Wednesday, 30 March 2011

Street Pastors – Faith in Action

Article for the Living Faith column of Walsall Advertiser, to be published April 7th 2011.

It is 3am in Walsall town centre; an 18 year old girl lies unconscious on the street. Kneeling down beside her, checking her pulse, and ensuring she is kept warm while waiting for the ambulance to arrive, are a group of Street Pastors. This was the scene in Walsall a few weeks ago.

The Government has been talking a lot about the 'Big Society', but this is not a new thing, the church has been doing big society for more than two thousand years. The launch of Walsall Street Pastors in March is the latest in a line of church led initiatives serving the people of Walsall.

In the Old Testament, God says through his prophet Jeremiah, "seek the peace and prosperity of the city to which I have carried you…. Pray to the LORD for it, because if it prospers, you too will prosper." (Jeremiah 29:7) This is what the church through projects such as the Street Pastors and other initiatives is striving to do. Through Jesus we want to see changed lives and transformed communities. It is about a living faith that makes a real difference in our world. 
It has become more and more common these days to hear people say "faith is a private matter and should be kept to oneself." But for me, faith is not a private matter, because real living faith should express itself in every aspect of our lives, in our values and attitudes, how we go about our business, how we use our time and money, and how we relate to other people. Therefore by its very nature it cannot be a private matter. The Apostle James says that faith and works (the way faith is lived out) go hand in hand, you cannot have the one without the other (see James 2:14-26).

That is what motives Street Pastors, who will again be out patrolling the streets of Walsall this weekend, seeking to live out their faith in a way that makes a real difference to the whole community by being a caring, listening, helping presence, and in doing so, helping to make Walsall a safer place to be at night. 
For more information about Street Pastors, please contact the co-ordinator Mark Desorgher on 07505 121 934 or email

Tuesday, 29 March 2011

Is God Homicidal? Part 2

This sermon is shortened version of a talk given by the Revd Simon Coupland at the New Wine summer conference in 2010. You can download Simon's talk (£3 MP3 format, £3.99 audio CD) online at


Last week began exploring the question if we believe in a God of love, and compassion and forgiveness, how are we to make sense of those passages in the Old Testament which portray God as being anything but a God of love, passages where for example God appears to order the wholesale destruction of nations that inhabited the Promised Land.  In trying to address this question, we looked at two simple but wrong solutions, get rid of, or ignore the OT, or say it didn’t happen. 

There aren’t any easy solutions to this problem, but this morning I want to give three helpful thoughts, which I hope will begin to address this difficult issue

Helpful thought no. 1: judge events by the standards of the time

This argument gets support from an unlikely quarter.  Richard Dawkins in his book ‘The God Delusion’ writes, “It is a commonplace that good historians don’t judge statements from past times by the standards of their own.” 

By the standards of the day, it was quite normal that when you conquered a nation, you destroyed totally that other nation for your god.  So for example, one of the difficult passages we looked at last week was the instruction in 1 Samuel for Saul to completely destroy the Amalekites.  But when Saul failed to kill the Amalekite king Agag, Samuel does it instead.  This is one of those difficult passages, but you have to remember that Agag was not a poor innocent victim in all this.  He had blood on his hands, which is why Samuel says ‘Just as your sword left women childless, so will your mother be left childless’.  Agag knew that as a king, if you conquered another king, you had him put to death. 

We know from archaeological evidence that total destruction was something that other nations did.  So for example we know the Amorites, Moabites, Assyrians and Egyptians acted in this way, destroying totally their enemies.  We may look back and say that is a terrible thing to do, but at the time that was what they did, that was the nature of warfare. 

So by the standards of the time, what we read in the OT, of the people of Israel being commanded to by God to slaughter other nations was no worse than anyone else, and what other people would have expected and accepted. 

So with this in mind, it is surprising that there are some places in the OT where God does not command that.  The destruction of certain tribes, cities, and people, was a very specific command by God in certain instances.  It was not a general command for the people of God in Israel in every circumstance at every time.  

So for example when the city of Jericho was attacked, Rahab and her family were spared, because she hid two of the Israelite’s spies hide from the city guard.  And in Deuteronomy you see the rules of engagement for the Israelite army: 
  • ·        When attacking a city, make an offer of peace (Deuteronomy 20.10).
  • ·        Spare the women, children and livestock (Deut. 20. 14)
  • ·        Don’t destroy fruit trees (Deut. 20.19)

The point is that we need to judge events by the standards of the time.  And by the standards of this time, what the Israelite’s did was no more brutal or worse than what anyone else was doing. 
To bring this more up to date, consider for example the question was it right fight in WW2?  Well most people would say yes, Hitler was evil, as we see with the holocaust.  Fighting such evil was the right decision.  But was the bombing of German cities – which resulted in the deaths of many thousands of civilians the right thing to do?  I think that most people would argue that with hindsight, it wasn’t, but at the time most people thought it was the right thing to do. 

