Christ is the one who calls

Today’s hymn from Sing Praise is ‘Christ is the one who call’ by Timothy Dudley-Smith. The tune set in the book is ‘Love unknown’ but John chose to sing it to ‘Harewood’ (‘Christ is our cornerstone’). 

In its five verses the hymn explores Christ’s relationship with us. Firstly he calls us as “the one who loved and came” – we believe that Jesus is God, and God is love.  Then he seeks us as the one “to whom our souls are known” – he is intimately within our very being, as well as at work in the world. Then he is “the one who died forsaken and betrayed”, for we must never forget the price he paid for saving us.  Yet he is “the one who rose in glory from the grave” – the promise of forgiveness of sin through the cross is inextricably connected with the promise of eternal life through the resurrection. Finally he is “the one who sends, his story to declare” – the gospels end not with the resurrection but with the disciples being commissioned, whether by their fishing boats or on the mountain, to go and tell others this story of God’s saving love.

There are of course other words to each of the verses besides those I’ve quoted, and the full text is online here. The hymn was new to me, but as a concise summary of the work of Christ and our response to him, it is worth remembering for another occasion.

Jesus Christ is waiting

Today’s hymn from Sing Praise is the second of two on consecutive days by the Scottish hymnwriters John Bell & Graham Maule, both in the series on social justice issues.  Both of them invite us to join our own concerns with those of God. 

This one, “Jesus Christ is waiting”, has a much more active Jesus than yesterday’s.  He is pictured in various actions, beginning with ‘waiting in the streets’.  Is ‘waiting’ an action?  In Christian theology, yes.  Waiting can be about anticipation, praying into a situation knowing that God will move when it’s the right time to do so and not before.   The waiting here, though, is linked with loneliness, and we ask him to make us ‘fit to wait on him’ – a subtle pun on two meanings of ‘waiting’ in English. Are we the sort of waiters who stand around idle and lonely, or the sort of waiters (as in a restaurant) who work tirelessly to satisfy the needs of others who are lonely?

The other actions of Jesus are much more energetic: raging, healing, dancing, calling. Raging at life’s injustices, healing in response to need, dancing in triumph when goodness wins out, and calling for more people to follow his example. All these are seen in his life, indeed all are seen in his actions in the Temple: raging at the money-sellers, healing those excluded from the temple because of their disabilities, calling ‘on the last and greatest day of the feast’ (when surely there was dancing) for disciples to follow him, but also of course waiting on God in prayer.

What unites the words of the verses are that all these actions take place ‘in the streets’ – in the public realm, not in our private prayer rooms and chapels but where the need is and where our actions are visible.  And that in each verse our response is to say “I am … too”: we share Jesus’ concerns and seek to copy his actions.

I think the choice of tune – ‘Noel Nouvelet’ – is just right.  Its minor key suits the theme of dealing with injustice, but at the same time it has a lively dance rhythm (it’s described as a French carol tune) that goes with the image of Jesus dancing and calling in particular.  The verses should be varied in pace and volume when sung – slower and quieter for ‘waiting and healing’, faster for ‘dancing’, louder for ‘raging and calling’.

The Apocrypha in Lent – 26 March

If this is your first visit, please see my introduction to these Lenten readings.

26 March. Daniel chapter 6

Not a new thought today – I am re-posting with a few amendments what I wrote on 30 August last year, as it is relevant to Holy Week.

A pattern, perhaps not obvious at first, is seen in the story of the lions’ den when compared with the events of Holy Week (the last days of Jesus’ life).  Daniel. like Jesus, is charged falsely by his enemies; the ruler (Darius in Daniel’s time, Pontius Pilate in Jesus’ day) tries to get out of what the law demands, knowing that the man before him is actually innocent of any crime; the crowd prevails (as it did when calling for the release of Barabbas and the crucifixion of Jesus) and the innocent man is reluctantly condemned to death.  Unlike Jesus, Daniel did not actually die, the lions miraculously sparing him.  But just as Jesus’ body was laid in a tomb and sealed with a stone, so Daniel is cast into a pit and a sealed stone put over it; at dawn the king, like Mary Magdalene and her friends, comes fearing the worst, but like them hears the voice of the one they thought was dead.

