Power and presence

This is a sermon for the twenty-third Sunday after Pentecost, given in the “church next door.”  The Scripture it references is Joel 2:23-32.

The prophet Joel wrote, “I will show portents in the heavens and on the earth, blood and fire and columns of smoke.  The sun shall be turned to darkness, and the moon to blood, before the great and terrible day of the Lord comes.”

I wonder if you think that’s about the end of the world?

It isn’t, actually, but in order to make some sense of it, we need to know something how these kinds of images are used in the Bible.  Because of course, this isn’t the only place where we see this style of writing; Revelation and Daniel are the most prominent, but there are little bits of this kind of writing in several of the gospels and dotted through Paul’s letters too.  But what are they about?

These verses from Joel, like the other passages of Scripture I mentioned, are written in a style called “apocalyptic.”  That’s a word which English has borrowed from Greek, and it literally means “unveiling,” or “uncovering.”

The idea behind this kind of writing is that the physical world around us – what we can see, hear, touch and so on – is the not the whole truth about reality.  Behind all of life – says apocalyptic writing – is deeper truth and deeper meaning.  This kind of writing is a little peek behind that veil – beyond the physical things we can see and touch – using symbols to let us into the deeper truths and meanings of life.  Things are not as they seem!

It’s almost like writing in a kind of symbolic code, crafted to be a powerful source of encouragement when read as they were intended.

So let’s try to read them as intended, for our encouragement and benefit.

It’s probably easiest to start with the idea of the “day of the Lord.”  Here, it doesn’t mean, the day the Lord comes back and the end of the world and all that stuff.  What it means is a day – any day – when the Lord’s presence is known among us, whether in grace or in anger.

So Joel is basically saying, the Lord is coming, and it is not possible for us to experience the awesome – in the old-fashioned sense of the word – and holy presence of God in a way which leaves us unaffected.

Small wonder, then, that in the New Testament when the gospel writers wanted to find words to describe what they had experienced in Jesus and at Pentecost, with the pouring out of the Spirit, they echoed the images we find in this section of Joel.  They needed language which would talk about God’s presence in a new and powerful way among them, and a way to make sense of it, and this kind of writing from Joel gave them the words for that.

So the portents in the heaven and the earth and all of that: what Joel is trying to say is that, this is big.  It’s not just a matter of personal piety in my heart, or our little community believers.  This is for everyone, everywhere – “all flesh,” Joel says – and even has cosmic implications reaching to the heavens.

God is coming to be present to us, and nothing will ever be the same again.  That’s basically what Joel’s saying here, in a nutshell.

And I wonder, sometimes, whether it’s a message we need to be reminded of.  There is a temptation, I suspect, to get a bit comfortable with God.  To come to church because it is familiar and we have an affectionate attachment to it, or to the people.  To come to communion because the ritual is comforting.  To want a tame God, a God who doesn’t stretch us too much but lets us feel at home.  (Even worse, a temptation for those in ministry to see what we do as just tasks in a job).

And I wonder whether, when this temptation is at work, we lose something too important to let go so easily.  Sometimes non-churchgoers joke with me that they don’t come because the roof would fall in or lightning would strike; and while I recognise that they’re being flippant, at least there is, in those comments, a lingering sense of a God of unexpected power, who interrupts our lives for God’s own purposes.

Why do atheists recognise that side of God, so often more readily than we do?

What would it be like if we came to prayer with the sense that in reaching out to connect with God we are doing the spiritual equivalent of touching a live electrical wire?  What if we expected to be, in some way, jolted, thrown, disrupted; dare I say changed?

What would it be like if, when the Eucharist is placed in our hands, we looked at it not as a familiar object but as our invitation to God to be at work in us in the most intimate way possible, even to the breaking and re-making of whatever in us most needs God’s attention?

What would it be like if we opened the Scriptures expecting them to re-shape our minds, so that we look out at a world which seems new, full of God’s hitherto unrecognised possibilities and potential?

I believe that kind of encounter with God is possible.  More than possible, I believe that kind of encounter with God is and should be normal.

God is coming to be present to us, and nothing will ever be the same again.  That’s what Joel was saying.  It’s what the apostles recognised.  It could be our own experience as well.

