Wednesday, 24 October 2012

Sunday 21 October 2012, Matthew 6:5-14, The Lord’s Prayer, Bruce

"Give us this steak and daily bread, and forgive us our mattresses."
"Our Father, who are in Heaven, Howard be thy name."
"Our Father, who art in Heaven, how didja know my name?"
"Give us this day our jelly bread."
"Lead a snot into temptation." (Someone who thought he was praying for his little sister to get into trouble.) 
These misquotes by children might make us smile, but they point out the possibility that a well known prayer can be mumbled out on a regular basis, and not be understood.

In Matthew’s gospel the prayer comes in the middle of the Sermon on the Mount, and seems to form the centre.  Everything that Jesus teaches about how to be a disciple and to live well, hinges on prayer.  Jesus gave to his disciples everywhere, to us, this prayer as a pattern that helps us to encounter God and grow in Him.  From very early in the history of the church, beleivers were encouraged to memorise this prayer, along with other key texts.  The Apostle’s Creed tells us what to believe, the Ten Commandments tell us what to do, and the Lord’s Prayer tells us what to desire.  It is part of our story, of how we can grow to be more like Jesus.

1. Our Father, who art in heaven

2. Your name – may it be hallowed         }
3. Your kingdom – may it come             }on earth as it is in heaven
4. Your will – may it be done                  }

5. Give us this day our daily bread
6. Forgive us our sins/debts/trespasses as we forgive those who sin against us
7. Lead us not into temptation/trials
8. Deliver us from evil(the evil one)

For thine is the kingdom, the power and the glory, forever and ever.

What we pray and the order that we pray it in seems to very significant.  There are three requests towards and honouring God, and then four requests about our needs.

First, when we Jesus tells us to call God Father, he is not saying that God is like earthly fathers; he is saying that we have this privilege and joy of aspiring to be like our heavenly Father.  He is in heaven – all-powerful and mighty, but he is our Father – caring and noticing each small detail.  He is our Father – we are part of a family that fills all of time and space.

Requests 2 3 and 4 are in the passive tense.  There is nothing any of us can do to make God’s name more honoured, his kingdom come sooner, or bring about his will; but as we pray this we find our wills stirred that we want to see this happen, here on earth, now.  We find ourselves tending to think and desire different things – God’s things.  Our highest priority is to see the name, the kingdom, the will of God honoured and obeyed here one earth, in our lives.

The fifth request is for the material things we need.  Food, shelter, clothes – the necessities God knows that that we need and is delighted to supply.  The Jews of the first century would have heard this as an echo of the manna provided in the wilderness on a daily basis to the children of Israel.  In the west where there are always shops open, stuffed with food, we do not always pray this with the urgency of our brothers and sisters in less privileged areas.  We even start to pray for luxuries that are not evil in themselves but reveal that there is work to be done in establishing God’s priorities in our lives.

The sixth request is for another necessity, this time a spiritual one – forgiveness.  This is free and unconditional – on God’s part.  He forgives us, not because we are loving and forgiving but because he is loving and forgiving.  Sometimes we are given medical procedure or drug and it is not immediately obvious that it has ‘taken’ or is working; but a test can show that things are going well.  When we find ourselves able to forgive then it indicates that we have received his kind forgiveness to us.

Jesus knew all about testing and temptation.  He tells us to pray that we will not be led there, and in praying we will also be conscious of his guiding presence to lead us to avoid harmful influences and to fill our minds with all that is good.

This petition is closely linked to the previous one.  Jesus knew that trials and difficulties were inescapable for him and will be for us.  The reality of our Christian walk will be tested and but we pray for God’s protecting love to circle us and all whom we love, and we know that when we enter the valley, he is right there with us to protect and guide.

The last part of the prayer as we pray it, the Doxology, seems to have been added later by the early church and follows the standard Jewish practice to giving all the glory to God.  It brings us full circle , back to the praise and adoration with which we started the prayer, and acknowledging that God is the one who can make these things happen.

“Amen” is the word which signifies our acceptance, our “buy in” to the whole process.  It is our signature on the cheque, our pressing the Submit button that says we accept all the conditions.  As we join in and say this together, so we are united in obedience to our God and Father, as he has been revealed to us by our Lord Jesus Christ.

