Sunday, November 25, 2007

Sunday 25 November 2007 - Christ the King

This sermon is based on: Luke 23:33-43



Today we celebrate the festival of Christ the King. But today is also the last Sunday of the Church’s cycle of the seasons. With the coming of Advent next Sunday, a new cycle of festivals and seasons begins and we will prepare ourselves for the coming of the Christ Child, God-with-us in human form.

And so as this old year draws to a close it’s fitting that we end the year by recognising and affirming the Kingship of Christ. And it’s fitting that we acknowledge our belief that he is the one who will rule in the coming Kingdom of God.

The issue I want to explore this morning, however, is what do we mean by the word ‘King’? And what does it mean to acknowledge Christ as our King?

A Royal Figurehead

Queen Elizabeth II is obviously not a King, but her reign probably embodies what it means to be a monarch of a Western country today.

As I’m sure you all know, the Queen and Prince Philip celebrated their sixtieth wedding anniversary this week,
but the celebration at Westminster Abbey of this partnership between two individuals was nevertheless a public affair because of the identity of the two people involved. As one newscaster put it, the marriage of Queen Elizabeth and Prince Philip has been a marriage that has always been punctuated by duty.

There are some people who think that they would fancy such duties as the Queen has, but I’m not one of them as I think that she has a demanding ‘job’. I actually think that she has what I’d call a pastoral role; she may not be a pastor in a church or in a school, but the nation does look to her in times of trouble to visit and encourage people - even if this is in a formal and official capacity.

And so the public admires the Queen - as it admired her parents - for her devotion to duty and her willingness to be among the people and encourage the nation.

And the Kings and Queens of other Western countries: The Netherlands, Denmark, Sweden, Spain, to name but a few, play a similar role in their own countries, albeit usually on a smaller scale. Although these royals are figureheads, they are nonetheless important figureheads who somehow embody the nation, its existence and its values.

I’m just not sure that our experience of Kings and Queens today is entirely what the early church meant when it talked about the image of Christ as King. Does the celebration of Christ the King bring to your mind a picture of a man remote but mild, dressed in royal finerery, for a state occasion? A figurehead, perhaps. A Head of State, perhaps. But not anyone with significant political power.

The Perils of Power

Ancient kings were certainly not figureheads and, even if they themselves were personally remote from the people, their decisions were anything but remote. Ancient kings may have been either good or bad, but they had power to significantly affect the lives of everyone under their rule.

Perhaps today’s equivalent of an ancient King is a Prime Minister, President or Ruling Political Party. The effects that a bad king could have on his people were significant and life altering.

We have only to look at Zimbabwe today to see one example the devastation that can be caused by a government wielding unfettered power against its citizens. This is a country where anyone who is even remotely suspected of being in opposition to the government is immediately imprisoned. Property is often confiscated and loved ones killed. In the summer of 2005, over 22,000 people in the slums of the capital of Harare were targeted because of their alleged opposition to the government; and people’s homes, communities and livelihoods were destroyed overnight. Today, many of the country’s own citizens do not have the basic necessities of life and South Africa recently reported that Zimbabwean refugees are regularly arriving in South Africa at the point of starvation.

This is an example of the horrible consequence of a modern government using unfettered power selfishly and for its own benefit. This is the kind of power that ancient kings had. They had not only the potential to for good but almost unfettered power to destroy the lives of their subjects.

God’s Reign Begins on the Cross

Scripture and Christian tradition, however, teach that the Kingship of Christ is something different.

Jesus is not a powerless, figurehead King who can only be pastoral. He is a King with real power for good or for evil. But his is also a King who refuses the temptation to enter into the game of Might Makes Right. Christ is King, but he refuses the temptation to play Superman.

When we understand this, we can begin to understand the significance of using Luke’s account of the crucifixion as the Gospel reading for the festival of Christ the King.

To wield unfettered power in the cause of Good was Jesus’ temptation in the desert and it’s the temptation that the unbelieving thief presents to him again in today’s Gospel reading: If you are the Son of God, come down from the cross and save us all. If you are the Son of God, throw yourself from the temple, gain political power and use that power to crush evil.

But Jesus is a King whose reign begins on the cross. And Christians throughout the ages have been forced to grapple with this image of a King who refuses to save himself in the way that we would normally expect: by coming down from the cross.

