Easter mystery

There’s not much room for doubt in Matthew’s Easter story. For Matthew it’s very clear: Jesus was raised from the dead, so go and spread the word.

In the New Testament we have four different accounts of Jesus’ life. And when it comes to the resurrection, the four gospel writers describe the events in different ways. Imagine there’s a car accident, the police take statements from the witnesses, the things they say will depend a bit on whether they were in one of the vehicles, or standing by the roadside – they’ll describe the same events but from a different perspective.

So too the gospel writers tell the Easter story in ways which reflect their own concerns and understanding about what this amazing event means.

Mark’s gospel is mysterious and the ending unresolved. The women go to the tomb, and find the stone has been rolled back. It ends on a cliffhanger – is Jesus really alive like the angel said? Mark draws us in, encouraging us to find out more.

There’s mystery in Luke too but it soon becomes clear. Luke knows that dead men don’t usually rise, so he gives us lots of proof. He describes Jesus meeting the disciples, eating fish to show he’s not a ghost. Luke is very practical: how we can know Jesus today? He tells us how Christians in every place and time can know Jesus walking alongside them in life and can recognise him in the bread and the wine. How Jesus gives us energy to share the good news with the world.

Whereas the others are selective, condensing the story, John’s gospel gives the whole sequence of events. John is the consummate story teller. He describes the horror of finding your friend’s grave empty, the confusion and grief of Mary, the puzzlement of the disciples giving way to understanding. The human drama and emotion appeal to us. For many, John’s gospel is the Easter story as they know it. in some churches John is the only gospel read on Easter Day

The reading we had today, from Matthew is all about the power and the victory of God. It’s stirring stuff, and you might like to have it front of you as we look at it together.

The day begins with dawn’s first light bringing hope to the sky. Suddenly the earth shakes. The power of God splits the rocks in two. If you go to Jerusalem, in the Adam and Eve Chapel of the church of the Holy Sepulchre, they will show you the faultline in the rocks, said to go back to that day.

A mighty angel of the Lord descends like lightning from heaven. Singlehandedly he rolls back the stone… and sits on it. That action says it all – the angel sat on the stone. Job done, that stone is not going back. Death is defeated once and for all. The tomb lies open – for everyone. Jesus’ resurrection is the promise of ours also, if we place our trust in him. We shall live forever. Then we too, forgiven through Christ, will be as holy and as pure as the angel’s white garments.

Overwhelmed the guards lie flat out. So much for the imperial might of Rome! God is victorious, Christ reigns. Sin and evil defeated.

<heartily> ‘Don’t be afraid’, the angel says to the women. <to the point> ‘Look, that’s where he was. He’s not here. He’s risen. You’ve got a job to do: go and tell his disciples.’ Afraid, but full of joy, the women turn to leave, and there is Jesus! They worship him, convinced he is alive. Only when the disciples meet Jesus in Galilee does Matthew mention that some of them doubted.

How can Matthew be so clear when the other gospel writers take a while to get to a point of conviction, if at all? Partly it’s because they answer different questions. John wants to describe what the first Easter was like; Luke how we can know Jesus today. Partly it’s down to personality: Mark appeals to those who are inquisitive and like open-endedness.

Can they all be true? Yes. The others tell the story from a human perspective. We accompany Peter and Mary on the journey to the tomb, we share their shock and puzzlement. As we work out with them what’s going on, we slowly become convinced that Jesus is alive.

Matthew writes with an all-seeing divine perspective. Jesus has risen. Of course he has – this has been planned from eternity. God acted, and it was done. Nothing, not even raising the dead, is a problem for God who spoke the worlds into being. God’s victory is assured, the only thing that’s a bit puzzling is why the people take so long to get it.

As we celebrate Easter today, we need to hold together both approaches. We need the human quest for understanding, the faith that wrestles with doubts and looks for evidence. If we are told ‘It says so here, you must just believe’, it feels pastorally insensitive, not taking account of our need to think things through. If that’s you, you can take comfort that Jesus understands this: he was gentle with doubting Thomas and gave him the assurance he needed.

Yet we also need that divine perspective Matthew gives us. We should remember that the power of the resurrection is not limited by our ability to understand it; that truth is not constrained by our consent. If something is true, it is true whether or not you or I believe it. Matthew’s gospel is an important corrective to the human tendency to feel that our doubts and questions in some way affect what actually happened that day. It challenges us not to wallow in doubt. Matthew says this is life-changing truth.

The other gospels invite us to make up our minds. They include us in the story. They ask us to consider the evidence. But Matthew proclaims the resurrection. He invites us to live in the light of the new life of Christ. To rejoice that life begins afresh with him. To know that we are forgiven. To have faith that this life is not the end. To be changed by the power of the Risen Christ. Happy Easter!

Palm Sunday

How many palms did the people use to greet Jesus on Palm Sunday? Two, one on the right and one on the left!

Palm Sunday works on all kinds of levels. The children like waving the branches, and if we manage to get a donkey too, well that’s brilliant. And why not? When the Pharisees complained about noise in the temple, Jesus said that if the children were silent, the stones would cry out praise to God.

At the symbolic level there’s the blessing of palm crosses. My Gran always had one pinned to her dressing table. It was renewed each year, and I guess it was a reminder as she got ready in the morning. A sacramental symbol of God’s love taken into the home, Jesus’ sacrifice for me.

And then of course Palm Sunday has the bitterness amidst the joy, the fickleness of the crowd who at the beginning of the week hail their king, but barely a few days later are bawling for his blood.

What we often forget is just how political Palm Sunday is. It’s much more than just a festival procession. The reason the children were singing and dancing is because that much loved prophet from Galilee had come to be their King. It’s not just ‘Jesus is here’, it’s ‘King Jesus is coming to reign.’

And that’s what Jesus intended. He really did claim to be God’s chosen King. Today many people think of Jesus as a Middle Eastern prophet, a religious visionary, a healer and all round good egg. Decent, ethical and loving, perhaps a bit hippy/radical, but basically harmless.  

