Archive for the ‘Sermons’ Category

This is the text of my reflection/sermon shared with the congregation today at Cliftonville Moravian Church:

Today, I want to reflect on Genesis 8: 1 ‘But God remembered Noah and all the wild animals and the livestock that were with him in the ark, and he sent a wind over the earth, and the waters receded’.

Our Old Testament passage, Genesis 8:1-19 is rich in imagery and meaning.  In the character of Noah, we see a man who is faithful, patient and perseveres in the face of uncertainty.  During the trials that he faced, he understood, consciously and subconsciously that God had not forgotten him….that God kept his promises. It all took some time of course, to go from the drama of the flood to the deliverance represented by dry land and new and vibrant beginnings. The transition from being ‘all at sea’, to being quite literally ‘grounded’ is a powerful and deeply meaningful image.

But let us step back from this unfolding picture for a moment and reflect on Noah’s actions as the water was omnipresent and the land submersed.  During that time, we read of a man who reaches out again and again in hope and expectation; we encounter a person who has placed his trust in God, that ultimately, all will be well and salvation is very firmly in God’s hand.

Trust, in God’s providence permeates Noah’s existence.  We see that motif reflected very powerfully in our New Testament lesson, especially in the opening verse where it is written: ‘Do not let your hearts be troubled.  Believe in God, believe also in me’ (John 14:1).

Noah’s trust in God is a given. He in return is entrusted with an enormous task, despite his very human character flaws and failings. Trust is vitally important; so too is hope – it flows from the foundation of trust that accompanies, and exemplifies a faithful life.

We read of a Noah who sends out first the Raven, then the Dove, calmly waiting for the return, or ultimately for some sense that the waters are subsiding and life is returning to the land; that the wait is over.  Noah then, is the picture of trust in the divine; the dove is the symbol of hope.

Last week, we touched on the contours of hope as we navigated the biblical narrative.  This week, we are drawn once again to contemplate its importance.

Noah’s actions, in sending out those birds, awaiting a response and initially being disappointed, but ultimately experiencing the joy of hope fulfilled.  He lived out the words of the American civil-rights activist and Baptist Minister Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr when he perceptively said:”We must accept finite disappointment but must never lose infinite hope”.  What a maxim to live by! How insightful.

So, the example of Noah and a the words of a contemporary Christian leader fuse together and remind us that yes, we will experience disappointment in our lives, but our hope is infinite; it is build upon the God of love and his omnipotence – the reason that we gather here today to worship and to give witness to a far greater reality than we can even describe.

Consider then, what the great reformer, Martin Luther said: ‘Everything that is done in the world is done by hope’. Indeed it is.  Hope can transform the most despairing of situations, the most anxious of moments, and the most intractable problems that perplex us and seek to wear us down.

The roman poet, Albius Tibillus surely also catches the mood of the moment when he writes: ‘Hope ever urges us on and tells us tomorrow will be better’. And it will. We look forward with hope, despite the turmoil of the world we live in; despite the innumerable uncertainties that perniciously attempt to steal our joy and purpose.  Our hope is so much deeper and broader than all of that; it is un-measurable and unfathomable, but nonetheless it is tangible; we can feel it in our hearts….if only we stand still, and silent, for a few moments.

We honour that hope by living a life that is open to possibility and steeped in the knowledge that God is the source and sustainer of that hope.

And so it seems pertinent to finish this brief reflection with a short prayer.  This prayer comes from a meditation entitled ‘The Gift of The Dove’ and is published in ‘Meditations from the Iona Community’ by Ian Reid.  Iona holds special memories for me; a ‘thin place’, God’s presence is realised in its ruggedness and holiness; that sense of hope permeates the soil, the sea and the air of a place where God’s presence is undeniable.  Hope and presence go hand-in-hand. Here it is expressed in that very prayer; let us pray:

‘Ever-present God, open our eyes to see

the coming of the dove.

As we look over the waters of

our doubts and fears,

enable us to see in the world signs of hope.

 

As we despair over the injustices and conflicts

in our own lives and in the world,

enable us to see in the world signs of peace and reconciliation.

 

As Noah was called to leave the ark and go out into

the world, enable us, like him, to share with others

the visions of hope, peace and reconciliation we

have received’.

AMEN

 

 

Here is the text of my sermon from today’s service at Cliftonville Moravian Church:

Grounded in Reality; Transformed by Hope!

On Wednesday evening, I was teaching dream analysis in Glengormley to a group of therapists and other interested individuals.  Here, in our church, I have spoken briefly about dreams as they occur in the Biblical narrative, particularly in relation to the Old Testament; that is a story I will certainly pick up again in the future – there is so much we can learn from reflecting on those moments and situations where God reveals important truths to us. The form of those dreams varies from straight-forward instruction to metaphor and allegory.

The type of dream analysis I do in a professional capacity is of course a reflection of the kind of Psychotherapy I do – Logotherapy & Existential Analysis, a meaning based approach to confronting the vagaries of life and dealing with them intelligently and purposefully.  At the beginning of last Wednesday’s session, I spent a few minutes providing an overview of the philosophy behind Logotherapy – without an understanding of that philosophy, it is not possible to go very far in making sense of our dreams.

In its most basic of forms, the philosophy of Logotherapy always strikes me as having similarities, and intertwined motifs, with Judeo-Christian theology. It is nonetheless a secular psychology grounded in human experience that is not bound by any faith tradition; it is universal in its application.

But I do often think about how Logotherapy speaks gently to my own faith orientation.  In that respect, I am drawn specifically to the highs and lows of life articulated in the Psalms; Leopold Sabourin, in his book ‘The Psalms: Their Origin and Meaning’, reminds us that the Psalter has been referred to as ‘a microcosm of the whole Old Testament… the epitome of Israel’s spiritual experience’. It does, in my opinion, go far beyond that; it provides the foundation and points towards the Christ of the New Testament.

In Logotherapy, we refer to the ‘tragic triad’ that epitomises our existence: suffering, guilt and death.  No life is spared these three experiences.  Likewise in the Psalter, we see suffering embraced and lamented, not just once but repeatedly.  Consider the Psalmists cry in Psalm 88:18 – ‘O lord God of my salvation, I have cried day and night before you’. And what about guilt? Well, we see it in Psalm 38:4 – ‘My guilt has overwhelmed me like a burden too heavy to bear’. And then of course, there is death; Psalm 82:7 describes its inevitability in poetic terms: “Nevertheless you will die like men and fall like any one of the princes.”

