Prime The Pump Of Life And Drink Living Water

John 7: 14-36

Have you ever heard of the great con-man Frank Abagnale? He was played by Leanardo Caprio in the movie “Catch me if you can.” Frank Abagnale Jr. was the youngest person ever to be put on the F.B.I.s most wanted list. Abagnale was an expert forger and con artist. He impersonated a variety of characters none of which he was qualified to do: a teacher, an airline pilot, a paediatrician in a hospital for 11 months an attorney, and a professor in a university – all between the ages of 16 and 21 years in the mid 1960’s
One time he was actually caught and sent to state prison. He managed to convince the prison guards that he was an undercover agent and got them to let him out of jail.
Eventually he was caught and put in Federal Prison by the FBI. Today Frank Abagnale is a consultant for the FBI and he speaks as an expert on security to commercial firms and government agencies all around the country. Here was a man who was good at passing himself off as almost anybody else. What made him effective was the presentation.
Once Frank took 8 young women on a worldwide tour (at Pan AM’s expense) as part of a fake airline promotion to win the role as an air stewardess. It was a cover for a scam in which he cashed checks for over $300,000 dollars in countries throughout Europe.
The women were simply the window dressing that turned the eyes of the bankers and made his story believable. When he was finally caught Frank Abnagale said, “It’s all in the presentation.” And how true this is, how often do we judge people on their appearance and not what they are like as people?
Frank Abagnale looked like the reality but was a fake, he fooled people with his appearance. Jesus Christ was almost exactly the opposite. Jesus was not handsome and didn’t look the part – but He claimed to be and was the son of God. Jesus is different. Jesus is the reality. Here is the God-man who looks like a peasant, works like a carpenter, teaches like a learned rabbi, preaches like a prophet, performs miracles like a God. Here is the man who claimed to be God – and is not a fake. He’s the real deal.
Jesus came out of seclusion and went to the feast when it was at its height. He went to the temple and called people to make serious, studied judgments, and not simply snap decisions based on surface appearance. He points out if anyone is really earnest he can know whether Jesus’ teaching is of divine origin or not, by following them.

Jesus was the reality that looked, at least to many, like a fake. In John 7:14 we see the reality. We hear that Jesus only went up to the temple halfway through the Jewish feast of the Tabernacles, His absence during the first half of the feast allowed the curiosity and rumours about Him to continue to build. After He arrives in Jerusalem He heads directly to the temple and teaches in the outer court. John does not record what He taught, unfortunately but it does record the reaction of those present: The Jews then were astonished, saying, “How has this man become learned, having never been educated?”

As the people, including the temple authorities and religious leaders, listened to Jesus’ teaching they were amazed. His knowledge and mastery of the Scriptures and His wise and authoritative exposition were undeniable. How could an uneducated man know more than the great rabbinical teachers of the day? He had not sat at the feet of these gifted, studied, and accomplished teachers, yet He surpassed them in knowledge and understanding. How could He be so wise?

Jesus declares that the reason His teaching is so amazing is because it does not originate with Him. His wisdom, message, and power came from the Father. He gave all the glory back to the One who had sent Him.

He goes on to teach how to distinguish between the true teachings of God and those from man is by following them, by doing God’s will – the secret of knowing God’s will is being willing to do it. God does not give His will simply to get our approval of it. He does it to get our obedience. Only the one who chooses to do God’s will gets to know it. It is a call for surrender to God and a trust in God.
God’s will is true but we must have faith and act on it before we will know it is.

There was a once man who got LOST IN THE DESERT. After wandering around for a long time his throat became very dry, about that time he saw a little shack in the distance. He made his way over to the shack and found a water pump with a small jug of water and a note. The note read: “pour all the water into the top of the pump to prime it, if you do this you will get all the water you need”. Now the man had a choice to make, if he trusted the note and poured the water in and it worked he would have all the water he needed. If it didn’t work he would still be thirsty and he might die. Or he could choose to drink the water in the jug and get immediate satisfaction, but it might not be enough and he still might die. After thinking about it the man decided to risk it. He poured the entire jug into the pump and began to work the handle, at first nothing happened and he got a little scared but he kept going and water started coming out. So much water came out he drank all he wanted, took a shower, and filled all the containers he could find. Because he was willing to give up momentary satisfaction, he got all the water he needed. Now the note also said: after you have finished, please refill the jug for the next traveller.” The man refilled the jug and added to the note: “Please prime the pump, believe me it works”!

We have the same choice to make, do we hold on to what we have because we don’t believe there are better things in store for us, and settle for instant gratification? Or do we trust God and give up all that we have to get what God has promised us? I think the choice is obvious. We need to pour in all the water, trust God with everything. Then once we have experienced what God has to offer, tell others to trust Him. Jesus did just that.
With every act of obedience, the truth of what Jesus says becomes more and more persuasive. We know it is true, because God proves Himself true every time with living water. We need to tell other people, “Go ahead prime the pump, believe me it works!”

Obedience to God’s known will develops discernment between falsehood and truth. When we practice what He says, the evidence becomes internal and real. God’s Word proves itself true to those who sincerely do it.

But how are we to know who is speaking the truth? Jesus teaches us how to know a religious pretender from the real deal in verse 18. “He who speaks from himself seeks his own glory; but He who is seeking the glory of the One who sent Him, He is true, and there is no unrighteousness in Him.”

Jesus honoured God. He was not seeking the applause of people. If He was, He certainly would have been teaching a different message. Instead, it was on His heart to exalt God and, in turn, humble man. Man cannot truly exalt God till He humbles himself.
How do you tell the real deal from that which is fake and false? It’s not hard. Just ask yourself, “Who is getting the honour?” Con men are about themselves. In the final analysis they care only about themselves.

Frank Abagnale Jr started out with his father’s credit card. He would go to a garage and buy 4 brand new tyres with his dad’s credit card. Then when the attendant would ask if he wanted them fitted Frank would say, “No, I want to sell them back to you for 50 % less. You give me cash and keep the tyres, and so they would do it – keeping half the cash for themselves and the tyres stayed on the rack ready to be sold again. Everyone was happy – except Frank’s dad when he got the $2500 bill from his credit card company. Who was honoured in this transaction – Frank, the con man, was.

