I wonder if anyone has ever complained to you? If you work in a service industry, or in education you probably get it all the time. Some people’s jobs are all about dealing with complaints – it’s euphemistically called the Customer Service Department.


You may be surprised to hear it happens in church too. I found an interesting bit of informal research on Twitter. Someone had asked church leaders to send in the strangest complaints they’d ever received – here is a selection:

          Our expensive coffee is attracting too many trendy people

          You need to change your voice

          We need to start attracting more normal people at church

          Your wife never compliments me about my hair or dress


Fortunately I’ve never had any of those comments made to me. But I’m sure that you can think of things that have been said to you that are equally ridiculous. Dealing with complaining is a part of life, and often it seems to go in phases.


You’d imagine that there’s more moaning in a community when life is hard. Oddly though the Exodus reading we’ve just heard happened very soon after the highest point, the pivotal event in the Old Testament – the Exodus itself. God rescued his people from slavery, he judged the Egyptians, he brought the Israelites through the Red Sea. All these incredible things had happened – but then people started to complain.


Maybe it’s the feeling of let down after the most amazing events. Whenever there’s a high, you have to come back down to earth, and sometimes that can be with a jolt. You get a new car, and it’s wonderful at first, and then you start finding little flaws. I find with medical crises that Adrenaline can sustain you through difficult times, but oddly it’s when the crisis has passed and life is slowly returning to normal that it can be most difficult. One of our churches is enjoying a wonderfully reordered new building right now – you just have to go and see it, it’s a glorious space, there’s so much to be thankful for. 


There will be a point though where that church has to get to grips with the routines and costs of a new building, there will be a realisation that the church’s mission and outreach must carry on – we can’t just rely on a new-build to do the work for us.


That jolt of reality is natural, and I think that we also have to remember that as human beings we can be quite extreme in our views and reactions. I suspect that from God’s perspective it’s never as bad as we sometimes think it is, and this side of heaven it’s never as triumphant either! Do you know Kipling’s poem If? I find it rather too Stoic in its emotional detachment, but on this particular point he hits the nail on the head: ‘If you can meet with Triumph and Disaster and treat those two imposters just the same’ – with a healthy scepticism.


Moses and Aaron certainly keep their head when all around them are losing theirs. Their response is a model of how we should act when faced with complaint and criticism, in whatever situation:


Firstly, they entrust it to God. They don’t try and solve it in their own strength. When we’re criticised we can give as good as we get or bark back with self-justification – and only once the situation has deteriorated turn to God in prayer. But here God tells Moses and Aaron what to do, they do it, and they give him the glory in front of the people.


Secondly they pay attention to God, and then if it’s right to do they address the complaint – how easy it is to modify what we do! We need to listen to what’s being said, if someone makes the effort to give feedback they need to know they’ve been heard, but we also need to have courage to stick to our course if it is undoubtedly the right thing to do.


Thirdly, Moses and Aaron find their identity in God in verse 7: ‘who are we that you complain against us?’ Moses had learnt the hard way that he alone could not save the Israelites. He had killed an Egyptian slave-master – and spent 40 years in the wilderness. Now he has learnt: his identity is not rooted in being a saviour, in solving all their problems. He does not depend on others for his self-worth. 

Whatever our role, whatever kind of authority we exercise, we need to know who we are in the eyes of God – accepted, loved, forgiven by him. His child first and foremost. When grounded in that identity as a child of God then we won’t be tempted to create our own identity or seek refuge in one made for us by others.


So far I’ve been speaking as if you and I identify with Moses and Aaron. But what if we’re the crowd? What if we’re the grumblers? Do we ever make life difficult for those in authority over us? I find it so easy to complain about such and such that ‘the diocese’ has done – but ‘the Diocese’ is always people. Do we complain to God about the task, or the people he has entrusted to our care? Do we need to repent and change? I guess that at various times in our lives each one of us can be Moses. And each one of us can be in the crowd.