Looking at the OT, with what we now know about the character of God, through the coming of Jesus, we would say that the slaughter of people was wrong, but at the time with what people knew, they would have said yes it was right.

So helpful thought 1 is that we must judge events by the standards of the time.

Helpful thought no. 2: remember why God commanded this

God commanded the death of some in Israel who had sinned, and the destruction of some nations outside of Israel, for the sake of holiness. 

There is such a thing as real evil in the world.  The Canaanite religion was one such religion, it was a religion based on prostitution, idolatry, and child sacrifice.  And God said: ‘that must be wiped out, that must be destroyed’.  That is why in Leviticus God says “Do not defile yourselves in any of these ways, because this is how the nations that I am going to drive out before you became defiled. Even the land was defiled; so I punished it for its sin, and the land vomited out its inhabitants.” Leviticus 18:24-27

God knew that if they didn’t wipe out this religion, they too would be drawn into it, and be corrupted by it.  That is why in Deuteronomy 12, God says “When you have driven them out and settled in their land, and after they have been destroyed before you, be careful not to be ensnared by inquiring about their gods, saying, “How do these nations serve their gods? We will do the same.” You must not worship the Lord your God in their way, because in worshipping their gods, they do all kinds of detestable things the Lord hates. They even burn their sons and daughters in the fire as sacrifices to their gods.” Deuteronomy 12:29-31
What God calls us to is radical holiness.  If you are diagnosed with cancer, you want to get rid of every single last trace of the cancer from your body.  That is what God said about the Canaanite religion, that if you leave Canaanites in your midst that practice their religion, you will start to worship their gods.  And what we see in the OT, is that this is exactly what happened, time after time.  The Israelite’s turned their backs of God and started worshipping other gods.    

And that is why God calls us to radical holiness.

The question is how seriously do we take holiness?  God says to us, be holy as I am holy.  Jesus says “If your right eye causes you to sin, gouge it out and throw it away... And if your right hand causes you to sin, cut it off and throw it away. It is better for you to lose one part of your body than for your whole body to go into hell.”  (Matthew 5.29-30) In other words Jesus says if there is something that causes us to be tempted, get rid of it, cut it out altogether.  God demands radical holiness. 

Helpful thought no. 3: Jesus changes everything

This is the main helpful thought, and the one to remember. 

The OT has truth, goodness, and the character of God in it.  But it is only a shadow of the reality that was coming, and that is Christ.  And it is Jesus Christ, who is the one who fully reveals God to us.  If you want to know what God is like, you only have to look at Jesus.  Through Jesus we see that God is compassionate, loving, forgiving, generous, and full of mercy and grace. 
And as Christians, we should look at the OT, and what it teaches, through the lens of Jesus and the cross, because that changes everything. 

When we read about death and destruction in the OT, that was for then.  But God has now shown us a better way, the way of Jesus, the way of love.  Jesus changes everything and knowing him changes everything.  

Because what Jesus reveals to us, is a God who gets his feet messy and his hands bloody, by coming down into our world and being slaughtered, being rejected, being destroyed on the cross.  Taking into himself the pain and suffering of our world, and redeeming it, and giving life. 
And because we know him, we can trust him, and we can trust even the things we don’t quite understand about him. 


What I hope you can take away from this, is a slightly less big problem about these difficult passages in the OT.  But what I really want you to take away is a trust in Jesus, that says ‘it's okay’, because if I don’t understand all of it, what I do understand changes everything, and that’s how I read those passages, through the light of the cross.  

Is God Homicidal? Part 1

This sermon is shortened version of a talk given by the Revd Simon Coupland at the New Wine summer conference in 2010. You can download Simon's talk (which is well worth listening to) online at (£3 MP3 format, £3.99 audio CD)

How did the first reading make you feel? How many of you felt uncomfortable saying 'Thanks be to God' at the end of that reading?

Paul in his 2nd letter to Timothy writes, 'All Scripture is God-breathed and is useful for teaching, rebuking, correcting and training in righteousness.' But if that is the case, how are we to make sense of passages like the one we heard this morning? What possible connection can such violence have with the God we long to love, trust and understand?"


