Archive for June, 2015

14 June 2015, St Cuthbert’s, High Heaton

1 Samuel 15.34 to 16.13  2 Corinthians 5.6-17

Our theme today is the passing of the old, and the proclaiming of the new.
We heard a reading from Mark’s gospel this morning about the mysterious growth of the seed scattered on the ground
Paul tells us, the new creation begins with the resurrection of Christ
The seed buried in the soil is not a symbol of death – it’s the beginning of new life
In the very act of sowing, the new harvest begins

If you only see the old, you’re trapped in the past – you are denied the hope of the resurrection
But if all you see is the new, you’re living in a fantasy – at this time the new things exist as signs and promises, not as things that have fully come to pass

The world of the old is passing away – but it’s still here
We who believe see both the old and the new

The old and the new exist side by side in the reading from First Samuel we’ve just heard
God tells Samuel to anoint a new king of Israel in place of Saul
Let’s remember the events that lead up to this scene

Saul is still king over Israel – but God has rejected him, because Saul has gone against his will
He conquered the Amalekites and destroyed them as God commanded
But he saved the best of all their livestock to offer as sacrifices
And that was not what God had instructed him to do

I wonder what the problem was
Perhaps it was, that Saul was secretly thinking of all the glory he would receive himself –
So he planned to defy God, by staging an impressive public sacrifice, instead of slaughtering the animals in the city, where he found them
Whatever it was, it was enough – God’s judgement falls on Saul

Samuel seeks out Saul, who has been touring the countryside, publicly celebrating his victory
Samuel finds him at Gilgal; near Jericho, on the banks of the Jordan
He tells him,
Obedience is better than sacrifice, submissiveness better than the fat of rams …
Since you have rejected the word of the Lord, he has rejected you as king.
Samuel says goodbye to Saul, and the two of them never see each other again.

We know this is a painful parting: God has to put on a stern expression, and say to Samuel,
How long will you go on mourning over Saul when I have rejected him as king of Israel?

He gives Samuel a command:
Fill your horn with oil and go. I am sending you to Jesse of Bethlehem, for I have chosen myself a king among his sons.

The new king Samuel has to anoint, of course, is the youngest of Jesse’s sons, David
Samuel does as God commands
He anoints David as king – just as he had anointed Saul, years before

So we appear to have two kings – the old and the new exist side by side
In God’s eyes, David is now king – which means David is now king in reality
Anyone with eyes to see the signs, realises that Saul’s kingship is passing away
The new king of Israel is David – even though many things have to happen before he is crowned in the sight of all Israel

What is the key phrase at the heart of this passage?
It’s God’s command to Samuel: Fill your horn with oil and go

If our God was a god who imposed his will by force, he’d say to Samuel, Raise an army and drive out Saul by force
If our God was a political god, he’d say, Bring the people out on the streets and send them to burn down Saul’s palace
If our God was a cunning, scheming god, he’d say, Hire assassins to stab Saul in the back or poison his food

But our God is a god of his word – he communicates his will by signs
He speaks to his prophets in visions and through the mouths of angels, and He sends them to speak his word by doing simple things

Fill your horn with oil and go
Do it with a sense of purpose and intention
Do it, believing I will direct your steps
Do it, knowing I will bring you face to face with the one I have chosen to anoint

Fill your horn with oil and go
Don’t go with an army or a retinue of officials – go alone
Don’t go with bags of court documents and agreements to sign – go with the few words I’ve given you
Don’t go with chests of treasure – go with a horn full with oil

There’s absolutely nothing special about the horn or the oil
There’s nothing about the horn that magically changes the oil that Saul pours into it
There’s nothing about the oil that magically changes David when Samuel anoints him with it

The oil is special because of what Samuel does with it, and why
The oil is special to Samuel, because he carries it in obedience to God
The oil is special to David, because Samuel anoints him with it, in obedience to God
The oil is special to us, because it is a sign
– A sign of how God chooses and use ordinary human people to do his will
– How he anoints them with his spirit to perform his works

