Sunday, 28 November 2010

Advent Sunday - Submission:why men don't come to church...maybe


Isaiah 52:7-12
How beautiful upon the mountains
are the feet of the messenger who announces peace,
who brings good news,
who announces salvation,
who says to Zion, ‘Your God reigns.’
Listen! Your sentinels lift up their voices,
together they sing for joy;
for in plain sight they see
the return of the Lord to Zion.
Break forth together into singing,
you ruins of Jerusalem;
for the Lord has comforted his people,
he has redeemed Jerusalem.
The Lord has bared his holy arm
before the eyes of all the nations;
and all the ends of the earth shall see
the salvation of our God.
Depart, depart, go out from there!
Touch no unclean thing;
go out from the midst of it, purify yourselves,
you who carry the vessels of the Lord.
For you shall not go out in haste,
and you shall not go in flight;
for the Lord will go before you,
and the God of Israel will be your rearguard.

1 Thessalonians 5:1-11
Now concerning the times and the seasons, brothers and sisters, you do not need to have anything written to you. For you yourselves know very well that the day of the Lord will come like a thief in the night. When they say, ‘There is peace and security’, then sudden destruction will come upon them, as labour pains come upon a pregnant woman, and there will be no escape! But you, beloved, are not in darkness, for that day to surprise you like a thief; for you are all children of light and children of the day; we are not of the night or of darkness. So then, let us not fall asleep as others do, but let us keep awake and be sober; for those who sleep sleep at night, and those who are drunk get drunk at night. But since we belong to the day, let us be sober, and put on the breastplate of faith and love, and for a helmet the hope of salvation. For God has destined us not for wrath but for obtaining salvation through our Lord Jesus Christ, who died for us, so that whether we are awake or asleep we may live with him. Therefore encourage one another and build up each other, as indeed you are doing.

John 3:1-21
Nicodemus Visits Jesus

Now there was a Pharisee named Nicodemus, a leader of the Jews. He came to Jesus by night and said to him, ‘Rabbi, we know that you are a teacher who has come from God; for no one can do these signs that you do apart from the presence of God.’ Jesus answered him, ‘Very truly, I tell you, no one can see the kingdom of God without being born from above.’ Nicodemus said to him, ‘How can anyone be born after having grown old? Can one enter a second time into the mother’s womb and be born?’ Jesus answered, ‘Very truly, I tell you, no one can enter the kingdom of God without being born of water and Spirit. What is born of the flesh is flesh, and what is born of the Spirit is spirit. Do not be astonished that I said to you, “You must be born from above.” The wind blows where it chooses, and you hear the sound of it, but you do not know where it comes from or where it goes. So it is with everyone who is born of the Spirit.’ Nicodemus said to him, ‘How can these things be?’ Jesus answered him, ‘Are you a teacher of Israel, and yet you do not understand these things?

‘Very truly, I tell you, we speak of what we know and testify to what we have seen; yet you do not receive our testimony. If I have told you about earthly things and you do not believe, how can you believe if I tell you about heavenly things? No one has ascended into heaven except the one who descended from heaven, the Son of Man. And just as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, so must the Son of Man be lifted up, that whoever believes in him may have eternal life.
‘For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but may have eternal life.
‘Indeed, God did not send the Son into the world to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved through him. Those who believe in him are not condemned; but those who do not believe are condemned already, because they have not believed in the name of the only Son of God. And this is the judgement, that the light has come into the world, and people loved darkness rather than light because their deeds were evil. For all who do evil hate the light and do not come to the light, so that their deeds may not be exposed. But those who do what is true come to the light, so that it may be clearly seen that their deeds have been done in God.’


‘Every journey begins with a single step’. It’s not an uncommon saying that’s meant to encourage us simply to make a start. However, about ten years ago I discovered just how wrong this statement can be if it’s not qualified. I was in Israel on a study trip, and myself and a bunch of friends were in the market place in the Arab part of Jerusalem. We’d just popped into a shop and I was quite taken with what we found there.

I can’t remember exactly what it was, probably some drum or other, you know me, but I said to them to go on and I would catch them up. I left the shop a few minutes later and set off after them. It probably took me about 100 metres before I realised I was walking in the wrong direction, back the way we had come! In order to find my friends I had to go back the way I came, past the shop I’d been in and off up the hill where I duly caught up with them, bemused as to what had taken me so long.