The reason I understand Jesus is the real deal is because everything He did was about honouring God the Father. When Jesus talked to the woman at the well in Samaria He did it to honour God. When He healed the man at the pool of Bethesda He did it to bring honour to the Father. Before He fed the 5000 He blessed the 5 loaves and two fishes and thanked God. After the meal was over He gave the honour to God.

In all you do, do it for the glory of Jesus Christ! God will not share His glory with any man. Many who work for God feel slighted. Know for sure that God sees you, and your reward is in His book and will be in His hand. You may not receive acknowledgment from man but you will receive it from God! Jesus doesn’t forget anything we do to honour Him. Remember the woman who poured perfume onto the feet of Jesus, Jesus said her story is to be told forever. If there is a readiness to do God’s will, the capacity to discern God’s will or God’s message will follow. Whoever has a readiness of heart to do God’s revealed will, will recognize in the teaching of Jesus a message which authenticates itself. If they do not intend to follow God’s revealed will they will not perceive it as the truth.
Are you committed to following the revealed will of God? You cannot be the real deal unless you are ready to be obedient to God. We need to ask our self if we are the real deal: When we speak do we speak of His acts or our own? Do we seek His kingdom or our own? Do we honour His life or our own? Is earthly reward our basic reason for serving God? Do we live for Him without expecting the praise of Men? Will we go through life “conning” ourselves that we follow God’s will when in reality we don’t truly follow the teachings of Jesus? Or will we make a commitment to truly choose to follow the will of the Father?

Amen

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Prayer Is A Gift From God

1 Corinthians 12: 1-26

As I’m certain most of you are aware, yesterday I was licensed as reader for this church.  During the training to be a reader I have spent a fair amount of time reflecting upon my new role and what steps I need to take to be a better disciple and a better person.  One of the areas of my daily life that I know to be less than it could be, is my prayer life.  Yes, I do pray every day, but sometimes in the hustle bustle of my new career as a teacher and commitments for church and commitments with family, this area of my spiritual life can be neglected – a quick prayer of thanks at the end of the day, or a quick prayer of petition in the morning to help me get through the day.  So my aim throughout my training as a reader has been to work harder at praying; to be more devoted and give God the time and concentration that He deserves.   With this in mind, I really devoted myself to meditating and praying last Friday night before bed, and the results and, above all, the feeling were like nothing else I have ever experienced.  I felt truly calmed and moved by the Spirit, possibly more than I ever have before in my entire life.  Essentially my prayers were quite selfish – Lord, help me to be the reader that this wonderful church and congregation have the right to; please help me to be the best teacher that I can be and help the children to reach their potential; and above all help me to be a better mother and daughter.  I was so moved by the Spirit that I had to get up out of bed to reach for my pad and paper, because out of nowhere (as non-believers would say, though we all know that God reached out to me in my hour of need), my mind was filled with all the answers I had been seeking – I came to the painful conclusion that I do not always give the people I love all that they need and deserve from me; I wrote the draft for this introduction to the sermon; and I had the entire outline for my first day with my new class planned in minutes.  It was a truly humbling and enlightening experience, so forgive me if this is a little longer than regular sermons as I felt I needed to share this experience with you first.

The day after this all occurred I was bursting to share my experience with everyone I met and to reflect upon it some more, and as luck would have it (or God’s divine plan), that very day was the quiet day of prayer and reflection for new readers before licensing.  Never do I have the luxury of 5 hours of peace and quiet with nothing to do but to think and pray and reflect, in fact, and I’m sure many of you are the same, there are some days when 5 minutes peace seems to be a luxury.  During this time I was able to really reflect upon the passages we heard this morning, and again, thanks to the Spirit, the rest of my sermon came sharply into focus.

I am sure that up and down the country this morning, in many, many churches, someone is preaching about the miracle at the wedding at Cana, because, after all, it is the first account in the Bible of Jesus’ miracles or signs, so it is an important reading and contains an important message, but the reading from Paul’s letter to the Corinthians seemed to speak to me so much more.  In his letter we hear Paul talking about the people of God having many different gifts, now these are not to be confused with natural talent (although these are God given too), these gifts that Paul talks about are those gifts which enable us to help others to strengthen their faith –  for some it may be through prayer (and I’m sure for many of you here, like me, that is one of the greatest gifts God has given to us), for others it may be through music or preaching or being involved in church life, and for still others it may be being that shoulder to lean on in times of trouble.  We have all been given gifts which we must use to nourish the faith of those around us. I expect nobody here ever received a gift and decided to leave it unopened and unused in a cupboard, and yet that is what many of us do with the talents God has given to us.

How do we recognise our talents? Well, I believe that we don’t need to recognise them or label them, all we need to do is to trust in God and do whatever feels right to nurture and support those around us on their faith journey.  The way to think is “Here is someone whose faith is in jeopardy, how can I help them?”  Do not think though that giving these gifts to others does not bring its own reward, for what greater feeling can there be than to know that God has worked through you to help someone else.  Using your gifts for the common good brings you to life

For me, the most amazing part of my reader training was the fellowship – there were 17 of us on the course, all from very different backgrounds, with different viewpoints and with different talents. And yet we became one unit, a whole; supporting and nurturing each other as we all took those first tentative steps towards reader ministry, and without them I wouldn’t be standing here today.  This message of “many into one” is one that resonates throughout Paul’s letters; we heard it in today’s reading and we even say it in our Eucharistic Service – “though we are many we are one body because we all share in one bread” – and this is a beautiful message: we are all unique and individual, with our own talents and weaknesses, and yet we are still united in our faith and in the knowledge of God’s eternal love.

In the reading, the Corinthians have been thinking of God’s gifts as status symbols and in today’s society this is also true, there are certain “gifts” (and I use the word lightly here) that seem to engender respect and admiration. We admire beauty; we respect talent; we are impressed by eloquence, and yet in this passage we are invited to look at gifts in an entirely new way: the true measure of our gifts is not what they are but how we use them.  So how can we use our gifts in our daily lives?

