Dave Faulkner

Author's details

Name: Dave Faulkner
Date registered: March 3, 2012
URL: http://bigcircumstance.com

Latest posts

  1. Big Circumstance: Sermon: Baptised Into Freedom (The Baptism Of Jesus) — January 9, 2015
  2. Big Circumstance: 2014 In Review — December 30, 2014
  3. Big Circumstance: Sermon For The Second Sunday In Advent: Telling The Prophetic Time — December 6, 2014
  4. Big Circumstance: Sermon For Advent Sunday: It’s The End Of The World As We Know It — November 29, 2014
  5. Big Circumstance: Sermon: Life On The Frontline 5: The Frontline Cry (Kingdom Dreamers) — November 15, 2014

Most commented posts

  1. Big Circumstance: Lent, Holy Week And (Heading For) Easter — 1 comment
  2. Big Circumstance: We Don’t Do God … In Church — 1 comment
  3. Big Circumstance: Theology Degrees And Spiritual Growth — 1 comment
  4. Big Circumstance: N T Wright Sings The Theology Of Creation And New Creation — 1 comment
  5. Big Circumstance: The Inner Life Of A Christian Leader — 1 comment

Author's posts listings

Jan 09 2015

Big Circumstance: Sermon: Baptised Into Freedom (The Baptism Of Jesus)

Original post at http://bigcircumstance.com/2015/01/09/sermon-baptised-into-freedom-the-baptism-of-jesus/


The Advent and Christmas rush means I’ve missed posting several sermons lately. Hopefully, I’ll post them soon, even though they will be rather ‘after the event’. At least they will be present here then nearer next December for those who search this blog and others for relevant sermons.

In the meantime, here is a sermon for this coming Sunday, when we mark the baptism of Jesus.

Mark 1:4-11

Baptism of Christ

Baptism Of Christ 10 by Waiting For The Word on Flickr. Some rights reserved.

If you follow the movies, you may have noticed that in recent months Hollywood has had a bit of a religious obsession. Much of it has been poor, or at least contentious. God’s Not Dead caricatured atheists, Left Behind took up some dubious fundamentalist theories of the end times based on a questionable series of Christian pulp fiction novels, and Noah divided opinion.

Now Ridley Scott’s Exodus: Gods And Kings has caused a stir. Not just because any such film is bound to provoke polarised opinions (and that’s just in the church!), but because Scott engaged famous white actors to play dark-skinned Egyptians so as to generate box office income. And that’s before we get to the controversies about whether the script took liberties with history and scholarship.

But Hollywood hasn’t usually worried too much about the choice between truth and a juicy story. Coming from a family where my grandmother was a friend of Gladys Aylward, I am only too aware how furious Aylward was with the fictional romance that was invented for the film about her life, The Inn Of The Sixth Happiness (never mind the dubious morals of Ingrid Bergman, who portrayed her).

Let me come back to Exodus, though. Because Mark’s account of John baptising people, including Jesus, has Exodus themes in it. I’ve said before in sermons that the Jewish people of Jesus’ day commonly regarded themselves as being in a kind of exile, even though they lived in their own Promised Land, because they were occupied by Rome. So they longed for freedom. And as well as a theme that was like the liberation from Babylon, the Gospels also contain the imagery of freedom from their original place of captivity, Egypt. The Good News that Mark is beginning to tell is couched at the beginning in Exodus language.

Our problem is that we are so used to hearing these stories in the light of more recent Christian debates and themes that we miss this. Perhaps we hear the baptism stories and start thinking about what we believe about baptism. Is it for infants, or is it for committed disciples?

But we need to return to the Exodus theme. ‘Exodus’ is a Greek word. It is usually taken to mean ‘departure’, and so the second book of the Old Testament narrates the departure from Egypt. ‘Exodus’ as a word is a compound of two other words – ‘ek’, meaning ‘out of’, and ‘hodos’, meaning ‘road’ or ‘way’. This is the road or way you take out of somewhere. It is the escape route that you follow. And so an Exodus theme is a freedom theme. It is about liberation and liberty. I want to explore the baptism of Jesus, then, and its implications for us, under this theme of ‘freedom’.

Firstly, the baptism itself. It’s implicit in Mark what is made more obvious in other Gospel writers, namely that John’s baptism is a baptism of repentance. Mark simply notes,

Confessing their sins, they were baptised by him in the River Jordan. (Verse 5b)

Exodus

Exodus By Giorgio Raffaelli on Flickr. Some rights reserved.

It’s therefore strange that Jesus embraces John’s baptism. Why does he need to repent? Again, the other Gospel writers are more explicit about this problem, but Mark characteristically keeps his account brief. Jesus certainly identifies with the people. He is the One who will lead people out of slavery – not, in this case, the slavery of Israel in Egypt, but slavery to sin. As the Israelites came through the waters of the Red Sea (or Sea of Reeds) to freedom from Egypt and her powers, so Jesus leads his people through the cleansing waters of baptism to freedom from sin.

This is the good news of Jesus’ baptism: the Messiah has come to lead his people to freedom from sin. It begins with confession and forgiveness, but it becomes a whole pilgrimage from ‘Egypt’ to the ‘Promised Land’, as that initial setting free becomes a journey in which God leads us into freedom not only from the penalty of sin but also into increasing freedom from the practice of sin, until one day, in the New Creation, we shall be free from the presence of sin.

