The story of Mary Magdalene

April 19, 2017

St Michael’s, Easter Day 2017

Reading – John 20:1-18

People often ask me what it was like that first Easter morning. My simple answer is that it was dark. I don’t just mean dark as in no light. I mean the whole mood and atmosphere of that morning was dark. Never before had I ever felt such terrible, bleak despair and I thank God from the bottom of my heart I never will again.

But let’s start from the beginning. My name is Mary Magdalene, and you probably think I’m some kind of a saint. Let me tell you, in the bad old days I was anything but. I was a wild, wild woman. People used to think I was crazy, and if you heard stories about what I used to do, they were probably true. I kept saying I couldn’t help myself, and as my life span out of control, I never knew who I was going to hurt next.

However, that was before I met Jesus. Now I had met religious people who had either preached at me or tried to drive the demons out of me. None of them had ever had much effect, except to make me try and avoid them like the plague. But Jesus was different. He had such love and such power that He turned my life right around. It’s said that He drove seven demons out of me. I don’t know whether that’s right or not, but the moment He came into my life, I knew a peace, a healing and a forgiveness I never thought was possible. He changed my heart once and for all, and I knew I owed Him everything. Read the rest of this entry »


Jesus the resurrection and the life

April 3, 2017

St Michael’s, 2nd April 2017

Readings – Romans 8:1-11; John 11:17-44

As some of you know I have a brother. He lives in Shropshire and considers the Midlands to be his home. He is an electronics engineer. He loves DIY and putting things together. He doesn’t play a musical instrument, and he doesn’t write creatively. He doesn’t look an awful lot like me, although I’ve been told we both have a similar walk. In short, my brother is very different from me, although we are both family and even more importantly believers.

I do sometimes wonder quite why we are so different, but then again, I look at plenty of families and I never cease to be amazed just how unalike brothers and sisters can be. Maybe in the way they look, maybe in their character, maybe in their faith. Sometimes it can even be hard to believe that these two people are related to each other, and yet somehow they are.

Now in the pages of the New Testament we find two sisters who are also very different from each other – Martha and Mary. We first come across them in Luke’s gospel where Luke describes Jesus’ visit to their home (Luke 10:38-42):

As Jesus and his disciples were on their way, he came to a village where a woman named Martha opened her home to him. She had a sister called Mary, who sat at the Lord’s feet listening to what he said. But Martha was distracted by all the preparations that had to be made. She came to him and asked, “Lord, don’t you care that my sister has left me to do the work by myself? Tell her to help me!” “Martha, Martha,” the Lord answered, “you are worried and upset about many things, but only one thing is needed. Mary has chosen what is better, and it will not be taken away from her.”

Do you get the picture? Here is Martha, the practical, efficient one, always on the go, always fussing about what needs to be done. And here is Mary, probably the younger sister, easily distracted, prone to forget what she’s supposed to be going. No doubt it wasn’t always easy for Martha and Mary to live together under one roof. And yet for all their differences, somehow their relationship worked. They were generous hosts. They made Jesus welcome whenever he passed through their village of Bethany – just outside Jerusalem. I can see Martha in the kitchen, clattering pots and pans, hoping Mary would get the hint, while Mary carries on entertaining the guests, pretending not to hear her sister. Read the rest of this entry »


Saving Faith

March 21, 2017

St Michael’s 19th March 2017

Readings – Romans 4: 16-25; John 4:43-54

I wanted to show you this particular Youtube clip for a number of reasons:

First of all, may I encourage you to pray for the Archbishop of Canterbury? To our great shame, the Church of England is behaving rather like a dysfunctional family at the moment – with groups of people pushing forward their own agendas, not prepared to listen to anyone else, and certainly not behaving with the love and grace that Jesus expects of His followers. Personally I believe we are approaching a point where the church will split into two mutually exclusive factions, and somehow the Archbishop is at the centre of it all, trying to hold everything together. So please pray for Archbishop Justin, for him to have the wisdom and the strength only Jesus can give in the months and years that lie ahead.

