Tag Archives: Faith

Holy Week Service – Matthew 24


Our theme at Prestbury Methodist Church this year is the teaching of Jesus during Holy Week as recorded by Matthew. I was privileged to preach on Tuesday evening on Matthew 24.

SCRIPTURE:    Matthew 24:1-14; 42-44

We sang Stuart Townend’s song just now, ‘I will not boast in anything, no gifts, no power, no wisdom’.

Well, the disciples wanted to boast. They boasted in the glorious architecture of the Temple: ‘Isn’t it magnificent!’ they cried. The Romans might be in charge, but this is the real centre of power. This is what really matters.

And it was important. Whatever the world might throw at them, however difficult it might be to make ends meet, to put food on the table, to pay the rent, if the Temple was there, if Jerusalem was secure, there would always be hope.

And we are no different. We worry about the Guptas, we worry about Nkandla, we worry about inflation and interest rates, we worry about unemployment and how it will affect our children and grandchildren. But while we are complaining that this is bad, that’s bad and the whole world is corrupt, we are constantly looking for something to hold on to, something that will give us a sense of security, just as the disciples found in the Temple building. If we could just fix this; if we could just settle that; if there was less corruption, more tolerance, there would be hope.

Jesus said to his disciples, and to us, ‘You may think that these stones, this wish list, this fix will keep you safe, but none of these things will last; not a single stone will be left in its place.’

None of the things we put our faith in, none of the things that give us hope, none of them really matter, none of them is permanent. And what happens to our faith and to our hope when they are gone?

If our relationship with God depends on the Temple, what happens when it is pulled down? If our confidence and trust in God depends on our health or our security or our comfort, what happens when our health deteriorates, our security is threatened, our comfort is taken away?

The disciples were horrified at the idea that the Temple might not be as permanent or as important as they thought. So they cried out, ‘When, Lord? When?’

We need to know, so that we can plan, we can prepare, we can get ready. If we know when it will happen, we will live our lives differently; we will plan differently, we will be ready.

Every now and again, of course, someone comes along bragging that they have worked it out. They know when it’s going to happen, and they give us the date. The end is not simply near, it is set for the 17th of April, just after tea.

Now we know. We can stop working, stop shopping, stop planning. We can go up onto a mountain, down by a stream, into the wilderness or into the Temple. We can worship without distraction, meditate without worry, pray without fear.

So, tell us, Lord; when will it be?

But Jesus is emphatic: no one knows, and no one is going to know.

He does warn us, however, that the end will not come easily. The process will be like the pains of childbirth: the reward is magnificent, but you are not going to enjoy the journey. There will be war and famine and earthquakes. Our own comfort and wellbeing will be threatened. We will be arrested, punished and put to death because of our faith. People will hate us, simply because we trust in Jesus.

Jesus warns us about these things not so that we can work out which war, which famine, which earthquake is the final one. He even tells us that these things ‘do not mean that the end has come.’ No, he warns us so that we know what to expect and are not taken by surprise.

No matter what happens, Jesus is saying, hold on to your trust and faith in God, not in fine buildings, good health, security systems or healthy pensions. Many will give up their faith. But if we hold onto our faith, we will continue to live in the security of God’s presence, no matter how bad it gets. Don’t give up.

But ever since Jesus said these words we have been trying to work out which earthquake he was talking about, which famine, which war would announce the end. (I can just see the angels rolling their eyes and saying, ‘Which part of “no one knows, and no one is going to know” don’t you understand?)

But Jesus does tell one thing that will happen just before the end. We tend to ignore it. It has nothing to do with earthquakes and war and stars falling from the sky. Jesus says: ‘(The) Good News about the Kingdom will be preached through all the world for a witness to all people; and then the end will come.’

The end is not heralded by wars or famine or pain and suffering. Those things are going to happen. They will always be around us. Whether they will be any worse towards the end, Jesus doesn’t say. But instead of counting wars and famine and earthquakes, we should be looking for ways to share the Good News with people around us.

So when Jesus says, ‘You must always be ready because the Son of Man will come … when you are not expecting him’, he isn’t saying have your bags packed ready for heaven. He’s telling us always to be ready to share our faith, always to live as if the Kingdom of God is already among us. It’s not crime and corruption that matter or even our health and security. Persecution and death may be our lot. What really matters is that the Gospel is proclaimed, God’s way is demonstrated.

