Archive for November, 2015

Hope – the first and last thing

Posted: November 24, 2015 in Uncategorized

22 November 2015, St Cuthbert’s, Heaton, and Allen Memorial, Wallsend

2 Samuel 23.1-5  Daniel 7.9-14

I am the Alpha and Omega, says the Lord God  (Revelation 1.8)

Why celebrate the feast of Christ the King today, on the eve of Advent?
For us, here today, it makes a fitting climax to the cycle of readings we have been following
Tracing on the one hand, the journey Jesus makes to Jerusalem before his crucifixion
And on the other hand, the fulfilment of prophecies revealing who and what Jesus is –
The Christ: the anointed of the God of Jacob; Son of Man, Son of David, Son of God

I am the Alpha and the Omega, [the first and the last]” says the Lord God (Rev 1.8)
The first of what? The last of what?
An answer we can offer today is, the first king and the last
The origin and source of the idea and reality of kingship
The conclusion, summation and perfection of kingship
The resurrection, the redemption, the perfect incarnation of the ideal of kingship, after all those centuries of flawed, thwarted, evil and selfish human rule

Christ, the first and the last of kings
How do we see that in today’s readings?

All the Hebrew Scriptures point to Christ: that was the belief of the early church
The doctrine of the divine inspiration of Scripture makes the situation and intention and of the original human author almost irrelevant
For us today, the history of the way these texts have been read by the church community over the centuries makes the christological interpretation one we can set aside only with a conscious effort – if we can do it at all

2Samuel gives us what we are told were the last words of David, first true king of Israel
I call David, rather than Saul, the first king of Israel for three reasons:
– Firstly, it was David who united the tribes
– Secondly, it was David who captured the city of Jerusalem, who centralised worship in Jerusalem and made Mount Zion the place of God’s special presence on earth, by bringing the Ark of the Covenant there
– Thirdly, it was David who founded the earthly dynasty, the house of David, that became a spiritual dynasty, that continued to be the symbol of God’s favour towards Israel when the united kingdom of Israel was long gone

David’s dying oracle is written in the style of what we call the enthronement psalms
Psalms that dramatise the sense of hope and rejoicing people feel at the coronation of an earthly king
Perhaps in some cases the actual words used in the coronations of the kings of Israel and Judah
But the prophetic promise given through David to his successors on the throne of Israel points unmistakably to Christ: to Christian readers at least
The dying words of the first king point to the last

Daniel 7 dramatically pictures another enthronement – it is a much more apocalyptic vision
We see the newly-crowned king presented in the court of an aged ruler
Old, but radiating an overwhelming and timeless power and majesty

One thing you should realise about Israel and Judah is that the new king was often crowned while the old king was still alive
There was often a period of regency or shared rule
In Judah or Israel, Charles would probably be on the throne by now

So Daniel 7 is a heavenly vision, reflecting in an idealised form an earthly political reality
But also, to Christian minds, reflecting the relationship between heavenly Father and Son
The risen Son exalted and enthroned by the Father

It’s clear we are not reading about the crowning of an earthly human king
Even before we reach those wonderful closing words in verse 14:

To him was given dominion
and glory and kingship,
that all peoples, nations, and languages
should serve him.

His dominion is an everlasting dominion
that shall not pass away,
and his kingship is one
that shall never be destroyed.

So we might say that 2Samuel shows us the first king: David, the first true king of Israel
Whereas Daniel 7 shows us the last king

The writer of the book of Daniel was not writing about Jesus
The Christian interpretation of the book of Daniel comes later
Scholars still argue whether it was the early church that applied these words to Christ, or whether it was Jesus himself in his own teachings

But the first king points forwards to the last king, as surely as the last king points backwards to the first
“I am the Alpha and the Omega, [the first and the last]” says the Lord God (Rev 1.8)

The Bible is unsparing in the way it depicts the failings of earthly monarchs
The ideal future vision always co-exists with contemporary realities that are far from perfect
But in that future vision there is an unfading hope – and a promise, too, that this hope will be realised in some way in our own experience here and now
Through signs of the kingdom: The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom is at hand

How do we expect Christ’s future rule to come about?
At times like these, it’s important to compare our Christian vision of Christ’s reign with the vision of godly rule that has emerged in other movements today
We see militant Jihadists setting out to establish by force an Islamic caliphate, amidst the ruins of other state governments
We see terrorist atrocities staged and publicised through the mass media to dramatise an apocalyptic vision of western civilisation staggering through its own end times
About to collapse so that the whole world can be ruled in the name of militant Islam

