Sunday, 22 May 2011

I am with you wherever you go - Joshua 1

Some books are more precious than others. And this is one of them.

Kathleen O’Gorman had been one of the leaders of our conference on Reconciliation at the Tantur Institute in Jerusalem. She teaches New Testament at the University of London.

“What book would you suggest I could best get hold of as a memento of our time in the Holy Land?”

Without hesitation she recommended Peter Walker’s In the Steps of Jesus. It had been published only two years before. Peter Walker is a New Testament specialist they at Wycliffe Hall in Oxford. His book works not just as a wonderful pictorial guide to the Holy Land, but also as an accessible, but scholarly guide to the archaeology, history and social history that comes alive when you visit the Holy Land and brings the text alive ever afterwards, and at a third level it works as a commentary on St Luke.

I have since bought the companion volume ‘In the Steps of St Paul’ a pilgrimage I undertook 40 years ago. It serves the same purpose, but also acts as a commentary on Acts.

On the Sunday of our stay four of us had worshipped at the East Jerusalem Baptist Church with its Pastor, Alex Awad, who had also been one of the speakers at our conference. We had made our way by public transport across Jerusalem and walked from the old city to the Baptist church with every intention of visiting the Garden Tomb on the way back as it wasn’t necessarily going to be on our itinerary. We were disappointed to find it was closed on Sundays.

You can imagine our excitement when over coffee after the service in conversation with Alex Awad we found that the couple who were the resident curators of the Garden Tomb were present at the service. Quick introductions were made and we found ourselves having our own personal guided tour of the Garden Tomb when no one else was around. It was, as you can imagine, most moving.

Later in the week, on our last day in Jerusalem, we found ourselves with the whole of our group making it for a second time to the Garden Tomb, though this time it was heaving with people and not quite the same.

On the way out we had to go through the souvenir shop and book shop, as you invariably do at such tourist places anywhere in the world.

And there it was on the shelves.

I bought my copy of ‘In the Steps of Jesus’ there and then.

It was our last night in Jerusalem and on a whim, I decided to do something I am so pleased to have done.

I began to collect signatures of everyone who was there on the conference.

And so in the front inside cover is a wonderful collection of signatures of all those people, complete with greetings.

At the end of our week at the Tantur Institute we had got to know a little the staff who were at reception. And heard something of their story. I asked them to sign as well.

How glad I was that I did.

There in the endpaper are two signatures in Arabic with an anglicised form of the ‘Christian’ names.

They both had the same name.

The anglicised it as I s s a

They explained it was the name, Jesus.

In our culture that is a name not given to children. But among their Arabic, Christian community, it was as common a name now, as it had been 2000 years ago in the time not only of Jesus of Nazareth but also of Jesus Barabbas and many other Jesus’es too!

It was a common name, of course, because it comes into English in another form, a form that actually is still used in our culture as a Christian name.


It’s maybe no coincidence that we look to Jesus of Nazareth, who bears the same name as Joshua for Joshua is seen as the right hand man of Moses who acts as leader and maybe ‘saviour’ of the people bringing them finally to the place of safety of the land flowing with milk and honey. The name, Joshua, Jesus, means of course Saviour.

How appropriate to have two Arabic signatures bearing the name I S S A, Jesus, Joshua, in a book entitled In the Steps of Jesus.

I want to hold on to that connection and the title of that book as we turn to have a look at the Book of Joshua.

The Torah has come to an end, we now move into a set of hooks that appear in the Hebrew ordering of Scripture as Prophetic books. Known as ‘the former prophets’ they are ‘history with a message’.

Jesus lays claim to fulfilling all the Law and the Prophets. And so his claim is to fulfil ‘Joshua’ as much as the books of Moses. In some senses he is very much another ‘Joshua’.

Joshua has first occurred in the story of the people of Israel as early as Exodus 17:9 when Joshua is very much along with Moses. Now at the point at which Moses has died on the threshold of entering the Promised Land it falls to Joshua to lead the people over the river Jordan and into the Promised land.

After the death of Moses the servant of the LORD, the LORD spoke to Joshua son of Nun, Moses’ assistant, saying, ‘My servant Moses is dead. Now proceed to cross the Jordan, you and all this people, into the land that I am giving to them, to the Israelites.

