Sunday, February 26, 2012

The Really Big Question - Where do I belong?

It was  Shrove Tuesday so, there was no question, as one of the helpers at  Transformers I was going to have tea with the youngsters.  The pancakes were delicious!  At the end of the evening we came into church and sat in a circle at the front in the semi darkness of the up-lighters.  It makes a great finish to the evening.

At the first session of the term Carolyn asked the youngsters to come up with words that describe what God is like.  As you can imagine they came up with a long list.  We’ve dipped into that list as the term has unfolded for the God-slot at the end of the evening.  I homed in on the word ‘saviour’.

They knew all about Shrove Tuesday, Ash Wednesday, Lent and the story of the temptations.  With one or two prompts from me they told me the story of the temptations.  I made a lot of the way we all know what we should do … but sometimes there’s something telling us to do the opposite.

“Go on, it won’t make much difference.”  “It’s all right it will only be this once.”  And then the little twist in my telling of the tale, and the thing I wanted to get over was that Jesus knows exactly what that’s like.  He’s been through it.  And it’s great to know that he’s with us to give us that strength we need to do what’s right, and what’s even more wonderful, he’s there to help us and with his forgiveness help us to start all over again.

That, at least was the plan.

But with little ones things don’t always go to plan.

One youngster had his hand in the air as soon as I started asking questions.  I was just getting going when I noticed he had his hand in the air again.  I turned to him and asked him what he wanted to say … ‘the burning bush’.  Was his answer.

Yes, fine, I thought.  But not a lot to do with the story of the temptations.  I made an attempt at linking us back into my story – that was in the wilderness and a place where God’s presence was so very real – and Jesus felt God’s presence to be very real.  It just about worked.

Then I went on with my story.  And came to the end when I was getting them to share their responses to my story, when I noticed the same hand in the air once again.  I turned to the keenest of all my listeners expecting him by now to have been wrapped up in the story of Jesus and the temptations.  But no, he was still caught up in the story of the burning bush and determined to say what happened.  The whole point of the story of the burning bush was that we must listen to God.

That’s exactly it, I turned to the rest of the group.  Listen to God … not to the voice of temptation.   That’s the whole point of the temptation story too!

Isn’t it wonderful, how the message comes over.  Out of the mouths of babes and sucklings!

I was already planning to stick with the temptation story today.

Reflecting on that time with Transformers and the way the story emerged as together we reflected on it, I have been thinking more and more of the connections there are with the story of the burning bush.  That’s the start of the Moses story, the temptations are the start of the Jesus story.  That takes place in a wilderness time for Moses, this takes place in the wilderness with Jesus.  That takes place at a time of questioning in Moses’ heart, this at a time of questioning thrust upon Jesus.   It is in that most unexpected of places that Moses has this profound sense of the presence of God that shaped the rest of his life’s work, so too this wilderness experience for Jesus shapes the rest of his life’s work.

The story of the temptations works at so many different levels.

It’s well worth coming back to.

Reading that story in Matthew 4 once again, I have a feeling much more is at stake here for Jesus than simply the temptation to do the wrong thing.

Notice the things that Jesus is tempted with.  At first sight they are in many ways good things.  Look again, and they are not just good things, but they are the good things that so many people looked for in the coming Messiah.

In the wilderness turn stones to bread.  That’s just the kind of thing that happened in the wilderness with Moses and the manna.  People were waiting for a new Moses, the prophet proclaimed by Moses,  who would do equally dramatic things delivering people from the modern-day slavery they experienced at the hands of the Romans.  The Messiah who would be Prophet.

The next temptation takes Jesus to the highest point on the temple.  Don’t think steeples and church towers.  It’s more interesting than that.  Further along the Temple Mount from the Western wall where Jewish people pray, excavations have revealed the incredible destruction wrought on the temple by the Romans in AD 70.  They tore apart the temple buildings on the temple mount and hurled them over the walls 30 feet and more to the ground.  The rubble is still there to be seen.  The massive cracks in the Roman roadway that ran alongside the temple mount are still there.  And one massive, beautifully carved stone has been thrust from the highest point, the pinnacle of the temple.  It is inscribed.  And it makes it clear it is the point where the watchman stood to catch first sight of the rising sun and blow a blast on the trumpet to announce the start of the Sabbath.

