Author Archives: wildcat8199

Covenant – A Ten Word Sermon

A Sermon for the Covenant Service preached this year.

Covenant is arguably the single most important theme running through Scripture. Scripture is, after all, the human record of God’s people telling their stories of their encounters with God. These encounters were all driven by the sense of covenant, or relationship. That covenant relationship is precisely what made them God’s people. That covenant relationship was precisely what gave God’s people their name and their identity. That covenant relationship was precisely what motivated God’s people to keep going – it was not just their past and present, it was their future direction too.

While we’re here, let’s not make too much of the distinction between the Old Covenant (or Old Tesament) and New Covenant (New Testament). There was no sudden change when Jesus was born. Jesus was, after all, within God right from the beginning of time. There was certainly no sense in which God changed either – so let’s not prop up those tired clichés about “The God of the Old Testament” or “The God of the New Testament”. It’s the same God we’re talking about, whether we read the Old or the New Testaments. The only thing that changed was our understanding of God. When Jesus was born, an awful lot of myths and misunderstandings were shattered. The tables that were overturned were a metaphor for those upended ideas.

This Covenant Sunday, I want to hold before you ten key ideas about the meaning of Covenant. I’ll let you work out for yourselves if there is any link to the Ten Commandments, although to be able to answer that one you would first have to know what the Ten Commandments are, and a recent church survey suggested that most church people who talk about the importance of the Ten Commandments can’t themselves get past naming more than about 7 of them. Anyway, back to the Ten Big Ideas about Covenant.

The first big idea is Incarnation. God becoming flesh; God becoming one of us. God in the midst of God’s people. We first hear of it in the Genesis story, when God is taking a stroll in the Garden of Eden, much to the shame of Adam and Eve. We hear of it in the prophets, when God speaks through a human channel to remind God’s people of the covenantal terms they all agreed but quickly forgot. We see it in Jesus, who embodies the fullness of the Godhead in human form. We see it in the early church, where members are characterised by their love for the unlovely.

The second big idea is Commitment. As with any relationship, it requires effort to sustain it. That effort is called commitment. It’s a giving and not counting the cost. It’s working without seeking any reward. You could use the word ‘faithfulness’ here in this meaning of the word. With Commitment, we see God’s commitment to us and to all God’s people in the Covenant, because God is faithful. God doesn’t give up.

The third big idea is Forgiveness. With forgiveness is the idea too of “willingness to forgive”. Isn’t the story of God an epic story of forgiveness on the grandest scale, over and over again and through century after century? Isn’t the willingness to forgive part of the very nature of God? One of the comedic aspects of the history of the kings of Israel is the alternating good king – bad king nature of successive leaderships, yet time and time again, God forgives the wayward people and the covenant is restored once more.

The next big idea is Kindness. As they say in the internet meme, How old were you when you first realised that “Breakfast” is called that because it is the meal with which you “Break fast” after a long sleep eating nothing? Or, How old were you when you realised that the reason people eat desserts when they are stressed is that “stressed” written backwards is “desserts”. In this case, How old were you when you realised that “Kindness” comes from the same root origin as “Kin” or “Family” – meaning that to be kind to someone is the same as treating them like one of your own family? When God makes a Covenant to show loving kindness to all God’s people, what is actually being said here?

Idea number five is Extravagance. Recklessness. Wastefulness even. Cup running over, Good measure pressed down and spilling over the top. The story of the Prodigal Son was a parable Jesus told to reveal a little about God and God’s Kingdom. “My Gaff, My Rules” as Al Murray’s pub landlord would say. Well God’s Kingdom is God’s Gaff, and so God’s Rules apply – chief amongst them is this reckless extravagance. The Parable Jesus told could more accurately be called The Prodigal Father, since the Father threw that literal kill-the-fatted-calf extravagant party that so upset the other brother who wanted everything to be fair and carefully measured. Right throughout Scripture we see this same extravagance whenever God provides for the people. That’s the kind of Covenant that God offers.

Next is Mercy. What set God’s relationship with the people at odds with the religions of the surrounding people was this sense of mercy, contrasting with the sense of appeasement that had to be bought for other deities. Those other religions were forever offering sacrifices, including human sacrifices, in order to appease the wrath of their remote god figures and ensure good harvests or favourable weather. The God of Israel showed mercy – not of the screaming “Am I not merciful?” from the Emperor Commodus in the film Gladiator, but a gentle loving mercy that had no precedent. Mercy is a character trait that God brings to the Covenant table.

Idea number Seven is Grace. You were probably waiting for that one. Ian Smale, songwriter for kids ministry, summed up the difference between Grace and mercy as follows: Grace is when God gives us the things we don’t deserve; Mercy is when God does not give us what we deserve.
Yet Grace is so much more than unmerited giving. It is a way of being more than doing. It is a way of putting the other first, rather than putting self first. It is an attitude of service rather than control. God is gracious, and God’s Grace is integral to the Covenant relationship.

We couldn’t go much further without Love. This is our eighth Idea. To say God is Love is the closest we can get to explaining the fullness of God in a single word. Some writers have said that God is not a person, God is a verb. Love is an action, after all, and God’s people are all those who receive that love. We are helped in this understanding so much by the metaphors of the Bridegroom and the Bride Church, or by the beautiful and poetic imagery of lovers in the Song of Songs. Poets down through the centuries have tried to explain what love is, especially that rapturous sense of being “in love”. God’s covenant relationship is motivated by love, driven by love and sustained by love. Love is the very essence of who God is.

