1 Samuel 9:4-20

How do you pass things down the generations? Yesterday we enjoyed a great fete – lots of people having fun. What made it notable is that a younger generation were organising. The people in their 60s and 70s handed over to those in their 40s – and it’s going well.

Doesn’t always though. A certain media empire wrestles with the question: Is it better to keep it in the family? At times the  White House doesn’t seem keen to bring in expertise from outside.


Countless businesses have struggled with the same question. And it’s a tricky one. Maybe there just isn’t anyone who wants to take on the family farm. Or perhaps the younger generation are keen – but they want to do it their way, with their ideas, not the way grandpa did it. What might just work for a business isn’t best for a nation. Our reading today from 1st Samuel 8 considers, how will a good ruler be chosen?


Don’t do what Samuel did. His big mistake came before our reading, in v.1-3. He appointed his sons as judges, but they became corrupt. A familiar story from the lives of many leaders. What’s particularly strange though, is that Samuel started his career when his predecessor Eli made exactly the same mistake. As we heard last week, Eli the priest had sons who were corrupt so God sent a message to Samuel telling Eli that their conduct would not be tolerated any longer. So you might expect Samuel to have learnt – yet it seems he has no more control over his sons than Eli did.


Three times in today’s reading the word listen is used. It’s a passage all about listening and obedience. But this isn’t the listening of a well-trained sheepdog which follows its master’s whistle exactly. This is about people who don’t listen to God. Alarmingly, it’s also about a God who allows us a scary amount of freedom. As we continue our sermon series on prayer this is a salutary reminder that we worship a God who listens to us. He is a God who believes in our freedom, who might even allow us what we want, even if it’s not the best thing for us.

So it starts with Samuel, who had heard the message to Eli. He had seen what happened to Eli’s sons, and yet he failed to learn the lesson himself. He chose his successors from his own family.


The principle goes wider. It can be tempting for managers to promote people who agree with them, or who make them feel good – but flatterers are fickle and yes-men rarely have leadership qualities themselves. Some leaders choose lieutenants by repaying those who are owed a favour or do it on the basis of dead men’s shoes. Neither of those approaches leads to the best stewardship, nor to public service.


Those of us who act as leaders should choose our colleagues not for our own convenience, but remember that we have a wider responsibility.

In this light v.4-5 might seem reasonable. The people state the facts, somewhat baldly. ‘You are old, and your sons do not follow in your ways – appoint for us then a king to govern us like other nations.’ Clearly they cherish and admire Samuel even if their tact is lacking. But Samuel takes it personally, in v.6, Samuel was displeased.


How easy it is to take opposition to heart! How easy to confuse the role with the person. To imagine that if your idea is opposed that people don’t like you. Or to go off in a huff. But sometimes role and person must be separate.


For instance, the first women priests had a lot of opposition. Some said it was easier to cope when they realised that the opposition wasn’t directed at them as people – it was what they represented. Interestingly, in many cases once congregations had got used to the person they were also able to accept the role. It’s very important for everyone in whatever situation to be able to keep the distinction between person and role, so that it doesn’t get too personal.



Sometimes it’s God who’s actually being rejected. Just as it was for Samuel. In v.7b ‘The Lord said they have not rejected you, they have rejected me from being king over them’. Again, there’s a failure to listen. The Biblical book of Deuteronomy is clear: God is their king. That’s why early Israel didn’t have monarchs – they were ruled by God who made his will known through prophets and judges like Samuel. Asking for a king was actually a profound rejection of the Lord.


So isn’t it all the more surprising that God seems to give in? What does he say in v7: ‘Listen to their request!’ Might he not have refused? There is a frightening responsibility here – God gives us what we ask for. Sometimes I hear people talking about their past and saying that such a thing must have been God’s will because he allowed them to do it. Implying that if God hadn’t wanted it, it wouldn’t have happened.


That’s not the way God works. Our heavenly Father gives us free will. He gives us the opportunity to choose, for better or for worse. And it wouldn’t be a free choice if the consequences weren’t truly open.


Therefore Samuel had to explain to the people what a king would do. The grass seems greener on the other side. Sometimes people need to know what the alternative actually involves. They have to be brought back to the real world. Occasionally we might look at an unhappy present and imagine a future ideal. Dreaming like that isn’t harmful – it can inspire us – provided that we face that fact that choices have to be made between real-life situations. And perfection is rarely possible. Maybe next time you meet someone complaining about something, it might be worth asking them: ‘what’s your solution?’


And that’s what the prophet does in verses 10-17. He tells what the king will do. The king will take the best for himself. He will take a whopping 10% for his people. Shows how much things have changed, that in those days an oppressive rate of tax was 10%! But then again, it was only for the armed forces and the king. No welfare state back then!

Yet the people do not listen. ‘No but we are determined to have a king over us. There are two reasons: We want to be like other nations. Not an informal coalition of tribes, relying on the worship of one God. Not living radically as a witness to the Gentiles. We want to grow. We want identity. Boundaries. Power. More land. Empire. We want a king.


Israel was meant to change the world. Instead they ended up being changed by it. Rather than listen to God and share that good news with the world, they listened to the world and asked God that they might be the same. The same challenge faces Christians today. Will we be witnesses? Or will we be conformed? Are we light in the world, pointing the way to Christ? Or do we seek to be like the other nations, taking our values from the world? What do we really value, and why?


And then their second reason ‘so that our king may govern us and go about before us and fight out battles.’ Perhaps we can sympathise with this. They did face real threats of invasion. Rule by God must have seemed a bit of a gamble. Is God really there? Does it make a difference in battle? And if God chooses the leaders by giving them his Spirit, well who will he send? Will they be up to it? At least with a king you know where you stand. You can see him!


It’s about trust, isn’t it? Following God is step into the unknown, a leap of faith. Faced by an alternative radical lifestyle, and the seeming uncertainty of God as King, the people opted for the allure of the nation state and the security of a human king. The irony was, they were less secure. For no human king would be up to the challenges the nation of Israel would face. Many were tried and found wanting. Only those who depended on God made the grade. Only he could ultimately save.