If that’s what Jesus was really like, how did he manage to get himself crucified? Why would anyone bother crucifying someone who was that innocuous? No, the reason the Romans executed Jesus is that they saw him as a threat. The Chief Priests said ‘This man claims to be a king’.

The charge against him, nailed to the cross above his head, was ‘The King of the Jews’. That’s why Jesus was killed – because everyone around him believed he had claimed to be the Messiah, the King of the Jews.

It won’t wash either to say that Jesus was misunderstood – he had plenty of chance to deny it if he wished to save himself. To argue that Jesus was misunderstood we’d also have to believe that Jesus was a spectacularly bad communicator. Which clearly isn’t the case.

No, on Palm Sunday Jesus deliberately set out to enter Jerusalem as the Messiah. Look at our reading: in verses 1-3 it describes at some length the elaborate preparation Jesus arranged. He didn’t just grab a random donkey because he was feeling tired. He set it up in advance. He intentionally fulfilled the Old Testament prophecy of Zechariah quoted in verse 5: ‘Look your king is coming to you, humble and mounted on a donkey.’ Jesus reveals himself as God’s chosen King.

This matters to us because it means that Jesus is a much more significant figure than just a prophet. If anyone says to you that Paul reinvented Christianity or that the church made Jesus into a God, here is the answer: Jesus himself claimed to be God’s Messiah. And it also means that Jesus is a much more political, more radical figure than we often imagine. He’s not just Lord in the spiritual realm but in the physical one too.

Of course, that kind of claim brings expectations, which can be hard to fulfil. Anyone seen Donald Trump’s approval rating recently? The graph goes like this…He promised the earth to those who felt left out, that his own brand of deal-making would change everything, and when he didn’t deliver in the way they expected, the crowd began to turn against him.

That’s the way crowds work. In first century Palestine rumour and news spread by word of mouth. Nowadays we have the internet. Mark Zuckerberg’s boast is that no two people have the same experience of Facebook. Which is exactly right.

My feed is full of left-wing news articles and quizzes to find out ‘Which famous Anglican theologian are you?’ Chantal’s news feed has adverts for children’s craft resources and videos of animals doing amusing things. That’s not at all her though, and mine’s not really me.

It’s due to our friends. The computer guesses the kind of stuff we might be interested in based on who our FaceBook friends are. And the danger of that is, depending on how wide your circle of friends, you can end up in an echo chamber, only seeing things which confirm your own point of view.

This isn’t an obscure point – experts reckon that the way social media works makes politics more polarised and makes it harder to respect different opinions. We all need to have friends with whom we disagree – perhaps we should even confuse the computer by clicking on links for opposing points of view!

Disappointing the crowd on social media is dangerous. A real live crowd more so. The Jewish people were oppressed, they wanted a military deliverer, and they latched on to Jesus. From their point of view, he was a let-down, he didn’t deliver what they wanted. But Jesus had constantly told them that the Messiah would suffer, die and rise again. They hadn’t wanted to hear the true meaning of the Messiah.

It’s easy for us with the benefit of hindsight. Perhaps we could pause and ask if we ever misunderstand Jesus? Do we want him to deliver something he has never promised to do? I’ve quite often met people who have given up on God because they feel he let them down. Life has been harder than they hoped, but they’ve never stopped to ask themselves were those hopes realistic? God doesn’t promise to protect us from hardship when we follow him – but he does promise to go with us through the challenging times.

Nor does God promise to sustain us in our Christian faith without effort from ourselves. He showers means of grace upon us – he gives us prayer, the Bible, church and the encouragement of other Christians.

But we’ve got to use them: pick up that Bible, make the time to pray, join with worship, put yourself in the place where God’s means of support can do you good. He gives us his Spirit if we will only open our hands to receive! Otherwise we end up like the crowd on Palm Sunday: singing ‘Hosanna’ but asking ‘Who is this?’ They haven’t really understood the Messiah, and Jesus needs to make it clear how he meets their real need.

To do so, they have to recognise their false solutions. The Romans wanted more possessions and power. They sought security by eliminating threats. Invading other nations for wealth and stability, they instead spent more and more on armies to quell rebellion. The Jews sought identity in their land, rather than in God who is everywhere. Longing for freedom, they thought their problems would be over once the enemy was defeated. Instead they fell out among themselves.

Don’t we see the same today? Seeking security in economic and military might? Blaming our problems on others? Jesus overcame all this by teaching that we are all sinners who need God’s love. None is better than another. All alike need forgiveness. Dying on the cross, he forgave Jew and Gentile together. He bore their sin and division, he reconciled them with God. When he rose again he called them together as children of God. He invites us to find a new identity in him. When we are secure in being loved by God we don’t find our ultimate validation and security in other things which can’t bear the weight.

Rooted in that firm foundation we can then share in God’s work of transforming the world by the way of the cross. Changing the world through following Jesus’ example is not about imposing solutions by power – it’s about sacrifice and self-giving, generosity and love.

That may take longer, it may feel tougher, but will lead to real reconciliation and progress. God has promised to give us the Holy Spirit so that we can build his Kingdom. It grows here on earth and will one day be fulfilled when King Jesus comes in his glory. Today on Palm Sunday we’re called to follow Jesus in the life-giving, world changing way of the cross. Amen.

Vocation 5, Ezekiel 3 and Matt 28

Ezekiel left the refugee camp behind and stood on the banks of the River Kebar. Grand name for an unpleasant reality.  The drainage ditch was filthy, polluted with a scum of green algae and unspeakable things. Gloomily he stared at the water and felt utterly miserable. His life was pointless. Messed up, and there was no going back.

What is a priest supposed to do without a temple? A servant of the Lord far away from the Lord’s land? Ezekiel’s 30th birthday was meant to be the high point, the time when he could begin the ministry for which he had spent his life training. But the Babylonians had come. War, capture, and now exile. In the prime of his life, Ezekiel’s future was forced labour. He’d missed his vocation. He was far from home. What a waste.

