The Bible and Science: Can they Live Well Together?

Below is the sermon I preached today. Throughout the summer, I have been preaching a series of sermons based on Adam Hamilton’s book, Making Sense of the Bible. The previous few weeks have been spent overviewing the Old and New Testaments, and discussing what we mean when we talk about the Bible being “inspired.” Today we started the second half of the series, in which we will tackle some of the big questions that arise out of the Scriptures. Today we looked at the area of science and the Bible, and asked whether or not they can live well together.

I ad-libbed the beginning of the sermon, basically stating what is written above, and also making the people of my church aware that I am uniquely unqualified to speak with any authority on science, having royally failed GCSE Biology…

After that, I pretty much stayed on the script below. The Scripture reading for the day had been Genesis 1:1-2:3

Science fact and the bible

The Bible & Science: Can They Live Well Together?

I can remember the conversation really clearly.

We had just played a game of rugby together, and now here we were in the club house, enjoying the usual post game festivities. I was stood with Jack and Phil. They were two young rugby players who were barely out of high school at that time. Phil was at university studying law. Jack was also at university where he was studying to become a doctor. It sounds like the beginning of a joke: A Lawyer, a Doctor, and a Reverend are standing at the bar…

We were standing there together and had been carefully dissecting the game together, when the conversation started to take a different slant. The boys knew what I was doing with my life – training for the ministry – and they knew I was a man of Christian faith. It was almost like they could not help themselves that day. They were hungry for conversation about the Christian faith.

Jack, the medical student, took a very common approach in making his point to me. He was/is a scientist by nature. He has learned the ways of objectivity; of hypothesizing, experimenting, and proving beyond doubt. For Jack, my faith in an unseen deity was just too much, and he began to question my faith and belief. We ended our conversation that day when I reminded young Jack that thus far, as far as I was and still am aware, no scientist had ever proved beyond doubt that no God exists, and until that became the case, I would continue to put my faith in God and in the Christian tradition.

The conversation that day was one of many conversations of that type that i have had over the years, with various people, in which the discoveries of science and realities of the physical world are set forth in an attempt to crush faith. Perhaps you have had similar conversations with family members, neighbors, colleagues or friends.

This gulf between scientific discovery and theology and religious belief has been around for literally centuries. Back in 1616 the Holy Office of the Roman Catholic Church condemned the view that there earth moves around the sun as false science which was contrary to Biblical teaching.

“It has come to the knowledge of [the Church] that the Pythagorean doctrine – which is false and altogether opposed to the Holy Scripture – of the motion of the earth, and the immobility of the sun…is now being spread abroad and accepted by many.”

Galileo himself, who had been teaching this “preposterous” idea that the earth moves around the sun, was asked by the Church to cease teaching such things. However he was courageous and kept going with what he utterly believed to be true. But, in 1633, he was summoned to appear before the Grand Inquisitor in Rome. He was found guilty of teaching falsehood, forced to recant what he knew to be true, and placed under house arrest for the remaining eight years of his life.

The gulf between science and religious belief has been around for a long long time. They are seemingly incompatible with each other.

But that doesn’t work for us. It can’t. Right?

We use science every single day. We need science every single day.

When we first moved here and my back was in bad shape, I needed a doctor who had studied the sciences; who knew his way around my nervous system and my spine. When I found that doctor who said he could help me, I was glad that he had studied, and that he did know what he was doing. And because of his knowledge and ability – I haven’t looked back, in terms of back pain and sciatica, since then.

That’s just one example – you all have your own examples, I am sure. So it is fair to say that we do use science every day and we need science every single day.

But we also need God. Humans do not live by proven, objective facts alone. We are not objective and emotionless beings. We have feelings and thoughts. We are moved in ways that are sometimes inexplicable. We seem to have this God shaped hole in our lives, that no amount of knowledge or science or stuff can ever fill.

We need facts and figures and objective proof. But we also need love and relationship, faith and belief, and feelings too.

So for there to be such a gulf between the world of science and the world of the bible and theology and faith, is not such a good thing.

And, therefore, we have an important question to ask and answer this morning:

Can science and the teachings of faith as they are found in Scripture live well together?

Of course, for us, the biggest way in which the seeming incompatibility of science and Biblical faith manifests itself is in the questions that arise over the beginnings of everything: the questions about creation.

That day that I was talking to Jack and Phil, the biggest question they had was around the bible’s creation narrative. And still, to this day, it is the biggest question on the lips of most people I meet who have questions or doubts about Christianity.

So how do we handle it?

How do we handle the fact that the Scripture dates the birth of creation at around 6000 years ago, and, in Genesis, accounts for creation by saying that God made the earth in 6 days. How do we handle the fact that the Bible says those things about creation, but most scientists in the world believe that the earth is around 4.75 billion years old, and is the result of something that we call “The Big Bang” In the Bible, humans, as we know them, are formed on the 6th day of the creation process. However, in science, the earliest humans (as we understand humans) are dated to around 200,000 years ago and have been evolving ever since.