God is incredibly gracious. Remarkably often he responds to complaint in a loving way. Think of the book of Job: Job has lost his flocks, his wealth, his family and his health. He complains bitterly to God – but God answers. Indeed God even affirms that ‘Job has spoken rightly of me!’ Job’s complaint was born out of faith. He believed God was good, and held on in prayer. There is a long history of Biblical, faithful complaint to God.


So when is complaining not faithful but just whinging? An unhelpful grumble. Perhaps it’s when it’s trivial. Like the person who really did say to a minister: ‘The loo roll in the ladies is the wrong way round. It’s rolled under.’ More significantly, it’s the tone that makes it a whinge or a workaround.


There’s a world of difference between ‘Why do we never have hymns we know?’ and ‘For Pentecost, could we have such and such?’ One just creates a problem and dumps it on someone else. The other owns the problem, shares concern and offers to work together in solving it.


I suppose the Israelites could have prayed to God rather than complain to Moses. If they weren’t sufficiently familiar with this God to pray, perhaps they could have said to Moses: ‘This God who can bring locusts and part the Sea, do you think he could give us some food?’


Firstly God answers in a natural way – the swarm of quails is a recognised desert phenomenon. And for me that’s a source of hope. God is gracious.

He responds to our needs. Indeed, the complaining leads to action. God in his love responds to their needs. Secondly, he answers in a miraculous way, through the manna.


But the manna will be a training experience for Israel. There are hints in this chapter of what will come later – elaborate instructions for when the Israelites can gather manna and when not. Why not give them enough for a week? Why have to go out gather each day? To learn that we must do our bit in order to work with God. So pray for healing, and keep taking the tablets. Pray for revival, and spread the word. Why gather twice as much for the day before the Sabbath? To learn obedience and trust in God. To learn that God will provide throughout the day of rest.


I wonder if you know anyone who has a tiny baby? Just a few weeks old? Watch that baby next time you meet them. Look at how the baby gazes at its mother, clearly believing that Mummy is all capable, all knowing. But listen to what happens when baby is hungry – the yelling and sobbing, the desperation, the urgency. And that’s just the parents!


A very little baby has to learn that its needs will be provided for. When it is really tiny it doesn’t understand that – so when baby feels hungry it is the end of the world. As the baby grows he learns to trust his parents, he realises that food will come, nappy will be changed. He discovers that Mummy and Daddy are reliable and that where they have been faithful in the past, they will be faithful again.


The Israelites had to learn that about this God who had rescued them. Maybe we too need to learn what it means to trust God. If he has been faithful to us in the past, we can trust him for the future. If the way has seemed dark but God knew what he was doing, surely the same is true today. If we seek guidance, if we need resources, if we want resilience, turn to God. For he is faithful.




Burning Bush

Barely two months ago I was sat in Bristol Cathedral ready for Elveen’s ordination. The cathedral authorities have obviously realised that people are a captive audience while they’re waiting, so on the first few pages of the order of service are potted biographies of those about to be made deacon

One in particular caught my eye. He wrote‘God is never in a hurry! Forty-five years ago, when I was lodging in a Leicestershire farmhouse, the farmer’s wife said to me: ‘You’ll be ordained one day.’ Her vision was greater than mine, but I prayed about it and saw myself as an old man wearing a dog collar. Spurred on by that I’ve tried the ordination door more than once over the years but it was always closed. God had more shaping to do on me…but he gave me a promise to hang on to: ‘My word will accomplish what I desire’. So in God’s timing the old man with the dog collar is here at last. Thank you Lord. He is the God who fulfils his purposes for us all.