So let me qualify that saying with this: ‘Every journey begins with a single step provided it is in the right direction! The point of this address tonight is to make sure that, as we begin our Advent journey, we are indeed heading off in the right direction, and that direction is towards the Kingdom of God, not back the way we came.

This whole season of Advent is directed towards preparing for the coming of Christ, much as Lent is about preparing to celebrate his death and resurrection, but that preparation has two possible directions, and we normally only go off in one direction. For most of us the direction that we take in Advent is the route that is marked, ‘Christmas this way’.

I guess that in an advertising dominated consumerist culture where many of our thoughts are directed by what we’re going to buy for Aunty Mabel, it’s not surprising that our preparations can’t stretch beyond thinking about events just a month in advance. But Christmas is truly only one destination for an Advent journey. Our reading from 1 Thessalonians reminds us that there is something else that we need to have uppermost in our minds and that is following the route which is signed, ‘The return of Christ.’

This is one of the hardest doctrines to fathom in the whole New Testament, made even more difficult by our fundamentalist brothers and sisters who have developed all sorts of extra-biblical ideas about this. But from the perspective of what I want to talk about tonight we need only recognise one thing, that writ large across the New Testament is a belief, held by Jesus himself, that he will return to establish his kingdom here on earth.

This other Advent destination, then, towards which we must be aiming, is the route that prepares us for this kingdom to come. Our faith declares that we are already a part of it, but there is a world of difference between saying we are a part of something, and living as a part of it. For example, 70% of this country’s population declares itself to be Christian. So where are they.

Our faith must be one of action, not just words, and being a part of the Kingdom of God therefore requires that we live as subjects of that kingdom, and I choose that word ‘Subject’ very carefully. We are not members of an organisation that we have joined; we are subjects of a kingdom, and so should live as such. This idea of living as a subjects is something you will hear more about over the coming weeks and months.

But to live as a subject requires that we begin with a particular attitude. We cannot live as subjects of a kingdom unless we first consider our willingness to submit to the rule of Christ as he comes in his kingdom. Are we ready to submit our wills to his? I suspect that for many of us the answer is probably, ‘Yes but not yet.’

The difficulty I think we face is with this whole concept of submission. I spoke a little about this at 8.00am last Sunday, and that sermon is online if you want to read it. In essence I said that if Christ is King, then we must subject ourselves to his rule. Advent is about preparing for his kingdom to come, and so we must be examining our hearts to see if we are in submission to his rule.

However submission is not an easy concept in the 21st century. It reeks of an ancient hierarchical and patriarchal system, one that I am happy to leave behind if we’re thinking about the church. But submission to Christ is not the same as submission to the church. Submission to his rule is not the same as doing what Patrick or I tell you to do. We’re just priests. He’s Christ the King.

But one cannot hope to be subjects of a kingdom unless we begin our Advent journey by submitting to our King. So what should our submission look like?

It’s a little cold so let’s warm ourselves up with a summer image. Imagine you’re back on the beach and watching the children making their sandcastles. Now children have never really understood something vital about sandcastles. They always build them below the high tide level. It is inevitable that when the sea comes in it will roll over their sandcastle and level it.

Usually, particularly on the north Atlantic coast, it takes three, maybe four waves, and then that sandcastle is gone. It’s completely flat. All of its character has been wiped away. Is that what we mean by submission? Well I’m horribly afraid that vast swathes of the church think that it is, with the result that no one dares step out of line and do anything creative, because our submission is not submission to God, it’s about appeasing people.

So what do we end up with? A flat, boring, featureless level ground. There’s no danger and no trouble; just blandness. And do you know what, I think that’s half the problem that the Church of England faces. For generations we’ve tried hard not to upset anyone. We’ve become one of the blandest organisations in existence. Instead of submitting to God we’ve submitted to the world and it’s rolled over us like a high tide and stolen our character. We have equated Christian with niceness.

Have you ever wondered why the proportion of men is so much lower than that of women in church? Men are fuelled by their God-given testosterone. It’s a gift that drives us on to make and do and achieve and be. St. Peter was full of it! But the church of England is perceived as emasculated, submissive to the world and not wanting to upset anyone. It’s no wonder that men won’t join.

And nor will they until we start to become something more, when we start to submit to the will of Christ and begin living as we are supposed to. So what should submission really look like? I think we find it in the Gospel reading that Patrick read to us. This is one of the alternative Advent readings for today and I chose it because of what Jesus said to Nicodemus.

To really get the drift of this you need to understand that the word for Spirit in the New Testament is identical to the word for wind.

