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In view of the national lockdown currently in place, there will be no live Sunday services. We will continue to record our weekly podcasts. 

 

Week beginning 28 February 2021

In a new book for Lent called ‘An Ocean of Grace’, Tim Chester has put together a series of reflections and prayers from a number of people from the past. This one is from Charles Spurgeon, the Baptist preacher.

With Every Blessing,

Robert.

“And I pray that you, being rooted and established in love, may have power, together with all the Lord’s holy people, to grasp how wide and long and high and deep is the love of Christ, and to know this love that surpasses knowledge—that you may be filled to the measure of all the fullness of God.” (Ephesians 3 v 17-19)

In today’s prayer, Charles Spurgeon marshals all his considerable powers of oratory to express the love of Christ. Spurgeon tries to quantify Christ’s love by measuring the distance between what he came from and what he came to: “from the height of majesty in glory to the depths of shame on earth”. But Spurgeon, like Paul in Ephesians 3, readily admits that describing Christ’s love cannot be done. Yet, even though Christ’s love is something that “surpasses knowledge”, Paul still prays that his readers might “know this love”. We will never bottom out Christ’s boundless love. But we need to see more and more of his love. Every time we sin, we need to appreciate afresh this love that welcomes sinners. Every time we suffer, we need to appreciate afresh this love that mysteriously works all things for our good. Every time we face temptation, we need to appreciate afresh this love that captures our hearts.

‘Your love, O Christ, in its sweetness, its fullness, its greatness, its faithfulness surpasses all human comprehension.

Where shall language be found which shall describe your matchless love, your unparalleled love, towards the children of men?

Your love is so vast and boundless that, as the swallow skims the water without diving into its depths, so all descriptive words merely touch the surface of your love, while depths immeasurable lie beneath.

For your love took you from the height of majesty in glory to the depths of shame on earth.

Who, Lord Jesus, can tell of your majesty?

When you were enthroned in the highest heavens, you were very God of very God.

By you were the heavens made and all the hosts within them.

Your own almighty arm upheld the spheres.

The praises of cherubim and seraphim perpetually surrounded you.

The full chorus of the hallelujahs of the universe unceasingly flowed to the foot of your throne.

You reigned supreme above all your creatures,

God over all, blessed for ever.

Who can tell the height of your glory?

And who can tell how low you descended?

To become a man was something; to become a man of sorrows was far more; to bleed, and die, and suffer—these were much for you, who were the Son of God.

But to suffer such unparalleled agony—to endure a death of shame and desertion by your Father— this is a depth of condescending love.

The most inspired mind must utterly fail to fathom this love.

Here is love!

And truly it is love that surpasses knowledge.

Oh, let this love fill our hearts with adoring gratitude and lead us to practical manifestations of its power.’

Charles Spurgeon (1834-1892),

Week beginning 21 February 2021

If your thoughts as you prepare to begin Lent are of what you plan to give up and of how much you will suffer without chocolate or alcohol during the next six weeks, perhaps it is time to realign your approach to the season. Will your chosen Lenten observance help you to grow as you journey towards Easter? Philip Endean SJ wants to remind us that ‘this great season of grace’ is not a time for constriction: ‘Lent is only Christian if it is positive.’ Every blessing, Peter

"Before I was ordained, I worked for a year in a primary school in Mexico City. On Ash Wednesday morning, I arrived on the site at 7.30 am, as usual. Three things became quickly clear. Firstly, the headmistress had forgotten to engage a priest for the day. Secondly, absolutely nothing could happen within the culture of that school on Ash Wednesday before ashes had been duly distributed to all and sundry. Thirdly, in default of a proper padrecito, the foreign seminarian was going to have to step in.

Thus, through a distorting microphone in the school yard, I found myself improvising a catechetical dialogue: imagine Joyce Grenfell in bad Mexican Spanish. ‘Now, children. I’m going to make the sign of the cross on all your foreheads. We use a cross because someone died on it. Does anyone know who died on the cross?’ It was a deliberately easy question, expecting the answer ‘Jesus’. In fact, eight hundred children answered back with impressive volume and unanimity ‘Dios’ – God. I was taken aback by the theological robustness here, but I pressed on with my lesson plan regardless. ‘And what did Dios do after he died?’ Silence. Pedagogical failure. All I could do was tell them the ‘right answer’ piously, and hurry on to the real ritual business.

‘God died’: end of story. Behind those children’s response lay an inheritance of long suffering and oppression, something to be reverenced, not patronised. Nevertheless, there is also cause for concern here. The Acts of the Apostles tells us of disciples who had never heard of the Holy Spirit (19:1-2); here we have Christians with no knowledge of Easter. If anything like this explains why Mass on Ash Wednesday, despite the lack of ‘obligation’, is generally one of the most crowded celebrations in any Catholic church’s year, then the situation is quite worrying.

