I have decided to follow Jesus


He came at night, when no one could see where he was going.   He came out of the dark, from the dark of the night and the dark of the soul.  He had seen the buzz growing around Jesus.  He had been on the edge of the crowd when he was teaching and healing.  His colleagues were dismissive; they didn’t believe that this was of God.  The new teacher had emerged from outside the regular structures.  He hadn’t gone to rabbi school; he didn’t come from the right family.  They were convinced that this was a flash in the pan.  It would all go away, like so many other religious outsiders, here today, gone tomorrow.  But Nicodemus was disturbed.  Something inside of him was drawn to Jesus.  He wanted to know more.  So he went to see him.  In the dark of the night.


He starts all polite, with tact and diplomacy.  He tells Jesus that he recognises that there’s something going on here, and unlike the rest, he’s convinced there’s something real going on.  God is in this, for sure.


Jesus cuts out the small talk and goes straight to the chase.  You can only know the things of God if it’s there in you in the first place.  Only those who are in the kingdom can see the kingdom.  And if you want to be part of it, you have to be born again, from above, from God.


Now there’s a phrase that has caused confusion over the last 2,000 years.  People have used it as a label, as a way of separating different kinds of Christians, those who have been “born again” from those who haven’t.  Those who were “born again” were those who had experienced God for themselves in a real encounter with the living Lord, those who could tell the story about how they made their commitment to following Jesus.  Last week, Chris told us how he made that commitment when he was 10 years old, at Spring Harvest.  He didn’t use the phrase “born again”, but that’s what Christians a generation ago would have said.    The problem was, when people used that label to separate those who could put the experience into words from those who didn’t have a story to tell.


For other groups of Christians, being “born again” was about the sacrament of baptism, going through the waters of life and rebirth to become part of God’s team.


During the Talking Jesus mission last week, I took a Pakistani Christian priest to visit two schools.  He was a musician, and he brought his harmonium and taught the children to sing a song that he had grown up with, and that was great fun, because we learnt it in Urdu as well as English.  The song goes like this:


I have decided to follow Jesus (repeated x 3).

No turning back, no turning back.


This week, on Tuesday, we baptised 12 young people at St Aidan’s School, and I talked about how they had decided to follow Jesus.  I asked them why they wanted to be baptised, and three of the children told me, in front of their parents and godparents, in front of the school, that they wanted Jesus in their lives.  It was so moving!


There is something very special about the moment when people decide that they want to follow Jesus.  It is a threshold.  You go through a door and find yourself in a different place.  You come out of the dark and find yourself in the light.  It’s a new start.  From now on, your life is about walking on the road with Jesus.  It doesn’t make life any easier, because sometimes God asks you to do difficult things, but you know God is with you, and you are sustained and supported by the love of God, by hope, by faith, and you are open to God’s peace and joy.


Of course, life gets more complicated than that.  Sometimes, you stray off the road.  Often, our lives get so cluttered with things going on, with other priorities, with the sheer business of living.  The faith side of our life grows darker for a while.  The shutters come down.  And we find we need to turn back, refocus, make the decision once again to follow Jesus.  There are times when we want to go deeper, to grow in faith and hope and love, and we turn to Jesus again and make a new commitment.  We turn to him when things seem dark, and he gives us light.


Why?  The Gospel reading shows us why.  Jesus tells Nicodemus: God so love the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but may have eternal life.


God loves us.  God loves us so much, and he wants us to believe in him, to have a relationship with him, to live as part of God’s kingdom.  God wants us to flourish in him.  He is there, waiting for us to turn to him, reaching out to us.  Jesus is there for us.  And when we say YES, and let him into our lives, he walks with us and guides us and helps us and heals us.  And bit by bit, we learn to shape our lives in his way.  And God starts to shine through us, so that other people can glimpse the light in us.


And Nicodemus?  What about him?  We hear of him again at the end of John’s Gospel.  When Jesus has died on the cross, Joseph of Arimathea provides a tomb and Nicodemus comes along with spices.  Jesus had warned him that he would have to die, and Nicodemus turns up to help.  He has come out of the dark of anonymity into the light of public commitment and service.


It’s a story that invites us to look again at our walk with Jesus and turn to him again, to say YES, Jesus, I do want to know you, I have decided to follow you, now, and always.

Altering our Maps


I was reading a book on the history of maps.  Humans have used maps as a way of making sense of the world and as an aid to getting around.  The earliest known map goes back around 2,500 years.  It shows the sea surrounding the known world, with a few key cities marked, such as Babylon.  The early maps were a bit lacking in terms of showing the whole world, and one country in relation to another, because the people who were making the maps simply didn’t have the knowledge: they hadn’t explored far enough, and they didn’t have the tools for setting it down.


Early mapmakers used different lenses to view the world, and the way they understood the world influenced how they shaped the world in their maps.  Various places were regarded as the centre of the world, the belly button of the world, and these cities would literally be placed in the middle of the map, and the rest of the world set out in relation to them.  And in the early Islamic maps, where the direction of Mecca was the most important thing to show, which was usually in the south, then south was shown at the top of the map.  For Christian maps, east was the most important direction, so some maps had east at the top.   It was a while before the convention of having north at the top developed.  No map ever had west at the top, because the west was where the sun died, where it was believed we all go when we die.  And whether you have north or south or east at the top of the map changes how you view the world.