Again, this all boils down to what our starting point with Scripture is.

Do you remember last week we talked about what it means to say that Scripture is the inspired word of God?

When we discussed that I said that inspiration is not the same as dictation or composition.

When we discussed it, I said that inspiration is not the same as perfection.

Last week we said that the words contained in Scripture are words that were inspired in the hearts of the writers by the power of the Holy Spirit. We said that these inspired words are living and breathing and that they continue to inspire you and me today. Hold that thought for a minute while I say the next couple of things I need to say.

You see this problem; this conflict; this thought that we must choose either science or religion in life, only comes about if we take a literalist understanding and view of Scripture. By literalist view, I mean taking each word of the Scripture as literally dictated by God; taking each word from Genesis and understanding it as God’s account of precisely how, and how long ago God created the world and everything in it. The problem that arises when we take a literalist view of Scripture is that it creates a conflict for us when science suggests anything other than what we are reading in the Bible. It puts us in a position where we must believe one and reject the other.

Now I might be preaching to the choir here, and this might be a church in which no Biblical literalists exist, but the polls would suggest otherwise. In 2012 Gallup reported that 46% of Americans indicated a belief that God created human beings, fully formed, not evolved, less than 10,000 years ago. This poll would indicate that. potentially, almost half of us here today would happily adopt a literalist view of creation.

Of course, that is okay – but it presents its own problems in the face of science.

In the Genesis account that we read today we read a specific order of creation as it is noted there.

Day 1. Light and darkness
Day 2. An atmosphere
Day 3. Dry land and plant life
Day 4. Sun, moon and stars
Day 5. Fish in the sea and birds of the air
Day 6. All other animals and, lastly, human beings
Day 7. Rest.

This order is fine, but it presents a problem when we think of some of the things that we definitely know and have proven to be true in the world. Namely the fact that Genesis 1 teaches us that the earths atmosphere, dry land and plants were created before the sun. But we know that it is the sun’s gravitational field which makes the earth’s formation possible. We know that sunlight is needed in order for plants to grow.

Is science wrong? In this case it certainly is not wrong. Did God give us a deliberately misleading account of creation? If that is the case, then God is not very nice at all. Right?

But, friends, what if Genesis was never actually supposed to be a science lesson? What if the purpose of the creation accounts in Genesis was not to communicate the specifics of our origins, but rather, to teach us something about God instead?

This passage in Genesis 1 is an absolutely stunning passage for sure, but it was never meant to form the basis of our science lessons in school. Rather, I think, the these accounts, like the rest of the Scripture are inspired so that they might keep on inspiring humans to a greater existence. Friends, Genesis 1 is not a science lesson – it is poetry. It is poetry written so that humans like you and me, will see and begin to ponder and fathom the greatness of God. Genesis 1 is not science. It is theology. It is a statement that says there is a God, and this God is good. There is a God and this God created all things. There is a God and God’s creation is good. There is a God and God made humans, male and female, in the image of God. There is a God who has given the gift of life – and it is a precious gift. There is a God, and God is the rightful creator and ruler of all things.

Genesis 1 is not a science lesson, friends. It is a theological poem which reveals, from the get go, that God is God and we are not. These inspired words were written to inspire in us thoughts and reflections on the greatness and goodness of God. They were never written in order to develop in us a knowledge and understanding of our origins.

Of course then, there is the other account of creation in Genesis 2 and 3, which is completely different in so many ways from the account in Genesis 1. God makes everything, yes, but everything is made in a different order in this account. Man is made first and then the Garden is planted. And in this story there is much more detail and instruction for man from God. We learn about the Tree of the Knowledge of good and evil in this account. And we learn that humans were not to touch it. We learn in this account that God walked with humans in the Garden. We learn that humans were made for relationship when God declares that it is not good for the human he created in his image to be alone. And then we learn the story of the fall of humanity.

God loves his created beings and enjoys them. God gives them one rule. God tells humans they can enjoy everything in the garden except for one thing – they are not to eat the fruit of the tree of knowledge of good and evil. Unfortunately though, Adam and Eve are humans. When they see a “Do Not Touch” sign they immediately want to touch what they are commanded not to touch. When they are told not to eat the fruit of one tree, they immediately want to eat the fruit of that tree. They hear the serpent whispering in their ear all the reasons that they ought to try the forbidden fruit…

As Adam Hamilton says in the book – this is not ancient history. This is your story, and it is my story too. Which of us has not heard the whisper of the serpent in our ears, beckoning us to do what we know is wrong? Which of us has not been Adam and Eve, eating the forbidden fruit, feeling ashamed, and blaming someone else for our mistake; for our sin?

Again, I want to say to you, that like the different account in Genesis 1, I do not think that this account in Genesis 2 and 3 was meant to set the curriculum for any science class on the origins of the universe. Rather, this second story, like the first is a story, is told in order to engender a deeper meaning. This story is told in such a way that it is to be a defining story for our lives.

And that’s what it is.

