Monday, 15 February 2016

Three Festivals in a Row after Christmas: Stephen, John and Rachel's Children

The first Christian martyr. A deacon. Appointed a servant to the poor to whom he and six others distributed food. It’s a problem that comes with church growth. Too many needed help, particularly widows. It becomes a matter of delegation. Stephen is well thought of by Luke the author of Acts: not told where he came from just that ‘he was full of faith and the Holy Spirit’ (6.5) and ‘full of God’s grace and power did great wonders and miraculous signs among the people’ (8). It seems the church is going so well that they attract opposition; lies about Stephen are told; he is arrested and brought before the religious authorities. He makes his long spirited defence and as a result is stoned to death.

What can we say about Stephen? We can admire his courage, his integrity and honesty.
We live in London in easy times. No persecution or threat here. Yes, there are anxieties but no one will arrest us for singing our Christmas carols either in church or out in the street. But there are parts of the world where carols may not be sung. Cannot carry a Bible to church. Rules and laws are to be obeyed. These headlines were published yesterday on the Barnabas Fund website: ‘Bangladesh, Islamist groups send death threats to Christian workers’ and ‘Uzbekistan, Christians beaten by police and detained’. St Stephen’s day is their day. Be informed. Remember them. Support them.
John the Evangelist
Another good person to whom we are indebted. He wrote the gospel with his name and three short letters appropriately called John 1, 2 and 3.
I John 1.5 ‘This is the message we have heard from him (from Christ the Word) and declare to you: God is light; in him there is no darkness at all’.
I John 4.8 ‘God is love’.
I John 4.18 ‘Whoever lives in love lives in God and God in him’.
John 4.24 ‘God is spirit’
Three descriptions of God: light and no darkness; love; spirit. No wonder he is called an evangelist: provides us with information that is good and pleasant and hopeful and helpful.
Rachel’s Children
This is dreadful. I have problems with this. Baby Jesus and Joseph and Mary are safe and on their way to Egypt just as predicted. The villain of the story (King Herod) is jealous, does not want a rival. Attempts to kill Jesus by killing all the boys in Bethlehem and its vicinity who were two years old and under.
What I find difficult is that those who comment on this account give their attention to our Lord and his escape. One clergyman (in 1961) even wrote, ‘they were given the privilege, albeit unconsciously, of yielding up their lives for Christ’ [and] ‘they glorified God by their deaths’. It’s even there in the BCP collect! However, Matthew is careful, he is not so hasty; he pauses and quotes a confusing lament from the distant past by the prophet Jeremiah (31.15)… about Rachel weeping for her children. On the one hand children are annihilated, weeping; on the other hand those who weep are told not to because Israel will return from exile. Confusing!
However, it’s not confusing for Matthew. Quoting this verse from the past suggests that he and everyone else at that time felt sympathy, empathy, concern for these mothers. This quotation is Matthew’s statement of outrage and protest! He is lost for words; he and others can only express their feelings by quoting an obscure lament from the past. Of course I rejoice at the escape of the Lord Jesus. But for a moment, Matthew draws our attention to the feelings of bereaved parents. We too need to feel this.
Here they are, three Festivals in a row after Christmas: Stephen, John and Rachel’s Children.
Remember those who are threatened and persecuted for following Jesus.Be thankful to John for his gospel and his letters.Feel great sympathy and empathy for parents who lose their children.


At school in the 1960s we had all sorts of silly ideas about giving up things for Lent, chewing gum, sweets, homework.
Fasting-going without and denying ourselves-does not seem to fit with our modern times of self-indulgence and health warnings about obesity.
If you are out shopping and feel peckish, drop into McDonalds or Berger King.
On an evening we have the convenience of sending out for a ‘Chinese’ or an ‘Indian’ and a pizza. And if you are at the football there is the Berger Bar if you want to risk it. Then there are the tv shows about food and entertaining.
We like ourselves too much to go without.

Fasting during Lent—or at any other time—is unfashionable.
Also we are not sure how to fast. Jesus fasted 40 days and nights! Are we to go without food for a day, from sunrise to sunset like those of another faith. or skip a meal?

