Thursday, 14 December 2017

Where Will It All End?

LUKE 1:39-56 Advent 3 2017.  A Reflection.

(First told in the sermon slot during worship at Luther King House Theological College on December 12th 2017)

Christmas can get out of hand can’t it?  Especially when the relatives turn up …

Well here’s a Christmas story about a relative coming to visit and things getting out of hand.

Oops sorry –  that’s not very LC is it? 


Liturgically Correct.

Let me start again.

Here’s an advent story about a relative coming to visit.

Let me warn you, it’s an odd story.  You know, like one of those modern stories where you are never entirely surely what’s going on.  If you listen carefully, underneath the surface you can hear all kinds of chaos bubbling away.  Frankly, it’s a little disturbing, the kind of story that leaves your wondering, “Where will it all end?”

But I’m getting ahead of myself.

Let’s start at the beginning.

It all starts rather, well, rather recklessly.

Mary, pregnant Mary, runs for the hills. No one is entirely sure why she was in such a hurry.  Perhaps she was embarrassed?  Or maybe she was Excited? Either way she seems to have forgotten that advent is about patient waiting. Doesn't bode well does it?

In fact, the more the story unfolds the more it begins to look as though this ‘ere pregnancy malarkey is affecting Mary's memory rather badly. Not only has she forgotten the meaning of advent but she’s also forgotten her manners.

Instead of greeting the man of the house, you know, behaving properly, she heads straight for the old woman. No don’t complain, don't accuse me of being sexist, it is his house.  Look, it says it.  Right there in Holy Scripture. “… she entered the house of Zechariah and greeted Elizabeth.  See!

I don't know about you but quite frankly I don’t know what to make of it. Maybe she’s being rude, or perhaps just a bit cheeky - she is a teenager after all.  Mind you,  there could another, more sinister possibility.  Some would say, God forbid, that she’s being deliberately subversive.  I do hope not.  After all, where will it all end?

Actually, the more you read the story, the more you find yourself wondering if there hasn’t been something of an outbreak of recklessness in Judah.  Even the Holy Spirit has been affected. 

I mean look.  He too is ignoring the proper channels, bypassing the priest, the man, and pressing Elizabeth’s prophecy button instead!  I can think of some who might argue that God has silenced old Zech on purpose, you know, just to let the women get a word in edgeways.

Then the next thing you know, the babies are getting in on the act.  Unborn babies! First there's Holy Spirit inspired prophecy that sees deep enough to recognise the Lord in a foetus and then we get charismatic dancing in utero.  The world’s going mad!  Where will it all end?

Actually, there might be another way of looking at this.  I said it was the Holy Spirit who was behind these goings on, but you know what, on reflection, if you look carefully at what Elizabeth says, you’ve got to wonder if this really is the Holy Spirit at work after all.

I mean, bless her, Elizabth seems to have got a bit mixed up.  On the one hand she thinks that Mary’s unborn child is her Lord, “Why has the mother of my Lord come to me?” and in the next breath she’s speaking as if the Lord is the one who sent the Angel with the message about the baby, “… blessed is she who believed … what was spoken to her by the Lord.” 

See what I mean?  Poor old dear.  Probably a bit hormonal.  Getting her theology all confused like that.

Next up, the pregnant teenager is at it. And boy! (sorry, child!) does she go for it. 

Talk about delusional! Just because crazy aunty Liz has called her blessed she now seems to think that all generations will call her blessed!  I mean to say!  All generations?  Who does she think she is?  After all Joseph’s no Abraham and she’s no Sarah.

But there’s more … not only has she got delusions of grandeur, she’s starting to sound like one of those there dangerous radicals.  Someone somewhere is not complying with the prevent strategy. And once you start playing fast and loose with government directives, well, who knows where it will all end?

I mean, have you heard the stuff she’s coming out with? Bad theology and subversive politics that's what!