The outcome of both stories is much the same: King Darius is persuaded of the truth of the Jewish faith, and the Apostles come to believe in the resurrection of Jesus.

This story was written probably about 150 years before Jesus, yet it seems to be as much a prophecy or foreshadowing of what would happen to the Messiah, as it is a coded history of the various tyrants who had persecuted the Jews up to the time of the Macabbeans (which is how a historian would read the book of Daniel).  For that reason, as well as his God-given ability to interpret dreams, Daniel is regarded as one of the prophets.


The Bible in a Year – 31 December

If this is your first viewing, please see my Introduction before reading this.

The last four sections of the Bible in a Year blog, covering the whole of the Book of Revelation, are being uploaded together (just because I was without Internet access this week).

31 December. Revelation chapters 19-22

According to chapter 20, after all forms of evil are finally defeated, Christ returns to reign with his martyrs (but not the rest of humanity) for a symbolic period of a thousand years, after which all the dead are resurrected to be judged, and either live in paradise (described as the new Jerusalem – a magnificent and vast jewelled city with eternal light) or be thrown into the lake of fire (from which the popular idea of Hell arises).

But on what basis is this ultimate judgement made?  Jesus says here: “To the thirsty I will give water as a gift from the spring of the water of life. Those who conquer will inherit these things, and I will be their God and they will be my children. But as for the cowardly, the faithless, the polluted, the murderers, the fornicators, the sorcerers, the idolaters, and all liars, their place will be in the lake that burns with fire and sulphur, which is the second death” (21:6-8).   The contrast is between, on the one hand,  those who are “thirsty” (that is, longing for God’s presence and help) and those who “conquer” (that is, overcome temptation, and persist in faith during trials and persecutions); and on the other hand those who continue to live in ignorance or defiance of God’s directions for life – as I noted on 29 December, the list of sins here is very similar to the prohibited acts in the Ten Commandments.

The danger in interpreting John’s visions is twofold – trying to apply them directly to today’s world when the vision was initially given to 1st or 2nd century Christians; and reading them in isolation from the rest of the New Testament.    Here Jesus was specifically encouraging persecuted Christians to stand firm in their faith, by means of these visions, whereas in his direct teaching his emphasis was on showing love for God and neighbour in practical ways.

So at the end of the year we reach the end of the Bible, and the end of earthly time, in the way that John describes his vision.  To consider together the whole of Christian scripture – all 66 books of it written down over a period of over 1000 years, the last of it nearly 2000 years ago, and covering a longer period of time than that – is the work of a lifetime.  No-one can claim to fully understand either the original meaning or most appropriate interpretation of every part of it. Bible study is both essential and fascinating, with a good guide.

More importantly, it has always been regarded by Christians as a “living book” – when we speak of the “Word of God” we mean not just the written words of the Bible but Jesus himself.  As John understood it, “His name is called The Word of God. And the armies of heaven, wearing fine linen, white and pure (the fine linen is the righteous deeds of the saints) were following him on white horses. From his mouth comes a sharp sword with which to strike down the nations” (19:8, 13-15).  That “sword” is usually understood as the combination of written scripture and the continual witness of the Holy Spirit through the gift of prophecy in all ages.  It is that combination – received teaching and the ongoing inspiration of Jesus and the Holy Spirit  – which will keep Christians faithful until Jesus returns in person, and eventually overcomes evil.  With the saints throughout the ages we can echo the last verses of the Bible – “Come, Lord Jesus! The grace of the Lord Jesus be with all the saints. Amen.” (22:20-21).

The Bible in a Year – 25 December

If this is your first viewing, please see my Introduction before reading this.

25 December John chapters 19-21

I am sure it cannot be coincidence that the reading for Christmas Day is the last three chapters of John’s gospel, which cover the death and resurrection of Christ.  The people who planned this year-long programme of Bible readings must have arranged it like that, and for a good reason.

