Archive for February, 2018

Ashamed of the cross

Posted: February 25, 2018 in Uncategorized

Those who are ashamed of me and of my words in this adulterous and sinful generation, of them the Son of Man will also be ashamed

It’s said that every political career ends in failure
Certainly that’s true in a democracy
A career ends when the electorate or your own MPs or your party members in the constituencies turn against you
When the pressures of the latest crisis, the latest policy mistake, the latest scandal tip the balance against survival

One moment, Margaret Thatcher was saying “ten more years”; the next, she was gone
Winston Churchill, revered as a wartime leader, could not survive in the politics of peacetime

Nehemiah sounds like the name of a prophet
He had a strong sense of God’s calling to do the work he did

But he was also a politician; a high official in Artaxerxes’ court
Who was sent to the province of Judah as its governor (though we are not told this until much later)
Like every politician, he had his opponents and he had his enemies

When we studied a passage from Nehemiah earlier, we heard about some of the struggles he had to rebuild Jerusalem’s walls
Why was it so important to rebuild the walls?
Because God had chosen the city of Jerusalem to be the place of his special presence on earth
The city at the heart of the Promised Land

The Jews had believed Jerusalem could never be destroyed
Right up until the moment the Babylonians marched up and destroyed it
And then marched all the richer inhabitants off into exile

The destruction of the city was God’s punishment for the Jewish nation’s sin
So for Nehemiah, to rebuild the walls and repopulate the city is to remove the signs of their humiliation
To tell the whole world, you cannot mock us or triumph over us any longer – God has restored us

He says to the people, Come, let us build the wall, that we may no longer suffer derision (Nehemiah 2.17)
When he prays, he says, Hear, O our God, for we are despised (Nehemiah 4.4)

Shame is also the theme of our gospel reading today
Jesus says, to the crowd and his disciples, Those who are ashamed of me and of my words in this adulterous and sinful generation, of them the Son of Man will also be ashamed when he comes in the glory of his Father with the holy angels (Mark 8.38)

Who is Jesus speaking to?
You could say, he’s speaking to every individual in the crowd
It’s an invitation to leave the crowd behind, to ignore what other people say, and come to him

You could say, he’s speaking to the disciples
He’s saying, my teachings are hard for people to accept, and opposition is only going to increase
Heed my warning, because I know you’ll be tempted to desert me

But mostly, Jesus is speaking to one person – Peter
Because Peter is the only one in this passage who actually tries to silence Jesus

Peter rebukes Jesus, and in turn is rebuked
What is it that Jesus says that day, that Peter finds so hard to accept?

He began to teach them that the Son of Man must undergo great suffering, and be rejected by the elders, the chief priests and the scribes, and be killed, and after three days rise again (Mark 8.31)
In other places where Jesus prophesies his death he speaks only to his disciples, and he warns them to keep silent
But in this scene, in the presence of a crowd, he says these things
quite openly (Mark 8.32)

Why does Peter rebuke Jesus? Because he thinks Jesus has lost the plot – literally
Jesus is talking in a way that does not fit the story Peter has been telling himself
He is talking what sounds like nonsense

What story has Peter been telling himself?
It’s a story that never quite comes to the crunch

In Peter’s version, perhaps the disciples and Jesus go on travelling around the country together
Jesus goes on teaching and working miracles
There is opposition and suspicion from the authorities, but not too much

But now Jesus says quite openly that his story is about to reach a crisis
He also tells the people around him if they want to be accepted, they must go all the way with him
They must take up their cross and follow me (Mark 8.34)

It’s an ultimatum – that’s obvious – but it’s not clear what Jesus is actually asking
He demands a commitment, from people who can hardly begin to guess what that commitment might be

With Nehemiah, it looks quite simple
Nehemiah tries to remove his nation’s disgrace by rebuilding a city
It’s a difficult task, but people know what it involves
Taking up your cross and following Jesus is much harder to understand

But one thing is very clear – the end Jesus prophesies for himself looks very much like defeat
To be arrested, to be tortured, to be hung on a cross like a traitor or a rebel, is nothing like the end Peter was hoping for
It seems like nothing heroic – nothing but humiliation, and indescribable pain

Peter is ashamed – and so he deserves the warning Jesus gives
Those who are ashamed of me and of my words in this adulterous and sinful generation, of them the Son of Man will also be ashamed when he comes in the glory of his Father with the holy angels (Mark 8.38)