“Bad theology?” I hear you ask.  Well just take a look. She sounds like one of those soppy evangelicals. Me, me, me, my, my, my – my God, my Saviour, my blessing.  This is the worst kind of Yahweh is my boyfriend nonsense.  I ask you! What she needs is a year or two at theological college.

And then on top of all this extreme, hyper-spiritual, over-individualised, doe-eyed nonsense, she starts laying down extremist politics: scattering the proud indeed!  Or in other words scaring people off!

Not only that but she’s advocating the overthrow of legitimate governments;  wasting money on scroungers – oops sorry – PC alert – “the lowly”;  taxing the rich so they no longer have two bank accounts to rub together and then giving it all to the so called hungry.  Prophetic correctness gone mad!  Where will it all end?

So, there you have it a strange chaotic tale in an obscure backwater.  A pregnant teenager. A doddering old woman.  A dancing foetus.  Confused theology. Superspiritual twaddle.  Loony left politics. And not a man in sight anywhere to keep order.  I ask you: Where will it all end?

Of course, we like to think that we know where it will all end: a cross, a grave, a resurrection, a Holy Spirit deluge, a new people, a coming again and a new heaven and earth.

I do like a happy ending.

Only this story isn’t about eagerly anticipated endings it’s about unexpected beginnings. Odd beginnings with divine life making an appearance among unfavoured people in strange places, unnamed places, easily overlooked places, quiet places, hidden places, places as deep and dark and quiet and hidden as a hymen-sealed womb.

Friday, 26 May 2017

After The Bomb

This week the place where I live was violated.  Children from our city and our region, were cruelly killed and maimed.  As you are no doubt aware, Manchester is living through one of the most difficult weeks in its proud history.  And in the heart of this city my colleagues and I at Northern Baptist College have been getting on with the job that we believe God has given us, the same job that the college has been doing for over 150 years, preparing people for servant leadership in the Church of Jesus Christ.  It hasn’t been easy. 

On Tuesday, our staff team travelled out of our shaken city for an away day.  We spent most of our time naming, discussing and praying for each of our students.  Today, back at Luther King House, our home base on Manchester’s famous curry mile, we have been interviewing four people who believe that God is calling them into Christian ministry, calling them in other words to devote their lives to helping people to follow Jesus, helping people to love, to serve, to pursue peace and to work for justice. To be involved in such a process is always a profound privilege. This week it seems a particularly fitting way to be spending our time.


Well, because the slaughter on our doorstep has reminded us just how much our city needs communities of people committed to living the Jesus way.  When some might be tempted to let anger turn into hatred, Manchester needs people who will remember that each of its citizens, whether red or blue, whether African, Asian or European, whether Sikh or Christian, Jewish or Muslim, whether northern-born or less fortunate, every last one of us is first and foremost a human being, created by God, bearing the image of God (however distorted) and precious in the sight of God.

As one of those charged by my denomination to form the next generation of church leaders I have to make sure that all our students remember what churches are for. No one can be allowed to leave our college in any doubt whatsoever that our churches must never become self-interested, seeking only their own wellbeing, neglecting the communities that God has called them to serve.  They must never be allowed to think that mission is only about growing bigger and bigger churches. They must never be allowed to devote themselves to growing disciples simply for the sake of growing disciples without asking what disciples are for, what difference disciples are supposed to make in the wider world.

We need leaders who will help churches become what they were always meant to be: communities of the prince peace, the healer, the lover of outcasts, the one who would eat with anyone whether he was supposed to or not, the one who wept for Jerusalem.  Any church that does not seek the welfare of its city is a contradiction in terms. Any church that forgets to build bridges of reconciliation forgets whose church it is.  Any church that is content to let outsiders stay out has lost its way and lost sight of its Lord.  Any church that thinks that this kind of stuff is none of its business is plain wrong.

That’s what I have to remember.  That’s what this difficult week has reminded me.  I pray to God that I will never forget.  I pray that you will never forget either, even if you are not fortunate enough live in Manchester. 

