With England through to the semi-final stages of the World Cup for the first time in 28 years, there is a great deal of talk about ‘Belief’ at the moment. Captain Harry Kane insists that ‘belief is higher than ever’ and manager Gareth Southgate says “We must always believe in what is possible in life. ‘They’ (the team) have created their own story and made history. This will give belief to generations of players that will follow.” Clearly, belief is a very powerful property and one to be developed where possible, as it yields results.
Jesus was back in his home town for the second time. He didn’t have a very positive experience the first time he went with his disciples and the negative response this time is similar, leading Jesus to state how amazed he was at the ‘unbelief’ of the crowd. We’re told that he could do no miracles except heal a few sick people. Now I’m sure we would be more than happy with that, but clearly Jesus’ aspiration and intention was much greater, so what was preventing those intentions from taking place? Did Jesus lack faith? Of course not, but something was playing itself out here. Last weeks Gospel reminded us of how Jesus raised the daughter of Jairus to life, but first he removed everyone who was a distraction – those who were laughing at him when he said she wasn’t dead - from the room. The only people left with Jesus where those who had belief. With football managers, players and TV pundits all speaking about how powerful belief is in the performance of the team, there seems to be a link with the past.
Part of the rebellion of which God speaks to Ezekiel about in chapter 2, is the lack of belief of the Israelites. They have forgotten all that God has done for them. They have surrounded themselves with a different lifestyle, different beliefs, different expectations and as a result God’s desire to bless them is failing to get through in the manner he desires. What we surround ourselves with is important. It affects our behaviour. So … I wonder what it is that you surround yourself with? What music influences you? What measure of conversation are you surrounded by? Is the atmosphere in which you live positive and open to the influence and work of God? How, might you prepare for a gathering of the church? Do you arrive feeling frustrated or tired? Cross and distracted or expectant and hopeful? Is it usually a rush or are you able to give yourself some time to prepare? Do you listen to the news or do you choose to surround yourself with some worship music or perhaps spend some time in prayer and preparation? The condition in which we arrive for worship has implications for ourselves but, taking the experience of Jesus into account, it also has implications for everyone else as well. When we arrive together as the church of Jesus Christ, expectant that we will hear and receive from God, things change. Where there is faith, great things happen.
The Bible tells us that when we trust our lives to Jesus and in all he has done, we receive a measure of faith as a gift. Jesus is showing us here, however, that this gift, can be short circuited when it is surrounded by unbelief. Faith needs nurturing and to that extent, we all have a personal and a corporate responsibility in ensuring that we grow and do not stay spiritual babies all our life. When we hear God’s word being spoken, his name being praised, opportunities to study his word or to pray together, we would benefit from getting behind it, for as we do so our own faith is lifted and as our own faith is lifted the faith of those around us is lifted in union.
With the Lord’s blessing
The truth is always important. It was the Greek dramatist Aeschylus writing 500 BC, who first brought us the statement that: ‘in war, truth is the first casualty’ and here, Jesus is declaring that there is a war taking place. It is a war that is raging around us every moment of every day and is one that seeks to neutralise the truth of the identity of the name of Jesus, his power and his authority. This is one of the first moments in Mark’s account of the life of Jesus where the Lion roars. Jesus speaks very directly about the dangers of seeing and speaking of God’s goodness as evil. Even his own family think he’s mad and needs ‘reigning in’. Why might that be? How about some of these for starters:
He’s left a successful family business, he has the wrong friends, he regularly infuriates and places himself in danger with the authorities by what he says and does and he has thrown away security, society and safety. So intent where the authorities in diminishing, binding and smothering his ministry even at this early stage, that they have travelled over 70 miles to testify that the only reason Jesus can be doing what he is doing, is through the power of evil. And so, the Lion roars. It’s a call for us all to wake up! Wake up and take notice.
