John 15:9-17

One of my family’s favourite days out is Avebury. It’s got everything: a short walk round the stones, hide and seek in the garden and then when you’ve worked up an appetite there’s a restaurant and pub. There’s an old church, and a museum with buttons to press.

 

The manor house is different from most National Trust properties in that you can get in the beds. None of those thistles to keep you off the chairs, quite the opposite. You are positively encouraged to live the life of a Victorian gentleman playing snooker or pretend to drink cocktails while listening to the wireless in the 1920s sitting room.

 

Interestingly, the children seem most engaged with the life of the servants. They can climb into the big Tudor 4 poster – and also slide out the little tray bed underneath for the manservant. And the biggest highlight is trying to cook with Victorian implements.

 

Increasingly historic houses are trying to show us what life was like for everyone – not just the gentry but the chambermaid and gardener’s boy too. We discover the servants lived a strange life – a precarious existence where they were easily dismissed for getting something wrong. They were absolutely vital, yet kept out of the way downstairs and in hidden passages. Fellow human beings, who if they met the master on the stairs, had to turn away and face the wall.

 

Some people imagine that God is like that. They think of God as the master and us a bit like servants. Mind your own business, be good, keep out of the way and you’ll be ok. Put a foot wrong though and you’ll be in trouble. And he definitely doesn’t want you to bother him.

 

Yet Jesus says in v14 that we are his friends. Jesus spoke this to the disciples in the upper room – but it applies to all of us. (We heard in the Acts reading how the Holy Spirit came on the Gentiles – and the Holy Spirit unites us with God today)

 

 

Can I ask you to think of a friend you have. What do you and your friend do together? How do you keep in touch – over the garden wall, with a cup of coffee or by Whatsapp? Do you share activities or just hang out? If that friend was in trouble, what would you do for them?

 

A friend is an amazing image. As a friend Jesus loves us. He likes us. He appreciates conversation with us in prayer. We can share our activities with him. He is the unseen guest at every meal.

 

Just the other day I was talking with a lady who’d been bereaved and she was telling me that whenever the grief was strong she brought it to Jesus. And she knew that he understood. Because he is a human being, because he has lived on this earth, because he lost loved ones and wept at the grave of Lazarus, Jesus understands. He is really with us, truly present in spirit, a friend for us.

 

Perhaps like me you find it easier to think of Jesus as the Lord we worship, the Risen Christ, our Saviour, the Heavenly King who will return. Let us also remember that he describes himself as our friend. He is glorious, yes, but that’s not a reason to keep him at arm’s length.

 

In verse 9 Jesus talks about the basis for our relationship with him. ‘As the Father has loved me, so I have loved you, abide in my love.’ So the love of Jesus for us came first. He loved us freely, right from the moment you were born. We do not have to win his love or earn the right to a relationship with him – it is a gift. And when we receive that gift, we abide, or rest, in his love by keeping his commands.

 

Many people imagine it the other way round. Even some Christians act and think as if they have to win their way into God’s affections, as if eternal life is a reward to be earned by good behaviour. To think like that is to condemn yourself to a treadmill of effort, a deadening, unfulfilling shadow of spirituality, in which the best is never enough.

 

It can’t be like that. in v.16 Jesus makes it quite clear that we did not choose him, but he chose us. He calls us and we respond. When we do so, we find, in v.11, that Christ’s joy is in us, and our joy is complete.

 

My Facebook feed has decided that I need cheering up. I don’t know what I’ve been searching for online, or whether Facebook has been listening in to my conversations but it’s clearly decided that I need a dose of joy in my life. So my feed is full of amusing videos, jokes, and articles describing the ‘7 Habits of Happy people’. A lot of that advice seems to be about choosing your mental attitude – deciding how you will react to life’s events – and what you give energy to thinking about.

 

There’s something in that which chimes with Christian spirituality. When you are faced with disappointment, will you dwell morbidly on it or bring it to God? Will you listen to the nagging voices that say ‘it simply can’t be done’ or will you step forward obediently in hope? Will your mind revisit resentments and criticise people, or will you choose to forgive, to give thanks? …What do you think about?

 

Can I suggest you observe yourself during the day – from time to time just stop and ask yourself– what am I thinking about it here? Are my thoughts bringing me life and joy? And if it’s not – don’t feed the gremlin, stop that train of thought – think of something good instead. Pray. Give thanks. Listen for God’s presence. And you’ll find his joy.

 

When we listen to God, as verse 14 says, we also know what he is doing. The Holy Spirit helps us understand God’s will as revealed to us in the Bible. As we get better at listening we also hear God’s specific guidance to each one of us for our own lives.

 

We learn to ask confidently too. In v.16 Jesus says ‘the Father will give you whatever you ask in my name’. Of course this isn’t a magic formula: Dear God, please give me an Aston Martin DB11’ and as long as I put ‘in Jesus name’ at the end the magic words give me what I want

 

‘In my name’ means in accordance with Christ’s will, seeking his glory, asking because it’s the kind of thing he would ask. But because we are his friends, we can ask confidently. A couple we know once put an email out ‘We’ve got all the money we need for our new house – but the cashflow has gone wrong. Can anyone out there give us a bridging loan for twenty thousand?’ And someone did. That’s friendship. You can ask God with confidence because you are friends with his son.

 

And because we are friends of his son, we are friends with one another. In v.12 Jesus says ‘This is my commandment that you love one another.’ He showed the greatest love possible for us when he laid down his life for us on the cross. He saved us from the penalties of sin by dying for us – it was the greatest thing he could give.

 

Now he calls us to love one another. To make sacrifices, to give up our time, to help those in need. As I travel around I constantly hear amazing heart-warming stories about practical love. The people who give lifts into hospital and cook meals. The friends who babysit so a busy couple can get to Housegroup. The neighbour who picks up someone else’s shopping at the same time. The legal advocate who gets on the phone on behalf of a vulnerable person. The praying person who wrestles on behalf of others. All this practical love goes on and it is wonderful.

