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 »


Jesus’ identity

January 23, 2017

St Michael’s 22nd January 2017

Readings – 1 Chronicles 17:1-15; John 1:24-34

Well, as some of you know, Lynda and I are about to set off on an awfully big adventure, and time is fast running out to make sure we have everything we need. Over the past couple of weeks we have gradually been filling our suitcases with odds and ends, making lists of what we need to pack and generally trying to get our heads round the fact that in just over a week we will be flying half way round the world.

But of course all our preparations will be useless if we turn up at the airport without our passports and our visas. You can plan the world’s greatest holiday and have a bucket list of everything you’re going to do, but if you can’t prove you are who you say you are, you won’t be let in. It’s as simple as that.

Now last week, Lynda powerfully preached on the theme of grace and taught us that grace is not getting what you deserve, but receiving from God that which you can never earn for yourself. It is mercy, not merit, the free gift of God to all who believe and receive. And I really hope that if you were here last week, you took her message on board. You see, whatever else I may say this morning, you need to understand entry into the Kingdom of God does not depend on who you are. Getting into heaven, receiving eternal life, whatever you want to call it, is not like flying to another country and proving that you are good enough to get in. It’s about understanding who Jesus is and what He has done for you. Read the rest of this entry »


The Holy Innocents

January 16, 2017

St Michael’s, January 8th 2017

Readings – Isaiah 42:1-9; Matthew 2:13-23

It may sound a crazy thing to say, but I believe that as a church we don’t celebrate the Christmas season as we ought. Now don’t get me wrong – I love the way we celebrate Christmas itself, and I for one found our services this year at St Michael’s particularly special. The point I am simply making is that for good practical reasons once we reach 25th December we tend to forget about the church calendar until we gather again in the New Year. Yet between 25th December and 6th January the church in its infinite wisdom has placed some important festivals which we usually overlook or ignore.

So on the day after Christmas we have – as one carol puts it – the feast of Stephen where we remember not so much Good King Wenceslas as the first martyr for the Christian faith, Stephen, stoned for his bold witness to Jesus. The day after that, the 27th, we remember John the apostle and evangelist who in his very long life gave us not only a gospel and three letters but also the book of Revelation. The examples of Stephen and John remind us that if we are to worship Jesus as our Saviour then we also have to be willing to bear costly witness to Him. This may be martyrdom, this may be patiently spending a lifetime speaking out the truth. But whatever our calling, these festivals so soon after Christmas remind us that our worship and our witness cannot be separated.

And then on 28th December we remember what the church calls the Holy Innocents, that is, the children who fell victim to Herod’s murderous rage. We nearly always skip over this passage, and for the best of reasons, but this morning I want to take a good, long look at it. Why? Well, for starters this passage from Matthew’s gospel reminds us of the world Jesus came to save – a world of injustice, suffering and pain. And you don’t have to look very far to see that in many ways the world today is exactly the same as the one he describes two thousand years ago. Read the rest of this entry »


Grace

January 16, 2017

St Michael’s, 15th January 2017

Readings – Isaiah 40:1-11; John 1:14-28

Have you ever had too much of a good thing? There’s a saying, ‘Too much of anything is good for nothing’. Or the more familiar, ‘A little of what you fancy does you good’ with the implication that any more is likely to be no good for you at all. We’ve all heard stories of multi-million pound Lottery winners who end up miserable, or at least no better off than before winning … some reports suggest that most people who win big on the lottery (both here in the UK and in the US), use or lose the lot in four years, and that four times as many as usual end up divorced. But I suspect we’d all like to find out for ourselves if it’s true?!

http://nymag.com/scienceofus/2016/01/classic-study-on-happiness-and-the-lottery.html

Yet in our reading this morning, John tells us that God gives us grace upon grace (John 1:16) – not ‘grace in place of grace’ as in the more recent NIV translation … a direct translation might read ‘grace on top of grace’ … as if God were piling up layer upon layer upon layer of grace. It’s as if he is saying, you just can’t have too much grace! Read the rest of this entry »


