21/06/20 Isaiah 46

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Isaiah 46 contains two sharply contrasting pictures; the first is of people carrying their god, the second one is of God carrying his people.

Isaiah can’t help smiling when he sees the shallow religion of the nations around Israel, what a miserable thing it must be to have a god who is a burden, who has to be carried from place to place. So he draws a humorous picture of a glittering god that looks great, but needs half a dozen men to carry it, a useless burden that weighs them down.

The second picture is of God our Heavenly Father, who carries his people from before birth, through life and past death into eternity.

Read: Isaiah 40:28-31

These two pictures represent two types of religion. On the one hand, one that has to be carried, that’s a burden, that’s a duty, that weighs us down and wears us out. On the other hand, one that worships a God who upholds with his powerful arms, one that carries us, lifts us, lightens our spirits and fills us with peace and joy.

I know which religion I prefer! Unfortunately, there are some Christians who choose the heavy, burdensome religion. Is it any wonder people reject it?

The disciples who met the Risen Jesus on the Emmaus Road recognised him when he broke bread. Their spirits were lifted: Were not our hearts burning within us while he talked with us on the road and opened the Scriptures to us? Luke 24:32

Commissioner Catherine Bramwell-Booth wrote:

Come, blessed Jesus, come;
Break bread again for me;
Lord open Thou my eyes that I
Thy living self may see.
Then joy shall fill my heart,
My strength be all renewed
To witness of Thy death and life,
By Thine own power endued.

As we open ourselves up to God our Heavenly Father, and as we come humbly into his presence, he lifts us up and fills us with his nature.

Let’s not be content with a religion of strain and struggle, fear and duty, heavy hearts and clouded faces, when we can have a faith that carries our burdens, lightens our spirits and fills us with love, joy and peace.

True faith is attractive, it draws others to Christ. May we never turn antone away because our religion is joyless, judgemental and narrow. See: 1 John 5:3-4

Jesus condemned the religious leaders of his day because of the heavy loads they put on the people. See: Matthew 23:1-4

How refreshing, then, are the words of Jesus: Come to me, all you who are weary and burdened, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you and learn from me, for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy and my burden is light. Matthew 11:28-30

May that be real in our lives, and may we share it with those around us, as we recognise the true nature of God our Heavenly Father.

14/06/20 Quiet Times

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Photo by Spencer Selover on Pexels.com

Bible Reading: Philippians 4:4-9

Isaiah 30:15 reminds us that, in quietness and confidence shall be your strength. That’s been my experience of faith during both good and bad times, and is my continuing experience now. The quiet times before God are so important for our spiritual health as Christians, and for our confidence and strength in ministry and service. Something we are all called to exercise.

Over the years I’ve a found a variety of resources that have helpfully enriched my prayer life, but the pure simplicity of coming before God in prayer after reading his word has so much to commend it. It’s helpful at the beginning of the day, but it can be flexible. I’ve also found that a written list is invaluable, so I remember all the people and situations I need to pray for.

Sometimes music has helped me, sometimes it’s been the beauty of God’s creation (especially at the top of mountains in South Wales), and at other times it’s been a quiet space in the midst of the rush and bustle of life (an example of this being the chapel of a hospital). So next time you’re in a hospital, maybe visiting someone or there for an appointment, find the chapel and spend a few moments of quietness and say some appropriate prayers.

Sometimes, when life has been hard, prayer has been difficult for me (I’m only human after all). At these times I’ve found a holding cross very useful. These can be bought from good Christian bookshops, along with a booklet of advice and prayers. When you can’t pray, you can hold the cross and simply allow your feelings and emotions to become a prayer to God, our heavenly Father.

We also come to God in prayer to listen, to open our hearts to his Holy Spirit and to allow him to make us the people he wants us to be. I find prayers in the Celtic tradition helpful in this respect, and I finish these thoughts with one of them:

Awaken me to your presence,
Alert me to your love,
Affirm me in your peace.
Open to me your way,
Reveal to me your joy,
Enfold me in your light,
For my heart is ready,
Lord, my heart is ready.

