Archive for March, 2010

Mid-Week Service – Wednesday 17th March (Fourth Week in Lent)

Thursday, March 18th, 2010

Call to worship: Psalm 32:6-7

6Therefore let all who are faithful
   offer prayer to you;
at a time of distress,* the rush of mighty waters
   shall not reach them.
7You are a hiding-place for me;
   you preserve me from trouble;
   you surround me with glad cries of deliverance.

Hymn – 3  – Abba Father

Prayer of Adoration
Holy Father, Mighty Redeemer, you have made an incredible universe, a wonderful creation, full of beauty, wonder and opportunity.
Each breath that we take is by your design and at your pleasure
You are all sufficient, needing nothing from us, but it is right that we should praise you
You are our all-powerful, all seeing, all knowing, God
You are our beginning and our ending
Our hope and our refuge
The source of all life and the measure of all speech
Wonderful Counselor, Mighty Redeemer
We glorify your name and we praise your acts of creation and of redemption

Prayer of Confession
But as we contemplate your might and your majesty, your perfect and saving love, we realise that we have not been worthy of the faith you have called us to
We have missed opportunities to serve you,
We have avoided responsibilities and duties that you have called us to
We have ignored voices calling to us for help and for mercy.
Forgive us, Father for the times that we have been distant from our brothers and sisters
For the times when we have been irritable and obstinate, indifferent and evasive in a world full of events in which we are called to act, to take sides and to be passionate for your Word
 

Declaration of forgiveness
And yet no amount of failure on our part is too much for the oceans of grace in which you have submerged us
Your forgiveness is vast and without limit
It is mighty and efficient, overpowering our weakness, outstripping our selfishness and overwhelming the sin that is in us and that has come from us
In the death and resurrection of your Son
And in the pentecost of your Spirit
You have forgiven our sins
And we praise you, and thank you, and pledge ourselves to you
For this wonderful mercy and grace that you cause us to possess

Petition for the Worship
We come before you now to seek out your word within the words of scripture
And to ask that your Spirit be with us, to guide and inspire, to challenge and chastise us
Be with us, Lord, in this time of worship.
Unite our hearts with each others’
Help us to examine our lives
Open our hearts and our minds
Be with us now as we seek to be the church that you have called into being
A faithful community of believers existing in, and for, your Word
We ask this of you in Jesus’ name as we say the words Jesus taught us…
Our father

 Old Testament ReadingJoshua 5: 9-12

Hymn 515 O love that wilt not let me go

New Testament Reading: 2 Corinthians 5: 16-21

Both of today’s readings were from the New Living Translation – follow the above links to read them in the NLT.

Message

I focused on the first two verses of this reading and considered the following different translations:

Good news: “No longer, then do we judge anyone by human standards”

NRSV: “From now on, therefore, we regard no one from a human point of view; even though we once knew Christ from a human point of view,* we know him no longer in that way”


NIV: So from now on we regard no one from a worldly point of view.”

New Living Translation: “16 So we have stopped evaluating others from a human point of view. At one time we thought of Christ merely from a human point of view. How differently we know him now! 17 This means that anyone who belongs to Christ has become a new person. The old life is gone; a new life has begun!”

KJV: “16Wherefore henceforth know we no man after the flesh: yea, though we have known Christ after the flesh, yet now henceforth know we him no more.”

The King James Version is the most correct, in that the most literal translation of what the Greek text says, talking about viewing ourselves ‘according to the flesh’ or ‘after the flesh’ or ‘in the flesh’. But this phrase doesn’t really mean that much to us today so the modern translations are helpful.

What they tell us is that when the New Testament authors talked about the ‘flesh’ in this context they were talking about the human viewpoint and the human standard, as opposed to the heavenly viewpoint and the heavenly standard.

When Christians talk about their ‘sinfulness’ this seems harsh and certainly out of step with modern human standards and perspectives. It doesn’t always go down well to suggest that the lost son in the parable of the Lost Son may represent all human beings, not just those that appear ‘lost’ to us,

But that’s because we are viewing ourselves (and Jesus) from a human, creaturely perspective. If we view ourselves from a purely human standard we may well conclude that we are pretty agreeable people, certainly better behaved than a good deal of people. Morally or ethically we tend to judge ourselves by comparing ourselves with what we know other humans to be like – but Paul is telling us in this verse that we should no longer be doing this.

