Sunday, November 28, 2010

In the days of Noah.

rainbow_Panorama b&w

Today's Sermon.  Text Matthew 24:36-44

Even just a short time ago hardly anyone would have predicted the enormity of what is now happening to our country. The thought that we would be plunged into a recession so low and debt levels so high that we will never be able to afford even the interest on the loans let alone the loans themselves would have been laughed off. In the midst of the ‘Celtic Tiger’, whilst the Property Bubble was still expanding, no one predicted how great the fall that we are now experiencing would be. Anytime an economist came on the radio and said that the whole thing was unsustainable, they were laughed at and not taken seriously. The mentality of so many was ‘eat drink and be merry’; with no thought to the consequences of endless spending and borrowing of money that was not ours. It turns out that predicting the future is a hard thing to do.

When I was a boy, I was fortunate enough to go with my parents on a holiday to Italy. My favourite part was when we visited the ancient city of Pompeii. This city in Roman times was full of life and home to 18,000 people. They were just living their lives when, out of the blue, there was an enormous volcanic eruption which rained down hot ash on the city. Many managed to escape, but 2000 people didn’t, they were buried alive. Today you can walk through the city streets and see ancient shop signs, houses, and theatres and it’s not hard to imagine that the people there had no idea when they woke up that morning on August 24th AD 79 that it would be their last day on earth.

The second coming seems all a bit like something from a Hollywood movie, something fantastic and theatrical. I think it's one of those times when the Bible uses metaphorical (or picture) language to convey to us what it will be like.

The most important thing about chapter 24 in Mathew's Gospel is to remember that it is primarily about the end of the world’s history. History is in a real sense “His Story”. The Kingdom of God came with Jesus’ Incarnation; when He lived among us. The Lord’s disciples, both then and now are citizens of two countries; we belong to this age and in the age to come. As Micheal Green puts it “”We are not what we were, but equally, we are not yet what we shall be”(1). History is steadily moving to the day when God’s Kingdom will be “Consummated”, that is achieved and fully realised. Jesus’ return will settle forever the destiny of all people. There will be no sitting on the fence, either we are with Him or we are against Him (cf. Matthew 12:30)

Our reading begins with the Lord saying:

‘But about that day and hour no one knows, neither the angels of heaven, nor the Son, but only the Father...’ (36)

Only the Father knows when the end will come, not even the Lord Jesus in His human nature knew, nor should we give any heed to anyone who claims they know when it will be either! There have over the centuries been many people who have tried to predict when the second coming would be. One of the most famous was a chap called John Napier, a sixteenth-century mathematician. He applied logarithms and all sorts of clever formulae he had invented and applied it to the book of Revelation (the last book of the New Testament). He then calculated that Jesus would return sometime between 1688 and 1700. His book sold like hot cakes and went into twenty-three editions - until 1701, when sales unaccountably plummeted!(2)

To help His disciples understand what His second coming would be like, the Lord Jesus then says:

For as the days of Noah were, so will be the coming of the Son of Man. For as in those days before the flood they were eating and drinking, marrying and giving in marriage, until the day Noah entered the ark, and they knew nothing until the flood came and swept them all away, so too will be the coming of the Son of Man. (37-39).

The people In Noah's day would have had a hard time believing the warnings that a great cataclysmic flood was going to sweep them away, even though Noah was building a great big Ark (as a more than subtle hint)! If they really suspected that the end was coming they would have asked Noah if they could get on board. The people in Noah’s day were just getting on with their lives, just like we do today, they were eating and drinking and marrying right up until the end. The warnings are there for us too, though we have something much greater than an Ark to find safety in, we have the Lord Jesus Christ; He is our Ark, it is through believing and trusting in Him as our Lord and Saviour that we find eternal safety and salvation.

We do not know when the end will come but the door of the Ark is still open and there is still time to get on board, why wait, we do not know how long we have, it may be tomorrow for all we know?

The Lord Jesus explains things further when He says:

Then two will be in the field; one will be taken and one will be left. Two women will be grinding meal together; one will be taken and one will be left. Keep awake therefore, for you do not know on what day your Lord is coming. (40-42)

It is clear that once the final day arrives, all opportunity for repentance will be gone, the door is shut. These are very sobering verses which act as a clear warning to us. If we are not on board the Ark of Christ we shall be left behind, lost forever, there will be no second chance.
Jesus is pleading with us - ‘get on board, take my hand, quickly, now before it is too late.’

