Archive for January, 2017

What does it mean to be blessed?

Posted: January 31, 2017 in Uncategorized

Then he began to speak, and taught them, saying: “Blessed are you”

On Sunday mornings, we like to do theology
We like to bring what we think we know, and lay it alongside what the Bible actually says
And then we go home, and try to live out that fresh understanding

This passage from Matthew is a very familiar one
But that doesn’t mean we fully understand it
Lots of questions have been asked about it

Some people think about the setting – where was Jesus actually speaking?
In Matthew, this passage is known as the Sermon on the Mount
In Luke 6 there’s a very similar set of teachings – but there it’s the Sermon on the Plain
Are these two different incidents, or different versions of the same one?

Some people think about the mechanics and the physics
Could all those people really hear what Jesus was saying?
– In The Life of Brian we overhear someone in the crowd asking, “What’s he saying? Blessed are the cheesemakers?”

Wiser people think about the words
Who are the poor in heart?
What does it mean to be meek or humble?
What kind of peacemaker does Jesus have in mind? Mahatma Ghandi, or Sylvester Stallone?

This morning I’d like to lay those questions aside
I’d like to look at the other side of the things Jesus says here
And ask what it means to be blessed

First of all, you’ll have noticed that the Good News Bible doesn’t say blessed
It says happy

I think this is actually a good translation
Because to be happy is a conscious state
It is something you can enjoy in the present

We have been misled about blessings
Or perhaps we have misled ourselves
Because blessings in the Bible are very much to be enjoyed now – not later

Old Testament blessings are often very material things
Prosperity – the riches of a king like Solomon
Power – the victories of a king like David
Fertility – in the Bible, women far too old for childbearing miraculously fall pregnant

But the worldly value of these things is almost beside the point
The crucial thing is, you know and other people know, that the one who has given you these things, the one who has blessed you, is God

So what does it mean for us to bless one another?
Specifically, what does it mean to bless a child by the act of baptism?
Do human words and actions have power to draw down the blessing of God?

I’d like to introduce the example of my friend Father Michael
Father Michael celebrated fifty years of ordained priesthood last year
He was and is a saintly man – a man of deep peace

I don’t see much of Father Michael any more, but I remember our conversations well
When we met, no matter what I said, he would respond with two words – “Bless you.”
With just those two words, he actually did make you feel blessed

What makes Father Michael such a voice of God’s blessing?
– Is there a human explanation: is it just because he is such a loving and spiritual man?
– Or is it because the power of God works through his simple words?

What the Sermon on the Mount tells us is, that everyone who tries to do God’s will is blessed
Blessed not at some point in the unforeseeable future
– Blessed here and now
– Though of course they are promised more good things to come

We baptise in obedience to the commandment of God
We baptise as a sign of love for the child and the family who come into our midst
We baptise as a sign of God’s will to bless this child

The words we use proclaim our faith, that God will bless us all, through the love we share in the body of Christ

Matthew 5.1-12

29 January 2017, St George’s, High Heaton


Face to face with God

Posted: January 24, 2017 in Uncategorized

Your face, Lord, do I seek  Psalm 27.8

I’m sure we all think faces are important
One of the first things we see each morning is probably our own face in the bathroom mirror
When we speak to someone, we are constantly reading the expression of the face of the one we are talking to
There is so much more to communication than words
And yet there is a constant human tendency to reduce everything to words

We have all heard of the French philosopher Rene Descartes
He asked the question, how do we know we exist?

We probably all know the answer he gave
Sometimes it’s quoted in Latin: Cogito ergo sum
But the English version is probably more familiar: I think, therefore I am

What do you think of that as proof?
The assumption is, that our senses may deceive us about the world that surrounds us
But our thoughts are our thoughts – even when your thinking is wrong
You may doubt you exist, but even your doubts are proof that you think

There are ethical objections to Descartes’ argument
I think, therefore I am
– Well, good for me!
I know I exist, and that’s enough for me
Either it’s so obvious other people exist that I don’t need proof
Or maybe I just don’t care

Descartes’ proposition bricks us up inside our own heads, in the world of our own thoughts
It reduces everything to words, because conscious thought is always a stream of words

From a Christian standpoint it’s not enough to say, I think, therefore I am
From any religious standpoint it’s not enough
From any moral or ethical standpoint it’s not enough
Because it raises the questions, for what reason do I think? For what purpose do I exist?