This image of a dying, defeated King who nonetheless claims victory is a scandalous image and it’s supposed to be a scandal. On this last Sunday in the church year, let’s not skip forward too quickly to Easter Sunday. And let’s not turn the crucifixion into some kind of transaction that is too easily understood as a simple exchange between Jesus and the Father.

Let’s sit for a moment and be confused and outraged by the image of a King who refuses to come down from the cross as we would have him do.

If we turn the story of Jesus into the story of a Superman who eventually does use the method of Might Makes Right to crush evil, we’ve missed the point. The Christian faith affirms the Kingship of Christ in defiance of everything that denies it, including his apparent defeat of the cross.

If we believe in Christ-as-Superman, we will be tempted to say – we would be right to say - ‘There is no God. If there were, where is our Superman God in Zimbabwe? Where is God in Bangladesh? Where is God in my personal suffering?’

But the Christian faith affirms that Christ reigns from the cross. Jesus told the second thief ‘Today you will be with me in paradise’. Joining Jesus had nothing to do with dying. It had everything to do with seeing beyond the appearance of defeat to the truth that somehow God is victorious in the cross.

This is this kind of faith that conquers fear and leads to freedom. This is this kind of faith that gives us the courage to imitate Christ and to live our own lives in the power of the crucifixion.

The Christian faith affirms that Christ on the cross is present in Zimbabwe, that Christ on the cross is present in Bangladesh and that Christ on the cross is present with us in our own personal suffering.

And that’s not meant to be a glib statement. It’s meant to be a troubling statement. It’s meant to provoke at least a little bit of outrage. It’s meant to be a statement of faith.


My prayer is that, as we come before the table of the Lord this morning, we grapple with this troubling, outrageous Christ. The King who gave up his life on the cross, who participates in the suffering of the world and who invites us, by the power of the Spirit, to do the same.

Sunday 18 November 2007 - Faith and False Temples

This sermon is based on Luke 21:5-19



This morning’s Gospel reading paints a stark image of destruction: the destruction of the Temple in Jerusalem. Herod’s Temple, the most grandiose of all the Temples and the focus of Jewish national identity during the Roman occupation of Israel.

This is a Temple which Jesus has opposed consistently throughout the Gospel of Luke, probably not least because the motivation for its construction was not devotion to the God of Israel, but rather devotion to the nation of Israel – a subtle, but very important difference. Nevertheless, the Temple had always been associated with the physical presence of God among his chosen people.

For the Jewish people, the destruction of the Temple symbolised the destruction of life as they knew it. The destruction of the Temple meant God’s physical and real absence from their lives and it meant the collapse of their nation, their way of life and everything that they held dear.

What's Your Temple?

This morning, I want to ask you ‘What is your Temple? And what is our Temple?’

Because I suspect that when we talk about this kind of symbolic Temple that there are more than one and that some are individual Temples and others are collective Temples.

I want to invite us not to pass this reading off as an academic reading that only has some historical interest, because I think it actually has some profound things to say to us today. It’s easy for all of us to get caught up in the mindset that ‘We’ve always done it that way.’ Sometimes we always do it that way because it’s the path of least resistance. Sometimes we always do it that way because we believe that there is only one way to do ‘it’ – whatever ‘it’ might be. Sometimes always doing it that way is a source of security for us: a reliable, unchanging point of reference in an uncertain world that seems to be changing all too quickly for our liking.

The church is also particularly guilty of one variation on this theme: the idea that because God and his love is eternal and unchanging, so too must everything we do in church be eternally unchanging.

And many of our hymns reinforce this idea that not changing is A Good Thing: Great is thy faithfulness, O God my Father, There is no shadow of turning with thee; Thou changest not, thy compassions, they fail not As thou hast been thou for ever wilt be. Now I suspect that the hymn writer intends to say that God’s compassion does not change, but I wonder how many of us associate God’s never-ending compassion with the idea that there is going to be no change in our relationship with God? Or with the idea that nothing in church ever will or should change?


The problem is that, if we want to grow, then change has to happen. The other problem is that, within the course of human life, change sometimes happens and not always for the better.

If you think that today’s society has problems – if you think you have problems – think about Luke’s readers. Because most scholars agree that Luke wrote his Gospel some time between 70 and 90 AD; and you will remember that the Temple was destroyed in 70 AD. In other words, Jesus’ prediction of the destruction of the Temple that is recorded in this Gospel had already happened.