One of the things that people often say, when they are touched by tragedies such as the one that happened on our doorstep, is, “I wanted to do something but I felt helpless.”  If that’s you then thank God you’re are not helpless. If like me you name Jesus as your saviour, there’s lots you can do.  Here’s six suggestions for starters.

1.    You can resolve to remind yourself each morning that every person who lives in your village, town or city is a child of Adam and Eve and therefore your brother or sister in God.
2.    You can commit yourself to helping your church to become the kind of church that behaves a bit more like Jesus.
3.    You can identify someone in your community from another background, another race, another religion and simply get to know them. If that sounds scary, start by smiling and saying, “Hello.”
4.    You can find a group that is working to build bridges in your community and join them, whether they carry a Christian label or not.
5.    You can go on praying the prayer that Jesus taught us pray, “… your will be done in my part of your earth as it is in heaven” and then act like you mean it.
6.    And you can, if you would be so kind, pray for my colleagues and me in the heart of our hurting city, that we might be able to grow leaders who know how to grow churches who know how to grow the kind of communities that will gladden the heart of God.

This first appeared on Christian Today

Friday, 22 April 2016

Some Good News About Goodnewsing

Jesus seemed to think that evangelism was an important part of being a disciple.  He told Simon and Andrew that to follow him would mean fishing for people.  He told those of his friends who stuck with him in Jerusalem that when he sent the Holy Spirit they would end up being his witnesses.  According to Matthew, his parting words make it clear that to be a disciple is to make other disciples.  It all seems pretty straightforward.  If we call ourselves Christians we are meant to evangelise.

The same is true if we call ourselves Baptists.  The official basis of our union only has three principles, one of those is that every disciple is to bear personal witness to the good news and take part in the evangelisation of the world. 

So, how’s that going? 

Ah, thought as much, sorry to hear that. 

More and more of us seem to have a problem with evangelism.  On the one hand we know we are supposed to, but quite frankly much of the evangelism we have seen puts us off. “If that’s what evangelism looks like I wouldn’t do it to my worst enemies.” Evangelism can so easily become intrusive, arrogant, pushy, manipulative, forced, artificial, dishonest - anything but good news.  However, it doesn’t have to be that way. 

If you are not a fan of some of the evangelism that you’ve seen, here’s some good news - not the good news, but some good news about the good news.

·      You don’t have to stand on street corners shouting at people.
·      You don’t have to pretend that you want people to be your friends, just so you can evangelise them.
·      You don’t have to devise a cunning strategy to get your friends to come to church even though you are pretty sure they don’t want to.
·      You don’t have to invite them to hear some minor celebrity who’s pretending to talk about being a celebrity when really that’s just an excuse to preach the gospel.
·      You don’t have to wear a wrist band and explain what the heart, the X, the cross and the question mark stand for, or be able to draw The Bridge to Life, or memorise The Four Spiritual Laws, or any other formula for that matter.

Those things aren’t what evangelism is.  They are just some of the ways that people have gone about evangelism.

OK, then, so what is evangelism?

To put it simply, evangelism is the communication of the gospel.  It’s all about helping people to find out about and understand the good news of Jesus in the hope that they too will want to follow him.  Evangelism is goodnewsing, getting on with life in such a way that people have a chance to discover Jesus for themselves.

If I’m right, and this is what evangelism is, another bit of good news is that it’s best not to limit evangelism to verbal proclamation.

We can communicate the good news as individuals or as churches by the way we are, and the stuff we do as well as the things we say.  Being, doing and speaking are all important modes of evangelism.  When we are the kind of church that is welcoming, friendly, outward-looking, generous and forgiving, we communicate the good news by embodying it.  When we work to shelter the homeless, feed the hungry and campaign for the oppressed, we communicate the good news by enacting it.  When we explain to our friends why we pray, how we came to follow Jesus or what God means to us, we communicate the good news by articulating it.

