Ashamed of the cross

Posted: February 25, 2018 in Uncategorized

Those who are ashamed of me and of my words in this adulterous and sinful generation, of them the Son of Man will also be ashamed

It’s said that every political career ends in failure
Certainly that’s true in a democracy
A career ends when the electorate or your own MPs or your party members in the constituencies turn against you
When the pressures of the latest crisis, the latest policy mistake, the latest scandal tip the balance against survival

One moment, Margaret Thatcher was saying “ten more years”; the next, she was gone
Winston Churchill, revered as a wartime leader, could not survive in the politics of peacetime

Nehemiah sounds like the name of a prophet
He had a strong sense of God’s calling to do the work he did

But he was also a politician; a high official in Artaxerxes’ court
Who was sent to the province of Judah as its governor (though we are not told this until much later)
Like every politician, he had his opponents and he had his enemies

When we studied a passage from Nehemiah earlier, we heard about some of the struggles he had to rebuild Jerusalem’s walls
Why was it so important to rebuild the walls?
Because God had chosen the city of Jerusalem to be the place of his special presence on earth
The city at the heart of the Promised Land

The Jews had believed Jerusalem could never be destroyed
Right up until the moment the Babylonians marched up and destroyed it
And then marched all the richer inhabitants off into exile

The destruction of the city was God’s punishment for the Jewish nation’s sin
So for Nehemiah, to rebuild the walls and repopulate the city is to remove the signs of their humiliation
To tell the whole world, you cannot mock us or triumph over us any longer – God has restored us

He says to the people, Come, let us build the wall, that we may no longer suffer derision (Nehemiah 2.17)
When he prays, he says, Hear, O our God, for we are despised (Nehemiah 4.4)

Shame is also the theme of our gospel reading today
Jesus says, to the crowd and his disciples, Those who are ashamed of me and of my words in this adulterous and sinful generation, of them the Son of Man will also be ashamed when he comes in the glory of his Father with the holy angels (Mark 8.38)

Who is Jesus speaking to?
You could say, he’s speaking to every individual in the crowd
It’s an invitation to leave the crowd behind, to ignore what other people say, and come to him

You could say, he’s speaking to the disciples
He’s saying, my teachings are hard for people to accept, and opposition is only going to increase
Heed my warning, because I know you’ll be tempted to desert me

But mostly, Jesus is speaking to one person – Peter
Because Peter is the only one in this passage who actually tries to silence Jesus

Peter rebukes Jesus, and in turn is rebuked
What is it that Jesus says that day, that Peter finds so hard to accept?

He began to teach them that the Son of Man must undergo great suffering, and be rejected by the elders, the chief priests and the scribes, and be killed, and after three days rise again (Mark 8.31)
In other places where Jesus prophesies his death he speaks only to his disciples, and he warns them to keep silent
But in this scene, in the presence of a crowd, he says these things
quite openly (Mark 8.32)

Why does Peter rebuke Jesus? Because he thinks Jesus has lost the plot – literally
Jesus is talking in a way that does not fit the story Peter has been telling himself
He is talking what sounds like nonsense

What story has Peter been telling himself?
It’s a story that never quite comes to the crunch

In Peter’s version, perhaps the disciples and Jesus go on travelling around the country together
Jesus goes on teaching and working miracles
There is opposition and suspicion from the authorities, but not too much

But now Jesus says quite openly that his story is about to reach a crisis
He also tells the people around him if they want to be accepted, they must go all the way with him
They must take up their cross and follow me (Mark 8.34)

It’s an ultimatum – that’s obvious – but it’s not clear what Jesus is actually asking
He demands a commitment, from people who can hardly begin to guess what that commitment might be

With Nehemiah, it looks quite simple
Nehemiah tries to remove his nation’s disgrace by rebuilding a city
It’s a difficult task, but people know what it involves
Taking up your cross and following Jesus is much harder to understand

But one thing is very clear – the end Jesus prophesies for himself looks very much like defeat
To be arrested, to be tortured, to be hung on a cross like a traitor or a rebel, is nothing like the end Peter was hoping for
It seems like nothing heroic – nothing but humiliation, and indescribable pain

Peter is ashamed – and so he deserves the warning Jesus gives
Those who are ashamed of me and of my words in this adulterous and sinful generation, of them the Son of Man will also be ashamed when he comes in the glory of his Father with the holy angels (Mark 8.38)

To Nehemiah, restoration is rebuilding, obliterating the signs of disgrace, putting things back as they were
Jesus offers something every different
Jesus tells anyone who wants to follow him, salvation means letting go of everything
It means suffering the ultimate defeat, the ultimate disgrace
You won’t even know if it was worth it, until the very end – until a point beyond the end, until the resurrection

Anyone can believe in the cross, if by the cross we mean two pieces of wood nailed together and erected by a roadside or on a hill
Crucifixion is the most brutal fact of Roman justice, exhibited in plain sight to every passer-by

To believe in the resurrection, before the fact, is much more difficult
In fact, almost impossible
No one around Jesus, at that moment, is capable of that faith
That’s why at the climactic moment, as Jesus is arrested, they make their escape

To believe in Jesus, you must take up your cross
The only way you will know the meaning of the cross is by living it

You have to go all the way with Jesus – all the way to Jerusalem, to the cross, to the tomb, to get to the resurrection
You can’t stop short, you can’t go round – not even to save yourself

It sounds like madness, and Paul admits the difficulty in 1 Corinthians:
we preach Christ crucified, a stumbling block to Jews and folly to Gentiles (1Co 1.23)

The lesson of the Easter story is that one fine day, faith comes to a crunch
There is a moment we have to commit to the truth of the gospel
That Jesus was obedient to the Father, to the point of death on a cross – however crazy that seems

He calls us to walk that same path, of willing sacrifice
To own Christ and all his blessings, we have to own the cross

The world would like us to deny Jesus
They would like us to deny the defeat and the humiliation, as well as the loaves and the fishes and the miracles of healing
The first step in denying Jesus is to deny the cross

If we deny the truth of the story of the cross, then we deny the resurrection
If we deny the resurrection, we deny the need for the resurrection
Which means, we deny the problem of sin – the reason Jesus came

If there was no sin, if no one needed forgiveness, Jesus didn’t need to come at all – we don’t need a Saviour
And if we don’t need a Saviour, because there’s no sin, then there’s no God

In other words, if we deny the cross, we deny everything
But we preach Christ crucified – as Paul did
And in everything we do as a church, especially in Lent and over Easter, we preach the need to take up our own cross, and follow Jesus faithfully, to the end

25 February 2018, St Cuthbert’s, Heaton

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I told them of the hand of my God that had been upon me for good, and also of the words that the king had spoken to me. And they said, “Let us rise up and build.” Nehemiah 2.18

I wonder how well we know the book of Nehemiah
The thing that stands out most in my mind is that Nehemiah was the man who rebuilt the walls of Jerusalem
He also restored the worship of the Jerusalem temple
But what does the book of Nehemiah mean for us? What does it mean for our community?

