Archive for February, 2016

A hunger for praise

Posted: February 29, 2016 in Uncategorized

28 February 2016, St Cuthbert’s, Heaton

Psalm 63.1-8  Luke 13.1-9

My soul thirst for you; my flesh faints for you, as in a dry and weary land

My father is a keen gardener – but he’s ruthless
He is always quick to see when a plant is “getting too big for its boots”
When it’s not doing well; when it’s diseased or covered in aphids
Or when it has just been there too long

Mainly, these days, gardening is a hobby
We’ve forgotten what it was like, when people actually depended on their gardens for food
Miners used to live in small houses, with big gardens – because in their spare time, between shifts, they were expected to grow food to feed their families
If you were that kind of gardener, you wouldn’t let a tree or plant take up space if it wasn’t producing anything

Jesus uses a parable about an unfruitful tree to send a warning
Our minds immediately link this parable to another story
– the story of the fig tree cursed by Jesus
– a story of a type that is rare in the New Testament: a negative-miracle story
– a miracle that makes things worse, rather than better, for the one on the receiving end

People find that story disconcerting, because they are used to seeing Jesus do nice things
They forget that every miracle story has two sides
It’s something done for the person on the receiving end
But it’s also a sign, for everyone else who witnesses it

From a human point of view, perhaps it’s better if Jesus does something nice
But it’s more important that a sign gives the right message to the people it’s meant for

Perhaps we forget, that to be given a sign at all is good
It means, God has not forgotten you – he has not written you off

What kind of fruit is God looking for?
We automatically think we should be running around doing good deeds and signing up for lots of jobs in the church

But if you think why God created us, it’s quite easy to see what kind of fruit God wants
We were created to praise God
Anything done in the spirit of praise is acceptable to God

Anything done from any other motive is hollow and even counter-productive
But the spirit of praise changes everything

We are to praise God at all times
That’s something else we learn from the story of the fig tree Jesus cursed

Plant experts might tell you, Jesus is unfair to the fig tree
There are no figs on the tree, because it’s not the right time of year for figs
But the fig tree ends up withered just the same
God wants our praise all the time, not just on certain days or at special times of year

What prevents us praising God at all times?
Above all, our selfish concern for ourselves; our sense of unfairness
Our sense that God treats us less well than we deserve

If we think God is unfair we will not praise him
But not praising God with our whole hearts sets up a pattern, where God seems farther away and we are less aware of his blessings
God seems far off, so we don’t feel inclined praise him – it’s a vicious circle

You see time and time again in the psalms, how the speaker begins with a sense of suffering
But then remembers God, and ends up praising Him

In other words, the problem begins in our own hearts
Jesus says in the Sermon on the Mount, blessed are they who hunger and thirst after righteousness
He didn’t pluck these words our of the air; they are based on Scripture
The Psalmist says, O God, you are my God, I seek you, my soul thirsts for you; my flesh faints for you, as in a dry and weary land where there is no water.

If we don’t love God, if we don’t hunger and thirst after him, it’s not a sign there is something lacking in God
It’s a sign there’s something lacking in us

Why does the soil around our roots seem dry?
Not because God has not sent the rain
But because the soil is hard – it can’t absorb the rain when it falls
They dryness of the ground is our dryness

Why are our hearts hard? Because we are on the defensive
Our church is not in a comfortable situation
We feel pressure on every side: age, numbers, finance, a changing community outside
We feel embattled; we feel we have to make ourselves hard to survive
But that’s a losing strategy; it’s an unspiritual strategy; it’s not God’s strategy

We won’t solve our problems by blaming God, or blaming each other
We’ll conquer by finding God in our situation
We’ll conquer by believing that God has brought us to this place
We’ll conquer when we open our hearts to hear what he’s calling us to do
When we stop looking for someone else to blame, and start finding ways to work together

God has already shown his willingness to work with us
Who do you think is the gardener in the parable
– The one who begs that the tree should be given another year?
– Who offers to loosen the soil around the roots of the tree, and fertilise it?

The gardener, of course, is Jesus Christ
Who was raised on a tree for us
Who poured out his own blood upon the soil

So when we find ourselves in a dry and weary land where there is no water, that is not our cue to give in to hopelessness
That is God awakening in us the sense of our true need
Our true need, which is always for more of him
When we remember to praise God, we will find God
We will find our lives transformed by the spirit of praise


Always leave them wanting less

Posted: February 24, 2016 in Uncategorized

21 February 2016, St George’s, High Heaton

Luke 13.31-35

A desolate house is left to you

English Bibles usually give this passage a title like, “The lament over Jerusalem”
But perhaps a better title would be, “The fox and the hens”

Theologians say Jesus Christ has three offices
He is prophet, priest and king

We see Jesus here as King of kings
He is the one to whom every knee will bow
He puts Herod in his place – he calls him a fox
The fox is a cunning animal but a scavenger, one that eats rotting corpses to survive
Herod is living on the carcase of a religion whose spirit has departed from its institutions, in a state that is not state

In this state, it is the prophet who truly speaks for God who is forced to live as an outcast
Ezekiel tells Israel, Your prophets have been like foxes among the ruins
Jerusalem itself will soon lie in ruins

We see Jesus here as a prophet – he self-identifies as one of the prophets Jerusalem kills
He utters words of prophecy – the whole passage is prophetic

How many prophecies do you see in this passage?

