Monday, March 31, 2008

Gearing up for getting away

We had a good day yesterday. Another dedication in the morning which swelled the congregation. Sunday Break was really well attended and the Later Service had good numbers, despite a number of regulars being away.

I preached okay as well. In the morning several people asked me - in response to what I said about Matthew 24:40-41 - what about the rapture? To which I said, 'what about it?' or words to that effect. I politely clarified that I don't believe in it and that it certainly isn't taught in Matthew 24 - quite the opposite, in fact (see last post).

This morning I've had a number of meetings to talk through arrangements for my forthcoming sabbatical - bring it on....!

Linda and I are going to Prague for month in May after the Baptist assembly and then hopefully to France for a couple of weeks in June. Sabbaticals ought to be about rest, refreshment, relaxation, recharging the batteries - and that's what I'm doing for the bulk of mine.

In Prague, we're staying at IBTS and I will be making use of the library to do some research on early church history and continue getting some focus to my studies. This week, I'm writing a paper on leadership ahead of a meeting with my supervisor in a couple of weeks. It's fascinating, though really difficult to keep all the issues in my mind as I create my argument. Hopefully, what comes out at the end of the week will make sense enough. I'll edit and refine it while I'm at spring Harvest.

I've been listening to Larry Norman of late and rediscovered his fabulous Nightmare #71 off what I think is possibly his best album, So Long Ago the Garden (which was part-produced by the great george Martin). It's a wonderful dylanesque song with really contemporary resonances. For instance:

we've paved the forest
killed the streams
burned the bridges
to our dreams
the earth is bursting
at the seams
and in the pain of
childbirth screams
as it gives life
to what seems
to either be
an age that gleams
or simply lays there dying
if this goes on
will life survive
how can it
out of the grave
O who will save
our planet?

Good question - one we might be addressing at the Baptist Assembly

Wednesday, March 26, 2008

New light on familiar texts

I always get caught out by weeks with Bank Holidays in them - they're shorter than average weeks!

the trouble is I never seem to take that into account when diary planning. So my week thus far has been pretty full-on, but also surprisingly enjoyable.

I've been looking at the next section of the eschatological discourse in Matthew this afternoon. I'll be preaching on 24:36-51 on Sunday where Jesus shifts our focus away from the overthrow of the temple to his return.

As ever I have found Dick France's commentary to be absolutely first rate. He writes beautifully, his exegesis is easy to follow and his conclusions always soundly based. I was particularly struck by his take on the classic 'rapture' text in v40-41. Having grown up with Larry Norman singing a version of these words in I wish we'd all been ready, I thought I knew what they were about (and I didn't really like it!)

Dick invites us to ask what these people are being taken for? After all, just a verse earlier people were being taken unexpectedly by a flood. That clearly was not a good thing. So Dick argues here that these people are being taken to judgement; unexpectedly, out-of-the-blue, unprepared, they are swept away to face their maker and account for their lives.

The rapture doesn't sound so cool now, does it?

I love it when new light is cast on familiar and troubling texts by the cool head of a master scholar. What this does is to sort out the flow of the discourse for me. Jesus is talking about his unexpected return by using three pictures of sudden events - floods, burglaries and the return of a master from his travels. None of these events can be predicted with any accuracy; they come upon us when we're looking the other way.

So it will be with the return of Jesus. The question these verses ask of us is simple: will we be doing what we should be when he comes or will we have slipped round the back of the bike sheds for a sly fag?

Tomorrow I'm off to Didcot, home of the Baptist Union and BMS World Mission, hoping to get a number of papers tackling Clement's view of church leadership read and noted on the way there and back.

Monday, March 24, 2008

The passion's fitting climax

We watched the final episode of the Passion on the BBC in church last night as part of our special later guest service.

Someone asked before we started whether we'd pull it if the programme veered off into heresy. We said 'no' (though we were a little nervous!).

No one need have worried. I thought it was a stunning and deeply moving climax to an intriguing series. There was no doubt that Jesus physically rose from the dead and that the disciples knew it.

For me the scene at Emmaus was wonderfully done. I thought the idea of casting a different actor to play the risen Jesus was a master-stroke, introducing that element of doubt into the disciples' and Mary's minds when he first appeared. I thought it was a wonderful and moving moment when he changed back into Joseph Mawle as he shared the bread and wine.

Even the final scene at the pool of Siloam was very effective. I know it moved the location of Jesus' encounter with Peter from beach in Galilee and I know it moved the Great Commission location from the hills of Galilee to Jerusalem. But it was incredibly moving seeing on Peter's face the look of recognition, the fact that he'd got who Jesus was and what he was about and was ready to do it and tell everyone about it.

If Christians can't use this season finale to talk to their colleagues around the water cooler about who Jesus is, then we're in trouble.