The Christian faith talks about God, being a God of love. But yet there are passages in the Old Testament which portray God as being anything but a God of love.

This is what the well known atheist Richard Dawkins writes in his book 'The God Delusion': "The God of the Old Testament is arguably the most unpleasant character in all fiction: jealous and proud of it; a petty, unjust, unforgiving control-freak; a vindictive, bloodthirsty ethnic cleanser; a misogynistic, homophobic, racist, infanticidal, genocidal, filicidal, pestilential, megalomaniacal, sado-masochistic, capriciously malevolent bully."

Richard Dawkins words are offensive, but if we are honest, I am sure that we sometimes find ourselves thinking the same thing when we read the Old Testament. Bible scholars and commentators don't try to hide from this fact. In Richard Hess' commentary on the book of Joshua he writes, "Few of the many issues raised by the book of Joshua create more difficulty than the question of how a loving God could command the wholesale extermination of nations that inhabited the Promised Land. There is no easy or simple solution to this problem."

This morning I want to look at two simple but wrong solutions to this problem, and next week we will look at three helpful thoughts as we tackle this difficult but important issue.


Solution 1 is to get rid of the Old Testament altogether.

This was tried in the past by a man called Marcion. Marcion lived in the second century AD, and argued that there were two Gods, the vengeful God of the OT –and the all forgiving God of the New Testament. Marcion believed that Paul was the only true interpreter or Jesus, and produced his own canon of Scripture, which got rid of the whole OT and large parts of the NT.


This prompted the church to agree its own list of accepted books, which became more or less the New Testament canon that we know today. The early Christians also agreed, against Marcion, that the Hebrew Bible was their Bible too, to be read, studied and quoted. Thus when Paul wrote to Timothy, 'from infancy you have known the Holy Scriptures, which are able to make you wise for salvation through faith in Christ Jesus. All Scripture is God-breathed and is useful for teaching, rebuking, correcting and training in righteousness' (2 Tim 3:15-16), it wasn't the New Testament Scriptures to which he was referring, as they were still being written, but the Hebrew Scriptures, the Old Testament.


What would happen if we cut out the OT?

  1. We would no longer be following Jesus, who saw the Hebrew Bible, the Old Testament, as the Word of God. For example in a debate with the Sadducees (religious leaders) about the resurrection (which they did not believe in), Jesus rebukes them and says "You are in error because you do not know the Scriptures or the power of God." (Matthew 22:29) When Jesus talks about the Scriptures, he is of course talking about the Hebrew Bible.
  2. We would have to cut out large parts of the New Testament, too, as almost all books quote the Old Testament. For example in Mark 12:10 Jesus quotes Psalm 118 when he says "Haven't you read this passage of Scripture: 'The stone the builders rejected has become the cornerstone'?" (Psalm 118:22). Jesus clearly expected his listeners to know the Old Testament, to respect its authority and to see its relevance.
  3. We lose the context into which Jesus came: the way he understood himself. For example on the day of the resurrection Jesus met two of his disciples travelling on the road from Jerusalem to Emmaus, and Luke tells us that "Beginning with Moses and all the Prophets, he [Jesus] explained to them what was said in all the Scriptures concerning himself." (Luke 24:27) We cannot understand who Jesus is, and the significance of his death and resurrection, without also understanding the OT.
  4. If we cut out the OT, think about all that we would lose. The richness of the Psalms, the ten commandments, and so many incredible stories.
There aren't two different God's in the Bible, the angry one of the OT and the loving one of the NT. There are difficult passages in the OT, but we also see in the OT that God is loving, just, forgiving, patient, gracious, generous, liberating to women and men, the young and the elderly, the stranger, the disabled, the criminals and the outcasts. For example in the OT we discover the God of the Exodus, who rescues his people from slavery and demonstrates his character in these words: "The Lord, the Lord, the compassionate and gracious God, slow to anger, abounding in love and faithfulness, maintaining love to thousands, and forgiving wickedness, rebellion and sin." (Exodus 34:6-7)

Jesus also clearly identifies his Father as the God of the OT


What do I mean by this?

Well in 1 Samuel 15:3, Samuel, God's prophet, says to Saul the King, this is what the Lord says, "Now go, attack the Amalekites and totally destroy all that belongs to them. Do not spare them; put to death men and women, children and infants, cattle and sheep, camels and donkeys.'"

