Pearly Gates (that's an entrance by the way not a cockney whelk seller).
Blue sky. White fluffy clouds. Haloes and white kaftans.
Renaissance artists really do have a lot to answer for. Ok I know it’s not easy laying on your back painting the ceiling but I sometimes wonder why they didn’t stick to their equivalent of Trade Matt White emulsion instead of trying to explain the bible in big pictures. Their vision of heaven (for that is what this is all about) has coloured the thinking – and, dare I say it – twisted a fair bit of the church’s theology down the years. As a result we’ve lost sight of the real heaven even if we know why we’re going there and how we’ll arrive at our destination.
We all have our own picture of heaven. How much of it is wishful thinking and what is real remains to be seen. It’s important, though, for the church today to recognise the relationship between hope and heaven: we are grounded, then, in our engagement with the world and with the certainty that this – here, now – is not all there is.
Rights: we all like to stand our ground or fight our corner for our deepest convictions or for those we love the most. Without that kind of dogged determination, we’d have few of the freedoms we associate with our modern world.
As a Roman citizen, Paul enjoyed specific freedoms but his loyalty and very identity went deeper that that. Rights do not stand alone – if we are to be true citizens, our identity will be determined by the privileges and responsibilities we share, alongside the rights we have fought so fiercely for and (occasionally) so vehemently demand.
Citizenship seems an antiquated concept today when we all live very individual lives. Yet the very heart of citizenship touches on our very identity – who we really are and what makes us tick. It’s a very helpful picture when we consider our spiritual development: no longer citizens of this world our responsibility and privileges reflect our identity in Christ and our call to become the church as we grow and learn together.
Moving on to the future without letting go of the past is like tying your arm to a post while catching a train.
Standing on the mountain top and looking around is a great way of seeing where the road ahead might be leading. The thing is, we’ll get nowhere unless we come down from the heights and set off on the road into 2018 and beyond.
We grow more from participation than we do from observation. Perseverance (keeping on) is a means by which we get closer to Christ. Not controlled by our past we look forward with single minded purpose to where Christ is leading us.
What has God got to say to us on this Christmas Eve?
With so many worried about the future, why worry about what happened so long ago? Aren’t today and tomorrow more important that all our yesterdays? When you are as exhausted and stressed out from the preparations for “the big day, ” what possible relevance can a 2000 year old birth have?
It’s not as if Christmas is different from year to year. Same old TV programmes, same old food, same old indigestion, same old credit card bills in January. We hear the same story, the same Bible passages are read, we sing the same carols. We've done it all before. Two thousand years is a long time to repeat the same story.
Let us not forget, though, that once, one night, for Mary and Joseph, for the wise men and the shepherds, it was exciting and new. To accept that freshness and wonder for ourselves it’s important to look closely at a story we think we know, perhaps too well for our own spiritual good
How do we find our way to an unfamiliar destination when the Sat Nav is on the blink?
It’s bad enough when you’re on a important journey: it’s tougher still when you’re at a crossroads in life, uncertain which way to turn. If the advice you need or the direction you seek isn’t clear, you can find yourself down some dead ends or even setting off in the wrong direction entirely.
A Kingdom in chaos, a dithering leader with dark forces massing at the borders. Political collapse is matched by spiritual emptiness in a nation simply going through the motions with no coherent plan of what to do next. It’s just at that point that God sends a sign to show where and what the right way really is. We may be hesitant to ask, slow to understand and reluctant to pursue it but His sign and His way is the only route to real life.
God with us: the real story of Christmas
Why me? Why this? Why how? Why?
Some conversations are far from easy. Others are trickier still, especially when we realise that the discussion will lead us to take part in something that will demand our total commitment to a cause or circumstances we struggle to understand.
Angelic visitations are rare events. God’s messengers don’t usually turn up on a regular basis unless He (God) has something very special to share with us. And when it does happen, it can be hard at first to get to the heart of the matter: why is it that angels always begin with “Don’t be afraid…?”