For Jesus, that journey will embrace what our baptism service calls ‘the deep waters of death’. His Red Sea will not only be the waters of the Jordan at John’s baptism, but Calvary and a tomb. But he will rise to new life and ascend to his Promised Land, promising that we will one day go with him at our own resurrection.

This is Good News that says to us, life doesn’t always have to be like this. It doesn’t have to remain a catalogue of remorse and failure. There is hope. We do not have to hate ourselves, because God loves us to the point of offering forgiveness and new life.

Thus begins our transforming journey, in a baptism that calls us out of Egypt and on the road of increasing freedom. It’s worth reminding ourselves of this from time to time.

One person who did that in his life was Martin Luther. He was a man prone to mood swings between elation and darkness. He could be the wittiest person alive, but he could also plumb the depths. But he said that whenever he was most tempted to doubt or to give up, he would remind himself of one fact: ‘I am baptised.’

I am not saying that baptism is some religious magic trick, but I am saying that to remember our baptism is to remember the promises of God to forgive our sins, and the power of God to change us and ultimately all creation, too. It is a sacrament of hope, as well as of beginnings.

Secondly, the Holy Spirit. On the one hand, John promises,

I baptise you with water, but he will baptise you with the Holy Spirit (verse 8)

And on the other, we read,

Just as Jesus was coming up out of the water, he saw heaven being torn open and the Spirit descending on him like a dove. (Verse 10)

Veni Sancte Spiritus

Veni Sancte Spiritus by Fr Lawrence Lew, OP on Flickr. Some rights reserved.

What does this have to do with the Exodus freedom story? It’s about the manner of God’s presence.

I’m sure you will recall that when Israel was being led through the wilderness, it was by a pillar of cloud by day and a pillar of fire by night.

But now, in the New Covenant, God’s people get an upgrade. Not only will the presence of God (cloud and fire) lead them, now that same presence will come upon all of them and dwell within them. For you frequent flyers, they have effectively gone from economy class to business class.

In Jesus’ case, there is something else. The descent of the Spirit upon him shows that he is the Messiah, for Messiah means ‘Anointed One’. He is anointed, not with the oil used to mark an earthly monarch, but with the oil of God, the Holy Spirit.

And if Jesus the Messiah is anointed with the Holy Spirit and we receive the Spirit too, then that confirms our Christian identity – we are to be ‘little Christs’. No, we are not Messiahs, and heaven deliver us from any more people in the Church with Messiah complexes, but the upgrade to the indwelling Spirit equips us for our pilgrimage to freedom. It is the witness of the Holy Spirit that confirms we are forgiven and loved. It is the work of the Holy Spirit to lead us into increasing freedom from the practice of sin, thus making us more Christ-like. (Although we may more modestly feel it’s a case of becoming less un-Christ-like!)

We need not fear the gift of the Holy Spirit. He is the Spirit of freedom. ‘Where the Spirit of the Lord is, there is liberty,’ wrote the Apostle Paul. He brings God’s freedom to us, and empowers us then to be ministers of God’s freedom in the world. Through the Spirit’s work, we offer Christ and his liberating work to those in the chains of sin – the chains of their own sin, and the chains imposed by others upon them.

And not for us the limited distribution of the Holy Spirit in the Old Covenant. Now the Spirit is given not only to a select number of God’s people, he is given to women and men, young and old, privileged and poor – anyone who desires to follow Jesus the Messiah, the leader of freedom.

Those in higher church traditions than us have a liturgical symbol for this in the way the bishop applies anointing oil (‘chrism oil’) to the foreheads of candidates for confirmation. I came to like that tradition when I used to take part in ecumenical confirmation services with Anglicans, and concluded that we were missing out on that symbolism. I can offer something ad hoc, in that I possess a bottle of anointing oil, which has a beautiful smell of frankincense, and some people find it helpful to link the fragrant aroma of the oil with the presence of the Holy Spirit, who brings freedom.

Thirdly, the voice of God. The terrifying thunder from the mountain on the Exodus route now becomes the voice from heaven as Jesus comes up out of the water. Heaven is ‘torn open’, the Spirit descends like a dove (verse 10), and the voice from heaven speaks:

‘You are my Son, whom I love; with you I am well pleased.’ (verse 11)

Door To Heaven

Door To Heaven by Tragopodaros on Flickr. Some rights reserved.

Tom Wright says[1] that we should not see the opening of heaven as like a door ajar in the sky, because heaven in the Bible is rather the dimension of God’s reality that is invisible to us. So instead, this is like an invisible curtain being pulled back so that we see the whole of life in the light of this different reality. And in this case, when heaven opens the curtain into our life, we hear the divine voice that addressed Jesus addressing us, too:  ‘You are my child, whom I love; with you I am well pleased.’

And certainly that is a totally different reality in which to live. Think about God addressing Jesus this way. Mark hasn’t recorded any virtuous acts by Jesus yet at all. His baptism is his first action in this Gospel, and even that is done to him. There is not even a reference to the humility of the Incarnation in Mark. What, then, has Jesus done to earn his Father’s pleasure here? Absolutely nothing. But he hears the voice of unconditional love. God loves him and is pleased with him.

Those of you who are parents, recall those times when you went into your children’s bedrooms at night when they were fast asleep. They might have delighted you that day, or they might have been utter pickles. But still you gazed at them and whispered words about how much you loved them. You had unconditional love for them.

So ask yourself this: is God angry with me, or does he love me? Can I really believe the Good News that God delights in me? This is the liberating news of our New Testament Exodus.

