Thursday 24 October 2013

Is your God too small?

Last Sunday's reading bowled a bit of a googly for us unfortunate preachers. It was the parable of the Unjust Judge from Luke 18. Here's what Jesus said:

"In a certain town there was a judge who feared neither God nor man. There was also a widow who kept coming to him with her plea, ‘Grant me justice against my opponent!’ For a while he refused. But finally he thought, ‘Although I fear neither God nor man, yet because this widow keeps on bothering me, I will see that she gets justice, so she doesn’t wear me out in the end!’” Then the Lord said, “Listen to what the unjust judge says. So won't God bring justice to his chosen people, who cry out to him day and night? Will he keep putting them off? I tell you, he will see that they get justice, and soon!" 

But Jesus' point in this story is not that God is like the unjust judge. In fact He's as unlike him as can possibly be! Jesus says, "If even the unjust judge will finally crumble under the power of your nagging, how much more will your heavenly Father listen to you?"

So the underlying issue in the story is, what is our image of God?

  • Perhaps we have a judgmental God, angrily waiting for us to go wrong so he can condemn us?
  • Do we see God as an impersonal force, not really bothered with the ups and downs of human life? Like some of the more out of touch members of our judiciary?
  • Maybe we see God as an old grandad who's a bit hard of hearing: we need to keep on and on at him to get our way? Like a judge who falls asleep during the trial?
  • Too many of us think we have to earn God's love - if only I could do enough religious rituals or church going or self-denying or dutiful service I can make him love me...

Well, we had a great time at St Andrew's in the New Life Service, drawing pictures to represent how we see God. There were some deep thoughts there, and some pretty astute theology. The children's contributions were particularly meaningful. There's a great story about a little girl who was drawing a picture in her class at school. The teacher asked who she was drawing and she said, "God." "Don't be silly, dear - nobody knows what God looks like." So the little girl holds up her picture and says, "They do now!"

In fact the Bible has a prohibition about creating images of God, at least for use as objects of worship. This is because any image of God, however brilliant, inevitably falls short of the Infinite. Our tiny minds simply cannot grasp the fullness of His majesty, glory, holiness and endless love... And our negative images of God will seriously damage our relationship with Him. They should have health warnings!

  • If we see God as weak or uncaring we won't bother to pray.
  • If we have a disapproving, judgmental view of God it will destroy our self-confidence.
  • If we have a God who is a kindly old duffer, who will put up with anything, our faith will end up so bland that it is not worth bothering with. I sometimes wonder if this is the kind of God Western Christians spent most of the 20th century proclaiming and whether that is why so few British people bother with him in the 21st Century.

But our positive images of God can have amazing results!

  • If we see God as great and powerful, we will be motivated to pray to him.
  • If we see him as the one who loves us, our self-confidence will blossom.
  • If we see him as a God of justice, it will start to matter what we believe and what we do.
  • If our God is alive and active in the world then we will be full of courage and adventure.

So is your God too small? And if He is, how can you restore your image of Him? The Bible's answer is to look at Jesus. Our children knew this on Sunday and time and again drew Jesus as their image of God. They quite stole the punchline of my talk! Because Jesus said, "If you have seen me, you have seen the Father (John 14:9). He is also called the image of the invisible God in Colossians 1.

Jesus is God made known in a human form that we can know and understand and relate to. And when we give Him our full attention that lets the image of God in Him start to shape our own lives too. That's God's project for us: He wants us to grow more like Jesus, in love and mercy and peace and joy.

Because we too are supposed to be created in the image of God. Jesus then is like a master picture restorer, peeling back the layers of grubbiness and wear and tear and grime so that the beauty beneath can shine through...

Now there's a challenge! When people look at us, what do they see?  Is there a picture of what God is like in the way we live?

Saturday 19 October 2013

Christmas starts with...

Here are some amazing statistics from the "Christmas starts with Christ" campaign, backed by the Church of England and other august bodies. According to them
  • only 12 per cent of adults in the UK know the nativity story
  • more than one-third of British children don’t know whose birthday it is
  • 51 per cent of people now say that the birth of Jesus is irrelevant to their Christmas. 
It does look as if there has been a deliberate suppression of the nativity story in our education system - how else can we explain more than one third of our children not knowing that Christmas has something to do with Jesus?

Even if you're one of those people who doesn't believe in Him, I think you should be alarmed. All those people are kept in ignorance about their roots, the history, culture and ethics of the society in which they live - if you can call it living when you're just dreaming of mince pies and getting more stuff.