Jesus’s claims to be God, of one being with the Father who made heaven and earth, cannot rest simply on the fact that he lived nobly, for a worthy cause, and died as a result. That much is true of lots of other people too – from Socrates in antiquity to the firemen who gave their lives on the morning of 9/11. Our big stories about Jesus being one with God depend on the fact that he, and he alone, rose from the dead, and was seen by the very disciples who had failed him. We proclaim his death precisely because it was not the end. He also rose, and he will come again. Lent is the preparation for Easter: the celebration of new life, not of God’s death.

Lent thus cannot be a time for wallowing in the negative. The English word ‘Lent’ comes from the same root as ‘length’. Lent, the time of spring’s first stirrings, is a time for our being lengthened. We are to grow into the full stature of Christ, to move nearer the kingdom prepared for us before the world’s foundation. It may be very noble, and may meet some psychological need within ourselves, to think about Lent as our trying hard, as our effort. But when we think that way, the focus is probably on ourselves. What Lent is really about is opening ourselves to someone else, about stretching ourselves, so that we can receive the gift of new life coming from God alone.

Many churches in these days will sing the hymn that begins:

Forty days and forty nights Thou wast fasting in the wild; Forty days and forty nights Tempted, and yet undefiled.

Think of Jesus, hungry and tempted, and the next step seems just obvious:

Should not we Thy sorrow share And from worldly joys abstain, Fasting with unceasing prayer, Strong with Thee to suffer pain?

Well, maybe. But by the time we get to this stage in that hymn, I normally feel pretty uneasy. Those well-crafted lines make the whole business sound so heroic, so stiff upper lip, what the British Empire was built on. If we resist our temptations to chocolate or alcohol, we somehow gain merit, and rise above mere sensuality.

But this way of thinking does not have much to do with the gospel. When Matthew and Luke in their different ways name the temptations Jesus faces, it seems as though Jesus himself is growing into, being stretched towards, the full reality of his mission. He has to recognise that his way is not that of simple miracle-working, despite the triumphs with which his career in the gospel seems to open. He has to realise that his kingdom is a kingdom in the truest sense, a kingdom given from above, and therefore not of this world (John 18: 36-37). Jesus is not proving his moral fibre, but growing in his sense of his own identity.

This piece could almost be called ‘On Not Giving Up For Lent’. Almost, but not quite. What is important is that we avoid superstitious practices that are at best mere window-dressing, and at worst thoroughly destructive, reflecting the styles of religion from which Jesus came to free us. The real point is about the mindset we bring to Lent. I am trying to insist that Lent is ‘this great season of grace’, God’s gift to the Church – to use the words of the Missal when it was still in native English. Lent places us before the author and pioneer of our faith, Jesus Christ, and asks us how we might follow him more deeply. Lent is only Christian if it is positive.

In his Spiritual Exercises, Ignatius Loyola in various ways encourages us to pray, not out of our conventional selves, or with the skills we have already developed, but rather from the parts of ourselves that are being ‘shaken up by different spirits’ (Ex:x 6). We need to be in touch with what can transform us, what makes us confront new questions, what stretches our commitment and identity. It is that kind of focus that should characterise Lent. Where am I growing? Where are there questions in my life? Where am I being called to something deeper – something which, precisely as such, I cannot get my head round? What is my equivalent of the desert, of Jesus’s temptations? How can I enter into that place fully, freely, generously?

Now, such questions may well still give us the normal answers. Lay off the sugar or the cigarettes or the meat – not because the enjoyment I get from such things is bad in itself, but because the pleasure they give may be dulling my awareness of the tough issues that really matter. And though no-one can live at full spiritual stretch all the time, it is good for us to have a designated six weeks every year when we try more intensively to open ourselves to God’s stretching. We should not be too ambitious; if we are, we’ll almost certainly fail, get discouraged, and give up some time round the first Sunday. We need realistic targets: enough to stretch us, not so much as to crush us. We need to go slowly, to seek sustainable growth.

When such considerations inform our indulgence in standard Lenten penance, well and good. But we can also be creative, and develop practices that are less conventionally ‘penitential’. Some of us might need to give up some element of our religion. Some of us may need to sleep more. Some of us, particularly if we are given to the single or celibate life, may need to work more deeply at our relationships, and stop avoiding the all too challenging ways in which they alone can stretch us.

Lent is for lengthening, not for constriction. As we begin the forty days, we need to ask the Spirit where we are being called, here and now, to grow. We need to ask ourselves what we must do in order to further that divine purpose. We need to stop confining ourselves, and instead be open to the one who calls light out of darkness, brings life out of death. It is not really about our effort, still less about our looking miserable. Rather, with humble pride, we boast that all we can do is to plant and to water. The real growth, the true lengthening, comes from God (1 Corinthians 3:5-7).

Philip Endean SJ is Professor of Spirituality at Centre Sèvres, Paris. 

Week Beginning 14 February 2021

Here are another couple of thoughts from Revelation from the London Institute of Contemporary Christianity. Every Blessing, Robert.