Idea number nine is Promise. Where commitment was the signing up to the deal at the beginning, and a way to sustain the relationship for the present, promise is constantly looking to the future. Whenever we say “I promise to …” we are talking about our future behaviour, actions and responsibilities. It’s an IOU if you like, just as every banknote in the land bears that famous promise from the Bank of England, “I promise to pay the bearer the sum of…” With the Covenant, God promises a relationship with the words “You will be my people and I will be your God”. Note the future tense there, and note too the emphasis in God’s words on God’s people collectively rather than any individual relationship.

Our tenth idea is … Mystery. Left until last because it was probably the most unexpected in my list, but also left until last because this one is so great that nothing can follow it. When we do our theology, when we talk about what God is like, we must spend the greater part simply admitting we don’t know. God is unfathomable, and any church that claims to have all the answers is therefore blasphemous. We can’t dare to claim we know God, but we can say with confidence that God absolutely knows us, even the bits that we really wish God didn’t know, but also we can say that despite God knowing us fully, warts and all, God loves us unconditionally. There’s so much about God which is and always will be a complete mystery, but we do know that. The mystery of God is absent in so much popular Christian literature, and it is a glaring omission. I would encourage you most urgently to start redressing the balance by reading a book called The Universal Christ by modern mystic Richard Rohr. Highly recommended. Anyway, back to our ten.

These ten ideas tell us ten different aspects of God’s character that God brings to the Covenant table. If we dare to sign up to the Covenant then we must be prepared to offer all ten characteristics back to God.

Except that it doesn’t work like that. We are not called to think of our Sunday Church attendance as our side of the Covenant. In fact I would suggest that our Sunday Church attendance has nothing to do with keeping our side of the Covenant at all. You see, our response to God’s love, to God’s Covenant relationship is not “upwards” but “outwards”. Our response is to our neighbour.

So, we go through all ten of those big themes one more time, very quickly, and in reverse order, as we consider the way we must reflect the ten characteristics of God just mentioned.

The mystery, as Paul says, is the presence of Christ in all humanity. The Universal Christ of which Richard Rohr writes. The mystery of Christ in our neighbour is what motivates us to respond to them. We make a promise today to keep this Covenant, and that promise is to our neighbour – to the oppressed, the captive, the refugee, those desperate. Our promise is to show love to them, a love which is expressed in our grace and mercy. A love which is expressed in the extravagance of our response to their needs, not seeking glory for ourselves, but secret extravagance which blows them away with our kindness. Kindness even, that sees all humanity as we would members of our own family.

None of this is possible unless we as a church are a healthy representation of the body of Christ. Healing comes when we forgive one another, not seeking revenge or demanding justice on our terms. Forgiveness means letting go, for when we forgive we cease to carry around the pain we feel, and in the Lord’s Prayer we ask God to forgive us as we forgive others. That’s how God’s Kingdom comes on earth.

In this Covenant Service we are making a Commitment – not just to God, but to one another and to all our neighbours. The commitment to love God, love others, love our neighbours and even love our enemies, is never one we should enter into lightly, for it demands everything from us. If you cannot make that commitment today then please sit it out and have another go next year when you may feel ready to do so.

Finally, the incarnation of God lies within us. We are called no less to embody Christ in this world. We are called not just to be Jesus’ hands and feet, but perhaps more urgently today to be his words, his prayers and even his anger – joining others to turn over tables in protest at the sickening injustices of today’s society.

Out of the many characteristics that God brings to this table in the Covenant with all God’s people, I have highlighted just ten today. Can you bring those same ten characteristics in your own response as an expression of your side of the Covenant, of your love for God, but most of of your love for your neighbour?

May God give you the strength and courage to say yes today. Amen.

Revd Stephen Froggatt

Grief, Loss and Bereavement – a free workshop

Workshop Date: Wednesday 31st March 2021 @ 7:30pm

For some Christians, the death of a loved one is inexcusable. Why didn’t God heal him/her? Did God ignore my prayers?

In this workshop we raise some of the big questions around death and dying, and around prayer and faith, as we explore bereavement from a Christian perspective.

We recognise that this is an emotive topic so we have Chaplaincy colleagues (Deacon Marilyn and Deacon Rachel) available for 1-1 discussions and prayer in ‘breakout rooms’ if required.

The workshop is set deliberately in Holy Week so that we can anticipate the joy of celebrating Christ’s resurrection, and thus bring some answers to our questions.
The event is designed for people from churches in the Sutton Park Circuit, and will be led by Revd Stephen Froggatt. Questions raised by this group will inform Stephen’s sabbatical study on the need for lament in public worship.

Revd Emily Young will also be on hand to ‘make the virtual tea’ and assist with the technology. We all hope you can join us online on 31st March.

Book via Eventbrite

Greeting The Passers-By at FOMC

Thanks to a generous donor and some excellent work from The Printers, Four Oaks Methodist Church has put up a lovely new Christmas banner to cheer people this Christmas as they drive round the roundabout and come into Lichfield Road.

