2018 RLT #26: Rest

Which commandment of God is most consistently ignored in the western world? I would argue that the command to take a weekly day of rest is a strong contender for that position.

‘Remember the Sabbath Day by keeping it holy. Six days you shall labour and do all your work, but the seventh is a sabbath to the LORD your God. On it you shall not do any work…’ (Exodus 20:8-10a)

‘The Sabbath was made for man, not man for the Sabbath’ (Mark 2:27).

In years gone by. the Sabbath (interpreted as referring to Sunday) left a bad taste in the mouths of many Christians. It featured a long list of things you could and couldn’t do. Could you go out for a meal? Could you read a newspaper or watch TV? Could you go to a soccer game? In some houses all you could read was the Bible or Pilgrim’s Progress!

Nowadays we’ve gone to the opposite extreme. Very few Christians seem to have any qualms about going out for lunch after church on Sunday (and thereby requiring others to work). Sunday sports is completely acceptable; in fact, if you’re a parent of a child in a sports league, it will likely displace church for at least half the year. We’re proud of the fact that we’re no longer legalistic. “We don’t interpret the Sabbath literally”, we say, meaning we don’t actually take any notice of it at all.

Also, society has changed; we no longer live in Christendom, and there is now no longer a single, agreed-on day of the week which is completely safe from the demands of economic activity. Your employer can require you to work any day they like, and require you to be available, via smartphone, at the times you aren’t at work (and if you’re self-employed, your customers will certainly expect that!).

I find it interesting that we so often counter an extremism by going to the opposite extreme! And all the time, looking at the people in my parish (especially the younger people), I find myself thinking, “Wow, they could really use a rest!” I’ve read that we sleep on average two hours a night less than our grandparents used to sleep. Most of us don’t work in jobs that wear us out physically, so we don’t go to bed exhausted and fall asleep right away. Also, we drink lots of caffeine, use electric light all evening and stare at screens – which plays havoc with our bodies’ production of melatonin, the hormone that helps us sleep.

Do we now begin to understand the sheer generosity of God? In Egypt the slave-drivers required the Israelite slaves t work 24/7 to produce bricks for their building projects, but when God led the slaves to freedom he gave them the priceless gift of a day off! Yes – the Sabbath was made for our benefit! God taught them – and he teaches us too – that we run best if we don’t give ourselves over to economic activity 24/7. Once a week, we need to take a break. ‘For best results, follow Maker’s instructions’!

Never mind what society says is legal or illegal; we can’t expect a secular society to make it easy for us to follow God’s instructions. We have to take responsibility for this ourselves. Maybe our Sabbath will not be Saturday (the Jewish Sabbath) or Sunday (the Christian ‘Lord’s Day’). All right – so what day of the week are we going to take as our Sabbath? And how are we going to take it?

Monday is my Sabbath, and I try to start it at least by Sunday evening. I don’t work on that day, I don’t book meetings for it, and I don’t check work email through the day. Marci and I are both off, so we have things we do together (one of my ideals is to spend a couple of hours outside, but I’ll freely admit that’s more of a summer than a winter thing).

I know of people who observe a digital sabbath – once a week they disconnect from all their screens and spend the day doing other things. In today’s world, where the screens so often summon us back to the demands of employers/customers and the relentless, 24/7 economy, I find that idea rather attractive, although I don’t do it myself (because I use my computer to write, and writing is one of the things I do for relaxation).

This is not about legalism. This is about health, wholeness, well-being, shalom. We have been told quite clearly that we run best if we take a regular weekly day of rest. ‘The Sabbath was made for man, not man for the Sabbath’. In other words, it’s not a law, it’s a gift. Which makes it so sad that today we so often refuse it. In the end, we’re the ones who suffer by that refusal.

What concrete steps could you take to receive the weekly Sabbath as a gift from God?


2018 RLT#25: Spirituality for the Road

At its best, Lent can be a wonderful opportunity to grow in love for God and love for other people. but all too often, Lent doesn’t reach its best. Sadly, Lent is often a self-centred time. We can spend six and a half weeks focussing on ‘my’ prayer life, ‘my’ spirituality, ‘my’ walk with God’, even ‘my’ sins. It can be all about me and God, and the neighbour never even enters into it.

