Monday, 31 December 2012

Christmas newsletters

Gospel reading: Luke 2: 1-20

This year we hadn’t had, until yesterday, a single round-robin Christmas letter. Perhaps they are going out of fashion like Christmas cards. But I also wonder whether you heard Lynne Truss’s attack upon on them on Radio 4’s Today Programme this year. That can’t have helped with their popularity. Of course people have been taking pot shots at such letters for years. But I like Christmas newsletters – even if I can’t seem to get round to writing one myself - and was glad when one arrived through our letter box. I’ll read it to you

The Star Inn

Dear all

This year has been a busy, busy one for us Brewers, what with having had a glorious new kitchen for the inn and then Martha’s wedding to Joel in the autumn which we had here. See picture of the bridal party below and particularly note my new hat.

Joel is such nice boy and we all love him dearly. This year he’s been promoted to Chief Tax Officer for the local district - which has certainly brought its benefits if also some rather unkind remarks from the neighbours. And Martha is expecting a baby which is due in the spring. Simon – now 14 can you believe it? - is doing marvellously at school and has just got a distinction for his Grade 6 Timbrel and Loud Cymbals exam. Fluffy the ox had a new calf in the spring so it’s now Fluffy and Huffy in the stable.

We had a lovely family holiday on the Med in June with my sister and her family. Such a beautiful spot near Gaza! The sea was as blue and as warm at it could possibly be. And the food was glorious. There was a bit of bother, at the time, between the locals and the Roman authorities. Some people – near where we were staying – were being evicted from their homes to make way for some new barracks. But as you know we don’t like to get involved in other people’s business – and our holiday was hardly affected at all.

It’s been very hectic here in Bethlehem over the last month what with that irritating Census. Luckily, as many of you will remember, Tom and I were born here so no travelling for us and, to tell you the truth, it’s been quite a boon to trade in what is normally a quiet season. You have to pity some of the travellers. Last night we even had a pregnant woman and her husband arrive at our door – and the only room we had for them – was with Fluffy and Huffy in the stable. I didn’t think the oxen would mind.

The woman seemed very heavily pregnant to me. She might have even had the baby last night or early this morning as there seemed to be quite a lot of noise coming from the stable throughout the night. At one point some most unsavoury looking characters turned up who seemed to be friends of the woman or her husband. I didn’t like to pry and couldn’t really see what was going on from our bedroom window.

So a lot has happened this year – what with the new kitchen, Martha’s wedding, Joel’s promotion, Simon’s musical successes and our lovely holiday. Tom is still his old self, spending too much time on the business but I have my health so we have much to be grateful for. Happy Holidays and I hope that you and yours have a prosperous New Year.

Lots of love Ruth, Tom, Martha, Joel, Simon and Fluffy and Huffy

Now I don’t know about you but I enjoy such Christmas newsletters. They are better than just a card. For one thing they contain more news. And in some ways they are better than a present. They do I think, cost the writer more in time and effort than, say a box of chocolates. They deserve to be received as news and accepted as a gift with good grace.

Of course Christmas newsletters generally don’t cover the disasters and the failures of the year: only the good times and the successes. They can seem impersonal because the writer is writing for a lot of different people – both friendly and not so friendly. They can sometimes seem boastful, even competitive, as if the writer wants to prove to their readers that they and theirs are doing better than you and yours. And of course they are easy to take apart and make fun of as Lynne Truss did, ever so skilfully, on the Today Programme.

It is fairly easy to see that Ruth Brewer – the author of my Christmas news letter – lives in a bit of bubble where it’s only the affairs of those most closest to her that particularly matter to her. But aren’t we all a bit like that? More significantly of course, Ruth seems to have, rather foolishly, missed the significance of a big event on her doorstep because she ‘doesn’t like to pry’ and, as she says, she and her family ‘don’t get like to get involved in other people’s business’. But how many of us in similar circumstances, would have got out of bed, got dressed and ventured out into the cold, merely to see a stranger’s new-born baby?

The birth of God in the form of a apparently insignificant baby, surely shows us one thing related to Christmas newsletters. It is in the most human that God is to be found, in the seemingly ordinary but also extraordinary events in our lives such as the birth of a child. If Ruth had looked she might have found God in her stable that night. But she also might, in the spring, find God in the birth of her own grandchild. God was even present - had she but known it – in her joy at her glorious new kitchen.

Newsletters contain news and at Christmas we think of the good news of the birth of the Christ child. In the Christmas story it’s angels who bring this news, first to Mary, then to Joseph, before the event and then to the shepherds immediately afterwards. In our Gospel reading tonight we heard how the angel tells the shepherds, ‘Be not afraid, I bring you good news of great joy.’

Newsletters may seem to contain rather trivial news compared with the birth of the Saviour of us all. But remember it was only Mary and Joseph, the shepherds, the wise men and a few others who glimpsed the significance of the baby born in Bethlehem that night. The innkeeper and his wife presumably didn’t grasp the importance of the couple who they housing in their stable, or they would have found them better accommodation. News might sound trivial but sometimes seemingly trivial news has earth shattering consequences. We scoff at such news at our peril.

A Christmas newsletter not only contains news but is also a sort of gift. And at Christmas it is customary to exchange presents, to symbolise the gifts of gold, myrrh and frankincense brought by the wise men, but also to remember that the baby in the manger was God’s gift to us. ‘For to you is born this day, in the city of David, a Saviour’: in other words the angel is saying to the shepherds that the baby has a tag on it saying ‘For you’.

A newsletter is a type of gift because the writer gives something of them self in writing it. In writing one the writer has to reveal what they have seen as significant over the last year, show what they truly care about, open them self up, if ever so slightly to acceptance or rejection. In laughing at the newsletter we reject that gift. And it is a gift which is ever-so precious.

Our offertory carol today is In the Bleak Midwinter. The last verse begins ‘What can I give him, poor as I am?’ and ends with the words ‘Yet what I can I give Him: give my heart’. In a way people give their heart in Christmas newsletters. They give us something which God gave us in the form of human baby. In allowing himself to be born as a baby in Bethlehem he gave himself to us – with the hope of acceptance but at the risk of rejection. Our giving of our heart to God, in return, may seem a strange thing to do but it is all he asks of us. It’s all he wants from us this Christmas.

Thursday, 20 December 2012

Waiting for God

St Matthew’s, 16th December 2012,
Readings: Zephaniah 3: 14-end; Philippians 4: 4-7 and Luke 3: 7-18.

My sermon today was billed as ‘Getting ready for God ‘ but actually I am going to be talking mostly about waiting for God.   Of course getting ready involves waiting.   But the two are not the same.   Getting ready involves activity.   Waiting does not.   I want to commend waiting to you.   I think it is much under-rated and I’ll try and explain why.   One reason for why I think waiting is good is that whilst God is, of course, a God who does things he is also a God who waits.   For example he waits for us to come to him.

But firstly why should we be thinking about getting ready for, or waiting for, God today particularly.   Well obviously we are in the season of Advent.   And at this time in the Church’s year we think about the coming of Christ into the world – both about the first time he came – as a helpless baby – and about our hope of his return – as a triumphant king.   It’s natural to feel that we need to get ready to celebrate his first coming and that we need to get ready for his second coming.   But what does getting ready involve?   Doesn’t  it mean that we have to do something?

