Sunday, December 1, 2013


As we lit the first of our Advent candles we focused on hope and a verse from Romans 15.

and again Isaiah says,
‘The root of Jesse shall come,
   the one who rises  to rule the Gentiles;
in him the Gentiles shall hope.’ 

May the God of hope fill you with all joy and peace in believing,                                                                 so that you may abound in hope by the power of the Holy Spirit.

Through December we shall be supporting the Embrace the Middle East Appeal for Syria.

I began by reflecting on an episode of Country File filmed in Whytham Woods, just to the North of Oxford.  They had been exploring the way Charles Elton had pioneered the study of ecology in recognising that what appears to be 'dead wood' is actually a nursery for a great deal of life!

I had taken a photo of a sole green shoot in a sea of wood chippings, bark and dried leaves that I had taken in the ruins of Mary Jones's house in North Wales.  Mary Jones as a young girl trekked 25 miles across the Welsh Mountains in order to purchase a Bible from Thomas Charles of Bala.  He was so moved by her determination to buy a Bible that he joined with friends to form what has since become the Bible Society, committed to making the Bible available in people's own language at an affordable price the world over.

It prompted me to think of the wonderful analogy used in that verse by Paul!

That quotation was from Isaiah 11, a passage that maps out what it takes to rule in God's way in a kingdom that is God's.  It is one of those passages that was used as a model by Jesus as he came to be King in the Kingdom of God, the Prince of Peace.

The Peaceful Kingdom

A shoot shall come out from the stock of Jesse,
   and a branch shall grow out of his roots.
The spirit of the Lord shall rest on him,
   the spirit of wisdom and understanding,
   the spirit of counsel and might,
   the spirit of knowledge and the fear of the Lord.
His delight shall be in the fear of the Lord.
He shall not judge by what his eyes see,
   or decide by what his ears hear;
but with righteousness he shall judge the poor,
   and decide with equity for the meek of the earth;
he shall strike the earth with the rod of his mouth,
   and with the breath of his lips he shall kill the wicked.
Righteousness shall be the belt around his waist,
   and faithfulness the belt around his loins.
The wolf shall live with the lamb,
   the leopard shall lie down with the kid,
the calf and the lion and the fatling together,
   and a little child shall lead them.
The cow and the bear shall graze,
   their young shall lie down together;
   and the lion shall eat straw like the ox.
The nursing child shall play over the hole of the asp,
   and the weaned child shall put its hand on the adder’s den.
They will not hurt or destroy
   on all my holy mountain;
for the earth will be full of the knowledge of the Lord
   as the waters cover the sea.

That gives rise to that wonderful hope Paul spoke of.

I then went on to explore what the basis for that hope was.

I suggested that Romans was written by Paul to provide an insight into the faith that meant so much to him.  In the opening chapters he sets out the difference having faith in Christ Jesus makes as it brings forgiveness and a whole new life for the believer that is shaped by the grace of God.

Then Paul gets to chapter 7 when he sinks into the depths of despair.  He knows exactly how he should live and what he should do ... and does the opposite.

The good that I would I do not, the evil that I would not ... that I do!

The use of all those single-syllable words in the William Tyndale influenced authorised version is brilliant.  The only two syllable word is evil and that weighs heavily on Paul.

How does he resolve that dilemma?

He moves on to chapter 8.

A most wonderful chapter as it is so down to earth.

We know that the whole creation has been groaning

 The world Paul lived in with the cruelty of the Roman regime and much that went on was a world he felt to be groaning in its pain.  Our world is just such a world too.

I am sometimes accused of being a bit bleak in my preaching.  That's in some measure due to the fact that I do about 25 funerals in a year and often no weddings at all, and few baptisms.  Most of my pastoral miniistry is spent with people who are hurting in all sorts of ways.  In my preaching I find myself wanting to speak into that world because that's the world I inhabit.

It's not just the world at large that groans ... we each of us groan inwardly too - even those of us who are of faith, are Christian.

and not only the creation, but we ourselves, who have the first fruits of the Spirit, groan inwardly

But it is fascinating that Paul uses the analogy of  groaning and pains and is thinking about one particular kind of groaning and pain.  He is thinking of the groaning of labour pains.  As a man I cannot comment ... but that pain can be among the most excruciating ... and yet out of that pain comes new life.

