Monday, 26 January 2015

Us and Them

One thing human beings do, time and again, is divide up humanity into them and us. At one level this is harmless. After all if there were no “Us” and “Them” rugby matches, cricket matches or football matches for example would be pretty pointless.

And in politics of course there is “Us” and “Them” all the time – even though it is often said that it is often hard to differentiate between the policies of the main parties nowadays.

So at one level “Us” and “them” doesn’t matter. But human nature being what it is “us” and “them” can quickly move from being a bit of fun to something far more serious.

Holocaust Memorial Day is a time for everyone to pause to remember the millions of people who have been murdered or whose lives have been changed beyond recognition during the Holocaust, Nazi Persecution and in subsequent genocides in Cambodia, Rwanda, Bosnia and Darfur. On HMD we can honour the survivors of these regimes and challenge ourselves to use the lessons of their experience to inform our lives today.

HMD is a time when we seek to learn the lessons of the past and to recognise that genocide does not just take place on its own, it’s a steady process which can begin if discrimination, racism and hatred are not checked and prevented. We’re fortunate here in the UK; we are not at risk of genocide. However, discrimination has not ended, nor has the use of the language of hatred or exclusion. There is still much to do to create a safer future and HMD is an opportunity to start this process.

Given that 27 January 2015 marks not only the 70th anniversary of the liberation of the Auschwitz-Birkenau concentration and death camp, but 2015 is also the 20th anniversary of the Genocide in Srebrenica, it is important that memory is at the heart of the 2015 commemoration.

The Holocaust of the Second World War was of course based very much on “Us” and “Them”. The Nazis oversaw the murder of millions of people who weren’t one of us. For the most part of course Jews. But gypsys, homosexuals, people of different political viewpoints, or nationalities deemed to be racially inferior e.g. Russians, were also murdered.

Sadly, there have been many other examples of genocide since then all based on “Us” and “Them”

Whilst genocide as a concept has only been defined since the end of the Second World War, there have been many examples of what could be termed genocide in human history. And human history is littered with plenty of examples of the tribalism and hatred that can lead on to genocide if it is not contained.

For Holocaust memorial Sunday, the suggested Bible passage was the story of Jesus encountering a Samaritan woman at the well. (John chapter 4) In the passage Jesus is dealing with a woman from a different culture and ethnic group to him. And as such the passage tells us a great deal about how as Christians we are supposed to relate to people.

The setting of this passage in Samaria would have been scandalous to many in the first century because in this passage Jesus openly challenges and breaks open two boundaries. The boundary between the “chosen people” (Jews) and “rejected people” (Samaritans) and boundaries between male and female.

This passage in other words is all about “Us” and “Them”.

Samaritans were outcasts as far as Jewish people were concerned. The Samaritans claimed to have a common heritage with Jewish people in that Samaritans claimed to be descended from Jacob just as Jews did. However, the Assyrians who conquered the area around 700 years before Jesus, brought with them colonists who intermarried with the Samaritans. Therefore Samaritans were not thought of as pure Jews.

Jesus then as a Jew would have been expected to avoid contact with a Samaritan. And similarly Jewish convention said that a Jewish man would not have contact with a woman unless she was his wife or a close relative. In this passage Jesus is ripping up the rule book! Dealing with a Samaritan and a woman.

Jesus is treating the Samaritan woman – and later the Samaritan villagers the woman brings to meet Jesus – as full human beings. He treats them as people who are worthy recipients of the grace of God. Not as despised enemies from whom to fear contamination.

The preoccupation with protecting boundaries between the chosen and despised peoples is not just limited to the Jewish / Samaritan conflict of the first century. Throughout human history people and nations have defined themselves over and against other groups.

The history of race relations in the USA and South Africa, the notion of racial purity in Nazi Germany, the ethnic wars that have come and gone and sometimes come again in the Middle East, African, Asia and Europe, all have their roots in the same fears that divided Jews from Samaritans. The fear of contamination. “Us” and “Them”.

What this passage does is to summon those of us who seek to follow Jesus to be different from the ways of the world. We’re summoned to not be like the world. We’re summoned to not take on society’s views of who is acceptable and who is not. As followers of Christ we are to show there is no “us” and “them”.

As Paul reminds us in Colossians 3 in Christ

there is no Gentile or Jew, circumcised or uncircumcised, barbarian, Scythian, slave or free, but Christ is all, and is in all.

