Sunday, January 26, 2014

Trapped by the system? See the bigger picture

This was preached at a United Service when St Luke's and Highbury shared worship together.

Trapped by the System – See the Bigger Picture!

I don’t know about you … but I for one am looking forward to next weekend and the start of the six nations.  I will be rooting for Wales and joining in with some of that great singing too!  There is one song, however, to strike fear into the hearts of Welsh supporters.

And that’s when the English crowd see a triumph within their grasp and start to sing what has become almost the English rugby anthem – Swing low, sweet chariot, coming for to take me home.

It’s one of those great spirituals that stirs the soul.  And in an intriguing way it has something to do with Matthew’s Gospel.

It’s been good sharing with Mike in preparing St John’s Assemblies and when we met at the beginning of this term, Mike told me about the way St Luke’s are taking a look at Matthew’s Gospel .  I thought it would be great to share in doing that – so at Highbury we are going to be taking a look at Matthew as well.

A Book to Change the way you see the World

Some books you read for fun, some books you read for interest, just occasionally you come across a book that makes you change the whole way you see the world and what it means to live in the world.

There’s fun in Matthew’s gospel, there’s a great deal of interest, but more than anything else Matthew’s gospel is the kind of book that’s aimed at making you change the whole way you see the world and what it means to live in the world.

You get the feel that Matthew’s gospel is put together by someone who knew what it was to be up against it in a world that could be very, very cruel, a world that seemed at times to be falling apart.

I guess, for me, it’s what makes Matthew’s gospel such a powerful read today.   Whether it’s watching the news from Syria or sharing with someone who is up against it, or encountering something, a diagnosis, a crisis at work, it can often feel as if the world we live in is a world in danger of falling apart.  But also it’s a world that makes you feel trapped into it – a world that’s impossible to break out of.

Trapped in the System

Tradition has it that the writer of this gospel was the disciple who in this gospel is identified as Matthew.   He finds himself rejected by the Jewish world of his family heritage, and he finds himself trapped in the ruthless, brutal world of the Roman Empire’s occupation of Galilee.  To build its magnificent buildings, to fund the lifestyle of its citizens, the Roman Empire had devised a system of raising taxes that involved franchising out contracts to a tax-raising company of people called in Latin Publicani.  The companies of Publicani would bid against each other with the promise to raise as much money as possible for the Roman authorities as cheaply as possible.  The company of Publicani winning the contract would then sub-contract down, and down and down … until the people at the bottom would be drawn fro the local population and be under great pressure to raise as much money for the Romans as possible and would themselves get as little as can be.

Matthew found himself caught in that system. He was trapped in a world that he couldn’t break out of.   It was a world that seemed to be falling apart.

He was Jewish and different Jewish people were struggling to be Jewish in that world – the rich and powerful, the Herodians, the Saducees, the High Priests – played the game with the  Romans and went along with Roman rule.  The Pharisees wanted a return to the ritual holiness and purity of the law.  Some reckoned a monastic rule was what was needed.  And not a few reckoned they needed to take up arms against Rome.

Matthew was trapped in the world of Roman oppression.

Seeing the Bigger Picture

And then something happened.

Someone had time for him.

More than that someone gave him a whole new way of seeing the world that made for him a world of difference.

That someone was Jesus.

And he had a simple message.

Repent.   Not just say sorry for things you have done wrong … but much more than that.  The little word translated ‘repent’ means get a whole new way of thinking, look at the world in an entirely different way, make a complete about turn in your thinking about the world and your life.

And discover that there is a bigger picture, a bigger picture that will help you to make sense of the world you live in.

What Jesus shared with Matthew was that that bigger picture was nothing less than the Kingdom of Heaven, the rule of God breaking into our world.

It changed Matthew’s life.

And he took up the task of sharing the good news of the Kingdom as one of the twelve disciples.

And there came a point, tradition has it, at which he put the whole message, the Good News he had discovered for himself down in writing, so that he too could tell the Good News of this Jesus.

Filling out the Bigger Picture – some brilliant teaching in Matthew

Matthew was a brilliant teacher … and he found the teaching of Jesus was what helped him to grasp that bigger picture and so he built his Gospel around five blocks of teaching.

