Stir Up Sunday

This last Sunday of the Church liturgical year known as Christ the King, precedes the start of the new Church year which begins next week with the first Sunday in Advent. It seems incredible that we are about to enter into that season of Advent – that time of waiting, expectation, longing and hope as we journey together towards Christmas. 

Today’s Post Communion prayer is inspired by the opening of the Anglican Book of Common Prayer:

Stir up, O Lord, the wills of your faithful people;

that they, plenteously bringing forth the fruit of good works,

may by you be plenteously rewarded;

through Jesus Christ our Lord.

This reminds us that today is also known traditionally as ‘Stir Up Sunday’, a Sunday synonymous since Victorian times with the preparation and making of Christmas puddings. The great cry ‘stir up’ was a reminder to congregations to get the Christmas pudding made in plenty of time to mature before Christmas. When I was a child, my mum always used to add the all-important coin to the mixture, and whoever got it on their plate on Christmas Day was supposedly especially blessed. I never really thought about it, but both my brother and I always used to get a coin!

The Stir Up prayer though is actually asking God for something much more important. We are praying that God will stir up our wills, so that we might get on with doing the good works that he has planned for us to do and be fruitful. Then, as a consequence, we pray that we might receive our abundant reward.

In an age when so much is about how we feel, and what we experience, it is interesting to get another perspective. In the end, it is our will, rather than our feelings, that is the most important governor of our actions. Feelings are not facts. Real love is not about feeling it is about choosing, by our wills, to do good to others even though we may not feel good towards them. Our feelings should not dominate our wills. And so, we pray that God will “stir up” our wills, so that they will be in charge of us, doing what we know is right. In this prayer we recognise that we need God’s help in order for our wills to function properly.

In light of this the ending of a year is a good time to assess where we have been, what has been achieved, and perhaps most importantly, where we are going with our journey of faith. We are invited to align our will with the guidance and direction of God the Father, as demonstrated by Jesus Christ in the power of the Holy Spirit.  Good endings are as important as good beginnings.  New beginnings are always exciting, offering us the challenge of new spiritual adventures and development.  If, when we look at our spiritual lives through the time of this past year we feel that we have made no real spiritual progress, perhaps it is time to think carefully about the choices we make and embark on more intentional prayer & Bible study. Perhaps you would like to put your faith into some kind of action, helping with the various forms of ministry exercised by this Church or community projects. Perhaps you might be able to join with us on Zoom as we do this year’s Advent course.

We live in an age of conflicting claims about the truth. The message we hear is that there are many “truths”, or many versions of the truth, and all truths are equally valid.  The thing is, if we respond to people who say that, ok – then hear my truth, they often reply that they are not interested in our truth – so they don’t really mean all truths are equally valid; neither do they mean there are many versions of the truth.  What does the Bible tell us?  Jesus said, “I am the way and the truth and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me” (John 14:6).  Whichever way you approach that passage it does not mean one way out of many, one truth out of many, one life out of many.  Quoting from David Mitchell’s book Cloud Atlas “Truth is singular. Its ‘versions’ are mistruths.

The way that we as Christians are called to determine what we believe is to seek to be faithful to the teaching and instruction of Jesus Christ, our Lord, Saviour and Redeemer and our King – the King of Kings. When we read the extract from John’s letter featuring a description of an incredible vision, keep in mind that his words are not just good advice; they are words of truth from the King of Kings. We must allow the truth about Christ to penetrate every aspect of our life, our being, to deepen our faith in him, and strengthen our commitment to follow him—no matter what the cost.  There are implications of the truth of Christ as King of Kings:

  1. We, Christ’s redeemed, are loved and freed from our sins by his blood (v. 5). 
  2. We, through His glorious dominion, have been designated “a kingdom and priests” to serve God. (v.6)

In our second reading, we are told that Jesus said to Pilate “…the reason I was born and came into the world is to testify to the truth. Everyone on the side of truth listens to me.”  Do we hear the words of Jesus now?  Words of truth, words of life…and if we hear, how will we respond? Will we allow God to “stir up” our wills to more closely follow him, the author and perfecter of our faith, the Lord of Lords and King of Kings.

Let us pray:

Lord of the past, the present and the future: we thank you for the last Church Year. We thank you for the fellowship and joy of our worship together – whether apart or together as a community of faith. We thank you for being with us in the time of adversity as we have journeyed with and through this pandemic. We pray for the coming year, that you might stir up our wills and benefit from the teaching and wisdom of the Church to grow in faith and knowledge of You our Lord, Saviour and Redeemer – Lord of Lords and King of Kings, Amen.

Do not be afraid

Many years ago, I had the privilege of going to Israel and I was able to spend quite a bit of time in Jerusalem and the surrounding areas. Jerusalem is a place of wonder for many reasons, but one of the things that impacted me the most was the temple ruins on the temple mount and the Wailing Wall.  This was the very same temple that Jesus had cleansed following his triumphal entry into Jerusalem and the place where he had entered into several debates with the religious leadership that he repeatedly won. It was the place where he praised the poor widow and her offering and passed judgment on the religious leaders…Then Jesus left the temple never to return.