In other words if we are in Christ, if we are seeking to be like Christ, there is no “Us” and “them”

Sadly, we know only too well that although we as Christians try to follow that teaching, the world does not. And, if truth be told, there are Christians who are more than happy to see the divisions in our world.

I profess to not knowing enough about Islam. And I profess that nowadays I do not know any Muslims. It was different 30 years ago when I was at university. Then among people I got to know on my course and became friendly with were several Jews, Muslims and Hindus as well as a mix of those who came from a Christian background or no faith.

And when I look at our wedding photographs it is a joy to see that cross section of society there. Sadly over time we have lost touch. But I have not lost that recognition that those people of different cultural background and faith could put aside differences and be friends.

Although I don’t know much about Islam, my experience 30 years ago showed me that just as most Christians are caring loving people so are most Muslims. So are most Jews. So are most people FULL STOP.

When we see images of extremists murdering journalists or people in a supermarket we can start to believe that is how the world is. But the world for the most part is not like that.

Just after the attacks in Paris the other week, I was saddened to see two surveys of Jewish people in France and this country. Both surveys found that Jewish people feel threatened and feel that anti-Semitism is on the rise.

No doubt this in response to the Paris attacks and certainly in London Jewish schools and synagogues have been given police protection.

And yet at the same time Muslims feel threatened too. Many feel that the press labels them all the same way.

Last Monday evening (19th January) BBC’s “The One Show” carried a report from Manchester which showed how there some Muslims and Jews are coming together.

Two women – one Jewish and one Muslim – who were members of the Manchester Muslim and Jewish forum were shown having a meal together. And the Muslim woman said “Both communities need to be together. Our faiths have so much in common and we’re all Mancunians.”

In the interview Rabbi Silverman and Imam Abid were interviewed. And a telling remark was made by the Rabbi. “Anti-Semitism and Islamaphobia are two sides of the same coin. Do you agree Imam Abid?” “Yes I do.”

And that is the point. The hatred engendered in our society by terrorists like those in Paris isn’t just targeted at one group. It is hatred that encompasses all people. And it is up to all people to stand up to hatred but not with more violence but with love and by seeking to understand other cultures and beliefs.

Martin Luther King, a man who knew a great deal about “us” and “them” once said this:

Darkness cannot drive out darkness: only light can do that. Hate cannot drive out hate: only love can do that.

We are called to reflect the light of Christ into the world. To show people his love.

Or to put it another way:

“This life is about what we can do. Whether we’re doing something for our community or something bigger. We make the world the way it is.” Kemal Pervanić, survivor of the Omarska Concentration Camp, Bosnia

This blog is an abbreviated version of a sermon preached at Central Methodist Church Chippenham on Sunday 25th January. Holocaust Memorial Sunday. It draws on material found at the Holocaust Memorial Trust web site and also material produced by the Churches Together in Britain and Ireland.

Thursday, 22 January 2015

Zoop, zoop, zoop, clean - there's something in the water

Over the last few weeks Radio 2 have been playing a song called “Something in the water” by American Country artist Carrie Underwood. As is often the way with a new song I hear it in the background and don’t pay much attention. But after a few times of hearing it I realised that this is clearly a Christian song. And I don’t mean a song which has theological lyrics. This is a Christian song.

Now for my American friends who read this blog I need to explain. Unlike in the USA we don’t have Christian music charts in the UK and there is only really one Christian music radio station. Radio 2 is a BBC national station playing (mainly) older hits with some new music that appeals to its core audience (those of us who are middle aged!) So for Radio 2 to play a song like this is very unusual. Radio 2 does play a smattering of country music (and in fact there is a weekly country music show) but for a country song to get wide airplay is unusual and for a country Christian song to get wide airplay is virtually unknown.
I’ve no idea why this song is getting the airplay it is but it is.

Anyway, back to the song. I think the words that first made me realise that this wasn’t just another country song were these:

And now I'm singing along to amazing grace
Can't nobody wipe this smile off my face

“Amazing grace” was clearly a reference to John Newton’s hymn of the same name (which incidentally became a hit for Judy Collins in the 1970s).

Having pricked up my ears I made a point of listening to the lyrics carefully the next time the track was played. And I was surprised to hear a song about someone who had been having a difficult time being encouraged to change their life and give it to Christ.