Revelation: Faithfulness in Testing Times: Seeing and Hearing 2/3

On the Lord’s Day I was in the Spirit, and I heard behind me a loud voice like a trumpet… I turned around to see the voice that was speaking to me.
Then I heard the number of those who were sealed: 144,000 from all the tribes of Israel… After this I looked, and there before me was a great multitude that no one could count, from every nation, tribe, people and language, standing before the throne and in front of the Lamb.
I saw the Holy City, the new Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God, prepared as a bride beautifully dressed for her husband. And I heard a loud voice from the throne saying, ‘Look! God’s dwelling place is now among the people, and he will dwell with them.’

REVELATION 1:10, 12; 7:4, 9; 21:2–3

Do you prefer to see things, or hear them? Do you like reading books, or playing audio books? Watching television, or listening to the radio? We have become a culture of the visual, with the explosion of images and videos on the internet and delivered by streaming services – yet radio listenership is also on the rise, and there are now more podcasts than you can shake a stick at.

The dynamic of ‘hearing and seeing’ is threaded all through the Book of Revelation – yet, strangely, most ordinary readings miss this. We are so fixed on the idea that John is describing visions (things he sees) that we miss the role of all his auditions (things he hears) – which turns out to be 43% of the English text! (Yes, I counted!)

But what John hears and what he sees are closely related – the one interprets the other, and together they paint the full picture of John’s understanding. In the opening chapter, he hears a voice ‘like a trumpet’, an Old Testament description of the voice of God speaking to his people (see Exodus 19:16) – but he sees ‘one like a son of man’, dressed like a priest, like the Ancient of Days, and like an angel. Jesus is thus the word of God, our High Priest, and the one who brings God’s message to us. In chapter 7, John hears that God’s people are a counted, Jewish army in serried ranks – whom he sees as uncountable and multi-ethnic, praising God having come through deep suffering. And in chapter 21, he sees a city coming from heaven to earth – but hears that this is the presence of God with his people. The future intimacy of God with his people is described in the medium of extravagant architectural metaphor.

All this reflects a consistent Johannine theme of ‘what we have seen and heard’ (1 John 1:3; Acts 4:20), but the terms have wider significance. To ‘see’ is to understand, and one day we will see God even as we are already seen by God (1 Corinthians 13:12). To ‘hear’ is to obey (Deuteronomy 6:4), and one day our small obediences will be perfected (Philippians 1:6).

This week, what new thing will you see about God – what new understanding is he leading you to? And what new thing will you hear – what new call to a fruitful life of joyful obedience?

Revelation: Faithfulness in Testing Times: Where Do You Think You're Going? 3/3

One of the seven angels who had the seven bowls full of the seven last plagues came and said to me, ‘Come, I will show you the bride, the wife of the Lamb.’ And he carried me away in the Spirit to a mountain great and high, and showed me the Holy City, Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God. It shone with the glory of God, and its brilliance was like that of a very precious jewel, like a jasper, clear as crystal. It had a great, high wall with twelve gates, and with twelve angels at the gates...
The city does not need the sun or the moon to shine on it, for the glory of God gives it light, and the Lamb is its lamp… Nothing impure will ever enter it, nor will anyone who does what is shameful or deceitful, but only those whose names are written in the Lamb’s book of life… Then the angel showed me the river of the water of life, as clear as crystal, flowing from the throne of God and of the Lamb.

REVELATION 21:9-12, 23, 27; 22:1

‘Where do you think you’re going?’ In Alan Bennett’s famous spoof sermon, the metaphor of journeying becomes a clichéd image of direction in life. But the spoof only works because the metaphor is so powerful – we might ‘take the road less travelled’, ‘start the longest journey with the first step’, or choose to ‘walk together’ with a friend.

The metaphor is found all over the Bible. Jesus called the first disciples to ‘Come, follow me’ (Mark 1:17). The whole middle section of Luke’s gospel is styled as a long, meandering journey from Galilee to Jerusalem. Paul talks about ‘keeping in step’ with the Spirit (Galatians 5:25), drawing on Old Testament and Jewish images.

The Book of Revelation also uses this metaphor of journeying, but in a more oblique way. John does his theological painting by numbers: the two witnesses, an image of God’s faithful people, prophesy for 1,260 days (Revelation 11:3), which (with months of 30 days) is the same as the 42 months during which the outer court is trampled and the beast makes war on the saints (Revelation 11:2; 13:5-7). John is recalculating Daniel’s time, times, and half a time of ‘tribulation’ (Daniel 7:25: 3.5 years = 42 months) and identifying it with the Exodus journey through the wilderness – which took 42 years stopping at 42 different places (Numbers 33).

In other words, we who follow the Lamb are on a new Exodus journey, from slavery to freedom in a new Promised Land. We are returning from exile to our true home in Jesus, and suffering tribulation until sin and death are finally defeated (1 Corinthians 15:55). Our destination is the New Jerusalem, which is not so much a place we will live but a people we will be – a community that is safe (high walls), welcoming (open gates), holy (no unclean thing will enter), radiant with the glory of God, and through which flows the Spirit, the river of life. And unlike on other journeys, as we head towards this goal, we actually become more and more like the place we are heading to – changed from one degree of glory to another (2 Corinthians 3:18).