There is no such thing as a perfect map: the world is constantly changing, the shape of countries alters with coastal erosion or accretion.  When I was a child, a lot of countries appeared on the map in red, the extent of the British empire.  That’s not the case now – there is no empire.  And the science of mapmaking is improving all the time.  So there is a constant work in improving the maps.


Maps are not just about the geographical world.  Maps can also be used to show politics or economics or religion in relation to the physical world.  They arise out of how we see the world.


When Jesus lived on earth, he changed the way we see the world.  And the incident in today’s Gospel reading changes the way the disciples understand Jesus and set a new direction for his journey on earth.


The disciples had come to know Jesus as a preacher, a teacher, a healer, a miracle-worker.  They had seen the way he engaged with people, changing their lives.  They had seen the way in which he challenged the religious and political authorities by the things he said and just by being himself.  Then Jesus asked his disciples about who they thought he was, and explained to them that he would have to suffer and to die, and that’s not what they wanted to hear.


Today’s Gospel comes in six days later.  Jesus takes Peter, James and John – the core team – up a mountain.  And when they get there, something truly amazing happens.  Jesus is transfigured: he shines with light inside and out and is changed.  Two figures appear with him, and the disciples recognise them as Moses the lawgiver and Elijah the first and foremost prophet.  They three of them have a conversation, which the disciples are not part of.  Then a cloud overshadows them and the event is over.  They know something amazing has happened, but they do not know what and it will take time before they understand it fully – if they ever do.  And somehow it changes everything.  It changes the way they understand Jesus.  Peter had declared that Jesus was the Messiah – this experience confirms that and shows how awesome that is.  Suddenly Jesus is bigger and greater than they ever imagined.


From now on in the Gospel, Jesus is heading towards the cross.  The direction is clear.  He has started telling his disciples that he is going to Jerusalem to die, but that’s not part of their picture, the map they have planned in their own heads for what being a follower of Jesus is all about.  Jesus is constantly having to alter their expectations and their understanding.


On Wednesday, Lent begins, and this marks for us the beginning of Jesus’ journey to the cross.  Over these next few weeks, we will walk with Jesus along the way.  And we remember our own mortality.  At noon on Ash Wednesday, we will have a service to mark each one with an ash cross, remembering that we are dust, and we will all return to dust.  Do come to that service if you can.  And every Tuesday, we will meet as a group to learn and grow together.


Lent is a time when we should be prepared to have our own interior maps corrected and realigned.  We are all encourage to make a special effort to come closer to Jesus, to understand a little more, know a little better just how much we are loved by God, and find ways of loving God and our fellow humans a little more.


People take on various kinds of spiritual discipline in Lent:  reading a spiritual book, taking part in the Lent Group, praying a little more, spending more time with God, or giving more towards charity or the church – almsgiving is one of the essential spiritual disciplines.  Fasting is an ancient spiritual discipline that we are not very good at these days in the church – we tend to think of it as giving up chocolate or wine, rather than taking it seriously, but it can be a very beneficial discipline.


The transfiguration changes Jesus and the way the disciples comprehend Jesus.  It changes the direction of travel – now the journey is towards the cross.  We need to open up our own maps of how the world works in relation to God, and allow God to give us a bigger, clearer, more godly perception, so that we can walk the way of Christ ever more surely.

Choose Life


Jesus is still on the mountain, still talking to his disciples about how to live the good life, and he doesn’t mean about living indulgently with your every whim pandered to.  Jesus is talking about how you live as a good person, and he tells his followers, as he tells us, that being a good person is not necessarily what you think it is.  Jesus is always trying to challenge your assumptions.


This time, he’s challenging those people around him, who think that if you follow the rules, you’ll be fine, so you don’t murder, don’t steal, don’t commit adultery, don’t bear false witness, honour the older generation, and so on, and when you have done all this, or not done all those wrong things, you think you’re safe and there’s a comfy chair in heaven with your name on it.


There’s a poetry in the way that Jesus gives his teaching.  You hear the pattern of his words.  He says it 6 times in this part of Matthew’s gospel, 4 times in the portion we had just now, and the other 2 in subsequent verses.  He says: You have heard that it was said … but I say to you …”  They have heard it said in the scripture that they all know so well, and Jesus is supplementing what they already know from their holy books.  He is going deeper into the rules; he is taking them further.


Jesus says: you have heard that it was said … You shall not murder, but I tell you, if you are so much as angry with someone else, you need to go and sort it out.  If you’ve got problems in your relationships with family or friends or the wider community, it’s no good ignoring the difficulties, you’ve got to address them and sort them out.  Phew!  That is a much tougher standard.


I met families at funerals, and sometimes there have been fallings out in the past, and people don’t talk to each other for years, and then there is a death, and people go to their graves without any resolution to the tensions.   That is so sad!  And it is wrong!  Jesus says – go and sort it; wherever you can, work out a way forward.


If you’ve got an issue with someone, go and talk to them about it.  It’s no good moaning to everyone else and not dealing with the problem.