Friends, the Bible was not written to be a science manual. The Bible was written to point our hearts and minds to a loving, merciful God; the Bible was written to speak to us about the existential realities of our lives; the Bible was written to help us understand that there is a good, good God who created all things, and included in that creation the human minds that have the ability to investigate, discover, understand and apply scientific knowledge in our world.

After my surgery in 2014, a friend approached me and, tongue in cheek, said the following words (or words to this effect):

“Well, Charlie, isn’t it great what science can do?”

I believe the implication was that my religion had not helped me with my back pain and that science had.

I replied by saying that science is absolutely wonderful, and that I was (and still am) grateful to God that created minds, greater than mine, exist in this world to understand how gamma backs like mine can be fixed.

Can science and Biblical faith exist together?

Absolutely they can.

Absolutely they should.

They were always meant to exist well together.

If you have made science and Biblical faith an either or option, I wonder would you let me set you free of that this morning? Your Christian faith is not threatened by science, and neither is science threatened in any way by Christian faith. The two ought to live well together and give their very best to one another, because when they do, the world around us is better for it.

The Church of Johnny

My way2

So I had an experience this week, one which has stuck with me and caused me to reflect a lot.

I was in a local hospital visiting with a church member on Monday afternoon. He was in a room which had two beds, which is not uncommon in some settings locally. I made my way in. passing the individual who occupied the other bed, and I visited with my church member. The time then came for me to leave and on my way past the other bed, the individual sitting in it, who had obviously worked out that I am a pastor, asked me if I would say a prayer for him. Of course I said I would and I stepped over to his bedside. The following conversation then took place:

Me: What’s your name?

Patient: Johnny

Me: Hi Johnny. I’m pleased to meet you. My name is Charlie. Where are you from?

Patient: Felsmere/Sebastian.

Me: Wow, you are a long way from home. I have a good friend that lives down there, I know the area a little. Do you have a local church family down there?

Patient: No. I have not gone to a church for a long time.

A slightly awkward silence then took place, lasting around 5 seconds before the patient looked up at me and said this:

“I go to the church of Johnny. I pray every day and I believe in God.”

I assured Johnny that he was not alone and that there are many, many other people in the world like him who believe deeply in God and who pray regularly but yet do not belong to a local church. I then proceeded to pray for him before saying good bye and walking out of the room.

I encounter folks like Johnny very frequently. They have no connection to a local church either because they never have done so in their lives, or because they have become disillusioned with the local church or with God, and they have given up on church attendance/membership as a means of expressing any faith they have left.

This is, of course, troubling to me in some ways. I am a pastor and therefore I do very much believe in the local church, and I believe in being part of a local church as a vital aspect of maintaining healthy faith. Does this mean that I blindly affirm all that happens in local churches? No way. I am more than happy to critique local churches and admit oftentimes the local church can make a real mess of living out the Christian life. That said though, I also know that in most cases the local church also does the very best job it can of professing and witnessing to the love of God in both word and action in the local communities where the church exists. Any criticism of the local church which does not also affirm the brilliant work done by people of faith through the local church, is not worth listening to, in my opinion.

But back to the Church of Johnny and why it troubles me.

The Church of Johnny is the church of the individual. It lacks any sense of family or community. In the church of Johnny, there is no sense of life together, or loving one another. There is only life in Johnny’s way, lived out on his own. Spirituality in the church of Johnny is a spirituality made up by Johnny as he is going along through life. Whatever feels right in the moment is what is right. There is no sense in which anyone can question the spirituality of the church of Johnny. There is no-one to question it, because in the church of Johnny there is only Johnny. In the Church of Johnny there is no accountability of thought or action. The single member, Johnny, is the sole arbiter of all doctrinal statements of belief which the Church of Johnny adheres to. There is no-one to question you or your thinking in the Church of Johnny. The church of Johnny is the very epitome of the rampant individualism which is tearing western civilization and culture apart, as millions of Johnnys all over the world sing along with Frank Sinatra and do life “My Way…”

You might be reading this and thinking that there is absolutely nothing wrong with life in the Church of Johnny.

Respectfully, I disagree. Let me illustrate why by telling you a little more about the man I went to hospital to see that day.

He was an 89 year old man. He had been married for over 60 years, raised 4 children, who in turn had raised their own families. This man had served in the US Navy, and then worked on Cape Canaveral, helping to send humans into space. He loved his family, bluegrass music, and his garden. He was a Christian man and had been a regular (weekly) church attender throughout his lifetime. He had been a member the church where I pastor for over 30 years. He was a gentle soul who loved God and knew that God loved him. He was a treasured member of our church family. He loved the people of our church and they very much loved him too.

As I spoke with him that day, it was very clear to me that he was approaching the end of his life. We talked about how that felt, and he told me that he had absolute peace. He told me he knew God, who is the creator of all things, and that he knew he would be okay. That day he embodied ‘eschatological hope;’ actual peace and hope, which, I believe, is only found in God’s love through Christ and the Christian community. His was a spirit which was at peace with the world, and with life.

He passed away three days later.