We who are born again, or born from above, the Greek has both meanings, are born of the Spirit which can also be translated as being born of the wind, and that’s the kind of submission I’m thinking of. If you stand on the coast path of North Cornwall and look at the trees around you, you will immediately notice something distinctive about them: they all slope away from the sea.

You cannot miss it, and you will only see it so clearly on the coast. They have been blown by the wind since the day they first emerged above the ground. It has shaped them and moulded them throughout their lives. And they look distinctive and unique. They are wind-trees, and it makes them interesting. You look at them and notice their distinctive shape. You ask yourself why they look that way, and the answer comes back, they are shaped by the wind.

Or let me put it another way. They have submitted to the wind. They have submitted to the wind and it has given them character and interest. It has also made them tougher and stronger. Submitting to the wind has given them a strength. Their roots have gone down deeper.

And that, I believe, is what submitting to the reign of Christ is about. It is about becoming a child of the Wind, submitting to the Spirit, being blown in the direction that She wishes to take us, and choosing to go and to do what is asked of us.

Advent is about preparing ourselves for the Kingdom of God. Advent is therefore about learning to submit to the reign of Christ, the King who has come and will come again; the One who we will all have to face eventually and to whom we will all have to give an account of our lives to.

Yes he is loving. Yes he is full of grace and forgiving. But he is also King, and so we should be learning to submit our wills to his, that by the Holy Spirit we may be shaped, and our roots may go down deep, and that through us the Lord can bring hope to a world that so needs him.


Saturday, 20 November 2010

Christ the King - but what kind of monarchy?

Colossians 1:11-20
May you be made strong with all the strength that comes from his glorious power, and may you be prepared to endure everything with patience, while joyfully giving thanks to the Father, who has enabled you to share in the inheritance of the saints in the light. He has rescued us from the power of darkness and transferred us into the kingdom of his beloved Son, in whom we have redemption, the forgiveness of sins.

He is the image of the invisible God, the firstborn of all creation; for in him all things in heaven and on earth were created, things visible and invisible, whether thrones or dominions or rulers or powers—all things have been created through him and for him. He himself is before all things, and in him all things hold together. He is the head of the body, the church; he is the beginning, the firstborn from the dead, so that he might come to have first place in everything. For in him all the fullness of God was pleased to dwell, and through him God was pleased to reconcile to himself all things, whether on earth or in heaven, by making peace through the blood of his cross.

Luke 23:33-43
When they came to the place that is called The Skull, they crucified Jesus there with the criminals, one on his right and one on his left. Then Jesus said, ‘Father, forgive them; for they do not know what they are doing.’ And they cast lots to divide his clothing. And the people stood by, watching; but the leaders scoffed at him, saying, ‘He saved others; let him save himself if he is the Messiah of God, his chosen one!’ The soldiers also mocked him, coming up and offering him sour wine, and saying, ‘If you are the King of the Jews, save yourself!’ There was also an inscription over him, written in Greek and Latin and Hebrew (that is, Aramaic)');‘This is the King of the Jews.’

One of the criminals who were hanged there kept deriding him and saying, ‘Are you not the Messiah? Save yourself and us!’ But the other rebuked him, saying, ‘Do you not fear God, since you are under the same sentence of condemnation? And we indeed have been condemned justly, for we are getting what we deserve for our deeds, but this man has done nothing wrong.’ Then he said, ‘Jesus, remember me when you come into your kingdom.’ He replied, ‘Truly I tell you, today you will be with me in Paradise.’

Today we celebrate Christ the King, but what do we actually think of when we consider Kingship? You see for a 21st century western culture, the idea of an absolute monarchy is rather dated, if not completely alien and rather disagreeable to us. In the few countries where an absolute monarchy remains, such as Brunei and Saudi Arabia, we feel a sense of distaste and unfairness, that the people have no say in how they are governed.

In the UK, the Queen is our head of state and the head of the Church of England. But if you took away the monarchy in this country we would continue to function as a nation, albeit with perhaps rather less colour. In truth the church is run by the Bishops under the leadership of Canterbury and York whilst the country is led by parliament, and therein lies the crucial difference.

Unlike an absolute monarchy, our system of government is led from the ground up. The prime minister is one of us. He or she could be anyone provided they were well qualified enough and had the right talents for the job. They receive their power from below, from the people, and just as we have given them the power to govern us, so at the next election, if we so choose, we can take it away again.

