Archive for February, 2010

Nepal Talk – Saturday 27th February

Sunday, February 28th, 2010

 

There was a good turn out on Saturday to hear John Bradley give a talk about his recent month long trip to Nepal.  It was a fascinating account accompanied by some stunning images, and we all left with a very strong sense of what it must have been like to be there.

Thanks for a great evening, John!

A.G.M. – Thursday 25th February

Friday, February 26th, 2010

Finally something went ahead without being thwarted by the weather as the church held its Annual General Meeting last night.  We all hope that John Bradley’s talk on Nepal this saturday will also be unaffected.

Mid-Week Service – Wednesday Feburary 24th (1st Week of Lent)

Wednesday, February 24th, 2010

It’s a shame that today’s service couldn’t go ahead. Here’s a summary of the content.

Call to worship: Psalm 91: 1-2

You who live in the shelter of the Most High, who abide in the shadow of the Almighty, will say to the Lord, “My refuge and my fortress; my God, in whom I trust.”

Prayers

Almighty, loving Father.

You are Almighty, but you come to us in weakness

You are majesty, yet you walk alongside us in humility

Into your Holy being you take our weakness, our temptation, and our need.  In Jesus it is shared and transformed.We praise you for this gift, that you have willed to experience our hunger, our powerlessness and even our lack of faith.

But you are no tourist, dipping your toe in to our existence and then retreating to celestial ease. You have poured your Spirit onto your people and into our world, so that just as you share the pain and suffering of being human so we might share something of your divine and perfect life.

But this is not something that we have earned or achieved. There are many temptations that we give into, many ways in which we are led away from your purpose. So often we serve ourselves and our thoughts of you are distant  or dishonest.

Yet all that we have to do to receive this gift is to understand that it is a gift: that it comes not from our efforts but from your unconditional and perfect love for us.  And so we declare the forgiveness that is ours, but can can come to us only from you.

Guide us now in your presence, that our worship might be acceptable to you, that we may discover your Word within the words of scripture and feel that sense of connection with each other and you in Christ.  Pour out your Holy Spirit upon us as we say the words that Jesus taught us.

Our Father…

 

Message

Sometimes you have to look at the beginning of a story based on what you’ve learned at the end, and this is such a case. We know that Jesus’ mission is that despite being the centre of all power, majesty and authority, he should experience powerlessness, humiliation, physical suffering and even abandonment by God at the point of death.  This is the way in which redemption, (new life) – will be made available to us, and Jesus knows this from the very beginning.

Presumably the devil knows this too (according to the story) and this is why he tries to tempt Jesus to abandon the suffering and powerlessness that he has opted for. The devil knows the effect that the Son of God suffering like an ordinary human being will have – and so he does what he can to prevent us gaining the new life that comes from the fact that God became a human being and suffered like a human being.

There’s an old theological saying that goes “What has not been assumed has not been redeemed”.  Basically this means that Jesus assumes humanity so that humanity can be redeemed. And he assumes humanity in all its dimensions so that every aspect our lives can be transformed.  The extent to which Jesus is prepared to suffer like us decides the extent to which our own suffering can be transformed – so no wonder the devil wants him to take the easy way out.

And for the millions of people around the world living in hunger today it’s perhaps not such a philosophical point. It may be of real significance that the God that they praise (and make no mistake, faith is real and profound in such places) has shared their hunger – not as a tourist but as a saviour.

For it is in Jesus’ suffering that he accomplishes the end of human suffering, and in his experience of physical hunger that he banishes hunger from the Kingdom of God. (The story of the miracle of the loaves and fishes indicates that God’s kingdom is a place of abundance in which no one goes hungry – that all who are hungry will be filled one day.)  

Imagine Jesus taking the devil’s advice. Suppose he magics  up some bread out of a stone – this would signal the cancelling of God’s plan to share and transform our physical suffeirng. And God could do this – He has no need of us.

Suppose Jesus takes his suggestion that he should demonstrate his Godly power by summoning Angels. This paints the picture of a Jesus that comes down from the cross and ‘saves himself’ in the way that the taunting soldiers say he should. This would be the end of faith – for what meaning would it have if the world worshipped and obeyed a God that presents clear and dazzling proofs of its might? We would be a people brought to God by fear not love.

God has no need to rescue us, in fact He has no need even to create us, but he does so out of love. And he does so in weakness and humility, and in Luke 4 we see Jesus’ determination that this plan should be carried out against all other available options.

And if weakness, humility and physical deprivation are an essential part of God’s love for us and his life in Jesus then we should not be so frightened to experience these things ourselves.