This is, of course, the fundamental sort of experience which drove the charismatic movement, but it’s not true only for charismatics.  The Holy Spirit is at work in the whole church, men and women, young and old, powerful and disempowered, according to Joel; and therefore knowing something of the transforming presence of God is for the whole church too; for each of you and for me and for every person around the world who knows that Jesus is Lord.

When we get past the language of blood moons and portents, that’s the deeper reality behind the veil of the surface of our lives which Joel is pointing us to.  A God of power, of dynamism; and a God of presence, a God who comes to us and is at work amongst us.

And Joel’s challenge to us, I think, is to take that God seriously; to pay attention and to reach out to connect with that power and that presence.  And to accept that that might mean that things will never be quite the same again.

Have you ever thought about the radical implications, when someone says to you, the Lord be with you?



This is a sermon for the twenty-second Sunday after Pentecost, given in the “church next door.”  The Scripture it references is 2 Timothy 3:10-4:5.

All Scripture is inspired by God, Paul said.

All Scripture.  What.  All?  Even the bits celebrating dashing infants against rocks, or commanding genocide, or saying a rape victim had to marry her rapist?  (I’m sure you could add to a list of difficult bits from your own knowledge of Scripture).  On the face of it, this statement can seem an affront both to reason and to human decency; so this morning I want to pause and consider it carefully.

It seems clear that when Paul wrote this, he found himself in disagreement and conflict with others.  From the way this morning’s passage references Paul’s persecution in places like Iconium – persecution at the hands of the Jewish community – it makes sense to think that communities led by Paul were in some ways defining themselves over against those with whom they disagreed; and at least some of those “others” were Jews or Christians who wanted to live like Jews.

There must have been a temptation, when the early Christians decided not to live as Jews – observing all the food laws and Sabbath laws and so on – a temptation to set aside the Jewish Scriptures (the only Scriptures Christians had, at this point) as well.  To say to themselves that “We don’t need all that Torah stuff; we have salvation through Christ.”  But Paul says no, that won’t do.  We need Torah and prophets and wisdom and all the rest.  The Scriptures are a foundational element of our identity as well.  We may disagree with others about how to interpret Scripture, but that doesn’t mean we abandon it.

In a way, I’m reminded of a story about King James I of England, when some of his bishops approached him wanting him to push a stronger reformation agenda in the Church of England.  And he told them firmly that it was not enough reason to stop doing something simply because Catholics do it; or else we will end up going barefoot because Catholics wear shoes.  I think Paul’s idea here is somewhat similar; we don’t throw something out just because Jews do it, or we will end up abandoning things which are useful and necessary in the Christian life.  Just as Paul’s community had to deal with wicked people and imposters, we also have to deal with the difficult realities of our own times.  And Paul commends Scripture to us in the strongest terms, as something which equips us to confront and engage creatively with those difficult realities.

So.  All Scripture is inspired by God; or, more literally, all Scripture is God-breathed.  God-breathed is a very loaded term; in the background of Scriptural images familiar to Paul’s audience is the creation of humanity, and how life was given to the first human being by God breathing into Adam’s nostrils.  There is also Ezekiel’s vision of the valley of dry bones, which are clothed in flesh and brought to life by the Spirit breathing into them.  Paul draws on this imagery to express the same idea; God’s breath is life-giving.  If Scripture, then, is God-breathed, it too has the divine life within it.

This idea carries some practical implications with it.  If we encounter a divine liveliness in the text, we should see the fruit of that in our development in the Christian life.  It’s a bit like, you know when you do a unit of study, and the unit descriptions say things like, “Upon successful completion of this unit, it is expected that students will be able to demonstrate a working knowledge of this, and identify key features of that.”  If Paul were putting together a unit of study of the Scriptures, he might well have written learning outcomes which said:  “Upon successful encounter with inspired text, it is expected that Christians will be able to demonstrate a working knowledge of salvation through Christ, and identify key features of righteousness, and bear fruit in every good work.”  A living encounter with Scripture is going to actually show that life in our lives.

And that’s why it’s a mistake to take this verse to be claiming some sort of complete inerrancy for the Scriptures, as if they were a history – or worse – a science textbook.  Paul isn’t here claiming that God dictated the Scriptures and every word came from Him, unaffected by the medium of the human being putting pen to paper.  That’s a much later idea, and I think a dangerous one.  Rather, Paul is claiming that in Scripture we find everything we need for receiving life from God.  It’s in that sense that Scripture can be described as an organ of the Holy Spirit; an instrument which the Spirit uses in His work within us.