My aim is to consider the origin, the use, the abuse of fasting and then to be very practical and invite you to gently fast on occasion this Lent. Not concerned with how fasting has developed over the years in other traditions.
My aim: the Bible, what does it say?
The first mention of fasting in the Bible is Leviticus 16.29 and 31.
The Hebrew means ‘deny yourself’ or ‘deny your life’ in preparation for a festival, for the Day of Atonement with annual animal sacrifices. God and the people are estranged. How to unite God’s holiness and sinful people? No chance of reconciliation by their own efforts. Cannot be good enough! Atonement means making one, bringing people and God together. How? In ancient Israel it was by animal sacrifice and blood. By regular sacrifices and especially on the annual Day of Atonement.
People are to prepare on the tenth day of the seventh month, ‘deny yourselves’. That is to go without food. We assume it is for this day only, but unsure. That’s the origin of fasting.
Going without food gives you a range of feelings: negatively you feel uncomfortable; positively you are focused, you are quiet, and thoughtful. Ancient Israelites were focused on what took place in the tabernacle in the desert and the temple in Jerusalem as they watched the sacrifices that made them friends again with God, they were forgiven, reconciled… that is until the next appointed sacrifice.
Fasting is mentioned on other occasions in the Old Testament.
Such as grief, when a family member is unwell or has died like King David’s concern for his young son (2 Samuel 12).
Like when the prophet Joel calls a nation to repent and turn away from their national sins (Joel 1).
Like when Saul—the first king of Israel—is killed and buried (1 Samuel 31).
Like when the people of God returned to Jerusalem and asked for guidance and protection (Ezra 8).
All are serious and urgent prayer and fasting occasions when God’s attention and assistance is desperately needed.
Also in the New Testament, like when Jesus fasted in preparation for his ministry and finding the twelve (Matthew 4).
Like when the apostles selected and called missionaries (Acts 13) and elders (Acts 14).

However, fasting does not receive a good press in the Bible. The people of God behave appallingly. Lots in the prophets about God not wanting sacrifices and fasting that are done badly but looking for justice and mercy and compassion.
Like when one group of prophets go to another group of prophets for advice (Zachariah 7), ‘should we continue to fast as we have done for years?’
The answer is rather blunt, ‘were you really fasting for the Lord or for yourselves? This is what God requires: administer justice, mercy and compassion to one another’. In the Bible fasting does not appear to be very useful due to its abuse and misuse.
Much the same in the New Testament. Jesus said, ‘when you fast do not be like the hypocrites who disfigure their faces (Matthew 6) so that you know they are fasting’; rather like competitive showing off: look how religious we are!  
Like the Pharisees asking Jesus (Luke 5), ‘why don’t your disciples fast?’ In response Jesus compares his friendship with the twelve to a marriage and a wedding reception, no one fasts while the bride (the disciples) and the groom (Jesus) are together! They are having too good a time to fast!

We have considered the origin, use and misuse of fasting in the Bible.
Let’s be practical and respond to our question: what is the point of fasting during this Lent or at any other time?
I wonder, are you facing problems and decisions? Change of job? Moving house? Family finances, savings, investments? Health concerns? Are you getting older and feel like a creaking gate as you get up in the morning? Do your problems seem to get bigger as time goes by?
Are you considering taking steps forward in your Christian life: marriage, baptism for you, for your child, your god-child, your confirmation? Soon we will arrive at Easter Day Holy Communion.

If this is you, you can approach these problems and occasions the Bible’s way. Set aside a special private time to pray, to talk to God about the future and what you face. Get away somewhere, a park, the woods, the beach. Explain your problem to God and ask for wisdom for what you face, wisdom for what to say and do, and wisdom about doing the right thing. Make yourself uncomfortable by going without a meal, without food for just a few hours. Be focused. Deny yourself.
Do not fast if your health is vulnerable or if you are on medication!
But if all is well, pray and fast privately and quietly for a few hours about the future (you and God alone together). This is the Bible’s way to use fasting as a devotional exercise during Lent or at any other time.
That’s the origin of fasting in the Bible: focused preparation for attending sacrificial ceremonies that temporally reconciled ancient Israelites to God.
That’s the use of fasting in the Bible: to accompany the prayers of those who face what is daunting and demanding.
Beware of the misuse of fasting: don’t appear grim and glum in an attempt to show people how devoted you are.
That’s how we may use fasting: as we face our daunting problems and decisions.

Tuesday, 19 January 2016

'2016 is all before us, unspoilt, untouched, no one has made a mess of it yet'