I want to suggest – rather radically I hope - that we don’t need to do anything, to be ready for God to come,  that getting ready for God is not a question of preparing ourselves, making ourselves suitable for his arrival but of waiting.   Waiting is much more than just getting ready for an event, or a specific day, it about an attitude of mind.  Waiting does involve remembering what has happened and, indeed, hoping for what will be, but more importantly it is acceptance of what is.

Waiting has, I think, got a rather bad name.  What do you immediately think of when you hear the word waiting?   Perhaps ‘buses’ spring to mind.   Perhaps you are now imagining standing at a bus stop getting colder and colder and more and more frustrated at the non-appearance of your bus home.  Or perhaps you might-as its Advent – be thinking about waiting for a baby to arrive.

Of course we can wait for good things as well as bad and waiting is coloured by what we wait for.   Waiting for a baby – or even a party to celebrate a birth - is clearly different from waiting for a bus.   And then again waiting for the 25th December to arrive is quite different for waiting for Christ’s second coming.

Waiting also depends on how we perceive what we wait for.  If we are a child we normally wait for Christmas with expectation and excitement at what is in store for us.   This is because we are hopeful that when it comes it will be associated with good things – namely presents.   If we are an adult and particularly if we have been infected with bar-humbugitis - we tend to wait for Christmas with indifference or even dread (dread perhaps at the likelihood of burnt or underdone roast potatoes and family rows).      

We do, when you think about it, quite a lot of waiting in our lives and as we get older we do even more.   Of course when we are very young – a baby – all there is to be done – besides eat and the consequence of eating - is wait, wait to be strong enough to walk, wait to learn how to talk, etc. etc.    It is no coincidence, I think, that we remember the incarnation at the celebration of Jesus’ birth, rather than say at the celebration of his baptism.   It’s as if we need to remember that God is as much present in the powerless baby – who waits for his life to unfold – as the man who is at his most powerful – at the height of his ministry.

As we get older we older we again become more and more dependent on other people and we spend more and more of our time waiting for them to do those things for us.  But we don’t have to be old to end up doing a lot of waiting,   Getting sick or losing your job also entail a lot of waiting. 

Waiting is something which is often thought of as somehow demeaning.  Babies and old people, sick people, unemployed people are sometimes thought at somehow less important than those who do stuff – particularly paid work.  Those who are active and busy are somehow seen as more important than those who are not so.     But this is surely not how God sees things.   Jesus the baby was surely no less important than Jesus the man.   Jesus the dying man – nailed to and therefore doing nothing on the cross – was no less important the Jesus the man rushing round preaching and healing.   Waiting is just as important as activity.

This is brought home to us by looking at the life of Jesus in a bit more detail and here I am summarising a book called the Stature of Waiting by an author called WH Vanstone.  As Vanstone points out, and as can easily be seen by even a quick reading of the Gospels, Jesus’ life falls into two halves: not equal halves in actual years or months but in halves in the way the Gospel writers write about it.   All four gospels expend many more words on the events of the last week of Jesus’ life than on any other week in his life.  For example Mark takes 10 chapters to describe Jesus’ life up to his entry into Jerusalem on a donkey seven days before Easter Sunday and six chapters on his last week.  

The first half of Jesus life can be characterised by preaching, healing, performing other miracles, changing peoples’ lives: in other words doing things.   The second and last half of Jesus life can be characterised by his being arrested, brought before the Jewish and Roman authorities, tried, tortured and finally killed, in other words having things done to him.   The transition between Jesus doing things and having things done to him can be seen to occur in the Garden of Gethsemane when Jesus is handed over to the Roman authorities, seemingly by Judas.  

In Mark’s gospel the transition is perhaps the most clear.   Mark’s description of Jesus ministry is almost breathless with words like immediately and phases like ‘that same day’ scattered throughout.   Jesus is almost always the subject of sentences.   Mark even describes scenes through Jesus’ eyes.   Jesus saw Simon and Andrew casting their nets and called them rather than Simon and Andrew were casting their nets when he called them.   Jesus found Peter, James and John asleep in the Garden of Gethsemane not that they fell asleep.  Mark’s description of Jesus’ ministry shows Jesus to be decisive, powerful, successful.   Jesus persuades, confounds, changes situations – even calms storms and casts out demons.   He changes peoples’ lives thought what he does.

But after he is handed over – or perhaps hands himself over – at the Garden of Gethsemane everything changes.   After that Jesus does hardly anything.   In Mark’s gospel Jesus is, after Gethsemane, the subject of only nine verbs.  One is the verb which reports him dying.   Four are negative in form or meaning, ‘He was silent’, ‘He answered nothing’, ‘He still answered nothing’ and when he was offered wine ‘He did not take it’.   The other four verbs are verbs of speaking but whereas previously Jesus’ words persuaded or confounded people, now his words affect no-one, change nothing.  

After Gethsemane Jesus is no longer the subject of sentences he is the object.  He is handed over from one authority to another, is dressed by others, even fed by others, or at least given wine.  It is as if he has reverted to being a helpless baby.   Not, this time, a baby that was cherished by his parents and worshipped by shepherds and wise men.   But helpless like a baby nevertheless.   But note that in this helpless inactivity Jesus accomplishes his greatest triumph, the rescue of us all, and not just the people who came into contact with him.   But in this he had to wait, do nothing, he had to wait for God to act.  We can see in the events from Gethsemane to Easter morning Jesus waiting for God to come and God does come.   God comes to raise him from the dead.  

Note too that since Jesus is God incarnate it is as if God waits for God.   In and after the Garden of Gethsemane.  God waits for Jesus and Jesus waits for God.  This is why I think waiting is to be commended and especially when it comes to waiting for God.  If Jesus and God wait for each other we must too wait for God, as he indeed waits for us.

Perhaps I should end my sermon here but I’d like us to retrace our steps a bit.   Of course some waiting can involve activity.  Sometimes that activity can be fruitful.   When we wait at a bus stop we might usefully fill our time chatting to the other people waiting.   When we are waiting to have a baby we can rush around visiting people to share the good news – as of course Mary did when she was told by the angel Gabriel that she was to have a baby.   But note that waiting – by definition – means we cannot affect what we are waiting for.   However much we might like to, we cannot make the bus come any faster, nor – if we are a pregnant women – do anything to speed the baby’s birth.   There is no shame in this.  Our helplessness is not something to be pitied but to accept, and in the case of waiting for a baby, if not a bus, to rejoice in.   It would be good for many people if they could wait for buses without so much impatience, so much fruitless activity.

So it may be with much of life’s waiting.   Waiting, at its most basic, is acceptance of the inevitable and I think we need to learn this – or at least this is something I need to learn.   We can, like children do waiting for Christmas, wait impatiently for it all (what precisely?) to start.   Or we can like adults getting ready for Christmas, rush around preparing things rather wishing we had a bit more time before it (what precisely?) arrived. 

Alternatively we can try and adopt an attitude of mind which is one of acceptance – acceptance of own ultimate helplessness to change what will God will have it be.   This is not to say that we should not eschew bar-humbugitis and be as excited as we can be at the coming of Christmas, nor that we should do nothing by way of preparing for it.

And so finally to waiting for God.   What is this precisely?   I am only going to attempt to say what it is not.  And it’s not, I think, waiting for a particular day on which he arrived or will arrive.  I always find that first line of the well-known Advent carol ‘O come, O come Emmanuel’ slightly odd.   Firstly it sounds to me as if, in singing this, we think God won’t come unless we call upon him to do so and.  And secondly doesn’t calling him Emmanuel mean that he is with us already?   How can someone who is with us be called to come to us?  