And as a teacher he wanted to give all that teaching a framework that would be memorable.

In our western way of thinking we think sequentially – we start at the beginning, work through the middle and come to the end of a story.  We start an argument with the first point, develop the argument through points 2, 3 and 4 and then reach the conclusion.

The Middle Eastern way of thinking was different.  [See Kenneth Bailey, Jesus Through Middle Eastern Eyes]

The Eastern way of thinking often sees a different kind of pattern where 1 is like 5, 2 is like 4 and the most important point is in the middle.

The teaching of Jesus Matthew brings together fills out what it means to live your life under the rule of God seeing that bigger picture of the Kingdom of Heaven.    It starts with the Sermon on the Mount – and it involves being peacemakers, hungering and thirsting for justice.  It involves loving your enemy as well as your neighbour, blessing those who persecute you. It’s about prayer and about forgiveness.   It involves doing to others what you would have others do to you.

That Sermon on the Mount is balanced with the fifth block of teaching in 23,24,25 starting with woes, the middle of which is woe to you who tithe and neglect the higher things of the law, justice and mercy.  And it comes to an end with that appeal to feed the hungry, give water to the thirsty, clothe the naked and visit the prisoner.

The second block of teaching is the commissioning of the Twelve in chapter 10 and the fourth block of teaching is all about the Church in 18.

That leaves the central block of teaching in chapter 13.

And that’s where Jesus fills out this bigger picture and tells a number of stories, parables that are all about the Kingdom of Heaven.

To grasp the bigger picture that can then enable you to see the world in an entirely different way and so cope with a system that feels as if has you trapped, you need to grasp what Kingdom means to Jesus.

To understand the bigger picture of the kingdom
you need to grasp the back story

Matthew realises that to do that you need to grasp the back story.

Jesus did not just come out of thin air.

He came as the point at which the whole of that back story reached its culmination.  He came to bring to fulfilment the whole of the Law, the Prophets and the Writings.

The back story is the whole of the Old Testament

If you want to grasp what Jesus is about and the difference this talk of the Kingdom of heaven can make in our world and in our lives you need to grasp that back story.

Open Matthew’s gospel and he confronts you with the back story in a brilliant way.    It’s one of the most important passages in the New Testament and it’s hardly ever read!  Open the gospel at chapter one and you know straight away who the story is about.

This is the genealogy[a] of Jesus the Messiah[b] the son of David, the son of Abraham:

So Jesus is the Messiah, the anointed one, the King in the Kingdom.

How dull!  Until you realise that what Matthew is doing is summing up the whole story of the Old Testament – in three parts –

Genesis 1-11 sets the scene –

From Abraham to David

From David to the Exile

From the Exile to Jesus the Messiah.

Remember the patterns and the importance attached to the mid-point.

Isn’t it interesting – the first of those sections basically includes the Law, the first part of the Jewish bible and takes you a bit further through Joshua and Judges.

The second and middle part deals with the period when there is a kingdom, at first under Saul, then united under David and Solomon and then divided – until the north collapses first and then Judea and Jerusalem fall to the Babylonians and the exile comes.

The final part is from the exile to Jesus – and basically is the latest part of the Hetbrew Bible, the writings

If you want to know about kingdom and God’s way with kingdoms then you need to get a handle on the middle section.

Interestingly, it’s not given the title in the Jewish bible of the bit about the kings..   Instead this story (including Joshua, Judges, Samuel and Kings) is described as the section of the Prophets.

Kings AND Prophets in the Old Testament

There were two kinds of people really important in the period of the kingdom.  The kings … and also the Prophets.  In some ways, you could argue, the prophets took precedence!

Right at the outset the people wanted a king just to be like the other nations.  And the prophet, Samuel, warned them that was very dangerous because you could get bad kins as well as good kings.

The story of the kings is exactly that.

Even the greatest of the kings, David, does awful things with Bathsheba and involving murder – he is confronted by a Prophet Nathan.

The task of the prophet is to challenge the king to return to the ways of God, and to map out what it takes to be a king in God’s kingdom and rule in the way God intends.

Passing the mantle on from Elijah to Elisha, to Prophet, to Prophet

The iconic figure among the prophets that came to encapsulate what it means to be a prophet was Elijah.