Paul says in Romans 14.7-8, We do not live to ourselves, and we do not die to ourselves. … Whether we live or die, we are the Lord’s
When the imaginary sound of our own thoughts dies away, the word of God still speaks
And the God who created us, created other people
We do not exist for ourselves; we exist for other people, and for God

A French philosopher called Emmanuel Levinas put this an interesting way
Levinas was Jewish, and he wrote books on religion and Scripture as well as philosophy

When he tried to explain how we know we exist, Levinas didn’t look at the mind
He looked at the face
Not our own face in the mirror, but the face of another person
The face of someone who comes to us in need

When someone comes to us in need, we are stirred by our sense of responsibility for that person
We are stirred, because we know we are like them – we are both human beings
Think of those battlefield encounters, where someone meets the eyes of an enemy and suddenly finds themselves unable to strike the killer blow

Our sense of ourselves comes not from the consciousness our own thoughts, but from our consciousness of responsibility for someone else
Which comes, not from words, not from arguments, but simply from seeing their face in front of us

Many incidents in Scripture are based on the recognition of a face
I wonder what made Jesus call Peter and Andrew (Matthew 4)
I wonder what made Peter and Andrew drop their nets and follow him

We talk about the power of the Spirit – but how did the Spirit work in that situation?
We know the old cliché, their eyes met across a crowded room
I wonder if, that day, there was that kind of meeting of eyes across a sandy shore
An instant recognition, that here was someone with whom their lives would be bound up forever

Charities know the power of faces
Charities quote statistics to us, about disease or poverty or casualties in conflicts
But they know what what really speaks to us is the face of someone in trouble
Someone gazing at us from the page or the screen, and imploring us to help

The power of the suffering face is what lies behind that parable in Matthew 25:
“I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me,  I was naked and you gave me clothing, I was sick and you took care of me, I was in prison and you visited me.’ Then the righteous will answer him, ‘Lord, when was it that we saw you hungry and gave you food, or thirsty and gave you something to drink? And when was it that we saw you a stranger and welcomed you, or naked and gave you clothing? And when was it that we saw you sick or in prison and visited you?’ The king will answer them, ‘Truly I tell you, just as you did it to one of the least of these who are members of my family, you did it to me.’ Matthew 25:35–40 (NRSV)

If the face of your neighbour did not speak to you about me, then truly you do not know me, says the king

If the face of your neighbour does not speak to you about Jesus, then truly you know nothing of Jesus

Moses was the only human being after Adam who was able to talk face to face with God
But there is still that human desire to know God intimately

The Psalm speaks of that longing: “Come,” my heart says, “seek his face!” Your face, Lord, do I seek.
That desire could only be satisfied when God himself
came to us human flesh, in Jesus Christ

Do not hide your face from me, writes the Palmist
That desire could only be satisfied when God
reconciled us to himself, in Jesus Christ

That desire has been satisfied – that blessing has been given
We see the face of God every day, in the body of Christ – in the privilege of being here, among our brothers and sisters

But that blessing comes at a price
The price is, we can never turn our face away from someone in need, from someone in trouble
Because their face, too, is the face of God

22 January 2017, St Cuthbert’s, Heaton

Made to serve

Posted: January 17, 2017 in Uncategorized

15 January 2017, St George’s, High Heaton

Isaiah 49.1-7

He made me a polished arrow; in his quiver he hid me away

In the run-up to Christmas, or Advent as we call it, we study passages in the Old Testament which we as Christians believe point in a special way to the coming of Christ

If the period before Easter, we study passages in the Old Testament which we as Christians believe point in a special way to the redeeming work of Christ

The Servant Songs of Isaiah fit into both of these categories
The hopes surrounding the coming of the Servant Israel has waited for are transferred to the baby in the manger
The ideas of redemptive suffering we see in the unjust persecution and humiliation of the Servant are transferred to the figure of Jesus placed on trial and nailed to the cross

I saw my mother’s birth certificate recently
It described her father, my grandfather, as a ‘farm servant’

I know people who work on farms – none of them calls themselves ‘a farm servant’
The world has changed – ‘servant’ is a word we are not happy with any longer

