Monthly Archives: January 2016

Jesus’ Manifesto – Luke 4:14-30

I wonder whether you recognise these statements as you read them …. could tell me where these words come from?

“Britain only succeeds when working people succeed. We plan to reward hard work, share prosperity and build a better Britain.”

“Strong Leadership, a Clear Economic Plan a Brighter and more Secure Future.”

They come respectively from the 2015 Labour and Tory Manifestos.

Who first spoke these words?

“The Spirit of the Lord is on me, because he has anointed me to preach good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim freedom for the prisoners and recovery of sight for the blind, to release the oppressed, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favour, the day of vengeance of our God.”

It wasn’t Jesus, but the prophet Isaiah!

These words come from the latter part of the book of Isaiah. They are the prophet=s manifesto for his ministry among the people after the exile in Israel. A place of hope and new life. They follow the passages that we know as those of the suffering servant. The one who Isaiah sees as taking the sins and problems of the people onto his own shoulders.

In our Gospel passage Jesus speaks out these same words as his own manifesto. In hearing those words read, people listening to him will immediately have recognised their context in the scroll of Isaiah. They should have understood that in claiming these verses as his own manifesto, Jesus was not only taking the place of the suffering servant of Isaiah but also the predicted and long awaited Servant of the Lord.

His own kith and kin in Nazareth listened to him as he spoke but singularly failed to hear what he was really saying. They were impressed with how he spoke. However, their failure to understand what he was really saying is obvious. They knew him so well, “this local boy made good!” At least they thought they did. You might be able to imagine their response – the knowing nudges, the delighted smiles as they turned to one another and said, “Is not this Joseph’s son?”

And we heard Jesus response. He immediately sets about correcting their wrong perceptions. It is as though he says; “No, no, a million times no! This is not the son of Joseph but the Son of God.”

They can only see him in the setting of their own village, they want him to do here in Nazareth just what he has done in Capernaum. Their vision cannot see beyond the confines of their own village. “Listen,” says Jesus, “I have come with a message of good news not for Nazareth only, but for all Galilee, indeed for all Israel, and – although this will scandalise you – if Israel turns out to be as blinkered as narrow-minded as you people of Nazareth, then Israel will forfeit the good news, while the rest of the world will receive it.”

The praiseworthy words of Jesus’ manifesto suddenly seem to be anathema to the people of Nazareth. Their pride in their local son, turns to rage; “Who on earth does he think he is. What right does he have to speak in this way? Not only is he rebuking us but he is also challenging the very tennets of our faith. The Messiah, saviour of the whole world – heresy, blasphemy, the devil’s work.”

Admiration turns to fury. They determine to kill Jesus.

The Gospel is good news not only for the Jews but for the whole world. This is the message that Luke continues to develop throughout his gospel. Good news for us! And it is good to give time to hearing once again the message that God’s grace extends to us here on the very edge of Europe, far from the places Jesus knew and loved in Palestine.

It’s true, this is a message of grace and hope. There are no buts, ifs or maybes associated with the breadth of God’s love. None at all.

However, this story itself carries a but, a very big but. … You see now, today, here, the story expects us not to stand on the sidelines watching the action but to ask who we should most identify with.

It would be lovely to be able to say; “O, we are the Gentiles Jesus’ refers to – isn’t it good to be included in God’s love!”

Clearly, however, Luke does not just intend us to have a warm fuzzy feeling as we read his gospel. He wants to challenge us. Luke intends that we, the people of God, identify ourselves with the people of Nazareth, the ones who want to domesticate Jesus …. Christ is ours, he is one of us, we have grown up with him, we have seen him at work.

Luke wants to challenge us to move us on.. He, and Jesus, wants us to join him in implementing Christ’s manifesto.

gods_heartYou see, Jesus sees us not as voters but as members of his party, he expects us to be activists, he expects us to share his values. To understand that ministry for Jesus is not just about feeling safe and secure in our faith. To understand that ministry is about: “preaching good news to the poor; proclaiming freedom for the prisoners and recovery of sight for the blind; releasing the oppressed, and proclaiming the Lord’s favour.” To understand that we have to work to make God’s kingdom a reality here where we live and work.

And sadly, if we are not prepared to move forward with Jesus, to work with his manifesto, he will find those who are willing to do so. He will move on. Just as he walked through the crowd at the top of the hill he will refuse our agenda and pursue his own.

So let’s listen again to Jesus’ manifesto and as I read it out, let’s commit ourselves again to serving him in our own community.

“The Spirit of the Lord is on me, because he has anointed me to preach good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim freedom for the prisoners and recovery of sight for the blind, to release the oppressed, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favour.”