A few years ago I read an excellent book called ‘Mission-Shaped Spirituality’. I love that title! Christian disciples are called to be in mission with Jesus – “Come, follow me…and I will send you out to fish for people” (Mark 1:17 NIV). There’s a spirituality that’s appropriate to this mission-shaped life, and we need to discover it.

Today in our prayer time Marci and I read this passage:

‘Then Jesus went around teaching from village to village. Calling the Twelve to him, he began to send them out two by two and gave them authority over impure spirits.

‘These were his instructions: “Take nothing for the journey except a staff—no bread, no bag, no money in your belts. Wear sandals but not an extra shirt. Whenever you enter a house, stay there until you leave that town. And if any place will not welcome you or listen to you, leave that place and shake the dust off your feet as a testimony against them.”

‘They went out and preached that people should repent. They drove out many demons and anointed many sick people with oil and healed them.’ (Mark 6:76b-13 NIV)

Obviously there are specific details in this commission that are particular to the time and situation: Jesus wants his message to get out to as many people as possible before the great crisis of his death and resurrection. But I think there are some points of connection with our own experience as we try to grow a ‘mission’-shaped spirituality’.

Mission-shaped spirituality involves growing in faith. If we disciples are going to be obedient to our master, we will sometimes need to go places and do things without a reassuring support-structure in place. If we have learned to trust God in the little details of daily life, it will be easier for us to trust God in larger things. This is why people who live in poverty are often better at living by faith than rich people (For a thrilling story of how an ordinary person learned to live by faith, I highly recommend ‘God’s Smuggler’ by Brother Andrew).

Mission-shaped spirituality is about delivering people from the power of evil. Whatever you think about ‘impure spirits’, it’s unquestionable that the spiritual forces of wickedness are alive and well on planet Earth, and many people suffer under their whip. Millions today suffer under the cruel hand of poverty, war, prejudice and injustice. Millions also suffer because they have never heard that there is a God who loves them and has come as one of us in Jesus to love them to the end. Gospel-shaped mission includes spoken witness, healing love, and deliverance from evil.

This Lent, how am I growing in mission-shped spirituality? Are my faith-muscles being exercised so I learn to trust God more and more each day? Am I looking for opportunities to be a blessing to the people around me through spoken witness, healing love, and deliverance from evil?

Lord Jesus, help us today to follow you, so that you can send us out to fish for people. Amen.


2018 RLT#24: Faith and Familiarity

We’re used to thinking of doubt as the opposite of faith, but for long time Christians, I wonder if familiarity isn’t a more pressing concern.

Today I read this passage:

‘Jesus left there and went to his hometown, accompanied by his disciples. When the Sabbath came, he began to teach in the synagogue, and many who heard him were amazed.

‘“Where did this man get these things?” they asked. “What’s this wisdom that has been given him? What are these remarkable miracles he is performing? Isn’t this the carpenter? Isn’t this Mary’s son and the brother of James, Joseph, Judas and Simon? Aren’t his sisters here with us?” And they took offense at him.

‘Jesus said to them, “A prophet is not without honor except in his own town, among his relatives and in his own home.” He could not do any miracles there, except lay his hands on a few sick people and heal them. He was amazed at their lack of faith.’ (Mark 6:1-6a NIV)

“Who does he think he is, claiming to be a wisdom teacher and a wonder worker? We watched him grow up and we saw all the things he got up to! He’s just the carpenter’s son; we see his family in the coffee shop every day! Nothing special about him”.

Familiarity breeds contempt – or just boredom. Every Sunday I stand up in church and say ‘On the third day he rose again’ and it barely registers. But for the first disciples it changed everything – absolutely everything – about their lives. The Jesus project went from abject failure to stunning victory in the space of twenty-four hours. They were shocked, afraid, excited, thrilled, awestruck – but they definitely weren’t bored.

Familiarity breeds contempt – but not automatically. I see here a list of family members of Jesus; so far in the Gospel of Mark all they’ve done in response to Jesus’ mission is call him a madman and tried to take him home before he harms himself (3:31-35). But thirty years later, one of these names, James, will be the revered leader of the Jerusalem church – a devout Jewish disciple of his brother Jesus, and one of the most radical teachers of faith and works in the New Testament.