To Nehemiah, restoration is rebuilding, obliterating the signs of disgrace, putting things back as they were
Jesus offers something every different
Jesus tells anyone who wants to follow him, salvation means letting go of everything
It means suffering the ultimate defeat, the ultimate disgrace
You won’t even know if it was worth it, until the very end – until a point beyond the end, until the resurrection

Anyone can believe in the cross, if by the cross we mean two pieces of wood nailed together and erected by a roadside or on a hill
Crucifixion is the most brutal fact of Roman justice, exhibited in plain sight to every passer-by

To believe in the resurrection, before the fact, is much more difficult
In fact, almost impossible
No one around Jesus, at that moment, is capable of that faith
That’s why at the climactic moment, as Jesus is arrested, they make their escape

To believe in Jesus, you must take up your cross
The only way you will know the meaning of the cross is by living it

You have to go all the way with Jesus – all the way to Jerusalem, to the cross, to the tomb, to get to the resurrection
You can’t stop short, you can’t go round – not even to save yourself

It sounds like madness, and Paul admits the difficulty in 1 Corinthians:
we preach Christ crucified, a stumbling block to Jews and folly to Gentiles (1Co 1.23)

The lesson of the Easter story is that one fine day, faith comes to a crunch
There is a moment we have to commit to the truth of the gospel
That Jesus was obedient to the Father, to the point of death on a cross – however crazy that seems

He calls us to walk that same path, of willing sacrifice
To own Christ and all his blessings, we have to own the cross

The world would like us to deny Jesus
They would like us to deny the defeat and the humiliation, as well as the loaves and the fishes and the miracles of healing
The first step in denying Jesus is to deny the cross

If we deny the truth of the story of the cross, then we deny the resurrection
If we deny the resurrection, we deny the need for the resurrection
Which means, we deny the problem of sin – the reason Jesus came

If there was no sin, if no one needed forgiveness, Jesus didn’t need to come at all – we don’t need a Saviour
And if we don’t need a Saviour, because there’s no sin, then there’s no God

In other words, if we deny the cross, we deny everything
But we preach Christ crucified – as Paul did
And in everything we do as a church, especially in Lent and over Easter, we preach the need to take up our own cross, and follow Jesus faithfully, to the end

25 February 2018, St Cuthbert’s, Heaton


I told them of the hand of my God that had been upon me for good, and also of the words that the king had spoken to me. And they said, “Let us rise up and build.” Nehemiah 2.18

I wonder how well we know the book of Nehemiah
The thing that stands out most in my mind is that Nehemiah was the man who rebuilt the walls of Jerusalem
He also restored the worship of the Jerusalem temple
But what does the book of Nehemiah mean for us? What does it mean for our community?

As we read, we realise the walls are just a part of the picture
That bigger picture is the restoration of the relationship between the people and their God
That’s why we also heard a reading from Genesis this morning

God shows Noah the rainbow, as a sign of the covenant he makes with humanity and al living things
The theme, repeated again and again, is covenant, covenant, covenant
And that is also true of the book of Nehemiah – which is deliberately written as a re-telling of Deuteronomy, the book that tells how God prepared his people to enter the Promised Land

Nehemiah tells the people God wants them to rebuild the city wall
But he also tells them to treat one another with justice
If there’s no justice for the people in the city, there’s no point in having a city

The book of Nehemiah also reminds us of the importance of prayer
Nehemiah does great things, but he doesn’t rush into action
His first response to every situation is prayer
He prays before he leaves the Persian court and comes to Jerusalem

When he gets to Jerusalem, he does nothing for three days – perhaps because he’s tired after the journey
But I think he spends that time in prayer
Then he goes off and tours the city by night, and looks at the ruined walls
And I’m sure that’s also time he spends in prayer

Then he assembles the people, and speaks to them. He says,
You see the trouble we are in, how Jerusalem lies in ruins with its gates burned. Come, let us build the wall of Jerusalem, that we may no longer suffer derision.” And I told them of the hand of my God that had been upon me for good, and also of the words that the king had spoken to me.

How do the people respond to Nehemiah’s testimony? Are they convinced? Yes!
They said, “Let us rise up and build.” So they strengthened their hands for the good work.

The toughest part of mission is, breaking the news to the people who will have to do the work: how do you persuade them? Nehemiah shows us how

First of all, it helps if people know you are someone who prays
Nehemiah’s habit of prayer reveals him to be someone serious, someone of integrity, someone who wants to serve God rather than himself

How often do we come together for prayer in our church, outside worship services?
How far does that reflect the time we spend in prayer, individually?