But in an absolute monarchy, the system is reversed. The Monarch rules over the people as one who is separate from them and receives their power by inheritance. If we trace it back far enough we will find that monarchs have power because their families took it from someone else and then handed it on to their own children. They are not, in any way, accountable to the people. The people are, instead, accountable to them.

So the prime minister receives power from below, from the people, but the monarch receives inherited power. Or to put it another way, the prime minister belongs to us, but we belong to the monarch, and that’s a huge difference because of accountability.

In a 21st century democracy the prime minister is accountable to us. But in an absolute monarchy, we are accountable to the King or Queen and that should make us think carefully about what the implications are of celebrating Christ as King.

First and foremost, he is not King because we made him King. Nor was his kingship a result of it having been taken by force from a previous monarchical line. No, his Kingship is received from the Father who has always had power, and that means that we are accountable to him.

The reason I think this is important is because we cannot escape the way that our culture affects everything in our lives. That means that our understanding of Christ as King will be affected by our democratic ideals. In other words, if our government tries to do something that we don’t agree with, then we will vote them out. That is the right of a democratic citizen.

In fact that system of government has permeated almost every sphere of our lives. Many of us sit on various committees and are well versed in electing chair men and women. We’re used to people sitting for a term of office and then stepping sideways, or being ejected if they won’t go.

But subjects of a King do not have that right. If we don’t like the decisions they make we have only one choice, to leave the kingdom and go elsewhere. But the question I think this poses for us is whether we acknowledge the difference. Do we treat Christ as the King, or do we treat him as prime minister? Do we recognise ourselves as part of a kingdom or as sitting on a committee?

It seems to me that the important question is one of submission to the will of God, or more specifically, are we willing to submit to the Kingship of Christ? Over how much of our lives have we given him dominion? And over how much do we keep power for ourselves? It all comes down to authority. Do we recognise the authority of Christ as divinely given? If we do, if we really do, then that must surely have an effect on how we live and the decisions we take.

I personally feel constantly challenged by this issue, and I think that’s because for me I have always had difficulties with people who like to rule over others. But there is a huge difference between Christ’s rule and ours. I think of it like this. I have a friend, well she’s more a friend of a friend, who still lives at home even though she’s well into her thirties. But it’s not out of choice or financial hardship.

Instead it is because she is in submission to the will of her parents. She also has a sibling who is favoured over her and to whom she is expected to defer. I fear for this lady because her parents rule her life and she may not get the chance to grow into a person in her own right. I also find myself hugely angry at her parents for treating her like that. Their rule is for their own good, and they appear to be grooming her to be their carer.

I contrast that with an episode in my own history. When I was about sixteen I very briefly dated a girl who I had got on well with at junior school and then we had by chance met up again in our mid-teens. She came home with me after some church function and met Mum and Dad. After she’d gone Mum quietly took me to one side and explained that she felt very uncomfortable me seeing this girl. She couldn’t explain why, but just said she didn’t like her.

Now my mother has a highly tuned sense of intuition and she only ever said that about two people. It was enough for me. I got the message and we split up. The difference though wasn’t that my mother was trying to control me, but that she was seeking my best interests and she saw something that I, as a teenager, had missed. My parent’s rule was there to help me to grow towards safety and maturity, to a point where I was capable of making wiser decisions.

Now when we think of Christ as King, I think that is the kind of rule we should be considering. His rule is one of drawing the best out of us, that we should grow to maturity, that by submitting to his will it is not for his own good; he doesn’t need us or our obedience, but that by doing his will we should grow. However, there is one final caveat to this. Ultimately this is not just about us and what we receive from Christ.

We are also subjects of a kingdom, and that means that sometimes we will be called upon to do things or go through things for the sake of the kingdom, and for the sake of others. That is also a part of being a part of Christ’s kingdom. It is not always going to be about us, but, just as Jesus himself had to, there will be times when we will have to go through hardship for the sake of others.

You see it’s an upside down kingdom. Jesus went through crucifixion to bring us into his kingdom. He suffered for his subjects; not something you see much of in earthly rulers, and so if he asks the same of us, then we should be prepared to walk in his footsteps. He is, after all, Christ, the King. Amen.