I deliberately chose to read from the New Testament the account of John the Baptist batizing in the Jordan. John tells us that it is Bethany by the Jordan. That is towards the south end of the river Jordan just before it enters the Dead Sea. You cannot get to that spot from the West Bank because the Israeli military regard it as a military zone. You can get to it from the East Bank of the river which is in Jordan – and there is a church in that place.

The Israelis have set apart a little stretch of the Jordan far off in the North where you can share in baptisms in the river Jordan at that point. Complete with its tourist shop. There is something very moving about that place, especially seeing people sharing in baptisms.

But some of our teachers suggested there was significance in the actual location so carefully identified as near the Judean wilderness in all the Gospels, and specifically located in John as Bethany by the Jordan.

The significane is that John took people out to be baptised in the Jordan at around the place where Joshua led the people over the Jordan. Our guide suggested that John would have led the people out of Jerusalem – and into or even over the river. Think shallow, narrow river more akin to a larger River Chelt than the Severn Estuary!!!

John is dressing as an Elijah, but also re-enacting a ‘reclaiming of the land’ as Joshua had arrived. Jesus lines himself up with John the Baptist’s movement and also recalaims the land.

The new Jesus, as the old Joshua, starts his ministry as he comes up out of the Jordan and moves into the wilderness which is the route to Jerusalem. He is going to roam all over the land until he finally reaches Jerusalem.

Joshua receives the promise of the land.

‘My servant Moses is dead. Now proceed to cross the Jordan, you and all this people, into the land that I am giving to them, to the Israelites. Every place that the sole of your foot will tread upon I have given to you, as I promised to Moses. From the wilderness and the Lebanon as far as the great river, the river Euphrates, all the land of the Hittites, to the Great Sea in the west shall be your territory.

In readiness for our arrival in the Book of Joshua I got hold of a newly published commentary on Joshua.

It’s in a series called ‘The Two Horizons Old Testament Commentary’. And it is written by two authors. Gordon McConville is based here in Cheltenahm, was with us on our Good Friday walk of witness through the town, and teaches Old Testament at the University of Gloucestershire. He will be there on Tuesday evening, when the Regius Profess of Theology in the University of Cambridge, David Ford will be giving the tenth or eleventh lecture in a series on Biblical Theology and Interpretation – if anyone wants to join me say the word.

Gordon McConville does what you expect in a commentary. He gives a chapter by chapter set of comments on the text of the book of Joshua. It is a good commentary, as you would expect!!!

That is, as it were, the first horizon. It is a study of the Hebrew text of the Book of Joshua in its own right.

Then comes the twist in this particular commentary series. Stephen Williams is a Christian theologian. He then writes a sequence of essays exploring the way a Christian will read the book of Joshua. There then follows an conversation between the biblical scholar and the theologian.

Stephen Williams identifies a number of problems in the book of Joshua for a lChristian reader.

Two problems are major ones.

First the problem of ‘the land’.

This could not be more timely this week.

The sight of Netanyahu literally facing off President Obama the day after Obama gave his speech on the Middle East was remarkable, the like of which I have never seen.

Obama said the USA would insist on a two state solution with the 1967 boundaries. Netanyahu explained that ‘changing demographics made that not possible. He was referring to the proliferation of Jewish settlements accommodating in excess of 600,000 people dotted all over the West Bank, and taking over the very East Jerusalem where we had worshipped in that Baptist church.

What should we think?

If we read these verses in Joshua then it would seem that Jewish people must occupy not only the whole of this land, but even as far as the Euphrates – right up to Iraq and Iran. This is what drives many of those settlers. It is a policy espoused by many Christians in some parts of the world too.

Do we support Obama? Or Netanyahu.

Stephen Williams offers us a clue.

He observes that it is significant that Jesus does not anywhere make an issue of ‘the land’. Jesus speaks of fulfilling the prophets who later in Isaiah speak of the land reaching through the people of Israel to Gentiles. And this is significant. He opens up a Gospel for Jew and Gentile alike, where God’s love is for ‘the world’ and not rooted in a specifc piece of l and.

I want to come back to this book, In the Steps of Jesus.