So here’s my Lent thought for today. I need to learn to be like James: to grow old as a follower of Jesus, but not to grow bored.


2018 Random Lent Thought #23: Jesus and Prayer

I once heard Eugene Peterson talk about how Jesus transformed the prayer lives of his followers.

As far as we can tell, most people who came to Jesus in the Gospels did so because they wanted something from him – usually healing. There is no evidence that Jesus discouraged this; in fact, several times he asks people ‘What do you want me to do for you?’ If we can describe these requests for help as prayers, then almost all praying people in the gospels prayed out of a deep sense of personal need. And Jesus was happy to answer those prayers.

However, some of those people went on to become disciples of Jesus – as members of ‘the Twelve’, or of the larger group of those who followed him. These were obviously people who were beginning to move beyond self-interest and learn from Jesus to ‘seek first (God’s) kingdom and his righteousness’ (Matthew 6:33 NIV). And as we saw yesterday, these people were attracted by the quality of Jesus’ prayer life, and so at a certain point some of them came to him and said, “Lord, teach us to pray, just as John taught his disciples” (Luke 11:1 NIV). In response, he gave them the Lord’s Prayer, and two things about that prayer stand out.

First, it’s a prayer that starts with God’s concerns: ‘Hallowed be your name…your kingdom come, your will be done on earth as in heaven’. In this prayer we learn to delay our own felt needs and focus first on God’s vision – the glory of God, the love of God, the healing reign of God. ‘Not my will, but yours’.

Second, it’s a prayer that replaces the word ‘me’ with the word ‘us’. “Our Father…Give us each day our daily bread…Forgive us our sins, as we forgive…Lead us not into temptation but deliver us from evil”. Christian prayer may take place from time to time in a solitary place, but even when we pray alone, we don’t really pray alone; we pray as part of a community. And the fundamental prayer in the New Testament seems to be community prayer, just as it was for the Old Testament people. “For where two or three gather in my name, there am I with them” (Matthew 18:20 NIV).

Still today, Jesus is happy to teach us to pray. When we start out in our journey with him, we tend to come out of need – forgiveness, healing, comfort, strength, loneliness, fear etc. And Jesus is happy for us to start there; he has not one word of reproach for us.

But he’s not happy for us to get stuck there. Growth for us is going to mean  growth in learning to seek God’s will ahead of our own, and learning to see ourselves as part of a praying community, not just as isolated individuals. So when we ask him to ‘teach us to pray’ (and I hope we all continue to do that), here is his guidance: first, pray, about God’s will ahead of your own, and second, find someone else to pray with.

Lord, help us put these things into practice today.

2018 Random Lent Thought #22: Teach Us to Pray

‘One day, Jesus was praying in a certain place. When he had finished, one of his disciples said to him, “Lord, teach us to pray,just as John taught his disciples”‘ (Luke 11:1-2).

There was no such thing as privacy in the time of Jesus, and there wasn’t much silent praying either. People prayed in public and they prayed aloud. Jesus’ private prayer life was often not private, except when he withdrew to lonely places to pray.

I’ve learned a lot about prayer through books, but I’ve learned more from people who’ve been open about their prayer life and have been willing to invite me into it. I’ve learned the most from good friends who have ended significant conversations by offering to pray with me, and modelling for me what genuine, unpretentious prayer really is.

Jesus’ prayer life was attractive to his disciples; they wanted to learn to pray like that. And if the prayer that follows is any indication of the way Jesus habitually prayed, we can describe it as short, simple and unpretentious, focussing on God’s concerns first, not greedy for things we don’t need, but focussing on our real needs (daily bread, forgiveness, strength in times of testing).

Lord, teach me to pray as your prayed. And Lord, help me to teach others too. Amen.

Does God Love Me? (a sermon on John 3:16-17)

I want to start this morning by telling you a true story.

Many years ago, a bishop named Maurice Wood was fast asleep in his house at about three o’clock in the morning when the phone rang beside his bed. He reached for it and put it to his ear, and said a rather sleepy ‘Hello?’ And the voice of the man on the other end of the line said, “Is this the Bishop’s house?” “Yes”, Maurice replied. “Is this the Bishop?” “Yes it is”. “Bishop, can I ask you a question?”