That is the difference between their vision of the future kingdom and ours
They try to force God’s hand by violent acts
Their attempt to establish God’s kingdom endlessly collapses into a nightmare of fear and violent oppression
Every attempt to establish an ideal kingdom by force has collapsed in exactly this way
Hitler’s Thousand Year Reich lasted just eleven years
We don’t believe God’s kingdom can be brought about by force

So how will it happen? One answer is, it already has
The signs of the kingdom are already here – the kingdom has been at hand for at least 2,000 years
It doesn’t have to be established by human hands – only proclaimed

The kingdom of God is the triumph of his reign – not ours
The Christian experience of the world is not transformed by power; it is transformed by hope; hope that springs from faith in God’s promise

The church has almost lost the political power it once had, and the money that went with it; that doesn’t matter
The tragedy would be, if we lost our hope; because hope is what Christ came to bring us
We can all learn to live without power; no one can live without hope


A life cult, not a death cult

Posted: November 15, 2015 in Uncategorized

15 November 2015, St George’s, High Heaton

Daniel 12.1-3

Many of those who sleep in the dust of the earth shall awake

The following was largely written before the ISIS atrocities in Paris. Even so, the readings for the day have their own resonance in the aftermath of those events.

Christmas isn’t far away: the next Sunday but one is the first of Advent
Everyone around me is saying, “I don’t know where this year’s gone”

Our years revolve in circles
Every Christmas we celebrate the passing of another year: we’ve made it – we’ve survived

But we’re still here: another year older, and not a penny richer
The day is far gone, and we are not yet saved

That’s the concern at the heart of our lives: the cycle of years goes on as if it will never end
Yet at the same time, every individual life travels from its beginning towards its end

There is a deep anxiety that is generated by the tension between a cyclical view of existence, and one that goes in a straight line from beginning to end
We are haunted by a sense of potential futility

We are haunted by the dread that our lives will end, and we will have accomplished nothing
That, looking back, our lives will just have been a repetition of routine, pointless actions
That our accumulated experience will contain nothing of value to redeem it

You probably know that the people of the Old Testament did not believe in an afterlife
Resurrection is simply not ‘needed’ in the understanding of life exemplified in the older books

This world was created by God, who declared it ‘good’
We too are God’s creation; we live here, in his world, under his protection, enjoying his blessings
What is there left to hope for?

Death in the Old Testament is a fact – but not necessarily a problem
A good end is a contented death after a long life:
We hope to die like Abraham, ‘old and full of years’
Leaving behind us our descendants, an inheritance, and a good reputation

Daniel is the oldest Jewish work to speak clearly about resurrection from the dead
It was written between two or three centuries before Christ

The need to affirm a faith in life after death comes out of deep trauma
Not the the trauma of exile in Babylon
But the trauma of religious persecution by rulers who wanted to suppress Jewish culture and religion, and impose Greek culture in its place

Hanukkah is the closest Jewish festival to Christmas
It commemorates the rededication of the temple after the success of the Maccabean revolt
It’s a time when Jews remember the martyrs who preferred to die under torture, rather than renounce their faith

This experience encouraged at least some Jews to re-read the Scriptures and think about the possibility of resurrection
Resurrection offers the possibility of a reward for suffering beyond death
It allows us to differentiate between the suffering of the wicked, and the suffering of the just
The suffering of the wicked is imposed by God as a punishment
The suffering of the righteous is imposed by God as a test
Sometimes, it’s also an opportunity to testify to your faith, in the presence of your enemies

This thinking can be dangerous
You can see from this short reading from Daniel, that the rise of belief in life after death is associated with the appearance of what we call apocalyptic
Visions of the end times – visions of judgement
The fall of our enemies, and the triumph of God
A triumph that emerges from the chaos of war and the fall of empires

How are we to understand and apply passages like this one from Daniel?
– As people interested in the Bible, we can simply look at them as interesting examples of how people and nations interpret traumatic events in their histories
– As Christians, we have to look at these passages through the eyes of our faith

We’ve seen the results of apocalyptic beliefs in followers of another religion in Paris this week
Apocalypse appeals too easily to people who feel victimised and excluded
Religiously-motivated terrorists commit atrocities to spread fear and provoke instability
They pursue religious ecstasy through orgies of violence
They seek martyrdom in the expectation they will immediately be transported to Paradise