 

Yet to do so, we need to know one another. We need to be open about our own needs, be genuine. We need courage to offer help and not be offended if it’s politely refused. Maybe first of all we need to know one another better. So speak to your neighbour when you see them. Stay for conversation after the service. Horror of horrors – when you come to church don’t always sit in the same place.

 

For when we abide in Jesus and love one another, we bear much fruit. I am so looking forward to the strawberry season! I have put so much work into that bed. The white flowers are just beginning, in a few weeks’ time the fruit will come. And joy will be mine! May we grow in Jesus, love one another, bear much fruit and know his joy. Amen.

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How do we make sense of the Second Coming?

When I was at primary school I had a thing about dinosaurs. I think it drove everyone round the bend. It didn’t just stop at a plastic Tyrannosaurus fighting a toy Triceratops – I had to go the whole hog and convert my bedroom into a museum. Birthday presents were dinosaur themed – usually the latest book on prehistoric monsters.

 

I remember one book which was properly scientific, written by a leading expert. In one chapter he discussed a great mystery: why did the dinosaurs become extinct? In the early ‘80s this was a complete unknown. Of course, there were some ideas that were completely bonkers: they were all eaten by cavemen or wiped out by asteroids.

 

But as we now know, it was an asteroid wot done it. Since that book was written, scientists have discovered a whacking great crater in the Yucatan peninsula. There, 65 million years ago, a 6 mile wide space rock slammed into a shallow sea, blanketed the world in a cloud of dust that dropped global temperatures and finished off the dinosaurs.

 

Now, you haven’t taken a wrong turning today and ended up in a palaeontological lecture! The reason I’m saying this is that in the past few decades modern science has proven that truly catastrophic events do occur. Things that we once considered bonkers, wild fantasies, the result of an overactive imagination, are now respectable scientific fact.

 

I remind myself of that whenever I come across passages like this one from Mark’s gospel, chapter 13 verses 24-37. Because, if I’m honest, when I read things like v.24 ‘the sun will be darkened, the moon will not give its light, and the stars will be falling from heaven’, it all sounds a bit way out. Weird and scary and hard to understand.

 

Do you remember that time a couple of months ago when there was a storm and lots of dust got whipped up from the Sahara? The sunlight turned red. The sun itself was the colour of blood. It felt really freaky. Windswept but no birdsong. As if something was about to happen. I could see how events like that might make people think the end is nigh!

So what does this reading mean? Are we meant to take it literally or as a symbol? Does Jesus here foretell a dramatic end of the world event, like a supernova, before he comes again? Or is it religious language for a revolution in society, turning the tables as the Kingdom of God comes?

 

Whichever way you look at it, clearly it describes a remarkable act of God. The Lord intervenes to transform the status quo and then Christ will reign. So firstly it asks us if we do believe that God can act? Can God transform situations? I believe that he can – I’ve seen it happen.

 

You may be aware that a couple of years ago my son Jonathan was diagnosed with pulmonary hypertension. This is a bit of a one way street, to be honest, it can’t be cured. The doctors weren’t even treating it, because of the medicines’ side-effects. Anyway, a few weeks ago Jonathan had his cardiac check-up – and the results were normal. No sign of it. I can’t explain that. It seems miraculous.

 

Nothing is beyond God’s power. The God of the Resurrection can resurrect a dying world. A dramatic end to existence as we know it, and the beginning of a new creation, is within God’s power. This is the hope of the church. Why we are here. To be a sign of the Kingdom.

 

So why might it feel hard to believe? Is it perhaps a failure of imagination? Type verse 26 into Google images: ‘son of man coming in clouds’ and you’ll see what I mean. The artwork doesn’t help – it’s straight off the pages of a Jehovah’s Witness magazine. What is described here is beyond the abilities of our limited imagination.

 

It may help to realise that Jesus is quoting from the Old Testament. V. 26 comes from Daniel 7 verses 13-14 about the Son of Man being given power in God’s presence. Verses 24 and 25 are from Isaiah, in the middle of a passage talking about the historic fall of Babylon. Isaiah describes the total destruction of the enemy city, which will never be built on again. Only this kind of apocalyptic language can do it justice.

Bishop Tom Wright, who’s a respected New Testament scholar, argues that people at the time of Jesus were not really expecting the stars literally to fall from the sky and the moon turn to actual blood. Tom Wright says they used this language to speak of dramatic world changing events, times when God does something completely new. After all St Peter quotes those exact verses to explain the arrival of the Spirit on the Day of Pentecost. The moon did not literally turn to blood that day, or even just turn red – something more remarkable happened: God through his Holy Spirit came to live in human beings.

 

Yet Jesus doesn’t just quote, he adds to the words from Isaiah. In v 27 he talks about the angels gathering the elect from every corner of the earth. He really does seem, in v.32, to have a particular event in mind, that he will actually return, whatever signs accompany that day.

 

And Jesus says all this, not to satisfy idle curiosity, but so that we can be prepared. Take a look at verses 28-29: ‘from the fig tree learn its lesson, as soon as the branch becomes tender and puts forth its leaves you know that summer is near. So you also when you see these things taking place, you know that he is near.’ Is summer a good thing? Yes! By February how we long for sunshine! Are figs good? Yes, they’re delicious! Is the coming of Christ therefore good? Yes.

 

Jesus tells us that he will reign, he will be a loving and just king, that the creation will be the beautiful and joyous place that God intended. When we read these parts of the Bible we can get overwhelmed by the challenge, the warnings, the tribulation. But Jesus tells us that these are the birth pains – what you have to go through to get to the new life. Yes evil will be destroyed. Yes, there will be a judgement.

 

God tells humanity this so that we can turn from evil, be forgiven, and enjoy the new life that is to come. If we trust in Christ we have nothing to fear at the judgement because we are forgiven. Christ gave himself on the cross, taking the punishment that should be ours, so that our sin can be wiped away. It asks us: have we accepted Christ as our Saviour?