And that is a transforming insight. If God loves us like this, why do we not love ourselves? I don’t mean in a self-centred way. Rather, I mean something that the author Donald Miller has recently written about. In a booklet available online called Start Life Over, he lists five principles towards changing our lives for the better. The second of these is that – strange as it may sound – we are in a relationship with ourselves, so we should make it a healthy one.

What he says is this. To some extent, we all seek the approval of others, but what we don’t notice is how we seek our own approval. It is as if we are two people: one doing the actions of daily life, the other watching those actions in judgement. Miller noticed that a friend whom he deeply admired was always doing respectful things. And he wondered: if I start doing more respectful things, will I respect myself more, and thus change for the better? He writes,

And it worked. I would find myself wanting to eat a half gallon of ice cream while watching television and I asked myself “if you skipped this, would you have a little more respect for yourself?” and the truth is I would. So I skipped it. And I had much more self respect.

I liked myself more.

This sort of thing translated into a whole host of other areas of my life. I started holding my tongue a little more and found I respected myself more when I was more thoughtful in conversation. I found myself less willing to people please because, well, people who people please aren’t as respectable, right? (Page 9)

I suggest to you that this kind of transformation is open to us when we embark on our baptismal journey of freedom, in the power of the Holy Spirit, and hear God’s voice from heaven telling us we are loved unconditionally. It makes change possible.

So often, the way we seek to promote change in ourselves and in others is through threat. We are no carrot and all stick. But all that produces is fear and paralysis. We might see some change, but it is the change wrought by sleeplessness and night terrors, rather than love. Ultimately, it doesn’t achieve much, and it affects us badly as people.

God chooses the way of unconditional love to lead us into freedom.

[1] N T Wright, Mark For Everyone, p5f.


Filed under: Sermons Tagged: baptism, Donald Miller, Exodus, Exodus: Gods And Kings, freedom, Gladys Aylward, God's Not Dead, Holy Spirit, Ingrid Bergman, Left Behind, liberation, N T Wright, Noah, Promised Land, Ridley Scott, The Inn Of The Sixth Happiness

Permanent link to this article: http://methoblog.com/3_0/2015/01/sermon-baptised-into-freedom-the-baptism-of-jesus/

Dec 30 2014

Big Circumstance: 2014 In Review

Original post at http://bigcircumstance.com/2014/12/30/2014-in-review/


I seem to have got behind on posting sermons since about the Third Sunday in Advent, sorry. There are several to post, if they are still relevant. (Maybe they will be useful for future Christmas celebrations.) In the meantime, the WordPress.com stats helper monkeys prepared a 2014 annual report for this blog.

Here’s an excerpt:

Madison Square Garden can seat 20,000 people for a concert. This blog was viewed about 61,000 times in 2014. If it were a concert at Madison Square Garden, it would take about 3 sold-out performances for that many people to see it.

Click here to see the complete report.


Filed under: Uncategorized

Permanent link to this article: http://methoblog.com/3_0/2014/12/2014-in-review-2/

Dec 06 2014

Big Circumstance: Sermon For The Second Sunday In Advent: Telling The Prophetic Time

Original post at http://bigcircumstance.com/2014/12/06/sermon-for-the-second-sunday-in-advent-telling-the-prophetic-time/


Wristwatch

Wristwatch by Dan Iggers on Flickr. Some rights reserved.

Mark 1:1-8 with Isaiah 40:1-11

You may have noticed that I do not wear a watch. Contrary to popular opinion, this is not so that I can preach for an interminable length of time, it is because I developed an allergy to nickel a few years ago. I could not wear a watch without getting a rash, and I found the plastic digital watches awful as an alternative.

Somebody told me there was a way to prevent the nickel back of a watch from irritating me in this way. I should coat it in clear nail varnish. This would save my skin from contact with the offending metal.

Debbie came with me to a branch of Boot’s. She took great delight in announcing loudly as she gave the nail varnish to the cashier, “IT’S FOR MY HUSBAND!”

Oh, and after that, it didn’t work anyway. Three coats of nail varnish on the watch. No success. If you ask me the time nowadays, I consult my phone, because it is connected to an Internet clock. Or maybe I’ll look at my iPad for the same reason. (Although the iPad is a little large to go on my wrist!)

Our readings this week in the Second Sunday of Advent are about telling the time. Not ordinary calendar and clock time, for which we use conventional timepieces, but God’s time. In this second week of Advent, we traditionally celebrate the rôle of the prophets, and their job is to proclaim God’s time.

The particular prophet in focus here is John the Baptist and his use of Isaiah, and if you know your Four Sundays of Advent, you’ll be aware that John is usually under the spotlight in Week Three, not Week Two. So we’ll leave the more specific features of his ministry for next week – you can think then, if you like, about his dress code and his diet – but this week simply see him as a model of prophecy.

Exiled

Exilado / Exiled by Edlago Quinco on Flickr. Some rights reserved.

There is a specific chiming of the clock in God’s time that John the Baptist comes to announce, according to Mark’s Gospel. According to John, the time in God’s schedule has come for the end of the Exile.

What do I mean by ‘the end of the Exile’? You will remember how God’s people were taken from the Promised Land into Exile as a result of their persistent defiance of their God. Ten of the tribes were taken captive by Assyria in 722 BC, and never heard of again. The remaining two were defeated by Babylon in a series of waves, culminating in 586 BC, when Jerusalem was captured, the Temple destroyed, and most of the survivors were taken to the land of their conquerors. This was the Exile.

