Santa vs Jesus
Four Kinds of Christmas
Santa vs Jesus
Four Kinds of Christmas
“Resurrection Changes Everything”
A Sermon: First Sunday after Easter
Luke 23:50-56 & 24:1-12
Resurrection changes everything!
Resurrection grabs the attention like nothing else.
Resuscitation is possibly good news for a brief time;
Resurrection is Good News for eternity.
Resuscitation may bring us back to humanity temporarily;
Resurrection brings us to God for ever.
Resurrection is not resuscitation.
Resurrection is not renovation, regeneration or regurgitation.
Christians are recipients of resurrection:
We know the actual word, probably too well;
We read the Scriptures, probably too quicky;
And we benefit from resurrection, probably (mostly), too carelessly.
Resurrection changes everything!
The shocking thing about suffering is not that it happens, but that we are shocked when it happens. The suffering can of course take many forms: bereavements, illness, chronic sickness, depression, pain, cold and flu, to name but a few!
Although there is a place for time alone, space to think and pray, why is it, that in many Christian churches, people feel the need to absent themselves from the life of God’s people? Why do so many think that a theatrical withdrawal is what biblical faith is all about? Why do we feel that when we do go to church we get tired of explaining about our illness, whilst on the other hand, when we do withdraw, we lament that nobody cares or calls.
It is a fact that what is often presented in our lives is not the reality of either us or our situation. A man who lost a father at the age of five, will likely have profoundly complex and yet dysfunctional emotions and expectations in later life when a relative dies. In this sense, people can be very ego-centric in grief and suffering – and that is not to minimalise the suffering, merely to unmask the complexity of emotion and feelings underneath.
If sickness determined whether we continue with church and/or God, then surely God would have no lovers and all churches would be empty! But no! Church is full of repentant sinners, broken people, unhealed, chronically sick and often desperate….but they are there, with God’s people, together, worshipping God for God’s own sake, for God’s sake! Those who theatrically withdraw forget that other people are living their lives too, and in their egocentrism, they neither see nor care. In fact, this not seeing nor caring, is a form of robbery – robbing God of what they were called to be within the community; denying the gift of themselves to others among the people of God; and all because of an egocentrism that is ring-fenced from genuine biblical scrutiny, Holy Spirit healing & trust, and Christian fellowship.
Is it a type of super-spiritual sulking? I think it can be, though it may not be. And this sulking can and often is a smokescreen for the real reality behind the perceived or egocentrically managed (false) reality.
In his book, Games People Play, Eric Berne suggests that in groups, which of course include churches, there is a whole range of ‘gameplaying’ going on; something false about most people or groups, and for anyone inclined pastorally, the greatest freedom can be found in recognising the script, seeing what is false, refusing to play to their script and speak prophetic biblical truth, life and health into all situations.
And that speaking might mean withdrawing from that dysfunctional dynamic, remaining silent, praying for people whilst refusing to be played by their scripts. Some may accuse you of not caring or not loving, of not being a proper pastor. They would, because they haven’t yet seen the dysfuntion of their script, because they are waiting for a particular response that is becoming of a theatrical withdrawal. All the while they think it is about their present situation or illness, but it rarely is. It is often about what is unresolved from their past, and the pastor’s role is to disclose this undisclosed menace, and pray the Holy Spirit is there in it all, bringing healing and wholeness.
I have just found my recently misplaced 1889 copy of The Imitation of Christ by Thomas à Kempis, the 14th century Catholic mystic, and one of the world’s most read books. It can be bought from any decent bookshop, but also downloaded as a PDF here, something I’m sure Thomas would have approved!
In the translator’s preface, Kempis is quoted, though I’m unsure where it is quoted from, but it is certainly worth making available here. Please read it slowly, thoughtfully, prayerfully…..
T. S . Eliot once wrote, ‘humankind/Cannot bear very much reality.’ Not that people hate or despise reality, or that people constantly pursue reality, but that, in the end, too much reality, about ourselves, the world, God, is all just a bit too much.
It is especially the Ultimate that is a problem for people: God. Prayer. Mercy. Judgement. Christ.
