Monday, 5 August 2019

Lucy Peppiatt on the Third Creation Story

I’ve started dipping into Lucy Peppiatt’s Rediscovering Scripture’s Vision for Women and finding a lot of good stuff in it. The chapter on 1 Timothy 2:8-15 well sets out the probable Artemis cult background to this strange passage and is persuasive. I haven’t read them yet, but there are also chapters on 1 Corinthians and on the household codes in Ephesians and Colossians, as well as on the Genesis creation stories. In her second chapter, which I am reading presently, Peppiatt looks at how women figure in the overall biblical narrative—and this passage caught my eye especially, as I think it’s a wonderful example of theological insight concisely stated:

There are three creation stories of the creation of humanity in the Bible. The first is that humanity is made in the image and likeness of God. The second is that a human is formed from the dust of the earth and woman is taken from man: she is flesh of his flesh. The third is that humanity is reborn through a Savior, who is born of a woman, and he is flesh of her flesh. When God chose to come to earth, he chose the hiddenness of a woman’s womb. When God chose to take on flesh, he chose to take this flesh from a woman. When God chose to appear, he chose to come as a baby, entrusting himself to a woman’s body to be born and to a woman for his care and nurture. Through a man, God reveals himself to us, and through a woman, God makes the connection to humanity. There is no doubt that in the ancient world, this represents an elevated status for women.


These words follow immediately on from the above, from the same paragraph and page, but I wanted to ‘split’ them to allow each set to speak for itself:

In addition to this, women see something in the chosenness of Mary (albeit in a unique fashion) of how God might also choose to use them. She stands as a symbol of a female life submitted to God and then used by him in the most powerful and world-changing way possible. Mary stands in the great line of prophets, judges, and leaders of Israel, appointed by God to fulfill his purposes first for his own people and from there to the whole of humanity. This is, of course, nothing but an apostolic role. 

I’ve emphasised the final couple of sentences here because I think they’re important. I’ve often heard Mary labelled as some kind of role model for women, but I’m not sure I’ve ever heard her described in terms of apostolicity or linked to male leaders in quite this way. This is good stuff, surely.

Sunday, 14 July 2019

Heaven—but on Earth: A Sermon on Revelation 21:1–22:7

We’re going through Tom Wright’s Surprised by Hope at the moment in our church, and I was given the title ‘The Hope of Heaven’, with my own choice of readings. I chose Revelation 21:1–22:7, as well as Matthew 6:9-10 as a token Gospel passage. I’ll leave it to you to decide how successful this sermon functions as a sermon.

John Lennon. John Lennon sang, “Imagine there’s no heaven; it’s easy if you try.” Well, he’s right—it is easy to imagine there’s no heaven. And that’s because it’s not easy to imagine exactly what heaven’s like in the first place; in fact, it’s very difficult. It’s far more difficult to believe that heaven exists and to say what it’s like than it is simply to say it’s not real or it’s a fantasy world; or it’s a reward for good people or compensation for those having a bad life now. Even those who wrote the Bible appear to have found it difficult to find the right words to describe heaven. And yet for Christians, the hope of heaven—or the life of the world to come, the life everlasting, as our creeds put it—for Christians, the hope of heaven is basic to what we believe. And it’s basic to what we believe because heaven and everything it is and everything it represents is nothing less than the fulfilment of creation, the completion or the final perfecting of all things. At the end of this present age, the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, and the Holy Spirit, will bring God’s rule to this world in a powerful and utterly transformative way. Think about what this could mean and then ask yourself: How can we put this sort of thing into words? How can we express the inexpressible? How can we describe the indescribable? “‘What no eye has seen, what no ear has heard, and what no human mind has conceived—these things’,” says the apostle Paul, “‘these things God has prepared for those who love him’” (1 Cor. 2:9 tniv). John Lennon sings, “Imagine there’s no heaven”—but this is taking the easy way out.

So this is our challenge for today: to try to piece together some of the many ideas and pictures and symbols found in the Bible to give us a slightly better understanding of what awaits us in the future—and not just us as Christian believers, but also the physical world of space and time in which we live. Let’s start with a basic point: “In the beginning,” says Genesis 1, “God created the heavens and the earth.” This simple sentence is extraordinary in what it claims: that everything that is not God need not exist; that the reason anything exists at all is because God decided that it should be here. And so God created the universe and everything within it, from the most sprawling of galaxies to the tiniest of particles; from elephants and blue whales to elephant shrews and tardigrades; all these things were created by God through God’s Word and by God’s Holy Spirit. God the Trinity is the Creator and the Source of all that exists.


And this includes heaven—not just what we might refer to as “space,” but to the realm where God lives and rules. The Old Testament depicts heaven in various ways. One of the most common is heaven as God’s royal court. In passages such as Isaiah 6 and Ezekiel 1, God is described as sitting on a throne, attended to by court officials, including angels and cherubim and seraphim. These passages, and others like them, are quite strange. But the thrust of these passages, and perhaps the Old Testament’s presentation of heaven as a whole, can be summarised in two verses, both from Isaiah. In Isaiah 63:15, “heaven” is described as God’s “holy and glorious habitation”; and in Isaiah 66:1, the Lord says, “‘Heaven is my throne / and the earth is my footstool’.” However we understand heaven, God is right at its centre, sitting on the throne, and his authority and rule reach down from heaven to the earth.