Of course these three modes of communication work best when they work together.  That way they make for a richer expression of the gospel.  Being on its own is too passive.  Doing on its own is too ambiguous.  Speaking on its own is too facile. Get it all together though and our message is more likely to ring true.

The next piece of good news is evangelism doesn’t always have to be the thing at the front of our mind, the thing we are consciously aiming at.  In fact it often happens best when it happens obliquely.  Ironically, if evangelism is always the primary motivator for everything we are, do and say we will end up actually undermining our evangelism because we will make it inauthentic, twisted, less than genuine.

So, for example, when the way we are bespeaks Christ, when our churches are hospitable, honouring the least and including the outsider, this is indeed evangelistic, it communicates the good news, but our primary intent here is not to communicate but rather, together as a church, to live a Christ-like life. Evangelism in this mode is more often than not a blessed by product of trying to be faithful, Jesus-type communities.

Similarly, if we only ever care for the needy or work for peace and reconciliation so that we can let everyone see what the way of Christ looks like, there’s something about our motivation that is not true to the Jesus we hope to communicate.  Again, gospel communication in this mode happens best when we are focussed something else, such as loving people, irrespective of whether or not they are interested in our message.

This also applies when we speak of our faith. When we explain to friends why we pray, when we offer a Christ-informed perspective to colleagues at work chatting about an event in the news, even on occasions such as these it is not that we think, “OK, now I am going to evangelise.” No, we just do it because part of what it means to live as a Christian is to speak as a Christian and therefor to speak of Christ.

Now don’t get me wrong here.  I’m not against intentional proclamation of the gospel as one means of communicating good news. There will, of course, always be those times when our primary purpose is indeed to get the good news across. But these are evangelism’s special occasions not its everyday way of being. This is evangelism in its Sunday best not the kind of come as you are and take us as you find us evangelism which is the staple of ordinary goodnewsing. This matters, because when we allow disciples to believe that the exceptional is what defines evangelism we run the risk of putting them off.

Nor am I suggesting that we don’t have to speak about our faith.  I don’t think St. Francis ever actually said, “Preach the good news and if you must, use words” but I wish it hadn’t got round that he did.  Piping up about Jesus is a crucial part of evangelism.  But it’s a part not the whole. And it’s at its best when it’s not contrived but rather when we just tell our friends about Jesus, when we say what we say because that’s who we are, not because we are targeting someone, seeking to assuage our guilt or trying the get the pastor off our back.

I don’t know if these thoughts will help.  Some might think I’m watering down evangelism.  In which case I’ve not made myself clear.  I think I’m trying to beef it up.  I’m also trying to help people see that it can be a commonplace part of ordinary Christian living; something everyday for everyday disciples; something that everyday disciples just get one with; something for which the Baptist flavour of disciple becomes known – in life and not just on paper.  If that were to happen, that would be good news.

This was originally published in the Summer 2016 edition of Baptists Together

Friday, 8 May 2015

Benefit Cuts, The Poor and Christian Hyprocrisy. Post Election Musings On A Sad Morning.

I've been struggling this morning to express my feelings about last night's general
election.  It occurred to me that what I want to say is what I said back in 2010. This piece
originally appeared in The Baptist Times and then shortly after on this blog. I've already reposted it once two years ago when news came out of further benefit cuts.  I can do no better that repost again.

All together now:

I will speak out for those who have no voices

I will stand up for the rights of all the oppressed

I will speak truth and justice

I'll defend the poor and the needy

I will lift up the weak in Jesus' name

Or if you prefer:

I, the Lord of wind and flame,

I will tend the poor and lame.

I will set a feast for them.

My hand will save.

I wonder if you ever sing either of these hymns.  If so I do hope you won’t allow David Cameron and Nick Clegg to turn you into a hypocrite.

