Friday, December 30, 2016

At the Name of Jesus (New Year 2017)

On the Feast of the Naming and Circumcision of Jesus.

When I was a lad, I was not the most popular boy in the school. There were a lot of reasons for this, now I look back on it. I was tall and gangly, and had a face covered in acne. I was also the only musician in the school; very different from the rest of my rather macho classmates. I was also extremely allergic to sport...mainly because I was rubbish at it.  And to be honest, I was a bit of a ‘know-it-all’ – though I’m sure none of you would recognise that now!

As a result, I got called rather a lot of nasty names...very few of which are repeatable from a pulpit. My poor parents did their best to try to help me cope, including making frequent use of that old saying, "sticks and stones will break my bones but words will never hurt me".

The trouble is, that old saying is a load of rubbish, isn't it? The reality is that name-calling does hurt, doesn't it? Our names are part of who we are...they are a key part of our identity. And when someone replaces our identity with a horrible word like "idiot”, it creates what psychologists call a 'dissonance' between who we think we are, and who others perceive us to be - and that dissonance physically hurts.

The names we use, and the names we call out do matter.

For example, when I think of the name 'Tom' it carries with it a whole load of associations...most of them positive. It’s the name that Clare uses to call me to dinner (which is always a positive experience for me!).   So, the word 'Tom' has a positive ring about it - it’s part of my positive identity…along with many other names that I use, like Dad, and Uncle.

‘Thomas’ - on the other hand - creates a rather different sense of identity. That's the name that Clare (and my mother!) use when I am in trouble. When I hear "Thomas!" from the other end of the garden, I tend to think "Uh oh; what have I done now?!"

So names are important - and they were even more important in biblical times. The bible is packed full of examples of people changing their names in order to mark a change or transformation in their deep-down sense of who they are. Perhaps the best example is that of Abram, the father of the Hebrew nation, having his name changed by God to Abraham. ‘Abram’ meant, simply, 'exalted Father' - a term of respect for an old man. But Abraham meant 'father of many', and was given as a sign that Abraham was to become the father of an entire nation.

Names in the bible, then, are much more than just a word which helps to sort out who is who. Names are words which contain a sense of the full character of the person being named. Today, we celebrate the naming and the circumcision of Jesus.  Circumcision was, of course, normal practice for a Jewish male-child.  By having him circumcised, Jesus’ parents were being faithful to the teachings of the Hebrew, or Jewish Bible.  It placed Jesus in his culture, and literally marked him as a child of Israel, and a son of David.

But it is his name which is most significant.

Interestingly, Jesus wasn’t called Jesus at all!  His actual given name was ‘Yeshua’ which essentially boils down to two words:  ‘Ye’…a contraction of YHWH, or God.  And ‘shua’ which is a noun meaning a cry for help…something like ‘save us’.  So Jesus actual name, the one his Mum would have called him at dinner-time, means ‘God Saves’.

Incidentally, I was once pounced on in a churchyard by a very angry woman of dubious mental stability.  She was adamant that we were not Christians at all, because we don’t worship ‘Yeshua’ by his proper name!  No matter how hard I tried to convince her that ‘Jesus’ is essentially an anglicised way of pronouncing ‘Yeshua’ – she wasn’t having any of it!

Some names were also believed to have power in and of themselves - because of whom they are attached to. So, to 'call on the name of the Lord' was to invoke the power of the Lord himself. (To see this most powerfully demonstrated, you only have to sit in on a service of our friends at the Redeemed Church of God - where every prayer is made, powerfully, 'in the name of 'Jesus'.)

To pray 'in the name of Jesus' is to pray in the presence and reality of Jesus – and to be convinced that it is God who saves, not we ourselves.

Names have power, and so do some particular words.  At this turning-point of the year, I want to ask you to consider the meaning of one more important word – and that’s the word ‘parish’.  We describe ourselves as ‘the Parish’ of St Faith, Havant – not just ‘the church’.  In fact, both are useful words – and we might take a moment to consider them.

Etymologically speaking, the ‘church’ is not this building at all.  The church is the gathered people of God, all those who own the name ‘Christ-ian’ – wherever we might actually worship. We could worship in the Hall at the Pallant Centre (as indeed we did last year) and we would still be ‘the Church’.