As we read, we realise the walls are just a part of the picture
That bigger picture is the restoration of the relationship between the people and their God
That’s why we also heard a reading from Genesis this morning

God shows Noah the rainbow, as a sign of the covenant he makes with humanity and al living things
The theme, repeated again and again, is covenant, covenant, covenant
And that is also true of the book of Nehemiah – which is deliberately written as a re-telling of Deuteronomy, the book that tells how God prepared his people to enter the Promised Land

Nehemiah tells the people God wants them to rebuild the city wall
But he also tells them to treat one another with justice
If there’s no justice for the people in the city, there’s no point in having a city

The book of Nehemiah also reminds us of the importance of prayer
Nehemiah does great things, but he doesn’t rush into action
His first response to every situation is prayer
He prays before he leaves the Persian court and comes to Jerusalem

When he gets to Jerusalem, he does nothing for three days – perhaps because he’s tired after the journey
But I think he spends that time in prayer
Then he goes off and tours the city by night, and looks at the ruined walls
And I’m sure that’s also time he spends in prayer

Then he assembles the people, and speaks to them. He says,
You see the trouble we are in, how Jerusalem lies in ruins with its gates burned. Come, let us build the wall of Jerusalem, that we may no longer suffer derision.” And I told them of the hand of my God that had been upon me for good, and also of the words that the king had spoken to me.

How do the people respond to Nehemiah’s testimony? Are they convinced? Yes!
They said, “Let us rise up and build.” So they strengthened their hands for the good work.

The toughest part of mission is, breaking the news to the people who will have to do the work: how do you persuade them? Nehemiah shows us how

First of all, it helps if people know you are someone who prays
Nehemiah’s habit of prayer reveals him to be someone serious, someone of integrity, someone who wants to serve God rather than himself

How often do we come together for prayer in our church, outside worship services?
How far does that reflect the time we spend in prayer, individually?

Secondly, it helps if people know you’ve done your research – you’ve spent time seeing the situation as it is on the ground
Nehemiah doesn’t just act on the basis of the reports that reached him in Susa
He takes the time to see for himself exactly how things are

Prayer walking is an obvious tool to use in seeing our community through God’s eyes – but every meeting with people from our community, formal or informal, should be preceded and followed by prayer

Thirdly, it helps if people can believe the thing you want to do comes from God; that God’s purposes will be served by the work, and God’s hand will be on the workers
Nehemiah gives a testimony
He tells them of the hand of my God that had been upon me for good, in his life in exile and the important job he had been given
He tells them
of the words that the king had spoken to me, how God had persuaded Artaxerxes to release him from his duties, to do this important work in his own land

It is good to have people in our churches come forward with individual insights and revelations given in prayer
But for anything to happen, the church community needs to sense a collective purpose, and have faith that this is God’s purpose

In the next few weeks we’ll see how the story unfolds
And how Nehemiah’s story still speaks to our church today
Particularly how we see the relationship between the faith we proclaim in our worship, and the life of the community outside

18 February 2018, St George’s, High Heaton

We’re going to build the wall

Posted: February 19, 2018 in Uncategorized

The remnant who had survived the exile is in great trouble and shame. The wall of Jerusalem is broken down, and its gates are destroyed by fire.  (Nehemiah 1.3, esv)

This Sundays and in the five Sundays of Lent, I’m going to do something different
Instead of following the Bible readings in the Lectionary, I’m going to work my way through one book of the Old Testament – the book of Nehemiah
I may still use some readings from the Lectionary. But the focus will be on Nehemiah

These sermons on Nehemiah will also be introductions to our study sessions on Tuesday evenings
The study sessions will be based on a Lent course devised a few years ago by the Centre for Theology and Community

The Centre’s mission statement says, they believe Christianity requires social justice as well as individual transformation
We are committed to working with people – not just for them
AND We seek to root our action in listening – to God and neighbour

We believe as Christians it’s important to read the Bible
But how we read the Bible is very important
The theology of the course is liberation theology

What does that mean?
We’re probably used to preaching and teaching where you have an expert talking down
Our churches are organised and run in ways that make sure this is what happens
Almost unavoidably, the voice of that preaching is an educated voice, the voice of someone from a privileged class

Liberation theology is theology from the ground up
It tries to hear what the Bible means to the poorest and most disadvantaged in society

It has its roots in the 1960s, in Latin America, in societies ruled by military dictators
Countries where there was not even a pretence of democracy
Very unequal societies, societies governed by elites who governed in their own interests
Where people who made trouble simply disappeared

When liberation theology tells the story of the cross, it points out that Jesus spoke about freedom to people who were poor and oppressed
When Jesus spoke to the people who wielded power, he spoke about judgement

Liberation theologians point out that Jesus was executed for political reasons
He was killed at the instigation of powerful people, including officials of the temple itself
But some interpretations of the gospels don’t give enough weight to those facts

I wonder how well we know the book of Nehemiah
The thing that stands out most in my mind is that Nehemiah was the man who rebuilt the walls of Jerusalem
He also restored the worship of the Jerusalem temple

In the course of telling that story, Nehemiah also gives us great lists of names, of the heads of families who helped rebuild the walls, and the people who came back to Jerusalem from Babylon
And the priests and the Levites and the gatekeepers who served in the temple

All this is very interesting to historians – but what does it mean to us?
Theologically, we might say God approves of Nehemiah’s work of rebuilding the walls
We might start to think that maybe we should build some walls of our own, to put the fear of God into our neighbours and protect ourselves from impurity
Is that the message of Nehemiah? Some people have thought so

We know the famous walls of history, and some of the rulers who built them
We know what threats they were trying to protect themselves from, and the kind of statement they wanted their walls to make
Hadrian’s Wall, the Great Wall of China, the Berlin Wall, Pres Trump’s wall on the Mexican border

Donald Trump says he wants to make America Great Again – MAGA
You could say, Nehemiah wants God to make Israel great again – MIGA

But when you read the book of Nehemiah, you realise power and status are not what he is after
Nehemiah’s work on Jerusalem’s wall is just a small part of a much bigger picture

That bigger picture is the renewal of the covenant
The restoration of the relationship between the people and their God
And the details of that picture, the way people treat their neighbours, are at least as important as the wall

If there’s no justice for the people in the city, there’s no point in having a city
No point in having walls – because there is nothing behind them that deserves protection

The course on Nehemiah we are going to follow draws parallels between Nehemiah’s rebuilding of Jerusalem and our attempts to rebuild our communities.
It tries to help us to look at the ways in which you and your church can listen to the needs of the local community and respond in a way which combines charity and justice.