Discussion Starters

1.     If you had to share this prayer with someone who had never heard it before, which part do you think would surprise them most?
2.     How do you feel when we describe God as Our Father?
3.     How does a concern for God’s name, his kingdom, his will, affect how we think and act?
4.     Why do you think the petitions are in the order that they are in?


Philippians 1 : 3 – 11      John 10 :  22 – 30

Sermons between October and December are following the general themes of the Alpha Renewed Course, and today we come to a subject which I believe to be of absolutely fundamental importance – ‘Can I be sure of my faith?’

We have to tackle this in steps. Before I can be sure of my Christian Faith, I have to establish that I do actually have a true and active Christian Faith. Statistics show that although very few people today are actually professed atheists, and the great majority will pray in times of difficulty, a huge number of people (including many regular church-goers) will say they are unsure, and have not yet reached the point at which they can say that they know that they have placed their trust and their lives in the hands of their Lord and Saviour Jesus Christ, for this life and the next – because that’s what it means to be a Christian.

The word ‘Christian’ centres on the name of Christ. It is far more than just a general belief that God exists. As James remarks in his New Testament letter, even the demons believe that, and it makes them tremble. Christ stands at the very centre and focal point of the Christian faith, and He must stand at the very centre of our life. He has come knocking at our life’s door, and it’s vital that we have opened and invited him in, and acknowledged him as our Lord.

This may have happened gradually or at a consciously remembered moment, as it was with me 53 years ago. In the early church, Christians were known as those of ‘The Way’ – those who followed in the way of Jesus. And the Christian life is helpfully thought of as a pilgrimage, in which we are on a journey – our ‘way’ – to the promised land. In the New Testament there are two roads, the Damascus Road and the Emmaus Road. Paul was on the road to Damascus when the risen Jesus revealed himself to him in a moment of blinding light, and his life was changed for ever. Whether or not there is a blinding light, that is very many people’s experience. However long the time of quiet preparation may have been, there comes a moment of revelation, a moment of decision, a moment of truth. And when we respond to that challenge and say Yes, it is not just an intellectual response, nor yet essentially an emotional response, it is a response of the will. We decide to say Yes, and invite the risen Lord to become for us Lord and Saviour.

But there is also the Emmaus Road to faith. Perplexed and confused disciples were walking along that road when the risen Jesus drew up alongside and began to walk beside them. And as they walked together, Jesus talked to them about the Scriptures and explained to them what they needed to know about him and how it had been in the very nature of who he was that he must rise from the dead, and become Lord of all. And as he spoke over this period of time, their spiritual eyes were opened, and they said afterwards that, on looking back, they could remember how their hearts burnt within them, and when at last they realized that Jesus was risen and beside them, they realized also that somewhere deep down they had known this even as they walked with him.

Both roads to a living faith are valid and you will know which is the road you took, and equally whether you are still on a road which has not yet quite led to a living faith. If you believe yourself to be in that last category, and still treading that difficult ridge with uncertainty and procrastination as a chasm on one side, and the leap of faith into personal commitment on the other, you may come to Communion in this service, and simply, in prayer, commit your life to Christ as you receive the sacrament of the cross, where he died for the forgiveness of your sins and with the offer of a new life. It could well be for you a life changing experience.

Or you may like simply to stay behind at the back of the Church at the end of the service, where I and others will be very privileged to answer questions, give assurance, and pray with you.
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Now, if you have that living faith, you will want to know whether it will hold good for ever and is the rock on which you can build the rest of your life, or if it could be snatched away from you through sin or failure, doubt or just like the fading of a once beautiful vision.

In answer to that, the Gospel proclaims the doctrine of Christian Assurance. It is simply based on the fact that God is always true to his promises which are eternal, and that – once Christ has taken hold of you life – he will never let you go.

When such teaching is presented, many people respond with doubt. They say that they are deeply fallible, prone to sin and failure, and that to believe that they are saved eternally is therefore arrogant and it must be more humble to say that they hope they will remain faithful but they must never count on it.

Now, of course, if it depended on our steadfastness and our maintaining the discipline and vision of our initial vibrant faith, that would be only too true. Fortunately it does not. Once we have taken that step of personal commitment to Christ as Lord and Saviour, our assurance is based on God’s steadfast promise and not on our only too fallible faith.

