Ups and downs, a spiritual rhythm

About a year ago, I decided that I was going to take daily walk. Whenever I could, whatever the weather – within reason, I would go for a twenty minute march. It’s been good for me – helps concentration, often I meet people. What’s been a really lovely bonus is seeing the changes in the natural world.

One day it is all bare twigs, the next catkins are in flower. The bullocks in the field are lively when they are first let out, but as they grow they settle down. A few days of dry weather and the little stream becomes cracked mud. Over the year I’ve observed a rhythm to the seasons, a pattern of growth and change, variation held within stability.

The same is true of our own lives. We live within time, and to exist in time means change. There is a natural fluctuation, a rhythm. Sometimes the reasons are obvious – weight goes up when you eat more cake. Sometimes the reasons are less clear – moods go and up and down without necessarily having an obvious cause.

This happens in our spiritual lives too. As we continue our sermon series on prayer, this week we look at the joys and the sorrows, the agony and the ecstasy that comes in following God and particularly in our prayer lives. Do you know what I’m saying? Do you get that variation too – the fact that some days prayer is easy and I want to spend time with God, but other days a Facebook feed or an old magazine is all it takes because I half want to be distracted? One week we’re keen to find God’s will for our lives, another week following him feels like a burden.

That rhythm is natural. What goes up also comes down. And vice versa. So after a great spiritual event, like an ordination, it’s inevitable there will a period of just getting on with it. But those more challenging times are very important. Those are the times when God teaches us self-discipline. We learn to follow Him, not like a dog which gets a treat every time it performs, but as free individuals who know what’s right.

So it you make a great step forward in your faith and then run into a difficult period, don’t despair. It’s not a sign that your faith is weakening – far from it, this is designed to help you grow. Keep praying, keep living for God. However don’t acquiesce to the change and accept it as the new norm. Don’t lose your ambition. For it won’t last forever. And when you emerge from the desert, you’ll be stronger.

Few people knew this better than St Paul. He had been through immense challenges, and also some incredible high points. If anyone had met with triumph and disaster, it was Paul, and he describes it in the reading we heard from 2 Corinthians 12 v2-10.

It’s not immediately obvious what’s going on. It seems that the people in the church at Corinth had an issue with Paul: they felt he wasn’t particularly impressive, not the charismatic leader they wanted. The Corinthians knew of ‘super-apostles’, people who’d had interesting spiritual experiences – and talked about them. So in this passage Paul is pushed to defend himself. He doesn’t want to, he seems quite diffident about it. He starts talking about ‘another person’ who’s had a remarkable spiritual odyssey – but it becomes clear this man is actually Paul himself.

He says he was ‘caught up’. In other words, a spiritual experience is a gift. Whenever we have a particular insight or moment with God, a sense of his presence, it is a grace from him. Not something earnt. Techniques of prayer can help open us up to the way God wants to meet us – but nothing forces him to act. Prayer is not an ABC checklist that always leads to a particular result – it’s a relationship. Remember that.

In verse 2 Paul talks about the third heaven – traditionally there were believed to be seven levels. And in v.3 he’s not sure whether he went ‘in the body’ or not. In other words, it can be hard to describe a spiritual experience. Is it a vision? A dream? Are you physically there? This difficulty can actually be a sign of what is genuine.

Whatever it was, Paul saw and heard things that ‘he is not permitted to say.’ We don’t know why, but Paul is not allowed to go into any detail about what he’s heard or seen. This is important. Real spirituality is like this: humble, consistent, doesn’t show off. There were many alternative spiritualities around in Paul’s time, just as there are today. Gnosticism, Mysticism, Kabbala, the Occult. Their practitioners went into great detail about what they thought they had seen. They tried to draw people in with the promise that you too can share in this secret knowledge.

Fake spirituality makes much of revealing secrets, of boasting about special experiences, giving techniques to the initiates. But Paul says true spirituality is rooted in Christ. If we’re given an experience of God, it’s there to encourage us. To build faith in him. Not to be an end in itself.