He continues:

But understand this: if the owner of the house had known in what part of the night the thief was coming, he would have stayed awake and would not have let his house be broken into. Therefore you also must be ready, for the Son of Man is coming at an unexpected hour. (43-44)

Anyone that has had their house broken into will be able to relate to this. It happened to Sonja and I once, in our previous Rectory. We came back one evening to see a couple of windows broken open and saw that they had tried to break into the very strong filing cabinet in the study, making quite a mess of it in the process. Of course, if we had known what time the burglar was coming we would have been ready, we would have had all the lights on in the house and let it be obvious that we were there, so the burglar would not have bothered trying to break in. The Lord Jesus urges us to live lives of constant readiness for His return, to live in joyful hope and expectation that He is coming at an unexpected hour.

Probably most of you have heard of or read some of John Grisham’s novels, such as The Firm, Pelican Brief, and The Client. Despite his fame and wealth, Grisham makes a concerted effort to focus on things that have lasting meaning, including his faith in God. Grisham remembers, as a young law student, the remarkable advice of a friend:
“One of my best friends in college died when he was 25, just a few years after we graduated from Mississippi State University. I was in law school, and he called me one day and wanted to get together. So we had lunch, and he told me he had cancer. I couldn't believe it.
"What do you do when you realize you are about to die?" I asked.
"It's real simple," he said. "You get things right with God, and you spend as much time with those you love as you can. Then you settle up with everybody else."
Finally he said, "You know, really, you ought to live every day like you have only a few more days to live."
Grisham concludes: ‘I haven't forgotten those words’”.
Will Norton, Jr., in Christianity Today.Christian Reader, Vol. 32, no. 6.(3)

Let us make the very best use of the time we have left, because no matter who we are the time is short and will go very quickly. Let us make sure that we know Christ as our Lord and Saviour and let us make sure that we are living lives of readiness and expectancy: What would we like Jesus to find us doing when He returns? Then let us be doing that thing. Amen.

(1) Matthew for Today, Michael Green, Hodder & Stoughton, 1999, p.229
(2) From Scripture Union Bible Notes “Closer to God”, No.12, 2001.

Thursday, November 18, 2010


Courtmacsherry Harbour

This was Courtmacsherry harbour last week as we waited for "The Storm". It's strange how the word "harbouring" seems (to me at least) to have negative connotations. We hear about someone "harbouring criminals" or someone "harbouring" bad thoughts or bitterness / resentment in their hearts, which is of course something that we need to be aware of.

But I like to think of what God Harbours us from, though even as I write that many many objections pop up in my mind!  It is a deep and holy privilege of my work to listen to and to pray with people who have experienced every high and every low that life has to offer.  Yes I can think of many times when a sick person has recovered, when a potential tragedy has been averted or the joy of when a person accepts Jesus as their Lord and Saviour.  But I can also bring to mind many times when a sick person has not recovered, when a tragedy has happened and of trying to minister to people who have no cause for any kind of hope or joy in their lives.

Bishop Paul Colton struck a chord with many people last week with a 'tweet'.  Trying to come to terms with the sudden tragic death of a young man on a hockey pitch he wrote the next morning:
Yesterday was a day when my and others' prayers were not answered. It's hard to pray again today. Club is heartbroken. Andrew Chambers, RIP
Sometimes it seems that God does not shelter us, we are left to face the full blast of the storm, apparently on our own.  We cry out to him for help but our prayers are swallowed by a great void of nothingness.  I am reminded what what C.S. Lewis wrote after the death of his wife in his book "A grief observed" On trying to pray he experienced:
"... A door slammed in your face, and a sound of bolting and double bolting on the inside. After that, silence”
As I struggled to come to terms this week with Andy Chambers' death, as my prayers joined those of hundreds, (if not thousands) of others in praying for his family and friends, and for Bishop Paul as he ministered in that situation, a strange sentence kept repeating itself over and over in my mind.  The words were strange, but I immediately knew what they were and Who it was that spoke them:
‘Eli, Eli, lema sabachthani?’

They are the words of Jesus on the cross "My God, My God, why have you forsaken me?"  If we ever feel forsaken by God, if our despair is too great, our pain too intense or our anger too hot, then these words of Christ become our words.  In this life we can only ever have a partial answer, but if Christ himself knew what it was like then it perhaps is against the hard, rough and blood-stained foot of the cross that we find the beginnings of a response...