Secondly, it helps if people know you’ve done your research – you’ve spent time seeing the situation as it is on the ground
Nehemiah doesn’t just act on the basis of the reports that reached him in Susa
He takes the time to see for himself exactly how things are

Prayer walking is an obvious tool to use in seeing our community through God’s eyes – but every meeting with people from our community, formal or informal, should be preceded and followed by prayer

Thirdly, it helps if people can believe the thing you want to do comes from God; that God’s purposes will be served by the work, and God’s hand will be on the workers
Nehemiah gives a testimony
He tells them of the hand of my God that had been upon me for good, in his life in exile and the important job he had been given
He tells them
of the words that the king had spoken to me, how God had persuaded Artaxerxes to release him from his duties, to do this important work in his own land

It is good to have people in our churches come forward with individual insights and revelations given in prayer
But for anything to happen, the church community needs to sense a collective purpose, and have faith that this is God’s purpose

In the next few weeks we’ll see how the story unfolds
And how Nehemiah’s story still speaks to our church today
Particularly how we see the relationship between the faith we proclaim in our worship, and the life of the community outside

18 February 2018, St George’s, High Heaton

We’re going to build the wall

Posted: February 19, 2018 in Uncategorized

The remnant who had survived the exile is in great trouble and shame. The wall of Jerusalem is broken down, and its gates are destroyed by fire.  (Nehemiah 1.3, esv)

This Sundays and in the five Sundays of Lent, I’m going to do something different
Instead of following the Bible readings in the Lectionary, I’m going to work my way through one book of the Old Testament – the book of Nehemiah
I may still use some readings from the Lectionary. But the focus will be on Nehemiah

These sermons on Nehemiah will also be introductions to our study sessions on Tuesday evenings
The study sessions will be based on a Lent course devised a few years ago by the Centre for Theology and Community

The Centre’s mission statement says, they believe Christianity requires social justice as well as individual transformation
We are committed to working with people – not just for them
AND We seek to root our action in listening – to God and neighbour

We believe as Christians it’s important to read the Bible
But how we read the Bible is very important
The theology of the course is liberation theology

What does that mean?
We’re probably used to preaching and teaching where you have an expert talking down
Our churches are organised and run in ways that make sure this is what happens
Almost unavoidably, the voice of that preaching is an educated voice, the voice of someone from a privileged class

Liberation theology is theology from the ground up
It tries to hear what the Bible means to the poorest and most disadvantaged in society

It has its roots in the 1960s, in Latin America, in societies ruled by military dictators
Countries where there was not even a pretence of democracy
Very unequal societies, societies governed by elites who governed in their own interests
Where people who made trouble simply disappeared

When liberation theology tells the story of the cross, it points out that Jesus spoke about freedom to people who were poor and oppressed
When Jesus spoke to the people who wielded power, he spoke about judgement

Liberation theologians point out that Jesus was executed for political reasons
He was killed at the instigation of powerful people, including officials of the temple itself
But some interpretations of the gospels don’t give enough weight to those facts

I wonder how well we know the book of Nehemiah
The thing that stands out most in my mind is that Nehemiah was the man who rebuilt the walls of Jerusalem
He also restored the worship of the Jerusalem temple

In the course of telling that story, Nehemiah also gives us great lists of names, of the heads of families who helped rebuild the walls, and the people who came back to Jerusalem from Babylon
And the priests and the Levites and the gatekeepers who served in the temple

All this is very interesting to historians – but what does it mean to us?
Theologically, we might say God approves of Nehemiah’s work of rebuilding the walls
We might start to think that maybe we should build some walls of our own, to put the fear of God into our neighbours and protect ourselves from impurity
Is that the message of Nehemiah? Some people have thought so

We know the famous walls of history, and some of the rulers who built them
We know what threats they were trying to protect themselves from, and the kind of statement they wanted their walls to make
Hadrian’s Wall, the Great Wall of China, the Berlin Wall, Pres Trump’s wall on the Mexican border

Donald Trump says he wants to make America Great Again – MAGA
You could say, Nehemiah wants God to make Israel great again – MIGA

But when you read the book of Nehemiah, you realise power and status are not what he is after
Nehemiah’s work on Jerusalem’s wall is just a small part of a much bigger picture

That bigger picture is the renewal of the covenant
The restoration of the relationship between the people and their God
And the details of that picture, the way people treat their neighbours, are at least as important as the wall

If there’s no justice for the people in the city, there’s no point in having a city
No point in having walls – because there is nothing behind them that deserves protection

The course on Nehemiah we are going to follow draws parallels between Nehemiah’s rebuilding of Jerusalem and our attempts to rebuild our communities.
It tries to help us to look at the ways in which you and your church can listen to the needs of the local community and respond in a way which combines charity and justice.