We are those whom Yeshua, the Saviour, calls to tell others the good news of how ‘God saves’.  And the place that Yeshua especially calls us, is ‘the Parish’ – the area surrounding our church-building, in which we have been called, placed, and equipped for his service by our worship.

And so, we make no apology for spending the resources that God gives us on more than just this building.  There is much we would like to achieve in this building in the coming year – you can read all about our hopes and aspirations in ‘The Big Build News’, available on the sides-table.  We want to finish the organ restoration, and improve our toilet facilities.  We want to upgrade our PA, and our audio-visual capabilities.  We want to deal with crumbling plaster, and the long-term need to re-roof the building.  We want this building to be the best and most fitting place for the worship of God that we can make it.

But we are also called to serve God, and bring his ‘salvation’ to the wider parish.  That’s why we will continue to invest in The Pallant Centre – the place where we have perhaps more connections than anywhere else with the people of the parish.  In the Pallant Centre, young parents have a cafĂ© in which to gather for friendship.  Alcoholics, gamblers, drug addicts, and ex-service-personnel all find advice and support.  Young people are stretched and given the space to develop, through Dynamo.  Artists have space to paint, archers have space to exercise.  The Solent Male Voice Choir has space to exercise body and voice, and find friendship and fellowship.  And many more besides.

We do all this, with your help, in the name of Yeshua – the God who saves.  We serve the God who saves us from death by the cross.  But he is also the God who saves us from loneliness, and isolation.  He saves us from idleness and from addiction.  He saves us from selfishness, and calls us to lives of service to others.  He saves us from mediocrity, and invites us to become all that we can be, in his service.

It is Jesus we serve; he whose name is above all names.  We set out, into this new year, confident that in his name, we can overcome the negativity of so much that is present in our nation at the present time.  We believe and declare that the time is coming when the message that ‘God saves’ will be in every heart and on every tongue – when at the name of Jesus, every knee will bow!


Friday, December 23, 2016

Christmas Sermon 2016: Meditation on John 1

John 1. 1-14  Christmas Sermon

Everyone loves a story.  Stories are powerful ways to communicate – which is precisely why Jesus used parables, and why we all love movies and books.  I wonder what stories you will enjoy this Christmas.  A bit of Sherlock perhaps?  Some new awfulness on the Eastenders Christmas special?  For me, I know that Christmas is finally here – in a secular sense – when I settle down to the Doctor Who Christmas special!

The Christmas Story is sometimes referred to as ‘the greatest story ever told’ (though others argue that the story of the Death and Resurrection of Jesus should be given that epithet).  But what a good story the Christmas story is!

The Gospel writers, Luke and Matthew give us different perspectives on the same story.  This is a story they have heard, and which they then tell in their own way, decades later.  Each of them has a different perspective.  Luke’s faith in Jesus is fired by the way Jesus reached out to the poor and the oppressed.  So he gives us the story of how a bunch of shepherds, outsiders, are invited to be front and centre at the coming of the Messiah.  Matthew, on the other hand, is fired by Jesus’ message that God’s love is meant for all humanity – so he focuses on the coming of Wise Men from Eastern Lands.  These are non-Jews, outsiders, who are brought into the fold of God’s love.

But John, writing his Gospel some decades after Luke and Matthew, is not interested in shepherds and wise men.  Scholars tell us that John wrote his Gospel in his old age – after a lifetime of spreading the message of Jesus.  No doubt the stories about wise men and shepherds were already circulating widely.  John didn’t need to re-hash them.  So he goes deeper.  After a lifetime of teaching and learning, John wants us to grasp the enormity of the Christmas event, the coming of Jesus, what scholars call the ‘Incarnation’ – a posh word which has nothing to do with tinned milk or the flowers often worn at weddings!  ‘Incarnation’ describes the in-dwelling of God in human form.  The ‘Incarnation’ is that moment when God, who is Spirit, takes on human flesh.