The dramatic action Jesus is tempted to do links him with the high-up people of the temple – such an action would give him a claim to be the High Priest so many looked to and displace the High Priests who had been appointed by the Roman conquerors.  This was a massive temptation – to conform to the expectations of the people, scripturally based, The Messiah who would be Priest.

And finally, in Matthew’s telling of the story, up to a very high mountain and shown all the kingdoms of the world and their splendour.  This was the power that the people looked for in their coming Messiah King.  A Power that would be instantly seen, that would change the world for ever.

Prophet, Priest, King – this was what Jesus was being tempted with.  But Prophet, Priest, King in the way the people expected.

By the age of 12 Jesus was already listening and asking questions of the greatest teachers in the temple.  For very nearly 20 more years he had been steeped in the Scriptures going as his custom was to the synagogue.  He knew his Scriptures inside out.  He knew the kind of all-powerful, all-conquering, Prophet, Priest and King so many of the  people were looking for.

And he was convinced that he had something totally different to offer.   He wasn’t with those who craved such power.  He was with John the Baptist who spoke truth to power.  And he had gone down to the Jordan, lined himself up with John’s movement in baptism.  And that had been such a wonderful moment in his life.  The heavens had opened, he saw the Spirit of God descending like a dove and alighting on him.  And a voice from heaven said, This my Son, the Beloved with whom I am well pleased.

This was it.  The time had come.  His life’s work about to begin.  Jesus knew his Scriptures.  What kind of Son would he make.  What kind of Messiah would it be.

In the wilderness Jesus is not being faced just with temptations to do the wrong thing.

He is confronting the biggest question of all.  The thing that would completely shape all that he did.  The nature of his life’s work.

This is what the temptation is about.  This is where the humanity of Jesus is right to the fore.  Jesus experiences what everyone experiences.  That moment of deep, dark questioning.  What course of action should he take? 

Yes, we can read the temptation story as a story about temptation.  But it is much more than that.  I have a feeling it reminds us that we have to face at some point or other the really big question.  What are we going to do with our life.  Not just what is life about.  What is my life about?  Where do we belong?  Who do we belong to?

The challenge of a choice.  The choice for Jesus.

But there is an insight here that we need to face up to.

Choose Jesus – belong to Jesus and we are likely to face a time of testing just as he did.  The promise Paul holds on to is that we will  never be tested beyond a point at which we can endure.  But there can be no escaping the bleakness of a time of testing.  And those times can come back to.

As we face that prospect we need to be aware of what we are facing.   We too have the kind of choice that Jesus was confronted with.  And we face the same kind of circumstances too.

Who is it doing the tempting?

Put aside all pictures you have of a devilish creature dressed in red and black with pointed ears and a trident.

Put aside that dualistic idea of some philosophical thinking of God and all good, and an equal and opposite force for evil – the Devil and all bad.

The whole of this story is set within the sphere of God.  God is always seen as greater.

Jesus was led up by the Spirit into the wilderness to be tempted by the devil.

That’s interesting.  A wilderness experience is inside God’s greater love.  A time of testing and temptation is inside God’s greater love.

So who is the devil?  Try to avoid the pictures.  Try to avoid the philosophising.  That sense of darkness, that sense of foreboding.  That sense of things spiralling out of control.  That sense of powers beyond our ability to influence and shape that cut across the goodness of God.  The sheer brute awfulness of so much that happens in the world is that there is a reality of evil out there, and sometimes very close to hand too.  It’s there.

The story of the Devil in the Bible is a fascinating one.  Because God is always greater.  God always has the last word.  The world of God’s creation is a world where awful things happen – that’s the reality we cannot escape.