We are those who follow in the steps of Jesus. I think it significant that Alex Awad, those committed to the Tantur Institue, all the great historic Christian churches of East Jersualem, the West Bank, Israel and Palestine urge us to reject the view that the land must be entirely occupied by Jewish people but to be a placed shared by Jew and Gentile alike where there is room for all.

That I believe to be the response we should make as Christians following in the steps of Jesus.

For he leads us towards a new heaven and a new earth where there is neither Jew nor Gentile, slave nor free, male nor female but all are one in Christ.

And as we follow in the steps of this new Joshua, this new Jesus, the promises made to the Joshua of old apply now as ever.

No one shall be able to stand against you all the days of your life. As I was with Moses, so I will be with you; I will not fail you or forsake you. Be strong and courageous;

But that is not narrowly of the claim to a specific piece of land, but now as we walk in the steps of Jesus in the whole world.

A year ago I was invited to preach at the welcome service of Adrian Wyatt to the pastorate at Kingswood, Wooton under Edge – he chose this passage to preach on. IT was wonderful to do so at such a service. For if we follow in the steps of Jesus, we should also rise to this command.

Only be strong and very courageous, being careful to act in accordance with all the law that my servant Moses commanded you; do not turn from it to the right hand or to the left, so that you may be successful wherever you go. This book of the law shall not depart out of your mouth; you shall meditate on it day and night, so that you may be careful to act in accordance with all that is written in it. For then you shall make your way prosperous, and then you shall be successful

Joshua is thinking back to the ‘book of the law’ that in the unfolding of the sotry of the Torah had just been written – for us the Book of Deuteronomy.

That classic principle is alluded to. The need to abide by it.

As those who follow ‘in the steps of Jesus’ we look to the whole of our Bible – particularly seeing it through the eyes of Jesus – for us it is the whole of this bok that we wiust meditate on day and night, so that we act in accordance with it.

Then comes the most wonderful of promises.

It meant the world to Joshua.

It meant the world to Jesus.

It means the world to each of us.

I hereby command you: Be strong and courageous; do not be frightened or dismayed, for the LORD your God is with you wherever you go.’

What a wonderful command.

We face fears on a personal level.

I think at times we can feel a little fearful of what is unfolding in our world at the moment, in the Middle East, in the Holy Land.

This is the promise we hold on to.

It is the very promise Jesus not only held on to through his life, but it is the promise he shared with his followers in those very last words of his in Matthew 28 when he said, I will be with you always.

In his morning devotions in a Japanese internment camp, Eric Liddell of Chariots of Fire fame stood as it were to attention at the beginning of each day to hear the words of Jesus for that day.

It’s no bad thing to stand before Joshua-Jesus and hear these words at the start of each day.

I hereby command you: Be strong and courageous; do not be frightened or dismayed, for the LORD your God is with you wherever you go.’

Sunday, 15 May 2011

Choose Life!

It’s one of the buzz words of the day.

So much depends on it.

At every turn, be it in health care, or in education, in life-style, or in television programming …

What counts is


Choose the treatment you receive in hospital.

Choose the school your children go to.


The snag is ‘choice’ is not as simple as that.

All sorts of things limit the choices we can make.

Circumstances we find ourselves in, our state of health.

We are free to choose – but our choices are limited.

In those last words of Moses to the people as they stand on the threshold of the Promised Land, it all boils down to choice.

But the choice is quite a stark one.

In a sense it is the greatest freedom, the greates gift God gives.

But in another sense it is a choice that is presented to us. It is not one we devise for ourselves.

It is one, however, that is realistic.

It is one that is within the grasp of each one of us.

Surely, this commandment that I am commanding you today is not too hard for you, nor is it too far away. 12It is not in heaven, that you should say, ‘Who will go up to heaven for us, and get it for us so that we may hear it and observe it?’ 13Neither is it beyond the sea, that you should say, ‘Who will cross to the other side of the sea for us, and get it for us so that we may hear it and observe it?’ 14No, the word is very near to you; it is in your mouth and in your heart for you to observe.

So what is the choice?

See, I have set before you today life and prosperity, death and adversity.

That’s a pretty stark choice.

It is also a no-brainer.

