5 July 2019 – Talk by Clive Atkinson

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Whenever you read the New Testament, there are so many significant moments, in the New Testament, which were not just significant for that day, the New Testament Day. But moments that have shaped human history ever since. And of course, the birth, the death, the resurrection of our Lord Jesus, the coming of the Holy Spirit, the birth of the church. And over the next Sundays when I’m with you this summer, I want us to look at a momentous event that we often miss in the New Testament, simply because it’s tucked away in the shortest letter of the New Testament, the letter from the Apostle Paul to Philemon. And it’s there in that passage, there is a momentous event that has shaped human history over the past 2000 years. And we’re going to be exploring it over the next couple of weeks and seeing how that momentous event has shaped our today. In fact, it’s probably shaped everyone in this church tonight and how it continues to shape our world today. And so we’re going to be looking over the next couple of weeks at Paul’s letter to Philemon but this evening, we’re going to be thinking particularly about Philemon himself in verses one to seven. But before we sort of jump straight into that, I want us to think about the three main characters in this letter. Because in this letter we have a prisoner. We have a trader and we have a runaway slave. Three characters in this really short letter, a prisoner, a trader, and a runaway slave. Who’s the prisoner? Who do you think is the prisoner in the letter to Philemon? It’s Paul the Apostle Paul. Paul, who was preaching the good news of Jesus on his way from Jerusalem, making his way, all the way to Rome. And whenever Paul talked about Jesus, two things happened. The Jesus in Paul’s talks, Paul sermons, would come alive to people and their lives would be completely changed. To use the New Testament word, they would be saved. They would become new creations. And so when Paul preached about Jesus, people’s lives were impacted forever. But also when Paul spoke about Jesus, inevitably at some point he would generate conflict and sometimes that conflict was in the form of a riot and Paul would end up in prison. And so here we have Paul writing to Philemon from prison.

Historically, we used to think that Paul was in prison in Rome but more recently we actually now think that Paul’s actually in prison in Ephesus. So if you think Lausanne and Bern so think in those terms. Ephesus where Paul’s in prison ,Colossae where our trader lives, and guess who the trader is? Philemon. Or as our youth and children’s worker calls him Phil. So Phil lives in Bern and Paul’s in prison in Lausanne. Ephesus, Colossae. And Paul is writing to Phil to Philemon who we reckon is a wealthy man. Probably a trader, probably had traveled from Colossae down to Ephesus and had heard Paul preach. And guess what – had come to faith. His life had been completely turned upside down and not just Philemon’s life, but the life of his wife who had become a Christian and his son as well. Hearing Paul preach about Jesus had completely turned Philemon’s life upside down. So we have a prisoner, we’ve a trader, and then we have a runaway slave by the name of Useful. That was his nickname. His nickname was Useful. And the New Testament greek for useful is Onesimus as he’s called in our passage, and Onesimus was a slave who belonged to guess who Philemon. He was Philemon’s slave. Something had gone wrong and Onesimus had made a run for it and he was on the run now and he had gone from Colossae and he traveled all the way down to Ephesus. Now you probably know as well as I do that in Roman days, if you were a runaway slave and you were caught, guess what?

Yeah, you would forfeit your life. And so Onesimus is running for his life, not just from Philemon, but ensuring that he doesn’t get caught. And you can imagine him sort of hanging out in the dodgy end of Ephesus. Trying to stay away from Roman soldiers, trying to stay away from anybody who might recognize him and life must be pretty desperate. And so he ends up going to visit the only person who he has heard of. Who? Paul in prison. And so he meets Paul, he encounters Paul. And guess what? Onesimus becomes a follower of Jesus.

And that’s the context of our story. This is a story and we’re not thinking about this tonight, but this is a story which is quite remarkable because Paul, the prisoner, is going to say to the runaway slave Oneismus you need to go back to Philemon. What a request. What a request. And so Paul writes this letter to Philemon. This is a bit of a spoiler alert this evening. But Paul is going to say to Philemon, I want you to no longer see Onesimus as a slave, but because he’s become a Christian, I want you to now see him as a brother. In Roman days that was just shocking that you would actually consider a slave, a member of your family, a brother. But more about that in the next couple of weeks. So what I’d love us to do this evening is to look at that Bible passage that you have in your service booklet is Philemon verses one to seven.

And I just want us to look at the life of Philemon and, just a couple of things that I think are just worth taking away, from this man’s life. So here’s the first one. I want us just to think a little bit about Philemon’s faith. So have a look at verses four to seven. I’m going to read them for you. And here’s the question. What is it that Paul celebrates about Phil’s faith? What is it that Paul celebrates about Phil’s faith? And to ensure that you’re wide awake? I’m going to ask you that. Okay. So I want a bit of interaction here, a bit of response. So here we go. Verse Four. I always thank my God as I remember you in my prayers because I hear about your love for all his holy people and your faith in the Lord Jesus.

I pray that your partnership with us in faith may be effective in deepening your understanding of every good thing we share for the sake of Christ. Your love has given me great joy and encouragement because you brother have refreshed the hearts of the Lord’s people. Phil’s faith. What is it that Paul celebrates? Now, I don’t want to pick on anybody, so. Love mentioned a couple of times in verse four and then again in verse seven obviously somebody who clearly loves Jesus and not only loves Jesus but loves people. What else? Faith. Encouragement, partnership. One more begins with R. Understanding, yes. I’m thinking about one more in verse seven. We had encouragement. Refresh. So here’s Paul celebrating Phil’s faith. Phil is a lover of Jesus and a lover of people. He is someone who trusts Jesus with everything. We’ll see that in a minute. He’s somebody that if you meet him, you’re going to walk away encouraged and you’re going to walk away refreshed.

That’s pretty good.

I think that’s pretty good. If someone was to write a letter to you and they were celebrating your faith what words would they use? You don’t need to answer that, by the way, just in case you were worrying., What is it, about your faith that they would celebrate? Probably a slightly uncomfortable question that, but as I read about Philemon’s faith, I was struck by just how much Paul could celebrate. Clearly, coming to faith in Jesus has transformed this guy’s life. He loves Jesus and he loves people. He trusts Jesus. And whenever you meet them, it’s encouraging. You walk away you’re refreshed. What we might call today as a plus two. You know, somebody who just gives, gives of themselves, you feel encouraged. Excuse me, just need to grab some water. And I found myself just turning that into a prayer this week, or for me personally . It was Lord,, would you make me someone that – I’m a lover of Jesus, and I’m a lover of people. That when people rub shoulders with me, they leave encouraged and refreshed. Would you make me somebody who’s faith in Jesus is celebrated I think it’s a pretty good prayer. Probably a great prayer for all of us as well. So Philemon is an encourager. Someone who is such a blessing. Hope you’re still still with me. Have a look at verses one to three. I’m going to read verses one to three for us. And so here’s the question from verses one to three and there’s only, there’s only one answer to this. So this is really easy. In what way is Philemon practically serving Jesus? Okay. So first one, Paul, the prisoner of Christ, Jesus, Timothy, our brother to Philemon, our dear fellow friend and fellow worker also to Apphia our sister and Archippus our fellow soldier and to the Church that meets in your home, grace and peace to you from God, our father and the Lord Jesus Christ.

So what is it that that Philemon’s doing for Jesus? What’s he doing? So he’s opened his home, opened up his home. Really simple thing, isn’t it? That whatever Jesus has done in Philemon’s life, Philemon now thinks of his home as belonging to Jesus. He’s saying to Jesus, my home is yours. You do with my home, whatever you want. And so he’s opened up his home and there’s a church meeting there. And I don’t know, I mean this is not true of St. Peter’s, but you do get a few odd people in churches, don’t you. I mean, maybe, maybe your churches are not like that, but you do get a few sort of difficult people. Can you imagine opening up your home to people you don’t know? Strangers, people you may not like particularly, but you’re saying, Jesus, my home is your home. Do with it whatever you want to do with it. And maybe there were times in Philemon’s home where they sat around his dinner table and they ate and they read the Bible. Well, they read Paul’s letters, probably they worshiped together. They shared communion together. They prayed for each other. He had opened up his home so that Jesus could impact other people.

I don’t know whether this is true or not, but I find that the older I’ve got, the more I cherish my personal space. And guess where my personal space generally is? It’s in my home. It’s a bit of a challenge for me to open up the home because I think, but I need my personal space. And yet here’s a man who’s been touched by Jesus and he’s saying, okay, maybe I do need my personal space, but I want to open up my home for the Lord to use. I am as you know, responsible not just for Vevey our church Vevey but I have sort of little bit of oversight over a church Neuchatel and we have, an Ethiopian refugee in our church called Teblis. All the other meetings outside of, because we don’t have our own church there. All the other meetings outside of our Sunday worship there, it’s in Teblis’ house. Teblis doesn’t have two franks to rub together. But whenever you walk into her house, there’s food and there’s a welcome and she cannot do enough for you. And she has this vision of her apartment. It’s a single bedroom apartment being a place where the members of Neuchatel church can gather and meet. Does the Lord have your§§ home?

Does the Lord have your house? Does the Lord have your apartment? I’m going to tell you a story. This is the same sermon that All Saint’s got this morning. A couple who were visiting the church came up to me afterwards and said that they had been in the process of buying a new property in Switzerland and the reason why they were buying a new property is that they wanted something for themselves. And this passage has re envisioned their understanding of their property now completely. As they read about how Philemon opened up his home and a church, met in that home. And do you know what? He was in tears because he suddenly saw it differently. This possession, this prized possession that he was pouring. Well, you knew what properties like in Switzerland that this was not just for him and his wife. This was for Jesus and for Jesus to use.

One last thought and then we’re finished. And I want us to look at verse six. And the question, it’s a really easy question, is what is it that Paul prays for Philemon? And so Paul has praised Philemon’s faith and he’s highlighted what Philemon’s doing for the kingdom. But then Paul prays for him. He, Paul wants more. Paul wants the Lord to do more in Philemon and through Philemon. And so Paul prays for him. So have a look at verse six. What does Paul pray for for Philemon? I pray that your partnership with us in the faith may be effective in deepening your understanding of every good thing – in some translations it says every good gift – every good gift we share for the sake of Christ.

What does Paul Pray for for Philemon? Interesting. Interesting little phrase isn’t it. He prays that Philemon would have understanding. The Christian faith isn’t simply about doing stuff. It’s about deepening our understanding. So what is it that Paul wants Philemon’s understanding? Where does it need to be deepened? He wants to understand that, every good thing, every good gift that Philemon has is for sharing for the sake of Christ.

Philemon who has already shared his house, that’s a good gift. Paul is now praying Philemon, I want you to go beyond that. Now, that might seem slightly innocuous, but think of it in these terms. What possession have we come across already in this letter, and I’m not talking about the house. What else does Philemon own? What? The slave. This is where Paul is going. Philemon, you think of your slave in the same way as you think of your house. It’s your possession. Philemon, here’s, how I want you to think of it. I want you to think of it as a good gift given to you for the sake of Jesus Christ. Now we sit here, the 21st century, and this means very little to us it sort of just flows over us. Put yourself in first century shoes. Slaves were possessions.

Paul wants Philemon’s understanding of his slaves to deepen and he is to understand them as good gifts given to him by Jesus. That is revolutionary. That is utterly and totally revolutionary. No first century person would have thought like that. To take a slave and to do this was anathema and Paul is praying that that’s exactly the understanding that Philemon’s going to come to that in the Kingdom of God because as Jesus looks at Philemon, as Jesus looks at this slave, he doesn’t see this. What does he see? He sees this and so Philemon’s understanding of Oneisimus is going to be transformed and Paul’s praying for that.

This stuff is dynamite. Absolute dynamite. In fact I read this week that the letter to Philemon was described as a ticking time bomb to blow open the whole understanding of slavery in the Roman world. See, that’s Jesus. That’s Jesus. That’s the gospel. The Gospel completely transforms our understanding, not just of our possessions but how we see people. I wonder, is there someone in your life that you need to see differently? Is there someone in your life that you need to see differently? Is Jesus calling you to see someone differently? Maybe it’s your boss who is a really bad piece of work. Maybe it’s your neighbour who is just a complete pain. Maybe it’s an estranged son or daughter. Maybe it’s an estranged father or mother. And Jesus is wanting to transform the way you see them. As Paul is calling, and praying that Philemon would see his slave Onesimus in a radically different way. Isn’t it exciting to be a follower of Jesus? Isn’t it challenging to be a follower of Jesus? Let’s pray.

30 June 2019 – Talk by Clive Atkinson

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Over the last number of Sundays, we’ve looked at the character of Jacob in the Old Testament and tonight we’ll complete the series of this colourful character. You may remember that Jacob has been away from home 20 years. He left under a dark cloud to say the least . Estranged from his father and the bitter enmity of his older brother who had sworn to kill him and in the intervening 20 plus years he had moved in with his uncle. He had got married twice, he had many children and he had become very wealthy. But God had come to Jacob again and spoken to him. Jacob was to return home. Return home to his estranged father. Return home to his vengeful brother. And as he made his way home, getting closer and closer news came to him, that Esau, his older brother was coming out to meet him with 400 men. How was Jacob to interpret that? How would you have interpreted that? Well, of course Jacob interprets that quite negatively and he assumed that he is going to face a fight, he is going to be in a battle. And so he prepares for a fight. But the fight that he gets isn’t the one that he’s expecting. Because that night he’s on his own. He sent his wife and children across a river to the other side of the river, Jacob’s on his own. And we have this incredible story of Jacob wrestling with the Lord all night. This wasn’t the fight that he was expecting. He gets a fight, but it’s with God. And chapter 33, Genesis 33 is the story of the next morning. Jacob, you may remember is now wounded, he’s limping. God has wounded him in order to transform him. And Jacob wakes wounded and changed. And as he wakes, there’s Esau. Esau is coming, Esau is approaching. And so Jacob quickly puts his wives and his children behind him and he limps out to meet his brother after 20 years.

