Sermon Blog

30 July 2018

God’s will and God will.

When I was about 14 yrs old I decided I wanted to climb the Cavehill in North Belfast. I had seen the signs for Cavehill on the Antrim Road, just above the junction with the North Circular so I decided that was the place to start. I was full of enthusiasm and determination. The cave hill is such an iconic piece of the backdrop landscape to Belfast (especially when viewed from east Belfast, where I lived). I had imagined what this adventure would be like, filled with exploration, excitement, discovery, and new horizons.

When I got off the bus and began to walk in the direction indicated by the road sign I soon discovered that I was walking uphill, but on a residential street with nice detached houses and gardens and parked cars. This was somewhat dull and unadventurous. I remained committed to my goal so walked on.

At last, a set of sandstone gateposts with a sign “Cavehill Park”; at last. This turned out to be a winding tarmac road, lined with Rhododendrons – very beautiful but I wanted to press on.

The winding tarmac road brought me to Belfast Castle which turned out to be more a stately home than an actual castle, yet another moment of revelation, which was both slightly disappointing and obvious to everyone but me. I was now without direction so asked a dog-walker. I was pointed up a dirt path into the woods. I followed the path which became a dark damp, sweaty experience as it climbed steeply. The only reassurance was that every now and again I got a glimpse of the destination, Napoleon’s nose as it is known, that huge lump of rock that stands proud as the top of Cavehill. To actually see this as a nose one has to view Cavehill from South Belfast and imagine a giant Napoleon lying sleeping, face heavenwards with chin at the far end. This may have been the inspiration for one, Jonathan Swift, who lived in Belfast and may have spotted this sleeping giant from the bottom of the Limestone Road where there is a Lilliput Street??????? The stuff of imagination that inspires adventure, so much more in the young, which I was!

Back to the dark woods. Those glimpses of the high point of the hill were both inspiring and convincing that the uphill struggle is worth the struggle.

Eventually the trees thinned, and I found myself above the tree-line and out in the open. Unfortunately, the path took a sharp turn to the left when I knew the top was to the right. For an eternity I walked in what felt like the wrong direction, struggling with the notion that I really ought to turn back and look for a better path or just give up. However, I was nothing if not a determined young fellow, so I continued. Sure enough, the path slowly began to turn around the southern end of the Cavehill and then up the back of it. On this part of the climb the city was no longer in view and the summit had disappeared behind what just looked like a slope covered in heather and rock. Upwards and onwards! Sure, pain is just a feeling and can be ignored for a while at least.

Then, it slowly became obvious that there was not much ground higher than the path on which I was walking, a sharp decline into a dip and then a rush up a steep stony slope and I was there – both exhilarating and terrifying and I looked out over the city from the most glorious vantage point one could ever imagine. I saw the city as never before, perhaps as God sees it, although he would be able to make out the people’s faces and even hear their words, being God. So, God-like I began to try to make sense of it all…the lough, the suburbs, the Antrim Road, the house-lined streets, the castle, the woods, the path that could never have come straight up here but needed to veer in the wrong direction to make its way on a possible climb to this place of enlightenment.

I must refer to a book: “Reaching the Invisible God” by Philip Yancey. In the penultimate chapter he uses three phrases which he has taken from another writer.