Moses’ experience was like that, waiting a long time, being shaped by God before he was finally ready to fulfil his call. Forty long years ago, the young man Moses had left the palace of the Egyptian princess who had adopted him, and gone to discover his roots. Finding his own people, the Israelites, enslaved by the Egyptians, Moses was furious. He attacked and killed a slave driver. But Pharaoh heard about it and Moses fled into the wilderness

He survived by working as a shepherd. Humbled, and probably believing this was now his life, he married the daughter of a local priest. We can only imagine what the journey he travelled: of frustration, wasted talent, regret, humility and finally acceptance. Only then, forty years later, was God able to use him

It was only once he’d learnt to listen, to trust, once he’d learnt to do things God’s way, that God could use him. The Israelites would never listen to a spoilt Egyptian princeling. But a man who had suffered, who like them had endured hardship – they could respect him. Sometimes we too need work done on us, character honed, before we can fulfil the call God has given us. Sometimes, like Moses, we have to be set aside for a while, become insignificant, in order to be used

If so, God may need to reassure us that his plans for us are faithful. As he guides us, we learn more about him. In this passage about the burning bush from Exodus chapter 3v1-15, the story of Moses call is interwoven with the revelation of God

Why did God appear in a burning bush? It’s really odd. To Abraham and Jacob, God appeared as a person, or they heard his voice. To Samson’s mother and to David, God came as the Angel of the Lord, a heavenly messenger. The only other time I can think of that God appears not as a personal form but through an object is when Abraham sees a burning brazier making a covenant. There again fire speaks of the presence of God.


The thorn bush, most useless and lowliest of plants may encourage Moses. There is nowhere God is absent, nothing God cannot use. Moses feels his life has been wasted, he has lost all confidence. He is like the thornbush – but the fire of God can blaze in him. Thorns also may speak of suffering, the slavery of the Israelites and the hard road Moses must travel. God is not absent when we suffer – we may even feel his presence most strongly. After all, it is on the cross when Jesus wears the crown of thorns, that we see the love of God revealed most clearly. Perhaps the burning bush even anticipates the incarnation: God’s presence united with frail human flesh yet not consuming it.

There is a mystery here, and I think that’s deliberate. The burning bush speaks to us of a God who is both with us, and yet greater than we can imagine. Who appears in a blaze of fire, but we cannot get too close. Who speaks rational words so that he can be heard, yet you must take off your shoes because you stand on holy ground. Who is the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob – they are alive with him and in heaven behold his face – yet sinful man covers his face because he is afraid to look on God

This is the God we worship, who makes himself known but cannot be fully comprehended. Who reveals himself as a mystery, and calls us on, deeper and deeper into that mystery. A God who when he is asked says name says ‘I will be what I will be’ – in other words he has the complete freedom to be himself, not to be tied down by our classifications., no-one can have power over him by knowing his name

In our prayers and worship we must hold both of these insights together: that God reveals himself to us and makes himself known, but that he is always greater than we can imagine. In our prayers we might imagine pictures of God, but be ready to lay them aside as inadequate. In our hymns and preaching we use words to describe Him, but we must always remember that words cannot encompass his majesty. Our creeds speak of how God has made himself known, but they cannot exhaust the mystery. When we come to worship, let’s not expect it to be as it always is, but be ready to let God be God

In speaking of a God who is transcendent, we should not imagine that he is distant or uncaring. The God who spoke to Moses did so because he had a task for Moses to do: to set God’s people free.  Just look at the verbs in v.7: ‘I have observed the misery, I have heard their cry, I know their sufferings and I have come down to deliver them.’ God has heard the cry of the Israelites, he has seen how the Egyptians are oppressing them, and he has come to rescue them.

God does see. He observes the misery of human trafficking, he hears the cry of the bonded labourer, he knows the suffering of the refugee, he sees the racial divisions – and he still sends his people to rescue and heal. This is part of our vocation as followers of Christ

Of course, there are people who say that the gospel message must come first, and that therefore the church ought to leave social action to the state or to non-Christians. To say that is to ignore the nature of God. It forgets that wherever Christ went he both preached the message and healed the sick. The proclamation of the Kingdom cannot be separated out from the acts of the Kingdom, for it is about life in all its fullness.