He challenged the kings who did terrible things and mapped out what it takes to be a king in God’s way.

And then he came to the end of his life and we arrive at the significance of that spiritual and its references to a chariot taking you home!

As Elijah came towards the end of his days, he passed the responsibility on.  And there is a wonderful account, he has as it were someone who is shadowing him.  Elisha.

Sensing the end of his ministry had arrived Elijah wants to go off on his own, but Elisha won’t have any of it:  “As the Lord lives, and as you yourself live, I will not leave you.”

Elijah goes down with Elisha through the wilderness, and comes to the Jordan.  Elisha goes down into the Jordan with Elijah and across to the other side.  Then Elisha sees it – a chariot coming for to carry Elijah home.

And as Elijah is carried away in that chariot he leaves his mantle behind – his cloak.  And Elisha takes up the mantle.

Just as one king is succeeded by another, the Old Testament story is of a the mantle being passed, as it were, from one prophet to another.   To Amos, Hosea, Micah, to Isaiah, Jeremiah, Ezekiel – the mantle is passed on.   With the kings come prophets, speaking out against the powers that be, shaping how they should rule – spelling out what it takes to be King in God’s kingdom ruling in God’s way.

There’s been a long gap – without a king, there’s been a long gap when the prophetic voice has not been heard.

And along comes John the Baptist.

John the Baptist takes up the mantle

In those days John the Baptist came, preaching in the wilderness of Judea,

The way he dressed- clothing of camels’ hair, a leather belt around his waist, the location in the wilderness of Judea, the words from Isaiah, ‘the voice of one crying out in the wilderness, Prepare the way of the Lord!

All of this leaves you in no doubt – he is picking up the mantle that has been passed on from Elijah.  He looks just like him.

The powerful way he spoke out against that ruling elite and those struggling to make sense of that world – you brood of vipers.  He could see that it was a world that seemed to be falling apart – it’s not because of who you are, your antecedents – know it’s what you do with your lives, how you live, the fruit you bear – that’s what counts.

He has a clear message 

Repent, for the kingdom of heaven has come near.’

It’s very easy to think of repenting as something you do when you are sorry for something wrong you have done.

The word here is very much more powerful than that.  Getting a whole new way of thinking, seeing the bigger picture, getting a whole new mindset, a whole new way of looking at the world – the kingdom of heaven has come near – the way of God’s rule.

John knows one is to come after him who will take this project very much further, to its ultimate limits, one who will fill out this bigger picture and seal this whole new way of thinking not with the waters of the Jordan or anywhere else – but with the power of the Holy Spirit and fire.

Then Jesus comes.

John the Baptist passes on the mantle to Jesus

And what he does is so significant.

He goes with John into the Jordan just as Elisha did with Elijah.

He comes out from the Jordan ready for his ministry to begin.

When we move on to Matthew 4:12 it is not until John has been silenced – imprisoned by the son of the Herod the Great who had slain the innocents, himself called Herod, that Jesus starts his ministry.

Matthew notices that Jesus goes to the very place where he felt so trapped  in this horrible world of Roman oppression – to Capernaum – and what the prophet Isaiah had said is being fulfilled – that in this land of Galilee where people are sitting in darkness, the darkness of this brutal Roman oppression,  a light shines in the darkness – the light has dawned.

Then and this is most significant … Jesus has exactly the message of John.

The prophetic voice of John speaking out against the powers that be is not silenced.

Repent, get a completely new way of seeing the world, a new outlook on life, a complete turnaround for the kingdom of heaven, God’s rule has come near.

Jesus is the prophetic voice – but as the Gospel unfolds something else becomes apparent – Jesus is ushering in a way of relating to other people, a way of living in the middle of a hostile world, under  God’s rule as people who belong to the kingdom.

Jesus passes on the mantle to the disciples

He calls his disciples – to come under God’s rule in his kingdom and he offers them a way of living in the middle of a very hostile world, under this rule of God.

And he gives them the same message – to proclaim the Good news, the kingdom of God has come near – when he sends them out (10).

And among those first 12 is Matthew.

His life turned inside out, he sees the world differently.

It is as if the mantle has been passed on from Elijah, to Elisha, from John the Baptist to Jesus, from the disciples down through the generations to us.