Jesus does not enter into a debate over where evil might originate, he just gets on with how to deal with it and calls us to do the same. The reality is that any kingdom, house or church that is divided against itself is lost. It was true then and it is true now. Division spells disaster. We see the truth of this it at work in the political sphere almost every waking day. Society at that time was used to men of authority engaging in exorcism and driving out evil spirits and it was based upon one single premise. The force driving out the evil was stronger than the evil that was already present. If Satan was driving out himself then his end had already come. Jesus makes a clear statement that His power and authority comes from the goodness of God. His power is stronger than anything else that exists, and woe betide anyone who would call the goodness of God, evil. Do not confuse truth with a lie, for once we enter into a conspiracy theory, there is no way back, as all evidence then becomes tainted and supports the undermining and distortion of the truth.
The Holy Spirit enables us to recognise the wonder and the truth of God. We need to understand that and use it. When I broke my Pelvis, I was unable to move at all for about 6 days. I lost the power to walk and had to decide that I wanted to learn how to again; that the freedom of walking was more powerful than the pain I feared would come as I tried to do so. If we live in the dark too long, we lose our sight and if we constantly refuse God’s guidance then we will lose the ability to recognise the truth. In cases of fraud, the victims and bystanders always ask the question: how did this deception take place? The answer is invariably because they didn’t see that it was. I spoke on Trinity Sunday about the danger of deliberately choosing to misunderstand. Jesus is confronting the leaders and the crowd with the fundamental question of his identity. It’s simple enough. He is who he says he is or he is an absolute imposter. There is no middle way. There wasn’t then and there isn’t today. The world would seek to neutralise Jesus and the power of his name and identity; to make him and keep him as a good man, a good teacher, an interesting historical figure. CS Lewis wrote that this is ‘patronising nonsense. He has not left that option open to us and He did not intend to.’
With the Lord’s blessing
I have always marvelled at how God’s word remains so far ahead of our ‘modern’ thinking. It shouldn’t really surprise us. Palm 139 reminds us that God has created us, so surely it follows that He would know what is best for us and why. In the account from Mark’s gospel Jesus tackles the subject of rest, relaxation and recuperation as He focuses on worship, healing and sustenance.
Modern science and wholistic practices reiterate the importance of rest and good sleep. When the body is deprived of sleep, it is unable to rebuild and recharge itself adequately. Our bodies require rest. I know that; you know that, but how good are we at responding to that? My family are now listening intently to what I will say next, for they know that this is an issue in my life and particularly so in recent years. The truth is that God has designated rest time into our lives. He designed a sabbath day to bless us with opportunity, to allow our souls to ‘return’ home to him and to remind us that life does not revolve around us and our level of productivity. But as usual, the Pharisees had taken hold of what God had decreed and sucked all the joy out of it. For the Pharisees, rules took centre stage. They controlled everything and if we are not careful we can easily follow their lead by creating our own. Once again, Jesus draws attention to a radical new way of living life. That relationship supersedes rules and religion every time and a healthy relationship with Father God must be a priority. He and his disciples had not broken the law, only the Pharisees interpretation of it and Jesus reminds them most strongly as to why it is there. We need to rest our bodies, recharge our batteries through relaxation – doing things we like to do and to recuperate our spirits by focussing on God.
Jesus affirmed his belief in a sabbath in a bold and direct way. He speaks boldly and directly to the religious leaders and His instruction to the man in the synagogue is bold and direct. ‘Come forward’- show yourself to be different. ‘Stretch out your hand’ – reach out to me.
The Sunday trading act of 1994 transformed the lives of every UK citizen overnight by fundamentally changing and creating a new work cycle. Sleepy, quiet, restful Sunday’s disappeared overnight. Did the sabbath day disappear with it? Only if we allow it. A sabbath day is meant to bless us, so for those of us who have to work on a Sunday, then we need to choose when we take it. For many, Sunday’s have had to become another day of the working week but whenever and wherever it is possible we still need to gather as church for this encourages us and those around us. This is not dependent upon whether I do a ‘good job’ or not, but upon us coming expectantly and at the disposal of the Holy Spirit to speak to us, strengthen and bless us. Giving him 80 minutes of your life once a week is a good start. God always makes a difference when we let Him, and He desires to make a difference for you and for me, that we might live our lives to the full and He knows exactly how to do that. A sabbath creates an opportunity for us to ‘hang out’ with God, unencumbered and pre-occupied with other ‘stuff’. Space to enjoy getting into the Bible; if you don’t think it’s possible to enjoy doing that then it’s probably a good sign that you need to.