God in some way can use even the most awful of things to bring something greater out.  What defuses the power of the devil, is holding on to the greater good of God.  That’s what Jesus does.  He draws on the Word of God that he is so steeped in.  He holds his ground, drawing on the deep source of strengthening his life-time of living the word of God has brought him –

It is written, it is written, it is written …

One does not live by bread alone, but by every word that comes from the mouth of God.

Do not put the Lord your God to the test.

Worship the Lord your God and serve only him.

That’s the key.

  • Immerse yourself in God’s word,
  • however much you feel tempted tested, torn apart don’t put God to the test,
  • worship him, serve him.

Hold on to these key things.

And face off the time of tempting.  See it instead, as the word can be translated, as a time of testing.

You go all through Matthew’s account and come to the end.   And at the very end it is as if Jesus sees the Devil for who he is.  Not the all-powerful force of evil standing over against God.  But the Satan – who in the story of Job is the one who tests Job’s faith.

Later in his ministry Jesus was to encounter such testing again – You are the Messiah, the son of the living God – and when Jesus starts to speak of being a suffering servant messiah, Peter says we will never allow you to suffer at all.  And Jesus says, Get behind me Satan.

On the cross three times if you are the son of God save yourself.  But he holds firm.  Goes through the suffering and into the resurrection victory.

When Jesus is facing arrest, he warns Peter that he will have to face big questions about his allegiance to Jesus – Satan will sift him.  And Peter succumbs and denies Jesus.

But Jesus sticks with Peter.

And Peter comes to the point of realising that the faith that really counts that makes a life of difference is the faith that has been tried and tested and has stood the test of the refiner’s fire.

So what is the big question for us?

First, there is a choice.  Jesus challenges us to make a choice to follow him.  That’s a big turn-around.  And it calls for our allegiance.

To sign up for Jesus, however, then means that we will each of us face a time, and maybe like Jesus, times of testing.  They can be times of very real darkness.  Times when it seems as if the power of the darkness of the world takes away our faith.

Don’t ever think the devil has the last word.  Remember the Satan who sifts.  It’s  a testing, a time of trial.  Hold on to the word of God.  Don’t put God to the test.  Worship God.  Serve God.

And then just as Jesus did you too will emerge from that time of testing.

For the final part of the temptation story is a wonderful thing to hold on to.

Jesus stands his ground.  And suddenly angels came and waited on him.

From the darkness of that awful experience to the tangible presence of the glory of God, what a transformation.  But don’t believe that that is then when all your troubles cease.  That’s only the beginning – for now with the arrest of John, Jesus’ life-time work is just beginning!  So too with us!

Sunday, February 12, 2012

We belong to each other

Since the beginning of the year we have been looking at what it means to belong.

It’s one of those special things about church.

That sense of belonging.

We started with the biggest belonging of all.  We belong to God.  That God dimension in our lives is important as it roots us to something beyond our imagining and relates us to the God who is concerned for us in the tiniest detail.

Then we looked at what it means to belong to the Church.

We celebrated baptism with little Jessica – and continue to remember them in our prayers and thought that belonging to one church here at Highbury means belonging to the one church world-wide wherever it is.  On that occasion it was great to hear from Stefan and Birgit in Brazil.

We have joined with friends from the Anglicans and from the URC and so explored what it means to belong along with other churches locally.

Joining with friends from St Luke’s we thought of that wider belonging we share.  They and our friends from St Michael’s are very much in our prayers at the moment.   It is a couple of years since we shared a day together as Deacons with the PCC’s of St Michael’s and St Luke’s to reflect on the way forward for our shared sense of mission.  Just as we were preparing that day, St Luke’s and St Michael’s went into a long period of consultation about their relationship.  That has now come to a resolution.  Possibly as early as this summer, St Luke’s will be joining up in a partnership with  St Matthew’s and St Mary’s in the Town Centre and St Michael’s for the foreseeable future anyway will simply continue as an ecumenical partnership with the Methodists, with Robert as the Vicar and John  Wren.  They are all very much in our prayers at the moment and we think of special prayers for John Wren who has been off work for over six months undergoing treatment for cancer.