People know this – a church which preaches without acting will be accused of hypocrisy, but those like HtB which have a prison and homeless ministry gain the right to be heard. The mission of the Bible Society is to give people Scriptures in their own language, but they also give tents and food to Syrian refugees – you can’t read the Good News if you’ve got nowhere to sit and a hungry stomach. Christians must follow the heart of God and act in love, as well as explaining what we believe. Neither is complete without the other

Making a difference in the world is a long journey. It’s over a year since Jonathan’s campaign began – to give children with special educational needs a genuine opportunity to be taught to read and write. It’s been a long haul. The Government has been enthusiastic, there have been great photo opportunities, videos blogs and articles which have impacted thousands, but no policy has yet changed. Whenever there is the prospect of change, vested interests oppose you. Some you hoped would be allies just don’t get it, or disagree on the right approach. As Moses found, even the ones you hoped to help turn out to be discouraged, tired, too busy just coping, maybe even unable to dream that things could be different.

Perhaps sensing this, Moses objects in v.11: ‘Who am I, that I should go to Pharaoh and bring the Israelites out of Egypt?’ Who indeed is up to this task

But the point is not who Moses is, but the key thing is who is with Moses. ‘I will be with you’ says God. We may say ‘Who am I? The task is too great. I have no experience, ability.’ But God says ‘I will be with you’. With God all things are possible. When his Holy Spirit moves we just need to get on board

He longs to bless his people. He promises Moses that he will set them free, he will bring them up to a land flowing with milk and honey. One day soon they will worship God on that very mountain, and receive the law which outlines their relationship with God. God wishes to bless his people, to set them free from captivity and bring them into a right relationship with him. This is about the message of the gospel, and the liberation the gospel brings. He calls us all to work and pray in that great task. Amen.





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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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



Is your imagination up to it?

‘Life after death’ said the barber. ‘I mean, nobody knows what happens do they? After all, it’s not like anyone’s been there and come back? The clergyman, who was in mufti at the time, swallowed hard and said a silent prayer: ‘Actually,’ he began…’ there was Jesus’

Last week we celebrated the feast of All Souls. We gave thanks for those who have died with faith in Christ, and we looked forward with hope to the day when we shall meet again. For many people, that’s a great source of hope. It gives us comfort when loved ones have died. I still remember feeling that when my grandfather died – he was the first person really close to me who died, he’d been a wonderful example of steadfast faith. This amazing sense of peace came that his long battle was now over and a real confidence that he is now with Christ.

And when someone close to you is constantly living on the boundary between this life and the next, believing that there is a resurrection enables you to cope with it all. I know some of you were at the the confirmation service on Wednesday. I think it was the closest I’ve ever been to heaven: a glorious celebration; friends and family from every stage of your life; all gathered together in joyful worship of our amazing God. When time stands still and eternity seems very close.

But I also know it doesn’t always feel like that. At some times and for some people it’s really difficult to believe in the resurrection. For some folks, the doctrine is more of a stumbling block, a difficulty for faith. Like the barber, they might ask: How can a dead body live? What if there’s nothing left to bring it back together from? What will we look like, what age will we be, will we know each other? How will it happen and when?

Undoubtedly it can be hard to imagine. Or maybe the imaginings that we do have don’t really seem up to the job. How many people have I spoken to who say that they can’t believe in an old guy with a long white beard sitting on a cloud! To which I reply: I don’t believe God and heaven are like that either! But we have to remember: just because we struggle to picture it, doesn’t mean the underlying belief isn’t true.

That was the mistake the Sadducees made in the gospel reading. When Jesus was on earth, there were two main religious groups in Israel: the Pharisees and the Sadducees. The Pharisees were working people who took the Old Testament law seriously. They believed that one day the dead would rise to life and God would make the world perfect. The Sadducees on the other hand were the priestly aristocracy. They believed that once you were dead, that was it.

There’s no reason for us to think that their beliefs weren’t honestly held. The Sadducees seem to have struggled with the resurrection on day-to-day grounds. If God will bring people back to life, what sort of lives will they lead? How are the practicalities going to work out? For instance, what about marriage?