I want us to think this evening about this very, very special story and I want us to think it under maybe two, maybe three headings. Here’s the first one. This story helps us, explains to us how we ought to see the world. How we ought to see the world. Do we have any tennis players here this evening, any tennis players? Any golfers? Any golfers? No one. Okay, wonderful. I know we have one or two swimmers. I know nothing about tennis. I know a little bit about golf, but I do know that if you’re going to play a backhand, there’s no sense standing like this, that you actually have to position your body in such a way to play the backhand properly. I do know that if you want to hit a golf ball straight down the fairway, you’ve got to position your body in a particular way. You’ve got to have this food slightly out. You’ve got a little bit bending of the knees leaning slightly forward as you hit the ball. I never could hit the ball straight so maybe don’t take my advice this evening. But that body position has a consequence in terms of where that ball goes, whether it’s where you wanted to go or how straight. It goes.

God’s work in Jacob has changed Jacob’s posture towards the rest of the world. Jacob’s posture towards the rest of the world has changed. Jacob’s posture up to this moment has been one of conflict. One of wrestling, one of fighting, one of one-upmanship stealing a march, trying to get the upper hand. That’s been Jacob’s posture with the world. But that has now changed. So if you’ve got your booklets open, have a look at our Bible reading from Genesis 33 and I’m going to read from verse one. Jacob looked up and there was Esau coming with his 400 men. So he divided the children among Leah, Rachel and the two female servants and he put the female servants and their children in front Leaj and her children next and Rachel and Joseph in the rear. And he himself went on ahead.

What comes next? Verse three, he himself went on ahead. And what? Bowed down to the ground seven times as he approached his brother. Now verse three is one of these verses that you could very, very easily just read and rush through. But I want you to remember just for a moment the words that Isaac ,Jacob’s father spoke to him 20 years earlier so listen to these words. So these are the words that Issac spoke to Jacob. Do you remember when Isaac was blessing ,Isaac thought it was Esau but in fact, it was Jacob. The words that Issac spoke over Jacob, listen to this. May nation serve you and peoples bow down to you. Be Lord over your brothers. And that’s got to include Esau and may the sons of your mother, i.e. Esau bow down to you. That’s Genesis 27. Now listen to the words that Isaac spoke over Esau. Do you remember how Esau came and discovered that Jacob had pinched his blessing? This is what Isaac says to Esau. You will live by the sword and you will serve your brother. Genesis 27 40.

I want you to listen to this passage again, if you’ve got look at verses three with me and we’re going to read further on. He himself – this is Jacob – went ahead and Jacob bowed down seven times as he approached his brother. But Esau ran to meet Jacob and embraced him. He threw his arms around his neck and kissed him, and they wept. Then Esau looked up and saw the women and children. Who are these with you? He asked Jacob answered, listen to what Jacob says. They are the children God has graciously given your what? Servant. Then the female servants and their children approached and bowed down next Leah and her children bowed down, last of all Joseph and Rachel, and they too bowed down. And Esau asks, what’s the meaning of all these herds and flocks? This is Jacob again to find favour in your eyes.

What my Lord. So Isaac had blessed Jacob with the words that the nations would bow down to him. But here is Jacob bowing down too. Isaac had told Esau that he would serve his brother. But here is Jacob calling himself servant before his brother and calling his brother. Lord. You see Jacob’s posture has changed? It’s no longer the posture of conflict. It’s no longer the posture of aggression. It’s no longer the posture of I’m going to beat you. I’m going to be first. I’m going to be ahead of you. The posture has changed and it’s the posture of grace. It’s the posture of grace.. You see, whenever we experience God’s grace in our lives, it leads to a deep change in us and it not only changes us, but actually it changes how we see other people.

Grace has changed Jacob, God’s grace towards Jacob. The fact that God has never given up on Jacob, the broken Jacob, the lying Jacob, the deceiving Jacob, God has just never given up on him. And finally that grace has changed Jacob and not only has it changed Jacob, but it’s changed the way he sees people. And it’s changed the way he sees Esau. He’s no longer a competitor. He serves no load. Esau is no longer an opponent no longer someone to be vying with. Esau has become Jacob’s eldest brother and Jacob has been fighting that all his life.

Jacob has come to a point by grace to see his brother for who he is, his eldest brother. There is a, there’s a project in the UK at the moment in some of United Kingdom’s prisons and it involves taking some prisoners and training them as Baristas. Do you know what a Barista is? So it’s a, it’s somebody who makes coffee in a cafe, a Barista. And so these prisoners are being trained as Baristas and then sent out into the community during the day, to act as coffee makers to make coffee and in local cafes. And do you know what this project’s called? I think it’s brilliant. They are called, it’s called redemption roasters.

And I, I love that. These prisoners are not lost causes these prisoners can be redeemed. You know what the word redeem means? It means set free, given a future, given a new beginning. See that is seeing the world differently, that is seeing the world through the eyes of grace. And I wonder, is there an Esau in your life that you need to see through the eyes of grace? Here’s a second thought from the passage, not only how we see the world, but how we live with others. Have a look at verse four. But Esau ran to meet Jacob and embraced him. This is Esau, Esau running to Jacob and embraced him. He threw his arms around his neck and kissed him and they wept.

And then if we move on to verse 10 Jacob said, to see your face is like seeing the face of God. Now that you have received me favorably. Now isn’t this a beautiful moment? Two brothers estranged for the last 20 years. They run to each other. Well Jacob can’t he’s got a limp, doesn’t he? Esau does the running. There’s embracing, there’s weeping. And Jacob says these incredible words looking at his brother Esau – to see your face is like seeing the face of God. After 20 years what a beautiful moment of reconciliation. Could we just pause for a moment and just think about that phrase – to see your face is like seeing the face of God. Now, have you ever used that word before when you’ve met somebody walking down the street in Château d’Oex or in the Coop to see your face is like seeing the face of God? It’s got to be a special moment, doesn’t it? It’s got to be a special moment. What’s in Jacob’s head when he says those words? Well, could we just back up maybe three or four hours.

Whose face has Jacob seen four hours ago? God’s face. He’s had this wrestling match all night and at the end of it he’s wounded and he’s transformed and he renames the place. Penniel, because I have seen the face of God. And what is it that, what did Jacob see as he looked into the face of God? He saw grace. He saw forgiveness. The God who loves him and will never let him go. And whenever he looks into the face of Esau, what does he see? He sees grace. He sees a brother whom he has wronged, stolen from, and yet had a brother who’s willing to forgive him. I find that really, really moving. I find that profound.

Reconciliation, the healing of a broken relationship is part and parcel of our DNA. The Gospel, which is at the heart of our faith is described in the New Testament in terms of reconciliation where God has run towards us to embrace us so that we would be reconciled to him. And whenever we think of the cross, we are one of the understandings of the cross is this idea of reconciliation, that Christ was dying in order, that I would be reconciled to God.

And that’s what it means to become a Christian, to become a Christian is to, is to be reconciled to God, to have that broken relationship healed. And not only do we see, not only do we see it at the cross, but that reconciliation that we’ve experienced with the father is meant to be a reconciliation that that’s worked out among us. That whenever there’s a broken relationship here, that the calling on our lives is one of being reconciled. Now that’s hard work. That’s hard work. It’s very easy to say the words, I forgive you or please forgive me, or I’m sorry. That’s the easy bit. It’s working that out day by day, Sunday by Sunday.

But not only is reconciliation something that we’re to practice in here, that that Ministry of reconciliation is something that we take out into the world with us, into, into our offices, into our neighborhoods, and into our families, into our marriages, into our friendships. We take that Ministry of peacemaking, that Ministry of bridge building. We take that into the world. And this is what we are. By default, we are peace makers. We are bridge builders. And is there Esau in your life with whom you need to be reconciled to? I found myself reflecting upon this passage and I found myself asking the question. When people look me in the face, when people see me face to face, what do they see? Jacob said to Esau. When I see you, it’s like seeing the face of God. So what, what do people see when they look at me? Grizzly, old, grumpy man irritable. A short fuse. Or do they seek grace? What do people see in your face whenever they look at you? Do they see the face of God?

And lastly, one last thought. Have we see the world, how we live with other people. And finally how we live for God. This is verses 16 to 20. This is the last, last couple of verses, and this is intriguing because we’ve had this really beautiful picture of reconciliation. And then Esau says to Jacob, you’re coming home, aren’t you? Not In so many words. And Jacob says, no. Sorry. He doesn’t say no. He doesn’t quite say no. Sorry. Can we just back up and started out again? Esau says to Jacob you’re coming with us. And Jacob says, listen, I’ve got a lot – my wife and kids. They’re here. It’s gonna take us ages to get there. We’ll come. But it will be slowly. And then Esau says, no, why don’t I leave some men with you? And Jacob says, no, we’re fine. We can look after ourselves. We’re great. Esau goes back to Sear. If you think of the Dead Sea. Sear Is across the Jordanian border here. Esau goes back there. What does Jacob do? Doesn’t follow him. Jacob goes somewhere else. He goes to a place called Shekem. Why does Jacob go to Shekem?

Well, if we go back into Genesis 18 we see that God makes the Covenant or renews The Covenant with Abraham where? Guess where? Shekem? Jacob goes to Shekem and what does he do? He buys a plot of land. Now what does that mean? If you were to buy a plot of land, what would that say? What statement are you making?

I’m staying. This is my home. And so Jacob goes back to the place of covenant and he says, this is where I live. This is my home. And what’s Jacob doing? Jaocob’s actually living the calling on his life. This is God’s calling on Jacob’s life that Jacob would be the next link in the chain of God’s covenant relationship with Israel. And Jacob could’ve gone back with Esau to Sear but he doesn’t. He’s actually living out the calling of God on his life. And so he has to go somewhere different. It’s a really fascinating little Gospel reading that we heard tonight that Dorothy read for us and Jesus in this room and he’s teaching and there’s people around them. And somebody comes to the door and says, Jesus, your mother’s outside. Now, if that was you and somebody came into the house and said, your mother’s outside, what would you do? You would get up and you would go outside. But what does Jesus do? He looks around the room at his disciples and he says, do you see these people? Here are my brothers and sisters and mothers. The calling on Jesus’ life was meaning the creation of a new family that actually meant that he prioritized that family above his blood family. Jesus does it twice actually in the gospels. And here we have Jacob prioritizing God’s call in his life above his brother’s call on his life.

Now that doesn’t happen all the time, but sometimes the calling on your life will take you a way from close family, close friends and sometimes that means Jesus first. I do remember that time when Yvonne and I sat down with my mum and dad. This is now 18 years ago. Sat down with my mom and dad. My mum had been diagnosed with cancer again and we had been invited to come here and we weren’t sure what to do. So we went and we talked to them and my mom and dad said to me, you need to go where God has called you.

And I don’t think, I don’t think if they had said that, that we would have come. They understood that there are moments when the call of the Lord on your life takes precedence over the call, perhaps of family close friends on your life. And so we leave Jacob. We’re going to move. Genesis is going to move away from Jacob and the spotlight now is going to be on Joseph. We’re going to find ourselves into Egypt. 400 years later we’ll see Moses leading them out. But this is the last moment where Jacobs takes center stage. Jacob, who in his lifetime had discovered the God of grace, the God who sees him and comes alongside him, the God in whom Jacob would discover a true source of love and value, a God who would relentlessly stick with them and not give up a god whose grace would change him and call him. The thing is, is that the god of Jacob, is the same God of today. The God who covented himself to Jacob is the same God who has covenanted himself to you. That God of grace who will stick with you through thick and thin. He’ll stick with you whenever you are resisting him and wrestling him, a God who will stick with you and just pour out his grace upon you and who will change you, transform you into the woman into the man that he wants you to be.

16 June 2019 – Talk by Clive Atkinson

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It’s over 20 years since Jacob had run away from home. We’ve been looking at the story of Jacob over the past three or four weeks. Jacob had bought, under very dodgy circumstances, his brother’s birthright. He then went on to steal his brother’s blessing. And what was the result of all of that? Well, very simply, his brother, Esau swore to kill him. And so Jacob had run for his life and had made his way to his uncle Leban and there he had married Rachel and Leah and had a large family, 11 sons and a daughter. Jacob was prospering.

20 years on, God comes to Jacob and says to him, Jacob, it’s time to go home. It’s time to return home. It’s time to go back to Esau. And I don’t know how you would’ve reacted if you would have received that message from the Lord, but I can imagine Jacob would have been filled with some anxiety. Go back to the brother that has vowed to kill you. Jacob obeys though, and he begins the journey back. It’s a journey of about 500 kilometers. And as he’s traveling, news comes to him that Esau is coming to meet him with 400 men.

Is Esau coming to throw a party? Is this a welcoming committee? I think Jacob concludes that Esau is coming out to fulfil his vow to kill him. And in Chapter 32 , 22 to 32, the reading that Tom brought us, this passage describes the night before Jacob meets Esau. Do you remember how you felt the night before your exams? Do you remember how you felt the night before you went to the dentist to have two teeth out? The night before you got married? The night before? We all know what that’s like. And so here is Jacob the night before he faces Esau. And could you just look at the passage with me? I’ve just noticed, how this is described for us. Verse 22. That night Jacob got up and took his two wives, his two female servants and his 11 sons and crossed the ford of the Jabuk. And after he had sent them across the stream, he sent over all his possessions. Verse 24. So Jacob was left alone. Do you picture it? Jacob is left completely alone. All of his possessions, all of his possessions have gone across the river, his wives, his children, everything has gone across the river. He’s on his own. He’s stripped bare.

