Archive for March, 2016

20 March 2016, St George’s, High Heaton

Psalm 118.19-29  Luke 19.28-40

As he was now approaching the path down from the Mount of Olives, the whole multitude of the disciples began to praise God joyfully with a loud voice

Interpreting Scripture is a difficult task
So many important passages are hard to make sense of
We often feel we could make better sense of a passage, if we knew just one more thing

I noticed one detail in the accounts of the entry to Jerusalem this week: the colt had never been ridden before
Why does this matter?
It’s a reference to Zechariah 9.9, which describes the donkey as ‘new’
– but you won’t find that word in the Hebrew or in the English translations we’re most familiar with
Its only appears in the Septuagint, the Greek translation of the Hebrew Scriptures

I’d like to know one other detail
I’d like to know how big the crowd was on Palm Sunday
Luke tells us people kept spreading their cloaks on the road – so we imagine a crowd that lines the whole route
He tells us that, as Jesus set off down the path from the Mount of Olives towards Jerusalem, a multitude began praising God
Pharisees are alarmed by the noise – they probably worry the Romans are going to send in the riot squad to stop the demonstration, the only way they know how

But this crowd isn’t the whole population of Jerusalem – not even half of it
In fact, Luke is quite clear, the only people involved are Jesus’ disciples
He says as much three times
Even the Pharisees recognise that this crowd is made up mainly of visitors
Visitors who have followed Jesus from Galilee
Enough people to constitute a nuisance – not enough to make a government tremble

The scene is easier to make sense of if the crowd is a small one
We don’t have to imagine the whole city of Jerusalem welcoming Jesus
– then, within a couple of days, turning violently against him
Handing him over to the authorities
Insisting he be crucified – mocking him as he hangs in agony on the cross

We don’t have to imagine that turnaround, or try to explain it
We only have to imagine the small crowd of the faithful
With a few bystanders, including the Pharisees, watching from the sidelines
And contrast those few with the enormous crowds we always see in the Hollywood versions of this story

Not an enormous cheering crowd
No great adrenalin rush coursing through the collective blood system and urging everyone on to greater heights of excitement

Just a few of the faithful, who rejoiced because they recognised the sign they were given
The sign of a king who entered Jerusalem on a donkey, by a side entrance
To signify to those with eyes to see, that he was the king prophesied by Zechariah
But to everyone else, simply a madman surrounded by other madmen

While Herod apparently rode into Jerusalem on that same day on a war horse
Surrounded by troops of Roman soldiers
With a crowd cheering from the roadside
In the way crowds only cheer when soldiers are pointing sharp weapons at them

It’s no mystery why Herod’s crowd turned on Jesus – they couldn’t take the risk of believing
Their reactions were governed by fear, not faith

The small crowd has a lesson for us, too
Where do we see ourselves? Lined up at sword- point, afraid and uncertain, pinned down or moved around in by the rulers of this world?
Or rejoicing with the ragged few, who saw the spirit moving in events too small for most other people to notice at all?


13 March 2016, St Cuthbert’s, Heaton

John 12.1-8

Take sweet spices with pure frankincense … and make an incense blended as by the perfumer, seasoned with salt, pure and holy

We are getting close to Easter
This is the beginning of John’s Passion narrative: the next scene is the entry to Jerusalem

Our instinctive reading of this passage is a simple one: nice Mary, nasty Judas
And it suggests the issue it raises is also quite simple: how would we respond in this situation?
– Would we pour out the perfume? – Would we join in the criticism?
We see how those around Jesus are divided by an incident he provokes
But the central issue isn’t a moral one – it’s an issue of spiritual discernment

There are versions of this story in all four gospels
They carry different messages
They involve different women
And Judas is only named in one of them – in John, the one we heard today

John’s version brings into the open something that is only implied in the other versions
That it is Judas who leads the chorus of condemnation of the woman’s action

But even though Mark and Matthew don’t name Judas, they both suggest that this incident is a tipping point
Judas goes straight off afterwards and betrays Jesus to the chief priests

Why does this incident make such an impact on Judas? I think, because it exposes him as a fraud
It exposes his faith in the gospel and his following of Jesus as a sham

I see the real centre of this passage in verse 3
It’s a verse which has no counterpart in the other versions of this story:
Mary took a pound of costly perfume made of pure nard, anointed Jesus’ feet, and wiped them with her hair. The house was filled with the fragrance of the perfume.