So this week, as you go about life on your frontline, in which direction will you be travelling? Away from this destination, or one step closer to it? Becoming less, or more, like the people we will one day be.

Rev'd Dr Ian Paul
Ian is a biblical scholar and theologian.

Week beginning 7 February 2021

A thoughtful reflection on Easter:

Who Believed in Easter First: Mary or John?

Some rationalists might say, “If I could see a miracle, I’d believe in the supernatural.” Or some skeptics might say, “If I could have seen Jesus alive, I would have believed in his resurrection from the dead.” Yet, Jesus said multiple times, “An evil and adulterous generation seeks after a sign” (Matthew 12.39; 16.4), that is, in order to believe in the supernatural. And when doubting Thomas saw the risen Jesus, with the holes in his wrists and the hole in his side due to the crucifixion, and then he believed, we read in the Gospel of John, “Jesus said to him, ‘because you have seen Me, have you believed? Blessed are they who did not see, and yet believed'” (John 20.29). That refers to all of us who will soon celebrate Jesus’ literal resurrection from the dead.

I believe if Jesus had not risen from the dead and showed himself to his disciples, there never would have been any Christianity. That caused Jesus’ disciples to go into many parts of the world and preach about this no matter what the cost to themselves. Indeed, tradition says that most if not all of Jesus’ apostles, with the possible exception of the Apostle John, became martyrs for their faith in Jesus.

Since Easter is just a few weeks away, the title of this post is a timely question. The right answer is that it depends on who we ask. If we had asked Mary Magdalene, “Who was the first to believe that Jesus had risen from the dead?” she would have answered that she was. She would have been correct. However, she actually saw and conversed with the risen Jesus. Whereas, if we had asked another one of Jesus disciples, he would have answered that he was a little more like us in being the first to believe in the risen Jesus even though we didn’t see him alive when we believed. It’s all about evidence.

Here’s what happened, according to the New Testament gospels, several women on early Sunday morning had gone to the graveyard at Golgotha to further anoint Jesus’ body, in accordance with Jewish custom. His deceased body was entombed and laying on a shelf in that cave-tomb (Luke 24.1, 10). But the women discovered that Jesus’ body was not there. Then, two angels dressed in bright-shining, white clothing appeared to them inside the tomb. They told these ladies that Jesus had risen from the dead. And these angels reminded them that Jesus earlier had predicted to them that this is exactly what would happen (e.g., Matthew 16.21; 17.22-23; 20.18-19). Then they told the women to go tell his disciples, even mentioning specifically Peter, to tell them. So, the women fled and went to do so.

Then we read of Mary Magdalene, “And so she ran and came to Simon Peter, and to the other disciple whom Jesus loved [probably the Apostle John, which is according to Christian tradition], and said to them, ‘They have taken away the Lord out of the tomb, and we do not know where they have laid Him'” (John 20.2). What! The two angels had just told Mary and the other women that Jesus had risen from the dead. So, at this point we cannot accept that Mary Magdalene was a full believer in Jesus’ resurrection. But it was the same with the men. For Luke tells us that when the women told the male disciples about the missing body and what the angels had told them, “they were Mary Magdalene and Joanna and Mary the mother of James; also the other women withthem were telling these things to the apostles. And these words appeared to them as nonsense, and they would not believe them” (Luke 24.10-11). So much for the gender thing!

The Gospel of John then tells us, “Peter therefore went forth, and the other disciple, and they were going to the tomb. And the two were running together; and the other disciple ran ahead faster than Peter, and came to the tomb first; and stooping and looking in, he saw the linen wrappings lying there; but he did not go in. Simon Peter therefore also came, following him, and entered the tomb; and he beheld the linen wrappings lying there, and the face-cloth, which had been on His head, not lying with the linen wrappings, but rolled up in a place by itself. So the other disciple who had first come to the tomb entered then also, and he saw and believed. For as yet they did not understand the Scripture, that He must rise again from the dead. So the disciples went away again to their own homes” (John 20.3-10). “The disciples” refers to Peter and (probably) John.

The word “homes” in John 20.10 appears in every modern, major, English version of the New Testament (“own home” in KJV) despite the fact that it is not in the Greek text (Nestle Aland 28th ed; United Bible Society 4th ed.). It should not be added. Instead, Peter and John (probably) likely returned to their home where they were staying. Christian tradition says the two brother apostles, James and John, owned a home in Jerusalem, besides their home in Capernaum on the Sea of Galilee, because they were commercial fishermen, as were brother Andrew and Simon Peter, and they traveled back and forth to sell their salted fish in the Jerusalem markets (Mark 1.16-21). That is may be why the Apostle John obviously knew some of the members of the Sanhedrin–the Jewish Council that condemned Jesus to death.