Saturday, 13 November 2010

Remembrance Sunday - Don't just enter through doors that open


Micah 4:1-5
In days to come the mountain of the Lord’s house shall be established as the highest of the mountains, and shall be raised up above the hills.
Peoples shall stream to it, and many nations shall come and say:
‘Come, let us go up to the mountain of the Lord, to the house of the God of Jacob;
that he may teach us his ways and that we may walk in his paths.’
For out of Zion shall go forth instruction, and the word of the Lord from Jerusalem.
He shall judge between many peoples, and shall arbitrate between strong nations far away;
they shall beat their swords into ploughshares, and their spears into pruning-hooks;
nation shall not lift up sword against nation, neither shall they learn war any more;
but they shall all sit under their own vines and under their own fig trees,
and no one shall make them afraid;
for the mouth of the Lord of hosts has spoken.
For all the peoples walk,
each in the name of its god,
but we will walk in the name of the Lord our God
for ever and ever.

Romans 8:31-end
What then are we to say about these things? If God is for us, who is against us? He who did not withhold his own Son, but gave him up for all of us, will he not with him also give us everything else? Who will bring any charge against God’s elect? It is God who justifies. Who is to condemn? It is Christ Jesus, who died, yes, who was raised, who is at the right hand of God, who indeed intercedes for us.
Who will separate us from the love of Christ? Will hardship, or distress, or persecution, or famine, or nakedness, or peril, or sword? As it is written,
‘For your sake we are being killed all day long;
we are accounted as sheep to be slaughtered.’
No, in all these things we are more than conquerors through him who loved us. For I am convinced that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor rulers, nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers, nor height, nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.


Picture the scenario. A nation is in conflict. It looks as if any day it might be invaded. It’s already lost a major land battle and had to retreat with its tail between its knees, and it’s desperately in need of a good leader of its air force to try and patrol its skies. So who are you going to put in charge of that air force?

Let me give you two choices. The first not the best communicator and indeed is given the nickname, ‘Stuffy’ by his men. He’s a military man who also believes in ghosts and fairies, and believes that fairies "are essential to the growth of plants and the welfare of the vegetable kingdom". He also believes in reincarnation and thinks he was a war leader in a previous life. That’s choice number one.

Choice number two is physically strong and very capable, nicknamed, ‘Powerhouse’ by his men. He’s intelligent and very stable with a military background. He’s not married, has no dependents and looks like a born leader. He warms everyone’s hearts by being able to say exactly the right kind of thing to make people give their best.

Your nation and its future may well depend on you making the right choice. So who would choose Stuffy, the man who believes in fairies and reincarnation, and that he’s already led battles but in a previous life? And who would choose Powerhouse?

Well the second man, Powerhouse, is a figure I’ve just made up. The first man describes Air Chief Marshal Hugh Caswall Tremenheere Dowding, the man whose leadership of the RAF during the Battle of Britain is widely believed to have saved us from invasion in 1940. And so, given that this year is the seventieth anniversary of the Battle of Britain, I want us to think a little about what Dowding may teach us about our capabilities.

Let me give you a brief bit of history about Dowding. He was a Scot who had been born in 1882. He had a military education and served abroad in the first years of the twentieth century before joining the Royal Flying Corps and became a squadron commander.

However, and this is a key theme for us, he clashed with the head of the Royal Flying Corps because Dowding believed the pilots needed adequate rest whereas it was felt by the powers that be that they should carry on regardless of how exhausted they were. The result of sticking to what he believed in was that Dowding was sent back to England, safely away from where he could have any effect.

After the first world war Dowding joined the newly formed Royal Air Force. He became vice marshal in 1929 and then air marshal in 1934. This was the period when Dowding made his mark. He could see that war with the Nazis was becoming a probability and so he pushed hard for a modernisation programme.

The RAF’s slow biplanes would be no match for the Luftwaffe and so he drove through a programme of design and construction resulting in the Hurricanes and the Spitfires.
He also recognised the need for an integrated air defence system which resulted in the combined use of radar and spotters, those who filled in the gaps in radar’s knowledge simply by using binoculars.

He was due to retire in 1939 but with the advent of war he remained in post. Huge pressure was put on him to commit large numbers of the force to stop the Nazi advance through France but he refused, believing that the RAF would need to hold back the planes for Britain’s own air defence. Again he was proved correct despite having to hold his own even against Churchill himself.

When the Battle of Britain was fought in earnest he once again came under pressure from above, this time to fight the battle over the channel before the bombers were over British soil, and again he refused believing it would be too costly in pilot’s lives. Basically in the 1940s if you bailed out over the channel you had little chance of being rescued before you drowned, and experienced pilots were what Britain needed to hold on to. Airplanes they could build. Pilots were in shortage.