We are invited to take up the mantle
- not only seeing the bigger picture, but living it too!

And the message remains the same …

When we feel trapped by the system in a world where we can see things are wrong but we can’t seem to break that system, then we too can see a bigger picture.

We can see things in a very different way.  We can live as citizens of the Kingdom of Heaven and follow a way of living that is shaped by the teaching of Jesus in the Sermon on the Mount and the rest of the teaching in Matthew’s gospel – the way of the peacemaker, the way of one who hungers and thirsts after justice, the way of forgiveness, doing to others as you would have others do to you, feeding hte hungry, clothing the naked, visiting the prisoner.

The final twist in the tale
A King in the Kingdom who is with us to the end of the age

There is one final twist in the tale – those like Matthew who did follow Jesus not only saw in him the Prophet to bring all that line of prophets to fulfilment, they saw more than that in him.

They saw that he had what it takes to be king in the kingdom of heaven.  All that those great prophets of old had said about what it takes to be king – that’s how Jesus had modelled his ministry and all he did.

Look to Jesus and find the King of the kingdom who asks us to grasp the bigger picture, and live our lives as citizens of that Kingdom of Heaven, looking to him as  the King who will be with us to the end of the age.

Matthew 3:1-12

In those days John the Baptist appeared in the wilderness of Judea, proclaiming, 2‘Repent, for the kingdom of heaven has come near.’ 3This is the one of whom the prophet Isaiah spoke when he said,

‘The voice of one crying out in the wilderness:
“Prepare the way of the Lord,
   make his paths straight.” ’

4Now John wore clothing of camel’s hair with a leather belt around his waist, and his food was locusts and wild honey. 5Then the people of Jerusalem and all Judea were going out to him, and all the region along the Jordan, 6and they were baptized by him in the river Jordan, confessing their sins.

7 But when he saw many Pharisees and Sadducees coming for baptism, he said to them, ‘You brood of vipers! Who warned you to flee from the wrath to come? 8Bear fruit worthy of repentance. 9Do not presume to say to yourselves, “We have Abraham as our ancestor”; for I tell you, God is able from these stones to raise up children to Abraham. 10Even now the axe is lying at the root of the trees; every tree therefore that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire.

11 ‘I baptize you with water for repentance, but one who is more powerful than I is coming after me; I am not worthy to carry his sandals. He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire. 12His winnowing-fork is in his hand, and he will clear his threshing-floor and will gather his wheat into the granary; but the chaff he will burn with unquenchable fire.’

Matthew 4:12-25

12 Now when Jesus heard that John had been arrested, he withdrew to Galilee. 13He left Nazareth and made his home in Capernaum by the lake, in the territory of Zebulun and Naphtali, 14so that what had been spoken through the prophet Isaiah might be fulfilled:

15 ‘Land of Zebulun, land of Naphtali,
   on the road by the sea, across the Jordan, Galilee of the Gentiles—
16 the people who sat in darkness
   have seen a great light,
and for those who sat in the region and shadow of death
   light has dawned.’

17From that time Jesus began to proclaim, ‘Repent, for the kingdom of heaven has come near.’

18 As he walked by the Sea of Galilee, he saw two brothers, Simon, who is called Peter, and Andrew his brother, casting a net into the lake—for they were fishermen. 19And he said to them, ‘Follow me, and I will make you fish for people.’ 20Immediately they left their nets and followed him. 21As he went from there, he saw two other brothers, James son of Zebedee and his brother John, in the boat with their father Zebedee, mending their nets, and he called them. 22Immediately they left the boat and their father, and followed him.

23 Jesus went throughout Galilee, teaching in their synagogues and proclaiming the good news of the kingdom and curing every disease and every sickness among the people. 24So his fame spread throughout all Syria, and they brought to him all the sick, those who were afflicted with various diseases and pains, demoniacs, epileptics, and paralytics, and he cured them. 25And great crowds followed him from Galilee, the Decapolis, Jerusalem, Judea, and from beyond the Jordan.

Sunday, January 19, 2014

A Disciple's Handbook - Matthew 28 and 1

Yesterday was the start of the week of prayer for Christian Unity – that’s why it’s around this time of the year that we share a service with our friends from St Luke’s.