Jesus’ disciples admired the temple for its architectural grandeur and its expensive decorations; we are told in Jesus’ time the temple was adorned with beautiful stones and with gifts dedicated to God.   The temple was impressive for its beauty, its decoration and also its size. The foundation stones were almost the size of a freight train. The footprint of the Temple covered about one-sixth of the land area of the ancient city of Jerusalem. The building complex was nearly five hundred yards long and four hundred yards wide. The temple would certainly have been breathtaking, especially to the disciples of Jesus who as we know were not from Jerusalem, but from Galilee. They were the equivalent of “country bumpkins.” They would have seldom been to Jerusalem and thus would have seen the grandeur of the temple I did – as a tourist.

But all of the above, grand as it seems, presents us with a problem; I have spoken of the wonders of the temple and not even mentioned WHY the temple was there.  You see it is all too easy for us to worship other things instead of God.  You see that happening time and time and time again in the Bible, and you see it time and time and time again today.  Don’t get me wrong, when you are blessed with a beautiful place of worship is can certainly encourage us to look beyond to a holy and almighty God…like a huge signpost.  In Jesus’ time, many people had begun to take their eye off God and go through an empty observance of the letter of the law. The sacred had almost become the secular, the holy had become profane.  That’s why when the money changers gathered there, Jesus became so angry and cleansed the temple.

And so it was, that as Jesus and his disciples left the temple for the last time together Jesus said, “Not one stone here will be left on another; every one will be thrown down.”  And we know that the Temple was indeed destroyed by the Romans in 70 AD during the Siege of Jerusalem. In light of the above, it is perhaps not a surprise that Jesus’ remarks were particularly shocking since the temple was supposedly the heart and soul of Israel’s life and worship.  And so in verse 7, the disciples voice their concerns, “Tell us, when will these things happen? And what will be the sign that they are all about to be fulfilled?”  Jesus’ reply must have astonished them.

The disciples’ interpretation of what Jesus had said about the destruction of the temple would likely have been viewed as synonymous with the end of the world, and the final judgment at the end of the age.  The disciples like many of us today, were concerned about the wrong things. Their focus was all wrong.  They wanted to know information that would be of no real value to them, other than to satisfy their own curiosity. Jesus was more interested in affecting their conduct rather than satisfying their curiosity. Jesus, however, knew that if the disciples looked for signs they would be susceptible to deception. He virtually avoided their question and instead of telling them what they wanted to know he told them what they needed to know, that is how to conduct themselves in the light of the destruction of Jerusalem and the second coming.  It speaks into how we too are to conduct ourselves in the 21st century.

In the midst of chaotic end-time events, Jesus specifically instructs us to hold fast.  We are not to be deceived and we are not to be afraid.  Even the most casual observer today would have to be alarmed at the spiritual direction of our nation.  We supposedly live in a Christian country, but core Christian values and a Christian expression of faith is increasingly becoming eroded and diminished. Toward the end of the age, Jesus warned us that there will be an increase in deception and a tremendous potential for people to be deceived. In verses five & six Jesus says, “Watch out that no one deceives you. Many will come in my name, claiming, ‘I am he,’ and will deceive many.”  Deception is nothing new, and when we study the Bible we can see the root cause is often people rejecting the Word of God. Let’s be clear – there have always been wars, great earthquakes, famines and pestilences in various places.  But worse than that, persecution of believers. That means we can’t assume that the end of the age is immediately in sight; we can however KNOW that the end of the age will come.  We must be prepared.  We must be ready and use the time we have wisely. Our responsibility in all of this is to hold fast, to not be deceived, not to be afraid – even when we see the whole of creation groaning as in birth pangs.  As the time of the birth gets closer the pain increases, the intensity grows and the frequency grows. Signs of the end times might be seen in every age, but they will increase and intensify as the time of Jesus’ coming draws near.  But God who had the first word WILL have the last word. Those who revere God’s name, that is, hear his word and respond with faith and generous hearts, will not face the doom of judgment. Rather, they will see the light, as the sun of righteousness rises upon them, the dawning of a new day.  For us who revere God’s name, the sun of righteousness will rise with healing in its wings. The Lord commends endurance, and promises his protection. One day he will receive us, body and soul, into his new creation – a new heaven and a new earth where all things are made new.  Amen

Past, Present and Future

We often see in the Bible that prophecy is something that can be realised in the past, present and future.  For example, we have been redeemed (past), we are being redeemed (present) and we will be redeemed (future).  We see something of that in our passage today in which Jesus begins to answer the question posed to him by the Pharisees – “When will the Kingdom of God come?” The fact that they asked that question is symptomatic of their spiritual blindness.  The truth was that through Jesus Christ, the Kingdom of God had already begun to be ushered in, has continued to be ushered in ever since. Later in Luke’s Gospel, he goes on to explain that the full expression of God’s Kingdom is yet to come (and for us, is still to come). As Christians we live in the ‘in between’ times, between the now and the not yet, the days in which we might recognise that the Kingdom has arrived in Jesus Christ, is with us now, yet it has not arrived in all its fullness. The moment of its arrival in all fullness is something that can happen at any moment and we as believers are called to prepare and be ready.

What might that mean for us in how we seek to live out our faith?  It helps if we are mindful that the Kingdom is already here in our midst.  The way we might behave knowing that is different to how we might behave if the Kingdom was far off and distant.  I want to give you an example.  If we know that a friend is coming to visit us and stay in our home at some point in the future, we might leave preparations until a couple of days before they arrive, or even the last minute – getting some shopping, making up the spare room and so on.  However, if we know that friend is already in the area and could arrive at any minute, we won’t put off preparations and leave things until the last minute.  We will try and get everything ready and in order now.