And it’s pitch black. It’s dark, it’s night.

And out of the darkness Jacob is grabbed. He’s grabbed by two hands. Is it a contract killing? Has Esau contracted somebody to knock him off? Whatever it is, Jacob fights back. And we have as a result of that, this incredible story of Jacob wrestling – initially we’re told with a man – for the whole night. Pitch black so he can’t see, can’t see his face all he’s wrestling with is his physical body. We have this amazing story of Jacob wrestling. It’s mysterious, isn’t it? It’s intriguing. It’s slightly troubling as well. And as we read into the passage a little bit later on, we discovered this is not a contract killing. This is not an assassin. That in fact Jacob is wrestling with God. God has come. And Jacob ends up wrestling with him. Now, that shouldn’t surprise us because in the earlier chapters of Genesis, we already see how God comes in physical form. So Adam and Eve in the garden. God walking with Adam and Eve in the garden. Hagar, Abraham and Sarah. God comes on numerous occasions in the book of Genesis to his people in physical form. And so perhaps Jacob had those stories in his mind and perhaps as this wrestling match goes on, the penny begins to drop. This is no mere man. Perhaps I’m actually wrestling with God. And the story comes to a climax where Jacob is wounded, he’s wounded by God. And the story then shifts. There’s a transition from this is a wrestling match to Jacob refusing to let go. There’s this transition in the story, and we’ll think about that in a moment’s time. Where this transition from Jacob defending himself, resisting God, trying to get caught away from him to this point where Jacob is saying, I’m not letting go. That’s a very important transition in the story.

That’s why I want us to think about two things tonight. I want us to think about reshaping and renaming. Because at the end of this story, Jacob, gets a new name. So reshaping and renaming. And then the second thing I want us to think about this evening, is blessed to be a blessing. Jacob gets blessed, but it’s not just for him. So I want to think about those two things briefly today. Because what God is doing in Jacob’s life, I want to suggest you tonight, God is doing in all of our lives. What God is doing in Jacob’s life in Genesis 32 he’s doing in all of our lives. So here’s the first thought, reshaped and renamed. If you have a look at a verse 24 in the English, we don’t quite, we don’t quite get this in the English. It says, so Jacob was left alone and a man wrestled with him. In the Hebrew, I’m not a Hebrew scholar, I understand this. Is that what it literally says in the Hebrew is that a man Jacobed with him. A man, Jacobed with Jacob. The name Jacob means to wrestle. It means to grab, it means to grapple with and so a man comes and Jacobs with Jacob. A man comes and wrestles with Jacob. It’s a play on words because at this point in the passage we want to be, we’re being reminded of the fact that, Jacob’s life has been a life of wrestling. It’s been a life of grappling, a life of grasping for things. So Jacob has been someone presented to us who is always trying to get the upper hand. Someone who’s jockying for position. Somebody who is trying to find an advantage. Somebody who wants to steal a march.

That’s how Jacob was presented to us in this story. And what Jacob has been doing to others, Esau and Laban in particular, is now being done to him. A man came and Jacobed with Jacob. Here’s the question and I think this is the question being drawn out by this particular passage. The question is, who has Jacob been wrestling with all his life? Who has Jacob been wrestling with all his life? Jacob was a child who wanted to be someone else. Did that ever happen to you? Did you ever want to be someone else as a kid? He wanted to be Esau in fact. That’s who Jacob wanted to be. He wanted to be his elder brother. Do you remember Jacob was born holding on to Esau’s heel. He, under very dodgy circumstances, bought Esau’s birthright. He stole Esau’s blessing.

And when his blind father asked him the question, who are you? Jacob replied, I am Esau your firstborn. Jacob was a child who wanted to be someone else. Jacob was a child who wanted to be his big brother. Why? Because his big brother was the first born. That’s what Jacob wanted to be. Why? Because Esau was strong. He was mature. He was a hunter and above all else, he was his father’s favourite. Jacob grew up wanting to be Esau. There was a French anthropologist. He’s dead now, called him René Girard, and he developed this idea, which he called the mimetic theory and it goes something like this. In his observations of people, he noticed that people who struggled with a sense of identity, people who were not confident of their own identity, consciously or unconsciously found someone they wanted to be and began to mimic them.

And he talked about the impact that that had upon them, but also the people close to them. People who struggled with a sense of confidence in who they were, often mimic someone else, the person that they wanted to be like. I don’t know whether I’ve asked you already that question. As a child, was there someone that you wanted to be? As an adult have you ever experienced the same temptation? I would just love to be like you. I’d love your life.

I’m not comfortable with myself and I’m not comfortable in my own skin and I would like to be like you. If you are, then can I suggest to you that you’re not on your own? It’s interesting that in our culture, our 21st century culture today, identity plays a massive part. So we, we hear today about people who self identify. We hear about identity politics and that’s why this passage is so prophetic for our day because in this passage what we see, as God wrestles with Jacob, what is happening is that Jacob is actually being shifted away from this life of wanting to be Esau, this identity that was rooted in Esau, that God is shifting Jacob away from that and actually rerouting Jacob’s identity. That Jacob’s identity is no longer I want be my big brother. That Jacob’s identity is actually an identity in God.

Isn’t it fascinating? In verse 27 do you see there, verse 27 do you see the question that Jacob is asked? What’s the question? Anybody see it there? The man asked him, what is your name? And the last time Jacob was asked that question, he said Esau. What does he say now? Jacob. You see the shift and at the end of the passage, Jacob is actually renamed. He’s renamed Israel. He gets a new name. He gets a new identity. I want to suggest to you to this evening that actually this is a significant part of God’s work in all of our lives. Do you know what? Jacob is 62 in this passage. You would think by 62 he knew who he was. But the reality is that even at 62 you can still struggle with your sense of identity

And maybe at 72 and maybe at 82. I suggest to you that actually no matter what age we may find ourselves at what age and stage in life, there are times when we struggle with that question, who are you? And God is answering that for Jacob in our passage. And so we see God asking Jacob who are you? Because that’s the question of your life, Jacob. That’s the question that you’ve been wrestling with all your life. So tell me who you are you? And Jacob says, I am Jacob. I am the grappler. I’m the wrestler, I’m the grasper. I’m the cheat. And God says to Jacob, no, you’re not. You are Israel. God’s giving Jacob a new identity. And there is this transitional moment where, and it’s the moment where’ Jacob is wounded by God. They’re wrestling. God dislocates Jacob’s hip. God wounds Jacob. And it’s in the wounding that the penny drops for Jacob. And it goes from Jacob wrestling with God to Jacob clinging onto God. And God says to Jacob, let me go. And Jacob says to God, I will not let you go. Verse 26 then the man said, let me go for it is daybreak. But Jacob replied, I will not let you go unless you bless me. And it’s gone from this wrestling, pushing God away, trying to get free of God to I’m not letting you go. I am refusing to let you go unless you bless me. Now what’s going on there? I think this is what’s going on. That Jacob in that moment is suddenly realizing that for all his life what he has sought has been the affirmation and the validation of his father Isaac. He wanted to be his father’s favourite. And he realizes in this moment that the only true validation of someone comes from God. And Jacob has for all his life sought to find someone who will love him. And he thought that he’d found that in Rachel his wife, and he’s in this moment, he suddenly realized that actually the source of true love is not Rachel, but it’s God. And for Jaocob, for all his life. He’s wanted someone to bless him and that’s why he wanted to steal it from his brother. But in that moment of wounding, Jacob realizes that the source of true blessing isn’t to steal it from someone else. It’s to receive it from God.

In that moment, Jacob realizes that God is the source of true validation, true love. That God is the source of true blessing. And that’s why Jacob says to God, I’m not letting you go. When our son was born on the 15th of September, 1998, we called him Jacob. And he’s 20 years old now and he’s a big lad, he’s much taller than I am. He probably could put me over his back and carry me now. Phil Corrigan, he was a pastor of a church in Belfast, Belfast city vineyard, wrote Jacob, our newborn, a letter and he and his wife said that they had a prayer for Jacob and the prayer for my son would be this, that my son would not let go of God until God blessed him. And I think that’s just a beautiful attitude for all of us, not just my son and not just Jacob from Genesis, but for all of us that we say to our heavenly father, I’m not letting you go unless you bless me because you are the source of love. You are the source of validation. You’re the source of true blessing. I’m clinging onto you.

Just a tiny tangent and then we’ll get back on track. We’re nearly finished. I wonder whether it makes you feel uncomfortable, and I guess it ought to make us all feel uncomfortable at the thought of God wounding Jacob. I think that should make us all feel uncomfortable. The song we just signed “Spirit of the living God fall afresh on me. “

It’s got a lovely little tune, doesn’t it? A very nice tune, but have you looked at the words? Spirit of the Living God, fall afresh on me. That’s lovely, isn’t it? Spirit of the living God fall afresh on me. And then what comes next? Make me. Some versions of this song are a little bit more courageous. They say, break me, melt me, mold me, fill me. There should’ve been a warning, actually a health warning before we had sung this. This little chorus. Did I mean that when I prayed that song? Break me, make me, melt me, mold me?

We have a God who is willing to wound us in order to bless us. Tim Keller says this. God out of love becomes the enemy of our old self. God out of love becomes the enemy of our pride. God out of love becomes the enemy of the wicked me. And he brings me to weakness in order to heal me. And, and I’m suggesting that that’s not an easy thought to reflect on this evening. But I wonder at times whether my pride, Clive Atkinson’s pride is so strong, that the old Clive Atkinson is so strong that actually sometimes God has wound me in order to heal me. Reshaped and renamed. Finally, and this is, this last thought is a quick thought. Is that Jacob was reshaped and renamed. He was blessed in order to be a blessing to others. The promise that God gave to Abraham and Isaac – grandfather, father now to Jacob, is that Jacob’s descendants not only would be a blessing to themselves, but they would be a blessing to all nations. And so what God is doing in Jacob right now is actually not just for Jacob, It’s for everyone.

And, and I find that quite comforting that whatever the making and the breaking and the melting in the molding is in me, it’s not just for me, but that God would make me into someone who would be a blessing to others. If I’ve told this story before, would you forgive me and look surprised. If this is the first time, then that’s good. My brother in law, his name is Ronnie Cartmel and he’s a magnificent man. Ronnie’s now in his 60’s probably the same age as Jacob in our story. And Ronnie is married to my Gillian, who is quite a remarkable woman. Ronnie was a member of the police force in Northern Ireland during the 70s and the 80s. If you knew anything about Northern Irish history, you’ll realize that being a police officer in Northern Ireland during that time was exceptionally dangerous.

And he experienced losing colleagues, durng the troubles and the main way in which Ronnie coped with that trauma was through alcohol. And he became an alcoholic. It was well hidden. And so when my sister married him, it wasn’t something that was dominating his life, but the older that he got, the less able he was to deal with the trauma that he was experiencing. And it got to a stage – they had two boys at that stage – that it was either going to be separation or Ronnie had to face what he was going through. And eventually he said yes, and he went into to rehab and in rehab he managed to face the pain of his trauma. He came out, he got involved with Alcoholics Anonymous and he rediscovered his faith, his childhood faith and returned to the Lord. I visited them in February again and I have to say he is one of the people, one of the men in my life who I admire the most. He’s been dry now for well over 20 years. That experience transformed him. It was a blessing to him. But that transformation in his life was not only a blessing to him, it was a blessing to his marriage. They have a fantastic marriage and it wasn’t just a blessing to their marraige but it was a blessing to their two boys who grew up with a father who faced his alcoholism and has beaten it.

They are blessed as a consequence. So whatever the Lord is doing in your life right now, whatever, making and melting and molding, he may do to you. Can I just encourage you today, tonight, can I encourage you? Because that may be difficult. It may be a wrestling match right now. It may be painful. You may feel that you’re being wounded, but what the Lord is doing in you today can have such a blessing upon those around you. And reshaped, renamed, finding our identity in God and being blessed not just for ourselves, but being blessed for those around us. So Genesis 32 describes a God who’s at work in us, how God wants to shift our center of gravity our center of identity away from unhealthy things, from the Esaus’ of life into himself. And he does that so that he can bless us and by blessing us, bless others.

9 June 2019 – Talk by Clive Atkinson

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I wonder, can you remember what you were doing 54 days ago? No looking at your iPhone! Can you remember what you were doing 54 days ago? Well, 54 days ago, probably about this time I was sitting in our church hall down in Vevey having a meal with about seven or eight people. It was Maunday Thursday. And we were eating together and after we’d eaten together, we shared the Lord’s supper together. And we were using that evening to remember the night before Jesus died. When Jesus met with his disciples, you will remember they shared a meal together and he washed their feet. The day after that we gathered to celebrate Good Friday. And we did that down in Vevey and we were here, again around this time, in St. Peter’s. We gathered for an hour to hear the Bible read and to hear some music.

That helped us focus upon the death of Jesus and Good Friday. And then Easter Sunday we were back here again at St. Peter’s 5.30 for our Easter celebration to celebrate the fact that the Lord is risen. He is risen indeed, hallelujah. And so here we are today, 50 days later. 50 days, which is why we call this Sunday, Pentecost. 50 days after the Passover, after Easter. And the reason why I’m just reminding you of what we did 50 days ago, is because our gospel reading tonight – John 14 – is set the night before Jesus died. So Jesus has had a meal with his disciples. He’s just washed their feet, I think quite an awkward, uncomfortable moment for a number of them.