As I walked away from the hospital that day I reflected on the experiences of the two men I was talking to.

The member of my church was completely at peace and utterly bereft of any fear of what the future might hold. In his pain, he had peace. In his struggle for breath, he had peace. In the thought of the end of his life he had peace. His was a peace which was born in his faith in Christ and in his experience of the Christian community.

Johnny, on the other hand, appeared to lack any peace. His life was not in danger that day – he had had a relatively routine surgery that morning, and yet he still felt fear and discontent, and he appeared to have no sense of peace.

Both men were believers. My church member professed his faith in a loving God, and Johnny told me he too believed in God.

Both men were men of prayer. My church member was faithful in prayer, and Johnny told me that he too prayed every day to God.

And yet…both men seemed to have very different levels of peace within their souls. My only conclusion that day and since was to note the difference in the ‘belief experience’s the two men. One stands alone, developing his own beliefs about the world and about God; he is utterly dependent on his own thoughts for any sense of spiritual security. The other stood in the fellowship of Christian community, and has his beliefs about the world and God shaped in the context of that community. His sense of peace and hope is found in Christ; born in the 2000 year old Christian tradition; lived out over a lifetime in Christian community.

And this is where my problem with the Church of Johnny lies – ultimately it lacks any depth to its foundation, and when the fragility of life comes to the fore, the Church of Johnny collapses and is found wanting. It offers no real hope, and no lasting peace.

As I reflected on my brother’s life when I was preparing his funeral service, I couldn’t help but think that when my time comes to leave this earth, I want to do it with all the peace and all the hope that my brother, Dean did. The only place I will find that peace is in the divine love of God, made manifest in Christ and Christ’s church.

The Church of Johnny might be great in the here and now; it might offer the illusion of personal freedom and spiritual autonomy in one’s life. But ultimately it is foundationless, and, at in moment of fear, worry or desperation, the whole structure could, and probably will, in most cases, come crashing down, and I find that deeply saddening.

On the Sudden Passing of a Saint…

She was here last week, as she had been every other week before that.

She was old school in that way.
Church wasn’t a side show in her life – it was her family away from family, her community, her tribe.
That’s why she lived here alone with no blood relatives near by.

She loved us.
And we loved her.

“Didn’t your heart burn within you when the preacher preached today?”
Those were the words she would say to me on her way out of church on the days when her heart had been stirred by the words I had preached.
They were the words she had heard within her own family of origin.
I can’t remember whether it was her father, her grandfather or an uncle in her family…
…but those were the words she had heard when she was young; the words she would use to affirm a good sermon.

She loved us.
And we loved her.

And she could sing. Good Lord, but she could sing!
Each word, each note ringing out from somewhere deep.
Each word, each note telling some of the story of her people.
Each word, each note singing out in praise to God.

She loved God.
And God loved her.

She could sing on her own and lead the church in song:
“His Eye is on the Sparrow.”
“Were you there when they crucified my Lord?”
“Glory, glory, hallelujah! Since I laid my burdens down.”
Each time she stepped up we knew we were in for a treat; a holy moment.

She loved us.
And we loved her.

She could sing in the choir too.
Our choir. Her choir.
That special group of people committed to each other;
Meeting, praying, and singing together every single week.

She loved them.
And they loved her.

And she could sing in the congregation.
She raised her voice alongside the people of her tribe.
And so many times, at just the right moment,
When the tribe needed to know that the words they were singing were deep, and meaningful and true…
*CLAP, CLAP, CLAP*
She would clap her hands in praise.
She would clap her hands to tell her people to sing louder; to lift their praise higher.

And we would.

She loved us.
And we loved her.

She was a lady among ladies.
Well spoken.
Well dressed. Always immaculately dressed.
Assured in her identity as a daughter of the King of kings.

Faith ran deep within her. So deep.
If you had poked a hole anywhere in her, I am sure that Jesus would have oozed out.

She loved him.
And he loved her.

__________

She is gone from us now.
Such shocking news to hear and share with her tribe in church yesterday.
She is gone from us and will not be coming back.
And that makes us sad. Deeply sad.

__________

But even in the sadness we rejoice.

“To live is Christ and to die is gain!”

That’s the faith story of this tribe.

That was her story.
That was the song she sang among us.
It’s the faith story that gives us such hope.

She is no longer with us, but she is dancing with God now.
She is no longer with us, but she is embracing her beloved daughter who went on ahead of her.
She is no longer with us, but she is clapping her hands and leading the choirs of Heaven
Oh yes! The angels and archangels are singing louder today than they were last week. That’s for sure.
She is no longer with us, but she is in a place where there are no more tears; where there is no more grief and no more broken hearts.
She is no longer with us, but she is with her savior.
In this we rejoice.

And in faith we declare that we will see her and sing with her again. Some day.

Rest in peace, dear, beloved sister in Christ.
We love you and we will miss you.

The Calling of Levi – a narrative sermon

Follow Me

This is the sermon that was preached by me this morning (Sunday 19th March) at St. Andrew UMC, in Titusville, FL.