What does it mean to be a servant?
For us, being a servant probably implies being servile
Being a humble drudge – playing Baldrick to someone else’s Blackadder

I suppose it depends who you’re serving
To be the chosen servant of a government minister probably places you higher in the social hierarchy than someone who works in a corner shop

So to be the chosen servant of God himself, King of kings and Lord of lords, must surely place you in a very exalted position indeed
Except that, to truly serve the King of kings demands a special willingness to serve – a deep and special humbleness
The Servant Songs of Isaiah give us a special opportunity to think what it means to serve

When we read the Servant Songs, because they are so familiar, it’s easy to assume they are talking directly about Jesus
But to jump too quickly to that conclusion displays a kind of arrogance towards the traditions of Judaism

It also over-simplifies our thinking about what kind of servant the Servant Songs are speaking about
And limits our view of how the idea of servanthood may apply to our own lives, as disciples

What do we know about Isaiah’s Suffering Servant?
First of all, we know that this figure has always been surrounded by questions

Who wrote these songs?
There is no simple answer to that question, because Isaiah is not a simple book

I remember looking at commentaries on a bookshelf
And wondering why there were separate commentaries for Isaiah chapters 1 to 39, and Isaiah chapters 40 to 66

I thought it was probably because Isaiah is such a long book – but I was wrong, of course
The reason is, that the ‘book’ of Isaiah was written by several different people

There may at some time have been a real prophet called Isaiah
But if there was, his sayings are mixed with the sayings of more than one other person

The book of Isaiah contains writings from at least three different periods
They relate to at least four major historic episodes of war and invasion, involving the neighbouring kingdom and empires of Syria, Assyria, Babylon, and Persia

Scholars talk about First, Second and Third Isaiah
First Isaiah is full or threats and warnings, relating to the threat posed by Assyria
Second Isaiah, to borrow someone else’s words, breathes promise and goodwill
Second Isaiah relates to the time when the exiles came home from captivity in Babylon
Third Isaiah relates to the time when the homecoming turned sour

Second Isaiah includes the Servant Songs
Three themes figure strongly in the Servant Songs
The first is the idea that the Servant is someone uniquely chosen by God
The second is that the Servant plays a special role in proclaiming and fulfilling God’s plan for his people
The third is that the Servant’s vulnerability is key to this role

In the passage we heard today, there are images of power and strength:
He made my mouth like a sharp sword … He made me a polished arrow

But these images come to us linked to the image of the unborn child: While I was in my mother’s womb he named me. … [He] formed me in the womb to be his servant
The Servant is born naked and vulnerable, yet with the power to fulfil a divine mission programmed into the very tissues of his being

As a grown man, the Servant is still a weak figure standing before the figures of the powerful and their armies
What enables the Servant to fulfil his mission is that the power and purpose of God stand behind what he says and does, the things he was born to say and do:
Kings shall see and stand up, princes, and they shall prostrate themselves,
because of the
Lord, who is faithful, the Holy One of Israel, who has chosen you

The early church realised, this words are true of Jesus in a special and unique way
They are true of everyone who has followed Jesus since

I was out with Street Pastors on Friday night – Tony was out last Friday
How does this kind of service relate to the themes of the Servant Songs?

You could say, it’s not actually a humble role
We go out in groups, in uniform, with radios connecting us to a control room
In superficial ways, we look like the authority figures who also go out in uniform at night – the police, the door staff

But people do not perceive us as authority figures
That is obvious from the way they approach us, and the way they talk to us
They see us as people who deliberately make themselves vulnerable, in order to help other vulnerable people

Obviously, there are situations that make us nervous
The confidence that overcomes our own sense of vulnerability in doing these things comes from doing them together, in the belief we share that God’s word calls us to do them

Let me ask this – in what ways are you prepared be vulnerable, for the sake of the gospel?
Are you held back by the fear of what other people might think?
In what ways is God asking you to step outside these walls?