With Jesus’ first coming, the Kingdom of God had already arrived.  It isn’t ushered in with visible signs; no one can project when it will come by looking for supernatural signs. Nor will anyone be able to point to anything that proves that the Kingdom is here or there. The Kingdom of God was among the people because Jesus was among them. When Jesus returned to heaven, the Kingdom remained, and continues today, with the work of God’s Spirit in people’s lives and in relationships.

In Jesus’ second coming, the Kingdom will be manifest in all its wonder and fullness.  We are called to ensure our spiritual house is in order so that we are ready and that our hearts are in the right place.  We know:

  • He is sure to come
  • No one can predict when he will come
  • The work that God has begun in Christ will be taken to fulfilment
  • We should not be plunged into despair by any delay in his coming
  • When he comes, be sure that everyone will know!

It may well be that we feel the tension of living in these ‘in between’ times. In response to that I would like to invite you to close your eyes as I read another passage to you.  This is from Romans 8:18-30 which speaks into that:

I consider that our present sufferings are not worth comparing with the glory that will be revealed in us. For the creation waits in eager expectation for the children of God to be revealed. For the creation was subjected to frustration, not by its own choice, but by the will of the one who subjected it, in hope that the creation itself will be liberated from its bondage to decay and brought into the freedom and glory of the children of God.

We know that the whole creation has been groaning as in the pains of childbirth right up to the present time. Not only so, but we ourselves, who have the firstfruits of the Spirit, groan inwardly as we wait eagerly for our adoption to sonship, the redemption of our bodies. For in this hope we were saved. But hope that is seen is no hope at all. Who hopes for what they already have? But if we hope for what we do not yet have, we wait for it patiently.

In the same way, the Spirit helps us in our weakness. We do not know what we ought to pray for, but the Spirit himself intercedes for us through wordless groans. And he who searches our hearts knows the mind of the Spirit, because the Spirit intercedes for God’s people in accordance with the will of God.

And we know that in all things God works for the good of those who love him, who i have been called according to his purpose. For those God foreknew he also predestined to be conformed to the image of his Son, that he might be the firstborn among many brothers and sisters. And those he predestined, he also called; those he called, he also justified; those he justified, he also glorified.

Amen

God’s Grace is Sufficient

One of the many things that encourages me is when I hear someone share their testimony – what God has been up to in their life.  However, I have known some people who almost put down or diminish their testimony, saying that for them they didn’t have a dramatic conversion experience, and their testimony isn’t very good.  I think we have to be careful because the conversion experience is not the “be all” and “end all”…the fact that God is ‘in’ and a ‘part of’ their life is!!!  Maybe it has never occurred to them that they just might have been in a better place to begin with and God didn’t need to do quite so much work in their lives!  That in itself is an act of grace.  Whereas for others, before coming to faith in Christ, their lives might have been in a complete and utter mess.  Whatever our starting point, salvation is always by grace.

Paul knew this all too well.  His testimony was that he was once a blasphemer and a persecutor and a violent man; there was nothing that could commend him to God.  He goes on to say that he was shown mercy because he acted in ignorance and from a place of unbelief.  The challenge then for we who have come to faith is that we are no longer in ignorance; neither do we act in unbelief.  No wonder Jesus said “From everyone who has been given much, much will be demanded; and from the one who has been entrusted with much, much more will be asked.” (Luke 12:48b)

When I read about how Paul was before he came to faith, I don’t know about you…but I can really associate with him.  He even describes himself as being “the worst of sinners.” Paul had blown it.  He had sinned in words (blasphemy), deeds (persecution of believers) and thoughts (insolent and aggressive – a man of violence).  He couldn’t have got it more wrong if he had tried.  And so here in our first reading he bares his heart…and he does that because he has had a personal encounter with Christ and stepped in to the fullness of his grace.  “The grace of our Lord was poured out on me abundantly, along with the faith and love that are in Christ Jesus.”  That is something we are invited into. 

I know few Christians who really ‘get’ grace.  I know that when I came to faith I struggled to understand grace too.  Each day in prayer I said “Lord, I don’t understand grace.  Please help me to understand.”  I prayed this prayer for weeks, and weeks, and weeks.  I prayed that prayer for so long; but I never gave up.  I was still surprised though when one day I heard that still small voice.  I believe God said to me “Do you really want to understand grace?”  My response was rash and impulsive…I dared to say “Of course I want to understand grace!”  After all, I had been praying that I might understand for weeks.  Even God’s response was grace-filled.  Once again I believe I heard him say “Mark, do you really want to understand grace.”  And this time…I sat up and took notice.  After some careful thought my response was more measured, more considered…I said “Yes Lord, I really do want to understand grace. Please show me.”  God presented me with a picture, and it was a picture that literally brought me to my knees; it was a picture of me as I really am – a sinner.  I wept to see the extent of my sinfulness; there was nothing that could commend me to God either.  Perhaps in my arrogance I had thought that surely there must be something in me that would give me a tick in the box!  God then said to me “This is how you are.”  Now if that had been the end of my experience, I would have been crushed.  We all have a testimony, and my testimony is one of being found by God, one of being awakened by grace.  God’s grace always overflows.  And in his grace, he then showed me another picture in which I was stood there as white as the snow, wearing a white robe.  He then said “This is how you are in my Son Jesus.”  My heart leapt for joy; God had found me, God had reached out to me and called me.

