Sunday, March 27, 2011

A Promise and a Principle for the Jounery Ahead

The story of Moses is one of the most inspirational of all time. An initial reluctance overcome by a sense of God’s presence and a helper to be alongside him in the person of Aaron, Moses in the great story of Exodus prevails upon Pharaoh to ‘let my people go’. After much heartache Moses leads the people towards freedom only to find that their journey will take them through the wilderness. It’s a story that has been the inspiration of the Jewish people ever since. It won’t be long before the Jewish people will once again mark the Passover and the moment of Exodus. It’s a story that was the inspiration for Jesus. We have taken that last Passover meal he shared with his disciples and made of it something new and no less powerful an inspiration for us. Exodus and the cry, Let my people go, has been the inspiration for generations of people as they have sought liberty and freedom. It was the inspiration of the Pilgrims on board the Mayflower as they settled and established the land of the free. It was the inspiration of the abolitionists as they sought the end of slavery, and even more powerfully the inspiration of the slaves as they sang in longing for their own freedom. Let my people go. It was the inspiration of Martin Luther King. One secular biographer of Martin Luther King, Stewart Burns[1] ‘argues that King saw himself as a reluctant, unworthy, and sinful messiah, mandated by God to free his people from the slavery of racial oppression and to rescue Amercia from the cancer of racism and discrimination that was destroying its soul. His models were Moses and Jesus.” In these troubled times as what has been described as the most radical change to the infrastructure of our society begins to take a hold next week, and as our military involvement in the Middle East extends from Afghanistan to Libya, it is tempting to look for another Moses figure to lead us through what feels like a wilderness time to a promised land beyond. I believe that is a temptation we should resist. More important is that we look afresh to Moses and to Jesus and find in their stories bearings to help us as we embark on the journey ahead of us. First, to Moses. I want to pick up a moment in the story of Exodus when it seems as if everything has gone wrong, when the people are up in arms against Moses, and when at first sight it seems as if God simply provides, but on closer inspection we find that God provides in a very particular kind of way. Reading: Exodus 16:1-5 and 13-21 16The whole congregation of the Israelites set out from Elim; and Israel came to the wilderness of Sin, which is between Elim and Sinai, on the fifteenth day of the second month after they had departed from the land of Egypt. 2The whole congregation of the Israelites complained against Moses and Aaron in the wilderness. 3The Israelites said to them, ‘If only we had died by the hand of the Lord in the land of Egypt, when we sat by the fleshpots and ate our fill of bread; for you have brought us out into this wilderness to kill this whole assembly with hunger.’ 4 Then the Lord said to Moses, ‘I am going to rain bread from heaven for you, and each day the people shall go out and gather enough for that day. In that way I will test them, whether they will follow my instruction or not. 5On the sixth day, when they prepare what they bring in, it will be twice as much as they gather on other days.’ 13 In the evening quails came up and covered the camp; and in the morning there was a layer of dew around the camp. 14When the layer of dew lifted, there on the surface of the wilderness was a fine flaky substance, as fine as frost on the ground. 15When the Israelites saw it, they said to one another, ‘What is it?’* For they did not know what it was. Moses said to them, ‘It is the bread that the Lord has given you to eat. 16This is what the Lord has commanded: “Gather as much of it as each of you needs, an omer to a person according to the number of persons, all providing for those in their own tents.” ’ 17The Israelites did so, some gathering more, some less. 18But when they measured it with an omer, those who gathered much had nothing over, and those who gathered little had no shortage; they gathered as much as each of them needed. 19And Moses said to them, ‘Let no one leave any of it over until morning.’ 20But they did not listen to Moses; some left part of it until morning, and it bred worms and became foul. And Moses was angry with them. 21Morning by morning they gathered it, as much as each needed; but when the sun grew hot, it melted. The miracle of God’s provision experienced by the people in the wilderness is rooted in phenomena that can be observed. I tracked this down in a Jewish Heritage Website[2] Prof. Jacob Milgrom offers us a scientific explanation:The manna has been identified with a natural substance formed in the wilderness of northern Arabia. There is a type of tamarisk plant, which is often attacked by a particular type of plant lice (Trabutina manniara and Najococcus serpentinus). When the insect punctures the fruit of the tree, it excretes a yellowish-white flake or ball formed from the tree's sap. During the warmth of the day, this substance melts, but it congeals when it is cold. It has a sweet taste. The natives gather these pellets/cakes in early morning, and cook them to provide a sort of bread. The food decays quickly and attracts ants. The annual crop in the Sinai Peninsula is exceedingly small and some years fails quickly. The description in Exodus 16 corresponds remarkably: But the actual provision of God is not the focus of the story. Rather, God uses the provision he makes as a measure of the people’s willingness to live their lives within God’s framework for their lives. This is what the Lord has commanded: “Gather as much of it as each of you needs,” … 17The Israelites did so, some gathering more, some less. 18But when they measured it those who gathered much had nothing over, and those who gathered little had no shortage; they gathered as much as each of them needed. 19 There is here at the heart of this story a Promise and a Principle that can be for us an inspiration at this time. The Promise is one to hold on to ‘God will provide’. The Principle is one to take to heart ‘God will provide each according to their need.’ The Promise and the Principle are both to be seen as much in Jesus as in Moses. John 6 begins with echoes of the Moses story. Jesus is up a mountain, and the Passover festival of the Jewish people is near. He is confronted with a large crowd and nothing to eat. Philip is shocked that even six months’ wages would not buy enough bread for each of them to get a little.” Andrew it is who notices a boy who has five barley loaves and two fish. And then he laments, ‘But what are they among so many people?’ Jesus gets the people to sit down. He takes the loaves, and when he had given thanks, he distributed them, so also the fish. That’s the Promise. God will provide. Then comes the Principle. He distributed the loaves and then the fish to those who were seated ‘as much as they wanted until they were satisfied. The Promise and the Principle are encapsulated in the words of the Lord’s Prayer. Give us this day our daily bread. The word translated in English versions as ‘daily’ Is a one-off word that doesn’t appear anywhere else in Greek. It is a puzzle to know how to translate it. And so clues are found in the very earliest commentators on the Greek text. They suggest two sets of meanings. Epiousios could refer to time and refer to the bread of today or the bread of tomorrow. Give us this day the bread we need for today, or possibly the bread we need for tomorrow. But the word epiousios could refer not to time but to amount. Give us this day just enough bread to keep us alive, and no more … Give us this day the bread we need. The Promise that God will provide is one to hold on to. The Principle that God will provide to each according to their need is one to reflect on and to struggle with and to seek to put into practice. It is a principle to govern life-style. We should seek what we need, enough and not plentiful riches. It is a principle to relate to provision in our society. We should seek a society in which the needs of each are met, and excess is held back. It is a principle to relate to provision across the world. We should recognise our responsibility across the world and seek to meet the needs of each. It is a principle to relate to climate. If each sought only what they need, our consumption of energy could be better shared. The challenge is for us to respond each of us individually. There is, however, in the story form Exodus a twist in the tale, that seems to me to be of great significance for us to reflect on too. The people do not measure up to God’s expectations. They try to gather in more each night than they need and everything turns bad. What’s even worse, in spite of having double on the day before the Sabbath, some still go out on the Sabbath wanting more and more for themselves. The response God makes is I believe absolutely fascinating. Within a couple of chapters Moses goes up on to the mountain top and receives the Ten Commandments. The bulk of the remainder of the books of Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers and Deuteronomy are devoted to Law Codes. Those law codes provide a framework for individual living and a framework for the people to live together in society. All sorts of provisions are made. Jesus holds light to the ritual provisions. Puts people first. But still values the notion of ‘law’ providing structure for people to live together in society. That too it seems to me is vital for us to take seriously. The Promise is one we can lay claim to. But left to their own people will not live by the principle. People need a proper framework of law that seeks to enable that principle to hold so that each will receive according to their need. To carry out that Principle we need not only to take individual action, but we should also seek structures in our society that will provide the framework for the needs of each to be met. We should engage in those structures too. On Friday the Churches of Cheltenham are invited to Christchurch to meet with Martin Horwood and explore what the Big Society will mean for Cheltenham. If anyone wants to join me there I would be delighted. If what is meant by Big Society is dismantling structures so that individuals are to work on their own to ensure that the needs of each are met … I fear it won’t work. The Big Society needs also to put in place the structures that will ensure that needs of each are met. Do we look to another Moses figure to inspire us? No that’s a temptation to resist. Jim Wallis quotes a passionate street organiser called Lisa Sullivan who followed in the footsteps of Martin Luther King, but died of a cancer when in her early forties.[3] “We are the ones we have been waiting for!” Let’s hold on to the Promise, that God will provide. Let’s hold on to the Principle, that God will provide to each according to their need. And let that principles shape the lives we lead individually and the society we seek to shape together. [1] Stuart Burns, To the Mountaintop: Martin Luther King Jr’s Sacred Journey to Save America 1955-1968 Quoted in Jim Wallis, God’s Politics (Lion, 2005), 215 [2] [3] Jim Wallis, op.cit., 374