Made to be a covenant

Posted: January 10, 2017 in Uncategorized

8 January 2017, St Cuthbert’s, Heaton  Covenant Sunday

Isaiah 42-1.9  Matthew 3.13-17

I took your hand and formed you and made you to be a covenant to the people and light to the nations

Every covenant service is a mixture of the familiar and the unfamiliar
The familiar things are the words of the customary hymns and liturgy which we have used over many years to remind ourselves of the commitment we once made, to follow Jesus and live as faithful members of his church

The unfamiliar thing is the sermon – the individual preacher’s endeavour to discover in the reading of Scripture some fresh light on what we understand by the word covenant, so that we say and sing the familiar words with a new and deeper understanding

Covenant is a difficult word, with several meanings
The books of the Law describe the covenant in terms of an agreement made between a ruler and his people
There are certain expectations laid on us, to be faithful and obedient
There are promises of rewards and blessings if we obey
There are threats of punishments and curses if we do not

But then there is the new covenant of the gospel, where Jesus has fulfilled the Law by his perfect obedience to the Father
And all there is left for us to do to escape the punishment for our own sins is to make sure we are in Christ

Our reading from Isaiah is the only one among today’s lectionary readings that contains the word covenant
I read it in the nrsv, and it seemed to me that the word covenant is used there in an unfamiliar way
It says, I have given you as a covenant to the people

I checked it in the Good News translation, where it says Through you I will make a covenant with all peoples – which is closer to the type of phrasing we are used to
And fits easily with our interpretation of Old Testament prophecy as pointing to Christ

But the nrsv is closer than the Good News to most modern translations
I also checked the translation in one of the best commentaries which translates this verse as,
I took your hand and formed you and made you to be a covenant to the people and light to the nations (Klaus Baltzer, Hermeneia commentary)

Finally I checked the Jewish Publication Society’s translation
Because if anyone ought to know, surely it’s them
But what they had was a little footnote saying,
Meaning of Hebrew uncertain

So let’s say that the question is not settled
But let’s still ask, what does it mean to say of anyone that God has
given you as a covenant to the people
I think the answer includes two things: this person is given as a sign, and as the fulfilment of a promise

This passage is the first of Isaiah’s Servant Songs
The Servant in the book of Isaiah is never named – but some scholars think he is Moses
Not the Moses who died hundreds of years before Isaiah was born, but the prophet like Moses that Scripture said would come one day

God says to Moses himself before he dies, I will raise up for them a prophet like you from among their own people (Deut 18.18)
So the Suffering Servant of Isaiah is the fulfilment of that promise

It’s not hard for us as Christians to see Jesus as this second Moses
Moses receives the Law; Jesus fulfils it

At different points in history, in their own way, Moses, Isaiah and Jesus embody the spirit of covenant
Moses is the one through whom God establishes the covenant of the Law
Jesus is the one who brings the new covenant of grace
Isaiah stands between them as the one who prophesies this great redeeming work

Where do we stand, among these towering figures?
Surely we do not belong there – God surely has no special task for us

But the covenant is a compact between the divine and the human, and weakness is human
Moses, Isaiah and Jesus are human figures, who display human weaknesses

God does not need a superhuman commitment from us
He sees through our words, to our weakness
He uses us, in our weakness; he uses our weakness
Just as he used the human weakness of Moses, Isaiah, and even Jesus

When God calls Moses from the burning bush, Moses tries to talk his way out of it
He says, Who am I, that I should go to Pharaoh, or that I should bring the Israelites out of Egypt?

What God has to explain to Moses is, that he has not been chosen because he is a powerful and terrifying figure
God in effect says, I know you are weak – and so does Pharaoh
But for that very reason, when I use you to deliver my people, Pharaoh will know it is me, not you, who has acted

Isaiah also tries to talk his way out of his prophetic commission
He says, my lips are contaminated by sin, and I live among people whose lips are contaminated by sin
But these things are no obstacle to God

Jesus is the Son of God, but he has the physical weakness of a human being
He does not call on the divine power that would have saved him from the cross
But the cross becomes the sign of a new covenant, and the promise of ultimate victory over death

Our gospel reading is the story of Jesus’ baptism, taken from Matthew
Our own baptism marks our belonging to the covenant people of God

We know that Jesus is the Son of God – he has no need to be baptised
But he submits to the baptism of John, because it is a sign

Among many other things, the baptism of Jesus shows us how simple actions performed by weak human beings can still be signs, that proclaim the great things of Almighty God