The point is, the lengths that God will go to in order to find us are beyond our greatest imaginings – they are extraordinary.  We are reminded of that in today’s gospel reading in which Jesus tells the parable of the lost sheep.   God always carefully seeks out the lost, and he does that until he finds us.  And in that finding, there is such great joy.  Jesus said, “there will be more rejoicing in heaven over one sinner who repents than over ninety-nine righteous persons who do not need to repent.

Another person who had an encounter with God’s transforming grace was Thomas Bilney.  In 1520, he was elected a Fellow of Trinity Hall, Cambridge, and ‘little Bilney’ (as he was known because of his shortness of stature) was searching for peace but could not find it:

‘But at last’, he wrote, ‘I heard speak of Jesus…and at the first reading (as I well remember) I chanced upon this sentence of St. Paul (O most sweet and comfortable sentence to my soul!): “It is a true saying, and worthy of all men to be embraced, that Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners; of whom I am the chief and principal.” This one sentence, through God’s instruction and inward working, which I did not then perceive, did so exhilarate my heart, being before wounded with the guilt of my sins, and being almost in despair, that even immediately I seemed unto myself inwardly to feel a marvellous comfort and quietness, insomuch that “my bruised bones leaped for joy” (Psalm 51). After this, the Scripture began to be more pleasant unto me than the honey or the honey-comb …’

Perhaps Bilney’s most notable convert was Hugh Latimer, who later became the popular preacher of the English Reformation. Latimer greatly admired the courage with which Bilney went to the stake for his evangelical faith; he referred to him in his sermons as ‘St Bilney’.

I want you to know that no matter what experiences you may have had in life, no matter how unworthy you might feel, no matter how bruised your bones are…that God’s grace is sufficient.  May you know the Gospel truth, the good news – that “Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners.”  And that is something I want to shout from the rooftops.  He came into the world to save people like me, and people like you even if there is nothing in us that can commend us to him.  May you know deep joy in your heart and spirit, and the fruit of that encounter with the grace of God that is faith and love.  But may you also know how heaven rejoiced when you came to faith and each time you come before God with a humble and penitent heart safe in the knowledge of his love and grace.  One of the many reasons why God’s shows his grace is that “Christ Jesus might display his unlimited patience as an example for those who would believe on him and receive eternal life.”

Like Paul, we are presented with a choice.  A choice of how we might respond to God’s love and grace.  How do we respond to God’s gift of grace? Like Paul, do we “thank Christ Jesus our Lord”?  Like Paul, is our heart cry “To the King eternal, immortal, invisible, the only God, be honour and glory for ever and ever”? As we gather round the Lord’s Table this morning, let’s come with humble, penitent, grateful and joyful hearts.  As we have received grace from God, let us give grace to others.  Amen

All Saints’ Day 2021

All Saints’ Day provides us with an opportunity to celebrate men and women in whose lives the Church as a whole has seen the grace of God powerfully at work. In God’s grace, through Jesus Christ and in the power of the Holy Spirit we may all in some way be Saints here on earth.  So today we have an opportunity to give thanks for that grace, and for the wonderful ends to which it shapes a human life; it is a time to be encouraged by the example of the Saints that have gone before and shown us the way, and to recall that sanctity may grow in the ordinary circumstances, as well as the extraordinary crises, of human living.  God has a wonderful habit of making the ordinary extraordinary.

We may also be reminded at this time that no Christian is solitary. Through baptism, we become members one of another in Christ, members of a company of Saints whose mutual belonging transcends death. Therefore, in remembering the Saints who have gone on before us, we might in our worship join with them, along with the whole heavenly host.

All of this speaks into the nature of redemption.  Redemption is a work of God’s grace; it is God who redeems us in Christ, and nothing further is required beyond what Christ has accomplished. We are called to wait for the final consummation of God’s new creation in Christ; those who are Christ’s, whether or not they have passed through death, are joined in prayer that God’s kingdom will be revealed finally and in all its fullness.

With that in mind, we have listened to 2 incredible readings this morning.  The first, from the book of Revelation, gives us some insight into what an answer to our prayers for the coming and revealing of God’s Kingdom might look like – that is, what the new heaven and the new earth will be like.  It’s worthwhile spending a little bit of time exploring the implications of that.

  • God does not make mistakes.  When God lovingly created this world, he knew what he was doing.  Yes, as a result of the fall, this world might now be broken – but that is not of God’s doing. Everything that God created is good.  In the end times, this world will not be tossed away and discarded.  It will be taken, transformed and redeemed.  It will be restored and renewed.  There will be a new heaven and a new earth.
  • That will involve a coming together of heaven and earth.  Part of that process will involve God almost literally shaking the hell out of this world.  All the wrongs will be righted, all the injustices will be dealt with.
  • We are presented with a glimpse of what that might be like:
    • God’s dwelling place will be among the people, and he will dwell with us.
    • He will wipe every tear from our eyes. There will be no more death’ or mourning or crying or pain, for the old order of things has passed away.
  • God’s justice and righteousness will prevail.  God exalted Jesus “to the highest place and gave Him the name above all names, that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow, in heaven and on earth and under the earth, and every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father.” (Philippians 2:9-11)  Does that give you cause for hope and make you feel excited?
  • Jesus said. “It is done. I am the Alpha and the Omega, the Beginning and the End. To the thirsty I will give water without cost from the spring of the water of life.”  Jesus will accomplish all that he set out to accomplish.  It will be sufficient, complete, wholesome.  And he invites the thirsty – a people who I spoke about last Sunday – to drink from the water without cost from the spring of the water of life that we might never thirst.

