A word from the vicar (2019)
Jesus Christ is coming to town (December 2019)
Advent is probably my favourite season in the Church year and it's not just because I'm excited to discover what Santa will bring me on Christmas morning! The word advent is derived from the Latin adventus and means "to come." It's the season in which we not only reflect on the coming of God to dwell amongst us in the person of Jesus; but also when we think on the promise of Christ's return at the end of this present age. Advent should be a season of hope, anticipation, expectance, and excitement; but also one of introspection, repentance, and preparation, as we ask ourselves whether we are truly ready to meet our Lord.
Those dual meanings of Advent could both be summarised with the words: "Jesus is coming!" But whilst the idea of God's Son being born in Bethlehem remains part of popular tradition, if not necessarily belief; the notion of Christ's return as judge is one that even many churchgoers are uncomfortable with. Perhaps some don't even believe it. I wonder why that might be.
Whatever the reason, we Christians ought to be convinced by the statement: “Jesus will return!" The New Testament Greek word that is the equivalent of advent is Parousia and it occurs seventeen times in our Bibles. In Matthew 24:3 the disciples ask Jesus what the signs of his Parousia will be. Jesus gives them a detailed answer using the same word three times (24.27, 220.127.116.11). Paul writes about the resurrection of believers at the Parousia in his first letter to Corinth (1 Cor. 15:23). And in his two letters to the Thessalonians, Paul mentions the Parousia a further seven times (1 Thess. 2:19, 3:13, 4:15, 5:23, 2 Thess. 2:1, 8, 9). James instructs his readers to be patient for the Parousia but also adds that it's near (Jas. 5:7,8) and Peter predicts that many will scoff at believers asking "so when is this Jesus of yours going to show up?" (2 Peter 3.4). Finally John urges us to abide in Christ so that we will not be put to shame at his Parousia (1 John 2.28). There are, of course, many other references to the return of Jesus that do not use this same Greek word.
Not only is the return of Jesus more regularly asserted in scripture than the virgin birth, I would say that it is also a more important doctrine. The fact that "no one knows the day or the hour" of Christ's return should both spiritually keep us on toes and be a driving force in our evangelism. We hear daily warnings about a coming climate catastrophe (and quite rightly so) but there could be nothing more catastrophic than being unready for the Lord's return. What an important message we often keep secret!
But "fear not" - to quote somebody we'll be hearing from a lot this month - if Jesus is the Lord of our lives then we have nothing to worry about when He returns. True followers of Jesus will be judged as righteous because He has already paid for our sins on the Cross. In fact this is why Advent is so exciting for me. I eagerly anticipate the return of Jesus, the restoration of the world, and His eternal reign of peace. Never mind "Santa Claus is coming to town", Come, Lord Jesus, Come! lan
Remember, Remember (November 2019)
November is the month most often associated with remembrance and it’s not only because it makes a pretty good rhyming partner! All Saints day is the date in the Church calendar when we think upon those who have walked with Christ before us, and at our Not Forgotten service we’ll be remembering those we love but see no longer. Later in the month we have Remembrance Sunday when we think about all those who have given their lives in conflicts to defend the liberty of others. And then, in between, the more dubious remembrance of the foiled plot by Guy Fawkes and his gang!
Remember is also a very prominent word in our Bibles. We’re often told that God remembers individuals for good; Noah, Abraham, and Rachel in Genesis alone (Gen. 8.1, 19.29 and 30.22). We’re also told that God remembers his promises; the Covenants He made with Noah (Gen. 9.6) and, later, with Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob (Ex. 2.24). In Isaiah we’re given the amazing promise from God that He “blots out our transgressions and remembers our sin no more” (Isa. 43.25). Of course God doesn’t forget, this simply means he no longer holds our sin against us.
God also urges us, his people, to remember important things; to keep the Sabbath day holy (Ex. 20.8), to recall that He has brought us out of slavery and into the Promised Land (Deut. 24.28). He also asks us to hold on to the basics of our theology: “Remember… I am God and there is no other, I am God and there is none like me” (Isa. 46.9). The Psalms are full of appeals to remember. Sometimes we are encouraged to remember God and his great deeds (Ps. 105.5). At other times the Psalmists ask God to remember his people (Ps. 106.4), or simply to remember mercy (Ps. 25.6, also Hab. 3.2).
When we remember God after a time of going astray our lives can be turned around. The imprisoned and blinded Sampson asked God to remember him and strengthen him once more to enable him to defeat the Philistines (Judg. 16.28). From within a big fish, Jonah “remembered [God] when [his] life was ebbing away” (Jon. 2.7) and via the prophet Zechariah, God tells us that although his people are scattered, “they will remember me [and] they and their children will survive and will return” (Zec. 13.2).