Joshua 24 and Colossians 1. 21-23

This is just about the only chapter that is read from Joshua—chapter 24—and the focus is generally on the latter part of v. 15... I suppose this is understandable. Joshua is a book of conquest by violent means and expelling the inhabitants that God seems to encourage and support. Not very PC! The latter part of v. 15 is more reassuring, rather like the teaching of Jesus and what we read elsewhere in the New Testament.
Today and next Sunday I want to look at some of Joshua 24 a little more closely. Its a chapter about facing the future. About making a new beginning. Making choices/decisions. It seems to me to be so very suitable for the first service of our new year.
It was Dick Waterman who in my previous parish had that saying, ‘the future is all before us, untouched, unspoilt, no one has made a mess of it yet’. This is true for 2016 and it was similar for these Israelites who entered their ‘promised land’ and faced the daunting challenge of expelling the inhabitants and rejecting their gods. They faced choices. Where would their loyalty lie? Would they be loyal to God who had brought them safely out of slavery? Notice v. 8, ‘I brought you to the land’; notice v. 13 ‘I gave you…’ And now v.15 ‘choose this day who you will serve’—the gods of the land or the Lord! It’s a rather blunt.
And its like that for you and me in this first service of 2016. We too have our choices. We too have decisions to make. Some of our decisions are straightforward: tea or coffee? Go out or stay in? Wear black shoes or brown? Lidl or Sainsburys? Other decisions are more complicated and risky: who to marry? Stay in the old dull job or change to something more interesting? Move house? Upsize because the family is growing or downsize because the bedrooms are now unoccupied?
The Israelites make their decision immediately, no need to think, no seeking clarification, no consultation, no need to consider. Joshua himself v15… and the people all together v. 16…
So what about you and the choices you face. It would be so helpful if there were a key to help us to make the right choices and the right decisions. Well there is no key to getting it right every time. People may advise. Do not rush. Sleep on it. Consider other options. But it is you who has to make your decisions.
Like: friends Brian and John with me in Armley cemetery one evening in 1976, Leeds University or LBC? Stay in the north or move back south? It took the whole evening but I made my decision and here I am!
There is, however, a key that will assist you to make right and proper decisions as you follow the Lord Jesus into the year that lies ahead. Colossians 1.21-23…
v. 21 we were alienated and enemies.
v. 22 now reconciled, presentable, holy, no blemish, God’s work in you and no one can accuse or point the finger at you. Rather like ‘if God be for you who can be against you?’ Answer, no one.
But we have a part to play. Notice the conditional clause ‘if you continue…’ Our human responsibility for the health of our Christianity is not cancelled. You and I need to persevere in the faith with God’s grace but still persevere. How?
‘Established’: foundation, house, you know what you believe, you love the Lord.
‘Firm’: steadfast, fixed in purpose, eye on the hope.
‘Unmoved’: you do not move away, you are resolved to be faithful and reliable no matter what happens, the weather may be bad, the floods may rise, not intimidated to give up.
Sometimes life can seem so very unfair. Good people become unwell; others experience misfortune through no fault of their own. We make our mistakes, our misjudgements, as we may say, ‘it seemed a good idea at the time’. Some are able to weather the storm, fight the good fight of faith; others fall away, for some its all too much.
This is how we need to be at the beginning of this year: established, firm foundation, unmoved:
So there it is, before us, a fresh year, unspoilt, untouched. You will face decisions and choices. I have drawn your attention to a key that will put you ahead. For the moment Joshua asks his question, ‘choose’. Blunt. How do you answer?
We will return to this chapter next time when we consider The Reason for the Shallowness we find among ourselves.


Monday, 18 January 2016

A Warm Glow in Our Hearts for the New Year

Isaiah 60.1-22
I am interested in you and I feeling encouraged at the beginning of a new year.
But first, I wonder, have you ever felt really low. You know depressed. Can feel like that at the beginning of the year. Christmas could have been better. Hard work. Expensive. Now cold, wet, snow on the way and you feel unwell. Moreover, you were not included in the big lottery win. And the news… grim and glum from around the world.
Am I making you wish you stayed at home? If this is how you feel, then this Bible reading is for you. Its here in our Bible’s for those who feel low at the beginning of the year. Especially for you.
Isaiah is writing to… exiles. Israel invaded, taken as slaves to Babylon, city and temple destroyed. Israel never felt so low. Seemed as though all the promises of God had come to nothing, to this?
Into this depressed situation comes this call to hope. It’s loud. Shrill. It’s written to be announced, proclaimed… ‘Arise shine…!’ Darkness elsewhere but no longer with you. You are not forgotten. Good times are ahead.
v4 lift up your eyes, look, sons and daughters.
v5 radiant, throb, swell, wealth and riches.
v6 heards of camels from your traditional enemies with gold and incense.
v7 flocks and rams for sacrifice in your restored temple.
v10 foreigners (former enemies) will rebuild your city. God admits he has struck them in anger, brought exile upon them but now… showing compassion! And so it goes on. Wonderful times ahead. You are going home.
v20 your sunshine will never set again, your moon will glow forever… your days of sorrow are over. When? v22 ’I will do this swiftly’.
How does Isaiah 60 speak from across the years to you and me?
Like this: this is Epiphany language. Epiphany is the season in the church year at which we have arrived. Epiphany means ‘appearing’, ‘presentation’, ‘announcement’, ‘publicity’ for everyone about a person. The wise men and shepherds saw his star first. A saviour born. King who governs all things. No delay. Lets go.
The background of Isaiah 60 is the announcement of an expected person who will arrive in our world on two occasions. First coming is what we know as Christmas,. And his second coming is announced and believed at Epiphany. Arise! Shine!
But, look at the news at the beginning of our year…
1.   A pop star has died and the papers say that his death is reported with more enthusiasm than the second coming.