The second reading from John’s gospel provides us with the account of Lazarus’ raising from the dead.  It is significant that earlier in that chapter, we are told that “On his arrival, Jesus found that Lazarus had already been in the tomb for four days.” (John 11:17)  In Jewish society and culture they believed that someone was well and truly dead if they had been dead for 4 days. I wonder if Jesus waited for that period of time on purpose, so that there might not be any doubt that he had genuinely raised Lazarus from the dead.

When he arrives though, we find that both Martha and Mary said to Jesus, ““LORD, if you had been here, my brother would not have died.”” (John 11:21)  They were both convinced that Jesus would have been able to do something had Lazarus still been living, if he had got there earlier. But they had no idea that death might be reversible.

Seeing Mary weeping as well as the Jews who had joined them to offer comfort and solace, and knowing that his friend Lazarus was dead, not surprisingly Jesus “was deeply moved in spirit and troubled” to the extent that we are presented with the shortest verse in the Bible…“Jesus wept.”  It wasn’t the only time that Jesus wept either.  God always weeps at the brokenness of this world.  There can be no doubt that Jesus was filled with compassion, something recognised by all present.

At first, Martha questioned what Jesus could possibly do…““But, Lord, by this time there is a bad odour, for he has been there four days.””  Jesus’ reply was profound, ““Did I not tell you that if you believe, you will see the glory of God?”” Jesus then instructed Lazarus to come out of the tomb and told those gathered to take off the grave clothes and let him go. St Augustine said, “Jesus had to call out Lazarus by name for if he hadn’t, all the dead would have come out of their graves!”  We must bear in mind that Lazarus was raised from the dead, not resurrected.  We may be raised from death to life.  However, we are resurrected into eternal life.

As Christians, and in God’s good grace, we have so much to look forward to.  We are invited to join with all the Saints at the Heavenly Banquet of the King, our Lord, Saviour and Redeemer Jesus Christ.  We are reminded of that every time we break bread together and celebrate Holy Communion.  It is said that communion is like ‘hors d’oeuvres’ to the Heavenly Banquet.  We can be assured that the victory is Christ’s.  He has conquered sin and death once and for all, and God knows what he is doing – even if like Mary and Martha we don’t always recognise that.  We are invited to learn by the examples of the Saints, and those people of faith who have gone on before us.  We are invited to be awakened by God’s grace as he helps us journey into Sainthood.  Our Collect today says,

“Almighty God,
you have knit together your elect
in one communion and fellowship
   in the mystical body of your Son Christ our Lord:
grant us grace so to follow your blessed saints
in all virtuous and godly living
that we may come to those inexpressible joys
that you have prepared for those who truly love you.” It is a great prayer.  We can be confident in Christ, knowing that the best is yet to come.  Amen

All Souls’ Service 2021

As I look out at everyone in this service tonight, I see for the main part a sea of familiar faces.  In so many respects it has been a long and difficult journey for all of us to come to this point today in which we come, possibly with some trepidation, to remember quietly those whom we have loved and lost, in whatever capacity we might be able. In many ways these difficulties may have been exacerbated as a result of our journeying through a pandemic, where a number of people found it especially challenging to lay their loved ones to rest. However, we are bound together by our common humanity, to honour, respect and remember and we are able to do that in tonight’s service.  But not only that.  We gather together to perhaps have an encounter with God’s grace, mercy and peace with an invitation to journey into a place of faith, hope and love.

It’s been a long journey not only in terms of time, but also distance, and of course emotionally.  It’s a time when we can look back to all that has been, to say our goodbyes as we endeavoured to do the right thing in laying our loved ones to rest, and perhaps to come to a place of closure that is so much a part of the grieving process.

This is a time of year when we are presented with many opportunities to remember.  We remember the dear departed in a service of commemoration like tonight.  Later, in November, we remember and commemorate the ending of the First World War on Remembrance Sunday, and we remember those who gave their lives for our freedom during the two World Wars and beyond.  We remember too the historical events of the 5th of November on Bonfire night or Guy Fawkes night and of course we remember and celebrate the birth of our Lord Jesus Christ at Christmas.

I don’t underestimate the courage it has taken to come here tonight, to gather with others who have experienced loss, to remember and honour our loved ones in whatever way feels appropriate for us at this time.  Please take comfort in knowing that you are not alone.

It isn’t always easy to remember is it, especially when remembering brings back the pain of our loss – you really experience the “bitterness and the gall”.  It may well be that in your grieving you, like the Psalmist feel you “have been deprived of peace.” It isn’t easy to remember when the relationship we shared had its difficulties or when we feel that there were things we wanted to do or say but didn’t get the chance. Sometimes remembering is the last thing that we want to do or are able to do.