So God says again ‘Listen to them’. They are set in their way so he will allow them what they want. Yet the amazing thing about the way this story turns out is that God did not give up on them. Yes, the kings of Israel often did do exactly what Samuel had said. But there were also kings who ruled wisely: David, Hezekiah, Josiah. Maybe the institution was flawed from the start, but God in his grace was able to use the monarchy for good. It’s a reminder to us that, even when we mess up, God does not give up on us. He can take our mistakes and turn them round. If there’s anything in your life that you wished never happened, a mistake you made, bring it to God, see what he can do.


For God can even turn our mistakes into blessings. The change God brings is so great that even our errors and sins can be transformed and become something good. Look at the beginning and end of the Bible.


The Bible begins with two naked people in a garden. When they do wrong they cover their shame with clothes. Their descendants try and build a city which reaches to the skies, but their pride is punished when God divides their languages so they cannot understand one another.


What then would we expect at the end of the Bible? All being put right, a return to the golden age, of nakedness in a garden?


The Bible ends with a great multitude, from every tribe and language, clad in white robes as a glorious city descends from heaven. God has not put the clock back. He has taken human sin, and its consequences and totally transformed everything. The path we have taken cannot be untrodden, instead it is planted with flowers.


That’s exactly what God does with the idea of having a King. It becomes a model for Jesus. The one who would lead and serve perfectly. The one who now reigns with God.


Jesus was sent to be a King. Jesus too was rejected, the people did not want him as their Lord. We heard that in the gospel reading. And so they crucified him. Yet God turned that rejection into redemption. Jesus’ death in our place, on account of our sins, opened the way for all humanity to return to God. His love really is that awesome.


And so, to conclude. Our readings today challenge us – to whom do we listen? Do we listen to God and try to share that sensitively with the world around? Or do we take our values from the world around and hope that God won’t mind? Do we take responsibility for our decisions – for that responsibility is given by God and respected by him.


Recognising that we all make mistakes, can we see the hand of God in redeeming them? Will we allow God to transform our lives, not by putting the clock back, but by taking the hand we have dealt ourselves, and with it creating something beautiful and wonderful?


Ways of guidance

A motorist once stopped his car in a Wiltshire village, and asked a passing local: ‘Excuse, could you tell me which way to go to get to Bristol?’ ‘Oooh,’, said the villager, ‘if you’re going to Bristol I wouldn’t start from here.’ And there’s the guy who stopped in Surrey and said ‘Leatherhead?’ to which the reply was ‘Potato face!

Knowing which way to go in life is a question which affects many people. We feel the need for guidance. Of course there are those who seem to find their way in life with a quite untroubled ease – everything they do seems a natural progression without wondering whether it’s the right thing. But many of us seek God’s guidance.

It may be for the big things in life: what career to follow, where to live, which school to send the children to. It may be for smaller day-to-day decisions – which route to follow on the journey, a choice of holiday cottage. It may be decisions which involve others such as which project to develop at work or in church. In all of these things we can seek God’s guidance, we can ask him to show us what is best, the right decision to make, what his will for us is and how it fits in his plan.

There’s a pretty key assumption lying behind that and I want to make it clear. Christians believe in a God who loves us, who cares about us as individuals and who therefore guides us. That’s an amazing thing – I was in sporting event the other day and struck by the crowds. Thousands and tens of thousands of people – you can tell I live in a small village and don’t get out much – and I was thinking to myself ‘How on earth does God know each person and care about them?’ But he does: remember how Jesus said that sparrows are two a penny but God knows every one?

It’s wonderful. It didn’t have to be like that. Imagine an indifferent God who creates a world and looks on with detached interest to see what it will do in the way that you or I might observe a nest of ants going about their business.

Or he could have given us general rules to obey like a herd of cows, a time to come and a time to go. Or at the other extreme, we could imagine a God who was a dictator, moving chess pieces around.

Instead God gives us individuality, free will and moral responsibility. He grants us liberty to fulfil our desires and the chance to grow in discernment. Sometimes Christians think of guidance as being a bit like a treasure hunt: you follow the clues, you go from Bible reading to prayer to wisdom of friends to common sense to signs to a feeling of peace and when you’ve found all the clues you get the answer. As if God knows what’s best but hides it and we then have to find his will.

Perhaps we could think of guidance being more like orienteering with a guide. As you go out walking together, finding new places, you also get to know one another. You learn from his experience and if he is a good guide he will teach you to read the map yourself. As we journey through life with God, our relationship with him deepens, we learn to trust him, we discover more about ourselves and become more practised in discernment. That image also helps us understand times when God has allowed us to learn from our mistakes and dead ends.

So what sorts of guidance are there? I heard of a chap who had a message from God. God wanted him to build an ark. It had to be a bit like Noah’s, but this one needed many decks on which to hold many fish tanks. These fish tanks had be filled with all the different types of carp. It was to be God’s new multi storey carp ark.

That’s very particular guidance. Often though guidance is general – and we find a great deal of it in the Bible. Do no murder! It is good to work to earn a living and to support your family. Anyone may marry but no-one must, and singleness should be honoured as a vocation. God’s word gives us all that we need to know for salvation and ethical living.

But the details of it we will need to work out for ourselves. The Bible won’t tell you which job to apply for. It won’t tell you who to marry, although there are indications that it’s good to share your life with someone who shares your faith.

That’s a lot of the background behind today’s reading from Genesis. It’s a couple of thousand years BC, and Abraham wants to arrange a marriage for his son Isaac. God has called Abraham to live in Canaan, where the people worship idols. But Abraham wants Isaac to be a partner with someone who worships the Lord, so he sends his servant off to find a bride for Isaac from the area that Abraham originally came from. In this part of the reading the servant recaps his story.

In v. 42: ‘I came today to the spring and said ‘O Lord if now you will make successful the way I am going’. All guidance starts with faith and prayer. The servant shares Abraham’s faith. He believes that God is there and that God answers prayer, so he prays to God for guidance. Faith, prayer and crucially obedience are at the heart of guidance. It’s no good having a doctor but not going to the doctor when you feel ill. And when you’re there, you don’t just tell the doctor your problems and go away again, you listen to her answer and take the medicines.

As Jesus says in v.25 of the gospel, ‘these things are hidden from the wise and intelligent but revealed to infants’. It is possible to overthink guidance, to worry too much about the right thing to do. But if we are humble then the path can be more easily revealed to us.