You can see in the gospels, again and again, how Jesus discourages this kind of thinking
He avoids telling his disciples when the end will come
What they can do to bring it about, what their reward might be

Christianity is not a death cult
Jesus tells us to seek life, not death; he tells us how to live, not how to die

He tells us to live as people who expect to stand before God
But to live as people whose lives have been redeemed from the fear of death and judgement

We do not have to project our fears and hatreds onto other people, in order to feel secure
We do not have to live in fantasies of violent revenge, just to avoid feeling powerless

We live as people with faith in God’s grace and mercy
We live as people who believe in God’s righteousness, not our own

Render up your enemies

Posted: November 8, 2015 in Uncategorized

8 November 2015, St Cuthbert’s, Heaton

Matthew 5.38-48

Jesus said unto them, Render unto Caesar the things that are Caesar’s, and unto God the things that are God’s. And they marvelled greatly at him.

An eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth, a life for a life
We have always misinterpreted this saying

This law was not unique to Israel – it’s found in the laws of countries all over the Ancient Near East
It even has a Latin name – it’s called the lex talionis, the law of retaliation

It was meant to set the maximum retribution an injured party was entitled to – not the minimum
It was meant to prevent quarrels escalating into blood feuds and vendettas

It’s a principle our law still respects – we still believe that the severity of punishment should fit the crime
We agree that victims should have some compensation for their injury or their loss

But when we confuse justice with retaliation, we over-simplify things
Vengeance doesn’t undo the damage that was done
So the thirst for vengeance is never satisfied – we always wants more
Martin Luther King said, The old law of an eye for an eye leaves everyone blind.

When the principle of retribution is raised from the individual to the state level, it becomes even more dangerous
It’s no longer just an eye for an eye, or a tooth for a tooth
We had world wars in the twentieth century; we have mutually assured destruction today

Our compulsion to retaliate makes fools of us – it allows others to manipulate us
Why does ISIS post atrocities on YouTube?
Because it wants to stir up the desire for vengeance
ISIS wants us to fight back on its terms, to make us think and act according to its own world-view

Is the answer simply to give in – to turn the other cheek?
Doesn’t giving in to threats just encourage the aggressor?

The answer is, we don’t know – because we’ve never really tried it
We’ve never had the faith or the courage to try
All we have are occasions like today, when we remember the horrors of war, the pain, the destruction, the incredible squandering of human life, the futility of not trying Christ’s way

What would Christ’s way look like?
What are we actually meant to do, with all the impossible advice Jesus gives us?

Jesus says, render unto Caesar the things that belong to Caesar
Render unto God the things that are God’s

When Jesus said these words he was holding a Roman coin
Caesar’s coins, bearing Caesar’s image
Caesar’s coins symbolise wealth, power, pride, the ability to prosper by cunning or force
But Caesar’s coins will wear out, and be replaced by others – just like the emperor himself
Take away Caesar’s empire, and Caesar’s coins are worthless

We all have to live in the world represented by Caesar’s coins
Here, our enemies can take many things from us; they can hurt us, even kill us
But they cannot come between us and God, unless we deliberately let them – by thinking and acting in the same ways our enemies do

Render unto God the things that are God’s – that’s the other commandment
The things that bear God’s image are the people God created in his image and likeness
Jesus says, pray for your enemies – because they are God’s creation, too
Pray for your enemies – render them to God – offer them up to God’s mercy
Because when we have all surrendered to God’s mercy, we will all enjoy God’s peace

1 November 2015, St George’s, High Heaton

Hebrews 9.11-14

Purge your conscience from dead works to serve the living God

Purge your conscience from dead works to serve the living God Heb 9.14
That’s one of my memory verses
Funny how we still pick up our memory verses from the Authorised Version

What I want to talk about today is the apparent contrast between our reading from Hebrews, and our reading from Deuteronomy

As I’m sure you all know, Orthodox Jews in particular strap little leather boxes on their wrists and foreheads when they pray in the synagogue
These little leather boxes are called phylacteries
Phylacteries contain miniature scrolls

They also fix small boxes called mezuzahs on their right hand doorposts at home
Mezuzahs also contain scrolls

What is written on these scrolls?
A gentile friend of a Jewish family got curious about the little box beside their front door
He secretly opened it one day, and took out the scroll
He took it home, and found it was covered in Hebrew letters
So he took it to the library and found a Hebrew dictionary
After three hours, he finally decoded it. It said, Help me! I’m a prisoner in a mezuzah factory

The writing on these scrolls is actually a Hebrew prayer
We heard it today, in our reading from Deuteronomy:
Hear, O Israel: The Lord is our God, the Lord alone. You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your might

Jews call this prayer the Shema – which means “Hear!” – because that is its first word
The Shema says our God is one, he is the only God, and that we were created to love him
Our love of God is to be revealed in the faith of our minds, the devotion of our hearts, and the service of our physical bodies

It’s a love God’s people are encouraged to ponder and dwell on:
Keep these words that I am commanding you today in your heart.