Jesus invited his friends to remember him every time they ate bread or drank wine – an act of remembrance associated with life and all that lies ahead, not simply what lies behind us, an act of remembrance associated with eternal life. I know that for many of us there will be times of the day or simple acts that remind us of the person we have loved and lost – it may be as we close the curtains at the end of the day or boil the kettle to make a cup of tea – that we say goodnight or good morning to the one we still love. Sometimes the act of remembering will trip us up as we seem to forget what has happened, at other times the act of remembering is our greatest comfort and strength.

As we begin to remember the things that made us laugh and the things that made us cross, the things that made us proud and the ways our loved ones could embarrass us, it’s as though the pieces of a jigsaw puzzle are coming back together again…there can be and should be an honesty in our remembering. We see something of that honesty in our reading from Lamentations.  We also see truth and hope…

For people are not cast off by the LORD forever. Though he brings grief, he will show compassion, so great is his unfailing love. For he does not willingly bring affliction or grief to any human being.

God remembers too.  He remembers every tear that you have ever cried. That’s why the Psalmist said “You keep track of all my sorrows. You have collected all my tears in your bottle. You have recorded each one in your book.” (Psalm 56:8) God never forgets, which is why in the book of Isaiah we read “Can a mother forget the baby at her breast and have no compassion on the child she has borne? Though she may forget, I will not forget you! See, I have engraved you on the palms of my hands.” (Isaiah 49:15-16)

Our memories don’t just connect us with the past. Memories are also what connect us with the future; with hope and new life. We must go on living as long as it is required, strengthened by the past, patiently confident for the future. It is as we remember, and as the fragments start to come together that we begin to see new possibilities emerging, and become ever more aware of the reality of what Christ accomplished on the cross and the living hope that he calls us into:

In his great mercy he has given us new birth into a living hope through the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead, and into an inheritance that can never perish, spoil or fade. This inheritance is kept in heaven for you, who through faith are shielded by God’s power until the coming of the salvation that is ready to be revealed in the last time.

And this is the will of him who sent me, that I shall lose none of all those he has given me, but raise them up at the last day. For my Father’s will is that everyone who looks to the Son and believes in him shall have eternal life, and I will raise them up at the last day.

I commend these truths to you.  I believe with all of my heart we are not destined for death.  In God’s grace and through what Christ accomplished on the cross we are not destined for death, we are destined for eternal life in that place where there is no more suffering, where mourning, crying, pain and death are no more.

In faith and hope may our prayer be:

One thing I ask from the LORD, this only do I seek: that I may dwell in the house of the Lord all the days of my life, to gaze on the beauty of the Lord and to seek him in his temple.” Amen

Love each other

I’ve shared before how easy it can be to both diminish the word “love” and how we might put it into practice.  The paradox in the world is that people often look upon love purely in emotional and experiential terms, yet use the word totally inappropriately.  We see this when people say things like “I love chocolate” when what they actually mean is I really like chocolate.  We see this when people talk about love in exclusively feeling terms but bail when the going gets tough.  True love is more than a feeling.  It is a choice and is underpinned by pillars of commitment, dedication, and unconditionality.  It’s important.  As Christians, we are not called to love as the world loves. The mandate to us is the same as the mandate received by the disciples.  We must love one another because we seek to take Jesus’ message to a world that sometimes despises us. As Christians we might at times experience enmity from the world, but from each other, we need love and support.

Jesus legislated love. He required his disciples to make peace with one another, to place the interests of others above their own, to solve differences quickly. He knew they were diverse in background, but he ordered them to love each other. Jesus knew that setting this high standard was essential to preserving the unity of the church. If he required it, the believers would accept and live out this standard. Backbiting, disrespect, and bitterness toward fellow believers strip the Church of its power.  I’ve encountered Christians who engaged in backbiting, showed a terrible and destructive lack of respect, and were consumed with bitterness.  Not surprisingly their involvement was quite simply toxic.  When I asked them to be willing to meet face to face with their brother or sister in Christ who they had issues with, they refused – even though there is a clear Biblical precedent for what I was asking them to do.

Over the years I’ve also encountered Christians who will sometimes complain by declaring “people are saying…” whatever it was that people might be saying.  Without exception, I will always respond by saying who are those people?  Quite often the root cause is nothing to do with those other people.  It is often the particular baggage that that person has themselves; they choose to use others as a front for their own issues.

But the message is simple.  Deal with the baggage and follow Biblical precedent.  How do you expect to be free to love your fellow brothers and sisters in Christ, or be an effective witness to the Lord, if you engage with backbiting, disrespect, or bitterness?  Jesus held his followers to account; no surprise I would seek to do so too.

C.S. Lewis said “The role for all of us is perfectly simple. Do not waste time bothering whether you “love” your neighbour; act as if you did. As soon as we do this. we find one of the great secrets. When you are behaving as if you loved someone, you will presently come to love him. If you injure someone you dislike, you will find yourself disliking him more. If you do him a good turn, you will find yourself disliking him less.”  The way we live our lives demonstrates whether we are people of integrity with a genuine faith.