We will – after this sermon be singing a well known Taize chant that begins: Wait for the Lord, His day is near.  Now this too could be taken to mean that we should wait for a future event – the Day of the Lord (as it’s referred to in our readings today) – but note that the chant doesn’t say ‘Wait for the Day of the Lord’  It says wait for the Lord.  The two are quite different.  

And so to summarise. When waiting for God we do not need to do anything.   He is already here.  He does not require us anything but to hand ourselves over to him.   Our example himself is Jesus himself who in the last days of his life waited for God.  If it is necessary for God to wait for God surely we should wait for him.


Sunday, 11 November 2012

Thinking theologically about junk foods

Notes for a workshop at the EWDC Food Matters Conference, 1-3 October, 2012
What is junk food?
  • Unhealthy, high in saturated fat, salt, added sugar; fat from animals rather than plants. 
  • Unsustainably produced (without regard to the depletion of resources (earth, land, water) and degradation of the environment (global warming); fat from animals rather than plants  
  • Unjustly produced, derived from products produced with cheap labour 
  • Highly processed to ensure a cheap, transportable, imperishable, unhealthy source of calories.   

Is junk food just celebratory food eaten routinely?
  • Coca-cola, chocolate, etc used only to be eaten at weekends, parties, celebrations but are now eaten on a daily basis 
  • But not all celebratory foods (champagne,birthday cake, etc) are junk foods by definition above.
What Biblical themes and principles might help us to think about junk food?
Food is a precious gift from God to be treated with respect.
  • Genesis 1: 29. Then God said, “I give you every seed-bearing plant on the face of the whole earth and every tree that has fruit with seed in it. They will be yours for food.”
Human beings are to use the earth to produce food but they are also look after it
  • Genesis 2: 15. The Lord God took the man and put him in the Garden of Eden to work it and take care of it.
The earth will produce enough food for everyone (and more) if we do not exploit it
  • Revelation 6:6. Then I heard what sounded like a voice among the four living creatures, saying, “Two pounds of wheat for a day’s wages, and six pounds of barley for a day’s wages, and do not damage the oil and the wine!”
How does the idea that we are to act as stewards of the earth when producing foods affect our attitudes towards junk food?
God’s justice for the poor is intimately connected with food justice. Food justice is redistributive
  • Isaiah 57: 6-7 Is not this the fast that I choose: to loose the bonds of wickedness, to undo the thongs of the yoke, to let the oppressed go free and to break every yoke? Is it not to share your bread with the hungry…
God’s (food) justice is also fair
  • Amos 8: 4-8. Hear this, you who trample the needy and do away with the poor of the land, saying, “When will…the Sabbath be ended that we may market wheat?” skimping on the measure, boosting the price and cheating with dishonest scales,… selling even the sweepings with the wheat.

 Flouting of God’s laws re. the distribution of food leads to environmental destruction.
  • Amos 8: 4-8. Hear this, you who trample the needy and do away with the poor of the land, saying, “When will…the Sabbath be ended that we may market wheat?” skimping on the measure, boosting the price and cheating with dishonest scales,… selling even the sweepings with the wheat. The Lord has sworn by himself… “I will never forget anything they have done. Will not the land tremble for this, and all who live in it mourn?”
Is it just to produce, market and eat junk food?
Eating should ideally be done at meals to which all are invited, where food is shared, where food is eaten reverently – as if it is Christ’s body. 
  • I Corinthians 11: 2-33. So then, when you come together, it is not the Lord’s Supper you eat, for when you are eating, some of you go ahead with your own private suppers. As a result, one person remains hungry and another gets drunk
Could some junk food (say the iced biscuits pictured) be eaten instead of bread at a Communion/Eucharist/Mass? If not why not?
Greed is a bad thing. Sharing is a good thing. Consumption/shopping is not the only thing that defines us
  • Luke 12: 16-21 And he told them a parable, saying, "The land of a rich man brought forth plentifully; and he thought to himself, `What shall I do, for I have nowhere to store my crops?' And he said, `I will do this: I will pull down my barns, and build larger ones; and there I will store all my grain and my goods. And I will say to my soul, Soul, you have ample goods laid up for many years; take your ease, eat, drink, be merry.' But God said to him, `Fool! This night your soul is required of you; and the things you have prepared, whose will they be?' So is he who lays up treasure for himself, and is not rich toward God."
But how (and what?) we eat expresses who we are.
  • Matthew 11: 19 T "But to what shall I compare this generation? It is like children sitting in the market places and calling to their playmates, `We piped to you, and you did not dance; we wailed, and you did not mourn.' For John came neither eating nor drinking, and they say, `He has a demon'; the Son of man came eating and drinking, and they say, `Behold, a glutton and a drunkard, a friend of tax collectors and sinners!' Yet wisdom is justified by her deeds."
Our holding on to the way things stops us from seeing the way things could be.
  • Mark 10: 17 – 23 As Jesus started on his way, a man ran up to him and fell on his knees before him. “Good teacher,” he asked, “what must I do to inherit eternal life?” “Why do you call me good?” Jesus answered. “No one is good - except God alone. You know the commandments: ‘You shall not murder, you shall not commit adultery, you shall not steal, you shall not give false testimony, you shall not defraud, honor your father and mother.’” “Teacher,” he declared, “all these I have kept since I was a boy.” Jesus looked at him and loved him. “One thing you lack,” he said. “Go, sell everything you have and give to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven. Then come, follow me.” At this the man’s face fell. He went away sad, because he had great wealth. Jesus looked around and said to his disciples, “How hard it is for the rich to enter the kingdom of God!”
 How do we find/loose our identity in eating junk food?
Other possible themes: Incarnation, Resurrection, Sabbath

Thursday, 8 November 2012

Does God Change?

St Matthew’s, Oxford, 4th November 2012.   Readings: Genesis 18: 20-33, Mark 7: 24-30

This could be a short sermon: a one word answer to the question, ‘Does God change?’ Either ‘yes’ or ‘no’. I was tempted to tell you what I think is the answer and then just sit down but I expect you’re expecting a slight longer sermon at this point. Before I start I wonder whether I could do a straw poll. If you think the answer to the question, ‘Does God change?’ is ‘yes’ please could you put your hand up now? If you think the answer to the question is ‘no’ please could you put up your hand now? .....

I’ll do this poll again at the end of my sermon,

So first why a sermon on the question, ‘Does God change?’ Well this is the first of four services on the theme of change. In the next two sermons we’ll be thinking about changes in the human situation, such as the change in our lives when someone close to us dies, or when we ourselves fall, what appears to be permanently, ill, or when we lose our job through redundancy or even retirement. I am guessing slightly here because I don’t know what the preachers are going to say. But in this sermon I am asking, ‘Does God change?’ And I want to pose four questions.

Firstly: Does it matter whether God changes? My answer to this question is: yes it does matter whether God changes: hence a special sermon on the subject.

Secondly: Does God experience change? I know that this is not the same question as, ‘Does God change?’ But I think it helps us get a better grip on the bigger question. And my answer to the question, ‘Does God experience change?’ is yes.

Thirdly: Does God change his mind? And my answer to this is yes.

And finally: Does God change in his essential character? And my answer to this is ‘no but’.

So firstly does it matter whether God changes? But before tackling that question we might like to ask ourselves can we answer the question anyway or even what it means?

Talking about this question of whether God changes, or perhaps it was a related issue, to a friend the other day, she pointed out that God says to Isaiah: ‘For my thoughts are not your thoughts, neither are your ways my ways, says the LORD. For as the heavens are higher than the earth, so are my ways higher than our ways and my thoughts than your thoughts.’ There are many things about God which are mysterious. All our attempts to describe God and what he is like – such as this sermon - are provisional, almost bound to fail.