Photo notes:  This picture is actually sixteen separate pictures 'stitched' together as a panorama - it takes a bit of practise to get it right!  Here's how to do it with a digital SLR:  First of all set the lens to 50mm equivalent (to minimise distortion), then take a meter reading from the brightest part of the scene.  Then put the camera in manual mode and set it to whatever the meter reading was (eg. f10, 1/250 sec) then disable the auto ISO (I used ISO 200) and manually set the white balance (I used 'cloudy' for the above), finally make sure to turn autofocus off and depending on the scene set it for just short of infinity.  Then start at one end and work your way across taking pictures.  Make sure that you have plenty of overlap with each picture as this helps the computer to create the image afterwards.  (You can do this using JPEG's, but I use RAW files, again to give the computer more to work with).  If you have photoshop you are laughing, I have an old version of photoshop elements which does the job almost as well, though there are many other programmes both free and expensive that will do the job for you.  If you want to know more, just ask and I will be happy to help.

Thursday, November 11, 2010

Dulce et Decorum Est? (The old Lie)

We will remember them...

The poem of this name was one we had to learn in school.  The horrors of the first world war put to rest any ridiculous romantic notion of it being "Sweet and right to die for one's country." (Dulce et decorum est Pro patria mori.)

We will remember them...

Dulce et Decorum Est

Bent double, like old beggars under sacks,
Knock-kneed, coughing like hags, we cursed through sludge,
Till on the haunting flares we turned our backs
And towards our distant rest began to trudge.
Men marched asleep.  Many had lost their boots
But limped on, blood-shod.  All went lame; all blind;
Drunk with fatigue; deaf even to the hoots
Of tired, outstripped Five-Nines that dropped behind.

Gas! Gas! Quick, boys!---An ecstasy of fumbling,
Fitting the clumsy helmets just in time;
But someone still was yelling out and stumbling
And flound'ring like a man in fire or lime . . .
Dim, through the misty panes and thick green light,
As under a green sea, I saw him drowning.

In all my dreams, before my helpless sight,
He plunges at me, guttering, choking, drowning.

If in some smothering dreams you too could pace
Behind the wagon that we flung him in,
And watch the white eyes writhing in his face,
His hanging face, like a devil's sick of sin;
If you could hear, at every jolt, the blood
Come gargling from the froth-corrupted lungs,
Obscene as cancer, bitter as the cud
Of vile, incurable sores on innocent tongues,---
My friend, you would not tell with such high zest
To children ardent for some desperate glory,
The old Lie: Dulce et decorum est
Pro patria mori.
Wilfred Owen.
(See link for more on this poem).

Tuesday, November 9, 2010

Horses for Courses (or why I am an Anglican)

West Cork Horses
(West Cork Horses waiting for that strange guy with a camera to fall off the fence, 
and no I am not sitting on any metaphorical fences, see below).  

By the time I was in my early twenties I had been thoroughly put off the Anglican Church for life, or so I thought. I had attended a Church of England boarding school where we were required to attend chapel every day, seven days a week. Listening to the chaplain preach, carefully explaining why the miracles in the Bible never actually happened and then singing the Te Deum (tedium) was like some kind of Chinese water torture. I finally gave up on the Church of England when on my first Sunday at University I went to the local Cathedral, to be greeted by no one, sat in a space where no one came within a hundred feet of me and then no one said good bye as I was leaving at the end of a very dry and boring service.

I started going to the Baptist Church when I was home. They were brilliant, friendly (but not invasively so), and I learnt so much from the great sermons and the example of the way those in the youth group lived. At University (after my brief flirtation with the Cathedral) I followed the crowd and went to the Elim Pentecostal church. They too were great people, great sermons, great ministry to the students (especially the free lunches - of course there is no such thing as a free lunch, the catch was that these people really cared about you). I probably learnt more about God, His love for me as a sinner and about personal holiness from these two churches than from anywhere else since. This was the place where I met my future wife; we journeyed though these churches together and it was a wonderful time.

Skip forward a few years and we find ourselves living in Ireland. Yes, there was an Elim and other churches in the nearby town, but we felt drawn to the local Church of Ireland. A good sized congregation was eight people; it was difficult to see any hope for the future. In my massive ignorance and shameful naivety I doubted how God could use a place like this. We helped with the Sunday School, more children then showed up and we began to realise that this place mattered to God (I am ashamed to think that I ever doubted otherwise). I can’t remember if it was a dream or a very clear picture in my imagination but I saw clearly that this church was like a table where there was very little food on the table and the people were very grateful for whatever there was. Other churches had more food than they could eat and their tables were overflowing. There was no doubt where we were needed most. It was not long after this that the sense of call (to ordination) came, starting as a small voice and growing gradually to the point that it was impossible to ignore or put off any longer.