I wonder how you feel and what you think when you hear Jesus’ words…“If they persecuted me, they will persecute you also. If they obeyed my teaching, they will obey yours also. They will treat you this way because of my name, for they do not know the one who sent me.”  (John 15:20-21)  It is important that we give people an opportunity to see the Christ-light shining within us.  They may embrace that light or walk away from it into darkness – but the choice is theirs.  There will be times when we are persecuted because of our faith, and there will be times when people respond positively to us because of our faith, our life and our testimony.  Either way, we are to be prepared to testify to Jesus whatever the cost. To conclude, I leave you with these words…do all that you can to make peace with your brother and sister in Christ.  In our shorter service of Holy Communion, we hear “Not an easy peace, not an insignificant peace, not a half-hearted peace, but the peace of the Lord Jesus Christ is with us now.”  For us to know and experience that peace cost our Lord his life.  We should not squander such a blessing.  Amen

Walk in my shoes

It’s sometimes said that no one can understand what it is like being us unless they are willing to walk in our shoes; to live what we have lived, to experience what we have experienced.  That’s one of the reasons why it’s generally unhelpful when someone might say “I know what you are thinking” or “I know how you feel” – even if their hearts are in the right place.  Yes, we may well be able to show tremendous empathy and sensitivity, but with the best will in the world we cannot possibly read minds and we cannot possibly fully know how someone feels in their heart.  The truth is though that God can.  He knows our thoughts from afar, our waking and our rising and our inmost being.

I don’t know if you are familiar with the story of Job.  If you ever find yourself in a place of darkness and discouragement, have a go at reading the story.  In the opening verses of its 2nd chapter, we learn how the accuser, or Satan, came into the presence of God and in speaking about Job said to God “stretch out your hand and strike his flesh and bones, and he will surely curse you to your face.”  Michael Card, the singer/songwriter, wrote a great song the Job Suite, in which he sets out this scene really well.  Some of the words of the song read:

Blameless and upright, a fearer of God

a man truly righteous, no pious façade.

One about whom God was accustomed to boast

And so, one whom Satan desired the most.

One day the accuser came breathing out lies

“It’s Your holy handouts, his faithfulness buys”.

In one desperate day his possessions were lost

his children all killed in one raw holocaust

his children all killed in one raw holocaust.

And yet through it all

Through the tears and pain

He worshipped his God, found no reason to blame

Once more the Deceiver denounced and decried

“It’s skin for skin, and hide for hide,

strike down his flesh and he’ll surely deny

and confess that his praying has all been a lie.”

“Very well, take him,” the Holy One sighed

but you must spare his life, for my son shall not die.

So Job was afflicted with terrible sores

sat down in the ashes to wait for the Lord

sat down in the ashes to wait for the Lord.

And yet through it all

Through the tears and pain

He worshipped his God, found no reason to blame.

Satan believed that if Job’s material possessions were taken away from him, he would renounce his faith in God.  Satan was wrong.  Satan believed if Job was physically afflicted and suffered, he would renounce his faith in God.  Satan was wrong.  Satan didn’t know Job at all – he didn’t know what Job was thinking; neither did he know how Job was feeling.  Whereas God knew Job intimately and here demonstrates that he truly knew Job’s thoughts from afar – and his inmost being.

That brings us to our reading from Hebrews in which we learn how Jesus’ suffering made him a perfect leader, or pioneer, of our salvation. Jesus did not need to suffer for His own salvation because he was God. His perfect obedience (which led him down the road of suffering) demonstrates that he was the complete sacrifice for us. Through suffering, Jesus completed the work necessary for our salvation. And through suffering, Jesus understands our weaknesses.  Jesus – the Light of the World, stepped down into our darkness and showed us the way, walking in our shoes and leading us by example.

I wouldn’t wish anyone to suffer.  But I know that incredibly nothing is wasted in God’s economy.  In God’s grace, our suffering can make us more sensitive servants of God. We sometimes find that people who have known pain are able to reach out with tremendous compassion to others who are hurt. “Praise be to the God and Father of our LORD Jesus Christ, the Father of compassion and the God of all comfort, who comforts us in all our troubles, so that we can comfort those in any trouble with the comfort we ourselves receive from God. For just as we share abundantly in the sufferings of Christ, so also our comfort abounds through Christ” (2 Corinthians 1:3-5).

If you have suffered, ask God to step into that darkness and show you how your experience can be used to help others. We are so precious to God, no wonder the passage from Hebrews poses the question “What are mere mortals that you are mindful of them, human beings that you care for them?” We are esteemed by God – he made us a little lower than the angels; yet he chose to crown us with glory and honour and put everything under our feet – and so we see grace in action, and as we have received such an abundance of grace, we should give out such an abundance of grace.   And in all that we do, we should seek to be transformed by the renewing of our minds and have the mind of Christ. Amen

Creation & Stewardship 3

In the last couple of weeks looking at creation and stewardship, we have considered our mandate and responsibility as stewards towards the flora, the fauna, and to one other.  In this final week, I wanted to touch upon how that connects with our time, talents and resources.  Without exception, and to a greater or lesser degree, we all have time, talents, and resources at our disposal. 

Each of us can decide how and when we would like to use the time that we have available, which can of course vary enormously. Each of us is blessed with talents, some of us are blessed with talents we didn’t even realise we had.  The question is are we in an environment where we are encouraged to discover and use those talents for the glory of God?  Each of us is also blessed with resources, which can sometimes – but not always – be financial.  In each of these 3 areas and without exception, all of us are called to use these in ministry of one form or another. 