Nevertheless we have, not just a desire to know God, but to know what he is like. In a sense the whole of the Bible is the authors’ attempts to explain what God is like – and in Jesus we get to see what God is like - and so I think it is legitimate to ask questions such as, ‘Is God good?’ To which the answer is yes. Or, ‘Does he love us?’ Again: yes. Such questions matter and so does the question, ‘Does he change?’

In our hymns we often sing to God but we also often sing about God. And it will have not escaped your notice that we have just sung the words.

O God my Father,
there is no shadow
of turning with thee;
thou changest not,
thy compassions they fail not;
as thou hast been
thou forever wilt be.

I should say I didn’t choose this hymn but I am not quibbling with the choice. But the author - Thomas Chisholm – would surely have been with those of you who put up their hands with the ‘nos’ just now. And I think our natural response to the question, ‘Does God change?’ is no he doesn’t. We might even be able to dredge from our memories some biblical support for our response. Perhaps Hebrews 13: 8 springs to mind: ‘Jesus Christ is the same yesterday and today and forever.’ Or even Malachi 3: 6 ‘For I the LORD do not change; therefore you, O sons of Jacob, are not consumed.’

The changelessness or immutability of God goes together with other properties of God that we might have heard about and accepted. That he is omnipotent – all powerful, omniscient – all knowing, everlasting – has and will be around forever. As I am sure I have said before I am not at all sure that God is omnipotent or omniscient. (I do think he is everlasting). But I am not going to go into my reasons for my thinking today. Just to say that I think that the notion that God is omnipotent and omniscient comes from Greek philosophers like Plato and not from the Bible.

The idea that God is immutable is also a Greek idea and some Christians I think have taken it far too far. Some have argued that what God is and therefore what he going to do is entirely fixed: there is no way he can be and do otherwise and thus cannot change in any way. That means that it is only humans that can react to God and God cannot react to anything that, for example, humans do. This, in my view, can lead to thinking of God as cold and unfeeling. Even beyond contact.

In the second book of Samuel David says, at one point, ‘The LORD is my rock, and my fortress, and my deliverer, my God, my rock, in whom I take refuge’. Now rocks and fortresses are unfeeling and when we sing ‘Faithful one, so unchanging; ageless one, you’re my rock of peace’ or as we will do later ’Safe in the shadow of the Lord, beneath his hand and power, I trust in him, I trust in him, my fortress and my tower’, we might end up thinking that just as a rock doesn’t really care whether we are clinging to it desperately or not, or a fortress doesn’t really care why we are taking refuge in it, so God doesn’t care. Rock, fortress, tower metaphors for God can clearly be taken too far.

The one area where the idea of the immutability of God might be useful is when thinking about God’s faithfulness, as, for example, in the hymn we have just sung beginning ‘Great is thy faithfulness’. And indeed in that verse from Malachi, ‘For I the LORD do not change; therefore you, O sons of Jacob, are not consumed.’ Malachi is reporting God as saying that he will stick to his promises whatever his people do to themselves and to him. We can always rely on God to be faithful to his promises; he is not in any way fickle or capricious. The supreme faithfulness of God means that he is consistent in what he says, can be relied upon always to act in a way that is loving and good. But does that mean he never changes his mind? I’ll come onto that in a moment.

But secondly: Does God experience change? I know that this is not the same question as, ‘Does God change?’ But, as I said, I think it helps us get a better grip on the bigger question. Because if God is affected by what goes on within his creation then there is a sense in which he can be said to be changed by it. And even, in consequence, do things differently than he otherwise would have done.

The question, ‘Does God experience change?’ is related to the question of whether God is unfeeling like a rock or fortress or whether he feels for us – say like a shepherd feels for his sheep, or a father for his son or a mother for her daughter? When I pray I think of God as a person who cares for me, rather than an uncaring rock. But does that mean God feels emotions in caring for us – like we human do. When we fail does he feel sad, when we succeed does he feel glad?

Well I think so, yes. There are hundreds of instances in the Bible where we can see God feeling. Jesus clearly feels emotions. He is angry in the temple, scared at Gethsemane, sad about Jerusalem, happy when Lazarus is raised from the dead. Jesus is also acutely sensitive to other peoples’ needs and feelings though his many encounters with sick, poor, outsiders, c. He also tells parables where God shows delight when – like a shepherd – he finds a lost sheep, or - like a king - feels anger when the guests don’t turn up to the wedding of his son, etc. But the God of the Old Testament also feels anger, pleasure, sadness, happiness. You can think of many instances I am sure.

This all means, I think, that God is sensitive to the situation before him and responds accordingly. If he experienced everything before him as unchanging there would be no occasion to feel happy or sad, pleased or angry. So does he experience change as we do? I said at the beginning of this sermon that this is the first of a series of sermons where we think about change. We are talking about big changes – such as losing someone we love, losing our health, losing our job. Note that all changes in our life seem to involve loss, in some sense or other. Even good, big changes like leaving home, getting married, having a baby involve some loss on our part: the loss of our old way of life with all that meant to us, if only to gain a new way of life. Change goes hand in hand with loss.

The big world changing event in Jesus’ life is – perhaps to state the obvious – the loss of his life at his crucifixion. How does God experience the crucifixion? In line with Greek thinking about omnipotence, immutability, etc. it has commonly been thought that God is impassible, i.e. incapable of suffering. Why people have thought this seems to be because a suffering God seems, somehow, a weak God, too human, too un-godlike. Everyone could see that Jesus the man suffered on the cross but did his father God just not feel a thing? It seems to me that since God has experienced suffering – both in actually dying and seeing the person that most matters to him dying - then he stands by and with us in our suffering. He experiences loss just as we experience loss. He experiences change as we experience change. He suffers with us when we suffer. In this sense he is not at all like a rock. Rocks do not suffer.

Of course it is also important to stress that the reason why God experiences change is because he allows himself to do so. Here those famous verses from Philippians come into play: ‘Though he [Jesus] was in the form of God, [he] did not count equality with God a thing to be grasped, but emptied himself, taking the form of a servant, being born in the likeness of men.’ God, in order to experience change, self-limits himself.

Some think that it was not only God in Jesus who self-limits himself but also that God created the universe and in particular his favorite creatures - we humans - by an act of self-delimitation. They think that because God is a perfect being no creature could exist except where God was not. Thus creation occurred only when God withdrew in part: a self-emptying preceding the second and corrective self-emptying of Christ's incarnation. And this helps me to make sense of suffering. I think that if you think God is omnipotent, immutable, etc. it is difficult to believe that he could allow horrendous suffering in the shape of the death of his son, but also the Holocaust and all the other cases of horrendous suffering that we can think of.

I also think that a capacity to suffer and in particular to suffer loss is necessary for love. The ancient Greeks recognized this in their mythology. The Gods could only truly love mortals rather than other Gods because where you have immortality you cannot have love. Only with the possibility of the loss of the loved one can there be love.

So in summary I think God experiences change because without doing so he cannot love.

My third question is: Does God change his mind? Or, in other words, does he react to what happens and in particular to what we do? And my answer to this is also yes. Here the two readings that we heard just now are important. In the first Abraham pleads with God to change his mind over destroying the city of Sodom. And God in answer to Abraham’s prayers does change his mind so that he agrees at the end to spare Sodom if ten righteous people can be found within it. There are many similar examples in the Old Testament.