You see it looks like we are in for a period when the attention of the media will be, as ever, on the antics of the rich and famous (not least, following last week’s announcement, the royally rich and famous.) [This was originally reference to the announcement of the engagement of Prince William and Kate Middleton. You may wish to take it now as a reference to the birth last week of Charlotte Windsor.]  Meanwhile hundreds of thousands of the not nearly so rich and the nowhere near as famous will, largely unnoticed, be struggling to cope as their jobs are snatched away and their benefits slashed.

“Oh dear” I hear you say, “this is getting a bit political.”  Well, yes, but my purpose in raising this is not to debate the minutiae of government fiscal policy.  I’m not sure that an economics A level from 1978 is sufficient qualification to pronounce on the relative merits of Keynes and Friedman as gurus for hard times.  Instead I’m going to stick to what I know. 

I reckon I’m on safe ground when I tell you that thirty five years of reading the Bible has lead me to the conclusion that Jesus is not very fond of hypocrisy.  And make no mistake it will be the rankest of rank hypocrisy if in coming years the church in this country continues to sing its hymns of solidarity and preach its sermons on God’s care for poor while keeping stum about the impact of legislation on the lives of the most vulnerable.   It would also be somewhat less than satisfactory for us to follow the all too familiar path of sticking to escapist praise songs and ignoring awkward Bible passages.

For the purposes of this column whether you voted Tory, Labour, Lib Dem or Monster Raving Looney is not really my concern.  My point is that as Christians we all belong to a political party that has as one of the main planks of its platform a policy that is set firmly against passing by on the other side.  Ever since the good Samaritan did his stuff we have declared care-less neglect of the battered and the bruised to be a bad thing.  And those who shoot their mouths off about how the world should be run really ought to try and muster up at least an ounce or two of consistency.

We can agree on that can’t we?  That the church ought to be speaking out on behalf of those whom the majority of society would rather ignore?  That we should be trying to wrestle the spotlight away from princes and prima donnas, nudging it instead towards those upon whom God’s eye rests?

If not, perhaps it’s time to call an end to the party.  At the very least we should take our scissors to our Bibles and attack our hymn projection software with the delete button.  The Magnificat for instance, and all those songs based upon it, should be left on the cutting room floor this Christmas.  True, the bland and anaemic version of Christianity with which we would be left is a rather distasteful thing, but not nearly as nauseating a full blown hypocrisy.

This piece originally appeared in The Baptist Times and is reproduced here with permission of the editor.

Friday, 19 December 2014

A Christmas Sermon Inspired By The Eurythmics, U2, Operation Red Dawn and The Bible.

I came across this in the depths of my computer while looking for some material for a sermon I have to preach.  It's old but, for once, it's an old one I quite like.  Also, somewhat unusually, it's actually a full script.  For both these reasons I thought I'd stick it up here.

 Everybody's Looking For Something

WBC Carols By Candlelight 2003

The story of course is set in what we now call the middle east. 

It's a story of how powerful men travelled many miles to look for a great ruler. 

It's a story of how they eventually find him, not in the capital city, but in an obscure village in a rural part of the country in the most surprising of circumstances. 

And it's the story of how the discovery led to great rejoicing far and wide.

But enough about the capture of Saddam Hussein.

Our concern is today is with a very different kind of ruler – but one who also inspired much searching. 

In fact it's a story where every body seems to be looking for something.

Caesar Augustus was searching out information, facts and figures about the greatness of his empire – how proud he must have been. 

Mary and Joseph are looking for a place for the night – desperately looking.

The angels, no doubt bursting with the kind of eager anticipation you feel when you've got good news to share, come to seek out the shepherds.

(Shepherds)  Who then trip off filled with curiosity to check out the heavenly story – a saviour? The lord Messiah? A baby in Bethlehem?

Then there's those determined magi – over five hundred miles because what they've read in the stars – a mysterious king – one who merits the costliest gifts.