Why does John 20.8 say the Apostle John (assuming the beloved is him) “saw and believed” that Jesus had indeed risen from the dead? It was because of the evidence of Jesus’ resurrection which he had just seen–“the face-cloth, which had been on His head, not lying with the linen wrappings, but rolled up in a place by itself.” John must have realized that no one would steal a dead body by first removing the grave cloths and folding the face-cloth and laying it on the shelf where the body had laid. Why not?

Israel was not a sovereign state. In fact, the land of Israel was the only territory within the confines of the Roman Empire that was not part of the Roman Empire. Thus, Israeli Jews were not Roman citizens. It was because the Romans viewed Jews as a rather odd bunch, what with the strange way that they dressed and their unusual dietary laws, all due to their religion. Moreover, many Roman citizens viewed Jews and subsequent Christians as atheists because they did not believe in, or worship, the Roman gods at their shrines. Romans viewed that as disruptive to pax Romana.

So, the Roman Empire, like many ancient societies, protected religious shrines and honored human burial grounds and the remains inside of them. Thus, it was a capital crime deserving of death to desecrate religious shrines or graveyards or steal human remains from the latter. Thus, if anyone had stolen Jesus’ body from the tomb, and been apprehended, that person likely would have been executed by the state.

So, a wise thief would not have taken all of that time to strip Jesus’ body and nicely roll up the face-cloth, thus further risking getting caught. And the theory of skeptics, that the gardener had removed Jesus body to another location within the graveyard, as Mary originally had thought, is most unlikely because the gardener certainly would not have removed the grave cloths, since they with the 100 pounds of spices mixed within them were for the purpose of preserving the body as long as possible from decay. The nearby Egyptians were famous for doing that with mummification.

Apparently, when Mary Magdalene had told Peter and John about the missing body, and they ran to the tomb, Mary then left the house and followed them back to the tomb. But she very likely had no need to run there. Thus, by the time she arrived at the tomb for the second time that morning, both Peter and John had left the tomb.

Thus, we read in the Gospel of John, in John 20.11-18 in the NASB, “But Mary was standing outside the tomb weeping; and so, as she wept, she stopped and looked into the tomb; and she beheld two angels in white sitting, one at the head, and one at the feet, where the body of Jesus had been lying. And they said to her, ‘Woman, why are you weeping?’ She said to them, ‘Because they have taken away my Lord, and I do not know where they have laid Him.’ When she had said this, she turned around, and beheld Jesus standing there, and did not know that it was Jesus. Jesus said to her, ‘Woman, why are you weeping? Whom are you seeking?’ Supposing Him to be the gardener, she said to Him, ‘Sir, if you have carried Him away, tell me where you have laid Him, and I will take Him away.’ Jesus said to her, ‘Mary!’ She turned and said to Him in Hebrew, ‘Rabboni!’ (which mean, Teacher). Jesus said to her, ‘Stop clinging to Me, for I have not yet ascended to the Father; but go to My brethren and say to them, “I ascend to My Father and your Father, and My God and your God.”‘ Mary Magdalene came announcing to the disciples, ‘I have seen the Lord,’ and that he had said these things to her.”

Because of this, in Christian tradition Mary Magdalene has been called, to the delight of Christian womenfolk, “the Apostle to the Apostles.” Indeed, but was it not easier for Mary Magdalene to believe in the risen Jesus than it is for us? After all, she got to actually see the risen Jesus close-up and have a rather sublime conversation with him.

I think the Apostle John would back us up on that assessment due to his experience. He did not get to see the risen Jesus until that evening, when the disciples were gathered together, probably in the Upper Room. That is where they had celebrated the Last Supper on Thursday evening, the night before Jesus was crucified. Yet John had believed that morning when he saw the evidence of the grave cloths and face-cloth, indicating that Jesus had indeed risen from the dead.

Thus, there is much solid evidence that Jesus of Nazareth literally arose from the dead. And I believe that to ignore such solid evidence of Jesus’ resurrection as rationalists and skeptics do–in which God revealed himself through the man Jesus–is to do so at one’s own peril.

Every blessing

Peter

Week beginning 31 January 2021

The is the first of three items from the London Institute of Contemporary Christianity and is quite topical, I think. Every Blessing, Robert.

Revelation: Faithfulness in Testing Times
The Word We Need - 1/3

The revelation of Jesus Christ, which God gave him to show his servants what must soon take place. He made it known by sending his angel to his servant John, who testifies to everything he saw—that is, the word of God and the testimony of Jesus Christ. Blessed is the one who reads aloud the words of this prophecy, and blessed are those who hear it and take to heart what is written in it, because the time is near…I, John, your brother and companion in the suffering and kingdom and patient endurance that are ours in Jesus, was on the island of Patmos because of the word of God and the testimony of Jesus. (REVELATION 1: 1-3, 9)

As we struggle through this third lockdown, hearing both scientists and politicians warn us not to hope for a date when life returns to ‘normal’, we long to hear a word from God – or perhaps three. 

