A word from the vicar
Happy New Year? (January 2020)
As fireworks around the globe welcomed in a new decade, I couldn't help but reflect that many people in the world are entering the 2020s with some trepidation. There is a growing recognition that not only is climate change a reality, but also that its effects are already upon us. Wildfires are raging in Australia and elsewhere in the world, not only threatening lives and habitats, but also greatly reducing our precious forests and adding to the world's carbon output. Sea levels rising, more extreme weather, food shortages, and mass migration are just some of the likely consequences of increased global warming.
in our own country we wait anxiously for the seemingly certain arrival of Brexit and wonder how it might impact our economy and our society. Things we have relied upon for decades such as the National Health Service and anti-biotics are no longer certainties for our future. And I know that within our own Churches, many are facing significant challenges; especially with regard to their health or the health of a loved one.
Of course, a new year brings hope as well as anxiety. Many of us will be looking forward to weddings, births, holidays, or other exciting events. I'm even hopeful that 2020 will see Liverpool win a first league title for thirty years! But the overwhelming sense I have is that this decade will present the world and us, its occupants, with a range of difficult challenges.
Should we fear? As Christians we should not. Whatever problems we and the world may face this year and this decade; we hold on to the truth that God is sovereign, He is working his purposes out, and we - His people -are under His protection. But whilst we should not fear, we are right to be concerned. How can we not be as we see the world in the state it is, and as injustice, violence and immorality abounds? We are called to pray, make Jesus known, and play our own small part in standing up for creation and against all forms of wickedness.
And I can't help but feel that there is ever more urgency in this calling. Whilst the Bible is clear that no one knows the hour of Christ's return, we are told to watch out for the signs of his coming. In Revelation chapter 8 we read that Jesus return will be preceded by a third of all the trees being burnt up (8.7), a third of all the living creatures of the sea dying (8.9), and a third of the fresh water in the world becoming undrinkable (8.11). Nobody knows whether these events will be brought on by global warming or indeed whether they are meant to be taken literally. But they might very well be consequences of climate change and perhaps the process has already begun.
But far from being downbeat, now is the Churches' chance to shine most brightly. In a time of uncertainty and fear we have a message of truth and salvation. And we know that however bad things get in the world Jesus will return and will make all things new. Let us not shirk from the task. Let's talk about the gospel with renewed a passion and urgency. Let's pray for the world through tears and with hope. And let's pray fervently for the day of Christ's coming - Come Lord Jesus! lan
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, 22.214.171.124). 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
"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