But some decades later, when Babylon itself had been conquered, the Jews began returning to Jerusalem and Judah. This return is prophesied in Isaiah 40, which we heard. Nehemiah leads the rebuilding of Jerusalem, and prophets such as Haggai urge a commitment to rebuilding the Temple.

Yet it wasn’t a ‘happy ever after’ ending. In the centuries since, God’s people had been oppressed by the Greeks, and now they were under occupation in their own territory by Rome. Many of them said it was like still being in exile. They might be within their national borders, but they had no power to rule themselves and the land.

You have heard how rebel leaders arose from time to time, bidding to overthrow the Romans, and how they generally met grisly ends. But now comes a different kind of prophet – not a soldier, but a preacher. And Mark says that John arrives on the scene in fulfilment of Isaiah 40. Just as that chapter in Isaiah had begun the prophecies of hope that heralded the return from exile of God’s people in the sixth century BC, so now this prophet proclaims the return from another exile.

Of course, many people in that day would have hoped that this return from exile would deliver what the failed freedom fighters (or terrorists, as Rome probably regarded them) had aspired to: deliverance from military occupation. But as we know, John doesn’t come with that message, and nor does the Messiah he is introducing, namely Jesus. This return from exile is of a different kind. It is a return from exile where God gives his people not so much what they want as what they need. It is not freedom from occupation by Rome, but freedom from occupation by sin. It moves the question of blame and responsibility away from outside enemies, and makes God’s people look at themselves.

Yet even if that sounds challenging, it is still good news. We can be set free! Whatever the external circumstances, there is a freedom to be had here and now in God’s time. ‘Now is the time for God’s salvation,’ says the Apostle Paul in 2 Corinthians. This truly is God’s time, says the prophet. There may be things you want, and there will be times when God will give you those things, but major on the things you need, and especially this one. ‘Come home,’ says God, ‘It’s time.’

So what is solved by God saying through the prophets that the time for the end of the exile has come? I think we can take an image from the experience of the Jewish people in Babylon. Exile was the most terrible trauma for them. It was the end of their faith as they knew it, just as the destruction of the Second Jerusalem Temple in AD 70 that Jesus prophesied would be devastating to the Jews of his generation and the next. In exile, they struggled to have faith. They felt far from God, because they could no longer go to the Temple where God had said his Name would reside, and even if they could get there, the Temple wasn’t standing. No wonder in the red-raw language of Psalm 137, they sang of weeping by the rivers of Babylon and asking in the echo of their captors’ taunts, ‘How can we sing the Lord’s song in a strange land?’ To be in exile was to be far from God, perhaps even cut off from God.

Therefore to come home from exile was to come back to God, and draw near to him. We might criticise their locating of God’s presence in a particular special place, and indeed the Old Testament itself does, even and especially when King Solomon dedicates the original Temple. They know that God cannot be confined to places built by human hands. His Temple is the whole created order.

We too fall into a similar trap at times. We delude ourselves that God is more to be found in a religious building than in his world. As a result, we miss a lot of what God is doing in our generation.

But we can hear the ‘end of exile’ invitation to come back to God and draw close to him again. We can hear the ‘end of exile’ message that we need not stay away. However much we may know that our sins put us outside of fellowship with God, when the prophets declare the end of exile with the coming of Jesus the Messiah, they say to us, you can draw near to God because he has drawn near to you! This Messiah is not simply a human champion (although he is, if in a different way from common understanding): he is God in the flesh. He is Emmanuel, God with us. When we feared we would have to stay at a distance, or we didn’t know our way back to him, God made the move towards us.

And this is the nature of God’s love towards us in Christ. He says, “You don’t have to stay in exile anymore. You don’t have to keep your distance. I am coming close to you in my Son. Do not be afraid. I am bridging the gap. I am dealing with the sin that has driven us apart. Hear my invitation to walk with me in freedom.”

Now if God has come on a journey from heaven to earth in his Son to draw close to us, how do we walk towards him? The passage tells us, and it has a typical prophetic theme: repentance. Like the Old Testament prophets, there is powerful enacted symbolism – in this case baptism. John proclaims a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins, and when people are baptised, they confess their sins (verses 4-5).

What’s more, this too is backed up by the reference to the end of exile in Isaiah 40. There, the prophet imagines the need for a royal highway on which God can lead his people back to their homeland. Hence ‘Prepare the way of the Lord, make his paths straight’ (Mark 1:3b). Smooth everything out, get rid of the potholes, put down new tarmac. It’s like the way a locality is decorated or improved before the Queen visits. God’s highway must be smooth and straight.

However, Mark applies that prophecy in a different way. If it’s end of the exile time now, then it is the people who need to straighten out their own paths. The way to walk towards God is by straightening out our lives in repentance, the repentance for which John gave, as I said, the powerful prophetic symbol of baptism.

Watling Street

Watling Street by David Jones on Flickr. Some rights reserved.

And this would have made sense, not only at the time of John’s coming, but also to Mark’s first readers, who were almost certainly Christians in Rome. I’m sure you remember the Roman reputation for building long, straight roads. We even lived in a turning off the famous Watling Street when I served in my circuit before last. The Romans made straight roads, and they made roads straight.

Repentance is not simply saying sorry. It is being sorry enough to desire change, to straighten out our lives. The word means ‘change of mind’, and repentance involves a whole change of mind about right and wrong, about who comes first in my life, and what gets priority.

We associate repentance with coming to faith in Christ at the beginning of the Christian life. Rightly, we recognise the need for a complete change of mind, a U-turn, if you like, in order to become a disciple of Jesus, because his ways are so different from those of the world.