Then somebody said what I'm saying to you
Open my eyes and told me truth
He said: just a little faith and it'll all get better
So I followed that preacher man down to the river and now I'm changed
And now I'm stronger

Then having mulled it over for a few days the central character of the song realises that she needs to be saved

Then it hit me like a lightning late one night
I was all out of hoping, all out of fight
Couldn't fight back my tears so I fell on my knees
Saying God if you're there come and rescue me
Felt love pouring down from above
Got washed in the water, washed in the blood and now I'm changed

And it is this verse that interests me as there is a great mix of what is going on in baptism.

In one of the intriguing passages of scripture about Jesus we have the account of Jesus’ baptism. All four gospels have an account – though the accounts in Matthew and Mark’s Gospels are the fullest. In Matthew and Mark we are told how Jesus’ cousin John the Baptist had been

“ … preaching a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins. 5 The whole Judean countryside and all the people of Jerusalem went out to him. Confessing their sins, they were baptized by him in the Jordan River.”

And when we read this passage Carrie Underwood’s song comes together. The character in the song recognises the need for forgiveness, is saved and then is baptised

Got washed in the water, washed in the blood and now I'm changed

A few years ago, our German friends were staying with us. They came to church on Sunday morning and it so happened that I had a Christening.

They aren’t regular church goers but they did attend Lutheran church when they were younger. So were interested to see if a Methodist Christening would be different to a Lutheran. And after the service Peter talked to me about the Christening.

“It’s very similar to that in the Lutheran church. Father, Son and Holy Spirit. 3 lots of water. Zoop, zoop, zoop clean!

But John the Baptist states there is more. Although he helps people to repent and, in baptising them helps them to symbolically be washed clean of their sin, John says

7 And this was his message: “After me comes the one more powerful than I, the straps of whose sandals I am not worthy to stoop down and untie. 8 I baptize you with[e] water, but he will baptize you with[f] the Holy Spirit.”

The Holy Spirit is the presence of God in our lives; a presence that empowers and instructs, a presence that comforts and corrects. Like baptism, Christ did not need the Holy Spirit to come upon him. He was always filled with the Spirit. But we need the Holy Spirit. It is that Spirit that helps us be what God wants us to be.

We need to be baptized by water but we also need to be baptized by the Holy Spirit.

And that’s where I think the song is clever as although there is talk about being washed clean the title “Something in the water” alludes to there being more. “Felt love pouring down from above” is the something more. It’s God’s love, God’s grace flowing through the Holy Spirit to make the character feel stronger and free from what has been holding her down up to now.

And now I'm singing along to amazing grace
Can't nobody wipe this smile off my face
Got joy in my heart, angels on my side
Thank God All Mighty I saw the light
Going to look ahead, no turning back, live everyday, give it all that I have
Trusted someone bigger than me
Ever since the day that I believed I am changed

Some sound theology in a pop song. In fact I think there are some hints of Wesleyan theology

All people need to be saved.
All people can be saved.
All people can know they are saved.
All people can be saved to the uttermost

There really is something in the water!

Thursday, 15 January 2015

And then they came for me

Just over a week ago two terrorists entered the offices of the Charlie Hebdo newspaper in Paris and murdered journalists and during their escape a police officer. Subsequently others were killed and, in an incident that was apparently related, another terroist murdered another police officer and people taken hostage in a Jewish supermarket.

The terrorists claimed to be Muslims and they claimed their attack on the newspaper was in response to the publication of a cartoon depicting the Prophet Mohammed.

And presumably the attack on the Jewish supermarket was because of the virulent anti semitic feelings of some Muslims towards Jews.

That certainly seems to be the understanding of many French Jews. News reports earlier this week for example this one on the BBC website suggest that many French Jews feel threatened and are considering moving to Israel.

On 14th January The Independent newspaper carried a report saying that the majority of British Jews also feel threatened and that they have no future in this country.

Against this background, on Tuesday evening I caught up with a television programme I had recorded on Sunday – Foyle’s War. If you have not followed the series over the years Foyle is a former policeman now working for MI5 in a post war Britain of hrash austerity. (in the early series set during World War 2 he investigated murders but the show was very much in the context of the war on the homefront.) It is the start of the Cold War so Communists feature in many plots but last Sunday’s episode was different.

There was a threat to the post war Jewish community and other refugees by a right wing party who want refugees to go “home” and the Jews to go to their new state of Israel. The local MP tries to stop the right wing party holding a rally but the local worthies feel that freedom of speech is too important.

I thought the show cleverly showed the tension that exists between having freedom to speak out and the need to police extremism. And a Sunday evening TV detective show got me thinking theologically – as we’ll see in a moment.