It’s a statement that belonging here in Highbury, or belonging there in St Luke’s, or belonging to a Congregational church and belonging to the Church of England we are all of us part of something bigger, something more inclusive, something that stretches all over the world and all down the ages – the One Church of Jesus Christ.

How good to share.  And so next Sunday please note – we will  be starting our service at St Luke’s at 10-00 in the morning … and not 10-30!!!

That’s not the only way we share – there are more ways we are sharing too.  This Tuesday and every Tuesday in term time we run Transformers jointly with friends from St Luke’s.

St Luke’s are responsible for  St John’s school – they have invited us at Highbury to share with them in building closer links with the school – that means that at Christmas we had a stall at the Christmas fair and took the opportunity to build up relationships.

On Wednesday mornings Mike Workman, who is the minister at St Luke’s, and I alternate taking assemblies – we work through a cycle of 12 core values – and this half term the theme is Hope and in five weeks we are telling the story of the whole Bible as the most wonderful book full of Hope!

St Luke’s have just re-started the prayer meeting for St John’s school and Carolyn and I joined Helen Bloxham at St Luke’s and on the first Tuesday of February,  4th February we are going to host that prayer meeting here at Highbury.  It would be great if people could join us.  It will be after Transformers – a cup of coffee as people arrive around 7-15 and then 7-30 to 8-45.
There’s one more thing we are going to do in that spirit of togetherness and unity.

Mike has given me a passage to preach from next Sunday morning – it’s part of a series they are doing at St Luke’s on St Matthew’s Gospel.

Wouldn’t it be great, I thought, if we could take a look at St Matthew’s Gospel too.  That way my sermon next week will not stand alone but will take us forward from today.

I love Matthew more than anything else as a very practical guide to what it takes to be a follower of Jesus, what it takes to be a Disciple.  Matthew the tax collector is very much the outsider who finds through Christ that actually he belongs as much as anyone else!

It’s a wonderful sense he has.

He belongs on the one hand to Jesus Christ and to that group of people who are determined to follow him.  I get the feel that the clue to what Matthew’s gospel is all about is at the very end.

Jesus has shared his ministry with so many people and in doing so has ushered in the kingdom of heaven.   He has gone to the cross.  He has been raised to life.  And now he gives a final commission to his disciples …

All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything that I have commanded you. And remember, I am with you always, to the end of the age.’

Those words are full of hope, full of promise and full of challenge.

You get the feeling that the person behind this gospel has taken those words to heart.   How can you go teach people everything Jesus has commanded them unless you have a record of his teaching and all he did command his people.

That’s exactly the inspiration of Matthew’s gospel.  He has basically followed the outline of the story as the earlier gospel, Mark tells it.  And then into that basic outline he has brought together something missing from Mark – a compendium of the teaching of Jesus.

He has arranged it in five blocks through his gospel.

If you want to follow Jesus then turn to Matthew’s gospel and you will find a compendium of al that he has commanded …

Matthew 5-7, 10, 13, 18, 23-25

The  Sermon on the Mount – 5-7

do to others
As you would have others do to you

The charge to the 12 – 10

proclaim the Good News,
The Kingdom of heaven has come near

The Kingdom of Heaven – chapter 13
 hear Christ’s word and understand it
And bear fruit in the living of your life.

On the nature of the church 18
welcome one small child
And so  welcome Christ

The final words – 23-25
give food to the hungry
Something to drink to the thirsty,
To clothe the naked, to care for the sick
To visit the prisoner … for inasmuch as you do it
To one of the least of these my brothers and sisters
You do it to me.

This is powerful stuff.

Take this book in hand and feel as if you belong to Chist … and it begins to make a difference in your life and through you in the lives of others too.

But more than that.

Matthew doesn’t just feels he belongs to Christ and to his circle of followers.

Matthew senses he belongs to something that stretches back to the beginnings of time and forward to the end of the age.   To belong to Christ is to be part of the people of God stretching back to the beginnings.

Read through the Old  Testament and it really is a book of hope!

As the story unfolds you get the feeling that the world of God’s creation is a wonderful world but people have made a mess of that world.   Repeatedly that mess does not get the last word – but God gives people a fresh chance.  God acts to set things right and to show people how to do just that.