Hence much of church life, in typical human fashion, tends towards a moralism cloaked in religious language, with a ready arsenal of verses and well worn phrases designed to justify ourselves at the expense of others.
The Ultimate Reality though, God, is what almost every person who has ever lived is hiding from. We are in a precarious state of existence living daily between the ever present deservedness of judgment and the ever present gift of grace. Or to put it another way, we live suspended on the possibility of utter annihilation and the infinitude of divine care.
That’s why Martin Luther wrote in his commentary on Psalm 130: ‘Whoever, therefore, does not consider the judgment of God, does not fear; and whoever does not fear, does not cry out, and whoever does not cry out, finds no grace.’
Part of our ability to avoid the Ultimate is by pretending we no longer need to cry out, so we pretend therefore, we fear when we don’t which means we also fake how we have even considered the judgement of God. We simply can’t bear too much reality, so we fake it, and this of course means, we fake grace. A gross mistake. Why don’t we just paint a great big clown smile on God’s face?
Scripture must be our guide here. Not pithy devotional aids, but Scripture, the Psalms, the Prophets, the Gospels, the Letters and everything in between. It is the Bible that offers us a way out of our religious banality; it offers us a much more dramatic and interesting narrative, whereby prayer, worship and the presence of God leads us ever onwards into an awareness of our sins and the gift of repentance.
Brian Brock writes, ‘Without God’s constant forgiveness, we do not see our own sin; and without the exposure of our sins and our repenting of them, we remain in the deadening byways down which other gods have enticed us.’
So without grace we become Christianised Pharisees: blind to the mercies of God, paraders of our own righteousness and thus trapped in a pathetic world of our own making, pathetic yes; mediocre certainly. Grey, flat, one dimensional, airless, lifeless, godless.
Yet as Jesus repeatedly taught, it is the repentant sinner that goes away justified: ‘God have mercy on me a sinner!’ The true mark of Christian spiritual vitality is not the absence of struggle, a settled smugness about our superiority, but the exact opposite: the present reality and immediacy of prayer where we confess that if it were not for the mercies of God we would be dust and ashes.
A poem by William Countryman says just as much with much fewer words:
“Your choice of friends is broad
And (may we say?) unpredictable.
What did you see in Jacob?
Esau was bluff, hearty,
a man’s man – overconfident,
to be sure – even a minute
or two of seniority can grant
a certain status. Jacob’s
only accomplishments were to cheat
his brother (with Esau’s rash
cooperation yes) and deceive
his father. Piety suggests
you should have judged the scamp
and left him to stew in his guilt
till he repented. Instead,
you showed him by night the ladder
to your throne.”
I love God’s grace!
Another classic from the brilliant Michael Leunig…
“Today, I came home to a real fire burning in the grate and enjoyed a splendid real apple pie topped with real cream whilst watching a reality TV show about the virtues of real ale, followed by a rather intense conversation with a friend. He shared whether his sense of being followed the other night was real or just a figment of his imagination.
He thanked me for my time, saying it had been real. He hoped that he could continue to turn to me as a real friend in time of need, someone who lives in the real world yet believes that what is really real lies beyond our understanding. ‘You’re the real deal’ he said.”
Ursula King writes, “A profound crisis of meaning has arisen whose roots can be traced to a loss of vision, commitment and faith, what is in fact a deep spiritual crisis. A profound crisis of meaning has arisen.”
Our postmodern context is complex. Church ministers today are expected to know the unknowable, solve the unsolvable and make reality go away. As T.S. Elliot writes, “Human beings cannot take too much reality.”
Maybe this is why we are a hyper-anxious culture in the west.
Maybe it’s why drug use and alcohol abuse is rampant.
Maybe it’s why trash TV is very popular.
Maybe it’s why porn ensnares and ruins many millions of men and women.
Maybe it’s why Facebook is more popular than real friendships.
Maybe it’s why some churches are so entrenched in nostalgia and sentimentality.
Maybe it’s why ‘compassion fatigue’ is a rising problem.