And we should no longer be viewing Jesus in this way either. Sadly many people in the churches talk about Jesus, and pray to Jesus in such a way that they too seem to be viewing him from a human perspective.  When it is said that Jesus ‘would have thought that…’ or  ‘must have realised that…’  this doesn’t sound like we are talking about the Son of God. When people refer to the religious and cultural practices that Jesus grew up with, and so explain what his understanding of a certain situation would have been according to this upbringing – then they are limiting Jesus to his humanity and ignoring his divinity.

Lets be clear. In Jesus there was full humanity and full divinity. He wasn’t just a man with spiritual gifts and insights. He had much more than a close relationship with God – he had the perfect relationship with God because he was God at the same time as being a distinct human being.  This is impossible to explain but not impossible to believe and to understand.

And Jesus is the proto-type for humans, the first fruits of the harvest.  And in him we see the perfect human with the perfect relationship to God – perfect obedience, perfect service, perfect union. And this is the divine standard against which we should judge our moral actions. And this is the divine perspective from which we should see ourselves and others.

By this standard we are clearly all sinners.  Christianity does not exist to teach you how to gain the respect and admiration of your fellow human beings, it teaches you how to mend your relationship with God. And the first step towards doing this is an awareness that according to divine standards, and according to the divine perspective,  we are very far from Holy.

So what? The point is that we are aiming for the approval of God not of other humans – that’s why the bar is set so incredibly high for us in Jesus. And we can’t get God’s approval by our moral or spiritual behaviour except by accepting just how far we are from Jesus’ perfect example and then throwing ourselves on God’s mercy.

The bar is set so high when we look at what is asked of us from a human perspective. But humanity does not expect to live beyond the grave, and the approval of other humans by being relatively good carries no other reward. We are talking about access to eternal life here, so we shouldn’t be too surprised if the entry requirements are pretty demanding.

Especially when we consider that God knows full well that we can’t meet these standards, and so arranges for us to enter his kingdom in spite of our sin, and according to his mercy.

But we can’t experience mercy without first experiencing some sense of judgment. We can’t be made fit for God’s mercy if we don’t see that we are in need of it. That’s why we must no longer view ourselves according to the flesh, or rather according to human standards or perspectives. 

And the judgment that we are sinners is not so harsh when we consider that we are being judged by a heavenly standard – according to the example of Jesus Christ.  And the judgment that we are sinners becomes even less of a problem when we realise that we are forgiven sinners, and in that forgiveness we can gain access to God’s kingdom just as though we were perfect.

 Prayer of Intercession
Loving God
Give us a heavenly viewpoint, a vision that sees the world in the light of your truth
Give us a perspective on life that is not limited by our weakness and our frailty
Let us see all according to your purpose, to your promise, to your word and by your spirit
For we would inherit that divine nature that was in Christ
We would be transformed as Christ was
And we would be raised from the dead, into your presence as Christ was
Make us see Jesus truly as Christ, in our speech and our thought make us mindful of his divinity, of his majesty and his might
For you are in him and he is in you, may be in us too, drawing us nearer into your eternal essence
And help us to see ourselves as we are in relationship to him
Help us to understand just how wide and deep is the distance between us and you, our creator.
Prevent us from judging our own goodness or achievements by human standards
May we look always to the perfect example that is in Jesus
Stop us  from pursuing only that human righteousness, that human goodness that is temporary, and is extinguished
Urge us, lead us, change us, so that we look to that righteousness, that goodness, that is divine, that comes from you and can be ours by faith
May we seek always your mercy, may we understand always why we need your mercy, may our hearts be broken yet mended, heavy yet light in that beautiful encounter between sinners and their redeemer,
Father we ask for your tender mercy knowing that it leads to joy, freedom, and love for all humanity.
At this very moment, and as we leave this place of worship, and throughout the coming week
May we feel in our hearts your righteousness, your truth
May we know that we have become your children and a new imperishable and unstoppable life has become ours
Give us that new life By the power of your holy Spirit
And in Jesus’ name, Amen

Hymn – 551– Out of my bondage

Blessing/Dismissal – 1 Peter 1:13-16

Therefore prepare your minds for action;  discipline yourselves; set all your hope on the grace that Jesus Christ will bring you when he is revealed. 14Like obedient children, do not be conformed to the desires that you formerly had in ignorance. 15Instead, as he who called you is holy, be holy yourselves in all your conduct; 16for it is written, ‘You shall be holy, for I am holy.’