And Jesus has begun to talk about the Holy Spirit. The night before he dies. And that’s why we have this reading this evening. John 14 You have it in your service booklet. It would be lovely if you just keep that to hand because I want us to think about that this evening. It’s important also to to realize that the words of Jesus that he speaks about the Holy Spirit are set against the backdrop of pain, a backdrop of pain. On that night we have Judas, we have Judas betraying Jesus. So Jesus is having a meal with his disciples. He’s washed their feet. It must be a beautiful atmosphere in the room and Jesus drops three bombshells. One, one of the people who that he’s just shared a meal with, a person whose feet he’s washed, someone’s going to betray them. Somebody is going to betray him that night. And if that wasn’t a big enough bomb shell, he then goes on to say that somebody who’s just shared a meal with, whose feet he has just washed, is going to deny him. There’s two bombshells in a matter of a minute. And then comes the third one. Betrayal, denial and then the third one departure. Jesus is leaving. Jesus is leaving. His time with his disciples has come to an end.

And it’s in the context of that pain. I wonder, have you ever felt betrayed or have you ever felt that a friend’s, denied you? Or have you ever experienced someone who has, maybe a close intimate friend, who’s left you?

And so in the context of that pain that Jesus speaks these words, very first words, the first phrase in John’s Gospel, we don’t have it here. He says this. Do not let your hearts be troubled. It’s against this backdrop of pain that Jesus speaks this phrase. Do not let your heart be troubled. And he goes on to talk about why they don’t have to have troubled hearts. Against this backdrop of pain, against this backdrop of betrayal and denial and departure. And it’s against that backdrop that Jesus begins to speak about the Holy Spirit. And I just want to share with you the two things I think he says to his disciples about the Holy Spirit coming. And here’s the first one.

Because the Holy Spirit is coming, Jesus is really not going away. He’s really not going away. Early on in John 14, Jesus has assured his troubled disciples that one day they will be with him forever. Do you remember these words? In my father’s house there are many mansions. And if that were not so, would I have told you that I’m going there to prepare a place for you. And if I go and prepare a place for you, I come back and take you to be with me that you may also be where I am. Jesus is saying to them that one day his disciples will be with him forever. And that’s a great promise, isn’t it? It’s a great promise that death doesn’t have the last word. And Jesus wants his disciples to know that. Yes, Jesus is going away and yes, one day his disciples will be with them forever, but there is more to come.

If you’ve got your John 14 open in front of you, have a look at verses 15 to 16. This is Jesus speaking to his disciples. If you love me, keep my commandments. Verse 16 and I will ask the father and he will give you another comforter. Another advocate to help you and to be with you forever. Not only are the disciples going to be with one day with Jesus forever, but what Jesus is teaching them now is that he is going to be with them by the spirit. There’s one word in verse 16, which is really important and it’s the word, another. Our family tradition was on Sunday afternoons we had a big meal together. It wasn’t at lunchtime. We had ours, in Northern Ireland you called itdinner time, but dinner time is sort of five or six in the evening.

And the words that you wanted my mother to hear, or wanted to hear my mother say to us, where these words. Would you like another helping? And the answer to that question was always yes . My mother was a wonderful cook. Particularly when it came to desserts. Would you like another helping? If people say that to me today, I tend to say I better not. But when my mother said, would you like another helping? What she was saying is, would you like a helping just like the first one. Exactly like the first one. Would you like roasties and would you like a little bit more surloin meat or would you like another yorkshire pudding or which would you like? And so on and so forth. A helping just like the first. And so when Jesus says to his disciples, I’m going to ask the father and he’s going to send you another comforter, another advocate. What Jesus is saying is this. Is that the father is going to send to the disciples someone just like Jesus.

The Holy Spirit is just like Jesus. He is another comforter. Jesus has been the comforter. Now they are getting another comforter just like Jesus. Jesus has been the advocate, the one who’s spoken truth to them. Now they are getting another advocate just like Jesus. Another comforter, another advocate. The Holy Spirit is the continuation of Jesus with us. Yes, not physically beside us. But a reality within us. And that’s why in Paul’s letters, particularly in the New Testament, the Holy Spirit is often referred to as the spirit of Christ. Holy Spirit, spirit of Christ. Same thing. Holy Spirit is Christ in us. The Holy Spirit is Christ in us. And that’s true of each and every believer, each and every Christian. So maybe tonight you are a man in your 50s very, very early fifties but 50s nonetheless and you’re a believer. Well, the Holy Spirit lives within you. Or maybe you’re a lady and I won’t mention age at this point because it would be completely inappropriate. And you’re a believer. Well, the Holy Spirit, spirit of Christ, lives in you.

Maybe you are a chief executive of a business or maybe you’re what we would have called back in Ireland a bin man, a refuse collector. Well, irrespective of what you do, if you’re a believer, guess what? The Holy Spirit lives within you. The spirit of Christ lives and you just elbow the person beside you and say the Holy Spirit lives within you. That’s the promise of the father. That for every single believer, irrespective of gender or age or class or status or background, Christ lives in us by the Holy Spirit. I will ask the father and he will give you another comforter, another advocate.

Before we move on. I just love the imagery that Jesus uses to describe what it’s like to have the Holy Spirit living in you. So if see in in verse 16 that Jesus talks about the other advocate who has come to help you and be with you. And so having the Holy Spirit within you means that we’re going to experience being helped, being accompanied. Verse 18, Jesus uses the phrase of the Holy Spirit coming and he describes it this way. I will not leave you as orphans. In other words, having the Holy Spirit within you means that you have a sense of belonging to a family.

I met somebody for the first time, well, not for the first time, but I spent meaningful time with this person for the first time this week. And they were, they were sharing with me about how their children are adopted and described, as a father, one of the things that he has to do repeatedly with them, even though they have had these children now for nearly 15, 16 years, is to remind them daily that they belong. Because they struggle with a sense of abandonment. And as a father, and his wife as a mother, every day to remind their preciously loved children that they belong. And that’s one of the things that the Holy Spirit seeks to do for us to remind us that we belong. We’re not orphans. We’re not estranged in this world. That we belong to our father’s family. So the first thing that Jesus wants to teach his disciples against this background of pain – remember betrayal, denial, departure – is that in reality, he’s not going away. The spirit is the spirit of Jesus who comes to live within us.

But Jesus has one more thing that he wants to say to his disciples. And it’s about love. And it’s about truth. On Friday past we had a kid’s club down in Vevey. We had about 29 kids all under the age of 10, all who had had too much sugar, and were really energetic and full of life. And we had a little strap line for our Holy Bible Club, our Fun Friday, as we call it, and it goes like this. When life is sad God is good. So whenever I said, when life is sad, they would shout back. God is good. And we had this particular 10 year old who decided that he would be very contrary. And so I said, when life is bad or when life is sad, he shouted back, God is mad. And you knew what? That child spoke wisdom. Because how many of us as adults have gone through sad times and questioned God. God, are You mad? Why are you allowing this to happen?

Life is sad. Sometimes we conclude that God stepped away. God’s backed off. God’s love is stopped. God’s mad. And Jesus now addresses that very issue. Remember the context. Betrayal, denial and departure against this background of pain. Jesus has spoken words, profound words. When he said to his disciples, do not let your hearts be troubled. Against this background of pain. Do not let your heart. Jesus is inviting his disciples, even in their pain, to trust him with their pain. To not conclude that they are no longer loved. To not conclude that they are abandoned. Because he then says to his disciples – when he’s speaking of the Holy Spirit – verse 16, again, just to go back to that verse. He says that he’s going to ask the father and the father’s going to send another. We’ve looked at that word, another, another, and in my Bible its translated advocate. Another advocate. In some translations, it’s counselor in some translations, it’s comforter. What Jesus is saying is that the Holy Spirit when he comes, he’s going to come with truth. He’s an advocate who brings truth to us. A counselor who brings truth to us. I don’t know whether you’ve ever been in therapy and a counselor has brought truth to you. That is one of the things that the Holy Spirit does is, is that he brings the truth, the truth, that Jesus has taught. The truth, that Jesus has embodied, lived out and he brings that to us.

In verse 17, Jesus calls the Holy Spirit the spirit of truth. Back up half a dozen verses, and we’ll hear Jesus say: I am the way, the truth, and the life. The Holy Spirit brings us the truth that Jesus teaches, the truth that Jesus embodies. And he brings that to us. And Jesus highlights a particular truth. Verses 20 and 21, that the holy spirit will bring to us. If you’re looking at John 14, have a look at 20 to 21. This is, this is Jesus speaking to his disciples. Here’s one of the truths that the Holy Spirit will bring to us. Verse 20 on that day, what day? The day that the Holy Spirit comes, you will realize that I am in the Father and you are in me and I am in you. Whoever has my commands and keeps them is the one who loves me. The one who loves me will be loved by my Father and I too will love them. One of the things that the Holy Spirit, one of the truths that the Holy Spirit will bring to us is that we are intimately and deeply connected, not only to Jesus – you are in me – that beautiful phrase. But not only are we deeply connected to Jesus that we are in him, but we are also deeply and intimately connected to the Father. And what does that mean in reality? Well, it means in reality that we will know the Father’s love and the love of the Son as well. Here’s the truth, one of the truths that the Holy Spirit will bring to us and it’s this. We are loved. Loved by the Father. We are loved by the Son. The Holy Spirit make real to us. It makes real to us the experience of that love. I think it’s a wonderful prayer to pray. Holy Spirit, will you open up my mind and my heart to the love that the Father has for me? Holy Spirit, will you open up my mind and heart to the love that the Son has for me.

I think that’s a great prayer to prey. So here’s your homework. Why don’t you pray that every day for the next week. Maybe you wake up in the morning, the alarm clock’s going off, before you get up. Just pray that. And if you’re feeling adventurous as you put your head on the pillow at night, why don’t you pray it again? So that’s your homework for next week.

One of my favourite hymns is written by a Scotsman called George Matheson. The hymn is entitled: O love that wilt not let me go. Does anybody know that hymn? O love that wilt not let me go. This is George Matheson talking about this hymn. He said this. “My hymn was composed in the months on the evening of June the sixth, 1882. I was at that time alone. It was the day of my sister’s marriage and the rest of my family were staying overnight in Glasgow. Something had happened to me which was known only to myself and which caused me the most severe mental suffering. The hymn was the fruits of that suffering. It was the quickest bit of work I ever did in my life. I had the impression of having it dictated to me by some inward voice. I am quite sure that the whole work was completed in five minutes.” I never imagined writing a hymn in five minutes. In five minutes. “And equally sure that it never received at my hands any retouching or correction. I have no natural gift of rhythm. All the other verses I have written are manufactured articles. This came like a day spring from on high. I have never been able to gain once more the same fervor in verse”

And then this is an editor’s note. “Matheson obviously didn’t intend to tell us what caused his most severe mental suffering. But people who know his background strongly suspect that it had to do with a heartbreaking experience several years earlier. His fiancé had broken her engagement to him, telling him that she couldn’t see herself going through life, married to a blind man. Matheson was blind. Matheson never married, and it seems likely that his sister’s wedding brought the memory of the woman that he had loved and the wedding that he had never enjoyed. And the title of the hymn that he wrote: O love that wilt not let me go.

That’s the love that the Holy Spirit brings to each one of us. The love of the father and the love of the son. John 14, that’s set against pain. What are they again? Betrayal, denial, departure. Against that pain ends with Jesus speaking these words. Peace. You probably know these words. Peace. I leave with you. My peace, I give you. I do not give to you as the world gives. Do not let your hearts be troubled. Do not be afraid. How can he say those words? He can say those words, because he knows the spirit’s coming. Come Holy Spirit. Amen.

26 May 2019 – Talk by Michael Cotton

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The subject is of the readings we’ve heard – the sower. This is a well known parable. In fact, it’s one of the parables that appears in all three gospels, Matthew, Mark and Luke. And of course it brings up the question, well, why did Jesus speak in parables? The disciples, in fact, asked this very question in the bit of Matthew that we had read out now and his reply was characteristically oblique. So we have to again, ask ourselves why? Why did Jesus speak in this manner that wasn’t immediately obvious to his listeners what he was trying to say? Even the disciples who were with him asked him, why do you speak like this? What’s the aim and Jesus’ reply is because the knowledge of the secrets of the Kingdom of Heaven has been given to you and not to them. In other words, this has been the knowledge of the secrets of the heaven have been given to the disciples and not to all those other people. Now what does that mean? It’s because the disciples were the ones who were with Jesus. In other words, if we want to hear about the secrets of the Kingdom of God, we’ve got to be with Jesus. There’s really no other way.

He then goes on to say in explanation. To those who much is given an abundance can be expected and those who don’t have much even that will be taken away. Now I guess this makes you recall another parable that of the talents so called. Actually of the minas, minas being coins or gold bags. In Matthew 25 and Luke 19. This message is Jesus’ injunction to believers, not just to play it safe, to do little or nothing, but to serve God fully and expect to get results. In other words, if you seek spiritual gain, you’ll get more and more. But if you don’t, your spiritual poverty will lead to spiritual bankruptcy. It’s pretty hard hitting stuff. But I digress a bit. In the parable of the sower. Jesus actually says he speaks so that his disciples will hear and understand. In another part of Isaiah, Jesus quotes the Lord speaking to the prophet saying; “Be ever hearing, but never understanding, be ever seeing, but never perceiving.” He understood what was actually going to happen to the Israelite nation, that they heard the message, but they didn’t want to hear it. And ultimately they came a cropper.

Isaiah 55, a bit later in the passage we heard says, “my word that goes out from my mouth, it will not return to me empty.” In other words, we can be confident that when Jesus speaks, it has an impact.