Jesus cures the sick and exorcises demons – those are signs of his prophetic identity
They are signs that the Father hears him, and the Spirit works through him

Jesus makes prophecies about the future of his own ministry: he says, On the third day I finish my work
To those listening, this seems to be just an indication that in a couple of days’ time he will move on
But we as Christians immediately see as a prophecy of the resurrection and the completion of his work as our Redeemer

Jesus speaks prophetically of the power of the Spirit that leads him on – he says, I must be on my way
This sounds like a contradiction – he seems to say he is staying here to finish his work, and yet at the same time he says is moving on

But Jesus is constantly on the move, even when he is standing still
He is still following the leading of the Spirit, in obedience to the Father’s will
He is moving in a direction that inevitably leads to his death in Jerusalem

That is the central prophecy here – the prophecy of Jesus’ own death and resurrection
But then there is an other prophecy – the one that editors call, The lament over Jerusalem, or Jesus’ love for Jerusalem
Jesus prophecies what the fate of Jerusalem and the temple is going to be

He says he would like to gather its people as a hen gathers her chicks under her wings
This is a very vivid image – how often does Jesus represent himself as a mother?

But we shouldn’t let it overshadow what comes next
Jesus says, See: a desolate house is left to you
What does that mean? What is this desolate house?
Of course, it’s the temple
It means, God has left the building! (and the city, and the hearts of his people)

In this prophecy we see Jesus |in his priestly role
The priest is the one who makes God visibly present to the people
Jesus as priest really is the visible presence of God – God is present wherever Jesus is present
Yet as a prophet, he prophecies the imminent reality of God’s absence

He does not leave the people without comfort
He says the spirit of God has left the temple
But then, in the next breath, he proclaims the coming of God, in words which from our own resurrection standpoint we see as a clear prophecy of his own arrival in Jerusalem: You will not see me until the time comes when you say, ‘Blessed is the one who comes in the name of the Lord.’

What is Jesus doing here? Why does he seem to speak in riddles?
Why doesn’t he just say what he means?

Jesus reminds us that the prophet is a showman
The prophet is not a lecturer – he is trying to appeal to the emotions and the imagination
He does not want anyone to explain his words away

What is the first rule of showmanship? Always leave them wanting more
Jesus leaves the people still hungry for an explanation

But sometimes the rule is the opposite – leave them wanting less
Jesus speaks uncomfortable words, that produce a sense of fear
The fear that the acceptable day of the Lord has come and gone – that there is no way out

This should be a warning to all of us
When does the church of God become a desolate empty house?
The church becomes an empty house when the Spirit of God leaves it

When does the Spirit of God leave his house?
When people no longer hear the voices that speak God’s Word to them
When people no longer seek the mind of God in prayer
When people no longer seek the will of God in their lives

Has God spoken to you in anything you have heard this morning?
Has God changed your plans?
Has God altered your priorities?
Will you think of doing anything you haven’t done before?
You don’t need to tell me now – just go home and pray

With shining face

Posted: February 8, 2016 in Uncategorized

7 February 2016, St George’s, High Heaton

Exodus 34.29-35  Luke 9.28-36

We have here almost an alternative version of the story of the giving of the Law
Once again, Moses descends from the mountain, holding the stone tablets
But what he finds at the bottom is very different to what he found the first time

Then, he found that his brother Aaron had allowed or encouraged the people to melt down their jewellery and make make a graven image to worship – a molten calf

This time, Moses finds that they have waited for him
They come forward, in order – the leaders first, then the people
They marvel at how his appearance has been altered – they are actually terrified

He gives them the commandments, and he covers his face
That event establishes a pattern for a ritual that happens regularly thereafter
Moses enters the presence of God, and comes out to speak God’s word the the people
He puts on a veil, to shield the people from the dazzling uncreated light of divinity radiating from his face
What we have here is the inauguration of the high priesthood of Israel

This story comes into our minds again when we hear the story of the Transfiguration
That day when Jesus took his three closest disciples to the top of a mountain, and they saw his clothes and his face shine with a light brighter than anything in nature

What does it all mean?
How does it relate to all the ways we try to draw closer to God, in worship and prayer?