Prayerful obedience means we get used to hearing the voice of God. In my last parish I was doing some visiting. As I walked past one house, I felt the nudge of God – go and knock on that door. But it was getting late, there wasn’t really time so I carried on home. Next time I was that way I felt God prod me again. Harder this time. I knew the people there had moved in recently but it wasn’t that long ago, surely they could wait and I was in a hurry.

A week or so later, same place, but this time more like a command ‘Go and knock on that door’. The guy opened it, looked surprised but also relieved. ‘Ah, you must have heard about my wife. The cancer is quite bad now. Come on in.’ I didn’t know their situation, but God did, and eventually managed to get through to me! ….

Perhaps sometimes we also need to repent of our willfulness, entrust our future to God and actually trust him. There’s no point praying for guidance if we’re not prepared for the answer, if we’ll only accept it if it fits our existing dreams.

That’s the point Jesus makes in the Gospel reading, 18 and 19. ‘John came eating and drinking and they said ‘He has a demon’, but the Son of Man came eating and drinking and they say ‘Look a glutton and a drunkard.’’ The people’s hearts were in the wrong place, so they couldn’t respond to the message of John and Jesus. The crowd were judging, condemning, contrary, not open to God’s voice. When we seek guidance it’s good to ask God to purify our hearts too, make us ready.

So the Bible guides us generally, prayer helps us listen to the voice of God. Sometimes God guides us using signs. In v.43 and 44 the servant suggests to God a sign to point him to the right young woman. And God graciously grants it. We might also remember Gideon’s fleece. Both of these signs are given to people who humbly seek reassurance, who really don’t know what to do. And it can be legitimate for us to ask for a sign – as long as we are humble and not putting God to the test.

In his ‘Sacred Diary’ the Christian writer Adrian Plass feels he ought to go carol singing with the church. But he’d like to stay at home and watch the Bond film. So he asks for a sign: ‘Lord, if the doorbell rings at 9.04 pm and it’s someone dressed in the uniform of a Japanese Admiral, I’ll know you want me to go carol singing.’

The sign the servant asks for works because it’s about character. In v.44 the right woman is the one who gives the servant a drink and offers to water his camels too. Given that a mature camel can drink 30 gallons, and the servant had ten of them, that’s a lot of water! Rebekah is a woman who is practical, strong, thoughtful and kind.

In other words, Abraham’s servant uses common sense. God gave us human wisdom, let us use it! Do a job that plays to your strengths. Work out the budget for a property renovation. It’s ok to be restricted to living where you can support your ageing in-laws. Sure, there are times when it is a sign of faith to go against prevailing opinion, but God doesn’t call us to pigheadedness. Remember that what’s right for someone else is not necessarily right for you: John was called to fasting, Jesus was called to party with tax collectors and sinners. Both were right, both fulfilled their vocation, and as Jesus points out in v. 19, wisdom is vindicated by actions: you can tell it’s right by the results.

Another source of wisdom can be found in the wider community. Friends, family, church, colleagues – all can give wisdom.

In this reading we see it in v.50, where Rebekah’s family are involved in the decision. At last, there is her own consent in v. 58. Anything which involves other people will include them in the guidance process – for instance those seeking to be ordained or become Lay Ministers have to seek the goodwill of the wider church.

Finally, abiding in the will of God brings us a sense of peace. In v.30 Jesus says that his yoke is easy and his burden is light. Often when we have prayed about something, thought about it deeply, agonised before finally making the decision, a sense of peace will come. That is not to say that the right course of action does not involve challenge or uncertainty. It may, but alongside that there is often a sense of ‘rightness’, of trusting God for the unknowns.

All of these things together make up guidance. We bring them all together in prayer: Biblical commands, circumstances, common sense, wisdom of friends, consent of others. God could have just told the servant the girl’s name. But what then would he have learned?

As it is, God guides free people; Isaac and Rebekah are brought together, and through their marriage God’s plans are advanced. May we walk with him through our lives, know his guidance, and play our part in Growing his Kingdom.



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.


I wonder if you did much travelling over Christmas and the New Year? And if so, how was it for you? A long journey that must just be endured before you arrive at the destination? Traffic jams, road closures, pop songs playing in the back, until at long last we reach Granny’s and the celebrations can begin.

For many of us, much of the time, the point is the destination, not the journey. But there can be times when the journey itself is significant. For me, driving over to the 8 am communion is a spiritual preparation – the stillness of the sleeping villages, the orange-misted sun rising over the frosted fields – it’s a time to connect with God and prepare for the day. Sometimes the journey is more important than the destination – in The Canterbury Tales we hear the stories the pilgrims tell on the way, but Chaucer never describes their arrival.

Our reading today from Matthew 2:1-12 shows us the wise men on a journey of discovery. Like a treasure hunt, they follow each clue until eventually they arrive in the presence of the infant Christ. Today the story encourages us to think about life’s journey. How does God speak to us now? How does he call you and me to know Jesus better?

For God is a God who guides. The God of the Bible communicates. He calls us to know him; he invites us to respond to Christ; he tells us what is best for us. The story of the wise men wouldn’t make sense at all if it weren’t for a God who guides. It completely depends on the idea that God is drawing these people towards Jesus. It’s often worth looking at unstated assumptions – and the big one behind this story is that God wants to communicate with people and can communicate with people.

That may seem obvious. But it’s really worth pointing out, because this is quite distinctive in the Christian view of God. Some faiths and forms of agnosticism believe in a God who is distant and leaves us to the task of working out what’s best. Even many Christians imagine God giving us direction in the 10 Commandments, then leaving us to get on with it.

But Biblical faith believes in a God who’s interested in each one of us individually, who cares that each person should encounter Christ, who guides us through our own situations and prayers. We believe in God’s guidance through the Holy Spirit, and I want to reflect on that today.

And what a surprising God we worship! I did briefly wonder about showing a clip from The Life of Brian at this point – because Monty Python really do get the complete bizarreness of it. The grand visitors from the east, their peculiar gifts, worshipping a baby Messiah in a peasant’s house.

The wise men are not the people you would expect, nor the guidance that’s obvious. Magi were the scientists of the day, wise ones who studied the stars. Yet mixed in with their planetary observations and predictions of orbits was a great deal of what we would call magic. The science of astronomy was not yet separated from the superstition of astrology – about which the Old Testament is sometimes disapproving.