The implication is that if you don’t sort things, if you nurture your resentments, if you cut people off, it is like murder.


The standards of living the Jesus-life are so much higher than you find in the rule-books.


And you get it again with the other examples.  Jesus says: you have heard that it was said do not commit adultery, but I say to you that if you look lecherously at someone, that’s just as sinful.  Jesus says: you have heard that it was said if you’re going to divorce someone, do it legally and properly, but I tell you that marriage is for life.  Jesus said: You have heard that it was said: don’t swear falsely, but I tell you don’t make oaths at all.


Jesus sets an impossible standard!  Anyone would have great difficulty following the rules the way Jesus interprets them.  But that’s the point, I think.  None of us can, by our own efforts, live up to those standards.  Humans cannot live perfectly.  We should try to live good lives, but we can never ultimately succeed.  But it isn’t a competition for salvation.  Salvation has been given to us by God’s grace.  It is a free gift.  God loves us just for being us, not because of our success at living up to a moral standard.


Jesus is also making us think about the way we read scripture.  Jesus was addressing those who take what they read in the bible at face value.  As far as they are concerned, the bible sets out the rules that must be obeyed, and if you follow them, you’re OK.  And Jesus is saying: Scripture is the start of the study, the beginning of the conversation, but you need to look at the ideas and intentions behind the scripture and think about what it means in your life, in your context.


People play fast and loose with scripture.  You see this when they are fighting over any important issue: whether it was the ordination of women or what to do about homosexual people or the other big issues of the past.  There are always those who say:  This is what it says in the bible, and they will quote chapter and verse about why women shouldn’t be allowed to lead worship or lead communities and gays and lesbians shouldn’t be allowed to love one another.  But they are playing fast and loose with scripture because they are only taking the superficial meaning and not looking to discover God’s will.  In Scripture, you will find demands that are contradictory, and you have to look beyond the surface meanings to what God is saying here and now, in this place, at this time, to this community.  You always start with scripture, yes, but you need to study it wisely.


And people can be selective about which biblical rules they follow and which they ignore.  They will tell you that a loving gay couple can’ get together, but they will happily eat shellfish, when the bible tells them not to, or wear clothes with mixed fibres.  The rules are not pick and mix.  If you are not following some of them, you have to have a rationale.  Sometimes it means setting some of the rules against Jesus’ core message to love one another.  Some of the instructions get in the way of the golden rule.


I take scripture very seriously.  I read portions of the Old Testament and New Testament every morning and every evening.  I wrestle with scripture every time I sit down to write a sermon.  And I am trying to understand what God wants of me here and now, and wants of this community, and the world.  And it’s not as straightforward as following a rule book.


In the Old Testament reading we had first, Moses is setting a choice before the people of the Hebrews:  Choose life, by loving God and obeying God, and persevering even when you are struggling.  That way you will and gain God’s promises.  Choose life!

Light of the World


If you go right back, all the way to the beginning, it was dark.  The way the story is told in the first verses of the Bible, the first thing God did was to create the light.  God said: Let there be light!  And right from that moment, God and light were inextricably linked.


We are talking poetry here.  Even when there is physical darkness and literal light, the spiritual darkness and the light of life are so much greater.  You have to tap in to your imagination, you have to root yourself in your feelings and fears and hopes.  Because that is where darkness and light make sense.


Remember the fear you have felt in deep night when you are alone.  Remember the anxiety when everything is going wrong and your life feels dark.  That is the darkness we’re talking about.


Recall those moments of light when the sun is shining on a landscape, or you suddenly realised that you are loved by God, or you see something clearly in your mind’s eye for the first time, and we say that the light is switched on.  That’s what it’s like when we encounter the light.  It’s not just an outside thing, it affects you deep inside.


We pick up the theme of darkness and light in the prophets.  Remember the prophecy of Isaiah that we have at Christmastime:

The people who walked in darkness have seen a great light;

Those who lived in a land of deep darkness – on them light has shined.  ….

For a child has been born for us, a son given to us. ..

And there shall be endless peace   ….   With justice and with righteousness.


In some of the paintings by old masters  from the renaissance era, they painted images of the nativity, showing the world as dark, but with light shining from the baby in the manger onto the faces of those who come to see him.


We have just passed Candlemas, when we remember how the baby Jesus was brought to the Temple for the purification of his mother Mary.  Simeon saw the family and prophesied that the child was the light to bring light to the gentiles.  So in days past, the church would have had a procession with candles, to remind us of the light that has come into our lives.


Later on, we get the wonderful story of how Jesus was transfigured in light on the top of the mountain.  We get another glimpse of who Jesus is.


And in John’s Gospel, the adult Jesus proclaims that he is the Light of the World.  Those who follow him will never walk in darkness but have the light of life.  Jesus IS the light, and he brings light into our lives.  There is a famous painting by Holman Hunt called “The Light of the World” and it shows Jesus knocking on a door in a dark wood at night.  Light shines from Jesus and from the lamp he is carrying.  If we open the door and invite him in, then we come to know the light, and the light shines in us.