Over and over again, the man who became known as Stuffy, as a term of endearment by his pilots who recognised him as a somewhat fatherly man who would make good and steady decisions, would choose a course of action and hold tight to it despite the opposition. If he had not been so careful in his preparations, and so prudent in the use of his resources, and if he had not stood up to other leaders, then the outcome of the Battle of Britain could very well have been an invasion of the UK.

Dowding was an individual who refused to be broken down by a system. In this country we have always been proud of our eccentrics, the free-thinking individuals who make a huge difference by not going the way of the herd. Dowding was just such a man, and whilst we may question or even ridicule some of his personal beliefs, he was driven to greatness because he was a visionary who wouldn’t give up.

So what about you? What is the vision you have for your life? Do people mock you for being different from them? Great! Because that means you are willing to use the gifts God has given you even if it means going in an unproven direction, and if you are such a person then, although your life may not be all that easy, you will live a life that can make a radical difference to the lives of others.

Have you ever heard people give this kind of advice? When you are trying to decide what to do at a certain point in your life, and you are presented with a number of possible options, treat them like doors and push them all and see which door opens? It’s a common bit of advice, but I don’t think I agree with it. It’s far too easy.

It always insures you do the easy thing, not the difficult thing. What you need more than anything is wisdom to see what the right thing to do is; wisdom born by experience, listening and prayer, and then you push, push, push. Make that door open. Batter it down if you have to. That’s the hard way, and that’s the way Dowding lived out his life as a military man.

He really did have some very odd beliefs, but he was also a wise tactician. He looked for the right thing and ensured that that was what was done. If he had taken the route of just pushing on a few doors to see which one opened, then half of the Royal Air Force would have been wiped out in trying to hold on to France. Dowding could see what the right thing was and pushed for it and got the job done!!

And in this way Dowding followed, believe it or not, in the footsteps of Christ. Think about it for a moment. Imagine if Jesus had lived his life by pushing at doors and walking through the ones that opened. He would never have gone to the Cross, and he would never have stayed nailed to it. In fact he wouldn’t have got past the temptations.

You can almost hear the devil saying, ‘If you are the Son of God, then command these stones to become bread’, and Jesus saying, ‘Oo, that door’s opening, and I am a bit hungry. Yes, why not.’ Of course that wasn’t what he did. Jesus had spent time preparing for his life and ministry and he had a vision for what he was called to do, and he pushed doors open in order to accomplish what he was called to do.

For communities and churches to thrive we must have men, women and children who are filled with vision, with the Spirit of God, and who are willing to stand out from the crowd. That is what some of you are called to. You who are young are just setting out on life; don’t be afraid. A relationship with God is not about conforming to some boring existence; it is about God calling you into a life more exciting than you could have imagined.

And you who feel that perhaps you are a bit past changing, don’t ever forget that Dowding, the man largely responsible for winning us the Battle of Britain, was about to retire when circumstances pushed him back into the battle. Young or old, we are always capable of saying yes to God when he calls us to stand out and be different. Those who say yes to God can make a huge difference. Will that be you? How willing to push, push, push are you to accomplish what God calls you to do?

And especially on this day, we must remember that we are not here to celebrate a great battle, but to remember those who gave their all to bring a great battle to an end. And it may be that there are some here whose calling in this life will be to bring war and terror to an end, so that the prophecy in our Old Testament reading may come true, that one day our soldiers shall beat their swords into ploughshares, and their spears into pruning-hooks;

If that is you, then get a vision for it. Pray about it. Seek wise counsel from others. Don’t just push on doors and see which ones open. If God is calling you to a job, be like Dowding, or much better, be like Jesus, and batter the doors down so that God’s will may be done. Amen.

Saturday, 6 November 2010

3rd Sunday before Advent - Hope

2 Thessalonians 2:1-5, 13-17
The Man of Lawlessness

As to the coming of our Lord Jesus Christ and our being gathered together to him, we beg you, brothers and sisters, not to be quickly shaken in mind or alarmed, either by spirit or by word or by letter, as though from us, to the effect that the day of the Lord is already here. Let no one deceive you in any way; for that day will not come unless the rebellion comes first and the lawless one is revealed, the one destined for destruction. He opposes and exalts himself above every so-called god or object of worship, so that he takes his seat in the temple of God, declaring himself to be God. Do you not remember that I told you these things when I was still with you?