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Water into Wine – John 2:1-11

Epiphany 2 – Isaiah 62:1-5; John 2:1-11

What’s your most embarrassing moment? My worst in church was being called up to help with the chalice at Communion in my church in Didsbury in the early 1990s and tripping over the steps on the way up to the altar. I fell flat on my face in front of everyone and then found everyone sniggering as I gave them the cup. How did I feel? … I wished that the ground would open and swallow me up!

The bridegroom in John 2:1-11 was in just such an embarrassing predicament.  This was supposed to be his special time. He & his new wife had been escorted through the streets with burning torches, lighting their way to their new home.  They weren’t going away on a honeymoon, but would keep open house for an entire week for people to come along and celebrate the occasion.  This was Jewish custom, and the celebrations and showing hospitality to guests were a sacred duty. And what has happened, but the wine has run out!  Not because his guests have been over-indulging. Apparently, he’s just been to stingy – he’s not bought enough.

Perhaps he’d underestimated how much wine he’d need. Perhaps he didn’t have the money to buy enough wine, even the cheapest available, to meet his needs.  But there was no room for excuses – it was his duty to pay for the celebration. Deeply embarrassed, perhaps red in the face, getting hot, wanting a hole to open up and swallow him, he waited for the complaints from his guests to roll in. Can you imagine his prayer, “Why does this always happen to me? … Please Lord don’t let anyone notice.”clay-jars1-960x250

But one guest did notice.  Mary saw and she told Jesus. And Jesus quietly set to work. He gets the servants to fill the six water pots with water, the water is turned into wine and the bridegroom’s embarrassment turns to amazement and joy.  The equivalent of over 700 bottles of wine, the finest wine appears from nowhere. No longer does the bridegroom face shame and humiliation.

df9f283bbc3d8ec5423e2b207f122756The reading concludes: “Jesus performed this first miracle…… there he revealed his glory
and his disciples believed in him.”  Those who were with Jesus knew that this was an act of divine power – an act in which the personal situation of the bridegroom was transformed.  This miracle revealed the nature of Jesus’ ministry: Jesus, the provider of joy, transforming sadness and embarrassment into experiences of gladness and rejoicing.  Jesus, the one who can overcome our mistakes/failings, bringing good out of seeming disaster.

The good news of the Gospel is that this is what God is like. If Jesus transformed one situation, then God can transform the situations that we find ourselves in today.

Perhaps we’ve made mistakes – like the bridegroom without enough wine. We may look back over our lives, and think “if only I’d not done or said that.” There may be things that have happened in the last few days – we’ve done or said something we regret.  These things can linger with us, leaving us feeling embarrassed, ashamed, and not knowing what to do.

Perhaps we are low in resources – like the bridegroom who couldn’t provide adequately for his guests?  There are times when we feel spiritually dry, we struggle to pray, we wonder where God is.  Or we feel physically weak, no energy to do what matters. Or emotionally drained, with no motivation we to sustain relationships, get on with our work.

Perhaps life is full of sadness – like the bridegroom who sees his joyful day disappearing before his eyes.  We see others around who are happy, but find it hard to be like them.  We know that others think we should be smiling, but it’s not as easy as all that…..

Whether trivial or significant, God in Jesus is ready to transform these situations.  He can, and does break into our lives. We think or feel that we are defined by the past, by our mistakes and failings. But God says, “No!” Just as Jesus transformed the bridegroom’s day from failure to joy, God can transform our lives bringing good out of the mess we see in our lives.

Not only is God ready to transform situations, he is even at work when we cannot ask him ourselves.  The bridegroom wasn’t actually aware that Jesus was working to help him until the steward announced that there was more, and even better, wine on offer.   It was someone else, Mary, who noticed the need, and asked Jesus to act. When we are unable to pray, or don’t know what to pray for – we don’t need to worry that we’ll be left helpless.  God will act.

cana-bwGod can act unilaterally, but more often than not it is through others around us. Those who notice the way things are and do something.  …  Action isn’t always appropriate. When we see our friends or family members struggling – we can follow Mary’s example. We can talk quietly to Jesus, in the background, and we can have confidence that we have done the right thing. For we have given their situation to God. And God is able to work good in any situation.

And when Jesus acts, when God acts, we may be amazed at what happens – the bridegroom didn’t just receive enough wine to get by on.  He got good, fine wine – more than he needed, better than he needed.  The generosity of God was overwhelming at the wedding in Cana.  And when Jesus acts to transform our situations, our lives, we can expect this same generosity.  However, with Jesus, it’s not about quick fixes that solve the problem for the moment. No, God’s work in our lives will often be quiet, often over the longer term. We may experience setbacks, but God will not give up.

We can experience transformation, and as Jesus works in our lives the glory of God will be revealed – just as it was at Cana. And we can be part of that transformation in the lives of others by taking the mess and muddle that we see to God, by asking God to break in a bring hope and transformation.

