A Stumbling Block Or A Stepping Stone

Matthew 16: 21-28

Isn’t it strange that princes and kings
And clowns that caper in sawdust rings
And common folk like you and me
Are the builders of eternity.

To each is given a bag of tools,
A shapeless mass and a book of rules;
And each must make, ere time is flown,
A stumbling-block or a stepping-stone.

This is part of a poem called “Isn’t It Strange?” by R L Sharpe. What caught my attention here is the creativeness in these lines. Not that they are witty or that they rhyme but the fact it is about creating. We are ‘builders of eternity.” We are given “a bag of tools, a shapeless mass and a book of rules.” I have preached before about how we are all given gifts and talents and we are called to use them because we are all part of the Body of Christ. But in this poem we are reminded that we have a choice on what we can make. We can make “a stumbling-block or a stepping-stone.”

In the 16th chapter of Matthew we get a staggering look at the person that is Simon Peter. In the passage before the one we heard today, Jesus poses the question, “Who do you say that I am?” Peter answers Jesus, “You are the Christ, the Son of the living God.” Jesus celebrates this answer by blessing Peter. He tells him, “And I tell you that you are Peter, and on this rock I will build my church.” Peter gets the keys to heaven. He gets permission to bind things up, to throw into chains, anything he wants. He is allowed to set free, or to loose, anything he desires as well. This is great power. It is an obscene amount of power that Jesus bestows on Peter. And it goes straight to his head.

It is the start of the new term this week. For some, this is an exciting time and for others, a horrifying time. It is start of another school year and for some it is another year of ridicule and shame. Bullying is a huge problem in our schools and always has been. But today it can go viral in an instant. Now if you make a mistake in class instead of just being a story that can be shared at the lunch table later on, there is fear it can turn into a YouTube classic. Kids are now forced to relive embarrassing moments over and over again because of the technology they possess in the palm of their hands.

That mobile phone that is also a camera and video camera is power. The power to capture moments in life that a decade before would simply be a memory. Now though they can last for eternity on the internet. Power can quickly go to people’s head because of these abilities.  I am not saying here that smartphones and the internet are evil, after all they have the power to show the world what is happening in places like Gaza and Iraq without having to rely on the media.  It allows things like the ice bucket challenge to become a worldwide phenomenon, raising millions for good causes. And let’s be honest, sometimes seeing someone make a fool of themselves or being brought down a peg or two is quite funny!

If the encounter we heard about this morning happened in this day and age of technology, I am sure it would have been recorded and uploaded to YouTube, after all Peter has just been given an awesome amount of power and, when he gets a bit too big for his boots and starts arguing with Jesus, he gets put in his place.
The author of Matthew’s Gospel found this interaction between Jesus and Peter memorable enough to put it in the text today. He must have found something meaningful in watching Peter put his foot in his mouth. There had to be some reason this is important, so important that we use, “Get behind me Satan,” in our cultural vocabulary. The reason lies behind Peter’s new found power.

Peter is the rock that the church was built on. God decided that instead of using a nation to show the world what life following him would look like, God would you use individuals from all over who would come together to be the Church. They would work, worship, and pray together to better this world and bring the Kingdom of God into focus. Peter, within this new assembly, could bind and loose anything they wanted. If they wanted to bind up poverty, they could feed the hungry. If they wanted to loose mercy, they could offer up forgiveness. If they wanted to bind oppression, injustice, pain and sorrow they could demonstrate to the world the way to live and act. If they wanted to let loose the powers of love and grace, the levies were ready to be broken.

Instead the first thing Peter does with this new power was to rebuke Jesus. What changed? What made Peter move from this high moment to this low moment in two verses? The scripture tells us that “From that time on Jesus began to explain to his disciples that he must go to Jerusalem and suffer many things at the hands of the elders, chief priests and teachers of the law, and that he must be killed and on the third day be raised to life.” Only after Peter receives to keys to kingdom of heaven; only after the disciples all watch Peter be praised for calling Jesus the “the Messiah, the Son of the living God;” only after Jesus gets this hint that the disciples finally get it does he start to fill them in on God’s plan.

Peter hears Jesus say that he will go to Jerusalem to suffer and die. He completely misses the last part of the statement and he jumps to his conclusions. He pulls Jesus aside and rebukes him. Peter rebukes’ Jesus. He pulls him to the side and tells him, “Never, Lord. You are here to restore the Jewish Kingdom. Me and the disciples have this all figured out. We’ve seen you walk on water, feed 5,000, and heal the sick. That is all good, but when you go into Jerusalem we were thinking more of fire and brimstone raining from the sky. Real Sodom and Gomorra kind of stuff. You aren’t going to suffer and die, I won’t let that happen.”