First, we long for a revelation – a pulling back of the curtain, so that we can see, amidst all the confusion and chaos of conflicting accounts of what is ‘really’ going on, some heavenly truth. We are not the first. ‘Oh, that you would rend the heavens and come down…!’ cries Isaiah, faced with the promise of God’s faithfulness, and the reality of the people’s sin (Isaiah 64:1). The heavens were indeed rent at Jesus’ baptism – yet John’s readers, at the eastern end of the Roman Empire, are under pressure both from jealous Jews who resent this new Messianic movement, and pagan peers who demand they conform to cultural norms. They need a fresh revelation of who Jesus is, what he has done, and what it means to be faithful to him.

That is what God gives to John to pass on – a revelation (‘apocalypse’) of Jesus, God’s anointed, slain for us yet raised by God, who now shares his Father’s throne. This is no novel belief, but stands in the long line of prophecy – indeed, Revelation has been called ‘the climax of prophecy’. John shares what he sees and hears in words saturated with the Old Testament: redemption through Jesus is the fulfilment of all God had promised to his people.
 
But beyond a revelation, beyond a shared prophecy, we long for a word to us. What John writes is an apocalyptic, prophetic letter, written to particular people in a particular place at a particular time. It can become a particular word to us too, as we listen to what God is saying to us through what John said to his readers. 

John’s central assumption is that we have three things in Jesus: suffering (‘tribulation’ in the KJV); kingdom; and patient endurance (Revelation 1:9). Let’s rejoice in the healing grace of God’s rule in our lives, brought by Jesus and made real by the Spirit. Let’s also share in the groaning of this age, which does not yet see the redemption we enjoy. And, in the tension of these two, let’s commit ourselves to live lives of patient endurance as we look to the return of Jesus and hold out hope to the world.

Rev Dr Ian Paul
Ian is a biblical scholar and theologian.

Week beginning 24 January 2021

I'm sure that for all of us 2020 was one of the most difficult years we've ever known. There was much about it to make us sad and depressed. So, for once, I'm not posting a Christian reflection. Nothing in the post below is specifically religious, but all of it reflect things which we, as Christians can feel incredibly thankful for. I hope you agree.

Every blessing

Peter 

 

Week beginning 17 January 2021

The following came into my inbox from one of my former churches and uses the readings from this Sunday’s lectionary.

Readings:        1 Samuel 3:1-10

Psalm 139: 1-6, 13-18

1 Corinthians 6: 12-20

John 1: 43-51

Come, See, Hear

Today’s readings encourage us to reflect on how God speaks to us and to other people. God’s voice is often unexpected and may leave us asking “why?” Why me, why now? But if we listen closely, if we allow God to call us, to encourage us, to use us, we, like the characters in today’s readings, can be transformed as we hear and obey God’s call for our lives.

Samuel hears the Lord calling to him in the night, but does not immediately understand what is going on. Three times he goes to Eli, three times Eli sends him back to bed. Finally, Eli realises what is happening, that it is the Lord calling to Samuel, and sends him to bed telling him to reply with the words “Speak Lord, your servant is listening.”

Sometimes God calls disciples directly, other times he uses other people to help and encourage a call. Both are seen in our passage from John’s Gospel. Jesus finds Philip and then Philip finds Nathanael, telling him “We have found the Messiah”.

But Nathanael questions Philip – “Can anything good come from Nazareth?” He tells him to “Come and see” – the Greek here meaning far more than just take a look – to see in this context meaning to understand. But Nathanael needs more than just Philip’s words. It is only when he meets Jesus, and hears Jesus’ words of encouragement and knowledge – “Here is an honest man, a true Israelite” – that he responds with enthusiasm, recognising Jesus as the Son of God.

How do we hear God’s voice calling to us? Do we, like Samuel, need others to interpret for us? Or are we like Nathanael, only believing when we can check out the facts and spend time with God. Or are we like Philip, bursting with enthusiasm, and wanting to tell everyone the Good News. If so, who is God calling us to share the Good News with? How can we welcome others into our churches and communities of faith?

We thank you, God, for those times when we have sensed your presence, heard your voice, seen new insights – particularly when we have needed those things. Thank you also for those who do not remember hearing your voice and still believe. Teach us how to make space, how to hear you and to recognise your presence with us. Amen

Every Blessing for this coming week,

Robert.

Week beginning 10 January 2021

If you have the YOU Bible app on your phone, there are a number of study plans which you can follow. One of them is written by Nicky Gumbel and is a journey through the whole Bible in a year. This is today's section:

Facing the Storms of Life

On 31 July 2003, the adventurer Bear Grylls led a team of five across the North Atlantic Ocean in an inflatable rigid dinghy. They set out from Halifax, Nova Scotia, heading for John o’ Groats, Scotland. On 5 August, a great storm arose. There were 100-foot waves. They lost satellite contact. They (and we) feared for their lives. Thankfully they survived to tell the tale (see Facing the Frozen Ocean by Bear Grylls).