We closed by saying the Grace together.

Bible Study – Monday 15th March (Fourth week in Lent)

Wednesday, March 17th, 2010

Tonight’s Bible Study looked briefly at Psalm 32 before focusing on the Parable of the Lost Son in Luke 15: 11b -32, as well as Luke 15: 1-3.

The three verses at the beginning of chapter fifteen are important because they remind us of the context in which the Parable is told. The Son in the story could well be intended to represent the ‘tax collectors and sinners’ referred to, and the older brother who is so angry and judgmental at the mercy being shown to his sibling has much in common with the pharisees who criticized Jesus for hanging out with such bad company.

But looking at this particular context should not excuse us from allowing the Parable to be addressed to us, and to ask who might we be in this story?

We could be both of the sons but perhaps we’re guilty of thinking we have nothing in common with either of them.  We like to think that we are saved – that is we have been brought into the right relationship with God – but perhaps we are more like the elder son about this. 

We all have a tendency to think that the wideness of God’s mercy is a jolly good thing for all those other  people whose lives are out of control. But actually the Lost or Prodigal Son represents all of us in our relationship with God.

The Biblical narrative states that all humanity was created as the children of God, rightful heirs of his divine blessings, but that we have become alienated or separated from God and we no longer have the right to call ourselves his children. Humanity has certainly lost its right to inherit new life and so finds itself in the same position as the Prodigal Son. But just like him we find a way back through the merciful love of our father.

If we want to be readmitted to God’s heavenly family we have to do what the prodigal son did, that is realise our position before throwing ourselves on our Father’s mercy. The Parable shows us how it is that we should approach God, what it is that is required of us to release in us the tidal wave of forgiveness that God has for us – we have to be repentant and humble.

This is a message that can be found throughout the New Testament, and at various places in the Old. We looked at these verses and considered how each applies to the Parable of the Lost Son. Click on each link to read and come to your own conclusions!

2 Peter 3:9, Romans 8: 14-17, Ephesians 1:5, Matthew 23:25-28, Matthew 7:1-5, 1 John 2:9-11, Romans 9:31-33, Romans 10: 3-4, Romans 9: 14-16.

Frank

Sunday Worship – March 14th (Fourth week of Lent)

Sunday, March 14th, 2010

Today’s worship was led by visiting preacher Roy Davison, and the readings were Exodus 3:1-6 and Luke 13:1-5.  Roy’s message was based on the Luke reading.

Mid-Week Service – Wednesday 10th March (3rd Week of Lent)

Wednesday, March 10th, 2010

Call to worship: Isaiah 55: 6-7

 Seek the LORD while he may be found,
   call upon him while he is near;
let the wicked forsake their way,
   and the unrighteous their thoughts;
let them return to the LORD, that he may have mercy on them,
   and to our God, for he will abundantly pardon.

Hymn 613 – SPIRIT OF THE LIVING GOD

· Prayer of Adoration
Loving God, in Jesus you bring to fulfilment all the promises that you have made to your people. In him you bring us into a new relationship with you and with each other, and you lead us on a journey towards the promised land . Through your risen son we are given certainty that this journey will reach its destination, you walk alongside us and give us everything that we need. And you have destined us for a life with you in Christ, a life of peace, joy and love. We praise you for this unfathomable gift, for this glorious grace, you are almighty, all loving, you are everything to us..
· Prayer of Confession
But we know that we have not been worthy of all that you do for us, we are not fit to be called your children. So often on our journey through life we walk away from you, away from your treasure, away from your purpose for us. We forget you too easily and too often, we become preoccupied with the trivial things of life, and we give our energy to pursuing things that do us no good at all and do not glorify you.
· Declaration of forgiveness
And yet despite all our wandering off course, you place us back on the road, although we flee from you, you never leave our side. All the times that we feel like we have been abandoned your are holding us in your loving and tender embrace. The forgiveness that you grant us through son Jesus Christ is so powerful, so wonderful, that we are brought home to you, in love, mercy and for all time.
· Petition for the worship
We come before you now to feel your presence, to drink from your living waters, to confess our sin and to be refreshed in your mercy. Surely you are alongside in all we do let us feel you especially near to us now as we come together in worship. Unite us with all who call in you today, let us feel that glorious and beautiful spiritual fellowship in our time together. May we be in this special time together the body of Christ. You are the living God, pour out your Spirit on us as we say the words that Jesus taught us…
Our father…