I don’t put all my sermons on here, but I feel that this one went particularly well this morning and folks seemed to connect with it. In fact, folks seem to connect with any story telling sermon I do. Maybe I should do more…

The following was my guide for the monologue. There were points in the delivery of the sermon when I came slightly off script and ad lib’d a few bits and pieces. The entire sermon can be listened to here

Hi! I’m Levi.

I heard that you all were reading a little story about me today; the story of that time when Jesus came up to my table and asked me to follow him. What a day that was…it totally changed my life forever.

Yeah…I heard you were reading that story today and I wanted to come along and make sure that you heard it right. Don’t get me wrong: it’s not that I don’t trust Dr. Luke – everybody trust Dr. Luke – he is a great writer and always gets it pretty much spot on. But Dr. Luke had so much to write about when it comes to those three years of Jesus’s life I know that there is no way he could get everything that you need to know about me in there. So don’t consider this conversation between you and me to be a corrective of Dr. Luke’s work. I would never think to do that. Just think of this as some additional information that the good Dr. did not have room for. A little bit of personal testimony if you will.

Let me tell you a little bit about myself first. I had a fairly average upbringing. Nothing special at all. I was a reasonably good kid and didn’t get into that much trouble. Eventually I grew up and had to start thinking about how I would make a living. We weren’t a rich family – I could not rely on an inheritance. No…I would have to get a job and I would have to work hard to provide all that I needed in life.

I can’t remember how I got into this line of work. Trust me, no one grows up wanting to be a tax collector. I guess the opportunity was just there one day. I needed the work. There was the job and here was my need – I just went for it. Surely it couldn’t be as bad as everyone made out? Right?

There are two sides to every story. Everyone says that tax collectors are the worst kind of people. They call us traitors because we are collecting funds for the Roman Empire. They call us thieves because they think we take more than we ought to from them. But it’s not that simple. When we get sent out as tax collectors we are told that we have to get from the people what we have to get from them and then there Roman’s tell us what we owe them. If there is a difference in those amounts, and it is to our benefit we are under no obligation to give it back. It’s just the system.

Well I got the job and I was good at it, and I would also say that it was good to me too. I had to put up with some social rejection and stigma, of course, but back in the early days it was worth it. I looked up to one of our big bosses, Zacchaeus, and I thought to myself, “I want all the things he has.” He really looked as if he had everything that anyone would ever want in life.

As the years went by I noticed that while I was doing very well and getting all the things I thought I wanted, I wasn’t really getting any happier. On the outside everything looked amazing. But on the inside I felt like I had nothing: no friends, no encouragement, and really no love in my life.

So I was stuck. I was in a corner. I was between a rock and a hard place. I needed the job to pay the bills and have the stuff I thought I wanted to have, but the job also meant that I had none of the things I really need in life; no fulfillment. I was just empty.

But what could I do?

I used to set up my table anywhere a crowd was gathering. I would go to the temple some days. On other days i would set up outside the governors office, knowing that the people would gather their to make a complaint or bring a case before him. On other days I would go to the market place – people always went there and they always had money too – the market was a great place to collect tax!

Then I discovered this other way to get people. We had so many traveling teachers and rabbis who would journey around the region saying this and saying that. Most of them had small followings and it usually was not worth setting up my table where they were. But that all changed when Jesus came on to the scene. Word had spread like wildfire about this guy. He was the one worth hearing. He was the one you wanted to be around. I know that one day the crowd was so big where he was that one group of guys who wanted to get close to him actually climbed on top of the house where Jesus was and made a hole in the roof so they could lower their friend to where Jesus was.

I thought to myself, “If that’s where the people are then that is where i should be to collect their taxes.” So I took my table along and set up shop right there where he was. I did so well that i started to follow him around. Wherever Jesus was, I would go too. I heard every word he said and I saw every person he interacted with.

The funny thing about it was this: when Jesus spoke; when he said his words and told his stories, I found myself feeling different inside. I don’t know what the feeling was exactly, but there was something going on inside me – I felt alive inside, and I had not felt that way in a very long time.

But I did nothing with those feelings. Jesus was never going to have anything for me. I was a tax collector. I was one of the worst. I knew that and everyone else knew that, and Jesus probably knew it too.

Or at least I thought he did, but the evidence pointed somewhere else. You see, I began to notice that everywhere he went he was not spending his time with good people. Normally religious teachers and rabbis spend their time with the good people; the people on the inside. But not Jesus. No! He spent his time with different people; ordinary people, and some downright rough people too – you know the ones that no-one would be seen with. He spent time with fishermen and shepherds, with lepers, he spoke back to the teachers of the law and to the Pharisees. There was even this one time when he got close to that lunatic in the Capernaum synagogue and told the demons to leave the luny alone. And they did. Jesus even spent time with women. In public. And they were not always respectable women. No. You think that tax collectors are looked down on? The only person considered as bad as people like me are those kind of women. The women Jesus seemed to always spend time with – and not in a bad way either.