How does the course find this message in the book of Nehemiah?
Let’s see how the book opens – but before we do that, let’s remind ourselves of the situation Nehemiah faces

The Jewish elite had been taken captive to Babylon and lived there in exile for around 70 years
The poor people stayed behind and were forced to work for their new masters, the Babylonians

Eventually the Babylonian empire was toppled by the Persians, who had a different way of dealing with the countries they ruled over
They allowed them much more control of their own affairs, and in particular they encouraged them to carry on the worship of their own gods

The emperor Cyrus, the one we read about in the Old Testament, issued a decree in 538 b.c.e., setting out these principles and allowing the Jewish exiles to go home and rebuild their temple

The temple was rebuilt on the exact site of Solomon’s temple
That took 22 years, and the temple was rededicated in 516

Not everyone went home immediately – there were still many Jews living elsewhere
Nehemiah is a powerful man, a Jew who still lives in Babylon, serving the Persian King Artaxerxes
He regularly gets news of the things going on in his homeland, and this news upsets him

He knows about the Jews who are in Jerusalem, trying to rebuild
But their efforts are running into trouble
There has been damage to the walls, and the gates, and the worry is that the temple itself might be destroyed again

Nehemiah has the emperor’s ear – he knows he can ask for a favour
If Nehemiah was just a politician, what would he have done?

He would have wanted to take action immediately
He could have asked for an army
He could have led them to Jerusalem, driven out the troublemakers and then commanded the soldiers to help the people build up the walls

But Nehemiah is a man of God
So the first thing he does is to turn to God in prayer
And in his prayer, he tries to see the problem as God sees it

He doesn’t just spend a couple of minutes in prayer, or even an hour
He spends several days; he weeps and mourns, and he fasts

The prayer he offers isn’t a prayer for the destruction of his people’s enemies
It’s a prayer of repentance

He sees the sufferings of the people as the consequence of sin
He admits that he and his family share this guilt

He remembers the story told in the book of Deuteronomy, of how the Israelites prepared to enter the Promised Land
He remembers that Moses gave them a warning from God
If they sinned, God would remove his blessing and drive them out of the land
That, basically, is what happened in the exile

But the God who exiled the Jewish people is still the God who chose them in the first place
They are still the covenant people, and God’s love for them is faithful and everlasting

He still holds out the promise to his people, that if they turn to him again in their hearts and keep his commandments, he will restore his blessing

That is what Nehemiah prays for, and he prays that God’s favour will take one particular form –
That the Persian King will listen to his request, and grant him some time away from court
To see for himself what is going on in Jerusalem and to help if he can

In the next few weeks we’ll see how the story unfolds
And how Nehemiah’s story still speaks to our church today
Particularly how we see the relationship between the faith we proclaim in our worship, and the life of the community outside

11 February 2018, St Cuthbert’s, Heaton

Encouraging tired eagles

Posted: February 5, 2018 in Uncategorized

Even youths will faint and be weary, and the young will fall exhausted; but those who wait for the Lord shall renew their strength; they shall mount up with wings like eagles

Jesus always seems to be very busy in Mark’s gospel
Immediately, he did this; At once, he did that; The same day, he did something else

He is baptised in the Jordan, and immediately driven out into the wilderness
He arrives in Capernaum, and immediately goes into the synagogue to preach
When he finishes preaching he goes at once to the house of Simon and Andrew, and immediately heals Simon’s mother-in-law

The urgency Jesus feels communicates itself to those around him
He calls to people fishing, and immediately they leave their nets
He teaches, and at once the authority of his teaching is proclaimed everywhere

Immediately is an interesting word
It literally means, with nothing in between
In the Bible it indicates that people are responding to the Spirit
There’s no human doubts or hesitations in between the Spirit and the people it speaks to– they just respond

What stops us responding to the voice of the Spirit immediately?
What stands in between and gets in the way?
The simple answer is us – we do. Specifically, our lack of faith stands in the way

I’m not talking about doctrine
I don’t mean that we disbelieve in the Holy Trinity or the divinity of Christ or life after death

But do we have the complete trust in God that lets us act immediately when he calls us?
Do we have the faith that God really calls us and really tells us what he wants us to do?
Or do we talk ourselves out of being faithful and responsive to God – because it’s safer?