What has eternal significance is when our lives, what we say and what we do, begin to proclaim God’s love and faithfulness to a hurting world; when our choices and our reactions demonstrate that ‘normal’ responses, our ‘normal’ way of life, are not the only way to live – there is a better way.

In the chaos and the struggle of our lives, we are challenged to rise above the normal, to find ways to be better than normal; to stop taking offence at what we see around us, at what others are doing or saying.

That’s a phrase that challenged Jen and me in our quiet time recently: ‘Don’t take offence.’ Because we do. We take offence at what others do or fail to do; we take offence at what others say; we take offence at other drivers. It’s a normal reaction. But Christ calls us to be better than normal, to offer an alternative response, to demonstrate what the Good News looks like and what life in the Kingdom of God is like.

How about we start this Holy Week.
They are planning to put Jesus to death. There are signs it’s going to happen this week. But Jesus doesn’t want us to take offence – to scream and shout and draw our swords. He wants the love that drives him to the cross to drive our every interaction, our every relationship, our every decision; that his love should drive us this Holy week and every week, come earthquakes, war, famine or persecution, until he comes again.

‘Love so amazing, so divine, demands my soul, my life, my all.’

Or as Graham Kendrick writes:

‘So let us learn how to serve, And in our lives enthrone Him;
Each other’s needs to prefer, For it is Christ we’re serving.’

[We closed with Christine Jerrett’s beautiful prayer found here: Faithful, promise-keeping God]

 

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A prayer in the face of persecution


Lord, your early followers, suffered for their faith.
And there are many around the world today persecuted for their beliefs.
For them, faith is a daily encounter,
A step-by-step acknowledgement of your presence and provision.
But here we gather in safety and in peace,
And we take our freedom and our provisions for granted.
We sing and celebrate with laughter and delight;
Disconnected from the pain of the world around us.

Lord, it’s not always intentional;
But our constant smiles, our positive thinking and our happy talk
Often act as barriers to honest sharing.
Our faith seems like a series of placards condemning others to silence:
“No frowning”, we seem to say.
“No doubting”, “No sadness here”, “No pain allowed”.
And the suffering is hidden, and the pain is carried alone.

Lord, open our hearts to the burdens people carry.
We pray especially for those who grieve.
Some grieve the loss of a loved one,
While others grieve the loss of love;
Some have lost their health and independence,
Others, the opportunity to work and their sense of dignity.

Few of us are abused for our faith, Lord,
But there are many who experience violence every day.
Theirs is a silent and lonely path—
Forced to hide the abuse they dare not share;
Love broken, twisted and bitter.
Lord, open our eyes to each other’s pain;
Make us welcoming to the hurting world around us.

Transform our faith and our fellowship, Lord,
That our joy and delight becomes not a barrier but a sign of welcome.
That our gathering is not behind closed doors and unwelcoming placards,
But offers friendship and open arms, inviting and welcoming
The hurt, the helpless and the homeless.

Transform us, Lord, as you transformed the woman at the well.
Transform us from unthinking, lifeless worshipers
Into vital evidence of your grace for our community.

Transform us, as you transformed Nicodemus,
From an intellectual understanding of faith,
Into a practical caring for the body of Christ
In its pain and suffering and death.

For it is in giving that we receive.
It is in pardoning that we are pardoned,
And it is in dying that we are born to Eternal Life.
AMEN

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Electrical failure and a failure of faith


We were plunged into darkness the other evening.

To be brutally honest, I received a call from my ever-loving wife to say that we had no electricity, and that there was a blue slip in the post box from the municipality stating that, since we had not paid our account, they had cut us off.

Not only were a hot bath and hot dinner in jeopardy but, far more serious, we were busy watching Doc Martin, Series 5, with the final episode to go.  While we could have watched an episode on the laptop, the DVD was sitting inside the DVD player, which cannot be opened without electricity.  Well, it can be opened with a screwdriver or hammer, of course, but I managed to dissuade my lovely wife from such drastic action.  I had to tread carefully, mind you, since there was the danger that either implement (or both) could have been used on me, it being my responsibility to pay such accounts.