In that sense, a right understanding of Scripture recognises that we have this collection of diverse texts, because of God’s care to provide for God’s creation, and particularly for the church; and because of God’s desire to repair and heal all that is fallen and broken in this world.  Scripture’s authority as God’s word for us stands on millennia of God’s persistent use of these texts to bring healing and wholeness to the lives of his people.  As people are touched by the life within the text, we are healed, redeemed and placed in relationships with others who have had the same encounter, able to live and work in the world in a way which truly makes a difference.  When we recognise that people who encounter God in these words become more loving, more joyful, more peaceful, and so on; when we recognise the claims the texts make on our own hearts and minds, then we rightly acknowledge the authority of Scripture.

So what about those difficult texts I mentioned at the beginning of this sermon?  I’d suggest that in many ways they mirror the difficulties in our actual lives.  We read violent texts in a culture where much violence has been normalised.  We read texts which seem oppressive of women in a culture where questioning the oppression of women is only really just begun.  By learning to attend to the texts which challenge us – what they do say, and often more importantly, what they don’t say – we can learn to call into question aspects of our culture which we might otherwise take for granted.  By learning to pay attention to marginalised or powerless or vulnerable characters in Scripture, we just might learn to see our neighbours with deeper compassion.  Isn’t it the case – as we look around the room – that many members of our own churches carry many of the same scars and wounds as some of the people we cringe to read about in Scripture?  Confronting abuse and victimisation where it’s portrayed in the Bible may open the door to confrontations needed in real life today.

So whether it’s being encouraged by the joyful texts, or challenged by the difficult texts, it is my prayer that within this community, we may all be able to recognise the Spirit of God and the life of God at work amongst us, mediated by Scripture, as part of our living heritage.

Moving God

This reflection was given during the daily Eucharist in the chapel of an Anglican convent.  The Scripture it references is Luke 12:1-7

“You are of more value than many sparrows.”

When I read over that to prepare for today, I found myself asking, what kind of value does he mean?  Is it an economic term, as if we’re talking about worth on the labour market?  Is it about sentimental value?  Is it something else?

What I found, when I looked it up, really surprised me.  The verb “to have value” here expresses the value or worth of something by saying literally that it causes someone or something to move.  If you were translating it extremely strictly, you might say something like, “You cause God to move more than many sparrows do.”

So we’re not just talking here about what God thinks of us, or how God feels about us, but about God moving on our behalf.  That’s the measure of our worth; that it spurs God into action.

You are of more value than many sparrows; so where is God moving in you today?  Where is God acting for you today?

Questions worth taking our time over, I think.

Citizens of Heaven

This is a sermon for the twenty-first Sunday after Pentecost, given in the “church up the road.”  The Scripture it references is Jeremiah 29:1, 4-7.

In my spare time, I volunteer as a moderator on a Christian discussion forum online.  And one of the things I really enjoy about that is the enormous diversity of Christians – and quite a few others interested in faith-related discussions – who participate.  The site has about a quarter of a million members, from all around the world and just about every possible viewpoint, and interacting with them is a great way to learn and grow.

But the reason I mention it today is that there’s one member there who has as a tagline at the bottom of each of his posts: “Citizen of heaven, currently deployed to the U.S.”  I found that such a neat way to set out for us his understanding of himself in relationship to God and to his surrounding culture, and to hint at how those realities might interact.  It really got me thinking.

And so when I looked at our reading today from Jeremiah, I was reminded of that, because it seemed to me that Jeremiah’s letter was addressing some of the same issues, for the Israelites who had gone into exile in Babylon.  Those exiles had to work out how they understood themselves, in relationship to God and to Babylonian culture, and how those things might interact too, and Jeremiah’s letter is an attempt to provide part of an answer.

What he had to say was important; invest in this place.  Build houses, plant gardens, get married and raise families.  We’re in it for the long haul here.  And pray to the Lord on behalf of this place, because your welfare is tied up in the welfare of the city.  But do all of this without compromising the essentials of what it is to be the people of God; because – the passage goes on after the bit we’ve read – God has plans and a future for this people, if they will seek God with all their heart.  Exile isn’t forever.