To cap it all a storm was brewing in the North, and fat raindrops began to fall. Turning for shelter, he looked back at the black cloud – and saw visions of God. As it says in Ezekiel 1 v1 ‘In the thirtieth year, in the fourth month, on the fifth day of the month, as I was among the exiles by the river Chebar, the heavens were opened and I saw visions of God.’

It may be obscure, but this is one of my favourite verses in the Bible. Because it says that no matter where I am, no matter what awful things are going on around me, no matter how much I may have messed up – God is there. However veiled it may be, his glory is ready to be revealed. The sovereign Lord is present and he is in ultimate control.

Ezekiel realised God was there. Even by the river Chebar God was there. When all hope had fled, God showed Ezekiel that he is still Lord, that he rules. It was the beginning of something new: a prophetic ministry that brought Israel back to their God; a call to repentance; the rebirth of Judaism.

Up until that point the Jewish people had more or less gone along with the idea that each nation had their own god. And that each nation and god had their own territory, the place where they belonged. Of course, they knew the God of Israel could defeat the gods of Egypt. But Ezekiel discovered something new: that the God of Israel is the God of the whole world. He’s not restricted to one place – he is everywhere.

In the gospel, Jesus similarly tells us all authority in heaven and earth has been given to him. For those who have eyes to see it, God’s glory is potentially everywhere. Not just in the temple, or the Holy Land, but here in life and joy, the beauty of creation all around us, the love of family and friends. We can be aware of God when we stop and pray, we sense his presence in a holy place. But Jesus means more than this.

One of the biggest lessons I’ve had to learn is that is often most known in times of trial. In the hardest moments of my life I have felt God more closely than in the times of blessing. He is alongside us in pain and suffering. In our darkness, when we experience difficulty, we can find God. Isn’t that the message of the cross on Passion Sunday? That God enters human suffering and we can find him in the midst of it? The cross gives us the deepest insight into God’s heart. For God cares about his world, and calls us to work with him in putting it right.

This is the final sermon in our series on vocation. So far we’ve thought about how God calls everyone to himself, adult or child – we are all called; how God uses our gifts, and how we may have to overcome our reluctance to respond. Today we’re looking at how God calls us to serve him in the world. The call of Ezekiel in Chapter 3 tells us that people may or may not listen to God’s message – but fear of that reaction should not hold us back. And, when we witness to Christ we must be rooted in God and genuinely caring for the people we serve.

Look at v.4. ‘Mortal go to the house of Israel and speak my very words to them.’ Right at the beginning of this series, I said that the most important thing in calling was that we are called personally to know God. I said that being called is not about doing a job, but about being in a relationship with God through Jesus. He wants us to know him.

It’s also true that the more we get to know God, the more we will share his love for his creation. It’s like a fire within us, his compassion will lead us to serve. So relationship with God is bound to make us look outwards. Christian faith must lead to practical service, a better world.

Ezekiel was given the job of conveying God’s words. So, in a general sense are we. We may not all be called to be evangelists or Bible teachers, but all Christians are called to bear witness to Jesus. We are meant to be lights in the world, and speak of our faith.

That’s what the church is for. In the gospel reading, Jesus sent the apostles out to make disciples of all nations, baptizing and teaching them to obey everything he had commanded. The church continues that task and we all have a role to play. Lost for Words?

Like Ezekiel, that may meet with rejection. V.5-6 describe how Israel, who knew God, will not listen, even though those with foreign languages would. Do we not see that still today? In China, South Korea and Nepal, huge numbers are becoming Christians. England, with a long history of Christian faith, is resistant to the gospel.

But I don’t think we should over-emphasise that. I’ve found that many individuals are willing to listen and discuss. I had respectful discussions with atheists, good arguments with articulate Muslims. I find that Agnostics Anonymous is much appreciated – someone even travels from Bristol to join us. Younger people can often be very open because they haven’t had religion drilled into them. They really respond if they see a genuine faith that makes a difference in our lives.

So non-believers are not necessarily hostile. They may be searching for meaning, they often find alternative lifestyles interesting. One of the biggest traps is when we assume we won’t get a hearing, and so don’t speak. Often I have been pleasantly surprised.

When I became a curate my vicar said to me: ‘We’ve got these paperback gospels. Drop them into people’s letter boxes would you? It was some kind of evangelistic initiative. I didn’t even have to knock the door. Yet even such a timid effort with minimal contact brought a two people to a real faith. Any of us could do that, couldn’t we? It doesn’t need much courage to drop off the parish Christmas cards, or publicity.

But fear inhibits us. ‘Oh, I couldn’t speak about my faith’; or ‘I can’t do children’s work’. ‘What if I messed up?’ Well, what if? So it went wrong – at least no-one died. Put it down to experience and try again. Fear like that is a devil’s trick – he exaggerates the danger so we don’t share our faith. What really is the worst that can happen? Being seen as a religious nut? That pales in comparison with what Jesus did for us. Never forget that Matthew 28 is a resurrection appearance. Christ sends the disciples out to tell the story of a God who died to save us.

Christ’s love compels us. But we do have to acknowledge the fear we sometimes feel. We should bring those fears to God, praying he will take them away, or give us courage to overcome them. As he says to Ezekiel in v. 9. ‘Like the hardest stone I have made your forehead’. Like him we may feel that the concerns we had just evaporate, or we are given strength to carry on.

God also commands Ezekiel not to fear. Sometimes you just have to step out in faith and get on with it. For courage is not the absence of fear. John Wayne said ‘courage is being scared to death but saddling up anyway.’ So let’s take a chance, stick our necks out for God. It may well be that we get an encouraging response and something good happens – particularly if we’ve prayed beforehand.

Isn’t it encouraging that Jesus’ disciples doubted even when he appeared to them. How did they doubt? Did they wonder if it was really Jesus? Were they in two minds about whether he was actually alive or a vision? Or did they doubt the appropriateness of worshipping him?

The word for doubt is the same one that’s used when Peter gets out of the boat to walk on water, and then sees the wind and waves and gets scared. So doubt isn’t incompatible with faith. Nor does doubt necessarily stop us from being useful to Jesus. He told these doubting people to start the church! He used them for an enormous job. We may have doubts too. It doesn’t mean that we aren’t true Christians. Nor does it mean that God can’t use us.