David Adam (from The Open Gate)

31/05/20 Pentecost Sunday

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Greetings on Pentecost Sunday. This would have been my last Sunday leading public worship before my retirement on Wednesday 1 July 2020. Unfortunately, this hasn’t been possible because of the coronavirus pandemic lockdown. Next month I’ll be taking my remaining holiday entitlement at home before retiring and moving away from Wallsend.

It’s a matter of personal regret that I’ve not been able to lead Wallsend Corps in worship over these last few months, have a public farewell, or hand over leadership in the usual way. My sincere hope and prayer is that Wallsend Corps will be able to move forward into a new future under the leadership of Cadet (soon to be Lieutenant) Luke Cozens. I’m currently preparing handover information and I’m in contact with Luke to ensure a smooth transition of leadership in unique circumstances, ones I believe can be seen as both a challenge and opportunity. God bless you, Major John Ager.

Here’s a short video message from our Territorial Leaders Anthony and Gillian Cotterill introducing a Pentecost Sunday worship meeting, click here for more details. You can find an outline of it by clicking here.

Here’s my Bible message for Pentecost Sunday, the Bible readings are Genesis 11:1-9 and Acts 2:1-21 which can be read by clicking on the links.

When Chichester Cathedral was being renovated in 1962 they found that the medieval builders had built a magnificent cathedral on poor land and hadn’t extended the foundations far enough. As a result of this oversight, the 20th Century renovators had far more work than anticipated.

We don’t need reminding of the parable of the house built on the sand and the one built on the rock. It’s so important that we build our lives upon Christ, getting the foundations right and then building in the power of the Holy Spirit.

But let’s go right back to the beginning, literally, to the Book of Genesis and the story of the Tower of Babel. Genesis means ‘beginnings’, it’s a book that deals with the beginning of everything, not in a scientific way, but in a far more profound way.

Genesis focuses our attention on certain aspects of life, the first eleven chapters paint a picture of the world as God meant it to be, but they also show the appalling mess we’ve made of it; the message is timeless, because we continue to make a mess of it.

In these opening chapters of the Bible we have parables of immense significance. From there on, the rest of the Bible show us what God has done to get us out of the mess, culminating in the life, death and resurrection of Jesus, and the coming of the Holy Spirit.

We have the story of Noah and the Flood, the message being that the world merits nothing less than total destruction. The Flood symbolises God’s timeless judgement on humankind, as appropriate now as when it was written.

Noah wasn’t perfect, but he represents those in every age who walk with God. God always offers a way back to himself, if only we live our lives with reference to him.

Then we have the story of the Tower of Babel, a story that echoes the Fall: human defiance of God. But instead of the story being set in a garden with two people, the setting is bricks and mortar with a developing civilisation.

The age-old problem is that individuals and humankind as a whole build for their own glory rather than for the glory of God.

William Neil writes:
Man wants to run the world in his own way. He wants to put himself at the centre of his civilisation on a pedestal inscribed with the name: “Glory to MAN in the highest”.
Note how verse 4 says: “Come let us build ourselves a city, with a tower that reaches to the heavens, so that we may make a name for OURSELVES”.

This is the mistake we make again and again. There is only one God and Creator, we are created in his likeness, and our destiny is to know him, to live in fellowship with him, humbly seeking and obeying his will for our lives.

The builders’ desire for autonomy recalls the rebellion in the Garden of Eden, and establishes the need for Abraham’s redemptive faith in the midst of international disorder. Far from the original garden, the first cities in Genesis represent arrogance, tyranny and wickedness. The city on the Babylonian plain was a magnet for human pride and idolatry, a tower that reaches into the sky. NLT Study Bible

When we put ourselves first, God comes and confounds our plans, and there is chaos and disorder. The confusion of tongues in the Tower of Babel story is but a symptom of a much deeper disharmony that prevents unity and common understanding.

We talk about people ‘not speaking the same language’, meaning that their positions are so far apart that they might as well be speaking a different language.

