Saturday, 25 August 2018

Getting Real!

The Summer weeks gave Gabrielle and I the opportunity to attend the theatre for the first time in many years and we were struck by what we have been missing.   There is something about a ‘live’ performance, more immediate, more engaging, more personal than anything we see on a screen.  And I say that as a lifelong movie fan! 

Watching the actors living their parts, giving everything to their performance, I was reminded of the bishop who was deeply moved by an actor’s performance.  In meeting him afterwards the bishop asked him why actors seem to have no difficulty making an impression on their audiences while preachers frequently leave them cold.   The actor replied:  ‘Actors speak of things imaginary as if they were real, you preachers too often speak of things real as if they were imaginary.’ 

Ouch!  Everyone who is called to preach God’s Word should take note.  But really this is a challenge to every Christian.  In the way we live our faith, in the way we share our faith does the world experience this as ‘real’?   Are the truths rooted in our lives bearing fruit, shaping our attitudes, clarifying our priorities, enabling us to be the light of the world as Jesus longs for us?  

None of us can be entirely comfortable in the face of this challenge but there is a way forward pioneered by the Apostle Paul.   He was deeply aware that as a Christian he was not the finished article but he held fast to the belief that in the course of his life no matter the circumstances he could grow closer to Jesus and live his life more fully in his ways.   He once wrote:

‘I want to know Christ and the power of his resurrection and the fellowship of sharing in his sufferings, becoming like him in his death, and so, somehow, to attain to the resurrection from the dead.’  (Philippians 3: 10-11)


Paul is not just speaking to an early Christian community.  He sets this aspiration before every Christian community in every generation.  This is the way for us all to ‘get real’ about our faith.   

Friday, 19 January 2018

Our Brightest Hour.

I wonder how many actors have played Winston Churchill on television or in movies?  Those that spring to mind are a galaxy of talent: Michael Gambon, Timothy Spall, Brendan Gleeson, Albert Finney, Robert Hardy, Timothy West.   Now add to those Gary Oldman, confidently tipped for an Oscar for his performance in ‘Darkest Hour’.  

In order to take on a physical resemblance to the great man Oldman wore a ‘fat-suit’ and endured three hours of prosthetic make-up every day.  The voice might not be such a big deal.  I remember my father doing a passable imitation.  Nevertheless, the end product is impressive and worthy of the publicity slogan: ‘Gary Oldman is Winston Churchill.’ 

The Apostle Paul often speaks of the Christian believer undergoing a transformation.  God is seeking to make us more like Jesus.  In Romans 8: 29 he speaks of Jesus as the elder brother in the Christian family and His followers are destined to be ‘conformed’ to His likeness.   Of course, this is not a physical likeness or something that can be worked up or acted out.  God is seeking to bring out from our own unique character the character of Jesus.  It is an inner transformation.   Paul says in Romans 12: 2: ‘Do not conform any longer to the pattern of this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind.’   

Paul sees this as the Holy Spirit making an impact on the mind of a man or a woman through the Gospel.  He or she is convinced that Jesus is the Son of God and that His life is the pattern for all Christian living.   The Spirit seeks to confirm the believer in that faith and to bring out all the qualities of Christ-likeness.  What are these qualities?  Paul speaks of them as ‘the   fruit of the Spirit’: Love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control.  (Galatians 5: 22)  To live by the Spirit is to commit our lives to all these qualities.  Paul speaks of keeping in step with the Spirit.  He sets the pace and we seek to keep up.  But in a way no coach or Personal Trainer can do the Spirit gives us His strength to keep up. 


In the end God does not want an impersonation of His Son but a genuine growth of those qualities that reflect His very nature.  No Oscars are handed out for this.  The glory belongs to God for doing in us what we could never do for ourselves and giving us our brightest hour.    

Thursday, 16 November 2017

Salvator Mundi

I have just heard of the sale of a Leonardo Da Vinci painting in New York.  It cost £351,000,000.  No one knows who the buyer is but I doubt if he will have it hanging in his front room.  Best to put it in a bank vault somewhere to be brought out only on special occasions. 

The painting depicts the face of Christ and is called ‘Salvator Mundi’ or ‘Saviour of the World’.  This is not the first time it has been sold.  In 1958 it was sold at auction in London for just £45.  At that time it was thought that a follower of Leonardo who could work in his master’s style was the painter.   The point is no one knew the painting’s true value. 