Well done BBC, the Passion was not without its faults but overall it was a splendid, gritty representation of the events of that first Easter.

Sunday, March 23, 2008

Happy easter

Easter day! The tomb is still empty; Jesus is risen. Hallelujah!

Two Resurrection thoughts for you:

'The words 'it was credited to him' [Abraham] were written not for him alone; but also for us, to whom God is credit righteousness - for us who believe in him who raised Jesus our Lord from the dead. He was delivered over to death for our sins and was raised to life for our justification.' (Romans 4:22-25).

'Therefore, my dear brothers and sisters, stand firm. Let nothing move you. Always give yourselves fully to the work of the Lord, because you know that your labour in the Lord is not in vain.' (1 Corinthians 15:58)

Happy Easter everyone!

Wednesday, March 19, 2008

Please, Mr preacher, can I ask a question?

Spent a really quality couple of hours with a woman who in her eighties has experienced a renewal of faith over the past six months. We meet every other week or so to talk through issues and read the Bible together. It's wonderful to see how she has come alive.

We always end up talking about how things are going at church and this afternoon we got on to the subject of sermons. She likes my sermons but wonders if there's too much in them - 'such a lot to digest,' she says - and would like the opportunity to ask questions as and when they arise - 'would you mind being interrupted?' she asked.

My initial response - and I think it's my considered response too - is that I'd love to be interrupted. I'd love the sermon to be more of a dialogue rather than a monologue. In my previous church in the evening service, I'd preach and then we'd have feedback and questions. It was based on the principle Cromwell apparently used when allowing chaplains to be attached to regiments of the New Model Army in the English Civil War. He said they could preach for as long as they liked providing they subjected themselves to questioning by the troops for the same length of time. Good principle.

As we chatted, one idea that emerged was to preach a single sermon over three Sundays - i.e. each sermon would have a third of the content that they have now - which would allow for there to be interaction during the preaching and after it.

There are all sorts of logistical issues - can you do it in a gathering of 250-300? what happens if you miss one of the parts of the sermon because you don't come every week? how do you ensure that the loudest voices don't dominate the question time?

But there could be all kinds of benefits. One of the things I'm keen to explore is not how we create teaching programmes - I think we're quite good at that - but how do we ensure learning outcomes? More dialogue, questions being asked there and then, indicates what people know, what their concerns are and what they are learning from the current teaching programme.

I think we can try this in our later service - there's already quite a bit of dialogue there anyway. I wonder if we can contemplate it for our other gatherings.

Tuesday, March 18, 2008

Thumbs up to the beeb's Passion

I watched the first episode of the The Passion over lunch today (on BBC iPlayer) and overall I was really quite impressed.

I thought it was a bit hesitant to begin with, took a while to find its feet. But once it had, it had a lot going for it.

I think the characterisations of Pilate and Caiaphas are excellent - rounded, believable people you can feel real sympathy for even if you don't like them. The street scenes are suitably sweaty and noisy. Jerusalem feels edgy and likely to blow up any time.

Jesus comes into this with a rag-tag of followers and hangers-on and quietly makes his presence felt. Joseph Mawle brings a sly humour to the role that feels entirely appropriate. The scene of him 'teaching' in the temple while he walked around that includes the parable of the wicked tenants was particularly effective.

Effective too is that as the episode unfolded, it was Jesus, the one with no power, who was driving the drama; those with political power were having to play catch-up and react to his agenda. This means that there is real tension in the narrative - even though we all know what's going to happen.

Less good, I feel, is his diffidence about what he stands for. The triumphal entry was good with all the right references to Zechariah but Jesus doesn't seem to be certain why he's come. And, annoyingly, he twice told people that 'the Kingdom of God is inside you' (a minor saying from Luke's Gospel that would be better rendered 'the Kingdom of God is among you'). And the scene with his mother was slightly odd but I can't put my finger on why.

And the 'healing' of the lame and blind in the temple was insipid and didn't really tell us anything about Jesus other than he welcomed everyone. Far more effective in that regard was his encounter with the prostitute who decides to follow him. That scene was charged with real chemistry and charisma.

Overall I thought it was excellent start. I look forward top how the series unfolds over this week.

The Seldom Seen Kid sounds great to me...

I took delivery of the new Elbow album yesterday. The Seldom Seen Kid is as good as anything they've done, which means it's wonderful.

If there's a better lyricist writing in rock music today than Guy Garvey I've not come across him or her. The album is full of big songs and bigger emotions and is quite gorgeous.

Sunday, March 16, 2008

Taking on the fundamentalists

There's a great piece in the review section of yesterday's Guardian by the peerless John Gray attacking the arguments of the atheist fundamentalists - Richard Dawkins, Christopher Hitchens, Daniel Dennett, Philip Pullman, et al.