Secondly, this clip is a promotional video for the second Thy Kingdom Come event, which is happening from Ascension Day 25th May to Pentecost 4th June. I will be coming back to this at the end of the sermon, because as I hope will become clear prayer needs to be at the very heart of our efforts to reach out with the good news.

And thirdly, I wanted to show this clip to remind us again of the simple fact that Jesus changes lives. We’re not here today because we are part of a religious club, or because we want to catch up with our friends and neighbours. We are here today because we are the church, that is literally, a people belong to the Lord, and we have come in the expectation that this same Lord Jesus will meet with us, change and transform us, as He comes amongst us now.

So the first question I want to ask this morning is this: how exactly does Jesus change lives? Read the rest of this entry »


Ready to Reap

March 15, 2017

St Michael’s 12th March 2017

Readings – Romans 4:1-15; John 4:27-42

We don’t know much about the woman who features in today’s reading. We don’t know her name. We don’t know how old she was, or what she looked like. What happened to her once our passage ends is lost in the mists of time. But the one thing we do know is that she had a life-changing encounter with Jesus.

Let me take you back to our reading last week. Jesus has arrived in a town called Sychar. He is tired and thirsty, and his disciples have gone off to buy food. It is the sixth hour, that is the middle of the day, when the sun is at its hottest, and most people are resting. Yet here is that same woman coming towards Jesus to draw water from the well. What’s she doing there? As we discover later on in the passage she has led a colourful life. She has had five husbands and the man she is living with now isn’t her husband. So she is coming out in the midday heat to avoid her neighbours. She’s the subject of all the village gossip and is fed up with other people talking about her.

This woman is what we would nowadays call a deeply damaged individual with complex needs. And she is certainly in no mood to talk with a stranger, especially a man who is also a Jew. So how Jesus break down all the barriers between Himself and her? As we saw last week, He doesn’t preach at her or attempt to win an argument. He tells her he is thirsty and asks for a drink. This leads to a conversation about water and Jesus earns the right to gently introduce the gospel. He tells her about his free gift of life-giving water, the Holy Spirit, that will satisfy every desire. Naturally the woman is interested and wants to know more.


But there’s still the history of all those broken relationships. Now again Jesus doesn’t preach at her and tell her how wicked she has been. He simply reveals the fact that He already knows everything there is to know about her. The woman becomes more defensive at this point and wants to deflect Jesus onto questions about religion. Jesus doesn’t get sidetracked however. He wants more than anything for this woman to realise she is standing in the presence of the Lord Himself, the promised Messiah. So their conversation ends with Jesus revealing with His true identity, and inviting the Samaritan woman to make a response.

We don’t know directly how the Samaritan woman responds to Jesus. We don’t have a record of her exact words. But we can see how her encounter with Jesus changed her when we look at verses 28-29:

Then, leaving her water jar, the woman went back to the town and said to the people, “Come, see a man who told me everything I ever did. Could this be the Christ?”

The whole reason this woman came out in the midday heat was to draw water. But now she deliberately leaves her water jar behind. Not because she doesn’t need it any longer, but because from this point on she will no longer be coming out in the middle of the day. She has quite literally left her old way of life behind because she has met with Jesus. There will no more moving from one relationship to another to try and find happiness, because through Jesus she has found her deepest desires satisfied and her sins forgiven.

And instead of avoiding her neighbours, and possibly her ex-partners, she is now anxious to talk to as many people as possible. Why? Because she has discovered the joy and the peace Jesus has given her and she wants to share that joy and that peace with others. We can only imagine how the folk in the village reacted to her. But seeing this woman suddenly transformed and talking about her life-changing encounter certainly aroused the interest of many. She had a story to share that made people sit up and listen, and as we shall see, many came to faith through her.

So this morning the first question I want to ask you is quite simply this: Do you also have a story of how Jesus has changed your life? Now I realise that some people don’t come to faith through a sudden, direct encounter with Jesus. Some people come to faith over a period of many months or years. But in itself the timescale is unimportant. The question is: can you tell how through Jesus you left an old way of life behind? And have you discovered the joy and peace of knowing Him as your Lord and Saviour?