For a moment Maurice didn’t reply, and then he said, “Have you any idea what time it is?” “Yes – it’s about three o’clock in the morning”. “Oh – right! What’s the question?” “Bishop – does God love me?”

And then Maurice realized that for this man at this moment in his life, this was the question – the question that was so important that it didn’t matter that he had to wake the Bishop up at three o’clock in the morning to ask it.

“Does God love me?” I suspect that, deep down inside, many of us have that same nagging question. Do I matter to God? Does God know my name? Does God love me?

Let me take you to two verses from our gospel reading for today, two verses in which we hear the Gospel, the Good News of Jesus Christ. Here they are:

‘For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but may have everlasting life. Indeed, God did not send the Son into the world to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved through him’ (John 3:16-17 NRSV).

So the fundamental truth that these verses announce to us is the truth of God’s love. God’s love led him to decide not to condemn the world. Instead, God’s love led him to give a gift – a free gift – the gift of ‘being saved’ through Jesus Christ. God offers this gift to each person, and God invites each of us to receive it.

What is this love like? It’s not a conditional love. We don’t have to earn it or deserve it. It’s not a reward for performance. The word John uses in the original language is ‘agapé’, which is a very unusual word in ancient Greek. It’s like the Old Testament word that’s translated in our NRSV Bibles as ‘steadfast love’. It’s not primarily a feeling, and it’s not based on feelings. It’s a decision that God makes to pour out his love on us, not because we are lovable but because God is love. It’s the love Jesus describes in the Sermon on the Mount when he says, “God makes his sun rise on the evil and the good, and sends rain on the righteous and the unrighteous” (Matthew 5:45). Another word often used for it in the Bible is charis, which is usually translated ‘grace’; it means a free gift, with no strings attached.

This is where we start with God. Philip Yancey says that what grace means is that there’s absolutely nothing we can do to make God love us more, and there’s absolutely nothing we can do to make God love us less. God already loves us infinitely, and nothing is ever going to change that.

So let me ask you – do you believe that?

If we really believe that, we can let go of the everlasting burden of having to win God’s approval. We can let go of the anxiety that if we put even one foot wrong it’s all up for us. We can have the sense that instead of standing over us with a big stick waiting to beat us up for our failures, God is standing beside us in Jesus to lift us up when we fall down. More than that, God is living in us through the Holy Spirit – the one Jesus describes earlier in John 3 as the ‘wind’ or ‘breath’ of God – giving us the oxygen of grace that we need to live the Jesus Way. If we really believe that God loves us, we can go home from church today in the sure knowledge, not just that God lives in our hearts, but that God holds us in his heart – which is surely the safest place in the world to be, now and through eternity.

So how do we know this is true? How do we know God loves us?

Our verse says, ‘For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son’. This doesn’t just mean ‘God loved the world so much that he gave his only Son’ – although that surely is good news! But it doesn’t give us the full range of meanings in the original. ‘God so loved the world’ is an archaic construction, which actually means ‘God loved the world in this way’. In other words, we’re not just taking about how much God loves us; we’re also talking about the form his love took on this one occasion, or the method he chose to show us his love.

‘Tim so loved his wife that he took her out for dinner on their anniversary’. Well done me! But what does that actually mean? Yes, of course, it means “I loved her so much that I wanted to give her a wonderful evening out” (and I hoped very much that her definition of ‘wonder’ included an evening with me!). But it also says something about the form my love took on this occasion: ‘I loved her in this way: I took her out for dinner on our anniversary’.

So what form did God’s love for us take? ‘God so loved the world that he gave his only Son’. The gift of God to the world was to send his Son into the world, ‘not…to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved through him’ (v.17).

We can think of this as describing the mission of Jesus in all its fullness – the mission that began when ‘The Word became flesh and lived among us, and we have seen his glory the glory as of a father’s only son, full of grace and truth’ (John 1:14). This ‘Word’ of God, according to John, was somehow at the same time God himself, and was also ‘with God’ – obviously John’s trying to describe a mystery far above our understanding. But what a gift God gives to the world! To come and live among us himself in the person of his Son, as one of us – to share our human life in all its frailty – all out of love for us. If God cared enough about the inhabitants of this planet to actually make himself vulnerable and be born as one of us, then surely that would be compelling evidence that ‘God loved the world’.