Finally, the point is often made that Jesus uses the scriptures to refute the devil – that’s what happens in the passage in Luke when Jesus is being tempted in the wilderness. What’s less often noted is that the devil is himself using scripture to tempt Jesus, and I’m going to remember this the next time someone says to me “but it says in the bible…”.

The Devil quotes from Psalm 91  – suggesting that Jesus throws himself off the top of the temple,  relying on the protection described  in the Psalm in the words “He will command his angels concerning you, to protect you, On their hands they will bear you up, so that you will not dash your foot against a stone.”

Jesus retorts by quoting from the book of Deuternonomy. “Do not put the Lord your God to the test.”

Are we to conclude that the Psalms (which are used by the devil) are much less trustworthy than Deuternonomy (which is used by Jesus)? By no means! Along with Isaiah the Psalms are the portion of scripture that Jesus refers to more than any other throughout the Gospels.

But we should remember that simply quoting one piece of scripture is no way to settle an argument, and if Jesus’ approach to scripture weighs up different ideas expressed in different Old Testament books and verses then why should ours be any different?  Jesus upholds and reveres the scriptures but he’s no fundamentalist. The gospel message is perceived in scripture only with an intelligent, critical and Jesus centred reading of it.

Let us pray:

Loving God, we thank you that you have chosen to share our humanity,  and so to bring us new life. We praise you for the way in which you choose weakness and hunger for yourself that we might be filled with your power, and the promise of eternal life.

In this time of Lent help us to experience our own weakness in a new light – in your light. Help us to see your purpose in our own difficulties, and to see the face of Jesus in those suffering around us. Refresh and revive us in our daily lives.

May our lust for power be challenged by your weakness, so that we might in our weakness embrace your power. Change us into your people, fit for that glorious future with you in the new life that you have promised us.

In Jesus’ name

Amen

Frank

Mid-week Service Cancelled

Tuesday, February 23rd, 2010

Tomorrow’s service, which was due to take place at 11am, has been cancelled. The decision was taken in view of the heavy snow that is predicted overnight and  all church folk should have received a phone call to this effect by now.  A summary of the service content will be uploaded tomorrow.

Bible Study – Monday 22nd February (1st week of Lent)

Monday, February 22nd, 2010

Sadly tonight’s bible study was cancelled because of the weather. The snow isn’t so bad in many parts of Sheffield but in S10 it’s still a bit treacherous so better safe than sorry!

The verses we were going to look at were Deuteronomy 26:1-11 and Romans 10:8b-13.  (From this Sunday’s lectionary).  There are always interesting discussions and I was looking forward to hearing the ideas and opinions of those attending. 

I was going to make the following observations abouit Deuteronomy 26:1-13

This passage is about the offerings that the Israelites (in the time of Moses) were expected to give to God – the first fruits of the harvest.  These offerings reminded them (and us) that everything that humans have comes from God, and it also served the practical purpose of supporting the priests.

Nowadays when we think about what God has done for us we tend to put it in terms of the pleasures and opportunities of daily life. But in this passage the Israelites are reminded of God’s mighty and dramatic interventions in their history – liberating them from captivity and giving them a ‘land flowing with milk and honey’. 

So our giving to God, whether in the form of service or donations to the church or charity, is not just in response to the good things that we enjoy in our own lifetime. It’s also a  response to God’s mighty and miraculous saving action both in the past and in the future – bringing justice and freedom to the downtrodden in this life, and glorious peace to the redeemed in the life to come.

Very many of the things that happen in the Old Testament are metaphors for the things that we have yet to experience. For example the ark and the flood becomes a metaphor for church and the world, and ultimately for the Kingdom of Heaven.  The fall of the human race in the person of Adam becomes a pattern in which to see the redemption of the human race in Christ - once again the Old Testament story is a symbolic acting out of things with a deeper meaning, that are waiting to be revealed in Jesus.

Similarly the exodus from Egypt is a symbol of a greater liberating purpose that God is bringing to bear on the world, and will find its ultimate expression in the Kingdom of Heaven.

And the phrase ‘First Fruits’ which we encounter here, finds a wider and deeper meaning in the New Testament when Jesus is referred to as ‘the first fruits of the harvest’  (Romans 11:16 and 1 Corinthians 15:20) a phrase that is applicable to him both as offering to God in his  crucifixion, and offering to humanity in the resurrection.

The human race may not have seen him until 4BC but he always meant to be. That’s why Jesus’ humanity can be described as the very first thing in creation – the first fruit.  The world and everything in it was created for and through him -  and so when he is offered to God on the cross he is there as an offering of ‘the first fruit’.