What follows is something beyond anyone’s wildest dreams. However strange and unworldly it may seem – and undoubtedly is – it is right on the money for all of us. God’s message is that He cares about us, enough to intervene in our world through the humility and acceptance of a simple teenage peasant girl dreaming of her forthcoming marriage.
The best stories are the ones that are true, which invite you not only to join in, but which present you with a life changing choice.
Philip is a man with a mission. The Ethiopian Civil Servant is returning from Jerusalem: he may have been on official business but he's taken the opportunity to worship God.
He's a high ranking official in some ways but an ordinary man in another - like so many people he's trying to make sense of his world and his life. There's something missing.
Read on to discover what's missing and how he finds his new direction
Responsibility. It’s more than a long word – it’s also a big ask. There are certain things we can’t avoid; Mark Twain famously said these were “being born, dying and paying taxes.”
It’s the latter that Paul addresses in Romans 13. It’s not so much the mechanisms of payment but our commitment to be responsible citizens. Rome was hardly a hotbed of tolerance and justice but the Christian’s duty – as Paul explains it – is to ensure that they are a good example to follow. They should not be indebted to any secular authority.
When it comes to our relationship with God, then it’s exactly the opposite. We’ll always be in debt as we can never repay the cost of freedom. Our commitment here is a continuing one: however tough our circumstances, however challenging the people involved – love must never go out the window even if everything else does.
If you want to have dinner with a famous person, it can be arranged. The only snag is that it will either cost you an arm and a leg or you will already be in a position where your influence will get you a place at the top table. That kind of encounter is not for everyone: only the privileged few will ever get to sit next to a celebrity.
Today’s reading concerns a posh dinner. The invitations have been issued, the honoured guest waits at the table but all similarities with a modern celebration end there The expected guests don’t show and their reasons for staying away come across as excuses rather than explanations.
This is one dinner to which everyone is invited but it has its own exclusions. The honoured guest has sent the invites out but it is up to all the guests to decide whether to come or not. It’s a one off and there are no guarantees of a repeat event: the greatest blessing comes from a decisive response to aceept what’s on offer.
It's the time of year when Toy makers rely on one thing to increase their annual profits. No it's not higher prices and greater profit margins (although you could be forgiven for thinking as much) but something far more insidious and personal.
Marketing experts have long known the commercial value of harnessing two forms of human behaviour into their sales culture. What's on trend and what's in the mind. You could describe the former as fashion and popularity and the latter as desire and pester power. Those of you who have young children will know what I mean, particularly when it comes to the softening up exercises of a small child who know what they want. Mind you, we adults have our own very special ways and means of getting hold of this year's must have gifts as well.
On the basis of today's reading, you might be forgiven if you came away with the superficial impression that if you pray hard enough, for long enough, God will eventually surrender and give you what you want. Is this really the case - that we can determine the will of God by making a nuisance of ourselves?
The point Jesus makes is that God is nothing like the man portrayed in the first parable. Where the judge is open to bribery, God is not. When the Judge is unjust, God is always righteous. When the judge finds an excuse, God is ready to bless.
Don’t know what to think? Don’t know where to go? Pushed around and feel like you’re not in control of your own life?
If that’s the case you’re in very good company. Most of us have been there at some time or another: some of us are there right now where it feels like we’re paddling madly and working harder just to stand still. Moving on is something else entirely.
That’s just the sort of personal circumstances Jesus saw all around him. Harassed people, driven from pillar to post by economic necessity and the dictates of a system beyond their control. He was moved then and he’s moved now. He invites us all to get involved whether it’s to go and offer help, standing with those in need right where they need it, or being honest enough to admit it when things get too much for us.
Pray without ceasing. It sounds good and wholly spiritual but how do we fit our conversation with God (prayer) into and around our busy lives?
Prayer is much more than that. It’s not something you do occasionally, or even for a few minutes every day. Prayer, when applied to your life the way God intended it to be, is a 24-hour-a-day, seven-day-a-week connection with God. It is a life not a lifestyle.