It’s a love God’s people are commanded to pass on, to the next generation and people they meet:
Recite [these words] to your children and talk about them when you are at home and when you are away

Faithful Jews recite this prayer night and morning, because that’s what they are told to do:
Recite [these words] , when you lie down and when you rise. This is all good stuff

The next words are the bit we might have trouble with:
Bind [these words] as a sign on your hand, fix them as an emblem on your forehead, and write them on the doorposts of your house and on your gates.
Those lines are the Scriptural justification for the traditions of wearing phylacteries in the synagogue, and fixing mezuzahs on your door posts

We might have problems with these traditions for two reasons:
One, they are literal applications of words that are mainly meant figuratively

It’s a bit like the whole armour of God
It’s fun to dress someone up like a Roman soldier when we think about Ephesians 6
But it would seem a bit weird if we all did it – especially if we did it every Sunday

The second objection is that wearing amulets or fixing little boxes to you door frame to ward off evil spirits seems more like witchcraft than religion
– Jewish commentators have made the same criticism of this tradition

That’s the question we have to ask ourselves
When does the symbolic practice become divorced from the spiritual reality it signifies?
When do ritual performances of the Law threaten to turn into dead works?
And the answer for Christians is, with the coming of Christ

Let’s look again at my memory verse:
Purge your conscience from dead works to serve the living God

It’s really a slight misquotation: it’s a bit selective. Hebrews 9.14 actually reads,
The blood of Christ, who through the eternal Spirit offered himself without blemish to God, will purge our conscience from dead works to serve the living God

That’s a bit of a mouthful, isn’t it? Let’s break it down

First, purge our conscience
I think that’s actually quite clear: God has given us a means of escape, from the guilt we feel about neglecting things we think of as our religious duty

What is this means of escape? It’s the blood of Christ
The blood of Christ will purge our conscience
In other words, the work of Christ on the cross liberates us from guilt

Why does Christ make this sacrifice? Why does he give us this freedom?
He does it so we can serve the living God – or worship the living God (the same Greek word is used for both in the New Testament)

The Holy Spirit plays a central role in this:
Christ offered himself without blemish to God, through the eternal Spirit
In gratitude to Christ, we make our own offering in worship through the power of the Spirit

So what we are talking about is the same thing Jesus talks about to the Samaritan woman by the well, in John’s gospel
The time is coming, or has come, when we will be purged from all the dead ritual practices of the temple, to worship the living God in spirit and in truth

Clearly, this is a difficult passage: it reminds us, the early Christians were not all simple fisher folk
But it’s worth taking the time to try to understand it properly, to see how this writer understood the way that the work of Christ became effective for us

This writer is someone with a priestly background; so he gives a priestly explanation
He looks at the temple and its sacrifices and other rituals, and he sees these things as metaphors – metaphors that depict the work of Christ

In Christ we see revealed the true spiritual meaning of the temple and its worship
The tabernacle, the tent of meeting that preceded the temple, becomes an image for the incarnation
The curtain that veiled the Holy of Holies becomes an image of Jesus’ physical body (just as in the prologue to John’s gospel, Jesus is said to have tabernacled amongst us)
The Holy of Holies, right at the heart of the temple, becomes an image for Jesus’ beating heart, the seat of the divine presence on earth – the place where the Word and Spirit of life are found together

The sacrificial blood, carried by the high priest into the Holy of Holies on the Day of Atonement, becomes the blood of Christ, shed on the cross

So we are led to see that what Christ did was both a completion of the work of the priests, and its opposite
Christ who was dead is now living; he has taken up and taken over the work of the temple and the priests
The work of Christ is a living work – the work of the priests who go on serving in the temple is now a dead work

Christ comes to deliver us from the futility of dead works
From everything that promises us religious consolation – but fails to deliver

So take a close look at everything you do in the name of your religion
How many of the things you do are dead works?
How many of the things you do have become an end in themselves?
Think of all that wasted effort – all that time and energy you could be dedicating to the living God
Worshipping him; serving your neighbour