To each is given a bag of tools,
A shapeless mass and a book of rules;
And each must make, ere time is flown,
A stumbling-block or a stepping-stone.

“Jesus turned and said to Peter, ‘Get behind me, Satan! You are a stumbling block to me; you do not have in mind the things of God, but the things of men.” I have this picture in my head of Peter just standing there with his mouth gaping open, stunned as he was just yelled at. Yet, Peter made a huge mistake. He recreated the original sin. He felt the keys of the Kingdom of God in his hand. They weighed heavy and he felt important. He felt powerful. He felt he was now on equal status with Jesus, the Son of the living God. With this new power the first way he uses it was to attempt to bind Jesus. He felt equal enough to Jesus Christ that he pulled him aside and stood up to him. The original sin of Adam and Eve was they wanted to have the same knowledge as God, they wanted to be God. Here Peter already thinks he is God’s equal.

It may be wrong, but we do get some kind of joy, even if it is subtle, when people are brought down a notch or two. As we went through the huge scandal with the News of the World phone hacking, many people rejoiced and took pleasure as this huge juggernaut of gossip came crashing down. Who doesn’t feel a little satisfaction, rightly or wrongly, when someone who appears to be too self-important gets their comeuppance.

Here we are witness to Peter being brought down a rung or five from his lofty ladder. In this text there were two phrases that caught my attention. One was stumbling block, which is what Jesus calls Peter. The Greek word that Matthew’s author uses is used 15 times in the New Testament and 25 times in the Old Testament. The word skandalon (skon-da-lon) means a moveable stick or trigger to trap. That part of a mouse trap you put the cheese on, is a skandalon. It also means any person or thing by which one is drawn into error or sin, a stumbling-block in one’s life. This is how Jesus describes Peter. Four verses earlier he was the rock on which the church would be built and now he is a stumbling block for Jesus. When Jesus renames Simon Peter, Peter, it is because it means rock, but how Peter lived out his life would depend on whether he was a stumbling-block or a stepping stone.

Wherever skandalon is used it is always in reference to something or someone who gets in the way of God’s will. It is something that causes offense or others to sin. It is a false teaching or a wrong impression that pulls others away from God. We know what these things are in our lives. We have seen them before. I can feel God wants me to do something in my life but there are too many unanswered questions to do anything. “I can’t do that God.” “Lord that will never happen.” “Not on my watch God!” We have been there. We have said those things at one time or another.

Which brings me to the other phrase that stuck out to me, “Never, Lord.” From what I know about God is that when you say ‘never’ he laughs and says just wait and watch. At one of our Reader conferences, we were asked to share our calling stories/faith journeys. People stood up and told their story. I was quite surprised that over and over again we heard people stand up and confess they ran from God for most of their lives. They yelled at God, “Never, Lord. I’m not called into ministry. That is for someone else, not me.” But God’s will is stronger than ours and God always wins out. Where we see trouble, the unknown, or a dead end, God sees opportunity.

Peter closed off his ears as Jesus told him of the reality that waited for him in Jerusalem. He missed the part when Jesus says he will rise again in three days. As Peter tries to squash the painful reality of the crucifixion he takes out the glory of the resurrection too. If we close our minds off to the painful reality of what God is calling us to do than we miss out on the glory that waits on the other side.

A stepping stone is used to move a person from one spot to another. It is something that takes us over a harsh actuality, like rushing water or mud, and can safely move us to the other side. Sometimes these stepping stones can be awkward and we are filled with fear and trepidation. There is a path laid out for all of us, these can be made into a smooth path or we can stumble and fall. What we do with what we have been given is up to us, as long as we always remember that God’s will is what should lead us or we may be find ourselves brought down  a peg or two.

Isn’t it strange that princes and kings
And clowns that caper in sawdust rings
And common folk like you and me
Are the builders of eternity.

To each is given a bag of tools,
A shapeless mass and a book of rules;
And each must make, ere time is flown,
A stumbling-block or a stepping-stone.

Amen.

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Be Prepared To Accept Substitutions

Acts 16: 1-15

A vicar received a call from a church that offered him a salary four times what he was getting at his present church. Since he was a very devout and spiritual man, he spent much time in prayer trying to determine what God wanted him to do.  One day a friend was talking to the vicar’s son and he asked him, “Do you know what your dad is going to do?” “Well,” replied, the youngster, “DAD’S PRAYING, BUT MOM’S PACKING!”

HOW DOES A PERSON DISCERN GOD’S WILL FOR THEIR LIVES?