Not all of us will have to face physical storms of this kind. But Jesus said that we would all face the storms of life (Matthew 7:25–27). Life is not easy. These storms are many and varied. Abraham, David and Jesus’ disciples all faced storms in their lives. What can we learn from their example?

Psalm 7:10-17

Take up the shield of faith

In the midst of the storms David says, ‘My shield is God Most High… I will give thanks to the Lord because of his righteousness and will sing praise to the name of the Lord Most High’ (vv.10a,17).

If we fall for temptation and start to enjoy and nurture it, David warns, ‘Whoever is pregnant with evil and conceive trouble give birth to disillusionment’ (v.14). In another image, he likens it to digging a hole, scooping it out, and then falling into the pit we have made (v.15).

The apostle Paul says that you are to take up a shield with which you can extinguish all the flaming arrows of the evil one (Ephesians 6:16). The shield is the ‘shield of faith’ or, as David puts it here, his shield is ‘God Most High’ (Psalm 7:10). This is the best protection you could ever have against the attacks of the enemy.

Lord, thank you that I, too, am able to say, ‘My shield is God Most High.’

 

Matthew 8:23-9:13

Trust in Jesus the Saviour

Sometimes the storms in our lives appear without warning. Jesus was in the boat with his disciples sleeping when ‘without warning, furious storm came up on the lake, so that the waves swept over the boat’ (8:24).

Presumably the disciples were used to storms on the Sea of Galilee; it was renowned for sudden flash storms, stirring the water into twenty-foot waves. However, this storm must have been a particularly serious one because the disciples woke Jesus up and said, ‘We’re going to drown!’ (v.25).

During the storms of life, it is natural to panic (certainly, I tend to). Sometimes it appears that Jesus is ‘sleeping’ (v.24). He does not appear to be doing anything about our problems. Thankfully, we can all cry out, as they did, ‘Lord, save us!’ (v.25).

The natural response to the storms is doubt and fear. Jesus tells them that the response to storms should be trust (‘You of little faith’, v.26a) and that you should not be afraid(‘Why are you so afraid?’ v.26a). Jesus is quite capable of calming the storm and that is exactly what he did. Trust God and fear not.

Having shown his authority over the elements (‘Even the winds and the waves obey him!’ v.27), he goes on to demonstrate his authority over evil powers by freeing the two demon-possessed men (vv.28–34). Jesus was far more concerned about people than possessions, unlike those who pleaded with him to leave their region (v.34).

Jesus goes on to make the point that forgiveness is more important than healing. But healing is not unimportant. Jesus does both. He shows his power over sickness and disability by healing a paralysed man (9:1–2). ‘The crowd was awestruck, amazed and pleased that God had authorised Jesus to work among them this way’ (v.8, MSG).

In the midst of the storms there are moments of calm. Today’s passage ends with such a moment as Jesus calls Matthew to follow him. Jesus is invited to dinner at Matthew’s house.

The Pharisees are surprised to see Jesus eating with ‘a lot of disreputable characters’ (v.10, MSG) and say, ‘What kind of example is this from your Teacher, acting cosy with crooks and riffraff?’ (v.11, MSG).

‘Jesus, overhearing, shot back, “Who needs a doctor: the healthy or the sick? Go figure out what the scripture means: ‘I’m after mercy, not religion.’ I’m here to invite outsiders, not coddle insiders.”’ (vv.12–13, MSG).

God’s ‘mercy’ is his kindness and forgiveness towards people who do not deserve it. Today, receive and enjoy his mercy yourself and be merciful to others.

Lord, thank you that in all the storms of life I can cry out, ‘Lord, save us.’ Help me to trust you and not to be afraid.

 

Genesis 21:1-23:20

Thank God for his provision

Abraham certainly faced storms in his life. The passage for today is full of struggles, but it starts with a wonderful moment of calm in the midst of these storms. ‘The Lord was gracious to Sarah... and… did for Sarah what he had promised’ (21:1). Like us sometimes, they had had to wait a long time, but eventually God’s promise was fulfilled. During the waiting period, the challenge is to keep on trusting God.

‘Sarah became pregnant and bore a son to Abraham in his old age, at the very time God had promised him’ (v.2). It was a moment of great joy. Sarah said, ‘God has brought me laughter, and everyone who hears about this will laugh with me’ (v.6).

But very soon Abraham faced a storm in his own household. Ishmael mocked Isaac (v.9), and this led to deeper divisions in the family (v.10). Tragically Hagar and Ishmael left (v.14). These divisions were ultimately the consequences of Abraham’s previous sin in making Hagar his mistress, following his lack of faith in believing that Sarah would have a son.  

Sometimes the hardest situations in life to face can be those of our own making. Even so, God is still with Abraham (vv.12–13), and he watches over and blesses Hagar and Ishmael (vv.17–18). We see God’s grace at work in the midst of a sinful situation.

