Monthly Archives: November 2016

Ready? (Advent 1a)

Some years ago I had a car accident. I was driving home in busy traffic when, without warning, there was a thump – a boy had run out and been hit by my car. I stopped, jumped out, was relieved to see him getting up, but made him wait to be checked by ambulance paramedics. Thankfully, he was OK – shocked (a nasty colour 5 minutes later, and very shaky), bruised. Police came, breathylised me and took a statement, then talked to the boy, and his friends. When they had done all that, they said it would probably be OK – the boys had been chasing one another, and it was an accident. Relief!

I had to go and take my licence and insurance to be examined at a police station. I found my licence, looked for the insurance. It wasn’t in the file, so I rang up the company. It was my wife’s car, and the insurance rolled over year by year automatically – but her bank card had been renewed, and the old one had not paid. No insurance! That’s a criminal offence. I went and reported, feeling terrible. I anticipated being called to court – and reported in the press “Vicar sentenced . .”

It took me an uncomfortable week to realise that while I was driving my wife’s uninsured car, my car was insured. And that insurance covered me to drive another car! Straight back to the police station. Relief! Life began again.

With Advent Sunday, we begin a new Church year, – you’ll see the gospel readings coming mainly from Matthew (it was Luke until last Sunday). We focus on the coming of Jesus – but today, the Second Coming. Not the baby of Bethlehem, but the return in power of the Son of God at the end of the world.  Our readings are full of it – Matthew 24. 36-44, Romans 13. 11-14

We are told it will be unexpected, -that many will be caught unprepared. There is a strong implication that it will then be too late to put things right. Judgement will follow, and as Christians we are warned to be ready  – ready to give an account of ourselves, our lives, our stewardship of all that God has given us, materially and spiritually.

Judgement does not mean God is hostile and wanting to punish. Think if you like of being seen as you really are. Think of how I felt, facing prosecution for driving without insurance! Yes, that was unintended, and accidental – but if the accident had been more serious, my insurance might have been needed to provide continuing treatment and care for a casualty. I would have been mortified to be exposed as failing to provide what the law required. I was so relieved to be – accidentally – not guilty.

Judgement is real. Everything we are, everything we do, everything we want, will be known – with all the reasons, and none of the excuses!

Do check your car insurance!
Do check your life is ready for examination in detail, without notice. The Son of God will return – it could be thousands of years after we die, or Tuesday afternoon. We don’t know, we are just told to be ready.

Christ the King (Kingdom 4c)

This week we celebrate Christ the King.  Most of us have some idea what a King (a ruling King, rather than a constitutional monarch) might look like.  Words like power, glory, majesty, and rule come to mind.  Power and authority are hotly contested in our world.  We expect a strong man, with more than words behind him.  Glory is less obvious; I might think of magnificence, but I suspect the re-discovery of the word “awesome” may be closer the mark.  Majesty might imply the right person for the right job, someone with the necessary qualities, like wisdom, intelligence, experience, understanding . .  We have an idea what a King might look like – but is it the right idea?

The reading is Luke 23:33-43, the story of Jesus crucifixion.  It is no mistake.  This is the enthronement of Christ the King, but we may need to take time to come to terms with it.  Jesus as King has power.  Here, on the cross, he does what only he can do, and offers his own life as a sacrifice to win our freedom and to win the victory over evil.  While it may not be the sort of power demonstration we expect, this is the final showdown.  There is no greater power than this.

The glory of Jesus is the glory of service.  As king, he does not subjugate, but frees.  If he has coercive power (remember the cursing of the fig tree?) he much prefers to heal, reconcile and liberate.  This is real glory.  In the same sort of way, his majesty is not expensive clothing, a luxurious setting and careful stage management.  This scene is awe inspiring for what it is, not for how it is made to look.

