Saturday, 19 July 2008

Sunday 20 July 2008 Bible Overview 3: Exile to John the Baptist. Melanie

Key events in the return from exile to John the Baptist

539 BC Cyrus decreed that Jews could return to Jerusalem and rebuild temple.

Haggai and Zechariah (prophets) urged people to rebuild temple.

Continual trouble between returned exiles and Jews who had stayed in Jerusalem.

Malachi (prophet) rebuked the people for misuse of the temple.

Nehemiah appointed ruler of Judah. Helped to rebuild wall of Jerusalem.

Ezra brought a Law Book to Jews in Jerusalem as a guide to life – later known as Pentateuch.

Those who had never been in exile cut themselves off – formed Samaritans. Built a rival temple. Led to lots of distrust of outsiders. Whilst those who returned from exile continued traditions of circumcision, keeping Sabbath, Synagogues

Greek rule under Alexander (336 BC)

Palestine came under authority of Seleucids – Antiochus IV.

Antiochus IV attacked Jerusalem; Forbade Jewish festivals; ordered copies of Law to be burnt; had pagan altars set up; Tried to force Jews to adopt Greek rule.

Hasidim Jews rebelled along with Judas Maccabeus– Maccabean rebellion.

Judas Maccabeus eventually entered Jerusalem and rededicated Temple.

Hasidim Jews split to form Pharisees and Saducees (Hasidim Jews became Pharisees).

Some other Jews formed own groups in desert (Essenes).

Roman rule

Roman Empire gradually took over all Greek controlled areas.

Octavian became ruler and took name of Augustus Caesar. Augustus reigned until AD14.

At about this time John the Baptist emerged from the wilderness, proclaiming the One who is to come.

We can only begin to imagine the chaos present in the country at the time. The Jewish people were split into several factions. The country had been ruled by Greeks and Romans. There had been oppression of the Jewish race by Antiochus IV. Above all there must have been a complete mistrust of foreigners and exiles.

Perhaps here we have a message for the church today. The church that is here for gathering exiles. Those exiles who have been made exiles by the force of our society – those who are rejected and labelled as outsiders. This includes the poor, and inevitably in this week of Lambeth we would think of gays and lesbians.

But the category of exile also includes those whom the world may judge normal, conventional, establishment types. The failure of old values and old institutions makes many people experience themselves as displaced people – anxious, under threat, vigilant, ill at ease and so in pursuit of safety and stability and well being that is not on the horizons of contemporary society.

Our ministry then cannot be about maintenance. It must also be about gathering, about embrace, about welcoming home all sorts and conditions of people. The church must have a ministry for being a place of home; a place for the mother tongue; a place of basic soul food; of old stories; of being at ease, and known by name; of belonging without qualifying for membership. This gathering is a crucial ministry amongst both the visibly excluded, but also amongst the visibly included who know themselves to be marginalized and powerless and under threat.

Welcoming in those on the margins is not the way of the world. But it is an alternative that lives on the lips of the church. And when we engage it again, we will be filled with energy and courage and generosity, enough to risk and to resist and to wait with eager longing for the Messiah who is to come.


How can the church be a place that welcomes exiles?

The Jewish people split into many factions – are there parallels today?

Who are the present day prophets?

Saturday, 12 July 2008

SUNDAY 13 JULY 2008 BIBLE OVERVIEW – 2 Acts 7:37-53, Matthew 23:29-36 Robert

This is the second of five sermons in which we are attempting to give an overview of the Bible. That’s quite a task, but we’re going to give it a go! Last Sunday Bruce began an overview of the Old Testament: ‘From Abraham to Joshua’. This week we are looking at the great central part of the Old Testament and the title is ‘From Joshua to the Exile’. So prepare to leap through about 600 years in a few courageous bounds!