· Old Testament Reading: Psalm 63: 1-8

This Psalm was, so we are told, written by David in the wilderness, when he had gone into hiding.  Like many other Psalms it seems that the mood of author changes during the prayer – at the beginning he talks as though God is distant and so he longs for him, but he soon speaks about how he is engulfed by God’s presence, love and protection.  It would be good if our own prayers had this sense of dynamic change within them – this would mean that this was more of a conversation than a monologue, and that something happens to us when we pray – we end feeling different to how we did when we started.
· Hymn – 48 – Be still and know

Only I knew the tune to this one but I sang it once through and everyone picked it up for a second run through – I think it’s a great tune.
· New Testament Reading: 1 Corinthians 10: 1-13
· Message

We are half way through Lent, and so today’s theme was journeys, in particular the half way point in journeys – which is not always the most comfortable place to be.  We all have a sense of when our journey of faith began, and a vision of where it is leading, but day by day we are living in an ‘in-between’ half way there sort of mode. 

This was how some of the Christians in Corinth seemed to Paul, and so he wrote to them about how some of the ancient Israelites came unstuck when they were ‘half-way’ between captivity and the ‘promised land’. 

In between gaining their freedom and finally reaching the promised land, the Israelites had to endure some harsh times in the wildnerness. And inevitably this is when the muttering and the moaning started, and some started to lose faith. When we reach this half way point we all have this tendency to downplay, or forget the moment that launched us on this journey. And equally it’s in our nature to downplay or forget the destination we’ve been promised when we get bogged down in the problems of today.

But Paul spells it out that Christ (their future) was with them from the very beginning, when he refers to the rock they drew spiritual water from in the Wilderness as Christ – and Christ (our future) has been with us every step of the way and continues to be by our side whether we recognise him there or not.

Paul also told the Corinthians that their suffering was not unique to them – they were not going through anything that hadn’t been gone through before by others. This is a message we hate to hear – when I’m suffering I want to say that no one in the world has ever felt like me. But it’s not true – and there are so many examples of suffering endured and transcended that we have to give up our precious idea that our suffering is somehow unique.

And unlike other religions, Christianity teaches that God himself has gone through our suffering before us in the person of Jesus. And because he has gone through it all, it can all be transformed. Paul asserts that God does not test us beyond what we can endure, for he always provides the way to make it through suffering.  We all have different problems and obstacles on our journey, and it’s not possible for any one of us to say what another’s way forward is when they are in spiritual difficulty. But we can all repeat, and remind each other that God has promised that he will find provide a way, and we have to discover this for ourselves.

We can’t do this unless we depend on God. Sometimes we wonder if we’re going to make it, if we can keep going. But it’s important to remember that it’s ourselves that we lose faith in when we have these moments of doubt. We no longer believe that we have the power to keep on this path with God, but at these times we should be thinking about our faith in God, not in ourselves. We don’t have the power, but he does!

Let us pray
Father we ask that we might learn to depend on your for each step that we take through each day
Give us that assurance that our own path is part of your promise, that our weak and all too human striving is connected to your holy and mighty purpose.
Give us faith to believe in all your promises- and challenge our lack of faith when we walk away from you
Help us, Lord, to see the hard testing that comes our way for what it truly is
Let us see through all temptations, make us able to recognise that which is temporary, that which is unimportant and that which is wrong.
Grant us a vision that sees all before us from your point of view,
And give us that spiritual experience, that manna, that clear cool water, that tells us what the promised land will be like
Teach us to rely on you when tests come our way, show us the way that you have provided, the way that will keep us safe from all temptation and bring us safely to you
May your light shine through us and in our world
Continue to change us
By the power of your holy spirit
And in the name of Jesus Christ
Amen

We carried on the theme of journeys by closing with hymn 400 ‘Lead us Heavenly Father, lead us’ – and then sharing the Grace.

Bible Study – Monday 8th March (3rd week of Lent)

Wednesday, March 10th, 2010

We had a very interesting discussion about the two readings from yesterday’s service, Isaiah 55:1-9 and Luke 13: 1-9 with some varied ideas and points of view being put forward.

We talked about the points I had made in the service on Sunday, on this same passage, and about some of the the difficulties it presents. I wondered whether the text doesn’t refer to the idea that the ‘end of the world’ was expected by the earliest Christians, who thought that the apocalyspe was round the corner, and that Jesus would return to judge the living and the dead. This didn’t trouble most of the group though, who didn’t feel that this was the only meaning that could be applied to it.