Of course, the identity crisis that the newly-exiled Israelites were going through was not unique.  Over and over again through history, as circumstances have changed, the people of God – Jewish and Christian – have had to think again about our relationships with God and the world we live in and what those things mean for how we actually go about our lives.  You can see it in the New Testament; as the Christians started to realise that Jesus wasn’t coming back tomorrow, and that the Church was going to have to figure out how to sustain itself over more than a single generation, they had to wrestle with what was needed to sustain a unique subculture within the Empire.

And I think that Christians – at least in the west – are going through a similar time of re-evaluation.  It would be within the living memory of many of you, I’m sure, that Christianity was taken for granted as the default for our society, and Christian values were expected to shape our laws, our education system, our social interactions, and so forth.  And of course that is increasingly not the case as our culture changes and becomes more secularised; and so we have to work out, as our culture and the Church become less intrinsically linked, what it means to be Christians in this time and place.  For many who watch the news, I know that this question has been brought into sharp relief as we face the prospect of a plebiscite on whether or not to change the Marriage Act.

So with that question – what does it mean to be a citizen of heaven, currently deployed to this local area? – in mind, let me make some observations and suggestions.

My first observation is that, like the exiles in Babylon, we’re most probably in it for the long haul.  I don’t pretend to know when Jesus is coming back, but I can look back over two thousand years of people who were very confident that it would be “any day now” and see that we are still here.  My guess is that Jesus’ return is unlikely to be during my lifetime.

And that suggests to me that – as individuals and as a Church – it’s appropriate to engage in long-term thinking.  Plan not just for tomorrow but for 2050 and for 2100.  What legacy will we leave to those who come after us?  What can we put in place today that will be a blessing to them?  Think about stewardship of land and wealth and resources, about succession planning, about sustainability.  Think about investing seriously in those who are still young.  Think about the environment and whether we live responsibly; about how much damage we inflict.

My second observation is that, like the exiles in Babylon, our welfare is tied up in the welfare of the society we live in.  And that suggests to me that the kind of approach that seeks to separate Christians out from the rest of the world is probably not helpful.  Be involved; whether it’s through paid work or volunteering or informal relationships, or whatever works for you, find ways to make a positive contribution.  And of course, pray for the community around you.

But then there’s the tricky bit.  Because the third observation I’d make is that, just like the Jewish exiles in Bablyon, we do have an identity in Christ which sets us apart from the rest of the world.

And that suggests that we need to let go of any expectation that Christian values and norms (however we understand them) are going to shape our society beyond the Church.  We should not, for example, be put out if we find that the Marriage Act is changed (or indeed not changed) in ways which we might personally not have chosen.  We should not expect Christian education in schools to become mainstream again.  We should not expect to have the last word on any matter in the public square (although nor should we be silenced).  We need to get real about the fact that we are a minority, with no right to impose any of our ideals on the rest of society, who will only resent that attempt at domination and control.  We need to accept that our society is not going to manage the business of being Christian for us by default, and so we need to take responsibility for our own discipleship, paying attention to our own homes and our own lives and churches as the places where we work out how to live and pass on the faith.

So where does that leave us?  It seems to me that our Christianity as it relates to the world will have a very great deal to say about what we attempt do for those outside the Church, and very little to say about what we expect or require of those people.  The Israelites were instructed to pray and work for the welfare of Babylon, despite the fact that Babylon had very little care for the welfare of the Israelites in return.  Nor should we expect the welfare of the Church to be a primary concern of those around us in the world today.  Our welfare, ultimately, is established by God and lies beyond this current set of social systems.

I realise, of course, that my observations and suggestions today have only just begun to scratch the surface of a very big topic.  Many of Christianity’s greatest minds have wrestled with these questions of identity and social relationships, and if it’s something you want to explore further there are no end of great resources.  But it does seem to me that there are useful parallels between our situation and that of the exiles in Babylon, which are worth reflecting on as we work out what it means to be citizens of heaven, currently deployed to this local community.

Dreams of forgiveness

This is a sermon for the twentieth Sunday after Pentecost, given in the “church next door.”  The Scripture it references is Luke 17:1-10.

Had I the heaven’s embroidered cloths,
Enwrought with golden and silver light,
The blue and the dim and the dark cloths
Of night and light and the half-light;
I would spread the cloths under your feet:
But I, being poor, have only my dreams;
I have spread my dreams under your feet;
Tread softly because you tread on my dreams.