I need to begin by saying that the great pivotal point of the Old Testament is the Exodus. God saw an undistinguished slave people in Egypt, and decided to deliver them from slavery and take them through a long journey until they found their homeland. It is so significant for the Jewish people because it defines their existence as a distinctive people; their relationship with God their Deliverer; Moses as the great proto-type of the leader they were always hoping would come again, and that act of rescue is ritually remembered and re-enacted every year in the Passover. It is so significant for the Christian because it is the model from which our own story of salvation takes its origin. We are very ordinary people, in slavery to sin and the powers of evil, and God through Christ comes to our rescue, sets us free, and leads us across our own Red Sea and on our own journey through to the homeland he has promised. That is the Christian’s salvation history writ large for us in a huge visual aid.

But Moses, who has led God’s chosen people across the Red Sea to freedom, and through the arduous years in the wilderness, dies before he can complete the journey. It falls to Joshua to complete the task, and lead the people to occupy the land of Canaan, the land which God had promised.

But this relatively small strip of land to the east of the Mediterranean is prized land because it is highly fertile. It is right in the middle of what historians and archaeologists call the ‘Fertile Crescent’ running in a crescent shape from modern day Iraq, Jordan and Egypt round to modern day Turkey in the north. It includes a great plain which was known as the bread basket of the Middle East. Many believe it was there that ancient people first began to grow crops and settle as an agricultural people rather than hunter-gatherers.

So it was always going to be the object of fierce competition – as indeed it remains today. Nations to the north and west from Syria to Assyria to Babylonia to Greece to Rome all sought to conquer it. And from the south, the great enemy was always Egypt. This promised land was a small country, ‘boxed in’ in the middle of all the great military powers who eyed it greedily from all sides.

The Israelites could never defend it in their own strength. They relied on God’s help, and the great question which was to hang over their nation during all these centuries was whether they could keep their side of the covenant God had made. Could they keep his commandments and rely on his power, rather than their own resources? Or would they rebel against the God who had saved them from slavery and made them free, and pursue their own ends, and find themselves, as a result, inevitably crushed between the great competing world powers? Sometimes they veered one way and sometimes another. Overall the lesson is painfully clear – when they ceased to rely on God, they became over-confident, self-reliant, broke his commandments, and disaster invariably followed.

And I don’t see this, myself, as God’s directly punitive action, let alone revenge. I see it as the inevitable consequence when a person or a nation or a church becomes proud and over-confident, turns away from the living God, and begins to live in its own strength. It is a fact of life. The wages of sin is death – not because God wills people to destruction – but simply because that is the final payout.

To follow the story through this period briefly goes as follows.

The twelve tribes occupied the promised land of Canaan not, initially, as a single nation, but as a loose confederation. This is the picture we see in the Book of Judges. There was nothing resembling a central government or organisation – the tribes largely went their own way. But when there was an outside threat, God raised up a charismatic leader who rallied the tribes (much as a romanticised history of Scotland sees a charismatic leader arise from time to time, and unify the different clans to fight a common cause against the English enemy).

But the surrounding nations were more cohesive, and they had central leaders who were kings. And after some 200 years, there arose a groundswell of opinion that Israel, too, needed to become a nation like those around it, and they wanted and needed a king who would form a central government. The leading prophet Samuel was highly sceptical of this desire, as he foresaw that behind it lay the desire to become like all the other nations, relying on human structures and military might, rather than on the power of God who had brought them to this land. No doubt the memory of that glorious conquest of Canaan under God and Joshua was, by this time, becoming something of a distant memory, and they were already becoming (so to speak) infected by the pagan outlook (not to say pagan rituals) of the native population who still remained in great numbers. What God thought of this desire for a king is neatly summed up in 1 Samuel 8:7 where He says to Samuel “They have rejected me as their king!”

But Samuel was persuaded and (with God’s guidance) Israel acquired its first king – Saul. After a bright start, he became a disaster, and Samuel quietly (and under God’s specific guidance) anointed the young shepherd boy David, to be king in Saul’s place.

We have no time to relate the story, but David became Israel’s greatest king who went down in their history as the model to whom they always looked back (however marred his character). Whenever times were hard for the next thousand years and more, they looked, prayed and hoped longingly for another David. What they imagined, of course, was another such great military leader – what they never dreamt of, was a son of David who looked or acted like his true successor - Jesus.