It seemed to us all that in Luke 13: 1-9, Jesus spells out the need for our faith to result in good deeds, and that if it doesn’t then a kind of death will be the result. But does this mean sudden physical death? Or does it mean being excluded from the new life that is in Christ – and if so are we to understand this a literal ‘afterlife’ or as a spiritual life that occurs in this life?

I was keen to stress that the section about ‘bearing fruit’ should not be seen as meaning that God will judge us according to our achievements on earth – rather that we are saved by faith, but faith that does not lead to action is not real faith at the end of the day.

One of the most interesting points was that the Luke passage was reminiscent of the Old Testament, with its blood and thunder reference to destruction, while the Isaiah passage was like something out of the New Testament, with its rich and tender description of God’s nearness and approachability.

Lots of other interesting points were made, and this is usually the case so do join us next Monday when we will be looking at some of the Lectionary readings from the fourth week of Lent.

Frank

Sunday Worship – March 7th (3rd Week in Lent)

Monday, March 8th, 2010

Sunday afternoon’s service was all about Global Poverty Prayer Week and in particular the work of Tear Fund. The service was led jointly by me (Frank – Tapton’s Pastor) and Shirley Simpson who is the Tear Fund representative at Hillsborough Tabernacle Congregational Church.

Shirley explained how Tear Fund works with local churches in developing countries  to improve lives, supporting development projects, campaigns and disaster relief projects financially as well as practically  on the ground. In their own words

We’re passionate about our vision to work with and through a worldwide network of local churches – forming one global church – to end poverty.

From the Tear Fund statement of values

Tear Fund are not only fantastically committed Christians, they are a higly professional organisations and it seems to me that they are effective too. What I like most of all about them is that rather than imposing large and alien organisations on local communities they work through local churches to bring about change.  Independent and local churches are often those best connected with the local community and its needs and so it’s great that Tear Fund takes this approach to its work – as congregationalists we can’t help but approve!

Shirley and I both spoke about how disasters such as the earthquakes in Haiti and Chile cause many to question belief in God.

Shirley listed some questions that need asking of humanity rather than God, including why there was such poverty in Haitit, making people so much more vulnerable to this tragedy, and why it is we only notice the island and its problems when disaster strikes.  She also asked why it is that those who would condemn God for the earthquake do not by the same logic praise him for the outpouring of goodness in the response to the earthquake.

We read the following Lectionary readings: Isaiah 55:1-9 and Luke 13: 1-19.

I spoke about the second reading from Luke, about how Jesus seems to be challenging a picture of God that is stuck in certain portions of the Old Testament.  Often Jesus quotes from scripture to make his point but in this discussion about why God has let some of his followers be killed (some by persecution, some when a tower collapses on them) he seems to simply appeal to the common sense of the people he’s talking with. To the idea that such disasters are evidence of God’s displeasure or indifference his response could be paraprhased as ‘Come on! Do you really think that this is what God is like?’

Our picture of God should be based on what is revealed about him in Jesus – not just his teachings but also his actions and the things that happen to him through God (crucifixion, resurrection etc.) These add up to a picture of a God who loves us more than we understand or deserve and whose plans for us stretch out into infinity.

In the Old Testament we often see a farily crude (by comparison) picture of God as someone who favours justice and intevenes in history to free people from captivity, but is also jealous, vindictive and vengeful. He also, apparently, is big on collective punishment.  In many parts of the Old Testament God is represented as using ‘natural disasters’ as a way of punishing thousands of people at a time.

When people ask how I can believe in a God who would allow the disaster in Haiti I want to ask them what sort of God do they think I believe in? Do they think my picture of God is so stuck in the Old Testament that I believe God relates to his creation in this way. Our picture of God should be drawn from what we learn about him through Jesus, and it should never exclude the ‘new heaven and the new earth’, the plans God has for us beyond this earthly life.

Jesus is clear that what he reveals to us about God is consistent with the Old Testament, but it’s not identical. The God that Jesus reveals is to be found in the Old Testament, but not without the light that Jesus shines on the scriptures. Jesus’ Father is hidden away in enigmatic and mysterious verses throughout the scriptures, particularly in Isaiah and the Psalms. And the God who is the Father of Jesus is not to be confused with a limited, cartoonish picture of God that we see at times in the Old Testament.