Somehow though God spoke to the Magi through this star – they grasped its symbolic significance. He can speak to people today through natural wonders: many see in the order and beauty of creation a testimony to God. And it’s true that there are many scientists who are also Christians. Indeed God is perfectly capable of revealing himself to all sorts of people who, perhaps even unwittingly, are seeking him. There are many stories of Muslims having dreams in which Jesus calls them; accounts of New Age spiritual seekers sensing the presence of God. They may be doing unorthodox things, but that is no barrier to God who can call anyone to a better understanding of himself.

What does mean for us? If we have found Christ, we will want others to know him too. We must understand that people will express their spiritual hunger in ways that may challenge and stretch us. We need to be able to engage with them, hear well, listen for the presence of God, and share without condemnation but with love and clarity.

It’s good to think about how we might explain our faith in ways that make sense to them, without slipping into a kind of relativism in which all beliefs are portrayed as equally true. You know the kind of thing: it doesn’t matter what you believe as long as you believe it! Yet that ignores the differences between faiths. Nor does it explain why the Magi bothered.

For the Magi represent all Gentiles, All nations now invited to be part of God’s family. They show the good news is not just for the Jews, but for everyone! Anyone who comes to Christ can be part of God’s family. This was revolutionary in the first century – in our time the idea that everyone needs to come to Christ might sound radical. We are used to hearing the idea that all religions are essentially the same. But if that is true, why did the Magi bother? Why travel all that way if they already had the truth? Why ask all those questions if they already had the light?

The other thing we can learn from the Magi is that they act. They see, they understand, and they do something about it. If you want to steer a car you turn the wheel, but if you’re not moving, the power steering will just grind holes in your driveway. Similarly, with God’s guidance we need to be moving to get a sense of direction.

If we have an important decision to make, we should pray that God will show us what he wants us to do – and then try and push some doors to see if they open. Apply for that job, look at some houses, test out a new ministry. For instance, the Diocese are holding a day entitled ‘Am I called to be a LLM’ – if the thought has ever even crossed your mind do go along –Reader ministry may be different from what you expect!

So the Magi act. A huge contrast to the Priests in v. 4-6. Imagine it, the Magi have turned up, announcing the birth of a new King. Everyone knows about it – verse 3 says all Jerusalem is in turmoil. So Herod calls in the religious experts, who know all the answers. ‘In Bethlehem of Judea just like the prophet said’. And, er, that’s it.

So exotic visitors say ‘We’re looking for the new King of the Jews. We’ve seen his star. Can you tell us where he is please?’ And the priests reply: ‘What, the Messiah? The promised Saviour? The one who will redeem Israel? The one for whom the prophets looked? Promised and foretold these three thousand years past? The long-awaited Redeemer who will be the fulfilment of our religion? He’s been born? He’ll be in Bethlehem then. Good luck and cheerio.’

How could they not go? Did they not actually believe it could be here and now? Would the coming Messiah upset their comfortable position? Had it just not occurred to them that the words might require action? Or were they afraid of Herod and his reaction against the truth?

Lord preserve us from hearing the words of the Bible and thinking it does not apply to us! Lord protect us against having defended hearts explaining away every Scriptural challenge! Lord keep us from saying with our lips ‘Christ will come again’ whilst never imagining in our hearts that it might be in our time! Lord strengthen us against the fear which says ‘We could never actually do what Jesus teaches because…’

Whereas the Bible is the main way that we get general guidance from God, there are many ways that he can guide us individually. The Old Testament told the Magi in which region to look, the star guided them to the precise house. With us the essentials for living as a disciple of Christ are all in God’s written word – what it is to have faith, how to treat one another. The individual decisions: where to live; what career step next; how to be involved in the community – these are discerned through personal prayer.  So it’s important that we spend time with God regularly, because prayer enables us to see him at work.

We might also notice that the Holy Spirit can give us the benefit of hindsight. No doubt the wise men’s gifts seemed bizarre at the time, but when the gospel was written down, Matthew would have seen in them a prophecy of the death and resurrection of Christ.

So was the journey more important than the arrival? Or has the journey only just begun? In one sense the Magi have reached their destination, they have found Christ. But in another sense, this is the beginning of their story. Now they must return to their own country, work out what it means to live by the promise of a world’s redeemer. For Mary, Joseph and Jesus too a new episode unfolds: of sudden flight, refugee status, and being uprooted to a new home. Much of it is left to our imagination as the journey continues.

So too with us. Finding Christ is only the beginning. Then follows a lifetime of discipleship, of listening to God. How will he guide us? Through the world around us – earthly wisdom and good friends; through his Word; through prayer as we seek as his personal direction.

I wonder with which of those you are most familiar? And which might need development? Could you watch to see God at work in the world around you? Reflect on your own background, formation and understanding? Could you benefit from the shared wisdom of others? One of the best things about our Lent groups is the way that members from different churches share their experiences and thoughts and we learn so much from one another.

Is it Biblical guidance that you could develop most? If so, there’s nothing which builds up our understanding quite so much as reading a passage of the Bible each day. It needn’t be long, in fact it’s better to read a paragraph or two slowly and thoughtfully than try a big chunk in one sitting. It needn’t take a lot of time – a few minutes before bed or in the morning each day quickly adds up and makes a huge difference.

Or would you want to focus on developing your prayers? Again, a time each day for prayer is a great blessing. At the end of the day, try looking back at it. Where can you sense God’s presence? What has he been saying to you? How has the day been guided, held in his love?

And above all, act. When God speaks, may we hear him and put what he says into practice. May our lives be like the Magi, characterised by a listening obedience. Amen.


The Eucharist and Who I Am

One day a gorilla escaped from the zoo, prompting a huge search of the district and appeals on radio, television and in the newspapers.

A few days later they found him in the city library sitting at a desk with two books spread out in front of him.

The gorilla was deep in concentration. One book was the Bible; the other was written by Charles Darwin.

The zoo keepers asked the gorilla what he was doing. The gorilla replied: “I’m trying to figure out whether I am my brother’s keeper or my keeper’s brother.”

Who am I? The question of identity lies at the heart of films like the Bourne trilogy and plenty of books too. Many people spend their lives in search of a secure identity, others decide on an off the shelf identity to adopt, like the teenager who suddenly becomes a goth. Many of us devote a lot of time and effort to creating an identity for ourselves and projecting it for others – how many Facebook profiles do you think give a real impression of their owners’ lives?