We can speak honestly and openly about our faith and encourage others on their journey of discipleship, whether it be their first step or their last.

In the Gospel reading Jesus uses his God given talent, He performs his first miracle even though His “time had not yet come.” So it is that we must search ourselves to learn what talents we have to offer in each circumstance even if we don’t feel ready. Nobody else brings exactly the same blend of experience, every one of us has something unique to offer – maybe we can bring our monetary gifts, perhaps we can bring our mind, or even our muscle. The possibilities are endless but only if we unwrap the gifts God has given us.

Finally, we can pray. Every single one of us is capable of praying. Our prayers do not need to be long and eloquent to be heard by God, for which I am eternally grateful, although as I said before, I am trying to be better at it, because prayer matters. Whether we are praying for healing and comfort for the sick and dying, or for peace and justice in the world, or for more mundane things like help getting through the first day in a new job, prayer is a gift, prayer matters, and each and every one of us has been given that gift, so don’t leave it unopened and unused in the cupboard, take it out and use it every day and, as I discovered last week, it truly does make a difference.

Amen.

 

Let Jesus Turn Your Water Into Wine

John 2: 1-12

The story of Jesus turning water into wine at the wedding in Cana, I think contains one of the most powerful messages in all of Scripture.  But it seems that a lot of times, people get snagged on one of the details and end up missing the joy of the message.  There are several ways in which people get hung up on this story and end up missing the point, so I want to start off by getting those out of the way.

The first stumbling block tends to be issues surrounding alcohol.  Alcohol is often a deadly and destructive force in today’s world as anyone who has lived with an alcoholic or has faced that addiction themselves can tell you.  As a result, there are some whose only commentary on this story is an attempt to prove that Jesus turned water into grape juice.  Don’t get stuck there.  This is not a story about alcohol.

You might find it uncomfortable and difficult to explain to your children, but the facts of the story are that Jesus was at a wedding party where the guests were already drunk.  Then, when the wine ran out, instead of saying “Good, now go home and sober up,” Jesus provided about 150 gallons more of the best wine around.  We must remember that in 1st century Palestine, the wine was very different to what we call wine now, it was nowhere near as potent and was much closer to fruit juice than the hangover-inducing stuff we get today.  All of that is not to say that there aren’t some very good, very Christian reasons for complete abstinence from alcohol.  If you don’t drink, don’t start now.  It is just to say that this story is not about that, and if you get too worried about it, you’re going to miss the point.

The second thing that hangs people up in this story is the way that Jesus talks to his mother.  No matter that Jesus is 30 years old, most people feel like Jesus is a little bit rude to his mother here.  So they go off on tangents about obedience, cutting apron strings, and the fact that Jesus gives in and does it anyway.  Often, I’ve heard Mary’s faith examined, how even though Jesus says “No way, Mom,” she goes and puts the servants on stand-by anyway.  Those discussions can be helpful, but I don’t think they’re the reason John put the story in his Gospel.

But John is a different sort of Gospel.  John was not written to get the facts out there.  John was written with the assumption that people already knew the facts about Jesus’ life – it has even been suggested that John was written as a commentary on the other three Gospels.  John is not looking to tell his readers what happened in Jesus’ life.  John wants to tell his readers what the life of Jesus means…what the core message is really all about.  To enter the Gospel of John is to enter a world of symbols and verses that have at least two or three levels of meaning.

John is highly selective about the material that he includes, but because people don’t realize that John is talking in symbols and philosophy and metaphor, they allow themselves to get caught up in details – like was it really wine or how dare Jesus talk to his mother that way.  At best they end up saying that this is a story about empathy.  Jesus sees people who are embarrassed because they can’t provide for their guests; Jesus feels their pain and helps out.  Good sermons can come from all of that, but all of those things stay on the surface.  The only way to get at John is to start out with the assumption that the message John wants to convey is below the surface and the details of the story are just a means to that end.

So, let’s go to the story with that in mind.  Let’s assume that this is not primarily a story about a wedding, about drinking, or about who scurried around to do what for whom.  It’s in John, so it must be something more than that.  The first thing to notice is that John does not call it a miracle.  In fact, John does not call anything a miracle in his Gospel.  Instead, John calls them signs.  He records seven “signs” in his Gospel and changing the water into wine is the first.  We can assume that all that is intentional.  This was a sign for people, something that would inform people about what they might expect from this Nazarene, something that would point them toward a deeper meaning.

None of the other Gospel writers saw the miracle at Cana as something worth recording.  They were much more impressed with the healings and exorcisms.  But John remembered Cana.  John saw in the miracle at Cana a sign that served to define the very purpose for which Christ had come into the world.  The servants at the wedding saw water turned into the finest wine.  John saw a man who in this first sign declared himself as an agent of transformation.

Remember, it is only in the Gospel of John that Jesus is recorded as saying, “I have come that they might have life and have it more abundantly.”  This statement, I believe, is what the miracle at Cana is all about.  Water, the basic necessity of life, is changed into wine; the symbol not just of life, but of abundant, joyous, and celebrative life.  If you go into this thinking wine is evil, you miss the boat completely.  Wine in Scripture is a symbol of joy and warmth and celebration and abundance.  In changing the water into wine and allowing the wedding celebration to continue, Jesus is clueing people in on his mission.  Jesus has come to transform the world.

We often think of transformation in terms of opposites.  We think of the ugly turned beautiful as in Beauty and the Beast, or the kind Dr. Jekyll transformed into the cruel Mr. Hyde; or we think of change to something unrecognizable like the caterpillar transformed into a winged butterfly or the transformer toys where a boat becomes a robot; or where the Doctor regenerates into a man with a completely different face and personality.  And it is true that God can and does transform people in those ways.  God does take mean, ugly lives and transforms them into beautiful angels of mercy.  God does take us when we are crawling along on our bellies and gives us wings to fly.  God does take us when we are broken and make us whole.