Candles are very romantic but the romance wears very thin when their use is forced on one.  Or, put more correctly, when they are forced on one because of the forgetfulness of another.  A friend of mine who is single asked, “Is that really how far love is supposed to go?” Fortunately the question was put to me, rather than to my wife, and I was able to respond with a confident, “Yes, of course.”

We’ve been reading about Sarah and Abraham in our quiet times over the past couple of weeks.  Today we read about Sarah’s death and burial at the age of 127.  I suspect that her death was more peaceful than her life.  Sarah suffered greatly as a result of Abraham’s uncertainty about God’s faithfulness over the years.  He put Sarah into grave danger all too easily whenever he felt his own life might be threatened. 

“Yes, very beautiful; she’s my sister.”
“Yes, take her by all means.”

Fortunately Sarah wasn’t able to have children during those years, otherwise how many might there have been?  But that led to frustration because they were not able to produce the child God had promised them.  Did Abraham also nag Sarah about it?  We don’t know, but she eventually gave him her servant girl, Hagar, to produce the child of promise. That didn’t exactly lead to a happy family either.

For 25 years God worked with this couple until they finally understood and believed God, and finally trusted him.  They even trusted him enough to sacrifice their child of promise.

Don’t think for a moment that I am pointing fingers at Abraham. His faith and his faithfulness, and his willingness to follow wherever God led, were, at their very weakest, on a different planet from mine.  But I am greatly encouraged by God’s willingness to work with us, growing our faith, and encouraging our trust; his endless patience with his slow-to-learn children.  That is, for me, an essential element of the story of Abraham and Sarah.

Of course, it’s also useful to hint to my beloved how gracious Sarah was, and that she had a lot more to forgive than Abraham forgetting to pay his electricity bill.

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Stephen Hawking: A Question of Faith


This article was published in The Witness on Friday, 20 May 2011.  I offered them the poem, but they chose the prose.

STEPHEN Hawking has declared that “there is no heaven or afterlife … that is a fairy story for people afraid of the dark.” (The Witness, May 17.)

In his earlier book, A Brief History of Time, he accepted that a divine being was not incompatible with a scientific understanding of the universe — a sound agnostic stance. Now, however, he believes that developments in physics allow no place for a deity in theories of the origins of the universe.

Sadly, the church has too often in its history encouraged just such a fear of the dark in order to frighten men and women into its ranks. But such theology reflects a poverty of faith, rather than a search for the truth.

Hawking has lived most of his life in the shadow of death. He has endured motor neuron disease for 49 years — about 40 years longer than most who encounter the disease. He has probably given more thought to death and what comes next than most of us and I respect him for that. But Hawking goes beyond science in this new declaration.

I am intrigued by the discoveries of physics and the theories of the origins of the universe and human kind, but I’m a babe in arms. I can claim no knowledge of the arguments — I can hardly understand most of them. Some parts of A Brief History of Time were beyond me. More recent offerings are a foreign language.

Hawking, and others with his incredible grasp of such a wide range of subjects, can prove a great deal about our origins, some beyond reasonable doubt. He can describe how it all came together, but he can’t tell us why. Of course, if there is no divine being behind it all, there is no “why?” We just have a series of causes and effects. (That, mind you, might be a bit embarrassing if it took us back to the theory of first cause — just as the big-bang theory comes embarrassingly close to a creation moment.)

I, on the other hand, am not even an authority in matters of faith. I am only a witness. I can’t package my faith into proofs for the existence of God, as Thomas Aquinas did, but I’m not sure it would make any difference if I could. I can only speak of what has happened to me — much as Hawking is doing in his latest declaration. I can tell you a story of failure and forgiveness, of brokenness and healing. I can only make sense of that story in the context of a divine being whose creativity did not end on day six.

I have no proof, just an absolute (call it naive if you like) conviction. It’s a conviction based on my experience and the experience of countless others who are just as flawed and broken as I, that the inexplicable “why?” behind the universe is love.

Hawking may have begun to pierce the veil covering the origins of the universe, but (notwithstanding the experience of those who have returned from its outer chambers) the veil of death remains as tightly sealed as ever. That veil can only be pierced by faith or by death itself. Hawking’s own assertion about the nothingness beyond is itself a statement of faith, not an objective scientific discovery.