Do those words sound familiar?
They should – let me remind you of a few verses of Scripture:

In the time of Moses, when the tent of meeting has been completed and dedicated for worship: the glory of the Lord filled the tabernacle (Exodus 10.34)

Later, when Solomon’s temple has been finished and dedicated for worship: a cloud filled the house of the Lord, so that the priests could not stand to minister because of the cloud; for the glory of the Lord filled the house of the Lord. (1 Kings 8:10–11)

When God calls Isaiah in a vision to be a prophet: I saw the Lord sitting on a throne, high and lofty; and the hem of his robe filled the temple. [The seraphs] called to one another and said: Holy, holy, holy is the Lord of hosts; the whole earth is full of his glory.” The pivots on the thresholds shook at the voices of those who called, and the house filled with smoke. (Isaiah 6:1–4)

Ezekiel sees a similar vision: Now the cherubim were standing on the south side of the house when the man went in; and a cloud filled the inner court. Then the glory of the Lord rose up from the cherub to the threshold of the house; the house was filled with the cloud, and the court was full of the brightness of the glory of the Lord. (Ezekiel 10:3–4)

How many times did you hear the word, filled? (six times, plus full twice)
This deliberate repetition reveals these words to be a code – a phrase with a special significance

These passages answer the question: why did the priests burn incense in the temple?
Not to make the building smell nice – not to cover up the odour of all those slaughtered animals and all that spilt blood
The incense smoke represents the glory of God filling the temple
– It symbolises the presence of God
– In a certain way, it makes God present to us through our senses of sight and smell

The incense is a very special, sacred thing
It has to be made to a special recipe, with sweet spices and pure frankincense: Exodus 30:34–35 The Lord said to Moses: Take sweet spices with pure frankincense … and make an incense blended as by the perfumer, seasoned with salt, pure and holy

Only the priests are allowed to make it
It can’t be burnt anywhere but in the temple – anyone who misuses it is severely punished

The house was filled with the fragrance of the perfume.
It’s not a common phrase
The only verse I can find that’s anything like it is Philippians 4.18

Philippians 4:18, where Paul says, I am full, now that I have received from Epaphroditus the gifts you sent, a fragrant offering, a sacrifice acceptable and pleasing to God.

Paul deliberately uses words that will remind his readers of the burning of incense in the temple, and how God’s glory fills the temple
He likens himself to the temple, filled with the smoke of burning incense offered to God

This is the context for the action of the woman who anoints Jesus
She pours out her perfume on his feet
Judas condemns what she has done – because it touches him far more deeply than he knows
Because the nearness of divinity touches the springs of his secret guilt

The house was filled with the fragrance of the perfume.
It’s not a waste of expensive scent – it’s almost another Transfiguration
Except that this time, Jesus’ divinity is not revealed by a supernatural radiance
It’s revealed in the impulsive action of an ordinary woman

It’s a spiritual confrontation
On the one hand, the faithful woman – on the other hand, the twisted disciple

On the one hand, an extravagant gift of love – on the other hand, the calculations of a cynical mind that abuses other people’s trust

On the one hand, someone who senses the presence of the divine and offers herself to it
On the other hand, someone who denies it and wants to crush it out of existence

The house was filled with the fragrance of the perfume.
The Spirit is moving in this place today.
Do you sense it?