Don’t draw any conclusions from the Old Testament unless you read it from the point of view of the New Testament. As the saying goes, the Old Testament is revealed in the New, the New Testament is revealed in the Old. Certain sections of the Old Testament display a crude caricature of God in which all our rewards and punishments happen in this life and there is nothing more to be hoped for,  but that picture of God is radically redrawn by Jesus.

Earthquakes are not a punishment from God, nor are they evidence of his indifference or powerlessness. There is no part of human suffering that is not experienced and absorbed by God on the cross, and he can rightly be said to suffer alongside us. Therefore there is no part of human suffering that cannot be transformed into joy, and it will be.

Frank

Soup & Roll Club – Thursday 4th March

Thursday, March 4th, 2010

Soup & Roll club meet the Potted Dog Man!

A jolly good time was had by all at Soup & Roll club today – including a talk by Peter Moon, the managing director and owner of Binghams – who have been making potted beef (or potted dog as I found out it is called this morning) in Sheffield since 1914. Peter mentioned having himself being brought up in a Congregational church – so perhaps it’s not surprising that he’s so passionate about keeping things local and independent!

Mid-Week Service – Wednesday 3rd March (2nd week of Lent)

Tuesday, March 2nd, 2010

This is a summary of today’s service.

Call to worship:Psalm 27: 1-2

The Lord is my light and my salvation; whom shall I fear? The Lord is the stronghold of my life; of whom shall I be afraid?

Prayer of Adoration

Loving God, in Jesus you have stretched out your arms to us to bring us into your warm and tender embrace. In Jesus you announce to us a new life of joy in your presence, and peace in our hearts. Through your risen son we believe that every valley will be exalted and every mountain brought low, and every tear will be wiped away. We praise you and thank you for the wonderful and glorious future that you have promised us.

Prayer of Confession

But we are not there yet, our lives on earth are a time of transformation and of waiting, of waiting and of hard testing. We are not there yet, we are separated from you and from each other. We are held back by sad memories and weighed down with regrets. In Jesus we see perfection, and we know that we do not measure up to Him…

Declaration of forgiveness

And yet all we have to do is allow ourselves to be held by the loving arms that you have stretched out to us in your son, Jesus Christ. Your love for us is so great, so powerful, that we cannot cancel out your mercy. And so our sin, our separation, is cancelled out for us, you cast out all fear, all loneliness, all hopelessness, as you redeem us with a perfect love. Thank you Father for forgiving our sins and bringing us into your arms

Petition for the worship

We come before you now to bask in your light, to feel that sense of connection with you and with each other that is so precious. Help us to leave behind us all that is petty, all that is unworthy, be with us Lord so that in this time of worship that in amongst the words that we read and that we speak and hear we may somehow hear your word.  Pour out your Holy Spirit as we say the words Jesus taught us…
Our father…
 

 Readings: Psalm 27, Luke 9:28-36

 

Message

 

In Psalm 27 David evidently has reason to feel afraid but he declares that he will not be afraid, for God is with him. Experience must have taught him up to this point that being a Godly man does not make you invulnerable to weakness, failure or defeat yet he feels the security not just of God’s presence but of his protection and cries out “I shall see the goodness of the Lord in the land of the living. Wait for the Lord; be strong, and let your heart take courage; wait for the Lord!”

 

Around the world and at all times people who have every reason to feel anger and disappointment towards God instead praise him and express their faith in the good things to come. The words of Psalm 27 take on an added power when we think of them as being uttered by a vulnerable and sometimes tormented and suffering man. And such words are heard today in the joyful prayers of the body of Christ even though they are in the midst of suffering from the aftermath of natural disasters, from grinding poverty and from persecution.

 

I would like to simply put to us this question: how is it that people who undergo such suffering and loss can praise God? How can those for whom life has been one long lesson in disappointment express so much hope? Either they are deluded, cruelly mistaken in their faith, or they have cottoned on to a reality so vivid, so beautiful and so certain in its promise (see monday’s Bible study on Genesis 15) that the devestation and disappointment of this life becomes as nothing compared with the new life God has promised us in Jesus.

 

Luke 9: 28-36 has become known as the Transfiguration – the occasion when Peter, James and John go up a mountain with Jesus to pray. While up there they see a change in Jesus’ appearance and his clothes become ‘dazzling white’. Not only this he is seen in conference with Moses and Elijah,  two of the biggest names in Judaism – prophets from the past with the very highest status, seen ‘in glory’ meaning reflections of the divine essence and presence.