But this is where I need to introduce another topic, although briefly: the temple in Jerusalem. And I need to do this because the way the Old Testament portrays the temple affects the way we read Revelation 21 and 22 and the vision of heaven given there. I want to make a basic point: for the ancient Israelites, and for the Jewish people of Jesus’s day, the temple was the gate to heaven, and the holy of holies heaven itself; heaven—but on earth.

How so? The temple in Jerusalem was designed to mirror the whole of creation. It was divided into three sections, with the fixtures and fittings, the stonework and the furniture, of each section arranged to represent a specific part of the universe. Have a look at the handout. First, the outer court (in green) represented the world where humans lived. Second, the holy place (in pink) signified the sky and what we now call “space.” And third, the holy of holies (in gold) symbolized heaven, the place where God sat on his throne, and the place where the ark of the covenant was positioned as God’s “footstool.” In terms of the temple’s layout and symbolism, we could say that on the Day of Atonement, for example, the high priest, in walking from the outer court through the holy place and into the holy of holies, was ascending from the earth and entering heaven; heaven—but on earth.


Does all this sound strange or even far-fetched? We have a very different view of the way the world works, that’s for sure. But this is how important the temple was for the ancient Israelites and the Jewish people of Jesus’s day. The temple was heaven—on earth. And this core belief shapes many of the ideas that we find in the New Testament, especially in the book of Revelation, as I hope to show. It’s fair to say that Revelation isn’t the easiest book to understand, but it is slightly easier to appreciate once we recognise how much of it is saturated—positively dripping!—with Old Testament ideas and imagery. Let’s go through our passage from Revelation now, not in huge depth, but in enough detail as to make everything I’ve said so far worth it.

Revelation 21:1: “I saw a new heaven and a new earth.” You’ll note the echo of Genesis 1, I’m sure; but the newness here isn’t that of absolute newness. It’s not something that’s absolutely brand new. It’s not as though God is swapping the first or the old heaven and earth and replacing them with brand new ones, like we might buy a new fridge before getting rid of the old one. The newness here is that of renewing or transforming something from one thing to another—a bit like renovating an old house so it looks and feels better than ever. This is the meaning of “a new heaven and a new earth” here.

And why is the sea mentioned? A world without a sea seems pretty extreme. But in the Bible, the sea often represents chaos, danger, evil—there is no sea, says John, who sees this new heaven and new earth, because in the age to come there will be no evil; there will be no more danger, no more chaos; and so no more sea. In the new creation, there are no tears, there is no death, there is no mourning; there is no crying, no pain; “for the first things have passed away,” and God, seated on the throne, is “making all things new.”

But how? Verse 2: “I saw the holy city, the new Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God, prepared as a bride adorned for her husband.” Notice how John is struggling to describe precisely what he is seeing: he sees a new heaven and a new earth—but these look like a city, and a city wearing a bridal gown and many, many jewels! Clearly, all this is a metaphor: try imagining what Penge High Street would look like in a giant wedding dress! It’s a very strange idea. But John is trying to describe the indescribable using ideas and imagery found scattered throughout the Old Testament; he is trying to express the inexpressible as best as he can by piling image on top of image, metaphor on top of metaphor, symbol on top of symbol in a way that even John Lennon would never attempt. And the total effect is this: God is coming to us; heaven is penetrating and permeating and perfecting the world; and God and God’s creation will share a sort of unceasing and everlasting and intensely ecstatic intimacy that no human has ever experienced before. “The home of God is among mortals. He will dwell with them; they will be his people, and God himself will be with them.” This is our hope: heaven—but on earth.

So what about the rest of our passage from Revelation? What’s the point of all the measurements and precious stones and the like? What do all these have to do with heaven? This is where what I said earlier about the temple in Jerusalem comes into play. If we treat verse nine onwards as explaining verses one to eight in more depth, we can begin to sketch connections between this new Jerusalem and the holy of holies in the old Jerusalem temple. All the jewels, all the precious stones, even the very shape of the new city—a cube!—all these things call to mind the temple and its symbolism, and especially the high priest, his clothing, and the cube-shaped holy of holies. In the past, the high priest alone could go into the holy of holies to make a sacrifice on the Day of Atonement; but this passage from Revelation portrays the entire new Jerusalem, the entire new creation, as a new holy of holies. The whole of the world is now the place where God lives in an entirely different, an entirely new, way—and all those who are in Christ have access to God’s presence in the new Jerusalem; heaven—but on earth.

You would need to use a decent study Bible or a good commentary and go through books such as Exodus, Isaiah, and Ezekiel to see these connections emerge clearly—but they are there. And the point of all this is not simply to overwhelm us with unnecessary details, or to confuse us, or even to bore us on a Sunday morning. The point of all this is to attempt to express the inexpressible belief that the future state of this universe, of this world, is and will be completely unlike anything we can possibly imagine: heaven—but on earth.