Inevitably, in the wake of the Paris shootings, our own government and security services have started to question whether such things could happen here. Were the Paris terrorists able to do what they did because surveillance had broken down? (The men were known to the French authorities apparently but had not been watched closely.) Apparently David Cameron the prime minister has pledged to introduce "more comprehensive powers" to monitor terror suspects in the UK.

With these events in my mind, and prompted by Foyle’s War, I recalled a famous quotation from Pastor Martin Niemöller:

First they came for the Jews
and I did not speak out
because I was not a Jew.
Then they came for the Communists
and I did not speak out
because I was not a Communist.
Then they came for the trade unionists
and I did not speak out
because I was not a trade unionist.
Then they came for me
and there was no one left
to speak out for me.

Pastor Niemöller was a supporter of the Nazi party in the early days but after the Nazis took power he came to realise what they really stood for and he became critical of them. These words (written after the war) suggest though that he always felt he should do more for those who were oppressed by the Nazis.

Were Martin Niemöller alive today how would he react I wonder to the situation in France or in this country? I’m not suggesting for a moment that President Hollande or Prime Minister David Cameron is akin to Adolf Hitler! But certainly in this country there has been a tendency in recent years for much of the press and the government to stir up “dislike” (hatred MAY be too strong a word) for certain groups whether those on benefits, immigrants, trade unionists, public sector workers or Muslims.

2,000 years ago Jesus said words that come back to me time and again

18 “The Spirit of the Lord is on me,
because he has anointed me
to proclaim good news to the poor.
He has sent me to proclaim freedom for the prisoners
and recovery of sight for the blind,
to set the oppressed free,
19 to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favour.”[f]

Luke 4: 18 – 19.

For me, this is the foundation upon which those of us who are followers of Christ must live. To care for others, to love our neighbours, to stand up for the oppressed and marginalised and put ourselves beside them.

It is easy to choose not to get involved, to turn the blind eye, to think someone else will sort it out. But that is not what is expected of us by Christ.

Christ has many services to be done:
some are easy, others are difficult;
some bring honour, others bring reproach;
some are suitable to our natural inclinations and material interests,
others are contrary to both;
in some we may please Christ and please ourselves;
in others we cannot please Christ except by denying ourselves.
Yet the power to do all these things is given to us in Christ, who strengthens us.

Methodist Covenant Service

Tuesday, 6 January 2015

God chose the weak things of this world to put the powerful to shame.

It is Epiphany, 6th January. The ending of Christmas to all intents and purposes. Though for most people Christmas ended a couple of weeks ago. And for most people Christmas had no connection with the birth of Jesus.

We all know the passage from Luke’s Gospel telling of Jesus’ birth in Bethlehem. But because of its familiarity we lose sight of how shocking and revolutionary what happened on that first Christmas was.

When God planned the events of that first Christmas he knew what he was doing. He was turning the world upside down and showing the world that his kingdom has values that are very different to those of the world.

Mary and Joseph were peasants. Nazareth was a nowhere town anyway and they were nowhere town peasants. The depictions of Mary wearing pretty blue garments are wrong. Blue was for wealthy people. And she wasn’t wealthy and neither was her “husband” Joseph.

Yet God chose to use these peasants to be the earthly parents of his son. In God’s Kingdom the last come first and the first come last.

And let’s not get away from the fact of Mary’s pregnancy. To claim that the pregnancy was as result of God was hugely outrageous then. It’s beyond our comprehension now. And yet that is the story Mary stuck to. She would have been looked at with scorn and scepticism. Had she claimed for example that Joseph couldn’t wait until they were married or even that she had been raped by a Roman soldier, these things would have been accepted. But God, as the father of the child? Really? Crazy!

The fact that Mary and Joseph were peasants and the fact that Mary claimed God was the father of her child; these things would have immediately put the family on the edge of society.

But then we have to add in the flight to Egypt where they may well have lived in conditions far more squalid than in today’s refugee camps. Again outcasts.

Outcasts and yet God chose them to be the parents of his son.

Then let’s think of two other set of characters associated with the Christmas story – the “Magi” and the shepherds.
The Magi – Gentile astrologers from a foreign land – would have been despised by pious Jews. Yet they figure in Jesus’ nativity story.

And as for the shepherds. One of the debates learned rabbis at the time of Jesus had to consider was “When is a loaf not a loaf?” The reason being they needed to consider whether bread could be accepted as a tithe if the bread was inedible. At what point was bread so stale and mouldy that it didn’t have to be tithed? In the end these learned rabbis decided that in a tithe a baker would still have to tithe bread that even it was so stale and mouldy that only a shepherd would still eat it.