How does the course find this message in the book of Nehemiah?
Let’s see how the book opens – but before we do that, let’s remind ourselves of the situation Nehemiah faces

The Jewish elite had been taken captive to Babylon and lived there in exile for around 70 years
The poor people stayed behind and were forced to work for their new masters, the Babylonians

Eventually the Babylonian empire was toppled by the Persians, who had a different way of dealing with the countries they ruled over
They allowed them much more control of their own affairs, and in particular they encouraged them to carry on the worship of their own gods

The emperor Cyrus, the one we read about in the Old Testament, issued a decree in 538 b.c.e., setting out these principles and allowing the Jewish exiles to go home and rebuild their temple

The temple was rebuilt on the exact site of Solomon’s temple
That took 22 years, and the temple was rededicated in 516

Not everyone went home immediately – there were still many Jews living elsewhere
Nehemiah is a powerful man, a Jew who still lives in Babylon, serving the Persian King Artaxerxes
He regularly gets news of the things going on in his homeland, and this news upsets him

He knows about the Jews who are in Jerusalem, trying to rebuild
But their efforts are running into trouble
There has been damage to the walls, and the gates, and the worry is that the temple itself might be destroyed again

Nehemiah has the emperor’s ear – he knows he can ask for a favour
If Nehemiah was just a politician, what would he have done?

He would have wanted to take action immediately
He could have asked for an army
He could have led them to Jerusalem, driven out the troublemakers and then commanded the soldiers to help the people build up the walls

But Nehemiah is a man of God
So the first thing he does is to turn to God in prayer
And in his prayer, he tries to see the problem as God sees it

He doesn’t just spend a couple of minutes in prayer, or even an hour
He spends several days; he weeps and mourns, and he fasts

The prayer he offers isn’t a prayer for the destruction of his people’s enemies
It’s a prayer of repentance

He sees the sufferings of the people as the consequence of sin
He admits that he and his family share this guilt

He remembers the story told in the book of Deuteronomy, of how the Israelites prepared to enter the Promised Land
He remembers that Moses gave them a warning from God
If they sinned, God would remove his blessing and drive them out of the land
That, basically, is what happened in the exile

But the God who exiled the Jewish people is still the God who chose them in the first place
They are still the covenant people, and God’s love for them is faithful and everlasting

He still holds out the promise to his people, that if they turn to him again in their hearts and keep his commandments, he will restore his blessing

That is what Nehemiah prays for, and he prays that God’s favour will take one particular form –
That the Persian King will listen to his request, and grant him some time away from court
To see for himself what is going on in Jerusalem and to help if he can

In the next few weeks we’ll see how the story unfolds
And how Nehemiah’s story still speaks to our church today
Particularly how we see the relationship between the faith we proclaim in our worship, and the life of the community outside

11 February 2018, St Cuthbert’s, Heaton

Encouraging tired eagles

Posted: February 5, 2018 in Uncategorized

Even youths will faint and be weary, and the young will fall exhausted; but those who wait for the Lord shall renew their strength; they shall mount up with wings like eagles

Jesus always seems to be very busy in Mark’s gospel
Immediately, he did this; At once, he did that; The same day, he did something else

He is baptised in the Jordan, and immediately driven out into the wilderness
He arrives in Capernaum, and immediately goes into the synagogue to preach
When he finishes preaching he goes at once to the house of Simon and Andrew, and immediately heals Simon’s mother-in-law

The urgency Jesus feels communicates itself to those around him
He calls to people fishing, and immediately they leave their nets
He teaches, and at once the authority of his teaching is proclaimed everywhere

Immediately is an interesting word
It literally means, with nothing in between
In the Bible it indicates that people are responding to the Spirit
There’s no human doubts or hesitations in between the Spirit and the people it speaks to– they just respond

What stops us responding to the voice of the Spirit immediately?
What stands in between and gets in the way?
The simple answer is us – we do. Specifically, our lack of faith stands in the way

I’m not talking about doctrine
I don’t mean that we disbelieve in the Holy Trinity or the divinity of Christ or life after death

But do we have the complete trust in God that lets us act immediately when he calls us?
Do we have the faith that God really calls us and really tells us what he wants us to do?
Or do we talk ourselves out of being faithful and responsive to God – because it’s safer?

I think we do. Where do we see this lack of faith at work? Where does it express itself?
I think in that sense of tiredness we hear about so often

Let me put that in context. It’s not only people in church who feel tired
Feeling tired is one of the most common complaints in modern life

It’s so common, it’s got its own acronym: TATT – tired all the time syndrome
At any given time, 20% of people complain of feeling unusually tired
5-7% of people feel so tired, they complain to their doctor about it

GPs only think it’s worth sending half of those patients for tests: bloods and so on
Few of those tests produce any abnormal findings
Most patients don’t get any formal diagnosis
If they get anything, it’s usually a descriptive diagnosis – something like ‘stress’

If there are no positive medical findings, does that mean the problem isn’t ‘real’?
No, obviously not – it just means the problem needs a different kind of treatment
Advice on lifestyle, attitudes, beliefs, behaviours and so on

What about us in church? What do we do about our sense of tiredness?
I think we sometimes talk ourselves into feeling tired
Which is good, because it means we can talk ourselves out of it
We just have to break the habit we have of talking about how tired we are

Let me give an example of how that can happen
A teacher got fed up of children at school telling her things were ‘boring’
The things they were studying, or the work she asked them to do

So she banned the use of the B word in her classroom
No one was allowed to say anything was boring

They had to come up with more creative ways of saying it
“This isn’t very interesting” “This could be more exciting”
It had a big effect not only on how students talked, but on how they approached their work

I tried a similar thing here, at our Saturday families event in December
The weather was frosty – but I banned the C word
No one was allowed to say it was cold
“It’s bracing” “That wind has an edge to it” “It’s not very warm, is it?”

Why should we try to change the words we use? Because words matter
If other people say it’s cold, you start to feel cold – even if you weren’t cold before
They talk you into feeling cold

That’s also true of the T word – TIRED. People can talk you into feeling tired
If they say they’re tired, you start feeling tired too – just to keep them company
If they tell you that you look tired, you start to feel tired – even if you weren’t tired before

What do people in church mean when they say they’re tired?
It think it really points to feelings either of boredom or discouragement
Neither of those feelings have any place in church

Is our tiredness real? Yes
Is it 100 % physical? Probably not – I actually think it’s spiritual
We feel tired because we don’t have enough faith; we don’t believe the Scriptures
What does Isaiah say?

The Lord … does not faint or grow weary …
He gives power to the faint,
and strengthens the powerless.
Even youths will faint and be weary,
and the young will fall exhausted;
but those who wait for the Lord shall renew their strength,
they shall mount up with wings like eagles,
they shall run and not be weary,
they shall walk and not faint.

I like what Isaiah says here – even young people get tired, if they rely on their own strength
But people who find their strength in God just go on and on and on
Remember that song we sing – “The joy of the Lord is our strength”

They shall run and not be weary, they shall walk and not faint – is that how we feel?