Spiritual experiences help give substance to our hope. They inspire us, encourage us, as we put our faith in Jesus. But the point is: our faith is in Jesus. The experience points to Christ, it is not an end in itself. So be wary of any spirituality which seeks after experiences for their own sake. Don’t be always chasing the latest high.

For faith is meant to make us love God and serve others. And sometimes faith is strongest when we are most challenged. Paul ends by saying that it is not the visions and ecstasy that he boasts of. Rather, he boasts of his weakness. For it’s through his weakness that the power of Christ is shown to be strong.

The English phrase ‘thorn in the flesh’ comes from this passage. We don’t know what it was Paul suffered from – an illness? A temptation? Three times he pleaded with Lord to take it away, but the Lord replied ‘My grace is sufficient for you. For my power is made perfect in weakness.’ It is the grit in the oyster that produces the pearl. So in v.10, Paul is ‘content with weakness, insults, hardships, persecutions and calamities for the sake of Christ, for whenever I am weak, then I am strong.’ In other words, it’s the challenges that reveal and strengthen faith, as much as, if not more than the high points.

We can see this in the gospel reading too. The disciples did amazing things. They healed people and preached to crowds, but Jesus anticipated that they would be rejected, because he was. When Jesus returned to the village where he was brought up, the response was not pride at the local lad made good, it was ‘Who does he think he is?’

That’s why Jesus could do no miracles there. It wasn’t that his power was limited, it’s that people had closed themselves off to him. Don’t believe those who say ‘You’re not healed because you haven’t got enough faith’. That’s wrong. Jesus can work wherever there is any faith – even a tiny amount. Remember the man who said ‘I believe, help me in my unbelief.’ If we’re willing to work with God, he can work with us, no matter how small our faith. But those people had closed themselves off, they refused to accept him.

Even today it’s hard to establish your own identity if people think they already know who you are. But it’s crucial that those who are growing in faith are given the space to develop, the freedom to try things out, the liberty to succeed or fail in a supportive environment.

Looking out for one another is key. For as we’ve heard in the Christian life there are great joys. Closeness to God, blessing, times when what we do is effective. Yet there are also times where, despite faithfully following God’s will, we experience challenge, opposition, spiritual dryness even apparent failure.

We’ve thought about the reasons for this. The natural ebb and flow of our energy. External forces beyond our control. Our openness to God. But sometimes the reasons are not obvious – and maybe those times of challenge strengthen our faith through perseverance and learning to trust God when we can’t see the way ahead.

So in those times we should be aware of what’s going on, take care of one another, make the challenges a subject of our prayers, and also rejoice in what God is able to do with us.

For God is with us in the triumphs and the disaster. God is in the agony and the ecstasy. One day the set-backs will fade, never to return. And we will be in his presence for ever.

 

 

Advertisements

Repentance

Giving a name is a task fraught with difficulties. For instance a baby’s name should be something the parents like – but have you thought about what happens when you shorten it? Christopher becomes Chris, which is ok, but some parents don’t like their Albert being called Bertie. Does the first name complement the surname? It’s always worth doing an internet search to make sure you’re not about to lumber your offspring with the same name as an American psychopath.

And if you’re naming a building, you might want to honour a famous benefactor – but what if society’s view of that person changes? More on the Colston Hall later.

Finally, does the name have a meaning? Is it one that you intend? In Biblical times children were often named after their father, as we hear in verse 59 of today’s reading from Luke’s Gospel. Surely he will be Zechariah? But the little boy’s mother wants to name him John. This is a shortened form of Johanan, which means God is gracious.

Perhaps that’s because this particular baby had been long awaited. However, there’s more going on here. Naming this boy John is an act of repentance, it is a sign that Zechariah is obeying God and doing what he was told. Repentance means turning back to God and doing his will.