Anyway, I was there time after time with Jesus. Sitting at my table, collecting my taxes, feeling something inside when he spoke, but always thinking that it could never be for me. People like this guy Jesus could never do anything for people like me. I was as far gone in life as anyone could imagine and that was just the way it was. I was a sinner; a reject; a social misfit and that was how it was always going to be.

Or so I thought.

That day when the guys had made that hole in the roof and lowered their friend through it; that day when the crowd was so big that no one could get close to Jesus. That was the day when I found out that Jesus is interested in sinners like me.

He came out of the building that day and made his way straight to my table.

“Follow me.” He said.

That was it. Nothing more. Just those two short words. Follow. Me.

You know what they say about those moments when you life is threatened and things all seem to slow down and your whole life flashes before your eyes? Well thats what it was like for me in this moment.

The main man; the star of the show; the biggest name in town who could get in to any house and sit with whomever he desired to sit with had just come to my table and asked me to follow him.

What was I to do? I had a good gig going on here. I was rich. I was only going to get richer. I had everything I wanted in life. But I also had nothing because the huge emptiness within me was always with me.

Do I stay in this job and keep on earning all the while feeling empty on the inside and rejected by everyone on the outside?

Or do I take a chance with Jesus.

I could continue to walk on the same road and continue getting what I had always got. Or I could make a change. Now. In this moment. A change that might break all the emptiness.

I have no idea what made me do what I did next, but I made the choice to go with Jesus. I got up and left my table right there and started to follow him.

This was a game changing moment for me and there was only one way I knew that would mark this moment appropriately – to throw a party. So I did. I threw a party at my house. I invited all my other tax collection colleagues and any other reject we could find and we had a banquet right there at my house. Jesus was in his element as we laughed and joked around the table. He told us stories that night which helped me understand just how much I needed him in my life. Where I had felt rejected, he made me feel welcome. Where I had felt too sinful to be in anyone’s company, he assured me that I was just as deserving of love as anyone else. Where I felt ashamed about my past and the things I had done in my life, he taught me that I could lift my head and starting living a new life.

Not everyone heard Jesus the same way though. And funnily enough it was the religious people that were making all the noise of complaint that night. “Why do you spend time with tax collectors and sinners like these?” They asked.

Jesus looked straight at them and said this:

“Those who are well have no need of a physician, but those who are sick; I have come to call not the righteous but sinners to repentance.”

Boom! Na na na boo boo! Take that, religious people! In your face! Ha ha ha

I know, I know…Jesus told me already that I can’t go showboating like that when I tell this story…but still!

Anyway the point is this:

Jesus came for people like me.
Jesus came to the world for people like me.
Sinners. Rejects. Misfits.

The ones everyone else can’t stand.
The ones no one else has any interest in.
The anonymous ones who go through life with no name because no one cares.
The ones who knew most that they needed Jesus’ help.
Jesus came for them.
Jesus came for you.

Yes. You.

You guys look really good – like butter wouldn’t melt.

But I know that all of us have things in our lives that we think might just be enough to turn Jesus away – regrets, actions, thoughts, those words we spoke in the heat of the moment, that relationship that did not work out, that habit we just can’t seem to kick.

We all have them.
We are all sick with sin and Jesus has come to us to call us to repent. To turn from those things and walk in a new path.

For me, that meant walking away from the table…literally. For me, that meant sacrificing the riches and things that I had become accustomed to in life. but you know what i learned? It’s all just stuff and none of that stuff on the outside of my life could ever have, or has ever since come close to the feeling I get on the inside when I remember that day that Jesus showed me that I am worthy of love and worthy of being welcomed. Nothing.

So…yeah…that’s my story. It has been amazing being here with you all, but it’s time for me to get back to following Jesus…

Oh yeah…just one more thing. I just described to you the moment in my life when Jesus came and asked me to follow him. Well I just had a thought. Maybe this is your moment. Maybe this is the moment in which Jesus has come to you and said those two little words: Follow me.

If he has. If that is what you have heard today then take it from someone who knows – don’t say no. you may think your life is okay without Jesus right now, or you may think that life with Jesus is not a life that you could handle very well. But let me guarantee you that walking away from the table of my life that day was the best and smartest thing i ever did. Before that moment I was lost and lonely, i felt rejected and ashamed of myself all the time; Before that moment I was a sinner – pure and simple. But now I’m free. I am loved. I am changed.

I. Am. Free.

If this is your moment – don’t miss it.

Seriously.

“I am…” (8:48-59)

I am

John 8 feels like one big long argument between Jesus and the Jewish people that seemed hell bent on discrediting him and all that he was teaching. This is of course because Jesus has been making claims that he is the one sent from God, and, in the last passage, he has even called into question their very identity as descendants of Abraham. In this particular passage the dispute, which has been raging through the chapter, rises to a jaw dropping climactic moment when Jesus pretty much seals his fate by uttering two tiny words.