 

It is good news, but when will it happen? Verses 30-32 seem to pull in different directions. V.31 says that ‘this generation will not pass away until all these things have taken place’. As you read the New Testament it seems clear that some people in the Early Church expected Jesus to return very soon – within a few years of his Ascension. The Second letter of Peter tells us that when Jesus did not come back quickly, scoffers began to say ‘where is this coming?’ to which Peter replies ‘with the Lord one day is like a thousand years and a thousand years like a day.’ Expectations had to be adjusted.

 

But in v.32 Jesus had said that ‘no-one knows the day or the hour, neither the angels in heaven, nor even the Son himself, but only the Father.’ So if it is unknown we must be prepared. It is like a boss unexpectedly dropping in on a factory to see what’s really going on. Like OFSTED inspectors who give a school just 24hrs so you can’t make it up!

 

We do not know when Christ will come. You and I may still be around when he returns. Or we may return to him first. We do not know the day of either of those events! There’s another way of looking at it: Jesus may come in the crucial encounters of life.

 

Think about it: the times when we have to make decisions, when the rubber of our faith really hits the road, when we react one way or the other to another person. Those also are times when we encounter Christ. In a sense Christ comes at any time when our instant reactions reveal the attitudes and habits we have built up over the years. When we see if we are truly in him. That’s why the church is here – to encourage and support us as we try and be faithful to God.

 

How then should we live? In 1 Corinthians chapter 1 verses 3-9 Paul gives us a very simple answer. We should live by grace. Let’s just turn to that briefly.

 

 

Grace is the gift of God. Freely given, received as a gift, not earned by us. When I was a student there was a poster with a big picture of Jesus on it and the words ‘Jesus is coming. Look busy’. That’s a trap we can easily fall into with all these warnings about being prepared, keeping watch, and so on.

 

But Jesus does not look for us to be busy. He wants us to live by grace. Paul teaches us, in v.4, that it is the grace of God which calls us into a relationship with God through Christ Jesus. In verses 5-7 it is the grace of God which gives us all the gifts that we need as we serve Christ and one another. And in verse 8 and 9 it is God himself – his grace not our efforts – it is God himself who strengthens us so that we may be blameless on the day of our Lord Jesus Christ.

 

It’s as we live by grace, as we trust God, that we become ready for Christ. It is through depending on him that the life of God’s Kingdom appears within us. However he comes, whenever he comes, may he find us trusting in God and abiding in him.

Debts – Matthew 18:21-35

This man owes a king’s ransom, and yet his debt has been cancelled. Incredible! What tremendous mercy his master showed! And what awful hypocrisy, what terrible anger the servant then displayed to his fellow, a man who owed him a mere hundred pounds.

 

Almost a decade ago the world economy went through a very difficult time. Banks failed, stock markets collapsed, growth went into reverse. All because huge amounts had been foolishly lent, and suddenly investors realised the money would never be repaid. Nine years on, we still deal with the consequences and there are fears it may happen again.

 

Jesus reminds us that people throughout the ages have faced similar hazards. Both borrowers and investors are at risk of losing out, and the potential human suffering is immense.

 

For many years the church had a prohibition against usury – or lending money at interest. When the doctrine changed, and the church decided that interest rates were not in themselves sinful, it laid the foundations of modern capitalism. That adaptation enabled society as we currently know it to develop. Perhaps though now we can see the wisdom that there was in the past. We might well feel that society has gone too far in the other direction, that an economy built on debt is a bubble. Would we go back to society without interest? Is that even possible? Or is it wiser to follow Justin Welby and call not for revolution but reform?

 

Either way, the parable Jesus tells involves men who have borrowed and lent. Despite the Biblical prohibitions it went on even then. Which suggests to me that a realistic ethic has to take account of it.

 

Imagine a bank which was bailed out by the government. Lucky them. But what if that bank uses its new found freedom to send out repossession notices to householders who’ve fallen behind on the mortgage. What an outcry there would be!

 

So what does this parable teach us today about money, debt and remission?

If any of us have benefitted from debt relief – if our bank was bailed out all those years ago, then what are we doing about anyone who owes us money? How do we drive our bargains and negotiate deals? Do we understand the concept of a living wage?

 

The gospel also invites us to reflect on the cost of forgiveness. In bailing out banks and savers, the government, and hence the tax payer took on risk and potential losses. It did so at a cost – depending on who you listen to, the government might never break even. In the parable the king cancels the man’s debt – at great cost to himself, for it represents a massive financial loss.

 

When we forgive, it is a cost to us. In effect we’re saying that what someone did to us hurt us, but we will not hold it against them. We will seek reconciliation, not revenge. It costs to do that, and in some way when you forgive you bear the pain of whatever that person has done to you. Forgiveness has a cost.

 

God knows that. When he asks us to forgive, he does so in full knowledge of what is involved. For he too has borne the pain of forgiving. God did so in the cross. When we look at the death of Jesus, we see what it cost God to forgive. We see the price he paid for coming to save us. We too should forgive.

 

But there are also some questions. When Peter says: ‘Lord how many times should I forgive? Up to seven times?’, he thinks he’s being incredibly generous. Three would have been the custom, so Peter doubles it and adds one. Jesus has a surprise: ‘Seventy times seven’. So many times you can’t keep track.

 

Are there really no limits to forgiveness? What about those who were in concentration camps? What about people whose children have been murdered? How can Jesus expect them to forgive? Those are situations where forgiveness seems humanly impossible.

 

But unless we’re in that situation, it’s not our business to worry about that. If God wishes those who have been horribly offended against to forgive, then it is up to him to supply the grace, love and strength for them to do it.

 

Our challenge is to forgive those who have offended against us. We’re not called to worry about how other people might forgive, or imagine what it feels like for them – we’re called to forgive our own enemies.