At our assemblies last Wednesday and next we found a colloage of pictures to help us tell that story to the children.  It was a visual way of going through the whole story o fthe Old Testament.
Matthew does something similar at the very start of his Gospel.

He prompts the memory – he sums up the story so far.

The opening verses of Matthew’s Gospel are among my favourite in all the Bible – and they are so rarely read!

An account of the genealogy of Jesus the Messiah, the son of David, the son of Abraham.

 Abraham was the father of Isaac, and Isaac the father of Jacob, and Jacob the father of Judah and his brothers, and Judah the father of Perez and Zerah by Tamar, and Perez the father of Hezron, and Hezron the father of Aram, and Aram the father of Aminadab, and Aminadab the father of Nahshon, and Nahshon the father of Salmon, and Salmon the father of Boaz by Rahab, and Boaz the father of Obed by Ruth, and Obed the father of Jesse, and Jesse the father of King David.

And David was the father of Solomon by the wife of Uriah, and Solomon the father of Rehoboam, and Rehoboam the father of Abijah, and Abijah the father of Asaph, and Asaph the father of Jehoshaphat, and Jehoshaphat the father of Joram, and Joram the father of Uzziah, and Uzziah the father of Jotham, and Jotham the father of Ahaz, and Ahaz the father of Hezekiah, and Hezekiah the father of Manasseh, and Manasseh the father of Amos, and Amos the father of Josiah, and Josiah the father of Jechoniah and his brothers, at the time of the deportation to Babylon.

 And after the deportation to Babylon: Jechoniah was the father of Salathiel, and Salathiel the father of Zerubbabel, and Zerubbabel the father of Abiud, and Abiud the father of Eliakim, and Eliakim the father of Azor, and Azor the father of Zadok, and Zadok the father of Achim, and Achim the father of Eliud, and Eliud the father of Eleazar, and Eleazar the father of Matthan, and Matthan the father of Jacob, and Jacob the father of Joseph the husband of Mary, of whom Jesus was born, who is called the Messiah.


There are people who got things right.  And people who got things dreadfully wrong.

Matthew the tax collector who had felt so much the outsider really felt as if he belonged to Christ and to the people – maybe it’s no coincidence that he includes Rahab the prostitute in this family tree – Ruth the foreigner turns out to be the great grandmother of David.

And David is key.  The first great king in God’s Kingdom of Israel.

And Matthew is going to tell the story of the one who is born to be King in the God’s Kingdom of heaven.

And he is born of the line of David.

Hebrew is one of those languages that doesn’t use numbers.  Instead letters of the alphabet have a numerical language.  It is a language without vowels as well.  So the three consonants DVD add up to 14.

And so Matthew stylises his genealogy and breaks it down into three lots of 14.

So all the generations from Abraham to David are fourteen generations; and from David to the deportation to Babylon, fourteen generations; and from the deportation to Babylon to the Messiah, fourteen generations

And then Jesus is born – those wonderful stories we have been reading from Matthew spell out more than the others the way the birth of Jesus, the coming of the Magi, the slaughter of the innocents, the flight to Egypt, the return to Nazareth are all in fulfilment of the prophets.

Mattthew has a sense of belonging to this movement that goes back to the beginning of time – that has been moving forward to this moment in time.  And he sees Jesus as the one who is the Messiah – who ushers in the Kingdom of Heaven.

Wow, it is a wonderful book.

With St Luke’s we share in that very movement.  We are part of the one Church of Jesus Christ world wide.

We are to welcome all and make people, especially the outsiders, feel at home and feel they belong.

We are to delight in the promise that Jesus is always with us.

And we are to rise to the challenge teaching people all that Jesus has commanded.

And Matthew’s gospel is not a bad place to start – and not a bad handbook to put into people’s hands!

Lord, teach me
Lord, teach me
All that you have commanded

Teach me, O Lord,
In everything to do to others
As I would have others do to me

Teach me, O Lord,
To proclaim the Good News,
The Kingdom of heaven has come near

Teach me, O Lord,
To hear your word and understand it
And bear fruit in the living of my life

Teach me, O Lord,
To welcome one small child
And so to welcome you

Teach me, O Lord
To give food to the hungry
Something to drink to the thirsty,
To clothe the naked, to care for the sick
To visit the prisoner and so to serve you.