You will remember that Jesus previously had said that if these believers fully believed him, and were truly his disciples that they would experience the truth and the truth would set them free. That particular passage ended with Jesus saying that the reason they could not make sense of what he was saying was that they did not really know God. It is fair to say that Jesus had insulted them in that exchange and so it is unsurprising that this next section opens up with them returning the insult: “Aren’t we right in saying that you are a Samaritan and demon-possessed?”

Jesus does not rise to their bait in the exchange and chooses instead to continue to try and prove to them/convince them that he is who he says he is – God’s sent one. He takes his argument a stage further in this passage. He is no longer simply saying that following him will set you free. Now Jesus is saying that if these folks follow him and obey his word will never taste death. This was way too much for the feeble minds of these Jewish followers to conceive. No one can get out of tasting death. No-one – not even the heroes of their tradition had avoided death – Abraham, all the prophets…all of them had succumbed to death just like every other human. What Jesus was saying now was too much for them. Who on earth did Jesus think he was?

Again, Jesus does not rise to the point they are making. He simply continues to offer his testimony. Jesus is under no pressure here. His only work is to glorify God, and that is all that he seeks to do. Again taunts them by questioning whether or not they really do know God in the way their father, Abraham, knew God. Abraham rejoiced at hearing from God – but they cannot even seem to hear God through what Jesus is saying. They cannot even seem to fathom that God might be right there with them in this moment.

Then comes the crescendo moment. These followers have absolutely had enough. This young teacher/preacher is going too far. And what can he know about Abraham anyway: “You are not yet 50 years old…and you have seen Abraham.”

The next words of Jesus are huge:

“Very truly I tell you, before Abraham was born, I am!”

In my mind, as I imagine the last two words of that sentence being uttered I imagine it being a complete sucker punch to the Jewish descendants of Abraham. There is a silence that only lasts for a couple of seconds, but seems to last for an eternity. Did he really just say that? Did he really just self reference himself as “I am”? Does he know how serious a claim that is? Does he know how blasphemous that is?

Yes.

Yes he does.

For any human to claim that they are God was too much. “I am” was the name God used for God-self in the the Exodus story. To even utter the words was considered blasphemous. So you can imagine the utter shock of this moment, and you can understand why these men picked up stones and were ready to kill Jesus there and then.

Why would Jesus say this?

Because Jesus is who he says he is.

Jesus is the word of God made flesh.
Jesus is the light in the darkness.
Jesus is the living water.
Jesus is the bread of life.
Jesus is the light of the world.
Jesus is the Messiah sent by God.

Jesus is who he says he is and that means Jesus has the power to do what he came to do: heal the sick, bind up the broken, announce, enact, and embody the kingdom of God, save the lost, defeat death, and cancel the power of sin.

The fact that Jesus is who he says he is is exceedingly good news for us all. Will you believe him today?

Who are you? (8:21-30)

Again, I offer up my apologies for not being able to update this for over a week. There has been so much to take in and so much going on around us in the USA that I have been distracted from writing. Please bear with me as I find some kind of rhythm of writing again.

“Who are ya?
Who are ya?
Who are ya?”

Who are ya

I have followed English soccer for pretty much my entire life. The fortunes of my beloved Liverpool Football Club have not been great since I was around 10 years old, which, at times, has made following English soccer quite frustrating indeed. One of the great things about English soccer is the interaction of the crowds who gather at the games. On occasion a big name team will be pitted against a team of much smaller stature, and sometimes on these occasions the big team will fail to perform well and the lesser team will score a famous underdog victory. In moments like these sometimes the the crowd will break into the chant I have typed above. It is chanted as a taunt to the bigger club and their fans as the fans of the smaller club point out that they are failing to live up to their reputation. The fans of the smaller club are calling into dispute the perceived superiority of the larger, more successful club.

“Who are ya?
Who are ya?
Who are ya?”

So far in this gospel narrative, John has been at work to convince his readers that Jesus is who he says he is: Light in the darkness, God’s own Son, the Word of God made flesh. In this short passage that very identity of Jesus is being called into question again. It is a “Who are ya?” kind of moment. The Jews are grappling with the words of Jesus and wondering what it is that he means. If you are paying attention in John’s gospel you will know that this is not a new thing – remember in chapter 3 when the Pharisee Nicodemus had trouble understanding what Jesus meant when he said that if anyone wanted to see the Kingdom then he or she must be born again. Nicodemus had to grapple with the things that Jesus was saying. And here we are again in chapter 8 with the Jews again struggling with the things that Jesus says to them. In many ways this section is a microcosm of the entire story of John’s gospel – the story of Jesus declaring to the Jews (and the world) just who he is and them absolutely struggling to understand (or point blank refusing to understand sometimes.)