A sabbath reminds us that life is not all about personal productivity and that God needs to be at the centre of our lives. It removes our autonomy and allows us to embrace our dependence upon our creator. It calls us to ‘Come forward’ and to ‘stretch out our hand’ to the one who made us that we might experience Him in all His fullness. Help me God to honour your gift and to receive all you have for me.
With the Lord’s blessing
I remember being informed by one of my tutors at Theology College that no one likes to preach on Trinity Sunday because of the complexity and potential challenges of the subject matter. Since that day, I can tell you that I have found myself called to speak on that very subject every year.
There is a story of St Augustine walking along the beach considering the mysteries of the Holy Trinity when he came upon a young boy filling a small hole in the sand with a bucket of water. When the bucket was empty he filled it again and emptied into the hole. ‘What are you doing?’ he asked – ‘I’m going to pour the entire ocean into this hole’. ‘That’s impossible’ said Augustine ‘It will not fit’. ‘No more so than you trying to fit the reality of the Trinity into your tiny brain’, the boy replied and then he disappeared.
Trying to explain the Trinity can be like trying to empty the ocean with a small bucket, but perhaps that’s because God is not interested in us explaining it. He wants us to experience it.
As Christians we should be on a constant learning curve of understanding and experiencing more and more of who God is so that we might know the wonder, majesty and joy of God in our lives. Jesus spoke of us accepting the Kingdom of God like a child; that means in wide eyed wonder. Children do not understand all the wonders of the world and they know that they do not. They accept the situation as it is and long to know more. The modern western world can vaccinate us into a sterile rationalism that demands explanations to support belief. Knowledge is an amazing thing, but let’s not allow it to lead us into losing our sense of awe and wonder. God in His amazing love for us is far more interested in us experiencing who He is rather than explaining who He is. There is nothing wrong with saying to a child, or anyone else for that matter, that you cannot fully explain something, because that’s just how big and mysterious God is and isn’t that fantastic! Searching for explanations can lead us to spend time looking in the wrong direction. Nicodemus had been doing that all his life and Jesus directs him to a fundamental truth, that to know God we must be born from above. Nicodemus struggles with the concept so Jesus explains further, but for Jesus it’s a simple matter of experiencing the truth.
There are two kinds of misunderstanding: the first is due to the reality that we haven’t yet reached that place of understanding, whereas the second is due to us being unwilling to accept that understanding. I was reminded of this during the teaching given by the American Bishop at the wedding service of Prince Harry and Megan Markle last week. As he developed his exposition on God’s love, some in the hall began to heckle him and demand that he shut up. A natural human response is to recoil from a light that shines on our ignorance. Just because we cannot explain something does not mean that it is not true or that it does not exist.
Within the Trinity – Father, Son and Holy Spirit, we see a perfect unity. God’s deepest desire is that we might experience that unity with Him in our lives. It’s a decision to be made. To respond to the love of God that sent Jesus to the whole world that we might be united with Him.
Before he returned to the glory of heaven, it was Jesus’ prayer that we should receive God’s power. He wanted to ensure that his disciples were equipped for the task that lay ahead. His desire and hope is still the same today.
When our children were still at home we had many camping trips together and I acquired a reputation for having things with me, ‘just in case’. I was always packing more than was immediately required … I still do .. ‘just in case’. You never know when you might need them. It’s a sound enough principle, but often results in over packed cars, trailers and rucksacks and I end up burdened with more goods than I need. It’s a scriptural truth that whenever God sets a task he always ensures that those involved are appropriately equipped to carry it out. Our heavenly Father knows precisely what we need and in this prayer of Jesus we see those needs specifically identified. Jesus prays for unity, for joy, for victory and for sanctification.
Jesus prays for Unity that his disciples would be one. Where there is division, exclusiveness or competition, then unity is bruised and broken. Jesus prayed that we would be one as he and his father are one. In total agreement and understanding. Of one mind and purpose. Focussed. There is perhaps no other prayer of Jesus that has been so hindered by individual Christians or churches than this one with ‘My will be done’ and not ‘Thy will be done.’ To be in unity is to understand the will of Father God by abiding, resting and remaining in Him. Spending time with Him as Jesus did.