We see this between individuals, groups and nations. Pride, injustice, and selfishness: all preventing meaningful communication and reconciliation.

But had you ever considered that the story of Pentecost balances the story of the Tower of Babel?

The divided language of Babel becomes the common language of Pentecost, the story is turned upside down; or more correctly the right way up.

The miracle of Pentecost was that a new language came with power, the language of love, the language of the Spirit, the language of unity, a language that all could understand; the love that God showed in sending his Son as Saviour and Lord, a suffering servant for all humankind.

God’s love in sending Jesus is something that speaks to the human heart far more eloquently than words could ever do. As we open our hearts and lives to God’s Holy Spirit he fills and empowers us to live this language of love in the world.

God can work in and through us when we’re open to God’s Holy Spirit, who takes our weaknesses and makes us strong, who takes our brokenness and makes us whole. Then the Holy Spirit can do the work of building the kingdom.

We can always move forward in his power and strength; building on the past, building in the present, and building for the future – especially in these new circumstances of coronavirus. Building, not for our own glory, but for God’s glory.

Breathe on me, breath of God,
Fill me with life anew,
That I may love what thou dost love
And do what thou wouldst do.

Breathe on me, breath of God,
Until my heart is pure,
Until with thee I will one will
To do and to endure.

Breathe on me, breath of God,
Till I am wholly thine,
Until this earthly part of me
Glows with thy fire divine.

Breathe on me, breath of God,
So shall I never die,
But live with thee the perfect life
Of thine eternity.

24/05/20 Sunday Thoughts

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Greetings on this sixth Sunday after Easter as we journey towards Pentecost next Sunday. First of all, an opportunity to watch and listen to our Territorial Leader Commissioner Gillian Cotterill. Please note that I’m preparing to retire on Wednesday 1 July 2020 and during June I’ll be taking my remaining holiday entitlement at home.

I imagine not many reading this today will remember the Coronation of Queen Elizabeth II in 1953. It was the year before I was born, but I do remember my parents talking about it and seeing souvenir books and magazines from the time around the house.

Last Thursday was Ascension Day in the Christian calendar, and today is the Sunday between it and Pentecost next Sunday.

The Ascension is not easy for us to understand with our 21st Century mindset, but I think it helps if we see it as Christ’s Coronation. Two Bible readings can also help us, the first one is the story of the Ascension itself (Luke 24:44-53) and the other is an early Christian hymn found in one of Paul’s Letters (Philippians 2:5-11). Click on the links to read these passages.

The Ascension is a mystery, and that’s one of the reasons I’ve used abstract art to depict it rather than a traditional image (click on it or here for the source). Having said that, there had to be a point at which the post-resurrection appearances of Jesus came to an end, when his earthly ministry finished and the ministry of the Holy Spirit could begin.

The disciples were told to wait for what was promised, I am going to send you what my Father has promised; but stay in the city until you have been clothed with power from on high.

I guess they were impatient, as we often are, but they didn’t have to wait long. Before leaving them they were prepared for the task ahead, and the power came at Pentecost.

He said to them, ‘This is what I told you while I was still with you: everything must be fulfilled that is written about me in the Law of Moses, the Prophets and the Psalms.’ Then he opened their minds so they could understand the Scriptures. He told them, ‘This is what is written: the Messiah will suffer and rise from the dead on the third day, and repentance for the forgiveness of sins will be preached in his name to all nations, beginning at Jerusalem.

Their minds were opened to fully understand the scriptures, and given the power to accomplish their work after ten days. They were just ordinary people empowered for God, and we can be like them in the same power of the Spirit. Pentecost is a week away but, unlike the disciples, the power can be ours now. Power to live like Christ and boldness to share his message of love and salvation, new life for all.

03/05/20 Candidates Sunday

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Candidates Sunday is an opportunity for everyone, from the youngest to the oldest, to be provided with the space and the opportunity to listen and respond to God’s call on their life right here, right now. Let’s get involved by praying, considering and celebrating spiritual leadership in The Salvation Army. Under the theme of ‘Be Alert’, this year’s Candidates Sunday is a strong call to pay attention to all that God is doing and understand what our response must be. Today’s online worship is based on this theme and uses resources provided here. Major John Ager.