I get frustrated today by anyone who thinks their church is better than someone else’s. We could take all day and hundreds of pages outlining the faults of the Anglican Church (in fact this is what many people seem to spend their whole time doing), but it is my home, it is the part of the church to which I feel called to help out in some small way.

I’ve been skirting around the edge of what I want to say because I am trying to put it as delicately and sensitively and lovingly as I can. Please my brothers and sisters in other church denominations don’t think that your denomination has got it right and the part of the church to which I belong has got it wrong. Please don’t feel sorry for me or patronise me; yes we pray using a book, yes our new hymns are not very new or trendy, yes our clergy wear seventeenth century fancy dress, yes we struggle with a historical / modern / relevant dialectic and I could keep going, but my point is this: We are part of the Body of Christ. Together.

For just as the body is one and has many members, and all the members of the body, though many, are one body, so it is with Christ. For in the one Spirit we were all baptized into one body—Jews or Greeks, slaves or free—and we were all made to drink of one Spirit.

(1 Corinthians 12:12).

When I was thinking about all this a phrase which I haven’t heard for a long time popped into my head, “Horses for Courses”.  I couldn’t have told you what it actually meant, so I looked it up: It means that some horses are more suited to some race courses than others, so some people take to some things better than others. God has made us all uniquely individual. Some people I believe are naturally predisposed to worship God in different ways (see Gary Thomas’ book “Sacred Pathways”, Zondervan, 2000, for more on this). Now if someone finds their home in one church denomination, how strange it is that they should look negatively on others who attend churches of other denominations.  Some like to worship in silence, some like to look at icons to help them pray, some like organ music, others like drums and guitars, some like incense, some like video screens, some like medieval hymns some like songs that are in tune with contemporary music trends. All these things are good if they draw a person closer to God. All these things are bad if they become an end in themselves.

Horses for Courses and lets leave it there.

Thursday, November 4, 2010

Towards the Sun - a lesson from nature.

Towards the Light

Sunflowers are amazing; we all love the large yellow flowerheads and the fact that they can grow so tall with little or no help from the gardener.  The most wonderful thing about them is their ability to track the Sun.  At night, the flowers move either not at all or randomly about, but with sunrise they immediately (in plant terms) turn to face the east and then follow the Sun throughout the day until it finally sets in the west.  They call this Heliotropism (thanks to Wikipedia for that one) and this reminds me of a great truth...

The Lord Jesus said:
“I am the light of the world. Whoever follows me will never walk in darkness, but will have the light of life.”
(John 8:12)

Like the Sunflower, we were made to follow the light.  The Sunflower follows the Sun, we follow The Son, the Light of the World.  

And another verse, this time from Ephesians 5:8
"For you were once darkness, but now you are light in the Lord. Live as children of light."

Photo notes:  I'm fairly sure that I couldn't have taken this picture with my digital camera (a Nikon D70s); the sun would have been overexposed to the point that the whole right hand side of the picture would have been white, with no clear definition in it at all.  I could have then exposed for the sun, but that would have meant that the left hand side of the picture would have been very dull.  If I had a graduated neutral density filter I could have used it but I don't have one :-(  However, a great advantage of slide film is increased dynamic range (you can get more detail in the highlights and in the shadows than you can with all but the most expensive digital cameras).  Of course you get great colour and a three dimensional look too, and you also get the joy of not knowing what your pictures will look like until that little box arrives in the post and you hold up those small plastic slides to the light...

Tuesday, November 2, 2010

Gougane Barra

During last months clergy conference we had a couple of hours of free time, so I made my way to Gougane Barra.  St. Fin Barre built a monastery here in the sixth century and it's not hard to see why; it is a beautiful and peaceful place...

But there is something about this place that goes beyond its beauty. Perhaps it's because of the centuries of prayer and Christian witness, perhaps it's the example of St. Fin Barre himself or maybe it is because this place predates our man-made church denominations. In the sixth century there were no Protestant or Roman Catholic churches in Ireland, that all came later (and all the pain / mess that came with it which continues to this day).  Last night at the Institution service for the new Rector in Bandon, Rev. Denis MacCarthy, there was a particular prayer before the Holy Communion that struck a chord with me:

As the grain once scattered in the fields
 and the grapes once dispersed on the hillside
 are now reunited on this table in bread and wine,
 so, Lord, may your whole Church soon be gathered together 
from the corners of the earth into your kingdom.  Amen.

Gougane Barra 2

Gougane Barra 1

Gougane Barra 5

Gougane Barra Church Interior

All pictures taken using Nikon F100, Nikkor 18-35mm lens and Fujichrome Sensia 100 Slide Film (which has now sadly been discontinued).