Imagine, they say to Jesus, imagine a woman whose husband dies young. Now we all know that Moses commanded that she should marry the dead man’s brother. But before they can have children and carry on the family line, he too falls sick and dies. In order to pass on the inheritance, she marries the next brother. But he falls out of a tree picking olives. Hoping to be looked after in her old age, she marries no. 4. But he falls under a chariot. And so it goes on.

Finally no 7, who must have been a bit of a mug not to notice what’s going on, predeceased her. So, say the Sadducees, in v.33: imagine the resurrection. The woman climbs out of her grave, then her husbands rise too – all seven of them! So which of them is her husband now?

You see what happened? They’ve got carried away with their own rhetoric! They’ve set up a straw man and knocked it down. They’ve taken the idea of the resurrection and assumed that life after the resurrection would be just like this life. A continuation. And because there are obvious problems, and that doesn’t make sense, they said the whole concept is flawed. But nobody said the resurrection life is just like this life. It’s not a simple continuation. In the case of marriage, relationships are not the same in the resurrection. Marriage is a sign of the soul’s unity with God – and in the life to come the reality is fulfilled

Jesus then shows the Sadducees how the parts of the Old Testament that they accepted point to the Resurrection. The Sadducees only regarded the books of the Pentateuch as Scripture. But even there, points out Jesus, there is the story of Moses and the burning bush. Moses approaches the bush, God speaks to him, and when Moses asks who he is, God replies:

‘I am the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob.’ Not the God whom they worshipped when they were alive. Not I was their God. But I am their God – because they are living with God still. To him all are alive.

The mistake the Sadducees made is easily done and we do it all the time: Because I can’t imagine it, therefore it can’t be true. rpt.

This is not some kind of religious cop-out, or invitation to believe uncritically anything outrageous. Coping with the limitations of our imagination is an issue for scientists too: for instance in the book ‘The Blind Watchmaker’ Richard Dawkins says that the reason some people struggle with evolution is that they just can’t imagine it happening.

I wonder how many of our doubts are intellectual or moral, and how many are due to a simple lack of imagination?… I once read a physicist musing on eternal life – I’ll get bored he wrote. I’ll run out of things to do. I’ll get fed up with my own flaws. And as I get older I find I have a little more sympathy with that idea. You know that line in the hymn: ‘Amazing Grace’ – ‘when we’ve been there ten thousand years, bright shining as the sun, we’ve no less days to sing God’s praise, than when we’ve first begun.’ Sometimes I sing that and it feels wonderful. Sometimes it feels a little unnerving – I don’t know what 50 years is like, let alone ten thousand. What about life without end?

That too is a lack of imagination. So how can we begin to dream of eternity? Look back to the very best holiday you’ve ever been on, one you never wanted to end – and imagine that the whole of creation is perfect, ready to be explored. Or how when you’re totally absorbed in good useful work you lose track of time. Remember being engrossed in conversation with friends, or completely lost in worship which lifts up the soul to the presence of God – and imagine that there is never any earthly weariness or sin to drag you back down again.  We’ll be made perfect in the world to come. The infinity of God is able to keep us occupied. And eternity isn’t the same thing as a very very long time.

That physicist should have known we don’t need to be able to visualise something in order to believe it. He would have studied quantum physics, and that’s a prime example of what I’m talking about. For nobody has seen a subatomic particle and they have strange properties like nothing we experience.

And yet that physicist was willing to believe that in physics there are more things in heaven and earth than are dreamt of in our philosophy. Why not apply the same logic to faith? Our imaginations are limited. There are some things we may never be able to grasp, or we can only approach by using pictures.

Are we ever like those Sadducees? Do we struggle to believe in the return of Christ because the words St Paul uses are hard? The Biblical imagery of stars falling from the sky, is a sign that words and images are striving to portray a reality that no-one has set seen. The Biblical writers were stretching their imaginations to describe it. No surprise that we have to too.

Let’s therefore be honest with ourselves. Most people have doubts. Not about everything all the time, but occasionally on particular subjects we do doubt. Don’t feel bad about that. It’s only human. Don’t try and hide it from God though – no point because he knows everything, and it’s when we’re open and honest with God about doubts that he is most able to help us.