Zechariah was a priest, and his number had come up. In those days there were so many priests that their duties were assigned by a lottery. Statistically, a priest had a once in a lifetime chance to serve in the temple. Zechariah’s big day arrives, he goes in and promptly sees an angel who tells him that, despite great age, he and his wife will have a son and they are to name him John. Perhaps years of disappointment have sapped Zechariah’s faith, because his response is to ask ‘How can I know that this will happen?’ For his lack of belief, he is condemned to be struck dumb until the day those things occur.

So when in verse 62 Zechariah asks for his communication aid, and writes on his tablet ‘His name is John’, his tongue is freed and he is able to speak! Through this practical action of naming the child, Zechariah commits himself to God’s will, and demonstrates that he has repented of not believing the angel. He acknowledges that his words and actions were wrong, he asks God’s forgiveness and wants to change. That’s what we mean by repentance.

As we continue our sermon series on prayer, thinking about repentance is really important because it opens the door to God in our prayer lives. Becoming aware of what we have done wrong, saying sorry, turning around, resolving to do better by God’s help is a really important part of prayer. That process of repentance is cleansing for the soul, and it’s a necessary preparation for the rest of our prayers to be really effective.

For it’s no good asking God to rain down blessings upon us, if we’re hiding from him under a great big umbrella! So often the way that God answers our prayers, showers good things onto us, is through our obedience. Which means that if we continue doing the wrong thing, persist in sin, it’s like digging up the seed we so carefully planted. Or our lives are so full of baggage we’re like a stream sweeping along so much dead wood and plastic bags that it can’t flow properly anymore.

Do you know what really annoys me? Really gets me going? It’s when someone asks me for help, to show them the solution to a problem, and then promptly ignores it! I’d rather not be asked in the first place than waste my time telling and showing, and then being disregarded. Yet I know I do that to God all the time. We need to ask the Holy Spirit to give us more self-knowledge, better insight into what we do, honest realism before God. We can’t hide anything from God – but the amazing thing is: however far gone we are, if we are open and honest with him, he accepts our confession and forgives us. Because Jesus died for us, took our sin on himself on the cross, repentance becomes for us the path to life. Properly understand, repentance is good and healthy.

In the story Zechariah acts and he speaks. He writes John’s name on a tablet, and then he praises God. It is important for us to do both of these things. It is good for us to confess our sins, like we do in general terms in church, and privately, more specifically, to God in personal prayer. It’s right that when we have confessed our sins, we then make an effort, with the Holy Spirit’s help, to live differently in future.

Either one of these is incomplete without the other. Words without actions are hollow. There is a real spiritual danger here: because the more times we say sorry for something but don’t change our behaviour, the weaker the effect of that confession becomes and the harder it is for us to be genuinely transformed. Words without action become an unhealthy turning over of the past, a dwelling upon things, or a superficial ‘sorry!’ on your way to doing the same thing again.

Perhaps it’s less obvious how actions without words are also incomplete. If the school bully changes and stops thumping the other children then everyone heaves a sigh of relief. But if that person has never said sorry, then they’ve never really acknowledged the harm their actions have done. Nor have they opened the way to forgiveness and face-to-face reconciliation. Often we’re satisfied when someone’s actions have changed, but words open the way to a deeper healing.

It’s this deeper healing that we see in the ministry of John the Baptist. Our reading from Acts summarises, in verses 24 and 25, what John did. He preached a baptism of repentance for all the people of Israel, preparing the way for Jesus. He turned people’s hearts back to God so that Jesus would receive a ready welcome. And then in verse 26, we find that this message of salvation has been sent to us.

So how does that happen? The good news that we can change if we admit our need of God affects us at different levels. Individuals, the church, the nation.
Like Zechariah the priest, the Church sometimes needs to repent. Pointing to Christ on earth it needs to hold to the highest standards. That’s why there’s been a review of the Church of England’s approach to child protection. Doing DBS checks and safeguarding training takes up a lot of time – but it is part of the church’s response to historic failures. It shows that there is corporate repentance for what has happened in the past, and demonstrates a resolve that such things will not be allowed to happen again.