At the end of the Bible, in the book of Revelation, the theme of light is still strong.  John prophecies a new heaven and a new earth where there is no darkness, no night, no mourning, no crying, no distress, but where God will dwell with his people and He will be the source of light, the one true light.


We find the theme of darkness and light in the culture around us.  There is a song by Leonard Cohen – it was played quite a lot when he died recently – called Anthem.  It acknowledges our broken world, where we cannot make a perfect offering.  There is a crack in everything, and, Cohen continues – that’s how the light gets in.  We live behind our masks and build walls against the light, but when things go wrong and our lives crack up, that’s when the light gets in.


Give thanks to God.  Thank God for Jesus who is the Light.  Thank God for the light He brings into our lives.  Thank God that when everything is dark, we have hope, because the light is never far away.


But there is more.  Today’s Gospel reading takes it further.  Jesus is teaching his disciples on the mountains.  He is explaining what it means to follow him.  He tells them:  You are the light of the world.  You have to let your light shine to others, so that they can see what God is doing.  It’s not just Jesus being the light of the world – now we too are the light of the world.  And we mustn’t hide away, because we are too scared to let our little lights shine.


When we receive the light, we are blessed.  What a privilege it is to know Jesus who is the light and who bring us into the light!  It is a privilege that brings responsibilities, because we need to be conscious about bringing the light to other people, even when we are broken and the light is only shining through the cracks, especially when we are broken and the light is only shining through the cracks.


The Old Testament lesson we heard just now helps us to understand the light a little better.  It says:  if you remove the burdens that other people are carrying, if you offer food to those who are hungry and help those who are suffering, then your light shall rise in the darkness and your gloom be like the noonday.  Living in the light is about how we treat other people, how we show love and kindness, how we stand up for those who are persecuted and support those who are in need.


Jesus says: You are the light of the world.  Let your light shine.


And he’s saying it to you.

Ready or not


When I was a child, we used to play Hide and Seek.  The seeker would shade their eyes and count to 100 and then call out “Coming, ready or not”.  And those who hadn’t yet found a hiding place had to hurry and tuck themselves up behind a curtain.


Coming, ready or not.


You know things are going to happen, but you think you’ve got time to get ready, and then you find yourself caught out, because events start rolling before you’re ready for them.  That.


You’re expecting guests.  You have to whip round with the hoover, bake a cake and make a round of sandwiches, and put on tidy clothes.  Then there’s a knock on the door.  The visitors are early.  They are tramping over the wet kitchen floor and demanding tea.


Things start happening, ready or not.


Then there’s the old couple.  He’s got cancer and she knows he will die, but she isn’t ready to let him go yet.  But he slips away anyway, and she is left bereft.  It was too quick, too soon.


Ready or not.


It was early in Jesus’ ministry.  John the Baptist had told his followers that Jesus was the lamb of God and Andrew had starting going round with Jesus, and brought in his brother Simon Peter, and Philip and Nathanael had joined the team.  Then Jesus had to go back to Galilee for a wedding, and the lads went along as well.  We don’t know who the couple were.  Jesus’ mother was there, and she seems to be taking some responsibility for the occasion.


Then the wine runs out.  Whoops!  Why?  Did someone miscalculate?  Did the extra guests who came along with Jesus tip the balance?  Had the grape harvest failed?  Was there simply not enough money to get in enough wine?  Whatever the reason, it was a great embarrassment.  It was shameful.


And Mary says to Jesus: The wine’s run out.  And she gives him that look, which means that he’s got to sort this.  And you and I might have replied:  Mum, I never managed to get to the ATM, and the Offie doesn’t accept plastic.  But Jesus is a bit short with Mary: What’s that got to do with us?  I’m not ready for this.


What is it that Jesus is not ready for?  He isn’t talking about a quick trip to the Off Licence.  He says his time has not yet come.  Does he mean: the time for helping out with the marriage celebrations, the time for going public, or the time for offering himself as the Lamb of God for the sins of the world?  And why isn’t he ready?  John has baptised him. Jesus has started gathering the team around him.  What’s he waiting for?


Whatever the reason, as you and I know, things start happening, ready or not!


By the door there were six stone water jars.  The water was used for washing peoples’ feet as they arrived for the wedding, to purify them, to make them ready to take part in the wedding festivities.  Jesus tells the servants to fill up the jars.  Each one held up to 30 gallons of water, so that was nearly 180 gallons.  And when the jars are full, Jesus tells the servants to serve the wine.  The first glass goes to the master of ceremonies who remarks on how good the wine is.  Jesus hasn’t just produced wine, he has supplied superb wine.  And in great quantity – something like 1,000 bottles.  It must have been some party!


For someone who wasn’t ready, that was some party trick!


And the story in the Gospel ends by saying that this was the first time that Jesus revealed his glory.  That’s what he wasn’t ready for.  The glory of Jesus is not just because he did an amazing miracle and turned water into wine.  It’s because the story is so much more than that, a story of many layers, which tells us about how the water of Judaism was just a preparation and the wine of God’s kingdom is the fulfilment.  It’s a story in which the heavenly bridegroom attends a village wedding as a guest, and his bride is the people of God coming into the kingdom.  The glory of Jesus is like a wedding feast and we are all invited.


So are you coming along, ready or not?