But later on in 1 Samuel 30, we read how the Amalekites raided the Negev and Ziklag, and took captive the women and all who were in it (1 Samuel 30:1-2) What this shows is that the Israelite's didn't actually wipe out the Amalekites. So although God gave this command, and Saul said 'yes I did it, I slaughtered them all', he clearly didn't.

The point some people have tried to argue is that, maybe the Bible is exaggerating, maybe it didn't really happen that way. Another example is in Leviticus where it says "If a man commits adultery with another man's wife, both must be put to death." But when King David has an affair with Bathsheba, no one puts David or Bathsheba to death. The conclusion may be that this is something that didn't happen. It's a rule that emphasises the gravity of adultery, but was never really meant to be put into practice.

Even Jesus used exaggeration to get over points. For example he said "If anyone comes to me and does not hate his father and mother, his wife and children, his brothers and sisters, yes, even his own life, he cannot be my disciple." (Luke 14.26) Of course Jesus isn't asking us to hate our families, but it is to drive home a point about the commitment he expects when people follow him.

We need to recognise that the Bible exaggerates. But this solution doesn't account for all passages.

So far we've looked at two solutions that don't work. Cut out the OT and pretend it didn't happen.


None of the solutions put forward are satisfactory. We cannot simply get rid of the OT, or ignore it. The Old Testament speaks of judgement, but it also speaks of grace, and the New Testament is exactly the same. The God of the OT is also the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, and if we're followers of Jesus, which for me is the definition of a Christian, then we should, as the Book of Common Prayer says, 'read, mark, learn and inwardly digest' the Old Testament as well as the New. For as Paul says, these are the Scriptures which 'are able to make you wise for salvation' (2 Tim 3:15); they reveal the Father to us and they point us to Jesus.

Next week, we will consider some helpful thoughts, which may not solve the problem entirely, but hopefully will help us to embrace these passages as Scripture, and say yes this is the word of God.


Wednesday, 9 March 2011

The Transfiguration

Sermon preached by Penny Wheble at St Martin's Church in Walsall, on March 6th 2011

A brilliant magician was performing on an ocean liner. But every time he did a trick, the Captain's parrot would yell, "It's a trick. He's a phony. That's not magic." Then one evening during a storm, the ship sank while the magician was performing. The parrot and the magician ended up in the same lifeboat. For several days they just glared at each other, neither saying a word to the other. Finally the parrot said, "OK, I give up. What did you do with the ship?"

The parrot couldn't explain that last trick! It was too much to comprehend, even for a smart parrot. Peter said to Jesus, "Rabbi, it is good for us to be here. Let us put up three shelters—one for you, one for Moses, and one for Elijah." Scholars over the years have tried to explain what in the world Peter meant by this suggestion. But, I think trying to find meaning to these words is pointless. It's simply the way Matthew explains: Peter was frightened and he just said the first thing that came to into his head. He simply could not comprehend what was happening.

In life, moments occur that are incomprehensible. The birth of one's own child is one of those moments. The loss of a loved one is one of those moments. September 11 was one of those moments. There are mountaintop and valley moments throughout life. We are never ready for them. They arrive unannounced changing us in irreversible ways. But there is one thing they all have in common. They demand that we be silent and listen. These moments have something to say to us, to teach us

But too often our response is like that of Peter, babbling absurdities because we cannot understand the significant, the meaningful moment. When Peter does finally stop talking nonsense a cloud appears, envelopes them, and the voice of God gives this instruction to Peter, James, and John: "This is my Son, whom I love. Listen to Him!" That's it. Very short and to the point. What Peter said made no sense. What God said had a mountain of meaning.

Jesus said to his disciples, ‘Truly I tell you, if you have faith the size of a mustard seed, you will say to this mountain, “Move from here to there,” and it will move; and nothing will be impossible with you.’

As I try to unpack this passage, I’ll be drawing from Mark and Luke’s accounts also.
The Jews used to describe a great teacher, who could expound and interpret the Holy Scripture, and explain and resolve difficulties of interpretation, as an uprooter of mountains! So Jesus was using a familiar phrase to illustrate the need for faith. He was saying that if we have enough faith, all the difficulties which confront us can be overcome, and even the hardest task can be solved.
There's an expression that talks of someone having 'a mountain-top experience'. The story from Matthew, which appears elsewhere in the Gospels, could certainly be called that. And like so many New Testament passages it has its roots firmly grounded in Israel's history, in words that we can find for example, in Exodus 34:29-35
Do you see the similarity with Luke's account of that mountain-top experience of Peter, John and James?

'As (Jesus) was praying, the appearance of his face changed, and his clothes became as bright as a flash of lightning.'