Matthew 28:20, 5-7, 10, 13, 18, 23-25

Sunday, January 5, 2014

Pray with ceasing ... especially when you don't feel like it!

I knew exactly what I wanted to focus on at the beginning of the New Year.   I managed to put my order of service together … and in good time for the people doing the music, sorting the reading … and even for Richard doing the photocopying.

At the start of the year I would focus on prayer – the wonderful story of Daniel – up against it and yet in the face of everything committed to praying.  Paul’s letters are rich in appeals to prayer – in every one of them you can find Paul at prayer, valuing prayer, reminding people of the need to pray.   I turned to one of the first of his letters to be written- I Thessalonians and the last chapter and I noticed a lovely brief verse – it must be one of the shortest verses in the Bible.

1 Thessalonians 5:17

Pray without ceasing.

I knew exactly what I wanted to focus on at the beginning of the New Year.

I wanted to tie in a booklet that came among the Christmas post – one of the last to arrive before Christmas.  A Prayer Book from CWM.  Something new and something exciting.  And something timely for us to share at the start of the year.

 I knew exactly what I wanted to focus on.

But when it came to it I found it difficult to know where to start, or to find the right words to say.

I don’t know about you but this weather can get you down.  It’s silly really, so many people are so much worse off.  But somehow or other it begins to get you down.  And then you are conscious of the flooding that’s devastated so many people’s lives around the country.  And then you are aware of the problems on the international scene – our focus on Syria, troubles unending.  People not well much closer to home.
And to cap it all – the football’s postponed too.

I knew exactly what I wanted to focus on.

Pray without ceasing.  That’s what you’ve got to do.  It’s a danger in preaching.  That you spend your time telling people what to do.  Pray without ceasing.  And there are two things to find helpful.

Pray together – and join our prayer circle – by email, or through Lorraine or at our Prayer meeting.  That’s the thing to do.

And then there’s a new help – that’s the Prayer Book that came through from CWM.  Really good to focus prayers on CWM partners.  Good to use.

So.  Pray without ceasing.  Use the prayer chain.  Use the Prayer Book.

That’s me telling everyone what to do.

The thing about preaching, as my father passed on while preaching what turned out to be his very last sermons, is what he had been told by his father before preaching his first sermon – remember to include yourself.  You are preaching as much to yourself as to anyone else.

Pray without ceasing.  That’s something I need to heed.

Use the prayer chain.   Read the Prayer Book.

Good idea – but I haven’t been doing emails so much over Christmas.  I had a number to pick up on.   And when it came to the book – I suddenly realised I had missed a couple of days.  And it was only the 4th January as I was trying to write.

So.  You must pray without ceasing.  I must pray without ceasing.  And we must all use the prayer chain, we must all use the Prayer Book.

It’s all a bit thin, really.

And it’s still raining.  And I don’t have to rush to finish my notes as the football really has been postponed.

Then as I was struggling with what to say, something dawned on me that turned everything around.  I could see exactly what I wanted to share.  And I knew exactly what I wanted to write in my notes.

It was one of those occasions when things begin to fall into place in a way that you haven’t really planned at all.

First, the Prayer Book.  There are lots of people behind the scenes at Highbury who do things not everyone knows about.  Elsie Williams is one of those people.   Her husband, John, was a Congregational Minister and would have had a passion for mission.  That was passed on to Maureen who I remember went as a missionary with CWM to Papua New Guinea.  I am not sure when it started – maybe around that time.  But Elsie made sure that people in Highbury not only supported CWM through their giving, but also in their praying.  Each year CWM published a Prayer Handbook.  Elsie would take orders and lots of people would have a Prayer Handbook.  It made the CWM partnership real with prayer focuses on each of the member churches through the year.  Then the prayer handbook changed and there was a colour supplement with a focus on prayers – but the book itself was just prayers and readings.  Then it changed again and moved from CWM to CWM Europe, then to the URC – and the last two or three years,  no mention of CWM.

Elsie has continued to get us to get hold of the books – and they have been good.