A famous example of God changing his mind can be found in the book of Jonah. When Jonah finally reaches Nineveh after his adventures inside the whale he delivers his message from God to the Ninevehns . ‘Forty more days’, Jonah proclaims, ‘and Nineveh shall be overturned’. But when God sees how the Ninevehns fast and pray he relents and despite Jonah’s protestations spares the city.

The second, Gospel, reading tells a famous story of Jesus changing his mind in response to some persuasive arguments from a gentile woman. Up until this point Jesus seems to see his mission as being just to Israel. After this encounter he changes his mind and sees his mission as being to Jews and Gentiles alike.

There are by some accounts around 40 instances of God repenting – i.e. changing his mind - described in the Bible. In contrast we can find two or three verses which suggest that God does not repent. One of these examples is Numbers 23: 19. Here the prophet Baalam says: ‘God is not man, that he should lie, or a son of man, that he should repent. Has he said, and will he not do it? Or has he spoken, and will he not fulfil it?’ But note firstly that the word repent in this verse is synonymous with lie. I am sure God doesn’t lie, i.e. say one thing and do another. Second this proclamation of Barlaam’s applies to a particular case and it shouldn’t be taken as a generalisation. Third the contention that in this case God will not change his mind presupposes that he can do so.

But what convinces me most that God can change his mind is petitionary prayer. What point is there in asking God to do things if he has already decided what he is going to do? You might say that by praying we are bringing our minds in line with the mind of God. In all true dialogue people will change their mind in the light of what the other says. I find that when praying I frequently change my mind about what I am asking God to do. But I also think he changes his mind as a result of our conversation. It wouldn’t be a real conversation otherwise.

And finally, my last question was: Does God change in his essential character? And my answer to this is no but.

No because even if God experiences change, reacts to it, even changes his mind, this does not mean that God ever changes in his essential character. And we can say this because of know that God is faithful – more faithful than we can comprehend. Faithful is, I think, a much more useful description of God than unchanging.

The faithfulness of God is something really very important. Because of his faithfulness we know we can rely on God. One of the main messages that Jesus brings to us through the gospels is that God is with us. And we can rely on God to be with us when we need him to be.

But here comes the ‘but’, and it relates to what I was saying at the beginning: God’s ways are not our ways. God is like Aslan in the Narnia stories by C S Lewis. In those stories the characters, even Aslan’s enemies, constantly note that Aslan is a wild lion, not a tame lion. Our God is a wild God, who comes and goes in a way we cannot control. His reliability is such that he does not always do what we want him to do but he does what we need him to do. His faithfulness is a strange sort of faithfulness. His essential nature may be unchanging but not in a way we might assume.

So I’d like to ask that question again: ‘Does God change?’ Can those of you who now think ‘no’ put up your hands? Can those of you who now think ‘yes’ put up your hands? Can those of you who don’t know put up your hands? Can those of you who have changed your answer as a result of this sermon put up your hands?

Sunday, 7 October 2012

A service with passover foods


My people, hear my teaching; listen to the words of my mouth. I will open my mouth with a parable; I will utter hidden things, things from of old - things we have heard and known, things our ancestors have told us. We will not hide them from their descendants; we will tell the next generation the praiseworthy deeds of the Lord, his power, and the wonders he has done

(Psalm 78. 1-4)


Readings from Exodus and tastings

1.8 Then a new king,...came to power in Egypt. “Look,” he said to his people, “the Israelites have become far too numerous for us. Come, we must deal shrewdly with them or they will become even more numerous and, if war breaks out, will join our enemies, fight against us and leave the country.”

So they put slave masters over them to oppress them with forced labor... But the more they were oppressed, the more they multiplied and spread; so the Egyptians came to dread the Israelites and worked them ruthlessly. They made their lives bitter with harsh labor in brick and mortar and with all kinds of work in the fields; in all their harsh labor the Egyptians worked them ruthlessly.

3.7 Then the Lord said, “I have indeed seen the misery of my people in Egypt. I have heard them crying out because of their slave drivers, and I am concerned about their suffering. So I have come down to rescue them from the hand of the Egyptians and to bring them up out of that land into a good and spacious land, a land flowing with milk and honey.

12.1. The Lord said to Moses and Aaron in Egypt, “This month is to be for you the first month, the first month of your year. Tell the whole community of Israel that on the tenth day of this month each man is to take a lamb for his family, one for each household.

“The animals you choose must be year-old males without defect, and you may take them from the sheep or the goats. Take care of them until the fourteenth day of the month, when all the members of the community of Israel must slaughter them at twilight.

22 “Take a bunch of hyssop dip it into the blood in the basin and put some of the blood on the top and on both sides of the doorframe.

First tasting: parsley dipped in salt water

(Parsley symbolises the hyssop, the salt water symbolises the blood.)

8. “That same night they are to eat the meat roasted over the fire, along with bitter herbs and bread without yeast.



 Second tasting: horseradish dipped in charoseth

(The horseradish represents the bitter herbs, the charoseth symbolised the mud the Israelites used to make bricks and mortar in Egypt.)

8. “That same night they are to eat the meat roasted over the fire, along with bitter herbs and bread without yeast.

“Do not eat the meat raw or boiled in water, but roast it over a fire with the head, legs and internal organs. Do not leave any of it till morning; if some is left till morning, you must burn it. This is how you are to eat it: with your cloak tucked into your belt, your sandals on your feet and your staff in your hand. Eat it in haste; it is the Lord’s Passover.

“On that same night I will pass through Egypt and strike down every firstborn of both people and animals, and I will bring judgment on all the gods of Egypt. I am the Lord. The blood will be a sign for you on the houses where you are, and when I see the blood, I will pass over you.

14. “This is a day you are to commemorate; for the generations to come you shall celebrate it as a festival to the Lord - a lasting ordinance. For seven days you are to eat bread made without yeast.

Third tasting: unleavened bread***

17. “Celebrate the Festival of Unleavened Bread, because it was on this very day that I brought your divisions out of Egypt. Celebrate this day as a lasting ordinance for the generations to come.

24 “Obey these instructions as a lasting ordinance for you and your descendants. When you enter the land that the Lord will give you as he promised, observe this ceremony. And when your children ask you, ‘What does this ceremony mean to you?’ then tell them, ‘It is the Passover sacrifice to the Lord, who passed over the houses of the Israelites in Egypt and spared our homes when he struck down the Egyptians.’”

A reading from 1 Corinthians

5.7b Don’t you know that a little yeast leavens the whole batch of dough? Get rid of the old yeast, so that you may be a new unleavened batch - as you really are. For Christ, our Passover lamb, has been sacrificed. Therefore let us keep the Festival, not with the old bread leavened with malice and wickedness, but with the unleavened bread of sincerity and truth.


Give thanks to the Lord, for he is good.
All: His love endures forever.

Give thanks to the God of gods.
All: His love endures forever.

Give thanks to the Lord of lords:
All: His love endures forever.

to him who struck down the firstborn of Egypt
All: His love endures forever.

and brought Israel out from among them
All: His love endures forever.

with a mighty hand and outstretched arm;
All: His love endures forever.

to him who led his people through the wilderness;
All: His love endures forever.

He remembered us in our low estate
All: His love endures forever.

and freed us from our enemies.
All: His love endures forever.

He gives food to every creature.
All: His love endures forever.

Give thanks to the God of heaven.
All: His love endures forever.