Shepherds then were pretty much on a par with animals in Jewish society. Shepherds were the lowest of the low.

These visitors to the Holy Family – the Magi and the Shepherds - are the equivalent of mega rich drug barons and homeless drug addicts turning up on our doorstep today. They too were outcasts from Jewish society.

In Luke’s account of the first Christmas the Shepherds are the main characters. And for the reasons I’ve just explained they are unlikely messengers – until we note Luke’s reminders that Joseph is a descent of the house of David, who was himself a shepherd. So with this in mind maybe the shepherds aren’t such outcasts after all? Who better to proclaim the birth of Jesus, a descent of David, than shepherds? Who better to proclaim the birth of the Good Shepherd than fellow shepherds?

These outcasts, these lowlife are the first to hear, the first to see and the first to tell of Jesus’ birth.

And this is God’s way. God’s way is very different to that of the world, as Paul reminds us:

1 Corinthians 1:26-29 Contemporary English Version (CEV)

26 My dear friends, remember what you were when God chose you. The people of this world didn’t think that many of you were wise. Only a few of you were in places of power, and not many of you came from important families. 27 But God chose the foolish things of this world to put the wise to shame. He chose the weak things of this world to put the powerful to shame.
28 What the world thinks is worthless, useless, and nothing at all is what God has used to destroy what the world considers important.

God uses the shepherds, God uses a peasant woman and her peasant husband, God uses despised foreign astrologers, God uses these and more to tell of his Kingdom and help bring the Kingdom in. And to reflect the light of the world out into the darkness.
From the outset God has chosen the things and the people that are considered worthless by this world to show us what his kingdom is like. From the outset God has chosen the things and the people that are considered worthless by this world to proclaim the Gospel and help bring his kingdom in.

The Christmas story is therefore so different from the values of our world which places great stock on the ways of the powerful, the wealthy, the young, the good looking and the influential. God shows his kingdom is not based on those values. Little wonder that the Church is growing where people are not powerful, wealthy or influential.

The American Christian writer Philip Yancey says:

“Yet as I read the birth stories about Jesus I cannot help but conclude that though the world may be tilted toward the rich and powerful, God is tilted toward the underdog.”

People don’t want anything to do with the Good News we’ve been given to proclaim because the Good News is uncomfortable. It challenges the values of our society. And yet we know it is also a message that gives hope.

It could be said that we are now outcasts from the society we live in. We are seen as irrelevant.

27 But God chose the foolish things of this world to put the wise to shame. He chose the weak things of this world to put the powerful to shame.
28 What the world thinks is worthless, useless, and nothing at all is what God has used to destroy what the world considers important.

This is an abridged version of a sermon preached on Christmas Eve 2014 at Central Methodist Church Chippenham

Thursday, 18 December 2014

Thus spake the prohet

I recently posted on Facebook an extract of a speech given by Neil Kinnock in 1983 on the eve of the General Election. This is a fuller extract of that speech:

If Margaret Thatcher is re-elected as prime minister on Thursday, I warn you. I warn you that you will have pain – when healing and relief depend upon payment. I warn you that you will have ignorance – when talents are untended and wits are wasted, when learning is a privilege and not a right. I warn you that you will have poverty – when pensions slip and benefits are whittled away by a government that won’t pay in an economy that can't pay. I warn you that you will be cold – when fuel charges are used as a tax system that the rich don't notice and the poor can't afford.

I warn you that you must not expect work – when many cannot spend, more will not be able to earn. When they don't earn, they don't spend. When they don't spend, work dies. I warn you not to go into the streets alone after dark or into the streets in large crowds of protest in the light. I warn you that you will be quiet – when the curfew of fear and the gibbet of unemployment make you obedient. I warn you that you will have defence of a sort – with a risk and at a price that passes all understanding. I warn you that you will be home-bound – when fares and transport bills kill leisure and lock you up. I warn you that you will borrow less – when credit, loans, mortgages and easy payments are refused to people on your melting income.

If Margaret Thatcher wins on Thursday, I warn you not to be ordinary. I warn you not to be young. I warn you not to fall ill. I warn you not to get old.

Speech in Bridgend, Glamorgan, on Tuesday 7 June 1983. Thursday 9 June 1983 was polling day in the general election.