This sturdy banner will withstand all the winter weather that comes its way, and will still be able to be stowed away afterwards for re-use of course. It also looks great next to our Christmas tree!

After a year which has been so hard for so many, we can still celebrate the Light of Christ who enters our dark world. As you read this, may you too know Christ’s peace, hope and joy this Christmas.

Words on the Word – Sunday 22nd November

Today is the final week of Lectionary Year A. The Church year begins with Advent Sunday and takes us through the seasons as far as the Sunday before Advent, which is called Christ The King Sunday. Our readings for Christ The King Sunday this year are as follows:

  • Ezekiel 34:11-16, 20-24
  • Psalm 95:1-7a or Psalm 100
  • Ephesians 1:15-23
  • Matthew 25:31-46

These readings can all be read online here.

Ezekiel 34

Much of the imagery in the New Testament comes from rich seams in the Old Testament – look particularly at the “I am” statements of Jesus in John’s Gospel. Whenever Jesus claims a title for himself he does so not as an idea plucked out of thin air, but as an idea long-embedded in the familiar Scriptures of his hearers. Jesus takes and owns these titles for himself because they belong to God.

Psalm 23 is one of the most well-known passages of Scripture ever, and its popularity at funerals is understandable. Yet it is not the only reference to the idea of God as shepherd. They begin as far back as Cain and Abel (Abel was a ‘keeper of the sheep’); Abraham, Isaac and Jacob all shared this role. Moses too had been tending sheep when confronted by the burning bush, and David – the author of Psalm 23 – was of course a humble shepherd boy when he was appointed and anointed by Samuel to be the future King. The other important Psalm references to Sheep and Shepherds can be found in Psalms 28, 44, 49, 74, 78, 80, 95, 100 and 119.

Music choice for today – a piece which will be sung in churches and cathedrals countrywide during Advent – The Advent Antiphon ‘Matin Responsory’ by Palestrina. Listen out for the quote from Psalm 80.

The passage in Ezekiel is important to us because God announces through the prophets that a new Shepherd will one day come ‘from the line of David’ – and so into that sense of expectation Jesus later announces “I am the good shepherd”.

Yet it doesn’t stop at Jesus. The post-resurrection conversations with the disciples who will build Christ’s church are for us too. “Feed my lambs…take care of my sheep” says Jesus to Peter in John 21. That’s a call for us too.

Psalm 95

This Psalm is otherwise known as The Venite – a Psalm traditionally sung at Morning Prayer. The word ‘Venite’, of course, means “O Come” – the opening words of the Psalm. Why do we come together? We come together to praise God!

Take a moment to read through this Psalm and count the number of reasons given by the Psalmist to praise God. But notice then that the crescendo builds to the phrases “the people of his pasture” and “the sheep of his hand”.

My Shepherd is the Lord! Join me in worship!

Two contrasting musical versions for you – a traditional version sung to a chant by a cathedral choir, and a reggae version sung by the incomparable Grace Thrillers gospel band.

Psalm 100

This Psalm is otherwise known as The Jubilate – a Psalm also traditionally sung at Morning Prayer. The word ‘Jubilate’, of course, means “O Be Joyful” – the opening words of the Psalm. The word might also be familiar to folk who sang the popular “Hebrew-style” Jubilate Everybody back in the 1980s. The word is etymologically linked to various English words too.

In terms of content, the Psalmist is on a similar theme to the words of Psalm 95 above. The call is to ‘be joyful’ and ‘worship the Lord’, and the reasons for doing so are again listed. Notably for us today, “we are his people” and we are “the sheep of his pasture”.

Shepherding was a career of notoriously low reputation, as we read in Philo’s writings (c. 50 BC to 50 AD), which makes it all the more remarkable that God’s people use such imagery to sing of God, remarkable that shepherds were chosen to be the first to witness the birth of Jesus, and remarkable that Jesus would ultimately take that title for himself.

I read with joy today of an initiative called a “tuneless choir”. It is widely known that people love to sing together, but we can’t all sing like Celine Dion or Andrea Bocelli. The idea of the Tuneless Choir is that it is completely unconditional and inclusive. People with dementia, people with learning difficulties, people who couldn’t hold a note if they grasped it with both hands – all are welcome to sing along as robustly as they please.

Surely that is singing joyfully!

Ephesians 1

How effective is your evangelisation as a church? Paul’s letters tell us that there is nothing more praiseworthy, or no indication more healthy, than a church fellowship that has a reputation for its faith and love. Have you seen that church over there? They are so full of faith, they literally live what they say, and their love – not just for one another but for every stranger that comes by – is so palpable that I just have to tell others about it! When Paul hears of such reputations doing the rounds, he gives thanks to God, and then writes to the Church to tell them what he has heard.

We have a trinitarian prayer in the next section, as Paul writes “I pray that the God of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Father of glory, may give you a spirit of wisdom and revelation” and we note that “Father of glory” is an unusual phrase. The sense of ‘glory’ is close to the overshadowing presence of God in the burning bush, or in the pillar of fire and cloud, or on Mt Sinai, or at Jesus’ Tranfiguration, and this helps us to understand the prayer for wisdom and enlightenment that comes from God and not from human effort.