Lucid, entertaining, cogently-argued, it's a wonderful piece of writing that demolishes the premises on which these guys base their arguments.

He also suggests that the atheists are getting more militant because they see their dream of secularism evaporating as religion makes a come-back all over the world.

It's worth checking out. Here's the link,,2265395,00.html

What happened on Palm Sunday?

It's Palm Sunday. I've found preparing a sermon for today really difficult. There is just so much to say about what happened that I have not been able to reduce my jumble of thoughts to a manageable presentation - hopefully I will this morning.

We're in Matthew this Easter and one the things that intrigues me about Matthew's telling of the story is the numbers of pairs he refers to. Scholars endlessly debate the two donkeys, some suggesting that Matthew was somewhat dim to read the Zechariah 9 prophecy to mean that the king came riding on two animals!

I wonder if Matthew draws attention to pairs in order to draw us to the heart of the story. Two disciples are sent to get two donkeys at the beginning of a narrative that concerns two crowds, two views of Jesus and two testimonies about him from outsiders. Let's unpack that.

Matthew is the only gospel writer to distinguish between the crowd accompanying Jesus and the crowd already in Jerusalem. The latter is puzzled about the commotion and ask 'who is this?' (10 - everything so far in the story has happened outside Jerusalem); the former answer that 'Jesus is the prophet from Nazareth' (11), the northern crowd and telling southern enquirers that the messiah is one of theirs!

The Jerusalem crowd gives way to the Jerusalem leaders - the chief priests and teachers of the Law - who object to the singing of the children in the temple because of what they are singing to and about Jesus (not because they are against kids choirs in the temple!). They have a view of Jesus at odds with the one Matthew has been unfolding to us through his narrative. To them Jesus is at best an interesting if maverick preacher, at worst someone who will bring the wrath of Rome down on them. They certainly believe he has no business saying the things he's reputed to have said and accepting the praises of the children.

All these pairs lead to the most crucial pair - that of the two testimonies about who Jesus is - at the heart of Matthew's story. The two testimonies come from 'outsiders' - the Galilean pilgrim crowd and the children - and concern who Jesus is.

The first identifies him as 'the prophet', a strong echo of Deuteronomy 18:15-19, which looks to the coming of the prophet like Moses, a text that informed Jewish messianic expectation in the first century. More than that, they have already suggested that he is the king foreseen by Zechariah (9:9), an echo of David's return to the city after Absolom's revolt (hence the strong emphasis on Jesus as Son of David in this section of the gospel?). Of course the crowd does not quote Zechariah, Matthew does. But the crowd's behaviour - the chanting of hosanna (from Psalm 118:25-26), the spreading of cloaks and branches on the road - point to the text in Matthew's mind: they clearly see him as God's prophet and king, the long-awaited messiah who will lead them to freedom in his Kingdom.

Having made his demonstration in the temple, the children sing and Jesus responds to his critics by citing Psalm 8:2. It all looks so innocent and the focus appears to be on Jesus and his enemies. But if we miss the detail, we miss what the temple authorities were so grieved about.

Jesus' demonstration in the temple consists of two actions - turning over the tables of a few money changers and dove sellers (probably his action was not big enough to arouse the interest of the Romans or the temple police - unlike what happened in Acts 21:27-35; this was a small-scale making of a point) and the healing of those barred from access to the temple (the blind and lame - their access was not officially barred but their lack of welcome stems from the time David took the city as narrated in 2 Samuel 5:6-8).

It was these two actions together that drew the attention of the priests and the children (and no doubt others who were amazed at what was happening). The children sing hosanna as the crowd leading Jesus into the city had done (thus tying the two halves of the story very closely together). But when the priests object, Jesus quotes Psalm 8:2, a verse that applies the singing of children to the praise of God. What is Jesus claiming here? As Dick France suggests in his excellent commentary on Matthew 'Jesus was not averse to taking upon himself what in the OT was said of Yahweh...unless he is here setting himself in the place of Yahweh, the argument is a non-sequitur' (quoting his own much earlier study on Jesus and the Old Testament).

The priests are left gagging as Jesus leaves for the day. It's only when he returns to the temple the following day that they have found their voice again and ask where he gets his authority from (23)

Thursday, March 13, 2008

The Passion - coming to a TV near you...

I'm getting very excited about the forthcoming BBC production The Passion. Having spent a good deal of time reading and watching the material on the BBC website, I have to say that this looks like a real quality film.

I encourage you to watch it - broadcast times are on the BBC website - and it's already available to pre-order from Amazon on DVD (released the day after Easter).

We are basing two Easter Day guest services on the film and have found the BBC really helpful in getting publicity material together for those services. So thanks to Tim Leith, the beeb's picture campaign manager, for allowing us to use images from the film in our publicity.