It is not fear of the dark that feeds my faith, but an awareness of the light. I have no more certainty than Hawking of what lies beyond the grave, but as long as light remains (here or beyond), I shall continue to revel in it and tell my story.

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Too Busy to Listen


Listening is such hard work; waiting for the future to happen is so difficult. I struggle to get to retreats and quiet days. I’m too busy; there’s too much to get through; I want to read, to write, to learn, to do. But always, when I eventually do stop to listen, usually on a retreat or a quiet day, I am reminded (again) of how much I need to listen. The growth I strive for, the ability to serve, to preach, to be whatever God is calling me to be, will not come about by being pasted on to my life. It won’t come from reading more (although the seeds may be there); it won’t come from “wandering to and fro upon the earth”. It comes (for me at least) from within. It comes from listening.

I was privileged to spend a morning last weekend with Jim and Heather Johnston and about 30 or so friends at Beth Shalam, celebrating Jim and Heather’s ministry there over the past 20 years. The time has come for them to retire.  Many of those who were there had been to multiple retreats and quiet days over the years. Most had been through Jim’s Life Revision course (an eight-day retreat followed by two three-day retreats). All had been blessed beyond measure by the healing and nurturing that has been the mark of this home.

I have attended a couple of retreats at Beth Shalam. We are fortunate to be in the same city, just down the road, but I haven’t enjoyed the privilege as much as I could have. Then during last year (2010) I went through the Life Revision course. It was a transforming experience for me and, among other things, I began to write.

On this final, celebratory, retreat Heather pointed out that one can only harvest what has been sown; we bring out what is within us, what has grown there. I want my growth and my becoming to happen now, or at least by tomorrow morning. Perhaps one more book will do it….

Heather quoted from John O’Donohue’s meditation, “For One Who is Exhausted”. One line was particularly poignant for me: “The tide you never valued has gone out”.  Heather expanded on it saying that we often move too fast (in “the fast lane of nothingness”) and we get ahead of ourselves.

These thoughts distilled themselves into the following meditation during a quiet moment in the beauty of their wonderful garden.

O God of the mighty oak and the tiniest flower,
Of the soaring eagle and the wandering ant;
God of a future beyond my knowledge and beyond my reach,
Hold me to the present, its pain and delight.

I long to be an eagle, a significant oak,
But that longing consumes me and leaves me unfilled.
I am lost and ungrounded in a future that arrived too soon.
For the plant does not grow if the seed is not nurtured;
The harvest is barren and without any substance.

Lord, keep me from the fast lane of nothingness,
Hold me to the present, deep in the soil of your grace.
For it is here that the future takes root.

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Messy Faith


Messy FaithIt was rather an ironic purchase from the book table of a Christian retreat: an Emmaus walk. It was ironic because this was a Men’s Walk (the men and women do separate walks). Many of the leaders and participants had been involved in Angus Buchan’s Mighty Man conference, so there were numerous books on being a “Mighty Man”: head-of-the-house stuff.

I have a little bit of a problem, not with the work being done, but with some of the understand­ing that sometimes comes out of it. I think that we men spend too much time worrying about our manhood, and about what to do in order to be head of the house, and too little time focused on how to love our wives, whereas love, for God, friends, enemies, and our wives, is the key demand of scripture.

Well, amongst these Mighty Men books, which challenge us mighty men to confident faith, was this little gem called Messy Faith. And, even more scandalous, it’s written by … a woman!

Introduction
In Messy Faith, AJ Gregory paints an extremely messy picture of her own very real faith struggle. But this isn’t her story; it’s about all of us. She writes in her introduction, “It’s about your journey with God. It’s about trying to reconcile your pains, your doubts, your questions, your imperfections, your vices, and your lapses with faith in an invisible God.”

Messy Faith,” she says, “addresses the muddled adventure that working out our faith in God can sometimes look like. It is being sure and unsure, whole and broken, warring, losing and winning. It is being right and being wrong and having no clue, but believing anyway. And it is trusting in God for perfecting the final product—our flawed, human selves.”