We touch something now that rounds off the whole of the Torah, the books of the Law. But it is also something that is going to run like a strand through the next section of the Old Testament.

For the moment we will take it at it’s face value. But whole books of the Old Testament are devoted to the difficulties this choice poses to us. We’ll come to those in due course.

If you obey the commandments of the LORD your God* that I am commanding you today, by loving the LORD your God, walking in his ways, and observing his commandments, decrees, and ordinances, then you shall live and become numerous, and the LORD your God will bless you in the land that you are entering to possess. 17But if your heart turns away and you do not hear, but are led astray to bow down to other gods and serve them, 18I declare to you today that you shall perish; you shall not live long in the land that you are crossing the Jordan to enter and possess.

That’s it – that’s the choice.

Obey God.

That’s the key.

That way things fall into place. Things work. Things hang together.

I call heaven and earth to witness against you today that I have set before you life and death, blessings and curses. Choose life so that you and your descendants may live, 20loving the LORD your God, obeying him, and holding fast to him; for that means life to you and length of days, so that you may live in the land that the LORD swore to give to your ancestors, to Abraham, to Isaac, and to Jacob.
Choose life!

That’s the key.

But what does that involve.

This is the fundamental life choice.

To follow God.

There is at this moment a link – obey God, all goes well. Disobey God all goes badly. That is the theme that’s going to run through the next few hooks. And it is as a general truth, the insight that goes to the heart of our faith.

The difficulty I spoke of is that it doesn’t always work out that way. So often it is those who disobey God who get away with it, and those who obey God have the hardest of hard times. That’s the big issue that the likes of the Book of Job grapple with.

Jesus is very aware of this fundamental choice – the command is there to Love God, Love Neighbour. He then takes that so much further. But he knows that God is there as much for the person who is facing hard times.

In fact, Jesus’ insight is that when things go really well that is the point at which corruption all sorts of things set in and things begin to fall apart.

He too sets out the blessings and the curses in no uncertain terms.

But it’s interesting that what comes first is the way God’s love reaches out through Jesus to meet the needs of those who are facing the biggest troubles, for whom that prosperity has been so elusive they have collapsed in so many ways.

He came down with them and stood on a level place, with a great crowd of his disciples and a great multitude of people from all Judea, Jerusalem, and the coast of Tyre and Sidon. They had come to hear him and to be healed of their diseases; and those who were troubled with unclean spirits were cured. And all in the crowd were trying to touch him, for power came out from him and healed all of them.

Then he looked up at his disciples and said:
‘Blessed are you who are poor,
for yours is the kingdom of God.
‘Blessed are you who are hungry now,
for you will be filled.
‘Blessed are you who weep now,
for you will laugh.
‘Blessed are you when people hate you, and when they exclude you, revile you, and defame you on account of the Son of Man. Rejoice on that day and leap for joy, for surely your reward is great in heaven; for that is what their ancestors did to the prophets.
‘But woe to you who are rich,
for you have received your consolation.
‘Woe to you who are full now,
for you will be hungry.
‘Woe to you who are laughing now,
for you will mourn and weep.
‘Woe to you when all speak well of you, for that is what their ancestors did to the false prophets.
The starting point is the healing.

Then the alternatives – blessing or curse.

There is something really challenging here. It’s taken on board the Choice in the Law, the grappling with it in Job … and it presents us with a remarkable insight.

And then Jesus goes to the nub of the matter, with the word that for him is ALL IMPORTANT.

‘But I say to you that listen, Love your enemies, do good to those who hate you, bless those who curse you, pray for those who abuse you. If anyone strikes you on the cheek, offer the other also; and from anyone who takes away your coat do not withhold even your shirt. Give to everyone who begs from you; and if anyone takes away your goods, do not ask for them again. Do to others as you would have them do to you.
‘If you love those who love you, what credit is that to you? For even sinners love those who love them. If you do good to those who do good to you, what credit is that to you? For even sinners do the same. If you lend to those from whom you hope to receive, what credit is that to you? Even sinners lend to sinners, to receive as much again. But love your enemies, do good, and lend, expecting nothing in return. Your reward will be great, and you will be children of the Most High; for he is kind to the ungrateful and the wicked. Be merciful, just as your Father is merciful.
Yesterday marked the end of a three year partnership the Federation has developed through Christian Aid with One Respe in the Dominican Republic. What was good about that project was that it not only gave us a focus for raising more than £30,000 for a key project in the Dominican Republic, but it also enabled us to build up an understanding of Christian Aid at work and a real contact with the people involved in that project.