Our priest at this morning’s Christmas communion service started his sermon by talking about the Yorkshire tradition of eating cheese with sweet foods – salty blue Stilton with mince pies, creamy Wensleydale with Christmas fruit cake.   He linked this odd, but actually very tasty,  combination of tastes to the fact that within the last week before Christmas, when the church is looking forward to the joy of the Nativity, and the world is celebrating in its own pleasure-seeking way, the church leaders and musicians have been planning the music for services in Lent and Holy Week.

It may seem strange reading about the death and resurrection of Christ, or planning solemn music for the season when we particularly remember those events, just when the focus should be on his birth.  But there are good reasons for doing so.

We cannot understand the birth of Jesus into the world unless we think also of the crucifixion. Nor can we understand the crucifixion without believing in the resurrection.  For that was the whole point of his birth.  The way God rescues us from the consequences of our own sin is to take those sins upon himself and suffer the consequences – separation from God, mental agony, physical torture, and death.  But that was not the end of the story – the resurrection proved that the sinless  one was stronger than sin and death and would live for ever.

Even at the time Jesus was dedicated as a baby, it was prophesied about him that he would be the cause of the “falling and rising of many in Israel”, and of Mary his mother it was said “a sword will pierce your own heart also”.  Throughout the last year or so of his life, Jesus had tried many times to explain to the disciples that his death – and subsequent resurrection – were absolutely part of God’s plan for him, and could not be avoided without wrecking the plan.

There is a line in a Christmas carol that says “man shall live for evermore because of Christmas Day”.  It sounds good, but it is not good theology.  It would be more accurate – if less poetic – to say “man shall live for evermore because of Christmas Day, Good Friday and Easter Day”.  But we can make a concession – as the timeless God came into our world in the form of a time-bound human being, birth had to come before death.  Without Christmas there could be no Easter.  And without Mary’s willing acceptance of God’s will there could have been no Christmas.  Therefore we say with her, “My soul magnifies the Lord and my spirit rejoices in God my Saviour”.

Merry Christmas to all readers.


Ready or Not – a Christmas message

This is the text of my sermon on Christmas Eve 2017.

10 … 9 … 8 … 7 … 6 … 5 … 4 .. 3 . 2. 1 … READY OR NOT, I’M COMING!!!

How many times as a child have you heard, or shouted, those words?  Ready or Not, I’m coming!   The game of Hide and Seek is common to most cultures.  It teaches children valuable skills – counting of course, plus looking and listening, planning (where to hide) and also keeping quiet and still when necessary!

We grow out of childhood games. But to be honest there are times in our adult lives when we seem to hear that call “Ready or not, I’m coming”.  Usually it’s when we are going to be inspected.  The Landlord is coming to inspect your flat.  OFSTED is coming to check out the school.  The Archdeacon is coming to check up on the Vicar and Churchwarden. The date was set long ago, and you can’t put them off because you haven’t finished preparation.

But sometimes the expected visitor is welcome.  You have invited friends for a meal and they turn up, even if the house isn’t spotlessly clean yet.  The party is about to start and you realise you forgot to get the food out of the freezer. Too late, guests are starting to arrive.  Will you turn them away?  Of course not. Ready or not, they are welcome.  I leave it to you to decide which of those categories – inspector or welcome guest – you put your mother-in-law in when she turns up for Christmas.

Today is the fourth and last Sunday of Advent.  We have looked, as we do each year, at the Patriarchs, at the Prophets, and particularly at John the Baptist.  In the last – and this time very short – week we look at Mary the mother of Jesus.  Our reading is the Annunciation when she is told that she would conceive Jesus.  That was her first “Ready or Not” experience – she was a young unmarried girl, not in the least thinking of pregnancy!  Neither was Elizabeth who had thought years ago she was past having children.

And now here is Mary on Christmas Eve, expecting her first baby to arrive.  Is she ready? I hope that Elizabeth, and Anna – Mary’s mother – had helped her to prepare by telling her what to expect and how to feed the newborn. She may have come equipped with blankets and swaddling clothes.  No painkillers in those days of course.  Joseph would have gone to call the Bethlehem midwife when she went into labour.  But is any woman really prepared for her first birth?  You who are mothers, did you have a sense of your baby saying “Ready or not, I’m coming”?

