Saturday, January 26, 2008

The Truth About God is Clearly Visible and Counter Cultural

Exodus 24.12-18
Exodus gives us the impression here that encountering God is no ordinary thing. It doesn't happen in the midst of everyday experiences and meetings. Instead, it's something special, a mountain-top thing, that comes to us only when we separate ourselves from what is ordinary and everyday. To reach the mountaintop takes dedication, extraordinary effort and courage. It calls for special reserves of faith and strength. Among the entire nation of Israel, only Moses and Joshua were capable of undertaking that journey. And, when they got there, still they did not encounter God. They had to camp on the mountaintop for six days, shrouded in cloud, waiting for God to call to them.

Exodus also evokes a sense of mystery about the encounter with God. Moses did get to meet God but not out in the open. They could only meet within the cloud and the appearance of the glory of the Lord was like a devouring fire so that their meeting was dangerously different from any other kind of encounter. Even Joshua could not share in that meeting, but had to remain behind.

2 Peter 1.16-21
The writer of 2 Peter takes up the images evoked by Moses' encounter with God and develops them in the light of Jesus' own mountaintop experience, which Peter himself had witnessed. The writer deliberately distances himself from the sense of mystery evoked by Exodus. At the time when Christianity was emerging there were a number of 'mystery religions' in which the adherents had to go through special spiritual experiences and rituals in order to discover hidden truths about God's nature. These ideas soon started to infect early Christian thinking, eventually developing into a rival religious faith called 'Gnosticism' in which Jesus is understood as the revealer of secret knowledge. But the writer of 2 Peter wants to make clear to his readers that true Christianity is not a mystery religion. The Gospel is not a series of cleverly devised myths, instead it's about the coming of Jesus - how he lived and died, and was raised from death. And unlike Joshua, Peter and his companions were not left behind when Jesus encountered God. God doesn't have to be encountered only by extraordinary people in extraordinary places or experiences, in the story of Jesus we find him revealed in ordinary events which ordinary people could share, though even the ordinary becomes extraordinary when we're in the presence of Jesus.

The writer is at pains to emphasise the transparency and availability of the truth which is revealed in Jesus. Far from being hidden, mysterious or secret, it is like a lamp shining in a dark place, like the coming of dawn, or like the bright morning star - clearly visible. God is still majestically glorious, as in the Exodus story about Moses' encounter with God, but in the Christian message that glory is not so much a devouring and dangerous fire as a bright and piercing light, illuminating all the shadows and dark places in our lives and our world.

Matthew 17.1-9
Matthew's description of Jesus' own mountaintop experiences has many common features with the account in 2 Peter. Again, the cloud which envelopes Jesus and his friends is not dark and mysterious or threatening. It is a bright cloud, shedding light on who Jesus is rather than obscuring his identity. And although - like Moses - they have to wait six days for the experience to unfold, they don't wait huddled at the base of dangerous storm clouds high on the mountain. Instead, they prepare for their visionary encounter by immersing themselves in everyday life and by meditating on Jesus' impending journey to the cross.

Micah 6.1-8
1 Corinthians 1.18-31
Matthew 5.1-12

The people of Israel are criticised by Micah because of their faithlessness despite God's repeated goodness to them. When Balak - king of Israel's enemy Moab - hired the Prophet Balaam to curse the new nation of Israel, he found that he could not do it. God wanted him to bless Israel instead. But Israel seems intent on bringing Balak's curse down upon the nation anyway by ignoring God's will. Similarly, if the nation only remembered their roots, in the easy conquest of the territory between Shittim and Gligal, they would be less inclined now to risk throwing away all that they have been given.

Micah here summarises what true faith in God is all about - doing justice, loving kindness, and walking humbly with God. Nothing else matters. St Augustine summed up the Gospel even more succinctly when he said, 'Love - and do what you will.' And Jesus famously said something along the same lines: Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they will be filled

Christians put their faith in the love of God revealed in Jesus' death on the cross. Being prepared to put our trust in someone who sacrificed his own life for the sake of others, who was shown to be weak and vulnerable and who was despised by his contemporaries as a criminal rabble rouser getting his just desserts, might seem like foolishness to most people but God's foolishness is wiser than human wisdom, and God’s weakness is stronger than human strength. That's why the poor in spirit and the meek are so blessed, for in Jesus God has become weak and vulnerable, just like them, in order to overcome those who think they are wise and strong. This means that the Gospel is 'revolutionary' in the true sense of that word. It turns the accepted wisdom, culture and ideas of our society upside down.

Monday, January 21, 2008

Blue Monday and The Mission of The Church

Isaiah 9.1-4
Faith in God is about real liberation, not just from spiritual darkness but from oppression. The reference to Galilee, the land of Zebulun and Naphtali, relates to its conquest by the army of Assyria but Christians would later relate it to the story of Jesus. Galilee and its people were the first ones to hear the Good News he brought.