Other things are afoot with churches in Cheltenham – as the clergy of the town got together on Thursday thinking about evangelism and as the Church Leaders in Cheltenham group prepare to get together with the Chief Constable, Tony Melville, at his initiative to share insights into the needs of the town and ways in which churches can be supportive of the community in partnership with among others the police.

The next Street Pastors commissioning service will be at C3 Church over in the Reddings on Saturday evening and for the first time we will have a couple of people from Highbury being commissioned as Street Pastors – Sue and Paul very much in our prayers.

Belonging to God, belonging to the church here is to belong to the church world-wide.  Belonging to the church locally binds us together with people in our community seeking to share the wonderful Good News of God’s love for all.

We belong to Highbury.  It was great to explore the things that make Highbury special.  Following the service when we explored that theme we met as Deacons and processed all the responses people had made at our January Church meeting when invited to come up with words and phrases that describe what makes Highbury special.  It was fascinating to see how a picture quickly emerged as Deacons stood and sat around a table arranging slips of paper with those words on into a pattern.

As a picture emerges of the church we are it will give us challenging things to think about over the next half year as we shape our services around those pictures and the challenges they give to us.  But as you look at those you cannot help but notice things that are missing, things we could strengthen, things we could develop.

Belonging is so important.

And through all this process we have been conscious of difficulties people face.  In our own church family, bereavements and frailty in older years, illness in hospital.  Family issues, work-related issues.  All sorts of things.

And we touch disturbing things on the world scale in the news.

Today we come to another thought.

That we belong together.

There are so many places to turn to think of what it means to belong together.   Over the last year or so we have been following a Congregational Federation course, Growing Disciples, at our Church Meeting.  One of those sessions takes us to a story of Moses in Numbers 11 which is all about the need to belong together and then to share in God’s work together.

AT first sight it seems to be a story about the need for shared team leadership.  But read on to the very end and something else emerges.  It’s not only about shared team leadership, it is also about all of us as God’s people together having that sense of sharing that means we really do belong to each other.

14I am not able to carry all this people alone, for they are too heavy for me. 15If this is the way you are going to treat me, put me to death at once—if I have found favour in your sight—and do not let me see my misery.’

The Seventy Elders

16 So the Lord said to Moses, ‘Gather for me seventy of the elders of Israel, whom you know to be the elders of the people and officers over them; bring them to the tent of meeting, and have them take their place there with you. 17I will come down and talk with you there; and I will take some of the spirit that is on you and put it on them; and they shall bear the burden of the people along with you so that you will not bear it all by yourself. 
 24 So Moses went out and told the people the words of the Lord; and he gathered seventy elders of the people, and placed them all around the tent. 25Then the Lord came down in the cloud and spoke to him, and took some of the spirit that was on him and put it on the seventy elders; and when the spirit rested upon them, they prophesied. But they did not do so again.
26 Two men remained in the camp, one named Eldad, and the other named Medad, and the spirit rested on them; they were among those registered, but they had not gone out to the tent, and so they prophesied in the camp. 27And a young man ran and told Moses, ‘Eldad and Medad are prophesying in the camp.’ 28And Joshua son of Nun, the assistant of Moses, one of his chosen men, said, ‘My lord Moses, stop them!’ 29But Moses said to him, ‘Are you jealous for my sake? Would that all the Lord’s people were prophets, and that the Lord would put his spirit on them!’ 30And Moses and the elders of Israel returned to the camp.
First it is an issue of leadership and of the vital importance of shared leadership.  The Lord speaks to Moses …

17I will come down and talk with you there; and I will take some of the spirit that is on you and put it on them; and they shall bear the burden of the people along with you so that you will not bear it all by yourself. 

But as the story comes to a climax it is not simply shared leadership that is the concern of Moses here.