  1. The intentional will of God. This is the place where God’s story begins, perhaps where all stories begin. God’s creative power is at work, forming and shaping. His intentional will is that everything is good. He steps back, takes a long hard look, and declares everything to be good. When that first explosion of creating is complete on the sixth day, He declares it to be VERY GOOD. Our own stories of faith also begin at a place like that – that first rush of faith and inspiration that drew me towards the adventure with God and in God. It is all going to go well, it is all new and I have God on my side.
  2. The Circumstantial will of God. In the Bible story of God, it does not go well for very long after it was declared to be VERY GOOD. To be created in the image of God must at least include the possibility of free will, and we all know from experience that free will include a propensity for selfishness etc. So, God ends up with a world that is no longer VERY GOOD but, in fact, is VERY BAD. Someone has worked out that three quarters of the Bible tells us of God’s struggle with humankind, trying to wrestle and love us back into shape. He takes the hit far more than us, changing his shape and life, giving up his heavenly status and immortality, taking on vulnerability and risk… (all the stuff in the Matthew, Mark, Luke and John stories). On my walk up what I thought was going to be a glorious trail to the top of Cavehill I had a long, continuous climb that was at times dull and mundane, sometimes dark and sweaty, sometimes confused and unknown, and even sometimes apparently in the wrong direction; yet every now and again a glimpse and a reminder of what this uphill was all about, Napoleon’s Nose! Could I just add that I had to deliberately try to see it at times? In the life of faith, God often surprises us with his presence, but many more times we have to put ourselves in the places where he is to be found – with other journeyers in worship, prayer, discipleship, in the Bible (or UCB notes if that helps), in quietness, in service, in mission…the truth is He can be found anywhere but the secret is in the seeking (I think Jesus said that Himself). We live in the struggle that includes God and our circumstances and our own muddled way of viewing our lives and hopes. The question is never, “Is God here with me?”. Rather it is, “Where are the gaps in the trees that will give me a glimpse of what this is all for?”
  3. Finally, the Ultimate will of God. There is a Napoleon’s Nose in the Bible story of God’s will. There is a full and perfect redemption of the whole created order. The declaration that it is VERY GOOD is on hold rather than in the trash bin of our computer. In fact, every act of God’s will that we perform, every act of kindness, every prayer, every forgiveness, every word or deed of worship usher the whole of creation towards that Napoleon’s Nose moment. In that moment of walking out onto the place where the whole vista can be seen all things will become clear. From the top of the Cavehill the city stretches out before us, the journey on the bus to the Antrim Road, the disappointing streets, the driveway in the park, the woods, the path in the wrong direction, the unknown, the confusion, and then… St Paul described it in 1 Corinthians 13 as “In these days we see a reflection as in a mirror (allow for the distortions of a mirror two thousand years ago), but then we shall see as face to face (we will see life as it really is), in these days I understand only in part, but then I shall fully know”.

I have been climbing the Cavehill intentionally since I was about fifteen (although my mum and dad had me on the climb long before I knew it). I am now 61 and am not about to give up. The glimpses of the top are no more frequent these days than they ever were but I have my own story of those glimpses (some even recorded in notebooks and old Bibles and many shared with family and friends). Don’t give up, there are yet more chapters to add to your story. And one day we all get to meet on Napoleon’s Nose and won’t it be great to hear the most tender, kind, loving, welcoming voice say, “It is once again VERY GOOD, would you all like a cup of tea?”


29 November 2017

Our world is full of complicated situations which are only made more complicated and perhaps even insoluble when we resort to the arguments of old or continue to use the same worn tools for assessment.

The church is called to think with a different piece of software – the mind of Christ. Paul tells us on a number of occasions that our minds can be renewed, that we should have the mind of Christ and that, in fact, we already do have the mind of Christ. Even I know that I have to use the correct program in my lap top; the old stuff or the wrong operating system will get me nowhere. Sometimes we can assume we each have the mind of Christ when maybe it is actually more of a collective church experience.

So, John 8:1-11 – Jesus walks into a situation that has been constructed to pull him down. A woman caught in the act of adultery has been brought in front of a crowd and a piece of Old Testament law has been manipulated to check out what he will do. The woman’s life is at stake here. Everything else is peripheral from her perspective. Jesus comes up with an idea that saves her life and sets a whole load of other people free. Rather than using the law to frighten, condemn and kill, he takes a wider sweep of the bible landscape and sees the law as way of inspiring mercy and grace, because without God’s mercy and grace the law will condemn the whole lot of us. He then turns it on the accusers, “He who is without sin may pick up the first rock.” Loads of innocent bystanders happily dropped their rocks and headed home with a fresh understanding of grace. A terrified woman was washed in a flood of love, acceptance, safety and new possibilities. A harsh self-righteous crowd of bullies had to publicly acknowledge their imperfection and sin in the very court of the temple. Jesus is an absolute genius in situations like this and he offers to share His mind with us, His church.
Now we just have to apply the idea to the real situations of our lives and our society.
All the best with that!!!