And so I think that Luke’s readers would not read this passage in fear and trepidation, but they would immediately recognise their own situation in it. The Temple has been destroyed. Society as we knew it and the values, people and places we held dear have been destroyed. But Jesus predicted this! Jesus foresaw it! Let’s keep listening and see what we can learn from Jesus about how we are to go forward!

I don’t think that Luke wrote this passage to instil fear and caution into his readers. I think that he wrote it to give his readers guidance and hope.

Yet today in 2007, we can still recognise the signs of the times that Luke’s Jesus talks about. Sadly, none of this is ancient history, but it’s all too contemporary and real.

Nation rises up against nation and so we have the West fighting Islamic terrorism, Palestine fighting Israel and North and South Korea at loggerheads, to name but a few. We’ve had not just earthquakes but also tsunamis; not just dreadful portents but dreadful cyclones; human-created famines in Darfur and Zimbabwe and recent plagues that farmers have had to endure.

We are not arrested and persecuted in this country because we confess Christ as our Lord and Saviour but many of our Christian brothers and sisters in other countries are. And some lament the fact that the UK is no longer a ‘Christian country’ (whatever that means) and Christians are surprised by and reeling under the realisation that not everyone thinks that being a Christian is a good thing; and some people even think we are dangerous: just as the Roman Empire thought in the early days of Christianity.

When Life Gets Difficult

What is the meaning of all this? Well, as one popular phrase puts it, I think it means ‘No one ever said that life is easy’.

Jesus never said that our lives as Christians would be easy. In fact, as today’s reading demonstrates, he said quite the opposite time and time again. Jesus never said that life was going to be easy. What he did say was that, when life is difficult, when we are really up against it in life, that he will give us ‘words and wisdom’.

When life gets difficult Jesus has promised that he will ‘be there’ for us. He’ll be right here in the mess with us giving us what we need, what our souls will need. Jesus didn’t promise us a magic solution to all our problems and I’d like to point out that what we need might not actually be what we want or what we think we need – and that’s the rub.

It’s tempting to give in to the idea that because things are not going as we want them to or expect them to that Jesus isn’t with us. It’s tempting to think that because things are changing in a way that’s not to our liking that Jesus is no longer with us. I suspect that at least some of Luke’s Jewish readers must have been tempted to despair as the world as they knew it collapsed around them and as they saw their Christian brothers and sisters persecuted for their faith.

It’s also incredibly tempting to try to turn faith into some kind of formula. It’s really tempting to say with the disciples, ‘Give us a sign’. They were probably talking about what we would call astrology: a tangible, observable sign in the night sky that would tell them that Jesus’ reign on earth was about to start. We ask for other kinds of tangible signs that God is with us: happiness, health, prosperity. Or perhaps an emotional feeling of God being with us or a timely word from another Christian. Sometimes God gives us these things, but even if he doesn’t, Jesus’ promise to be with us is utterly reliable.

Jesus didn’t just predict the destruction of the Temple. Jesus promised to replace the Temple with his own Self. Just as Luke is telling his readers ‘Don’t rely on the Temple as a sign and symbol of God’s fulfilled promise’, so he might be saying to us, 'Don’t rely on your own Temples – on your ideas about how the world or your life ‘should’ be – as a sign and symbol of God’s fulfilled promise. Like the early Christians, we too are being exhorted to look to Jesus as a replacement for The Temple and as a replacement for our own personal Temples.

But this passage is more than an exhortation. It is also a promise. A promise that Christ is always with us, in the power of his Spirit, no matter how dire our circumstances might seem. It’s not a promise to make our lives rosy, but it is a promise to be there in the mess with us.


In a few minutes, we will come together as the body of Christ around the Lord’s table. Christ has promised us that he will be in the midst of us whenever we gather around the table in remembrance of him.

As Advent approaches, we remember that Jesus was God incarnate. God come down to be physically present with his people. The God who felt the physical and emotional pains that all human beings feel also felt the pangs of hunger and the joy of a full belly. He felt the joy of companionship and the agony of loneliness. Here at his table is a physical sign and symbol that God in Christ feeds us and nourishes us with his presence.

And so my prayer today is that each one of us may be strengthened and encouraged by Christ who has promised always to be with us. Amen

Sunday 11 November 2007 - Remembrance Sunday

A meditation for the Remembrance Day Service, 2007. Based on 2 Thessalonians 2: 1-5, 13-17 and Luke 20:27-38



Resurrection and the Second Coming of Jesus. These are the themes of this morning’s readings and they are particularly challenging themes. Especially for 21st century Christians where we have lost all the cultural influences that made texts like the ones we just heard meaningful to first century Christians.