Basilea Schlink, Repentance: The Joy-Filled Life

Basilea Schlink, Repentance: The Joy-Filled Life

However, it would be wrong to limit the call to repentance to the commencement of Christian faith. God regularly calls us to repentance as a means of drawing us closer to him. Perhaps that is why one saint, Mother Basilea Schlink, wrote a book entitled ‘Repentance: The Joy-Filled Life’. It’s not what we expect, is it, for repentance and joy to be linked? But they are, because repentance brings us nearer to God and therefore to all the joy that knowing him bestows upon our lives.

It is why we need to be converted over and over again. Like certain motorways and ‘A’ roads I could name, our lives have semi-permanent roadworks on them. God is calling us to that straightening out of our highways.

And perhaps it is those who least feel the regular call to repentance about whom we should be most concerned. For the disciples who make it their business to draw near to God find as they edge closer that the  nearer they get to him, the more they realise what sinners they are. If they are not careful, they feel hopeless, because they think, “Will this ever end?” but the more proximate we get to the holy love of God, the more we shall realise how far short we fall, and how we yet again need to turn from our selfish ways if we are to prepare the way of the Lord.

What we all need to hear is the prophetic call that the time for the end of exile and coming close to God is not only the time for an ending but the time for a beginning: the beginning of the Holy Spirit’s availability to all flesh. The coming Messiah ‘will baptise you with the Holy Spirit’ (verse 8) says the prophet John. And in that promised gift of God’s nearness comes the experience of divine holiness, which is both awesome and terrifying, but also the promised power to turn our lives into straight streets.


Filed under: Sermons Tagged: advent, Basilea Schlink, John the Baptist, prophets, repentance, Watling Street

Permanent link to this article: http://methoblog.com/3_0/2014/12/sermon-for-the-second-sunday-in-advent-telling-the-prophetic-time/

Nov 29 2014

Big Circumstance: Sermon For Advent Sunday: It’s The End Of The World As We Know It

Original post at http://bigcircumstance.com/2014/11/29/sermon-for-advent-sunday-its-the-end-of-the-world-as-we-know-it/


Mark 13:24-37

Do you check the weather forecast first thing in the morning? I may be doing so in order to urge one of the children to wear an appropriate coat for school. So I may check the weather app on my phone, or I may look on the BBC website. I may just catch the forecast in the regional news on BBC Breakfast, or I may see a video of that same regional forecast in my Facebook updates.

But whatever method I use, I have yet to hear a forecast include the words,

“the sun will be darkened,
and the moon will not give its light;
25 the stars will fall from the sky,
and the heavenly bodies will be shaken.” (Verses 24b-25)

Even Ian McCaskill at his most dramatic never came up with those lines, and nor do these words come from a missing script of The Sky At Night.

Instead, we’re in the territory of dramatic prophetic language. Prophecies of future events in the Bible seldom use prosaic newspaper-reporting-type language: they tend to use coded, strange, disturbing picture language instead. And for his purposes here, Jesus draws on words originally used by Isaiah to foretell the downfall of Babylon and Edom.

And we commonly assume here that Jesus is deploying this apocalyptic language to talk about the end of the world. But at that point, we have to be careful.

Because Jesus speaks in the passage we heard read about two different ends of the world, if I may put it that way. His prophetic weather forecast is not talking about the end of all things – we’ll come to that later as the second ‘end of the world’ – but the end of the Jerusalem Temple.

For that is where the whole of Mark 13 begins. Jesus’ disciples are admiring the beauty of the Temple, only for Jesus to warn them that it will be destroyed, and that Rome will invade it and set up a pagan idol there, a devastating blasphemy for the Jewish people.

We need to begin, then, this morning, with this first end of the world, the end of the Jerusalem Temple. And you may say that shouldn’t be classed as an end of the world. But it was the end of the world at the time for the chosen people. Their whole system of sacrifice and worship was undone by its destruction (even if later they would develop the synagogue approach to faith that was already in existence).

Think of it as a parallel to the old song ‘Don’t they know it’s the end of the world’, where Skeeter Davis sang,

Don’t they know it’s the end of the world,
It ended when I lost your love.

As a romantic break-up can be a personal catastrophe, so much more Jesus knows when prophesying the failure of the Jewish revolt that the carnage and slaughter of life, combined with the annihilation of the central symbol of their faith will be as good as ‘the end of the world’ for his people.

But he also tells his followers that this awful obliteration of the Jewish hope that will come forty years after he speaks will constitute a vindication of him and his ministry. It prompts him to speak about his coming.

Yet – again, we have to be careful! Just as there are two ‘ends of the world’ in this passage, so there are also two comings of Jesus in these verses. And the coming of Jesus associated with the end of the Jerusalem Temple is not what we commonly call his ‘Second Coming’, his appearing again on Earth.

Listen to how he describes it:

At that time people will see the Son of Man coming in clouds with great power and glory. (Verse 26)

We have assumed that means his visible return to Earth, but the moment you recognise what Jesus is quoting here from the Old Testament, you will begin to see it differently. Jesus is quoting from Daniel 7 where the Son of Man comes on the clouds of heaven. But he doesn’t come on the clouds of heaven to Earth, he comes on the clouds of heaven to the presence of the Ancient of Days, Almighty God. I believe this is the triumph and vindication Jesus receives after his resurrection when he ascends to the Father’s right hand. His life and ministry receive the big ‘thumbs up’ from his Father.