2.   The CofE is said to have the lowest Sunday attendance for years.

3.   And confusion in the church about bishops and sexuality. Our news is neither bright nor encouraging.
What can we say and how does Isaiah 60 speak from across the years to you and me? Answer:
1.   Epiphany comes around at the beginning of the year and in the winter to remind us of these realities. Jesus the king has come and Jesus the king will come again.

2.   Whatever you do, remain faithful. Continue to love the Lord.

3.   Ask for this freshness.

This is Epiphany. Light in darkness. Warmth in the cold. A glow of expectation in our hearts.
I am interested in you and me being encouraged at the beginning of a new year.


Tuesday, 17 September 2013


In a ‘Karaoke’ service the congregation does not use service books or hymn books but follow the words of songs and prayers projected onto a big screen and sing along with a rock band.

During the summer I visited four ‘Karaoke’ churches in London: St Mark’s Battersea Rise (Anglican), Kensington Temple in Notting Hill Gate (Elim Pentecostal), Hillsong a church that originated in Australia and meets in the Dominion Theatre in Tottenham Court Road, and Holy Trinity Brompton known as ‘HTB’, an Anglican church in Knightsbridge which is the home of the Alpha Course.

All the services were full and packed mainly with young people.
Each church has several services on Sundays and all are full.
I was particularly impressed with the two services I attended at Hillsong in the Dominion Theatre.
The music was loud, the singing exuberant and the preaching was biblical and expository with helpful applications.
The preacher—dressed informally in leather jacket and jeans—preached from 1 Samuel and quoted from Augustine, John Wesley and C. H. Spurgeon.
A second sermon on another Sunday was an exposition of the Lord’s Prayer.
The preaching at Hillsong was wonderful to hear, it was down-to-earth, accessible, helpful, and sometimes very funny.
Sadly, the service I attended at HTB was rather dull.

I hasten to add that I am so very thankful that the Lord Jesus is faithfully preached in London!
There is no famine of the word of God in our city.
Services have obviously been carefully prepared in order to be culturally relevant for young people living in our secular and materialistic times.
It can be exciting to be among young people in church in London and I am so pleased to still be in my prime.

Now, let’s be honest, really honest.
I am concerned that the growth of the well-attended, well-resourced churches I visited is at the expense of the smaller and not so well attended churches elsewhere in London.
Over the years I have spoken to many people living in south-west London who go elsewhere on a Sunday and attend the churches that I visited.
Of course people can go to church wherever they like.
But attendance elsewhere means the local church is impoverished by their absence.
Let’s give some examples.
I notice that HTB has twenty-two ordained clergy on their staff.
There was a time when I could not take time-off because I could not find anyone to take services at St Mary’s.
I did ask HTB for assistance but my appeal was declined.
I am very grateful for our visiting musicians at St Mary's who play organ and piano, but there have been occasions when we could not find musicians and managed without.
I am sure you know the reason why.

According to a so-called mission strategy report, in the next five years the Anglican Diocese of Southwark plans to cut the clergy posts for 30 churches that have small congregations and are unable to pay their way without subsidy.
This is, in my judgment, a dire and outrageous policy for church growth.
Services will be conducted at the 30 churches by part-time clergy who I am sure will do a good job.
But I wonder, will these churches grow or may they continue to be impoverished?

The time has come to think and to act properly about mission and the growth of small congregations in London.
If some churches have grown in numbers, with the blessing of new people who have gathered from afar, who have themselves grown in faith in the Lord Jesus, the time comes for them to be sent back to their local church to assist local congregations with worship and mission.
During the 25 years I have been the vicar at St Mary’s I could have done a lot more in the parish had I had assistance.
Let’s have some risky, strategic and creative mission thinking from the leaders of London’s packed ‘karaoke’ churches.
Be honest.
Recognize that your growth is at the expense of others.
Send members of your congregation back home to support the churches where they live.
I look forward to welcoming them next Sunday morning at 10.30am.
At St Mary’s we could also do with the assistance of creative musicians.
Auditions soon.