The prophet was sent to the people of Israel, but their hearts were hardened and the end result was the destruction of their nation. And in the same way that the Jewish leaders had closed their minds to Jesus himself and the very religion that they wished to preserve was all but swept away. Now, so therefore, do we hear and understand. A parable is a story with a para. In other words, a meaning aside, a place aside. It’s something known from the Psalms from ages back. Psalm 78 verses one and two says: “My people hear my teaching. Listen to the words of my mouth, I will open my mouth with a parable. I will utter hidden things from all.” And Jesus of course was the King of parables – this was typically his genre. He used a well known situation that everyone could grasp and gave eternal meaning. In our passage he tells us the meaning. He interprets his own parable. There is no doubt of what he wanted to say. So we can ask well, is there really anything more to be said? Well, I think so. The seed falling on different types of ground, the path, the rocks, the thorns, these are the places obviously where the seed did not last, where it got eaten by birds, scorched by the sun or choked by weeds. The first is equivalent to where there’s no understanding. The second to where acceptance remains superficial and the third where they’re just too many worries and cares. I wonder, does this sound familiar to you? Let’s fix some landmarks. The farmer, who is actually not mentioned, is Jesus himself. The sower is his church. The seed is his message and the ground is the people of the world, or us. Well, surely we are not those who can’t really make out what the message means.

The message is of course none other than the Gospel itself. What is though this Gospel? And I think that’s why we say the creed every Sunday. That is the Gospel in a nutshell, that Jesus is the Messiah who demonstrated the nature of God because he was indeed God. He was condemned by a Roman governor, verifiable historically as having lived. Was crucified, died for our sins. Paid the price for our judgment, ensured our forgiveness and rose again proving him to be divine. This is what we say, and this, I hope, is what we believe. The message is full of untold mystery and depths. Though we may not ever fully understand its profundity, we aren’t really those who don’t understand any of the message. Nevertheless, I think we all have roving imaginations, a mind that wonders and memory that is perhaps dulled and attention that is distracted. Or perhaps we’re too ready to argue, too ready to speak our mind, which is already made up. Or even perhaps we’re just so sleepy, weary and tired, we don’t listen at all. So please don’t miss out. This message is of vital importance. We may be like those for whom, the message is swept away by evil, by other desires, by the devil himself. That would be the seed falling on the path. But more likely it is for us to be the rocky ground. In the dry land of Israel the sun came up and scorched the seed because it could not develop roots on the rocks. Jesus compares this situation to being in the heat of trouble or opposition or even persecution. Or for a younger person, this might be just not being cool enough. When we simply cannot stand up when things get tough. When we simply haven’t got the trust or the faith to hold on to, then the seed just doesn’t grow. But all we need is a little crack in the rock where the soil can gather some water. My wife comes from Zimbabwe and I worked there for 20 years. And if you go to Zimbabwe, you’ll see trees that seem to grow straight out of the rocks. It’s an amazing sight. These massive trees and you say where’s the soil and what they actually have are roots that disappear. And the length of the root is often longer than the tree itself. It’s an amazing sight. And it is, I think an illustration, that even a little earth can establish, a growth that can in fact split the hardest rock.

The third illustration that we may be are those for whom the priorities of the world simply take over. That’s a very 21st 22nd century thing. I’m sure. Where, work, social obligations, ambitions, recreations pursuits or financial worries just supervene. I’m sure that sounds familiar enough. Just too busy. Too busy for church, too busy to read the Bible, too busy to meet for fellowship, too busy even to pray. Then the gospel is literally choked out. It’s interesting of course that Jesus doesn’t mention the seed that is washed away. Presumably because Israel was such a dry climate and it didn’t really happen. Though that might be a synonym for our age when there are a million alternatives to his message.

So the meaning of the parable is explained by Jesus himself. We can listen but hear nothing. Now, every day practically, I drive on the motorway through the Glion tunnel. I’m sure you know it. And I like listening to classical music on the radio and so I tune into Espace 2 and an interesting thing happens. As you enter the tunnel, suddenly the music disappears and is replaced by all kinds of funny noises, crackles and the vague sounds of people talking all mixed together and you can’t make anything out at all. There’s total confusion and by the middle of the tunnel you can’t make anything out even the loudest noise. Then suddenly just a little before you exit the tunnel, when you see the light, the music comes back perfectly clear. Isn’t that an illustration of our life battered by noises and voices and messages and and all kinds of things. News that just drowns out the message of God. But when we see the light, when we look at Jesus, it all comes clear. Even if we’re tuned in right, and the vision ahead is not clear, our goal is obscured. And finally of course there is the good soil where the seed multiplies a hundred fold, sixty fold or thirty fold.

I think there are things to note too, about the sower. Some hidden gems in this story. The sower, that is us, the church, strews the seed deliberately. He wouldn’t waste seeds on useless terrain. He would know the value also of fertilizing and preparing the ground beforehand. He knows he’d need more seed than expected to cover and allow for inevitable wastage. And he’d know that the ground may be deceptive. It isn’t always obvious where the weeds and the thorns are.

But he wouldn’t stop till the whole field had been sewn. He would know that some seed produces an abundant crop, but not all grow at the same rate or the same strength, and he’d know that you might as well only have a one in four chance of success. This is challenging for anybody who speaks, but I think it’s also encouraging because we may feel disappointed dissuaded when we speak to somebody about Jesus. To sum up courage and we talk about what we believe about our faith. And the response may be “not interested” or maybe superficially interested and we think we’re getting nowhere, But let us just be true servants of the farmer himself, of Christ and get out there sowing the seed. Amen.

5 May 2019 – Talk by Clive Atkinson

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It’s worth reminding ourselves that Easter doesn’t end with the empty tomb. The Easter story doesn’t end with Jesus appearing physically, bodily, to people. Because whenever you read the Easter story in all four of the gospels, the telling of the Easter story doesn’t end with the empty tomb or the appearances. There’s something more. And so whenever you get to the end of Matthew’s Gospel, Matthew 28, we have the risen Jesus saying to his disciples, go into all the world and make disciples of all nations. You go to Mark’s Gospel and you go to chapter 16 to the end of Mark’s Gospel and you read this. Go into all the world and preach the good news to all of creation. You get to the end of Luke’s Gospel and Luke isn’t satisfied with one or two verses. He adds on an entire second book to describe how the disciples go into all the nations and make disciples and preach the good news to all creation.

We call it the book of Acts. And then we come to the gospel of John. And yes, in John, you have Jesus commissioning his disciples to go out into the world. But John has something more. John, as part of this commissioning tells us the story of Peter. Peter who had denied Jesus three times. John tells us the story of the restoration of Peter, the recommissioning off him and I want us to think about that this evening. And we pick up the story. If you’ve got your service booklets to hand, in John 21 and here’s Peter and some of the other disciples. They’ve gone fishing. Peter’s gone back to his former occupation. It’s worth noting. And it’s interesting because the scene in John 21 is very, very reminiscent of the first time, three years earlier, that Peter had met Jesus. Do you remember that story? Peter had been fishing all night. He had caught zip, but at the insistence of Jesus, he goes out again, this time in the blazing sunshine and they cast their nets out and what happens? They catch the most enormous catch of fish. And this has a profound impact on Peter. And he falls on his knees in the boat before Jesus. Do you remember what says to him? He says, go away.

Go Away from me Lord. For I’m a sinful man. And Jesus looks at Peter and makes no comment about the fact that Peter is a sinful man. Jesus knew that already. But instead begins to paint a picture for Peter of what his future’s going to be like. And he says to Peter, today, you will become… What? Fisher of men. And so this adventure begins. Peter becomes one of the central disciples, probably the inner three, Peter, James and John of the 12. Peter’s there at the raising of Jauris’ daughter. He’s there at the transfiguration. It’s Peter who proclaims for the very first time, Jesus, you are nothing less than the Messiah, the son of the living God. So Peter has been center stage for the three years of Jesus’s ministry.

But then, at the very moment that Jesus needed Peter most, what does Peter do? He denies it. Not only does he deny him, but he denies him to a teenage girl who’s a slave. So here’s Peter the burly fishermen, intimidated by a teenage girl and he denies Jesus. And the teenage girl says to him, yeah, you were, you were one of those guys. You were one of his disciples. And Peter point-blank just denies the very fact – nothing to do with them. You must be mistaken. And it wasn’t just once nor twice. It was three times. And so Peter has gone back to his former occupation, he’s fishing and he’s been fishing all night. And what does he caught? Absolutely nothing. So not only has he failed Jesus, but he’s a pretty pathetic fisherman as well, to be honest. So things are not going well for Peter. And then there’s a voice, there’s a voice from the shore.

Caught any fish? And you can probably imagine the disciples turning round to see who’s asking such a stupid question. A question you never ask a fisherman.

And then the voice says. Why don’t you try casting your nets on the other side? Advice that you never ever, ever give to a fisherman. But they do and what happens. The net is full of fish. And it’s John who twigs who the person on the shore is. Who is it? It’s Jesus and Peter who’s short on brains and big on enthusiasm jumps in and starts swimming to shore and just leaves the disciples to do all the hard work. And when he gets to shore, there is Jesus and what does he find? He finds a fire that’s been lit. He finds bread that’s been baking and fish that’s been frying. It’s as if Jesus was expecting them.

Can we just pause things there for a minute? Just press the pause button. I’m struck by a number of things so far in the story. I’m struck by the fact that Jesus knew where his disciples were. Jesus knew where they were, so this is Galilee. The sea of Galilee and Jesus knew where they were. I’m struck by the fact that Jesus knew what they were doing. I’m struck by the fact that he knew what their needs were, and happily met them.

I’m struck that Jesus wanted to help them. I’m struck by the practical way that Jesus meets their needs. It’s not a sermon this time. It’s a fire. Who doesn’t love a fire? It’s big, freshly baked bread in the morning. Isn’t that wonderful? I’m sure you get up in the morning and do that all the time. There’s something beautiful, about the smell of freshly baked bread. Now, I’m not so much sold on the frying fish. I have to say. Give me a bowl of muesli anytime. Fish in the morning just doesn’t do it for me. But maybe for the disciples, that’s exactly what they needed. But isn’t it really practical? And I think as Jesus met the needs of his disciples, I think we can be pretty confident this evening to say that Jesus does exactly the same for his disciples 2000 years later. So Jesus knows where I, am.

He doesn’t need Google maps. Jesus knows where I am and he knows where I am even if I have wandered off. Jesus knows what I’m doing. Even if I have gone back to the old ways. Jesus knows my needs and he knows the best way to meet them. Jesus wants to help me and Jesus wants to be with me. I think we can be pretty sure of those things tonight.

It’s at this point where the story goes from here – Jesus and all the disciples and it narrows down to Jesus and Peter. One-to-one, just the two of them together around the fire. And I’m guessing that for all of us, there will be moments in our journey with Jesus, in our walk with Jesus, that it will be just Jesus and me. There will become a moment where it will be important where it’s not just part of a congregation, but where it’s just me and Jesus, no one else

Watch out for those moments and when they come make the most of them. So it’s just Jesus and Peter and Jesus is very tender and he asks Peter three questions. Peter responds with three expressions of sorrow and Jesus recommissions Peter three times. Just want to look at those just briefly before we finish. So the three questions are actually just one question asked slightly differently. And you see the question there in verse 15. Jesus looks at Peter – Interesting how he calls him by his old named Simon-Peter. Simon, son of John. Do you see the question? Verse 15. Do you love me? Do you love me more than these? When was the last time somebody came up to you and asked you that question? I hope it wasn’t a stranger because it would have been really awkward if it had been a stranger. Do you love me? It’s an awkward question, isn’t it? Because actually the answer to that question, do you love me – that answer could potentially define the rest of your life. Because if somebody comes up to you and says, do you love me? And I say, no, I don’t. That’s going to be significant in that relationship. If I say yes, I do. That’s going to be really, really significant in that relationship as well.

Many, many years ago I was in a counselling session with a professional counselor with a married couple. And the professional, counsellor turned to the husband, pointing to his wife and said, do you love her? And everyone, every single person in that room that evening knew that how he answered that question, was going to define the future of their marriage. Do you love me, Is a profound and deeply significant question. And Jesus looks at Peter and says to Peter. Peter, do you love me more than these? I want to suggest to you tonight that that for each and every one of us, myself included, this evening, that Jesus asks us that question. That this question isn’t just for Peter, that it’s for me. And It’s for you. Jesus will come to us at some point and he will ask us. Clive, he may come to me and said, Clive, do you love me more than these? And he will come to you and he will say your name. And he will say, do you love me more than these? And can I say to you that your answer to that question, will define the rest of your life

Please note that it’s not do you love me? What’s the question? Do you love me more than these? And the question that Jesus is asking is, is your love for me greater than your love for anything else in your life? Clive is your love for me greater than your career? Clive is your love for me greater than your retirement? Clive is your love for me greater than your wealth? Clive is is your love for me greater than all of your relationships? Clive, do you love me more than these? You see in that question you have what the Christian faith is all about. Do you get that? The Christian faith is a worldview and it’s a beautiful world view. For me, the Christian faith makes sense of this world more than any other worldview. The Christian faith is a philosophy and it is a world defining philosophy. The Christian faith is a lifestyle. It’s a set of behaviors. It’s all of that. But before it’s any of that, it is a love affair. So here’s my first challenge to you this evening. Why don’t you play this out this week? As you live out this week, Monday through to next Sunday, live out your faith as if it’s a love affair.

And just mull that over. Reflect on that. Think that through. What does it mean for me today to love Jesus more than anything else? Think of it as a love affair.