Is the same good news a source of joy and rejoicing for us? And what do we make of the rather inappropriate comparison with sharing out the spoils of war? Isn't the sort of exultation experienced by plunderers more akin to greed and vengefulness than to spiritual growth? The comparison with harvest time seems much more appropriate.

This week includes Blue Monday, supposedly the gloomiest day of the year when Christmas credit card bills, broken new year resolutions, bad weather and dark winter evenings combine to make the nation feel more miserable and flat than at any other time. Perhaps we should just be glad that we have nothing more serious happening each day to make us feel gloomy. But even in a land of deep darkness Christians can rejoice that we have seen the light.

1 Corinthians 1.10-18
Paul's leadership of the Church at Corinth was not distinguished by the number of people he brought into the church. He can only remember two families whom he baptised. Nor does he expect to be remembered for his eloquent preaching or cleverness, at least not in comparison to Apollos who was, apparently, a brilliant preacher. The only thing which was special about Paul's leadership was his single-minded focus on the crucifixion of Jesus and what that means for the human race. What else, says Paul, can matter in the life of a church when compared to the good news of Jesus crucified for our sakes? And if we believe in Christ crucified, and his power to help us, what can be so important that it causes Christians to squabble among themselves and become divided? Unfortunately, these questions are just as pressing today as they were when Paul and Sosthenes wrote to the church in Corinth.

Matthew 4.12-23
We have already seen that Christians believe Jesus' ministry was foretold by the Prophet Isaiah. This belief dates back to a time before the Gospel of Matthew was written, but Matthew quotes the prophecy as one of his 'proof texts' about the uniqueness and universal significance of Jesus.

Jesus' message is simple. To escape from darkness into light people have to repent, or change direction in their lives. And this is graphically illustrated by the fisherpeople who give up their family business to become people fishers. Yet, although they will grow the Church by winning new disciples for Jesus' message, spreading the Gospel is not a numbers game. Some churches grow for entirely the wrong reasons. And some churches struggle and decline because of the opposition they face, and not through any fault of their members or leaders. Jesus' first apostles were called to do no more, and no less, than imitate his example, which was not to baptise huge numbers of converts but simply to proclaim the good news and offer healing and reconciliation. This is what Paul did also at Corinth.

Sunday, January 13, 2008

The Tension in the Church

1 Corinthians 1.1-9
The words of thanksgiving with which Paul, and his administrative assistant Sosthenes, open their letter present an idealised picture of how the church in Corinth might be if it were truly faithful to its Lord. As the letter unfolds, however, we shall learn that Paul's description of sanctified people filled with the grace of God, not lacking in any spiritual gift, and enriched in faith and knowledge of every kind as they give strong witness to the good news about Jesus, is sadly far from the truth. If the Christians at Corinth are indeed to be blameless on the day of judgement, they will need a great deal of strengthening first.

But isn't the same tension, between what ought to be and could be, and how things actually are in reality, found in every church? And isn't that sorry state of affairs almost inevitable? Because the Church is, after all, meant to be a haven for people who are still on a spiritual journey, who are seeking sanctification, or holiness; it's not a final resting place for people who have already arrived. What we need, therefore, is a proper humility about ourselves and our churches. We are not perfect - yet. We are being made perfect, but some of us still have a long way to go.

We may be saints, (Paul's term for anyone who has put their trust in Jesus), but we are not yet saintly. Even John Wesley, who believed in the possibilty - on rare occasions - of Christians being made perfect on this side of eternity, also acknowledged that anyone can slide back into the old ways of faction fighting, feuding, backbiting and misbehaving which seem to have dogged the life of the church in Corinth.

The New Israel

Isaiah 49.1-7
The Prophet foretells the words of God's chosen representative, Israel, which could be the name of a righteous minority of faithful followers of God, whose task is to purify and renew their nation, or could be the name of a groundbreaking new leader cast in the same mould as Jacob, the father of the nation. The new Israel's arrival signifies a radical new beginning, the emergence of a reborn nation better able to live up to its calling as God's chosen people.

And yet there is a jarring note in the prophecy. The new leader's mission will appear to have come to nothing because the rest of the nation will reject it and the leader will be treated everywhere like a deeply-despised and worthless slave, but God has a greater purpose than simply saving the old nation of Israel. The renewed holy nation is going to be an international project, which will gather in all the world's peoples, and there is a further surprise in store. Although the new Israel will at first appear to have failed in his mission, eventually even kings, princes and rulers will come to recognise his authority and dominion over them.