Song: God grant to me a vision new (SATB 53/God’s Soldier)
(Denise Brine and Harry Read)

1. God grant to me a vision new
Of what you’re wanting me to do;
New understanding of the way
You plan for me from day to day.
Lord, by your Spirit help me see
The way of fruitful ministry,
Exciting possibilities,
God-given opportunities.

We’re going to fill, fill, fill the world with glory;
We’re going to smile, smile, smile and not frown;
We’re going to sing, sing, sing the gospel story;
We’re going to turn the world upside down.

2. Lord, I would know your life in mine,
Your resurrection power divine;
Your Spirit’s strong life-giving breath
Ending the grasping hold of death.
I claim your Spirit’s strength and grace
To meet the future face to face,
New lease of life when all seemed dead,
New strength to face the days ahead.

3. The future glows more brightly now,
I hear again God’s gracious vow –
‘I know the plans I have for you,
Plans that will prosper, not harm you’.
New purpose and direction planned,
Supported by God’s guiding hand,
His hopeful future spurs me on,
To greater victories to be won!

Bible Message: Look up! Look in! Look out!

So if you’re serious about living this new resurrection life with Christ, act like it. Pursue the things over which Christ presides. Don’t shuffle along, eyes to the ground, absorbed with the things right in front of you. Look up and be alert to what is going on around Christ – that’s where the action is. See things from his perspective. Colossians 3:1-2 (The Message)

Since, then, you have been raised with Christ, set your hearts on things above, where Christ is, seated at the right hand of God. Set your minds on things above, not on earthly things. Colossians 3:1-2 (NIV)

Focus: What are you looking at? As followers of Jesus Christ, it’s all too easy for our focus to be looking down, bogged down in the things of this earth, or perhaps distracted by what this world tells us we should have or achieve. What could happen if we changed our perspective, if our focus was no longer to look down but to ‘be alert and look up to what is going on around Christ’? How could our lives and the lives of those around us be transformed if we began to see things from his perspective?

Introduction: ‘Look up!’ When things or situations look up, we usually understand this to mean that they increase in quality or value; if there’s a person we look up to, this is someone we have respect for. Looking up means a change in how we view things or people and usually involves an improvement of some kind or a positive response.

There was once a young tourist who found herself fortunate enough to be exploring Manhattan in New York. After a long day of sightseeing, the traveller had the Empire State Building as the last place on her list to visit. Her eyes were glued to the screen of her phone, trying to make sense of the map and looking for the little blue dot which would tell her that she had reached her destination, but to no avail. She was hopelessly lost. In true tourist fashion, the woman hailed a yellow New York cab and, with a slight hint of desperation in her voice, wearily pleaded with the taxi driver to take her to the Empire State Building. The taxi driver looked somewhat confused at this, so the woman frustratedly repeated the request. ‘Please can you take me to the Empire State Building!’ Calmly and with a smile on his face, the taxi driver pointed upwards. ‘You were here all along!’ he laughed. ‘You just needed to look up.’

In his letter to the Colossians, the church in Colossae, Paul is reminding the people there not to lose their focus or be distracted by the things around them, but to keep their focus on Jesus Christ and the things around him.

Look up! This idea of looking up and changing our perspective is a frequent message throughout the Bible.

  • In times of trouble or difficulty, the Psalmist reminds us, I lift up my eyes to the mountains, where does my help come from? My help comes from the Lord, the Maker of heaven and earth. Psalm 121
  • When miraculously feeding the five thousand, Jesus keeps his focus on the Father. Mark 6:41 says, Taking the five loaves and the two fish and looking up to heaven, he [Jesus] gave thanks and broke the loaves.

On each occasion, in times of blessing and challenge, the direction is upwards, towards God.