We shouldn’t talk ourselves into feeling tired
We shouldn’t talk other people into feeling tired
We shouldn’t let other people talk us into feeling tired

That’s not how God created us to feel
That’s not what life in the Spirit feels like

I want us to ban the T word
Because if we believe the Scripture, there is no reason why any of us should feel tired:

those who wait for the Lord shall renew their strength,
they shall mount up with wings like eagles,
they shall run and not be weary,
they shall walk and not faint.

When we get that self-inflicted weariness out of the way, we’ll feel the immediacy of the Spirit at work in us
Remember what Jesus said to the Samaritan woman by the well:

Whoever drinks of the water that I will give him will never be thirsty again. The water that I will give him will become in him a spring of water welling up to eternal life (John4.13-14)

The living water Christ gives us is the life of the Spirit
Standing water stagnates, because it doesn’t move
The living water flows, endlessly, tirelessly, with an inexhaustible energy
It’s not a meandering stream – it’s a raging torrent

Let’s go with the flow
Let’s allow the power of that current to bear us up and carry us along
Because any church and any believer who tries to stand still, will be swept aside

4 February 2018, St George’s, High Heaton. All Scripture references are to the ESV.

Go, take to yourself a wife of whoredom and have children of whoredom

The Christian world view is that we live in a world of signs
Words of prophecy from the Scriptures are constantly being fulfilled in our present world

Of course we are only aware of this if the Holy Spirit opens our eyes, and if we have a deep knowledge of the Scriptures
Luckily, both of these things were true of the people who wrote the books of the New Testament

That fulfilment of Scripture began in the events leading up to the birth of Jesus
It continues now in our own time, in the age of the Church

The fact that the coming of Jesus Christ and his earthly ministry fulfils Scripture is our surest proof that he really did come
And that he was exactly who his followers, then and now, believed him to be

That’s why the writers of the gospels are often so short on the kind of details that would appeal to modern readers like us
The details of what Jesus wore or what he liked to have for his tea don’t really interest the kind of readers they have in mind
It’s the fulfilment of prophecy in the words and works of Jesus that matters

We can see this from the way the gospels begin
All the gospel writers want to make clear that the coming of Jesus Christ fulfils the prophecies of the Hebrew Scriptures
Although they do it in different ways

Matthew begins his gospel with a genealogy
A family tree which locates Jesus among many biblical stories
And also locates him within a numerical pattern which underlines the fact that his coming is the climax of history and the perfection of God’s plan for the world

So all the generations from Abraham to David were fourteen generations, and from David to the deportation to Babylon fourteen generations, and from the deportation to Babylon to the Christ fourteen generations. (Matt 1.17 p. 807)

The Bible is Jesus’ family tree, and Jesus completes the family

Mark begins his gospel with John the Baptist in the wilderness by the Jordan
This episode deliberately reminds us of:
– The highway in the wilderness in Isaiah 40
– The crossing of the Jordan, when the Israelites enter Canaan for the first time
– Which is itself an episode that re-enacts the crossing of the Red Sea
– Traditions about where incidents in the life of Elijah took place (even when Scripture itself doesn’t tell

Luke gives us a series of episodes featuring ordinary people
Ordinary people who become extraordinary
Because they are chosen to play a part in the story of the coming of the Messiah

Some of these characters play a major part in the narrative
Others appear once, and then vanish
What they all have in common, is that they are filled with the Holy Spirit, and break out in prophetic speech: Elizabeth, Mary, Zechariah, Simeon, and Anna

Actually, I realise, that isn’t true – there’s one exception. That exception is Joseph
Joseph is worried, because his fiancée is pregnant and the baby isn’t his

At this moment of crisis, he sees an angel who tells him what to do
He has to take Mary as his bride
Joseph does what he is told, and he and Mary go off to Bethlehem together

Where does the prophetic voice come into this episode?
They say actions speak louder than words; and Joseph performs a prophetic action, by accepting Mary

How do I make that out?
Let’s remind ourselves how seriously the Jewish law takes of adultery
If married people do it, the penalty for both parties is death
If a man commits adultery with the wife of his neighbor, both the adulterer and the adulteress shall surely be put to death. (Lev 20.10, p. 98 cf Deu 22.22)

If an unmarried man and woman do it, the man should pay the bride price and marry the woman – even if the act was rape and she doesn’t want to marry him

But Mary’s situation is worse than any of these
Mary is betrothed to Joseph – the bride price has been paid
If a woman in her situation is convicted of adultery, she should be taken outside the city and stoned to death:
If there is a betrothed virgin, and a man meets her in the city and lies with her, then you shall bring them both out to the gate of that city, and you shall stone them to death with stones (Deut 22.23-24 p. 164)

So much for the law: if that’s all Scripture said about a woman in Mary’s position, Joseph’s course would be clear
But what about the prophets?
Isaiah, Jeremiah, Ezekiel and Hosea all speak about adultery
But not in the same way the law does

Isaiah compares the people to an adulterous woman who has cheated on her loving husband (who of course is God):

On a high and lofty mountain

you have set your bed,

and there you went up to offer sacrifice.

Behind the door and the doorpost

you have set up your memorial;

for, deserting me, you have uncovered your bed,

you have gone up to it,

you have made it wide;

and you have made a covenant for yourself with them,

you have loved their bed,

you have looked on nakedness (Isa 57.7-8 p. 617)

In Jeremiah 2.32 (p. 629) God himself speaks, and compares his people to a woman who cannot keep her mind on her husband even on their wedding day:

Can a virgin forget her ornaments,

or a bride her attire?

Yet my people have forgotten me

days without number.

Jeremiah also compares the nation to an abandoned infant, presumably the product of an adulterous affair, who has been taken into someone’s house

And as for your birth, on the day you were born your cord was not cut, nor were you washed with water to cleanse you, nor rubbed with salt, nor wrapped in swaddling cloths. No eye pitied you, to do any of these things to you out of compassion for you, but you were cast out on the open field, for you were abhorred, on the day that you were born. (Eze 16.4-5 p. 702)

When she grows up this child’s benefactor makes her his bride – but she cheats on him.