David was succeeded by his son, the great king Solomon, who built the temple. He was a great king, but in practice he was simply a copy of the great oriental rulers. Magnificent, lordly, worldly, with his army and his horses, and his myriads of concubines and wives. The very model of an magnificent oriental despot. It was the height of Israel’s worldly power and glory, and the brink of the precipice.

History bristles with tales of great rulers who sons cannot match them, having grown up in splendour without responsibility, pride without wisdom, power without experience, and who inevitably lead their people into catastrophe. So it was to be with Solomon’s son Rehoboam.

Solomon was hardly in his grave before rebellion broke out, and the result was that the kingdom split into two. The ten tribes to the north of Jerusalem declared independence and thereafter are named in the Bible as Israel. The two remaining tribes grouped around Jerusalem – Judah and the tiny tribe of Benjamin - remained under sovereignty from the capital Jerusalem and thereafter they are called in the Bible Judah.

To cut a long story short, the kingdom of Israel to the north comprising those ten tribes were attacked in the 721 BC by Assyria (the great world power of its day), the people taken away into exile and never heard of again. They literally disappeared off the face of the map. By New Testament times, this area of land is known as Samaria. The great Old Testament prophets (such as Amos and Hosea) had declared with great passion that this was bound to happen, because these people had forsaken God and his covenant, indulged in appalling social injustice, and forfeited their right to his protection.

Over the next hundred and fifty years, the southern kingdom of Judah lives on, sometimes rallying its faith and finding in God its great God and Saviour, and sometimes straying far away and finding itself in mortal danger. The crunch came in the year 586 BC when the Babylonians captured Jerusalem and took all the Jewish inhabitants away into captivity in Babylon where they remained for the next 50 years. Eventually they are allowed to return, rebuild Jerusalem and the Temple, and a new era dawns. That’s the cliff-hanger for next week, and the end of today’s history lesson.

But overarching it all, we have two readings today from the New Testament, which are angry commentaries on this long saga of God’s people. They tell us that, throughout this chequered history, God had constantly sent prophets and leaders, who had listened carefully to what God was saying, and told the people in no uncertain terms what they needed to do to repent, turn back to God, worship him in the right spirit, rely on him for salvation rather than their own armies, and avert disaster. On and on God had pleaded with his people. These terrible catastrophes, and all the suffering that went with them, need not have happened if only they had listened.

But sadly these prophets sent from God had consistently been ignored, laughed at, persecuted, imprisoned and often killed. That is the message that overhangs all the historical story I have been telling. And, of course, the message both of Stephen and of Jesus is only too plain. God’s people are repeating the same terrible mistake. God has sent his only Son – the greatest prophet, leader and saviour of all – and, instead of listening and responding, the people had conspired to have him falsely tried, tortured and crucified. And the inevitable result was to follow – within 30 years or so, Jerusalem and its Temple would be destroyed by the Romans, and it would not be long before the Jewish people would be expelled from the land God had given them for the next two thousand years. The lessons of Israel’s long history had not been learned.

The two readings Bruce has chosen for today to sum up this period of Jewish history are angry tirades against the religious leaders, the religious establishment, and all those who kept to the law, but failed to listen to God who was speaking to them through the Holy Spirit. It is summed up by Stephen in one blistering verse – Acts 7: 51: “You are just like your fathers. You always resist the Holy Spirit!”

Now I am very aware that my time is up, but I find it impossible to leave it at that point without asking where we stand today. What is the application of this message? Is it possible that our religious establishment is equally resisting the Holy Spirit and courting disaster?

We look out on a world struggling with great issues of war and peace, great riches and great poverty; a western world becoming ever more secular and an eastern world becoming ever more militant. If ever there was a need to proclaim the Gospel, it is now. People we know everywhere struggle with their finances, with their relationships, with their children, with authority, and overall hangs the fog of confusion and the hope of salvation. The Gospel of Jesus Christ was never so relevant and potentially powerful. The Holy Spirit urges us forward.

And what do our church leaders do? They argue among themselves about whether women may become bishops, when all around us (and indeed in our own congregation) we see women manifestly anointed by the Holy Spirit for ministry within the church of God. Do we follow where the Holy Spirit leads? Or do we insist on sticking by our traditions?