We don't know exactly what happened on that mountain, as there is no direct eyewitness account; just the story as retold by Matthew, Mark and Luke. But there's no doubt that something remarkable took place, and at an important point in Jesus' ministry.

This event, called the Transfiguration was the prelude to Jesus' return to Jerusalem, to that famous ride on a donkey, to Passion Week, to Jesus' death on a cross and his subsequent resurrection. Ahead of Jesus and his closest disciples were times of serious testing and temptations - could this victim of Roman torture and cruelty, rejected by both the priests and authorities really be the Messiah, the Christ, the one foretold by the prophets? But of course at this time the disciples were still unclear about how this whole amazing story of which they were a part was going to unfold.

In the weeks before, as they had wandered through villages and towns around Caesarea Philippi Jesus had taught both them and the people he moved among, and he'd tried to prepare his disciples for what was to follow. Now it was time for the closest of his followers to glimpse something that would have been totally unintelligible to outsiders.

Peter, James, and John made up the inner circle of disciples. At the outer perimeter was the group of five hundred who saw Christ after His resurrection (I Cor 15:6). A bit closer were the seventy disciples who were sent out two by two to preach and heal (Luke 10:1,17). Still closer were the Twelve, of whom these three were specially selected to witness this event, the raising of Jairus’ daughter, and Jesus’ agony in Gethsemane. Of these three, John the beloved was closest to Christ (Jn 13:23;21:20).

So what was the point of this spectacular event?
And possibly more importantly, what does it say to us?

On a technical point, there is a difference between Luke's account and that of Matthew and Mark, and this goes back to what I said earlier, that we don't know exactly what happened on that mountaintop.

Luke does not use the word transfigured – (metamorphoµtheµ ) (which Matthew and Mark used), perhaps because it had been used so much in the Pagan theology, but makes use of a equivalent phrase, (to eidos tou prosoµpou heteron) — which translates literally as the fashion of his countenance was another thing from what it had been, or as the NIV translation has it ' the appearance of his face changed' It's a small point maybe, but important in Luke's understanding of this event.

We know that Jesus retired to lonely places to pray and to be close to his Father. This was an important moment in his life, because Jesus was all too well aware of the dangers and pain that lay ahead of him on the journey he had to make to Jerusalem. This time he felt the need to take his closest companions with him, and perhaps we can empathise with Jesus there. Aren't there crucial times in our own lives where the last thing we want is to be alone, when what we need is the prayerful support of our closest to us?

Jesus seems to have been someone of almost unlimited energy. Remember how in the Garden of Gethsemene he asked his disciples to stay awake while he prayed, and they fell asleep. Well, here again we find Jesus wide-awake and praying whilst his friends seemed to have dropped off to sleep after their hard day and arduous climb.

So it is that on that mountain Moses and Elijah appear to Jesus. Moses the great law-giver, and Elijah the greatest of the prophets add their encouragement and support to all that must happen in the days to follow. Both Moses and Elijah were associated in prophesy concerning the Messiah (Deut 18:15-19; Mal 3:1;4:5,6). Early readers of this story, always alert for Old Testament imagery or thought would have recognised the cloud which enveloped the mountain, indicating the presence of God (Ex 40:34,35). They might also remember that both Moses and Elijah had strange endings in the east of Jordan where our story is based.

God often strengthens those who are about to face hardship or testing. How much Jesus needed this reassurance, this mark of approval, we can never know. However, because of what happened on that mountain Jesus could now set out for Jerusalem in the knowledge that at least that small group of close companions knew who they were in the presence of, and that God approved of the next step that He was taking.

So to answer my first question 'What was the point of this event?' it would seem that there might be two possible reasons. Strange as it might seem for the Son of God, he needed the approval of his heavenly Father for the actions that he was about to take. In order to do that he had to be close to his Father, and that was achieved through prayer. So often in the Gospels we find Jesus finding a quiet place where he could pray.

Secondly, the presence of Moses and Elijah to the disciples, coupled with Jesus' own facial appearance - be it a brightness, an aura, - who are we to say what the disciples saw - made those three men realise that they were in the presence of the Almighty. They 'saw his glory'. They heard God speaking to them through the cloud 'This is my Son, whom I have chosen; listen to him.' Words which echo those uttered at Jesus' baptism in the river Jordan, and in themselves confirm that the path that Jesus took then was the right one

There would of course be another moment to come when Jesus would appear on a mountaintop with two others. But these wouldn't be prophets of the Old Testament resplendent in the bright light of God's glory, this time it would be with the lowest of the low. Then Jesus would associate himself with common criminals as he hung on a cross. I can't help but feel that there might be significance in hinting at a link between those two events.