One the strengths of the film appears to be the way the writer and director have woven together the familiar story of the last week of Jesus' life from three distinct perspectives - Jesus, Caiaphas and Pilate - and listening to them speak, I reckon they've got those perspectives about right.

I like the idea that these are three dimensional characters, struggling with a situation in which they are trying to do the right thing as they see it. One of the interesting things that the producer Nigel Stafford- Clark says in the interview on the BBC website is that Jesus drove these events and that the other two were forced into them by Jesus' initiative. I thought that was an astute observation.

The writer, Frank Deasy, added that Caiaphas wanted to make the case to his people that sacrificing Jesus might make sense if it saves the people of Israel from the wrath of Rome (something from John's Gospel) and that Jesus was looking to sacrifice himself for the sins of the world - and that these two motives somehow meshed as the drama unfolds.

I think this promises to be one of the best things the BBC has done for ages and very possibly one of the best dramas ever made on the life of Christ - certainly his last week.

So, set the video and watch it. Then come to church and talk about it - come to ours if you're local...

The excitement of Budget Day

In my previous life as a financial journalist, Budget Day was a highlight of the year. A long day listening to the chancellor, talking to contacts in the City and adland, finding an angle, writing endless words of analysis, finally going to press around midnight and then seeing your words the following morning, part of the ocean of ink spilled in an effort to interpret what the Chancellor had done.

I still get a frisson of excitement on Budget Day. So I watched Alistair Darling yesterday while I had lunch. It was the dullest speech in living memory - I gather former Chancellor Geofrey How fell asleep in the peers gallery!

And yet it seems to me to be as good a budget as we had any right to hope for. It's good for poor people - despite Nick Clegg's rather snide remarks - in terms of child benefit, tax credits and fuel payments. I would have liked him to be bolder on dealing with the utility companies but I hope he'll return to the fray if in the coming year if they do nothing to end the inequity of the poor paying a higher price per unit for gas and electricity than the rich - that's a scandal.

I think the alcohol tax rises were well balanced and the green initiatives on car pricing and tax rates, though small steps, are steps in the right direction. I'd have quadrupled the VED on Chelsea tractors (while offering a waiver to farmers and those who need four-wheel drives - though the trouble with that is that it removes the incentive to the industry to improve the technology in these vehicles and opens a loophole that some clever accountant will exploit).

I was also pleased that he left gift aid untouched - £300m left in charities and voluntary sector organisations (and, of course, churches). That was a bold statement of commitment to this vital sector of our society.

So all in all, I thought the Chancellor done good - given the bad hand dealt to him by the world economy and some of his predecessor's decisions. We'll see how it plays out in the coming months.

Monday, March 03, 2008

Where's our movement going?

I finished Rob Warner's book last night and agree with the reviewers that it is a very significant study of the past 25 years or so of the movement that I've been a member of all my Christian life.

I don't think it has the same charm and impact as Pete Ward's Growing Up Evangelical and that's partly due to the - in my view - massive overuse of sociological jargon. Some pages contain a plethora of arcane terms that make reading heavy going at times.

That aside, the analysis is fascinating and - again in my view - spot on. I found his description and comparison of the various bases of faith written over the past 20 years really interesting.

His overall conclusion that evangelicalism might be splitting (bifurcating is the term he uses) into two camps - one more entrepreneurial and activist, the other increasingly theologically conservative - seems right. You only have to think about what's happened to Word Alive - until last year part of Spring Harvest and but this year a stand alone event sponsored by the two most conservative groupings in evangelicalism (UCCF and New Frontiers). The split with Spring Harvest was, as I understand it, entirely for doctrinal reasons - SH is too liberal for some in the UCCF/Oak Hill/Evangelicals Now stable.

I think this is a pity because one of Spring Harvest's strengths over the years has been its diversity. Reading between the lines of Rob's book, I wonder if SH's days are numbered and with its passing whether evangelicalism will fragment into increasingly narrowly defined groups that have little contact with each other and even less dialogue.

I think that will spell a significant defeat for us and possibly lead to a decline in evangelical numbers - as Rob suggests, we might only have bucked the trend in general church decline for a short while because of the energy of the some of the participants; if we begin to fall out over increasingly arcane points of doctrine, we only have ourselves to blame if our churches empty in the coming years.

On a more positive I picked up the new Nick Cave album today - DiG!!! Lazarus Dig!!! (he insists on all the exclamation marks) - and extremely fine it is too. He really has no business producing his finest work now he's in his fifties - but I'm jolly pleased he is. And I got Toumani Diabate's The Mande Variations. He is described as the world's greatest kora player - the multi-stringed instrument of Mali (where Diabate comes from). It's sublime and beautiful, eight pieces of virtuoso playing and gorgeous tunes. What more could a boy want?!