“Who are you?” they asked in verse 25? And Jesus replies by telling them again: “I am who I have been telling you I am since the beginning – the Word made flesh, the one sent by the Father…the Messiah”

Jesus went on to tell them that while they maybe did not get it right now, there would come a time in the future when they would get it. “When you have lifted up the Son of Man.” Of course this is a reference to what will happen later on in Jesus’ story when he will be lifted up on the cross, and it is a reference to the fact that the Jews will have a role to play in that (“When YOU have lifted up…”) Jesus has come as the Messiah for Israel; for the Jewish people and ultimately they will reject the one sent for them. Can you hear the echo of that prologue ringing: “He was in the world, and though the world was made through him, the world did not recognize him. He came to that which was his own, but his own did not receive him.” (John 1:10-11)

As Tom Wright rightly points out – this is the tragedy at the heart of the Jesus narrative: that Jesus came to redeem and restore God’s own people; that Jesus was sent by God to do that work for those people and they did not even recognize their own God among them. The tragedy is that God’s own people were unable to recognize God with them.

I am not sure that things have changed that much in the 21st century in that folks still have trouble recognizing God in the world around them. Or folks maybe do see or hear from God and they are left scratching their heads and saying: “Who are you?” SO let me close this little note out by making it quite clear (warning – you might have heard me say this before!):

Jesus is the light in the darkness.
Jesus is the Word of God made flesh.
Jesus is the Chosen One sent by God.
Jesus is the bread of life.
Jesus is the light of the world.
Jesus is God’s own Son sent so that whoever believes in him will not perish but will have everlasting life.

That’s who Jesus is for you, for me, and for all humanity.
He has come into the world not to condemn it, but so that through him we might each be saved.
He has come to do a work of reconciliation – between God and humans, and between humans and other humans.
He has come to redeem and restore all the broken things in this world.

We know longer need to have “Who are ya?” moments. Jesus has made it abundantly clear who is is and why he came to live, and eat, and breathe, and sleep, and laugh, and cry among us. So stop what you are doing now and take a moment to take that in. Jesus is all that he say he is, and Jesus is all that for you and for me and for every other human being.

This is good news worth receiving! Hallelujah!

I am the Light of the world (8:12-20)

Between 2003 and 2006 my wife and I lived for three very happy years in a town called Port Saint Lucie in Florida. I had been hired as the Youth and Children’s Ministry Director there and enjoyed great fellowship and some real fruitfulness in ministry too. One of the lasting memories of that time for me is how we would welcome new people and visitors to the church. At each service those who were visiting our church for the very first time would be invited to stand up and introduce themselves. They would tell us their names and where they were visiting from and one of the ushers in the service would scurry towards them with a little welcome pack that included some information regarding the life of our church, some candy, a mug and a candle. The candle was the centerpiece of the gift. After everyone had introduced themselves, Renee, our Pastor would explain what had just been given to them and would leave the explanation of the candle to the end. She would say a few words about Jesus being the light and would always finish that little section of what she was saying with these words: “We give you this candle because…” And right on cue the entire congregation would reply by saying: “Jesus is the Light of the world.” I don’t know if anyone was ever overly impressed, or if that little act of the congregation ever changed anyone’s life, but i know that those words have absolutely stuck with me ever since. Light was the theme of Renee’s ministry. We gave the candles out to new visitors and for those who chose to drive by on Prima Vista Blvd. we erected a lighthouse on the corner of our property – another way of stating that Jesus is the light of the world.

In John 8:12 John records the second of the “I Am…” sayings that are included in his gospel. In chapter 6 Jesus said, “I am the bread of life.” Here Jesus says: “I am the light of the world. Whoever follows me will never walk in darkness but will have the light of life.” Of course, if we have been paying attention since the beginning of the book we will know that light is a prominent description of Jesus in the prologue (“In him was life and that life was the light to all mankind…The light shines in the darkness…The true light that gives light to everyone in the world was coming.”)

The idea of light in darkness is one which always grabs us. Imagine for a moment that you are trapped in a room with no natural light. In that circumstance you are completely lost as to knowing what is around you. Sure, you can feel your way and fumble around to try and work things out but ultimately the first thing you want and need is some form of light. When the light comes in to that dark space everything around you is exposed and illumined. You can see everything that is going on in that space: the places of beauty and comfort and safety, and the places of danger and risk too. When John is describing Jesus as the true light, John is saying that the presence of Jesus in the world is the presence which will expose and illumine everything that is going on in the world.

When Jesus describes himself as the light of the world he is also saying that he has come to expose and illumine everything that is going on in the world. He has come to be the Messiah of Israel, but the presence of light in that darkness is exposing Israel’s shortcomings – they have not and are not living up to that which God called them to. As Tom Wright says: “They had forgotten who their God really was. Their behavior, their attitude, and their ambitions indicated that they didn’t know the one Jesus called ‘Father,’ and that was why they couldn’t recognize him as having come from the Father.” Jesus came to bring light to the world so that all humans could see the world and escape the darkness. How would this come about? Simply, by following Jesus: “Whoever follows me will never walk in darkness but will have the light of life.” By staying close to Christ, we will always be walking in the light, and the darkness will always be exposed.

We all need light. We need light around us to show us the way and to expose everything that lies in the darkness, which might cause us to stumble or fall, and we need light within us too; to expose all the darkness which lies in the corners of our own hearts. Maybe it is time for you to invite the light into your life today. By doing so you will never walk in darkness again.