He has a vision for something greater.

Would that all the Lord’s people were prophets, and that the Lord would put his spirit on them!’ 3

That’s the insight we need to take to heart.

It’s one that Paul took to heart.

Paul sensed that in Christ all this talk of the Spirit’s outpouring had somehow been fulfilled.

Towards the end of Galatians 5 he speaks of the way all we do, all those traits that we think of as what we need to work at as Christians are the fruit of that inner strength and power that the unseen, yet very real, Spirit of God gives us.

the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control.

As that becomes something that grows within us that has an impact on what we do with our lives.  It challenges us

Let us not become conceited, competing against one another, envying one another.

Paul is challenging us to be like those geese.  The youngsters in our M'Ocean group had acted out a sketch to accompany the following video exploring the lessons we learn from Geese.  The video is called Pulling Together

  • Are there lessons about team work that we can learn from geese?
  • Decide for yourself
  • As geese flap their wings, they create an uplift for the bird following
  • By flying in a V formation the whole flock adds 71% greater flying range than if any bird were to fly alone
  • If we share a common direction and a sense of community, we can get where we are going more quickly and easily because we are travelling on the thrust of one another
  • Whenever a goose falls out of formation, it suddenly feels the drag and resistance of trying to fly alone
  • And quickly returns back to formation to take advantage of the lifting power of the bird immediately in front
  • If we have as much sense as geese, we will stay in formation with those who are headed where we want to go…
  • And we will accept their help as well as give our own
  • When the lead goose gets tired, it rotates back into formation and another goose flies at the point position
  • If we take turns doing the hard tasks and sharing leadership, as with the geese…
  • We become interdependent with each other
  • The geese in formation honk from behind to encourage those up front to keep up their speed
  • If we ‘honk’ we need to make sure it is positive and encouraging
  • When a goose gets sick or shot down, 2 geese drop out of formation and follow it down to help and protect it
  • They stay with it until it is able to fly again or dies
  • They then launch out on their own, with another formation or catch up with the flock
  • We too should stand by each other in difficult times as well as when we are strong
  • Let us all try to fly in formation and remember to drop back to help those who might need it
  • apparently, the geese at the front and back of the formation have the hardest jobs, the middle ones are most sheltered and have the easier journey.
  • the V formation means everyone can see everyone else so, everyone keeps an eye on everyone and can communicate well.
What we are doing as we do that is allowing the Spirit to bear fruit not only in the living of our lives individually but in all we do as we truly belong to each other.

It’s what Paul goes on to see in Galatians 6.

Bear one another’s burdens, and in this way you will fulfil the law of Christ.

To belong to one another is to carry one another’s burdens?

That’s what we do  when someone needs our help and our support.

But what of the time when someone is shamed, someone is disgraced … is that the point at which we too abandon them.  Or is there something special about the Good News of Jesus Christ that we seek to stand by one another come what may … and maybe that’s the most important point of all.

We belong to each other – and that is something special that binds us together as the family of God’s people here.

I wondered if I could find a hymn that would catch some of those thoughts.  Maybe a new hymn.  I looked up HymnQuest, a wonderful database I have, and I discovererd an age-old hymn that for people of a certain age will quite possibly be an old favourite.

I was taken aback how pointed the words were.

Blest be the tie that binds
       our hearts in Christian love;
       the fellowship of kindred minds
       is like to that above.

2     Before our Father's throne
       we pour our ardent prayers:
       our fears, our hopes, our aims are one,
       our comforts and our cares.

3     We share our mutual woes,
       our mutual burdens bear,
       and often for each other flows
       the sympathizing tear.

4     When for a while we part,
       this thought shall soothe our pain,
       that we shall still be joined in heart,
       and hope to meet again.

5     This glorious hope revives
       our courage by the way:
       while each in expectation lives
       and longs to see the day,

6     From sorrow, toil and pain,
       and sin we shall be free,
       and perfect love and friendship reign
       through all eternity.

John Fawcett (1740-1817)

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