But in fact, our text is going further than that. Earlier in the passage, it refers to the story we read in our Old Testament reading today – the story of the bronze serpent in the wilderness. The people are wandering in the wilderness, grumbling and complaining to God about having nothing but manna to eat all day long, and suddenly they find themselves being attacked by poisonous snakes. They’re being bitten, and some of them are dying. So Moses prays for the people, and God tells him what to do: ‘“Make a poisonous serpent, and set it on a pole; and everyone who is bitten shall look at it and live”. So Moses made a serpent of bronze, and put it up on a pole; and whenever a serpent bit someone, that person would look at the serpent of bronze and live’ (8-9).

Verses 14-15 of our gospel refer to this story: “And just as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, so must the Son of Man be lifted up, that whoever believes in him may have eternal life”. When Jesus uses the ‘lifted up’ language, he’s referring to his cross. The parallels with the text from Numbers are actually quite striking. The thing the people feared most of all was the snakes that were biting them and causing them to die, but Moses made an image of the very thing that they feared, and it became for them a means of salvation. And in the same way, in the time of Jesus the cross was a symbol of cruel and violent death, but it became for us Christians a means of forgiveness and salvation. And just as the Israelites had to personally appropriate the salvation God was offering them – they had to ‘look to’ the bronze serpent – so now people are called to personally appropriate what Jesus has done for them by looking to him in faith, by ‘believing’ in him, or ‘putting their trust in him’.

This is ‘how’ God loved the world so much – he loved us by coming in the person of his Son, allowing human beings to do their worst to him – rejecting him, whipping him, mocking him, driving spikes through his wrists and feet and hanging him up on a cross until he died. He did not judge the people who did this to him. He didn’t blast them with thunderbolts or call on twelve legions of angels to wipe them out. Instead, he forgave them: “Father, forgive them, for they don’t know what they’re doing”.

So the Cross became the most vivid demonstration imaginable of God’s love for the whole world. God loves the world in this way: when we reject him and mock him and scourge him and kill him, he rejects our rejection. He does not overcome evil with evil; he loves his enemies and continues to love them. The arms of Jesus are open wide on the Cross in welcome to all: Come to me – whoever you are, whatever you’ve done – come to me, and I will give you rest.

That’s how we know God loves us; we know because of Jesus.

But there’s still more. To what end does God love us? What’s his goal for us? The text says, ‘For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but may have eternal life’. ‘Eternal life’ doesn’t just mean ‘life that goes on forever’; it means ‘life as God dreamed it for us when he first created us’.

We sometimes tell people ‘Get a life!’ Most of the people we say that to are, in fact, biologically alive! But we all understand instinctively that it’s possible to be biologically alive and yet still miss out on the deepest meaning of life, life in all its fullness. The writers of the New Testament all believed that the way to ‘get a life’ in the fullest possible sense is to put your faith in Jesus and follow him. God becomes human in Jesus, not just to reveal God to us, but to reveal our humanity to us as well. As we look at him, as we follow him, we discover the life we were originally created to live.

It’s important to keep focussed on this; if we don’t, we’re going to be tricked into thinking that Christianity is all about the things we’re not allowed to do! ‘You shall not do this!’ ‘You shall not do that!’ ‘Don’t touch!’ ‘Wet paint!’ ‘Keep off the grass!’ From time to time, Christians have fallen into this trap of overemphasizing the things Christians are asked to avoid, but not focusing enough on the amazing and wonderful things we’re promised. A friend of mine used to say, “I want to introduce you to a God who loves you more than you can possibly imagine, and who created you for the sheer joy of knowing you!” Does that sound like life to you? I know it does to me!

So we’ve talked about the central, bedrock truth of God’s indestructible love for us – for each one of us. We’ve talked about how God demonstrated it: God loved the world in this way, by giving us his Son to live out his love for us, even to the point of death on a Cross. We’ve talked about God’s goal in this process: that we should receive life in all its fullness, which is what the Bible means by ‘eternal life’.

One last question: how do we tap into this for ourselves? How does it become part of our personal experience?

Our verse says, ‘For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but may have eternal life’. It’s by believing in him that we move into that abundant life that he promises us.