There is also the question of the nation. Can a country say sorry for the things its ancestors did wrong? Recently a pardon was issued for the wartime codebreaker Alan Turing, which was very right and proper.

But words are easily said. Action is more difficult. And action is untargeted if we don’t think deeply. So for instance, we need to ask why the 18th century Bristol merchant Edward Colston was widely seen in his time as a good chap, a generous benefactor and philanthropist?
Why did someone who appeared to be a Christian just not see that there was a problem in having business interests which included the slave trade? How did he possibly think that was ok? How did he justify it? Did it even occur to him that it needed to be justified?

Until we ask those questions and engage with the history then we learn nothing. All we get good at is judging others by our own standards. The mistakes of the past will not shed light on our own times, or help us to discover our own hypocrisies and failings. Do we know what shares our pension funds own? How is it possible to buy a suit and shoes for £80?

Words which express regret are fine, but ‘what do we do?’ is a more difficult question. Is compensation appropriate to those directly affected by an injustice? Or to their descendants? What are we doing about racial equality and other forms of inclusion today? What about those who cannot speak for themselves because disability means they have no voice, or who cannot speak because they’ve not yet been born?
Repentance as a nation is complex, yet sometimes a whole society does realise it has taken a wrong turn. Sometimes nations do recalibrate, change their priorities and act. When we look back through history we see that national repentance often follows a change in the church, which itself follows on from repentance in the lives of individuals.

John the Baptist spoke directly to individuals in ways which were relevant to them. ‘Tax collectors, don’t take more than you’re entitled to. Soldiers, don’t use force to take stuff from the population. Rich people, share with the poor’.

He called everyone to repentance. Individuals, the religious establishment, the nation. How effective was it? Several times in the New Testament we read that the real sinners, the tax collectors and prostitutes, responded to John’s message. They knew they were doing wrong. They didn’t need anyone to point it out. They could see the good news, love and mercy in the message of Jesus and John.

But the religious professionals, the Pharisees and scribes didn’t. They thought they were doing ok. Their problems were less obvious but no less real: greed, self-righteousness, double standards. The challenge for churchgoing Christians today is obvious – religious commitment brings its own temptations. May we never be proud of our religious credentials. God forbid that we are proud of being Christians.

God can speak to each one of us. He can shine his gentle light into our hearts, showing us the places where we can change. If we ask him to, God will send the Holy Spirit to open our eyes and help us understand ourselves. He will give us self-knowledge and the desire to be transformed. Like taking out a rotten tooth, the process may not be comfortable, but you’ll be better off when it’s done! And if we encounter resistance within ourselves, then make that the subject of your prayers. For repentance is a gift from God, a way to life, and a core principle of prayer.

 

 

Ways of guidance

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

 

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.

 

The Eucharist and Who I Am

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Eucharist Series 1

1 Peter 2:1-3 and John 6:32-40

There’s a story told about one of the early cosmonauts who went up into space, and on his return gave a press conference. A Russian journalist asked him: ‘When you were up there, did you see God?’ And as a good communist, the new hero answered ‘No, I did not see God.’

So when an American astronaut had returned to earth the press asked him the same question: ‘When you were up there, did you see God?’ ‘No,’ replied the astronaut, ‘but I would have done, if I’d taken my helmet off.’

It’s a question of discernment. Are you open to the God who calls us? God is there, can we accept him? Christianity believes in a God who reveals himself. He is not far off, not hidden, not secreted away through knowledge available only to the few, but God himself reaches out to us. This is one of the key Christian beliefs, not that humanity has to build up a pyramid that we ascend to reach God, but that he comes down to us. In our prayers and thinking we do not play hide and seek but he makes himself known to us, most of all through Jesus Christ.