One the brightness and glory of God surrounding Jesus as he is given the assurance by his heavenly Father that this is the correct path to follow. Then his disciples given the assurance (if they needed it) that this Jesus who they have been so faithfully following and drawing close to was indeed the Son of God.

The other event that would take place on that first Easter is of course the assurance that we have 2000 years later that Jesus was who he claimed to be. Was the one a foreshadowing of the other?

Jesus in all his Glory followed by Jesus the sacrificial lamb. Jesus as one with his heavenly Father accepting all the responsibility that was his as Son of God, followed by Jesus as one with humanity accepting all the responsibility that was ours as sinners. Do you see how the two might be linked, perhaps not immediately in the minds of those who were there at the time, but now in hindsight?

So what else does this story tell us, perhaps about ourselves. Well, one of the most telling phrases that Luke uses is perhaps one that could be easily overlooked. Verse 32 says 'Peter and his companions were very sleepy, but when they became fully awake they saw his glory and the two men standing with him.'

This wasn't some fancy dream that the three men experienced, brought on by the exhaustion of climbing that hill after a busy day following Jesus around. When they saw Jesus standing there with Moses and Elijah they were fully awake.

How often do we go about our daily lives not literally asleep (although I've known exceptions) but with our minds asleep?

Asleep to what? Well, for instance asleep to what's going on in this world, refusing to question or address our fears or doubts about decisions that are made that might affect our lives. Refusing to question our own faith, to affirm in our minds just what we believe and make space to think through those areas in which we have serious problems. We're happy to use 'religious' language as a part of our worship; repentance, grace, sanctification, atonement, justification, sacrificial lamb, Messiah, Christ - if someone asked you to explain in layman's terms what these actually mean to you, could you? These concepts are fundamental to the Christian faith that I trust most of us accept, but if we cannot explain them even in simple terms to ourselves how can we share our faith with others?

'The unexamined life,' said Plato, 'is the life not worth living.'
We need to be awake to the doubts and questions that affect not only us but also those outside the walls of this building. We need to be continually thinking through our own beliefs, in order that we can be strengthened in our faith should it be brought to the point of testing.

There seems to be a sort of in-built defence mechanism in humans which brings down the shutters as soon as any disturbing thought knocks at the door. There is also a form of mental prejudice that does the same whenever any new idea or concept is suggested. There's the knock on the door, but we prefer to keep our eyes closed as if asleep.

The disciples would have seen nothing if they had kept their eyes closed, if they'd stayed asleep. They needed to be fully conscious to see and understand.

Life is full of things designed to wake us up. There is love. Robert Browning talks of two lovers looking into each other's eyes 'and suddenly life awoke.'

There is sorrow. The composer Elgar said of a young singer, who was technically perfect but lacking in feeling and expression, 'She will be great when something breaks her heart.'
And there is need. We can drift through life half asleep to everything around us, and then suddenly there comes a problem that we can't overcome, a question that can't be answered, a temptation that can't be overcome and we're left feeling helpless. It's at that moment that all we can do is offer up a cry from the heart. A sense of need awakens us to God.

We need to keep our minds awake. Awake to the possibilities that God might bring our way. Did the disciples really expect to see Moses and Elijah up on that mountain? I think not, they were merely supporting Jesus as he found somewhere quiet to pray. We need to be awake to the very real doubts that sometime come our way. There is nothing wrong with questioning our faith, with saying to ourselves or others 'I find it difficult to accept this…or that' What is wrong is pulling down the shutters and leaving ourselves unsure, because that insecurity will be tested and found wanting.

We need to be awake to the new thing that God wants to do in our lives, the new truths that he wants to reveal to us. God cannot be confined to the pages of your bible, He is alive and wanting to work in and through each one of us, in the same way that he was to use Peter, James and John. But if we keep our spiritual eyes closed then we might miss out.

Would Peter, James and John have been as effective in the early church if they had spent that time on the mountain-top asleep, if they hadn't glimpsed something of God's glory in that very real moment of spiritual awakening? We need to pray 'Lord, keep me always awake to you.'

The Byzantine Liturgy of the Feast of the Transfiguration includes this beautiful prayer:
You were transfigured on the mountain, and your disciples, as much as they were capable of it, beheld your glory, O Christ our God, so that when they should see you crucified they would understand that your Passion was voluntary, and proclaim to the world that you truly are the splendour of the Father.