Even Herod was on the look out – fearfully scouring his domain – petrified that he might be overthrown one day and determined to do what ever it takes to save his skin.

Then in the bit of the story that we don't usually get to, someone who's been waiting, looking out for such a long time, old man Simeon who despite his failing eye-sight sees more clearly than any – sees that the baby in the temple, cradled nervously by this teenage mum really is a little bundle of joy – in the way that all babies are supposed to be but also in a special way that will only ever apply to this baby.  He sees that this is the salvation of God the very light of the world and he sees that his waiting and searching and his life itself is now over, complete, brought to a good end.

Everybody is looking for something.

Fearfully looking, hopefully looking, proudly looking, looking with determination, looking because they are confused. 

That sense that so many have, that they still haven't found what they are looking for.

That sense is of course a part of the human condition long since recognised by many.  That sense that there must be more to life.  That this can't be all that there is to it.  That feeling of somehow being destined for something more than the ad men and the careers advisers have to offer.

It's a feeling that inspires many people to set off on many different searches. 
From the driven workaholic to the superficial shopaholic. From those few who embark on religious quests to the many millions who simply drift through life with a nagging question which they mostly manage to ignore and which only occasionally prompts them to consider looking for a serious answer.

The Christian faith of course has long had it's own take on this phenomenon.  Of all those who have tried to express it no one has done a better job than an African bishop who lived 1700 years ago.  Augustine put it in the form of prayer to God:

“You have made us for yourself and our hearts are restless till they rest in you.”

In other words every human being is created and destined to live life in relationship with God.  And whether they realise it or not that is what everyone is looking for.

But there's another part of the Christian take on this phenomenon and it's this that makes Christmas and indeed the whole Christian story such good news.

What none of those seekers in the Christmas story quite grasped is that there was someone else on a search.  While they were all looking for the baby, through the baby God was looking for them.

You see the Christian faith is not so much about us looking for God as it is about the incredible news that God has come looking for us.  When the baby grew up he put it straight:
“I came to seek and to save what is lost”

We may nor realise that we will never truly be at peace till we get to know him – but he does and he comes to offer that which we all need – a real life, here and now relationship with our creator.

So the message of Christmas is “Stop your looking and allow yourself to be found”.  Allow yourself to be found just as you are, whether you are an outsider like the magi, down to earth and plain ordinary like the shepherds or as fearful as Herod.  Allow yourself to be found simply by saying, “Here I am Lord, let’s get to know each other”.

If you want to know more talk, to one of your Christian friends.  Ask them what it's like to be found by God.  My prayer for you this Christmas is that everyone of you will find what you are looking for.

Happy Christmas.

(Here's a link to a downloadable pdf of this sermon on my Scribd page.)

Wednesday, 17 December 2014

Mary's Song

Propositioned, she consents and finds herself made pregnant.  Like millions before her and billions since?  She hopes, she fears, she wonders.  Pregnancy, the path down which she stares to life’s deep places.  Deep joy and deep despair.  The intimate connection only mothers know.  The pain of parting with a part of you.  Like millions before and billions since?  The gift of a child.  Her very own?  Not really.  Not for long.  The gift of a child, not to her but through her.  Given for others.  And so she hurts and so she sings.  For evermore rendered blue she sings her blues.  She sings from deep places. She sings in painful exaltation.  She sings the glory of God discovered in what not-her-child will do for others.  It hurts.  She sings.  Magnificent.

Sunday, 2 November 2014

Jesus n Jazz

Last week I had the privilege of speaking at Catalyst Live the rather splendid theological lovechild of Ted and BMS World Mission.  A number of people asked for the text of my talk so I've done the usual and stuck it up on Scribd.  If you are interested please help yourself.

Quite a lot of material was left on the cutting room floor this time round so I'm thinking I might sweep up some of the best bits and turn 'em into posts on this 'ere blog.  So dig out your breath bate and watch this space.