This may be a surprise, or just a reminder that we all have to remind and re-educate ourselves, so different is the Christian understanding to what we are used to in our cultures.  Yet all scripture points this way:

  • the gospels all build up to a climax at the cross, recorded in detail.  There is no “alternative ending”
  • the gospels also record Jesus trying to warn the disciples, explaining what will – what must – happen, and his refusal to escape to personal safety.
  • the early Christians preach Jesus death and resurrection as central to their story and their hope
  • in that Christian story, the figure of the coming King (Messiah) is also the Suffering Servant prophesied by Isaiah

And it is not only scripture (or my interpretation of scripture!).  Christians still, in different traditions, celebrate by remembering Jesus words of sacrifice at his last meal with the disciples – this is my body, given for you . . this is my blood of the new covenant.  They still hold to the creeds, with their recital of Jesus death and resurrection as of central importance.  Hymns and worship songs again and again return to the cross, Jesus death and sacrifice – for these are the source of Christian commitment and motivation.

Let’s celebrate Christ the King!

War and Disaster (Kingdom 3c)

The Christian gospel is good news – that is the literal translation of the word also translated “gospel”.  But sometimes you read a passage like Luke 21:5-19, and see reference to the destruction of fine buildings, war, disasters, persecution and betrayal, and think, “Good news”?

But the gospel is indeed good news, because these evils are recognised.  It is so easy to reduce Christian faith to a parody: “Be nice to people, enjoy the countryside, help those less fortunate.”  There is nothing wrong in any of those, of course – but without a strong reason to motivate a life of service and sacrifice, it is only platitude – so much hot air.

The reason comes as Jesus speaks of the sometimes painful reality of human life.  And it is the fact that he not only speaks of evil, but faces it himself, that gives weight to the way he leads.  Jesus faced a plot to kill him, was slandered and betrayed.  It is after he has been flogged and during his crucifixion that he forgives (as he had taught others).  By facing the evil of the real world, he overcomes it and offers us freedom.

The good news is about a kingdom where peace and justice rule, and healing and truth are found – a kingdom open to all who will admit their need of forgiveness and follow the one who leads the way through death to life.  Without the reference to the hard realities, it might seem just another bit of wishful thinking – a tale for children, to be left behind with childish things.  But a gospel which depends on one who lived this, went to his death by torture forgiving, and returned to encourage those who, despite their failures, wanted to be his followers; – that is a gospel for the real world, and for people who have grown to know some of how hard it can be.

Distraction – and focus on the important (Kingdom 2c)

Religious people have a sad reputation for arguing over trivialities.  I wish I could claim it was undeserved, but too often religion has been seen as trivialising, competitive, irrelevant – and the criticism has sometimes been just.

It’s a relief, then, that when Jesus is approached by a group of Sadducees, who did not believe in the resurrection or afterlife, with a trick question about relationships in heaven, he is not distracted.  Luke 20:27-38 has a basis in Deuteronomy 25:5-, regulations designed to safeguard families and their property.  The Sadducees had been foiled earlier in chapter 20.  Demanding to know about Jesus’ authority, they had been unable to answer his counter-question about the authority of John the Baptist.  Now, they want to make Jesus, with his belief in resurrection, look silly, or simply to distract him into a pointless speculation.

Jesus gives an answer which is straightforward and helpful.  Heaven will be different.  People raised to eternity will have different relationships, and surely a clearer focus on God and his plans.  He goes on to use the book of Exodus (part of the 1st 5 books of our Old Testament, which the Sadducees accepted as authoritative) to suggest afterlife.  If God can introduce himself to Moses at the Burning Bush as “God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob”, then they must still be alive in some way.  He IS their God, not WAS.  It is not an argument we might have thought of, but very much in the logic of this group. (see Exodus 3)

So, can we avoid the trivial, time-wasting and meaningless?  Perhaps.  But will we be able to focus clearly and sympathetically on what is really relevant and important, in God’s terms?  That is the challenge of Christian life in any age.  Jesus is a strong example and motivation.  Not only will he not be distracted in this exchange, but he will shortly go to his death.  All the gospel writers make that the climax and focus of their story.  Whether it will also figure in our story and conversation is a matter of daily decision, and focus.

I am grateful for Paul’s words (2 Thess 2:16f): “Now may our Lord Jesus Christ himself and God our Father, who loved us and through grace gave us eternal comfort and good hope, comfort your hearts and strengthen them in every good work and word.”