 If the ‘tragic triad’ was where Logotherapy began and ended, then we would certainly be in trouble! But it isn’t.  Viktor Frankl, the founder of Logotherapy, talks at length of the case for ‘tragic optimism’, where we remain optimistic despite life’s enduring difficulties. In her Foreword to Viktor Frankl’s book, ‘Man’s Search for Ultimate Meaning’, Claudice Hammond says this – Frankl ‘talks of tragic optimism….that life brings pain, guilt and death and yet, for the most part, we manage to carry on’.  Somehow we manage to get through. And it gets better! Frankl also understood the reality of the ‘triumphant triad’, where there is healing, forgiveness and meaning.

In the Psalms, that ‘triumphant triad’ is also clear to see. Even in the Psalms of lament, optimism remains, seeping through, sometimes at points when we least expect it. How true that is in the reality of our own lives.  Consider again what Claudice Hammond says of Frankl’s philosophy – she writes that Logotherapy is a personal catalyst for radical change and progressive development.  As individuals then, Hammond reinforces Frankl’s philosophy, where she brings us back to our call to ‘turn suffering into achievement’, to ‘use guilt to improve’ ourselves and to utilise ‘the knowledge that life is short as a spur to action’.

Interestingly, the triumphant and the tragic often co-exist in the Psalms, just as they do in our day-to-day lives.  Our Old Testament Lesson, Psalm 39, is one such example, where despair and hope are expressed, and those two realities held in tension throughout.  There is a recognition that hope would be incomprehensible if it were not for anguish and despondency.

Here then, is how that observation plays out in our Psalm.  In the second verse, the Psalmist writes: I was silent and still; I held my peace to no avail; my distress grew worse’, but then goes on say in verse seven: “And now, O Lord, what do I wait for? My hope is in you”. Life, as we know it and as the Psalmist understood it, is never clear cut….the edges are often blurred and our emotions fluctuate. We can feel despair and hope in the same day…..and in the same moment.

It is in the latter half of the seventh verse, though – “My hope is in you” – where we see the entire Christian message writ large.  Our hope rests very firmly in God.  We look to him through our individual experiences of suffering, guilt and the shadow of death and see him radiant in our sights. We call on, and cleave to those words that reverberate intensely in Psalm 55: 22: Cast your cares on the LORD and he will sustain you; he will never let the righteous be shaken’.

So yes, we live lives that are frequently difficult. But we also live lives that are grounded in hope and animated by expectation.  Viktor Frankl was a realist; the Psalms, and the wider Old and New Testaments are realistic too – they echo with the stuff of a life lived authentically, the tragic juxtaposed with the triumphant.  From our faith perspective, we can go even further.  Our hope is infinite; it is all around us; it moves as the Spirit moves and it seeks us out.  We must allow ourselves, in the midst of life, to be engulfed in love and transformed by hope.

Although I have spoken in this short reflection in very broad terms of the message of the Psalms, and Psalm 39 in particular, let me finish with some New Testament wisdom, specifically Romans 15:13: ‘May the God of hope fill you with all joy and peace as you trust in him, so that you may overflow with hope by the power of the Holy Spirit’.

Powerful, yet serene, there is nothing to either add or take away from Paul’s striking message to the church in Rome. It is a call to reflect deeply on our journey and gain insight into the radical nature of Christian faith.

And so, it seems appropriate that, in a few moments of silence, we allow ourselves to reconnect with the God who meets us where we are – in the reality of pain, suffering and death, but also in the transformative realm of healing, meaning and hope.  We are met on that journey with a love that knows no boundaries; a love that seeks us out. Let us feel the vigour of the Holy Spirit move among us and within us, in the stillness, and deep peace, of this holy place…………..where we are grounded in reality and transformed by hope.

‘Now unto him that is able to keep you from falling, and to present you faultless before the presence of his glory with exceeding joy, to the only wise God our Saviour, be glory and majesty, dominion and power, both now and ever’. Jude 24-25.

AMEN

The text from the Holocaust Memorial Service held in Cliftonville Moravian Church on 29/1/17:

In our Old Testament lesson, the prophet Micah brings to the fore a community that has suffered much hardship, but has brought justice and mercy to the forefront of their thinking.  Interestingly, there is a recognition that with such enormous injustice, reconciliation is difficult and takes time.  Nevertheless, Micah points to the way forward, and is calling the people to start where they are and get themselves, as we would say colloquially, that first foot on the ladder.  To do just that, takes courage and foresight and is primarily an individual endeavour rather than a strictly community-wide one, at least in the first instance.

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In the beatitudes, at the beginning of the remarkable Sermon on the Mount, we hear a powerful echo of centuries old Jewish teachings on ethics, where God seeks out the vulnerable, the suffering and the marginalised. And not only does God seek out those individuals he imparts his blessing upon them. But there’s one more thing: the beatitudes are a reminder that persecution of the righteous has always been with us – it is, sadly, not new.  We see it throughout human history.

In many senses then, the question that is posed for the 2017 Holocaust Memorial Day, ‘How can life go on?’, is at least partially answered in our two readings for today.  In the Old Testament, there are the intertwined themes of justice, mercy and reconciliation.  In the New Testament, we see God’s blessing on those who suffer and are persecuted. None of these things are remotely easy though, and perhaps that goes without saying. The horrors and sheer magnitude of the Holocaust hardly need to be reiterated; only those who have experienced first-hand the depravity of Man and the depths to which humanity can sink can comment. It is presumptuous for the rest of us to do so.

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One of those prophetic voices from the Holocaust, Viktor Frankl, is one of those remarkable people who survived and went on to write so insightfully and poignantly about their experiences.  When we read their words, their descriptions of unimaginable suffering and cruelty, it is difficult to believe what they endured.

Viktor Frankl, a Psychiatrist and Neurologist, lost all of his loved ones in the gas chambers, including his pregnant wife.  He went on to detail his experiences in that World famous book – ‘Man’s Search for Meaning’.  Although it is a very slim volume, it is replete with compassion, determination, self-transcendence, and of course finding meaning in the most awful of situations. There are many lessons contained within it and it is one of these books that begs to be read again and again.

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Many people have found it to be life-changing, if that is not too grand a phrase. For me, as we gather here today to reflect on that phrase ‘How can life go on?’, there are at least three themes that we can draw on from Frankl’s experience.  These are: the ability to choose how we respond to the circumstances before us, how we view suffering and the centrality of love. These three categories are of course interlinked, but nonetheless we can tease them apart to gain more clarity.