Sunday, March 20, 2011

Where is God?

How can you believe in God with everything that’s going on in the world at the moment? A big question. And one I want to reflect on in a very personal way today.

Becky and I have planned out the services and themes we want to share from now until the summer. We felt it would be good to tell the story of some of the people whose stories are told in the Old Testament and find in them inspiration for the living of our lives in the real world today.

Moses was born into a very troubled world, but by a curious set of circumstances grew up in a very privileged position. Until one day he saw something he found deeply troubling. He saw for himself the way his own kinsfolk were being ill-treated. He intervened to stop an Egyptian guard beating a Hebrew slave. The outcome was the death of the Egyptian guard.

Moses fled far from the security of what had become his home to the land of Midian. There he is accepted as a refugee, an alien residing in a foreign land. He settles. And he marries. He has a child. He finds himself looking after his father-in-law’s sheep when he comes to what is regarded as a holy mountain, the mountain of God.

It is there he has a remarkable experience of the presence of God. Faced with the burning bush and that overwhelming sense of the presence of God. The God he encounters is the God who wants Moses to do something to bring about the freedom of his people.

Moses feels totally inadequate and not up to the task. He senses that when he goes to his people they will have many questions to ask about God – where is he, what’s he like, who is he.

Moses wants to know the name of God.

In that whole experience Moses has I recognise something of the dilemma I have been very conscious of these last few weeks as once again we come face to face with very difficult things going on in our world that prompt us to ask all sorts of questions about God. Where is God? What’s God doing? How can you believe in God. That’s the pressing question.

If we had a clear answer … how much easier our response would be.

Moses wanted to know God’s name. That would provide him with a clear definition. That would help him join with his people and pin God down.

The response Moses gets I find very moving, very powerful, and it speaks into the way I feel at the moment.


No name is given.

God simply is. He is who he is. He is what he is. He will be what he will be. The word in the Hebrew is the most basic of all the verbs ‘the verb to be’. It is as if God is Being, Being Itself.

It’s one of the remarkable insights into the very nature of God that the Bible gives us is that this response becomes the way God is identified. The four letters Y H W H are never uttered by a Jewish reader of the Scriptures. They are indicated in our English bibles by a word that bears no resemblance to the mystery of the meaning of the original Hebrew word, and it always appears in capitals as LORD.

God is simply the one who is. God is BEING, BEING ITSELF. Let’s not start with some philosophical idea of the omnipotence of God, that starting point is not a biblical one and it leads us into a dead end. Let’s start with God as being, being itself.

When Greek-speakers translated this sentence in Exodus into Greek they didn’t simply use the first person singular of the Greek verb to be. They used an emphatic form of that phrase which in Greek is quite unusual. For this ‘I AM’ they translated it as EGO EIMI.

As the story of Jesus unfolds John notices how Jesus makes use of this phrase not once, not twice, but over and over again. I AM the light of the world. I AM the bread of life. I AM the resurrection and the life. Is there a link with this response God makes to Moses in Exodus 3. When on one occasion Jesus breaks the rules of grammar and says, Before Abraham was, I am, there is the sense that Jesus is identifying himself with this I AM that was so significant for Moses on this occasion.

