Sunday, December 06, 2015

I Don't Want to Survive. I Want To Live!

‘I don’t want to survive. I want to live!’ 

On Friday night we watched the harrowing but very important film ’12 Years A Slave’ from which that quote comes. The film tells the true story of Solomon Northup, a free black man from upstate New York, who is kidnapped and sold into slavery in the South. Subjected to the cruelty of one malevolent owner, he also finds unexpected kindness from another, as he struggles continually to survive and maintain some of his dignity. Then in the 12th year of the disheartening ordeal, a chance meeting with an abolitionist from Canada changes Solomon's life forever.

‘I don’t want to survive. I want to live!’ That cry from the guts of one oppressed, taps into the longings of many - of the displaced Syrian mother, the bankrupt father, the abused daughter, the addicted son. It resonates with the community grieving in San Bernadino, in Paris, in Chad and in Nigeria. God knows things could be different; should be different. Yes he does.

The book of Baruch does not feature in the Hebrew version of the Bible but does feature in the Septuagint which is the Greek translation of the Old Testament. The book also features in the scriptures that the Roman Catholic, some Anglican and some Orthodox churches use today. It was probably written at a time when when Jews were scattered - some deported to Babylon and some dispersed around the Mediterranean sea. Earlier in the book, the writer, traditionally understood to be Baruch, the prophet Jeremiah’s scribe, states that the reason for the exile is to do with disobedience to the ways of God. For more that 12 years corporately they have cried, ’I don’t want to survive. I want to live!’ God hears the cry of his people. Things are about to change.

Addressing Jerusalem and the exiles God says, ‘...Take off the garment of your sorrow and affliction, O Jerusalem, and put on for ever the beauty of the glory from God. Put on the robe of the righteousness that comes from God; put on your head the diadem of
the glory of the Everlasting... For God will give you evermore the name, ‘Righteous Peace, Godly Glory...’

’...It is a moral outrage and national disgrace that civilians can legally purchase weapons designed to kill people with brutal speed and efficiency... America’s elected leaders offer prayers for gun victims and then, callously and without fear of consequence, reject the most basic restrictions on weapons of mass killing...’ So ran yesterday’s editorial of the New York Times.

Israel has been surviving in exile but now God calls her to live! To take of, literally and metaphorically the funeral attire and be clothed as a priest, with a robe and mitre like Aaron, with faith in Him. From now on Jerusalem will be a place from which God’s peace and glory will be seen - hence the new name. But that’s not the only change that God is bringing about - He will give the word and the exiles will return from where they
have scattered and to ease their passage - God will change the physical landscape - so that He and His people may dwell together again.

In the face of yet another mass shooting, the US has yet to see this sort of substantive change. In fact it and our own nation’s history and present are littered with moral abhorations. As we sit in a moral desert, in some senses it is fine to pray for the victims, but unless those prayers lead to action then the words are empty. Baruch reminds us that
substantive change comes, not only by longing, but by action - in this case the action of God.

‘...the word of God came to John son of Zechariah in the wilderness. He went into all the region around the Jordan, proclaiming a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins...’

Following the debate and decision in Parliament this week to deploy aircraft to bomb ISIS targets in Syria, a forces charity - Combat Stress - has called for urgent extra funding to support veterans suffering with post traumatic stress - the inner injuries of war that no one initially sees and can take years to surface. In the last year, referrals to the charity went up 25% and they expect them only to rise.

Luke is keen to locate the story he tells in this morning’s Gospel, with the accuracy of a surgical strike. He lists places and people as the cross hairs of history. And in those sights is John, in the wilderness as the Jews were back in Baruch’s day, hearing again a call not just to survive but to live! Luke uses words from the prophet Isaiah which resonate with those of Baruch about God changing the landscape - preparing the way - but not just so people can return to God, but so that He can come to them.

The coming of God is unseen because it involves changing the landscape, not of the physical world, but of the core of our being - the place from where we cry out ‘I don’t want to survive. I want to live!’ John proclaimed a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins - Jews of his day will have known of 2 baptisms (ritual washing and Gentile conversions to Judaism) but this was new. Literally a baptism of a reorientated heart and life. A baptism that symbolised a change in the places other cannot initially see - the landscape of our hearts - brought about not by us, but by the God who comes to us... still.
Are we wanting to take our baptisms seriously? Do we want to survive or do we
want to live? Did we rally mean it in the waters of our own baptism that we wanted a reorientated heart and life? 

Advent is a time to look again at the things that others don't directly see - to slow down and stop - where are we - in a prosperous place or a moral wilderness; to take a examine at our motives and our day to day decisions and ask what drives them; if we are wanting change are we willing to act by allowing God to act in us to reshape our hearts and our lives? 

Paris - a sermon based on Hebrews 10.11-14 [15-18]19-25 and Mark 13.1-8

Ahh my much maligned blog. There will now be a flurry of posts, just to catch some ideas and sermons as much as anything else...


I have stood in the crowd at the Bataclan theatre on more than one occasion. I love the bustle of 11e bounded by the Places des Vosges and the the Bastille and Pere Lechaise cemetery at the other. Paris was the backdrop to 2 important years of my life - years of faith, friendships, music, culture and where my vocation was tested. My heart breaks, all of our hearts break, recalling the unspeakable tragedy on those streets in the last 24 hours. They are attacks on music lovers and gig goers like me; culture vultures like me; tourists like me; ordinary people of every walk and way of life like me, like you. And in so many ways there are no words.