 

The Ability to Choose How We Respond

 

Viktor Frankl’s experiences in the camps taught him a valuable lesson about choice.  He understood that even when everything is taken away from a person, we still retain the ability to choose our response.  To be more precise he wrote: ‘Everything can be taken from a man but one thing: the last of the human freedoms – to choose one’s attitude in any given set of circumstances, to choose one’s own way’. In essence he meant that we can respond to adverse circumstances by recoiling and giving up….or we can make a stand, by altering our attitude or perspective on a situation.

 

How We View Suffering

 

Frankl said this of suffering: ‘If there is a meaning in life at all, then there must be a meaning in suffering.  Suffering is an ineradicable part of life, even as fate and death.  Without suffering and death human life cannot be complete’. He goes on to make the main thrust of his point: ‘The way in which man accepts his fate and all the suffering it entails, the way in which he takes up his cross, gives him ample opportunity – even under the most difficult circumstances – to add a deeper meaning to his life.  It may (be to) remain brave, dignified and unselfish’.

 

So once again, Prof. Frankl present suffering, which he knew much more about in practice than we can even begin to grasp, from a different perspective, one in which we Christians can surely identify with.

 

The Centrality of Love

 

This, at least for me, is one of the most stunning, and perhaps surprising insights provided by Viktor Frankl in his short autobiography of his life in the concentration camps.  He says this:

 

“Love is the only way to grasp another human being in the innermost core of his personality. No one can become fully aware of the very essence of another human being unless he loves him. By his love he is enabled to see the essential traits and features in the beloved person; and even more, he sees that which is potential in him, which is not yet actualized but yet ought to be actualized. Furthermore, by his love, the loving person enables the beloved person to actualize these potentialities. By making him aware of what he can be and of what he should become, he makes these potentialities come true.”

 

Remarkable.  So here Prof. Frankl is setting out how love works.  When we love someone, then we enable them to be the person they can be; we give them permission, if that’s not too clumsy a term, to move beyond any perceived limitations and to flourish. In any case, we’re reminded of God’s take on this.  Consider 1 John 4: 7: Dear friends, let us love one another, for love comes from God. Everyone who loves has been born of God and knows God’.

 

Conclusion

 

In the fifteen or so minutes we have in a Sermon, we can merely scratch the surface of the topic we have before us.  But as we reflect on the question ‘How can life go on’, we at least have a framework.  From the biblical narratives that tell us of God’s constant presence to Viktor Frankl’s insights into human freedom, the nature of suffering and the centrality of love.  From the Holocaust this remarkable man has left a lasting legacy that helps us immeasurably in facing our own suffering; and it is very much compatible with our Christian worldview.

 

We can see a way, because of Viktor Frankl and his lived example, that life can go on.  By remembering the Holocaust, not just on Holocaust Memorial Day, but every day that we live and breathe, we can lament the senseless carnage, but we can also be thankful for the defiant nature of the human spirit.

 

AMEN

 

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Christmas Reflections with Bonhoeffer & Merton

My Sermon from Cliftonville Moravian Church, Belfast, 25th December 2016

We come here this morning, in the midst of a hectic time of commemoration and celebration, to sit in this sacred space – a place of calm and reverence.

This year has been a tough one – it is no exaggeration to say this.  As I speak there is geopolitical turmoil, terrorism, refugees dying, war and enormous uncertainty on the world stage.  Many think that this is unprecedented.  And yes, it is in some ways – the scale of refugees on the move is enormous; tyrants and dictators are wreaking havoc and poor governance and maladministration rears its ugly head in the form of hunger and poverty.

But none of this, in the broadest terms, is new.  Consider the nativity narratives – amidst the darkness of turmoil and uncertainty there is the unquenchable light of hope, love and expectation in the form of Jesus Christ. And as is so simply, yet eloquently written in John 1:5: ‘The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it’. And indeed the darkness will never overcome it – as Christians, we have hope in abundance and peace that can never be subdued.

Now, it is certainly true to say that the life of faith is one of constant reflection, and I do think therefore that it is fitting that today we reflect on the writings of two very different, but equally insightful and influential Christians – the Lutheran Pastor and Nazi Resister, Dietrich Bonhoeffer, and the Cistercian Monk, Poet, Mystic and Peace Activist, Thomas Merton.

I’ll read some their words now, and then we’ll very briefly contemplate what they are saying to us.

We begin with Bonhoeffer:

“Jesus stands at the door knocking (Rev. 3:20). In total reality, he comes in the form of the beggar, of the dissolute human child in ragged clothes, asking for help. He confronts you in every person that you meet. As long as there are people, Christ will walk the earth as your neighbor, as the one through whom God calls you, speaks to you, makes demands on you. That is the great seriousness and great blessedness of the Advent message. Christ is standing at the door; he lives in the form of a human being among us.”
Bonhoeffer reminds us that Jesus came to us, and continues to come to us, in the lowliness of a stable and not in the glories of material wealth and opulence.  He is a radically different Leader.  And yes, we see him, not just in one snapshot of historical time, but we encounter him every day, time and time again; we see him in the eyes of those we meet, especially those on the margins – the disenfranchised, the dispossessed and the forgotten. There is nothing more radical than this; with the arrival of Jesus on the scene, the world, with its love of hierarchy and power, has changed forever.

And now back to Merton:

“There were only a few shepherds at the first Bethlehem. The ox and the donkey understood more of the first Christmas than the high priests in Jerusalem. And it is the same today.” 

Here Merton does not mince his words.  Again, we are drawn in to the reality that the religious elite, then and now miss the point of faith and how it should be lived in the light of the personhood and divinity of Jesus Christ.  Faith has nothing to do with titles, buildings and being seen to be doing the right thing.  Rather it is about recognising and adopting an attitude of love, compassion, humility, sacrifice and service.

With this insight in our hearts, let us turn to Bonhoeffer:

“…And then, just when everything is bearing down on us to such an extent that we can scarcely withstand it, the Christmas message comes to tell us that all our ideas are wrong, and that what we take to be evil and dark is really good and light because it comes from God. Our eyes are at fault, that is all. God is in the manger, wealth in poverty, light in darkness, succor in abandonment. No evil can befall us; whatever men may do to us, they cannot but serve the God who is secretly revealed as love and rules the world and our lives.” 

God is in the manger! It doesn’t get any more radical than that! And so if we entrust God with all that we have and all that we are, all will be well.  Even during those times when life seems unbearable, and we struggle to carry on, nothing ultimately can harm us. Yes, there may be tumult all around us, but within the depth of our being, there is peace.  God is with us, no matter what.

