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.

The Essence of Lent

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We’re now in the period of the Christian year known as Lent, on the start of a journey towards Palm Sunday, Holy Week, Good Friday and Easter. It’s a time when we consider the tremendous challenge Jesus experienced in the desert. Forty days when he prepared himself physically, emotionally, mentally and spiritually for the task he would accomplish on Good Friday; the victory of love over hate, good over evil, peace over violence, life over death.

In essence, the temptations Jesus faced were the same as we face:

  • The temptation to put physical needs or desires before the things of God.
  • The temptation to use power and influence for our own selfish ends, rather than for the things of God.
  • The temptation to show off, to imagine that we are better (even spiritually) than others, rather than living a humble life that allows God the glory.

In the desert, Jesus showed us the way of obedience to God.
On the cross, he paid the price that we might know life in its fullness.

So often, we choose the way of imperfection, fuelled by self-interest and pride. How often do we crown our desires as the sovereign of our lives?

Yet Jesus didn’t come into the world to condemn us, but to offer us the prospect of salvation and the restored dignity of humankind, a sacred gift of true life.

Once we accept the truth about ourselves and, in humility, reject material goals for spiritual ones, we are walking the way Christ walked for us; and one which, because of the resurrection, he is walking with us today.

Note: You can read the story in the Bible here: Luke 4:1-13

Christmas Thought Revisited

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After his baptism, Jesus was tempted in the desert. This might seem a strange way to start a Christmas thought, in fact it’s not as strange as at first sight. The story concerns power, it’s about Jesus being tempted to exercise power over people; ultimately he chose the power of love over the love of power. I’m reminded of the words of Jimi Hendrix: When the power of love overcomes the love of power the world will know peace.

The simple message of Christmas is that God has chosen the way of love and vulnerability over power. A baby born in humble and vulnerable circumstances can’t exercise power, yet that was how Jesus came and lived.

The cover of the Christmas Salvation Army War Cry 2014 illustrates this beautifully; it’s a picture of vulnerability that sums up the incarnation in today’s world. Take a few moments to reflect on it.

The traditional story tells us how Jesus was placed in a feeding trough (manger from the French verb to eat), but in this modern nativity he’s placed in a familiar manger – a supermarket trolley! I’m not sure if this was intentional, but it caught my attention.

Finally, here’s something I read recently in the context of the feeling that Christ is being squeezed out of Christmas: The whole story of Advent is the story of how God can’t be kept out. God is present. God is with us. God shows up – not with a parade but with the whimper of a baby, not among the powerful but among the marginalized, not to the demanding but to the humble.

As we welcome Jesus this Christmas, we’re reminded that he entered our world as vulnerable as us; ultimately he nailed that vulnerability to a cross for us – all our fears, insecurities and sins. We can only marvel that he came in this way, reaching out to a world in need.