This year, Elsie has tried again, but to no avail.  Those were not out in time for Christmas.  And then Wayne, Diana’s son in law sent me a copy of a new Prayer Book CWM are producing.  He sent a dozen to Diana – and in liaison with Elsie we are going to pass those on.

Straightaway in the production it’s interesting – because it really brings alive the partners we are working with in Mission.  But it is produced in Singapore.  From 1795 through to a couple of years ago our mission partnership was based in London.  But, if you recall, the newly appointed General Secretary from Jamaica was not able to get a Visa – we wrote to Martin Horwood – and pressure on the Government meant he was granted one … but not other members of staff.   Very difficult now for international organisations to be based in this country.  So having been thinking of it for some time, they decided to move the base for CWM to the other side of the world, Singapore – with good travel to the various partner churches.

Priority is to build up a community of prayer.

The Rev Dr Tan Yak-hwee writes as the Programme Secretary’s message, drawing attention to this verse … he pays tribute to the three who have put the prayer book together – Sanono Yap, Hireen Lim and Sharon Chua – interesting that with that move to Singapore the support staff members are recruited from Singapore as well as globally.

Pray without ceasing. 

He speaks of prayer, of God listening and answering prayer.

But then he says something that caught my eye.

Moreover, prayer is not only a personal and intimate encounter with God, but it is also a communal act.  In other words, Christians are asked to continually life each other up in prayers.”

That’s the whole point of this prayer book.  Available electronically for kindle and iPad as well as in print.

It is not just a book to help us pray for others.  It is a book to help us realise that we are part of a community praying for each other.

So I turned the page to Saturday, 4th January … and what should I find?

A focus on the Congregational Federation.

I had been thinking this was a Prayer Book for me to use to pray for others.

I was feeling fed up.  Not really like preparing a sermon.  Not really like praying for others.

And on this page came the realisation actually, all those using this prayer book today are praying for the part of the partnership I belong to.

More than that … the focus is on one of the new courses I have been involved in – the GIFT course – Growing in Faith together.

And then the request …

Pray for those who attend the GIFT programme that their personal lives in Christ be deepened and service in the church enriched.

Pray for the instructors and facilitators of the GIFT programme that God grant them wisdom and knowledge in their teaching.

That’s me!   I have been involved indirectly n putting it together.  I am involved in other parts of the same course.  I am getting ready for a big weekend of teaching next weekend.

People are praying for me.

This is the great thing about Prayer.

It’s not just about what I must do.  What You must do.  It is the realisation that we are on the receiving end of prayer too.  We are being prayed for.  We are part of that community.  We are supporting each other.    And in that support of each other the support of God is released and made real.

What a wonderful thought.

Pray without ceasing – not something I must do … but something people are doing for me, drawing me into that presence of God that sustains and renews.

Elsie is one of those who has faithfully attended our weekly prayer meeting on a Wednesday morning – going now for all the time I have been here and well back into the time of Clifford my predecessor.  Faithfully, coming together and sharing in prayer.

Part of that planned praying we share in together.

That brings me back to the other thing to focus on … it was at 11-14 yesterday morning that an email pinged into my inbox on the computer.

Requests for prayer for the church family …

And then at the bottom of the prayer letter …

As we begin 2014 at Highbury with a new structure please pray for Richard, Felicity & Carolyn, all current officers and Deacons as well as the new Ministry Leaders as we all face a time of transition , that the church will be patient and accept that the changes will need time and the co-operation of everyone to make it work smoothly . Please continue to pray for the role of Church Secretary to be filled and for those who are still undecided on what they can offer .

' Rest in the fact that God's compassion and love never change, Jesus said ,' Whatever you ask for in prayer believe that you have received it and it will be yours '

God bless


Exactly the same thought – not I must pray,  but what a wonderful thought – people on that prayer chain in that moment remembering me … and all of us in the church who are shaping the life of the church together.

A rich blessing.

|Something happened.

It’s still raining.  The match isn’t on.

But … something precious to hold on to … and something even more precious to take into the New Year!

My eye fell on the words immediately before and after that verse – it’s the prayer that Tan, Hak-hwee finishes with.

Rejoice always, pray without ceasing, give thanks in all circumstances; for this is the will of God in Christ Jesus for you.”

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