Verse 22 onwards offers us yet another way of putting the same ideas. There is no temple in the new creation because “the Lord God the Almighty and the Lamb” together are the temple, together in full and perfect unity. There is no need for a physical temple, an actual building, in the new Jerusalem because the presence of God in Christ drenches the fabric of the universe with the river of the water of life—the Holy Spirit. There is no night, no darkness, and therefore no danger, because the glory of God and the Lamb are the city’s ever-shining light. Imagine this divine light reflecting and refracting off the jasper walls and the golden street and the shimmering water, with the throne of God and the Lamb at its centre, and we are only beginning to approach what lies in store for the world: heaven—but on earth.

Bear with me—there’s more. The walls of the new Jerusalem surround the world, and people of all nationalities and all ethnicities, Jews and Gentiles, are able to enter through its twelve gates. There is no racial discrimination in the new creation, and presumably no sexual discrimination or class discrimination. It is a place of absolute purity, for this transformed world, this new Jerusalem, is the holy of holies come to earth. An angel stands at each of the twelve gates, ensuring that nothing impure enters this new creation. Anything or anyone considered impure is shut out while those inside serve God as priests serving in a grand cosmic temple. This is what awaits us; this is God’s promised future for us, for the world, for all things. This is our future: heaven—but on earth.

When we look at the world around us, the idea that heaven will come to earth and completely transform it is almost unbelievable. But it is going to happen, even if we cannot comprehend it, or if we find John’s way of putting things simply too bizarre or fantastical to contemplate. All John’s language is, of course, highly evocative: he’s not offering a point-by-point account of what heaven-on-earth will be like, but uses a range of metaphors drawn from the Old Testament and piled on top of each other to give us a taste of the flavours and the sounds and the colours that God has in store for the universe. How else could John express the inexpressible? How else could John describe the indescribable? A series of metaphors, strange though they are, is really the only way to paint a picture of a landscape no one has seen.

Did I say “the only way”? Sorry—I meant to say “one of the only ways”. You see, God has already kick-started the future transformation by raising Jesus from the dead, giving him the Spirit-infused body and life of the age to come. And what God has started, God will finish. Each one of us here today who is in Christ is assured of a place in the transformed new earth because in Christ, the Holy Spirit has already made us part of the new creation. “Anyone who believes in Christ is a new creation,” says Paul (2 Cor. 5:17 nirv). And because we are in Christ, every time we extend compassion and show mercy; every time we fight against injustice and stand on behalf of others; every time we live our ordinary, everyday lives in step with God’s Holy Spirit, we throw a rock through the dirty and bloodstained window of this present age and allow the hope and promise of a future irradiated with the light of God’s glory and of the Lamb to burst through the holes.

John Lennon sang, “Imagine there’s no heaven.” But we look forward to a future where heaven and earth embrace and never let go. Let this vision, this hope, inspire us today and every day until the Spirit brings us to the Father of our Lord Jesus, until we see our God face to face, in our resurrected flesh, in heaven—but on earth.

Friday, 7 June 2019

Aspiring to Empire

Early last week, the Wrights visited Chesters Roman Fort and Museum on Hadrian’s Wall. In the museum, I took some photos, including this one (you might need to click on the photo to read it more clearly):


I know very little about the Victorian period—that’s more my wife’s thing—so I don’t know how widespread was this sentiment, but I find it very interesting that in a supposedly ‘Christian’ country and era, the aspiration was not to build God’s kingdom but to replicate the Roman Empire.

When I last preached (the sermon’s here), I improvised a comment about it being to the Church’s shame that it hadn’t addressed slavery issues sooner. The same could be said for its sexism, its racism, its willingness to read Paul as reinforcing the status quo than in looking for other possibilities generated by his underlying theology. But if the cultural and political desire to aspire to empire was and is greater than the need to build the kingdom, this is no surprise. And if it’s specifically the Roman Empire that was and is our inspiration, then Paul continues to have a lot of good and relevant things to say—if only we take his theology seriously.

Another photo from Chesters Roman Fort and Museum. You’re welcome.

Sunday, 19 May 2019

Radically Equal in Christ: A Sermon on Colossians 3:1–4:1

Here’s another sermon on Colossians.