When does it all start? Remarkably enough the very first of these I AM sayings of Jesus comes in the course of the conversation Jesus had with the woman of Samaria by the well. He offers her living water. He then looks into her heart, sees her as she is, and still accepts and loves her. He speaks of breaking barriers down and the way God is spirit and those who worship him must worship him in spirit and in truth.

At this point the woman has the feeling that she is in the presence of someone very special. She has a sense of awe about her. I know that Messiah is coming, she says, When he comes, he will proclaim all things to us. Jesus replies by using these very words from the Greek translation of Exodus 3;3. I AM is who is speaking to you.

The Samaritan woman is the first to hear Jesus identify himself as ‘I AM’. She then becomes the first to tell non-Jewish people about Jesus as she returns to her home town and tell everyone about Jesus.

As a Christian I do not want to start from first principles with someone else’s definition of God. I want to start with the simple thought that God is. I take that from that story of Moses.

But in understanding God I as a Christian want then to turn to Jesus.

I first notice the teaching of Jesus – love God, love your neighbour, love your enemy. And I think to myself that taking that teaching is exactly what we need to bring into the world with all its troubles. What a difference it would make!
Next I notice that wherever Jesus encounters people who hurt he seeks to alleviate their pain and bring healing. In a world filled with such suffering that gives me an imperative to do my part in bringing healing into that hurting world.

But then as I look to Jesus I sense that he opens up for me a way of seeing God the God who simply is, the God who is I AM

Jesus comes alongside people in their suffering and he feels that suffering with them. At the death of his closest friend Jesus wept. It is on the cross that he plumbs the depths of human suffering, crying out, My God, my God why have you forsaken me?

The God Jesus opens up for me is the God who comes into a world of suffering and is alongside us wherever that suffering happens. For me it is the 23rd Psalm more than anything that has it: Yea though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death I will fear no evil for thou art with me, thy rod and thy staff they comfort me.

God is with us in the midst of the awfulness of the world, stays with us, and draws us through to something beyond in his glory. God is simply being itself, but more than that God is in Jesus Christ and so wherever we are in the world, God in Christ is there, taking his suffering upon ourselves, sharing our suffering at its worst.

I found myself this week returning to a novelist I first encountered about ten years ago. It came as something of a surprise to me then discover that one of the leading Japanese novelists was a convert to Christianity in his young years. After studying in France he returned to Japan and set about the task of writing novels that would seek to present Christ in the context of Japanese culture. Then I had just supposed it was a quirk of Shusako Endo as a Japanese novelist that volcanoes should play such a significant role in his novels. After all, the image of Mount Fuji is something that is associated with so much Japanese art. I had always thought it a beautiful, rather romantic image.

It is only now that it begins to dawn on you how Japanese people constantly live with the reality of volcanoes and earthquakes.

I turned this week to his novel Volcano as it tells the story of a seismologist and a de-frocked priest as they live in a town that sits in the shadow of a volcano which might erupt at any time.

What caught my attention right at the outset was a comment by Richard Schubert, the translator.

For Endo … the quintessence of Christianity lies in God’s loving compassion for his wretched children, His willingness to share with us in our suffering. The Japanese heart and mind seek a merciful mother-image of God, rather than the stern, demanding, threatening father-image which (in Endo’s opinion) has been unduly emphasized by the missionaries, and which accounts in great part for the failure of Christianity to strike deep roots in the ‘swampland’ of Japanese culture and religion. Endo is attracted to Jesus the suffering companion of all men and women, more than to Jesus the wonder-worker; he is obsessed with Jesus the human reject eventually crucified, rather than with Jesus the glorious pantocrator.

How remarkable to discover in a Christian Japanese novelist an insight that goes so far in responding to the awful question posed by so many in the wake of all that has been happening this last week or so.

Let’s start with a God who is as he is. And then let’s turn to Jesus who maps out for us a way of living in the face of that suffering which involves love for God, love for neighbour, love for enemy too and which seeks to bring healing wherever we meet suffering. But at the same time let’s see through the Jesus who speaks of himself as the I AM to the God who comes alongside us in our suffering, remains with us no matter what may befall and always us sees us through.

Sunday, March 13, 2011

Remove the cover from the well and draw the water

“Not so much a stabilising factor, more a spark for radical social change, leading to civil wars, the genesis of modern science and the birth of western democracy.” Quite some claims that Melvyn Bragg made in last night’s programme, The King James Bible: The Book that Changed the World.

How does the Bible change the world?

Something of that answer can be found in the wonderful words of Miles Smith in the Preface to the Authorised Version.

Translation it is that openeth the window to let in the light,
That breaketh the shell, that we may eat the kernel;
That putteth aside the curtain, that we may look into the most Holy Place
That removeth the cover of the well, that we may come by the water.

Read the Bible and it lets loose the power of the love of God in Christ to bring light into darkness, to nourish the soul, to provide us with a spiritual dimension to our lives, and to give us life in all its fullness.

I love that last image.

To read the Bible and discover the love of God in Christ is to remove the cover of the well, and draw off the very water of life.

The story of Jesus and the Samaritan woman who comes to the well in order to draw water and finds herself entering into conversation with Jesus is one of my favourite stories of all time.

Ask me, says Jesus, and I will give you living water.

That image of living water is full of power for me.

‘those who drink of the water that I will give them will never be thirsty. The water that I will give will become in them a spring of water gushing up to eternal life.’

Now when Jesus* learned that the Pharisees had heard, ‘Jesus is making and baptizing more disciples than John’— 2 although it was not Jesus himself but his disciples who baptized— 3he left Judea and started back to Galilee. 4But he had to go through Samaria. 5So he came to a Samaritan city called Sychar, near the plot of ground that Jacob had given to his son Joseph. 6Jacob’s well was there, and Jesus, tired out by his journey, was sitting by the well. It was about noon.