Maybe you think it's time Christians wipe the dust off their feet, abandon the season to Tesco's and the turkey farmers and celebrate Jesus' birthday on some other day? There's a good case for it... But I think it may be worth one last effort before it's too late.

More people should get behind the "Christmas starts with Christ" campaign. Check out their website on

Sunday 13 October 2013

More thoughts on thanks...

I was thinking a but further on my last post (see The Power of Thanks) and thought I'd add a bit more. We were thinking how "thank you" reminds us that life is amazing and how it establishes a relationship. It made me reflect further on Professor Richard Dawkins - you know, the one who is so angry with the God he doesn't believe in.

Prof Dawkins says we don't need God to have feelings of awe and wonder at the universe. But he's wrong! What we feel as believers when we see a sky full of brilliant stars, or the sunlight sparkling on the river, or the miracle of someone being born, is different. It's different because we have someone to say thank you to. Prof Dawkins' personal feelings have no echo in the cold, dead universe he lives in. In fact those feelings only emphasise his loneliness in the universe. They disconnect him from it, because it can't feel anything at all in response. 

By contrast, something very like gratitude rises up in our hearts when we respond to our amazing world. We are acknowledging that there is Person behind the universe who has expressed His love and power and fertility in creating both it and us. We are expressing a deep connectedness with our Creator and His creation. Saying Thank you puts us in a deep way in tune with fundamental reality, because it establishes a personal relationship with the One behind it all. 

As Psalm 111 says, "Great are the works of the Lord; they are pondered by all who delight in them."
The Power of Thanks

What a wonderful morning we had at St Andrew's today. It was great to welcome Orson and Victoria, who were baptised in the service, and all their family and friends. There was a lovely atmosphere of warmth and celebration, and it was brilliant to see so many kids in church. I just want to say a great big thank you, to everyone who took part and to the Lord we love and serve, who was so gently but palpably present with His people.

Which is very appropriate because our theme today was The Power of Thanks. We were looking at the story of the ten lepers in the Gospel, the ones who come to Jesus asking to be healed. He tells them to go and see the priests (which is what you are supposed to do when you have already been healed of leprosy according to Leviticus chapter 14). But they never get there. While they are still on their way to the priest, doing what Jesus told them to do, healing comes...

But only one of them comes back to say Thank You to Jesus. The Bible doesn't tell us his name, so we decided to call him Wayne, because he was leper number 10, and Wayne Rooney wears a no.10 shirt. What difference did it make though when Wayne came back? We thought there were four things that come out of the story and demonstrate the power of thanks.

1. Saying thank you reminds you that life is amazing! Presumably the other nine just returned to the ordinary things that had made up their lives before leprosy cut them off so cruelly from the rest of the community. By coming back to say thank you, Wayne stayed with the miracle! It was amazing to have his life back and he overflowed with that amazement. We had Orson with us and we decided that Orson was awesome. Because with the birth of every new child we have to decide whether it's all just so much biology cycling mindlessly through, or whether we have just taken part in a miracle. We are all living that miracle - even if your birth like mine was rather a long time ago, we wouldn't be here without it. When we give thanks we realise afresh that life is awesome.

2. Saying thank you establishes a relationship. When we are in a restaurant we can ignore the person who brings our food, prepares the table, takes away the dirty dishes and so on. After all, they're being paid. But if we say "thank you" to them, we are treating them as a person, not as a faceless nonentity. By coming back to see Jesus, Wayne showed he didn't only want to get healed, he also wanted to know the Healer. When he loudly praised God, he wanted to relate his healing to God's love for him. In fact Christians can't separate a personal relationship with God from an encounter with Jesus. When Wayne wanted to give thanks to God, he came back and met with Jesus.

3. Saying thank you changes your attitudes. I find myself a bit too given to moping, sulking and self-pity, sometimes too much of a glass half empty person. Wayne could easily have spent his time bemoaning the terrible experience he had been through as a leper, asking what was it all for, if God wanted to heal him why had He left it so long, and so on. Maybe some of those thoughts went through the minds of the other nine. But all Wayne wanted to do was say thank you for such a wonderful new start! His glass was full and running over. Mine is too really, if I stop to think about it. I need to take a leaf out of Wayne's book and start thanking God. I have far more blessings than things to moan about. Saying thank you makes you more positive, because it changes your attitude.