There are two words which John especially plays with, in his poetic Gospel introduction.  The first is ‘Word’, and the second is ‘Light’.  Let me see if we can’t break them down a little.
‘Word’ is the English translation of ‘Logos’ – a Greek word from where we get the word ‘logic’.  John is saying that the incomprehensible being we call God is many things – spirit, love, a creative force that binds the universe together.  But he is also mind.  He has thoughts.  He has desires and intentions for the world that he has created.  God’s thoughts, God’s logic, God’s reason – these are his ‘Logos’ – his ‘Word’.  “In the beginning was the Word” – the Logos – “and the Word was with with God and the Word was God”.  It’s one of those great big thoughts that we human beings struggle to get our tiny brains around – that God can be thought of as having different aspects, but each of them is also fully God’.  So, God’s reason, his Word, can be part of who God is as well as being completely who God is.  “The word with with God and “was God”.

And, John is saying, that ‘Word’ is the aspect of God which became human and dwelt among us.  Again – incomprehensible, isn’t it.  How can an aspect of God become human, while not dividing God up into different people?  If God is on earth, in the form of Jesus, how can he also be still in heaven?  And how come Jesus (God the Son on earth) prays to God the Father in heaven?  Is he talking to himself?  It’s enough to make your brain explode!  And that’s ok.  We are limited, created beings.  We cannot ever really grasp the reality of God.

So John paints a different picture.  He uses a metaphor.  He has stated the truth as clearly as he can grasp it, by talking about the ‘Word’ dwelling among us.  But now he chooses a different tack, and begins to talk about ‘Light’.

Ah!  That’s better.  ‘Light’ we can understand.  We know about Light.  We see its effects.  We know that even a tiny spark of light cannot be extinguished by the darkness.  We know that if this church was completely darkened, save for one candle, all our attention would be focused on that single solitary light.

“In Jesus”, says John, “was life, and that life was the light of the world. The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not overcome it”.

And that, ultimately, is the message of Christmas.  Darkness is all around us.  The darkness of war, and famine, and poverty, and homelessness and selfishness and consumerism and racism and fear of the stranger and all hatred and rebellion against the reason and logic of God.  “But the light shines in the darkness”.

In Jesus, through his teaching, his life, and yes even by his death, life is offered to the world.  That’s why, on this night of his birth, we are nevertheless going to mark Jesus’ death in a few minutes.  Jesus’ whole life is offered to us, by John and the other Gospel writers, as The Way to life.  His way of living – generously, lovingly, wisely is offered to us as an example of what God’s logic and reason look like.  Jesus’ way of dying – sacrificially, trustingly are still more examples of the Logos of God.  These are signposts for us.  Lights in the darkness.  Clues to how we too should live, if we truly want to find life.

All these things are mysteries.  All of them take a lifetime of thought, reasoning, logic to even begin to grasp – as John himself knew in his old age.

Let tonight be a turning point for you.  Let the light of Christ illuminate and inspire you.  Draw from the spiritual energy he offers around his table, in bread and wine (his body and his blood).  Follow and pursue the light of life every single day from this point on.  It’s what wise men did, 2,000 years ago.   And it’s what the wisest men and women today still do.


Saturday, December 10, 2016

Repent or Repent?

Matthew 11.2-11

John the Baptist is one of the stranger characters of the New Testament. He wore clothing of camel hair – which I imagine was rather itchy – who seems to have lived exclusively on locusts and wild honey. I imagine that getting wild honey out of a wild honey-bee hive is rather a tricky thing to do. So poor old John was probably covered in bee-stings as well.

John was the last of the Old Testament prophets. He followed the tradition of living apart from civilisation, and of calling people to repent of their evil ways. So, let’s picture the scene – picture a rather dirty fellow, who has probably never visited a barber, dressed in camel-hair, covered in bee-stings and with honey stuck to his shirt, munching on a locust...and declaring at the top of his voice “Repent! For the kingdom of heaven has come near”.

I wonder what our reaction would be if we met someone like that in the streets of Havant – or even here inside the church. I think we’d probably try to get him sectioned – for his own good!

But there was something about John that attracted people to him. There was something about his message that had people coming out to him in the wilderness from “Jerusalem, all of Judea, and all of the region along the River Jordan” (Mt 3:5) And let’s remember, these weren’t Sunday drivers out for a laugh at the strange fellow in the desert. These were people who would have travelled many hours, and in some cases many days – to hear for themselves the amazing – even scandalous - things that this man of the desert was saying.