But there is another type of transformation that is modelled at Cana.  At Cana, the object of transformation is something that is already good and pure and necessary.  There is nothing that needs fixing in the water.  Water is good.  The message of transformation at Cana is not about making the bad good, but about making the good even better.

It is first, I think, a message about the Law and Judaism.  The jugs that Jesus had filled with water were the water jugs used for ritual purification and washing.  They were there so that the wedding guests could comply with Jewish law.  Jesus takes that ritual water and turns it into something that wouldn’t satisfy the law.  Washing your hands in wine wouldn’t count.  Jesus is making a statement about the Law.  The Law is life-giving, necessary, good, and pure.  But Jesus came to transform the Law into something that was not just necessary, but joyful.  It wasn’t that the Law was ugly or evil or impure, what they had was good, but it was just the basics.  Jesus came to transform the Law through Grace; to put God back into it; to put love into it; to make it more than plain water; to make it wine.  Give it texture, taste, let it warm you as the glow spreads through your veins, let it free you to love and laugh.  Jesus came to take the wholesome duty of the Law and make it giddy with joy.

And that message that Jesus gave to the Jews at Cana he also gives to us.  This is not the message about the transformation of the sinner.  John gives us that in the next chapter when he tells Nicodemus that he must be born again.  This is the promise for those whose lives are really pretty good.  The transformation at Cana is the promise for those who are pretty much on the right track – those with a basic level of faith in God, who treat their neighbour with respect and mercy, who live a life of basic moderation, gentleness and self-control.  This is the message for those whose life is like water – good, nourishing, and life-sustaining.

And the message is, I think, “lighten up.”  It is not God’s desire that we live our lives with only a sense of duty and resignation.  It is good that we obey the commandments, but there’s more to life with Christ than obedience.  “I came that they might have life, and have it more abundantly.”  Not just life, but abundant life, joyous life, life lived in freedom.  This doesn’t mean God promises us material wealth.  It doesn’t mean we are promised a life free from pain and suffering.  It doesn’t mean you’ll never do another task you don’t enjoy.  But, it does mean, that when the water of our lives becomes wine through the touch of Jesus Christ, that even the worst circumstances that life can offer have a richness and depth that they never had before.

So many times I talk with people who only know the God of living water.  That’s good.  That brings life.  That makes the wounded whole.  But that’s not the whole picture.  Those who only know the God of living water often feel guilty about enjoying life.  They know that their faith is important and necessary, but it is so deadly dull and hard and tedious – and they feel guilty for thinking that.  A friend of mine was struggling with a call to the ministry.  She felt a strong sense of call.  “I’m having a hard time,” she said, “because I want it so much, I can’t tell if it’s really God calling me.”  The basic problem was that she had a hard time believing God would call her to something she would actually enjoy, to something that she wanted so much.  She was ready for resigned obedience, but not for joy.  When her vicar read to her Psalm 37:4, “Delight yourself in the Lord and he will give you the desires of your heart”, she broke down and cried.  God wanted her to do more than dutifully drink water to sustain her.  God wanted to give her wine, and to make her the wine for others.  She had gone to the ritual water jugs to do her duty, and it seemed almost scandal that wine poured out instead.

What I am trying to say is that there is a part of the Gospel that is about divine extravagance.  Not in terms of material possessions or getting our way all the time.  Christian joy does not spring from the same source as the happiness of the world.  Christian joy springs from realizing that once we have made the decision to drink of the living water of Christ, that water becomes wine as it touches our lips.  That we serve a God whose name is not duty but Love.  It brings not just life but abundant life.  It’s the shock of St. Augustine’s words, “Love God and do as you please.”  Joy, freedom, celebration.  Not just water, but wine.

What do people see when they look at your life?  Do they see that you have access to living water?  That is good, and those who are thirsty will be drawn to the source of that water.  But there are many who don’t feel thirsty.  They are living decent lives and are relatively happy with their lot.  Is there any indication in your life that you serve a God who turns water into wine?  And if you remember the story, it’s not just cheap wine, it’s the good stuff.  Do people see your religion as something that turns water into wine or does it look more like turning wine into water?  Does your life reflect the miracle at Cana?  What would our lives look like, what would our church look like, if we let Jesus turn our water into wine?  Amen.

Doubt Is The Friend OF Faith

John 20: 24-29

One night this week, I woke up in the early hours of the morning having a panic attack – my heart was hammering so hard I could actually see it thumping in my chest; I was struggling to breathe, I was sweating, and all the time the irrational side of my mind was telling me “You’re having a heart attack”, meanwhile the logical side of my brain knew that it was only a panic attack and that I would be absolutely fine if I could just calm down.  After about 10 minutes of pacing the room with not much improvement, I started having serious doubts – maybe there was something wrong, perhaps I should call an ambulance: I began doubting my own belief that the attack would pass because there was no evidence of it doing so.

My mind turned to thinking about doubt, and it obviously called to mind the reading that I had been thinking about for this sermon.  I was not the first person to have doubts due to lack of evidence, we have just heard about Thomas, the most infamous of doubters, the man who would not believe in the resurrection until he had seen the proof for himself.  Imagine being the only one of a group of friends, friends with shared history, friends who trusted each other, the only one who had not witnessed something as amazing as the risen Lord while the rest of your friends had.  Would you have believed if you hadn’t seen? This is what we, as Christians, are asked to do as the foundation of our religion; we have to believe the unbelievable without seeing the evidence for ourselves, which, in itself, is the definition of faith.  Do doubts make us less faithful than those who never doubt?