If the answer to that question is no, or you are not sure, then really the sermon finishes for you at this point this morning. Spend the next few minutes looking through the whole story of the Samaritan woman. She reached the point of understanding there was nothing she could hide from Jesus, and all she could do was simply give her whole life over to Him. If you are serious about following Jesus, then there is no better thing you can do than to stop and pray that Jesus might meet with you, and fill you with the joy and peace of knowing Him. And if Jesus does meet with you this morning, please do follow the example of the Samaritan woman and tell someone before you leave.  

If on the other hand you do have a story of how Jesus changed your life, then however I’m going to keep going at this point. You can tell me later whether that is a good or a bad thing! Because between Jesus declaring that He is the Messiah in verse 26 and the woman leaving her water jar in verse 28, the disciples turn up in verse 27 and what is immediately clear is that they don’t understand what is going on.

Just then his disciples returned and were surprised to find him talking with a woman. But no-one asked, “What do you want?” or “Why are you talking with her?”

In the culture of the day Jewish teachers weren’t supposed to waste their time teaching women. The fact Jesus was talking to a Samaritan woman was even worse. We don’t know whether they were too embarrassed or too polite to say anything. But they certainly hadn’t yet grasped the fact that the good news of Jesus isn’t limited to certain groups of people, to a particular gender or a particular background. We can assume at this stage Jesus hadn’t told them the exact details of this woman’s lifestyle, but if they had known, I imagine they would have been even more horrified.

Now the reason why the disciples had left Jesus at the beginning of the story was in order to go off and buy some food. So you can perhaps understand why once the woman exits stage left they urge him to have something to eat. But actually, as soon becomes apparent, the disciples’ fussing about food shows they haven’t really grasped the importance of the encounter Jesus has just had.

So Jesus tells them in verse 32: I have food to eat that you know nothing about. To us that may sound like a very strange thing to say, but the disciples should have immediately known what he was talking about. They would be very familiar with the books of Jewish law, and in particular these words from Deuteronomy 8:3 where the Lord tells the people of Israel: man does not live on bread alone but on every word that comes from the mouth of the Lord. Jesus isn’t denying that He is hungry, or that He needs food – He is fully human. But He wants His followers to understand there is something more important than meeting your immediate physical needs, namely listening to what your Heavenly Father is telling you to do and then putting His words into action.

Yet for some reason the disciples cannot hear what Jesus is saying. They are so focused on the question of food that they completely miss the point. Verse 33: Then his disciples said to each other, “Could someone have brought him food?” So Jesus with all His wonderful patience tells them again in verse 34: “My food… is to do the will of him who sent me and to finish his work.” That, you see, is His priority; that is focus, and the question of whether He ends up skipping a meal here or there really is quite secondary.

But the disciples still do not understand. And because they do not understand what Jesus is saying, they also do not understand the urgency of the task in hand. That’s why Jesus goes on to say in verse 35: Do you not say, ‘Four months more and then the harvest’? I tell you, open your eyes and look at the fields! They are ripe for harvest. Because what He wants to teach them is that all this talk of doing the Father’s will is not some high-faluting abstract concept you can think about later. It’s about a real and urgent mission that requires action today.

Yes, in theory, Jesus could have gone with His disciples and got supplies, and come back to the well the following day. But tomorrow the Samaritan woman might not be there. Tomorrow the chance for her to receive eternal life would be over. That’s why He was prepared to wait out in the midday heat for her. It was the only opportunity for her to pass over from death to life, from darkness into light.

Whether the disciples get it at this point we do not know. But before we leave them, the second question I want to ask this morning is this: do we understand the task that Jesus has given us?

The more I have reflected on this passage, the more I see in the disciples the same characteristics reflected in a church that hasn’t “got” mission: a them and us attitude, between existing churchgoers, and those new to faith, particularly when those newcomers are very different to those already attending; a focus on the physical practicalities such as buildings or finances rather on listening to God’s word and doing God’s will; a lack of urgency to mission and evangelism, as something to be done once this or that other project has been completed. Maybe we aren’t that different from the disciples after all.