If “Ready or Not, I’m coming” is one message of the Christmas story, so is its equal, “Ready or Not, we’re going!”  That was what Joseph had said a few days earlier as he loaded up the donkey in Nazareth.  Mary may have begged for them to stay until the baby had been born, but Joseph knew he would be in trouble if he failed to turn up to register for the census.  The only question was, would he be registering two names or three?  Ready or Not, we’re going!

The Shepherds were quietly looking after their sheep – probably one on watch and the others sleeping – when the angelic host disturbed their night with the divine command that they run up the hill into the town to see this newborn baby.  They weren’t ready for that either – sleepy, no torches, no exact address to head for. But Ready or Not, we’re going!

Meanwhile further east, the magi thought it was not very wise to set off on a long journey across the desert with little time to prepare.  Quick trip to the bazaar to buy gold, frankincense and myrrh (no time to haggle, just give him what he wants!). Pack a bag with whatever food you have to hand, fill your water bottles, saddle the camels and off we go. No accommodation booked, no road map, only that blinking star to follow. But the ancient wisdom tells us that this star means a king is about to be born, and we want to be among the first to see him.  Ready or Not, we’re going!

At the end of the Christmas story we are told that another angel appeared to Joseph, as the magi were leaving, saying that Herod was seeking to kill Jesus.  So once again they had to be up and on the road, probably in the middle of the night. Never mind the regulations about child seats on donkeys, just hold him on your lap. No, I’ve never been to Egypt either, but it’s somewhere south of here. Ready or Not, we’re going!

I could say the same about the Spirit driving Jesus out into the desert at his baptism with no food or water. Or Jesus sending out the twelve disciples, then the seventy, with no equipment and minimal clothing.  Or Easter and Pentecost when the church exploded out into the world through unprepared apostles.  Again and again we see the same pattern –When God says go, Ready or Not, you go.

So, what about our own lives? There may have been one or more times in your life when circumstances changed dramatically, perhaps forcing you to give up your job, move house or end a relationship, with a sense of “Ready or not, I have to go”.  If it hasn’t happened yet, it might still happen, and you don’t know when.  Where is Jesus in those moments?

I suggest that at those moments, he is actually very close.  Merely a prayer away.  For what seems to the unprepared human eye to be unexpected and unplanned is known by the one who is before all time and above all things.

We have looked this morning at two aspects of really the same story, of knowing when to recognise Jesus, in his appearing or in his moving on. Jesus says, on this eve of Christmas, “Ready or Not, I am coming”. That is not a threat, it is a promise.  Those who recognise the signs of his coming, who receive him into their lives, have as John puts it, “the power to become children of God”. Nothing can surprise Jesus, who is with us at all times and in all places, and at all times, he says, “Ready or Not, I am here.”  The times when we find ourselves unprepared and beyond the limits of our own resources can be the times when we discover his strength.

As we look into the new year ahead, there may be times when he says, “Ready or Not, we’re going”.  Not “you are going” but “we.” For he is Immanuel – “God with us”.  When the unexpected happens, we can turn to Jesus in prayer, knowing that, as Paul wrote to the Corinthians, “No testing has overtaken you that is not common to everyone. God is faithful, and he will not let you be tested beyond your strength, but with the testing he will also provide the way out so that you may be able to endure it.”

Those who hear his call to go, to change their lives for his sake, are those who to outsiders may appear to be unprepared and in difficult circumstances.  But actually they are the blessed ones, the ones who stay close to Jesus, the ones who become the children of God.

If you see Jesus this Christmas, welcome him.  If you hear him call, follow him.  And may the coming year with him be a blessed one, wherever he calls you to go with him.


The Bible in a Year – 24 December

If this is your first viewing, please see my Introduction before reading this.

24 December. John chapters 16-18

Chapters 17 and 18 are the conclusion of Jesus’ last speech to his disciples.  They are immediately followed by the betrayal in Gethsemane and the trial by the two high priests and Pontius Pilate.  These are the readings of Holy Week (the approach to Easter).  So what can they say to us at Christmas?