 

What about repentance? Do people need to say sorry before they can be forgiven? Jesus tells the parable because Peter wants to know if there is a limit on the number of times he can forgive a penitent brother. Repentance is there. On the other hand, though, Jesus forgives his enemies from the cross while they are still crucifying him. No sense of repentance there.

 

I think it’s helpful here to think of sin building walls around us. When someone sins against me, it builds up a wall of resentment and anger, hostility and hurt. That’s natural. But left alone, that wall cuts me off from the other person. And, because it’s a wall that surrounds me, it cuts me off from God too. If we’re not forgiving, if we nurse a grudge, we become isolated, turned in our ourselves, bitter and hurting, longing to break out but not wanting to demolish those high walls, because they have become part of who we are.

 

Forgiveness breaks down the wall, and restores fellowship with the one who has offended, and also with God. That’s why forgiveness is so essential in family relationships and in friendships, it breaks down those walls before they become a problem.

 

If someone doesn’t apologise to us then we cannot restore fellowship with them in the same way. They are surrounded by their own wall, their own inability to repent. But Jesus teaches that we should still forgive – turn the other cheek – because it will break down the walls that threaten to enclose us. In short, forgiveness is good for us.

 

That doesn’t make it easy. It is tremendously difficult. We have to let go of what was done to us, we have to let go of our feelings of anger and our longing for revenge. We do not have to pretend that nothing happened. We do not have to deny that wrong was done, or that we would rather it never had occurred. We do not have to abandon the wish for justice and reform for the other person. We should not be naïve in thinking the same can’t happen again.

 

But we do have to forgive. We do have to stop nursing a grudge. We do have to give up on revenge and hatred. We do have to let go and try to move on, living in peace as far as it depends on us.

 

And that’s so difficult. I find it helpful to pray that God will give me the strength to forgive and understand what that means. And then I have to take a cold blooded decision ‘I forgive’. Not I will forgive, or I want to forgive, but ‘I forgive’. I may not feel particularly forgiving, but still that decision has to be made. And then, God’s Spirit gets to work. I begin to forgive in practice. He helps me let go, to forget, to meet that person again.

 

Of course, that’s not the end of it. As time goes on we uncover deeper levels of hurt, a chance remark betrays continues resentment, a repeat offence brings the whole business flaring up again. And so we must keep on forgiving, every time the monster rears its ugly head we bash it down again. It is not easy, but Jesus commanded it, and he never commanded something that he himself would not do.

 

So as we come to communion, let us reflect on the price of forgiveness. Let us receive the pledge of God’s goodness, and let us commit ourselves to forgive. Amen.

Hagar and Ishmael – Genesis 21:8-21

Would you be flattered if you were described as a small cog in a very big machine? I’m not sure I would! I suppose whoever came up with that phrase may have been trying to get to the idea that each of us has a place, and a role to do. That our part may seem minor, but we are contributing to something much greater than ourselves. Economics and society may well feel like that, but what about God’s plan? Where do you and I fit into God’s great big picture? Are we dots of colour on the painting? Cogs in the machine? Grain that is ground to make bread

I think a better image is one that will resonate with anyone who’s been to an Open Gardens recently. Think of a flower bed, a riot of colour. There are groups of plantings, blocks of blues purples and reds following the gardener’s plan. The overall effect is of great beauty, natural and at the same time ordered. Yet all this is possible because each individual geranium or rose is following its destiny, being fulfilled in flowering. It’s that fulfilment which is key – God’s plan does not involve treating us as impersonal cogs. God’s plan for creation is fulfilled as we find our true place, destiny and calling

God weaves a tapestry out of history and when he does so he makes it up from the individual threads of our lives. He includes our triumphs and disasters, our obedience and even our failures. As we hear in our Old Testament reading, God is able to work with even the most unpromising situations. He can turn around injustice, he can bring about his purposes while also bringing healing and fulfilment to individual persons

You might like to have the reading from Genesis 21 verses 8-21 in front of you. To understand what’s going on, we need to recap from earlier on in the story, where God had called Abraham to go to Canaan and promised that he would be the father of many nations. Yet Abraham and his wife Sarah were old. So after several years, Sarah suggested that Abraham should have a child with her slave-girl Hagar. Sarah gave Hagar into Abraham’s arms, Hagar conceived and gave birth to Ishmael

As Christians in the 21st century, what on earth do we do with this? It’s the stuff of dystopian science fiction. Yes, it may have been the custom back then, yes it may have been an accepted way of producing an heir; but how do we understand it now, make sense of it? To us it’s outrageous. Slavery is an abuse of power, let alone making the slave girl have your child.

It’s really important to understand that when the Bible stories describe something, they often do so as a warning, not as an example to follow. The people in the Bible are not plaster-cast saints; perfect individuals whom we must admire from a distance. They are all too human, flawed, dangerously so. They wrestle with God and their own frailties. Sin catches them out, but somehow God works through this gritty reality. The stories tell us about real people, real passions, real redemption

Old Testament narrative in particular tends to tell us what happened and invite us to draw our own conclusions. Sometimes there will be a clear moral, more often we have to work out for ourselves: was this action wise? Did it obey God and lead to human flourishing

And the obvious answer is no. Hagar was unhappy. Sarah was jealous. Abraham was caught in the middle. God had not been obeyed. Abraham and Sarah had taken matters into their own hands, used a flawed and unjust human solution to try and fulfil God’s promise. The story is about to get worse, and yet amazingly, God can redeem it

Thirteen years after the birth of Ishmael, God repeats his promise to Abraham. This time Sarah conceives and gives birth to Isaac. By the time our reading starts in v.8 Isaac is about three years old – they weaned late back then, and the feast celebrates the fact Isaac has passed through the period of greatest infant mortality. Yet in verse 9, Sarah sees Ishmael playing – or the word might mean making fun – of Isaac.