Sometimes Jesus wants us to do stuff.  Are you ready or not?  When God first nudged me, wanting me to be a priest, I wasn’t ready.  God came back a few months later, and I still wasn’t ready, though things had shifted.  And the next time God asked me, I said I would, but I wasn’t really ready.  And then eventually, God asked me, and I was ready, and I took the next steps, and here I am.


And Jesus wants us to reach out here in Bensham.  He wants us to reveal his glory.  He wants us to give out the invitations to the banquet of the kingdom of heaven.  He wants us to pour out the wine.


And that’s why we are having the Talking Jesus Mission at the beginning of March.  The Bishop of Burnley and the Bishop of Huddersfield and their teams are coming along to help us.  Bishops will turn up to shine shoes.  You will see sofas in strange places where you can sit for a moment and have a conversation.  Ordinands from Cranmer will be at the Angel of the North on the Saturday talking to people.  We will give out the angels that people are kindly knitting for us – in order to start of a conversation about the big things, the things that really matter to people, the questions about what life is all about.


And God wants you to be part of this.  Can you knit – knit us some angels.  Invite people along to some of the events that are taking place.  Bring friends and family to the special church service on the Sunday morning.  Bringing people along is really really important.  It could make all the difference – to them, and to you.


Jesus said he wasn’t ready, but he did it anyway, and the people who were there at that wedding got a foretaste of the banquet of the kingdom of heaven.  We are never ready, never ready for the next step, never ready to get closer to God, never ready to do what God wants.  Do it anyway.


Jesus is coming, ready or not.

Let’s proclaim the kingdom!


The Kingdom of God begins in the most unlikely places.  You might expect it to turn up in the places of power, with the sound of sackbuts and trumpets, the sway of bejewelled costumes, and the authority of one who won the national election, including the popular vote.  Look hard, seek diligently, but you are not likely to find the Kingdom of God there.


The Kingdom of God doesn’t show up in moments of triumph and success, but creeps in when there is trouble and danger.


In Jerusalem, Herod Antipas had arrested John the Baptizer and put him in jail.   Herod Antipas had divorced his wife, in order to marry his half brother’s wife, his niece Herodias.  It was messy.  It was scandalous.  It was a betrayal of kinship – you don’t treat your step brother like that.  It was against every convention of health family life.  And John the Baptist had made his views clear – he didn’t approve at all, and he left you in no doubt about it.  So Herod Antipas had John arrested.  It was the act of an immoral leader who didn’t want to be told how wrong he was.


After that, things were a bit tricky for itinerant preachers in Judah.  Jesus had recently been baptized by John in the river Jordan.  He was just getting going.  But for the moment, it was safer to leave the city and go north to the sticks.  So he went to Galilee, but didn’t settle in Nazareth, which had been home for his growing up years, and settled in the lakeside fishing village of Capernaum.  And it was there that he began to proclaim the good news that the kingdom of heaven had drawn near.


The kingdom of heaven is when God is in charge of our world.  When God is king, when God is President, when God is Prime Minister, you can trust the leadership.  In the kingdom of heaven, the President will not have a history of groping women, of cheating his contractors, of bullying the people who live on the edges of his golf course.  Most humans can’t handle the power with integrity.  Human leaders are always flawed.  We live in a sinful world.


But in the kingdom of heaven, we imagine what the world would be like with God in charge, and we try to put those dreams into action.  In the kingdom of heaven, there is compassion for those who are struggling, there is a place for those who live on the margins, there is health care for those who are ill.  In the kingdom of heaven, you are encouraged to be a good person and to help others.


You can’t keep the kingdom of heaven to yourself, living it privately away from the gaze of the neighbours or the politicians.  Heaven is never just a personal matter.  You can never say: I’m saved, never mind everyone else; I am one of the chosen, so I’m OK.  NO!


The kingdom of heaven is for sharing.  The kingdom of heaven is good news for everyone.


A lot of people think that the kingdom of heaven is what happens when we die, if we’re lucky, or what happens when Jesus returns at the end of time to establish the glorious kingdom.  It may involve those things, but it is also about NOW, about how we live in God’s way, and how we work with God to make good things happen here in our communities, in our nations, in our world.


So Jesus went round telling people all about it.  And what Jesus did, he expects us to do too.  Jesus couldn’t do it on his own.  So he recruited ordinary people to help him.  As he walked beside the lake, he saw Simon and Andrew fishing, and he called them to follow him.  Did he know them already?  Had he seen them among the people who came to listen to him?  We don’t know.  But Jesus asked them to join him to fish for people, and that meant telling people about the kingdom of heaven.  Then shortly afterwards, Jesus recruits two more fishermen in the same way, James and John.  So he has his first four disciples, the core team.  They weren’t scholars; they weren’t trained preachers or doctors.  They were fishermen, ordinary workers.


And together, they walked with Jesus from town to town, village to village, telling everyone the good news that the kingdom of heaven was near, and bringing healing to those who were broken and in pain.


And that’s what he wants us to do.  To live the kingdom of heaven, and to share this precious treasure with those whom we meet.


But we hide behind our church walls.  Afraid.