In total there are 235 uses of the word remember, remembered or remembrance in the Bible, and the vast majority are as significant as the examples above. But perhaps the most important of all is Jesus’ command to “do this in remembrance of me” (Luke 22.19) when he broke bread and shared wine at his final Passover meal. He wasn’t, of course, asking his disciples, or us, to remember that Last Supper, but rather to think often on his suffering and death on the cross which has made possible our eternal life.
God always remembers us. We must always remember Him – and not just in the month of November! Even the criminal on the cross next to Jesus saw the importance of this: His last recorded words were “Jesus, remember me when you come into your Kingdom” and for this show of faith Jesus replied to him: “today you will be with me in paradise.” Hallelujah! Ian
In God’s Image (October 2019)
You might have heard that the irreverant and satirical puppet show, spitting image is making a comeback. It seems that the current crop of world politicians and celebrities are ripe for the same treatment received by the likes of Margaret Thatcher and Ronald Reagan in the 1980s. Now I have to confess that as a young teenager I loved those rubber-faced effigies and sneakily watched it whenever my parents weren’t around.
But more recently I have been troubled by cartoons in newspapers or on the internet that have exaggerated things like Theresa May’s nose or Diane Abbott’s lips. The problem is not just that they’re cruel (or, in the case of Ms Abbott, border-line racist) but that they trample over the Biblical truth that we are all made in the image of God; and I’m not too sure that He’d be happy that we are making fun of any of his image-bearers.
Now let’s be clear, when we’re told in Genesis that God made humans - male and female - in his image, it doesn’t mean that we physically resemble God (Gen. 1.27). Rather, it means that in creating us he shared aspects of his own character such as the ability to create, love, empathise and forgive. Because of this the Bible holds up humanity as the crown of God’s creation and it’s why He speaks so severely against those who mistreat, harm, or kill other human beings. And Jesus strengthens these divine injunctions by commanding us to love our neighbours as ourselves. It’s not just because loving is the right thing to do; but also because we show our reverence for God, by loving all those who are made, like us, in His image.
Now you might argue that the Boris Johnson’s or Donald Trump’s of this world are fair game; or even that they deserve everything they have coming to them. But whist it’s entirely right to criticise, oppose, or get angry about the bad behaviour of others, I think it’s entirely wrong to dehumanise them as many cartoons, memes, and puppets do. When we dehumanise we work against God’s purposes in creation. We do the same when we lie or gossip about people and also when we make unkind or personal comments about people, or when we join in by laughing at those made by others.
If you’re really up on your Bible knowledge you might now be thinking ‘didn’t Elijah mock the prophets of Baal on Mount Carmel (1 Kings 18.27)?’ or ‘didn’t Jesus mock many of the pharisees he met (eg Matt. 23.24)?’ Yes, it’s true that they did, but if you look again it’s the behaviour of these people that are being mocked and certainly not their humanity.
Given that I sneakily watched Spitting Image as a youngster I can hardly forbid you from doing the same; but I would urge you to think carefully about the things you say about others and especially about the things you might share on social media. Let’s remember than all human beings are made in God’s image so let’s not undo His work by dehumanising anyone. Ian
RUN THE RACE (September 2019)
This summer we’ve been following Paul and his friends on part of their missionary journey in the eastern Mediterranean. From them we’ve learned about our need for discernment (in Cyprus), humility (in Lystra), obedience (in Troas), praise (in Philippi), courage (in Thessalonica), and perseverance (in Corinth). I hope you’ve taken something positive from whichever services you’ve managed to attend.
But I wonder whether learning about a super-hero of the faith like Paul, can leave us feeling a little inadequate. We might feel as though we can’t do what he did so what’s the point of even trying? I felt a bit this way on holiday listening to a gifted evangelist speaking about all the people who had come to faith through his preaching and outreach. It was an inspiring thing to listen to but a nagging voice inside my head was saying “there’s not much of this happening in Bradley, Fixby, and Cowcliffe!” That voice, of course, was the devil’s, who loves to tell us we’re not good enough and he loves to get us comparing ourselves unfavourably with other Christians.
What we need to remember is that we’re not Paul, and we’re not called to be Paul. We’re called to be ourselves and just to learn from people like Paul and, above all, Jesus. Can you imagine what the London Marathon would be like if everyone thought “There’s no way I can compete with Mo Farah so what’s the point of even trying”? What a non-event it would be if there were only twenty elite athethes running through the capital’s streets. Ninety-nine point nine percent of the competitors aren’t entering to win it but does it lessen their achievement in any way? Not at all!
It’s the same with our own calling. Most of us are not called to be ‘elite’ runners but simply, as Paul himself writes to Timothy, to “finish the race” (2 Tim. 4.7). This isn’t to say that our call is easy. Just as completing the marathon is a huge triumph (even though Mo Farah finished three hours before you) so “finishing the race” of our Christian lives is a victory - even though we may not be a Paul or a Billy Graham!