Together we form the Body of Christ; one of us might be a finger, one of us might be an arm, one of us might be an ear and so on.  We all know don’t we that for a body to function, it has to work together – imagine if our legs walked in different directions – we would certainly come a cropper!  That is why we must be united in thought, word, and deed in the Lord’s service.  That is why the question we must ask ourselves is “what would the Lord have me do?”, or “how would the Lord like me to use these talents I have been blessed with?” and not “what would I like to do?”, and also questions like “how would God like me to use these resources I have at my disposal?”, and “how would God like me to use this time I have available each week or each day?”.  It is when we see people using their time, talents and resources for the glory of God that we see effective stewardship in action.  Faith isn’t something that we seek to live only on a Sunday; it is something that we live 24/7 and in every area of our life.

In my ministry, one of the most fulfilling aspects is when I see people being built up, equipped and released into ministry themselves, recognising that all of us are called into ministry.  It is a delight when I see people fulfilling their potential in Christ.  It is a delight when we see people using their God-given gifts and talents, their time and their resources for the glory of God.  When I think about last weeks All Age Worship service, that was evident.  When I think about the Friendship lunch, that was evident too.  Seeing people fulfilling or beginning to fulfil their potential in Christ is without exception a wonderful thing. 

But I also recognise that there are sometimes barriers that prevent people from exercising their ministry and being able to use their time, talents, and resources.  These barriers might include:

  • Fear and uncertainty
  • Criticism
  • Lack of opportunity
  • Historical barriers (we’ve always done things this way)
  • Lack of knowledge and / or training
  • Ignorance about our gifts and talents
  • Selfishness

The thing is, when we think about our time, talents and resources and the way that we engage with creation, as stewards we are called to sow seeds and sow them generously.  That means we are to give generously of all that we have at our disposal.  And we do that – we do all that we do for God cheerfully.  If you have a tendency to grumble and complain, pray that the Lord might renew and transform your mind.  Pray that the Lord might bless you with a gracious and giving heart.

In our Gospel passage, we learn about 3 servants or stewards who the master entrusted his wealth to – according to their ability.  That is important, which is why the Bible also says, “From everyone who has been given much, much will be demanded; and from the one who has been entrusted with much, much more will be asked” (Luke 12:48).  Someone who is working full time in secular employment cannot be expected to do Church work during the day, and arguably the job that they have is, in itself, a different mission field where they too can sow seeds by their witness at work.  Someone who is elderly and infirm can’t be expected to set chairs out, but there are equally important things that they can do. My dear brothers and sisters in Christ, do all that you can to discover the gifts and talents you have been blessed with.  If you are hesitant about stepping up and stepping out in faith to have a go at using those gifts, do have a chat with others in your Church family and me and together we can explore opportunities for you to make a greater use of those gifts and talents.  There are always rotas to be filled, always groups to get involved in, a myriad of ways in which you can be a good and faithful steward of your time, talents and resources in your work and service for the Lord.  Amen

Creation & Stewardship 2

Last week, in the first of this series of 3 services focussing on Creation and Stewardship, we took a look at the nature of stewardship itself and the moral, and theological obligation that is placed upon us in terms of how we look after this world that God has so lovingly created.  A significant aspect of that is best expressed in the 5th Mark of Mission from the Anglican Communion which is “To strive to safeguard the integrity of creation, and sustain and renew the life of the earth”.

It is easy to look at ourselves in some ways as separate to creation.  When we do, we tend to see an abuse of the power and responsibility we have in exercising dominion over and subduing creation.  This might be because of our lack of understanding of that responsibility and because of sin.  We are often ignorant of the environmental and ecological implications of our lifestyle and choices.

The bottom line though is this…we are created in God’s image and likeness.  That means we are created to be in keeping with how God is, and the loving and tender way in which he spoke this world and everything in it into being.

So there is a challenge to how we are stewards of the flora and fauna around us, but there is an equal challenge to how we are stewards to one another.  As human beings, created in the image and likeness of God, we have a right to dignity, value and respect.  As children of God, we are called to nurture, value, and protect one another.  That leaves no space for our personal and perhaps selfish agendas.  The world would be a much better place if we worked together in community and in unity, with grace, truth and humility.

Humanity is the pinnacle of God’s creation, and I don’t know about you but I never cease to be in awe and wonder of the gift of a new life.  I never tire of conducting baptism services and seeing the blessing that child being baptised is to the family and friends of the family alike.

We can learn so much from children.  In so many ways they are free.  Free from the baggage and clutter that we carry around with ourselves.  It is no wonder that Jesus said ““Let the little children come to me, and do not hinder them, for the kingdom of God belongs to such as these. Truly I tell you, anyone who will not receive the kingdom of God like a little child will never enter it.” And he took the children in his arms, placed his hands on them and blessed them.

So, I implore you to do these things:

  • Do all that you can to free yourself from that baggage and clutter that you might see this world through the eyes of a child, the eyes of innocence.
  • Know that God yearns for you to receive his Kingdom and its many blessings, and we might do that by acknowledging God as our Heavenly Father and ourselves as his children.
  • Nurture, protect, and encourage children you know so that they have every opportunity to blossom, free from the tangles we know.
  • When you encounter other people, try and see them as God sees them – worthy of dignity, value and respect.  If they are callous and hard-hearted, pray for them, that their hearts might be softened and that they might encounter grace.  Forgive and be reconciled.

God bless you