Yesterday saw the start of a link with the second poorest country in South America, Nicaragua. The aim is once again to raise money – but more than that, build up links. It will be interesting that way to make that contact more real.

What is interesting is the extent to which we have so much to learn – we have as much to receive by way of that very real blessing, and much that must make us think again about our priorities too.

Good that we should share that here at the start of Christian Aid Week … it is that sense of involvement we have with those in so many parts of the world, not least there in Nicaragua that is so important.

Jesus builds up to that key word in his vocabulary – Love.

And he invites us through the generosity of a love that reaches out to all to commit ourselves to Mercy and so shape the world we live in.

And it all boils down to that choice we are invited to make.

Choose life!

Sunday, 8 May 2011

Teach them to obey everything? Jesus, the new Moses

Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers and Deuteronomy stand as a great testament to the way God wants his people to live in the world. The Torah is more than a collection of rules and regulations, it is the account of a people living life to the full under God. And it offers a way of life for the people of God to fulfil.

If Leviticus focuses on the ritual of priest and tabernacle, sacrifice and atonement, Numbers returns to the story of the people wandering in the wilderness under the leadership of Moses and Deuteronomy is as the very name itself in Greek suggests the second reading of the law. It is a kind of summation Moses shares with the people as he stands on the threshold of the promised land.

Here in Deut 4.1 is what this Law, God’s way for the world is all about.

So now, Israel, give heed to the statutes and ordinances that I am teaching you to observe, so that you may live to enter and occupy the land that the LORD, the God of your ancestors, is giving you. You must neither add anything to what I command you nor take away anything from it, but keep the commandments of the LORD your God with which I am charging you.

When Jesus breaks into the world the turning point in Matthew, Mark and Luke of his story comes at Caesarea Philippi as his followers recognise in him the long expected Messiah and then on the Mount of Transfiguration it is as if this recognition receives the seal of approval from Moses as the one who stands for all the Law, and Elijah the one who stands for all the prophets.

At his resurrection the women tell the disciples to go ahead of Jesus to Galilee where Jesus will meet with them. In Matthew 28 that is exactly what happens – and as Jesus meets with his disciples he gives them a commission to go into all the world,

It is as if Jesus is standing on the threshold of the world he has come to – it is not the promised land, but the whole world. And as he stands on the threshold of that world he has something to share with his disciples, and it is just as Moses had shared so long ago …

‘All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything that I have commanded you. And remember, I am with you always, to the end of the age.’

People are to obey everything Jesus has commanded just as long before the people of God were to obey everything Moses had laid out. Matthew recognises in Jesus a new Moses.

See, just as the LORD my God has charged me, I now teach you statutes and ordinances for you to observe in the land that you are about to enter and occupy.

Can you hear the echoes in what Jesus says in Matthew 28?

More than that, Matthew brings the commandments, the teaching of Jesus into five great discourses – an echo of the five books of the law.

In the middle of his gospel in chapter 13 is Jesus teaching in the form of parables all about God’s rule.

On either side is Jesus teaching for the mission of the twelve (in chapter 10) and the life of the church (in chapter 18). And then at the beginning in chapters 5-7 the great sermon on the mount in which Jesus works out what life in the kingdom will be like. And then at the end in chapters 23,24,25 Jesus final words of challenge.

What’s fascinating at the beginning of the sermon on the mount is that wonderful statement we think of as the Beatitudes – Blessed are … and at the beginning of the last great sermon, a set of Woes to those who are falsely religious.

It is as if the whole of all that Jesus stands for is a matter of blessing or of woe.

There are all sorts of echoes here of Deuteronomy which comes to hinge on blessing and curse and making the right choice.

Jesus has taken all the Torah is and brought it to fulfilment in himself, in his story and in his commandments. It is not that he has come to abolish the law and the prophets but to fulfil them. The point is that the kingdom is coming in Christ, the moment of accomplishment when all is fulfilled is at hand … and so this new Moses has a new Torah to share entirely in keeping with, but at the same time fulfilling the old Torah, and bringing it to fulfilment – a new slant, you have heard it said, I say to you.