 

I used to discuss this as propoganda intended for Jewish Christians – an invented fable to express the idea that Jesus’ is within the tradition of the prophets, yet surpassing them in greatness.  Clearly some of the miraculous happenings of the Gospels fall into this category, gospel authors did not consider themselves to be writing history in the modern sense of the world, rather they were putting together a narrative account of the whole meaning of Jesus’ ministry, death and resurrection.  Doing this sometimes meant  going beyond the factual and straying into what we would nowadays describe as perhaps mythical, literary or poetic prose.

 

But some of the miraculous events of the Gospels are also referred to in the New Testament Epistles , letters written to individuals or churches without any of the literary flourish of the gospels -  and for this reason these miracles have to be looked at differently.

 

The resurrection is described with a writer’s skill in the Gospel but is also recalled in plain language in the Epistles. I decided that the Transfiguration must be based on a real event after realising that it, too, is referred to elsewhere in the New Testament in the plainest of language.

 

 The transfiguration, as described in Luke 9: 28-36 has all the hallmarks of an invented tradition. But in The second letter of Peter the same event is described in the following words:

 

“For we did not follow cleverly devised myths when we made known to you the power and coming of our Lord Jesus Christ, but we had been eyewitnesses of his majesty. For he received honour and glory from God the Father when that voice was conveyed to him by the Majestic Glory, saying ‘This is my Son, my Beloved, with whom I am well pleased.” We ourselves heard this voice come from heaven, while we were with him on the holy mountain.”   

 

Maybe it wasn’t exactly as described, maybe Peter, James and John had an inward spiritual experience which found expression in a more poetic tradition that makes it into Matthew, Mark and Luke’s Gospels. But something very powerful happened, it may be described in flowery language but it isn’t just made up.

 

So if it’s more than just a story, then it’s pretty important that we think about what it means.

 

The word transfiguration comes from a greek word, metamorpho , which has slipped into English usage as metamorhposis to describe a particularly dramatic transformation in someone. Meta means change, morph means form. What is happening, then is that Jesus’ form seems to be changing.

 

Or rather it is being revealed.  Jesus, it is believed, has two natures – he is both fully human and fully divine. The point is that the human nature was there for all to see, the divine nature had to be revealed. Like all the miracles of the gospels the transfiguration was a sneak preview of the heavenly transformation that is promised us in the Kingdom of God.

 

In the transfiguration Peter, James and John witness a sneak preview of the risen Jesus – the point at which his holiness is there for all to see. And the resurrection is itself a sneak preview of something that we hope will happen to us too.

 

And that brings us finally to Lent. During this time of fasting, preparation and prayer, we are focused on a transformation that we wish to see happen in us. We want our human, sinful nature to become a bit less obvious; and we want something divine to shine through instead – not something that comes from within us, but a divinity that we become attached to through Jesus.

 

If we spend the next few weeks trying to become holy then we will not have a very fruitful Easter. But if we give up the search for divinity within us we will be well on our way. For it is only when we abandon the idea of holiness in within us that we gain access to holiness without – Jesus’ holiness can be ours as long as we recognise that it is a gift, a loan, not a right or a possession of ours.

 

But Jesus’ holiness is a permanent loan with permanent effects.  Lets make use of it over the next few weeks, lets stop trying to become holy ourselves. This Lent lets give up trying to cure our own bad habits and start give him a chance to get to work on our behalf. Let us stop searching for a holy light within, it isn’t there. Then we will start to change, because he will change us if we let him. We can be changed now, we can be transfigured with holy light shining from us for all to see, revealing the new life in us as a present and future reality, and a symbol of that time when the light will abolish all darkness.

 

Father we pray for all who are suffering in Haiti and Chile, we thank you that they continue to praise your name and to live in hope. For ourselves we ask for just a drop of the ocean of faith that is found in your people who are suffering natural disasters, cruel persecution and unjust poverty.

And in this time of Lent we ask that we might be changed,

that your light may be kindled within us,

that your light should overcome our darkness.

Teach us to accept your love, help us to let you in.

Make us accept what we cannot change, so that you might take over and begin in us a most wonderful transfiguration.

May your light shine from all of us, may your goodness be reflected in our lives, and may our spiritual union with Christ be revealed in us so that others might be drawn nearer to you.