This phrase defines for us what it means, what Christianity is all about because it says to me that my relationship with Jesus has to be the defining relationship above everything else. Above my relationship with my boss, my company, my wife, my kids, my desires. It has to be the defining relationship. If that scares you, don’t let it scare you because I promise you, I promise you, I promise you that as you love Jesus more than anything else, then everything else falls into place actually. And so there are three questions and they’re all the same question. Do you love me? And then not only do we have three questions in this passage, but we actually have three confessions, three expressions of sorrow. So if you’re looking at verse 15, Simon, son of John, do you love me more than these? Yes, Lord, he said, you know, I love you. And Jesus asks Peter that same question. And Peter responds with the same statement. Yes, Lord, you know, I love you. I just wonder what’s going on in Peter’s heart and mind as Jesus asks him those three questions. Here’s Peter who has failed big time and he knows it. And he hears these words of Jesus. Peter, do you love me? And probably deep down in Peter’s heart he’s saying, yes, Jesus, I know I do honestly love you. But you know what I’ve done to you. And Peter is wrestling with his failure right now. And I think in that statement, Verse 16 “Yes, you know that I love you”, I think behind that Peter is saying – I’m conscious of my failure. I’m conscious of what I’ve done to you, how I’ve failed you. But with all my heart, this is what I want more than anything else. Jesus, I want to love you.

I don’t know if you’re here tonight and you’re asking the question about what it means to be a Christian and I need to be careful how I say this, but I want to say that being a Christian is not about being perfect. Because the Peter who says to Jesus here, in John 21, you know I love you. We know from the acts of the apostles, he blows it again.

So loving Jesus isn’t about living the perfect life. Yes, we want to pursue holiness. That’s our goal. But in this love relationship in this love affair with Jesus, it’s going to be about vulnerability. It’s going to be about honesty. It’s going to be about confession. That’s why on a Sunday evening we always have a time of confession. Because that’s part of of walking with Jesus. It’s this ongoing recognition. I feel I’ve done it, yeah, I’ve sinned. I have sinned against God. I’ve sinned against my friends, my wife, there’s things I’ve done. There’s things I haven’t done. And I want to be honest with you, Jesus, about this, recognizing that in my honesty, in my desire to be open with you, that with you, there’s grace that with you, there’s forgiveness.

I want to want to tell you a story. It’s a small story, a brief story. But this, this happened to me this week. I want to tell you about somebody, and I can tell you about this person because you will not know who I’m talking about. I got a phone call from an old people’s home and it was quite a drive from Vevey. And so I drove to this old people’s home to meet someone who I had never met before and they had never met me. But they were looking for an English speaking pastor to come and visit them. And I walked into this room and that there was this person in a wheelchair probably in their 90’s stooped over with age.

There were some pleasantries. Nice to meet you. I’m Clive. Understand that you’re looking for and English=speaking, pastor. I’m happy to meet you. How can I help you? And this elderly person began to pour out an event that took place in their lives 50 years previous.

And I have to say it was an issue of significance. And they shared that with me. And I find it very emotional, on two levels, one that somebody would be willing to be so vulnerable and honest. And secondly, the thought that that person had carried that for 50 years. It’s incredible thought, isn’t it? And then they said this to me. Do you think God can forgive me? That’s why they had asked me to come. Could they be forgiven? And we talked. We talked about the death of Jesus on the Cross and resurrection and the empty tomb and what Jesus was doing as he was dying on the cross. And this person was a chorister in a choir in their younger years. And we talked about Handel’s Messiah. Cause I thought, I wonder whether you knew my Handel’s Messiah. And I said to them, do you remember that piece in Handel’s Messiah where you sing “And the Lord has laid on him the inequity of us all.” And we talked about how Jesus had taken all of our sin, the inequity of our sin on to himself. And this person in their 90’s stooped over with age, prayed a prayer of confession. Asked for forgiveness with the assurance that through the death and resurrection of Jesus that there is forgiveness even of the greatest sins. And as that person – their face lifted after that prayer there was tears but there was joy as well. And I think one of the reasons why John 21 is recorded for us of the restoration of Peter is recorded. It’s recorded for people who perhaps have carried something for years and have wondered, can I be forgiven? And Jesus’ restoration of Peter is an answer to that. And the answer is yes. Yes there is full and free forgiveness. Not just for Peter, not just for my friend in the EMS, but for us all, whatever it is, there is forgiveness.

Three questions. Simon, Simon, son of John. Do you love me? Three statements of confession and finally, three statements of commission. And, I just love this because Jesus turns to Peter who had blown it, failed him big time and Jesus three times recommissions Peter and redefines his future. Peter thought the door was shut. Peter thought that it was over. Peter thought it was going to be fishing on the Sea of Galilee for the rest of his life. But Jesus says to Peter says, no, it’s not over. It’s not over, Peter. I’m recommissioning you. I have a future for you.

And he would say that to each and every one of us tonight. I have a future for you. I was in Romania, came back Saturday, week ago. I’ll tell you all about it at some point. Absolutely fantastic trip. But we were there with a bunch of 30, 40 teenagers and we took some adult men a men’s team, to Romania. And we were digging trenches and laying concrete floors and putting water into houses. It was just fantastic. But we had a speaker every evening and the speaker was primarily for the teenagers. And so the old duffers like myself, we all sat at the back row and listened. But one of the things that the speaker did at the end of some of his sessions, he sent these young people out and he said, I want you to go and sit by yourself for 15 minutes and I just want you to think about what we’ve been talking about it. And do you know, if it wasn’t snowing tonight, I might send you out for 15 minutes. But here’s my question to you. What is Jesus commissioning you to?

What’s Jesus commissioning you to? Now, some of you here tonight, have just said to yourself, he’s not commissioning me. He’s not commissioning me. You’ve just said that to yourself. You’ve just said to yourself that question is irrelevant to me. Can I just say to you that’s a lie? Just cast it out of your mind right now. So let me ask you that question again. What is Jesus commissioning you to. In your retirement, what’s Jesus commissioning you to? For the next week, for the next month, for the rest of 2019 what does is Jesus commissioning you to? What is he calling you to? And I’m forcing this a little bit because I’m guessing that for many of us, we would not even dare dream that God might commission us to something. But I want you to, I want to dare you to dream tonight that God may be standing before you tonight and commissioning you whatever age and stage you might find yourself in young or old. Jesus stands before you tonight and commissions you. And could I encourage you to spend some time this week and just ask that question. Lord Jesus so what are you commissioning me to right now?

It’s a dangerous question. It’s an exciting question. I wonder what that might be for you. Because the God who stood before Peter that day, who called Peter to love him more than anything else who spoke words of restoration to Peter and who give Peter a future is the same God who stands before each and every one of us tonight. And calls us to love him more than anything else, and who speaks words of healing and restoration and hope into the darkest recesses of our lives. And who gives us a future – gives you a future.


28 April 2019 – Talk by Elizabeth Bussmann

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Tonight I want to follow on from Clive’s excellent Easter sermon.

If you recall he talked about how Jesus came to earth, died and rose again to save not just Men and Women but also the whole of Creation – of which we are a part, made on the same day as all the other animals but created in the image of God. Animals but set apart in a special way and for a special task, as we shall see.

Clive referred to the fact that the 22nd April, has been known since 1970 as Earth Day. Earth Day was started in protest at the damage done to the environment and humans by industrial pollution.

He urged us to think about Earth Day through the lens of the Cross. And reminded us that one day Jesus Christ will come again and usher in a new heaven and a renewed earth. There will be no more ‘thorns’ either for us or for creation. It is not just us being transformed, it is the world we live in. He invited us to live our lives today to reflect the new earth and heavens – our choices, words, actions – everything about us should be shaped by that vision.

And that is quite a task!

You will recall the fickleness of the crowds. On Palm Sunday they shouted Hosanna, as Jesus rode into Jerusalem. Just a few days later, Good Friday, they shouted ‘Crucify him!”.

But before we pass judgement on them, just stop for a second and think, what would I have done?  It’s easy for us, sitting here tonight to say we wouldn’t have joined in the chorus ‘Crucify him!’ But how quickly do we sometimes jump on the bandwagon of popular opinion……without thinking. Social media nowadays doesn’t help. Only yesterday I heard a discussion about banning LIKES for kids. It is so easy just to press like and affirm or dismiss something.

Paul talks a lot about what he calls ‘working out our salvation with fear and trembling!

Don’t misunderstand me, I’m not saying we work for our redemption – that has already been done for us by Jesus, but we do need to work on the transformation of our MINDS, as Paul puts it.

In Philippians 2:12/13 Paul writes: my dear people, ……….Your task is to work at bringing about your own salvation; and naturally you’ll be taking this with utter seriousness. After all, God himself is the one who’s at work among you, who provides both the will and the energy to enable you to do what pleases him.’

There must be no grumbling and disputing in anything you do. That way, nobody will be able to fault you, and you’ll be pure and spotless children of God in the middle of a twisted and depraved generation. You are to shine among them like lights in the world, clinging to the word of life.’

The phrase ‘working out our salvation’ does not refer to working to RECEIVE God’s gift of salvation. It means as NT Wright writes: ‘figuring out (with our MINDS) what this business of being saved means in practice.’ Someone once suggested it was like getting a new tool, game or musical instrument.  Great but of no use if just leave it in the cupboard. We need to read the instructions and use the new thing maybe even take lessons.  Just like the gifts God has given us – we receive them free but some of them take work and wrestling to work out how they benefit our lives. Not really surprising that it says ‘work it out with fear and trembling’. Many ethical issues today really do need to be well figured out with God’s help!

Our wonderful brains/minds seem to be  – or have become – automatically wired to respond to things in the wrong way – wrong habits. Or do you have to really force yourself to be angry, resentful, envious, sarcastic etc.!

We have been ‘born again’ and we now need to ‘grow up’ and work on learning the new habits.

Paul talks a lot about growing in ‘love’ – this in Hebrew is not an emotion but a ‘thought out habit of the heart.’ It is about re-teaching the heart/mind to KNOW WHY it approves of something and why it disapproves of what it disapproves –

Individuals but also Crowds like the ones we have mentioned on Palm Sunday and Good Friday often just follow others without thinking through with the Spirit’s help what is really right or wrong.  But Every choice we make makes a difference – let’s make sure it’ a positive difference – a kingdom difference.

As Clive said, we need to let our choices be shaped by that vision of the fully restored Kingdom, that our lives today reflect the coming new heavens and renewed earth. All Humans are very special in God’s eyes, I love the way in the Shack, ‘God’ says, ‘I am especially fond of you’ – but says it of every human being! But I also believe that God didn’t create us just to sing his praises, but also to work with him – in the creating business!

How often do the songs we sing suggest that the goal of Christianity is to leave earth behind when we die and go to ‘heaven’.                                                               The early Christians had a completely different priority.  For them Jesus’ death and resurrection was truly the launch moment of something NEW. The launching here on earth of God’s new creation, the start of the fulfilment of what Jesus had taught them to pray:  ‘that God’s kingdom come ‘on earth as in heaven.’

That Jesus rose bodily from the dead is important because it affirms our PHYSICAL bodies.  Jesus died to restore our true full HUMANNESS –which had been lost by Adam and Eve’s disobedience – and resulted in the very earth being cursed by their actions.

We are now living in Kingdom time –which will be fully established when Jesus returns to claim his kingdom and re-new heavens and earth.

The resurrection of Jesus is also the affirmation of the goodness of creation, and it is the means by which we are re-claimed, redeemed, reconciled to God. AND the gift of the Spirit has been given to help us to become the true human beings we were supposed to be.  WHY?  So that we can at last begin to fulfil the mandate given us at the beginning – to look after the garden.

 In Genesis 1.27 we read that God made HUMANS (male and female) in his image, to rule over the earth. In ancient days, kings and rulers would erect statues of themselves everywhere they ruled to remind people who the boss was! In a similar way that was what humans were to incorporate as well – signposts to God’s ownership and bringing glory to HIM. That probably reminds you that all through the Bible we read how God’s people were called again and again to be rulers and priests. 

The wise rule of humans over God’s world, is in fact what being in ‘God’s image’ is partly about. Humans were appointed by God, to reign over God’s creation, to be God’s representatives on earth! If we represent a loving God and are made in his image then our calling is to show love and wisdom toward the rest of creation of which we, too, are a part – albeit with a special responsibility. A responsibility that we will only fully be able to fulfil when we rise again with new bodies after death.

But a responsibility that we are called to start living now! As our collect today put it : ‘grant us so to put away the leaven of malice and wickedness that we may always serve you in pureness of living and truth.’

We find the the early Christians vision of the ultimate goal of all things would be In Revelation 21:2 there we read of ‘new heavens and new earth, the RE-newal of all things, the new Jerusalem ‘coming down from heaven to earth’ A world flooded with the joy and justice of the creator God. A world truly ‘transformed’.

The Bible opens with God assigning a particular vocation to humans: that they should look after God’s creation and make it fruitful and abundant.

AND the Bible closes with a scene in which this has come about only far more so. No, we won’t be going to heaven to sit on a cloud and play harps! In the renewed heavens and earth there will be new vocations and jobs – the ultimate fulfilment of those given to HUMANS in the first place.

We often have difficulty reading the Book of Revelation and yet it shows us a vision not only of all creation renewed and rejoicing, but of human beings within it able at last to bring the praise which all creation offers to its maker and at last to fulfil that dominion – that wise stewardship over all the world that God intended right from the beginning.

The point is that on that first Easter morning when the  very earth quaked as Jesus’ rose from the dead, the Age of the Kingdom dawned and is here – even if when we look around the state our poor world is in and wonder – God has indeed through his Son reclaimed us and given us back our original status as image bearers – of true HUMANNESS through his Grace.