There is no doubt that the very early Church – those believers who were Jesus’ contemporaries – expected him to return in glory in their lifetime and to set up the reign of God on earth. The second letter to the Thessalonians is addressed to a group of believers whose faith has been shaken by the growing realisation that they are not going to see Jesus’ glorious return in their own lifetime.

And our Gospel reading is about resurrection. It’s about the blindness of the Sadducees and their inability to see Jesus for who he is, but it’s also most definitely about resurrection.

So what do we make of these two concepts, so difficult for contemporary society? And what, especially, do we make of them in the light of Remembrance Day?

It was the sentence of one commentator on the Gospel reading that really struck me as tying all of this together. I paraphrase what he wrote: The Sadducees belong to this age and are so preoccupied with the details of the marriage system that they are unable to contemplate something radically new, the miracle of the resurrection.

And so too, it seems to me, that part of what we remember today as Christians is our human inability to see beyond ‘this age’. Today we remember our human inability to imagine something new like the miracle of peace.

Remembering the Sacrifice of Others

We remember and recognise the preoccupation of human society with individual and national honour, and we mourn the fact that 89 years after Armistice Day and the end of World War I, the world is still caught up in a system of greed, revenge and violence.

And, of course, today we also remember all the men and women who are currently serving in the armed forces and who have served in the past. We remember especially those who have been injured and those who died in service of their country.

We remember those people on the home front who suffered hardship, who worked for the welfare of their neighbours and we remember those who died as casualties of war.

We also remember other public servants whose vocations require them to lay their lives on the line for the greater good of society, particularly police and fire brigades.

People who are called by vocation and circumstance to lay down their lives for others are living out the great commandment of Moses and Jesus to love their neighbours, whether or not they consider themselves to be people of faith. And as Christians, we recognise this sacrifice, we respect it, and we thank God for giving these people the courage and grace to consider the welfare of others before their own.

Such actions are not only examples for us, but they must certainly elicit within us a wellspring of gratitude, awe and thanksgiving. And it is for these reasons that today we remember them.

Remembering the Prince of Peace

However, as Christians we are called to remember these people and their sacrifices in the context of the Gospel. We are called to remember those fallen in the service of their country in the context of what Scripture tells us about God’s love for each and every human life.

Our Epistle and Gospel readings this morning remind us that we are also called to remember God’s vision of his Kingdom: a vision of a New Creation where Christ will reign in glory as the Prince of Peace. However we conceive of these difficult biblical notions of resurrection, New Creation and the reign of Christ, we are called to remember that God’s intention for all of his children is life in all its fullness.

As Christians, we remember that Jesus is the Prince of Peace. And we remember that the origins of war and national conflict were the same in Jesus’ time as they are today: greed, empire-building, a desire for revenge and the world’s failure to understand that the person who we call an enemy is also a beloved child of God.

As Christians, we are called to stand back from the values of this age so that we can remember God’s vision of the Kingdom and the reign of the Prince of Peace. We are called to imagine a radical new world where the miracle of peace is made manifest.

However improbable it may seem, however cynical the pundits of the world may be about the Church’s message of hope, the Church is called to keep her light of hope burning until the bridegroom arrives. At the core of our faith is not only our conviction that God’s love is for all of humanity. It is also the conviction that the death and resurrection of Jesus proves conclusively that such an apparently mad and wide-eyed hope for peace on earth is not in vain.

At the core of the Christian faith is the conviction that the sacrifice of Jesus was worth something and that God himself knows exactly what it means to suffer and die at the hand of human sin.

On this Remembrance Day, let us remember the sacrifice made for us – and being made for us - by all men and women in uniform.

Let us remember the sacrifice of all those who went before us so that we – their sons and daughters, grandsons and granddaughters – might enjoy freedom.

But, as Christians, let us most especially remember that the Church is called to keep alive God’s good news of the coming of his kingdom and of the reign of Christ, the Prince of Peace.

Let us not only imagine peace, but I pray that each and every one of us here today may live out peace in our daily lives.


Sunday 4 November 2007 - Church Anniversary

This is a sermon for a church anniversary, based on a very specific context. The readings are: 2 Chronicles 7:11-16 and Matthew 12:1-8



This morning, we celebrate our Church Anniversary at XYZ Methodist Church. As we talked about earlier, one of the things that we’re celebrating is the community of people who meet here.