Our reading from Isaiah speaks about God’s chosen servant
it says of this servant, I have given you as a covenant to the people

Surely this can’t refer to us, can it?
But look at the list that appears in this passage, of the mighty things God’s servant will do

There will be no shouting, no great show of force
God’s servant will not utter any destructive criticisms; he will not be cynical
He will not discourage or patronise the naive enthusiasm of people who are young in faith

He will possess endurance; he will be patient and longs-suffering
He will embrace suffering on others’ behalf

He won’t limit his perspective to the things under his nose – he will have wide horizons
He will have a passion to see the gospel spread to the whole earth

He will possess a deep faith that the love of God is for all creation
And the word of God is for all peoples
Above all, first, last and always, he will be committed to God’s justice

These are the works that will make God’s chosen servant a covenant to the people
A covenant – a sign of the special relationship God’s chosen people enjoy with him, and one another; an expression of mutual promise and fidelity

These things are not beyond our imaginations, or our strength
They are meant for us, and offered to us
We embrace them and re-commit ourselves to them, here and now, today, in this act of worship

Will the face you love light up?

Posted: January 10, 2017 in Uncategorized

25 December 2016, St Cuthbert’s, Heaton & St George’s, High Heaton

Isaiah 9.1-2  John 1.1-5, 14-16  Hebrews 1.1-8

Let your face shine, that we might be saved

Yesterday I saw a programme talking about the cost of Christmas
They did a vox pop on the streets. They asked shoppers what their budget was for Christmas, or even if they had a budget
Most people didn’t – one woman said, if my husband’s watching, I do; if not, I don’t

She said what made it all worthwhile was watching her daughter’s face as she opened her presents – seeing her face light up when she got a special surprise

Her daughter wasn’t a child any longer – but there was still the hope of evoking that innocent, spontaneous joy we remember and treasure
She tried to maximise the chances of it happening by spending more money, and buying more presents

I was reminded of the old advert for chocolates you used to see at Christmas
See the face you love light up with Terry’s All Gold
Which actually says something very profound – one gift is enough, if it’s the right gift

It’s a very biblical image – remember Psalm 80 [which we talked about last week]
Let your face shine, that we might be saved
In other words, the underlying message is one of salvation and redemption
Re-connecting with someone at a level beyond our normal experience

Gifts at Christmas are part of the magic – but they don’t have to be expensive
See the face you love light up with Terry’s All Gold
Terry’s All Gold were not expensive chocolates, despite the name
The message of the advert was was, a thoughtful gift produces a disproportionate response – beyond the price, or the level of effort

Christmas is a time when we hope for two things
One has to do with family and friends; the other has to do with God

These things are linked, at a deep level – In both cases, we are looking for an experience beyond our normal experiences of these things
A special closeness, a heightened sense of togetherness
A sense of meaning which is based on all our previous experience of these occasions but goes beyond them

We pour all the resources we can gather into our Christmas services and our Christmas celebrations
Because we wrongly believe, the things we want to happen are under our own control

We leave nothing to chance
We think, the more effort we put in, the more likely the Christmas miracle is to happen

But the real truth is, if there’s no room for chance, there’s no possibility of surprise
If we’re not careful, our anxious preparations drive out any sense of the miraculous

The real Christmas is a non-linear phenomenon
What does that mean?

Linearity means proportionality, and predictability
Linearity means, you know what output you’ll get from a given input
Non-linearity means, small things have big and unpredictable consequences

Often in life you want linearity – you want to know, the car will stop twice as quickly if you brake twice as hard
If we spend twice the money, we get twice as much turkey

But when it comes to faith, we stop comparing inputs and outputs
On the one hand, we know how little we have to offer
On the other hand, our expectations are huge, because God’s promise is infinite

Christmas should be a time when the unexpected happens
– the wonderful gift someone never dreamed of asking for
– the friends who unexpectedly appear at the door
– the disaster in the kitchen which somehow still results in a wonderful meal
The unexpected things can change the whole experience; they are what we remember

Christmas should be a non-linear celebration, because the birth of Jesus was a non-linear phenomenon
It was the most non-linear phenomenon ever seen in our world
The hardest to understand, the least expected – no matter what the prophets had said
It was the clearest revelation of God’s glory

All our readings this morning try to give a sense of that:
Isaiah 9:2 (NRSV) The people who walked in darkness have seen a great light;
those who lived in a land of deep darkness — on them light has shined.