Now back to Merton for the final time:

“Into this world, this demented inn, in which there is absolutely no room for Him at all, Christ has come uninvited. But because He cannot be at home in it, because He is out of place in it, His place is with those others for whom there is no room. His place is with those who do not belong, who are rejected by power because they are regarded as weak, those who are discredited, who are denied the status of persons, who are tortured, bombed, and exterminated. With those for whom there is no room, Christ is present in the world. He is mysteriously present in those for whom there seems to be nothing but the world at its worst … With these He conceals Himself, In these He hides Himself, for whom there is no room”.

This offering from Merton is a fitting quote to end on, largely because it sums up the previous themes we have hear explored.  The reminder that the Christian faith is often counterintuitive, that God has, as one Liberation Theologian put it, ‘a preferential option for the poor’ is there in bold and unambiguous language.  Why? Well, because it is a perfect echo of the Gospel message, not just that which we glean from the infancy narratives, but beyond through Jesus’ earthly ministry, death and resurrection.  Making room for Jesus in the midst of the prevailing culture, which drowns out the Christian message, is a calling we all receive. Looking in the right place for that voice, for that presence, is the journey we are asked to undertake, again and again. Christmas, and our reflections on it, is just the very beginning.

The world was never the same following that first Christmas time.  God calls us each and every Christmas time, to never be the same in the light of that message.  And so Christmas is a time of newness and reflection; Christianity is not easy – it was never meant to be, and the nativity narratives are a testament to that. But we need to lose heart; Jesus Christ is the ultimate beacon of hope that reaches out to us in our lostness and brokenness.  And as such, we never journey in faith alone.

Finally, on this special day, let us then dedicate ourselves to growing in faith and service; let us take the radical nature of the nativity to heart, where love and compassion drown out the noise of darkness, this Christmas Day and forever more.

AMEN

Culross Abbey Stained Glass Window

Culross Abbey Stained Glass Window

This is the text of a sermon preached at Cliftonville Moravian Church on 25th September:

Yesterday, I was following the news more closely than I normally do.  I can’t say that politics excites me, but I do tune in when there is something vaguely interesting happening.

In that context, many of you will know that Jeremy Corbyn has been re-elected as leader of the Labour party, by a substantial margin.  The politics, and policies behind it, do not concern me as we gather here today.  What has piqued my interest though, is the wider question of how we view leadership.

This question is not merely an abstract point of debate for political anoraks or party activists.  It is very much of importance to us all; the course our country will take through the turbulent waters of global economic instability, the shape that Brexit takes and numerous other domestic and international policy decisions, will be determined in the next few months and years. The leader of the opposition will have an influence, at least to some degree, on all of these.

Over the last number of weeks I have heard many commentators say that Mr. Corbyn simply does not have leadership qualities, or that he is not leadership material.  I have to say though, that in all honesty, I am not quite sure at all what they mean.  What makes for a strong leader?  Is there one model that these individuals are referring to?  I suspect not. We all approach these questions from our unique perspectives.

Over my career, I have been in several leadership positions in an array of environments ranging from the commercial to the charity sector.  I have operated differently in each case, and I have been managed differently in each case; there is no one size that fits all. The context is always different and the personality of the leader makes an enormous difference.

So leadership is very much in our minds.  And I almost forgot to mention the leadership contest that is reaching a crescendo of activity, and nastiness, across the Atlantic.  Our friends in the US will soon be choosing between two of the most unpopular candidates in US Presidential history. Again, I make no comment on the merits of each individual – that is for each of us to do ourselves – but these events, and the wall-to-wall media coverage certainly do make us think about the wider issues.

And so let us turn our attention to leadership in the Church – and I mean ’Church’ in its widest sense, as the body of believers.  Each denomination has its own form of government and organisation.  Our own is more egalitarian than most; that means that the responsibilities of leadership are spread widely amongst our membership, and that, in my opinion, is just as it should be.  We all play a central role in leading and shaping local congregations and the wider church family.  And we do so, not in a vacuum, and not just on the basis of our own talents and ideas, but infused with a will to follow God at all times. Our leadership is based on the premise that, although we will surely make errors in how we go about things, we acknowledge God’s providence; we hold in our hearts those words from Jeremiah 29:11:

‘”For I know the plans I have for you,” declares the LORD, “plans to prosper you and not to harm you, plans to give you hope and a future!.

Nevertheless, that task, taking hold of leadership, may at first seem daunting.  The church faces so many challenges; the need for change and renewal is perhaps greater now than it has ever been.  The need for effective and collective leadership is plain for all to see.  With the challenges before us it can be tempting to give up……to leave it all to others….to sit back and to think that very little can be done.  But as we do so, let us turn our eyes and open our hearts to those magnificent words spoken to Joshua:

Joshua 1:9 “Have I not commanded you? Be strong and courageous. Do not be terrified; do not be discouraged, for the LORD your God will be with you wherever you go.”  

Joshua had leadership qualities in abundance.  Reflecting on his example shows us the way forward.  Joshua was a man of humility……he had faith and trust in God in abundance……and he was very much a man of prayer.  His lived example of humility, faith and prayer represent the triad of essential ingredients for effective leadership in the spiritual realm.

Yes, Joshua was humble.  For forty years he served God through serving Moses; thereafter he continued to serve God, albeit in a more prominent, public role.  But throughout he never lost his focus on God.  God was always paramount and Joshua never forgot this.  Neither did he forget that true leadership is very much about service.  As Helena Blavatsky once wrote: ‘the greatest among men is always ready to serve and yet is unconscious of the service’.

Joshua was also a man whose very being was infused with faith in God.  He realised that futility of placing his faith in other flawed and fragile human beings; he knew that relying solely on his own innate abilities was no less futile.  And so he looked to God and to God alone.  His life echoes with the words of the theologian Karl Barth: ‘In God alone there is faithfulness and faith in the trust that we may hold to him, to his promise, to his guidance.  To hold to God is to rely on the fact that God is there for me, and to live in this certainty’.

Humility and faith abounded in Joshua.  Both of these attributes were enhanced by his prayer life.  He prayed frequently, honestly and earnestly.  As Carlo Carretto reminds us: ‘the degree of our faith is the degree of our prayer.  The strength of our hope is the strength of our prayer.  The warmth of our charity is the warmth of our prayer.’