Andrew Motion, the poet laureate, wrote a very moving article a few years ago in which he described himself as being in the middle between religion and atheism where, and I quote, “faith flickers off and on like a badly wired lamp”.  He suggests that millions of people live in this middle ground, and he is probably right.  He wrote about his faith journey: of growing up in a religious family, of moving from devout belief in a Divine figure who controlled every aspect of people’s lives and was given to punishment, to the image of a more benevolent God, but as he got older doubts began to set in and he began to question the entire existence of God.  When Andrew Motion was 17, his mother died. It seemed so unfair and because of this he felt no connection between the God he had learned about during all his years at Sunday school, and the bad things which happen to people. So he decided that God was a delusion and stayed that way for the next 30 years of his life, apart from the small flickerings of remembered faith when his children were born or when those close to him were sick.  Then he met a priest, read his books, listened to him preach and, soon after, became his friend.  This priest challenged him to think about things in a different way and now he describes his faith as “something that I don’t keep a strong grip on every day, but it’s coming back to me, and each time I return to faith, the sense of what it means grows deeper.”

In that, Andrew Motion is like St Thomas, and many more besides.  The apostle Thomas clutched his doubts to himself and refused to join the others in their celebration of the resurrection until he had seen it for himself. Upon seeing the evidence he went from “doubting Thomas” to “believing Thomas”, becoming the first to hail Jesus’ as “my Lord and my God”.  After that, did Thomas’s faith flicker off and on like a badly wired lamp?  We don’t really know. But doubt is the friend of faith, because times of uncertainty lead us to a more well-thought out faith when we return.

As Jesus says to Thomas, “Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have come to believe”, and indeed those who have been given a firm, unwavering faith without any doubt are blessed, but more Christians than you may realize have days when they don’t feel the presence of God at all.

And the other night, when I was 10 minutes into a panic attack, with my heart hammering at about 170 bpm, and fighting to breathe, I had doubts. So what happened? Well, I prayed and I forgot about doubting what I knew to be true just because there was no evidence of it happening, and had faith – less than 5 minutes later the worst part of the attack was over and I had a sermon planned out in my head.  Then I got to thinking, why did I not pray first instead of pacing around the room and fretting? It was not because I had stopped believing that there was a God but I did forget that He loved me enough to listen if I prayed.  My “doubt” was not about belief in Him but more about a lack of belief in my relationship with God, the same relationship we can all have thanks to the resurrection of Christ.

When Jesus speaks to Thomas he doesn’t say “Blessed are those who come to believe without a second’s doubt or a moment’s hesitation”, because even He, during His darkest hour in that garden overlooking Jerusalem, had a momentary doubt.  For a split second on the cross – when he cried out “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” – Jesus too doubted.  But he almost immediately handed his doubts back to God and Said “Your Will be done” and that is what we must do – we must trust that God has a plan for each and every one of us and that He loves us.

I will leave you with the words of Yann Martel, from his book “The Life of Pi” – “If Christ spent an anguished night in prayer, if He burst out from the Cross, ‘My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?’ then surely we are also permitted doubt. But we must move on. To choose doubt as a philosophy of life is akin to choosing immobility as a means of transportation.”

 

Jesus Is My Pace-Setter

John 10: 11-18

Jesus said, “I am the Good Shepherd”. Which I think is a beautiful image. He was, of course, quoting from the very famous and much-loved 23rd psalm – “The Lord is my Shepherd”, and from the prophet Ezekiel where the Lord God says, “I myself will be the shepherd of my sheep, and I will make them lie down.” So here Jesus is identifying himself with God his Father, and saying that together they care for each one of us, just as a good shepherd knows what makes each sheep in his flock unique, and what their personal needs are. So we imagine a pastoral scene, where a shepherd clambers over the rocks to fetch back a single lost sheep. We can imagine ourselves cradled comfortingly in the Good Shepherd’s arms.  Or can we?

Life today is very different from how it was in the days of Jesus. Many of us may never have even seen a shepherd in the flesh, and if we have he was probably riding on a tractor.  The shepherd’s life in days gone by was hard work, but it was lived at a slow pace – they had time to think and reflect, whereas today most people’s lives are all rush, rush, rush. We still need someone to love us, guide us, and rescue us, but we also need someone to help us slow down. God gave us the Sabbath day to find time to think about our faith and our relationship with Him, but even on Sundays, many people are too busy to have a conversation with God.  Imagine your home as a three storey house. Yes, I know very few of us have a house that size, but I’m talking symbolically.  The ground floor is where you meet people, where you deal with the affairs of the world.  But you become exhausted after a day of that, so the second storey is where you relax with your loved ones, where you sleep and rest.  It is vital to make time for this. But also as important is what we can picture as the top floor, which is your own private space, where you can be totally alone to think, reflect, and pray.  Socrates said, “The unexamined life is not worth living for a human being.” – meaning that if you just rush through life without taking time to reflect on all that has happened it makes the life worthless.  Even Jesus, when he found he was too busy to stop and think, went out and spent a night alone on a mountain in prayer; prayer is as essential to our spiritual life as water is to somebody crossing the desert.

Think of somebody who is in training to run a marathon. It is vital not to run too fast at the start, or they will have no energy left for the final sprint at the end of the race.  So when practising, runners will often have a training partner to run alongside them with a stopwatch checking on their speed, keeping it just right so that the runner’s energy is conserved until it is needed; that the runner doesn’t rush off without a moment’s thought. This companion is called a pace-setter, a different word to pacemaker which is the device to make sure our heart runs at the right speed; though these two images have much in common.

I tell you all this because I want to finish by sharing with you one of my very favourite poems. It is a famous rewriting of Psalm 23 for the modern era called The Lord is my Pace-Setter by a lady called Toki Miyashina.

The Lord is my Pace Setter, I shall not rush,
He makes me stop and rest for quiet intervals,
He provides me with images of stillness,
Which restore my serenity.
He leads me in ways of efficiency,
through calmness of mind; and his guidance is peace.
Even though I have a great many things to accomplish each day,
I will not fret, for his presence is here.
His timelessness, his all-importance will keep me in balance.
He prepares refreshment and renewal in the midst of my activity,
by anointing my head with his oils of tranquility,
My cup of joyous energy overflows.
Surely harmony and effectiveness shall be the fruit of my hours,
For I shall walk in the pace of my Lord,
and dwell in his house for ever.

Amen.