John 1:14 The Word became flesh and lived among us, and we have seen his glory, the glory as of a father’s only son, full of grace and truth.

Heb 1.3 He is the reflection of God’s glory and the exact imprint of God’s very being

The glory of God is the ultimate non-linear phenomenon
We need a special word for our experience of the glory of God – we call it revelation

I don’t hope everything goes wrong for you this Christmas
But I hope something surprising will happen
I hope the finger of God makes a hole in your preparations – and the light of his glory suddenly fills your day and your hearts

18 December 2016, St George’s, High Heaton

Isaiah 7.10-16  Psalm 80.1-7, 17-19

Restore us, O God; let your face shine, that we may be saved

This is the last Sunday of Advent, and our theme today is restoration.

Three times in Psalm 80, we hear this refrain:

Restore us, O God; let your face shine, that we may be saved.

Unless we’re using the Good News version, of course, in which case we hear:

Bring us back, O God! Show us your mercy, and we will be saved!

I can’t help but imagine sometimes, that the guiding principle behind the Good News translation is to take out all the good bits

Looking at the send half of the verse first, the picture of God’s face shining might be hard to take in – our Christian tradition does not really encourage us to picture God

There may be some reference to the face of the priest in the temple shining with the sacred oil he was anointed with when he went into the Holy of Holies once a year
Maybe it’s easier for us to think good it feels to have the warm sun shining on our faces – to think of that as a blessing, especially at this time of year, just before the shortest day
Whatever way we look at, we should have the sense of God’s gracious blessing

Looking back to the first half of the verse, I don’t think Bring us back, O God means the same as Restore us, O God
I can imagine the appeal of being brought back, if you imagine these words being spoken by people in exile, dragged away by their enemies to a place from their own land
But restoration means much more than that

Restoration – what does that mean?
We hear of lots of things being restored: buildings, furniture, paintings, sports cars
We hear of stolen goods being restored to their rightful owners
We hear of sick people being restored to health
All of these uses involve things being put back to the way they were

Some of the biblical uses of the word ‘restoration’ are like that
Exodus 22.26 tells us, if you take someone’s cloak as security for a loan, you have to give it back at nightfall so the owner has something to sleep in
Leviticus 6.4 tells us, if you realise you have cheated or robbed someone, you have to restore what you took (and add 20% to say you’re sorry)
In 1Sam 7.14, the Philistines restore the towns they took from Israel
In Nehemiah, the people restore the ruined walls of Jerusalem

Job is restored by God – he gets a new family and new wealth to replace what he lost
But he gets much, much more – both in terms of flocks and herds, and in his relationship with God
And there we begin to see a larger meaning for restoration

If we say Jesus brought about our restoration, is that all we mean – that he put things back the way they were, earlier in our lives?
Obviously not – our restoration in Christ goes much further than that

Actually, I might have been unfair to the Good News translation
I still think saying restore us O God is far more resonant than saying bring us back
But the older sense of shub, the Hebrew word that means restore, actually is to return or turn back
And that fits nicely with the idea of repentance, which means turning back to God

Not that our repentance can ever be enough in itself to earn the favour of God
King Ahaz received the sign God had decided to give him, whether he was gracious enough to ask for it or not
But only when we repent and turn to God, do we see that God has already turned to us

God turned to us in the coming of Jesus Christ into the world
In Christ we are restored, not just to what we were, but to what God intended us to be
Not only ourselves, but all creation is restored and reconciled to God in Christ

What will it be like, to see creation restored?
In Genesis, we hear two things said about the things God created
They were good, and he was pleased with them
When we and all creation are restored, we and everything around us will be good, and pleasing to God

We should be reminded of those two things when we hear the voice of the Father at the baptism of Jesus saying, this is my Son, in whom I am well pleased
And when we hear the voice of Jesus himself on the cross say, as he dies it is finished – which also means, it is completed – my work is perfected

The work of Christ is good, is perfect in fact; and the Father is pleased
In Christ, and through Christ, we can be made good and the Father can be pleased with us
That is what restoration means