In response to my posting a friend added the comment “Are you sure that is not a quote from 'Revelations?'" And another friend added “Wow sounds like a Biblical prophet.”

And there is indeed something about an Old Testament prophet in Kinnock’s words. Maybe his time at Vale Terrace Methodist Church youth club in Tredegar (where he was a contemporary of my dad as it happens – *sound of name being dropped there*) had an influence even if Kinnock would now claim to be an atheist.

Were those words spoken 31 years ago prophetic? Was Kinnock a prophet?

My copy of the Shorter Oxford English Dictionary (1973 edition given to me by my grandfather on my 18th birthday in 1981 and a treasured possession) gives several definitions of prophet

“One who speaks for God, or for any deity, as the inspired revealer or interpreter of God’s will … In a non religious sense the accredited spokesman, proclaimer or preacher of some principle, cause or movement. … One who foretells what is going to happen;

Now applying those definitions there is something prophetic about Kinnock’s words. (Prophetic being – again according to my dictionary – “Pertaining or proper to a prophet; having the character or function of a prophet”) Kinnock would not have thought of himself as speaking for God. But he certainly foretold some things that would happen.

Last Sunday was the third Sunday in Advent and the Old Testament reading in the lectionary was from Isaiah 61. The passage contains these words:

The Spirit of the Sovereign LORD is on me,
because the LORD has anointed me
to proclaim good news to the poor.
He has sent me to bind up the broken-hearted,
to proclaim freedom for the captives
and release from darkness for the prisoners,

They are words Jesus uses (close on 500 years after Isaiah) in setting out his ministry. The words are clearly important then. They are a mission statement for how followers of Jesus Christ should seek to be and how we should seek to challenge the society we live in if those values are contrary to these words.

If there can be any doubt about the importance of these words, later on in chapter 61 Isaiah proclaims these words:

For I, the LORD, love justice;
I hate robbery and wrongdoing.

Years ago, a wise teacher of preachers advised prepare your sermons with the Bible in one hand and the newspaper in the other. His point was that sermons had to be relevant to the day-to-day lives of people, and the best way to ensure that would be to focus on what is going on in the world. That is good advice.

Our newspapers and televisions and radios and internet regularly contain stories of people being oppressed or poor or broken hearted or prisoners. I freely admit that it is a challenge for us to look at our world and see injustice, oppression and poverty and think “Wasn’t this supposed to change with Jesus?”

Well yes at one level it was supposed to change. God sent his son Jesus into the world to be a light. God sent his son into the world to save the world from sin and transform the world into the Kingdom of God. God sent his son into the world to show how we should live. To show that people should care for one another.

And Jesus did do all those things. But sinful people ignored his teaching and turned away once again – just as they had done in the time before Isaiah incidentally.

At Advent then we are reminded we are now living in an in between time. A time after Jesus came in to the world and a time when we wait for Christ to come again and restore this broken world. Advent is a time of waiting, and hoping and preparation for God to transform the world through Jesus Christ.

Which brings us back to Isaiah’s prophecy. For Isaiah’s words tell us that this transformation is not an empty hope but it is a sure promise. Christ will come again!

So what about the in between time? What about now in other words?

Transformation is happening now. Christ’s transformation is happening today. But where? Where is God’s transformation revealed today? What is God doing today in the lives of the people that offer hope and restoration to our broken world?

At this time of year there are signs of transformation all around us. But these are signs of the secular world being transformed as Christmas lights go up and Christmas music is played. Our schedules are transformed into tireless activities leading to near exhaustion and fatigue. Somehow in the secular world at this time of year many people are transformed into monsters who wish to consume everything. Monsters who want to buy everything.

Even amid the Christmas trees, Advent rings and crib scenes in our churches it is often difficult to see God’s transformation springing up. So Isaiah’s words come as a real challenge to those of us in church, let alone to those outside of church.
We do not need to look far to see the injustice of poverty, abuse, hunger, oppression and war. Yet our Christmas distractions often speak louder to us than Isaiah’s call for God’s transformation. Our eyes tend to stay focused on the pretty nativity scene rather than looking beyond it to what Jesus’ birth really means for this world.

But Isaiah’s words, as spoken once again by Jesus in Luke 4, remind us that God’s transformation will alter our personal lives and the world in which we live.

An important question for Advent to reflect on is this.

“What are God’s people doing in the world to bring God’s good news of transformation?”

In places where there is growth then it is easy to see how God is at work transforming lives. But what about here? With our churches in decline surely God must have given up on us?