But there is in what Jesus stands for a new twist. He is not the all-conquering hero who carries all before him – he is the suffering servant who goes to his cross. What’s more he is the one who invites his followers to take up their cross, share in this suffering servanthood and follow him.

And there is a new twist here.

Deuteronomy is in some ways all about success and people thinking well of you …

I now teach you statutes and ordinances for you to observe in the land that you are about to enter and occupy. You must observe them diligently, for this will show your wisdom and discernment to the peoples, who, when they hear all these statutes, will say, ‘Surely this great nation is a wise and discerning people!’ For what other great nation has a god so near to it as the LORD our God is whenever we call to him? And what other great nation has statutes and ordinances as just as this entire law that I am setting before you today?

Jesus too longs for people to be wise and discerning. As far as Jesus is concerned the wise man is the one who hears the words of Christ and acts on them – he is like the wise man who builds his house on the rock.

But Jesus knows full well that that will not necessarily bring praise and adulation from people out there.

Far from it, people will fail to understand for the way of love that Jesus maps out, the way of blessedness that he is about is one that people will find deeply offensive and object to massively. It is the way of love for God, love for neighbour and love for enemy that will result not in everyone saying that’s brilliant but in everyone taking offence.

David Cook, the Bible translator who spent time with us at the Ministers Conference shared with me a wonderful reading of the Sermon on the Mount.

How many beatitudes are there? He asked. Some texts, not least the NRSV, include Matthew 5:9 with the beaitutides. A ninth beatitude. But it is written quite differently from the others. It lacks the poetry. It is one too many.

No, he suggested.

It is the start of the next section of the sermon on the mount.

Blessed are you when people revile you and persecute you

What does it take to be the people willing to be reviled and persecuted and spoken ill of?

It means you will be salt of the earth – you will be the light of the world.

Salt in a tasteless world, light in a dark world.

And you won’t be admired but persecuted for it.

Quite the opposite of the popularity envisaged in Deuteronomy 4.

How far can we take seriously the sermon on the Mount?

I was reminded of Dietrich Bonhoeffer this week – passionate about being a peacemaker, committed in his opposition to Nazism, he was willing to make one compromise – and so became part of the bomb plot to assassinate Hitler.

Does the assassination of Osama bin Laden have echoes of that? I wonder.

It does raise questions for us as Christians. How do we respond to terrorism. What would Jesus do? What does Jesus want us to do?

It is important to raise the question. I for one feel the Archbishop of Canterbury was right to do so … and has a right to do so as one of those who on 9/11 was only two blocks away found himself very much caught up in all that happened.

He calls in question whether justice is seen to be done in such an assassination. It is a big question. One we need to ask.

I was moved when Felicity drew my attention to something that Sharon Wallington had posted on Facebook. It made me stop and think again …

It was Sharon Wallington who posted the heart-felt response on Facebook that Felicity drew my attention to.

I mourn the loss of thousands of precious lives, but I will not rejoice at the death of one, not even an enemy. “Returning hate for hate multiplies hate adding deeper darkness to a night already devoid of stars. Darkness cannot drive out darkness: only light can do that. Hate cannot drive out hate only love can do that.
Martin Luther King Jr

That was it.

That is what had unsettled me so much.

Those scenes of jubilation that greeted the news of the death of Osama Bin Laden were as profoundly disturbing as the scenes of jubilation that had in some places greeted the news of 9/11.

That is what is in danger of making us hurtle further down the spiral of destruction terrorism unleashes on us.

Sharon went on to comment on the quotations she had posted

“... Because I can’t say it better myself and am sickened by the triumphant baying to which my kids are subjected every time they turn on the TV or radio. I read this to them this morning.

It was good to read the many responses Sharon had.

One friend commented, “I too was sickened by those of us who hated the crowing of some when the towers were attacked, now crowing because we have revenge. “Vengeance is mine says the Lord.”

What challenged me further was the quotation Sharon then posted from Romans 12

“If your enemy is hungry, feed him; if he is thirsty, give him something to drink; for by so doing you will heap burning coals on his head. Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good.”