7 A Samaritan woman came to draw water, and Jesus said to her, ‘Give me a drink’. 8(His disciples had gone to the city to buy food.) 9The Samaritan woman said to him, ‘How is it that you, a Jew, ask a drink of me, a woman of Samaria?’ (Jews do not share things in common with Samaritans.)* 10Jesus answered her, ‘If you knew the gift of God, and who it is that is saying to you, “Give me a drink”, you would have asked him, and he would have given you living water.’ 11The woman said to him, ‘Sir, you have no bucket, and the well is deep. Where do you get that living water? 12Are you greater than our ancestor Jacob, who gave us the well, and with his sons and his flocks drank from it?’ 13Jesus said to her, ‘Everyone who drinks of this water will be thirsty again, 14but those who drink of the water that I will give them will never be thirsty. The water that I will give will become in them a spring of water gushing up to eternal life.’ 15The woman said to him, ‘Sir, give me this water, so that I may never be thirsty or have to keep coming here to draw water.’

What kind of life-giving water comes to your mind?

What kind of water do you like?

There’s such choice nowadays.

Is it the beautiful still water from a Scottish highland spring?
Or is it sparkling water that tickles your palate?
Do you like a sweetened water with a hint of flavouring?

Why not sample the waters? I should warn you before you try them that one is not as it appears. It’s not commercially available, but I did fill one of those bottles with water from deep down in the rocks underneath Cheltenham at the Pittville Pump Room.

My favourite water of all is also available too … it’s pure rain water that falls on the mountains of Wales and then emerges through springs and streams that combine and flow the Welsh Marches to be collected in Tewkesbury and delivered to a tap near you!

Which kind of water are you thinking of as Jesus says The water that I will give will become in them a spring of water gushing up to eternal life?

Is it simply water – the still water from a Scottish spring or better still the cool refreshing rainwater from Wales? Simply the water we need to get by. This is what our faith provides us, the difference our prayers can make to us, the life that comes from the scriptures to us?

Water is something we simply need. We cannot get by. It is what gives us life. And we actually need lots of it. Keep your fluids up. Just ordinary water. Taken for granted but we cannot do without it. That’s what faith and prayer and the spiritual life are – simply what we need day by day. And the way to keep it going, to sustain it is through the Bible as we read there.

But sometimes it may be good to have a sparkle in our water – there’s that extra buzz – our praying, our spiritual life has that something extra – it’s bubbling over. Great to have those moments – maybe there are moments when things really are bubbling along. Not always but they are there.

Sometimes it’s good to add a little flavour – a little sweetening. I sometimes feel we can make religion too syrupy, too much like a sweetener just to make things taste different – but then I think sometimes maybe we need that and it’s good. The syrupy is something that can be helpful – maybe on occasions it has a place. I’m not so fond of the over-sweet.

Which kind of water did Jesus have in mind when he used this wonderful image.

There’s one kind of water I haven’t come to yet. Cheltenham’s water. Salty, a bitter taste. Definitely not to be gulped down. What do you make of Cheltenham’s waters?

Not much! I can see written over everyone’s faces.

And yet people flocked to Cheltenham to take the waters for their therapeutic value. I remember leading an open air songs of praise service just in front of the Pump Room in the scorching sun. There was no shade. Foolishly I had no water with me. By the end I felt ill and was desperate for something to drink. The then tea room in the Pump Room had closed by the time I got there. In desperation I took the only water available. And (slowly I hasten to add!) drank a couple of big glass fulls. And I instantly felt better. Just the water, or also all those salts? I could see why people thought of it as so therapeutic.

Could it be the nasty tasting water that Jesus also invites us to have in mind?

Immediately Jesus has spoken those wonderful words of invitation, the Samaritan woman replies with eager anticipation, “Sir, give me this water, so that I may never be thirsty or have to keep coming here to draw water.”

At that point the story takes an unexpected twist. It’s as if Jesus is changing the subject. Or is he?

Jesus said to her, “Go, call your husband and come back.”

An innocuous comment … except for this woman it is not at all innocuous.

The woman answered him, “I have no husband.”.

Unnervingly Jesus responds in a way that suggests he has looked right into her heart and knows her through and through … “You are right in saying, ‘I have no husband’ for you have had five husbands, and the one you have now is not your husband. What you have said is true!

The woman said to him, “Sir, I see that you are a prophet!’

What does she mean when she reacts by identifying Jesus as a prophet?

Prophets in the Old Testament were people who challenged, unsettled as they held people to account and often as they held the powers that be to account.

It is as if Jesus confronts this woman with the darknesses deep in her own life.

This is nasty tasting water for her to have to swallow. And yet it does her good to know that Jesus’ love is reaching out to her knowing her fully.

There’s more … as the conversation unfolds the prophet in Jesus challenges, unsettles calls to account something that has the capacity to change the world. The Samaritan woman thinks a Samaritan way and is very aware of the divisions between her people and Jesus’s people. It is a cruelly divided world that she lives in and she for one is bent on keeping those divisions in place, and she is pretty sure that the Jewish Jesus will also want to keep those division in place. The Samaritans worship on one mountain, the Jewish people on another. And evermore shall it be so.

Not so, says Jesus.

He challenges, he unsettles, he calls to account – he is very much here the prophet out to change things in the world.

The hour is coming, and is now here, when the true worshippers, will worship the Father in spirit and truth, for the Father seeks such as these to worship him. God is spirit, and those who worship him must worship in spirit and truth.

The woman has recognised in Jesus a prophet who unsettles, challenges, and changes the world … and this is nasty tasting water to have to swallow for that Samaritan woman.

But now she sees in Jesus much more – the Messiah her own people and the Jewish people have been waiting for.

What do you look for in your Christian faith?

By all means think of the cool refreshing waters of the Scottish Spring or the Welsh Rainwater; by all means enjoy a little sweetening, and a sparkle in your faith.

But also be prepared to take the nasty tasting waters too.

Jesus confronts us with truths about our selves and still he loves us – and is there for us. That can be dark and difficult.
Then he confronts us with the world and its needs – and he wants us to break down barriers and make a difference in the world. Water is a powerful image for us to take to heart in our world. How important for us to be committed to the world and its needs not least its needs for water. And how tragic that water is right at the heart of the conflict in Palestine and Israel.

There’s one final twist to the tale …

The woman went back to her own city told everyone about Jesus, got them to come and see for themselves and we read , “Many Samaritans from that city believed in him because of the woman’s testimony,

The part of the testimony that was so powerful was the hard bit, the bit that had been difficult to swallow – the nasty tasting water – ‘the woman’s testimony that he told me everything she had ever done.