One word you hear a lot in church at this time of year is “glory”.   It occurs thirteen times in the Bible readings and liturgy for Christmas Eve.  The angels at Bethlehem called out “Glory to God on high, and on earth peace to men of goodwill”.  The opening of John’s gospel that will be read at midnight services around the world tells us that “The Word became flesh and lived among us; we have seen his glory, the glory of the only Son from the Father, full of grace and truth.”

It is easy to talk about glory when we celebrate a miraculous birth. But what did Jesus say about glory as he was about to die? “Father, the hour has come; glorify your Son so that the Son may glorify you, since you have given him authority over all people, to give eternal life to all whom you have given him. And this is eternal life, that they may know you, the only true God, and Jesus Christ whom you have sent. I glorified you on earth by finishing the work that you gave me to do. So now, Father, glorify me in your own presence with the glory that I had in your presence before the world existed.” (17:1-5).

It may seem counter-intuitive, as does much of Christianity when you think about it carefully, that someone about to be crucified can talk about his death bringing glory.  ‘Glory’ as a concept is closely related to ‘honour’, which itself is something less important in our society than it often was in the past or still is in other cultures.  Someone may be honoured for having an important role in society, or for doing something brave or selfless, or for bringing about justice.  No-one is honoured by receiving a death sentence, are they?  But if you think about it, Jesus’ death was a brave and selfless one as he accepted an unjust death sentence in order to start bringing about God’s rule of justice over the whole earth; and far from being the unimportant radical preacher that the Romans imagined, he gained supreme importance when he was resurrected as the eternal Son of God.

So it is that Jesus could speak of God the Father glorifying (honouring) him in his death, as he had glorified (honoured) the Father in his work on earth.  Understanding that makes it easier to understand why the angels sang of glory at Jesus’ birth, for at that time only they knew what would come of it.


The Bible in a Year – 23 December

If this is your first viewing, please see my Introduction before reading this.

23 December. John chapters 13-15

Here we have Jesus’ final speech to his disciples, in the course of which he washes their feet to demonstrate that his way of loving and saving people begins with serving their practical needs.    There is much that could be said about any small part of this important speech, but I will start with one verse – “Very truly, I tell you, whoever receives one whom I send receives me; and whoever receives me receives him who sent me” (13:20).

It reminds me at this Christmas season of another verse from the beginning of John’s Gospel which is traditionally read on Christmas Eve – “To all who received him, who believed in his name, he gave power to become children of God” (1:12).  Put the logic of those verses together in the right order, and whoever “receives one whom I send” (any Christian proclaiming Jesus) can “become a child of God”.

What makes Christianity different from many other religions and philosophies is that it is not really about believing certain things about God and the world, and even less about how we behave (although neither of those is unimportant).  Principally, to be a Christian is to receive Jesus, who became flesh for us, in our bodies as well as our minds,  and this is never something done in isolation, it is equally about becoming part of the community of other believers, which started with the eleven faithful disciples at the Last Supper, and now numbers hundreds of millions around the world.

The act of receiving Jesus has variously been expressed in different ways – “inviting Jesus into your life”, “turning to Jesus”, “being born again” (see my blog for 18 December).  It is symbolised in the one-off act of being baptised, and is also part of the repeated symbolism of the Eucharist or Mass, in which some people will share at Christmas if at no other time of year. By eating a piece of the broken and shared bread that represents Jesus’ body offered in sacrifice for us, we become part of the “body” of Christians.  Even if, with most protestant/evangelical Christians, you don’t believe that the bread literally becomes Christ’s flesh, it is still a reminder of that holy and sinless body that first appeared on earth about 2020 years ago in Bethlehem.

This dual emphasis on both the physicality of Jesus’ incarnation and our relationship with him, and on the act of serving others as the proof of sharing in his love, is why at this time of year individual Christians and congregations often make more effort than usual to attend to the needs of those around them.  It might be inviting lonely people for a festive meal, singing carols in care homes, opening the church building as a shelter for homeless people on winter nights, or giving food and clothing through local foodbanks and charities that work with people living in poverty.  Of course people of other religions or none do the same – compassion is a human instinct. But where these acts of charity and compassion are motivated by the love of Jesus, there is also the offer to those being served of becoming part of the Body of Christ themselves.  “whoever receives one whom I send receives me; and whoever receives me receives him who sent me”.