Matthew 12:46-50; Colossians 3:1–4:1

Sometimes Jesus said things we find difficult to hear. Take today’s Gospel reading from Matthew, for example. Someone tells Jesus his family—his mother and brothers—are outside wanting to speak to him. Nothing unusual about that, I suppose, not at face value. But Jesus’s response is astonishing: ‘That woman, those men—they’re not my mother and brothers; you are!’ Matthew doesn’t tell us if Jesus’s mother and brothers heard him say this. If they did, we can only guess at the levels of confusion and hurt and anger they must have felt. But Jesus’s point is clear: in God’s kingdom, Jesus’s family has nothing to do with blood ties or biology, but has everything to do with obedience to God the Father whose Son is Jesus. In today’s Gospel reading, Jesus is redefining human relationships around his own relationship with God his Father. In the kingdom of God, everything is radically different, radically new, radically equal—and all based on Jesus.
You don’t know where Daddy is? Let’s see if he’s in this pie.
But nobody seems to have told the apostle Paul this, at least not judging by part of today’s reading from Colossians. ‘Wives,’ he commands, ‘be subject to your husbands’; ‘children,’ he adds, ‘obey your parents in everything’; ‘slaves,’ he goes on, ‘slaves, obey your earthly masters in everything.’ If Jesus sought to redefine human relationships around his own relationship with God his Father, then Paul didn’t get the message. It looks for all the world like Paul is keeping the Roman Empire’s status quo: women should play the dutiful spouse, children should be seen and not heard, and slaves . . . well, how on earth can Paul approve of slavery, anyway? Paul says a lot of good things about Jesus; but his attitude towards human relationships, and about how families and households should conduct themselves, leaves a lot to be desired.

Before I say more, let’s try to get into the flow of what Paul’s saying in Colossians 3. You Colossians, says Paul, you Colossians have died with Christ, and you have been raised with Christ. Both things have already happened to you, and so you don’t need to look elsewhere to know and experience God. You already have everything you need in the risen Jesus, who is above you and seated at the right hand of God the Father. But get this: because you have died with Christ, because you have been raised with Christ, there is a very real sense in which you are also there with him. You are hidden with Christ in God! But one day, you will no longer be hidden, because Jesus will be revealed for who he is, and you with him.

Given this, says Paul, you Colossians must put to death—kill—anything and everything you do that damages your relationships with one another. Impurity, evil desires, greed and idolatry—kill them off. Wrath, slander, lying—kill them off, too. Anything like this should be killed. And why? Because this is the life of the old, corrupted age of death; and because in baptism, you have already died to this age of death in Christ, and you have been raised to the life of the age to come with Christ. Your life is hidden with Christ in God—you are alive with him, and you are alive in him!

Think about it like this, says Paul. It’s like you used to wear a really old, manky coat: moth-eaten, worn and torn, stinking of sweat and smeared with excrement; the sort of coat that made everyone around you recoil in disgust and gag uncontrollably. But when you were baptised, you stripped off this coat and dressed yourselves in a completely new kind of coat: weather-proof, bug-proof, unstainable, and gloriously shimmering with light. Listen, says Paul, you are already wearing this coat—so why, why, why do you mope around, hands-in-pockets, living as though you’re still wearing the disgusting old one? You are not clothed like that any more and you have no need to act like you are. And why not? Because you are in Christ and in Christ you are wearing the clothes of God’s kingdom and the clothes of the age to come. You just need to grow into them!

Paul’s image is a powerful one. But what does all this have to do with wives subject to husbands, children obedient to parents, and slaves obedient to masters? It’s almost as though Paul says one thing—you are all in Christ!—and then, in a colossal collapse of self-awareness, says that being in Christ really doesn’t make any difference to the way we live our lives at all. So what’s going on? Is Paul really so lacking in self-awareness? Or is he planting seeds deeply to crack the foundations of Roman—and even our own—society?

Let’s go back a little. By the time we get to this point in his letter, Paul has already claimed that baptism in Christ has freed the Colossians from human traditions and religious techniques. Jesus is enough—that’s what last week was all about. And in the first part of today’s passage, Paul explains that in Christ, ‘there is no longer Greek and Jew, circumcised and uncircumcised, barbarian, Scythian, slave and free; [for] Christ is all and in all!’ And so because Christ is all and in all, Paul encourages the Colossians to ‘do everything in the name of the Lord Jesus, giving thanks to God the Father through him.’ These are important stages in what Paul’s saying. Notice once more how central Jesus is for Paul: Jesus is central to who we are and central to how we act. At this point in Colossians 3, then, Paul seems to insist on a radical equality among Christian believers, as well as on a radical reshaping of what counts as appropriate behaviour. In Christ, everything we think, everything we do, everything we say is radically different and shaped around him. In Christ, who we are and who we shall be is radically different.

And this radical difference also shapes how we relate to one another: in our families, our households, even in church. Despite appearances to the contrary, Paul, from verse eighteen onwards, is actually drawing out what it means to live as though everyone—everyone—is equal in Jesus Christ. All those who are in Christ are dressed in the unstainable and beautiful clothes of God’s kingdom and the age to come. Paul is sure that the Colossians—and we, too, if we can hear this—Paul is absolutely sure that each of us is redefined in Christ and through Christ to such an extent that all our relationships are redefined as well. If Christ is all and in all; if we do everything in the name of the Lord Jesus; then through Jesus, all our relationships without exception are in the Lord. Putting it crudely, Paul is encouraging the Colossians to conduct all their relationships as though Jesus actually makes a difference.

What does this mean? Well, if Christ is all and in all; if we do everything in the name of the Lord Jesus; then through him wives will be subject to their husbands only to the degree that they are both ‘in the Lord’ and so both subject to the Lord Jesus. And the reason why Paul tells husbands to love their wives is because they are both radically equal in Christ.