That’s what came to mind for me, when I read Jesus’ words about forgiveness: “if the same person sins against you seven times a day, and turns back to you seven times and says, “I repent”, you must forgive.’”

Well, that’s all well and good, Jesus, I wanted to say.  And maybe it’s fine if we’re talking about petty things – whatever the first-century equivalent of leaving the toilet seat up was – but surely there’s a point at which we have to look after ourselves, too?  Is Jesus talking about putting up with ongoing bullying, or the like?  Should I put my dreams – my own sense of self, even – out there to be trampled on, and issue an open invitation to be treated like a doormat?

But I don’t think he’s saying that.  We need to balance this requirement for forgiveness with the verse before, which says that, “if another disciple sins, you must rebuke the offender;” so this is emphatically not about putting up with bad treatment, or collapsing all boundaries.

But what I think it is getting at is what happens when the bad behaviour has stopped (even if it’s very much a stop-start pattern).  And that is, that you let it go.

I’m very bad at this, I have to admit.  When someone has done something that seems very much like the wrong thing, I hate to see them get away with it.

For example; there was someone who bullied me rather nastily in a particular situation.  And even when that situation was over – because I left, not because the bullying was ever acknowledged or rectified – I was holding on to so much anger over the whole thing.  I didn’t want to see this person.  Didn’t want to hear them praised or given respect.  I wanted to jump up and down and yell, “Can’t everyone see what this person is?  Why are you letting them get away with it?”

In fact, the anger caused me so much of a problem – because I couldn’t avoid situations where it arose – that I ended up taking it to my spiritual director.  “What do I do with all this emotion?  Intellectually I know that this is over and I need to put it behind me, but emotionally I’m in another place, and I just don’t know how to move from there.”

He gave me this suggestion.  “Sit down and write a letter to this person.  Write about everything they did, how it made you feel, get it all out and hold nothing back.  And then” – this is probably the more unusual part of his advice – “find a spot in the garden and bury the letter; find some plant that you really like and plant it in that spot.  And as you put the plant in the ground, thank God for new life and new growth that can come out of even very hard situations, and every time you look at that plant as it grows and flowers you’ll be reminded that you, also, grow and flower out of hard things.”

Anyway, so I did as my spiritual director suggested, and I must admit I did find it helpful.  (I also had a good laugh when the plant actually died; but at least I could laugh by then).

And he was right, of course, that we can grow and flower out of hard things.  I can see that if, for example, I now have the courage to deal with conflict instead of avoiding it, it came in part out of that experience of seeing what happened when conflict was ignored.

But maybe that’s one thing that’s important in learning to forgive.  Realising that God is at work in me, as well as in the other person, and we both need time and grace to grow and change.  And being grateful for that time and grace and the growth that we can see.

But I think there might be something more than that, too.  Because forgiveness – real forgiveness – comes from more than just my desire to be comfortable, and to have neatly dealt with any awkward emotional baggage.  I think it comes out of an outlook which is optimistic about people.

Let me put it this way; to forgive someone the wrong they’ve done, to truly let it go, most of us need to believe that that person has changed.  And, even more deeply than that, we need to believe that people can change.

That might sound obvious, but how many times have you heard people say things like, “a leopard can’t change his spots”?  It’s tempting to believe that people are who they are, and they’re never going to change.  And I say, it’s tempting, because that then gives us an excuse to hold on to our angers and our unforgiveness.

But.  But I think it is one of the defining characteristics of Christianity that we believe that people can change.  That we say that God believes people can change, and believes it so strongly that Jesus went through death and hell itself to give us the opportunity to prove him right.

So I think that deep down, forgiveness is more than letting go of the need to be vindicated.  It’s more than dealing with my own wounded emotions.  It is, in its own way, an act which makes known the good news of Jesus Christ; because if I believe you can change, if I believe you can be right with me and with God, I believe that what Christ did for us all, and what Christ is doing in you and me right now, actually means something.  It makes a difference.

So maybe, when we think of our dreams, the ones that get trampled on, and the ones we want to protect, one of the dreams we need to hold onto most strongly is the dream of hope for the other person; the dream that he or she can grow and change and not just be forgiven, but have a new beginning and restored relationships.

So as we think about woundedness, reconciliation, and forgiveness, maybe that’s the dream on which we need to tread most softly of all.