How incredibly destructive jealousy is! Jealousy is one of the most powerful and irrational emotions. Jealousy fritters away inheritance on legal fees, it wastes court time on disputes over the names on gravestones, it leads one man to oppose his neighbour’s planning permission because the neighbour’s house is nicer. Jealousy fuels social media trolling, it causes anxiety and leads people to cut off their nose to spite their face. Jealousy reorients our lives to priorities which do not bring peace and can never satisfy. It is a form of madness.

If we do find jealousy in our hearts – perhaps at the career success of colleagues or the wealth of friends – then we need to repent of it. But we also need to sow a better plant to replace the weed. The Christian antidotes to jealousy are contentedness and generosity. If we are content with our lot, then the good things others enjoy will not trouble us. If we give thanks regularly for our blessings, then we will not feel that we are missing out. And if we are generous in our attitudes and actions, we will not feel diminished when others do well.

Abraham and Sarah were wealthy. Isaac’s needs would have been amply met if they had shared with Ishmael. But Sarah insists that Ishmael will not inherit. Conveniently forgetting her own role in creating this situation, she demands in v.10: ‘The son of the slave girl shall not inherit with my son Isaac.

Now some experts say this is not as harsh as it appears. Apparently there were laws at the time which allow the child born to a slave and her master to inherit. But the slave and the child can be liberated in exchange for relinquishing the inheritance. So in effect, Hagar is freed

But it still seems harsh to me. What sort of freedom is this? Freedom to wander unsupported? Freedom to be friendless and alone in the wilderness? Who wants that freedom? Abraham did not want it for Ishmael – he is greatly distressed. We can only imagine the marital situation that resulted.

The unstoppable force of Sarah meets the immoveable object of Abraham in such a way that only God can resolve it with a direct command to Abraham. Do what your wife says, but it will work out because God has a plan. It is indeed Isaac who is the son of the promise, his descendants will give rise to the Jewish nation. But choosing Isaac does not mean that Ishmael is rejected. He too will become a great nation

This is really important. There’s a lot in the Bible about how God chose Israel, how he has a chosen people. Sometimes this was interpreted as God choosing a particular people to the exclusion of others. But St Paul reminds us that God’s plan was always that Israel would be a light to the nations, a special blessing to the Gentiles, showing them how to live and know God.

God’s call is always like this – to be a means of blessing. God doesn’t call anyone to be special or to feel great – he calls us to serve. We who come to church on Sunday – we shouldn’t think of ourselves as the chosen few, but as a means of blessing to our communities

Sometimes that may seem optimistic. In the final few verses Ishmael’s very survival seems in doubt, let alone any idea of becoming a great nation. Hagar is lost, dehydrated, it’s a pathetic scene as mother and son both weep and prepare to die.

But just at the point when all is lost, God saves. The loving and rescuing heart of God cares just as much for the cast-out slave as for the patriarch. In verses 17 and 18 God affirms that he has heard Ishmael’s prayer. He knows every person’s situation and he hears us when we pray to him. God reiterates his promise that Ishmael will be a great nation – which should remind us that God’s promises can be trusted. God commands action ‘Get up’ – and we should remember that God’s blessings often need a response from us. God opens Hagar’s eyes and she sees a well – which may remind us that sometimes the answer to pray lies in what is already close at hand.

The story ends with God continuing to be with Ishmael. The young man carves out a life for himself as a desert ranger, and his mother finds him a wife from her home in Egypt. Finally, as a postscript in Genesis 25:9, we find that when Abraham dies, he is buried by his sons Isaac and Ishmael. At the death of the parent the divided family come together

To sum up then, in these events we have a warning. A warning about the terrible consequences of jealousy and exploitation. Abraham and Sarah are not here as examples to be emulated, but avoided. Yet as well as a warning, we also have a promise and an encouragement. We see that God can redeem even the most desperate situation. That God has an incredible ability to turn things around and use even the most flawed people in his plan. Here we see grace, compassion for the needy, redemption and hope. Amen.

 

A New Year Covenant

I wonder how those New Year resolutions are going? Three hours since we woke and still going strong! Someone once said that a resolution goes in one year and out the other. My favourite is the chap who said: ‘May your troubles last as long as your New Year’s Resolutions.’

Why do they have that reputation for fading quickly? Perhaps it’s because of what they are. A resolution could be defined as a promise to make a dramatic, sudden and major change in one’s life, usually for one’s own benefit, and attempting to do so by one’s own will power and strength. Often once the resolution is broken, we throw in the towel and go back to having a drink every day, or whatever it may be.

There is a Biblical alternative. A model which has very deep roots in the Christian tradition and Judaism before it. Something we’ll be doing later in the service. It speaks, not of a one-off change, but of being continually transformed by grace. It calls us, not to a brittle promise, but a lifelong journey with God, where when we fail we are picked up again, forgiven and filled with the Holy Spirit.

This Biblical alternative is the Covenant. A committed relationship, a promise of faithfulness between God and his people. It’s almost like an agreement: there are duties set out, blessings for obedience and consequences for failure. But it’s not a legalistic thing like a property covenant – a Biblical covenant is always held in God’s grace and love, and though people broke them many times, God never broke faith.

Why today? We’re thinking about Covenants this Sunday because the 1st January is the eighth day of Christmas, and as it says in our reading from Luke 2:21 ‘On the eighth day it was time to circumcise the child and he was called Jesus, the name given by the angel before he was conceived.’ Jewish people circumcise male children because it is commanded as one of the Old Testament covenants. Circumcision for Jews is a sign of belonging to God’s people.

The background is that when God promised Abraham he would become a great nation, God also commanded that all Abraham’s descendants should be circumcised as a reminder of this promise. There were other covenants God made with his people – for instance the giving of the Ten Commandments after the Exodus was also part of a covenant.

There’s a pattern we can see. The initiative is always God’s. God called Abraham. God rescued the people of Israel from Egypt. It wasn’t the people who approached God, rather he moved in grace and love towards his people. Then, as they respond to his call, God instructs them in the right way to live. He shows them how to thrive. These commands are for their good, so if they keep them they will experience blessings showered upon them. But if they turn away from the right path, it’s like putting up an umbrella against the shower of blessings. In other words, sin stops us enjoying the life God has called us to.