So be encouraged to step out for God. Don’t be shy of speaking of your faith for fear that you don’t know all the answers, or have worries or doubts. Often a real story of faith, honestly told with times of joy and of sorrow and doubt can be much more compelling than one which is so confident that it sounds otherworldly.

And of course, what we do and say needs to be a fair reflection of God’s word. As it says in v.10 ‘Receive in your heart’ – God’s word must be true in our lives. We need to take it to heart. It’s said that a preacher always preaches to himself first. Anyone who tries to speak about God is not a mere mouthpiece nor a typewriter keyboard, conveying a message without understanding. Instead, we should be more like a dancer, who interprets and embodies the script. People instinctively know when the story doesn’t ring true. That’s why, in v 12 and 13, Ezekiel has visions of God, so he can reflect what he has seen. So use your own words to describe your faith, not Christian cliché. (LFW)

Unfortunately a spiritual high can be followed by a big comedown. We can’t spend forever up high in spiritual experience, you have to descend to the hurly burly of train tickets and the school run. It’s a shock. Sometimes people can be really bitter because there’s such a contrast between the joy of their conversion, and the hard work of being faithful to Christ day by day. There can even be anger at what we’ve been called to do. But that’s o.k. God’s big enough to cope when we bring it to him. Ezekiel describes it in v. 14 ‘I went in bitterness of Spirit’.

But the hand of the Lord was upon him. It was less obvious, but God’s presence was still there. If any of us are finding life hard, we should remember that. Present, not in felt glory, but present nonetheless.

Finally, in v.15 ‘I sat there among the exiles, stunned for seven days’. Ezekiel remained one of the people, he continued to share their lives. If he were just to speak God’s message with God’s fearlessness, he might have come over as condemning, unloving, hard. But he sat as one of them; as Jesus did, sharing our weakness, loving us, acting with compassion and praying to God for us. Anyone who would share their faith with friends and neighbours should be the same. Christians cannot set ourselves apart and criticise from a distance. We must sit among our people – one beggar telling another where to find bread.

So, God has called us to himself. That means we are also sent, from God’s presence, equipped with a vision of his glory and strengthened by his love and courage. In the words of Christ in the gospel: ‘Go, therefore, and make disciples of all nations. And remember, I am with you always, to the end of the age.

 

Vocation 5 – 1 Samuel 3

Dad, when I grow up I want to be a bin-man.

Ok son. Er, why would you like to be a bin man?

Well Dad, I’ve only seen them work once a week.

Mind you, you could say the same about Vicars. Not as bad though as the lady who asked her daughter: ‘What would you like to do when you’re big like Mummy?’ To which the child replied ‘Go on a diet’.

I wonder if any of the children here have an idea what they’d like to do when they grow up? Anyone like to tell us? Or what about the adults – can you remember what you wanted to be when you were a child and has that changed at all?

 of course, you often end up having several ideas: when I was at primary school I wanted to be a palaeontologist – which basically meant I wanted to be paid to dig up dinosaur bones. And when I was a student I thought I might go into forestry. But God had other plans

I wonder what hopes you’ve got for Sophie? What sort of job do you dream of her doing? I’m sure we all want her to be happy whatever she does. Would we hope that one day she might be a parent herself? Soon we’ll be making promises for her – and one of the things we hope for there is that she will have her own living faith in God.

The wonderful thing is that God has a plan for each one of us. God knows us better even than we know ourselves. On this Mothering Sunday we give thanks for the love of mothers – and we also remember that God loves us even more than the best parent could ever love their child. And God calls each one of us to know him and to follow Jesus. We call that Vocation and in during Lent we’re thinking about that in our sermon series

Whatever your age, whether you’re a little child or a great-grandparent, God has a role for you and a plan for your life. We hear about that in our reading from 1 Samuel 3v1-18.

Samuel was a miracle baby. He was an answer to prayer. So when Samuel was born his mother wanted him to serve God. She took him to the temple, which was where people worshipped God. Samuel lived there and the chief priest called Eli looked after him. It seems that Samuel actually slept in the temple, right next to the Ark of God.

In the middle of the night, Samuel heard a voice calling ‘Samuel, Samuel’. So he ran straight to Eli, who told him to go back to bed. Again, God called, Samuel ran to Eli, and Eli sent him back to bed.

I wonder why this happened? Why didn’t Samuel realise it was God? Any ideas? It seems he hadn’t heard God calling before. Maybe no one had told Samuel about God communicating. Certainly the reading says that the word of the Lord was rare in those days. Perhaps no-one imagined this kind of thing could happen. (spiritual state of the nation)

Eventually Eli worked out what was going on. He said to Samuel: ‘if he calls you, you shall say speak Lord for your servant is listening.’ And that is what happened. God spoke to Samuel. Samuel listened, and God gave Samuel a message for Eli and all Israel.

It’s a wonderful story. But what does it mean for us today? After all, when Christians read the Bible we believe it speaks to us and our lives now. What does it mean for you and me? 

If you’re a young person, it says that God can call you. Even if you’re very small God has a plan for you. There are special things that only you can do. That child who’s by themselves in the playground, you might be the only person who notices and can be friendly with them.

There are only a few people who can be like big cousins to Sophie. Older children she’ll look up to. That’s your job. 

If you’re a young person, this story says that God wants you to know him. As you are now, not waiting until you’re a grown up. It says that however young or old you are, you can hear God.

How do we hear God? We might not hear a voice calling like Samuel did. But if we take time to pray, it’s amazing what can happen. If you can be still and ask God questions, and leave time for him to answer, often an idea will pop into your head, or maybe you’ll imagine a picture. When we read the Bible and reflect on it, we often get a sense for what God wants us to do. Jesus tells us that when we seek God we will find him. 

What does the story of Samuel say to grown-ups? I think it tells us to be humble like Eli. Ready to listen to what children have to say. Able to hear wisdom and the nudging of God in the words of the very young. 

Children need help from adults in their spiritual development. Eli had to tell Samuel how to identify God’s voice; how to respond. Eli had to encourage Samuel to speak up and give the message.  