May your truth shine on us, and from us all the way  to Easter and beyond, by the power of your Holy Spirit and in the name of Jesus Christ,

Amen

Bible Study – Monday 1st March (2nd week of Lent)

Tuesday, March 2nd, 2010

Last night’s Bible Study looked at Genesis 15: 1-12, 17-21, this is one of the Lectionary  readings and Alan Hindmarch had spoken about these verses on Sunday.

This is the section of Genesis where Abraham receives God’s promise – Here’s a summary of the main points from the discussion:

Abraham is a truly significant Biblical figure because the promise that he receives from God in Genesis 15 is the beginning of a chain of events that run through the whole Bible 

These events are the path through which Jesus comes into the world and the Kingdom of God is brought into being: the birth of Isaac who is the father of Jacob – who is the father of twelve sons who represent the twelve tribes of Israel, one of whom is taken into captivity (Joseph surely represents a whole people in captivity). The Israelites are led out of Egypt through God’s intervention and Moses’ leadership – they move into the wilderness for forty years before ‘taking possession’ of the land that was promised to Abraham in the pre-history of Genesis 15. 

In this land they become a great but flawed nation under David, a great but flawed man. They are continually challenged by prophets who demand faithfulness to God and justice for the poor, but they do not listen and are once again estranged from the ‘promised land’  – this time in exile in Babylon. God does not abandon them though and many Israelites return.  The prophets continue to challenge the people and they talk of a Messiah who will come and usher in God’s Kingdom. From among Abraham’s descendants, in the land promised to him in Genesis 15 emerges Jesus – the answer to all our problems and the culmination of God’s promise to Abraham.  Through Jesus we are given fellowship with God, the gift of the Holy Spirit, and the promise of God’s will on earth as it is in heaven.

All this starts in Genesis 15 when God promises the childless and homeless Abraham that he will have a son, and his descendants will settle in a land of their own.  Abraham knows nothing of what this will lead to… the thing that he is promised must seem in itself wonderful, maybe impossible, but compared to God’s masterplan that it is part of  it is trivial.

God’s promise has not been earned by Abraham but he believes that God can and will do what he has promised. This is what’s known as ‘righteousness by faith’.  God’s promise, which is the substance of this passage, is the theme of the Bible and of our universe. Humanity’s response (or rather what humanity’s response should be)  is summed up in verse 6: And he believed the Lord; and the Lord reckoned to him as righteousness. (NRSV)

This is the idea that allows Paul to truly understand what has happened in Jesus, and in the sixteenth century Luther and Calvin fasten onto in Paul’s writings (Romans 6: 4, Galatians 3: 6-9) and this leads to the reformation. Which leads in turn to Congregationalism. So last night we reflected on the fact that a verse right at the beginning of the Bible in Genesis 15 (probably written while the Israelites were in exile in Babylon) leads to the church that we were sitting in as we read it.

We talked about our own church, how it began with people meeting to worship and existed for many years before finding a physical home.  This is a bit like the Abraham and his descendants with their beginning in the wilderness, with just the promise of a home some time in the future.  Our church started with the determination among one or two people that ‘cottage meetings’ should take place, this happened in 1853, and it wasn’t until 1913 that the present church building was opened, that’s a long time living through a feeling of God’s promise.

Since then the church has had many ups and downs, and at times it has been close to closing – at those times the dream was simply survival.

But each dream that the church has had has surely been sustained by the feeling that God has something in store for us, and that in pursuing our goal we are living through God’s promise.  The promise that Abraham was aware of was actually part of a much greater plan, and so it is for us.

Within the goal of the cottage meetings in 1853 was the promise of the church building in 1913. And within the goal of survival during the tough times has been the revivals that we have also enjoyed.  At each stage we only see the part of God’s plan that is in front of us – we don’t know where it will lead but God does. We talked about our dreams for the church in the near future and we reflected that the things we strive for now, when we feel God’s promise upon us, are not ends in themselves but part of a much greater plan.

Like Abraham we must have faith in God’s promise, faith that if our short term goals are within God’s plan for our future that they can and will be fulfilled. And above all faith that our tiny efforts are part of something huge, and that in fulfilling God’s promise in our own limited way, we  are taking part in something so vast and wonderful that it cannot be understood – only believed in.

Sunday Worship – Sunday February 28th

Monday, March 1st, 2010

The service was led by the Reverend Alan Hindmarch.  The readings followed the lectionary and were Genesis 15: 1-12 and Luke 13: 31-35.