With humility, faith and prayer all things are possible.  Joshua is an important reminder of the truth of that statement.  In his inner and outer life he reflected the ‘moral’ leadership displayed by a number of Old Testament figures.  As Hershey Friedman wrote in his paper entitled ‘Moral Leadership: Ancient Lessons for Modern Times’, published in the Journal of College and Character (2001), ‘careful examination of the lives of several leaders described in the Hebrew Bible indicates that the purpose of leadership is not fame, power, or fortune, but to lead people with truth and righteousness’.

Leadership, however, does not flow from perfection. God uses us, as he did with the plethora of Old and New Testament leaders with all our insecurities and imperfections to advance the cause of his kingdom.  He calls on each and every one of us to exercise leadership in our congregations and communities; exactly what that leadership looks like will depend on our own talents and personalities, shaped by God and those we serve.  With humility, faith and prayer we can follow his will in our own lives and collectively in this place, and beyond.  We do not embark upon this  task, or indeed any task, alone. And as God himself reminded Joshua, and by extension reminds us in our modern age:

Joshus 1:5f ‘As I was with Moses, so I will be with you; I will never leave you nor forsake you’.

AMEN

This is the text of my sermon preached today in Cliftonville Moravian Church, Belfast:

When I was training to be a scientist, and later when I worked in that field professionally, it was very common for co-workers to get together and discuss their latest results from any experiments that had been done.  A very common comment, that I heard, and indeed made, was ‘is that result real’, or ‘are we just seeing an artifact of the experiment’?  In other words, we approached the work of investigation with a profound dose of scepticism…..or doubt.  We looked at what was in front of us from a number of different perspectives, re-evaluating it again and again, testing our assumptions each time.

And so that expression of doubt was, and is, very healthy.  It prompts deeper reflection and it fosters a questioning outlook.   It recognises the fact that life operates at a level of complexity that requires a thoughtful, questioning and unfolding response.

Christianity, at its best, operates with similar assumptions.  But sometimes, we know that it doesn’t.  It can be presented to us as far too formulaic and simplistic; questioning, in this environment, is not to be encouraged or entertained.  The rational component of Faith is subverted and it verges on becoming a superstitious endeavour – formulating a simplistic list of ‘facts’ that must be adhered to and not explored to the full extent our intellect allows.

Charles Spurgeon, the famous British Baptist Minister recognised this.  And it is of course worth remembering that Spurgeon was hardly a liberal!  It is after all ‘liberals’ (whatever that label means…..and it is often used pejoratively!) that have unfairly been seen as having the monopoly on doubt.  So here is what Spurgeon wrote in his sermon entitled “Desire of the Soul in Spiritual Darkness” (quoted in Relevant Magazine: See Further Reading)

“I think, when a man says, ‘I never doubt,’ it is quite time for us to doubt him, it is quite time for us to begin to say, ‘Ah, poor soul, I am afraid you are not on the road at all, for if you were, you would see so many things in yourself, and so much glory in Christ more than you deserve, that you would be so much ashamed of yourself, as even to say, ‘It is too good to be true.'” (Quoted in Relevant Magazine)

And doubt wasn’t the preserve of Spurgeon.  None other than that great reformer, John Calvin, had something positive to say of it too.  He said this:

 “Surely, while we teach that faith ought to be certain and assured, we cannot imagine any certainty that is not tinged with doubt, or any assurance that is not assailed by some anxiety.” (Quoted in Relevant Magazine).

There are many other prominent Christians, across the ages, who have expressed similar sentiments in relation to the utility of doubt in shaping our faith and helping us to better understand the divine more holistically and realistically. Luther was one, and so was the writer C.S. Lewis. I’m sure you’ll each know other examples.

We also see numerous examples when we look to Scripture, both in the Old and New Testaments.  Look at our Old Testament Lesson today – Judges 6:36-40, a rather strange story of Gideon doubting God’s plan for him.  And so he ‘tests’ God, and God indulges him, and Gideon eventually gets the message and moves on to fulfil his role and live out his vocation. Here, doubt had served a concrete purpose for a man who was unsure.

Perhaps the most famous example of a biblical ‘doubter’ is that of ‘Doubting Thomas’, where one disciple struggled to comprehend the reality of the resurrection.  But if we think about how the biblical narrative portrays the disciples, especially in Mark’s Gospel, where they frequently question Jesus, miss the point of what he was saying and teaching, and fail to grasp the import of his message.  They were very human in their attributes, and that’s the way it was meant to be.  And so it was with Thomas – he was wrestling intellectually and emotionally with everything he had seen, heard and believed.  It was through that process of questioning and probing, that his faith made sense to him as an individual.  And that’s surely the point, is it not? We approach questions of faith and understanding as individuals; we need to satisfy those questions that have meaning for us. That’s why Thomas’ doubting….his deviation from the ‘norm’……is instructive; it was his nature to doubt.

Crucially though, in all the instances we encounter across in the Biblical narrative, God uses that doubt for greater use, to bring forth a series of messages that are universal in their application. Doubt, in its thinking, rational and constructive form is not to be viewed in a negative light as it often is Christian circles.

You may be familiar with a book entitled ‘Letters to a Young Poet’ which is written by Bohemian-Austrian poet Rainer Maria Rilke; it included a number of letters to Franz Xaver Kappus, a young soldier. Rilke wrote the following words in one of his letters:

 “Be patient toward all that is unsolved in your heart and try to love the questions themselves, like locked rooms and like books that are now written in a very foreign tongue. Do not now seek the answers, which cannot be given you because you would not be able to live them. And the point is, to live everything. Live the questions now. Perhaps you will then gradually, without noticing it, live along some distant day into the answer.” 

Now, that’s perceptive!  And it served the basis for a recent publication ‘Letters to a Young Doubter’ by William Sloane Coffin, an American Minister, Chaplain and Social Activist.  In this book, Coffin writes a series of letters to a fictional young college student. He reflects and offers advice on a diverse range of issues centred around faith and how this interacts with those perennial problems of life – bereavement, failure, politics, ambition, relationships, love and achievement.  Coffin says this in one of his letters:

 “…don’t be anxious about your newfound doubts.  Doubts move you forward not backward, just as long as you doubt out of love of the truth, not out of some pathological need to doubt.”

And there we have it.  When we doubt out of love for the truth, we follow the path set before us with integrity.  True discipleship is tough; it includes failure and doubt, but also victory and certainty.  When we love the truth, doubt is transformed from a negative to a positive.  Doubt takes on a beauty that unquestioning conformity can never understand nor enjoy; it journeys with us a delineates our path.