John 1:10-18

Sermon preached by Penny Wheble, at St Martin's on 2nd January 2011

It’s like a door being opened. The darkness that John speaks of is suddenly illuminated by the one who is light. For those who welcome the open door, there is life in abundance. Yet what is overwhelmingly obvious to some is by no means clear to all. John will unfold a story in which such contrasting attitudes continue to co-exist. What he will demonstrate is stated right here: what Moses gave was good, but look, Jesus is even better.

John opens his book with the Prologue, or the beginning, so rather than start at verse 10, which began our reading today, I’ll take us back to the beginning.

Some bible commentators consider the prologue to be a poem, or at least rhythmical prose, and some suggest that verses 1-5, 10-12 and 14-18 may have been parts of one or several early Christian hymns. Others have thought that verses 14-18 were used as an early church confessional statement, to which John added his stamp of approval.

The first thirteen verses summarise the Word’s relationship to the world as its rejected Creator, Visitor, Light, and Saviour. Yet throughout the opening paragraph, John doesn’t identify the Word as being human, except in the personal pronouns.

‘On New Year’s Eve, the boss gave several of his employees the sack. We thought he was a real hard-hearted villain, but he said the firm would have gone bust if he hadn’t. His one saving grace was that he had spent the last few weeks secretly getting each of them a job offer from other firms nearby, to begin in the New Year.’

This story’s fiction, though tragedies like that do happen all too often. The phrase, ‘his one saving grace’ often refers to a redeeming feature, which helps us to see that an apparently wicked person isn’t all bad – a saving grace!

Grace is one of the key words in the Bible. It means mercy or forgiveness; although we don’t deserve it, God in his mercy graciously forgives us for all the sins we’ve ever committed, as soon as we repent. The hymn, Amazing Grace, talks of the generosity of God’s forgiveness, offered to every one of us, even the most wretched of sinners.

In verse 16 when John speaks of Jesus benefitting his people with one gracious blessing after another, he was affirming that he had never found Jesus lacking in any way. John’s description conveys a subtle invitation for us to trust Jesus ability to meet our needs. That we have all benefitted includes all the believers, not just John and the apostles. All believers receive Christ’s blessings, but nothing can deplete Christ – no matter how much the believers receive of him, he keeps on giving. The blessings given by Christ can never be exhausted.

Grace comes at no cost to ourselves; forgiveness can never be earned – we can never do anything to earn God’s forgiveness, - it’s just the fruit of God’s love.

Philip Yancey in his book ‘What’s so amazing about grace’ says “it’s on tap for every person who comes through these doors. One who has been touched by grace will no longer look on those who stray as "those evil people" or "those poor people who need our help." Nor must we search for signs of "love-worthiness." Grace teaches us that God loves because of who God is, not because of who we are.

Grace does not depend on what we have done for God but rather what God has done for us. Ask people what they must do to get to heaven and most reply, "Be good." Jesus' stories contradict that answer. All we must do is cry, "Help!"

Repentance, not proper behaviour or even holiness, is the doorway to grace. And the opposite of sin is grace, not virtue”.

Here’s an example:

A man dies and goes to heaven. Of course, St Peter meets him at the Pearly Gates.
St Peter says, ‘Here’s how it works. You need 100 points to make it into heaven. You tell me all the good things you’ve done, and I’ll give you a certain number of points for each item, depending on how good it was. When you reach 100 points, you get in.’
‘Ok’, the man says. ‘I was married to the same woman for fifty years and never cheated on her, even in my heart.’
‘That’s wonderful,’ says St Peter. ‘That’s worth three points!’
‘Three points?  he says.
‘Well, I attended church all my life and supported its ministry with my tithe and service.’
‘Terrific! says St Peter. ‘That’s certainly worth a point.’
‘One point? Golly. How about this: I started a soup kitchen in my city and worked in a shelter for homeless veterans.’
‘Fantastic that’s good for two more points.’
‘Two points?’ the man cries. ‘At this rate the only way I’ll get into heaven is by the grace of God!’
‘Come on in!’