The anointing with oil is a sign of the coming of a new king
But even before Samuel sees David, he has already performed God’s sign
By filling the horn with oil, and setting out
He has recognised that Israel has a new king, chosen by God
All that has to be done now, is to perform the human actions that proclaim the new king

What significance does this have for us?
We can’t conquer cities – we can’t choose kings and rulers
We can’t physically show people the things we talk about as Christians – the risen Christ, the Holy Spirit, the new Jerusalem descending from heaven
But anyone can fill a horn with oil, at God’s command

God isn’t asking you to do anything beyond your power: All he’s saying is, Fill your horn with oil
Carry the sign of my will and my presence, to someone in your life
Anoint them with proof of the power of the spirit in your own life

The gospel gives extraordinary meanings to ordinary things
We remember that this morning, as we share Holy Communion together
As we bless the bread and wine, as remember Jesus’ death and resurrection
As we honour Christ in obeying his command to do these things in His name

From now on, as Paul says, we regard no one from a human point of view
We see no one limited by our own idea of what they might come to know or believe
We see everyone called by the same sign and the same command
Fill your horn with oil and set out – Go into all the world and proclaim the good news to the whole creation.


7 June 2015, St George’s, High Heaton

Genesis 3.8-15   2 Corinthians 4.13-5.1

But just as we have the same spirit of faith that is in accordance with scripture—“I believed, and so I spoke”—we also believe, and so we speak.  

One thing scholars often point out about Paul’s letters is how rarely he refers to any known teachings of Jesus
They ask, is that because he hadn’t heard any of the gospel accounts?

Or maybe it’s because Paul thought Jesus’ teachings could speak for themselves
His own job was different
His task was to reinterpret the Hebrew Scriptures in the light of the cross and the resurrection
To shape that material into a form he could communicate to a Gentile audience, who didn’t know either Jesus or the teachings of Judaism

The danger for that Gentile audience was often that it would be so carried away by its experience of the Spirit, its beliefs would become heretical
It would twist the gospel, pick out the bits is specially liked, and get things out of proportion
The life of its churches would become a caricature of the things Jesus actually taught

So Paul keeps dragging them back to the straight path
Sometimes he gives them a simple dose of common sense – no one in their right minds thinks it’s alright to sleep with their father’s concubine
Sometimes he just gives them lessons in common courtesy – no one with any manners stuffs their face in the company of people who have nothing

Most of the time, Paul teaches them from the Bible
He shows them how all the apparently new things they have seen and heard about, are prophesied in Scripture:
We have the same spirit of faith that is in accordance with scripture
He shows them, Christian life is not indulging yourself in a fantasy of personal beliefs and unique experiences
Christian life is submitting yourself to life in community
Christian life is submitting yourself to the discipline of scriptural interpretation that has guided the community of faith for millennia

The teaching of the New Testament is not novel
It is a re-statement of the great central themes of the Old Testament

So this passage from Second Corinthians begins with a quotation from the Psalms: from Psalm 110, verse 16
“I believed, and so I spoke”—we also believe, and so we speak
Why do we speak? Because we have to – the Spirit of faith inspires us to speak
Why does the Spirit inspire us to speak? In order that our faith can be shared

Paul is very clear about this
Because the goal of his own ministry is to bring others to Christ
He doesn’t visualise himself walking alone into the presence of God
He says,
we know that the one who raised the Lord Jesus will raise us also with Jesus, and will bring us with you into his presence

He wants everyone to understand that this hope is a shared hope
He says, when I see God, I’ll see Him with you: with all of you who have heard the gospel with me

So belief in Christ is not about benefits for ourselves
Belief in Christ is about sharing the gospel
We bring others to Christ, not so that they can enjoy personal benefits
But so that their voices can be added to the chorus of praise rising from the earth to God:
so that grace, as it extends to more and more people, may increase thanksgiving, to the glory of God.