The Bible in a Year – 22 December

If this is your first viewing, please see my Introduction before reading this.

22 December.  John chapters 11-12

Chapter 11 records possibly the greatest of Jesus’ miracles – raising Lazarus from the dead.  This, more than anything else, seems to have created an unbridgeable divide between the crowds who believed in him on the basis of the evidence they saw, and the Pharisees and others who stuck to the official line that Jesus could not be a prophet or Messiah because he did not keep all their rules.  Their only reaction is to threaten to kill both Jesus (11:53) and Lazarus  (12:10).

Jesus knows for certain by this time that he did not have long to live.  But had he achieved enough in his lifetime to ensure that his renewal of the Jewish faith would live on?  What persuaded him that he had, according to John, was the arrival of the unnamed Greeks who asked to see Jesus (12:21).  This seems insignificant when he was already very popular, but the point is that these were not Jews, and yet they had made a special trip to see him.  That meant that the message had started filtering out beyond the Jewish community to the wider population of the Roman/Greek empire.  And once the message was out, it could not be stopped by the authorities in Jerusalem. A fire had been lit, and spread to the point where no-one could put it out.

Therefore Jesus tells them, “The hour has come for the Son of Man to be glorified. Very truly, I tell you, unless a grain of wheat falls into the earth and dies, it remains just a single grain; but if it dies, it bears much fruit. … it is for this reason that I have come to this hour” (12:23-26).  It is one of the marks of a mature person that they do not rate themselves as irreplaceable, that they are willing at the appropriate time to step down and let someone else take over.  Jesus knew that time had come.  Time, in fact, for him to die in order that something different could appear – the Holy Spirit – to take the message onwards and outwards.

The Bible in a Year – 21 December

If this is your first viewing, please see my Introduction before reading this.

21 December. John Chapters 9-10

It is clear from these chapters that Jesus was not worried about causing divisions. In fact he seems to have regarded it as inevitable that his ministry would cause division, attracting some people and making enemies of others.  Many (though not all) of the ordinary people believed in him, because they looked at his “works” (healing, teaching, feeding, showing love and compassion).  Many (though not all) of the religious and political leaders became his enemies because they looked at how his actions fitted into their “laws” – or rather, did not fit.  This is clear from the story of the blind man.  What mattered to him and his friends was that he had been healed, and not surprisingly, worshiped the man who had healed him.  What mattered to the Pharisees was that it had happened on a Sabbath. They would not have been surprised, for Jesus had healed on the Sabbath many times – they just could not get the point that healing should not be counted as “work”.

Laws, whether of religion or state (and in some societies, it amounts to the same thing), are a necessary construct for society to function.  We all need to know what is expected of us.  But no system of laws stays unchanged for ever – both religious and secular law changes in small ways all the time, and occasionally needs major reform.  Like an earthquake zone, frequent small movements cause less damage than rare large ones.  Jesus, when he was in Jerusalem, found himself in a fossilised religious environment that had not changed substantially for centuries – in fact, the layers of interpretation added to the original “laws of Moses” (intended originally for a desert people) had made them almost impossible to change.  Jesus was the earthquake that was about to hit the Jewish religion in a devastating way, and the warning tremors had been happening for some time.  Little wonder that on Good Friday, an earthquake was one of the signs that something very important was happening.

We see the same in the way people come to believe in Jesus today.  He turns no-one away, not even people whose lives are already generally well-adjusted and people-centred.  Such people may find faith in Jesus but their lives do not need to change very much.  On the other hand there are those whose lives are totally broken, whether by disease, stress, guilt,  addiction, or being victims of violence and persecution – or the cause of them.  Such people, if they find Jesus and his accepting love and transforming forgiveness, are (in a very positive way) the ones caught up in an earthquake, as the tension that has built up in their lives is suddenly released.  The metaphor of an earthquake may not be the best one – do tell me if you can think of a better one – but the point is, that whether your need is for another slight change in your life or a desperately overdue major one, Jesus will do it, if you let him.  If you only have eyes to see.