The worship of heaven

August 9, 2017

St Michael’s 6th August 2017

Reading: Revelation 7

Were any of you at Home Park last season when Argyle won promotion? What was the atmosphere like?

This morning, whether you support Argyle or not, I want you to imagine you are in the crowd at a match where your favourite team are winning. You are there shoulder with shoulder with your fellow supporters, cheering as the goals go in, and counting down to the final whistle. Very soon the referee will blow up and the celebrations will begin.

Naturally your attention is on the pitch – but just take a moment to glance at the fans around you. Most of them have been supporting the team for a long time, so what are they likely to be wearing? That’s right, football shirts with the names of their favourite players. And what are they likely to be holding in their hands above their heads? To them, nothing is more important in that moment than the fact they are members of the Green Army, and they want to be identified as such. That’s why they are wearing the shirt and waving their scarves in their hands. And why are they on their feet and singing? Of course – they want to praise their team and celebrate their achievements. The last home game of the season I even saw a few fans bowing down to the players as they did their victory lap.

However, yesterday the new season opened. No-one knows where Argyle will be in the league next May. Maybe the last game of the coming season there will be a glum silence around the ground, or even a chorus of boos. Maybe a few fans – politely, of course – will be asking the manager to reconsider his position or the chairman to quit.

In our world, as we know all too well, winners can easily become losers. A successful team one year can sometimes go down the following year. But in heaven the situation is very different. The people there will be celebrating a victory that is permanent and forever. No-one will be facing the prospect of going down to the other place – and I don’t mean League Two.

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The unfolding of the scroll

July 31, 2017

St Michael’s 30th July 2017

Reading – Revelation 5:1-14

One of the most important victories of the Second World War took place not in direct battle on land or in the air or at sea, but at a site in Buckinghamshire which up until that point was only famous for its manor house that still stands there. It was bought in 1938 by the head of MI6 with his own money because the government didn’t have the funds. But within a few years Bletchley Park had become the centre of the most famous codebreaking operation in history, and it changed the course of the war. Hundreds, if not thousands, of men and women spent every moment of every day intercepting German signals and eventually learning how to decipher them. If there had been no breakthrough at Bletchley Park then possibly the war would not have been won. Certainly it would have been even longer, harder and bloodier than it already was, and many more lives would have been lost.

I was thinking about the breaking of the Enigma code as I came to our passage from Revelation this morning. Because our reading also starts with something top secret that needs decoding. It is a scroll that is covered in writing on both sides and sealed with seven seals (verse 1). The fact it has seven seals shows it is protected with the highest level of security. We know it is important because it is held in the right hand of Him who sits on the throne, that is God. But unlike the Enigma code there is no brain bright enough to be able to open the scroll or even look inside it. What the scroll contains is a deep, deep mystery that not even the best intelligence agency is able to fathom.

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July 29, 2017

St Michael’s 23rd July 2017

Reading – Revelation 4:1-11

What is the most beautiful or breathtaking place in the whole world you have ever been to? What is it that made it so special?

Six years ago I was fortunate enough to visit Israel. There were so many amazing places to visit: the site where Jesus is said to have been born; the tomb where Jesus was laid; the mountain where Jesus ascended into heaven – all of them powerful and never to be forgotten reminders that the Bible tells the story of a real person who lived a real life so many years ago.

But to me the most special place in the whole trip was down by the shore of Lake Galilee. It was such a beautiful and tranquil location – plus the fact there were loads of cute rock badgers looking on. Of course what made it even more significant was knowing that Jesus Himself walked on this very shoreline – calling the local fishermen to follow Him, preaching the good news to the crowds, healing the sick and the demon-possessed.

I don’t know if I will ever make it back to Israel. But I do know that thanks to Jesus I have been given the opportunity to go to somewhere even more wonderful. And for this journey, I won’t need a passport or a package tour. I won’t need to go searching in the ruins of history. No, Jesus offers me the chance to go to none other than where my Heavenly Father lives. And it won’t be some exotic foreign place with a different language and strange local customs. It will be in the deepest sense of the word home, a place where I can belong forever.

We often call this place heaven, and in our first reading this morning we hear how a man called John is shown a vision of what heaven is like. How he describes heaven is perhaps very different from how we usually imagine this place. We might think of angels on fluffy clouds playing harps, or a long road up to some pearly gates. John’s vision is far stranger and perhaps even slightly disturbing. There is a rainbow, and flashings of lightning, and a sea of glass. There are bizarre-looking creatures flying around constantly singing. And in the middle there is a throne with someone sitting on it – God Himself.