Do address doubts. They show us where we haven’t quite understood our faith, where there is space to grow, as long as we address them. So don’t let doubts fester. Bring them to God and pray about them. Think about them and reason them through. Find a helpful book, ask a minister, go on a course. Have we really understood what Christians actually believe, or are we trying to believe something the church has never actually taught? Allow God to renew your imagination and draw you closer to the unimaginable.

On this earth, we won’t understand what life after death is like. Not until we get there. It will hold wonderful surprises! There’ll be limitations we didn’t know we had that we’ll be free from, things we can do that we couldn’t have thought possible, experiences that are inconceivable to us now. For God is the God of the living, and to him all are alive.

In his light we see light

In the foyer of a Manchester hotel Sir Thomas Beecham saw a distinguished-looking woman whom he believed he knew, though he could not remember her name. He paused to talk to her and as he did so vaguely recollected that she had a brother. Hoping for a clue, he asked how her brother was and whether he was still working at the same job. “Oh, he’s very well,” she answered, “and he’s still the king.”

In the case of Jesus, people could have been forgiven for not recognising the king. God’s king came to us humbly. He was a human being, from an ordinary background, with nothing to make him stand out. Yet as today’s reading shows, he was also divine, God himself on earth as a human being.

Of course, Jesus’ disciples already had some idea of who he was. His teaching was so profound, and his miracles so remarkable, his healings so compassionate, that the disciples had started to form their own view. Shortly before this reading, in Luke chapter 9 v 20, Jesus asked them ‘Who do you say that I am?’ Peter answered ‘The Messiah of God’.

That’s important, because right at the beginning of today’s passage, in v.28, there’s a little phrase, easy to overlook: ‘Now about eight days after these sayings’. Do you see what Luke is doing? He is deliberately linking what’s about to happen with what Jesus said eight days before. The sayings are going to help us understand the event. The things Jesus said are about to happen, are now taking place at the Transfiguration.

So if you could pick up a Bible and turn to page 66 of the New Testament, we’ll take a moment to look at them. That’s Luke chapter 9, v.21 onwards.

There are four points here. Firstly, Jesus is the Messiah. We get that from verses 20-21. Then in v.22 ‘The Son of Man must undergo great suffering and be killed and on the third day rise again.’ Jesus knew what was going to happen to him in Jerusalem – his death and resurrection. Thirdly, those who follow Jesus must take up their own cross, we get that from verse 23 ‘If any want to become their followers let them deny themselves and take up their cross daily and follow me.’ Finally, in verse 27 ‘there are some standing here who will not taste death before they see God’s Kingdom come’.

These four sayings are all demonstrated in the Transfiguration. We see that Jesus is the Messiah, we hear that he will die, we understand that his followers cannot stay in glory but must take up their crosses, and we see the glory of the Kingdom of God. What Jesus prophesied has come to pass.

Nobody knows for sure where the Transfiguration took place. Traditionally it was on Mount Tabor, and if you’re on the tourist trail you can hop onto an ancient minibus which grinds its way at alarming speeds up increasingly sharp hairpin bends. Eventually you get dropped off, weak and wobbly, at the flat top of a pleasantly wooded hill. You can see that it would have been a good lonely place to pray.

I’ve always imagined that the Transfiguration happened in the daytime. I’ve got a mental picture of the disciples toiling up through scented pasture, with the view rolling out beneath them. But the fact in verse 32 that the three disciples were sleepy, and in v.37, the observation that they came down the mountain on the next day, makes we wonder: was it night time? Just goes to show, every time you read the Bible you can find something new.

And if was night time, I suppose that Jesus’ clothes and face would have shone all the brighter. They shine with the glory of heaven. In Jesus God’s reality bursts into our existence. We see who he truly is –God’s Messiah, and we get a glimpse of his Kingdom on earth as it is in heaven. Once we have seen, once our eyes have been opened to the vision, we know we’ll never see things the same old way again.