So how do you meet God? Through prayer? Whether silent or out loud, forming words – one’s own or using someone else’s – or the wordless way of contemplation? Do you meet God through the Bible, reading, reflecting, holding, meditating, being inspired and challenged? Did you catch this morning morning’s glory, in the Arboretum or along the Cliff, caught up in praise and wonder for the beauty of God’s creation?

Such moments are like sparks of the divine, a flash of spiritual light, a shooting star falling that only the stargazer will see. Being open to God, seeking him, is like being that stargazer. Standing outside and looking up at the night sky does not make shooting stars appear, but it means that when they do come you’re in the right place to perceive them.

Similarly prayer and reading the Bible does not force God to make himself known. Spiritual disciplines are not mechanistic, we cannot manipulate God, what ‘worked’ yesterday may feel routine tomorrow, but those disciplines do create the space for us to be aware of him. Which is why it is so important that we continue to make time to pray, reflect and be open to God.

So how do you meet God? Do you find him amongst other people? The outer and corporate life as well as the inner and personal? Worship is so important for every Christian – of course there are different ways, and various styles which appeal to the whole range of personality types – but the give and take in worship is very important too, as is the sense of fellowship and community over a shared meal.

Many people find God through acts of service such as feeding the homeless, taking communion to the elderly or teaching the children. I often find that this is God’s way of taking us deeper in our faith. That people whose spiritual lives have got a bit dry can find renewal and great fulfilment by looking outwards and serving others.

And it’s important that we use as many ways of communing with God as we can. Look at the pillars and walls of this church – they hold up the roof together. No one pillar, however massive could bear the weight alone, nor could the walls hold the centre.

So it is with our spirituality. Someone who spends a lot of time in solitary prayer but does not meet for fellowship or serve others can easily end up with an inward looking religion which makes little difference to the world around them. But relying solely on service will leave you feeling drained with nothing left to give.

Or an approach to spirituality which relies on regularly receiving communion but does not put aside time to read God’s word will find it much harder to feed the mind, or encounter spiritual challenge, and is therefore unlikely to grow.

All these are necessary. All are means of communion with Christ, of experiencing God through Jesus. In our gospel reading from John 6, Jesus teaches that this relationship with him is at the heart of our faith.

The reading is set shortly after the feeding of the 5000, where Jesus breaks the loaves and fish to sustain an enormous hungry crowd. This sign is then used to explore how Jesus can feed us in a spiritual sense.

The people have been well fed. Can you keep on doing this, just like Moses did in the desert, they ask. Jesus has to remind them that it was not Moses who gave their ancestors manna, but God himself, and it is the sign of a much more profound food. In verse 33 ‘For the bread of God is that which comes down from heaven and gives life to the world.’

‘Sir, give us this bread always.’ They understand it as physical food, but Jesus says ‘I am the bread of life. Whoever comes to me will never be hungry and whoever believes in me will never be thirsty.’ He can sustain us for ever, and his offer is open to all: ‘whoever comes to me I will never drive away’ – what wonderful words those are when we doubt whether God’s mercy and love can really include us.

Indeed he will ‘lose no-one who comes to him’. When we commit ourselves to Jesus, we are secure in him and through him we have a promise of life that lasts forever, in verse 40: ‘This is indeed the will of the Father, that all who see the Son and believe in him will have eternal life and I will raise them up on the last day.’ Jesus is like spiritual bread. When we believe in him he nourishes us for eternity. And he gives us spiritual food each day 

The way that we abide in him is through those ways of meeting God. Prayer, the Bible, worship, service, all those things we thought about earlier. They are all forms of communion with God through Christ.

Which brings us to the Eucharist, which we’re thinking about in this sermon series through Advent. It’s important to see the Eucharist against that background – to appreciate that God makes himself known and does so in a variety of ways. The Eucharist itself is a special form.