Jesus prays for Joy. Jesus desires our lives to be full of joy. There is a difference between joy and happiness. Happiness is like a thermometer in that it registers the conditions in which we are living, whereas joy is like a thermostat; it sets the conditions in which we are living. ‘The joy of the Lord is your strength.’[i] It is God’s plan that our lives be full and blessed and attractive to others, no matter what our circumstances, that others may also encounter the joy of knowing Jesus.
Jesus prays for victory. Note that Jesus did not ask his father to remove his disciples from the world. How will others see the saving power of God if that took place? No. What he asks for is victory over the problems and dangers they will face from the ‘evil one’. There is direct opposition to God from evil. No good denying it or ignoring it for both responses do the evil ones work for him. There is an ‘evil one’ and we need to be aware of his lies, deception and disruption, but in Jesus we need not fear him. John, in his letter reminds us, and Jesus himself speaks of the power that is in His name. Power to overcome all evil and all that would seek to thwart Gods will.
Jesus prays for sanctification. That we might be ‘set apart’, ‘made different’, ‘made Holy’ by the truth of God’s word in order that we can become involved in changing the world. To do that we need the power of the Holy Spirit who brings unity, joy and victory over every situation and circumstance that would seek to restrict us, steal our joy or prevent the blessing that God has assigned through His church. In his love, Father God does not impose anything upon us, so, we need to ask for the Holy Spirit. It’s a decision to be made, but why would anyone want to be without that blessing in their lives? As we approach the celebration of Pentecost I encourage you to ask the Holy Spirit to empower you, fill you and bless you in order that you can be fully equipped as Jesus intended you to be.
With the Lord’s blessing
[i] Nehemiah 8:10
I wonder what you’re like at obeying rules? Some folks just seem to be better disposed than others at following them. I read the other day that one conservative estimate would put the number of laws that exist in the world today at over 32 million. I cannot begin to fathom at how that figure was arrived at, but one thing is for sure .. mankind has created a huge number to adhere to! God created 10. Just 10, and they cover ‘all the bases’, providing that we do not disconnect ourselves from the first: ‘You shall have no other gods before me.’ They are, a statement of God’s values and principles for a happy, healthy and prosperous life and they begin with a right relationship with Him.
In John’s gospel account we read of the reaction of Jesus when he sees these principles being ignored and the effect that this is having upon the Temple as a place of worship. The Religious leaders and the stall holders had turned it into a significant money-making business in which worshipers were being charged extortionate rates and the poor, in particular, were being made to suffer. A place which should have provided open access for all who wanted to worship there, had, instead, erected and instituted considerable barriers. One example of this was in the inspection service provided by the Temple in which all animals brought for sacrifice were scrutinised to ensure that they were of a high enough standard. Cynically, many who had brought their own animals instead of purchasing those from licensed stall holders in the Temple, were rejected and then charged as much as 18 times more than the realistic price if they wanted to worship there. After many had travelled considerable distances to be present, they were effectively being held to ransom, short changed and blackmailed in to compliance.
It’s easy enough for us to muster some righteous indignation at the barriers being placed in front of the faithful by the approach of the temple authority’s, but if, as Paul states, our bodies are temples of the Holy Spirit, (1Cor.6:19) then how many of us, I wonder, are accountable for a whole clutch of barriers we might raise and place in front of our worship? They can come in lots of different shapes and sizes, and without even realizing it we can very easily create new laws and rules that we think we, or usually others, should adopt. Our attitudes, our preferences, our prejudices, even perhaps, our understanding? Where might we be short changing God in our worship I wonder? How welcoming are we to God’s Holy Spirit in our lives and our worship and where might we be creating barriers to those who visit our places of worship? Are we keeping the main thing … the main thing?
I heard a story of a lady who was lonely and so went to a pet shop to buy a parrot. Being persuaded that this particular one was a good talker she made the purchase and headed home. After a week she returned to the shop complaining that it wasn’t speaking but was told that this was probably because it needed a ladder in the cage. She bought one but returned the following week with the same complaint. This time she was persuaded to buy a swing. She returned again the next week and was advised to buy a mirror. The following week she appeared to tell the shopkeeper that the bird had unfortunately died. “That’s very sad to hear,” said the shopkeeper. “Did he not say anything at all?” “Yes, he did” she replied. “It said, ‘Have you any food?’”