For some people, it’s a matter of prayer and for others, it may well be a matter of money.  Money often speaks louder to people than God does. Many people decide what they are going to do in life based on the pay scale or “what’s-in-it-for-me” rather than honestly seeking God’s will.

There was once an old Scottish woman who went from home to home across the countryside selling thread, buttons, and shoestrings. When she came to an unmarked crossroad, she would toss a stick into the air and go in the direction the stick pointed when it landed.  One day, however, she was seen tossing the stick up several times. “Why do you toss the stick more than once?” someone asked. “Because,” replied the woman, “it keeps pointing to the left, and I want to take the road on the right.”

That’s the way we are. “Lord, I’ll do anything you want as long as it’s what I want.”  We want to bend God’s will to meet our will or to become our will. Of course, I think we all know that God doesn’t work that way. He’s in charge, not us. We often stubbornly “do our own thing” and “go our own way,” even though we have a pretty good idea of God’s will for our lives. Every Christian should want to know God’s will for their lives. To be in the centre of God’s will is always the best place to be! It’s the place to be blessed by God, cared for by God, protected by God, and provided for by God!
WHAT IS GOD’S WILL FOR MY LIFE?

All of us should want to know the answer to this question.
What does God want me to do in life? God has promised in His Word that He will direct us if we seek His guidance.

Prov. 3:5-6 “Trust in the Lord with all your heart and lean not on your own understanding; in all your ways acknowledge him, and he will make your paths straight.”

IN ALL YOUR WAYS, ACKNOWLEDGE HIM. That means check with the Lord before you do anything! Pray about every decision you make in life. Ask the Lord for His wisdom and direction. Psalm 25:4-5 “Show me your ways, O Lord, teach me your paths; guide me in your truth and teach me, for you are God my Saviour…”

In seeking God’s will for our lives there are two mistakes that people often make:
Firstly, there is the popular idea that God has every detail of our lives prearranged. It is the idea that we are not freewill agents and have no freedom of choice in life. This teaching was made popular by John Calvin in the 1500s.   Many people believe that God has caused everything that happens to them in life. If this were true, then we wouldn’t have to worry about seeking God’s will. It would mean that God had control of everything we did and said. And common sense should tell us that isn’t so.  If God has control of everything in our lives then why do we make so many mistakes? Why do we sin so much?  IT’S BECAUSE GOD DOESN’T CONTROL EVERYTHING WE DO AND SAY! We are freewill agents. God has given us the freedom of choice in life.  I have just been to rural Norfolk to spend 3 days in a tree house, and before I left I got out my map and studied it and picked a route.  There were at least 3 different ways I could have travelled all of them ending up at the same place, some took longer but were more picturesque, others were quicker but pretty dull. This is a little like our life journey,  God does not have our lives programmed like a sat nav where every detail of our lives is prearranged or predetermined. We have the freedom of choice in life! However, God does have a preference as to our destination and that’s what we’re supposed to discern or discover for ourselves.

A second mistake that people often make is thinking that God’s will is unpleasant.  Now granted, some things will be unpleasant in life if we follow the Lord.  It was not pleasant for Joseph to be sold into slavery in Egypt. It was not pleasant for Daniel to be thrown in the lion’s den. It was not pleasant for Abraham to leave his home country and move somewhere he had never been before. It was not pleasant for Noah on that stinky ark. However, it was far better than the hellish storm on the outside!

Now the other side of the coin is this: God does bless us with a certain amount of pleasantness in life!  Ps. 16:5-6 “Lord, you have assigned me my portion and my cup; you have made my lot secure. The boundary lines have fallen for me in pleasant places, surely I have a delightful inheritance.”  No matter where we are, if we are seeking the will of God, life will be or can be pleasant for us!  Some people are afraid to surrender to the Lord because they think He will take all the joy and fun out of their lives! Some people think that if they follow the Lord He will make life miserable and unhappy for them. WRONG! I have personally found just the opposite to be true! Following Christ is the most exciting adventure there is in life! And it’s the most fun! DOING GOD’S WILL IS NOT UNPLEASANT!

In our text in Acts 16 there are three basic facts about God’s direction for our lives.

1- God usually leads through common sense
2- God sometimes leads through circumstances
3- God occasionally leads through dramatic revelation
In 1937 architect Frank Lloyd Wright built a house for industrialist Hibbard Johnson. One rainy evening Johnson was entertaining distinguished guests for dinner when the roof began to leak. The water seeped through directly above Johnson himself, dripping steadily onto his bald head. Irate, he called Wright in Phoenix, Arizona. “Frank,” he said, “you built this beautiful house for me and we enjoy it very much. But I have told you the roof leaks, and right now I am with some friends and distinguished guests and it is leaking right on top of my head.” Wright’s reply was heard by all of the guests. “Well, Hib, why don’t you move your chair?” That was common sense advice and God generally leads us this way.