And what about children? Well, if Christ is all and in all; if we do everything in the name of the Lord Jesus; then through him children need obey their parents only to the degree that they are all ‘in the Lord’ and so all subject to the Lord Jesus. This doesn’t mean that parents may abdicate responsibility or neglect their parental duties; but in a Christian household, children are just as much disciples of Jesus as parents because they are all ‘in the Lord’. And so the reason why Paul tells fathers not to embitter their children is because they are all radically equal in Christ.

And slaves? If Christ is all and in all; if we do everything in the name of the Lord Jesus; then when Paul speaks about doing things ‘for the Lord’ and not for their masters; when Paul speaks about slaves serving ‘the Lord Christ’ and receiving an inheritance from him; and when Paul tells slave masters to treat their slaves ‘justly and fairly’ because they ‘also have a Master in heaven’; then surely Paul is undermining the whole foundation of slavery because he is disempowering slave owners and setting both slaves and masters on the same level. According to Paul, slaves and their masters are all radically equal ‘in the Lord’.

Notice how radical Paul is being. His simple phrases ‘in the Lord’ and ‘in Christ’ carry a lot of significance even today. In most societies, including our own, men and women are not equal—but Paul says men and women are radically equal in Christ. In many families and households, and even in churches, children are ignored or treated as irritants to soothe—but Paul says children and parents, and children and adults more generally, are radically equal in Christ. And slavery and exploitation are still the foundation of modern life—but Paul says slaves, their masters, and all those who depend on or profit from some form of slavery are radically equal in Christ. So we must ask ourselves some questions: What does such radical equality in Christ mean, really mean, for us?—for our families, for our households, for our nations, for our world? What does such radical equality in Christ mean for all of us here at Holy Trinity? And how can we live out our baptism in Christ in a world of radical inequality?

There are areas in my life that need to change, habits and attitudes I need to put to death and kill. Reading the Bible together as the body of Christ constantly challenges me to rethink where I’m at—and it’s painful. But it’s necessary, if I’m truly ‘in the Lord’; it’s necessary for all of us. But God has not left us to struggle alone: Jesus promises to be with us and has sent his Holy Spirit to empower us as we think through what being ‘in Christ’ and being ‘in the Lord’ means for us.

So with this in mind, come to the table. Celebrate the goodness of God and our radical equality in Christ. And be encouraged, for at this table we are all radically equal. None of us is less worthy or more worthy to be here, because God’s Spirit makes us all one in Christ. And let this meal be something we do in the name of the Lord Jesus as we give thanks to God the Father through him and through him alone.

Monday, 13 May 2019

Jesus is Enough: A Sermon on Colossians 1:24–2:23

Our church is going through Colossians at the moment. I’ve come to appreciate this letter afresh while reading up on it and I hope this sermon reflects that. I used the set Gospel reading for the day—John 10:22-30—as I thought I could integrate this with the Colossians passage, but I wasn’t able to do that as well as I’d hoped; the connection is rather tenuous—though not, I trust, too tenuous.

John 10:22-30; Colossians 1:24–2:23

‘See to it that no one takes you captive through philosophy and empty deceit, according to human tradition, according to the elemental spirits of the universe . . .’ Once more, the apostle Paul bangs the nail right on the head. But what is the nail—and what is its head? Or, putting it less oddly, what is Paul warning against here? What was going on in the city of Colossae?

It’s not clear precisely what was happening in or to the church in Colossae; Paul doesn’t spell it out for us. But there are hints scattered throughout his letter. In today’s passage, for example, we have three instances of the word ‘mystery’—why does Paul use this word in particular? There’s a suggestion that there are powerful forces at work in Colossae, the so-called ‘elemental spirits of the universe’. There’s a recurring theme of knowledge and understanding running through the passage, as well as motifs of wisdom and fullness. And there are references to ‘self-abasement’, ‘worship of angels’, and ‘dwelling on visions’. It’s all very enigmatic, isn’t it?—all very odd. Why does Paul mention all these things? Just what is going on in Colossae?

Perhaps the biggest clue as to what’s going on is Paul’s talk of circumcision, food and drink, and sabbaths. As we see in the Old Testament, the Jewish people circumcised their menfolk, they distinguished between clean and unclean foods, and they rested each week on the sabbath—all in accordance with the law of Moses. So does this mean that Paul is warning against Judaism? Were the Colossian believers, who were mostly non-Jewish, being persuaded to convert to Judaism? Perhaps . . . but we can’t leave it there, not without further elaboration. The focus on mystery, on visions, on elemental spirits, self-abasement, and the like—all these suggest that if Judaism is the issue, then it is a very specific variant of it—perhaps even a sect or a cult emphasising experience of God in all God’s fullness through specific rites and rituals. The problem in Colossae, then, could well be a kind of pick-’n’-mix religion with Jewish roots.

Is there anything wrong with this? It sounds pretty good, actually, doesn’t it?—being able to experience God through self-discipline and spirituality. Who here doesn’t want to be more self-disciplined? Who here doesn’t want to have a vibrant spirituality? Isn’t this what Christianity’s all about—life to the full, and all that? Well, ish . . . Even though there’s a valid and important place for self-discipline in our faith, even though we cannot express our faith without having some kind of spirituality, the problem Paul has here isn’t with trying to experience God, or with self-discipline, or with spirituality in and of itself; the problem Paul has is that the Colossians are being persuaded that Jesus Christ need not be at their centre. The believers at Colossae had heard the good news of Jesus but were now in danger of abandoning him to have apparently deeper or more powerful experiences of God by other means.