Are those words of Paul, echoing as they do the words of Jesus in the Sermon on the Mount, simply pious platitudes that have nothing to do with the real world?

Or are these the words of Christ we are not only to hear but also to act on if we are to have the wisdom and the discernment of the wise man who built his house on the rock?

One thing I am pretty sure of. These are not popular responses.

But then Jesus did not want us to seek popularity, but to risk the unpopularity of following the way of God as he outlined it with its unrelenting emphasis on the way of love, even love for enemies too.

Sunday, 1 May 2011

Be the person God meant you to be and set the world on fire!

John 20:19-31 and Exodus 33:12-23

Each one of us will have a special memory from this week.

What’s yours?

Was it the wedding?

Within the wedding was there a special moment?

Does sharing in something like that take you back to special moments?

What special moments are there that you look back to?

What about Easter … our celebration of Easter? Was there a special moment?

For me the special moment has to be in the quiet – playing that Mahler’s fifth symphony – and then the connections – from Livingstone Fellowship, through Daniel Harding, to the awfulness of the Japanese earthquake, to the strange experience of the ending of CF Youth as it began with a conference here at Highbury to the thought that these youngsters are doing as we did and shaping a future for youth work in our churches. And then through this week another special moment – worship at our conference led by Roberta Rominger, General Secrretary of the URC, a very special moment in itself. Through her worship she invited us to reflect on what kind of Easter people we should be.

Each morning she had a wonderful children’s story to read and to tell. And in the evening she told us of her experience of playing under Benjamin Zander, the conductor, and going to his annual master class on conducting. She read from his The Art of Possibility each evening.

And on the last evening, she spoke of an occasion when he was conducting Mahler’s 9th Symphony. Do you love Mahler, she asked? Well, I found myself nodding, not from a longstanding love, but from a warming kind of love that is discovering Mahler, thanks to having listened a number of times last week.

One of the second violinists was not engaged in the final rehearsal. Sitting back, uninterested. He went up to her aftrer and asked. Is there anything troubling you?

The response was not what he expected. But he listened.

She loved Mahler. She loved this symphony. But she found he was taking it too quickly for the bowing to work in the way she as a violinist knew it should.

He thought. A string player himself, he knew how important getting the bowing right was. He did not that afternoon do as he usually did before a concert. Have a rest, a shower, a good meal. Instead he went through the score again. He identified those passages where maybe he was inviting the orchestra to go fractionally fast and he decided how he could take into account this one player’s thoughts.

He did. She was engaged. And it was a wonderful performance.

So pleased was he with the performance that night that a few weeks later Zander rang the Violinist up, a trans-atlantic call. When she picked up the phone and he introduced himself, she was so taken aback … no conductor had rung her at home before. Neither had any conductor adjusted the tempo in response to her comment before as well.

For Roberta it said an immense amount about the nature of leadership, the understanding it calls for. Perhaps it speaks more than anything of else of the need for servant leadership.

In her worship she took us through John’s account of the Resurrection and invited us to think of ourselves as Easter people.

It was good to read through John’s account of resurrection.

I found myself going over the whole story once again … and I found myself drawn to one moment in that story that stands out for me among many.

I wonder whether any moment in the story of Resurrection and the story of Easter stands out for you?

The moment that stands out for me is that moment in the upper room when only 10 are present, Thomas the doubter is not with them and Jesus appears to them.

Peace be with you, he says.

And then he goes on to say this.

As the Father has sent me, so I send you.

When he had said this he breathed on them and said to them, ‘Receive the Holy Spirit. If you forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven them; if you retain the sins of any, they are retained.”

Maybe it’s because I grew up with the hymn, Breathe on me, breath of God, that that moment is special for me.

Breathe on me, breath of God,
Fill me with life anew,
That I may love what thou dost love,
And do what thou wouldst do.

Maybe it’s because I grew up with the Narnia Chronicles, and that wonderful experience of being joined on the top of Earl’s Hill, Pontesbury at a dawn service when we actually saw the sun rise – a wonderful experience. And Robin returned to his studio and re-designed and re-drew the pictures for the final part of his wonderful pictorial version of The Lion the Witch and the Wardrobe to have a vibrant double page spread of Aslan bounding into the air with Lucy and Susan clinging to his mane. Turn the pate and he leaps over the wall of the Wicked Witch’s fortress where so many of the great beasts of Narnia have been turned to stone, and he breathes on them … and they come to life.