Of course none of these passages refer to any real act of sexual infidelity (though the prevalence of cult prostitutes in pagan religions may be there in the background)
The people’s unfaithfulness lies in worshipping foreign gods
The prophets liken the unfaithful people to an adulterous woman, because they can’t think of anything worse

But the surprising message of the prophets is that God stands ready to forgive, if his people will turn back to him and be faithful
The promised ending of the story is not judgement, but forgiveness and reconciliation

The most unusual account is in Hosea
God actually tells the prophet Hosea to marry an unfaithful woman, in real life:

When the Lord first spoke through Hosea, the Lord said to Hosea, “Go, take to yourself a wife of whoredom and have children of whoredom, for the land commits great whoredom by forsaking the Lord.” (Hosea 1.2 p. 751)

Hosea’s wife is faithless; but God commands him to be reconciled with her
And this reconciliation symbolises God’s intention to reconcile his people to himself, permanently:
“And in that day, declares the Lord, you will call me ‘My Husband,’ and no longer will you call me ‘My Baal.’ For I will remove the names of the Baals from her mouth, and they shall be remembered by name no more. … And I will betroth you to me forever. I will betroth you to me in righteousness and in justice, in steadfast love and in mercy. I will betroth you to me in faithfulness. And you shall know the Lord. (Hos 2.16-20 p. 752)

And that, in a nutshell, tells us what it means when the angel tells Joseph to take Mary as his wife – deliberately ignoring appearances and common sense
So that the birth of Christ is marked by a selfless act of forgiveness and reconciliation

Paul says in 2Co 5.19 (p. 966), In Christ, God was reconciling the world to himself
The end of human history is that Christ takes the church, which is his people, as his bride
The end of creation history is universal reconciliation

This universal reconciliation is preconfigured in the compassion of Joseph
Joseph acts out these prophetic stories of the husband whose woman seems to have betrayed him
He believes the word of God delivered by the angel and takes Mary as his bride

All of this happened a long time ago: what does it all mean? What’s in it for us?
Some people only come to church at Christmas; it seems like a good time to make recruits
That idea always seems rather patronising to me

We don’t want bodies just to fill our empty seats
The idea of bringing people to church is, to reconcile them to God
To bring them into the kingdom; to let them share in that great act of forgiveness and mercy that began with the birth of Jesus

Though the birth of Christ was a one-off event, the reconciliation is an ongoing process
One that won’t come to an end or be complete until the whole world has been brought into God’s kingdom and reconciled in one
And there is neither Greek and Jew, circumcised and uncircumcised, barbarian, Scythian, slave, or free; but Christ is all, and in all (Col 3.11 p. 984)

In the meantime, we seek reconciliation in the name of Christ with all the sinners and strangers who surround us.

17 December 2017, St George’s, High Heaton. All Scripture page references are to the ESV Pew Bible.

The Spirit of him who raised Jesus from the dead dwells in you

The question I want to ask you this morning is, Where do you live?
For the original readers of this passage (Romans 8.1-11), the answer is simple: we live in the imperial city of Rome
But where do they truly live? And where do we, the modern readers of this letter, live?

If you ask me where I live, the answer is simple: Heaton, in Newcastle
I’m clearly not there at the moment, but that’s where I think of myself as living

If you ask me where I’m from, I wouldn’t say Newcastle
I’d say Dunfermline – somewhere I haven’t lived since 1979
I’ve lived in other places far longer than I lived in Dunfermline – I’ve moved on

What I wonder is, how much of me remains behind there; and how much of Dunfermline has come with me
You can take the boy out of Dunfermline – but can you take Dunfermline out of the boy?

Where do you live? This is a question churches have to ask themselves too

In my last year of training I had to write a dissertation based on some “original research”
I studied the experiences of three congregations who left their buildings
One moved into a chapel that was part of a Roman Catholic church
Two moved into local community centres

Where do you find a church that doesn’t have a building?
The church comes alive whenever the congregation gathers for worship
But where does it live during the times in between?
And does it only live within those four walls?

One of the things I read for my dissertation was a work by the German philosopher Martin Heidegger, called (in English) Building, Dwelling, Thinking
It’s compulsory reading for architecture students (bet they hate it)

Heidegger points out there are lots of buildings in our world, but only some of them are dwellings
A dwelling is a building where someone lives – a house, not an office, shop, factory, or garage

Dwelling is living, not just in the sense of survival, but in the sense of being
Heidegger says, Dwelling is the manner in which mortals are on the earth

The German word for dwelling, bauen, is related to the other German word nachgebour, which means neighbour
That leads us to another point: dwellings are not usually isolated buildings – they stand with others
So to dwell is not just to live in a building – it implies we dwell in a community

Dwell is one of the most significant words in this passage from Romans:
v9 you are not in the flesh; you are in the Spirit, since the Spirit of God dwells in you.
v11 If the Spirit of him who raised Jesus from the dead
dwells in you, he who raised Christ from the dead will give life to your mortal bodies also through his Spirit that dwells in you

Some Bible translations including the Good News say live, but dwell means much more
Dwell is the translation of the Greek word oikeo
Paul’s letters use it nine times – no other NT writings use it at all

Paul uses oikeo in 1Cor specifically in reference to the married relationship
Everywhere else he uses it, he is talking about the spiritual presence that dwells in us
So once again, as it is for Heidegger, dwelling is an experience of community

What is this spiritual presence that dwells within us?
Either the Holy Spirit, or the spirit of sin or death or slavery: that’s the choice

The most important word in this passage isn’t actually dwell
The most important word is a much smaller word
A very common word – it occurs more than 2700 times in the New Testament

That crucial word has just two letters in English: that little word is in
v1 those who are in Christ Jesus
v2 the law of the Spirit of life in Christ Jesus
v3 -4 He condemned sin in the flesh so that the requirement of the Law might be fulfilled in us
v8 Those who are in the flesh cannot please God
v9 You are not in the flesh but in the Spirit, if indeed the Spirit of God dwells in you
v10 If Christ is in you, though the body is dead because of sin, the Spirit is life because of righteousness

You can probably tell, Paul uses the simple, common word in with a special meaning

v9 is the pivotal verse. It’s in two parts, and the word in occurs twice.
– In order to live, we must be in the Spirit
– For us to be in the Spirit, the Spirit has to be in us: which means, Christ has to be in us

Paul talks interchangeably about being in the Spirit, or the Spirit is being in us
He is not just being careless

We often talk about the Spirit as a substance poured into us – as if we were a hollow shell
But it’s just as legitimate to say that we have to be poured into the the Spirit
It’s a mutual thing

1Corinthians makes this easier to understand
Paul uses dwelling in 1Corinthians as a word for the married state
If a believer has an unbelieving partner, and that partner is happy to dwell with them, that’s fine: God will respect that union and bless and even save them both

In the same way, if we want to be saved, the spirit has to dwell in us
But we likewise have to dwell in the spirit, in an intimate communion like marriage

God does not offer this intimate spiritual relationship on a one to one basis
We enter into this spiritual communion by joining the body of Christ – his Church

The true source of life is spiritual community with God through the Spirit of Christ
We find that idea not only in Paul’s letters, but the gospel of John and his other writings
Through the spiritual community of the church, the church family, the body of Christ, we participate in the life of the Trinity
Our God himself is a spiritual community, a family
If we share in Christ, who is one person of the Trinity, we share in all three

Paul talks of us as the adopted sons or children of God
He didn’t pull this idea out of thin air
It’s based on God’s promises to Abraham, and specifically on a prophecy in 2Sam 7.14 I will be to him a father, and he shall be to me a son
These Old Testament prophecies are fulfilled in Jesus Christ, the Son of God, who makes possible our own adoption by God the Father

So let me ask again, where do you live?
We all live in earthly houses, on earthly streets
But the place we dwell is with God, in the body of Christ
If we are in Christ, we are more than conquerors, and the world itself cannot contain us

16 July 2017, St George’s, High Heaton

Living in sinless simplicity

Posted: July 12, 2017 in Uncategorized

Who will rescue me from this body of death? Thanks be to God through Jesus Christ our Lord!

