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Four False Assumptions

Matthew 17.14-20 This is a passage that is riddled with false assumptions.
Let’s start with the prejudice against people with epilepsy. Straight away Matthew strikes the wrong note. The man's son is not an epileptic. To admit any such thing would be to allow his illness to define him.
Rather, he’s someone who has epilepsy, which sometimes - perhaps occasionally, but perhaps as much as several times a day even - disrupts the normal flow of the son’s life. Nonetheless, he’s not an epileptic. He’s a human being with a disabling condition called epilepsy.
Then again, there is the assumption that epilepsy is associated in some way with darkness and demonic possession. It's certainly a mysterious condition; even today the cause can be unknown, but the prejudice against people with epilepsy is absolutely unjustified. It's a physical condition which can often be controlled very effectively with medication.
The third false assumption is that it's not acceptable to fail. This assump…
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Crossing the Jordan River

Joshua 3.9-17, Mark 1.4-20

The River Jordan occupies a pivotal role in Israel’s landscape and history. Geographically, it marks the original boundary between the Promised Land and the outside world. Although Joshua instructed two of the twelve tribes to settle on the West Bank, to this day, citizens of Israel living on the West Bank are regarded as living outside their official homeland.
Historically, the crossing of the River Jordan by the wandering tribes of Israel marked a new chapter too. A nation state was gradually carved out of the land of Palestine, with all the bloodletting and displacement of the original inhabitants which that so often involves. In modern times, the state of Israel has reclaimed the same territory, with similar consequences for the Palestinian Arabs who’d made it their home.
Even for those of us who’ve never seen the Jordan, it retains its ancient status as a boundary between the Promised Land and the rest of existence. For Christians it’s become a metaphorica…

Encountering God Hands On, Face to Face

John 1.1-16, Colossians 1.11-29

There are parts of the New Testament where we could easily get the impression that Jesus had always been part of God until he became human, when he somehow left behind all the glories of heaven and condescended to share a less complete, less satisfying existence as a human being. So, for example, there’s the famous hymn which St Paul quotes in his letter to the Philippian Christians: ‘Though he was in the form of God, Christ Jesus did not regard equality with God as something to be exploited, but emptied himself, taking the form of a slave.’

There’s a name for this understanding of what God was doing for us in Jesus. It’s called Kenotic Christology, from the Greek word for ‘emptying’, ‘kenosis’. God emptied himself out, abandoning much of what it normally means to be God, in order to share our human experience. But there’s a problem with this, for it assumes that God had never really been with his creation before he became human and isn’t really with us n…

Putting lighter fuel on the bonfire!

John 1.1-16 A few weeks ago my daughter went out and bought a Christmas candle. That night she decided to light it. Everything was fine until, after an hour, the whole thing suddenly burst into flame.

Fortunately my daughter was in the room, the candle was extinguished and no harm was done. But then she took a fateful decision. She decided to put a post on Facebook warning her friends about the candle and asking them to pass on the news about its dangers.

Within a few hours the post had gone viral and within a couple of days it had been shared more than 300,000 times. Journalists began ringing the house. The story appeared on lots of local newspaper websites around the country, on the BBC website, and on The Sun and The Daily Mail websites. My brother-in-law even rang to tell us it was on Teletext. I didn't know that Teletext still existed! TV crews asked to visit the house, but my daughter politely declined.

This turned out to be a good idea, because  already people were trolling he…

What kind of church?

Deuteronomy 12.1-10, 26-27 A debate rages within the modern European Church of all denominations. As church attendance and membership fall, and more and more local churches are forced to close, people ask should we give up the struggle to keep as many community based churches open as we can and instead fall back upon centres of mission, from which we could make occasional forays out into the wider area around each one. People are even asking whether churches might have to take a new form in future. Perhaps we will have to meet together in a virtual church online. Perhaps we will have to commute from time to time to larger gatherings in the cities, just as we commute to work and to shop. Deuteronomy envisages and indeed champions this sort of religious practice and organisation. The writer aims to sweep away the local hill shrines where people had traditionally gone to slaughter their animals and then offer part of the best animal as a sacrifice to God. When I was a minister in a small to…

What is God like?

In some ways it’s an impossible question, because when we talk about God we’re trying to describe someone who is greater than all the universes in the cosmos and yet whose spirit is also able to come and dwell inside each one of us. Baptism is about welcoming God’s Spirit into our lives and the life of our family, and asking God to shape the way we live and care for another, following the example of Jesus who also showed us what God is like. But apart from talking about the spirit of God and looking at the life, and death, and new life of Jesus, to see what he teaches us about God, is there anything else we can say about what God is like? The Bible says there is. It has lots of suggestions and one of them, which I thought might be interesting for a few minutes, is to look at some animals and birds and see what they might be able to show us about what God is like. An eagle  So the Bible says that God is sometimes a bit like an eagle. Really? With those fierce talons and that sharp beak? A…

Absolute Allegiance

Deuteronomy 6 Deuteronomy 6is a call for absolute obedience. Moses tells the people of Israel, 'You and your children, and your children’s children, [must] fear the Lord your God all the days of your life, and keep all his decrees and his commandments that I am commanding you, so that your days may be long.’ Hear, O Israel,’ he continues portentously, ‘The Lord is our God, the Lord alone.’ He goes on to say that they must love the Lord their God with all their heart, and soul, and might. Compare this with the commandment of the Assyrian emperor Ashurbanipal: ‘You shall love Ashurbanipal, King of Assyria, as you love yourselves… You shall instruct your sons who will live in the future… you shall not set over yourselves another king, another lord.’* Israel was fairly unique, in the ancient Middle East at any rate, in giving absolute loyalty not to the state, nor to a ruler, but to God. No wonder, then, that there was so much resistance in Israel to the idea of kingship. Here everyone wa…

In The Wilderness

Genesis21.9-21, Luke 5.15-16 Understandably, the Bible tends to see the wilderness as a harsh and arid place. 'Remember,’ says the writer of Deuteronomy, 'How God led you in that huge and frightening desert where snakes and scorpions live.’ Warming to his theme, he says, 'The Lord discovered you in a barren desert filled with howling winds.’ But the wilderness is also a place of encounter where, to our surprise, God is waiting to meet us, to strengthen and encourage us. 'In the desert God became your fortress, protecting you,’ the writer says. And when ‘there was no water’ in the desert, the Lord 'split open a rock, and water poured out so you could drink.’ That means we're never alone during the wilderness moments in our lives. Life can seem pretty daunting in these moments, but God is always there with us, doing surprising things. And so it was for Hagar. Someone has said, 'Cast out into the desert with her young son, she finds a landscape in which her life i…