It is then that we understand the reason for Paul’s prayer – a prayer we can pray too – that our hearts might be opened (“enlightened”) to know the hope of our glorious inheritance as people of faith.

Matthew 25

In this, our third reading in consecutive weeks from Matthew 25, we reach the familiar parable of sheep and goats. Not only do we have a shepherding image at the start which connects us to other readings today, but we have another watching and waiting story as we have had on prevous weeks.

The shepherding imagery concerns the shepherd who separates sheep and goats. In Bible lands and times these scraggy animals wouldn’t have been quite as easy to separate as the fluffy white lambs and coarse-haired goats of today’s farms, so it required manual sorting, thus giving the image of the Son of Man separating people from one another a more individualised context.

The parallel imagery continues for a moment longer, however, because in the parable, the people become sheep and goats as they are sorted with the righteous sheep going to the right and the wayward goats going to the left. In passing, the “right hand” always signified the “favoured ones” – see for example the hands used by dying patriarchs as they chose to bless their adult children.

What’s interesting about this particular story about watching and waiting is that the characters in the story don’t know that they are in the story – they don’t know that they are the ones watching and waiting. Suddenly the Son of Man calls them to account for the previous behaviour and they hadn’t realised that their previous behaviour was going to be assessed.

I saw a wonderful story recently of a man who was being interviewed for a high-powered job in the city and was told that he had blown the interview even before he had been asked the first question. Little did he realise that the CEO of the company had disguised herself as the front desk receptionist. The man had swaggered in to the building, not even making eye contact with the receptionist, treating her like dirt as he mansplained his way to the interview waiting area. It was only when the men in suits stood up to greet the CEO, when she finally entered the room to take up the vacant seat behind the interview table, that the man realised what he had done. [Tip to interview candiates: treat every member of the team from cleaner to executive as your boss!]

I find Paul’s opening words to the Ephesians helpful (above) as he prays for God’s Spirit to bring wisdom and enlightenment. When the eyes of your heart are open, then you can see Christ in “the very least of these my children” and respond accordingly.

Grace and peace,

Stephen

This concludes the series “Words on the Word”. To those who have been with me for the past seven months and 50,000 words, I thank you for journeying with me through the Lectionary Readings this year. God bless you.

Words on the Word – Sunday 15th November 2020

Today is the Second Sunday before Advent Year A (Proper 28) or 33rd in Ordinary Time. We are coming towards the end of Year A. The Lectionary Readings for today are as follows:

  • Judges 4:1-7
  • Psalm 123
  • 1 Thessalonians 5:1-11
  • Matthew 25:14-30

Judges 4

The gift of the Lectionary offers a 3-year journey through Scripture, but with a tendency to leave out both the most boring and the most controversial passages. Here we have skipped daintily over Ehud’s eye-watering assassination of the oppressive (and very fat) Moabite King Eglon. To find out more, read Judges 3:21-22 – actually, don’t!

We enter this passage with the report of the death of Ehud, the good guy, but rather than renewing their allegiance to God for this victory over the Moabites, the Israelites simply fall back into their old ways, and are caught napping by the next oppressor – King Jabin of Canaan. We are told that the commander of his army was Sisera – a name which may be familiar to those who have a fondness for the Bible’s gory bits. But perhaps I am getting ahead of myself!

We are also introduced to Deborah, who is clearly a woman not to be messed with. Another feisty woman comes later – Jael, the wife of Heber. It’s refreshing to see strong female leads in the Bible every now and again! Under Deborah’s command, Barak completely overpowers Sisera’s forces to the point where Sisera is the lone survivor fleeing on foot. Jael is the one who urges Sisera to take refuge in her tent, and Sisera acquiesces to her charms. Sisera is then the victim of the next eye-watering assassination. To find out more, read Judges 4:21-22 – actually, don’t!

Why are these extraordinary stories part of our Bible? Well the bigger picture is of course the story of people of Israel as they stumble through their history with their fluctuating allegiances to God along the way. We learn that while the faithfulness of God’s people is of varied levels of commitment, God’s faithfulness is everlasting, and God’s mercy is eternal. It is not the actions of God’s people that define the people of God, but the actions of God.

Psalm 123

These short Psalms in this section of the Psalter are called the Psalms of Ascent. They were pilgrim songs, learned off by heart and sung by God’s people as they travelled up to Jerusalem for the various festivals. As the people look up while walking, they see the mighty Jerusalem rising above them and are drawn to praise God.

Incidentally, one of the most mis-quoted Psalms of Ascent begins with an entirely different punctuation from that mis-remembered by so many.

Psalm 121 does NOT begin with the words:

I lift up my eyes unto the hills, whence cometh my help!

Instead, it begins:

I lift up my eyes unto the hills. Whence cometh my help?

In other words, the hills do not bring me any help at all. When I look to the hills I find no help. Where does my help come from then? My help comes from the Lord!

Similarly in this Psalm 123 – I lift up my eyes, certainly, but it is not to majestic mountains or mighty buildings. I lift up my eyes to you, O Lord, who are enthroned in the heavens!

As the pilgrims continue upwards on their journey, so they dare to pray for God’s mercy. May this festival be a time of renewal, that through the mercy of God, their souls might know God’s peace. What a way to approach any time of worship!