Last week I preached on Romans 6
The theme was freedom and slavery – freedom under the lordship of Christ, contrasted with slavery to sin, which promises freedom but gives the opposite

If we want to live under the lordship of Christ, which I assume we do, how do we go about it?
How do we make the change?
How do we escape from our bondage to sin, and accept Christ as Lord?

Paul talks in Romans 6 about the sacraments, and especially about baptism
We normally get a certificate at baptism, but baptism is not about contracts and signatures
Baptism is the sign and also the spiritual moment of dying to sin, and rising to life in Christ

Baptism is also the moment we enter into membership of the church
What Paul is underlining is, that you cannot live the Christian life alone
Faith is sustained and nourished and grows within the body of Christ – in the church

The problem Paul wrestles with consistently on behalf of his readers is the fact that we continue to sin after we have come to faith
After we have entered into new life through baptism

The new life turns out to look quite a bit like the old one
We make changes, but they stop a long way short of the total transformation we would love to see

In baptism the created image of God is restored in us
But somehow we do not become perfectly Christ-like
We struggle, even within the church, to love and accept everyone the way we should
Our own behaviour causes other people more problems than it should

Paul knows this, and wrestles with it in our passage this morning (Romans 7.12-25)
He tries to answer that vital question, where do we get the assurance and the strength to live as we want to live – as Jesus wants us to live?

It’s a real struggle – the passage is very confusing
Is Paul speaking in his own person? Is he making a confession?
Is he saying he still struggles with sin and temptation?
That seems unlikely – when he talks about his old life in Php 3.6 he says he was, as to righteousness under the law, blameless

Perhaps he is condemning his attitudes then, in order to warn people who are still pursuing a similar kind of legal righteousness now
He could be saying to them, don’t get bogged down like I was before Jesus dug me out

Or maybe this is a ‘speech-in-person’ – a portrayal of someone else’s thoughts
Is Paul talking about the struggles every believer has with temptation?

Is Paul talking to Christians who think they have passed beyond the law?
If he is, he is reminding them, that Christ fulfils the law – but he does not do away with it
Our freedom in Christ is not freedom to do anything we like

Conscience remains a fact of human experience
We might escape damnation but we can’t escape the feeling of guilt
To know we have sinned and feel unable to stop sinning is a wretched state

I don’t know if there’s enough evidence in the passage for us to choose among these interpretations, decisively
But I think we may well recognise in all of them a problem of conscience that is very common among Christians, and often a cause of despair

Paul shows us in dramatic fashion this state of conflict between inner beliefs and outward behaviour:
v15 I do not understand my own actions. I do not do what I want [to do]
v18 I can will what is right, but I cannot do it
v19 The evil I do not want is what I do
v23 I see in my members another law at war with the law of my mind

What is the problem? What is the cause of this anguish?
The mistake we make is to confuse sinful acts, and the sinful state

Christ’s resurrection redeemed us from the sinful state
But in this world we continue to commit sinful acts
We struggle by our own efforts to make ourselves perfect people – and of course, we fail

The more we concentrate on our failures, the more hopeless we feel
The more hopeless we feel, the more bitter we become
The more bitter we become, the harder it is to live at peace with ourselves or anyone else

What we should remember is, no matter how imperfect we were and still are in ourselves, God has accepted us
He has accepted us, in Jesus Christ
The perfection of Jesus Christ makes up for all our imperfections

We go on sinning – but for those acts of sin, there is repentance and forgiveness
What was lacking until now was the possibility of final release from the sinful state
In other words, the state of alienation from God
In Christ, we are no longer alienated from God – that separation is overcome

Perfection lies in Christ – not in ourselves. This is the realisation that transforms our lives
Paul shows us this realisation in that breakthrough moment in verse 25
That triumphant declaration: Thanks be to God through Jesus Christ our Lord!

It almost seems like cheating – has Paul really solved the problem of our guilty conscience? But it genuinely is that simple

I compare it to that moment near the end of the Book of Job
Job has argued with divine justice and demanded a reckoning with God himself
His false friends have tried to convince him that all God’s ways are just, and he must have done something deserving of punishment

These arguments are no consolation to Job
Like Paul before his conversion, he believes he is blameless under the law
And the problem is not just his own suffering – it’s the whole human predicament

Suddenly, God breaks through, and Job surrenders unconditionally; he worships God
That is the moment we have to arrive at
The moment when we stop trying to make sense of what God has done in Christ to save us
When we believe that our salvation is real, and unconditional, and we fall down and worship

That is the challenge of faith – to accept for ourselves what God has done in Christ to save us
Accept it, believe it, and live gratefully because of it – live generously , in the spirit of the love that redeemed us

9 July 2017, St Cuthbert’s, Heaton

Sin will have no dominion over you, since you are not under law but under grace

The 18th century poet Alexander Pope once gave the Prince of Wales a dog as a present
On its collar, he had engraved a little rhyme he had written
I am his Highness’ dog at Kew [Kew being at that time a royal palace, not just a garden].
Pray tell me sir, whose dog are you?

The joke is, we are all dogs – we all have a master, whether we know it or not
We think we are smarter than a dog, but at least this dog knows who its master is
Who is our master? If we don’t know who our master is, what does that say about us?

Freedom is a modern myth; we all serve someone or something
We are never more powerless than when we don’t know who is tugging our lead
Have we chosen our master, or have we been mastered without knowing it?