It is up to us to keep the lines of communication open with God. As long as those lines are open, God can continue to work in your life. If your attitude is wrong, He can help you correct it. If you have sin in your life, He can help you overcome it. If you’re feeling sorry for yourself, He can help you develop a more accurate perspective on life.
We cannot change lives at arms’ length: we need to be involved. Discipleship isn’t just believing the right things or reciting the ancient creeds. Missional churches aren’t missional unless and until they engage with those who need to experience Christ for themselves.
Watching someone else do it is great, Talk is easy but doing it for ourselves (personal action/involvement) is another thing entirely. Disciples have the personal resources (gifts and character) and they also have the authority (power). They also know what’s expected of them – preaching, healing, confronting evil.
Connecting with broken lives is a messy business. It’s costly, time consuming and demands a level of self sacrifice and commitment we may find hard to take. Where the task becomes too much, let’s remember what Christ took on for us (Philippians 3: 12) and our responsibility for sharing that gift with others
Remembrance stands as an example and a corrective to a nihilistic, fatalistic, self obsessed, selfish world. It points us beyond ourselves to recognise and to be thankful to those who have given so much to and for us. It also calls us to examine our hearts because it begs the question: what might sacrifice look like for you and i?
Psalm 46 is a celebration of security. We know where we stand with God because we know from experience what He is like. Whether it is to affirm the position of a nation state or to confirm the standing of an individual, Psalm 46 tells us that our status, development and hope all depend on one thing: our relationship with God.
Whether you’re part of a church or involved in running a business, Mission statements are all the rage.
A few well chosen words – perhaps with a snappy catchphrase - articulate the values and goals of the organisation. A lot of time can be spent getting the statement just right but the real problem lies when you go beyond the words.
How will you deliver the promises that are publicly displayed? How committed are you as an employee/church member to achieving the corporate goals and adopting the communal mindset?
The mission of the church is The Great Commission for the church. We are invited to partner with God in taking the gospel to the ends of the earth. Every believer is expected to participate and no nation will be left out. The opportunity is there for everyone to fully engage with God, to receive Christ and to grow up in their faith.
Battles and wars are fought on many fronts.
On one level there are the strategic campaigns of big battles, fought over large areas, with army pitted against army, man against man. Then, there are the tactical (day to day) matters: small pieces of the jigsaw that go on to make up the big picture of any military campaign. In any battle, though, not everything that contributes to victory or defeat is immediately visible: some things are certainly not as they first appear.
Ephesians 6 places prayer firmly in the context of a battleground where the struggle is both within ourselves and between the (often competing) claims of Christ and culture. Praying in the Spirit is God’s great provision and the church’s biggest opportunity
Men may spurn our appeals, reject our message, oppose our arguments, despise our persons, but they are helpless against our prayers (J Sidlow Baxter)
The closer you are to danger, the further away you are from harm.
What may be true in Tolkein’s fantasy land of Middle Earth is rather different when it comes to real life decisions. It is, as they say, one of those battles where you have to choose very wisely. The martyr syndrome isn’t attractive but the importance of standing our ground on well thought out principles and beliefs won’t necessarily win you many awards.
We all know the story of the furnace but we can easily overlook the reasons why the King saw it as the solution to those who wouldn’t toe his line. For the 3 young men it was a matter of principle, a line that shouldn’t – couldn’t - be crossed. Their choice, to remain faithful to God or to reject all they had stood for, is one we have to make daily: it’s often not easy but God will always reward the faithful witness of His church.
What happens when you are in trouble? When someone comes to you in need, what do you do? Ignore them, add to their misery or extend the hand of help and support?
When you see someone going off the rails physically and spiritually do you leave them to God to get sorted out? Do you shrug your shoulders, thank God that you are not like that, and remind yourself that it’s His job to do it?
If there is one thing we can learn from the New Testament, it’s this: our responsibility as believers extends beyond ourselves - and our actions and our attitudes have a significant impact on the life of the church as a whole. Our calling as members of the body of Christ is to share the burdens, to enjoy the triumphs and to celebrate the joys of one another within the church community.