Desire, worship and obedience

January 1, 2017

St Michael’s 1st January 2017

Readings – Isaiah 49:8-13; Matthew 2:1-12

I guess most if not all of us are very familiar with the story of the wise men. From an early age we’ve all heard about the kings who travelled to bring gifts of gold, frankincense and myrrh to baby Jesus. It’s an essential part of the Christmas story told again and again in song and story and sermon, even if some of the details we have learnt aren’t perhaps always the most accurate. For example, we’re not sure if there were three of them, and if they did travel across the desert, it’s unlikely they passed across field and fountain, moor and mountain despite what a well-known carol might say.

But if you look at Matthew’s gospel as a whole, in many ways chapter 2 sticks out a bit like the proverbial sore thumb. Let me explain what I mean. Chapter 1 starts with a typical Jewish family tree tracing Jesus’ descent from Abraham and David, two of the founding fathers of the Jewish faith. When the angel appears to Joseph, his message is clear: the coming of Jesus is in fulfilment of Old Testament Scriptures. Skip forward to chapter 3 and it is the people of Judea and Jerusalem who are flocking out to hear John the Baptist. It is they who witness Jesus’ baptism and a voice from heaven declaring Jesus to be the Son of God – again another quote from the Old Testament.

Indeed Matthew is the most Jewish of all four gospels, and in many ways the visit of the wise men doesn’t fit. They are an interruption, an intrusion into the story of how Jesus came to the people of Israel as their long-expected Saviour. And that actually is the whole point. They don’t belong to God’s people. We don’t where exactly they come from, only they’re from somewhere out East. They don’t know anything about the right way to worship the Lord, and such information as they have has come from them reading the stars. They don’t know where to find Jesus, and despite the leading of the star, they end up in the wrong place, in Jerusalem, because this is where they reason the king of the Jews is to be found. And they don’t know the Old Testament Scriptures which would have told them that king Jesus was to be born in Bethlehem.

In fact, for all that these men are supposed to be wise, they really don’t know anything much at all about Jesus. But what they have going for them, quite simply, is a desire to find Him. And that is why they are included in the Christmas story. Later on in Matthew’s gospel we will hear about Jesus talking about the kingdom of heaven, and the question naturally arises who can be part of Jesus’ kingdom? The answer is anyone who has a desire to find and to follow Jesus. Read the rest of this entry »


The God who communicates

December 25, 2016

St Michael’s 25th December 2016

Readings – Isaiah 9:2-7; John 1:1-14

Many, many years ago as a trainee vicar I was on mission with a fellow student in Northampton. We were working with the local church for a week learning how to communicate the good news of Jesus and gain some real parish experience. So as part of that week my fellow student was invited to a discussion evening the church was holding down the pub. He walked in just as some man at the bar was loudly proclaiming that science has disproved religion. Now I should add at this point that my fellow student went by the name of Professor Rodney Holder, and he held several doctorates in astrophysics. Needless to say, when Professor Holder entered the conversation, the evening took quite a different turn.

But I often think back on that story because, you see, there’s a popular myth that somehow science has disproved religion. When you turn on the TV and watch a documentary about science, it nearly always talks about the Big Bang and evolution as if all the mysteries in the universe have been solved and you don’t need to believe in God any longer. What these documentaries fail to mention is that actually the majority of scientists in this country do have a firm faith, and indeed several scientists have come to faith precisely through studying the wonders and complexity of the universe.

To take another example: my daughter is studying biological sciences, and more specifically genetics, at university. She thought that the more she studied the more she would find her faith challenged. But in fact the more she has learnt the more she has found her faith deepened. For instance, the fact that a foetus usually develops so completely with rarely any significant mutation is for her nothing short of miraculous.

No, when men and women look at the whole universe or the intricate details of this life, more often than not they come to some kind of faith in God. The question then arises: how can we find out who this God is and what He’s like? Read the rest of this entry »