If we take our identity from others and allow the world around us to define who we are, we end up confused and often disappointed. But if we listen to what God tells us about our identity, we find security. As we continue our sermon series on the Eucharist, we’ll reflect today on what Holy Communion tells us about who we are. What is our identity in the sight of God? The answer is truthful, at times challenging, and always full of glorious hope.

If we look at our Luke reading, Chapter 22 verses 14-20 we find that our identity is rooted in Christ’s death for us. The reading takes place at the Last Supper – it’s the Thursday before Easter and Jesus has come up to Jerusalem to celebrate the traditional Passover meal. He gathers with his disciples in an upper room, and as the meal reaches its climax Jesus does something unexpected.

He knows that he will shortly be arrested and condemned to death the next day. So he takes the bread and says ‘This is my body, given for you’. Then he takes the cup of wine, saying ‘This cup poured out for you is the new covenant in my blood’.

In doing this he began the tradition that became Holy Communion, and we say those same words as we gather round the table even today. For centuries Christians have debated their precise meaning: do the bread and wine actually mysteriously become the body and blood of Jesus? Or do they represent his body and blood, symbols reminding us of his death on the cross? Or is the answer somewhere in between? We’re not going to resolve four centuries of argument in one sermon, so let’s focus on the underlying meaning.

Jesus talked of his body and blood, given for you. He says that he gave his blood for us; he gave his body, dying on our behalf. If you’ve ever had a blood transfusion, you’ll know how one person’s generosity can give life to another. As the father of a child who’s had a kidney transplant, I am forever grateful to the unknown woman who in her death allowed her organs to be given up and shared for those in need. What a profound gift that is, how could I ever say thank you enough, apart from going on the register myself?

Christians believe that Jesus gave his body and blood on the cross in love so that we might live. Christians depend on Jesus and his self-giving life, just as the transplant recipient depends on the organ.

But for the disciples, with their background in Old Testament inspired Judaism, a very different image would come to mind. Imagine a man who has wronged his neighbour. Something has happened, which cannot be undone – perhaps there has been a fight. Now he is making the long journey to Jerusalem, with a year old lamb in tow. There’s not many in his flock, this lamb represents a sizeable portion of his livelihood, but the sin is serious and he genuinely desires reconciliation.

At the temple, the costly sacrifice is made on the altar. As the lamb dies, the man feels a weight of guilt lifted off his shoulders. The price is paid, sin’s death has died, and he can go home sombre but forgiven.

Jesus’ disciples interpreted his death like that. He was the Lamb of God, who freely gave himself as a sacrifice for our sins. Christ was the Passover lamb, dying so that God’s people could be delivered from evil. Jesus himself spoke of his death as being a ransom – a price paid so that the captives could go free. Shortly before dying he gave us this ceremony so that we could remember his body and blood given for us.

So the Eucharist tells us we are forgiven. The first step in our identity is as redeemed sinners, those who have been loved by God so much that the ultimate price was paid. What amazing worth we have in his eyes! If you’re ever tempted to wonder if you count for much, then remember this: Christ died for you. You are immensely valuable and hugely loved

As we celebrate communion, remembering this will surely create love and gratitude in our hearts. As we reflect, we can experience his forgiveness, being set free from guilt and things that bind us. We’ll remember what Christ did for us and dedicate ourselves to his service in thanksgiving. Nothing could be too much to offer him. Our identity is not trapped by the past, or defined by our mistakes- we are forgiven!

But this is not the whole story. Sometimes the emphasis on forgiveness can be overdone, so that, paradoxically, we end up thinking too much of our failings. Churches which forget the next step can end up making people look inwards, focus on their mistakes, even becoming guilty that Christ died for them. That is not at all what he intended.

The second part of our identity is also found in the words of the Last Supper: this is the new covenant in my blood. Covenant means agreement and Jesus is talking about a new beginning, a new life.

In other words, when we accept Jesus into our lives, we become children of God. Trusting in Jesus we are born again. We have a new identity as sons and daughters of God – the Bible calls us saints.

So as well as being forgiven sinners, we are also children of God, saints in the making. This is really important for Christian living because it invites us to become what we are. We are already children of God – let us live out our identity. Christian living isn’t about raising ourselves to some impossible level, but allowing God’s Spirit to make us what we actually are. Look with me at 2 Corinthians 3 verses 17 to 18.

St. Paul says that where the Spirit of the Lord is, there is freedom. Freedom might not be a word we associate with religion – isn’t it about laws? But this is the freedom to become the Real Me. The person God intended me to be, the person I’m designed to be. Not the Me that society pressures me to become, or the Me the advertisers sell to, or even the Me who tries to live up to people’s expectations. But the freedom to be the Real Me living God’s way, following God’s call, becoming more and more myself as I get closer to him.

I’m a gardener. If I want to plant cabbages I know that I need firm soil with lots of manure. That’s what helps cabbages fulfil their potential. If I planted carrots there, it would be a disaster. They wouldn’t push through the compacted soil, the high fertility would make them fork and twist. Similarly God doesn’t want you to try and be anyone else. He wants you to thrive in the identity and environment he has given you.

At the same time as we become more ourselves, we also become more like Jesus. There’s a remarkable image in that Corinthians reading, as if by looking in a mirror we catch sight of Jesus image, and as we look at him the light reflected transforms us by our focus on Christ.

Perhaps it’s like those children’s toys that glow in the dark. You have to put them in the light for a while until they somehow glow with their own radiance. Similarly as we spend time with Jesus, as we look to him, we begin to resemble him. When we worship God, when we spend time in prayer, we find our identity is rooted more and more in him, and then our actions are transformed.

At the confirmation service last month Bishop Lee described how he had met Desmond Tutu. Apparently the most striking thing about Tutu is that he is totally happy being Desmond Tutu. He’s the most comfortable person in his own skin that Bishop Lee had ever met.

I don’t know about you, but I want to be like that. Not to become like Desmond Tutu – that wouldn’t work!! I want Jesus to shape my identity so that I am totally comfortable with whom I am in his grace. I want to be rooted in Christ, not moulded by others. It’s not easy though.