We can put up all sorts of activities in our worship lives – ladders, swings, mirrors – but we need to keep asking ourselves; are we are keeping the main thing the main thing or are other things becoming a distraction and a barrier to us and to others? Is God first?
I recall an overheard conversation between two of our children when they were young. They were discussing the comparative merits of their parents when our youngest son declared: “Dad’s good fun, but you can trust mum with your crisps!” The more time you spend with someone, the more you get to know them and the more you get to know them, the more you realise if they can be trusted. Abram knew God – they had been through a great deal together and therefore, Abram trusted God. His trust and faith results in him receiving a new name and a new identity. Paul reminds us that when all was hopeless, Abraham believed and trusted not on what he could see but on what God had said. Abraham’s life was not his own. He was walking in the will of God and experiencing promised blessing as a result. Decisions matter.
Jesus was also walking in the Father’s will. He knew he had a very particular mission to complete; one that would cost him his life but have eternal consequences for all mankind, so, when a staggered and confused Peter rebukes him for what he sees as an unthinkable future for the Messiah, Jesus speaks to him very sternly and we have that phrase which has entered into the lexicon of so many cultures: ‘Get behind me Satan’. For in Peter’s words is the same temptation Satan delivered to Jesus in the wilderness; the call to abandon God’s will and to go his own way. Peter is wanting, in his ignorance, to shape Jesus into what he wants him to be rather than what God requires him to be. If we are honest with ourselves, we will all have done the same at some point in our lives.
It’s almost as if this confrontation triggers a passionate plea from Jesus to his disciples and the gathered crowd about making the right choice, and that the right one is not always the easiest. Jesus is always very realistic about the cost of following him. He invites us to lay down our lives for him as He has for us. It is not an equal exchange however, as Jesus did something we could never do for ourselves in purchasing eternal life through the forgiveness of sins. He tells us that it will require a life transforming decision but one that will have glorious eternal consequences. His blunt language does not hide the cost of such a decision but it is one that invites us to a life of bounty.
In the week that has witnessed the passing of Billy Graham, one of the greatest Christian voices of the twentieth century, it is perhaps right to close with his words regarding what it means to follow Christ.
‘True Christianity is faith in Christ alone. Christianity is not something you add to your life. Becoming a Christian means that Jesus Christ comes into your life and takes over. It is a totally new outlook that is not satisfied with anything less than penetration into the furthest corners of the soul and the understanding. Christianity is not a spectator sport – buying a ticket and sitting on the side-lines. Becoming a Christian means no longer living for yourself but for God in obedience to Him. You must leave the old life behind and step into a new way of living, where Christ makes possible what you think impossible. To say that you believe in Him and then continue living as though nothing has changed is to deny the power of God in your new life. Christ will not muscle his way in. We must invite him in. Accept his gift.’
As we continue our walk-through Lent, may we grow in our trust and knowledge of the God who loves us, knows us and desires that we should know Him. Decisions matter.
‘I can resist anything apart from temptation.’ So, wrote Oscar Wilde. As we begin the time of year in the churches calendar known as Lent, many people will decide to do without something as a way of acknowledging the 40 days and nights Jesus spent in the wilderness. Some may miss a meal, others a treat, yet others will take something on to replace that which they are giving up; such as, less TV and more reading. I remember as a young teacher regularly relying on two double Kit Kats eaten in the morning break to help me survive until lunch. One day I felt a question come into my heart; what am I relying more on for support – God or chocolate? Convicted, I began some self-denial and more conversation with the Holy Spirit.
We all have times when we’re feeling tired, lonely and challenged … ‘wilderness moments’. When we reach this point we often become weak, vulnerable and open to making mistakes we may later regret. A look at the auto biographical account of Jesus in the wilderness can give us all some very clear guidelines on how to handle just such challenges. I call it the ‘Jesus Model’.