(Psalm 136. 1-3, 10-12, 16, 23-26)

* Sprigs of parsley + a bowl of salty water
** Sticks of horseradish + a bowl of charoseth (100g/4oz of walnuts, a large cooking apple peeled, cored and sliced, 1 tsp sugar, 2tsps cinnamon, red wine.  Blend the walnuts, apple, sugar and cinnamon in a mixer then moisten with red wine.)
*** Matzos broken into pieces

A service with fruit


Leader: “Come, all you who are thirsty, come to the waters; and you who have no money, come, buy and eat! Come, buy wine and milk without money and without cost. Why spend money on what is not bread, and your labor on what does not satisfy? Listen, listen to me, and eat what is good, and you will delight in the richest of fare.”

(Isaiah 55: 1-2)

Readings from the Song of Songs and tastings

Part 1: First voice (She)


First reading: 7: 10-12

I belong to my beloved, and his desire is for me. Come, my beloved, let us go to the countryside, let us spend the night in the villages. Let us go early to the vineyards to see if the vines have budded, if their blossoms have opened, and if the pomegranates are in bloom there I will give you my love.

Second reading: 2: 2-4 

Like an apricot tree among the trees of the forest is my beloved among the young men. I delight to sit in his shade, and his fruit is sweet to my taste. Let him lead me to the banquet hall, and let his banner over me be love.

First tasting: apricot*


Third reading: 2: 5-6

Strengthen me with raisins, refresh me with apricots, for I am faint with love. His left hand is under my head, and his right arm embraced me.


Second tasting: raisin**






Fourth reading: 4: 16

Awake, north wind, and come, south wind! Blow on my garden, that its fragrance may spread everywhere. Let my beloved come into his garden and taste its choice fruits.

Part 2: Second voice (He)

Fifth reading: 2: 10 -13

Arise, my darling, my beautiful one, come with me. See! The winter is past; the rains are over and gone. Flowers appear on the earth; the season of singing has come, the cooing of doves is heard in our land. The fig tree forms its early fruit; the blossoming vines spread their fragrance. Arise, come, my darling; my beautiful one, come with me



Third tasting: fig***


Sixth reading: 4: 12-15

You are a garden locked up, my sister, my bride; you are a spring enclosed, a sealed fountain. Your plants are an orchard of pomegranates with choice fruits, with henna and nard, nard and saffron, calamus and cinnamon, with every kind of incense tree, with myrrh and aloes and all the finest spices. You are a garden fountain, a well of flowing water streaming down from Lebanon.


Fourth tasting: pomegranate***

Seventh reading: 5: 1

I have come into my garden, my sister, my bride; I have gathered my myrrh with my spice. I have eaten my honeycomb and my honey; I have drunk my wine and my milk. Eat, friends, and drink; drink your fill of love.


Leader: God of life and love
All: We rejoice in your abundant gifts

Leader: God of all peoples and all places
All: We celebrate your generosity and grace

Leader: God of the earth and the heavens
All: We praise you for your provision

Leader: God of life and love
All: We bless your holy name


* Apricots cut into slices (eighths)
** Raisins in a bowl
*** Figs cut into slices (eighths)
**** Pomengranate seeds in a bowl

A service with wine

Prayer of Preparation

Almighty God,
As we gather here to taste of your suffering and goodness,
Help us to remember your death and resurrection,
And help us to look for the new wine of your kingdom
All: Amen.

Readings and tastings

First reading: Mark 14: 23-25

And [Jesus] took a cup, and when he had given thanks he gave it to them, and they all drank of it. And he said to them, "This is my blood of the covenant, which is poured out for many. Truly, I say to you, I shall not drink again of the fruit of the vine until that day when I drink it new in the kingdom of God."


Second reading: Mark 14: 32-36

And they went to a place which was called Gethsem'ane; and [Jesus] said to his disciples, "Sit here, while I pray." And he took with him Peter and James and John, and began to be greatly distressed and troubled. And he said to them, "My soul is very sorrowful, even to death; remain here, and watch." And going a little farther, he fell on the ground and prayed that, if it were possible, the hour might pass from him. And he said, "Abba, Father, all things are possible to thee; remove this cup from me; yet not what I will, but what thou wilt."

Third reading: Mark 15: 22-24a

And they brought [Jesus] to the place called Gol'gotha (which means the place of a skull). And they offered him wine mingled with myrrh; but he did not take it. And they crucified him.


First tasting: diluted red wine vinegar *


Fourth reading: John 2: 1-10

On the third day there was a marriage at Cana in Galilee, and the mother of Jesus was there; Jesus also was invited to the marriage, with his disciples. When the wine failed, the mother of Jesus said to him, "They have no wine." And Jesus said to her, "O woman, what have you to do with me? My hour has not yet come." His mother said to the servants, "Do whatever he tells you."

Now six stone jars were standing there, for the Jewish rites of purification, each holding twenty or thirty gallons. Jesus said to them, "Fill the jars with water." And they filled them up to the brim. He said to them, "Now draw some out, and take it to the steward of the feast." So they took it.

When the steward of the feast tasted the water now become wine, and did not know where it came from (though the servants who had drawn the water knew), the steward of the feast called the bridegroom and said to him, "Every man serves the good wine first; and when men have drunk freely, then the poor wine; but you have kept the good wine until now."

Fifth reading:  Mark 2: 19-20 and 22

And Jesus said to them, "Can the wedding guests fast while the bridegroom is with them? As long as they have the bridegroom with them, they cannot fast. The days will come, when the bridegroom is taken away from them, and then they will fast in that day. ...No one puts new wine into old wineskins; if he does, the wine will burst the skins, and the wine is lost, and so are the skins; but new wine is for fresh skins."


Second tasting: desert wine



All praise to you our God and Father
For you have quenched our thirst from the true vine:
Hear our prayer that, being grafted into Christ,
We may grow together in unity
And feast with him in his holy kingdom;
Through Jesus Christ our Lord
All: Amen.

* A good red wine vinegar diluted 1:1 with water
** A good desert wine such as Tokaji
Provide in individual shot glasses.

Monday, 30 July 2012

Heaven 2

St Matthew’s Church, Oxford, 15th July 2012.

Two weeks ago at the 10.30 service at St Matthew’s I preached a sermon on heaven.   I have since come to think that sermon was mistaken or at least inadequate.   I have come to this conclusion because of feed-back from people who heard the sermon and also from discussions with people about heaven over the last couple of weeks.  

In my previous sermon I sought to answer three questions about heaven: ‘Does it exist?’, ‘What is it like?’ and, ‘Are we going there?’    I spent most time on the second question, ‘What is it like?’   I am not now sure these are the right questions to ask about heaven.   I am somewhat chastened by a parable Charlie Bond told us last Sunday at the 10.30 service.   This parable goes something like this.  

A traveller meets an angel carrying a bunch of keys and a bucket of water.  The traveller asks the angel what he is going to do with the keys and the water.   The angel tells the traveller that, with the keys he is going to lock the doors of heaven, and with the bucket of water he will douse the fires of hell.  ‘But why? ‘ asks the traveller.  The angel replies, ‘Well then we will really see who loves God’.

And this parable is echoed in the collect for today:   I’ll read it again. 

‘O God who has prepared for those who love you such good things as pass our understanding: pour into our hearts such love toward you that we, loving you above all things, may obtain your promises, which exceed all that we can desire; through Jesus Christ our Lord.’

In other words we cannot have a complete answer to my second question two weeks ago, ‘What is heaven like?’ because it ‘passes our understanding’.   But I don’t think this means we cannot understand what heave is like at all, just that it is much bigger and better than we can understand.  