So let us today embrace what God has given us – a questioning mind, a loving heart, a desire for the truth and a peace that comes with it – a peace that surpasses all understanding.

AMEN

Further Reading: Jesse Carey, 7 Prominent Christian Thinkers Who Wrestled With Doubt, Relevant Magazine. http://www.relevantmagazine.com/god/7-prominent-christian-thinkers-who-wrestled-doubt

It don’t often post my sermons on this blog, but here’s one I delivered today in All Souls Church in Elmwood Avenue, Belfast:

Finding Meaning through Faith: Learning from Viktor Frankl

MEANING IN LIFE?

In response to the question: ‘What is the most important lesson life has taught you?’, one of my favourite contemporary philosophers (if that doesn’t sound too pretentious!), Slavoj Žižek replied somewhat tetchily: ‘That life is a stupid meaningless thing that has nothing to teach you’. 

Succinct and brutally honest. But Žižek was at least trying to articulate his worldview that the quest for meaning is in and of itself meaningless….so we might as well just get on with life unencumbered by distractions and wishful thinking.  Freedom then, for Žižek, comes from accepting and confronting our meaninglessness.  It just is what it is – nothing more and nothing less.

Contrast this outlook with another of my favourite philosophers – although he’s much more than that – Viktor Frankl.  Professor Frankl was a deeply interesting man: he was a psychiatrist, a neurologist, a philosopher, prolific author and founder of ‘the Third Viennese School of Psychotherapy’ – otherwise known as ‘Logotherapy’ (or therapy through meaning).

Frankl’s worldview, both clinical and personal, was shaped to a significant degree by the fact that he was a Holocaust Survivor.  From 1942-45 he lived, or rather existed, in four concentration camps, including the infamous extermination camp, Auschwitz.  What he witnessed and experienced there left an indelible mark on his psyche, deepening his comprehension of human nature and the centrality of meaning.

Frankl’s most famous book is ‘Man’s Search for Meaning’.  It’s a slim volume and it recounts his experience of the Holocaust.  Against that backdrop of unimaginable horror, he lost all of his family members and suffered terribly, yet his book is hopeful and inspirational.  Each page is replete with meaning.

Now when we talk about meaning, it’s important to remember that Frankl spoke of it terms of ultimate and proximate meaning.  The ultimate is difficult to quantify; as finite creatures we often find it difficult to comprehend the infinite.  But in simple terms, for someone like me, and yourselves, as people of faith – ultimate meaning equates to God.  Proximate meaning on the other hand, is still linked to the ultimate, but it consists of the things that we do, or attitudes we take, that give us meaning in everyday life tasks.  So for example, I find an enormous amount of meaning in the work that I do as a mental health advocate; I find meaning in my family life…and so it goes on; that’s proximate meaning, but it’s inextricably linked to my sense of ultimate meaning – or my Christian faith.  I can’t decouple the two.

Your story will be different.  But as I’ve just said, like me you will find that the ultimate meaning informs what you do in the rest of your life.  If there’s a disconnect there, then it leads to tension and strain.

All Souls

All Souls

MEANING & FAITH

As Christians we’re called upon to look for, and to find our ultimate meaning – and in doing so we connect God.  And here I’m reminded of a sentence from the Book of Isaiah:

‘Those of steadfast mind you keep in peace — in peace because they trust in you’ (Isaiah 26:3).

Here we have the Prophet Isaiah transmitting a very powerful  and well thought through message.  He makes us think….. that a mind that is steadfast – or fixed on God – is a mind that has engaged with ultimate meaning.  When we understand God, in-as-much as we are able given our very obvious human limitations, we find meaning: meaning in happiness….or failure….or pain……or suffering. We find meaning in all that is around us….in the frailty of relationships, the broken dreams and stilted aspirations…..just as much, or even more, as in the positive aspects of life….the beauty of friendships and the wonder of creation.

We transcend ourselves when we fully engage our faith.  We look beyond our failures and victories and we see that we are part of something greater than ourselves.  Our faith can be expressed in a myriad of different ways.  Viktor Frankl was a practising Jew his entire life, but he was very careful not to impose, or even be seen to be imposing, his religious conviction upon others; that was not the way he operated as a therapist, physician or man.  He understood that each and every one of us must reach our own conclusion – and find ultimate and proximate meaning for ourselves; we are after all, fully responsible for our own lives and the way we live them.

All Souls

All Souls

The Nazi’s who persecuted Viktor Frankl and millions of others, simply because of their religion, race, sexual orientation or political affiliations used their freedom to pursue nihilistic goals.  They misused their freedom and perverted their will to meaning; they did not understand the concept of love and it fuelled their malevolence and barbaric cruelty.

Paul the Apostle wrote of how we should properly use our freedom in a letter he wrote to a number of Christian communities in Galatia.  He said this:

‘For you were called to freedom, brothers. Only do not use your freedom as an opportunity for the flesh, but through love serve one another. For the whole law is fulfilled in one command: “You shall love your neighbour as yourself.”’ Galatians 5:13-14

The choice is there for all to see.  Paul understood it; the churches in Galatia also understood it.  It is a stark choice that applies to us all; it is timeless – we can use our lives selfishly, or we can use them to make a difference, large or small; to truly love our neighbours as ourselves.  Viktor Frankl writes of one such occasion, or more likely a series of occasions where the love of neighbour was made manifest in the actions of a number of people; this was a costly and humbling love this still moves me to this day.  He wrote in ‘Man’s Search for Meaning’:

‘“We who lived in concentration camps can remember the men who walked through the huts comforting others, giving away their last piece of bread. They may have been few in number, but they offer sufficient proof that everything can be taken from a man (person) but one thing: the last of the human freedoms — to choose one’s attitude in any given set of circumstances, to choose one’s own way.”’ 

This ability to choose one’s own way is a central strand of Frankl’s Logotherapy.  Reclaiming that ability is of inestimable therapeutic value.  Too often we let events overtake us and we feel stranded. But we have the ability, as Frankl did, to change our attitude in difficult situations.