The idea of the covenant is that God and his people are bound together forever. Think of a marriage – which is often described as a covenant, the relationship is meant to endure through thick and thin. For richer and poorer, for better and for worse, God will be faithful to his people. When they sin they experience his faithfulness as judgement, discipline which brings them back. When they repent, God’s faithfulness means they are forgiven. It’s not two-faced but two sides of the same coin.

Let’s get one thing clear. A covenant isn’t about winning God’s favour. Sometimes people think that a covenant is all about doing good and avoiding evil so we can get into heaven. That is not Christianity. That would be like one of those comedies where someone is trying to catch a train – their legs go faster and faster but still the carriages draw away from them.

True Christianity teaches grace: it’s more like Jesus is the train driver who stops for us so we can get on. And a covenant is a bit like not doing anything stupid while you’re on the train: don’t get off before the destination; don’t stick your head out of the window when a tunnel is coming up. Covenants keep us abiding in the grace of God. His love brings us in and the covenant stops us messing up.

Christians don’t see a covenant as an attempt to earn salvation, because Jesus has already done it for us. That is what St. Paul is saying in our reading from Galatians chapter 4. In verse 4: ‘God sent his Son, born of a woman, born under the law’ – this refers to the circumcision we thought about earlier. Jesus lived in the covenant, he kept the Jewish law fully, the only person ever to keep it both in letter and in spirit.

In verse 5: ‘In order to redeem those who were under the law so that we might receive adoption as children’. Redeem means buying back, giving a payment in order to rescue someone. The payment that Jesus makes is his own life. He offers himself as the perfect substitute in our place, a sacrifice which brings forgiveness and wipes away the wrong we have done. Only a sinless person who did not have to account for his own sin could stand in our place and take our sin upon himself.

The result is in verse 6 ‘Because you are his children, God has sent his Spirit into your hearts, crying Abba Father.’ So we are no longer slaves but children, and if children then also heirs through God. In other words, because Jesus was perfectly good, we can be forgiven in him, and we can have perfect confidence coming to God through Jesus.

That is the covenant God makes with us now. To gives us peace, forgiveness and new life through Christ. It is God’s initiative, his covenant. That’s why Christianity is not a religion of outward observance. Christians don’t need to keep Old Testament law – but we also don’t have to do the external things which are so important in other religions.

Sikhs have their turbans and Kirpan daggers, but Christians do not have to wear a cross. Muslims pray 5 times a day and fast during Ramadan. But Christians can pray anytime, wherever they are; Christians can fast during Lent – if it’s helpful, or any other time, but we don’t have to.

Rules do not define Christians, because the heart of our faith is a relationship with God through Christ. Jesus fulfils God’s perfect requirements for us; we then live out our faith, not in ritual observances, but in love and in service for God and one another.

For Christians that covenant begins in baptism. It is continued in confirmation. But it can also be helpful to renew those promises from time to time – and what better occasion than the New Year?

As we look to the future and think about how we would like to act in 2017, our New Year service invites us to affirm our covenant with God.

There are some wonderful words of commitment and openness which we’ll be hearing in a moment. Let me just quote some:

Christ has many services to be done: some are easy, others are difficult;

some bring honour, others bring reproach; some are suitable to our natural inclinations and material interests, others are contrary to both… We’re invited to trust in God’s use of us, to be at his disposal.

and later on we say together:

Put me to what you will, rank me with whom you will; put me to doing, put me to suffering; let me be employed for you or laid aside for you,

It’s a radical openness to God. Whatever may come our way, God will be faithful. He sees a bigger picture that we cannot; he knows what is best for us, what will grow us and how we can benefit others. God walks with us on the journey, leading and teaching us through the hardships. He will not allow us to be tested beyond what we can bear.

We can trust in God utterly because he is faithful. He has made a covenant with us, the covenant we remember at the Eucharist, the blood of the new covenant. God has given us a promise which is unshakeable because it is grounded in his consistent character, his covenanted love.

I’ll end with a poem which is well known, deservedly so. It was quoted by King George 6th in his 1939 Christmas broadcast – if we think we live in uncertain times, how much more so back then!

I said to the man who stood at the gate of the year:
“Give me a light that I may tread safely into the unknown.”
And he replied:
“Go out into the darkness and put your hand into the Hand of God.
That shall be to you better than light and safer than a known way.”

Jeremiah 8 verse 18 to 9 verse 1

‘Escape by the skin of your teeth’, ‘A drop in the bucket’, ‘Scapegoat’, ‘Casting your pearls before swine’, ‘to everything there is a season’ – everyone got the connection by now? These are all phrases that entered the English language through the Bible. The first translations of the Bible into English coined some memorable phrases which have had a lasting legacy. In fact, some university degree courses in English literature offer an introductory lecture on the Bible, so that students reading Shakespeare and Milton can get the references.

Although sometimes the earliest translations lacked a certain resonance. For instance in verse 22 of our reading from Jeremiah, Henry VIII’s Bible had ‘Is there no treacle in Gilead?’ – creating an image of the prophet bemoaning the lack of a crucial ingredient for his gingerbread.

Of course, Jeremiah is mourning something far more significant. ‘My joy is gone, grief is upon me, hark the cry of my poor people.’ It’s about 590 BC. A great army is poised on the borders of Judah. The Babylonians are soon to invade. There is a sense of looming disaster: everyone can see what is about to happen yet no-one can do anything to stop it. And they cry aloud: ‘Is the Lord not in Zion?

As can happen in times of hardship, they feel abandoned by God. God doesn’t seem to be doing anything to retrieve the situation and rescue them. It can be a very difficult thing to bear when we are going through a troubled time. Christians may say that when life is tough we are very aware of God’s presence and strength – that is often true. Occasionally though it feels as if God has abandoned us – and that is very hard – perhaps the hardest part. We have to persevere, carry on doing right seek God in the darkness until that sense of separation passes.

