encompasses not just you and me, but potentially everyone. God’s plan is so much bigger than those citizens of Nazareth ever imagined. His Kingdom is much more immediate, more glorious, more relevant than the church often allows. And because it so much more practical, effective, next door, it has implications for how we live. It is a great deal more challenging too.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Transformation

I wonder if anyone’s been involved in organising a wedding recently? The level of planning is often extraordinary. And of course whenever anyone mentions ‘wedding’ the cost of a particular item seems to double. I looked up the average cost of a UK wedding last year. It was £30,355. Now you can get married in church for less than 500 quid, but it’s the venue and the number of the guests that make the difference.

 

So anyone planning a wedding will be used to drawing up a budget, working out what can be spent, tailoring wishes to fit the finance, and dipping into the overdraft or credit card. It’s the way life works, you have a certain amount of resources and cut your cloth accordingly.

 

From the reading we’ve just had in John 2:1-11, it seems that the typical first century Jewish wedding might have been a bit different. It sounds like the wedding Chantal and I attended while we were in India.

 

We were staying with a retired bishop, and he had been invited to take part in a marriage ceremony. The couple obviously had lots of clergy friends, as there was a grandstand at the front of the church with all the vicars all standing on it. Each one had a part to play in the service – but as there were over 30 of them, they only had a line or two each. And there was only one service book, so they had to pass it from one to the other. So someone would say ‘Do you so and so take such and such to be your wife’ and then the book would travel down to the other end of the grandstand where the next chap would say ‘to have and to hold’ – and then there’d be a pause and some fumbling around while the book made its way up to the top – ‘from this day forth’ and so on.

 

Anyway, the bishop said to us: ‘Would you like to come too?’ And we replied ‘of course we can’t, we haven’t been invited’. And the bishop said, ‘oh we don’t worry about that, you’re my guests.’  No-one batted an eyelid. We were welcomed, sat down with the honoured guests, given a banana leaf covered with biryani. Near the door stood the poor people of the community, each receiving a parcel. It was so generous.

 

In John 2, the whole village seems to have turned up and they seem to be heroic drinkers too. Disaster! The wine runs out – not just an end to the party but a cause of shame to the family too. As the story unfolds we see how Jesus responds to their lack of resources. We realise that the resources we see in front of us are only part of the picture – God has his resources too, a way of transforming things.

 

Stories like this are sufficiently common in the Bible that we can say there’s a consistent theme. Think of the feeding of the 5000, or when Elisha feeds 100 with a few loaves of bread. God sustains an entire nation through 40 years in the desert by the gift of manna. And when the Old Testament prophet and his servant are surrounded by enemy soldiers, Elisha prays ‘open my servant’s eyes’ so he can see the fiery chariots of the armies of God.

 

God can transform the resources we have. His resources are all around us. So when in our lives we ask ‘How will I manage’ or when in the church we ask ‘How can we sustain the children’s groups’ – we need to bring that honestly, humbly before God, ask for discernment so that we can see what we already have, and allow him to transform the situation.

 

Verse 3 starts us off with the statement ‘They have no wine’. They is emptiness, a lack, a need… Or is it potential? In v.6 Jesus sees an opportunity: ‘Standing there were six stone water jars, each holding twenty or thirty gallons’. Can we like Jesus see the opportunities in the challenge? If plans don’t work out the way we intended, is our reaction to mourn what is lost or to look for the silver lining?

 

I was watching a programme about recruits training to be paras, and this guy called Kojo had been called in to see the officer. ‘Kojo, why are you here?’ he said. ‘Because I failed sir’. ‘That’s the problem Kojo, you see it as failure and don’t learn from your mistake.’ Yes, it’s a bit of cliché, but they gave him a second chance. To start again with a different mindset. Not a closed attitude, but one of growth.

 

‘Fill them up with water’ Jesus says. He takes ordinary water, nothing fancy but what’s there to hand. The resource that they have in abundance becomes the raw material out of which God can make something special. He takes the things of everyday life and transforms them in the service of his Kingdom. God has given us gracious provision through his creation – gifts, talents, resources – are we able to discern the ways that God has already blessed us?

 

Do we have light we hide under a bushel, talents that are buried because we can’t see how to use them? Church communities often have an idea of what they would like to be, how they aspire to be like somewhere else, but in doing so can easily neglect their existing strengths, their particular God-given charism.

 

Perhaps the greatest asset that wedding couple had was their need. If they had fullness and self-sufficiency they might never have brought it to God. But they came in their emptiness and lack, so God provided.

 

An awareness of our own need is an immensely powerful thing, for it opens us up to the help of others and the grace of God. Have you ever been in a group where people are talking about some shared task which everyone is finding difficult but no-one quite has the guts to say so and it’s all a bit unreal? Then somebody has the courage to say what’s difficult – and the situation is transformed. That willingness to be vulnerable has built community and created a team.

 

In the same way we need to be honest with God in our personal prayers. Of course he knows what we need – but the act of asking opens us to his grace. In the life of a church we should be honest with God about our needs and bring them to him in shared prayer.

 

Doing that means we are able to listen to God’s will together, and ask ourselves ‘is this the right course of action?’ For not every need is one that it is right to fill, not every project is crying out to be blessed if only we have enough faith.

 

I heard of a church that had a grand plan to celebrate the millennium. What this church really needs is a spire, someone thought. A big pointy thing with bells in. The money wasn’t there, but they built one anyway. I don’t think God works like that – if something is his will he makes it plain and part of that clarity is providing the necessary resource, sometimes admittedly at the last minute. Believing in the provision of God does not excuse us from making difficult choices about what can be funded and what not – but we have to discern prayerfully when God is calling us to step out in faith.

 

When we are called to offer what we have, even bring our emptiness, God can transform it into what is needed. In v. 10 the steward has tasted the wine and comments that the best has been saved until last. God does not do things by half measures! When we intend to be a blessing to others, when we share the good things we have, God provides what is needed. It’s interesting that churches which give a free Harvest Supper often collect at least as much in donations as churches which charge – and everybody feels good about being generous.

 

So God’s transformation leads to joy, and most importantly it brings in the Kingdom of God. Those old stone water jars were used for ritual washing, an external cleansing from sin. But Jesus transforms their contents into the rich wine of the Kingdom, wine which speaks both of his sacrifice and of joy. Jesus is able to take the regular worship and change its heart so that people encounter him. As it says in v. 11. ‘This was the first of Jesus’ signs and his disciples put their faith in him.’

 

Finally, we do not know how Jesus did this. There is no explanation. No scientific account. The reading gives us no hints. But people obeyed Jesus, even when it seemed counter-intuitive. It’s a lot of work to fill up seven thirty gallon jars with water. It’s a big step of faith to take a ladle-full to the wine taster. But as they obeyed, Jesus was at work, making it happen. Striving for the Kingdom of God can be a lot of work. Speaking of our faith can be step into the unknown – how will people react. But it is as we bring what we already have, even as we bring our emptiness, to God, that Jesus transforms it into glory.