Well he hasn’t. For just as Isaiah spoke his message to the people of Israel exiled in a strange land so he speaks to us, for in a sense we are now a remnant, exiles in a strange land. The words are a reassurance to us but they are a challenge to us too. For whilst God loves us and cares for us he still reminds us that we are to be the transformation around us. We are to be the prophets speaking truth to power. Shining the light into the dark world of greed and corruption and oppression.

So was Kinnock a prophet? Yes his words have proved to be prophetic I believe and the values he espoused in that speech seem very Biblical to me. God can use all manner of people to proclaim his word - including atheists!

Tuesday, 2 December 2014

Gabriel (Peter) brings an Advent message

Yesterday evening, I went to with friends to see Peter Gabriel play a concert in Cardiff. I’d agreed to go months ago but with no great enthusiasm. Although I have many of his albums clips I’ve seen of him in concert suggested he was a poser and a bit “up himself” (if you’ll excuse the colloquialism!)

I came away thinking how disappointed I’d have been to miss such a terrific concert. He played a 2 hour set which was in three parts, acoustic, electronic and performance. (The performance being the Album “So” played completely.) This was all accompanied by a brilliant light show.

Most of the music he played was well known to me but he did play one or two new pieces (to me anyway) one of which was called “Why don’t you show yourself?”

He has recorded "Why Don't You Show Yourself?" for a forthcoming film, Words With Gods. Words With Gods is an anthology of nine short films centred on religion and spirituality and set for release next year. The films directors include Mira Nair, Guillermo Arriaga and Hideo Nakata.

The song “Why don’t you show yourself?” contains a great deal of theology. It speaks about someone searching for God. Someone who is desperate to find God. Someone who wants God to come into the world now.

As I heard this song performed on the 2nd December, 3 days into Advent, it really struck a chord with me. For me, it is a song that perfectly picks up one of the themes of Advent – the longing for Christ to come again in to the world.

I found the words of the song on a fan’s Facebook page so I can’t guarantee their accuracy.

More about the Words without Gods project can be found here

The web site has an audio track of Peter Gabriel performing the track.

Why don't you show yourself

Why don't you show yourself
Why don't you show yourself
Was that something whispering in the leaves
I can smell your breath within a breeze
Something lying at your feet
Making you alive more complete
And we rely on
All that's forgotten
With the way that destiny
Can pull you down
So we are searching
Searching for you
And we go hunting
Hunting for you
And in this empty space
In this hollow place
Why don't you show yourself
Why don't you show yourself
Life and death
The strong and the weak
The only thing you think about
Is exactly what you seek
We look for footprints
We look for clear signs
Look for any presence
That we can find
And still we're searching
Searching for you
And we go hunting
Hunting for you
And in this flesh and bones
In this man's heart
Why don't you show yourself
Why don't you show yourself
Hard to find you
Harder to see
The way you're talking
And the way you ' re set to be
In you I find me
Why don't you show yourself
And we go hunting
Hunting for you
And we we're hunting
Hunting round this world
And in this wounded place
Why don't you show your face
Why don't you show yourself
Why don't you show yourself

Peter Gabriel

Sunday, 30 November 2014

Look busy - Jesus is coming

It is the first Sunday of Advent and the lectionary Gospel reading is Mark 13: 24 – 37. (The Lectionary is a series of Bible readings for each Sunday of the year.) In this passage of scripture Jesus tells of a time when he will return to the world and full establish God’s kingdom.

The so called “second coming” is a difficult concept for Christians – let alone non-Christians – to grasp. And I suppose one of the most difficult of all concepts to accept is when this will happen. And part of this must be “How bad do things have to get before Jesus returns and sorts things out once and for all?”

It is a question Christians have wrestled with for 2,000 years. And it is a question non-believers must level at us.
And for those who are impatient I have some bad news. In the Bible passage I mentioned a moment ago Jesus says that even he doesn’t know when he will come again. It could be today tomorrow or another 2,000 years.
The Message translation of the Bible puts it this way

32-37 “But the exact day and hour? No one knows that, not even heaven’s angels, not even the Son. Only the Father. So keep a sharp lookout, for you don’t know the timetable. It’s like a man who takes a trip, leaving home and putting his servants in charge, each assigned a task, and commanding the gatekeeper to stand watch. So, stay at your post, watching. You have no idea when the homeowner is returning, whether evening, midnight, cockcrow, or morning. You don’t want him showing up unannounced, with you asleep on the job. I say it to you, and I’m saying it to all: Stay at your post. Keep watch.”