I think we do. Where do we see this lack of faith at work? Where does it express itself?
I think in that sense of tiredness we hear about so often

Let me put that in context. It’s not only people in church who feel tired
Feeling tired is one of the most common complaints in modern life

It’s so common, it’s got its own acronym: TATT – tired all the time syndrome
At any given time, 20% of people complain of feeling unusually tired
5-7% of people feel so tired, they complain to their doctor about it

GPs only think it’s worth sending half of those patients for tests: bloods and so on
Few of those tests produce any abnormal findings
Most patients don’t get any formal diagnosis
If they get anything, it’s usually a descriptive diagnosis – something like ‘stress’

If there are no positive medical findings, does that mean the problem isn’t ‘real’?
No, obviously not – it just means the problem needs a different kind of treatment
Advice on lifestyle, attitudes, beliefs, behaviours and so on

What about us in church? What do we do about our sense of tiredness?
I think we sometimes talk ourselves into feeling tired
Which is good, because it means we can talk ourselves out of it
We just have to break the habit we have of talking about how tired we are

Let me give an example of how that can happen
A teacher got fed up of children at school telling her things were ‘boring’
The things they were studying, or the work she asked them to do

So she banned the use of the B word in her classroom
No one was allowed to say anything was boring

They had to come up with more creative ways of saying it
“This isn’t very interesting” “This could be more exciting”
It had a big effect not only on how students talked, but on how they approached their work

I tried a similar thing here, at our Saturday families event in December
The weather was frosty – but I banned the C word
No one was allowed to say it was cold
“It’s bracing” “That wind has an edge to it” “It’s not very warm, is it?”

Why should we try to change the words we use? Because words matter
If other people say it’s cold, you start to feel cold – even if you weren’t cold before
They talk you into feeling cold

That’s also true of the T word – TIRED. People can talk you into feeling tired
If they say they’re tired, you start feeling tired too – just to keep them company
If they tell you that you look tired, you start to feel tired – even if you weren’t tired before

What do people in church mean when they say they’re tired?
It think it really points to feelings either of boredom or discouragement
Neither of those feelings have any place in church

Is our tiredness real? Yes
Is it 100 % physical? Probably not – I actually think it’s spiritual
We feel tired because we don’t have enough faith; we don’t believe the Scriptures
What does Isaiah say?

The Lord … does not faint or grow weary …
He gives power to the faint,
and strengthens the powerless.
Even youths will faint and be weary,
and the young will fall exhausted;
but those who wait for the Lord shall renew their strength,
they shall mount up with wings like eagles,
they shall run and not be weary,
they shall walk and not faint.

I like what Isaiah says here – even young people get tired, if they rely on their own strength
But people who find their strength in God just go on and on and on
Remember that song we sing – “The joy of the Lord is our strength”

They shall run and not be weary, they shall walk and not faint – is that how we feel?

We shouldn’t talk ourselves into feeling tired
We shouldn’t talk other people into feeling tired
We shouldn’t let other people talk us into feeling tired

That’s not how God created us to feel
That’s not what life in the Spirit feels like

I want us to ban the T word
Because if we believe the Scripture, there is no reason why any of us should feel tired:

those who wait for the Lord shall renew their strength,
they shall mount up with wings like eagles,
they shall run and not be weary,
they shall walk and not faint.

When we get that self-inflicted weariness out of the way, we’ll feel the immediacy of the Spirit at work in us
Remember what Jesus said to the Samaritan woman by the well:

Whoever drinks of the water that I will give him will never be thirsty again. The water that I will give him will become in him a spring of water welling up to eternal life (John4.13-14)

The living water Christ gives us is the life of the Spirit
Standing water stagnates, because it doesn’t move
The living water flows, endlessly, tirelessly, with an inexhaustible energy
It’s not a meandering stream – it’s a raging torrent

Let’s go with the flow
Let’s allow the power of that current to bear us up and carry us along
Because any church and any believer who tries to stand still, will be swept aside

4 February 2018, St George’s, High Heaton. All Scripture references are to the ESV.