When God speaks to children, it’s so important that they have understanding and wise adults they can go to. People who aren’t going to dismiss their experiences. Who will take them seriously and encourage them.

I read a remarkable story. It was written by a mother about her child. The mother is an atheist and she brought up her daughter that way. But through assemblies in school the little girl began to develop a faith in God. The mother found this very strange – but she didn’t want to squish it. Mother encouraged daughter in what was important to her. Still an atheist, this loving mother spends Sundays dropping off her daughter to sing in the choir, and taking her to confirmation class.

What a wonderful example of support and open-mindedness 

That’s why God gives us families – and the family of the church. Together we encourage one another in our faith. On this Mothering Sunday let’s give thanks for the whole church family and the way God uses us to support one another.

  

Sophie is going to need that as she grows up. She’ll need people who can encourage her in the faith. People who can nurture her spirituality and show her how to listen to God. This is particularly a role for parents and godparents, but it’s for all of us too. So I’ll ask you to turn to the order of service and join in with the first of the promises

EXTRA AT EVENSONG: 

That support would have been tested to its limit when Eli heard the message that Samuel gave. It was a message of judgement against a corrupt priesthood. Although Eli had been warned many times, he had done nothing to restrain his sons who were abusing their position. So God gives notice that the privileges of priesthood will be taken away from Eli’s family and given to others who will honour the role. 

At various points in the Old Testament, when people have received similar messages, they come to their senses. They repent: in other words they change their words and demonstrate their sorrow for their past behaviour. And when people respond like that, God relents. As it says in Ezekiel, he does not want the wicked to perish. He wants them to change their ways and live. So even the seemingly harshest words in the Old Testament are sent to bring life – they are final warnings to bring about a change of behaviour. 

In that light, Eli’s response in v.18 is so tragic. He doesn’t change. He doesn’t speak to his sons. He is resigned, spiritually numbed, saying ‘He is the Lord, let him do what seems good to him.’ Although he has heard the word of the Lord, Eli has not really listened. Eli is not discerning its true meaning; he needs to listen for the spiritual subtext. so as we listen for the voice of God, it’s so important that when it is discerned we act on it.

If we wish to hear the voice of God it is essential to cultivate the habit of obedience. As we do so, God’s guidance becomes more familiar, perhaps more readily discerned. God speaks to us in many and various ways. We hear his voice and hone it through one another. And when we hear, let us be ready to obey. Amen.

Vocation 3. Exodus 3 and 4, Matthew 8 v19-22

It’s happened to me a lot since, but I think the first time was at the barbers. ‘So are you a student?’ she asked. ‘Yes’, I said, ‘in fact I’m training to be a vicar’. ‘ooh’ she said ‘did you get the call?

I may be wrong, but I guess roofers or actuaries don’t get the same question. HR professionals and aircraft fitters probably have interesting stories to tell, perhaps a very profound sense of vocation, but for some reason it’s vicars who get asked. ‘So did God actually, like, speak to you?’

And I have to say that the story of my sense of call to the ordained ministry is a bit unusual. When I went up to university to study Biology, I popped in to see my godparents in their local church. It was vibrant and full of students I knew from my course. So I went back. Over time the teaching I received made the Bible stories I knew fall into place – a pattern developed that made sense of the faith.

By the time I was in my second year I had decided to try and use my career to serve God. I thought that might be through forestry – because I liked trees and forestry can do a lot of good in developing nations. Just the sort of places where barriers to teaching the gospel can be overcome by having a relevant professional qualification. So perhaps I could be a tentmaking missionary, doing forestry as my job and supporting a local church in my spare time.

Problem was I found that forestry can be a lonely occupation. For my research project I spent weeks in the wilderness with thousands of Corsican pine for company. That wasn’t how I wanted to live my life. So I prayed about it: ‘Lord, I want to serve you, what should I do?

And the answer came back. As clear as if a voice had spoken: ‘What would you do if you could do anything you wanted?’ And up from the depths, without even having time to think about it, I had a picture of our priest celebrating Easter sunrise, and at the same time I replied ‘I’d like to be a priest and tell people about God’. Now my call have been anything – just happened to be ordained – any other kind of job can be a calling.

Of course, that was just the beginning. That sense of call had to be tested. I completed my degree, took a year out to work for a church, went through the Church of England selection process, did theological training. It was a long and at times arduous process.

What was unusual was that I never felt reluctant about being ordained. After that first thought I knew it was what I wanted to do. Which did create some issues. At the time it was very much the done thing to be called reluctantly. To have to wrestle with God, to count the cost, be hauled unwillingly to the altar. Perhaps I’m lucky, but that was never me – I knew what I wanted to do. Maybe the selectors were looking for more self-doubt or humility but I certainly got the impression that someone who actually wanted to be ordained was an object of curiosity and some suspicion. After all, weren’t most of the people in the Bible rather resistant when they were first called?

Think of Moses in our reading from Exodus. He’s already tried to save God’s people once. Outraged when he saw an Egyptian beating an Israelite, he intervened and killed the Egyptian. But his people did not rise up to throw off Pharaoh’s yoke, and Moses fled into the wilderness.

For forty long years he shepherded the flock of Jethro, priest of Midian. Moses married Jethro’s daughter, had children. It must have looked like he was settling down, his turbulent past behind him he had at last made a humble but straightforward life for himself.

So when God spoke to him out of a burning bush and commanded Moses to go down to Egypt and set his people free, we can understand if Moses seems more than a little reserved. In v. 11 ‘Who am I, that I should go to Pharaoh and bring the Israelites out of Egypt?’

When God calls us – and God can call us in all sorts of ways. If you Google ‘Stories of Vocation’ all you get is nuns. Tons of nuns. But vocation doesn’t have to be something religious – vocation can be all kinds of work.

In fact vocation doesn’t have to be about work at all – it simply means responding to God’s call on our lives. When God calls, we may respond like Moses did. ‘Who am I?’