After 2,000 years of watching and waiting we could be excused for being a bit bored. However, the watching has to be an expectant, active watchfulness because we never know when he will appear.

Some waiting is passive. For example a girl standing at a bus stop waiting for a bus is passive waiting. All she does is stand at the stop and wait.

But the same girl standing in the same place but knowing that the bus will take her to the railway station in order to catch a train to the airport so she can go on holiday will experience a different kind of waiting. It will be full of expectation, it will be active waiting.

Jesus clearly had active participation in mind when he instructed his followers

33 Be on guard! Be alert[e]! You do not know when that time will come.

Jesus clearly doesn’t want us to know when he will return. If we knew he was going to return on a specific date we’d put off doing anything about his return until just beforehand. To avoid this lethargy he urges us to live as if his return were just around the corner. So there is no time to nod off in the waiting room!

Prudence Phillipson uses this analogy. When her children were young the floor of their playroom often became messy with games and toys strewn everywhere. Prudence got her children to clean up their toys and games by telling them she was going round the corner to the shop. "When I come back," she warned, "everything should be in its place." She would then give each child a task before she left. The oldest child would be given more complicated tasks while the simpler ones would go to the younger children. Then she would leave. The children would either do as she told them or else disregard her instructions.

When she returned, sometimes she would come quietly up the stairs and see through the half-open door that they were quarrelling or fooling around or just absorbed in something. Then there were other times when she would see that her children were not quite finished with their task so she would creep away to give them more time. Sometimes she would shut the front door with a bang and hear sudden noises of bustle as they hurried to get the room straightened. At such times one of the children would call out, "Not just yet, Mummy. Give us a little longer."

In thinking about her children, Prudence writes, "Each Advent I recall this experience with my children and wonder how many times the Lord has been close at hand, seeing the chaos of our world and longing to come, but waiting, sparing us judgment a little longer." Perhaps we are given more time to get our lives in order.
(Source eSermons)

I’ve talked about passive and active waiting. I just want to clarify something about active waiting. The phrase “Active waiting” suggests we have to be busy during the waiting. And that’s true we can be doing things to prepare the way for the Lord and his Kingdom certainly. But active waiting isn’t about doing as such or being busy.

A few years ago I remember seeing a T shirt which had the slogan “Look busy Jesus is coming”. And that can be a tendency among many Christians – including myself. In the time we’re waiting for Jesus we get busy. But Active waiting isn’t about being busy or looking busy. Active waiting is about being prepared and anticipating. Not just clock watching.

It’s the season of waiting in queues, waiting for packages to come in the post, waiting for children to give you their Christmas lists, waiting in traffic, waiting for a parking space, waiting, waiting, waiting.

One thing we don’t do very well in our society is wait. We get impatient. We get nervous and some even get angry. That’s because we see waiting as wasted time. It’s boring to sit and wait. It’s "down" time or "dead" time. We equate waiting time with being non-productive.

Waiting does not have to be seen as a bad thing. Waiting is an opportunity to reflect or meditate. Nor do we have to fill our idle time with things to do. The more time we spend working the less time we have to spend with our families or attending to our souls. Our society has become so production focused that we have lost sight of the fact that we need time to think, relax or just wonder.

The passage from Mark’s gospel we’ve been thinking about today illustrates one of the most important puzzles of the Gospel. And that is the “Already here / Not yet” quality of Jesus.

The Already Here Jesus has established the means by which we are part of God’s family and have a relationship with God. But Not Yet do we live in complete relationship with God.

The Already Here Jesus has started to build the Kingdom of God and there is evidence of that Kingdom in the world if we look. But not yet as his Kingdom been fully established.

As that well known theologian Noddy Holder once said "Look to the future it’s only just begun."

In this passage from Mark’s Gospel Jesus is sending a message about living in the challenging between time. That is the time between the Already Here time and the Not Yet time. We are in that Between Time. Therefore, we are called to be alert and awake and called to live our lives in accordance with Jesus who has come, died, been raised from the dead. And by being alert, being prepared, being watchful, we may find that not only will be ready to live in the promised realm of God when it comes, but we may experience even now what life in the new realm will be like.

What should we be doing while we’re waiting? We should be worshiping him, praising him, serving him, loving him, and loving one another as he commanded us to do. When we do those things, we will be ready, no matter when he comes.

Let us look to the future – it’s only just begun.