The Bible tells us of a moment in time when the Son of God was born and few people appreciated His true value.  The Apostle John writes:

‘He was in the world, and though the world was made through him, the world did not recognise him.  He came to that which was his own, but his own did not receive him.’ 

This is amazing to us.   The perfect life did not impress.  His words bounced off hard hearts.  Even His miracles did not convince.  Someone once said, ‘God walked the streets of Jerusalem.  He was hung on a cross and then people went back to work.’  We are a strange lot we humans.  The One we needed most was treated worst. 

Christmas reminds us that this rejection started right at the beginning.  A crowded town with nowhere to be born, a paranoid king seeking His destruction, a time of exile away from the people whose Scriptures pointed to His coming.    Few knew his value and that continues today.  The door is shut.  The powerful follow their own ‘truths’.   Even the hearts of the faithful can grow cold. 

If Christmas has any value it is an opportunity to warm our hearts in the glow of the story.  Not the Christmas card cosiness but the blaze of God’s fullest revelation of Himself in a human life.  Beginning as a single cell in the womb of a young woman, growing ‘in wisdom and in stature’, becoming a man who would die upon a cross and rise again to show that God still had business with this world.   His purpose continues to renew the lives of men and women making us fit for the wonder of His New Creation. 


By the way, not every expert accepts that the £351,000,000 painting is a true Leonardo.  That’s what happens when you are a ‘Saviour of the World.’   Not everyone responds wholeheartedly.  But Christmas is a reminder of how far God is willing to go to convince us of His love.   He believes we are worth saving.  Now that is something to celebrate. 

Monday, 10 April 2017

Threat Level High!

It is always a great thrill to visit one of the great cities of the world and to immerse yourself in its life even for a short time.  Sadly the shadow of terrorism has fallen over many.  Paris, London, Moscow and now Stockholm have all suffered and the ‘threat level’, the possibility of further terrorist action remains high.  The police and other security agencies are preparing for the worst. 

It may seem a big leap of imagination to make a connection between these modern cities and the ancient city of Jerusalem in the first century.  But there was one particular time of the year when the Roman invaders prepared for the worst.  This was in the season of Passover when the people of Israel celebrated their liberation from slavery in Egypt under their great leader Moses. By some estimates the population of Jerusalem quadrupled as Jews from all over the Ancient Near East gathered in their holy city for this special season.  It was a time when resentment against the Romans was at its highest and nationalistic feelings ran high.  

Add to this the appearance of a preacher from Nazareth who some people were claiming was the Messiah, the promised King of Israel, who would lead his people from oppression and establish them as the supreme power in the world.   His entry into the city was greeted by cheering and the waving of palm branches.  For the Romans the ‘threat level’ went up a notch or two. 

But then a strange thing happened.  This preacher made no denunciations against the Romans.  If there was any finger-pointing on that day or on following days it was towards his own people.  He wept over Jerusalem and called it ‘the city that killed the prophets’.  He entered the Temple, the nerve centre of Jewish spirituality, and called it ‘a den of robbers’.  He delivered teaching whose emphasis was the judgement that was soon to fall on Israel for her unfaithfulness and the need for repentance.   The message was clear.  Israel’s need was not political but spiritual.  Kick the Romans out of Israel and the nation still had a problem.  She had grown distant from God and needed to return. 


Five days after Jesus’ entry into Jerusalem he died on a cross.  The expectations of his people that he would be their political liberator had not been met.  But Jesus’ followers came to understand that this death made it possible for a deeper liberation to take place.   Jesus himself had said that he would give his life as ‘a ransom for many’.   He would pay the price for the world’s sin and make forgiveness and renewal possible for the whole of humankind.    It is this spiritual revolution, happening in the hearts of men and women, that will lower the ‘threat level’ in our world and bring in the Kingdom of Jesus where compassion, justice and peace rule over all. 

Friday, 31 March 2017

Where Is The Strength?

I was in a library recently and there was a notice at the reception desk that said: ‘Just In!  Arnold Schwarzenegger’s Body Building Bible.’  Now I don’t know that book.  I don’t know what kind of advice Big Arnie would l give you if you want a body like his.    But someone once told me that if you are interested in that kind of thing it doesn’t matter how hard you work in a gym it’s what you do outside the gym that really counts.  By that he meant you have to be careful what you eat and what you drink and make sure you get all the sleep you need.  It’s not just about pumping iron you have to be disciplined out there in the world and that can be a challenge.  