But we must always give thanks to God for you, brothers and sisters beloved by the Lord, because God chose you as the first fruits for salvation through sanctification by the Spirit and through belief in the truth. For this purpose he called you through our proclamation of the good news, so that you may obtain the glory of our Lord Jesus Christ. So then, brothers and sisters, stand firm and hold fast to the traditions that you were taught by us, either by word of mouth or by our letter.
Now may our Lord Jesus Christ himself and God our Father, who loved us and through grace gave us eternal comfort and good hope, comfort your hearts and strengthen them in every good work and word.

Luke 20:27-38
The Question about the Resurrection

Some Sadducees, those who say there is no resurrection, came to him and asked him a question, ‘Teacher, Moses wrote for us that if a man’s brother dies, leaving a wife but no children, the man shall marry the widow and raise up children for his brother. Now there were seven brothers; the first married, and died childless; then the second and the third married her, and so in the same way all seven died childless. Finally the woman also died. In the resurrection, therefore, whose wife will the woman be? For the seven had married her.’
Jesus said to them, ‘Those who belong to this age marry and are given in marriage; but those who are considered worthy of a place in that age and in the resurrection from the dead neither marry nor are given in marriage. Indeed they cannot die any more, because they are like angels and are children of God, being children of the resurrection. And the fact that the dead are raised Moses himself showed, in the story about the bush, where he speaks of the Lord as the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob. Now he is God not of the dead, but of the living; for to him all of them are alive.’

Have you ever wondered what the world would be like if there was no such thing as a hypothetical question?...

A hypothetical question is what today’s Gospel reading is all about, but Jesus uses it to teach us something very important about the future. What makes this extra special for us is that this last week has had quite a focus on death and bereavement with All Hallow’s Eve last Sunday, and then All Souls on Tuesday with a service at which we remembered the lives of many of those who have died in recent times. In the face of fear and confusion about the future on the other side of death, today’s reading should inspire hope in us.

But let me first give you a little background to the situation Jesus is facing. We’re in the period leading up to his arrest, and he’s in Jerusalem for the last time. His arrest is probably only a matter of days away. Those who are in power are well aware of this upstart from up in the northern province who’s not a part of their political system.

They are well aware of all the people who are following him, and so they do what the rich and powerful have always done to those they call, ‘The Little People’, by asking him a series of questions in public that are specifically designed to reveal their ignorance.

Think of it a little like this, and you might even have observed it for yourself; who knows, you might even have done it! A wealthy and intelligent man’s daughter brings home the new boyfriend. It’s seems apparent to the girl’s father that this man is a bit of a nobody and clearly not good enough for his daughter.

So when they sit down to supper he begins asking the new boyfriend a series of questions that are clearly intended to embarrass him, show him up for being a bit thick, and reveal to the daughter that the new boyfriend isn’t good enough for her. Imagine the shock then when the scruffy new boyfriend with the unkept hair turns out to have a PhD in particle physics after doing a Masters in Philosophy.

You see that’s more or less what happened to the Religious leaders when they started questioning Jesus. They wanted to show him up to be a charlatan so that the popular vote would turn away from him. What they discovered was that intellectually, philosophically and theologically Jesus was streets ahead of them.

Today’s reading centres on the Sadducees asking a question. Now this group were, if you like, the traditionalists of Judaism. They had no time for the Pharisees and their new fangled theological ideas of resurrected life after death, which, at that time had only been an emerging strand of Jewish thought over the previous two hundred years. When you’re dead, you’re dead; that was what the Sadducees thought. They were also politically very powerful at this time.

And so they threw a very hypothetical question at Jesus. In the Jewish culture of that time the law stated that if a man married a woman and then he died before they had children, then his brother would have to marry the woman and give her children. Initially it sounds quite laudable, that the woman’s needs are being looked out for, although the real reason was so that the original husband’s property would have a lineage to be passed down to.

Effectively the children had by the second brother would be acknowledged as the children of the first brother, and the first brother’s property would therefore stay in the family. It was the way in which they managed property and succession. But in this hypothetical situation the second brother died. So, again following the law, the woman was married off to the third brother, who then died, and then to the fourth, and so on until everyone was dead and there were no children.

Then comes the question, and remember that the Sadducees did not believe in the resurrection. They ask, at the supposed resurrection, who will the poor woman be married to? Now obviously being married to all of them was not permissible under law, since only a man could have more than one wife; a woman could not have more than one husband. Therefore, logically the idea of a literal resurrection from the dead was illogical.