‘What, me Lord? I’ve never stood up at the front before! Me Lord? I don’t know how to run a campaign. Who am I to find myself suddenly in the limelight?’ Or perhaps ‘Me Lord? Are you serious? You know what happened last time. How the business fell apart. Me Lord? You know how I messed up.’

How does God respond? God doesn’t talk about Moses past failures. God promises that he will be with him. ‘I will be with you’. That is ultimately the most reassuring thing God can promise, that he will be with us. At times when I have doubted my vocation, the answer has not been: ‘You’re brilliant, you can do this.’ It was ‘I will be with you’.

That’s not a promise it will all be straightforward, after all Pharaoh took a lot of convincing. It’s not a promise the way will always be clear: many times Moses argued and shouted at God. It’s not even a promise we won’t mess up: there was a time when Moses let God down. But it is a promise that God will be with us, a call to keep close to him.

But Moses needs more convincing. In verse 11 ‘If I come to the Israelites and say ‘The God of your ancestors has sent me to you’ and they ask me ‘What is his name?’ what shall I say to them?’ You see what’s happening here? I don’t think Moses is imagining this as some sort of test. As if the Israelites know God’s name and they want to find if Moses knows the password too.

It seems as if Moses is basically saying ‘Who are you? Can I really trust you? Because I don’t really know who you are God.’ That’s often where vocation gets confused – if our ideas about God are mixed up.

When I was curate we used to have something called ‘Vestry Hour’. The Rector and I would take it in turns to sit in a cold vestry and people would come in to book their baptisms and weddings. You’d also get the interesting ones: teenagers who’d got frightened by Ouija, that kind of thing. Twice I had someone come in and say that they thought God was calling them to be a priest.

One of them is now a vicar up North. The other chap was more complex. ‘When I was younger I often thought God was calling me to be a priest’. ‘Great. Tell me about it’, I said. So he did. ‘Where are you worshipping at the moment?’ I asked. He looked at me blankly. So I suggested that if he wanted to be a priest it might be a good idea to start coming to church. He thought that was a bit much.

Maybe I could have helped him encounter God another way. Because vocation needs to be informed. As we respond to God’s call we get a better idea of what it is he’s calling us to. As we travel with God we get to know him better. If anyone feels lacking in direction, I’d say keep praying about it. If you want to know your vocation get to know God.

But will I be able to do it? I’ve never led a group before. I’m terrified by organising an event. Will they believe me asked Moses. And then in v.10 ‘O Lord my God, I have never been eloquent.’ God addresses this in two ways: Firstly in v.11 ‘Who gives speech to mortals? Is it not I the Lord?’ In other words, when God calls he also supplies. God gives us the abilities we need to do the task he calls us to, and it’s as we step out in faith that we find the abilities are there.

Once I was gathering volunteers to set up an Open the Book Group. I asked them all to training. Shortly afterwards I got an email from Victoria: ‘Christopher, I didn’t actually volunteer for this. But when you invited me to training I thought maybe God was in it. So I’m willing to give it a try.’ She did. And it was amazing. It was like God had unlocked something. Her confidence grew, her abilities flourished, she became an excellent chair of governors. When she stepped out it in a little way, God faithfully gave her what she needed.

Secondly, in v. 14 ‘your brother Aaron can speak fluently’. God provides help through others. We’re often called to play a role as part of a team, the body of Christ, where each member has a different role and the members complement one another. Seldom is anyone called to be a one-man band, and if someone’s sense of vocation is all about them then it might be misplaced.

It seems like God has addressed every possible doubt Moses could have. But in verse 13 we come to the nub of it. ‘O my Lord, please send someone else!’

Perhaps we can sympathise with Moses. For in our Gospel reading Jesus makes it clear that following him will involve sacrifice. In v.19 A keen young scribe wants to go wherever the Lord goes, but Jesus tells him that ‘foxes have holes and birds have nests but the Son of Man has nowhere to lay his head.’

In v. 21 and 22 a man wants to bury his father. This does not mean that the old guy has already died and the son just needs to go back for the funeral. No, ‘First I must bury my father’ means ‘I will come, but when I’ve fulfilled my family responsibilities.’ Of course, that could be years in the future. And do family responsibilities ever end? Jesus tells him that God’s call will not wait. Sadly I do sometimes meet people who regret not responding to God’s call when it came.

Finding our vocation may not mean becoming a penniless wanderer. But it might involve a wage cut, with all the implications that brings. The hours might be longer, or shorter to make time for other things. There may be uncertainty, at times it may be hard to see the way. We’ll be called to step out in faith, to do things we might never have considered. Remember though, Seek first the Kingdom of God, and all things will be added to you as well. God will provide what we need. If we respond to God’s call, if we answer the summons to join God on the journey he has planned for us, if step out in faith and entrust our future to him, we will be joining in an amazing mystery, the wonder of finding our lives caught up in God’s call.

 

 

Vocation sermon 2

Genesis 41:15-36, Luke 12:35-38

Thanks to Sir Andrew Lloyd Webber, Joseph and his Amazing Technicolour Dreamcoat is one of the best known stories from the Old Testament. It was even used by the BBC as a follow up to ‘How do you solve a problem like Maria.’ – where a group of hopefuls auditioned to play Joseph in a West End production.

So I’m guessing that the central story of Joseph is familiar: the spoilt dreamer who so wound up his brothers that they sold him into slavery in Egypt. He endured many difficulties and imprisonment, before we get to today’s passage, where we hear how his ability to interpret dreams saved Egypt from famine. And, in so doing, it also rescued from starvation his own family, with whom he eventually got reconciled.

Where the musical and film are different from the Bible story, is that they don’t recognise the part God played. In the Genesis account, it’s clear that God works everything together for the good, so that his people will survive. God looks after Joseph and protects him. And it’s clear too – as in v. 25b, that his dream interpretation is a gift from God.

It’s those gifts from God that I want to think about today in our second sermon in the Vocation series. Last week in the evening we looked at what vocation actually means. And fundamentally it’s not about your job. Vocation is bigger than being a priest, missionary or teacher. The key to vocation is that God calls you as a person. He calls you to know him individually. That’s the point. God doesn’t call us because he wants jobs to be done. He calls us because he wants us to be his friends. So don’t think about vocation as being about careers. Think about it as God’s call to you – have you responded? Do you continue to respond by spending time with him? Because he values time with you.