Now I’m not going to explain every detail of John’s vision. What we have to realise is that John is trying to describe the indescribable. Heaven will be so different from any place we have ever seen before it is hard to put into words what it is like. But the main point John wants to get across is that heaven is real, and we’ll see why that’s so important in a moment.

Of course I realise many people have tried to describe heaven. People publish whole books about their experiences of apparently seeing God, and there’s always a ready market for such material as, for obvious reasons, I guess most of us really do want to know more about heaven. So the question is: how do we know John’s vision of heaven is the right one? Why should we trust His description more than one we find, say, in W.H.Smith’s? Read the rest of this entry »

Not a tame Jesus

June 19, 2017

St Michael’s 11th June 2017

Readings – Luke 8:26-39; Revelation 1:1-8

I wonder how many of you know the Chronicles of Narnia? Over the years these apparently simple children’s tales have become one of my all-time favourites and, as you may know, at the very centre of these stories is the mysterious figure of Aslan. Aslan is a lion, but not just any lion. He is a brave, kind, good lion, with the power to defeat evil and save all who call on His name. But Aslan is no pet. There is something fierce and rather mysterious about the figure of Aslan. He comes and goes as He pleases. His roar shakes kingdoms and inspires terror. As Mr Beaver says in the Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe, “He’s wild, you know. Not a tame lion”.

Now I was thinking about this quote about Aslan as I came to our gospel reading this morning. You see, I suspect one of our issues with the Bible is that too often we try and turn Jesus into a rather tame and rather comfortable Jesus. We have our favourite passages which rightly we treasure, but the danger can be, we sometimes gloss over the rather more mysterious aspects of who Jesus is.

That is why this morning I want to look at the story of the healing of the man called Legion. Because the more you go into it, the more questions it raises. What was Jesus doing allowing demons to go into a herd of pigs? What about the livelihood of the pig-owners? What happened to the demons when the pigs drowned? There are some deep mysteries in this passage which I cannot fully answer, and it is an unsettling reminder that Jesus is rather greater and more awesome than we so often like to imagine.

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How to pray in troubled times

May 30, 2017

St Michael’s 28th May 2017

Reading – Acts 4:1-3, 18-31

This week all of us have been shocked by the terrible events in Manchester. We have, of course, experienced many terrorist attacks over the years. But the choice of target and the age profile of the victims have been particularly hard to bear. If anyone doubted before the existence of evil in this world, surely the events of Monday evening have dispelled this myth.

Yet since the attack we have also seen the very best of human nature: the taxi drivers offering free lifts home, the dedication of doctors and nurses, the professionalism of our police and emergency services, and above all a community intent on showing that hate will not defeat love. And as people have come together, so the cry has gone out: “Pray for Manchester.”

But how exactly do we pray for Manchester? What words can we use? How do we relate to God at a time such as this? This morning let me say right at the outset I am not going to give easy answers. All I am going to do is offer some clues which may help us as we seek to pray for this beautiful but broken world, and the many young people whose lives have been changed forever this week.

Now at first glance our reading from Acts has very little connection with what happened in Manchester. There is no terrorist outrage; the victims are not young; the events happened many, many years ago. Yet scratch a little beneath the surface and it is possible to make connections.

Last week John preached on how Peter and John went up to the temple and healed a man crippled from birth. It was a wonderful miracle and proof of God’s love and power. The man was understandably ecstatic. The crowds flocked to hear Peter and John explain what was going on, and there could be no denying that here was good news that everyone wanted to hear…

well, almost everyone. The religious authorities, however, saw the name of Jesus only as a threat. They could not see the goodness in what Peter and John had been doing, but rather seized them and threw them into jail. Perhaps there are faint echoes here of the way ISIS can only see what is good and beautiful and true as something evil to be contained or destroyed.

So Peter and John are brought to trial. On this occasion they are released without punishment because the religious authorities are afraid of the people’s reaction. But Peter and John know that these threats are not simply empty words, and subsequent events only bear out their fears. In chapter 5 all twelve apostles are thrown in prison and the following day they are flogged. In chapters 6 to 8 we read of the arrest and trial of Stephen who is then stoned to death as the first martyr of the Christian faith. From this point on, the church faces persecution and opposition, as indeed it continues to do so right up to this very day.

How, then, do Peter and John respond to their threats? Well, the first thing to notice is that they immediately return to their fellow believers. Verse 23: On their release, Peter and John went back to their own people and reported all that the chief priests and elders had said to them. Now on one level this was a risky move as it would have exposed the whole church to potential danger. They easily could be accused of having troublemakers in their midst. Yet Peter and John knew that the response to any threat or danger was not to hide, but to find support and strength from their fellow believers.

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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 »