1 Thessalonians 5

The thrust of Paul’s charge in this reading is the instruction to ‘walk in the light’. Perhaps you know the song “The Spirit lives to set us free” which has that phrase as a refrain (although you’ll have sung the phrase no fewer than 36 times by the time you arrive panting and breathless at the end…), but here Paul makes good use of the contrast between light and dark, day and night; the things ‘of the night’ refer to sin – and how many sins are committed at night, today as ever was; the things ‘of the day’ refer to good deeds and acts of righteousness. In the night belong sleep, drunkenness and debauchery. In the day belong sobriety, faith, hope and love.

Much as the night time is attractive in what it hides, and in what opportunities it presents for climbing into bed (literally and metaphorically), let the reader understand that the call to follow Christ is the call to go beyond the darkness of Gethsemane and live in the light of the resurrection morning.

Matthew 25

A ‘talent’ in this context is a unit of weight, as measured on the balance scales. We don’t have the specific context here, but elsewhere a talent has been equivalent to the money need to pay one day’s wages to 6,000 labourers. Whatever the interpretation, this is a life-changing amount of money. What should the servants do with such a vast sum?

Perhaps we can at least chuckle at the irony that at least when it was written, putting the money in the bank would have earned better returns than burying it in the ground! Yet then, as now, the way to grow money was through buying and selling (actual goods or ‘stocks and shares’ – it is the same idea). Another option was to lend the money at high interest. My own Dad always taught us to “make your money work for you” rather than simply wasting it on things we didn’t really need.

This reading parallels the Epistle in the ‘burying’ of the money being allied to the ‘darkness’ of sin. Be out in the open! Live in the light! Furthermore, we have the ‘watchfulness’ theme of Matthew 25 as the servants await the arrival of the master. As with the Bridegroom story earlier, there is a judgment pronouncement in the story when the expected one finally arrives.

Al of this, of course, points us towards our Advent theme which we shall be marking for the four weeks from 29th November, when we look forward not just to the recounting of the first coming of Christ as God in human form, but also to the second coming of Christ in all his fearful majesty. The word ‘Advent’ means ‘Come towards’. We are being urged to ‘walk in the light’ as we wait for Christ to come, and to be prudent in the manner of our living.

In the meantime, it may be helpful to contemplate the ‘gifts’ or ‘talents’ you have been given. How will you use them for God’s glory?

Grace and peace,

Stephen

Words on the Word will conclude next week with the 22nd November edition.

Words on the Word – Sunday 8th November 2020

Year A Proper 27 (Ordinary 32) is the Third Sunday before Advent Sunday (29th November). Year B begins on Advent Sunday, so this series of ‘Words on the Word’ is shortly coming to an end. The Lectionary readings for this week are as follows:

Joshua 24:1-3a, 14-25
Psalm 78:1-7
1 Thessalonians 4:13-18
Matthew 25:1-13

Joshua 24

This is a fine example of a Farewell Discourse – a “Goodbye Speech”. Jesus uses a similar structure for his Farewell Discourse at the end of John’s Gospel. Many other Old Testament characters have a form of Farewell Discourse too. Notice the various components that build up from Chapter 23 (22?) onwards.

  • Joshua knows he is old and is going to die soon
  • He gathers together his people around him
  • He tells them he is going to die
  • He commends them for their work to date
  • He assures them of their share of the inheritance
  • He urges them to be strong
  • He reminds them that God is with them, and will still be with them
  • He urges them to remain loyal to God and the Law
  • He reminds them of God’s blessings to come

This pattern outlines as well much of what Jesus says in his Final Discourse speech, especially in John Chapters 13-16. It would have been a familiar structure to the Disciples.

The verses omitted in the Lectionary are largely historical details, which can of course be looked up if desired. We conclude with the death and burial of Joshua – repeated in Judges 2 for continuity – and life for God’s people in the Promised Land begins its new chapter.

Psalm 78

Did you enjoy History at school? I can’t say I was a big fan. There’s only so many times you can learn about the Romans AGAIN before the fog descends. In my day it really was names, dates and battles with no mention (that I can recall) of any global consequences or metanarrative giving us the overarching themes or the big picture. These days my history teacher friends have at their disposal such exciting resources that far more pupils get swept up in the thrill of the storylines as they weave in and out of time – and frequently repeat themselves.

I am left, therefore with only a rudimentary knowledge of British history, let alone World history and politics from the past 2000 years, and so I am still frantically trying to fill in the gaps with the help of the likes of Simon Schama or Andrew Marr.

Nothing would have been further from the truth for the people of Israel, who would have known their history going back centuries, right down to individual names, and they would have known their place in the continuum through their rigorous ancestral record-keeping. Their history was not taught through dry texts filled with black and white images of indistinct Roman coins – their history was SUNG. And as every teacher knows, if you sing it, you memorise it.

In this passage we read only the introductory verses of Psalm 78, but the whole Psalm is a History lesson set to music. Children would have delighted in showing off their memorisation skills by singing this Psalm in full, word perfect. In this way, the story of God’s involvement in the history of God’s people is recounted afresh for each new generation.