Listen to Jesus’ words in our Gospel reading from John 10: 27 – 30 : “My sheep listen to my voice. I know them and they follow me. I give them eternal life, and they shall never perish; no-one can snatch them out of my hand. My Father, who has given them to me is greater that all; no-one can snatch them out of my Father’s hand.”

And listen again to Paul’s words which we read from Philippians 1: 6 I am “confident that he who began a good work in you will carry it through to completion until the day of Christ Jesus” – that is the final day of judgment. God will carry it through to completion – not you.

There is a hugely important truth that I am anxious above all to get across to you this morning. The Christian is a person who has become God’s child through faith in Jesus Christ, and God wants you to know that you belong to him and you belong to him for ever, no matter what. He wants you to be sure so that you can be confident and grow in the faith.

Consider a child growing up in a family. Broadly speaking there are two kinds of child. One knows instinctively that he/she is loved unconditionally and that, whatever happens, that child will always belong and be loved and acknowledged. The other child feels equally instinctively that he/she needs to earn the love of the parents. This child will be loved if they do well, behave well, and please their parents, but that love is somehow conditional. It may not have been exactly spelt out in so many words, but the result will be a child and later an adult who will forever be striving to please and to gain approval which is the road to love. That person is likely to spend the rest of their lives trying to prove something. I need hardly say that that can have serious and negative consequences which may dog that person all their life.

Many Christians instinctively fall into this second category. They think that life consists in trying to please God because, if they don’t, God will cease to love them and they will be rejected. That is not what God wants and it’s a recipe for a very insecure and impoverished Christian life.

God wants every single person who truly trusts in Christ for their salvation to know that they are loved unconditionally and eternally. We may sin and fail and sometimes fall away, just as a child will do many things which displease and disappoint the parents. But the child who is loved unconditionally knows deep down, like the prodigal son, that the moment they turn back, they will be welcomed with open arms and a restored relationship. The love has always been there, strong and true and unwavering.

Of course we want to live as those who please God. But the child who is loved unconditionally grows up to be confident and assured and will please the parents through natural response, not as a means of extracting a reluctant love. Just so, the Christian’s good life will be a natural and joyful response to a secure salvation already promised through Jesus, and never as a means to try and secure God’s approval and salvation through works of merit.

Now of course we will not be consistent in our Christian experience and feelings. Sometimes we will know that God is near and we will experience that eternal love like a warming sun. Other times our faith will be at a low ebb, and the clouds will cover the skies and it will seem that God is distant if indeed He is there at all.

So let me leave you with a story of three mountain climbers, whose names are Fact, Faith and Feeling. In the Christian life, Fact leads the way and, when the mountain is steep or dangerous, he secures his rope around a rock whose name is Christ, the Saviour. Faith follows and is securely roped to Fact. Feelings follows on last. Feelings are fickle and often all over the place. It may depend on many factors – health, life experience, sin and even the weather. Our Christian experience is wayward and whether God feels close or not will depend on a dozen factors which have nothing to do with God. But if we keep Fact, Faith and Feeling in the right order, our faith (however dim sometimes) will always look up and remain roped to the Fact of God’s promises through Christ. And Feeling will follow on behind and not lose its way amid the stresses and strains of life.

If your faith is in Christ, he will never desert you. And God wants you to know that his love is unconditional and that he wants you to grow in the Christian life with confidence, assurance and joy. So many Christians get this wrong – please don’t be one of them. In Jesus, God holds you in his arms, and he will never let you go. It is in that knowledge that we worship and praise him today, and for ever. Amen.                                                              