That can happen to the most faithful of Christians. So if anyone feels that God is a long way away it doesn’t necessarily mean that it’s our fault. Sometimes though, if God feels distant it may be because we’ve moved, because we’re building walls against him and need to repent.

Just as thirst tells you that you need a drink, so the feeling of separation and distance can be God calling us back to himself. So that we can love him more, he may allow us to experience the results of when we turn away from him. How do we know? Our conscience will usually make it abundantly clear if we have been at fault, if we ask God to show us.

That was the truth for Israel. God spoke through Jeremiah words which were strange, challenging yet ultimately much more hopeful. God’s message through Jeremiah is that he has not abandoned them. Far from it, in fact he is acting in judgement.

As it says in verse 19: ‘Why have they provoked me to anger with their images, with their foreign idols?’ Judah had stopped serving God and instead were praying to statues to save them. God warned and rescued them time and again, eventually allowing them to experience the consequences – he permitted them to find out that statues could not save. We see God respects our free will, and they got what they chose.

For us idols are more often disordered loves. Something which is good become too important and takes over the centre of our lives. It might be money, as we heard in the Gospel parable. It might be relationships, power, work – even the best things can become idols if we try and build our lives upon them. And when we do we become dissatisfied because only God can meet that deepest need. Placed in the space that belongs to God alone such things collapse under the weight of our expectations.

When that happens the sensible thing to do is return to God in repentance. Sadly Jeremiah’s people were not doing that. Although they lamented that God had abandoned them they failed to take serious steps to change. And so Jeremiah records God’s lament over them.

It’s not an easy passage to read or reflect on, yet there are three really important things to notice here. Firstly, God laments. He does not delight in judgement. God loves us and hates it when we suffer.

You know that dreadful caricature of the Old Testament, where God is the heavenly psychopath who delights in plaguing people? It keeps on popping up – Stephen Fry does it very eloquently. But nothing could be further from the truth. As Ezekiel puts it: ‘Do I take any pleasure in the death of the wicked? declares the Sovereign LORD. Rather, am I not pleased when they turn from their ways and live?’

Some of you may remember our Passover meal that we did one Thursday before Easter a few years back. At the point where the Jewish people remember the plagues of Egypt they spill ten drops of wine on their plates, one for each plague. There is silence as they mourn the Egyptian dead and remember that God takes no pleasure in judgement.

It is a useful reminder for the church. I think it was Billy Graham who used to say ‘We should never speak of hell without tears in our eyes’. We should not delight in being proved right, nor rejoice in evil getting its comeuppance. The Church may be called to be prophetic, to point out to society where it is going wrong, but it must not be self-righteous. The church’s voice should not be like Basil Fawlty speaking to a foreigner – just shout louder and more slowly and they’ll be bound to get it. Instead we must speak from within the society which we challenge, as members of it who share in its responsibilities.

Secondly, grief is often necessary. It’s not helpful to sweep it under the carpet and pretend that all is well. Sometimes grief can wake us up to reality. We know that with personal grief, it’s equally true for groups and society. I heard of a vicar who came to a church where not much had changed for a long time. The faithful congregation had grown old together, not acknowledging the steady slow decline, or the end of Sunday School.

Before anything could happen, they had to learn how to grieve. That Vicar had to help them see what had happened, then she created the space for them to mourn what they had lost. Like Israel, only when that grief was articulated and shared could they begin to look to the future.

Until they did that, they were kind of numb. Half-conscious of what was going on, they were too frightened to acknowledge it. What would happen? Perhaps it would be too painful? Would they find there would be no future? It was only when someone was brave enough to point out the elephant in the room – and travel with them on their journey – that new life and hope could bring God’s grace into that situation.

That vicar had to travel a painful path with the congregation. In a small way she points us to a much deeper truth which Jeremiah only hints at. In this reading we hear of a prophet – or is it God? – who wishes his eyes were a fountain of tears so that he might weep day and night for his people.

True prophets, living churches, don’t stand over and against their society, throwing in criticisms like hand grenades. The Biblical prophet and the truly Christian church identify with people’s situations, walk alongside them, challenge, support and transform. They bear the cost of the repentance and change; they suffer alongside the victim, and accompany the oppressors as they learn to serve.

In doing so, they take their inspiration from God himself. God in Christ entered this world so that he could walk in our shoes. He did not come triumphantly to blast the opposition, but in humility. Christ was rejected, mocked, unjustly condemned. God’s Son suffered cruelty, indignity and a painful death. He took onto himself the worst that this world could throw at him – and forgave his persecutors.

By bearing the cost of forgiveness himself, God through Christ opens the door to a new creation. The power of evil cannot triumph over the love of Christ. Death cannot hold him and he is resurrected to a glorious new life. A fresh start, the Kingdom of God beginning among us and inviting us to join in. The path of grief faced and trod, and turned into Easter joy.

 

Humility before God and listening to children

Children do say the funniest things. Last week I heard of a child who said: ‘Mummy, does this Brexit thing mean that we’re not going to be able to play in the Euros any more?’ Mind you, given the England football team’s result against Iceland, that might not have been a bad thing!

Sometimes the things children say make you go ‘Aw, bless’. Other times they go straight to the heart of the matter, cutting through adult waffle and really making you think. One little boy was asking his mother about the refugees, why can’t we take them all in? His mother tried to explain about pressure on services and that kind of thing. All the boy said was: ‘But then who will help us when we’re in trouble?’

In today’s reading from 2 Kings, it’s a young girl who speaks with faith in God’s power. The powerful men all around her don’t know what to do, but she turns to God and speaks up. It’s remarkable when you think about it: verse 2 tells us that she had been stolen from her parents and forced into slavery in a foreign land. It sounds far removed from us but 3000 years later the same thing is still happening today in Syria.