In our text, Paul is beginning his second missionary journey. He decided to take young Timothy with him. Verse 3 says that Paul circumcised Timothy because of the Jews who lived in that area. PAUL DID THIS BECAUSE IT MADE GOOD COMMON SENSE. If he hadn’t circumcised him, he would have limited Timothy’s ministry.  I Cor. 9:22 “I have become all things to all men so that by all possible means I might save some.”  Paul didn’t circumcise Timothy so he could be saved, but rather to help him minister more effectively to others. IT WAS A COMMON SENSE DECISION.  That’s generally how God leads us in life! That’s why He gave us brains – very good brains. “I praise you because I am fearfully and wonderfully made.” Ps. 139:14 I am fearfully and wonderfully made, including my brain. Although some of you may not believe that!

A colleague, desperate to prove that God does not exist, once told me that they prayed for God’s guidance. He said, “I prayed and prayed and prayed, but nothing happened. I finally just used my common sense and things worked out fine.” It didn’t occur to the man that God had given him a mind specifically for that purpose.  God usually leads us through common sense. And, of course, the best of all sense comes from the Word of God.

A man lived in a very low-lying area near a river. A man in a jeep drove up one day and said, “This area is about to be flooded. You need to get out of here!” The man replied, “I’ll just stay here and trust the Lord to take care of me.” And very soon the water was swirling around his front porch as he sat in his rocking chair.  Soon after that, a man came by in a boat, saying, “You need to get out of here. The water is getting higher and higher.” The man replied, “I’ll be okay. I’m just going to trust the Lord.”  Finally, the man ended up on his roof because of the rising water. It had already flooded his house. Suddenly, a helicopter appeared overhead and lowered a chair so he could be taken to safety. He shouted back, “It’s okay. I’ll stay here. I’m trusting the Lord to take care of me.”  Well, the man drowned and in heaven, he complained to the Lord that He hadn’t take care of him. And the Lord said, “Hey! I sent you a jeep, a boat and a helicopter. WHAT ELSE DID YOU WANT ME TO DO?”

God usually leads us through common sense, but GOD SOMETIMES LEADS THROUGH CIRCUMSTANCES

In the early 1970s, my Mum was out in a pub with a friend, sitting at one end of a table.  Sitting at the other end were two young men.  My Mum’s friend said something funny causing my Mum to laugh so hard and unexpectedly that she spat her drink out straight into the face of the young man sat at the opposite end of the table.  That young man is now my not quite so young Dad and they have been married for 42 years!!!  I do believe that God leads through certain circumstances.

In  Acts 16:6  Paul was “kept by the Holy Spirit from preaching the Word in the province of Asia.”  Up to this point, Paul apparently went wherever he wanted to go. He did what seemed best to him. Now, he wanted to go to Ephesus, but the Holy Spirit hindered him somehow. They tried to enter Bithynia, but the Spirit of Jesus would not allow them to.  Some people think that the Holy Spirit spoke to Paul in an audible voice, like “Don’t go that way, Paul!” And I certainly don’t want to limit God and say that He didn’t do that or can’t do that.   God can do whatever He wants, because He is God. And if He did speak to Paul audibly through the Holy Spirit I wish He would do that for me too!

However, there is a good possibility that Paul just encountered a series of closed doors. Maybe he got sick and couldn’t go. Perhaps the boat trip got cancelled or the Jews opposed him. Whether it was an inner feeling or an outer frustration, the result was the same. Paul couldn’t do what he intended to do.  God wasn’t telling Paul where He wanted him to go. He was just telling him where He didn’t want him to go. Sometimes the Lord’s “no” leads to His ultimate “yes.”  How many times has it happened that life plans have had to be changed or cancelled because of unforeseen circumstances only for the outcome to be better than the original plan would have been?  God leading through circumstance.  Wallace Johnson, multi-millionaire co-founder of the Holiday Inn hotel chain said, “When I was forty years old, I worked in a sawmill. One morning the boss told me, ‘You’re fired!’ Depressed and discouraged, I felt like the world had caved in on me. It was during the depression and my wife and I greatly needed the small wages I had been earning.  When I went home, I told my wife what happened. She asked, ‘What are you going to do now?’ I replied, ‘I’m going to mortgage our little home, and go into the building business. My first venture was the construction of two small buildings. And within five years I was a multi-millionaire! Today, if I could find the man who fired me, I would sincerely thank him for what he did. At the time it happened, I didn’t understand why I was fired. Later, I saw that it was God’s unerring and wondrous plan.”  Sometimes God’s “no” is ultimately His “yes.” That closed door, that lost job, that sickness, that terminated relationship, etc. may just be the protection and direction of God!