Show Compassion In The Face OF Need

1 Kings 17: 17-24, Luke 7: 11-17

Raising the dead by a touch or a word is quite some trick, yet just because today’s account of the raising of the widow’s son makes it to the pages of the New Testament, we should be honest enough to admit that for many modern Christians there is still so much uncertainty about what is described perhaps we should concede it may not even have happened in the way Luke appears to claim.

Of course we might always attempt to intellectualize what we read about this strange happening. For example it is true that in a previous age, such apparent events as the dead returning to life, were not unknown if only because then without modern medical techniques, death was difficult to distinguish from unconsciousness. This situation continued right through until comparatively recently and as a consequence in old style church burial grounds particularly in England, there was a covered Lych gate (literally a corpse gate) at the entrance to the grave yard, where the coffin or bier was delivered the evening before a funeral and some social histories say that someone (often a deacon) would be delegated to sit beside the deceased overnight in case the body recovered.

But even if there were some natural science explanation for this instance of Jesus returning the widow’s son to life, there is far more to this story than faith-healing writ large. We should for example note that the son is in effect resuscitated not resurrected to immortality. Presumably some years later, as for all mortal human beings, there would be another funeral for the widow’s son– but this time with no unexpected reprieve.

Here, despite my training as a primary science teacher, and my belief in the scientific world, I am not using this as an excuse to rubbish faith healing. Sick people – and in some instances very sick people with a claimed incurable condition – have been known to unexpectedly recover. To many scientists, the jury is still out on whether or not faith can affect this healing process. Anyway the recently deceased can occasionally be brought back to life. There are many recorded instances of people whose hearts have stopped having been resuscitated and there is always room for the unexpected, even if the miracle is only that someone cared enough to make the effort.

Yet at the very least we would be wise to not assume anyone with sufficient faith could perform the same miracle in the same way Jesus was reported as doing.

But let’s go back a step to think why Luke was recording this miracle of Jesus in the first place. Its context is provided by the section of the story that follows today’s account of the raising of the widow’s son. John the Baptist had heard of the many strange and wonderful things that had been apparently happening for Jesus, and although the stories circulating about Jesus suggested his behaviour was rather different from what the Jews taught would be the characteristics of the Messiah, John decided to send his disciples to find out if this Jesus was the one.

Jesus, as enigmatic as ever, did not give a direct answer. They asked: “Are you the one who is to come, or are we to wait for another?” And he answered them, “Go and tell John what you have seen and heard: the blind receive their sight, the lame walk, the lepers are cleansed, the deaf hear, the dead are raised, the poor have good news brought to them.”

Notice it was his actions rather than his title – many of which had a common theme of acts of compassion – which marked him as the Messiah. As intending followers of the Messiah, might it be that we learn from Jesus’ answer? For us today the question is not – are you the Messiah?  but “ Are you a Christian?”

But dare we answer in the same way as Jesus: “Stick around, watch and decide for yourself!” Would we be brave enough to expect people to judge us by our actions?

Whatever Jesus was doing in his actions, as far as Luke was concerned, Jesus was showing genuine compassion to the widow who would have been entirely dependent on her son, whose death would presumably have left her with no hope of support. We might also wonder if Luke was helping his readers understand that Jesus was a prophet.

We should not be surprised that the crowd responds to the action of raising the widow’s son by saying Jesus is a prophet. After all it was in the same general area of the country that, years before, Elijah also raised a widow’s son.

The crowd are reported as accepting the event as confirmation that Jesus is a prophet. The modern commentators are clearly divided about what actually happened. Some are happy that this be accepted as a dramatic miracle – and others insist that it is a purely symbolic story to show the sort of attitude Jesus had to the needy. Regrettably I don’t have a TARDIS that would allow me to go back and see for myself which version is true.

For what it is worth, I suspect Luke at least, believed that this story was an accurate account, but since it came from an age of oral traditions, it is also likely that the story had been already been shaped by the need for symbolism.

But if this story is to have meaning for us, it would not do to place too much emphasis on the miracle part, if only because such gifts are not readily apparent in those such as ourselves. Putting it directly, we are not Jesus.

What is clear however is that the world in which we live follows the laws of nature, and nature has no regard for what we might want to happen. A tornado can form in response to atmospheric conditions and wreck a town in Oklahoma, killing innocent young children as well as adults, and prayer does not change the course of the tornado. An earthquake can destroy the heart of one city and leave other cities unscathed, and there seems no correspondence between the force of an earthquake and the number of believers in the vicinity.

Some might want to feel that an earthquake is a consequence of God’s judgment on human behaviour, but the physics of reaction to stresses and fault lines on the Earth’s crust seems a more logical explanation. In the same way, a much needed parent can contract terminal cancer as a consequence of a stray mutation, and a widow’s son can still die in accordance with the happen-chance of nature for no apparent faith related reason.

Just as misfortune follows the application of natural law, natural law limits us on what forms of cure are available. Even Jesus was demonstrably limited in how much suffering he could address. Whatever means Jesus might have had to alleviate the suffering of those poor and needy souls he was able to help, presumably there were also many in Palestine who remained un-helped. Today’s gospel report focuses on Jesus using a wondrous intervention for this particular widow but we should note that the many thousands of people facing similar disasters on the face of the planet were not thereby relieved of their suffering.

We must also be honest enough to admit, no matter what Jesus may have been able to accomplish in his day, we ourselves have no access to magical short-cuts, and indeed as Bill Loader has pointed out in his commentary on this passage: “failure to see this can make us seem naive if not offensive in the face of real human need and those struggling it. It can also lead people to consign Jesus to the world of fantasy and irrelevance”.

Ultimately, if our attention is only on Jesus and his actions as a way of finding and admiring his strange abilities to affect unexpected cures and miracles, we would have missed his intention. His intention seems rather that he came bringing a message of hope and promise to people desperately in need of hope. His challenge to his disciples – and I guess that includes a challenge to those of our generation who wish to follow, is that they – and hopefully we ourselves, should take over the task of living and sharing this gospel.