It’s an act in which we receive the presence of Christ. When we eat the bread and drink the wine it’s a very physical act. The sacrament becomes part of us. There’s no more profound way of expressing your assent and your dependence on Christ than by physically receiving. It’s where we show that we are in him and he is in us.

Now of course Christians have argued for centuries over the exact way that Jesus is sacramentally present through the bread and wine. I don’t intend to think about that today. It’s far more helpful to acknowledge his presence and ask him to reveal himself and minister to us when we receive communion.

So what does communion tell us about God? God is the host, inviting and welcoming all to his table if they will receive. That sense of invitation and welcome should flow throughout our worship. Communion must never feel exclusive – so is it right to hold a Eucharist at times when lots of non-communicants are present? And if we do, how we do include them?

God reveals himself to us in bread and wine. This tells us he does not despise the physical. So when we worship Christ born in a stable our liturgy must connect with today’s world. If Eucharistic worship becomes distant, over spiritualised or inaccessible it ends up denying that Jesus came to the world as he found it. How can our style of worship be coherent with its central truth: that of incarnation?

The Eucharist tells us that God is self-giving and loving – Jesus offered himself as a sacrifice for our sins and through his love we are forgiven. As we follow in his footsteps we are called to be a community of love, giving and forgiving one another. When we share the peace, it is good to ask is there anyone with whom we’re not reconciled as we approach the altar? We’ll think about the community of faith more next week.

Finally, the Eucharist tells us that God is present with us on life’s journey. Christ is the bread of life on whom we feed. He has given us many ways to be in communion with him. So perhaps we can ask ourselves: How balanced is my spirituality? Am I over dependent on one or two means of grace? Where might God be calling me to grow?

As we come close to Christ and receive the bread and wine, let’s be thankful to a God who makes himself known and offers himself to us that we might live. Let us pray that we may discern his presence at communion and in the world around. Amen.

For this moment

Of all the Remembrance Sundays that I have been involved in, this is the one where I feel most anxious about the future. I’ve led Remembrance in the aftermath of 9/11 and the London bombings, at times when British forces have been at war on two fronts, yet at no time has the future seemed as uncertain as it does today.

Traditionally we give thanks for the blessings that we enjoy, and commemorate the sacrifices made by many so that we could be free. Yet it seems that the progress in made in rebuilding society in the aftermath of the second world war is going into reverse: barriers are being raised between nations, economies are becoming defensive, outsiders are viewed with suspicion, and demagogues are once again rising to power.

For those of us who have placed our hope in a positive view of human nature, in the triumph of reason over prejudice, in the ability of different countries to work together for the common good of all creation, these are deeply worrying times.

As I have prayed – for Donald Trump as he takes up the presidency, for the Brexit negotiations and climate change talks, for Iraq and Syria – as I have prayed I have also sensed the need to repent. I have felt God calling me back to a more Biblical faith in him.

I have sensed that I have put too much faith in our human ability to address our problems – despite our great sinfulness – and have not fully accepted that the Kingdom of God comes in God’s time and through his leading. Like many I have trusted that our society will steadily progress from good to better – whereas our Gospel reading (Luke 21:5-19) speaks of a great crisis before Jesus is revealed in glory.

Times like this can be a wake-up call, an opportunity to reflect on where our Christian values have become absorbed by the values of the world. Has Christianity in the West become too closely identified with a particular form of government, a certain philosophical view of historical and scientific progress?

As our Epistle reading (2 Thess 3:6-13) shows us, Christians have lived and thrived in societies which were profoundly undemocratic and unjust. All around the world today Christians bravely contend with great difficulties. Our privileged lives may be taking a step closer to theirs. We are still called to be salt and light, to transform the world around us, to give of ourselves sacrificially so that others may know Christ. We are called to make a difference in our world, not to give up on it, nor to see it as the ultimate end. God calls us to place our hope in Christ and to wait, with faith and action, for the coming of his Kingdom.