4. Saying thank you lifts your faith level. The other lepers showed amazing faith by just going off to see the priests when as yet they were still not healed. But only Wayne came back to say thank you. So only Wayne was there to receive the affirming words of Jesus: "Your faith has healed you. Go in peace." Wayne had his faith built up when he gave thanks. And our faith gets built up too, because when we give thanks we are also reminding ourselves of what God has done for us, and therefore of how much He loves us and how He is able to work in our lives. Saying thank you lifts your faith level.

So what have you got to say thank you for today?

Sunday 6 October 2013

St Michael's Day 29 September

I'm a bit late posting this, it's been a really busy week. But last Sunday was St Michael's Day and I found myself preaching on St Michael in St Michael's Church in Horton. Megan was kind enough to ask for some notes of my talk, so I promised to put them here on my blog - thank you Megan!

And no, it has nothing to do with buying your underwear from Marks & Spencers. We are talking Michael the mighty archangel here!
. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 

I come across a lot of interest in angels as I wander about the parish these days. Could it be the same lonely impulse that makes us search the universe for life on alien planets? But Christians already know we are not alone in the universe. There is life out there – but not as we know it.

I think belief in angels is increasing because it's a no commitment religion. There's no cross, no challenge, no accountability to someone greater than yourself. Perhaps people like to cherry pick the plusses of having a presence to watch over them. But this low cost spirituality is not at all what the angels themselves are into, as we shall see. 

By and large angels in the Bible are pretty mysterious. They take strange shapes – wheels full of eyes, mythological looking beasts with four heads, people with six wings or bodies like lightning. As spiritual beings this is probably not what they look like, just how they choose to make themselves known to people for whom they are otherwise invisible.

They are scary! The commonest reaction to angels in the Bible is the one in the Christmas carol, where it says "Fear not, said he, for mighty dread seized their troubled mind." Ezekiel and Daniel talk about their strength deserting them and trembling with fear when they encounter angels. These are not the fairies on top of your Christmas tree folks! They are mighty spiritual beings. 

There's probably two good reasons why you haven't seen them very often (apart from their being invisible of course):
·         Perhaps it's not good for us to get too deeply involved with beings who are in so different a league to us – would it be a distraction from doing what God has called us to do as human beings? Or might we feel abashed and unworthy in the presence of such holy creatures?
·         it is possible even to fall into worshipping angels because of their awesome power and splendour. This is an absolute prohibition in the Bible – we should worship none but God.

Well, there are many kinds of angels – cherubim, seraphim (burning ones), thrones, dominions, powers. In spite of the complex angelologies some people have drawn up we really know very little about what these terms actually mean. But we are going to focus on the archangel Michael today, because we're in St Michael's church and it is St Michael's day. Michael is an archangel – that is a "prime" angel in both senses of the English word, first in time and first in rank. There are three other archangels in our traditions – Gabriel, Uriel and Raphael. However only Gabriel and Michael are named in the Bible itself. 

Michael has five mentions in Scripture:
·         Daniel 10 x2 – Michael combats the mysterious "Prince of Persia" who seems to be some sort of cosmic evil being who inspires the Persians in their then conquest of the known world
·         Daniel 12 – Michael arises in the last days as the great prince who protects the people of Israel
·         Jude – Michael contests with Satan over the body of Moses after his death
·         Revelation – Michael leads the armies of heaven in war on Satan and his fallen angels

The common thread here is combat! That's why Michael is nearly always portrayed in armour – see our lady chapel reredos, picture below: or Epstein's Coventry cathedral statue. Michael leads heaven's charge against the powers of evil.

So given that angels are so different from us, what can we learn from St Michael, in St Michael's Church, on St Michael's Day?
  • We too need to stand firm, not to be cowed by misfortune, or by the pressures of our times, or the seductions of materialism, or the attacks of the evil one! Let's stand firm as St Michael does. Whether we are angels or men, good and evil, justice and injustice, light and darkness remain the same. We need to take a side and stand firm on it.
  • Michael is the Prince who protects Israel – so we too can pray for the people of Israel, all the more because, like us, they don't always get it right.
  • Worship. The angels don't want us to spend too much time focussing on them because they are focussed on God. Again and again we read about the angels worshipping Him – think of the amazing vision of God in Isaiah 6 where He is high and lifted up, his train fills the temple, and He is surrounded by mighty angels calling "Holy, holy, holy..."

Michael's very name means, "Who is like God?" It's an exclamation of praise.So if you want St Michael's church, or St Andrew's, or any church, or any place, to be infested with angels, worship God with all your heart. Because they love an atmosphere of praise. It's what they live and breathe. If there's one thing above all we should learn from the angels, it's to join with them in worshipping our amazing God.