Moreover this collect – echoing the parable – also makes it clear that our primary desire should not be to understand what heaven is, or is going to be, like but to love God ‘above all things’ even heaven –or rather  especially heaven.   And that we should pray for this love rather than any understanding of heaven.

My answer to the question, ‘What is heaven like?’ a couple of weeks ago – perhaps for the best of motives– was ‘we cannot be sure’.   I thought we couldn’t be sure because at the time I thought there wasn’t much in the Bible about heaven but now I think I was wrong: there is a lot in the Bible about heaven.   Jesus talks about himself as coming from heaven – referring to himself as the Son of Man – as in visions from the book of Daniel - and proceeds to tell us many stories of heaven: they are called parables.    Jesus begins many of these parables with the words ‘the kingdom of heaven is like this’.  

Now you might object at this point that, when Jesus talks about the kingdom of heaven or the kingdom of God (as he calls it in Mark’s and Luke’s gospels), he is not primarily talking about somewhere we go to after our death but God’s reign, his sovereignty here on earth.   But to this I would say, one of the main things we do know about heaven – and I did say this two weeks ago - is that it is a place and time where God is and reigns.  So I am certain that we can learn more about heaven from looking at what Jesus says about the kingdom of heaven.  

So what can we learn of heaven from looking at Jesus’ parables of the kingdom.  Well lots but perhaps the first thing to say is that when Jesus talks about the kingdom of heaven he suggests that it’s both here now and yet to come.   This implies that, at least to some extent, heaven can be grasped or at least glimpsed here and now.   This seems to me an important aspect of heaven: it transcends time and space.   This was again something I touched on in my previous sermon.   I realise that some people feel that here and now their lives are more like hell than heaven, and to talk about grasping or glimpsing heaven here and now takes away some of the hope of a better future, but I don’t think we can get away from the fact that time and place are fairly, but not utterly, meaningless concepts when it comes to heaven.  

The parables are not primarily about the location of heaven in time and space.   Their importance does not lie in that they are set in first century Palestine but that they are stories for everywhere and for all time.  

The parables tell us about God’s justice in heaven: a different sort of justice to that we have become accustomed.   Think here about the parable of the labourers in the vineyard who get paid the same however long they work.   But they also speak of judgement – a judgement that puts things right and is less harsh than our judgement of ourselves.  Think here about the parable of the wheat and tares. 

They tell of freedom from prejudicial assumptions and the restoration of human relationships based on a shared humanity rather than relationships based on a common nationality, race or even religion.   Think here of the parable of the Good Samaritan.  

They tell of forgiveness and of healing of what has gone before.   Think here of the parables of the lost sheep, lost coin and lost son (more commonly known as the parable of the Prodigal Son).

They speak of celebration and sheer joy. Think again of the parables of the lost sheep, lost coin and lost son but also the many stories of banquets and feasts to which all are invited regardless of power, wealth or status.   .

And if it is true that Jesus talks about heaven through his parables might it not also be the case that he demonstrates heaven through his miracles?   The miracles are enacted parables.   That is they are not done like magic tricks to amaze or to demonstrates Jesus’ power.   The can be viewed as foretastes of heaven: where storms are stilled, where food and alcohol are plentiful, where bodies are healed and relationships restored.  

Take just one healing miracle – the healing of the blind man in John’s gospel.   Here the man is healed of his physical blindness – but the story is also told to show how Jesus has come to restore the sight, not just of a single person born physically blind, but for all so that we might see in a new way.   As Paul says in his letter to the Corinthian church, ‘For now we see through a glass, darkly; but then face to face: now I know in part; but then shall I know even as also I am known.’

I have not provided here an exhaustive list of the features of heaven that we can discover from the parables and miracles but it’s a lot better than I could do two weeks ago when my big concern was whether there was time and space in heaven.   I do think there are a lot of unknowables about heaven and these are two of them.   I argued two weeks ago that we cannot conceive of a heaven without time and space and I still think that is true.   But that surely isn’t the end of the matter.  There is also the justice in heaven, the freedom, the forgiveness, the healing, the celebration and joy to consider.   And last but certainly not least there is the certainty of being with God in heaven – which is to return to Charlie Bond’s parable and the collect for today which I’ll say again:

‘O God who has prepared for those who love you such good things as pass our understanding: pour into our hearts such love toward you that we, loving you above all things, may obtain your promises, which exceed all that we can desire; through Jesus Christ our Lord.’ Amen

Tuesday, 3 July 2012


St Matthew’s Church, Oxford, 1st July 2012.  Readings: Revelation 21 and John 14: 1-6

This is the fourth in our series of sermons on the ‘last things’: death, judgement, Hell and Heaven.   You might think I have got the easy one: Heaven.   But in many ways I think the subject of Heaven is just as difficult as say the subject of Hell.  If we can get our heads around Hell, Heaven is relatively easy to comprehend.   But the reverse isn’t really the case.

In this sermon I want to pose some questions about Heaven.   I don’t intend to give you many answers.   For example I am not going to paint for you a rosy picture of heaven such as the one on the right.

Some of you might find that unsatisfactory but tough.   In the end we all have to make up our own minds about Heaven – just as we have to make our own minds up about God.   I, nor anyone else, can tell you what to believe about Heaven. 

But I also want to encourage your belief in Heaven.   I am rather assuming here that we all do believe in Heaven at least to some extent.   Forgive me if you don’t.   

Now we don’t say the Creed – the agreed statement of what Christians believe - very often at St Matthew’s – at least not at the 10.30 service.  However it is worth looking at it from time to time.   The Creed says two things about Heaven.

Firstly that Jesus has gone there:
‘And the third day he rose again according to the Scriptures,
And ascended into Heaven’.

And secondly that there is life after death:
                ‘And I look for the resurrection of the dead,
                And the life of the world to come.'

But it should be noted that the Creed says nothing more than this.   In saying the Creed we say nothing about what we think Heaven is like. 

In this sermon I am taking Heaven to be a time and place after death.   I know some people think Heaven is here and now – or at least can be glimpsed here and now – but this sermon is one of a series on the last things so by Heaven I mean the life of the world to come which is not Hell.  However I’ll come back to the possible timelessness and spacelessness of Heaven later.

So what does the Bible tell us about Heaven?   When choosing bible readings for today’s service I wasn’t exactly spoiled for choice.   To be frank descriptions of Heaven are few and far between in the bible – much less common than descriptions of Hell. 

I ended up with the reading from John’s gospel:  where Jesus is talking about Heaven as a house with many rooms.    And the reading from Revelation: which is John’s vision of Heaven as a rather strange but beautiful city.   And of course there is the notion of heaven as a banquet, a party, which I have talked about many times.

In wondering what to today I started by wondering what people really wanted to know about Heaven.   The first question I think people want the answer to is, ‘Does it really exist’?    The second is, ‘What is it like?’ and the third is, Am I going there?’  

So let’s start with: ‘Does it exist’?     I think we do rather have to assume that it does.   The Bible is surely pretty clear about this: even if it has little to say about what heave is like.  We affirm our belief in Heaven every time we say the Creed. 

Even John Lennon, in one of his best known songs, which begins with the words ‘Imagine there’s no Heaven,’ starts with the assumption there is a Heaven – either on the part of the singer or the person the song is being sung to. 