19 November 2017

A church that sees.

Seeing is a biblical word that can mean seeing a sheep on a hillside, but can also mean so much more. It includes stuff like noticing, empathy, and assessing (not the same as judging or criticising).

Our story is Matthew 14:13-21 – the feeding of the 5000. The text tells us that when Jesus SAW the crowds, he had compassion on them.
It is worth noting that the disciples also saw the crowds. Their reaction was to imagine a problem (lack of food), find someone to blame (they should have brought their own), and absolve themselves from any responsibility (we could never afford to provide for this – not our fault).

Whatever it was that Jesus saw, it inspired compassion. The story just before this is about Jesus’ half-cousin and best supporter being beheaded as some form of entertainment. Jesus could have been excused from being a bit disconnected from this new situation but he continues to amaze us by his ability and willingness to engage.

He saw an opportunity for faith – take the little and create the much.
He saw an opportunity for ministry – get the disciples out among the crowds, giving out food, hands on, meeting people.
He saw an opportunity to meet need.
He saw an opportunity to see if the crowd could see (could some of them see beyond the fish etc.) – a prophet figure in a wilderness miraculously feeding a starving crowd. Who could this be? Is this a new Moses-type? Is this Messiah?

For your interest: the very next incident is Jesus walking on water. Is this a second glimpse also of a Moses-type, sent from God, the one who can cross a sea? The jigsaw is beginning to take shape.


12 November 2017

What do you want me to do for you?

Week two!

The church of God could do worse than listen more.

Twice in one chapter Jesus is approached, but in two quite different ways –
1. Teacher, we want…
2. Son of David, have mercy…
On both occasions he replied with, “What do you want me to do for you?”

When he heard the first request he simply said, “No.” The request was for position and power and was addressed to Teacher.
The second answer was answered with, “Yes” because it was a request to see (in all that seeing could mean) and was addressed to Messiah (Son of David is a title reserved for Messiah and would have required some revelation or faith or risk to apply to a person).

The thing that struck me as significant was that everyone knew what Bartimaeus needed – he was obviously a beggar and blind, therefore hungry and somewhat isolated. Yet, Jesus was still humble enough to ask and give him his moment of dignity, which was probably not a common experience for Bartimaeus. We, the church, tend to make assumptions about what our communities need, based on our desire to make them look like us, sorry look like God. Of course, there are changes needed in any community, society, or individual that are obvious to everyone. Nonetheless, maybe asking or listening would be good for us. It might also give those to whom we address our question the experience of being valued by us rather than simply judged, assessed, categorized, and sorted.

It is probably too late for this year, but I am pretty sure we are about to explode upon our world with our Christmas activities and blessings, imagined and planned by us to make sure that as many people as possible hear or are annoyed by our message. I am sure this is probably mostly ok but I wonder what we would hear if we asked, “What do you want me to do for you?”


5 November 2017

“A parish” that expresses its faith in action” (Sunday 5 November 2017)

Jesus looked up and saw their faith” – that is what it says in Luke 5. What did he see that caused him to recognise faith? It was their actions. They had carried their paralysed friend all the way to this house and, when they couldn’t get in because of the crowd, they persisted to the extent that they climbed onto the roof and removed part of it. Now that does show a fair bit of commitment. In Jesus’ eyes faith is a verb, not a simply a set of beliefs. If we believe and it does not express itself in action, then maybe it is not as much belief as we think it is.

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Do you ever wonder where and how Jesus figured these things out? It isn’t enough to just assume it was all planted in Him before birth. Strangely his brother James, literally his brother, born from Mary with Joseph as biological father, also had the same understanding, “You show me your faith and I will show you mine by my actions.” “Faith without works is dead.” (James 2).

I wonder if bedtime stories in Nazareth included Joseph telling those two little boys about their mother who was asked to believe in something? Her response was to give herself counter-culturally and at great risk to a pregnancy th
at she would never ever be able to explain satisfactorily to anyone (except cousin Elizabeth) for the next thirty years. That would have been a great faith lesson for the boys and girls who grew up in that little house in Nazareth.

Faith is a verb so let’s get verbing (I just made “verb” a verb as well).