If there is a message for us to take from the story of raising the widow’s son it may simply be that since Jesus showed compassion to this situation of need, since our faith teaches that even the least among us have real value,  then we too must respond as best we can when in turn such situations confront us.  We must see the hundreds of people fleeing their war torn country with nothing but the clothes on their backs, as refugees in need of compassion and help, and not as “immigrants” who want to drain our resources and take what some believe is rightly theirs. We must see those in need of help from foodbanks, most of whom are working for less than a living wage, as genuine people who have reached the lowest point in their lives, and not as lazy scroungers.  We must truly see everyone as individuals and not as the faceless and the nameless who are easily vilified and rejected.

True we may not be able to do much to help the dead, but inspired by Jesus, we may at least attend to some needs of the living. If the gospel is to continue to have meaning, Jesus’ care for the needy must continue to hold a central place. And if we chose to hold back from involving ourselves with this aspect of mission, who else is there to take our place?

What Happens When The Wheels Fall Off

2 Kings 4: 8-37

This evening we’re going to look at faith and life of the Shunnamite woman; the woman who made a room for Elisha, who made space for the presence of God and was rewarded with a child.

Today I want to talk about being prepared for THAT moment; that moment when the wheels fall off. That moment when we’re disappointed, grieving, struggling. Because often that is the moment we need to be prepared for. You see we live in the middle – Jesus came and died on the cross to reconcile us to God, He won the victory and reigns – BUT we await His return and the manifestation of His Kingdom on earth… We live in the middle. In a broken world. A fallen world.

We love those highlight reels and gold star moments where we’ve reached the mountain top and we’ve found success and happiness… and we rejoice in those and they deserve claps and happy dancing… but life isn’t just mountain tops and successes … it’s the climb…

You might be facing health issues; Relationship crises; Financial problems. You might be feeling discouraged and overwhelmed by past mistakes or feel that the future is so unknown that even Captain Kirk would be daunted.

I want to be sensitive – because life is life. I don’t want to trivialise anyone’s experience. Filled with joy and grief. Gain and loss. Some losses are so private and personal and painful that we can’t wrap words around them. You may feel that you’ve fallen so hard that there is no recovery.

I am hoping today that you’ll be encouraged that you’re not alone and that God has a plan, even in this.

I have a few points that can help us in the crisis time to not only survive but to thrive through it.

  1. PERSPECTIVE MATTERS

One September, in 1963, 4 young men set off in a car in Spain for a night out. It was a journey they would never forget.

Julio was one of the 4 young men in the car.  His dream was to become a professional football player and play for the team he had loved as a boy, Real Madrid.  His dream was just beginning to be realized.  He had real talent and had just being signed as a goalkeeper and was tipped to be the future number 1 goalkeeper for Spain’s national team. At around 2am the car Julio and his friends were in was in a serious accident.  Julio woke up in hospital and was told by his doctors that he was semi paralysed and would be confided to a bed for 18moths for recovery followed by rehab, but that the prognosis wasn’t good.  They thought it would be unlikely he would walk again.  His football career was over. At night, during those 18 months, Julio would listen to the radio and write poems, sad, reflective, romantic poems. One of his nurses after reading one of his poems gave him a guitar and suggested he turn his poems into songs. Singing began as a distraction for Julio, a way of forgetting his dream and happier days as an athlete.  But as time went on singing became more of a passion.

After 18 months in the hospital Julio looked for a singer to sing the songs he had written, but heended up performing them himself. Chances are you may have heard Julio singing. Julio Iglesias is the biggest selling recording artist in the history of Latin American music.  He lost a dream, but found a new one.

Sometimes we may never know the WHY something happens. But we can always know the WHO. And we can be confident that God is always with us.

When you pass through the waters, I will be with you, and through the rivers, they will not overwhelm you. When you walk through the fire, you will not be burned or scorched, nor will the flame kindle upon you. Isaiah 43:2

When the wheels fall off, when our worst nightmare happens, when you are in the storm or the fire – God is there. God may put us through a trial that seems beyond what we can handle but never beyond what HE can handle. God is with you in your darkest hour. With so much instability and fear in the world today, we must cling to Jesus and fix our eyes on Him and view life through the eyes of trust and faith. God is always good. In every challenge and every circumstance, He is good. He can always be trusted.

Perspective matters. Perspective changes death into life. Perspective changes hopelessness into hope. Fear into faith. Crisis into. Lost dreams into hit songs.

Instead of letting difficulties draw you into worrying, try to view them as setting the scene for God’s glorious intervention.

2 Respond vs React

How often do we REACT instead of RESPONDING to things going on in our lives?

There are those who are:

1 The Sky is Falling Reactors – These people panic. When a problem arises they feel an urgency that if things aren’t fixed immediately then they are doomed

2 Eeyore reactors- These people shut down when problems arise. Eeyore reactors retreat. They let the anxiety of the problem pull them into a funk and then invite everyone to join the pity party.

3 The Fix It Reactors– who jump into overactive problem solving

4 The Silent but Violent Reactors- who stuff so much down and in and suppress how they feel until they explode, who go into silent mode with their voice but everything else gets noisier (aka putting the plates away in the cupboard…)

and

5 The Stuff It Reactors– who go all kind of Yippeekiyay on those around them.

Now I’d like to put my hand up and say that I do all five of them. And sometimes at the same time. Sometimes it’s not pretty! There are a myriad of ways we can react… but the point is that often when we’re reacting we often disengage the brain and the spirit.

Action first. Thought second. And sometimes those raw reactions and emotions lead us on a trail running from God instead of running TO God.

Now I’m not saying we become happy clappy “I’m fine, I’m fine, I’m fine” fakers, with a ready smile painted on – God created us as emotional beings and our emotions are not wrong – but they are indicators not determinators. Emotions shouldn’t determine how we act and how we speak and how we believe. They shouldn’t determine what our next step is or where our help comes from.

Reacting has a vantage point of right here right now and it can escalate the conflict and cause damage that we may not have intended and spiral us off into a direction we were not planning on walking in.

Even when I’m freaking out and running away, God loves me. Even if I’m swearing up a storm and lashing out, God loves me. But He knows those things aren’t useful to me. They’re not beneficial. His grace is there to carry me.