In the new life to come he is once again the first fruit of the harvest in that he is the first person to undergo the transformation that we hope will be realised in all of us.

It’s good during Lent to remind ourselves of our obligations to God, to give back something of what we have received. It’s good too, in our giving, to think about God’s mighty acts throughout time as well as the day to day gifts we have received. And it’s good when we read about ‘the first fruits’ to be conscious that this is a phrase that finds its truest and deepest meaning in Jesus – the first fruit of God’s harvest.

Hopefully the weather will improve enough for Wednesday’s service which will be at 11am and will feature Luke 4: 1-13 – all to do with Jesus’ being tempted in the wilderness and Psalm 91:1-2, 9-16 as well as the scripture he uses to refute the devil.

Frank

Sunday Worship: 21st February (1st week in Lent)

Sunday, February 21st, 2010

Unfortunately today’s service, which was due be led by Lesley Davison, was cancelled due to heavy snow.

Ash Wednesday

Thursday, February 18th, 2010

A handful of us gathered at church last night to start Lent with an Ash Wednesday service. It’s tradition in many churches for the pastor to make a small cross out on the forehead of worshippers out of ash, while saying the words that God says to Adam in Genesis  ’Remember you are dust and to dust you will return.’  It’s a severe message in that it’s meant to concentrate our minds on the reality of physical death – but seen within the context of the whole Easter message it’s a joyful pronouncement too.

Traditionally the ash comes from burning the palm crosses from the previous year’s Palm Sunday service but last night we did things a bit differently. We wrote on small scraps of paper those things that are holding us back and we want to be set free from – perhaps bad habits, sad memories or personal weaknesses – and burned them in a pot on the steps of the church early on in the service. We then used the ash from these private notes from us to God, to make the sign of the cross  on each of us in front of the communion table  as we contemplated our own mortality.

It was a short service and I, for one, found it a moving experience. Death casts a murky shadow over our lives all the time that we try to shut it out – but when we manage to look at it squarely something wonderful usually happens, along with all the sad emotions this brings up in us there’s a release into joy. We often observe this in people who know they don’t have long to live – a focus, a lightness and a delight in life that we’d all love to share. Last night’s service was intended to help us to be a little bit more like that.

The readings, which were taken from the Revised Common Lectionary (which is slightly unusual for us as a Congregational church!) were Joel 2: 1-2 (for our call to worship) then Joel 2:12-17 and Matthew 6: 1-6 and 16-21.

The reading from Joel is all about the return to God of a contrite people, hoping once again to be in God’s favour.  From our Christ centred perspective the Old Testament idea of ‘returning to God’ can seem a bit crude in that it is focused on the immediate, practical results of being in God’s good books. In Joel’s message the prize of walking with God is that there will be military success, peace, security health and prosperity. These things are not to be sniffed at but as Christians we should believe that the ‘return to God’ has a much wider and deeper meaning than how we fare materially in the coming months.  Ultimately Jesus shows us that the return to God is for individuals  about our final resting place in God’s presence, and collectively about the triumph of the Kingdom of Heaven.  Reading Joel from this perspective we can see that this deepr spiritual, cosmic idea of the ‘return to God’ is present alongside the more day to day message, but it’s there in a slightly obscure, enigmatic way. It’s one of those scriptures that Jesus unlocks for us, showing us a deeper level on which to understand it.

So this Lent we are mixing the practical and the day to day – such as losing weight, cutting down on alcohol, taking up exercise – with the spiritual.  There’s a kind of death that we embrace – because the new life in Christ can’t come to us any other way.

The reading from Matthew is a timely reminder that our Lent journey is private and intimate between us and God. In mixing the ashes of our private messages we acknowledge that we are drawing support from each other by all going through this as one – the body of Christ – but we all struggle in our own individual way, and ultimately this can only be dealt with in a one to one between us and God.

It also prompts us to be cheerful during this time and quite rightly so. If we’ve given up certain ‘pleasures’ at this time then it’s a wonderful opportunity to discover all the other pleasures we’ve been denying ourselves. There are lots of ways to relax but we tend to get into a rut in how we do this – for example always needing a glass of booze in our hand at the end of a long day. Giving this up for the next 46 days forces us to start taking pleasure elsewhere – drinking fine speciality teas, listening to radio plays, going swimming, reading a book, watching a DVD, taking up yoga…. I could go on (and often do!) There are a million ways to unwind, how exciting to spend the next few weeks exploring them!

Frank