Saturday, 4 August 2012


Jeff Lucas, There Are No Strong People (CWR: Farnham, Surrey, 2012)

Jeff Lucas combs the story of Samson in the Bible like a naughty boy with a D H Lawrence novel looking for the dirty bits. Where sex is not obvious, he pastes it in.  
He says, for example, that Manoah’s unnamed wife deliberately provokes her husband when she says I’ve been with a man (page 56). According to Lucas, she uses a phrase that in the original Hebrew ‘usually refers’ to copulation. However, what she says to her husband only refers to sex if sex is read into the biblical text. The New Revised Standard Version translates her disclosure correctly: ‘A man of God came to me’ (Judges, chapter 13, verse 6). Moreover, the Hebrew text twice has the same word in this same verse when the woman says she spoke with ‘a man’ and when she reports to her husband. No provocation here and no sex either. Just a woman talking with two men: with ‘her husband’ about ‘a man’.
Lucas finds a similar ‘graphitic euphemism’ (23) when Samson ‘went into’ a prostitute in Gaza (chapter 16, verse 3). Lucas is supported by the consensus of scholarly commentaries and by the Good News Bible translation which reads, ‘he met a prostitute and went to bed with her’, and the New International Version, ‘he saw a prostitute. He went to spend the night with her’.
Both Bible versions contain paraphrases and additions to the original Hebrew text. Again, it is the New Revised Standard Version that translates the Hebrew correctly and without addition or paraphrase, ‘he saw a prostitute and went in to her’. This would seem to settle the matter for Lucas—while Samson was in Gaza, he ‘penetrated a sex worker’ (170).
However, this is not necessarily the plain reading or the obvious reading. The phrase in the original Hebrew, to which Lucas refers, describes not an encounter of an intimate kind but simply the everyday entry of a character into a room, into a house or into another character’s company. The brief account of Samson in Gaza may suggest a sexual encounter, but it’s not as certain as Lucas claims.
Compare how the same phrase is used elsewhere in Judges such as when Barak meets Jael (chapter 4, verse 22). The Hebrew simply says ‘he [Barak] went into her’. However, English translations, including the New Revised Standard Version, add ‘her tent’ because sex between Barak and Jael is not generally assumed. Translators do not add ‘into her house’ or ‘into her tent’ for Samson and the prostitute in Gaza, supporting—to Lucas’s delight—another sexual encounter.
This reviewer would not want to be thought na├»ve (!), but Samson spending part of the night at a Gaza inn may still be a plausible reading. May Samson’s visit to Gaza be for the same reason as he ‘went down’ to Timnah—to look for a conflict opportunity against the Philistines? One biblical scholar says in support of Josephus that ‘the inn and the brothel have been found in one establishment often in the history of mankind’. Yes it is a stretch, but one that needs to be considered by modern authors when asking who is doing what to whom and why in biblical stories.
Samson’s so-called ‘headstrong attitude and his pulsating hormones’ are not simply ‘used’ by God to allow bad behaviour to have a good outcome (106f) as Lucas claims. The Bible is specific. Even his parents are unaware that their son is divinely motivated to provoke conflict opportunities against the Philistines (chapter 14, verse 4).
Is Samson’s ‘performance’ in Dagon’s house really, as Lucas claims, an ‘erotic display’ and a ‘twisted sex show’ (200)? The Hebrew word letzahek is not the description of a sexual act. The Hebrew in Judges, chapter 16, verse 25 and Genesis, chapter 39, verse 14 (to which Lucas refers) means ‘mock’, or ‘laugh’ such as in Genesis chapters 17, 18 and 21 where both Abraham and Sarah are amused at the prospect of becoming parents in old age. 
In There Are No Strong People the author sexes-up the Samson story with his own speculations together with speculative quotations from ancient rabbis. The reader is presented here with a Samson who—in Lucas’s eyes—is different to the biblical character. For example, the Bible does not say Samson became a ‘stud animal’ when imprisoned by the Philistines (200). Readers learn very little of substance about what the Bible actually says.
The book is an easy read. The style is tabloid. Print is large and larger in places. Paragraphs and sentences are short. The author’s own stories and anecdotes are sometimes page turners that draw readers in. This reviewer particularly appreciated Doris’s story (38f), whom Lucas graciously describes as a strong woman ‘disguised as a timid slight soul’, a lady with genuine strengths. The book is worthy of two stars for her story alone. Thank you for including this.
Samson is a more profound character, more courageous, more worthy, and of more contemporary relevance than the careless individual that Jeff Lucas presents to readers in this racy sex saga.