And yet into unspeakable tragedy words do eventually come - boiling to the surface of our lives, spat in rage and frustration. But this reaction in the face of grief and injustice is more than a toddler griping that they didn't get their own way. This is a railing from our very core - that signs and symbols of our enduring values and the supposed certainties of life - political freedom, justice, tolerance - have been challenged, levelled, and lives obliterated.

The Temple - the sign of the presence of God in the Israelite community where heaven and earth united - was originally built by King Solomon to house the Ark of the Covenant and it was supposed to, like God, endure forever. Yet it was destroyed by King Nebuchadnezzar II in 587 BCE.

This enduring symbol was rebuilt during the reign of King Darius by Nehemiah in
516BCE. This 2nd Temple was added to by Herod the Great but the building was decimated in the years after Jesus after a 4 year Jewish revolt against the Romans.

Levelling the Temple, decimated the Israelites’ identity and values, their sure faith and hope in the presence and power of the God who had called them to be His people, lay in piles of crushed rubble. Jesus talking of the levelling of the Temple will have sent his hearers sense of national identity, underlying values and faith in God crashing to the ground.

In Hebrews it says: ‘... And let us consider how to provoke one another to love and good deeds...’ This is a passage brimming with a confidence mentioned in vs 19 - confidence that consciences are cleansed, confident of the forgiveness of God and wanting to encourage one another therefore to love and good works. Confidence is frankness, outspoken speech, openness to public scrutiny, courage, boldness, fearlessness,
and joy. It is a characteristic of free citizens who may hold their heads up without shame or fear, looking others directly in the eye. In Roman society, slaves did not exercise such boldness; it belonged to the free members of the household.

Did you watch this series of The Apprentice? It’s been a big earner for the BBC. I wonder what do we love about this show - is it Is it the wonderful opportunity that is on offer? Could it be the Lord Sugar put-downs? The mind-bending tasks perhaps? How about the
boardroom battles ending in the pointy finger and those immortal words “you’re fired.” No, what we like is listening to the absolute ego driven, self-aggrandising statement these people come up with. “I am the Swiss army knife of business skills” or I’m the Godfather of the business and I’m going to make Lord Sugar an offer he cannot refuse” oh dear. Oh and please remember these ‘business people’ made £1.87 in profit in the first show. Business people? Nah!

The ego is an amazing thing; it tricks us into believing so much about ourselves to the point where we only hear our own voice. The writer of the letter to the Hebrews reminds us we need confidence not based on who we are or our perceived abilities but whose we are, namely God’s.

As Jesus came out of the temple, one of his disciples said to him, ‘Look, Teacher, what large stones and what large buildings!’ Then Jesus asked him, ‘Do you see these great buildings? Not one stone will be left here upon another; all will be thrown down.’ We all do love the bigger, the better, the faster, the bolder. We are all attracted to splendour, grandeur and the external look. That which is true for films - the bigger the budget the better - can be true of our churches in terms of Sunday attendance, the number of home groups and so on. What large stones, yes, but what’s the story behind them?

I watched 'Imagine', the arts programme recently, on which there was a retrospective of the artist Anthony Gormley. It was intensely moving. Raised a Roman Catholic but now staunchly atheistic, Gormley’s work, so often based around the human form. It became clear over the documentary, that whether creating ‘little Gorms’ our of Indian clay six inches high, or the Angel of the North with a wing span of a jumbo - Gormley was interested in exploring not our outer form as people - but what goes on inside of us when we close our eyes. His works ask us not to look at them - as spellbinding and untraditionally beautiful as many of them are, but to look into ourselves - to our inner,
eternal world of drives and motives. Jesus is not focussed external values of numbers or size, or even the endurance of a culture and it’s systems, but eternal values of faithfulness and trust.

What is Jesus asking of us? In these days of violence, when our confidence, culture and values are all violently challenged and in Paris have come crashing down, it would be all to easy to answer it with more violence. Instead perhaps, we should answer it with love. Not just love for the victims who died in Paris or continue to die in Syria or the Lebanon; but more challengingly with love even for our enemies, for those who perpetrated the atrocities.
That does not mean that we must ‘grin and bear it’; no, love requires that we must sometimes do hard things to reject sin and evil. But our love must strive to heal differences, to address the pain of historical events that continues to divide us. And, we must learn to live side by side in love, despite our fears, accepting each other as we are.

We must do this, not because we are forced to do so by our rulers, rather because we believe God loves us: from a heart that freely and willingly chooses to love, to accept, to nurture and to care, knowing that others may not be able to respond in a like fashion.

As Dag Hammerskjöld, the United Nations Secretary General, who died in an unexplained plane crash in Zambia in 1961, wrote, ‘It is only when I can give without expecting a response that the other can receive and be grateful’. Our love must be open to all, given without the price ticket of reciprocal love. And that means that we leave ourselves open to the possibility, even the probability or the certainty, of pain and loss. If that seems a price too great to pay, we must remember that it was exactly that price which was paid by Jesus to redeem us from our sins.