That will come as news to some people
Our false gospel of personal salvation makes us think God and the whole created world exist just for us
Instead of the other way round

That’s why Paul keeps harking back to Genesis
Faith has to begin at the beginning – because that’s when sin crept into the picture
Human beings were just one part of creation, and the sole purpose of creation is to offer praise to God
When human beings fell, we separated ourselves from creation’s universal hymn of praise

But now in Christ we are promised restoration
Not a pill or a Band Aid for our personal suffering – but participation in a universal restoration

Yes, our own redemption matters – but only as a sign of the universal restoration God has promised
– as he says in
Romans 8:22–23, We know that the whole creation has been groaning in labor pains until now; and not only the creation, but we ourselves, who have the first fruits of the Spirit, groan inwardly while we wait for adoption, the redemption of our bodies.

So the renewal Paul describes in our passage today is a universal sign
Our outer nature is wasting away, but our inner nature is being renewed day by day
That renewal isn’t just a nice feeling inside, for a little while, today
It’s the sign of an eternal glory – an eternal weight of glory beyond all measure
No one compares with Paul, when he speaks of this promised glory!

I said at the beginning, Paul doesn’t seem to know much of the gospels
But I want to close by drawing your attention to one or two very significant words at the end of our passage
One word is tent – we know that if the earthly tent we live in is destroyed, we have a building from God, a house not made with hands, eternal in the heavens.

I read these lines, and I think, surely Paul is thinking of John’s gospel
John tells us in the introduction to his gospel how Christ tabernacled with us
– God wandered with his people in the wilderness for forty years
– The site of his presence at that time was behind the veil, within the tent of meeting
– John borrows that language to describe the incarnation: Jesus he lived in a tent of human flesh, just like we do

We could easily think Paul is talking about our fate as individuals
The earthly tent we live in can be destroyed – we know it will be destroyed, because none of us will live forever in this flesh
But the rest of this passage shows this is not just a promise for us as individuals

The flesh wears out – but Paul comforts us with the assurance that we have a building from God, a house not made with hands, eternal in the heavens
This is a vision of the new temple, the eternal temple

The people who worship in this temple are the people saved in Christ
They’re not going to worship on their own – they’re not going to have a temple each
We’re all going to worship together, singing the same song, in the same words, if there’s going to be any need for words at all

We believe, and so we speak – we speak, because we have to speak
We speak, because it is a joy to speak
We speak, because the Spirit within us speaks
We speak, because the Word of God is bound up in our bones and we are weary of trying to hold it in
We speak, because if we kept quiet, the very stones would cry out
We speak, because we are commanded to speak, and silence condemns us
Condemns others to ignorance, and ourselves to futility

31st May 2015, St Cuthbert’s, Heaton

Psalm 29  Isaiah 6.1-8  John 3.1-17  Romans 8.12-17

We’re still in the season of Pentecost.
We’ve heard stories in the past few weeks of how the Spirit was promised by Jesus
We’ve heard how it came upon the believers of the early church
We’ve heard how it empowered them to preach the gospel to others
We’ve heard how it enabled them to speak without fear when they were arrested by the authorities and their lives were in danger

This morning I want to talk more about the work of the Spirit:
I want us to think in particular how the Spirit testifies within us to the glory of God
How it enables us to bear witness to other people of the glory and majesty of God

We’ve heard four readings this morning: one from the Psalms, one from Isaiah, one from John’s gospel, and one from Paul’s letter to the Romans

In these readings I was struck by four exclamations – four voices crying out:

Psalm 29: “In [the Lord’s] temple, all say, ‘Glory!’”
Isaiah: “ Woe is me! I am lost, for I am a man of unclean lips”
John 3: Nicodemus says with a sense of frustrated wonder, “How can these things be?”
Romans 8: Paul describes in Romans how the Spirit within us cries, “Abba! Father!”