We cannot explain it. We cannot understand it.  But maybe it is of the very nature of the world of God's creation that there is pain.  The insight is that out of pain can come new life.,  Out of the deadwood comes new life.
We know that the whole creation has been groaning in labour pains until now; and not only the creation, but we ourselves, who have the first fruits of the Spirit, groan inwardly

This gives grounds for the hope that we have that is at the heart of our faith .. the hope that 'saves us' or better perhaps the hope that 'makes us whole'.

For in hope we were saved

It is the very nature of hope that it cannot be seen.  This is what Paul goes on to emphasise!  And it is a powerful insight!

For in hope we were saved.  

Now hope that is seen is not hope.

For who hopes for what is seen?  

But if we hope for what we do not see, 
we wait for it with patience.

How can we have such hope?

This is the genius of what Paul shares.

Hope is not something we can generate in our own strength.  We cannot work it up.  We cannot muster hope ourselves.

The hope that can make a difference in our lives.  The hope that means so much to Paul is the hope that comes from a strength and a power that is from beyond ourselves.

How often we face those dark times when we cannot get through on our own.

But there is a strength, an unseen power, that God gives to help see us through.

Faith does not enable us to escape the darkness.  The faith that gives rise to hope enables us to get through the darkness and emerge into the light.

Likewise the Spirit helps us in our weakness; for we do not know how to pray as we ought, but that very Spirit prays for us with sighs too deep for words. 

I love that expression Paul uses.  At those darkest times when we cannot find the words to express our prayers, neither can God.  Words fail God too!

That hope, that is unseen by its very nature, is grounded in the love that can be seen, the love for which there is evidence.  For Paul such hope is grounded in the love that we have seen in Christ.  And that is a love that nothing can separate us from!

Who will separate us from the love of Christ?
Will hardship, or distress, or persecution,
or famine, or nakedness, or peril, or sword?

No, in all these things we are more than conquerors
through him who loved us!

For I am convinced that#
neither death, nor life, 
nor angels, nor rulers, 
nor things present, nor things to come,
nor powers,
nor height, nor depth,
nor anything else in all creation,
will be able to separate us 
from the love of God
in Christ Jesus our Lord. 

From Romans 8 Paul goes on in Romans 9-11 to explore the place of Jewish people and non-Jewish people in God's kingdom and then in chapter 12 comes to the point where he says, Therefore!   And in chapter 12 and following he appeals to those who have discovered such faith, with the hope it engenders, all of which is grounded in the love of God in Christ so to live their lives that they will follow faithfully in the footsteps of Christ, seeking to overcome evil with good in their commitment to the way of love.

Before a final very personal postscript in chapter 16 addressed to those who belong to the church in Rome by name, he comes to the point of rounding off his thoughts in those most wonderful words!

May the God of hope fill you
with all joy and peace in believing,
so that you may abound in hope
by the power of the Holy Spirit.

Our reflections over we paused a moment and then shared in the words of a meditation inspired by these words for Paul in Romans 8 and 15.


There’s a darkness abroad in our world
There’s a darkness deep in our hearts
It’s into that darkness that a light shines
It’s the flickering, fragile light of hope
The hope that makes us whole
And when the candle goes out?
The light of the flame no longer seen?
The hope remains.
Unseen, yet very real.
A hope that is grounded in love,
A love that nothing can separate us from.
May the God of hope
Fill us with all joy and peace in believing,
So that we may abound in hope
By the power of the Holy  Spirit.

Romans 8:18-25, 35-39 and  15:12-13

After singing that wonderful hymn, All our hope on God is founded, one of our Deacons, Sharon, led us in prayers she had been prompted to put together in the light of the course she is doing at the University of Gloucestershire.