Breathe on me breath of God

The wonderful thing about being Easter people is not just that we can bear testimony to the resurrection of Christ, but that the very essence of Christ, the Spirit of Chist is breathed into our innermost being.

We have a new strength within us, a power from God, infused into our very being.

The risen Jesus breathes into us, each one of us and we can hear him say, Receive the Holy Spirit.

But as were those apostles long ago, so are we then sent – Easter people don’t just stay put … we are sent just as Christ is sent – into a world of need to bring something of the love of God into that world.

What is it we bring?

One thing is very special. WE can bring into people’s lives the reality of the forgiving love of God in Christ.

If you forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven.

It’s not just that we are to say, ‘That’s OK.” When someone says sorry to us.

It’s much more than that.

So much of the Books of the Law, the Torah, are all about bringing God’s forgiveness into people’s lives. The whole story as it unfolds is a story of people tasked with following God, who continually fall down on the job.

That’s the wonderful thing Moses did. The people have just gone their own way and abandoned God once more. This time they have made a Golden calf.

And Moses intercedes on behalf of the people to God. “Consider too that this nation is your people,” he pleads with God.

God is wonderfully gracious to Moses – Moses longs to see God.

And God responds – I will make all m y goodness pass before you, and will proclaim before you the name ‘The Lord’.

I will be gracious to whom I will be gracious,
I will show mercy on whom I will show mercy.

But you won’t actually see me. Hid in the rock as I pass by.

The story that unfolds is of that very experience, the making of new tablets for commandments, a renewal of the covenant ensues. And then there are all sorts of laws that are outlined about making the Tabernacle, appointing priests, carrying out sacrifices. And as you read on in the rest of Exodus and on into Leviticus, it is all about recognising that people fall short of what God requires, that they need forgiveness and a strength from beyond themselves, and it sets out things to help that happen.

A place – the tabernacle which was later to become the Temple, particular people, priests, a set of sacrifices the priests only can carry out in the Temple, to bring about the reality of that forgiveness that is God’s.

This is the basis of being the people of God.

But we stand the other side of Jesus. We look to the risen Christ, and Jesus breathes into us and says to each of us, Receive the Holy Spirit.

Now we, like those apostles, are sent to bring God’s love into the world. And it is our task, the task of each one of us, to declare God’s grace, to declare God’s mercy and to make real God’s forgiveness.

This is our task – this is what we are called to share.

It isn’t that we need a place to go to, priests to turn to, sacrifices to carry out. God breathes his very being deep into us, and we too receive the Holy Spirit. WE are sent by him into the world to bring God’s forgiving love into the world and into the lives of people all around. We can declare the forgiving love of God … and prompt people to start anew.

What an exciting task we are called to share. And we each have our part to play, and we are called to play it to the full.

The one part of the wedding that caught my eye was a quotation from Catherine of Sienna, whose Saint’s day yesterday was, quoted by Richard Chartres in his address.

“Be who God meant you to be and you will set the world on fire.” So said St Catherine of Siena whose festival day this is.

He was thinking of the Duke and Duchess of Cambridge as they set out on marriage together.

It speaks also to each one of us … and especially to each one of us as Easter People.

Be the Easter people God meant you to be, and you will set the world on fire!

It was a very personal prayer, William and Kate composed for their wedding day. But it is one we too may adapt as the Easter people God calls us to be.

God our Father, we thank you for all you have given us; for the love that we share and for the joy of Easter..

In the busyness of each day keep our eyes fixed on what is real and important in life and help us to be generous with our time and love and energy.

Strengthened by our union with you help us to serve and comfort those who suffer. We ask this in the Spirit of Jesus Christ.

[Original: God our Father, we thank you for our families; for the love that we share and for the joy of our marriage.

In the busyness of each day keep our eyes fixed on what is real and important in life and help us to be generous with our time and love and energy.

Strengthened by our union help us to serve and comfort those who suffer. We ask this in the Spirit of Jesus Christ.]