That’s why each of us has a vocation – everyone can be the person God wants us to be. He’s made us unique. He’s given us special gifts and interests – things that make us tick. They have been implanted by the Creator. And it’s part of our vocation to make the most of them.

We glorify God by what we are. Joseph did it through his dreams. Sometimes our gifts can be used in a clearly religious way. I read an article by an evangelist who reaches out to walkers in the Scottish Highlands. He had seen the job advertised and wasn’t sure whether or not to apply, so consulted a friend. ‘Richard,’ the friend said, ‘what sort of God do you believe in? One who wants you to do things you don’t enjoy? Or a God who wants you to flourish? Your two passions in life are hiking and bringing people to Christ. This job is made for you!’

In my curacy church, there was a man with learning difficulties. Couldn’t read. But he was a real people person, a great welcomer, and loved being useful. So he became a sidesman – and no-one ever took the offertory plate up with a greater sense of occasion.

Using our gifts doesn’t have to be stereotypically religious. Do you remember the film Billy Elliott? – about a boy from a mining community who has a natural ability to dance, and takes up ballet? Can that glorify God? Yes, I think it can, because whenever the gifts that God gives us are used well, then that is a glory to our Creator. It shows off the beauty and wisdom of his world.

So, if each of us has a vocation, and if that vocation can evolve over time, then it makes sense to be aware of it, to search for it. Where to look? Start with what you’re good at, the things you love. If there’s anything that you’re enthusiastic about, whether it’s astronomy, flower arranging, or writing, develop it, invest in it and see what happens.

Encourage your children or grandchildren to take up their interests. Of course, there may be a risk in this – their chosen career may not be as stable or as supportive as a parent might wish. But then, what do we value? Wealth or service? Success or fulfilment? I knew a man who was a great musician, but Father felt it was an unpredictable career, so he was pushed into an unhappy 9 to 5 at the bank. Taking up our vocation may have some sacrifices, but we’ll consider that next week.

Does vocation stay the same? Quite possibly not. A particular talent or interest may come into its own at a certain time and place. Joseph was called to be a son, which took him a long time to work out how to do well, and for a while it looked as if that vocation had died. He was called to be a good servant, until he was set up and thrown into prison where his vocation was to be a witness. Finally his gifts came into their own as an able administrator.

Today someone who chooses to marry takes on a vocation as a husband or wife, perhaps also parent. In younger years your vocation may take you abroad with a company, but later on you may be called to a change of career. Within a career, vocation develops. Many who are ordained come to that call later on in life – and I don’t think that means they were missing their purpose until that point. Vocations can evolve.

We may go through times when our talents seem unfulfilled. Early on we hear how the young Joseph had prophetic dreams in which the sun, moon and eleven stars bowing down to him. It’s pretty obvious that referred to his father mother and eleven brothers – that one day he would be greater than them. But it was perhaps unwise to share it! Early on, Joseph’s dreams just caused friction.

Only later, after the suffering of kidnap, slavery, false accusation, and imprisonment, did Joseph’s dreams really come into their own. Or perhaps his experiences gave him the wisdom to deal with them appropriately. It’s one thing having gifts, it’s quite another knowing how to use them. As someone said: ‘Knowledge is knowing that a tomato is actually a fruit. Wisdom is not putting it in a fruit salad.’

More seriously, it’s interesting that as Joseph’s gifts develop, he seems to become more dependent on God. He says God enables him to interpret dreams. How might we give God glory for our talents?

Furthermore, any ability can be used for good or for evil. A well known example: nuclear technology could power the world without carbon emissions, or it could blow us all up.

It’s down to humanity what we do with it. Gifts and talents are given by God to be used for the good, but people can twist them to wickedness.

There is a moral ambiguity about this in the story of Joseph. After Joseph interpreted Pharaoh’s dreams he then displayed another gift. In verses 33 to 36 he advised Pharaoh on what to do about the looming famine. After all, Biblical prophecy is never given for idle curiosity, it was so that people could act upon it.

Sometimes, that’s so they can avert disaster by repentance. Here, in v32 says Joseph suggests they build up food reserves for hard times ahead. Pharaoh is so impressed with Joseph’s wisdom, that he gives Joseph the job of organising the plan. And so the original dreams of greatness are fulfilled, and Egypt is saved.

God uses this to bring healing in Joseph’s family too. Far away in Israel they are affected by the famine and come to buy grain, and after a complicated sequence of events, Joseph’s real identity becomes clear, he forgives his brothers, and the family move to Egypt permanently. So all’s well that ends well? Well, not quite. Later in the story In chapter 47 the famine is still ongoing…and then in verse 19b ‘the people said “buy us with our land in exchange for food. We with our land will become slaves to Pharaoh, just give us seed”. In times of plenty Joseph took the excess grain. In hard times he sold it back to the people – in exchange for their money, livestock, land, and very selves.

Power corrupts? Perhaps. Just following our God-given desires and developing our inbuilt talents is not enough. They have great potential, for better or for worse. We must ensure that we use our abilities, our vocation for the good.  

As the gospel reading reminds us, we have been given a trust. We should be ready with our gifts, able to serve. Using our talents for the good of all, our vocation to the glory of God. So that when the moment of truth comes, Christ will find us prepared.

Vocation 1

Today our churches are beginning a Lent series on Vocation. The sermons for the next five weeks will look at the theme of Vocation.

I wonder if I’ve lost anyone already? Anyone thinking ‘Well that’s not for me, I’m a priest or a missionary’. Or perhaps: ‘I’ve had my career, I made my choice years ago.’ Well, I want to say that each of us has a vocation. Because vocation is much wider than your job. Vocation means more than a career in religion, or the caring professions.

Some common English phrases suggest this. For instance: ‘He’s found his vocation’. Hearing that we might think of a say widow who throws herself into organising jumble sales and hospital visiting. I read about a lawyer earning a six figure salary and a London house with swimming pool who gave it all up to become a human cannonball. It was his dream.