The parallels with the crucified Jesus, who was raised by God from death and defeat to become Lord of a new Israel - the Church - with followers all over the world, is - of course - so striking that Christians have always seen this passage as a reference to his coming.

Saturday, January 12, 2008

Covenant Leadership

In our Old Testament reading today the Prophet talks about a new kind of leadership. It's not exactly clear whether he's got an individual leader in mind, or whether he's thinking about the nation of Israel offering that new kind of leadership to the world. What's interesting, however, is that he talks about this new leader as a living embodiment of God's covenant, or promise, to the people of the Earth. He says, "I have given you as a covenant to the people, a light to the nations." But what does that mean? If we met a 'covenant leader' today, what would he or she look like? How would we recognise them?

Well, to start with, I don't think we would look in the Houses of Parliament, or even in our royal palaces. Do you remember how the wisemen went to Jerusalem, the capital city of Judah, to seek the new kind of leader who had been foretold in the stars? They asked King Herod where they might find him. but the king didn't know for sure. He asked them to keep on looking and to come back and tell him when the new kind of leader, God's covenant leader, had been found.

The kings and queens of England have often imagined that they were covenant leaders, that they had been anointed by God's Spirit, that at their coronation they had received a divine commission to rule over the English nation on God's behalf, but unfortunately their words and actions sometimes contradicted and denied that belief. And elected politicians have proved no better at being good leaders. The mock documentary 'The Thick Of It' depicts a bunch of shallow politicians and their advisers who are motivated solely by tomorrow's news headlines. They don't try to shape public opinion; instead they slavishly follow it. With its cast of shallow and vainglorious nonentities 'The Thick Of It' was supposed to be a spoof of real political life. No real politician, civil servant or adviser could really be so totally lacking in ideas or even basic common sense. But, to the horror of its creator - the comedian Armando Iannucchi - many politicians and political commentators wanted to know who had told him what was going on. They thought he had been given the inside story!

So let's forget about politicians. We won't find much covenant leadership in the corridors of power. Where else, then, could we look if we wanted to see the the kind of leadership which the Prophet is talking about, a style of leadership which has as its hallmark a gentle but persistent quest for justice?

Well last week I think a good place to look for covenant leadership was Channel 4. Jamie Oliver's school dinners' campaign has started a bandwagon rolling. All of a sudden, celebrity chefs have realised that they don't have to stick to telling us how to boil brussel sprouts or make a risotto. They can try to change not only the way we eat, but the way the whole food industry is run. And last week, at 9pm every evening, Channel 4 showed a series of programmes made by celebrity chefs about chickens - how they are reared, how they are made to lay so many eggs, how they enjoy their life or suffer during it, and how they are killed. The aim of the programmes was to try to stop us from eating cheap chicken and buying cheap eggs.

But one of the chefs, Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall, went further than that. He challenged the town of Axminster, where he runs an organic food shop, to make a covenant to give up eating chicken unless it had been reared outdoors. In the end, he persuaded just over half the townspeople to give up cheap broiler house chicken for at least a week and now he's trying to change the eating habits of the entire nation - through his joint TV campaign with Gordon Ramsay and Jamie Oliver.

Perhaps Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall is a bit of an odd choice as an example of covenant leadership. He's a millionaire ex-public school boy, a bit of a toff and, as I've already said, a celebrity chef. But there's no doubt that he cares passionately about animal welfare and about the cruel way in which most chickens are treated during their short lives. His Chicken Out campaign, in which he's trying to get everyone in Britain to make a covenant to buy free range chicken and eggs, is a genuine example of what covenants are all about and his aim is to bring about a gentle but just revolution in the way we eat. If you want to find out more, you can go to his website.

The new kind of leader described by the Prophet is also trying to start a gentle but just revolution, and his mission is to give the world a new vision - to show its people how things could be different and open their eyes and minds to new and challenging possibilities. That's just what the celebrity chefs have been trying to do, except their focus is on chicken whereas God's new covenant leader wants to change
everything for the better.

When Christians think about the new covenant leader they think, of course, about Jesus. But just as the Prophet's new leader might have been the entire nation, which is being called by God to be an example of real justice here and now, the new covenant leader could be a community, a town like Axminster setting an example for the rest of the nation when it comes to eating free range chicken, or a faith community like the Church, which is - after all - the Body of Christ on Earth. As Jesus' representatives we have a mission from God to carry on his kind of leadership and be yeast in the leaven, or salt, or light for a needy world.

The covenant which we are called to renew with God this morning is both kinds of covenant. It's a personal covenant, to change the way we live as individuals, following the example of God's covenant leader, Jesus. But it's also a shared covenant, a covenant which we make as part of the Church, to continue Jesus' work where we are placed. And we are not called to live out this covenant in our own strength alone. We are offered the power of God's spirit to help us, and the presence of Jesus with us even now as we share bread and wine with him in Holy Communion. For, although Jesus is a gentle leader, he is also a leader who has been made powerful through suffering and death. In fact, he has overcome death and comes to us in power and gentleness to hold our hand as we face life's challenges and trials.