  • Paul reminds the Colossians to do the same. They are being distracted by the demands of those around them, the teaching of other religions and ‘earthly things’ (3:2). Or as The Message describes it, ‘Don’t shuffle along, eyes to the ground, absorbed with the things right in front of you.’
  • In the Old Testament, as described in Genesis 15:5, God made his covenant with Abram, saying, Look up at the sky and count the stars, if indeed you can count them. Then he said to him, So shall your offspring be.
  • We look up and our focus is on God, our perspective is no longer restricted to the earthly things that distract us and we recognise that we are part of a much bigger picture. Not only does our perspective change when we look up to him, but our purpose does too. Going back to our lost tourist, if only she had looked up she would have seen the landmarks that would have given her a sense of location and direction. When we look up, look up to God, we find our purpose and direction.
  • If you have ever sung in a choir or played an instrument in a musical group, you’ll know how easy it is to be absorbed by the printed music in front of you, focusing on your own part. However, if you want to know the tempo and volume you should be playing or singing, then you must lift your eyes to the conductor.
  • Music is transformed when we are playing together, led by the conductor. Our corps, centres and communities can be transformed when, together, we look up to follow God’s direction.

Look in! With the focus rightfully placed on God, looking up to him for our purpose and direction, we can see things from his perspective and allow ourselves to be continually transformed by him.

  • The Message version of Colossians 3: 1-2 uses phrases like living this new resurrection life with Christ and pursue the things over which Christ presides.
  • The NIV translation says, Set your heart on things above, and the word for ‘set your heart’ literally translates as ‘seek’.
  • There is an active intentionality within the life of the believer when we try to see God’s perspective on things. We don’t simply look up as passive observers; we actively search for Christ and allow him to have lordship over our lives.
  • Every aspect of who we are, every thought, aspiration and action, should be governed by Jesus Christ.
  • We sing the words:
    Over every thought, over every word,
    May my life reflect the beauty of my Lord,
    Cause you mean more to me than any earthly thing,
    So won’t you reign in me again.
    Brenton Brown 1998 Vineyard Songs (UK/Eire)
  • That’s the message of Colossians 3: 1-2: we seek the things above, the things of God and consequently live life with a different purpose and direction. But when we look up to the things of God, this demands that we look in towards ourselves and see those areas of our lives which need to come under his reign.
  • This is the life of holiness, the journey of Christlikeness. The Message describes this beautifully in verses 3-4 of Colossians chapter 3: Your old life is dead. Your new life, which is your real life, even though invisible to spectators, is with Christ in God. He is your life.
  • Looking up helps us to look in.

Look out! Paul’s desire was not for the Colossian people to stop there. Living under the reign of God helps us to look up to the things of God, and look in to our new life with him.

  • Paul then tells the church in Colossae to consider what the practical outworking of this might look like. Colossians 3 gives lots of wise advice about how to live and how to behave as people focused on the things of God.
  • Verse 17 encourages us to Let every detail in your lives, words, actions, whatever, be done in the name of the Master, Jesus, thanking God the Father every step of the way.
  • If we live here and now with a heavenly perspective, we will no longer place importance on the things that the world places importance on.
  • Christians will view everything against a backdrop of eternity and no longer live as if this world was all that mattered. (William Barclay)
  • So when we look outwards, what do we see? The amazing thing about lifting our gaze upwards is that it immediately widens the view.
  • Changing our viewpoint to God’s viewpoint does not mean that we take ourselves out of the world or cease to be a part of it. In fact, the very opposite is true. Colossians 3:12-25 tells us how we should work out family, relationships, community, work, all from God’s perspective.

Conclusion: So what are you looking at? On this Candidates Sunday, what is God’s perspective on your life?