This file is licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 Germany license.Flag of Germany.svg Attribution: Prof. Dr. Franz Vesely

Prf. Viktor Frankl. This file is licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 Germany license. Flag of Germany.svg
Attribution: Prof. Dr. Franz Vesely

Consider this story from ‘Man’s Search for Meaning’:

“Once, an elderly general practitioner consulted me because of his severe depression. He could not overcome the loss of his wife who had died two years before and whom he had loved above all else. Now, how can I help him? What should I tell him? Well, I refrained from telling him anything but instead confronted him with the question, “What would have happened, Doctor, if you had died first, and your wife would have had to survive you?” “Oh,” he said, “for her this would have been terrible; how she would have suffered!” Whereupon I replied, “You see, Doctor, such a suffering has been spared her, and it was you who have spared her this suffering — to be sure, at the price that now you have to survive and mourn her.” He said no word but shook my hand and calmly left my office. In some way, suffering ceases to be suffering at the moment it finds a meaning, such as the meaning of a sacrifice.”

Indeed.

OUR LEGACY

And there is just one more thought I want to leave you with today.  We are very much a sum of our parts; as we make our way through life we accumulate much in the way of experiences, both negative and positive. That is the nature of life.

With Frankl though, no experience of meaning is ever lost or wasted.  We take it with us.  As he has said himself:  “In the granaries of our past everything is safely stored.”  So even suffering cannot erase that sense of meaning and the experience of meaningfulness; it does not, no matter how hard it tries, have the last word. Here we have Frankl again: I have realities in my past, not only the reality of work done and of love loved, but of sufferings bravely suffered. These sufferings are even the things of which I am most proud, although these are things which cannot inspire envy.’ “

And so when we look back over our lives, there will no doubt be periods of regret or disappointment, or even times when we’ve been ashamed of our actions or inactions.  None of these experiences and feelings have been wasted if we can recognise within them a kernel of meaning.  We cannot change the past, nor should we attempt to try, but we can always attempt to place it within that wider context.

We may think of a job lost through redundancy for example.  In a life lived where such an event is seen purely through the lens of suffering a misfortune, there is no room for growth and positive experience.  But where we have a change of attitude, we can see past the difficulty and be thankful for the space to reflect and re-evaluate, and ultimately, to re-orientate our priorities and to move our life in a different direction.

Many of us will have experienced real hardship for reasons beyond our control; the death of a loved one; the loss of a home; a life-changing illness. Frankl’s experiences teach us that in all situations, even in the unimaginable horrors of the concentration camp, there is meaning. He found it every day in the simple things – the sunset, human company and being able to use his medical knowledge to help and console his fellow inmates.

Nothing is ever lost.  When we die there are the memories that live on; there are the people we have helped and the family members we have left behind, their personalities shaped by our influence.  The struggles? Well, they live on too, shaped by the meaning we’ve assigned to them.

The physicist and Anglican Priest, Professor John Polkinghorne, gives us one final pause for thought. He puts his understanding of what happens when we die this way:  “God will download our software onto his hardware until the time he gives us new hardware to run the software again for ourselves.”  So then we have even more reason for hope; the meaning we have engaged with and has so enriched our earthly lives goes with us too.

CONCLUSION

To conclude, Viktor Frankl, and his Logotherapy, can help us and guide us through our faith journey, encouraging us to finds meaning in our worldview and to practice the ethic of self-transcendence.  Looking beyond ourselves, engaging in service and living for others is the very basis of the Christian life.

Understanding Frankl’s message can help us to become better Christians, to understand our motivations and to be happier in our own vocations and content to live the life God has given us.

And let us not forget, as I give the last word to Viktor Frankl: “Everyone has his own specific vocation or mission in life; everyone must carry out a concrete assignment that demands fulfilment. Therein he cannot be replaced, nor can his life be repeated. Thus, everyone’s task is unique as is his specific opportunity to implement it.” 

AMEN

Jan Hus

Jan Hus

Moravian Church Memorial Day: The Martyrdom of Jan Hus

(This is the text of a short sermon preached at Cliftonville Moravian Church, Belfast on Sunday 5th July 2015)

Let us reflect on that timeless phrase written in Ecclesiasticus 44:1 – ‘Let us now sing the praises of famous men.

And that is indeed what we gather here to do: to commemorate Jan Hus, or John Huss, an ecclesiastical reformer and martyr, who as I am sure you will know, is sometimes referred to as the ‘pre-reformation reformer’.  Hus was famous, but not because he had any desire to be; in fact he had no desire to be anything other than faithful to the message of Christ; it was that fidelity that would eventually earn him the moniker of martyr.

Born in Southern Bohemia in 1369, Hus studied theology in Prague, trained as a priest and was ordained in 1400.  After a relatively short, but tumultuous period, he was excommunicated by the Church in 1411 and burned at the stake on July 6, 1415 following his trial (of sorts) and public condemnation as a heretic at the Council of Constance.

Millions of Christians worldwide, across the denominations, but particularly Moravians, hold Jan Hus in very high regard, and rightly so. His tenacious and steadfast denouncement of what he regarded as erroneous practices and belief, and his defence of the primacy of conscience in the vein of Martin Luther, convinced many in Moravia and beyond that radical and urgent ecclesiastical reform was required.  It was Hus who coherently and articulately railed against a medieval Church that was elitist, corrupt and wayward, exploiting the people it had a duty to protect. Indeed he once wrote these very powerful words: “The church shines in its walls, but starves in its poor saints; it clothes its stones with gold, but leaves its children naked.” (http://lavistachurchofchrist.org/LVarticles/JohnHusThePreReformer.htm).

Hus was broadly a proponent of John Wycliffe’s philosophy and theology, which was incendiary at the time.  He emphasized personal piety, the centrality and authority of the scriptures and the place of Christ as the only head of the Church. Although he was eventually permitted a public hearing before the Council of Constance, he was not given permission to either present or defend his own views; rather he would only be permitted to answer spurious charges formulated by those who had a pre-ordained agenda to see him convicted.  The facts, which Hus was confident he could present and defend, were not to be debated in any meaningful way.  He was willing to be corrected and retract, only if his pronouncements were found to be contrary to Scripture, but he was never given that opportunity (New International Dictionary of the Christian Church: HUS, JAN (1373-1415).

On the 6th July, the final thirty articles were read to the general congregation of the council in the cathedral; none of these articles was a fair reflection of Hus’s teachings.  He refused to recant views which he did not hold and was declared an ‘obstinate heretic’ and sentenced to the ultimate punishment – death.

He was burnt at the stake in what was a barbaric, cruel and unimaginably painful punishment; Joan of Arc followed him not long thereafter.

In Hus’ own words: “What fear shall part us from God, or what death? What shall we lose if for His sake we forfeit wealth, friends, the world’s honours and our poor life? It is better to die well than to live badly. We dare not sin to avoid the punishment of death. To end in grace the present life is to be banished from misery. Truth is the last conqueror. He wins who is slain, for no adversity `hurts him if no iniquity has dominion over him.” (http://lavistachurchofchrist.org/LVarticles/JohnHusThePreReformer.htm).