St Paul said in his letters to churches made up of a mixture of Jews and Gentiles, that we are all equally undeserving. We’re justified, justified being ‘just as if I never sinned’ by grace, through faith, not by doing the works commanded by the law. All Christians tend to pay lip service to this doctrine, but have we really taken to heart what it means when it’s applied to us as an individual child of God. We gain spiritual strength through God’s gracious love. A Christian is often compared to a light bulb, which can’t shine on it’s own. The electrical power is there in the mains, but it can only make the light shine if the plug’s pushed in and switched on.. Similarly god’s power is always available to us; God’s only waiting for us to ask, and he’ll gladly give us the strength of will and spiritual determination to do good deeds for His sake. But- we must make the connection, we must pray regularly and passionately, and then God will give us spiritual strength, or grace, so that we can do anything, absolutely anything that God wants us to.
So what is grace? In a nutshell, at its heart grace is the loving relationship between a generous God and his trusting worshippers. It’s God’s undeserved love and the power it gives us.
And saving grace? It’s a very small step. God wants to save each of us from the fear of death and the guilt and power of sin. There’s nothing we have to do to earn this saving grace; God can give it to us of his own free will in the second that we ask for it. It’s given for people who up to now have lived a wicked and selfish life, the moment we repent.

Going back to the story I told you at the beginning of the employer who had one saving grace, I think most of us would forgive him because of the care for the employees he’d had to dismiss. How much more must God search for any redeeming feature in your or my selfish life – the saving grace which releases the spring and catapults us into the totally undeserved bliss of heaven!

John wrote: “The Word became flesh and lived among us, and we have seen his glory, the glory of a father’s only son, full of grace and truth . . . .
From his fullness, we have all received grace upon grace.’

Jesus the Son, who is himself God can communicate God’s glory to us. He is near to the Father’s heart, and has told us about God. Jesus is the one who explains about God. He came to earth and lived among us – to explain God to us with his words and by his person. No-one can know God apart from Christ, God’s explainer. Again, this mirrors verse one, where the Son is called the ‘Word’ – the expression of God, the communicator of God.

I’ll end by inviting you to read with me the words of a song we sing here at St Martin’s as a prayer. It’s I’m special - Number 325 in Mission Praise.

I’m special because God has loved me,
For he gave the best thing that he had to save me.
His own son Jesus, crucified to take the blame
For all the bad things I have done.
Thank you Jesus, thank you Lord,
For loving me so much;
I know I don’t deserve anything.
Help me feel your love right now,
To know deep in my heart
That I’m your special friend.

Follow Me Luke 9:22-25

If you ask people what they want from life, most people would I think say they want to be healthy, happy, enjoy good relationships, have happy healthy children, and have enough money to live comfortably, so they can afford to go on holiday, have a nice home, and so forth.

So Jesus’ invitation to deny one’s self, take up our cross and follow him, on face value does not sound particularly appealing!  I am sure if advertising executives were around in Jesus’ day, they would be saying to Jesus “If you want to attract punters, you need to ditch all this talk about denying yourself and taking up your cross, it gives your movement a bad image.”

Certainly Jesus’ call to deny one’s self is as counter cultural today as it has ever been.  Even trying to deny ourselves the little things that we enjoy, such as chocolate during Lent, can be a struggle for many of us! 

But it is only when we are truly prepared to stop living life for ourselves, and start living it for Jesus that we truly find life.  That is at the heart of what I think Jesus is calling us to do here in this passage.  His call is to stop living life our way, and living it his way, following Jesus by imitating his life and obeying his commands. 

Going back to what people want from life, I suspect what most people want is an easy life – myself included.  The trouble is I think we’ve sometimes wanted the Christian faith to be easy as well, so that being a Christian does put too many demands on us.  The German Theologian Dietrich Bonhoeffer called this cheap grace.  “Cheap grace  is the preaching of forgiveness without requiring repentance, baptism without church discipline.  Communion  without confession. Cheap grace is grace without discipleship, grace without the cross, grace without Jesus Christ." 

But we are actually called to costly grace, "costly grace confronts us as a gracious call to follow Jesus, it comes as a word of forgiveness to the broken spirit and the contrite heart. It is costly because it compels a man to submit to the yoke of Christ and follow him; it is grace because Jesus says: "My yoke is easy and my burden is light."

Bonhoeffer himself knew the true cost of what it means to follow Christ, as he was imprisoned and later executed for his opposition to Hitler’s regime.

As we enter into this season of Lent it is an opportunity for us think again about what it means to be a follower of Jesus Christ.  To think about Jesus’ radical call to discipleship.  Not everyone who heard Jesus preach, chose to follow him, many turned away sad and disappointed because they weren’t prepared to deny themselves, take up their cross and follow him.  The Christian life can be tough and challenging, but it is only when we live for Jesus that we discover life as it is meant to be lived, because ultimately it is only Jesus who can meet are deepest needs.