The first thing to recognise is that God never tempts. Challenge, yes; tempt, no. The purpose of temptation is to draw us into a situation where we will feel a failure and question our character. The only one who will ever want to undermine us like that is the enemy himself, so we must not allow him that satisfaction. Temptation is not a sin but how we respond to it may be. The devil tempted Jesus when he knew he was vulnerable to try and trap him and he was persistent. If Jesus faced temptation, then so will we so perhaps a brief look at how Jesus ‘faced him down’ would be helpful.
If we have placed our trust in Jesus Christ and believe in why he came to earth then:
Your sins have been forgiven – Colossians 1:v14,
You are free from condemnation- Romans 8:v1,
You cannot be separated from the love of God – Romans 8:v35,
You are a child of God – John 1:v12,
The evil one cannot harm you – 1 John 5:v18,
God is your shield and your rock – Psalm 18,
God is your provider – Psalm 23,
God is our help in times of trouble – Psalm 46,
God is in control – Psalm 97,
God watches over you – Psalm 121,
God is always with us – Psalm 139 and literally hundreds more!
Why not ‘fast to feast’ this Lent. Give something up to create time and space to focus on the promises of God in the Bible so you can fight temptation like Jesus did. Read, pray, play a worship CD, join us at Sycamore Hall, Bainbridge, on a Wednesday night in Lent at 7pm for a time with the Bible?
With God’s blessing
I have always loved those moments when, through a black, brooding and menacing sky, a shaft of bright, brilliant sunlight breaks through and illuminates the ground beneath it. Or when in an airliner you’re thundering along the runway under dark skies to be thrust into the air, clawing your way through the black clouds until quite suddenly, you burst into clear skies and bright light, the brilliance of which is enhanced by the darkness that preceded it. The light was always there. It didn’t disappear. It just couldn’t be contained any longer and upon its release the world is transformed.
I have always thought of the transfiguration of Jesus in a rather similar way. Imagine all the glory, all the brilliance, all the power and wonder of heaven, gathered, compressed and packed into a small, vulnerable physical body. The pressure it would be under to manage its containment. But here, just for a moment, it cannot be held anymore, and it bursts out in all its astonishing intensity.
For Jesus and for the three disciples present, it’s a moment of incredible significance and lasting encouragement. Indeed, Peter writes about it many years later in his 2nd letter and acknowledges God the Father honouring His son.
How did it happen? It came out of Jesus setting aside specific time with his close friends for worship and prayer and during that time God intervened. We’re told that the figures of Moses and Elijah appeared alongside Jesus. Two very significant figures, representing the supreme law of God and the supreme voice of God. We can only speculate as to what was said, but I can imagine their voices of encouragement: ‘Well done Jesus – Go on! Keep on!’ In Jesus was everything they had dreamt of and all that history had longed for. Jesus, being assured and affirmed that He had chosen the right path. And then, into this incredible moment, Peter dashes in with a desire to capture it, contain it and box it in. I have sympathy with that reaction; that overwhelming impulse to take the moment and wrap it up for later. But in doing so, Peter is missing out on the wonder of the moment, for what is happening, is happening now. How many times I wonder have I, have you, missed out on a significant encounter with God because we have been too absorbed with ‘the later’ rather than with ‘the now?’ Peter would have been better served by absorbing the moment, for the glory of God cannot be constricted or contained, and Jesus is not to be placed on the same level as any human figure, no matter how revered, and so God speaks: ‘This is my Son, the beloved. Listen to Him.’
Affirmation and instruction, but notice that the first thing they are instructed to do, is to listen.
How often, I wonder, do we try and do what Peter proposed? How often do we restrict and limit and shape God to what we want Him to be rather than what and who He really is? How often do we limit God to what we understand of Him or have experienced of Him? We could live a thousand lifetimes and still just be starting in that adventure. I wonder what areas of our lives may need barriers removing today? What is God saying to you and to me? Are we giving Him a time and a place to do that? What unique things is He wanting to reveal through you? How is He speaking to you about reading and understanding His word? What is he encouraging in you? What is He wanting to transform, revolutionize, transfigure in you? Are we listening?
May we all find the heart and the hunger to allow Him the opportunity to speak with us and to release so much more within us.
Rev Dave Clark
Vicar of the Benefice of Upper Wensleydale