Sunday 7 October 2012 Isaiah 52:13-53:12 Mark 7:1-23 Bruce

Sometimes we find ourselves in a position where it would be easy to break the rules.  Our story from Mark’s gospel today starts as an apparently trivial dispute about some religious regulations, and escalates into a total reworking of how we should believe and act.
Whenever the Pharisees show up from Jerusalem, it usually leads to conflict.  This suggests strongly what will happen when Jesus eventually goes to the holy city.  The Pharisees are incensed because Jesus’ disciples do not keep the strict regulations about hand washing.  In the Old Testament there are regulations about how the priests should ensure they were ritually clean for their work in the temple.  The problem was that these regulations had not been prescribed for the bulk of the population, but the Pharisees were imposing them on everyone.  It was as if everyone had to scrub up like a surgeon before eating supper.
Jesus confronts them that they are hypocrites; the like to appear religious but they are not living spiritual obedient lives.  The whole of their religion consists of taking the righteous laws of God and changing and expanding them into a man-made structure to maintain control.  They are, in effect, taking the name of the Lord in vain.  As an example, he quotes the fifth commandment, to honour our father and mother.   The teaching of the Pharisees has the effect of wishing them harm by denying them financial support that they need in their old age.  In a dodge that any tax accountant today would recognise, they have transferred assets to the control of the temple, thus making the money in theory God’s, and putting it beyond the reach of their needy relatives.
In verse 15 Jesus says something that is blatantly obvious to us but that was radically new to them.  The whole idea, derived from the Old Testament,  that touching certain things could render you impure is misconceived.  Nothing that comes into a person, certainly not food that merely passes through our body, can defile us.  It is what comes OUT of us, out of our hearts, that can cause grief to us and to others.
The disciples are struggling to comprehend this, and this is not surprising.  A major marker of being a Jew has been the dietary laws that have marked them our as different for the surrounding nations.  Daniel in captivity made a significant point when he refused to the dainty food of his Babylonian captors.  Everybody knows that to be a Jew, there are things that you eat and things that you do not.  What can Jesus mean?  Is he really sweeping all this away?
The answer is yes.  How can they be so lacking in understanding that they do not see the obvious?  We carry the uncleanness around with us.  When God purged the earth with a flood, the sin survived because it was in the boat with Noah and his family.  Saying the right prayer or keeping the right religious observance is not enough to let us live an upright, spiritual life. 
Jesus names a list of vices that are devastating.  Some such as murder or adultery seem pretty extreme, although Jesus did say that merely to look at a girl with long was to have adultery with her in your heart.  But there is folly on the list, and I can be such a fool.  There is envy on the list, that leads us to coveting.  And if anyone looks at the list and says none of it applies to them, then they are guilty of arrogance.
We begin to see what Jesus is saying and doing.  If we were contending with a system of rules, we could work at it and become quite good at it.  The fact is that we are totally incapable of living at the level of purity and goodness that Jesus calls us to.  We all, like sheep, have gone astray, each of us has turned to our own way, and the Lord has laid upon him the iniquity of us all.  He bore the sin of many, and made intercession for the transgressors.  The cross was the place where Jesus took all of our sin, our uncleanness, our many transgressions and fallings short.  Every and anything that we have ever done.  All that we have wished could be undone.  Every occasion when we know we should have done more. 
Our theme in Alpha Renewed this week is Why did Jesus die?  My preliminary response, that is open to discussion, is that he voluntarily bore our sins, so that we might be cleansed and made free.  We are invited to so identify ourselves with him that we also are brought to the point of death.  We die to our selfish instincts and ungodly desires.  He was totally obedient to the will of his Father.  We are not, and never can be, except and unless we trust in him.  Jesus’ dying on the cross enables us to let go of all that was opposing God.  We invite the risen Jesus to come and take up residence in our hearts, changing our desires so that we want to please God and find for the first time that we are moving in that direction.

Sunday 30 September 2012, St Michael, The Transfiguration, Mark 9, Bruce

Today we celebrate St Michael’s Tide.  We have brought harvest gifts, and we are considering the next stage of the Renewal Project.  We need to be renewed in our lives, our community and in our building.

You will remember that the major question that we have been asking over the past few weeks as we have looked at Mark’s gospel together is: “Who is Jesus?”  We have been endured what is sometimes called the “Messianic Secret” as Jesus has encountered crowds, Pharisees, followers of Herod, his own family and his inner group of disciples, and none of them seem to have been able to work out who he is.  Worse, the doubt and scepticism of some people seems to be infecting others, so that we saw last week that Jesus thought that his disciples’ hearts were being heartened.  The disciples know now that Jesus is the Messiah, the son of God, and have been faced with the terrifying truth that he will be betrayed, and killed, and will rise again.  They do not understand. Moved by the best of intentions, even Peter has been found acting as a mouthpiece of Satan, tempting Jesus to take the soft option and find a way to avoid the cross.  Actually, Jesus says, it is worse than that, because if you want to follow him, you must also take up your cross.  In a world where people just want to get ahead and prosper, the true followers of God are those who are prepared to surrender their rights.   “For whoever would save his life will lose it; and whoever loses his life for my sake and the gospel's will save it.”  All four gospel writers record these words, and they seem to have been near to Jesus’ heart.  But he also promises that they (we) will share in his coming glory.  In the words of an old children’s chorus “If you will not wear a cross, you can’t wear a crown.”