Luther later condemned the burning of Hus and wrote of him, “If such a man is to be regarded as a heretic, then no person under the sun can be looked upon as a true Christian.” (http://lavistachurchofchrist.org/LVarticles/JohnHusThePreReformer.htm).

That list of true Christians, particularly those who like Hus died as martyrs, is a long one, starting with James, son of Zebedee, one of the twelve apostles, and Stephen.  Our New Testament reading this morning recounts Stephen experience. Stephen’s ‘defence’ in front of the Sanhedrin court was hardly that: it was more of a proclamation of the Christian message.  He spoke eloquently and systematically in relation to the issues he viewed as pertinent and of relevance to his audience.  At the time he spoke – before the fall of Jerusalem in A.D. 70 – , the three main strands of the Jewish faith people were focused on related to the land, the law, and the temple (Zondervan NIV Bible Commentary). And it is to these concerns that Stephen directs his energy and polemic…..a process that would lead inexorably to his death by stoning. We read of Stephen’s enduring faith as his body is tortured and his life ebbs away:  Ac 7:59 ‘While they were stoning him, Stephen prayed, “Lord Jesus, receive my spirit.” Ac 7:60 Then he fell on his knees and cried out, “Lord, do not hold this sin against them.” When he had said this, he fell asleep’.

And so today we give thanks for those who have stood up for what is right; we give thanks especially on this memorial day for Jan Hus, a man who was so devoted to the Gospel he espoused and the people he served, that it lead to his death.  He could have easily stepped back and stepped down; he could have easily recanted and opted for a much easier life.  But he did not; to do so would have been anathema to his principles and all he held dear.  The words of our hymn ‘O God, thou faithful God’ seem particularly apt, especially the second verse, as we reflect on Hus’ life and discipleship:

‘If dangers gather round,

Still keep us calm and fearless;

Help us to bear the cross

When life is dark and cheerless;

To overcome our foe

With words and actions kind;

When counsel we would know,

Good counsel let us find.’

Hus bore his cross with dignity and he steadfastly continued on the path God had chosen for him.  His rationale for his perspective was crystal clear; Indeed he once said: I hope, by God’s grace, that I am truly a Christian, not deviating from the faith, and that I would rather suffer the penalty of a terrible death than wish to affirm anything outside of the faith or transgress the commandments of our Lord Jesus Christ’.

And in taking this stance, Hus, and indeed Saint Stephen in the early church, followed on in the way of sacrifice exemplified by the Christ they adored.  It surely makes us reflect on our own lives of faith and service; we will likely never be asked to literally give our lives for our faith, but we remember Jesus’ words in Matthew 16:25
‘For whoever wants to save their life will lose it, but whoever loses their life for me will find it’.

As we look ahead, let us consider that a life of discipleship, whoever we are, is never easy.  There are difficulties along the way that we may not even predict or foresee.  Following Christ, as Hus knew, is not easy; it demands sacrifice and going against the ways of the world. It may mean standing up to ridicule, misunderstanding and persecution, but so be it. That is the call that we all accept when we become Christians – to follow the Nazarene on a journey of sacrifice and love.

Now in a few moments of silence, let us contemplate on our own lives of discipleship; let us bring ourselves before God in quiet reflection. Let us come before God as servants, seeking His will in our lives.

AMEN

Sacrificing ourselves for others, or indeed the greater good, doesn’t seem to have much currency in our modern society where individualism holds sway.  Or is this really the case?  Are there still people around who live out Jesus’ famous injunction written in John 15: 13 that ‘Greater love has no one than this, that one lay down his life for his friends’?

We are all familiar with stories of people who selflessly give of themselves to make life better for others, both known and unknown to them personally.  Most of us who have families can envisage situations where we would give our all for the lives of our sons and daughters.

But what about literally giving our lives for the greater good? Surely this is far more problematic from an ethical perspective?  Maybe so, but consider the case of a group of men who are largely forgotten, despite their actions saving countless lives, and in doing so, sacrificing their own.  And here I’m talking about the 700,000 or so ‘liquidators’ that worked at the Chernobyl Nuclear Power Plant in the immediate aftermath of the 1986 accident.

Those who worked at the plant among unparalleled levels of radiation did so knowing that their work was essential to prevent further widespread radiation release and a possible nuclear reaction that would precipitate an enormous explosion.  These men also knew that their very lives were at risk; despite this, they did what they believed was their duty.

Today, many of the liquidators are living with a plethora of chronic health conditions and disabling post-traumatic health disorder.  And they’re just the ‘lucky’ ones who have survived.  And then there’s the fact that their children frequently struggle with serious ill-health too.

It seems to me that the liquidators embody exactly what Jesus was talking about when he uttered those wonderful words: ‘Greater love has no one than this, that one lay down his life for his friends’? Their selflessness is inspirational, but their suffering is severe.  You can watch a moving short documentary on their plight, which emphasises the scale of that sacrifice, but also their suffering, below.  As you do so, ask yourself the sobering question: ‘could I have done what these men have done?‘……………….I’m still struggling to reach an answer……………..

This blog posting is the text of a sermon entitled ‘Stepping Out into the Unknown‘ preached by me on 4th January 2009.
My text is Matthew Chapter Two, Verses Nine to Ten:

 “When they had heard the king, they set out; and there, ahead of them, went the star that they had seen at its rising, until it stopped over the place where the child was. When they saw that the star had stopped, they were overwhelmed with joy.

One bible commentator once made the observation that there are few passages in the entire canon of scripture that have received more diverse interpretations than this one.  Both the scholarly and popular debates concerning this passage revolve around its historicity; in other words, does it relate to an actual event, subsequently recorded by the writer of Matthew’s Gospel, or is it simply a fictional story told to get across a purely theological message?  Some commentators have made the point that the history versus theology debate provides us with what is, in essence, a false dichotomy.  There is, in reality, no need to choose between historicity and ultimate meaning because the writer of Matthew was concerned with both.  He recorded history, not simply for the sake of it, but rather he drew on the factual to illustrate and to inform the theological meaning that was at the very core of the event itself.  One of my favourite New Testament commentators, William Barclay, made essentially the same point, although he did it much more eloquently, when he said of this passage:

There is not the slightest need to think that the coming of the Magi to the cradle of Christ is only a lovely legend.  It is exactly the kind of thing that could easily have happened in that ancient world.

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