That’s something we could apply to the whole of our lives.  There are times when we are doing the things we enjoy and we feel that life is really worth living.  There are times when we are with family and friends and we feel that we are loved and appreciated.  But the real test is when we move out of our comfort zone and have to do things we don’t want to do, have to deal with people who rub us up the wrong way, face circumstances that are demanding too much from us.  How do we cope with that?

In a couple of weeks time Christians all over the world will be celebrating Easter and at the heart of that is the belief that on the third day after Jesus was tortured to death He rose again and for a long period of time he appeared to his followers and talked to them and even shared meals with them.   These must have been extraordinary experiences and you can imagine that the followers would want them to go on forever.  But Jesus told them that there would come a time when these appearances and their fellowship together would come to an end.  They would have to break out of the warm bubble that they had been living in.  They would have to go out into the world and tell His story and share His love with people in need.  In effect he was telling them that they had to take on everything that was bad in the world and overcome it.  

I’m always challenged whenever I think about that.  I still love reading books about Jesus.  I love to discuss his teaching with other Christians.  I love to lead worship and to preach.  All these things make me feel strong within myself but it’s not much good if I go into the world and live a careless life.  Being strong in my Christian bubble is not enough.  I have to take the teaching I have gathered and put it into practise.  

Now that is not easy and I know that too often I’ve failed and maybe sometimes even felt that I was losing heart.  But the great thing about the Christian message is the assurance that  you can always start again.  One of the first followers of Jesus was a man called Paul.  In a letter he wrote to a friend he describes a traumatic experience he had to go through that demanded a lot from him.  ‘But the Lord stood at my side and gave me strength.‘  Now Jesus had long ago departed the scene but His Spirit was close to Paul in his time of trouble and that gave him the strength that was needed to go on.  


That’s what Easter means to me.  It’s knowing that whatever challenges I face the Spirit of Jesus is close and in His strength I can always go forward in hope.  If you find yourself caught up in His great movement to transform the world that will be your experience too.   

Monday, 13 March 2017

Thanksgiving

Heavenly Father,

We are conscious of so many things that make us strong:
The hills and lochs and everything that lives and breathes;
The bonds of love within our families and amongst our friends;
The gifts we see in others that show the goodness in living;
The daily access we have to food and clean water and shelter.

But we are most grateful for your Word:
Sustaining us in our most challenging days;
Inspiring us to reach for the best in life;
Revealing Jesus to us and bringing the assurance of forgiveness and renewal.

Let that Word feed our souls today and take us forward in a spirit of hope.


Amen.

Thursday, 23 February 2017

My Times.

I suppose like many of you I am finding it hard to believe that we are now in the month of March.  Where did these last few months go?   When I was in primary school we had a history book called ‘The March of Time’ and many of us might feel that the pace does not get any easier.  Mind you, people have warned me over the years that time passes quicker the older you get!  Perhaps, but what matters is how you cope with it.  Some might say you have to cram as much into every day, make the most of what time we have.  Others might point to the importance of having the best of relationships with everyone  we encounter.  You never know when there will be no more time to set right what was wrong.  And still there is that powerful impulse, as old as humankind, to drain as much pleasure out of life while we can, what the prophet  saw as the attitude that says: ‘Let us eat and drink for tomorrow we die!’  (Isaiah 22: 13) 

All of this puts pressure upon us and creates an unhealthy drivenness that turns us more and more into ourselves.  But when we look at the spirituality of the ancient people of the Bible there is a great aspiration to live with a constant consciousness of God and to trust in his good purpose for our lives, even when it seems that time is running out for us.  We find this in the Psalms.  Have a look at Psalm 46.  All around the writer there are changes that are challenging, even frightening, but the voice of God is clearly heard to say: ‘Be still, and know that I am God.  Or Psalm 31.  This seems to be a time when there are many pressures acting on David’s life and he fears that he does not possess the resources to cope but he breaks through to the place where he can say: ‘But I trust in you, O Lord; I say, “You are my God.” My times are in your hands.’ (Psalm 31: 14-15)

That was the assurance that was strong in the soul of the Apostle Paul.  When it seemed that he was the victim of forces beyond his control he was able to say: ‘I have learned to be content whatever the circumstances . . . whether well fed or hungry, whether living in plenty or in want.  I  can do everything through him who gives me strength.‘  (Philippians 4: 11-13)  


This is something we all need to learn in face of all the challenges of life, not least the feeling that time is running away with us.  We live in the presence of a loving God, who has a good purpose for us.  We might not always see this clearly but we are assured that what has seemed dark to us in this life will be made clear when the Kingdom comes.  Then we will be able to say: ‘My times were in your hands.‘