But Paul doesn’t take this sidelining of Jesus lightly! Notice how Paul deals with the situation: Are you intrigued by mystery? Well, says Paul, be intrigued no more: there is no mystery other than Jesus himself, whom you already know! Do you desire all knowledge, all understanding, and all wisdom? Well, says Paul, look no further: it’s all there in Jesus, whom you already know! Do you crave God in all God’s fullness? Well, says Paul, God’s fullness is found entirely in Jesus, whom you already know! If you want to know God, says Paul; if you want to know God for who God is, in all his glory and power—just focus on Jesus!

Paul pushes further. The law of Moses requires circumcision for membership in God’s covenant people, but you Colossians have already been circumcised, spiritually speaking, because you have been baptised in the name of Jesus. When you were baptised, you were given, and you received, a completely new identity—you are in Christ! And because you have been baptised in the name of Jesus, says Paul, because you are in Christ, it means you have already died with Jesus, you have already been buried with Jesus, and you have already been raised with Jesus. Whatever experiences of God you Colossians are being encouraged to have, let me be absolutely clear: You have already found what you’re looking for!—and it’s all in Jesus Christ, whom you already know.

Last week, we looked at the centrality of Jesus, at why Jesus is the centre of everything we think and everything we do and everything we say. All things were created in Jesus, says Paul, all things hold together in Jesus, and all things are reconciled to God through Jesus, through his blood and cross. And this is why, says Paul, no experience of God outside of Jesus or apart from Jesus is necessary or valid. How can it be? If all things were created in Jesus, if all things hold together in Jesus, if all things are reconciled to God through Jesus—then how can we even begin to know or experience God unless Jesus is at the centre? Jesus alone, says Paul, is the image of the invisible God; and for this reason, Jesus is absolutely central to Christianity—central and sufficient. If we want to know God, if we want to experience God in all God’s fullness, Jesus is enough.

But what of today’s Gospel reading, where Jesus is once more confronted by the Jewish leadership? All I want to do here is to make a comparison with our reading from Colossians. In today’s Gospel reading, the Jewish leaders continually avoided recognising Jesus as the promised Messiah of God. ‘Stop messing us around,’ they said. ‘Just tell us plainly: Are you the Messiah?’ But Jesus merely points out that everything he has done in his Father’s name is evidence enough. Jesus was reshaping and redefining how God’s people would know and experience God, but the Jewish leaders refused to accept this—even though it was happening right in front of them! And in our main reading from Colossians, the believers at Colossae were tempted to look for experiences of God by using religious techniques to push Jesus to the sidelines of their faith—despite the fact they had already received Jesus himself through baptism. The Colossian believers were already defined by the risen Christ but were tempted to define themselves through human traditions and practices.

It seems that dislodging Jesus from the centre of our lives is an ever-present temptation. However deeply or sincerely we believe Jesus is central to our faith, however much we want to worship him or to be like him, in practice we struggle to accept Jesus is enough. And so we convince ourselves that we need something else to deepen our relationship with God: a particular style of worship; a certain way of praying; a distinct mode of preaching; a specific method or programme of evangelism; a perfect set of criteria for teaching the Bible to our children. None of these things is wrong in and of itself; we need all these sorts of things and more to support us as we grow to maturity in Christ. But we cannot insist on any particular thing being the sole way or the right way of growing mature in Christ because then we turn our beliefs into techniques and locate our identity in our personalities rather than in Christ himself, into whom we have been baptised. And this happens when Jesus is no longer central, when Jesus is no longer enough.

This is why Paul urges the Colossians—and this is why Paul urges us—to ‘continue to live your lives in [Jesus], rooted and built up in him and established in the faith’, that is, the good news about Jesus the Church has taught since at least the day of Pentecost. The faith of the first generation of Christians is the same faith as the latest generation’s, our generation, because it is faith in Jesus. And while it sounds obvious and far too simplistic, let me assure you: the way to avoid pushing Jesus aside is to keep him at the centre of our lives and to redefine everything else—everything else—in light of him.

There’s a challenge here; a challenge, but also a promise. The challenge is to accept the sufficiency of Jesus—Jesus is enough. Our search to supplement Jesus with other things to know and experience God is misguided because nothing and no one else can or will do the job. Only Jesus is enough. This is a challenge for us because our tendency is to redefine Jesus in light of our preferred form of Christianity.

But while this is the challenge, the promise is exactly the same: Jesus is sufficient—Jesus is enough. Our search to find God’s comfort in times of pain, God’s acceptance in times of failure, and God’s love in times of despair—these are all given to us in Jesus. And Jesus is certainly enough! This is a promise for us because we no longer need to look high and low or far and wide to know and experience God, for our knowledge of God and our experience of God are all right here—in Jesus.