They came, they heard Jesus’ word for themselves. And they said, We know that this is truly the Saviour of the world.

Our task is to share the message – but not just the lovely – the bits that are difficult, that don’t taste nice – that challenge, that hold to account.

Do that with the message at the heart of the bible and it’s no surprise that the Bible really is a book to change the world!

Sunday, March 6, 2011

Substance - not style!

A sermon preached at Highbury by Becky Hartwell on Sunday, 6th March

The story of Esther is an interesting one and I have been fascinated by it for many years.
Just a normal, beautiful girl chosen to be queen. It’s the stuff that good childhood films are made of. It has a lot of the ingredients for a good film as well, although maybe not a film for children after all.

It has intrigue, courage, a bad guy, a makeover, a hero, romance, murder, and central to this, a story and a decision that could have a good or bad outcome but ultimately the decision has to be made and an outcome will happen.

But let me give you a quick summary of this story.

We are in Persia, King Xerxes is reigning. Some Jews have returned to Jerusalem after they had been exiled, some have not. During a banquet the King demands his wife join the guests, she refuses and based on some advice from the Kings experts he fires her from being the queen. This means he needs a new queen. The net is cast far and wide for beautiful women. During all this we find the wise man of our story. He is a Jew in exile called Mordecai and he is the uncle and carer to his orphaned niece, Esther. He puts Esther forward as a potential queen.
She is chosen and like the other beautiful ladies also chosen she is given a year to get ready for the King. They have beauty treatments, special food, their own servants and so much more. It is like a Disney movie. BUT, on advice from Mordecai, Esther hasn’t told anyone she is a Jew. Now everyone who sees Esther likes her. It is not just the beauty on the outside but her inner beauty that gets her noticed above the other women and eventually she is chosen as queen. One day Mordecai discovers a plot to kill the King. He tells Esther about this and she shares it with the king. It is recorded in the daily court record that Mordecai did this for the king.
But of course, this is just the start of our story, the introduction to the characters. This is only the first 30 minutes of our film. We next have our introduction to the bad guy. We are at the start of our reading.

Haman is one of the people who work for the King, he is given a rank higher than all the others. All royal officers have to bow to him and here we have a problem because Mordecai refuses to do so. This makes Haman so angry that he not only decides to kill Mordecai for his actions but ALL the Jews. He convinces the king to allow him to do this. An order is sent out to tell people to attack and kill all the Jews on a certain day.

And here we have a crucial part of our story. Mordecai tells Esther about the planned extermination of the Jews, he tells her she has to go see the King, to change it. But as we heard there is a rule about anyone approaching the King in the inner court without being asked. Unless the King holds out his golden sceptre the person will be killed – we know about his situation with the previous queen and what her actions got her and Esther has not been called. So Esther has to make the decision and Mordecai tells her to think about her situation, finishing with one of the most famous pieces from this book, “And who knows but that you have come to your royal position for such a time as this?”

Esther decides to go to the King whatever the consequences but first she prays and fasts for three days, not alone but with her attendants and all the Jews in Susa.
So that is the story so far and I am going to pause there. Already we have heard so much that can be translated into our lives. One of the things I think this book of Esther shows us is character.

We see what it is to have a good character and what it is to have a bad character. We have examples of great men and women but examples of a person who has been eaten up inside.
Esther is talked of as being a beautiful woman. Not just a woman who is beautiful on the outside but one who is so beautiful on the inside that everyone who meets her likes her. It takes more than outer beauty to be like that. Have you ever met someone who seems to be beautiful on the outside but not on the inside, not with beautiful personality. The more you get to know them the uglier they appear. There are people we know who are incredibly beautiful to us, not because they would appear on the front of the best magazines, they would never be showcasing the new fashions on the Paris catwalks but because their inner beauty shines forth. Inevitably all you see is the person of love, of care and of true beauty. Inner beauty is something that people want to be around and that was the case for Esther, even the King could see her inner beauty.
Jesus is a person who we have no real idea of his looks, he could have been the most attractive man of his generation or he could have been really ugly. However, one of the prophecies from

Isaiah 53 states, “He grew up before him like a tender shoot, and like a root out of dry ground. He had no beauty or majesty to attract us to him, nothing in his appearance that we should desire him.” To quote one of my grandma’s he probably wasn’t a looker, but he had something different about him. People came to hear him speak to be around him. He was a man of character, a man we can aim to be like.

A couple of weeks ago I was talking to the children at Transformers, the junior school youth group, about David. The man who became the greatest King of the Israelites was not chosen by God based on his strength, his height and his looks, if that had been the aim of God’s choice he probably would have chosen one of his older brothers. God sent Samuel to David because he could see his heart. He wanted a king based on the heart that was inside him. For David to realise all of Gods plans he had to have substance and not just style. David made his mistakes but God was looking at his heart. His words to Samuel were, “The LORD does not look at the things people look at. People look at the outward appearance, but the LORD looks at the heart.”
Now that is great news in one way, you don’t have to be an oil painting to be loved by God. God looks at us differently he sees the people we are, not the people we have on show through makeup, hairdressers hard work and everything else. But in another way it can be scary, God knows the person we are deep down, the person that maybe we try to hide, the person behind the mask we put on every day so that we can get through the things the world throws at us. God looks at the heart. Maybe, and I could definitely spend time listening to myself on this one, maybe if we spent as much time on our inward, spiritual selves as we do on our outward appearance we would be able to drop the mask and allow our hearts to glow outward as Esther’s did.

I am sure Esther was beautiful but she was more than that.

Mordecai is also someone who we can use as an example to our lives. Mordecai was a man who stood up for his beliefs. Mordecai didn’t bow because he was told someone was important. Now the book of Esther doesn’t mention God specifically by name at any point. But this is not the only incidence of a Jew refusing to bow to something named as important, we see it in the book of Daniel. Shadrach, Meshach and Abednego refused to bow down to a gold statue and because of this they were thrown into a fiery furnace. Mordecai was faced with a decision, was he going to be a man of integrity and not go against his faith, after all it could mean serious consequences or would he bow. It was just a bow, how much did it matter.