And in that context, we have a job to do – although again, it’s easy for us, with our wrong assumptions that this is about the Second Coming, to miss that fact. For Jesus says next,

And he will send his angels and gather his elect from the four winds, from the ends of the earth to the ends of the heavens. (Verse 27)

We have commonly thought that to mean that God will bring his own people home. But that doesn’t stand up if this is what follows the ascension, Jesus’ coming to his Father, rather than his coming back to Earth.

Why? Remember that ‘angels’ is a word that can also mean ‘messengers’. This is about the proclamation of the Gospel. It is about Jesus’ disciples joining in God’s mission of gathering in his people from everywhere. Christian mission is always the mission of God, in which we are called to participate.

The end of the Jerusalem Temple world and the coming of Jesus to his Father point to the call of the church to engage in the mission of God. Ours is the call to herald the world the One who has been vindicated by Almighty God through his resurrection and ascension. It is our noble call to share in this task, following in the steps of the Early Church. They are the ones Jesus has in mind when he says,

Truly I tell you, this generation will certainly not pass away until all these things have happened. (Verse 30)

It is not that Jesus expected his Second Coming to be early and that he was wrong in his prediction, because these words do not anticipate his return. They are about the mission of God taking place after his ascension.

Perhaps this has particular application for churches today. As churches decline and age, there are fewer ministers to go around, and – as we know here – it becomes harder to maintain the building. But these things are our parallel to the Jerusalem Temple – we thought they were essential to the practice of our faith, but they are not. They are props, albeit sometimes helpful props. But God is taking the props away, and we have to focus on the essential call for this age in history. That call is to engage in the mission of God.

So – to sum up this first point – Jesus prophesies the ultimate failure of Jewish revolts against Rome, and knows that many of his fellow Jews will see the destruction of the Temple as the end of their world. God the Father vindicates his unpalatable message and his suffering on the Cross through the resurrection and ascension, in which he is the Son of Man, coming on the clouds of heaven to God. We, knowing that Jesus has been vindicated by the Father, are to hear and respond to the Father’s call to share in his mission of calling people to place their allegiance with the Vindicated One, Jesus Christ.

I said there were two ‘ends of the world’ in this passage. The second I might call any end of the world. That probably sounds absurd to you, but I mean this to be all-encompassing: it can be any personal or corporate disaster where all that we assumed and everything we cherished has collapsed, like the fall of the Jerusalem Temple for the Jews or the collapse of inherited forms of Christianity that we are experiencing. But it could also be the end of all things. I take this view from these words of Jesus in the second half of the reading:

‘But about that day or hour no one knows, not even the angels in heaven, nor the Son, but only the Father. 33 Be on guard! Be alert[c]! You do not know when that time will come. 34 It’s like a man going away: he leaves his house and puts his servants in charge, each with their assigned task, and tells the one at the door to keep watch.

35 ‘Therefore keep watch because you do not know when the owner of the house will come back – whether in the evening, or at midnight, or when the cock crows, or at dawn. 36 If he comes suddenly, do not let him find you sleeping. 37 What I say to you, I say to everyone: “Watch!”’ (Verses 32-37)

On the one hand, Jesus points back to what he has just talked about, when he begins by saying, ‘But about that day’[1]. But on the other hand, his story about waiting for an owner to come back to a house is different. The servants are not waiting for a catastrophe; rather, they are going to be held to account for their stewardship of what the master has left when he returns.

And that is where we find ourselves. One day, all our opportunities to witness to the kingdom of God and his love in Jesus will be over. Ultimately, that will be when Christ appears to judge the living and the dead. If we die before that day, then that will be closure for us. But it could be earlier. What if I suffer a stroke and my speech and physical mobility are severely impaired? What if I am diagnosed with a grave illness? What if a tragedy befalls a loved one, and I have to give all my time as a carer, no longer having the chance to be much of a witness in the world? Or maybe my world will close in, due to unemployment. What then?

Jesus calls his servants to ‘watch’ for such times, and that doesn’t mean some passive kind of waiting, it means an active waiting. Servants are stewards of what the master has left in their charge. And we are stewards of the gifts God has entrusted to us. This means our talents, our possessions, our relationships, our work – just about anything we are involved in from day to day. If our lives were interrupted today by Christ’s return, or if our lives were shattered by a turn of events, could we say that we have faithfully been using all that God has put in our hands in a way that gives him glory?

I realised that when I was recently granted the extension to my appointment here, it is most probable that after I leave here in several years’ time, I shall likely only have one more appointment as an active Methodist minister. The question of whether I am ‘watching’ over my gifts and calling to make a difference weighs on my mind.

Those of you who are older, and who have made it to retirement may also need the challenge. Will you be able to say that you have made a difference for the kingdom of God when the master of the house comes back, or will you have been sleeping on your talents? It isn’t too late to do something – our Bible contains enough stories of older people responding to a divine call, from Abraham to Moses, from Zechariah and Elizabeth to Simeon and Anna. But do not wait in a leisurely fashion.

Around the time I was finishing this sermon, a friend posted a video on Facebook. He has been posting two songs a day: one to depress you, and one to be uplifting. Last night’s depressing song seemed apposite to what I am saying here: the late Sandy Denny’s ‘Who Knows Where The Time Goes?’

As we contemplate the ends of our own worlds, or even the end of the world as we know it, may we not look back at a frittered life and wonder where the time went.

[1] Italics mine.