Jesus' message of peace and justice was directed first to the nation of Israel but God shows no partiality and so it was always intended to be made available, through the inspiration of his Spirit and the preaching of his followers, to all people who believe in Jesus and accept his offer of forgiveness. And so the covenant which began as a covenant with Israel is now a covenant with us.

The kings and queens of England liked to think that they had been anointed by God's Spirit at their coronations, but their words and actions often suggested otherwise. In contrast. Jesus' ministry of healing and reconciliation proves that he really is the Beloved, chosen leader whose every word and action is pleasing to God. Like Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall, challenging the people of Axminster to give up cheap chicken, Jesus challenges us today to be different for him - to enter and keep and follow his covenant throughout this year and all the years that lie ahead.

Saturday, January 05, 2008

A New Kind of Leader

Isaiah 42:1-9

Here the Prophet talks about a new kind of leadership. It's not exactly clear whether he has an individual leader in mind, or whether he envisages a reinvigorated nation of Israel offering that leadership to the peoples of the world. What is interesting, however, is the kind of leadership he talks about, which will be characterised by a gentle but persistent quest for justice.

How different this is from the vainglorious leadership which characterises many of our leading politicians. The mock documentary 'The Thick Of It' depicts shallow politicians and their advisers who are motivated solely by tomorrow's news headlines. They don't shape opinion; instead they slavishly follow it. 'The Thick Of It' was supposed to be a spoof of real political life but, to the horror of its creator - Armando Iannucchi - many politicians and political commentators wanted to know who had told him what was going on!

In contrast to these false leaders, the Prophet describes the new, gentle but just leader as a living embodiment of God's covenant, or promise, to the people of the Earth. The leader's mission is to give the world a new vision - to show its people how things could be different and open their eyes and minds to new and challenging possibilities, thereby releasing the downtrodden from the dungeons of despair.

Again, the new leader could be a single individual - and Jesus comes to mind. But it could be an entire nation which is being called to create a template for real justice here and now. Or the new leader could be a community, like the Church, which is - after all - the Body of Christ on Earth, with its own mission to carry on his kind of leadership and be yeast in the leaven, or salt, or light for a needy world.

Acts 10:34-43

This sermon preached by Peter, one of the first leaders of the Christian community, describes how Jesus can be understood as the new kind of leader expected by the Prophet. Like the second Prophet Isaiah, Peter talks about a leader who is characterised by justice. However, he introduces two new elements into Isaiah's vision of godly leadership.

First, Jesus is clearly a more spiritual leader. His kingdom is not of this world. He can't be followed around by journalists making "a day in the life of" documentaries and he doesn't go on national campaigns to get himself elected. He is more likely to 'appear' to people now when they share bread and wine with him in Holy Communion.

Second, he is a leader who has been made powerful through suffering and death - which is a more dramatic form of gentleness even than Isaiah had dared to picture. But this means that he can also be lord and judge of the dead, as well as of the living.

Jesus' message of peace was directed first to the nation of Israel but God shows no partiality and so it was always intended to be made available, through the inspiration of his Spirit and the preaching of his followers, to all people who believe in him and accept his offer of forgiveness.

Matthew 3:13-17

Matthew describes how God's new leader was anointed not by holy oil in a splendid coronation service, but by the Holy Spirit at his baptism in the muddy waters of the River Jordan. Kings of England once imagined that they had been anointed by God's Spirit too, with a divine commission to rule over the English nation on God's behalf, but their actions often defied that belief. By contrast, Peter is able to explain in his sermon how the validity of Jesus' anointing was demonstrated by the good that he did and by his ministry of healing and reconciliation. This proves that he really is the Beloved, chosen leader whose every word and action was pleasing to God.

Argument raged for a long time as to whether Jesus was part of what it means to be God before his baptism, and even before his birth and conception . The prologue to John's Gospel goes so far as to say that Jesus must have been part of God even before the creation of the Universe, whereas some early Christians were content to say that Jesus became God by adoption at his baptism.

It might seem a rather abstruse and pointless argument, but actually a great deal hinges on it. The Christian understanding of God is that, in the person of Jesus, he closed the gulf which separated himself from humankind and the rest of the created order. But is that really possible if Jesus only became divine by adoption? In the end, most Christians agreed that true incarnation requires a complete identification of God with human existence and creation. And for that identification to be absolutely complete, God has to be inseparable from the person of Jesus even before Jesus existed as a distinct individual and, in fact, for all time. In other words, God must always have known what it means to live and perish as a human being.