The house was filled with the fragrance of the perfume.
Do you want to let it out, or try to squeeze it back into the bottle?
It’s a choice with the deepest consequences

The three Rs of forgiveness

Posted: March 6, 2016 in Uncategorized

6 March 2016, St George’s, High Heaton

Joshua 5.9-12  Psalm 32  2 Corinthians 5.16-21  Luke 15.1-3, 11-32

Happy are those whose transgression is forgiven

All the Lectionary readings today are about forgiveness
– In Luke, the father forgives the prodigal son
– In 2Corinthians Paul says, in Christ God was reconciling the world to himself, not counting their trespasses against them
– Psalm 32 says, Happy are those whose transgression is forgiven, whose sin is covered
– In the Joshua reading God says, Today I have rolled away from you the disgrace of Egypt

I want to talk about what we understand about forgiveness
I want to talk about it under three headings – three words, all beginning with ‘R’
Rejoicing, relief and restoration

How do people respond to forgiveness? Scripture says, they should rejoice

Psalm 32 says, you surround me with glad cries of deliverance. … Be glad in the Lord and rejoice, O righteous, and shout for joy, all you upright in heart.

How do people rejoice in the Bible? One important way is by feasting
The Joshua reading tells of a feast: the first Passover in the Promised Land
It’s a turning point: the day before, they were eating manna in the wilderness
The next day, they begin eating the crops grown in their new land

The crunch point of the story of the Prodigal Son isn’t the forgiveness of the prodigal
It’s the elder son’s response to the father’s invitation to join the feast
His unwillingness to join in his father’s rejoicing

What does ‘rejoicing’ mean? Does it just mean being unusually happy?
No: rejoicing is a more complex emotion than that
Rejoicing atones for the past – but it does not obliterate it
That brings us to our second heading: relief

Think how you’d feel, if Newcastle won a trophy
Most of you would feel happy – but you’d also feel relieved
Because the years of disappointment and misery had finally come to an end

When we rejoice, we celebrate a triumph over something in our past
We remember troubles and hardships we’ve survived
We remember difficulties we’ve overcome

We were lost, but now we are found – Just like the lost sheep or the coin in the parables
We rejoice – but with a deep sense of relief over what God has delivered us from

That brings us to our third heading: restoration
Putting back things the way they were meant to be
Rededicating our lives to God’s purposes

These passages are about a particular type of rejoicing – the joy of homecoming
Think what it’s like to come home from a holiday
There’s always some anxiety, until you open the door
Until you see everything the way you left it

There is relief in the joy of coming home
The relief of being home, and finding home is still what it was

What’s the first thing you do when you come home?
You put the kettle on, and get the biscuits out
Think again of the Israelites celebrating the Passover for the first time in the promised land
Home isn’t home until you’ve eaten and drunk there

So we come to our third word, restoration
The prodigal son is restored – his father gives him the best robe, a ring, and sandals for his feet
These are symbols of acceptance – he is restored to his place

The Israelites are restored
They were made to wander in the wilderness because of their disobedience
But now God has decreed that their the time of wandering in the wilderness is over

God’s restoration of sinners is a type of homecoming
It’s a much greater joy than finding the pipes haven’t leaked and no one’s broken in
It’s the joy of finding yourself in the place you know you are meant to be
Feeling a sense of rightness in being there
Making a deeper connection with the place where you belong, just because you’ve been away

The day after the feast of the Passover, the Israelites eat the produce of the land
They begin to settle down into the rhythm of everyday life in the land God has given them
I expect the prodigal son felt the same way as he settled back into the routines of home

God’s restoration is a turning point
We see that in 2Corinthians: Paul says, From now on …
Then he goes on, by contrasting the things that have passed away, with the new creation in Christ, and the new mission we have, as ambassadors in Christ
– as the representatives to the world of a new kingdom
– which is not a new kingdom at all, but the restoration of the kingdom through Christ’s triumph over sin

Rejoicing, relief, restoration
Three different ways of talking about our experience of forgiveness, and its consequences
We’ve barely skimmed the surface of that topic
But as we go on together towards Palm Sunday, we’ll go on reflecting on what it means to talk about ‘the work of Christ’