God often leads through common sense, sometimes through circumstance, and finally GOD OCCASIONALLY MAY LEAD THROUGH DRAMATIC REVELATION
“During the night Paul had a vision of a man of Macedonia standing and begging him, ‘Come over to Macedonia and help us.’ After Paul had seen the vision, we got ready at once to leave….”  Paul had a dramatic revelation from God, and not for the first time.  I’ve never had a vision, but I’ve dreamed a lot. In fact, I’ve woken up in the middle of the night many times with a great idea for a sermon. I get up and write it down and it generally turned out to be good. BUT I’VE NEVER HAD A VISION LIKE PAUL DID. That’s not to say it couldn’t happen, but it’s never happened to me.

Three vicars at a conference decide to use their lunch break as a time for some sightseeing and a visit to a local medieval church. On the way to the church, they kept looking for an eating place where they could be served quickly. When a place was spotted that looked promising, someone would say, ‘That looks too expensive,’ or ‘It doesn’t look clean,’ or ‘It probably would take forever to be served.’  At the end of a high street one of them noticed a sign saying ‘Mom’s Cafe” and suggested it to the others.  The vicar, who was driving, looked to the left to see it. A second later they rammed into the back of the car ahead, which had stopped at the traffic light. The little foreign car in which they were riding could not be driven another foot, but they had stopped right in front of ‘Mom’s Cafe.’ Was God trying to show them that this was the right place to eat, or was He trying to stop them from visiting the church? Or was it God’s doing at all? PERHAPS IT WAS JUST THE VICAR’S FAULT FOR NOT WATCHING THE TRAFFIC!  God occasionally may lead us through dramatic revelation, but this story is not a story about a dramatic revelation from God, it is about careless driving.   It worries me a little when we expect God to lead us through dramatic revelations all of the time and believe that all dramatic revelations must come from God, as John Wesley said, “Do not hastily ascribe things to God. Do not easily suppose that dreams, voices, visions, or impressions are revelations from God. They may be from Him. They may be from nature. They may be from the devil. Therefore, do not believe every spirit but try the spirits to see whether they are from God.”

There are three signs that we can use to know that we are following God’s will:
First, is it in accord with Scripture?
Vance Havner, an American evangelist said, “We’ve heard that statement countless time, ‘it all depends on how you look at it.’ Nothing depends on how we look at it. That is anarchy with every man as his own judge. Everything depends on how God looks at it, and what He says about it in His Word.”

Second, are the doors opening up? Or do you have to pry them open?  A. W. Tozer, the theologian, said, “If the Lord is in it, it flows. If it is forced, it is of the flesh.”  If our doors don’t open with a reasonable amount of effort, then we need to back off. God is keeping the door shut for a reason, don’t be too busy concentrating on the door that has shut or won’t open at all to notice the other door opening elsewhere.

Third, is it what you want? If you have an ability, a talent, in a certain area or you really like something and everything has fallen into place, then God is probably leading you.

My Dad is quite a large man and before the major chain stores started stocking XXXL clothes, we used to have to order them from specialist shops online.  On the bottom of the order form from one particular place it read ‘IF WE DO NOT HAVE THE ITEM IN STOCK, MAY WE PLEASE SUBSTITUTE?’  With some trepidation we ticked the appropriate box to say yes we would accept substitutes.  One day we received an order with a letter saying ‘We are sorry we do not have your item in stock, but we are substituting…’” and they sent something that was worth double the price we had paid. As a rule, whenever they substituted, they always sent something of better quality.  One important thing we must remember when trying to determine God’s will for our lives is this: When we pray for direction, we must be willing to say, ‘YES, LORD, YOU MAY SUBSTITUTE WHAT I WANT FOR ANYTHING ELSE.’”  “Lord, this is what I want, BUT THY WILL BE DONE.”  And when we truly mean these words, God will direct us and bless our lives. And in ways we never thought possible, and usually with something far superior than what we had planned for ourselves.