So what does all this mean for us? What does it mean for us to say that Jesus is enough? You’ll have to come along next week to find out! In Colossians 3, Paul begins to spell out what being ‘in Christ’ means, what it means for us to recognise Jesus as both central and sufficient in our daily lives. So if you want to know how the sufficiency of Jesus impacts our everyday life, come along next week!

But for now—for now, know for sure that Jesus is enough. Come to the table where Jesus is present; eat the bread, drink the wine; be assured that God’s Holy Spirit makes them the body and blood of Jesus for us—for me, for you, for us all.

Monday, 8 April 2019

Impactful CCM Albums: Massivivid, BrightBlur (1998)


Despite grunting appearances to the contrary, I don’t dislike contemporary worship music as such but certain manifestations of it—mostly the sort that tries to be U2 or Coldplay while promoting Jesus-therapy and self-improvement. Back in the day, I used to fantasise (too strong a word, I know) about playing bass in a worship-oriented band that took reality into account. When Massivivid popped onto the scene in 1998 with BrightBlur, I knew I didn’t need to fantasise any more—at least not about the ‘worship-oriented band that took reality into account’, anyway.

Standout track: ‘Drop’

Sunday, 10 February 2019

Everything’s Going to be Okay: A Sermon on Jeremiah 23:1-14

My church is going through Jeremiah at the moment—well, selected highlights, anyway. (Or should that be ‘selected lowlights’—Jeremiah’s not exactly a barrel of laughs, is he?) I preached today, and ’ere be my effort.

Jeremiah 23:1-24; John 7:14-18

Jeremiah—is it all doom and gloom with him? You’d certainly be forgiven for thinking so. Take this week’s passage for instance: first we have a message of judgement against the shepherds; and then we have another message of judgement, this time against the priests and especially the prophets. Clearly the Lord is not impressed with Judah’s leadership! But why? It’s quite easy to reduce the point to a single simple soundbite: If you’re a leader, don’t abuse your position or the people in your care. But behind the prophecies in this chapter lies a very particular situation—and knowing something about this situation gives us a little understanding about why the Lord is angry here, as well as giving us some glimpses of future hope beyond a dark present.

So let’s have a little history lesson. Jehoiakim was one of the last rulers of the kingdom of Judah. He wasn’t an especially good king. He had a palace built for himself but underpaid the people, his own people, who worked on it. Jehoiakim also paid tribute to the king of Egypt, but taxed his people heavily to raise the money while living in the lap of luxury himself. In 605 bc, the Lord called Jeremiah to write down all his prophecies on a scroll and have them delivered to Jehoiakim. The Lord’s intention was for the king to turn from his wicked ways on hearing the words.

This one ain’t gonna get burnt none, is it, Lord?
And so King Jehoiakim of Judah heard the words of the Lord. But he did not turn from his wicked ways. Instead, he cut the scroll up and burnt all the pieces in a fire, the word of the Lord curling and shrivelling and turning to ash. The Lord saw fit to send another message to the king via the prophet Jeremiah: Judgement is coming—and this time, I will not hold back. The empire of Babylon will destroy you and wipe you all out. (You can read all about this in Jeremiah 36.)

It’s this situation that lies behind the first two verses of today’s reading from Jeremiah 23. The shepherds are a metaphor for Judah’s kings, including Jehoiakim. The kings of Judah were meant to protect and care for the people, says the Lord; but as they had only taken care of themselves, so now the Lord will take care of them—once and for all! And the Lord’s judgement unfolded during the course of the next twenty years. First, the Babylonians laid siege to Jerusalem and deported all the skilled workers, leaving only a basic government and the poorest people; and then, in 587 bc, during the reign of Zedekiah, the last king of Judah, the Babylonians destroyed the temple and carried off most of the remaining inhabitants. Only a few people were left to work the land. The city of Jerusalem was wasted, the monarchy of Judah at an end.

If this is what lies behind the first two verses of Jeremiah 23, what might lie behind the rest of today’s passage? Let’s jump to the prophets and priests, starting in verse eleven. ‘Both prophet and priest are ungodly,’ says the Lord. Not much else is said about the priests—but plenty is said about the prophets! Not only are the prophets ungodly, but they engage in immoral behaviour; they tell lies and perpetuate fake news; they are complicit in a system that exploits the disadvantaged and favours the privileged. And the prophecies they give are not true prophecies; they are nothing more than ‘visions of their own minds,’ says the Lord.

But why is the Lord targeting the prophets like this? Kings we can understand; they were, after all, responsible for the wellbeing of the whole nation; but the prophets were just crazy old men with long, tangled beards who stood on street corners barking at passers-by, commanding them to repent—weren’t they?

The truth is perhaps a little more unusual. In the kingdoms of Israel and Judah, there were literally hundreds of prophets, both men and women. Very often, a prophet would be part of a guild or a community, or possibly attached to the royal court or the temple in Jerusalem. The purpose of a prophet, of course, was to communicate the word of the Lord, but prophets did this in a number of ways. Prophets would help people, including kings, discern the will of the Lord. Prophets would also perform miracles; they would intercede or pray for others; they would heal people. And, generally speaking, prophets would receive payment for their services, a sort of stipend that allowed them to devote themselves to God.