I am afraid I cannot prove to you that Heaven exists.   Just as I cannot prove that God exists.   We have to take the existence of Heaven on trust – because God has promised it.   This promise is a promise we know we can trust because Jesus has risen from the dead.    As Paul says in his first letter to the Corinthians, ‘If Christ has not been raised our teaching is in vain and your faith is in vain…But in fact Christ has been raised from the dead, the first fruits of those how have [died]’.

The second big question people seem to ask about Heaven is, ‘What is it like?’  
Now Heaven, almost by definition, is a nice place and somewhere God is.  When the Bible does talk about what Heaven is like it is clear at least on these two fronts.   Jesus says to his disciples ‘Let not your hearts be troubled…In my Father’s house there are many rooms’. John says ‘He {God] will dwell with them, and… there shall be no mourning nor crying nor pain any more’. 

We often used to sing a chorus at St Matthew’s which begins, ‘Heaven is a wonderful place, filled with glory and grace, I want to see my saviour’s face, Heaven is a wonderful place.’

But beyond the recognition of Heaven as where God is and that it’s a wonderful place we are likely to have many questions.   Let’s start with some seemingly trivial ones first.   

First will we have to wear white clothes?   Mrs. C.F. Alexander in one of her best known songs: Once in Royal David’s City, views Heaven as a place where we ‘like stars his children crowned, all in white shall wait around.’   She gets the notion of wearing white clothes from various verses in the Bible including Revelation 6: 11.  Do you think we will be wearing white clothes?

Next what will we do in Heaven?    The rather common – if now somewhat old fashioned idea - that we are going to spend a lot of time playing harps also comes from Revelation.   Revelation 14.2 says, ‘And I heard a voice from Heaven like the sound of sound of loud thunder; the voice I heard was like the sound of harpers playing on their harps, and they sing a new song before the throne.’  

But this verse hardly seems to justify the notion that we will all be continuously playing harps in Heaven.    But, if not, what we will be precisely doing?   Will we eat and drink in Heaven - as the song that we will sing after this sermon suggests?   Will we work, will we sleep?   The Bible is distinctly unclear.   Mrs CF Alexander’s suggestion that we will wait around sounds rather lame to me.

Interestingly – and as a bit of an aside – people seem to be distinctly uncertain about the last line of Once in Royal David’s City.   One version has it that, ‘All in white shall stand around’ and another that, ‘All in white shall be around’.  And indeed perhaps we will do nothing in Heaven but just be?

But surely the most pressing question people have about what Heaven is like is whether we will be able to meet our friends and family there?  This is clearly a big question people want to know, particularly when someone they love has just died.    What might usefully said to help us with this question?   Two things perhaps:

Firstly that being is surely relationship.  All agree that Heaven is where God is and being in Heaven means being with God: having a relationship with him.   But our relationship with God is not, and surely never will be, mutually exclusive of our relationships with other people.  If in Heaven we are to have a relationship with God then might we have relationships with other people as well?

Secondly our promise and hope of Heaven – as I said earlier –is based on the resurrection of Jesus.  When Jesus returned from the grave he was recognised by his friends – in some cases not immediately to be sure – but this surely too gives us confidence that in Heaven – we will keep our identities – at least to some degree – retaining the possibility of being recognised for who we are.

When thinking about what Heaven is like we run – I think – into a number of difficulties.   I have assumed up to this point in my sermon that Heaven is a place and also a place where time is in operation.   

But is it really?   In the old days people used to think of Heaven as a physical place - under the earth or beyond the stars – but in a physical place nonetheless.    Nowadays, knowing the Earth is not flat and how far distant the stars are, we no longer think of Heaven as an actual place.   Or do we?   It seems to me that we cannot imagine Heaven without thinking of it as somewhere we go, or can we?

And it is also nearly impossible to think about existence in places without also thinking about time.   When I said that many of us would like to know what we will be doing in Heaven you might have recalled that doing, as opposed to being, involves time.   We can do anything without time.   Playing a harp – for starters – requires time for it to be meaningful.   A tune involves a sequence of notes played over a period of time.   

Without time that tune could only be a single note infinitely short in duration.   Having a conversation with someone we love involves a sequence of exchanges over a period of time.   A common notion of Heaven is that it is everlasting.   But if for God there is no time then is there really time in Heaven? 

It seems to me that all visions of Heaven necessarily involve seeing it as located in space in time.   One of my reasons for thinking this is that Jesus both in his earthly life and in his risen life was located in time and space.   

The incarnation means that the physical body, located in time and space, is made holy.  In the end our physical body may be transformed but must retain its physical connection with time and space.  Jesus talks about Heaven as a house with many rooms and that he is going there to prepare a place there and then come back.  In other words that Heaven is a physical location located in time.  This perhaps sounds shocking to our modern ears – or would do so if the words had not begun to be taken as a sort of metaphor or parable.

St John’s vision of a new Heaven in Revelation rather plays with the notion of space and time.   Revelation seems to have a view of time as circular or at least cyclical rather than linear and where the events are set seems indistinct.  But John’s Heaven is not entirely timeless and spaceless.

A vision of Heaven that I particularly like and commend is that to be found in CS Lewis’s book The Great Divorce.   In this fantasy the narrator takes a bus trip from Hell to Heaven.   The inhabitants of Hell can make this trip if they want and stay in Heaven as long as they like if they choose to.   Most of the travellers on the bus choose to go back to Hell but some stay.  Lewis’ vision of Heaven is of a land where the grass hurts the feet of the people from Hell because it is so real and where the inhabitants are shining spirits who are on a journey from the plane (where the bus from Hell lets off its passengers) to the mountains where God is.  Lewis’ vision of Heaven is located firmly in time and space – albeit on a grand scale.   For instance he talks about Hell being a grain of sand down a crack of the earth of Heaven.     

The third big question about Heaven that I think most people want to know is, ‘If it exists, am I going there? I cannot presume to answer this for you.   All I can say is that God has promised us Heaven if only we can grasp that promise. 

Now a promise is a performative form of speech.   I have talked before about the difference between descriptive words and peformative words.   Descriptive words – if true - just reflects the world like a mirror.  Performative words if true change the world.   There is a vast difference between me saying Heaven is like this - say a place with grass and mountains - and God saying I promise you Heaven.    The first set of words changes nothing and may even be untrue, the second set of words changes matters completely.   But God’s promise of Heaven needs us – to whom he is making the promise – to trust that promise.   We need to engage with God’s performative words if they are to become true.

Since I have been using lines of songs to illustrate different perspectives on Heaven, here is one last song relating to the question of how we get to Heaven.   There is a song many of used to sing around campfires as children which began, ‘You'll never get to Heaven In an old Ford car 'cos an old Ford car Won't get that far.‘    And there was another verse which ran: ’You'll never get to Heaven in a Playtex bra ‘cos a Playtex bra. won't stretch that far.’   This song reminds us that in the end, not only can we not really know what Heaven is like, but we cannot get there under our own steam either.   We just have to trust in God to prepare a place for us there.   Any provisional description of what Heaven is like is less important than God’s promise of its existence.

So to summarise what I have said.   There are, I think, three big questions about Heaven:  The first is, ‘Does it really exist’?    The second is, ‘What is it like?’    The third is: ‘Am I going there?’    Although I said I wasn’t going to supply many answers to questions, my answers – in short - to these questions are:  Yes to the first, yes Heaven does really exist.  However we can’t really answer the second - ‘What is Heaven like?’ - beyond the promise that God will be there and it will be a good place to be.   And my answer to the third?  Well yes I hope I am going there, and I hope you are coming with me.