1 Thessalonians 4

“We believe that Jesus died and rose again” (verse 14) – this passage today provides an early Christian Creed in its full, succinct and memorable form. The Lection is one of the several recommended passages to be read at Christian funerals, with good reason, and it is particularly useful as a reading for Remembrance or Memorial services, especially on All Saints’ Day which has just passed. If we do not begin with the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ then we face a hopeless end. If, however, we do begin with the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ then we face an endless hope.

The words ‘rise’ and ‘caught up in the clouds’ suggest a supernatural post-mortem vertical motion (head first? feet first?) which strikes me as more comical than helpful. It may work for Hollywood movies or whimsical Christian art, but I find it all rather twee to be honest. The Greek ‘rise’ could just as well be translated as ‘wake up’ or ‘get up from sleep’, or even simply ‘stand up’ (after sitting or lying down). There’s a sense here for me of opening the eyes properly, of truly being alive, of seeing things so brilliantly now that it is as if we had been blind all along before. As for ‘caught up in the clouds’, we get a better picture of this by reading the Transfiguration narrative, where Jesus ‘caught up in the clouds’ mirrors Moses ‘caught up in the clouds’ and actually means being in the presence of God. When we dig deeper into Celtic or mystical spirituality we become more willing to accept the always-on presence of God in all things, the liminality of the heaven-earth boundary. We see an interdimensionality of God’s presence which goes far beyond our working models of up-down-left-right. You no more have to go upwards in order to be in God’s presence than you need to go upstairs in order to think.

These words must be taken for the joyous symbolism that they represent. No-one can tell us what it will be like when we die, but we do know it will far exceed our imagination.

Matthew 25

So we come to the first of the three readings from Matthew 25 as we conclude Year A. This is the story of the Bridesmaids and the Bridegroom – and the bridesmaids are presented in this parable as being either ‘wise’ or ‘foolish’. In fact this is the theme of the whole chapter – in each of the three parables the characters are divided into those who made the right choice and those who didn’t.

What is Wisdom? We are told that ‘Fear of the Lord is the beginning of Wisdom’. We have a portrait of Wisdom personified as a female in the famous Proverbs 31. Jesus calls us to be ‘wise as serpents’. Wisdom, in New Testament terms, means being constantly open to the movement of God’s Spirit as we live in this strange period we call both the ‘now’ and the ‘not yet’ in an eschatological sense. Ever vigilant. Ever ready.

Jesus the Bridegroom is preparing to meet his Bride the Church – a vision celebrated too in Revelation 21. Is the Church ready? Is the Church prepared for the denouement of 1 Thessalonians 4?

In this short journey leading up to Advent we are awaiting the coming of the New-Born King. It won’t be long before we sing “O Come, O Come, Emmanuel”.

But will we be ready?

Grace and peace,

Stephen Froggatt

Words On The Word will finish on 22nd November.

Words on the Word – Sunday 25th October

The Lectionary Readings for Today:

  • Deuteronomy 34: 1-12 or Leviticus 19:1-2, 15-18
  • Psalm 90: 1-6, 13-17 or Psalm 1
  • 1 Thessalonians 2: 1-8
  • Matthew 22: 34-46

You can find the Lectionary readings together online here.

Deuteronomy 34

So much of significance happens in this short passage.

First of all, Moses is shown the entire sweep of the Promised Land, and then within moments he is told that he shall not enter it himself. This follows Moses’ unfaithfulness at Meribah (Numbers 20).

With that, Moses dies. Significantly, we are told, Moses dies and is buried in an unmarked grave somewhere in Moab.

The significance of Moab? Well, the Moabites and the Israelites never really saw eye-to-eye. Moab the person was the son of Lot by an incestuous relationship with his own daughter – the penalty for which sin prevented the Moabites entering the assembly of the Lord down to the tenth generation (Deuteronomy 23). The Moabites saw the Israelites as a threat.

Do you remember Balaam’s ass? Balaam had been commanded by Balak, King of Moab, to curse the Israelites, but as you will recall, Balaam blessed them instead.

Do you remember the story of Ruth? Elimelech’s family were forced to move from Bethlehem to Moab because of the famine, and one of these wives, named Ruth, returned with her Mother-in-law Naomi to Bethlehem when Elimelech died. Ruth the Moabite.

Contemporary histories tell us that Moab fell to the Assyrians in the latter part of the 8th Century BC, as featured in the oracle against Moab in Isaiah 15-16. Moab was then conquered by Nebuchadnezzar and the Babylonians in the 6th Century BC, before ultimately falling to Rome.

Yet despite even all this humiliation, God provides even the Moabites, via Ruth, a part to play in the history of God’s people. When Stephen Fry chose what he considered the most mocking send-up of obscure Bible references he chose “Moab is my washpot” for the title of his first autobiography. Little did he know that by selecting Psalm 60:8 (or Psalm 108:9) he was in fact choosing a pivotal verse in the history of the Royal Line of David.

We conclude with the introduction of Joshua son of Nun, who will take over from Moses, and despite his ignominious burial, a moving tribute to the great leader.

Leviticus 19

This is the passage “Be holy as I am holy”.

I can offer no finer words than the Blog post I read earlier this week and which I commend to you now. Read it here.

You may also be interested in the Methodist Holiness Journal, edited by the eminent Revd Dr Andrew Stobart. Past issues are free to download. See here.