The Ongoing Saga Of God’s Universe

Revelation 1: 7

Does anyone remember the hoohah surrounding the coming of the millennium?  How the world was on a state of high alert because it was believed that when the dates in all computers all changed to reflect the year 2000 everything was going to stop working – planes would fall from the sky, the national grid would cease to function; basically the whole world would be brought to its knees.  I remember waking up on 1st January 2000 to discover that absolutely nothing had changed and the predictions of doom were totally unfounded.  This reminds me a little of how some Christians view the book of Revelation. Many Christians interpret this book of the bible as a prediction of what will happen sometime in the future. They go into incredible detail about who will be taken into the Kingdom, and who will burn in hell.  Some even calculate the date when these things will happen, and then look foolish when the date passes without incident and everything remains the same. Sound familiar?  Perhaps this is because they asking the wrong question of the Scripture.  I would like to suggest that Revelation is not about foretelling the future: it’s all about telling forth what God is doing in the here and now.

There are many books in the bible which tell us what happened in the past, and why it is important for us.  Other books – the prophets – tell you how to prepare for what will happen in the future.  But in both cases the emphasis is on the present time.  We are caught up in an ongoing story; it doesn’t matter how historically accurate the accounts of what led up to this point are, or whether anything will happen precisely as the bible describes it in the future.  The people of Jesus’ time were quite accustomed to this form of poetry and narrative.  To call it myth would be “myth-leading” – sorry – because the word myth suggests that it has no connection with the truth. It would be better to call it a saga: an ongoing story, beginning in the mists of the past, and ending heaven knows when, but in which we have an important role to play in the present.  Imagine you recently started as a scriptwriter on one of the many soap operas on the TV that have been going for years – Eastenders, perhaps, or Coronation Street.  You may put fresh words into the mouth of an established character; but you are not a free agent.  You have to base your writing on what has happened to the character in all previous episodes, which now cannot be changed. Unless of course you are scriptwriters for Dallas who managed to bring a character back from the dead!!!  You may even have been warned to prepare the ground for future episodes and events that will happen to the character.  Thus you have to breathe into the character, a life of their own, whilst taking these things into account.  The past and the future will all shape the present.  And so it is for each of us: we pick up our role, our script, in God’s ongoing saga called “The History of the Universe”.  And the bible is the given background for each of us in the creative task of living a human life.

So, for me, the purpose of the prophetic books like Revelation is to make us ask not “What will be the ending of the story?” but, “To what end am I here?”  When St John writes, “Look! He is coming with the clouds; every eye will see him, even those who pierced him”, does he mean that Jesus will mysteriously ride on a cloud from heaven to earth?  If we do take this literally then those who crucified Christ will have to be brought back to life first, and all the millions of bodies who lived in the past will have to be resurrected and crammed into a narrow area where they will be able to watch his landing!  So it’s more likely that John is quoting from the book of Daniel where it is written that the Son of Man will come on the clouds to God in heaven, where of course there is no time as we know it.  Perhaps the ascension of Christ was what John was writing about. Or perhaps he is talking about the eternal present, meaning that when we enter our eternal destination at our death, we shall see Jesus.  Either way, John is describing something which is already unfolding. For the bible, the future is now.

Some people live in the past. They are so busy remembering what happened when they were younger, that they never come to terms with what is going on around them in the present.  Others live in the future, dreaming dreams of what might be, of what they would like it to be, but taking no practical steps to make it that way.  But Jesus tells us to live in the present. In the Sermon on the Mount he said, “Do not worry about your life, what you will eat or what you will drink, or about your body, what you will wear. Is not life more than food, and the body more than clothing?”  So we shouldn’t waste time worrying about the future or grieving about what is already history – we must concentrate on the daily tasks which face us now, and play our part in making the world a better place.  We can’t change the past, but we can ruin a perfectly good present by worrying about the future.  For the writers of the bible, and for us, the future has already arrived, and we must play our part in the ongoing saga of God’s universe.

Be Confident In Your Doubt

John 20: 24-29

An atheist was taking a walk through the woods. ‘What majestic trees! What powerful rivers! What beautiful animals!’, he said to himself. As he continued walking alongside the river he heard a rustling in the bushes. Turning to look, he saw a 7 foot grizzly bear charging towards him. He ran as fast as he could up the path. Looking over his shoulder, he saw that the bear was closing in on him. His heart was pumping frantically and he tried to run even faster. He tripped and fell on the ground. He rolled over to pick himself up but saw the bear raising his paw to take a swipe at him. At that instant the atheist cried out: ‘Oh my God!…’

Time stopped.
The bear froze.
The forest was silent.

It was then that a bright light shone upon the man and a voice came out of the sky saying: ‘You deny my existence for all of these years, teach others I don’t exist and even credit creation to a cosmic accident.  Do you expect me to help you out of this predicament? Am I to count you as a believer?’