In life we are faced with decisions, decisions that might challenge something we always believed, something we have stood by in easier circumstances. Maybe it is something small, do we take the extra change we have been given at a shop or do we give it back, do we tell a little white lie rather than have to say we just didn’t return the call or put the letter in the post when we said we would. Do we listen to an offensive joke and let it go or do we challenge the person who made it? Life can be full of these situations. Mordecai was a man with integrity no matter what the cost, he is a great example to our lives.

We have others in the book of Esther who show us good or bad parts of someone’s character.

One of the main people who is an example of how not to be is Haman. Haman is an awful man, if this was a pantomime he would be the one we would be booing at.

Haman cannot enjoy his moment of being powerful, recognised by the King. Instead he sees the one who disobeys him and makes it his mission to destroy him. In fact not just destroy him but destroy those who have the same faith as him. Now this is an extremely angry and worrying man. But maybe we can even see parts of ourselves in his character.

Have we ever been faced with a situation where many have complemented us but one hasn’t and just fixated on that? Or maybe where lots of good things have happened but we have let ourselves been eaten up by the one bad thing. Haman shows us what it is like to let the minor things attack us. The things that can slowly destroy us, stopping us from being the people we could be, stopping us from embracing all that is planned for us. We don’t know what, if anything God had planned for Haman but Haman let himself become angry by things he felt undermined his power. Rather than dealing with the situation in a calm way he decided to exterminate all of Mordecai’s people. Is there something in our lives that is consuming us, are we letting it get in the way of all the good things or the things that are important in our lives? Do we need to pass it to God and ask him to take away our suffering, or anger, or problems so that we can walk away?

But this book isn’t just about character, I think it touches on many things including taking risks. Now race week is coming up, I’m surely not encouraging you to gamble on a particular horse for Gold Cup, to take those sorts of risks. Well, let me read a story that is about the wrong sorts of risks.

This is a true story about a man in Russia survived jumping out of the window, twice. The 22 year old jumped out of an open kitchen window while very drunk and survived the 15m fall without barely even a scratch. But then he walked back into his apartment and did it again! When the man, now teetotal after giving up drinking, was asked why he did it, he said, "I have no idea why I jumped the first time but when I came back up and I heard my wife screaming angrily at me I thought it was best if I left the room again - out of the window."

Now that is just an amusing story that I think displays what I mean by a stupid risk. The story of Esther is not about risking money on gold cup or jumping out of a window with a drop on the other side. The book of Esther is about taking risks for God and praying to him about it. Esther doesn’t just say, “right, I’m going to the King’s court right now.”

Esther talks to Mordecai and then she fasts and prays for three days. She asks for her attendants and all the other Jews in Susa to pray as well. Esther needed great courage to approach the King with an understanding of what the consequences could be. She doesn’t do this recklessly though, she prays about it, she has the prayer support of all those around her. Bad things can and do happen, the bible is full of these. The prayers were not about hiding herself from these, thinking “It will be all right on the night”. I feel the prayers were about focusing her mind on the work and support of God and realising that no matter what the consequences may be she had been put in the place she was for such a moment as this.

This wasn’t a stupid risk, although I’m sure it was a terrifying one, it was a risk that was left to God.

Maybe you are facing a situation that involves risk at the moment. Risks to do with your relationship with God. In John 20 it says “ “Because you have seen me, you have believed; blessed are those who have not seen and yet have believed.”

Trusting in God is taking a risk. Praying to a being you haven’t seen when there are people around us living different lives is a risk. Looking to God in decisions, use of our time, the way we respond to people is a risk. But it is a risk that we can see the results of. There are people throughout the bible, people around us in church and our lives who are also taking these risks. Like Esther we are not alone.

Maybe we are faced with a particular risk right now. Is there something we can be asking for prayer support with, just one or two people to be praying about it with us? Esther was not alone in her risk taking, as she walked to meet with the King she had the support of Jews throughout Susa and God was with her.

Now I don’t want to spoil the ending for you but I think I am going to have to. However, you can
read the middle bit of how we got to the end for yourselves.

Let’s just say the story of Esther ends well. In fact the Jews, on a particular day, the day they were meant to have been killed, celebrated the feast of Purim. The feast of Purim is still celebrated today. During this celebratory day there is a recitation of the book of Esther, a celebratory meal, people give each other food and drink and charity is given to the poor. What a way to celebrate what happened in the book of Esther. People are saying thank you to God.

How often do we forget to say thank you to God for something we have previously asked him for. The book of Esther can teach us so much, to pray before taking risks but to return and say thank you when God answers our prayers. I find myself asking God for something but not always thanking him for that which I asked him for. Something that fills my head, my worries once gone is forgotten. God has answered my prayers and because of it I forget. The children we have at Sunday Special are fantastic at saying thank you to God. There have been occasions when we have said thank you for every possible thing and reminded them that we can pray about other things as well. But every month they always have something to say thank you for, it is a real life lesson. Do they do this because their lives are easy, no, I think to be a child in our world is actually a difficult thing. Do they do it because they can’t think of anything else to pray for, maybe sometimes but not always. Do they do it because they see so much to be thankful for. I suspect yes.

We can learn from Esther and from our own children, remembering to say thank you to God.

Maybe there is something that we had forgotten to say thank you for. In the prayer time coming up maybe we can grab that opportunity with both hands.

Finally I want to leave you with this. I said earlier that the book of Esther does not mention God by name. Some people think it is a book of coincidences, the things just happened at the right time in the right way. I was once told by someone a lot wiser than me that there are no such thing as coincidences but God working through situations to help things happen. Some Jews during Purim dress up in masks and hide their faces to remember that God was there during the events of Esther. Some believe that God’s name is absent to highlight the point that God remained hidden throughout the story but was present and played a large role in the outcome. And in fact in our world, today, although God isn’t obviously present at all times he plays an important role in the lives of everyone.

I think that God is always with us, this is something I seem to say a lot but I think it is because we need reminding of it. One week everything might be okay and then suddenly everything changes and it is not. We can forget the support we have always had. God is always with us, through the dark times, through the sadnesses.