We define ourselves in so many ways: by the sins with which we battle, or mistakes from long ago. We’re tempted to find identity in success and fear failure, to gain credibility from qualifications and position. We even allow the gifts of God: parenthood, marriage, work to become the core of identity and try and make them carry a weight they cannot bear.

So it needs a positive effort to secure our Christian identity. We need to remind ourselves regularly that we are forgiven. We need to see ourselves as saints in the making. We need actively to remember that call to be like Jesus. We must consciously reject the false identities with which we are labelled, and assert our identity in Christ. Let us pray now that we may be rooted and grounded, built up in him.

Why raise the dead?

In today’s Gazette, Marjorie has a wonderful illustration of faith:

Someone asks you to have a ride in his single-engine plane. You politely decline. Why? Well – you’ve heard that the plane has a history of mechanical problems and you don’t have confidence in its safety. The pilot has no such concerns. He assures you that he fearlessly entrusts his life to it whenever he flies. You still say no.

A few weeks later the plane crashes, and the pilot is killed. The engine was faulty. The pilot had a very strong, never wavering faith – but he had a strong faith in a weak object.

We sometimes think of faith as if it’s the amount of faith that we have. You’ve got a strong faith, I’ve got a weak faith – that kind of approach. But the story makes the point that it’s not the strength of our faith that matters – it’s what or whom we put our faith in. Even a weak faith in the Almighty God is better than a strong faith in a false God – and today’s reading from the Old Testament is all about real faith.

Firstly, a battle over the true source of faith. Just before our readings starts, 1 Kings describes a time when the King of Israel, Ahab and his wife Jezebel were enthusiastically urging everyone to worship the idol Baal. But the prophet Elijah called people back to worship the living Lord God. Elijah told the king that it would not rain until the nation returned to worshipping God rather than idols. Rain was particularly important because Baal was a fertility god who was supposed to be able to make rain – so if there was drought when people were serving Baal it showed that Baal wasn’t real and didn’t have power to help them.

The drought worsens. Elijah himself runs out of food and water. So where does God send him? Not anywhere in Israel. Not to a secret worshipper of the Lord. Not to someone rich with plenty of resources. But to Jezebel’s home country, to the heart of Baal worship, to a little town in Sidon and a poor widow who’s on her last meal.

Faith can be found in the most unlikely of places. Jesus referred to this incident when he spoke about a prophet not being welcome in his own town. It’s one of the places in the Old Testament where Gentiles, or non-Jews, are held up as models of faith.

For us today, it’s important to remember that all sorts of people can be surprisingly open to God. Perhaps they are searching for him, perhaps they have had experiences they are trying to make sense of, perhaps they are finding their way towards real faith. We must not write off anyone as uninterested or unable to be open to the Christian faith. One might think: ‘oh, it’s not his background’ or ‘she’s from a different faith’ or ‘someone of that age won’t be interested in what we do’ – but you never know.

Even those who have rejected the church in the past can change with time or be open to a new approach. I think that’s one reason it’s important that church buildings are open all the time – it allows people to come before God at their own time and own way.

So faith can be found in unlikely places. It is then expressed through obedience – in other words we see that someone has faith when they take God at his word and it shows in their actions. Imagine how it must have felt for the widow when she took God at his word and gave her last meal to the hungry prophet! She had nothing else, that was the only food in the house, and Elijah asked her to make a little cake of bread with it and give it to him. I can’t imagine how difficult that must have been, but when she showed her faith through her actions God kept his promise. As the reading says, the jar of meal was not emptied, nor did the jug of oil fail.

It was a miracle – which makes some important points about faith. Sometimes God calls us to step out in faith, to commit ourselves to a course of action without being absolutely sure it will work. Often living a life of faith involves putting your hand into God’s hand even though you can’t see the way ahead.

For instance, we’ve started a new service at Sherston after a lot of prayer. It seemed like the right thing to do, we did all the planning we could, but there were no guarantees it was going to work. We just had to step out in faith and do it.

Also, one thing we’ve being doing in that new service is offering people a free breakfast. It expresses another principle from this reading: that generosity leads to blessing. Rather like Jesus pointing out the widow giving her mite, Elijah’s widow gave sacrificially from the tiny amount she had. It was not much but it was everything to her. And it opened the way for much more than she could ever have hoped.

Throughout the Bible, God has promised that when we give generously, he blesses us abundantly. In 2 Corinthians 9 verse 6 St Paul says: ‘whoever sows sparingly will reap sparingly and whoever sows generously will also reap generously.’ Let’s not give a little from what we have left over, but make our giving a priority.

So faith can be found in unlikely places, it shows itself through our actions, and it sends us back to God in times of trouble. Faith is not an insurance against bad things happening. Faith does not insulate Christians from hardships and sufferings. It is not an agreement with God that he will protect us against whatever might go wrong. But faith does keep us close to a God who never lets us go whatever may happen.

Despite the daily miracle of the olive jar, tragedy strikes. The widow’s son becomes ill – there is no breath in him – is he already dead or close to death? Like many people, the widow blames herself – she knows she is a sinner and she thinks that God is punishing her  .

Perhaps Elijah would wish to correct her mistaken view, and explain that’s not the way God works. But there’s no time for theological discussions. Elijah acts, and quickly. He takes the boy upstairs, cries out to God, and resuscitates him. Life returns and the boy is given back to his mother. I wonder how he remembered it

Sometimes when I meet a bereaved family to plan a funeral, they may say something like this: ‘We don’t feel sorry for the one who’s died. He has gone to a better place. We’re crying for ourselves.’ There’s a profound truth in that. For those who have died in Christ there is eternal life. But it is those who are left behind who must cope with loss.


Perhaps that truth is in both of today’s readings. As far as I know, across four gospels Jesus raises three people to life: Jairus’ daughter, Lazarus, and the widow’s son at Nain. All were people who died young. Did Jesus raise them because they had a lot of life to live? Perhaps.


But I think it goes deeper than that. When my son Jonathan learnt to communicate using a plastic letters board – he is very disabled so cannot speak and has to spell out his words by looking at letters  – he told us how he had an amazing experience when he was very ill in intensive care. He refers to it as ‘going to Jesus garden’. He describes how beautiful it was, how he could run and climb trees, he talked about the people he met there – people we knew had died. It has given him hope and the most amazing positive attitude about death. He gets excited about going back. He really struggles to understand why we get upset by death – for him it is a chance to go this wonderful place.