This is not just an intellectual thing. I might say, “I believe that Bishop Jane exists”, and very few of us here would disagree with that proposition! But it’s an entirely different thing for us to say, “I believe in Bishop Jane”. It means we trust her, we have confidence in the direction she’s leading, and we’re willing to go along with her on that journey.

So to believe in Jesus is not just to believe that Jesus is the Son of God. It means that we’re willing to put our life on the line for him. I think of Jesus walking on the water and calling out to Peter, “Come”. Believing in Jesus, for Peter, meant getting out of the boat and walking toward him. It was an act of commitment.

For many of us, faith is a journey, but I would like to suggest that sometimes it’s also a decision. When two people love each other they obviously experience love as a journey, but traditionally we’ve also believed that there comes a point where the journey is strengthened as people make commitments to each other, to love each other for the rest of their lives. We call that a marriage, and we still believe it’s a hugely important step in a love relationship.

When I was thirteen I made a commitment of faith to Jesus. The language I used was ‘giving my life to Jesus’. Did I understand at the time everything that would imply? Of course not. But the decision I made that day – in response to the good news I had heard – that decision shaped the course of the rest of my life.

People make these decisions in a thousand different ways, and no one really should dare to lay down a single pattern. Even in our baptism services we ask people to articulate that decision. When parents bring children for baptism we ask them ‘Do you turn away from sin and evil? Do you accept Jesus as your Saviour, and will you obey him as your Lord?’ Of course, the problem is that no one ever says ‘No’ in a baptism or confirmation service! We’d have to stop the service if they did! And so it’s easy for people to read words off a page just because the service tells them too. That’s why it’s sometimes helpful for Anglicans, who have read these words from service sheets for years, to be challenged to pray them from the heart, at a time when no one’s listening. ‘Yes, Lord, I will turn away from evil and sin. Yes, I will put my life in your hands. Help me to trust you and follow you’.

My friend Harold Percy used to say that the Gospel is an invitation from God to us: ‘The kingdom of God is at hand: RSVP!’ If we understand that invitation – if we can even imagine Jesus giving us that invitation – sometimes the most powerful prayer in the world is the simple word ‘Yes’.

So let me close by asking you: Can you hear that invitation today? Can you hear, in your heart, the voice of Christ saying ‘Follow me?’ Have you perhaps heard the good news of God’s love in a fresh way today – a way that’s tugging at you inside. “I want to be part of that in a way I never have before”?

If so, listen to that voice. Take time today to get alone with God and pray. You don’t have to use any particular form of words; God knows what’s on your heart. Simply thank him for the free gift of love he’s given you, and give yourself back to him in return, in faith and love.

Let us pray.

God, you loved the world in this way: you gave your only son, so that each one who believes in him may not perish, but may have life in all its fullness. Help each one of us today to put our faith in you, whether for the first time or the thousandth time, and to put our lives in your hands, so that we may ‘get a life’ – the life that you long so much to give us. This we ask in the name of your Son, Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.

2018 Random Lent Thought #21: Guidelines

A few years ago I heard the story of what happened when a young American asked the Dalai Lama how to have a deeper spiritual life. No doubt this person was expecting some advice about meditation techniques and detachment from self and so on, but the Dalai Lama simply replied: ‘Eat less and sleep more’. The person who told us this story (it was on a clergy retreat), added another good rule: hug someone once a day.

Since then I’ve been noticing how simple it actually is to have a good Lent – by which I mean, a Lent in which you feel at the end that something worthwhile has been achieved, that some progress has been made. In no particular order, some of the guidelines I’ve been collecting for myself over the last few years include:

1. Get more sleep (for me that means going to bed earlier)

2. Eat less

3. Spend less time on the Internet

4. Be sure to pray every day

5. Spend more time listening to people, and to God

6. Hug the people you love, and the people who need a hug

7. Go for a walk regularly

8. Read something worthwhile through Lent, and don’t be in a hurry about it

9. Give up something, just to strengthen my self-control muscles and prove to myself that I don’t have to have everything I feel like having in order to be happy

10. Be more open to interruptions and to the possibility that God might have different plans for my day than I do.

We’re now over half way through this Lent. What are some of your guidelines – the things that help you have a good Lent (i.e. grow in love for God and neighbour)?