Today we are celebrating everyone who worships here on Sunday, whether they are young or old; and we’re also celebrating the groups that use the church building during the week: some groups for worship and prayer, some for singing and making music as well as some community groups and associations.

God has created each individual uniquely in his own image and everyone has different gifts and talents. And - just like the ingredients in a recipe - we all bring different things into the community.

In today’s Old Testament reading, we heard how Solomon built the First Temple but the bit we didn’t hear about was the fact that King David, Solomon’s father, had prepared the way for Solomon to build the temple. According to stories in both the books of Kings and Chronicles, David planned and provided for the construction of the Temple and Solomon carried it out.

And so, in addition to celebrating all the different groups and people who are part of our community in 2007, we also remember the people who came before us. We remember the people who founded this fellowship 122 years ago and we remember the people who built this building forty four years ago.

The purpose of this remembering is not to dream nostalgically about the past, but to thank God for the life, the work and the witness of those people. We remember how they lived and the love and the concern they showed to us, and we acknowledge all of that before God.

Remembering our mothers and fathers in faith can also help us to have a touchstone, an example of Christian living.

Relationships Can be Difficult

Of course, human relationships are not always sweetness and light, and the difficulties we have are part of being human and part of the risk of being a member of a community.

In addition to telling us the story of Solomon’s building of the Temple, The Old Testament also tells us that God did not allow King David to build the Temple, because David had too much blood on his hands. In fact, as we read the stories of both David and Solomon, we realise that they were very human in the mistakes that they made.

David, as we know, used his power and authority to kill one of his most loyal supporters for his own selfish interests, Yet, because of David’s later and genuine repentance, God forgave him.

Relationships are at the heart of what it means to be human. Some relationships are easy and some are difficult. Some take a lot of effort and some very little effort.

And I think that our relationship with God can be like that too: sometimes it’s easy and sometimes it’s difficult. Sometimes, our relationship with God seems to go along swimmingly for weeks, months, or years And other times we struggle: either with faith, with closeness, or with perceiving the presence of God.

But to acknowledge the difficulties as well as the goodness in our relationships is a truthful thing, and an authentic thing. And the best relationships are the ones in which we are free to be truthful and authentic. Because, when we acknowledge our differences, our disagreements and even our faults, we can make amends and start to move forward constructively.

We can learn to forgive and we can learn to be forgiven.

Forgiving and Being Forgiven

Forgiving and being forgiven are both difficult activities. For some people and in some circumstances, being forgiven can be just as difficult as forgiving.

That’s because many of us – and I include myself in this category – don’t like making mistakes. We don’t like doing the wrong thing and we don’t like hurting others. And that can make it just as hard to be forgiven as it is to forgive. Because being forgiven means acknowledging that we have done something wrong. Which is what repentance is.

It is this ongoing process of repentance and forgiveness that makes for good relationships between people And it’s that process of repentance and forgiveness that makes for a good relationship between a person and God.

God’s Good News is, because of the life, death and resurrection of Jesus Christ, that being wrong can be forgiven. We never have to worry that one day there will come a time when we’ve messed up one time too many and God will no longer forgive us. God has promised that he will always forgive us.


So what’s all this got to do with Church Anniversary?

Well, there is one group of people we’ve not mentioned yet. We’ve mentioned the people who are part of our community today. And we’ve mentioned the people who have come before us. But we’ve not mentioned the people who will come after us.

Over the next few months, we’re going to be doing a review of our church life and we’re going thinking about who we are as a Christian community and what we have to offer the community outside these walls and to the generations who will come after us.

As we do that review, I’d like to call us to make sure it is done in the light of Christ. What do I mean by that?

I mean that we would do well to remember that a loving relationship between us and God is at the heart of being a Christian community. This relationship is one based on forgiveness, on honesty and on the commitment to the truth. It’s a relationship where being wrong can be forgiven. It’s a relationship where God has committed to always forgive us.

As we think about who we are now and who we want to be in the future, some of us will have different ideas; I’d be surprised if there wasn’t some disagreement, but all of that is OK.

My prayer is that as we go forward into what is for us a new year, that the Spirit of Christ will go with us and give us strength to continue to be a community who are forgiving and forgiven.

May the Spirit open our eyes and our ears to the work of God in our lives and in the world and help us to respond as we are called. I make this prayer in the name of the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit. Amen