Money, success, relationships and children, career and priorities, everything is seen in the best way in God’s Kingdom. Once we’ve caught sight of the glory and allow ourselves to change, life is wonderfully transformed. In the light of Jesus we see things in different ways. This is why the voice from heaven affirms: ‘this is my Son, my chosen, listen to him.’

Listen to Jesus as he explains the Old Testament, which points to himself. In verse 30 Moses and Elijah appear, representing the Law and the Prophets which are fulfilled in Christ. They are talking with him about his departure, which he is about to accomplish in Jerusalem.

Interesting word departure. Perhaps not the obvious way to speak about Jesus’ death and resurrection. And how do you ‘accomplish’ a departure? It always used to puzzle me until I learnt that the word translated departure is in the original Greek ‘Exodus’. So it is ‘The Exodus he was about to accomplish in Jerusalem’.

Yes it can be translated ‘departure’. But Exodus is so much more. It brings to mind that wonderful Old Testament story of God rescuing his people, of the Passover lamb. In Jesus God is about to rescue his people once and for all. Jesus is the Lamb of God who will offer himself for our sins. In his resurrection he will defeat death and set us free from its power forever.

This is God’s loving plan, which he knew right from the beginning. The fact that Moses and Elijah talk with Jesus about it emphasises that there’s continuity with the Old Testament, that’s it’s all part of God’s great plan. God did not have a Plan A Old Testament and when that went wrong came up with Plan B New Testament. Nor should we look at Jesus’ death as if it were just a human tragedy, and try desperately to find some meaning in it. The Transfiguration tells us that Jesus knew exactly what he was up to when he set his face to Jerusalem. He deliberately, freely, chose to complete God’s plan.

Unfortunately Peter hasn’t understood this. He would like to cling onto the glory, and in verse 33 offers to put up three tents so Moses Elijah and Jesus can all stay there. Of course we’d like it to be permanent! Someone has built a church on top of the hill I talked about. A very grand, beautiful commemoration of the Transfiguration – but rather ironic when you think about it. Because Jesus didn’t stay there. He came down the mountain to the plain. He left the spiritual retreat and re-entered the hurly burly of daily life.

There are some interesting parallels with Moses here. Moses too went up a mountain – in Sinai. He too met God in the cloud and glory. The disciples were told to obey Jesus – Moses was given the Ten Commandments. When Moses came down the people had already lost faith and made the Golden Calf.

Now Jesus returns to the crowd and finds the rest of the disciples struggling. He has to rescue them from their own inability. That’s a common spiritual principle. The high is often followed by a low. Mountain-top experiences, whether they’re on pilgrimage, retreat or conference, must then energise us for life on the plain.

If we’re not expecting the contrast, it can be overwhelming. Just a short time ago everything seemed so good, but suddenly there’s intense spiritual opposition and hard work. Even those close to you who seemed so reliable can surprise you with their wobbles.

When we set out to do something for God, we must expect the challenge too. We’ve recently got permission for our reordering and we’ve got some great plans for a new service – this is hugely exciting but it’s also now that the real work begins. We must be vigilant, prayerful and prepared. Let’s persevere in what God has called us to.

I think it’s perseverance which is key to the Transfiguration. After all, why was Jesus transfigured? So the disciples could understand and believe? So that whenever difficulties came they could look back on that day and remember: yes, that’s who Jesus is, and one day he’ll triumph. Perhaps also for us, so we can be strengthened and assured in our faith – that’s what St Peter says when he talks about the Transfiguration in the first chapter of his second Epistle. It happened so that we might be confident in our faith and persevere in building the Kingdom.

Most of all though, I think it happened for Jesus. To encourage him. To give him the strength he needed for the road ahead. To assure him that what he was doing was right and God would honour it. If Jesus needed encouragement, how much more do we! If he can accept it and receive – how much more should we! Let us then be encouraged! As we set out into Lent, may we be strengthened in our disciplines. As we try and build the Kingdom here, may we be encouraged to persevere when trouble comes. As we travel our path, let us remember that he cares for us. Amen.