Lord Jesus, just as you transformed the situation of the bridegroom at Cana, may you work in our lives, transforming our embarrassments, our inadequacies, our sadnesses, our mistakes, into experiences of gladness and joy, to the glory of your name.     Amen.

The New Year – Sunday 10th January

ISAIAH 43:1-7 & LUKE 3:15-17, 21-22

Please take a moment or two with me, if you will – to imagine what it was like to be the nation of Israel at the time of the prophet Isaiah. …

To the south is Egypt a major power, still striving to keep its place in the world. To the north and east, Assyria, seemingly at the height of its power – a particularly vicious nation who pursued a policy of ethnic cleansing – completely devastating conquered lands, killing many and dispersing the rest around its empire, destroying any sense of national cohesion, minimising the possibility of rebellion. But Assyria was fragile, it had expanded too quickly and was itself on the brink of being overrun by a rival empire from further east – the Babylonians.

So what was it like to be Israel, or Judah, trapped between these mighty forces, sitting slap bang in the middle of the main trade routes between the powers; placed right on the main military roads?

Can you imagine the sense of fear, of terror, at the forces ranged on each side of them? Can you feel the uncertainty of Israel’s leaders as they try to evaluate who will win? Which side should they make a treaty with? Which side can be trusted? Can any of these powers be trusted?

Can you see the sense of dread on the faces of the ordinary people as they watch army after army moving back and forward across their land? Hoping against hope that the army will have moved through the territory before it chooses to stop. For when an army stops, it eats. And where does its food come from? From the farms, the fertile valleys, the families near where it stops. And ancient armies never paid for their food, they raped and pillaged – not only the land but the people.

What was it like for Israel to be caught in the middle of forces over which it had no control? Tossed hither and thither by the events of the day? ….

It is into this kind of situation that Isaiah speaks God’s words:

10608161_770567329672659_1975669591_nDo not fear for I have redeemed you; I have called you by name, you are mine. When you pass through the waters, I will be with you; and through rivers they shall not overwhelm you; when you walk through the fire you shall not be burned, and the flame shall not consume you. For I am the Lord your God, the Holy One of Israel, your Saviour.

What do these words mean to Israel?

They were already feeling swamped and overcome. These words are not a promise that everything will be fine. They are rather a promise that whatever Israel suffers God will be with them. Whatever difficulties they face God will walk through those difficulties with Israel.

Do not fear for I have redeemed you; I have called you by name, you are mine. When you pass through the waters, I will be with you.

What does God want to say to us today through these words? What does God want to say to us on the Sunday when the Church of England asks us to remember that Christ went through the waters of Baptism? What does God want to say to us, at the beginning of a New Year?

Adult baptism by full immersion is a graphic picture of death and resurrection. … Christ’s own baptism prefigures his death & resurrection. It points forward to the time when he passed through the waters of death & in doing so experienced the desolation of being deserted by his Father. The time when the Godhead was rent asunder for love of us. … Christ’s Baptism & his death are the greatest evidence that he has experienced the worst that life can throw at us. That as we pass through the turbulent waters of life, God will be with us. “Do not fear,” says God to each of us. “Do not fear,” says God to us as communities of Christian believers, as churches in Ashton, Tameside and the UK.

Do not fear for I have redeemed you; I have called you by name, you are mine. When you pass through the waters, I will be with you.

God does not promise us exemption from the struggles of life, the difficulties that others face. Rather, God promises to be with us through the experiences of life. And it is grasping the truth of this which the Bible calls faith. It is what sustained ancient Israel. It is what can sustain each of us as we embark upon the journey of another year with all that it may bring.

Do not fear for I have redeemed you; I have called you by name, you are mine.

These are words that each of us needs to hear for ourselves.

We can dismiss God’s words in our Gospel reading. We can say that God meant them only for his special Son. Although I think they were meant for all of God’s children: “You are my Son, my Daughter, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased.” They are just the words we each need to hear.

But we can dismiss them, we can disbelieve them, if we choose to, because God said them to Jesus and he was a special case, wasn’t he? And so we don’t hear that the words spoken to us as well!

We cannot, however, so easily dismiss the words of our OT passage. They were spoken to God’s servant Israel, to God’s people. They are words for us, promises to hold onto in the most difficult of times. Words for us today as stand at the start of a new year:

Do not fear for I have redeemed you; I have called you by name, you are mine. When you pass through the waters, I will be with you; and through rivers they shall not overwhelm you; when you walk through the fire you shall not be burned, and the flame shall not consume you. For I am the Lord your God, the Holy One of Israel, your Saviour.

The Word Became Flesh …

The first Christians were Jews. They came from a small backwater in the Roman Empire. A seemingly irrelevant outpost in a bustling and cosmopolitan world. They faced a big question. How could they help people throughout the Greek speaking Roman world engage with Christian faith? How could a faith which was initially expressed in the framework of the Jewish culture be comprehended by people of very different cultures? Throughout the book of Acts we see people like Paul, Peter, Silas Barnabas, Timothy, James and others struggling with these questions – they knew what Christian faith looked like for a Jew living in Palestine, but what should it be like for a Greek intellectual in Athens?