What Jesus does is to undermine their logic completely. Yes, they would be correct if after the resurrection we are just like we are now, that we’ve been through death and we’re simply alive again, but Jesus makes it absolutely clear that that’s not what it will be like. It will be a whole new order completely.

When I was twenty five Alison took me on holiday up to the highlands of Scotland. Now to put this in context, I was a city boy through and through. I was brought up in a London overspill new-town, and Ali and I lived in Watford. Holidays had always been in Cornwall. Nothing prepared me for the impact that the Western Highlands were going to have on me.

I will never forget pulling up into Glen Nevis, in the shadows of some of the most awesome scenery in the British Isles, and getting out of the car, closing the door and just standing there, almost breathless. Not only was it the most unutterably beautiful thing I had ever seen, but, for almost the first time in my life, I couldn’t hear any cars. The sun was shining, it was mid-May, and the only sound was the birds singing. I was awestruck. This was reality of a whole new order.

And that, I believe, is just the tiniest taste of the kind of thing Jesus was trying to say to the Sadducees. If I were to paraphrase Jesus it would be something like this, ‘Everything you think you know about the afterlife? Forget it. You have no comprehension, not even the beginnings of an understanding, because it is so far beyond anything you have experienced that your feeble philosophical ideas and traps bear no resemblance to the reality of the resurrection.’

You see the Sadducees were mocking something that they didn’t understand. They were imagining heaven to be like this, but it isn’t; not even close.

Now there is something very important for us to learn here, and it flies in the face of received wisdom. We have a culture of belief that when we die our soul leaves our body and goes to heaven where it joins other souls in the presence of God. Then it all becomes a little unclear because we’re used to having a body, and, well what will it be like to be in heaven without a body?

Yet inherent in what Jesus is saying is that this is not the final state of affairs. When we die here, there may be someway in which there is a spiritual continuity, but that is all a prelude to a literal resurrection into something infinitely superior to what we are now, and that’s what we saw at Jesus’s own resurrection.

It’s one of the things that makes the Easter story so very important. In some strands of Christianity you will find churches full of crucifixes, celebrating the death of Jesus; Jesus dying on a cross. In the Anglican Church you are far more likely to see an empty cross. Why? It’s because the empty cross reminds us that the story didn’t end with the death of Jesus.

The miracle of Easter wasn’t just that Jesus died a death which in some way brought us into the Father’s family. The miracle was that Jesus was then raised from the dead in a body that was clearly his but was also obviously so much more than his earthly body. By his resurrection Jesus led the way. He was the first, but he won’t be the last.

The whole joy and hope of the death and resurrection of Jesus is that he showed us what we could hope for; not floating around on a cloud playing a harp, but a life which is more real, more tangible, than this one. What Jesus experienced is what we shall, in time, experience. That’s the gift he promised us, and since hundreds of people saw him after his resurrection, I am inclined to believe him.

But if the Sadducees got it wrong, well, the question on all our hearts is, ‘What will it be like then?’ Clearly even Jesus himself struggled to find a way to describe the indescribable. It’s not that we will become angels, because they are a different kind of creature from us, but we will be like them in some ways. There will no longer be procreation, because no one will die; but that doesn’t preclude intimacy and love.

God is love, and so we can expect the afterlife to have far more love in it than this world does; infinitely more! But as to what it’s going to be like, well the best we can do in heading towards truth is to use story and metaphor.

C.S. Lewis probably put it most clearly in his book, ‘The Great Divorce’. It was nothing to do with marriage, but was instead about excursions from hell to the outskirts of heaven where the dead could, if they wished, stay if they were willing to leave behind their old ways of doing things. But what they found was that everything was so real, so solid, that it hurt them to walk on the grass. They were insubstantial compared to the realm of the resurrected.

And this is what I think I want us to take with us today: We will, at the resurrection, receive new bodies, and they will be more real and more substantial than these ones are. I think that after the final resurrection, and when we find ourselves in the new creation we will discover it to be more solid and more real than this one is.

You know how, when you try to remember a dream it seems insubstantial and maybe disconnected? The solid nature of our reality compared to the insubstantial nature of a dream probably mimics the insubstantial nature of this world compared to the post-resurrection world.

So be filled with hope. Whatever you are going through now, it is not how things will always be. There is a future, if we want it, that is immeasurably more real and beautiful than this reality. Let St. Paul have the last words, and this is from the first reading:
Now may our Lord Jesus Christ himself and God our Father, who loved us and through grace gave us eternal comfort and good hope, comfort your hearts and strengthen them in every good work and word.