John was not a man to mince his words either. He called the religious leaders of the day a “viper’s brood” (Mt 3:7) He warned them against the complacency of their religion. “Just because you are Abraham’s children,” he would say, “don’t go thinking that gives you an automatic right to heaven” (Mt 7:8 - paraphrased).  He warned them to be afraid of the Messiah who would ‘put an axe to the tree’ of their systems and laws.

There are a number of strange inconsistencies about John. First there is the fact that he didn’t join up with Jesus. Why didn’t he set aside his baptising, and become a follower of the Lord? And then there’s the fact (as we’ve just heard in the Gospel reading) that when he was in prison he sent word to Jesus - to ask him if he really was the Messiah...despite having recognised him as such by the Jordon at Jesus’ baptism.

It seems that John had a different vision in his head of what the Messiah would be like – he seemed to expect a Messiah who would be full of swift judgment against the evil people of the day. See what he says in Matthew’s gospel, in chapter 3:
“...he [that is the Messiah] will gather his wheat into the granary; but the chaff he will burn with unquenchable fire”. (Mt 3: 12) John’s mental picture of the Messiah was based in the language and concepts of the Old Testament. He expected the ‘great and terrible Day of the Lord’. And when it didn’t happen quite as he expected, he perhaps proved more reticent to join up with Jesus. Maybe that’s why he sent word from his prison – saying to Jesus, “are you really the Messiah?”.

But Jesus has a subtly different agenda. He also speaks of the coming day of judgment, and the separation of sheep from goats – later in Matthew’s gospel in fact. But Jesus places that event at some distance in the future. First, he has work to do – to call as many people as possible to repentance, and to give the greatest possible opportunity for people to choose God’s way of living over their own.

There’s a difference, you see, between John’s angry, passionate cry of ‘repent’, and Jesus’ loving invitation to ‘repent’.  The emphasis that we put on words really matters, doesn’t it?  John’s cry of ‘repent’ is angry, frustrated, and intolerant of the world he sees around him.  He is motivated by anger, and longs for the vipers and the chaff to be burned up in unquenchable fire!  But Jesus has God’s perspective on the world.  He looks on the mess of the world with compassion and love – like a parent looks on a wayward child.  He preaches tolerance, forgiveness and peace, and even prays for forgiveness for those who crucify him – “for they know not what they do”.  Jesus is prepared, with God’s longing patience, to give time to the establishment of his Kingdom.

He is so committed to that path – and so reluctant to embark on the eventual task of judgment - that he is prepared to give up his own life so that we might find our way back to God.

And I wonder whether we ourselves can sometimes be a bit like John. Certainly, as a human race, we have often been guilty of making God in our own image.  How many wars have been fought in the belief that God approves of them? How many acts of cruelty have been perpetrated in the belief that God is somehow being served through them? Are there ways in which we conduct our lives which are inconsistent with the reality of Jesus – and the way in which he calls us to live?

I wonder if you’ve seen that bracelet that teenagers sometimes wear.  It has the four letters “WWJD”. They stand for “what would Jesus do” – of course – and it’s a phrase from the 1970s (at least!) which has perhaps become dulled by over-familiarity. But it’s still a good question. What would Jesus do in the face of the rampant poverty of the developing world? What would Jesus do in the face of corruption among leaders of so many nations? What would Jesus do when faced with the commercial pressure to ‘spend, spend, spend’ at this time of the year? What would Jesus do in the face of globalisation and climate change?

My daughter once had a t-shirt with the question WWJB - “Who would Jesus bomb?”... but that’s a subject for another discussion altogether!

During this time of advent, the story of John invites us to prepare for the coming of Jesus – the true Messiah – who will probably be nothing like we expect him to be.  We are invited to prepare for the Lord who says “love one another”, and who shows us what real love is like through radical self- sacrifice.  The story of John reminds us that our understanding of who Jesus was, and is, needs to be re-interpreted.  It needs to be seen in the light of Jesus’ advent as the forgiving, accepting, non-retaliatory suffering-servant-king – whose strength is precisely in his meekness.

May you know the peace of Christ as you prepare to celebrate his coming once again this year. May you know the reality of who Jesus really was and is.  By soaking up the stories about him in the Bible, may you deepen your understanding of who he was and what he stood for. And may that knowledge transform you. Day by day.  So that you may truly know who you are...a loved child of God, gently and loving called to repentance.  And by depending that knowledge, may you come to know what you stand for too.