No matter what political or social thinkers say, we are all in bondage to sin
Freedom comes through Christ – but only through accepting the lordship of Christ
When do we come under the lordship of Christ? When we are baptised into Christ

In the earlier part of this chapter, Paul tries to explain what happens when we are baptised
For Paul, baptism is not just a public declaration of faith
Baptism is not like having a wash – Paul hardly ever talks of it that way

Baptism is a re-enactment in the believer’s life of Jesus’ death and resurrection
Just as our gathering around the Lord’s Table is a re-enactment of the Last Supper

Baptism is the death of the old life and resurrection into the new
It is putting off the old body of mortality and putting on the new body of Christ’s immortality

Baptism is an act of obedience, proclaiming a new faith that makes a new kind of obedience possible
In the life we still lead on earth, it is the opportunity to leave behind the old things and embrace the new
And that is really the point – we have a choice
While we remain in this world, all the old temptations are still there, and still available to us

Baptism is a moment of choice – a moment of freedom, where we can seize hold of what Jesus has done for us
Accept his lordship over us, and our share in the freedom he was won for us
Or go back to the old ways, and allow sin to re-assert its rule

I’m sure we recognise this rhetoric of choice
It wasn’t long ago, back in February, we were reading Deuteronomy and looking at the choice God offers his people in the covenant he makes with them

Obey, and enjoy God’s blessings; refuse to obey, and suffer his curses
What the people of Israel did not have, was a way of being as obedient as God demanded

In Jesus Christ his Son, God offers us an example of perfect obedience
A new choice – whether or not to share in the benefits of Christ’s obedience
The choice between sin, which leads to death, or of obedience, which leads to righteousness (Rom 6.16)
And means of grace, offered through the life of the church, to help us make the choice

Everything in this passage hinges on the lordship of Christ
Lordship is a difficult concept to grasp, in a democratic society like ours
Even in a married relationship, we hang onto the idea of rights and the notion of choice

When we live under the lordship of someone else, we have no rights and no choice
But what Paul is saying is, we never had those things anyway – they were an illusion
Admit you are a slave, as long as you live in the world – and decide whose slave you are

All earthly lordship is sin, of one form or another
Greed and lust – the lordship of physical appetites
Envy, covetousness and theft – the desire for lordship over property
Addiction and dependency – the lordship of substances that control our moods and our minds
Ambition and pride – the desire for lordship over people
Hatred – the desire for lordship over people expressed in the impulse to kill and destroy

Christ suffered at the hands of powerful people – religiously powerful, politically powerful
He suffered at the hands of those who exercised the power of lordship over others

He died at the hands of those powerful people
He suffered the worst that earthly lordship could do
The earthly desire for lordship that set itself against the loving will of God himself

And in his resurrection, through the power of the Spirit that raised him, Jesus destroyed that power of earthly lordship, the lordship of sin
He destroyed it in the name of the Father, through his own obedience to his Father’s will

In the victory of Christ’s resurrection, the lordship of sin and death was done away with forever – for anyone who accepts the lordship of Christ
Jesus asks us to embrace his victory, by accepting his lordship for ourselves

How do we do that? Is it a moral decision? Is it an effort of our own will?
No – it was the efforts of our own will that got us into this mess to begin with
More of the same won’t make things better

The lordship of Christ is the headship of Christ
To accept the headship of Christ, we must be incorporated into the body of Christ
By which, of course, we mean the fellowship of all believers – the church

The way we are incorporated into the body of Christ is through baptism
The way we are fed and nourished in the body of Christ is through the Lord’s Supper
In other words, all through this talk of freedom and slavery, life and death, wickedness and obedience, Paul is talking about the sacraments

I would never want to make something too mysterious of the sacraments
They are mystical – they have a spiritual significance far beyond what we see
But they are also gifts, geared to our own ability to receive and enjoy them
Intended to communicate to us, through very simple things, not just a better understanding of God, but something of God himself

We share the sacraments as an act of obedience – obedience to our Lord, Jesus Christ
But also as the means of grace
A reminder of the grace that made formal acts of obedience superfluous and unnecessary, calling us instead to respond to our God in gratitude

Paul asks, Should we sin because we are not under law but under grace? (Rom 6.15)
Of course not – the lordship of Christ is not the freedom to sin, but the freedom to live in obedience to God in a new way
Sin is no longer our master, because Jesus Christ is our Lord

Our public acts of worship, our celebrations of the sacraments, are a declaration of that freedom, a celebration of that freedom
An expression of our determination to offer that freedom to others in Christ’s name
And our determination never to re-enter the state of slavery to sin and death

2 July 2017, St George’s, High Heaton

You will be hated by all because of my name. But the one who endures to the end will be saved

Today we look at two very different passages
One from the Old Testament (Gen 21.8-21), the other from the New (Mat 10.24-39)
One, a story about the ancient origins of the people of Israel
The other, the record of a difficult teaching given by Jesus

Two very different passages
But with a common motif – the motif of division

Believe it or not, not everyone takes God seriously
Most people do not ask themselves at every moment of decision, what is the will of God here?
Most people do not rush to embrace Jesus Christ as their Saviour; they are not even conscious of making a choice

Divisions are part of God’s plan – but divisions arise from human judgements and decisions
These judgements and decisions have consequences – here and now, and in the end before God

Abraham and Sarah have a promise from God
They are going to have a son, even though they are both far too old

God’s word is not good enough for them – they decide to rush things
Perhaps because they are so old, perhaps because God makes them wait
They try to force God’s hand – they put him to the test

They force Sarah’s maid servant to become pregnant by Abraham; she bears Ishmael
But then of course Isaac arrives, the true son of the promise

Conflict is inevitable, Sarah quarrels with Hagar, and Abraham quarrels with Sarah
To put these quarrels in their context – the first argument between partners comes in Genesis after Adam and Eve defy God by eating the fruit

Quarrels arise from human pride and selfishness
Pride and selfishness lie at the root of every human sin
Every act or thought of defiance against God

Hagar and Ishmael are driven out into the desert
Did Abraham and Sarah assume that they would die there?
Of course, Hagar and Ishmael do not die. God protects them

There are actually two versions of this story in Genesis
The first one is in Genesis, where Sarah drives out Hagar while she is still pregnant

The second one is here, in Genesis21
The confusing thing here is that according to the dates we are given, Ishmael must be a teenager
But Hagar carries him and lays him under a bush as if he were still a baby

But what happened at the time is less important than what flows from these events
God promises that Ishmael, like Isaac, will be the father of a great nation
That nation is the Ishmaelites, who rank among the historic enemies of Israel
A bedouin people, desert dwellers who prey on the settled farmers and shepherds of Israel

In other words, by their deliberate actions against God’s will, Sarah and Abraham do not just create a domestic quarrel
They create a division among the descendants of Abraham
They make a rod for the backs of the whole people of Israel

Jesus is also talking about division in our reading from Matthew this morning
According to Matthew, Jesus gives this teaching at a pivotal moment in his ministry
His teachings are welcomed by the people; but not by the Pharisees and scribes

It is becoming harder and harder to ignore the claim to divine powers revealed in his miracles and in what Jesus says about them
So the Pharisees and religious authorities are starting to accuse him of blasphemy

Jesus empowers his disciples for ministry
Verse 10.1 tells us, he gives them authority over unclean spirits, and the power to heal all kinds of sickness and disease
He sends them out to gather the lost sheep of Israel

Jesus instructs his disciples before sending them out
He not only gives them practical advice; he tells them what kind of reception to expect

He tells them they will face hostility and persecution – even from close family
People will say the worst imaginable things about them

In other words, the preaching of the gospel will cause division
It will cause division when the disciples preach it, just as much as it does when Jesus himself preaches it
That division will provoke acts of violence against them, and even death

It makes me wonder, what is this preaching that will arouse such hatred?
Who will this hatred come from?