The psalm describes how creation echoes the chorus of praise that sounds eternally in the courts of heaven before the throne of God
The chorus of heavenly praise is simply the endless repetition of one single word: “Glory!”
Perhaps they use other words, too – I haven’t heard them – but “glory!” is the simple meaning of this endless chorus of praise

Isaiah cries out “I am a man of unclean lips”
Sin shuts us out from the heavenly chorus of praise – Isaiah feels cut off from God
He says, “I can neither speak the Word of God, nor join in the chorus of praise”

But then he is cleansed by the touch of a live coal on his mouth, and suddenly he can hear God calling him
This is a work of the Spirit – all true prophecy is a work of the Spirit
It’s the Old Testament equivalent of the Day of Pentecost

Jesus comes and tells his followers they must be born again through the Spirit to regain their proper place before God
Nicodemus hears this teaching, but because he has not truly hear the Word and received the Spirit, he cannot understand it – “How can these things be?”, he says

Finally, Paul tells us how through the work of Christ and the coming of the Spirit we have been adopted by the Father
We have a new relationship with God
We have become like little children – we don’t say, “Glory!” We cry, “Abba! Father!”

The characters in these very different passages have one thing in common – they all speak out
In some way, the Spirit moves all of them to say the things they say
So to pre-empt my own conclusion, I think we should expect that the Spirit within us will move us to speak out

I think we see from these passages that the work of the Holy Spirit is to testify to the glory of God
– There’s the spirit of creation
– The spirit of prophecy
– There’s the visible glory of God, what later Jewish writers called the Shekinah: the glory of God visible in the tabernacle and the temple, the pillar of fire and the pillar of cloud in the wilderness
– Finally, there’s glorification, which is a work of the Holy Spirit visible in Christian believers

Glorification is what I want to talk about
It’s as Paul describes it in Romans 3:23, “all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God”
But he also says later, in Romans 8:30, “those whom he predestined he also called; and those whom he called he also justified; and those whom he justified he also glorified.”

What does it mean, to say that we will be ‘glorified’ by God?
We are tempted to believe it means, that God will let down a rope ladder from his world, so that we can climb up and escape from our world of suffering
Sorry to disappoint anyone, but this is not what we are to hope for

Christianity is not escapism
If we want to walk with Christ we have to be prepared to go where he went
We can’t jump straight to where he is now

God promises that in Christ we will be glorified: but the promise is in two parts
Christ entered into our world, into our lives; he suffered, died, rose, and was exalted
The second part of the promise is resurrection and exaltation

To benefit from the second part of the promise we have to accept the first part:
We have to drink the cup Christ drank

If we are prepared to embrace and fully experience what Christ experienced in his life and death, then we will be prepared to share in his glorification
That’s what Paul says here
But what he promises, is that the Spirit will strengthen us to meet every obstacle we face
All the temptations, all the worries, all the difficulties

He also suggests that it is in knowingly sharing Christ’s suffering that we begin to share in his glory
We cry out to the Father as Jesus did, and we feel the Spirit speaking for us

I find very interesting Paul’s choice of words: We cry, “Abba! Father!”
They are very surprising words – words suggesting a real intimacy with God

They are actually three things at once
First, they are an utterance of the Spirit, proving that the Spirit is at work within us
Second, they are a prayer, words directed from our hearts to God
Third, they are a confession: a testimony to people around us of our new relationship with God

Abba! Father!” is a three-fold witness to God’s glory:
– A witness to the glory of God the Father in heaven
– A witness to our sense of the presence of God’s glory in our world
– A witness to our own glorification, through the work of the Holy Spirit made possible by Christ

Of course you might also think “Abba! Father!” sounds like a cry for help – and I’m sure it is
The Son in danger calls on the Father – the response is not necessarily legions of angels
But in everything that happens to us, we remain God’s children
God uses everything to deepen our relationship with him, and our sense of his glory

God’s promise is, that as we live out our Christian lives, as we live out this confession, we will experience more and more of the glory of God
And we will feel inspired more and more to share this experience with others
Not in spite of the difficulties we face in living as Christians – but because of them
Because “We are sharers of one Spirit, the Spirit of Christ”
“We suffer with him so that we may also be glorified with him.”