We hope that the way we live will be so impressive that people will want some of what inspires us.  The reality is that most of us live just like our agnostic neighbours.  What makes your lifestyle different from that of the people around you?  For that matter, what makes my lifestyle different from anyone else?


OK, talking to people about Jesus and the kingdom of heaven is scary, but there are ways of doing it.


During the first weekend of March, the Talking Jesus mission is happening in Durham Diocese.  Here in Gateshead, we have two bishops and their teams coming to help us.  They will do assemblies in lots of local schools, and Q&A sessions with bishops.  You will suddenly find sofas in Saltwell Park and all sorts of strange places, where you can chat to a bishop.  Or you might find a bishop offering you a free shoe-shine.  At the Angel of the North, they will be handing out knitted angels to strangers and having conversations about the important things in life.  Here in Bensham, we’re going to take members of the team on a pub crawl.  These events will create opportunities for good conversations about the things that really matter, the big questions: Who am I?  What am I here for? What does it all mean?  And on the Sunday, we will have a special preacher, and the service will be somewhat different from usual.  I don’t know exactly what we will do yet, but if you have any ideas, let me know.  Bring your family and friends to that special service – who are you going to bring with you?


God’s kingdom is coming and that is good news.  God’s kingdom is here!  Now we can live it.  Now we can tell other people about it.

Blessing Diaries


Lord of time, Lord of eternity,

We give you thanks and praise

for this new year that lies ahead.

We give you thanks and praise

for the blessings you have showered on us

In 2016 and the years long past.

As we step into the new future that is 2017,

Bless the way we spend our time preparing for eternity.

Bless these symbols of the ways we commit our time,

our diaries, and the ways we manage our moments.

Thank you for the time you have given us,

our past, our present and our future on this earth.

Help us to do your will and use our time well.  Amen

The Name


When Jesus was a week old, he was circumcised and given his name, just like every Jewish baby boy for thousands of years.  Here in the UK, we have a secular giving of the name when the birth is registered and the child’s name is recorded for legal purposes.  It makes you a real person in legal terms.  Even my stillborn grandson had a name and a birth certificate.  Then as Christians, we are baptised, and the minister baptises the child or the adult by name.  If you are being baptised later in life, you might take on a new name, a name that represents your Christian identity.  A friend of mine took on a new name when she was confirmed.


Names are important.  They identify us.  If you don’t know someone’s name, and you need to speak about them, it is difficult.  Names are who we are.


The names that are given to western children these days often don’t have meanings, which I find very sad.  My first name ‘Margaret’ comes from the Greek and means pearl.  My middle name ‘Mary’ comes from Hebrew and means bitter.  I was given the name because of my father’s godmother and my great grandmother, so it is a name with a history.  Mary is also my mother’s name.  So names often come with family associations.  My mother insisted that we have saints’ names. So I also identify with Saint Margaret of Scotland and Mary the mother of Jesus.  Other people might identify with cultural icons who share a name.


And all of you will have stories about your name, about how you came to have that name, and who you were named for, and what having that name has meant for you.  My husband is called ‘Sheridan’, and he resented it bitterly as a child, because he was teased for it, though he has grown into the name as an adult.


In the Old Testament, names were really important.  To know someone’s real name is to know who they are.  When Jacob encountered an angel, the angel would not disclose his name – it is not for humans to know the nature of celestial beings.  So Jacob wrestled with the angel all night.  He never discovered the name of the angel, but he was given a blessing.  And sometimes people were given new names at turning points in their lives, to show the start of a new life.  Abram became Abraham, and Jacob became Israel.


When it came to the name of God himself, things really hotted up.  For Jews, the name of God is so holy it cannot be pronounced, and because God is so great, we cannot possibly know God fully, so we cannot say God’s name, we cannot claim to know him.  So Jews might refer to ‘the Lord’ or ‘the Name’.  There are two words used for God in the Old Testament.  One is “Yahweh”, usually referred to as ‘the name’, which represent the ruling power, the source of justice.  The second is “Elohim”, which means ‘Lord of hosts’, which represents the power of creativity and mercy[i].  Even the word ‘God’ is a description and not a name.


Jesus’ name was given by the angel whom Mary encountered and again by the angel who appeared to Joseph in a dream.  The young couple didn’t get a choice about the name.  When angels start handing out names, they are significant.  The name Jesus means ‘God saves’, so it’s a name that says something about Jesus’ mission to save us and the whole human race.  Matthew’s gospel also reminds us of the other name of the Messiah that was announced by the prophet Isaiah: Emmanuel, which means ‘God is with us’.


The name of Jesus is powerful and holy.  In the Book of Acts, the disciples carried out healings and exorcisms in the name of Jesus.  The Shepherd of Hermas, a Christian writer around 100 years after Jesus was crucified, said that “the Name of the Son of God is great and boundless, and upholds the entire universe.”  In the Orthodox tradition of Christianity, the Jesus Prayer is a significant devotion:


Lord Jesus Christ,

Son of the Living God,

Have mercy upon me, a sinner.


It is a prayer that is repeated over and over until it vibrates within us.  It is not vain repetition, because you have to do it thoughtfully and prayerfully.  It is real work to pray this prayer well.