There is something that was shared in the parade service last month that I think is very telling. I have never had a friend die on a cross but I have experienced pain, sadness, confusion and guilt. I have never experienced being a queen, faced with the situation that to share things with the King could result in my death and the extermination of thousands of people. Can this story be translated to our lives? Well, I have experienced and seen prejudice, I have experienced fear of what my words can do, I have experienced struggles as a female. There are bits of the bible that relate to us, our world, our experiences. The bible can be translated into all our lives.

Maybe when we go home we can read the bits of Esther we didn’t hear about today, the bits that give us the missing parts of the story.

Maybe we can search for where God is at work in the book of Esther and in our own lives.

Maybe we can look at our character and see what is missing, how can we be more like Jesus? We can ask him to help us through this.

Maybe we can take a risk in our relationship with God, remembering to pray about it first, and even asking others to pray with us.

In March the annual feast of Purim will again be celebrated. This year it will be sunset on the 19th March to nightfall on 20th March. Is this a day we could spend saying thank you to God. Inviting people round for food and celebrating all that God has done for us over the last year. Saying thank you isn’t just one day we put in our calendar but we can still make the most of it and celebrate all that God has done for us and those around us.

Love in the face of so many complaints

A sermon preached at Highbury by Becky Hartwell on Sunday, 27th February.

What are the best complaints you have ever heard? Have you ever heard moans about school, work, have you ever worked in customer services?
Well to start off this morning I have found online some of the most ridiculous holiday complaints,
“I was bitten by a mosquito – no-one said they could bite.”

“We found the sand was not like the sand in the brochure. Your brochure shows the sand as yellow but it was white.”

“The brochure stated: ‘No hairdressers at the accommodation’. We’re trainee hairdressers – will we be OK staying here?”

“No-one told us there would be fish in the sea. The children were startled.”

“Topless sunbathing on the beach should be banned. The holiday was ruined as my husband spent all day looking at other women.”

The story of Jonah is about different things. It is a story about listening and not listening to God. It is about courage, about consequences. But there is more, I think this is the interesting bit, the afterthought, what happened after all the action… Chapter four is complaining Jonah and throughout it we have the presence of God.

The complaining that Jonah did was not amusing like the earlier quotes. I suspect we have at some point in our lives all complained about something and no doubt been on the end of someone else’s complaints. And maybe we can understand Jonah’s thoughts.

Jonah is full of moans, things he feels he has been victim to and he expects God to listen to it all.
We are nearing the end of the story – here is a recap. Jonah was initially called by God to go to Ninevah, he ran away. He got on a boat but during a storm was voluntarily thrown off where he ended up in a whale. After this he decided to listen to God and go and speak to the people of Ninevah. Now if he is going willingly maybe he has changed, he wants to share God’s great news with people and he wants to see them enter into a relationship with God. Or maybe not.
Ninevah was not a good place before Jonah went to speak there. This kingdom was built upon violence, murder, warfare and rape. There have been engravings found that show people being tortured and others with skulls tied around their necks. Ninevah was the capital of the Assyrian empire. When Assyrians took over a town they would take survivors and impale them on stakes in front of the town.

It’s understandable why Jonah wanted to run in the opposite direction. But we find out in chapter four that Jonah doesn’t run away because he is scared of these people but instead he runs because he thinks God will forgive them.

This chapter is a love story. It’s not the average love story. It wouldn’t be a romantic-comedy that people go and see on Valentine’s Day. But it is a story about God’s love for individuals, all individuals.

Let us start with Jonah.

Jonah is full of complaints. It seems strange after all he has been through that he complains so much about what God has done for the Ninevites. Here Jonah isn’t complaining about the whale, about the storm but instead he is complaining about how loving God is.
Jonah complains to God saying, I knew you were gracious and compassionate, that you don’t get angry quickly and you are full of love. It sounds like a ridiculous complaint, like one of those complaint letters we heard, “God, you are so loving, I knew you would be like this.”
Jonah is telling God that was the real reason he ran away, not because he was scared of what would happen to him but because he didn’t want good things to happening to theNinevites. Jonah does not want them to be rescued. In fact he goes and finds a spot to watch the city, just in case it gets destroyed.

We have a God who loves, who is full of compassion, even his critics say it about him. Imagine the worst thing someone could say about you. God is gracious, compassionate, doesn’t get angry quickly and is full of love. I’m sure the worst things people might say about me don’t incorporate any of those characteristics.

And God listens to Jonah’s complaints. He listens with those great characteristics. And it doesn’t cause him to love Jonah any less after he hears them. He is patient, he cares and he makes his response at the end. God listens when we are angry with him, when we rant at him and he responds. We may not always hear him, sometimes it may just be a whisper but he does respond, maybe with words we are not happy to hear. In the book of Job we hear God respond to him, asking him numerous questions, trying to get him to understand exactly who he is dealing with.

But God is ready for a discussion, even bargaining. There is a story where Abraham bargains with God when asking him to spare a city based on how many good people there are living there, he manages to get God down from 50 to 10. God is wanting that relationship with us, one to one, not just a show for others to see. In Acts it says God created us so that we would seek him and reach out for him and find him. That is who is with us right now. Will we reach out and seek him?

God meets Jonah on his level. He meets him where he is at, he wants that communication. God does the same with us. He will listen to tantrums but he won’t fall for tricks. He will meet us and listen to us and respond. With Jonah he tried using whales, storms, questions and eventually he sends a small plant, something he knows Jonah will be able to relate to. In the gospels Jesus talked in parables, meeting people where they were at. What is God using at the moment in our lives to try and communicate with us?

God loved Jonah throughout all of this. But we can see that God doesn’t just love Jonah, he loves the Ninevites.Jonah struggled to understand that God loves others just as much as he loved Jonah.

God loves all people. He loves those who do the most evil of things and he loves their victims. He loves those who say he doesn’t exist and those who say he does. He loves those who repeatedly go against him and those who follow him every day of their lives. He loves those who struggle to love themselves and those who love everything about themselves.
God loves. God loves. God loves.

It may be hard for us to understand how God can love all people. We may have known great sadness in our lives caused by the hands of real people and to know that God still loves them can put a bad taste in our mouths. But God sent Jonah to such people, to share his message with them. God has a place in his heart for all people, even those that can’t really believe it or don’t want to know it.