And more than that, the great evangelists of today – like the one I listened to on holiday – are unlikely to ever reach some of the people that we can. We may know a person whose only Christian contact is us! What an opportunity – what an awesome task! But we also need to remember that we’re called only to love, pray for, and make Jesus known to such people. Their response is between themselves and God.
Don’t let their devil lie to you and say you’re not a good enough Christian. You’re running your own race. You have your own calling. Run the race and claim the prize! (1 Cor. 9.24)
Our God reigns (June 2019)
"Our God reigns” goes the familiar chorus. When we sing this or indeed any of the many hundreds of hymns proclaiming God’s sovereignty, we acknowledge that God is ultimately in control and absolutely in charge. He has all authority, and all power. He is repeatedly described in the Bible as seated on His throne in heaven. His very Word brought creation into existence.
But I wonder, do we live as though this is true? Do we live with the confidence that the promises He’s made to us will not and can not fail because our God reigns? Promises like the one given to Jeremiah, and us: “For I know the plans I have for you, plans to prosper you and not to harm you, plans to give you hope and a future.” (Jer. 29.11)
It is tough, I know. We all face situations in which it is difficult to see any sign of God’s involvement. Situations when it almost feels like a kick in the teeth to hear someone remind us that God is in control. If our God reigns why is my dad suffering so much? If our God reigns why are Christians in Iraq facing extinction according to a BBC report this week? Job, more than most people, had cause to ask questions of this type. And ask them he did, and there’s nothing wrong in that. But at the same time he also conceded “I know that you can do all things; no purpose of yours can be thwarted” (Job 42.2).
This is the tension we live with as Christians in this “present-time” before Jesus returns. Suffering and evil remain but we know that their days are numbered and that God’s reign of peace and justice, already a heavenly reality, will be an earthly one too. The challenge for us is to bear the troubles that continue to come our way, whilst all the time holding on to God’s promises; promises that we can trust completely because He is Sovereign.As I read back on this piece, I’m struck by how much it reflects the prayer that Jesus taught us to pray:
“Our Father in heaven,
hallowed be your name,
your kingdom come,
your will be done,
on earth as it is in heaven.
Give us today our daily bread.
And forgive us our debts,
as we also have forgiven our debtors.
And lead us not into temptation,
but deliver us from the evil one.” (Matt. 6.9-13)
For His is the kingdom, the power and the glory, for ever and ever. Our God reigns. Amen. Ian
Bring on the Sub!
Supporting Huddersfield Town has not been easy this year - and that’s an understatement! At the time of writing the Terriers have won just three league games all season and scored only eighteen times – that’s an average of 0.58 goals per match! The supporters around me have spent most of the season calling for the manager to change things around and bring on a substitute. But in truth, none of our players have been able to make a significant difference to our plight.
But at Easter our thoughts should turn to the one substitute who made all the difference in the world. On the first Good Friday Jesus suffered and died in our place, for our sins. He may not have worn blue and white but Isaiah tells us that “by his stripes we are healed” (Isa. 53.5, King James Version). Those stripes, we discover around 700 years after Isaiah, were the wounds of Christ’s passion, his suffering and death.
This so-named “servant-song” in Isaiah 52 and 53 is a remarkable prophecy about how God’s servant would become our perfect substitute. It tells of how Jesus “took up our infirmities and carried our sorrows… he was pierced for our transgressions, and crushed for our iniquities; the punishment that brought us peace was upon him.” (Isa. 53.4-5 NIV).
From right at the beginning of the Bible we discover that our sin separates us from God. St Paul tells us in Romans that the price of our sin is death and that this price has to be paid because God’s perfect justice demands it. But our God is not only perfectly just he is also perfectly merciful and loving; so he paid the price himself: “God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life” (John 3.16).
Not all Christians are comfortable with the language of substitution when it comes to the cross. Some would rather explain it as a display of God’s love for us, or as His ultimate moral example for us to learn from, or as the moment of Christ’s victory over sin, death, and the devil. It is all those things too, but it’s difficult to ignore what the Bible tells us about Jesus as our substitute (see also Mark 10.45, 2 Corinthians 5.21 and 1 Peter 2.14 for a few more examples).
Why do some Christians shy away from talking of the cross in substitutionary terms? One of the main reason is their uneasiness with the idea that God punished Jesus – it’s why the line from the hymn ‘In Christ Alone’ that begins “And on that cross where Jesus died…” is sometimes changed from “…the wrath of God was satisfied” to “…the arms of love were opened wide.” But to be offended by the idea of substitution is to mistakenly assume that God and Jesus are separate entities. It’s the same mistake the atheist Richard Dawkins makes when he describes God as “a cosmic child-abuser.” In fact, the Bible makes it clear that the Father and the Son are one, we believe that it was God himself who paid the price for our sin. He didn’t pass it on to someone else. “Amazing Love, how can it be, that Thou, my God, hast died for me” (Charles Wesley, And Can it Be).