The gospels show us, that the hatred only comes from a few
It comes from the Pharisees, and the religious authorities

Why do they hate the teachings of Jesus so much?
Because the teachings of Jesus reveal the falsity of their own teachings

God’s word says, don’t spend time serving an institution that only serves itself
Don’t spend your resources on a dead spiritual body, a priesthood that enriches itself and keeps you on the spiritual breadline
It’s an uncomfortable teaching for people who have given their lives to that institution – as leaders, priests or worshippers
It’s a searching word, that demands a decision one way or the other

What Jesus says here I think is reflected in how Hebrews 4.12 describes the word of God:
Indeed, the word of God is living and active, sharper than any two-edged sword, piercing until it divides soul from spirit, joints from marrow; it is able to judge the thoughts and intentions of the heart.

People fear the word of God not for what it reveals about God, but for what it reveals about them
God’s word divides the true from the false – spiritual things from the things of the flesh

God’s word will always be uncomfortable for many, and intolerable for some
Jesus warns the disciples, if you preach my word truly, you may find yourself in a very lonely place

But Jesus assures the disciples that God will be watching over them
And so they should persist in spreading the gospel, no matter what happens to them

It is so easy to keep quiet about the gospel
We fear the reactions of people who will realise for the first time how different we are
We fear rejection
We fear the reactions of people who might think we are judging them – even though we admit, we are all in need of God’s grace and mercy

But to speak for Jesus Christ on earth, is our best and even our only guarantee that he will speak for us before God in heaven
That will be the ultimate division – between those who testified and those who did not
Between those who showed themselves worthy of Christ, through their love of Christ – and those who did not
To love Christ and speak for Christ on earth – that is the test of worthiness

25 June 2017, St Cuthbert’s, Heaton

How to be a holy nation

Posted: July 6, 2017 in Uncategorized

You shall be for me a priestly kingdom and a holy nation

We find ourselves looking this morning at a very familiar Old Testament scene
A scene we might picture ourselves colouring in when we were very small, in Sunday School
Moses speaking in the wilderness to the people God brought up out of Egypt (Exo 19.2-8)

Or rather, Moses being briefed by God as to what he should say to them
Maybe that scene’s less easy to picture
What does God look like? What colour is he?

It’s easy to bog ourselves down in questions about what God is like
We do not need to know what God is like, in that abstract sense

The face of God will not be revealed to us like the face of the next James Bond
Our relationship with God is nothing like our relationship with celebrity

Because our relationship with God is a covenantal relationship, what we know of God is revealed through his covenant with us

So what we really know about God boil down to two things
– What he does for us
– What he asks of us in return

What does God do for us? Everything
Past, present and future – has done, is doing, will do – everything
The will of God embraces everything, and the will of God is all for our good
That consistent will for our good is unfolded all through the story the Bible tells

What does God ask of us in return?
Three months after God brings his people out of Egypt, he takes Moses apart for a briefing
He tells Moses what to say to the people of Israel, about what he expects from them

What does God say through Moses?
God is not like Pharaoh; you cannot measure God’s demands in so many thousand mud bricks
You cannot say, we’ll do so much, and then God will be satisfied

God’s demands are not quantitative – they cannot be measured
God’s demands are qualitative – he demands that we should be different

What does God want from his people? How should they be different?
He says, you shall be for me a priestly kingdom and a holy nation

What does that mean? Let’s take it in reverse order
Let’s first of all understand, these words are addressed to us as much as to ancient Israel

The church is not a nation in the way Israel was a nation
But we are a chosen people – a people with a common ancestor
That ancestor is Jesus Christ, just as the common ancestor of Israel was Abraham

What does it mean, to be holy?
It means, set apart for a sacred purpose
It’s not we ourselves who are special – it’s our holy purpose
That sacred purpose is to proclaim the kingdom

What do we mean by the kingdom?
It’s not a place, it’s not a territory; but neither is it an entirely mystical entity
The kingdom isn’t something that will only come into being at the end of the time
Although it will only be fully revealed at the end of time

The kingdom of God is simply the rule of God
The kingdom is at hand when people hear the word of God
When they fall in love with it to the point, that the only thing that makes them happy is to obey it

How will others hear the word of God? That is the job of God’s priesthood
So much of the talk we’ve heard about kingdoms and nationhood before and after the Brexit vote has been about barriers and restrictions
The kingdom of God is nothing like that
The kingdom of God welcomes every foreigner, every stranger

That brings us to consider the first important word here, priestly
We are to be a priestly kingdom

What is the role of a priesthood?
Part of it is done behind closed doors – the celebration of sacred mysteries
But I think the other half of the role is more important for us – the role of standing before God on behalf of the people
In other words praying for them – which we cannot do unless we know what their needs are, and unless we are prepared to be part of the answer to prayer

To be holy means being set apart – but it doesn’t mean we should keep ourselves apart
Too much of our priesthood takes place behind closed doors
Too little of it takes place outside, among other people
Too much of our priesthood is dictated by custom – doing things for their own sake
Too little of it is guided by prayer and a passion for people outside

Priests do not exist to serve one another – they exist to serve God
Priests serve God by serving the people in his name
And they serve the people by serving God in their name

Let’s take two examples – Street Pastors, and the Heaton Festival

Street Pastors help people in need, without ever asking if people deserve our help
Because Jesus didn’t ask if we deserved his help – he only saw that we needed it

We put on the Heaton Festival without ever asking whether the community in Heaton deserves a festival
We do it as a gift – as a pouring out of the blessings God has poured out to us

Because we offer them as a gift, without making any demands in return, Street Pastors and the Heaton Festival reach people who might never come to church
They meet immediate needs or wants, but they speak to the deeper needs which only the gospel of Christ can satisfy

Because we do them outside the walls, Street Pastors and the Heaton Festival are highly visible – you can’t miss them
Because people can see these things, they encourage people to ask why we do them
Which allows us to answer, because we are Christians

Because they are so different from most of the things churches usually do, Street Pastors and the Heaton Festival transcend narrow concepts of identity
They step over the boundaries that make us and the people outside the church strangers to one another
They make the love of God visible and tangible – they make it something people can see, something they can touch and be touched by

God’s covenant with us is a one-sided thing
His call for a people to be a priestly kingdom and a holy nation will be answered

What’s in it for us? We will know God by honouring his covenant
Knowing God and the love of God is the only thing worth wishing for
It’s the thing we were made for

God honoured his covenant by giving his Son
Nothing we could ever offer would cost that much

In fact, nothing we offer costs us anything at all – because nothing we have is truly ours
God himself makes that clear when he says in verse 5, Indeed, the whole earth is mine

So our whole lives should be a giving back to God of what is already his
And in that priestly offering, and in the living presence of the holy nation of God in their midst, other people will see that the time is fulfilled, and the kingdom is at hand

18 June 2017, St George’s, High Heaton