That positive understanding of death is Christian. For the end of our earthly lives is the beginning of a new life. We return to God, and hopefully we will be prepared by trusting in Christ. For Christians, death is the gateway to eternal life. So, if Lazarus, Jairus daughter, the man of Nain had all gone to God, why did God return these people to life?

Was it because they had others depending on them? Lazarus appears to have been the man in the family supporting his sisters Mary and Martha. Jairus might have expected his daughter to care for him in his old age.

In those days widows were incredibly vulnerable. Without a son, this widow and the widow at Nain (in our Gospel reading) would have had no means of support when they got old.

Listen to how Luke relates it. He writes: ‘when the Lord saw her, he had compassion on her.’ Not, on the dead man. He is at peace. But Jesus has compassion on the one who remains behind. He knows what poverty she is condemned to. He knows the loss.

Christ has compassion for the bereaved. Whatever our circumstances around loss, Jesus understands. He himself lost his friend Lazarus and wept at his grave, so he knows what it is like to mourn. St. John tells us that Jesus wept.

It is therefore perfectly acceptable to God when a bereaved person has feelings of grief and loss. It is normal to feel a heavy burden. It is not selfish to feel sorry for oneself – for it is the bereaved who have to live with loss. God wants us to bring those feelings to him, not to hide them away. Christ loves those who grieve, and he longs to comfort and console. So when we mourn, let us be honest and be open to God.

If we do so, we can find comfort because Jesus offers us his promises. We can be confident that anyone who dies in Christ has life in him. This is the clear conclusion from the miracles: that Christ has power over death. He created us, therefore he can give us life again when we have died.

And so these miracles in Kings and Luke have a deep importance. They show us that God has compassion for all who suffer loss. They show us that Jesus has power over death; that if we trust in him we too will live in eternity. And they invite us to have that faith in him, to believe and trust and put it into practice, whoever we may be, whatever our circumstances.


On the subject of Hell

Mark 9:38-50

In Heaven: The cooks are French, The policemen are English, The mechanics are German (until the middle of last week!), The lovers are Italian, The bankers are Swiss.

In Hell: The cooks are English, The policemen are German, The mechanics are French, The lovers are Swiss, The bankers are Italian.

I thought I’d start with a little bit of a joke today. As you may have guessed from the reading, it’s a pretty serious topic in the sermon. Hell is a subject that we don’t often discuss, or preach on. Headlines like ‘Church abolishes hell’ give the impression that perhaps we don’t believe it these days. Although apparently 14% of British men believe that if hell exists, they’re going there – but only 6% of British women feel the same. We might wonder, how can there be a hell if God is a God of love?

So as we look at Jesus’ teaching, please pray for me. As v.42 tells us, it’s a serious responsibility – I don’t want to put a stumbling block in front of anyone! If I err on one side, I might end up painting a picture of God which is harsh and lacking in mercy. Which would be untrue. If I err on the other side, we might miss out on hearing one of the most serious warnings Jesus ever gave. Let us pray:

‘Lord, grant that I may proclaim your word faithfully, that your Spirit will sort the wheat from the chaff, and that we may all respond to your justice, love and mercy. Amen.’

Have you ever really put your foot in? Said something so embarrassing that you wish the earth would swallow you up? How do you get out of it – make a joke? Change the subject? John the apostle thought the best thing to do would be try and drop someone else in it.

We join our reading at v.38, just after last week’s story about Jesus rebuking his disciples for their selfish ambition. Clearly uncomfortable, John decides to divert attention elsewhere: ‘Teacher we saw someone casting out demons in your name and he we tried to stop him because he was not following us.’ In his ministry Jesus set people free from the powers of darkness. A stranger was copying him. Is that a problem?

Jesus looks beyond who’s in and out. He looks to the principle: ‘Do not stop him for no one who does a deed of power in my name will be able to speak evil of me. Whoever is not against us is for us’. (How wonderful if churches could put this into practice and not compete with each other, instead co-operating and rejoicing in one another’s success).

Jesus wants to encourage this openness, which follows the openness and love of God. He says: ‘whoever gives you a cup of water to drink because you bear the name of Christ will by no means lose the reward’. He paints a picture of a God who seeks excuses to bless us, who wants everyone to know Christ, who rewards even the tiniest gift offered in Jesus’ name. Our heavenly Father is a God of love who calls us his children. There’s a wideness in his mercy which is wider than the sea.

It’s precisely because of that wideness that God takes so seriously the problem of those who cause others to fall. In v.42 ‘If any of you put a stumbling block before one of these little ones who believe in me, it would be better for you if a great millstone were hung around your neck and you were thrown into the sea.’ Tough words. But Jesus says them precisely because God wants everyone to be able to come to him. He doesn’t want any to stumble. If anyone stops someone else, by their harshness, by their lack of love, by their false teaching, then that is a big problem.

I’m a school governor. If I go into a class and I see a teacher who is clear, who has firm but fair discipline, then that tells me she cares about the children. She creates an environment where all can learn and excel. Because the children matter to her she won’t let one or two spoil it for the others. However if I visit a class which is chaotic, I reckon either the teacher lacks ability or doesn’t care for the children. For love knows right and wrong, love sets out boundaries of acceptable behaviour, love has a sense of justice.

So if we look at the awful scenes on our news and long for justice to be done, if we see suffering and long for evil warmongers to be reined in, then how much more does God! God’s Love demands that he condemn wickedness. Love requires that something be done and the evildoer not get away with it forever. Love leads God to promise that he will renew the world, purging from it evil and therefore those who cling to evil. The Bible shows us that a God of love has to be a God of justice. If God does not do justice, then he does not love or he is not God.

Which brings us to the difficult subject of hell… Let’s be clear. Jesus teaches that there is a hell. Yes, he uses dramatic imagery but his warning is serious. Jesus says hell is a risk for all of us. Who is Jesus addressing in v.43 onwards? Is he in a prison speaking to murderers and rapists? No. Is he saying ‘This doesn’t apply to you decent people, but when you meet a dictator you might like to warn him’? No. He’s talking to his followers, his disciples when he says ‘If your hand causes you to stumble, cut it off; it is better for you to enter life maimed than to have two hands and go to hell, to the unquenchable fire.’