There’s something amazing about a substitute coming off the bench to score the winning goal. How much more amazing is the truth that all our mistakes and wrongdoings can be forgiven and paid for by our very own super sub, Jesus, if we repent of our sins and trust in Him? Ian
Out with the Old?
A couple of times in the last month the issue of how Christians should respond to Old Testament has cropped up in conversations I’ve had. I think many Christians find it difficult to reconcile the “God of love” we see revealed through Jesus in the New Testament with the God who appears to them to be less loving in the Old. This is not a new phenomenon. Within a hundred years of Christ’s death, a man called Marcion (pictured above) was calling on Christians to reject the Old Testament (and the many parts of the New Testament that quoted it). He was quickly denounced as a heretic by the Church Fathers but his ideas still live on.
There’s not space here to explain why I think Marcion and those who follow him are wrong. But it’s worth pointing out one or two things to get you thinking. Firstly, Jesus quotes the Old Testament 78 times, on many occasions actually affirming its authority (e.g. Matthew 5.17-18, Luke 10.25-28, John 5.39-47). Would Jesus really quote the Old Testament so often if he believed we should reject it in favour of the New?
Secondly, we need to see the stark continuity between the God of the Old and New Testaments: a God who is loving from the very first chapter of the Bible when he devotedly creates a paradise for us to enjoy. And, even after the Fall, we see God’s grace in the stories of Noah, Abraham, Jacob, Moses and David to name just a few. Yes, of course, we also read about God sending a flood on the earth, handing His people over to the Egyptians, killing 3000 Israelites after they cast and worshipped a golden calf, and an instruction to kill every Canaanite when His people reach the Promised Land. But is this any different to the God of the New Testament who kills Ananias and Sapphira (Acts 5) for cheating and lying to Him?
In all of these terrifying examples of God’s wrath (and I’m not saying they’re easy to accept) we need to remember two things. Firstly, there was mercy in every case; an opportunity to confess, repent, or turn to the one true God. Secondly, we must hold on to the truth that all of us deserve death (Romans 6.23) and the fact there’s another option is an incredible endorsement of God’s love, mercy, and grace. God is, has always been, and always will be, like the father of the Prodigal Son: permissive of us going our own way, however foolish and sinful that is, but always welcoming us back without prejudice, if we humbly and contritely return to Him. Ian
Epiphany: a time to pray for Christ to be known
Epiphany can be defined as a moment of sudden revelation or realisation. The Church season of Epiphany (which begins on 6th January) celebrates the appearance of Jesus to the Gentiles or non-Jewish world, who are represented in the nativity stories by the Magi, or wise men, who follow a star to discover a child born to be King.
Epiphany can feel a bit like something that happens “after the Lord Mayor’s show” following, as it does, the glitzy celebration of Christmas. But Epiphany is a feast day and the entire three week long season is also one of celebration. I love the variety of stories that we get during Epiphany; not only the visit of the Magi but also the infant Jesus meeting Anna and Simeon in the Temple, the baptism of Christ, the first miracle at the Wedding of Cana, and Jesus’ sermon in Nazareth when he declared that Isaiah’s word about the Messiah was, through Him, fulfilled in their presence.
What all of these accounts have in common is that they reveal who Jesus is: a light to the gentiles (in the account of the Magi and in the Temple), a long-awaited Messiah (in the Temple and in Nazareth), a miracle worker (at Cana), and the Son of God (at His baptism). Of course the rest of the gospel accounts continue to reveal more about Jesus to us, but these early parts of his life are the bomb-shell moment, or at least they should be.
And who is Jesus revealed to? I would say a cross section of just about everyone; from the very rich (the Magi) to those in slavery (the servants at the wedding); from devout Jews (at the Synagogue and Temple) to people of a different faith (the Magi), from the eagerly expectant (Simeon, Anna, John the Baptist) to the outright sceptical (the people of Nazareth), and to every person past, present, and future, who reads or hears these ancient texts.
Epiphany is a great season to pray fervently for those who have yet to discover Jesus. For family, friends, neighbours and work colleagues whom we long to share the hope and joy of knowing Christ, for our politicians and for all in authority around the world, for those of other faiths and of no faith at all, for those in prison, in hospital, or nearing the end of their lives; for children and young people from every nation and race; in fact for all people. We can pray for this at any time in the year of course; but Epiphany is the time for Christ’s revelation. The monthly prayer leaflet very much reflects this theme. Ian (January 2019)