Psalm 90

We used to sing Psalms in school, as I have previously mentioned. Psalm 90 was a strong favourite, with its thunderous tune in the minor key and its fearful words.
We were reminded in its terrifying poetry of our own mortality (“The days of our age are threescore years and ten; and though men be so strong that they come to fourscore years”), of our sinfulness and of our hopelessness in the face of God’s wrath.
Then the tune would change into a major key at verse 13, as the Psalmist begs forgiveness and mercy, trusting in the God who has been faithful and merciful before to do so again now.

There are many versions available online – here’s a fine one, albeit to another tune, sung by the Choir of Westminster Abbey. Listen to it here.

Psalm 1

BLESSED – so begins the first Psalm in the First of the Five Books of the Psalter. So too begins Jesus’s teaching in Matthew 5, more commonly called The Sermon On The Mount.

This is no mere coincidence. Time and time again, Jewish Matthew is writing to his Jewish audience about Jesus the Jew, stressing over and over again the links with the Hebrew Scriptures (which we call the Old Testament), and more specifically the first five books called the Torah or Pentateuch.

The Psalmist is not promising future blessings (nor indeed is Jesus), but is saying “You are already blessed because…”

That’s why in some translations we see the word “Happy” instead of “Blessed”. It refers to that sense of inner joy, knowing that you have not walked in the counsel of the wicked nor lingered in the way of sinners, nor sat in the seats of the scornful (Jewish repetition for emphasis there).

Note then how the Psalmist turns immediately to the polar opposite of the transgressor, by referring to the delight of the one who meditates on God’s Law.
This is a prequel to Psalm 19, which itself is a foretaste of the rapturous Psalm 119.
While there is a danger of abusing this text for a ‘prosperity gospel’ it is more to do with one’s name being fruitful – held favourably in the memories of our descendants rather than prospering in material terms.

This long-lasting memory is then contrasted again with the transience of the wicked, who like the verses in Psalm 90, are compared to dried grass which just blows away into dust.

1 Thessalonians 2

The preaching of the Gospel is never motivated by a desire to appeal to worldly vanities or the approval of mortals. It cannot be suppressed by threats of oppression – indeed such opposition paradoxically only fans the flames and makes them burn brighter – but is emboldened by the Holy Spirit.

Paul and his companions (Silas and Timothy) wanted to preach to the Thessalonians simply because they loved them, and were determined not to let anything get in their way.

Notice how Paul uses the rhetorical device of “litotes” – using a negative in order to affirm something strongly postive. Just like we would say “It’s not bad” when we actually mean something is very good.

THE ESV Study Bible Notes help to bring this out more clearly:

Paul states his thesis in general terms before demonstrating it with specific regard to the Thessalonian mission. Negatively, Paul insists that the missionaries were not characterised by a faulty message, impure motives, or dubious methods. Positively, he states that they preached the gospel as those approved by God and as those committed to speaking in order not to please their human audience but to please God who tests our hearts. Not only did God sanction the missionaries to proclaim his gospel; God continues to approve of their inner motives and integrity. Similarly, negatively, Paul asserts that he and his fellow missionaries had not spoken as charlatans or false prophets in order to gratify their own vanity, line their own pockets, or gain (even legitimate) honour. Positively, he stresses the missionaries’ sincerity and selfless and profound devotion toward the Thessalonian believers, extending beyond the call of duty.

Matthew 22

What is the Law? It was a question at the very heart of what it meant to be Jewish.
Matthew deliberately organised his Gospel as a commentary on Torah / Law, even down to grouping Jesus’ teaching into five (compare with the Pentateuch!) extended blocks of teaching.

Writing to Jews, his emphasis was primarily on Jesus as the fulfilling / interpretation / embodiment of the Law, as well as Messianic fulfilment of OT prophecies.
What question could they ask Jesus? Are you on the side of the Law or not?

Again a trap is in the balance. If Jesus says “I’m on the side of the Law” then these Pharisees will challenge him for all the breaches of the 613 individual laws that made up their legal code. If he says “I’m not on the side of the Law” then he is admitting that the Law doesn’t apply to him and they’ll get him anyway.

So Jesus begins by reciting the Shema : “Hear, O Israel, The Lord your God is One God. You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and all your mind and with all your strength” thus proving his Jewishness if such proof was needed.

Then he goes straight into the Golden Rule – Love your neighbour as yourself. Within those two laws, he says, the whole Torah is contained. Brilliant! Never has the lawyer’s flabber been so gasted, as Frankie Howerd would say.

Thus we become aware of the link with Psalm 1 (delight in God’s Law), and with Leviticus 199 (the holiness of God).

The ground prepared, Jesus asks them about their understanding of the Messiah.
The light goes on, but these Pharisees aren’t brave enough to step away from the shadows.

Grace and peace,

Stephen Froggatt

Words on the Word – Sunday 18th October 2020

Lectionary Readings for today, Year A Proper 24:

  • Exodus 33:12-23
  • Psalm 99
  • 1 Thessalonians 1:1-10
  • Matthew 22:15-22

These readings can also be read online here.

Exodus 33

Those Israelites! In Chapter 32 we read of their disgraceful behaviour when they begged Aaron to fashion a golden calf so they could worship it while they waited for Moses. We read of Moses’ violent anger, but in this chapter it threatens to get much, much worse.