And now comes the Lambeth Conference, where our church leaders will spend their time arguing about homosexuality! It’s difficult to think of a worse or more negative advertisement for the Gospel and the Church.

It’s significant that both issues, at root, are about sex, which seems to obsess the church and become the worst of sins. But doesn’t Jesus always demonstrate his greatest compassion for our outward sinful natures, while reserving his fiercest condemnation for the spiritual and inner sins – pride, hypocrisy, passing judgement on others while failing to deal with the planks in our own eyes, and our own lack of self-discernment, faithfulness and love for God?

If ever there was a failure to read the signs of the times, it is now. If ever there was a failure to listen to the Holy Spirit, surely we see it as our leaders argue among themselves while the world waits for the message of salvation. Surely they should be uniting in sending out a massive message of encouragement to the church to preach the Gospel of Jesus Christ – who, to the best of my knowledge – said nothing about either issue.

I have opened up a huge subject without the time to explore it even superficially, and for that I apologise. But if we are to learn the lessons of the Old Testament, and pay attention to Stephen’s and Jesus’ condemnation “Woe to you, teachers of the law and Pharisees, you hypocrites!” “You always resist the Holy Spirit!” Then it is time to pray earnestly for our church and its leaders. The Old Testament teaches only too clearly the fate of those who maintain their traditions and will not listen to what the Spirit is saying to the churches.


1. How did you react to the debate in General Synod concerning women bishops, and the surrounding publicity?
2. How can we best pray for the bishops as they attend the Lambeth Conference?
3. How can we best be open to the leading of the Holy Spirit, and avoid the temptation to resist what he is saying?
4. What do you think the Holy Spirit is saying to us at St Michael’s now?

Thursday, 10 July 2008

Sunday 6 July 2008 Bible Overview 1: Abraham to Joshua Genesis 12:1-9, Acts 7:1-8 Bruce

Welcome to a new series about the bible, 66 books that form a library telling the story of God and his love for the people of this world. In this first week, we look at the first six books in particular, though the story of Abraham. There is an old saying: “The New is in the Old concealed, the Old is in the New revealed”. In the Acts, in the New Testament, Luke manages to tell the whole of Old Testament history. So we find Stephen on trial for his life, and he starts his defence with the story of Abraham. (The bible starts with the Creation and the first eleven chapters of Genesis lay out the ancient origins of the world. God designed a perfect garden where he could live in fellowship with humankind, but we made that impossible.)
In chapter 12 we meet Abraham who receives a call, and three specific promises from God. The promises are:

1. Land
2. Descendants
3. a Relationship of Blessing.

We follow Abram (his original name) around the Fertile Crescent from Ur to Haran, where he seems to settle for a while, and then on to Canaan. He arrives in the land of promise, but does not settle down, wandering all his life, so the first promise is as yet unfulfilled. God refers to the sinfulness of the inhabitants of the land, and that the time is not yet right for the “sin of the Amorites “ had not yet reached full measure. Abraham eventually has a son Isaac, and a grandson Jacob (who name is changed to Israel). So the second promise is fulfilled, but there have been difficulties on the way! Israel has 12 sons, of whom Joseph is one, and they end up in Egypt. Through amazing circumstances Joseph ends up as Prime Minister, in virtual charge of the nation; God sends the blessing. So ends the book of Genesis.
400 years pass and they are slaves! God sends Moses to lead them back to the land of promise. We follow the Exodus, as God delivers his people with a mighty hand. He gives them the Law by which they can live as his people. But all is not well! You can take the people out of Egypt, but you cannot so easily take Egypt out of the people. All three of the promises are in doubt. Are they ready for the Land; do they really want it? Will they survive in the wilderness, or will Abraham be left with no descendants? Are they so sinful that God cannot live in their midst? They spend 40 years in the wilderness, and God does live them, but elaborate arrangements must be made for forgiveness of their sins - hence the regulations in Leviticus and Numbers. Many times they doubt that God is on their side, and he must deal with their doubt and unbelief (read Psalm 95).
At the end of the 40 years, God recaps all that has gone before, and gives them the Law a second time (the literal meaning of Deuteronomy). The book finishes with the song of Moses and warnings about obedience. It is under the leadership of Joshua that the people eventually begin the conquest of the land God has promised. The book of Joshua records these, but worryingly gives hints that the people may not always be obedient. This will put at risk their occupation of the land, the future of the people of Israel, Abraham’s descendants, and their relationship of blessing with God.
It can be helpful to keep in mind the three promises to Abraham while reading this part of the bible (Genesis to Joshua). Genesis is pre-eminently about whether Abraham will have descendants; Exodus about whether God will deliver his people and fulfil his promise to give them a land of their own; Leviticus and Numbers about how the people of God can enjoy a relationship of blessing. Deuteronomy and Joshua set the scene for the ongoing story that will play out in the times of the Judges, Kings and Prophets, that will culminate in the Exile. In the New Testament we are given to understand that the promises still hold, but they are to be understood in new and wider ways (see the Magnificat and Benedictus).
Notice that Abraham was a pilgrim and wanderer all his days. The Israelites were always to remember their humble beginnings (My father was a wandering Aramean …), and they were never to claim a settled life as of right. Our imagery of the Christian life as a pilgrimage is rooted in the life and wanderings of Abraham, as processed by John Bunyan.
Abraham was a man of faith. In Genesis 15 we read that God promises Abraham an heir; “Abram believed the Lord, and he credited it to him as righteousness.” Abraham is in this sense the “father of all who believe”, and Paul looks back to this episode in Romans 4. We are each offered a relationship of blessing with God, because of our relationship with Abraham’s great Heir - Jesus, as we share in the same faith in God’s mercy and calling.
Abraham was not perfect. He was a man of passion, who made some doubtful choices. It is a principle of reading scripture that the author may have a view, but is not afraid to report the truth about his characters, warts and all. Similarly, Moses has lapses. We can still be inspired and instructed by their lives, and seek after a similar walk with God.
May I encourage you to get to know these stories, revel in the strangeness of visiting alien cultures and learning how they lived, but also to seek to encounter the living God as they did, hear his call and follow him wherever he leads.


1. What is your favourite part of the bible, and especially of the first six books?
2. The Baptism service talks of our pilgrimage of faith. What parts of Abraham’s journey has a resonance in our lives?
3. What verses from the New Testament do we know that refer to the stories in the Old Testament?

Tuesday, 1 July 2008

Sunday 29 June 2008 1 Kings 19, Luke 23 Melanie

I don’t know what you think about abstract art. Some people love it, others hate it, but children sometimes have the clearest perspective.

A grandmother once told me that her grandson best summed up her feelings about abstract art. They were looking at a painting with a wild mish-mash of colours and he asked, "What's that?" She said, "It's supposed to be a cowboy on his horse." "Well," he continued, "Why isn't it?"

The passages we heard today are like a piece of abstract art; a man praying as he nears the end of his life; a cup. Another man on a mountain surrounded by earthquake, wind and fire.

And the title of the painting is freedom.

Our human minds struggle to understand, to make links between the images, to discern, to penetrate what the artist means, to make some sense of seemingly random pictures.

First there is the cup. What does it hold? Does it contain all the emotions and events in life?
Does it contain wine? The wine of the Passover meal?

Then there is the silence of the mountain. Silence in which God speaks. Silence that comes deeply into the human spirit, that gives the meaning to speech, and yet creates richer silences.

Then there is the word 'freedom' boldly proclaimed at the top of the picture. What do we mean by freedom?

Abandonment, letting go, loss of control?

Always though to be free means to start from somewhere where we are not free. How can we be free unless we are first attached? Attached to something, by even the slenderest of threads, yet by that one thread still held, still fixed, until we find a way to cut the thread and be free.

And so the man in the garden prays. He prays to be released from this cup, the cup that holds so much. The cup that is full of joy, sorrow, blessing, praise, death, life, sickness, health. The cup that holds all things together.

The cup that is so full that we can scarcely begin to understand its contents. The cup that takes every ounce of energy to speak about.

The man on the mountain continues to wait. He listens to the howling wind, splitting and shattering rocks, breaking and destroying mountains.