You may remember the parable Jesus told of the prodigal son. A man asked his father for his inheritance. He went off and lived a wild life. But he ran out of money. Eventually he decided he was best off going home but was willing to work as one of his father’s servants. He thought of the words he would have to say when seeing his father again, believing that he was no longer worthy to be called his father’s son. As soon as his father saw him his father ran to him threw him into his arms and kissed him. His son said his words about being unworthy but his father’s response was joy. He had his son back, he was no longer lost but found. He began to celebrate.
God loves us when we come back to him like the father loved his missing son.

The other son in the story was angry though, feeling that he had justified his father’s love and money for the work he had done throughout the years on the farm. But the father loved this son as well.

God loves us when we are angry, jealous or when we have been serving him, just like the father loved his son who remained at home with him.

God loves all, even those we struggle to love and accept. This idea can have knock on effects, it means we can share God’s love with all, not just those we think are capable of responding. It means that anyone who comes through the church doors are bringing joy to God by being here and we should rejoice as well, whatever the age, the dress, the way they express themselves or things we think we know about them. We can rejoice all that God and his followers are doing in this building and outside, whether in churches or on the street, God loves all.

I remember when a girl who was in my flat at university asked to come to church with me. I didn’t get on with her, she bullied people and made my first term at university really difficult. I took her with me but struggled to accept it, she charmed everyone and I wished she hadn’t come. I don’t know if she had a particular reason for wanting to come, she may have just wanted to be close to God in a safe environment. But like Jonah I wasn’t celebrating, I was bitter and annoyed with God. I don’t know where she is now or what she is up to. But God wanted her there and I still need to learn to be like God in those moments, compassionate and gracious. It is a struggle, it is painful but God is there every step of the way.

We may not always understand what God does but praying through these struggles and talking to God about them is something God is waiting for.We hear the Ninevites were evil people but God still wanted them to hear his message, he chased Jonah all over the place so he would share it.

Jonah asked God to “Just kill me now, Lord! I would rather be dead than alive because nothing I predicted is going to happen.” How do we respond when God’s love is realised by someone different to us, do we become like Jonah or celebrate with the angels.

At the end of this story we are left in one place. God asks a question and the story just stops there. Is it simply a question God knows the answer to, is he just trying to make Jonah think?
Maybe God is asking us the question. Maybe we should be the ones wondering about the great city of Ninevah, about all those around us that God loves and cares for every day but don’t even know he exists or even how much he cares for them. Is God asking us, “you see all those people in the world, going about their daily lives, should I not be concerned about them?”

God loves all people but in this story he was passing the baton to Jonah, asking him to talk to the people, in fact, not just talk to them but care about them as well. And in the end Jonah didn’t care. He cared about the plant that gave him shade but he didn’t care about the numerous people who were causing God to grieve. There are still people in our world who cause God to grieve. People he sees suffering, people he sees causing pain. God is grieving about all these things, was there a part two to his question. The story just ends with the thoughts of God, but maybe you can think what happened next, was he saying to Jonah, “should I not be concerned about them? Why are you not concerned about them?”

Is there somewhere God is calling us to be, someone God is calling us to love like he loves us. Should we let this story end with a question or can we be the answer, concerned for someone that is being ignored by everyone else?

There are those around us that don’t have people concerned about them, those who are facing job losses by the government cuts, those who struggle day to day living on the streets, those who have been trafficked and forced to work as slaves in the hidden parts of our world and our town, here in Cheltenham. Does there need to be a little light shining from each one of us out into the world, creating a glow? There are lights that go with each street pastor, lights that go with those working in CHIKS, lights that go with the food given to CCP and lights that go from the acts of kindness people do that no one sees.

I see the lights shining from different places in this church. From the children who invite their friends to their groups and share things about Jesus with their friends to the Open the Book group who go into schools and tell bible stories in imaginative ways. Those who meet people in the hospital, sharing the comforting love of Jesus and those who stand up for what they believe. And Richard and Felicity who work what can seem tirelessly in serving the church and the community. Let us all be like themand others andpray for them, to help them glow even brighter.

In lots of bible stories we read of someone being challenged by God and changing their ways or learning to serve, learning to love. Jonah doesn’t seem to change in our story. Jonah seems to be the same man he was at the start. Are we changed by the stories we read, are we changed by Jonah’s story?

Last term in Hy-tec we were studying significant people from the bible. We were looking to see what had happened to them and how that can relate to our lives. Is the story of Jonah significant in showing us not just how God loved Jonah, not just how God loves us but how he loves others as well.

God wanted to see Jonah changed, to be a man of action and not just of grumbles. What is God expecting of us, who does he want us to be concerned about?

Maybe, God is waiting to hear from us, whether it is anger that has been building up inside or just a hello when we have been quiet for so long. Maybe there is something we just need to let out to God, things we feel he has failed us on, things from the past that we never got over. He has listened to the angry, to Jonah and to Job. He is waiting for us to reach out and seek him.
Maybe there is something God is trying to say to us today? Is he trying to get on our level but we’re not quite able to hear him, pray and ask others for help. There is somewhere he wants us to be, someone he wants us to share with. Pray and ask for his help, ask others to pray with you.
Maybe he just wants you to say hello to someone new, someone you have never spoken to before, someone here in church today.

This chapter is full of the presence of God. When we are angry like Jonah God is there and listening, when we do things wrong like the Ninevites God is there and waiting to forgive us. When we do good things God is there and he is celebrating. In everything God is there with his love. I want to leave you with that insult Jonah made to God that shows the goodness of God’s character, “I knew that you were a gracious and compassionate God, slow to get angry and filled with unfailing love.”

Welcome and
News of the Church Family
Call to worship
A time of praise and worship with Hy-Spirit
Prayer & Lord’s Prayer
Running away
Song with Hy-Spirit
Offering and Dedication
Bubbles, Splash and Xstream meet for the over 3’s
Focus on CHIKS
Prayers of concern
Reading: Jonah 4
Praise and Worship with Hy-Spirit
Strangest Complaint
Hymn 545 Be Thou My Vision

So much to pass on at Highbury

If you give a little love you can get a little love of your own

A blessing shared at Highbury

Now and the Future at Highbury

Dreaming Dreams Sharing Visions at Highbury

Dreaming Dreams Sharing Visions

Darkness into Light