In our confusion and our pain and our anger, in our reacting God loves you, is with you and is faithful.

Today is an invitation to examine our own hearts. Is how I am reacting and responding WHO I want to be? Who Jesus wants me to be? Today I have a choice to courageously embrace God and His ways. To choose to trust Him. To run to Him instead of away from Him. To practice trust. To grow faith. To store up in silence what I will need for the storm.

3 Internally Prepare

The Shunammite woman leaves her son and heads straight for the one place she knows she will find answers and hope; at the prophet’s feet.

She KNEW what she had to do in her storm. Find God. Connect with God.

When the wheels fall off I want to be like the Shunammite woman. She says it is well three times until she gets to the feet of Elisha. Her husband asks her how things are. Elisha’s servant asks how her husband is. How her son is. It is well she responds. Her son is dead and she says it is well. There was something within her that said I WILL TRUST GOD.

One of my favourite and stage plays is Les Miserables. So when the film came out I rushed to see it with my Dad, who also adores the stage musical. I cried through most of it, both when I saw it on stage and on the screen. In the cinema, when the credits had rolled and the lights turned on, I was still crying, with a napkin stuffed into my mouth to stop the sobs escaping. I cried when I told people about it. I cry when I hear some of the songs. And, despite having watched it several times, I still cry every time.

Anyway, cos I am a geek, I did some research about the actors and the making of the movie and read how Hugh Jackman of Wolverine fame, prepared for his role as the lead character Jean Valjean:

This is what he said: ‘I knew I had to go to extremes in my preparation and prove I could multi-task. When I went to the gym, I would sing loudly as I chalked up high-speed miles on the running machine or as I bench-pressed. The people around me probably thought I was crazy, but I felt I had to do it. You’re pushing, you’re pulling, you are lifting, you are carrying and you are singing at the same time.”

He prepared his body and his voice to film the movie, where he lifts incredible things and scales walls and gets his wolverine on. He stored up in the silence what he would need for the storm.

Likewise in our lives. The internal condition of our heart will affect how we walk through the difficulties of life. The internal condition of our heart will determine our capacity for whatever comes our way.

I ask myself… do I trust God? With my family? With my bank account? With my health? With my future? When it really counts, do I belong to Him?

Dealing with the unexpected doesn’t mean we have to be unprepared, because God is never unprepared.

There are many ways that you can develop your internal condition – that you can develop your faith. Basically have a relationship with God. Pray. Read your bible. Have worship times. These are things you hear ALL THE TIME. But I want you to understand this, it’s not some checklist that scores you gold stars and brownie points with God. It’s not some barter exchange thing – one song, one prayer, one chapter a day = a good car parking space and good weather. Our God is so gracious and wonderful and it’s breathtaking and wonderful in a very real way that God invites us to draw near to Him, to experience Him, to know Him as a very real and involved and personal Father. Personal connection time is not an optional extra but a necessity.

God’s Word and God’s truth enables us to be prepared to decide, think, act and speak in a world where we are not sovereign. It teaches us how to live in the middle of the storm.

The internal condition of your heart is strengthened yes by the things we do to draw near to God, like how Hugh Jackman ran and sang at the same time to prepare for Les Mis, but in greater reality it comes by knowing God, knowing who He is and How He moves and that He is trustworthy.

In a way, internal conditioning doesn’t come from what WE do but from ALL that HE has done.

If you will trust Him, He will get you through this. He will empower you for THIS moment. The truth you store up in silence comes back to you in the storm as a life raft – equip yourself today for your tomorrow.

4 Trust in the promise maker

The Shunnamite woman’s son was cold and laid out. Dead. But it’s not over until it’s over. It’s not even over when they’re in the ground as Lazarus proves to us. As Jesus proves!

At your crunch point, when the wheels fall off, you have got to trust and have faith. Sounds bossy of me to say you have got to. But seriously. You have got to. Because that’s what will sustain you and get you through.

When God looks at you He is not angry or picking a fight or out to mess things up. He loves you. He is pleased with you. His love is so expansive – so high, so wide, so deep. It’s demonstrated upon the cross when Jesus took all the penalty and punishment that you and I deserved. At the Cross all of the death/shame/condemnation that I deserved went to Jesus and all of the love/favour/righteousness that Jesus has as the Son of God comes to me. Jesus sets us free. He pours grace out upon us. He restores us. He makes us whole. His blood is enough to save us and He is enough to sustain us in every situation.

God’s grace saved us. God’s grace keeps us. God’s grace will sustain us and empower us in THAT moment.

Living in middle, in this fallen world, can be difficult yes. But I know the end of the book. Jesus wins. Jesus has won. Jesus is victorious. He is the King of Kings and Lord of Lords. Salvation belongs to our God! He is the alpha and omega, creator of the universe. He died and rose again and defeated sin and death and is seated at the right hand of the Father, ruling and reigning. He is coming again! In every situation Jesus can win. In your marriage He can win. In your employment He can win. In your health He can win. In your darkness He can win.

You see getting thru the hard parts and the dark parts of our life isn’t about gritting our teeth and putting our big girl pants on and just doing it. It’s about having a real and living hope in Jesus, and understanding that He holds onto us and that IN HIM we can have peace and salvation and life and hope.

There are many problems I cannot solve or fix – but I can take them to the one who can. Jesus.

The difference between you and the Shunnamite woman might just be time. We read the end of her story, of how Elisha lay upon her son and prayed, how the son sneezed 7 times and then came alive and how Elisha returned her son to her resurrected.

Your story is unfolding. Your resurrection might be around the corner. You might be like Julio Iglesias – writing poetry from a hospital bed, wondering what tomorrow holds after the unexpected.

You might be like Hugh Jackman, running and singing your heart out, reading your Word and storing up His promises in your heart

Your resurrection might be tomorrow. In five years. In fifteen years. Will you trust God in your today?

This evening I don’t know what you face. But Jesus does. And He invites you to trust Him and to have hope. For when the wheels fall off, Jesus will be there.