Confident Faith
It is an important subject. In the church, and especially from the pulpit, what we say and how we say it often suggests that being a Christian means being sure of everything all the time; it’s as if becoming a Christian involves being bad one day and perfectly good the next, with no flaws. We often give the impression (not intentionally) that we never have doubts. I think part of the problem is that we don’t know how to speak of doubts and failures. We are, after all, speaking about God, and about the hope in which we live. We don’t want to sound as if Christianity itself is in doubt, as if we don’t know what we believe or why.

And the doubts we have are not the only reality of our lives; there are often times when we are absolutely sure in whom we believe and we know, without any doubt, that God loves us and he loves the world he has made. We want to proclaim that too.

Proclaiming Good News
But we need to remember that we are called to proclaim the Gospel. And the Gospel, the good news, is that God meets us right in the middle of the mess that is our lives. He doesn’t wait for us to sort out the mess, he meets us right there. And when he meets us, and this is a scandalous thing to say and to believe, when he meets us he has no expectations of us, except that we should receive his deep love for us and learn to love him in return.

We struggle with this, especially in our preaching. We worry that if we don’t use the pulpit to teach people how Christians ought to live they won’t know. But our preaching then becomes law (full of ought’s) instead of grace, and we tend to come across as doubt-free, failure-proof, unwavering servants of God. And people outside of and ordinary Christians inside the church fear they will never be acceptable to God, never meet his high standards, and they drift further away from God and from God’s family.

Authentic Faith
Messy Faith reminds us that our daily struggle with authentic faith is real. Subjects include imperfection, judging others, brokenness, addiction, Is God enough? and Is God going to take care of me?

Gregory begins each chapter by looking at the reality of her own brokenness and messy life, or that of someone close to her. She challenges our trite responses and judgemental attitudes by taking us to scripture and revealing more and more of God’s love for us: for us, not as we might become, but as we are.

Faith and Doubt
She doesn’t bring us answers. She brings us face to face with the reality of our questions and the uncertainty of our doubts. But she does more. She helps us understand that it’s OK to ask the questions; God wants us to wrestle with them, not to ignore them or imagine that God hates our asking them. In the chapter, “Is God going to take care of me?” Gregory writes, “I wanted to believe that God would take care of me. For me, what this meant was that I would one day be free from a painful addiction and the thick residue of its emotional, mental and physical side effects…. In essence, my theme prayer was, ‘I believe, Lord. I believe sometimes a little, sometimes a lot. I know you’re going to take care of me. Or at least I believe more than I don’t believe. At least for today.’ My faith wasn’t absolute by any stretch.” She goes on to say:

“I came to the point where I had to stop relying on stuff, on people, on religion, and on cute inspirational phrases to provide me with interim comfort…. I had to believe in God, in his goodness, in his power, and in his love. I had to trust and hope, even and especially in the presence of my mess, acknowledging the not-so-perfect in my life but believing anyway that he would somehow make things beautiful.”

And then: “I don’t know the formula for believing in times of doubt except to do it and pray that God, through his Spirit, will give us the faith to keep believing however much we can at that moment, because the Bible teaches us that even faith is a gift from him.”

And some words that should be part of the reality that informs our preaching:

“Is God going to take care of me…? If you can’t reply with a resounding yes just yet, you can simply allow the faith and doubt that’s clamouring for your attention to clasp hands and walk down the path together. Answer the question honestly: ‘My God, my God, I honestly don’t know if you’ll take care of me. I think you will. No, I hope you will. I’m going to believe you will. Somehow. Lord, I do believe. But help me overcome my unbelief.’ ”

The Pools of Tears
Gregory brings us face to face with the messiness of our faith. She challenges us to be honest with ourselves and with God (if no one else) about our own struggles and doubts and to recognise the real struggles and needs of people around us. In his book, Signposts to Spirituality, Trevor Hudson quotes Gordon Cosby who said, “Never forget, each time you stand up to preach each person in your congregation is sitting next to a pool of tears.” Gregory shows us those tears and helps us take seriously the questions people are asking deep in their souls: Will God take care of me? Is God enough?

It’s good to remember that we don’t, in fact, have the answers to those questions. And that trying to answer them (which we simply can’t do for someone else) is not our job. Proclaiming the Gospel means taking those (and other) questions seriously, encouraging people to ask them, and walking with them as they struggle to find the answers and struggle with their messy faith.

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