Abraham was about to face the biggest storm of his life: ‘God tested Abraham’ (22:1).

God sometimes allows us to be tested. Personally, I don’t think God ever intended for a moment that Abraham should actually sacrifice his son Isaac. The sacrifice of children was always an abomination to the Lord. But, he wanted to establish Abraham’s priorities.

The New Testament reminds us that this test came after God’s promises to Abraham about Isaac (Hebrews 11:17–19), and was therefore a test of both Abraham’s faith and his priorities.

The test was of his faith, because it challenged him to trust that God could fulfil his promises about Isaac, even if Abraham was willing to sacrifice him. Abraham had to trust that no matter what happened, Isaac would be restored to him (v.19).

Yet it was also a test of Abraham’s priorities. Your relationship with God is meant to be the number one priority of your life – above all other loves, the vision God has given you for your life and even above your closest human relationships. Abraham was willing to obey God whatever the cost. His great strength was that he loved God more than anything or anyone else.

Thankfully, God provided the sacrifice that was necessary (‘God himself will provide the lamb’, Genesis 22:8). This foreshadows the great sacrifice God was to make on our behalf. As you think about how Abraham must have felt at the thought of sacrificing his son, you get a glimpse of what it cost God to give his one and only Son for you and me (John 3:16).

Jesus is ‘the Lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the world’ (John 1:29). If God provided the ultimate sacrifice to meet your greatest need, will he not also provide for all your other needs? Here Abraham calls God ‘Jehovah-Jireh’, or ‘The Lord Will Provide’ (Genesis 22:14). He is acknowledging that God providing is part of his character.

God is the great provider. So often, I have found this to be true in my own life and in our community. God is true to his promise. As the apostle Paul put it, ‘My God will meet all your needs according to his glorious riches in Christ Jesus’ (Philippians 4:19).

Our task is to obey God (to ‘seek first his kingdom and his righteousness’, Matthew 6:33a) and he promises that if we do that, he will provide for all our needs (‘All these things will be given to you as well’, v.33b).

God’s provision and blessing is almost unbelievably great (Genesis 22:16–18). It included this: ‘And in your Seed [Christ] shall all the nations of the earth be blessed’ (v.18, AMP).

“Lord, thank you that you are my shield, my Saviour and my provider. Help me to keep trusting in you and to not be afraid. Help me to keep you as the number one priority in my life.”

Every blessing

Peter

Week beginning 3 January 2021

The following is from Dave Hopwood, an author and speaker who is a regular participant and former community member at Lee Abbey.

God of blank pages

On New year's Eve a few years ago, I took up my Bible to glean a few thoughts for the coming year, and it fell open in an unusual place. A couple of pages with no chapters or verses. The pages that separate the Old and New Testaments. It struck me that all Bibles have this gap, and it's very easy to flick the page and move on.

But this papery intermission represents 400 years! 400 years! We read the last few verses of Malachi, the promise of a better day coming, and then... Nothing. Blank pages.

Pages that represent centuries of waiting, hoping, crying out, wondering. People being born, living and dying in that long pause. And it seemed to me appropriate for a New Year’s eve. As we hover on the crest of a New Year. Those of us who follow the invisible God, are invited, like Abraham, to step into the unknown. To live in the tension between what has been and what will be, what was and what might be. And to live in this tension is not easy, we are all creatures of habit, of the familiar, but like Abraham we inhabit the now and the not yet. Receiving and carrying a promise of hope in a restless, unpredictable world. The knowledge of Jesus on our side. With us, through each experience. 

This year has been full of waiting and hoping. And no doubt praying too. So many of us longing for a better day. Perhaps it has resembled a blank page in some ways. We have been reminded of our fragility, of our need. These have been days of worry and questioning. And I'm convinced that God is as present in these times, as He is in others. In these blank-page days. Psalm 46 verse 10 calls us to still ourselves, and calm our racing hearts and minds by tuning into God's presence. Actually, many verses in the psalms invite us to do this. To allow ourselves, even for a few seconds, to do 'nothing' with Him. To worship Him with our precious time and silence, and in doing so to let something of His nature rub off on us. As we stand on the doorstep of a new year, it's no bad thing to pause, and worship silently, and in doing so to let the God who emptied Himself for us, shape us and replenish us for all that lies ahead.

Lord, my heart is not proud; my eyes are not haughty.
I don’t concern myself with matters too great or awesome for me.
But I have stilled and quieted myself,
just as a small child is quiet with its mother.
Yes, like a small child is my soul within me.
 O Israel, put your hope in the Lord – now and always.
Psalm 131
 
'Be still in the presence of the Lord, and wait patiently for him to act.' 
Psalm 37:7

Every Blessing for 2021,

Robert.

  • Psalm 139:23-24

    “Search me, God, and know my heart; test me and know my anxious thoughts.See if there is any offensive way in me, and lead me in the way everlasting.”

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