He spoke to his disciples. People like us. If it weren’t a real risk, why tell them? Let’s think about that a bit more… Many religions have the idea that you do your best to be good and try and avoid being bad. Many religions have taught that what happens to you after this life depends on whether your good deeds outweigh your bad. The Egyptian god of the dead was even shown carrying little weighing scales.

This idea seems easy to understand, but there are some problems with it. For instance, if when you were a kid you nicked a lollipop from the corner-shop then that weighs down your bad side. But by how much? And how many times do you have to help old ladies cross the road in order to get your good side back up again?

And where do you draw the line? Imagine a great queue of people waiting to get into heaven. An angel comes along with a sign – bit like being at a theme park where you get those white signs at points in the queue which say ‘1/2 an hour to wait’. But the one the angel’s carrying is a barrier that says heaven one side and hell the other.

And he plonks it right next to me. But on the wrong side! And I’m like ‘why here? Why me? What good’s the next bloke done that I haven’t?’ And the angel explains ‘well, there’s an awful lot of people that have ever lived, so the differences between you are really quite small. This just happens to be the cutoff point. He’s going to heaven because in the course of his lifetime he said one more prayer than you.’ ‘Well that’s not fair. Can’t you move it down a bit further?’ Of course, you can imagine what the next guy would say and so on.

It doesn’t work. The idea that if we do enough good we get to heaven, and too much bad we go to hell doesn’t hold together. It’s trite, simplistic. It’s not what the Bible teaches. The Christian faith believes something much more radical, more profound, more challenging and yet more solid hope than simply doing our best could ever be.

The truth taught by the apostles, taught by Jesus himself, is that if God in Christ hadn’t intervened to save us, hell would be the destiny of us all. The Bible teaches that by going our own way we cut ourselves off from God – the source of all life. Bluntly: we all deserve hell. When people in the Old Testament encountered God, they hid their faces, they took off their shoes because they stood on holy ground. They knew they were unworthy to enter the presence of the holy God. It’s not a difference of degree between us and God – as if he is more pure. It’s a difference of kind. God is God, and we are sinners.

I won’t be surprised if someone reacts against this: ‘Yes, I know I’ve done wrong, I don’t dispute that. But this emphasis on sinners is a bit strong – I’m sure I’m not that bad.’ If you’re feeling like that, imagine yourself saying it before God himself. I can’t. God’s spirit convicts me.

It is important not to misunderstand this idea. It’s not saying we’re incapable of doing good – many people, religious and not, do a great deal of good things. It’s not saying we’re utterly depraved. But it is saying we have gone our own way, not God’s. It’s more profound than saying we’ve done the odd wrong thing – it’s saying there’s a spiritual problem at the root of those deeds, a fundamental pride, self-centredness, which means we need God’s forgiveness.

Jesus talks about entering life. In v.45: ‘If your foot causes you to stumble, cut it off; it is better for you to enter life lame than to have two feet and be thrown into hell. Entering life happens through Christ – that’s why v.38-41 are all about the name of Christ. He is our Saviour.

He alone is not standing in that queue of the partly good and partly bad. He alone is perfect like God – Christ alone is God as a human being. Yet though he is innocent of any wrongdoing he willingly takes the punishment for our sinfulness. It is as if we were condemned to die, but Jesus offers himself to die on the cross in our place.

This is a great mystery – no-one can fully plumb the depths of it. But what is clear within the New Testament is that God is both the Judge and the one who addresses the need for justice. God’s love demands that there is justice because otherwise love is not love. Yet his love also longs for us to be reconciled with him and enter life. The tension is resolved when God the son becomes man and offers himself on the cross.

So the point of what Jesus is saying about hell is that we shouldn’t need to worry about it! The way to life is open! We just need to accept and travel that path. It’s like a party invitation – only any use if you accept it and go along. Or my expenses cheque, which is useless until I’ve presented it. God invites us to enter life, so let’s take up the invitation!

We do need to do that. Make that choice. God gives us free will, he respects our choices. If someone says no, if they want nothing to do with God and can’t abide the thought of eternity in his company, then God isn’t going to force them – in effect they choose to go to the other place. If you struggle to understand how anyone can choose that, then may I recommend a book called ‘The Great Divorce’ by C.S.Lewis – it’s psychologically believable and a very good read.

In that book, some of the characters choose to walk away from heaven because they won’t let go of things that they know are wrong but still enjoy. Jesus says we need to be ruthless, in v.47 ‘If your eye causes you to stumble, tear it out, it is better for you to enter the Kingdom of God with one eye than to have two eyes and to be thrown into hell where their worm never dies and the fire is never quenched.’

The early church father Origen supposedly took this rather literally. He had a problem with lust. He took some drastic action to ensure it would never lead to physical sin. But were the temptations still in his mind?

Jesus of course is speaking in an exaggerated fashion about cutting bits off our bodies. The rest of the New Testament seems pretty clear that life with God involves being healed at the resurrection, having a new perfect body, not one with bits still missing. Jesus’ words are strong images, meaning be totally intolerant of anything that hinders your Christian discipleship.

Don’t let those little habits grow into addictions! Act on the promptings of conscience. Let Jesus be Lord of every part of your life, don’t leave corners of your heart unswept. You can’t keep a foot in both camps.

So to sum up, this reading asks three things from us: Firstly, take the doctrine of hell seriously. We don’t have to buy in to Bosch’s mediaeval imagery of devils with toasting forks and wheelbarrows to hear what Jesus says. He shows us that God’s love and God’s justice go together, that there are consequences and God respects the choices we make. He gives us such awesome freedom.

Secondly, let us be inspired to go out in mission. Jesus gives us a message of good news for the world. Not the uncertainty of trying to be good, but the assurance of forgiveness. The invitation to new life. The promise of security in the life to come. Our world needs to hear this message – let us be courageous in sharing it.

Finally let us understand that the way to life is open. If any of us have not responded to Christ’s invitation and committed our lives to him, I urge you to do so. Let’s not let anything get in the way.

I’ll pray now, and if you want to make that response, please say Amen at the end. ‘Father we thank you that your love and justice meet in Jesus. Thank you that he is our Saviour and frees us from hell. Lord I turn to you, I ask for your forgiveness and pray that you will keep me on the path of life. Amen.