Up until now, God’s presence has been with them as a pillar of cloud by day and a pillar of fire by night, resting visibly in their midst when they camped, and going on before them when they travelled. God’s presence was the reason for their identity. God’s presence fashioned them out of “nobodies” into “Israelites”. Now they realise that if God deserts them, their very existence hangs in the balance. They could become “nobodies” again and simply vanish into history. “Go on ahead!” says God to the people in v3 of this chapter, “but I will not go with you”. They are crestfallen and mourn bitterly.

Notice too how in their act of mourning they strip themselves of all their jewellery (v6) – the very items which they had previously taken to fashion the golden calf. Strip them off lest we are tempted that way again, they think to themselves. God’s chosen people are about to become a People With No Name. Can Moses help them again?

Moses goes into the Tent of Meeting for a ‘face to face’ meeting with God. What is the state of the Covenant? Is it broken for ever? No, says God, but things will be different now. From here on we have the re-written stone tablets, the renewal of the Covenant (never broken anyway by God, only broken by God’s people) and the establishment of the Tabernacle in place of the Tent of Meeting.

Show me your glory! Moses pleads with God. This is almost blasphemous in itself, for no-one can see God and live. [Yet still this phrase bizarrely makes its way into several of our contemporary worship songs…] God does not respond with more righteous fury, but rather offers a compromise – God’s glory will appear and pass by Moses while Moses has his back turned, so that Moses might live. 1 Kings 19 tells a similar story about Elijah.

The story continues. There will come a time when we shall see God’s glory.

And the name of God’s glory is Jesus (John 1.14). Full of grace and truth.

Psalm 99

This short Psalm serves as a Prologue for Psalm 100, that great Psalm of praise “Be joyful to the Lord, all you lands!”. Why should all the lands be joyful to the Lord? Simply because God is holy, and this Psalm echoes with that loud refrain.

Choose a couple of different translations of this Psalm and note that whichever version we use, this Psalm is filled with great words of power and awe. Obviously it is a commentary on the Exodus narrative, and as with other Psalms, it gives song to the ancient histories of God’s people so that they will never be forgotten.

You can almost hear the unspoken warning – never again must you dare make a golden calf (in whatever form your idolatry may take). God is holy. Bow down before God’s throne – in fact God is so holy, just bow down before God’s footstool.

1 Thessalonians 1

With any of Paul’s letters, it’s good to pause on the opening words. There’s a three part structure, typical of letters at that time:

  • Sender
  • Recipient
  • Greetings

Note that Paul has already started to ‘Christianise’ the opening of this letter, even before he has finished with the greeting. Indeed, sme writers suggest that this greeting never really ends, and is still going in Chapter 3!

The work of threes continues. Paul says that he and his co-workers Silvanus and Timothy are:

  • Giving God thanks
  • Remembering the Thessalonians before God
  • Mentioning them in their prayers

before commending the Thessalonians for their

  • Work of faith
  • Labour of love
  • Steadfastness of hope

Faith, hope and love – have we seen that somewhere else?

Matthew 22

Now these Pharisees and Herodians didn’t exactly get along. The Jewish people were under Roman occupation: The Pharisees, being Jewish, hated the Romansl the Herodians; being on Herod’s side, supported the Romans. The only thing they had in common, then, was their hatred of Jesus. So here they are, in a rare moment of agreement, plotting to put to Jesus a question so well crafted that whatever way Jesus replies, they will have grounds for a riot.

The tax to the Emperor was money given to support the Roman Occupation. Not only that, it had to be paid using Roman coinage, which was untouchable to the Jews. If Jesus said it had to be paid, then he would be supporting the Romans (and inciting the Jews against him). If Jesus said it shouldn’t be paid then he would be charged with sedition and have the weight of Rome bearing down on him.

The Roman coin in question, we are told, is a Denarius. It would have had an image of Caesar (most likely Tiberius) with the inscription “Caesar Augustus Tiberius, Son of the Divine Augustus”. Remembering that “Caesar” means the same as “Lord” or “King”, this is saying:

Tiberius is Lord. Tiberius is the Son of God.

Jews would see this as double blasphemy – the graven image and the idolatry. Incidentally, you can see now how seditious it was for Christians to cry:

Jesus is Lord. Jesus is the Son of God.

You hypocrites, says Jesus, to the Jews who have been carrying this doubly-blasphemous coin in their robes while accusing others of blasphemy.

Jesus gets straight to the point and once again confounds his opponents. The trap has failed. The coin already belongs to Caesar, so give it back to Caesar. But when you do that, remember that everything of God should be given to God.

It is all the Pharisees and Herodians can do but walk away empty-handed again.

Congratulations Sister Phyllis!

It has come to our attention that 19th October marks a very significant milestone. It was on that date, back in 1949, that a young Phyllis Thorne was accredited as a Local Preacher in the Methodist Church. This year, 2020, she celebrates 71 years as a Local Preacher!

Our huge congratulations go to Sister Phyllis on this remarkable anniversary, and we thank God for her long years of ministry.

Although she is not currently preaching, Phyllis continues to write and have ‘deep conversations’. You can find some of her recent writing here on this Blog.