The atheist looked directly into the light. ‘It would be hypocritical of me to suddenly ask you to treat me as a Christian now, but perhaps, could you make the BEAR a Christian?’

‘Very well,’ said the voice. The light went out, and the sounds of the forest resumed.

And then the bear lowered his paw, bowed his head and spoke: ‘Lord, bless this food which I am about to receive and for which I am truly thankful, Amen.’

Joking aside, that was obviously a silly story about someone having doubts and needing proof before they had faith, but this morning we heard a story about another person for whom doubt was at the forefront of their mind for a short while.

Poor old Thomas. Forever stuck with the label “Doubting Thomas”, just because he happened to be somewhere else when Jesus first visited the disciples after the Resurrection. We don’t know where he was. Some people think he wanted to be alone because he was upset but there’s no evidence for that. He might just have been out shopping or visiting relatives. But when he came back and the other disciples were tumbling over each other to tell him Jesus had been there, he refused to believe it. He wanted to see and touch the wounds of crucifixion. Nothing else would do, but tangible evidence. There’s something derogatory about that phrase “Doubting Thomas”, but Thomas was no different from the rest of the disciples. Any of them would have said just the same thing if they had missed seeing Jesus: Show me the evidence. It’s just too much to believe otherwise. People don’t just come back from the dead, and certainly not from such a death as that. More to the point, Thomas was no different from any of us. We’d have said the same thing as well, if we’d been in the same circumstances as he was. Thomas stands as a proxy for all of us, reflecting our doubts and our demands – or at least our secret yearnings – for proof, for evidence of some sort or other. If you’re a person who never has any doubts whatsoever, great – you can switch off for the next few minutes – check your emails, read your Facebook, or just daydream – I’m talking to everybody else.

At some time or other we have doubts, whether they’re about the Resurrection or the very existence of God. We have doubts for lots of different reasons. We sometimes have doubts because of the way things are in society generally. As practising Christians, we’re in a minority. We often hear that the majority of people in Britain claim to be nominally Christian but very few people stand up for Christian values. We have to put up with a lot of mockery and scepticism – from comedians, from novelists, newspaper columnists, from politicians and spin doctors, from a whole range of people. Sunday becomes less and less a special day – or rather, it becomes more special as a day of shopping and commercial sport. We don’t need to be upset about all that; we don’t need to get into condemnation mode. God is big enough to look after himself and he’ll make his judgements in due course. But the overall secular trend of society can wear away at our faith, if we let it.

We may have doubts because of what is called scientific rationalism. Only those things that can be explained by science are considered genuine or valid. Some scientists are among those who mock religious people, for thinking outside the scientific box. We live in a very technological age and the technology is underpinned by science, so some people think everything has to be science-based.

We might have doubts because we have had bad experiences, or because we see other people having bad experiences. Bereavement and illness are times when doubt can creep into our lives, especially when someone dies prematurely in tragic circumstances or we suffer intolerable pain.  We probably all know of people who have lost their faith because they’ve seen close friends and relatives suffer, even sometimes when the suffering person clings faithfully to God. We ask uneasy questions when we see natural disasters.

Or perhaps we have doubts because we don’t have the reassuring experiences that other people seem to have. We yearn for blessed assurance, like Thomas, we weren’t there ourselves to see the risen Jesus. We want to see a sign. We want to hear a voice. But then if we did hear a voice we would be accused of being mad.

We all know in our heart of hearts that none of these things is a genuine reason for doubt. What the rest of society thinks doesn’t matter. God-fearing people have always been in a minority. The Old Testament prophets repeatedly called God’s people a faithful remnant. Scoffers have always been around. The psalmist writes “The fool in his heart says there is no God” [14, 53]. Maybe in the 19th century and the early 20th century the majority of people in Britain were churchgoers but they were the unusual times. Throughout most of history, the majority of people have turned their backs on God. And yet, worldwide, the church is still growing. We know that there are very many scientists who are Christians, some of them famous, but very many who are pretty ordinary, unremarkable people, going about their jobs finding out how the world works and at the same time knowing and worshipping Jesus. True, there are some in both the scientific and Christian communities who see the other side as the enemy, but in reality there is no need for any conflict. Science itself is often a matter of belief. A lot of science that was believed a century ago has been shown to be wrong. A lot of what we know now for certain sure will one day turn out to be wrong. Theories stand up until they fall down. God still watches over us.