There are lots of passages in the Scriptures that talk about the shining face of God:

Numbers 6:25–26 (NRSV)
the Lord make his face to shine upon you, and be gracious to you;
Lord lift up his countenance upon you, and give you peace.

Psalm 80:3 (NRSV) Restore us, O God; let your face shine, that we may be saved.

There are passages which talk about the radiance of the human face as a sign of God’s blessing: God gives us wine to gladden the human heart, and oil to make the face shine (Psa 104.15, nrsv)

One more verse, from Ecclesiastes 8: A man’s wisdom illumines him and causes his stern face to beam

I want you to specially note that last passage
A shining face is a symbol of God’s saving wisdom
Wisdom is a gift of the Spirit – a divine anointing

Light, wisdom, and righteousness – these three things are so close, they are almost the same thing
Light and wisdom go together – the light of wisdom drives out the darkness of ignorance
Light and righteousness go together – light uncovers the works of darkness, but virtue has no need to hide itself

But this doesn’t completely explain the Transfiguration – why did Jesus reveal himself in the way he did to those three disciples, on that mountain top?
I’m going to read you a short passage from 2 Enoch, a book from Jewish religious literature from the time between the Old and New Testaments

We all know Enoch – Enoch appears in Genesis; he is the son of Cain
He walked with God for 365 years we are told, and then he vanished
– it was believed he had been taken by God

Enoch appears again in books written much later
They describe his journey through the heavens and his meeting with God
2 Enoch describes how Enoch is received in the highest heaven
Let me read you that passage:

The Lord said, “Let Enoch come up and stand in front of my face for ever.” The angels bowed and said, “Let him come up.” The Lord said to Michael, “Take Enoch and take off his earthly clothes, and anoint him with the delightful oil, and dress him in the clothes of glory. “ And Michael took my clothes from me, he anointed me with the delightful oil. That oil shines greater than the greatest light, its ointment is like sweet dew and it fragrance like myrrh, and its shining is like the sun. I looked down at myself, and I had become like one of the angels – there was no discernible difference.

Scholars believe this passage actually describes a ritual performed in the temple
The high priest in the temple was dressed in his robes and anointed with sacred oil, kept in the holy of holies, that represented the Spirit of Wisdom

When these things were done, he became like one of the angels
– he was able to represent God on earth in the rituals he performed in the temple
– above all on that one day of the year, when he entered the holy of holies to make atonement for the people’s sins

You don’t have to think very hard to realise how close this is to what the disciples saw on the mountain top
The face of Jesus shines with the anointing of the Spirit of wisdom
His clothes shine with the light of heaven
In other words, the Transfiguration reveals Jesus to be the great High Priest – the one appointed to be our high priest forever

The high priest symbolises divine perfection – but Jesus is the divine reality
The high priest is anointed with oil – but Jesus our Messiah really is the anointed one
That’s what Messiah means
The high priest in his robes represents divinity on earth – but Jesus is God himself

Why does this matter? Wasn’t this just a one-off miraculous event?
Surely we don’t expect to see anything like this, here, today?

We have been talking about discernment in the last couple of weeks
I want to draw your attention to one final passage, from Acts 6
Stephen is on trial for his life, and he is giving his testimony to a hostile court
Luke draws our attention to an important detail:
All who were sitting in the Council saw his face like the face of an angel

It’s not a physical light – it’s a spiritual light: the light of divine wisdom
The Spirit anoints Stephen’s words
The authorities are touched as God intended them to be – and they condemn Stephen
In that moment when his fate is being decided, the face of Stephen reflects the light of the Transfiguration

In other words, once again, we are talking about how Christ is revealed in our world today
We pray that when we testify, our words may speak with the wisdom of the mind of Christ
We pray that our faces may shine with the light that has come into our world in Christ

Discerning his call

Posted: February 2, 2016 in Uncategorized

31 January 2016, St George’s, High Heaton

Jeremiah 1.4-10  Luke 4.21-30

Do not say, “I am only a boy”; for you shall go to all to whom I send you

Let’s first of all be clear who we are talking about
Jeremiah, the second of the great writing prophets
Jeremiah, whose father Hilkiah was a priest at one of the provincial shrines that were swept away when worship became centred on the temple in Jerusalem

Jeremiah, chosen by God to become the bearer of his word in the thirteenth year of the reign of the great reforming king, Josiah
Scholars think this is a reference to the year of Jeremiah’s birth
627 BC – forty years before the fall of Jerusalem

Jeremiah’s prophetic career spans the reigns of Judah’s last kings
Jehoaikim, the younger son of Josiah, who reigned 609-598 BCE
Zedekiah, last reigning king of Judea, younger brother of Jehoiakim, who ruled from 597-586 BCE; given this name by the Babylonians, his own name being Mattaniah