Every time we say the Lord’s Prayer, we say:


Hallowed be thy Name.


This is a prayer praising Jesus, praising God, through His Name.


In the UK, you hardly ever find someone with the name ‘Jesus’, though it is common enough in Spain.  And Muslim boys do get called ‘Issa’, which is the Arabic form of ‘Jesus’.  Nevertheless, the Name is really important for each one of us.  We were all baptised in “the Name of the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit”, as Jesus himself commanded.  We call ourselves Christians, a term that was first used in Antioch as an insult, and was then claimed by the followers of Jesus.  We are known by the Name of Jesus the Christ.


The baby born to Mary was given the name ‘Jesus’ when he was circumcised on the eighth day, and that’s what we are celebrating today.  It tells about who Jesus is, but it also starts to tell us who we are.  It reminds us of how we use the Name in our prayers, and how the Name of Jesus is active in our lives and in our faith.  In this New Year, make a resolution about getting to know the Name of Jesus in your heart.  The Jesus Prayer and the first line of the Lord’s Prayer are printed with today’s bible readings.  Use them, and you will find a blessing for 2017.

[i] Margaret Barker, Christmas: the Original Story, SPCK 2008, p 63.

And Then What?


It was quite by accident that we found ourselves in a great crowd watching a religious procession, not like any religious procession you would find in an Anglican setting.  There were dancing dragons carried on poles.  There were golden lions, larger than life.  There were the stories of the gods acted out on flat-bed trucks, groups of dancing children, and, at last, came the gods themselves, carried on poles.  We were, it seems, celebrating the birthday of one of these gods.


We happened to be standing near to a Chinese café, which had set up a shrine on the pavement in front, an altar with incense and fruit.  Each passing dragon and lion stopped and honoured the shrine.  And at the end, when the gods themselves came by, the café owners emptied out bags and bags of imitation paper money in a heap on the road in front of the altar and set it alight, there on the public highway.  This was money for the deceased ancestors, to ensure that they wanted for nothing in the afterlife.


Way back, when the funerals of the ancestors had been held, the families had burned paper models of cars and computers and white goods, so that the dead would have had all that they needed to live well in the eternal lands.


But this was Kuching, Sarawak, and this was an ancient Chinese faith long since expunged in the Chinese mainland and brought here by the diaspora in the 17th and 18th centuries.


And then, 18 months later, just 2 months ago, we were in China itself, and we visited Buddhist, Taoist and Confucian temples.  Though these temples were generally reconstructions for the benefit of the tourists, there were a lot of young people engaged in worship.  And to outward observers, the worship seemed to be pretty much the same whichever kind of temple we were visiting.  A fistful of lighted incense sticks was held above the head and the worshipper bowed north and south, east and west.  They were there to gain blessings, but also to worship the ancestors.  The sense of connection to those who had gone before was massive.


The week after we got home, we held our All Souls tide service at St Chad’s to remember and give thanks for those who have died, welcoming the families of the funerals we had held over the last year.  One woman said to me at the end, “I have been coming to this service for 6 years, and now I know I need to let go”, which was huge progress, an important step on the path of bereavement.


Every time we go to a funeral, it challenges us to think again about what happens to us when we die.  Most people bat the question away as it flutters through their consciousness – it’s certainly not something people in my parish want to think about too deeply.


The Church believes in the Resurrection of the Body.


In this Season of Advent, the church is preparing for the coming of Christ – in two ways.  Christ is born as an infant in the animal room of a simple house in Bethlehem, God gives up the glory of heaven to be born as a human, with all the mess and misery that means.  We call that the incarnation – the enfleshment, the embodying of God.  Human bodies are so important that God chooses to share that experience and show himself, his love, to us.


And the second awaiting is for Christ again, for Christ returning at the end of time.  It is a key theme of Advent.  We are called to open our eyes and look around us and see the signs of the fulfilment of that promise.  Christ is coming again.  Maranatha!


And when Christ comes again, the dead will rise from their tombs and be a part of the new heavenly kingdom in which God lives with his people, where there is no darkness, no sin, no death, nor mourning, no crying.


And that’s what the church calls the Resurrection of the Body, the embodying, the enfleshment, the incarnation of the human beings who have died and whose first bodies have been returned to the earth, to dust, and to ashes.


We will be raised, and we will be raised bodily, because Christ himself rose from the dead.  In the second lesson, Thomas is none too sure about this.  He cannot believe the disciples’ story that Jesus is alive again until he sees for himself.  He needs to know.   The next week when the disciples are gathered behind closed doors, Jesus appears and invites Thomas to see the prints of the nails and touch the open wound and feel the real flesh.  Jesus’ resurrection body is a real body.  It is recognisably Jesus.  It retains the wounds of earthly life.  But it can pass through locked doors in a way not known to humans.  It is the same, and it is different.


And that tells us what we might expect of the Resurrection Body.  That is what I hope for at the end of time, when I am raised again – a transformed body, a renewed body, a body that can live eternally in a redeemed and re-created world.