Highbury Prayers by Sharon with help from Spinoza

As many of you know, I am currently studying Religion, Philosophy and Ethics.  More specifically, amongst other things, I am looking at the philosophy of Spinoza.  His thinking, though in some ways at odds with my own beliefs, expresses a mindset with which I identify and I am finding myself engaged in what appears to be a kind of metaphysical gymnastics in an attempt to make sense of it.  When I was asked to prepare prayers for this morning, I struggled with my current sense of instability as I strive for reconciliation within my own mind.  I decided that the best way forward would be to approach the prayers honestly, presenting my thoughts as they are and trusting God to find the sense which evaded me.
Spinoza lived in Holland during the 17th Century, the beginning of the age of enlightenment.  In the wake of scientific advance, this was a time when many people found their thinking caused them to question the teachings of the Church.  Many who dared to voice their concern were persecuted.  Spinoza, working from home as a lens grinder by day, and writing philosophy for his friends during his spare time, found himself having to be very careful how he presented his thinking in order to avoid possibly dire consequences. Thus, he presented an account of creation which spoke of an infinite Nature as God.  Since God is infinite, he said, there can be nothing outside of him, thus, all creation, of which we are inextricably part, is God: a pantheist view which also subscribed to determinism.  This means that all of Nature hangs together as a single mechanism.  What we perceive to be evil is only that part of Nature which challenges our power to exist within that mechanism.  The esoteric nature of his writing enabled him to remain under the radar to some extent as far as the authorities were concerned, whilst still questioning popular thinking and dogma within intellectual circles.  He faced ostracism by both Christians and Jews.

Spinoza believed, amongst other things, that all of nature (God) formed a Truth, of which our finite, and comparatively tiny, minds could never become fully aware.  By undertaking research and pooling our minds, however, we are able to maximise our power to ‘live’ by improving our knowledge – what he terms, ‘adequate ideas’.
My prayer, is, therefore based upon a lack of understanding of the infinitude of the perfect universe and our insignificance within it.  It is not ‘Spinozist’, but is very much inspired by Spinoza.

Offer a period of silence, in which people are invited to bring their difficulties, or those of others, to God in their thoughts.  Alternatively, invite them to contemplate the wonder of their own existence, in terms of mind and body.

Lord God,
As we gather together today, as one, in your name, we are filled with a sense of awe, both at your mightiness and our own insignificance.  Yet you charge us with caring for this great creation of yours.  Psalm 8 reads:

O Lord our God, how majestic is your name in all the Earth.  You have set your glory above the heavens. From the lips of children and infants you have ordained praise…..  When I consider the heavens, the work of your fingers, the moon and the stars which you have set in place, what is man that you are mindful of him; the son of man that you care for him?  You made him a little lower than the heavenly beings and crowned him with glory and honour.  You made him ruler over the works of your hands.  You put everything under his feet, all flocks and herds, and the beasts of the field; the birds of the air, and the fish of the sea…….  O Lord our God, how majestic is your name in all the Earth!

Yet, Lord, as your mighty and beautiful creation surrounds us, we find ourselves apparently at odds with its workings.  Powerful weather systems wreak havoc within communities, and internal battles on a cellular level lay waste to our bodies.  Seismic shifts shake the very foundations of our cities, and our minds become clouded, blinkered by our aspirational desires.

Lord, our understanding is finite and you are eternal.  We can never comprehend the enormity of your power.  We attempt to describe our surroundings and are thwarted by things too tiny to discern, or too vast to fathom: In Geneva, neuroscientific research in The Human Brain Project looks into the workings of our mind, and physicists at the Large Hadron Collider seek evidence for the tiny particles responsible for hanging our universe together.  Still we know more about the moon than the deepest trenches of our own oceans, and the Hubble Space Telescope has provided data to astrophysicists enabling them to hypothesise as to the rate of expansion of what is, already, a boundless universe……

Our suffering in the midst of all this appears so insignificant and yet, Lord, you assure us that you know every hair on our heads.  You designed and know every weather system, every neurological structure, the geology of our planet and the universe in which it sits.  Our immense knowledge is mere anecdote in the face of all that remains a mystery to us.  Our efforts to make a difference seem almost futile tinkering.  So we, your creation, whisper to you of our distress.  We bring before you those who have found themselves at the mercy of natural disaster, illness, financial worry and all the other plethora of difficulties which befall us in our comparatively minute existence.  We cannot understand what plans you have for our futures; we will never understand why our lives should be beset by challenges.  But, as the rest of your creation works with such precision and maintenance of order, help us also to recognise that everything we face is part of your perfect will.

Help us to uphold your teachings of love and hope; to support and find solace in one another and to continue in awe at the mighty beauty of your creation.
In Jesus name


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