Jeremiah exercises his ministry at a turning point in Jewish history
The time is fulfilled and the kingdom of God has drawn near, in the fall of the kingdom and the tearing away of God’s people from the Promised Land

Let’s remember the point we have reached in Jesus’ story in our readings from Luke
The beginning of Jesus’ ministry signals a turning point in the history of God’s people
Last week, Jesus read from the scroll of Isaiah in the synagogue in Nazareth
And he proclaimed himself to be the one in whom the Scriptures were fulfilled

This week we continue looking at the themes of calling and identity
And the gift of discernment – the ability to see where and how the Spirit is at work

I want to look at the first lines of this reading from Jeremiah – verses 4 and 5:
The word of the Lord came to me saying, “Before I formed you in the womb I knew you,
and before you were born I consecrated you; I appointed you a prophet to the nations.”

God’s call has three components:
knowing (Heb yada knew, by seeing): Before I formed you in the womb I knew you
consecration (Heb qadash made clean): before you were born I consecrated you
– being appointed or commissioned (Heb nathan appointed or assigned or bestowed): I appointed you a prophet to the nations

I wonder how we would react if the word of God came to us in the way it came to Jeremiah
We know how much opposition and suffering Jeremiah experienced
But the first person to deny that God had called Jeremiah was Jeremiah himself

There’s a common interest between the prophet and the people
Denying God’s call makes life easier – it lets life go on
The situation of Jeremiah is not that different from the situation of the townspeople of Nazareth
The people who have watched Jesus grow up
We can draw lots of parallels between the two passages

We hear Jeremiah speaking to God
Using almost the same words the people of Nazareth use when they reject the teaching of Jesus

Jeremiah pleads that he is only a boy
The townspeople of Nazareth think Jesus is only a boy – they know where he came from, they know his earthly parents
There’s an irony here – when Jeremiah says he is only a boy, we are meant to remember the stories of Moses and Samuel
Characters whose childhoods were surrounded by signs of God’s calling and his favour

The people of Nazareth do not want to recognise Jesus as someone chosen by God before he was formed in the womb
Someone set apart and declared holy before he was born
Someone who speaks in God’s name
Someone appointed to proclaim the coming of God’s kingdom to the nations

Jeremiah pleads that he does not know how to speak
There’s another irony here – because of course, Moses try to tell God that he does not know how to speak
There’s irony in the gospel passage – because the people claim to have been overwhelmed by the gracious words of Jesus, and yet as far as we know, all he has done is read Scripture to them

But the greatest irony is in the words of appointment
God tells Jeremiah, today I appoint you over nations and over kingdoms
Unless this is the first time we have heard the story of Jeremiah, we know what kind of opposition and rejection he is going to face
We know he will not experience what it is to be an earthly conqueror – anything but
Jerusalem will fall, and Jeremiah will find himself speaking God’s word in exile

Similarly, the gospel of Jesus Christ will be heard in every corner of the world
But not until after Jesus has been rejected in his home town
Not until after Jesus has died at the hands of the Roman authorities, at the instigation of the leaders of his own people
His followers, who take the gospel to other lands, will also suffer persecution

There are two issues here for us: both are issues of discernment
One is how we discern our own calling
The other is how we discern the genuineness of other people’s callings
Jeremiah and Jesus are surrounded by people who do not discern their calling
They are incapable of recognising it – because the Spirit has not touched their hearts

This week Solomon has talked about the needs of orphans in rural Uganda, and the support needed by their teachers and others who take care of them
Next week we are going to hear from John, Jim, and Eric – three volunteers with the Street Pastors in Newcastle

All of these are people who discerned a call to serve the needs of others in the name of Christ
Their calling does not end with the good they have been able to do
They encourage others to see the good that ordinary Christians can do when they step out in faith
They challenge others to get involved
Do you believe their witness? Does it convince you enough to act on it?
Has the Spirit touched your heart?

It’s all very well writing cheques at a distance – other people can do great things with our money
But there comes a point when writing cheques becomes less a way of solving problems, and more a way of keeping trouble at a distance

Our God does not believe in doing good at a distance
When the greatest sickness of our race had to be cured, he sent himself – not just to administer the cure, but to become the cure, by suffering the disease

I challenge you to discern, whether the people who are telling you their stories are genuine
I challenge you to discern, whether God is calling you to support their work

I challenge you to discern, whether God is challenging us all, not just to pray and donate to other people’s ministries, but to make them our ministries too
Whether that means training as a Street Pastor, or getting on a plane to Africa

I challenge all of you to see yourselves differently
I challenge you, in faith, to become different people
I challenge you, to stop being the kind of people who don’t do this sort of thing
And to become the kind of people who do