And what about suffering? The age-old question. It’s not easy to find answers for people who are in the depths of despair, and nor should we try. Our role at such times is to lend a listening ear and to give comfort and love, not to cause further anguish with naive answers. A friend of mine who is acquainted with a member of one of the more charismatic churches told me that another member of that church, in the depth of grief, asked a church elder why a young friend of hers had died. She was told, because you didn’t pray hard enough. That’s a disgrace, in the true meaning of the word. But the fact is, Jesus suffered. Jesus suffered the most painful torture and the most humiliating and disgusting death, worse than any of us could possibly imagine. We know that whatever we suffer, Jesus shares our suffering with us. He knows all about it. He’s been there already. We might not know why there is suffering, but we know where we can find comfort and in due time we know where to lead others for comfort.

Do you want to see signs, hear voices? Thomas said he wouldn’t believe unless he saw the nail marks, put his finger in them, put his hand in the wound in Jesus’s side. When I was a young girl at Sunday School, I remember drawing a picture of Thomas and Jesus. I drew Thomas actually touching the wound. I think I must have assumed that’s what happened after Jesus said “Reach out your hand and put it into my side.” Maybe I was even taught that. But John doesn’t say so, and he’s the only gospel writer who tells us about this incident. It seems that in the end Thomas didn’t need to touch the wounds of Jesus. He just knew. He just knew that he’d come face to face with the risen Jesus. “My Lord,” he said. But not just “My Lord,” – “My Lord and my God.” Thomas just knew, because he knew Jesus.

There’s no getting away from the fact that it is more difficult for us because we never met the human Jesus face to face, but we can still know him. The way to know him is quite simple – it’s to read about him in the gospels. Not just once, but time and time again. There’s always something new to find out about him. There’s nothing there about his physical appearance or what his voice was like or what sort of food he enjoyed most, but that all helps us to get to know the inner person of Jesus better – his compassion, his mercy, his forgiveness, his sympathy, his love, his authority, his great strength. All of that is there in the gospels and the more we read about it the better we know him. There’s another passage as well that I find very reassuring about the Resurrection. It’s in Paul’s first letter to the Corinthians, chapter 15. Paul tells us that Jesus appeared to Peter, and then to the apostles, and after that he appeared to more than five hundred people at the same time. Some of those people, including Peter himself, went on to be executed for preaching the Resurrection of Jesus. Would those people have died for a lie? They were willing to die because they knew they had seen the risen Jesus and they were confident that death was not the end. I find that a very powerful antidote to doubt because I can’t think of any reason why those people would have sacrificed their lives if the Resurrection were not true. Do you want a sign? The Resurrection itself was a sign. The day of triumph was Good Friday, when God achieved victory over death by allowing himself to die. The Resurrection was the sign of that victory, a sign we can all believe in. It wasn’t just a one-off miracle, to be argued and debated over. It was a sign of mercy, that every single one of us can accept personally, generation after generation, to encourage us in our faith and to help us to overcome our doubts. We don’t have to understand it. We just have to accept it. We shall still have doubts from time to time – our inner voice will whisper to us, “Are you sure? Are you really sure?” We might think that because we have doubts we can be no good at bringing other people to Jesus, but it’s not true. Very often it’s those Christians who seem most certain about everything who are least sensitive to the struggles of people who are seeking faith, or who use pat arguments that they haven’t thought about. Because we know what doubt is all about we can understand the things that make people sceptical, we can be in tune with them, we can explain the reasons for our faith and how we ourselves deal with doubt. So, if it’s not too much of a contradiction, let’s be confident in our doubt and make it work for the kingdom, even as we work through it to a better knowledge of Jesus. Because we know that if we carry on trusting him even through our doubts we can stand before him and say, with Thomas, “My Lord and my God.”

Reluctant Blogger

Why? The eternal question…

I have been a Reader for the Church of England since 2013 and have written and preached lots of sermons, all of which I have saved on my laptop never to be seen or heard again.  Or so I thought.

A few weeks ago, my husband suggested that I should have a blog and publish my sermons. He thought that the sermons should reach a wider audience as I put so much effort in to writing them. I felt that it was far too personal and wasn’t ready to share with the world. However, anyone with a faith knows that God moves in mysterious ways and calls us to do things out of our comfort zone. In the weeks following my husband’s first suggestion of publishing a blog, several other people from church, on a few separate occasions, have asked me to consider publishing my sermons for other people to have access to what I’ve preached.

Well, I can’t keep pretending that God is not calling me to share so, reluctantly, I am going to publish some of my sermons, prayers and musings on faith in the 21st century.  I do not claim to be a great theological mind nor am I anything other than a Christian with a gift for talking about the word of God and what it means to us all today. I hope you enjoy reading the sermons and, maybe, God willing, there may be something to inspire you, challenge you, or nurture you.

Yours

The Reluctant Blogger

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