Filed under: Sermons Tagged: advent, Advent Sunday, apocalyptic language, First Sunday In Advent, Ian McCaskill, Parousia, Sandy Denny, Second Coming, Skeeter Davis, The Sky At Night

Permanent link to this article: http://methoblog.com/3_0/2014/11/sermon-for-advent-sunday-its-the-end-of-the-world-as-we-know-it/

Nov 15 2014

Big Circumstance: Sermon: Life On The Frontline 5: The Frontline Cry (Kingdom Dreamers)

Original post at http://bigcircumstance.com/2014/11/15/sermon-life-on-the-frontline-5-the-frontline-cry-kingdom-dreamers/


Whoops. I seem to have forgotten to upload two or three sermons lately. Sorry.

Anyway, here is tomorrow morning’s sermon as I preach again in the Life On The Frontline series at Knaphill Methodist Church.

Matthew 6:9-13 with Isaiah 29:13-24

Heaven

Heaven by Ozan on Flickr. Some rights reserved.

While walking down the street one day a corrupt Senator was tragically hit by a car and died. His soul arrives in heaven and is met by St. Peter at the entrance.

“Welcome to heaven,” says St. Peter. “Before you settle in, it seems there is a problem. We seldom see a high official around these parts, you see, so we’re not sure what to do with you.”

“No problem, just let me in,” says the Senator.

“Well, I’d like to, but I have orders from the higher ups. What we’ll do is have you spend one day in hell and one in heaven. Then you can choose where to spend eternity.”

“Really? I’ve made up my mind. I want to be in heaven,” says the Senator.

“I’m sorry, but we have our rules.”

And with that St. Peter escorts him to the elevator and he goes down, down, down to hell.

The doors open and he finds himself in the middle of a beautiful golf course. In the distance is a clubhouse and standing in front of it are all his friends and other politicians who had worked with him. Everyone is very happy and in evening dress. They run to greet him, shake his hand, and reminisce about the good times they had while getting rich at the expense of the people. They played a friendly game of golf and then dine on lobster, caviar and the finest champagne.

Also present is the devil, who really is a very friendly guy who is having a good time dancing and telling jokes. They are all having such a good time that before the Senator realizes it, it is time to go. Everyone gives him a hearty farewell and waves while the elevator rises.

The elevator goes up, up, up and the door reopens in heaven where St. Peter is waiting for him, “Now it’s time to visit heaven…”

So, twenty-four hours passed with the Senator joining a group of contented souls moving from cloud to cloud, playing the harp and singing. They have a good time and, before he realises it, the twenty-four hours have gone by and St. Peter returns.

“Well, then, you’ve spent a day in hell and another in heaven. Now choose your eternity.”

The Senator reflects for a minute, then he answers: “Well, I would never have said it before, I mean heaven has been delightful, but I think I would be better off in hell.”

So St. Peter escorts him to the elevator and he goes down, down, down to hell…

Now the doors of the elevator open and he’s in the middle of a barren land covered with waste and garbage. He sees all his friends, dressed in rags, picking up the trash and putting it in black bags as more trash falls from above. The devil comes over to him and puts his arm around his shoulders.

“I don’t understand,” stammers the Senator. “Yesterday I was here and there was a golf course and clubhouse, and we ate lobster and caviar, drank champagne, and danced and had a great time. Now there’s just a wasteland full of garbage and my friends look miserable. What happened?”

The devil smiles at him and says, “Yesterday we were campaigning. Today, you voted…”[1]

Now, I find that joke rather delicious as we approach a General Election in six months’ time. But I didn’t tell it for political reasons this morning. I told it, because it assumes the traditional teaching that our destiny for eternity is either heaven or hell.

And that’s a mistake. The New Testament doesn’t teach that.

Really? Did you hear that right? The minister is saying that heaven or hell is not our eternal destiny?

Well, you did hear me correctly, but I still believe in ‘heaven and hell’. It’s just that I believe – as Tom Wright has put it – that ‘heaven is important, but it’s not the end of the world’.

N T Wright

The Rt Revd Tom Wright with new book by Gareth Saunders on Flickr. Some rights reserved

What the New Testament teaches is this: when we die, we rest in either Paradise or Hades. Jesus tells the repentant thief on the cross, ‘Today you will be with me in Paradise.’ In the parable of the rich man and Lazarus, he envisions the evil wealthy man as suffering in Hades, the place of the dead. These are resting places, or waiting rooms, until our final destiny.

And our final destiny is not to float on clouds, plucking harps. The end of all things in the New Testament is God making all things new – the heavens, the earth, and our bodies. God’s kingdom in all its fullness constitutes a whole new creation. That’s why at the Last Day, we shall be raised from the dead physically. The idea that the physical and material doesn’t matter, and all that matters is our ‘soul’ is not originally a Christian idea: it comes from Greek philosophy, and from heresies that the early Church rejected. It’s why C S Lewis said that ‘Christianity is the most material of all religions’.

Now plug all that into the Lord’s Prayer, and especially into the lines

your kingdom come,
your will be done,
on earth as it is in heaven. (Verse 10)

The first line – ‘your kingdom come’ – is explained by what follows – ‘your will be done, on earth as it is in heaven.’ When we pray for God’s kingdom to come, we pray for his will to be done here on this earth, just like it is in heaven, his dwelling-place. We are longing for that kingdom where heaven and earth have been made new, and human bodies made new in resurrection, and where God’s will is done as fully and wholeheartedly as it is in his immediate presence.

So if we want to pray for the coming of God’s kingdom, we do something like this. Knowing what we do of God’s will, we imagine what our world as we know it would look like if people were doing the things that give God pleasure.