And as Paul in his letters is constantly urging us that means ACTION, HERE AND NOW. We must live our lives now based on that future vision – Paul talks about anticipating the new life NOW in the present. The ‘earthing of heaven’ has begun and we as born-again Christians are called to learn to live as we will eventually live – not by obeying lots of rules and regulations. Jesus told us plainly what to do, ‘Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul AND – with all your MIND. This is the first and greatest commandment. And the second is like it: ‘Love your neighbour as yourself.’ All the law and the Prophets hang on these two commandments.’ (Matt. 22.36-40)

This doesn’t happen overnight and ONLY happens when we are prepared to ‘deny ourselves, take up our cross and follow Jesus.’ That is what PAUL is so passionate about helping us to do.

We all know about the Fruit of the Spirit and the 3 virtues of Faith Hope and Love. But these don’t grow automatically – they have to be learned, cultivated through hard persistent work.  That is the meaning of ‘denying ourself and taking up our cross.’

Rom. 12 and Phil. 1 tell us quite plainly that the more spiritual we are, the more clearly and accurately and carefully we will think our actions through, particularly about what the completed goal of our Christian journey will be and hence what steps we should be taking, what habits we should be acquiring, as part of the journey toward that goal, right now.

We won’t be fully human if we leave our thinking and reasoning behind.

In the words of St Paul, let us pray:


‘This is OUR prayer: that our love may abound more and more, with knowledge and all discernment, so that we can figure out properly things that differ from one another, so that we may be blameless and innocent

for the day of the Messiah, filled with the fruits of righteousness which come through Jesus the Messiah to the glory and praise of God.  Phil. 1:9-11


21 April 2019 – Talk by Clive Atkinson

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In the opening chapters of the Bible, Genesis one, two, and three paints a picture of a perfect place. I wonder, can you imagine a perfect world, a perfect world, a perfect place? Women and men lived side by side with God in a perfect relationship, perfect relationship with God and women and men lived side by side with each other in perfect friendship. And not only did women and men live side by side with God and with each other in perfect friendship, but they lived in a world, planet earth, which was itself perfect. In this perfect world there was no need for teenagers to go protesting about climate change. There was no need for David Attenborough to give inspirational talks. There was no need to glue yourself to Jeremy Corbyn’s front door. It was a perfect world. And then it all went horribly wrong. Women and, and men decided that they could do better than God, that they could improve on God, and they decided that they were the best place to decide what was right and wrong.

And that decision, the consequences of that decision were devastating, absolutely devastating. No longer would they live side by side with God because that friendship was now spoilt and and, and that friendship with God would feel cold. It would feel distant, it would feel broken. Even their relationship with each other. They began to be wary of each other. They’d be in competition with each other and not only did their decision impact their relationship with God and with each other, but it impacted the the world that they lived in and and one of the consequences of that, and these are the words of, of Genesis 3, was that they would start to experience thorns and thistles. But part of the consequence of a broken relationship with God was a broken relationship with the earth. That something decision about breaking relationship with God, twisted planet earth and Genesis 3 uses the word thorns to describe that.

This is not a trick question. What day is it today? Easter Sunday. See, it wasn’t a trick question you thought it was! It wasn’t a trick question. Today is Easter Sunday. Does anybody know what day tomorrow is? And the answer’s not Monday. Does anyone know what special day tomorrow is. So today’s Easter Sunday, tomorrow is Earth Day, tomorrow is Earth Day. The 22nd of April, every year since 1970 has been Earth Day. The day that we are encouraged to think about how we live on earth. How our decisions, our choices shape the earth that we live in. You may have come across an environmentalist her name was Rachel Carson. She was way back in the 1960s. And, and the sorts of things that we’re experiencing today, she was talking about way back in the 1960s and she said this. In nature, nothing exists alone. In other words, my decisions today impact you and impact this world that we live in.

So here’s my question. What does Good Friday, the day that Jesus died, Easter Sunday, the day that we celebrate that Jesus has risen and Earth Day have in common? How are those connected?

On Wednesday I flew to Paris and I had a meeting there and I arrived really early. The flight from Geneva was at 06.35 in the morning. I had to get up at 3.30. I would not recommend doing that too often. And so I was in Paris by 9.30. And can you guess where I went to? I went to see Notre Dame. I’ve got a confession, I have to say I’ve got a confession to make the metro station, at Notre Dame was closed. And so I had to get off at the metro station after it. So I came up and was completely disorientated. I had no idea where I was and I saw what I thought was Notre Dame.

And so I stood there and I looked up at it and there were other people looking up looking up at it as well. So I thought to myself, and this has to be Notre Dame. And then I thought you know what There’s not much fire damage to that church. And it suddenly dawned on me that it wasn’t Notre Dame and it was 500 meters over there. So I made my way over to Notre Dame. It’s just a tragedy to see it, a 950 year old cathedral, thankfully not destroyed, but in a real mess. One of the things that Notre Dame held was an ancient Christian relic. It was the, It was the crown of thorns and I don’t believe it was the real one, but they held a, a crown of thorns that certainly was knocking on the door of a thousand years old. Anybody from a royal family around Europe that came to Notre Dame was given a thorn from the crown of Thorns.

But it was, it was saved, thankfully from the fire. I found myself thinking about the crown of thorns. Jesus is being tried and the Roman soldiers aren’t being particularly nice to him. And they, they create this crown of thorns and the thorns and the, they put it on his head and, and uh, they place this crown of thorns on his head. And I began to reflect upon that and I began to think about Genesis 3 and how thorns, were a, a consequence of a broken world, consequence of my decisions, my rebellion against God. And here is Jesus, on the cross wearing what? Crown of thorns. And I find that quite, quite profound. And, and it made me think about what was Jesus doing as he was hanging on the cross and, and I think think Jesus was wanting to say, there’s something along these lines. These are my words, by the way. Do you remember the choice that was made in the garden? This is Jesus speaking the way I think Jesus might speak. Do you remember the, the choice that was made in the garden? Do you remember how it changed everything? Even your relationship with God, your relationship with each other, even your relationship with the planet? Do you remember how as a consequence of your choices thorns appeared? Well, today I’m going to take the consequences of your decisions upon myself. And he wears the crown of thorns.

Any any CS Lewis fans here? And Any CS Lewis fans? Do you remember the lion, the witch, and the wardrobe? So the children are in Narnia they’ve come through the wardrobe they’re in Narnia and they find it’s winter. It’s always winter and never Christmas. Imagine living in a land like that. But then Aslan comes and what begins to happen to winter, it begins to melt. And it becomes what exactly? Spring and summer. Aslan comes and creation begins to be restored. Jesus is on the cross. He’s dying. He’s dying for me that I might be forgiven. He’s dying, that I would be restored, but not only me and not only you, but in fact the whole of creation, the whole of creation. Of course Good Friday isn’t the end of the story. You fast forward to Sunday and the tomb’s empty. Jesus has stepped out of the tomb.

He was dead, but he’s now alive. It’s as if the, the curse way back in the garden is beginning to be reversed and he steps out into what? He steps out into a garden. Mary actually mistook Jesus for a gardener. Isn’t it interesting? He steps out into a garden and the power of the resurrection, the Cross and the resurrection begins to take effect. So there’s Mary thinking that Jesus is dead, overcome with grief, meets the resurrected Jesus and her grief is transformed. About a couple of hours later, Jesus, the resurrected Jesus, is on the road to Emmaus. There are two disciples. They’re completely consumed by despair. They think Jesus is dead. It’s all over. Jesus meets them and their despair is transformed to hope. About a week later, Thomas is in the upper room. Thomas has said if I need to stick my finger in a side and my finger in the wounds and then I’ll believe and Jesus, the resurrected Jesus, meets Thomas in the upper room and his skepticism and his doubt, is transformed into vibrant faith. The resurrection is beginning to have an effect. I just wonder whether you’re here tonight and maybe you’re struggling with grief or maybe you’re here tonight and you’re struggling with despair or maybe you’re here tonight and you’re struggling with doubt.

What we need is the resurrected Jesus to meet us. There was Peter, of course, wasn’t there? Peter who denied Jesus. Peter who said, Jesus, I’m going to follow you wherever you go. And then ends up denying him, the broken Peter, the Peter who was struggling with guilt and remorse. And Peter meets Jesus, the resurrected Jesus, on a lake shore. And Jesus takes that guilt and that brokenness and that sin and forgives Peter. And maybe you’re here tonight and you’re wrestling with those issues. Well, the resurrected Jesus is here tonight with mercy and grace and forgiveness.

But that’s about us, because I want to suggest to you this evening that in this day when we are wrestling with the issues of a planet warming up, plastic everywhere, I want to suggest to you that there’s a profound connection between Easter Sunday, the resurrection of Jesus and Earth Day tomorrow.

I want to suggest to you that actually Jesus didn’t just simply come and save me – and I’m so glad he did, but he’s actually come to save the whole of creation, the whole of creation. And I hope that as we leave Easter Sunday and enter tomorrow, that as we think about Earth Monday, that we think about it, through the lens of the resurrection and the Cross that actually Christ has come into our world to transform not only me, but that one day, one day he will usher in a new heaven and a new earth. A perfect place, Eden coming back and in this place there will be no more of these thorns. And I hope that inspires you to live today in a different way. That actually you would live in such a way that reflects the new heaven and the new earth that’s coming, that the choices that you make and the impact of those choices have upon the environment. Those choices would be shaped by that vision of the Cross and the resurrection and the new heaven and the new earth.

14 April 2019 – Talk by Clive Atkinson

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Chapter 19, Luke’s Gospel, the story of Palm Sunday, Jesus entering into Jerusalem, Mark’s retelling of the story of Jesus has been moving on a pace. And suddenly here, Luke 19, verse 18, Luke puts the brakes on the story of Jesus his retelling of Jesus, slows down. And Luke now goes into fine detail for as he describes the remaining days of Jesus’s life. Luke is slowing down because he wants to place great emphasis on the last week of Jesus’s life. And we want to take a cue from that as well. We want to slow down and make the most of the next coming days because the events that Luke is about to describe the events of Holy week, the events of the last seven days of Jesus’ life are some of the most significant for us as Christians. The Last Supper crucifixion and the resurrection. And Luke wants us to pay close attention to them.

And as we move into the last week of Jesus’s life, Luke wants us to know that Jesus is in control. And so we have at the very beginning of this palm Sunday story, an incredible emphasis on a donkey. Why you may ask, why does Luke take almost one third of his retelling of Palm Sunday, why does he give it over to a donkey is a great question to ask because within a matter of maybe three or four verses Luke repeats five times Jesus telling his disciples to untie the donkey. Why? Why all this emphasis on the donkey? Yes, donkeys are cute. Donkeys are cuddly, donkeys are lovely, but Luke is trying to tell us something because actually way back in Genesis, there’s this obscure verse that talks about the one who will come, a descendant of Judah, who has the authority to untie the donkey. All the way back in Genesis and Luke as picking up on this and by emphasizing the discovery of a donkey and the untying of a donkey, he’s wanting to tell us two things. A, that Jesus is this descendant of Judah, the Messiah that the Old Testament prophesies and that he’s in complete control. But what’s about to unfold over the next six or seven days, particularly around the crucifixion is not an accident. It’s not a mistake. This is something that Jesus has been living towards, moving towards deliberately. And in fact, planning.

It’s not a mistake. It’s something that Jesus has planned for. And in this story of that first palm Sunday, we have two very sad things that unfold in this story. And I want us to look at this passage through the lens of those two sad things. And here’s the first one, is that people don’t understand what’s going on. People don’t get what Jesus is doing. And so for Jesus to ride into Jerusalem on a donkey is a very clear and conscious disclosure of who he truly is, that he is the king, Israel’s long awaited king, and as he enters riding on a donkey, he comes, he’s regal, but he’s not threatening. He’s powerful, but he’s not using that power to start a revolution. He receives a ticker tape welcome of sorts. People take off their jackets and their coats and they throw it on the ground. They lift palm branches off the trees, they begin to swing them like flags and they begin to sing one of the Passover psalms, psalm 118. But they don’t understand what’s going on.

You do not cheer someone who is going to the gallows. You do not cheer someone who’s going to the scaffold. They don’t get what Jesus is coming to do. They misunderstand. What’s the answer? It’s a misunderstanding. The answer to misunderstanding is scripture. Scripture interprets for us what Jesus is doing. And just for the moment this evening, I want to look at a particular part of the Old Testament. Please don’t groom, this is going to take up two or three minutes. We’re going to look at the prophet that is most quoted during the last week of Jesus’s life. So here’s a question for you. There’s a prize to this. No, there’s not. I’m only joking. Who’s the most quoted profit in the last week of Jesus’s life? Anybody?

So it’s Zechariah, Zechariah. So just listen, just listen to this. So here’s Zechariah. This is about 750 years before the first palm Sunday. Okay. Zechariah chapter nine, verse nine. Rejoice greatly. Daughter of Zion, shout daughter of Jerusalem. See, your king comes to you, righteous and victorious lowly and riding on a donkey. Jesus rides on a donkey and he does it deliberately to state I am. Zechariah’s king. I am the one that was prophesied. That’s nine verse nine. Here’s 11, verse 12. I told them, if you think it best, give me my pay, but if not, keep it.

So they paid me 30 pieces of silver and the Lord said to me, throw it to the potter. The handsome price at which they valued me. So I took the 30 pieces of silver and threw them to the potter at the House of the Lord. Does that sound familiar? So what was Judas paid for betraying Jesus. 30 pieces of silver. And so he didn’t keep it. Did he? Cause once he realized that he had betrayed an innocent man, what was that money then used for? Buying the field called the potter’s field. That’s 11, 12. Here’s 13 verse seven awake sword against my shepherd. Against the man who’s who is close to me, declares the Lord Almighty. Strike the shepherd and the sheep will be scattered and I will turn my hand against the little ones. Gethsemini. Jesus is arrested. Shepherd struck. What are the disciples do? They run. I think it’s Matthew who quotes Zachariah 13 to explain what’s going on. This is Esther by the way. She’s lovely. You can meet her afterwards. 12 verse 10 and I will pour out on the house of David and the inhabitants of Jerusalem, a spirit of grace and supplication. And they will look on me. The one they have pierced. Jesus on the cross. Pierced hands. Pierced feet.