And so when in our passage today the Lord is speaking against the prophets, the Lord is not condemning the guilds of prophets as such, but the exploitation or the manipulation of this sort of set-up. The prophets here, it seems, were quite happy to assure the people of prosperity while continuing to receive payment. But the Lord had not given these prophets that message. They had not stood in the Lord’s presence to hear what he had to say to them. They were putting words into the mouth of the Lord; they were saying, ‘It shall be well with you’ and, ‘No calamity shall come upon you’, even though the Lord himself had said through the prophet Jeremiah that the end of Jerusalem was nigh. The prophets heard the people’s worries about the future—they probably had the same ones—and were quick to give them what they wanted: a message of peace.

So notice, too, that the people themselves were not entirely blameless. Verse seventeen makes it clear that the prophets were prophesying falsely to people who wanted someone to kiss the hurts and make everything better. They had heard that the Lord intended to put an end to the city—but this was not a message they could bear. And so they paid the prophets whatever they could to assure them that everything would be okay—and this is exactly what the prophets did. They told the people that everything would be okay, even though they knew, and even though the people knew, that at least one prophet, the prophet Jeremiah, was telling them that judgement was coming. And the Lord’s judgement did come, in 587 bc, when Jerusalem was destroyed.

So is it all doom and gloom with Jeremiah? Well, no—not all doom and gloom! It seems that with Jeremiah, a message of judgement is never too far away, but that’s because of the desperate times he lived in. But there are flashes of brightness in the darkness, glimpses of future hope beyond the impending devastation. Let’s turn back to the opening verses of Jeremiah 23. In verse two, we see that the Lord plans to scatter the shepherds who had not cared for the sheep; but in verse three, we see that the Lord eventually plans to bring his people back to the land—and more than this, that they will return and will prosper, all under the gaze of shepherds who will actually care for them. This is good news!

Yes! It’s me and my golden locks!
There is another promise, too: there shall also be ‘a righteous Branch’, a man who ‘shall reign as king and deal wisely, and shall execute justice and righteousness in the land.’ Under this king’s just and true leadership, the people ‘will live in safety’—so much so, that the freedom experienced under this king could only surpass the freedom experienced by the Israelites when they were freed from Egypt. This king is that good! I wonder if this reminds you of anyone . . .

So what does all this have to do with us? Knowing a little bit more about sixth-century-bc politics and society in Jerusalem is all well and good, but how does it help us to live today in twenty-first-century-ad London? Well, the times we live in are not too dissimilar. I don’t want to force any like-for-like comparisons between now and then; it’s enough for me simply to point out that the present day is just as uncertain for us, politically and personally, as past days were for the people of Jerusalem. We can all do with some assurance that things will pan out alright. But the question is this: Where do we find this assurance? In whom do we place our trust?

The ultimate answer, of course, is Jesus, the righteous Branch, the king who executes justice like no other monarch ever has or ever will. But trusting Jesus does not automatically make everything alright—not if by this we mean the clouds of uncertainty should part to allow the light of God to bathe us in its warmth. No, this is unrealistic. There could be and probably will be tough times ahead of us, even as the times we live in are already tough in many different ways. This doesn’t mean we shouldn’t ask God to guard us from all that harms and hurts, as today’s collect says; we’re not masochists. But there are still a couple of temptations to avoid, two sides of the same coin. The first is for us to tell people that everything will be okay when it might not be. Having faith in Jesus is not protection or immunity from this world with all its pain and suffering and uncertainty. We can’t avoid the cross any more than Jesus could. And the second temptation is for us to seek out others to tell us that everything will be okay. Again, everything might not be okay, and looking for someone to tell us the opposite when this might not be true is to place our trust in someone other than the crucified one.

But as doom-and-gloomy as all this sounds, let’s not forget that the crucified one is also the risen one: our King Jesus! In our Gospel reading today, we see Jesus teaching in the rebuilt temple in Jerusalem during the Festival of Tabernacles. The Jewish leaders are concerned: Jesus is teaching without any appeal to his own teachers; in effect, he is like a false prophet, spouting, as Jeremiah 23 might say, ‘visions of his own mind, not from the mouth of the Lord.’ But Jesus isn’t like a false prophet at all because he learnt from the best; his teaching comes from God his Father, and he teaches in order to glorify him and not himself. And those who follow him—his disciples, the early Christians, and all of us here today who accept Jesus as Lord—know that he only tells the truth, even when the truth hurts.

The God revealed in Jesus and by the Holy Spirit is the only one who truly knows the future—and this God is truly the only one who promises to be alongside us, loving us, no matter what the future brings. There are tough times ahead one way or another, as well as, I’m sure, some easier times. But whatever our future holds, let’s cling to the one who holds the future. Our God has promised us an eternity of resurrection peace and safety with the once-crucified, now-risen Jesus. This is our ultimate future hope; this is the good news we tell others in the dark times. And why? Because Jesus is alive and because he reigns with the Father in the unity of the Holy Spirit, one God, now and for ever. Amen.