That’s effectively what Isaiah does in chapter 29 that we heard read before the Lord’s Prayer. Isaiah imagines the dry land of Lebanon becoming fertile, even like a forest. He imagines deaf people hearing God’s message, and the blind seeing again. He envisions the humble and the needy having cause for great joy, instead of being trampled down by the unjust. In fact, he sees a time when such ruthless people will vanish, when mockers will be no more, and when there will be no more evil people manipulating the justice system to their own twisted ends. He sees shamed people standing in awe of God, and wayward spirits and habitual moaners accepting instruction (verses 17-24). All this imagining becomes a vision for the future, and therefore a captivating image to stimulate prayer, and ask God to bring these things about.

Now let’s plug all this into our lives today, because we can do something similar. And we need to, because one aspect of the poor reputation Christians often have today is that we are a bunch of moaners. We are the people who are only known for the things we are against, the things we complain about. One reason Christian MPs can have a hard time in Parliament is because they and their colleagues are subject to hectoring letters and flame-filled emails.

So – rather than just bewailing all that is wrong with our world (and I wouldn’t deny there is a lot that is at odds with our faith) – why don’t we instead start exercising a prayerful, holy imagination to conceive how we would long the world to be. Rather than railing against the way people use the Internet in negative ways, such as verbally attacking others, or accessing pornography, ask in the presence of God what the Internet would look like if it were used in a pure and kind way. Rather than sitting around as barstool Prime Ministers declaiming against a society that is obsessed with money, possessions, and buying the latest thing, prayerfully consider what our culture would look like if spirituality and relationships were dominating values, and the poor were not all derided as scroungers.

In short, for Christians to pray ‘Your kingdom come, your will be done on earth as it is in heaven’ is to serve notice on the ‘moaning minnies’ version of religion that we often serve up, and commit instead to imagining a better world, praying for it, and working for it in the power of the Holy Spirit. I believe that’s what Jesus wanted of his followers when he taught them the Lord’s Prayer.

And there is a specific application to make in this particular sermon and teaching series that we are following. We’ve been thinking about what we’ve called our ‘frontlines’, those places where we are no longer cossetted among our fellow Christians, but interact with those who don’t share our faith. It may be our workplace, our families, our next-door neighbours, or where we spend our leisure time, from the health club to the U3A.

Crawley U3A poetry group

Crawley U3A poetry group by George Redgrave on Flickr. Some rights reserved.

These locations, too, are often far from what we would ideally like them to be. Much as we enjoy the friendship of others there, these places may be centres of gossip, sharp practice, back-biting, and unjust behaviours. Even if it’s not that bad, they can become mundane and meaningless, and hence the parody of Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs that we sometimes use to describe our paid working life: ‘I owe, I owe, it’s off to work I go.’

So here we choose not simply to carp about the things that annoy us, or stay permanently on a downer about the people who get our backs up. Instead, we employ a holy imagination, and ask ourselves this question: ‘From what I know about Jesus’ teaching, what would this environment look like under the reign of God?’ And then we dream what it would look like.

And having established our ‘kingdom dream’, we then pray it: ‘Your kingdom come, your will be done on earth as it is in heaven.’ Little by little, we shall see signs of transformation as we do so.

Now maybe asking us all to be dreamers – even kingdom of God dreamers – will not go down well in some quarters. Dreamers have a bad reputation. They are detached from reality; they are not practical people. And we have seen worldly dreamers who garner a bad reputation. You only have to think of John Lennon singing, ‘You may think I’m a dreamer’ in his execrable song ‘Imagine’ – a song where he exhorts us to ‘imagine no possessions’, all the while being filmed singing the song in his Ascot mansion. Any dream won’t do.

But kingdom dreams are wonderful things. It isn’t for nothing that the Bible often links dreams with visions. They can give direction. Used prayerfully, they can lead to transformation.

So – er – imagine that you are in Washington DC, and a great crowd has assembled to hear you speak. And as you speak your prepared words, you hear the Gospel singer Mahalia Jackson call to you, “Tell them about the dream!”

And you change your speech on the hoof to tell them about the dream. It won’t fire you for much longer, because soon you will be dead. For Mahalia Jackson actually called out, “Tell them about the dream, Martin,” and you are Martin Luther King, and your speech becomes “I have a dream.” It’s a kingdom of God dream, and it will inspire many to take the torch relay on from you.

This week, then, when you leave the service, I am sending you out to be dreamers. Dream what your frontlines would look like if they were under the kingdom of God, and then pray that God’s will may be done there.

Yes – dream sweet dreams. And change the world.

 

[1] From the Grove Books weekly email, 10th November 2014.


Filed under: Sermons Tagged: dreams, Epiphany, Imagine, John Lennon, kingdom of God, Knaphill Methodist Church, Life On The Frontline, London Institute for Contemporary Christianity, Lord's Prayer, Mahalia Jackson, Martin Luther King, N T Wright, Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs, visions

Permanent link to this article: http://methoblog.com/3_0/2014/11/sermon-life-on-the-frontline-5-the-frontline-cry-kingdom-dreamers/

Oct 13 2014

Big Circumstance: Ch-Ch-Ch-Ch-Ch-Changes

Original post at http://bigcircumstance.com/2014/10/13/ch-ch-ch-ch-ch-changes/


Canadian pastor Carey Nieuwhof on thirteen aspects of change that many leaders miss.

 


Filed under: ministry Tagged: Carey Nieuwhof

Permanent link to this article: http://methoblog.com/3_0/2014/10/ch-ch-ch-ch-ch-changes/

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