Ezekiel had a vision of a vast field of dry bones coming together to form skeletons which are then enfleshed and filled with the spirit of life.  The prophet was not talking about the resurrection of the body at the end of time, but about how we live this life, here on earth.  He imagined a life restored, so that the people of Israel could return to the land and to community, living in God’s way, inspired by God’s spirit.  The resurrection of the body will come about, but in the meantime, we are invited to live the resurrection life here and now, to live as those who are fully alive and fully expectant.  In Advent we are called from darkness into light, from blindness into sight, from dull routine into God-given possibilities.  We are called to face the hard questions of our own frailty and mortality, so that we can lay a-hold of living now.  Birth and Death are bound together.  We are waiting for the birth of a child who is going to die so that we might fully live.


When I die, my children will not offer up paper models of the goods I might need in the afterlife.  I trust they will not even burn my books to provide post-mortem reading.  I do not need to bring matter into the hereafter, because one day, I will be returning to matter, to abide in the glorious kingdom.



Imagine.  Just imagine.


A world where the President of the United States, the Prime Minister of the United Kingdom and pretty well all the leaders of the world ….


  • Care about the poor
  • Bring justice to those who have no power to demand it for themselves
  • Deal effectively with the wicked who hurt and oppress and defraud others
  • Strive for peace


Imagine.  Just imagine.


A community where ….


  • People are welcoming and hospitable
  • people live in harmony,
  • where people encourage and support one another instead of constantly criticizing
  • people are kind to each other, and help each other


Imagine.  Just imagine.


People who …


  • know who they are, loved and cherished by God
  • whose personal qualities come out of their faith and walk with God
  • who live with integrity – what you see is what you get, and what you get is good
  • who want to do what is right and good


Imagine.  Just imagine.  God wants us to imagine.  Because when we imagine, we can start to make things happen.


Let me take you through some snapshots:


On Thursday afternoon, a woman called at my door because she needed a food voucher for her family.  They were being transferred on to Universal Credit.  Universal Credit is the new benefit that is bringing together various different benefits that people used to get.  It is paid once a month in arrears.  As I understand it, when you go on to Universal Credit, you have to wait several weeks before you get any money at all because you don’t get anything at all for the first week, and then you’re paid in arrears.  How are people going to manage in the meantime?  There were 3 children in that family.  It seems that the government is happy for them to go hungry.  They might get up to 3 Foodbank Vouchers, which would give them food for 3 days at a time.  And we’re coming up to Christmas.


That is not the kind of world I want to imagine, but it is the world we live in.


Have you seen the film “I, Daniel Blake”.  It won an award at the Cannes Film Festival.  It was made in Newcastle and is the story of a man, a joiner, who has a massive heart attack and can’t work and has to go on benefits.  The disability assessment says that he must look for a job, even though the consultant and the GP say Daniel can’t work.  So he is sanctioned.


Yes, it’s a film, but it’s based on reality.  It’s the kind of thing I see regularly when people knock at my door.


That is not the kind of world I want to imagine, but it is the world we live in.


This weekend, there has been a big collection at Tesco of food items for Gateshead Foodbank.  Volunteers have been encouraging shoppers to buy something extra for people who are going hungry.  Tesco also contributes massively to the Foodbank.  These collections are essential to bring in the food that is given out each week.  The Foodbank also relies on the gifts from churches and other organisations.  And money is needed as well to cover overheads such as the warehouse.  People are amazingly generous.


And alongside that, the Bensham Community Food Coop provides food to local people in need, including asylum seekers and refugees.  Again, it is founded on the generosity of people who share time and skills, and give food and money.


Imagine.  Just imagine we had a bit more of that.


I was listening to Saturday Live on Radio 4 yesterday morning.  One of the guests was Jaime Thurston who started 52 Lives, a website which aims to change the life of one person each week.  There was the teenage single mum who was given a laptop which enabled her to do well in her studies and go to university.  There was the seriously ill girl whose bedroom was decorated by strangers.  The boy whose mum had died and he had been badly bullied, who wanted so much to go to Alton Towers.  Jaime posts the stories on the websites, and people can volunteer to help.  There are over 100,000 people involved in helping.


What makes the difference in all these stories is, not so much the gifts and the money, but the love and kindness that is shown.  It can be life changing to those who receive the help. And, I would say, it’s good for the people who reach out and help.  But the idea of changing one life a week – that is such a powerful vision.


Imagine.  Just imagine we had a bit more of that.


Advent is a time for re-imagining our world.


Christ is coming.  We look forward to the birth of a baby in a humble stable in Bethlehem, a baby who changes everything, even our priorities.


Christ is coming.  We open our eyes to anticipate the coming of Christ again at the end of time, when we will be judged for what we have done and for what we have failed to do.


John the Baptist strides in to the picture and calls us to repent.  He’s quite harsh! “You brood of vipers”, he says, “don’t assume that being a regular churchgoer is going to save you from disaster.”  And though he’s saying it – in some form – to people 2,000 years ago, his message is for us too.  Reflect on your life so far.  We have all done things we regret.  Tell God in our heart.  We all have quirks of personality that have a negative impact on others.  Recognise them, and talk to God about it.  God will always forgive us and help us start again.  Think about your own life.  What is God doing in your life?  Is God leading you to the kind of life that makes a difference to our world? To the community? To your own flourishing?


Imagine.  Just imagine!