You might well imagine that the young slave girl would be delighted to see her captor suffer. Naaman, the Syrian General, is the one who has masterminded the invasions of Israel, he is to blame for her plight. Instead, this anonymous girl seems to have forgiven him – or at least is ready to help – and with a straightforward humility suggests a solution.

We can learn a lot from children if we are prepared to listen. Particularly in church, it’s easy to think that our duty is to educate the next generation in the faith. Which it is, but that means so much more than pumping them full of facts. It’s helping them to develop their own relationship with God, grow in their spirituality, listen for themselves to what God might be saying to them.

And when God speaks to them, when they want to tell us their thoughts and views, it’s important that we listen. I find that this needs time: if I ask children straight out ‘what do you think of so and so’, I might not get an answer, or if I do a very quick one.

But if I sit alongside that child, if I’m with her when she’s playing, if I take the time to read her a book, and am there for her, then she starts talking about what’s on her mind and all sorts of important things come out. Children need to be able to talk to grown-ups which means that we need to make the time so they have the opportunity to do so.

It’s obvious that the two kings in the story haven’t really listened. The Syrian king gets the wrong end of the stick. His letter to Israel’s King, in v. 6 reads: ‘I have sent you my servant Naaman, that you may cure him of his leprosy.’ No mention of the Lord, no mention of the prophet!

It throws Israel’s king into a panic. ‘See how our bigger neighbour is trying to pick yet another fight with me! Am I God, to cure a man of leprosy?’ No, you’re not. No-one’s saying you should be. You’ve said only God can do this. So why not turn to God and seek his help? Why wait until the prophet sends word to you himself?

I went to a lecture last week about the 1000th anniversary of the Battle of Sherston. The speaker described how in the year 1016 the Vikings had done so much damage in England that the Anglo-Saxons were desperate. According to the lecturer: ‘they had even resorted to prayer’. Goodness me, things must have been bad. As if prayer was the last ditch thing, the only hope. But how often is that true for us? How often do I try to solve a problem on my own, think it through, work hard at it, use whatever diplomacy I have – and only turn to prayer when I’m not seeing results? We need to do all that, yes, but turn to God first. And often there will be a solution. It may not even depend upon us.

For as Elisha says, there is a prophet in Israel. But the God he serves works in an unexpected way. His favour cannot be bought or commanded, instead he reaches out in grace to the humble.

Stormin’ Naaman heads off with his cavalcade to the prophet’s house. He brings with him ten talents of silver and 6000 shekels of gold, a king’s ransom. We take health for granted, don’t we, but would pay anything for it when it is gone.

Naaman seeks to buy healing, but he also turns up, in v.9, with his horses and chariots, the heavy weapons of the ancient world. It’s as if one of Putin’s generals said ‘If you heal me I’ll give you this cheque for a million pounds’ – but he’s also parked his tanks on the lawn with their gun barrels pointing at the house.

 

Elisha is not intimated nor impressed. In fact he’s downright rude. He sends out a minion with a curt message: ‘Go, wash in the Jordan seven times, and your flesh shall be restored and you shall be part of society again.’ Naaman is furious. He almost fails the test of humility. Were it not for his faithful retainers, who are willing to challenge him, Naaman would have stormed off. How important it is that those in power don’t surround themselves with flattering lackeys but capable people who are prepared to ask the difficult question.

 

With their persuasion, Naaman does go to the Jordan. He dips himself, one, two, three, four, five, six – nothing yet, and seven times. As he throws the water out of his eyes and the blur clears he looks down, and wonder of wonders he is healed! The God of Israel has power to heal. Power to heal even a Syrian general.

 

So what does it all mean? To start with, this is a story about humility. As a story it works in any culture: listen to unexpected wisdom, especially from the powerless; be open to God; do not stand on your dignity; be humble in recognising your need; be ready to do the strange and apparently pointless deed.

 

It is a story about humility, but a particular sort of humility. This is the humility which enables us to receive God’s salvation as a gift. That’s how it must come. Naaman comes laden with gold and silver to buy healing, but he cannot. Naaman’s servants recognise their master wants to do something to gain healing for himself, but he cannot: ‘Father, if the prophet had commanded you to do something difficult would you not have done it?’ Later on Naaman offers presents to Elisha, who refuses. God will be no man’s debtor because salvation is a gift.

 

It can only come to us as a gift, because if we try and win it or earn it we’re not trusting in the God who gives, but instead trusting in ourselves. Putting our faith in ourselves and our own efforts means we’re not putting our faith in God. For forgiveness and eternal life we have to rely on him.

 

I knew a man who struggled with this. He had started coming to church around the time of his daughter’s wedding. He did the Foundations course and grew a lot in his understanding. But one thing bothered him: he was a capable man, he led his part of a big company. He was a problem solver, used to getting things done. It took him a long time to realise that faith isn’t like that, that God gives us salvation through the cross. That it is a gift, not earnt nor bought. He said to me: ‘I wanted to do it for myself, but I have to realise that I can’t’. Which is of course incredibly liberating once you accept it.

 

Isn’t what happens to Naaman rather like baptism? It is a picture to us of God’s love and grace. Remember that you have to be humble to enter God’s Kingdom – Jesus said like a little child. It’s only when we let go of striving and entrust ourselves to God’s mercy that we really find assurance.

 

And finally, because God’s saving, healing power is freely offered in Christ, it can be for anyone. You don’t qualify because of your race, background or education. You qualify because God gives. Here we begin to see God’s promise to Abraham coming true, that through him all generations shall be blessed. For Jesus Naaman is an example of God reaching out to the foreigner, he says: there were many lepers in Israel in the time of Elisha the prophet but only Naaman the Syrian was healed.

 

Naaman was healed, restored, saved. He was saved not because he was rich, or powerful or successful. He wasn’t a good man nor one with strong faith. But eventually, in humility, he obeyed God’s command. And that’s what God wants from us and from our world: obedience to the way of salvation in Jesus Christ our Lord.