  • Maybe you are distracted by the things of this world, the challenges of life or the ambitions and achievements that dazzle. It is so easy to lose our way when we have our heads down and focus on the immediate.
  • But Paul warns us, If you’re serious about living this new resurrection life with Christ, act like it. (Colossians 3: 1 The Message)
  • Jesus calls us to look up! To look to him and find our purpose and direction, to see things from his perspective.
  • Seeing with God’s perspective, we can then look in at our own lives and see where God needs to rule. Which aspects of our lives, our thoughts, dreams and achievements, are seen through our human eyes and what might these look like through God’s lens?
  • Once we find our purpose and direction, once we see those areas of our lives which need to be in Christ, we can look out and see how to live this new life on earth as it is in heaven.
  • Then we can begin to be alert to what is going on around Christ, that’s where the action is. (Colossians 3:2 The Message)

Response:
‘Where are you now
When all I feel is doubt?
Oh, where are you now
When I can’t figure it out?
I hear you say,
“Look up, child.”’
(Look Up, Child by Lauren Daigle)

Responsive Benediction
Leader: Look at your hands.
All: God made them for a purpose.
Leader: See the touch and usefulness.
All: We shall use them to do God’s work.
Leader: Look at your feet.
All: God made them for a purpose.
Leader: See the direction and example.
All: We shall use them to do God’s work.
Leader: Look into your heart.
All: God made it for a purpose.
Leader: See the love and determination.
All: We shall use it to do God’s work.
Leader: Look at the cross.
All: God made it for a purpose.
Leader: See God’s Son, the Saviour.
All: We shall follow him in God’s work.
Leader: Look at your world.
All: God made it for a purpose,
Leader: See where God calls you to serve him.
All: We shall go out and do God’s work.
Leader: May the God who loves you endlessly lead you from belief into action.
All: Amen.

See also: 17/05/20 Sunday Questions

Holy Saturday 2020

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Wait for it…it’s not Easter yet!

Today is Holy Saturday, not Easter Saturday. Easter starts with the resurrection of Jesus when darkness is turned to light. In stillness, earth awaits the resurrection.

Bible Reading: John 19:38-42

Prayer: O God, Creator of heaven and earth: Grant that, as the crucified body of your dear Son was laid in the tomb and rested on this holy Sabbath, so we may await with him the coming of the third day, and rise with him to newness of life; who now lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever. Amen.

Book of Common Prayer

Good Friday 2020

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Photo by Pixabay on Pexels.com

There are some Christians who look for easy answers to situations we face in everyday life, and this is especially so in the current coronavirus pandemic. I’d love to be able to give you a ready-made answer to why this is happening, but I can’t. This is the age-old problem of evil in a world created by a loving God.

What I can do though, is point you to the events of the first Good Friday and suggest that we find the beginnings of an answer there.

I came across this article at the end of March and I’ve been saving it to share here on Good Friday. N. T. Wright is the Professor of New Testament and Early Christianity at the University of St Andrews, a Senior Research Fellow at Wycliffe Hall, Oxford University and the author of over 80 books, including The New Testament in Its World.

Christianity Offers No Answers About the Coronavirus. It’s Not Supposed To.

No doubt the usual silly suspects will tell us why God is doing this to us. A punishment? A warning? A sign? These are knee-jerk would-be Christian reactions in a culture which, generations back, embraced rationalism: everything must have an explanation. But supposing it doesn’t?

Well, you can read the article for yourself.

Good Friday is a day when we reflect on the most profound and spiritual things, and many will have time to do that today in lockdown and I encourage you to do so. You might find poetry and prose helps, music might work for you, maybe paintings or other forms of art.

Let me finish though with one more quote from the article:
It is no part of the Christian vocation, then, to be able to explain what’s happening and why. In fact, it is part of the Christian vocation not to be able to explain—and to lament instead. As the Spirit laments within us, so we become, even in our self-isolation, small shrines where the presence and healing love of God can dwell. And out of that there can emerge new possibilities, new acts of kindness, new scientific understanding, new hope.

Here is a worship song that may help you in your thoughts on this very sacred day.

Let nothing disturb thee,
Nothing affright thee;
All things are passing,
God never changeth!
Patient endurance attaineth to all things;
Who God possesseth in nothing is wanting;
Alone God sufficeth. Amen.

Teresa of Avila (1515-1582), translated Henry Wadsworth Longfellow (1807-1882)