And then that’s followed by 13 verse 1. What will be the result of the one whom they have pierced? Zachariah 13 verse 1. On that day, a fountain will be open to the house of David and the inhabitants of Jerusalem cleanse then from sin and impurity. Incredible isn’t it? There’s an English hymn writer called William Kuyper who wrote a hymn and titled there is a fountain and the first verse is this. There is a fountain that I see filled with blood drawn from Emmanuel’s vein. The sinners, sinners plunged beneath that blood lose all their guilty stains.

So the crown as Jesus rode in to Jerusalem that day misunderstood what they were doing. They were cheering and go on, go for it. Whereas Jesus was coming, riding on to die. And the Bible helps us understand that particularly Zachariah. Jesus was coming in as the king to end all kings. The Messiah, not coming to establish a political throne becoming to bring forgiveness from sin for each and every one of us. And we, we celebrate that tonight when we share communion together. So the first sad thing is misunderstanding that. The second sad thing, and this is the last thought from this passage is rejection. Jesus is coming in, riding on a donkey, proclaiming himself as king and Messiah. And this last appeal ends up being rejected by the Pharisees.

They hear that the cried singing and cheering on Jesus, and they turned round to Jesus and say, Jesus, this is a bit too much. You’ve gone too far. Silence them. They’re rejecting him. And Jesus responds to them with the statement that if they don’t sing, if they don’t praise, the very stones will lift up their voices in praise. Inanimate objects understand what’s going on and you don’t get it, you’re rejecting me. It’s an uncomfortable thought isn’t it, that Jesus divides opinion. Some follow him, some submit their lives to him, others reject him wholesale. And you see that in the the Ministry of Jesus leading up to Jerusalem. Some people submit themselves to him. You see that wonderfully in the life of Peter. One day Peter’s minding his own business. He’s been fishing all night. He’s cleaning his nets by his boat.

Jesus walks up, commandeers the boat as a pulpit, stands up and begins to preach. Peter washes away thinking, well, once the sermon’s over, that will be it. I can go home fishing all night. I need my bed, I need my breakfast. And then Jesus turns to him at the end of the sermon and says, Peter, let’s go fishing. And perhaps deep inside Peter’s going, oh no, I just want to go home. But he says, okay, Lord, let’s go fishing. And Jesus goes, out onto the boat with Peter and Jesus whose never fished in his life turns to Peter and says, see, just your net over there. And within minutes the boat is jam packed full of fish. And Peter takes one look at Jesus and falls on his knees in the midst of these fish. And he says to Jesus, go away from me. I’m a sinful man.

And do you know what Jesus says to him? Peter, you’re right. No, he doesn’t say that to him actually. He says to him, Peter, today, come follow me and I’ll make you a fisher of men. And Peter lays it all down and follows Jesus. Submits to him. And there are people who Jesus, they just see him here the call to follow him and run after him. But then you get somebody like the rich young ruler. Do you remember that story of the rich young ruler? He comes to Jesus with an amazing question. What must I do to inherit eternal life? Brilliant question. And Jesus says, go away and sell all you have and come follow me.

And do you know what happens? He looks at Jesus and he walks off. Jesus divides opinion and here he’s dividing opinion here on this palm Sunday. People are praising him. The pharisees are rejecting him. I want to suggest to you that we all face the challenge of wanting to push Jesus away. I was speaking to a friend of mine the other day, Wonderful Christian lady. She’s got a young child and she’s got three daughters under three and, and Phoebe at this particular stage, Phoebe was a young baby and quite demanding. And, it was my friends habit to get up in the morning and to pray and to read the Bible. And when you have the three kids so young, that’s really, really hard. And she was telling me that she was just got to that point.

She was just exhausted. And, and she felt drawn to, to pray and to open her Bible and just something within her was saying, no, it’s just too much. No, I don’t want to do that. I just want to just rest. And she felt as if she was just pushing Jesus away. And then a thought came into her mind and she said, she began to sing, she began to sing worship songs and, and uh, and, and that sense of, of wanting, to push Jesus away a little bit, just began to dispel. And that sense of longing to be with Jesus began to grow in her. And I don’t know whether that’s been your experience, that maybe you’ve come home from work and, and the thought of going back to your small group or maybe you get up on a Sunday morning and you just want to lie in bed. And it’s just – Jesus, I just need my own space. And the answer to rejection. The answer to pushing Jesus away in this passage seems to be praise. That as we open our hearts and our minds to worship the lord, that actually we, we draw near to him as James says. And as we draw near to him, he draws near to us. Whether that is, whether praise, praise in our own quiet times by ourselves, or whether that’s gathering together as a community to praise him.

The opposite of rejection is praise. So we have in this passage two sadnesses. The sadness of misunderstanding and the sadness of rejection. And what’s the answer to misunderstanding is to get into the scriptures and alow the scriptures to help us understand what Jesus is doing for us. And whenever we feel tired and we’re exhausted and maybe our quiet time or our small group or churches is a bridge too far, maybe the answer to that attitude, to that challenge is praise. It’s lifting up our voices, lifting up our hearts to the Lord.

7 April 2019 – Talk by Clive Atkinson

So if you have your service booklets open, I would love us to look at that little Gospel passage from John 12 and I find it a beautiful and moving story. It’s one of the features of John’s Gospel that John presents Jesus from the point of view of Jesus meeting normal people. He interacts with human beings and here we have Jesus interacting with Mary of Bethany. This is a special passage. It’s six days, maybe six or seven days from Good Friday. At the very beginning of the passage, in verse one, John tells us that it’s close to the Passover. Six days before the Passover that feast where the children of Israel would remember that great escape from captivity in Egypt, that great escape entering into freedom and to moving towards the promised land. And it was six days before the Passover would be celebrated that evening when Jesus would gather his disciples together, break bread, drink wine.

And that very night he would be arrested and the next day crucified. And so it’s against that background. It’s against the background of Good Friday and Easter Sunday that John tells us this story. And what happens? Well, a supper, a dinner has been thrown, in honour of Jesus, probably marking the incredible event of Lazarus being raised from the dead. We’re in John 12. If we went back to John 11, there’s the story of Lazarus being raised from the dead. Martha, Lazarus’s sister, she’s serving and Lazarus is reclining and who can blame him? But then Mary appears and she begins to pour a lotion an expensive perfume, about 500 mills, over the feet of Jesus. I need to make a confession tonight. I love aftershave. That is one of my weaknesses. And whenever I’m passing through airports, I do tend to walk over to the section of the aftershave you knew the bottles that are open I’ll take anything that’s free.

But I am always surprised just how expensive aftershave is. Nothing compared to perfume, I would imagine. But we’re told here that Mary has taken pure Narda. It’s like a lotion, a perfume lotion. And she takes 500 mills. Now what’s 500 mills? It’s about three quarters of a bottle of wine isn’t it? Isn’t that 500 mils? And again, whenever I put a bit of aftershave on its a drop or two, I know nothing about perfume but that’s a drop or two when it comes to aftershave. But here is 500 mills. Now ladies, can you imagine going home tonight and taking your most expensive perfume? Usually it’s about a hundred mils – 50 to a hundred mils. And imagine pouring that over someone’s feet. Now a couple of things maybe you would think to yourself, this is my most expensive perfume. What on Earth am I doing? But I would imagine your house probably for the next two weeks, would smell of nothing other than that expensive perfume.

So Mary ticks the most expensive perfume that she has and Jesus is reclining, he’s probably has his feet to the outside and his, his arms and head facing the table where the food is and she pours the lotion over his feet. And if that isn’t the crowd stopper what happens next? Probably silences the room because what she will do as a, as a Middle Eastern woman, her hair will have been tied up because a Middle Eastern women traditionally will have tied up her hair, and she will have had some sort of way, probably a bow or something that ties it up and she will, she will untie the bow and her hair will fall.

If you knew anything about Middle Eastern culture in Jesus’s Day, the only time that you ever a woman ever untied her hair was in the presence of her husband. She unties her hair in the presence of Jesus, the one that she is most devoted to the one that she loves the most.

And she begins to wipe the additional lotion from Jesus’s feet with her hair. It’s a very powerful image.

It’s a very beautiful image. At All Saint’s, like here at Saint Peter’s, we have stained glass windows and one of the stained glass windows we have is of Mary wiping Jesus’s feet with her hair. And sometimes we have school kids who come in and they want to know about the age of the building and the shape of the building. And we always show them this stained glass window. And the girls particularly, I say to them, what’s happening in that window? And they look at and say, that’s weird! There’s a woman drying that man’s feet with her hair. That’s odd! What’s going on there. And it’s this story. John Chapter 12. And I wonder what you make of it. What do you make of that? Jesus is going to tell us later why Mary did what she did, that he’s going to tell her that, that Mary has grasped something, that Mary has understood something, something to do with Jesus and something to do with the Passover. And her action is an action of preparation. We’ll come back to that in a minute.

But the house is silent. Mary is wiping Jesus’s feet with her hair. In Middle Eastern houses in Jesus’s Day, the the lowest servant, the servant who was on the lowest rank was the one who washed your feet whenever you walked into the house. So if Denato was a landlord in the middle east in Jesus’ Day, and you walked into Donato’s house, he would have a servant and that servant’s responsibility would be to wash your feet. To wash off the dust and the grime and the dirt because obviously in those days you wore sandals. You didn’t wear socks. And here’s Mary, not only in this amazing act of devotion, but she’s putting herself in the place of what? The lowest servant. At Jesus’s feet.

Sometimes acts of devotion look foolish to some. And here’s Judas in the second half of the story, Judas criticizes Mary and Jesus sees Mary pouring out this lotion on Jesus’s feet. And what does Judas think? Well, what a waste. And he offers a plausible objection. He says we could have taken that expensive perfume, we could have sold it and we could have given the money to the poor. Interesting contrast, isn’t it? The, the worship of Mary and the criticism of Judas. We’re meant to see that contrast. Mary kneels before Jesus’s. She gives him the most expensive things that she has in this act of devotion. And Judas interprets it as a waste. Couple of thoughts for you. And then we’re finished this evening. I want us to think just for a moment, about Mary’s costly devotion. And I want you to see that picture of Mary placing herself in the place of a servant, the lowest servant and expressing her devotion to Jesus through this incredible lavish act of generosity.

She gives him the most, most expensive thing that she has. And I want us to think for a moment, a bike. Just this word, devotion.

I wonder where you would think about that word in your own life. Maybe I could ask you, what are you devoted to? What is it that you’re devoted to? And I want to invite you to think that one of the things that we’re called to as Christians, is to be devoted to Jesus, is to be devoted to Jesus and the part of following him is this act of devotion, this expression of devotion, this expression of love. And I wonder what might that look like for me and what might that look like for you? It may not involve perfume and it may not involve hair and it may not be physically at Jesus’s feet. Clearly that’s challenging, 2000 years later. But I wonder what an act of devotion might look like for you to Jesus. I think about what my wife Yvonne. And and one of the ways in which Yvonne expresses her devotion to Jesus is through music. And so sometimes I’ll come into the house and I will hear a Yvonne singing, down in the bedroom or down in the basement. And I know what she’s doing. She’s actually singing worship songs to Jesus. And that’s her act of devotion. For you, it might be, writing poetry. It might be going for a walk and telling Jesus just how wonderful you believe he is, but I want us to think in terms of devotion. What does our devotion look like to Jesus? Mary’s devotion. The second thing I want you to think about is Judas’s reaction, John tells us, if you have a look in the Bible passage, the motivation behind Judases words. If you have a look at verse four. “But one of his disciples, Judas Iscariot, who was later to betray him, objected. Why wasn’t this perfume sold and the money given to the poor? It was worth a year’s wages. He did not say this because he cared about the poor, but because he was a thief, as keeper of the money bag, he used to help himself to what was put into it.”

So actually Judas’s motivation wasn’t look at the poor. We need to feed them. Judas’s motivation was that money I could have helped myself to it. And you have this contrast of Mary giving everything and Judas wanting to take. Often we ask ourselves this question and, and we’ll, we’ll face it again in the next two weeks, is why did Judas deny Jesus? Why did he betray Jesus? And some have of wondered whether he became politically disillusioned with Jesus, but actually the only reason that we’re given in scripture was the reason why he betrayed Jesus was because Judas was greedy. He loved money more than he loved Jesus. And John wants us to get this contrast. Love of Jesus, love of money.

And that question. What is Clive Atkinson devoted to? Am I Mary? Am Judas?.

And finally, Jesus’s intriguing defense of Mary. It’s very interesting. If we have a look at verse seven how Jesus reacts to Judas’ words. Do you see it there? Verse seven. “Leave her alone.” Now, I don’t know whether it was a “Judas leave her alone” or was it “leave her alone.” I suspect it’s actually the latter. He’s coming to the defense of Mary and that verse seven is actually quite a challenge to translate. It was, he says, leave her alone. It was intended that she should save this perfume, perfume for the day of my burial. What an interesting one. And that brings us back to why did Mary do what she did?

She clearly had glimpsed, something clearly had understood something about Jesus, that Jesus had come to die and she got it. And so she prepared him for his burial. She prepared him for his burial. So three Fs for you this evening. Follow Mary’s example. Be devoted to Jesus. Flee. That’s my second death. Flee Judas, his love of money. And thirdly, focus. Focus on Jesus’s death and why he died for me. And for you.