Their situation mirrors our own. Just like they did, we wonder how we can make what we believe intelligible to people in today’s world who have little or no experience of Church and who see Christian faith as largely irrelevant, who enjoy Christmas as a traditional event but who believe little of the content of the story.

Our Gospel reading today is the gospel writers= attempt – at the beginning of John’s Gospel to relate his Christian story to a world that was alien to it. A world which was culturally very different from that of the gospel writers. How could they convey the Gospel to the Roman and Greek world – the good news which was so bound up with Jesus’ divinity and humanity. They had experienced Jesus as both divine and human. How could they explain to others that a divine being became human? How could they help people understand? As they reflected on this they realised that their scriptures – the Old Testament had at least a couple of ideas that would help them.

We meet the first idea that they used in Genesis – in the story of Creation – God spoke and something happened. God only needed to say a few words and a whole world and universe came into being. Words for God were not just things to say, concepts to express or write down. Words were effective, they achieved something. God’s Word was God at work in the world.

The second idea came in other parts of the Old Testament. There they found passages about Wisdom. In parts of their bible, our Old Testament, “Wisdom” is spoken of as a personality, a person, who existed before the worlds were created. Wisdom at God’s side as he created. Wisdom as the craftsperson moulding creation and delighting in what was made.

Listen to these words from Proverbs:

“Does not wisdom call, and does not understanding raise her voice? … The Lord created me at the beginning of his work, the first of his acts long ago. … Before the mountains had been shaped, before the hills, I was brought forth. …When he established the heavens, I was there, … when he marked out the foundations of the earth, then I was beside him, like a master worker” (Proverbs 8)

As Jewish Christians were asked about Jesus by their Greek neighbours. As the first theologians tried to explain the events of the first Christmas, how God could be born as a baby in Bethlehem. They saw something in the Greek culture that would help them to explain better to Greek and Roman people, just what they meant by Jesus being the Word and Wisdom of God, both divine and human.

The word for “Word” in Greek is “logos”. Greek philosophers used that word “logos” in a special way – by the time of Christ – they used it to refer to the ordering principle of the universe. Sometimes they used “nature” and “logos” interchangeably. What they meant was that there was an organising principle behind all of nature. The principle by which life held together – perhaps “wisdom.” And as Greek philosophers talked of “logos” they almost gave it a personality.

Christians realised that here was a way of explaining to Greek and Roman people just who Jesus was – and the first verses of John’s Gospel were born. John gives the “Word,” the “logos,” a central place. He describes the “logos” as God, the Creative Word, who took on flesh in the man Jesus Christ. … “God active in the created world” = “logos.” … God’s Word expressed as a human being. However difficult it is for us to understand today, those Christians successfully managed to translate the story of the incarnation into a form that Greek and Roman people understood.

The challenge to us is similar. … To find ways of expressing what we believe, in ways that people in today’s world will understand. We cannot just say, it worked in the past so it will work again. We cannot just do the things we have always done. We cannot continue to use only the words that we understand. We cannot continue to be just the church we have always been. Words and customs move on. Meanings change, hopes and fears change. The world is shrinking and ideas from the four corners of the world now influence the values of every society.

You only need to think of the way that the meanings of words have changed.

‘Comfort’ – what does that mean now? But on the Bayeux Tapestry it means something completely different. …. There is a picture of Bishop Odo ‘comforting’ his troops, so the legend says at the bottom of the tapestry. The picture does not show a team huddle like we sometimes see on a sports field, rather it shows Bishop Odo with a spear behind his troops urging them forward as he pushes the spear into their rear ends – really comforting!

‘Organic’ – until very recently that was a group of chemicals which contained Carbon – a mixture of different substances both noxious and benign. Now we use it to mean wholesome food, untainted by many of the chemicals which would naturally have fallen into the ‘organic’ grouping.

You’ll know many other words which have changed their meaning over the years. Those changes are like small snapshots on what has been happening in society – a process of change which is accelerating not slowing. And if we don’t change we will be increasingly misunderstood and become increasingly less and less relevant – having little or nothing intelligible to say to people who need to know the love of God.

As we participate in a process of change we do just what Jesus did ….. The Word, Jesus, became flesh and dwelt among us full of grace and truth. God changed, God became human, God learnt new things, expressed himself in different ways, felt tired for the first time, experienced limitations for the first time. God changed so as to bring his love to his creation. The early church changed its rules, expressed itself in new and different ways, so that its mission to the Roman world might be effective. And we are called to do the same to look for new ways to communicate the Gospel to those who live around us but who have none of the history of Church involvement that we have.