But the third point that comes out clearly from this passage is that being involved in God’s mission is not an optional extra. We can’t decide to follow Jesus and then work out whether we want to be involved in His work or not. Because whether we like it or not, God is constantly at work planting seeds in people’s heart, in a whole variety of ways. And He gives us as His people the responsibility of sowing, growing and reaping those selfsame seeds of faith. There really is no opt-out clause.

Now we know from Jesus’ parable of the sower that some seeds will fall on the path and never take root. Some will fall on stony ground and quickly wither. Some will be choked by weeds and the concerns of this world. But some seeds will take root and start growing. And as people find faith growing in their hearts, they will come to us. And that is exactly what has happened at St Michael’s. Over the past fifteen years the way the church has grown has most typically been through the simple fact the Lord keeps on sending people to us. Some have never set foot in a church before, but more than not often someone else has planted a seed of faith in their lives.

So in many ways Jesus words in verse 38 are, I believe, a direct word to us this morning: I sent you to reap what you have not worked for. Others have done the hard work, and you have reaped the benefits of their labour. The challenge to us, and the final question I want to ask: are we indeed ready to reap the harvest Jesus give us?

Now at this point in the conversation the townspeople from Sychar turn up. They have heard the woman’s testimony and they are spiritually hungry. They want Jesus to stay with them, and to teach them the good news. So what does Jesus do? Well, he doesn’t consult Google calendar to find out when he is free. He doesn’t arrange a later date once he is finishes his travel plans. No, there and then he stays there two days. With what result? Verse 41: And because of his words many more became believers.

Jesus spent two days in an unfamiliar place, a Samaritan village, preaching the word of repentance and new life. Now we can have no doubt Jesus was an extremely busy person with all kinds of demands on his time. But he allowed his routine and his schedule to be disrupted. How willing are we to allow our routines and our schedules to be disrupted in order to share the good news with others? Are we willing to spend time in unfamiliar places learning how to communicate with those who may be very different from ourselves? Maybe if we really grasped how spiritually hungry and needy those around us are, we would be that much more willing to change our priorities and introduce them to Jesus.

Now the last time we hear anything about the Samaritan woman is in verse 42 when the townsfolk, who are presumably the same people she used to avoid, say to her: We no longer believe just because of what you said; now we have heard for ourselves, and we know that this man really is the Saviour of the world.

And that really is the conclusion of the story. One encounter in the heat of the day leads to the most unexpected person coming to faith. She tells her friends and neighbours. They ask Jesus to come and stay with them. They hear His word. And the result? They themselves come to understand that Jesus is the Saviour of the World. How I long that this morning similarly each of us go out from this place and invite others to discover Jesus for themselves.

But before that happens, we need to know how to answer the questions I have already set you this morning. So to recap, let me ask:

Do you have a story of how Jesus has changed your life?

Do we understand the task Jesus has given us?

Are we ready to reap the harvest Jesus gives us?

Jesus tells us: I tell you, open your eyes and look at the fields! They are ripe for harvest.

 

 


How to share the good news

March 6, 2017

St Michael’s 5th March 2017

Reading – Romans 3:21-31; John 4:1-26

I want you this morning to use your imagination. I want you to imagine for a moment it is not a dreary, wet March morning outside, but a bright, warm summer’s day. That would be nice, wouldn’t it? But imagine for a moment it’s not a pleasant and comfortable 20-25°C, but a hot and roasting 40-45°C. What would be the sort of challenges you would face? How would the heat affect your life?

So imagine in that sort of temperature your job was to go and fetch water from a well each day. When would you go and get the water? That’s right – early in the morning, or possibly late at night. The one time you would not go out would be in the middle of the day, which in Roman times was known as the sixth hour.

Yet here in our reading today is a woman doing precisely that, coming to the well when the day is hottest and the work is hardest. Why should she want to do that? Does anyone have any suggestions? Read the rest of this entry »


Why Lent?