Following on from this, just a few days later, we have this startling incident that we call the Transfiguration.  Matthew and Luke also record it.  Jesus takes Peter, James and John up onto a mountain, and he starts to shine.  They have seen him feed multitudes and stop storms, heal the sick and raise the dead, but this is different.  Always he has been a remarkable man, doing remarkable things.  Now he is permeated with this divine, supernatural light.  There are two men with him, Moses and Elijah.  Both, along with Enoch, were famous for having “walked with God”, and no-one knew what ever happened to their bodies.  There were clear links between them and Jesus.  Both of them had been sent by God but had been rejected by their own people.  Both had to battle with loneliness and misunderstanding.  Both had gone up onto a high mountain to meet with God.  Elijah was expected to usher in the “day of the Lord”, and Moses had promised in Deuteronomy that God would send a “prophet like me”; for them both to appear now indicated that God was fulfilling his promises. 

Once more Peter is terrified.  Another gospel suggests he had dozed off and woken with a tremendous start.  Either because he wants some distraction therapy, or perhaps because he wants to preserve the moment and the experience, he suggests building three huts so that Jesus and his guests can take shelter.

Jesus makes no reply.  He does not need to.  A cloud appears (is this supposed to remind us of Moses on the mountain top when he met with God and his face was transfigured and started to shine?)  Out of the cloud come these words:  “This is my beloved son; listen to him.”  And suddenly, Jesus is the only one that they can see.

This is our need for renewal.  Each of us will have our own response to Jesus.  We have perhaps taken on board some bible stories.  We have heard or said prayers.  We are aware that there is debate about the biblical and historical record.  We have formed our conclusions, and these may be fixed or perhaps changing over time.  We know a lot about him, have talked much about him, but how well do we know him?  Every so often we hear of someone who was a keen church attender, seemed to have a firm faith, and yet who suddenly announces that they no longer believe.  Perhaps they never truly believed but had been trying their best, for a variety of good reasons; it was the way they had been brought up, or they wanted to please a loved one.

The truth is that the Christian life is a miserable one if you do not know Christ.  I would go further and say that it is impossible to live the Christian life without a personal relationship with Jesus Christ himself.  We each need to “listen to him”. 

This is our need for renewal.  Even when we do know him, events and our own waywardness conspire to harden our hearts.  We need to “listen to him”, to encounter him and grow in him.

Thus the first week of Alpha Renewed is on the theme “Who is Jesus?”  There are historical and biblical answers to this question, but there is also our experience of him today.   I look forward to the chance to interact with you as we explore this together. 
The command to “Listen to him” is the word that we need to hear, each as individuals, and also as community.  We are called to be his servants in Camberley today.  We stand in a long line that stretches back to the Revd Smith in 1851, and forward into the times of our children and grandchildren.   There are many ways of “doing church”, and some would maintain that a traditional building such as this is no longer needed.  It will not surprise you to learn that I do not take this view.  Our Victorian forebears worked hard and innovated to stay at the cutting edge of engagement with their culture and time, and it falls to us to listen to what God is saying as we seek worship and serve in ways that will bless the people of this and coming generations.  Peter did not get it wrong when he wanted to build, but he was acting on his own agenda.  We are called to listen out for God’s agenda, to look for the direction and leading of his Son by his Spirit.

This is why we are not telling you how much we think that you should give.  As the PCC seeks God’s will for the detailed planning and implementation of the way forward, we are asking every member to consider what they feel that God is prompting them to pledge over the next four or five years.  One reason that this is difficult time to do this is that there is a recession and money is short; however the project is so large that even during a boom period we would still depend upon God to help us to do it.  Some might be troubled that the future is uncertain and they might have to vary the amount they can give.  All I can say is that if you are depending upon investments, it is unlikely that interest rates will fall.  Indeed, it could be argued that you will have a better return by investing in the kingdom of God.

Who is Jesus?  This is the question that we want to hold up before our families, friends, colleagues and acquaintances.  A renewed building will prompt some to ask.  Much more important will be the changed quality of our lives as we learn together, laugh together, pray together, encounter him together.