But finding your vocation can mean taking a promotion, putting a bigger vision to good effect. We often think of vocation as stepping out of the rat race, less job, more time. Yet it can mean stepping up to greater responsibility. The common theme is that those who’ve found their vocation find meaning and value in what they do. It’s about finding a place in life which seems as if it were designed for you.

Another phrase we can learn from is ‘Vocational qualification’. Did you know that McDonalds offer GCSE equivalents? Yes, the burger chain has its own recognised vocational qualifications. Someone who can manage a busy outlet, control a multi-million pound turnover and supervise 50 staff can now be assessed and graded, and given a certificate to prove it. Not as traditional as Physics– but maybe they’ll use it more!

‘Vocational qualifications’ remind us that almost any job can be vocational, part of your calling. Your work can be an offering to God if you do it well. Whether paid or unpaid, work can be part of our call – yet our calling is much bigger than whether you have a job or not.

These phrases point us towards a real Christian truth: we all have a vocation from God. It’s easy to give a lot of attention to the special people in the Bible who heard God’s voice and had a unique role: people like Mary, Joseph, Isaiah and Abraham. Our lives may be more like the walk on parts: the farmers, priests, soldiers and mothers who make up much of the Bible. Yet they’re important too. It’s only when they do their bit well, that God’s plan goes forward.

So each of us has a vocation. And it’s far more than what we do to earn a living. It’s who God made us to be. Who we are in relationship with God. At the heart of the idea of vocation is God’s call (vocare). And he doesn’t just call us to work. First and foremost, God calls us to be in a relationship with him. In the gospel reading, Jesus called Matthew to follow him.

Matthew was rich. But Jesus didn’t ask for Matthew’ money. Matthew was experienced and capable. But Jesus didn’t ask him to sign a contract. Jesus called Matthew to walk with him, share a meal, chat around the fire. That relationship with God comes first. Our main calling as human being is to know God and be known by him. Perhaps later we find out that he wants us to do something for him.

In the Bible, God rescues the people of Israel from Egypt and only later makes it clear what role he wants them to have. And in the New Testament, Paul often writes of Christians being part of one body through the Spirit – and in one body exercising different gifts.

So let’s not think of vocation as a job, still less a purely religious one. The heart of vocation is that God invites us to know him, and thereby become more truly ourselves.)

today we baptised a little baby. As a tiny baby, Maisie’s vocation is just being. Being herself, the smiles and gurgles. Glorifying God just by living, and being loved – such a source of joy. As she grows, she will give love back. She’ll develop her own abilities and talents. There will be things that only Maisie can do. That is her vocation – being known by God, being who God made her, doing the things God has put her on earth to do.

As St. Augustine said, ‘You have made us for yourself O Lord, and our hearts are restless until they find their rest in you.’ One of the classic images of the hope and meaning we find in responding to God is in our Old Testament reading, from Ezekiel 37.

The background to this is that the people of Israel had been in exile for several years, and they could see no end to it. As it says in v.11, their hope had dried up. They were like the bones of a defeated army, lying in a desert valley, scattered and picked over by scavengers, bleached and crumbling in the sun. There is no life in those bones, just sad memories of failure, disobedience and defeat. But, in v.7 and in v.10 God brings them to life. At the return from Exile, it was like moving from death to life, an amazing miracle.

What’s the connection with vocation? Simply this: that God did this because he loved those people and wanted what’s best for them. He desired to bring the people, and us too, into life-giving, healing friendship with God. From death, meaninglessness into the life of hope.

Look at v.14 I shall put my spirit within you and you shall live. The Spirit will give you life – truly, freely, not held captive by regrets and dreams, but life in all its fullness. And in v.13, ‘you shall know that I am the Lord’ is Ezekiel’s way of saying that they will acknowledge and worship the one true God. In other words, God calling them to himself. Not because he wants slaves to build a pyramid. Not because he wants piles of sacrifices. But because he loves them. Their vocation, and ours, is to know God and glorify him for ever.

In a small kind of way vocation reminds me of my hens. Chantal and I used to keep hens – and until the fox got them it was wonderful. Yes they ate the raspberries and pooped everywhere, but chickens were great fun. Islay laid little eggs for eight months of the year. Evita popped out a sky-blue egg alternate days between from Mothering Sunday to midsummer, and the rest of the year she was on strike.

They were eccentric, at times a nuisance, but we loved them. Hens have surprising character. Watching those lardy lumps trying to fly would make anyone laugh. The point is, we kept them, not because they were prolific layers – they weren’t, but because we liked them.

I wonder how God sees us? Is he better off because he’s called us? Does he put up with our occasional awkwardness because we’re useful? Or is it just that God actually likes us? Surely the whole point of vocation is that God calls us because individually we matter to him.

So, remember that you matter to God. Today we think about Maisie especially, but this is for all of us. God cares about you, and invites you to know him. What you are is important. For your character is created by God. Your interests, whether in football, shooting clays or making gateau are part of your beauty in God’s eyes, and should be cherished. Don’t imagine that being closer to God means becoming less yourself. Rather, it is more so, you become the person he created you to be. Later in our series we’ll look more deeply at how God uses our natural abilities and inclinations.

And finally, remember that God calls you into a relationship with him. He appreciates it when we pray, because we’re making an effort to keep in contact. Just as parents like to hear from their children, whether it’s the fumbling efforts of a four year old to describe the school day, or the Sunday afternoon phone home to aged Mum, so our heavenly father values time spent with him in prayer.

One vicar I worked with had a wonderful way to describe his prayer life: wasting time with God. What a lovely picture – prayer as a long summer evening’s chat with a glass of wine. Of course, prayer is a duty as well, and a task to be undertaken for others, and there should also be an element of awe in approaching the throne of the Almighty. But let that not squeeze out the simple fact of a relationship with God, because he calls us to know him. And that is the heart of vocation – that God calls us to be with him. He has a plan for each one of us, and it’s as we get to know him, as follow Jesus day by day, that the plan becomes clear.