March 6, 2017

St Michael’s 1st March 2017

Reading – John 3:16-21

There are many different reasons why we celebrate Lent. For some of us, Lent is a time to give up old habits, to see if we can actually live without little luxuries like chocolate or alcohol. For some of us, Lent provides the opportunity to take up a new spiritual discipline, such as reading our Bible more regularly or carving out time for prayer. For still others, Lent has become a season for carrying out practical acts of service and generosity, and putting our faith into action.

Now all these are good and important reasons for celebrating Lent. But tonight I want to think about Lent from a different point of view. On 16 April this year we will be celebrating Easter Sunday and I presume we will want to go out and share the good news of Jesus. After all, the whole point of Easter is that it should be a great time of praise and proclamation, and letting people know we have a risen, living Saviour who changes lives even today.

However if we are to share the good news of Jesus with others, I believe it is important that we first have a season where we apply that good news to ourselves, where we reflect and remember what the good news is all about it, and why it matters so much to each and every one of us. Otherwise we run the danger Lent can be become an end in itself, and we simply count off the days when we can next eat chocolate, or relax our newfound spiritual discipline, or stop doing acts of generosity. Lent was never meant to be a stand-alone season, but a season of preparation, of looking forward, of making sure we are ready for the task Jesus gives us.

So how exactly do we apply the good news to ourselves? That is a big question, and it’s no accident that Lent gives us forty days and nights to consider the answer. The good news of Jesus is meant to touch and permeate every part of our lives, and if we ever think we can simply accept His message and keep on living as before, we really haven’t understood what it’s all about. The good news is meant to produce lasting and ongoing change in our lives, and Lent provides us the opportunity to reflect on just how far it has taken root in and among us.

That’s why I can hardly sum up all that the good news means in one single sermon tonight. But what I can do is remind us of three simple truths that should at least provide some starting points for this season of preparation and reflection. Read the rest of this entry »


Jesus’ Invitation

January 30, 2017

St Michael’s, 29th January 2017

Reading – John 1:35-42

Have you ever had the unfortunate experience of being accosted by a sales rep? Perhaps you’ve had a double glazing salesman turn up on the doorstep determined to tell you every last detail of this wonderful new window system he is desperate for you to buy. Or you’ve been down to a car showroom and been exposed to the smooth talk of the dealer determined to help you choose the shiniest and most expensive motor in the range. Or maybe you’ve encountered one of those slick TV evangelists with a shiny suit and impossibly white teeth trying every trick of the trade to get you to accept his message – and usually donate to his cause at the same time.

If that has been your experience of the Christian faith, then all I can say is that I am terribly sorry. When you look at the Bible, you won’t find anyone anywhere applying high-pressure tactics to get people to believe. Yes, the first believers argued for their faith and they were careful to explain the good news of Jesus Christ, but they never forced anyone to make a response. They respected their hearers too much to pressurise them into a decision.

So our reading this morning starts with John the Baptist seeing Jesus of Nazareth walking past. And all John the Baptist says to his two followers is quite simply, Look, the Lamb of God. Now to us talking about someone as the Lamb of God may seem quite a strange thing to say, but in those days it meant something really quite important. The people of God at that time were looking for someone who could offer the perfect sacrifice for all the wrong we have ever done. In fact, they had been waiting centuries for this particular individual because many hundreds of years earlier God had promised that one day such a person would come – the Lamb of God, who would take away the sins of the world.

That’s why as soon as John the Baptist said Look, the Lamb of God his two followers decided to follow Jesus. We don’t know how much or how little they believed what John was saying, but they reckoned it was at least worth finding out whether John’s claims were true. So they go after Jesus, trying to suss Him out, seeing what kind of person He might be. What they haven’t yet realised, of course, is that Jesus already knows they are there. He is fully aware of their doubts and questions, their curiosity and their hopes. But what He doesn’t do is turn round and give them a smooth sales talk, explaining exactly who He is and why it is such a good idea to join Jesus of Nazareth Ministries Incorporated. Read the rest of this entry »