Maybe it’s why we have become so self-reliant, so independant, so individual.
Maybe it’s why marriages break down.
Maybe it’s why too many children are left alone and ignored.
Maybe it’s why Government statistics can be “manipulated” to say what anyone wants them to say.
More Eugene Peterson wisdom from Under the Unpredictable Plant:
“What I object to most is the appalling and systematic trivializing of the pastoral office. It is part of a larger trivialization, that of the culture itself, a trivialization so vast and epidemic that there are days when its ruin seems assured. There are other days, though, when we catch a glimpse of glory – a man here, a woman there determined to live nobly: singing a song, telling a story, working honestly, loving chastely. Pockets of resistance form when these men and women recognize each other and take heart from one another (p.37)….
…’What do you want to do?’ [the deacons asked me]. I had an answer for that, but I didn’t know how to do it. My answer was that I wanted to deal with God and people. I told them, ‘I want to study God’s word long and carefully so that when I stand before you and preach and teach I will be accurate. I want to pray, slowly and lovingly, so that my relation with God will be inward and honest. And I want to be with you, often and leisurely, so that we can recognize each other as close companions on the way of the cross and be available for counsel and encouragement to each other’ (p.39)….
….Pastoring is not managing a religious business but [is] a spiritual quest (p.55)…
The picture was taken by me on my phone when on holiday in Devon in 2009.
Have you ever wanted to shake your fist in the face of God?
Have you ever read the story of the ancient Israelites and wondered why on earth they were such a dopey bunch of failures?
Have you ever read the Psalms and wondered why so many of them seem so angry, so confused, so desperate?
Have you ever read the Bible and just known that you could be reading a story of your own self, your own life?
Why can’t we just have a list of propositions? Because God is not an abstraction.
Why can’t we just have a list of rules? Because God is not a task-master.
Why can’t we just be told in plain Hebrew and Greek? Because God is a Lover and all good lovers love poetry.
No doubt the relationship you have with God is difficult. You are the angry fist-shaker. You are the ancient Israelite. You are the confused Psalmist. You want abstraction because relationship is too costly. You want rules because you are a task-master. You don’t want the love language of poetry and Psalm because you are not a lover!
The Bible forces, allows, challenges us to face our inner conflicts. Go on, shake your puny fist in the face of God, tell Him you’re angry at this or that, but then move on to praise, as the Psalmists often do. Be angry; be grateful. Complain at the bitterness of your life, how unfair it is; and then give praise for all the blessings you receive. In the fullness of your humanity, just as the ancient Israelites found out over the centuries, you discover the Face of God.
If their struggle is our struggle, the relationship is going to be difficult. Newsflash: We are sinners; God is not. There is a conflict of light and darkness, love and hate, humility and pride. Don’t misunderstand, this is no ying and yang thing. But we post-moderns are like the ancients. Our flesh battles with God and desires God. We desire His love in all the wrong places. Distorted love, broken hearts, indulgence, pride.
So the relationship is difficult, and that should console us. We identify with those who experience struggle and sacrifice, who know the light and the dark, who hunger and thirst, who grumble and complain, who rejoice and praise. This is not contradictory living and believing, this is real faith worked out in the real world. A faith worked out and lived out before the inscrutable and exquisite God of love.
Augustine was right, when he said in his Confessions, “Can any praise be worthy of the Lord’s majesty? How magnificent his strength! How inscrutable his wisdom! Man is one of your creatures, Lord, and his instinct is to praise you. He bears about him the mark of death, the sign of his own sin, to remind him that you thwart the proud. But still, since he is a part of your creation, he wishes to praise you. The thought of you stirs him so deeply that he cannot be content unless he praises you, because you made us for yourself and our hearts find no peace until they rest in you…”
Go on creature…
Go on sinner…
Go on you bag of contradictions…
Go on you creature of the dust…
Go on – one marked with death…
Shake your fist, but bend your knee also. Shout “Why?” and “How Long O Lord?” but don’t forget to make confession and give thanks. It’s not contradictory, it’s complexity in reality. Worship Him, Jesus, our Lord and our God!