He watches the earthquake tear into the landscape, ripping apart centuries of geology, bringing man made structures crashing around him.

He smells the fire, smoke reaching into every inch of earth, flames spreading talons near and far.

Yet still he waits. He waits in the silence, the silence where sorrows and joy emerge from their hidden place, the silence where the overflowing cup looks him in the face.

Then the voice of God in the silence, searching, probing, seeing to the depths of the soul and the cup of life - once safely hidden, now frighteningly displayed - vulnerable raw and exposed.

No wonder the man in the garden pleaded that the cup be taken away. Which of us could face the intensity of the cup?

The temptation is to run, to run from the silence, to run from self confrontation, to run from speaking about our inner life; to find a place of safety, away from the fire, the earthquake, the wind, a sacred place where we are not exposed. Not in a garden, or on a mountain - little to protect us from the cup of life there.

But here was God, in a place that was exposed, raw, vulnerable.

The still small voice of God

A still small voice offering what?
Perhaps a way to cut the thread
To cut the thread that attaches us to human fears
of exposure, vulnerability.

God's still small voice, that offers us the chance to abandon our deepest selves
to cut the thread that ties us to the cup of life
to experience the very deepest joy
that we will never experience in our life on earth

To come close to true freedom, abandonment, freedom to rejoice beyond the cup of life.

But without the cup, would we have reached freedom? Probably not.

Without experiencing the vulnerability of being human, would we have heard the voice of God?

The cup and the silence, these are two key shapes that have been with me through the last 5 years

Drinking from the cup has been hard, painful. This chalice that I was given five years ago
as I began this final stage of the journey to ordination has often challenged me, frequently hurt me, many times seemed an obstacle to me. I often echoed Christ's words “Father, take this cup from me.”

Then there has been the silence. All that has been left when words seemed shabby, helpless; when sentences seemed impossible.

And yet, out of this has emerged freedom, abandonment, joy, (or as I interpret it, trampolining, juggling, unicycling), all from the cup of the Passover and the silence and the voice of God.

And so the picture takes shape, the kaleidoscope of images - at first random - now begin to have a pattern.

The garden, the mountain, the earthquake, the wind, the fire, the silence, the cup.

Abandonment and freedom in Christ - freedom to rejoice.

Sunday 15 June 2008 Romans 8 Mark 1:14-15 Bruce

Healing and Wholeness: God’s Shalom – Week Four

Jesus came proclaiming the Kingdom.

His disciples asked when the Kingdom would be restored to Israel.

The decisive act was the resurrection.

Because Jesus is risen, we are freed from the guilt and power of sin. We are no longer are subject to sin’s mastery, and we are no longer subject to the power of death.

Therefore we live lives here on earth under the control, the lordship, of Christ, making his love apparent and real.

We live in a ‘now, but not yet’ time.

Our epistle is sandwiched between two more famous passages: there is no condemnation to those who are in Christ Jesus, and nothing can separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus.

For those who do not acknowledge Jesus’ Lordship, the world seems as bad as ever. Even for those of faith, we reflect in the words of our hymns this morning the struggles of the world that we share and inhabit, and our longing to see God’s Kingdom open, revealed, triumphant. All creation ‘stands on tiptoe’ to see what will happen when God’s new kingdom is actualised. The message to the people of Bree: there is a King once more and things will get better.

In the meantime, we get glimpses, down payments on the glories of heaven that are to come.

In the midst of griefs and struggles, God sometimes heals or intervenes. Because God is God, and we do not understand all his ways, we cannot predict, command, or explain when he does this, but we humbly accept it. Because Jesus told us to teach all he commanded his disciples, we are bound to preach repentance, forgiveness, and the power of God to cleanse, heal, transform lives, in the world today.

How are we to pray? We rely upon his Spirit to guide us and pray ‘within us’: sometimes we cannot find the words.

Discussion starters:
1. What is the most hopeful thing for us about being a member of God’s kingdom?
2. What is our response to suffering and illness?
3. What could we do, as individuals and as a church family, to reach out to bless others and share God’s love and power?