Author Archives: Anabel Marsh

About Anabel Marsh

I'm a proud Glaswegian who loves to go gallivanting both at home and abroad. Join me in my travels, both historic and current. Credit where credit's due: photography mostly by my more talented other half, John.

Obituary: John G Mitchell

John Mitchell, 1929-2015

John Mitchell, 1929-2015

Dad chose his friend and colleague Rev Wes Blakey to write his obituary for the Methodist Conference. The family is thankful to Wes for performing this service and for allowing us to publish it on the blog. I’ve done so today, because it would have been Dad’s 86th birthday.

JOHN GORDON MITCHELL was born in Greenock, Renfrewshire, on 3rd July 1929, the eldest of four children of John and Annie, and baptized in the Church of Scotland where he attended Sunday School and the Life Boys. In war-time he went with school friends to Salvation Army and played baritone and trombone in Junior Band and later went with one of his sisters to the Junior Christian Endeavour in Roxburgh Street Methodist Church. His time at the Methodist Church had a profound influence upon John, where he became a member of the Sunday School, Youth Fellowship, and Lance Corporal in the Boys Brigade leading a regular Bible Class in the latter. Here, the ministry of Rev Ivor Seeley was a huge influence upon the young John.

On John’s 14th birthday he left school and began work for meagre wages and long hours on a farm in Kilmalcolm, which left no time for church or much else. Two years later he returned home and eventually gained an engineering apprenticeship. He was able then to return to Roxburgh Street Church where he was immediately welcomed back and was active again in Youth Club, Youth Fellowship and became Sunday School Superintendent.

Following a call to preach he became Fully Accredited in 1949 and then went on to answer a call to ordained ministry and, when accepted in 1950, began his studies at Wesley College Headingley.

John’s love of sport continued through his 3 years of college, becoming the football team’s goalkeeper, and in 3rd year he was team captain and General Sports Secretary.

During his candidating process a friendship grew between John and Chris, who was a member at Ardgowan Methodist Church, Greenock but, as was the custom then, marriage had to wait until August 1956 after ordination. That began a strong and loving partnership of mutual support which enriched John’s ministry in every respect.

John served in North of Scotland Mission 1953-56; Haltwhistle 1956-62; Sunderland North 1962-68; Newcastle Mission 1968-73 ; Consett 1973-80. In the latter two he served as superintendent and in 1980 was appointed as Chairman of Newcastle upon Tyne District. During these years he held many District and Connexional roles ~ both Assistant Synod Secretary and then Synod Secretary; and both times of the Methodist Conference being held in Newcastle in his ministry he was very involved as Assistant Secretary then Chairman of the Arrangements Committee.

John and Chris’s daughters Anabel and Elspeth were both born in Haltwhistle, and ultimately they were to introduce sons-in-law John and Winston and then granddaughters Harriet and Cassie; he took great delight in them all, each adding a joyous dimension to his life.

Above all else, John was an excellent pastor, always approachable and, no matter how busy he was, he made time for people. He was blessed with an astonishingly good memory for names and details about people, and in any gathering – Church, Circuit or District – he consequently knew the people with whom he was meeting and could tell almost to the minute when some ministers were going to sneak out of Synod, thinking they had missed his eye. Sometimes a conversation with them in the following days would kindly remind them that he knew!

His preparation for meetings was immaculate, and always began with prepared devotions that were thoughtful, helpful and set the right spirit for that which lay ahead, many of which he recorded in his book First on The Agenda which inspired many of his peers and those he ‘took under his wing’. Throughout his ministry, his administration and business acumen enhanced each meeting and led the church wisely and well.

John’s leading of worship and preaching was inspirational and never skirted around thorny issues, even his rocking backwards and forwards on his toes and using some lesser known Scottish phrases, endeared him more to his congregations and made his words even more memorable. When he decided he would not lead public worship any longer he started to write his blog, where his pearls of wisdom and rich experiences continued to inspire.

Throughout all he was a great ecumenist, working well with church leaders to bring about better understanding and closer working between denominations. As a District Chairman he made a huge contribution to the Connexional scene in many ways, but always stressed he was a minister of the people and that was paramount.

A man of many parts, who loved and was loved by his family; respected and admired by his colleagues for his support, which was second to none, and his immense quiet wisdom.

Tidy to the last, he died on the last day of the quarter having finished his blog, the last post in a trilogy, between watching the Scottish and English Cup finals on TV the day before. He died on 31st May 2015 in the eighty-sixth year of his age and the sixty-second year of his ministry.

Wes Blakey, June 2015

Back to the world

John Mitchell 1929-2015

John Mitchell 1929-2015

It is with great sadness that I have to tell you that John Mitchell, my father, died suddenly on 31st May. He had sent me his last blog post the previous day, the third in a trilogy on conversion, which I am now publishing below in his memory.

The regular reader of this blog will be alert to the fact that the last two editions have pondered over two of three aspects of Christian conversion. It follows this must be the third and final presentation of our chosen topic – a matter of relevance and significance in the undergirding of our evangelism. There are three conversions to a Christian man or woman’s life. First, to Christ, then to the Church and then back to the world. Or, put another way, there are three ways in which an alleged conversion may be incomplete and imperfect. This exercise introduces itself thus: a conversion is incomplete if it does not leave us with a sense of overwhelming responsibility for the world. The sisters and brothers we are bidden to strengthen and support are both outwith the church and within. A temptation for the church is for us to become a holy huddle, cosying up to one another for warmth. Yes! I know! I know! I have pleaded in the second post on this theme for us to create the warmth of a loving, caring fellowship. At the same time, a church must never become a closed shop, drawing its blinds to the world outside; lost in praise and prayer; connoisseurs of preaching and liturgy; busy congratulating itself on the excellence of its Christian experience and Christian fellowship. Although in recent years the church has accepted its responsibility to serve the present age, sadly in my view there are still some Christian folk who see the church’s sole role as securing the soul a space in heaven.

The name Bob Holman may be a familiar one to some if your newspaper is the Herald or the Guardian. There was a time when he regularly wrote for both those newspapers. Although not all of his readers always agreed with him, his columns were popular as they were stimulating and challenging. I may be wrong but I would credit him as an ardent, evangelical Christian by conviction, with a strong measure of socialism surging through his veins. What is more, he practised what he preached. He was a professor at Bath University, from which post he resigned to launch a community project among vulnerable residents in a deprived area of Bath. After ten years there, he and his wife moved to Easterhouse, a suburb of Glasgow with a reputation of deprivation and its accompanying social problems, and there he became associated in the social and community ministry of the pastor of the Baptist Church he attended. He not only worked in this greatly disadvantaged and much publicised community, he lived there, side by side with his neighbours, identifying with them, helping in their personal and family crises, supporting and encouraging them when they were in conflict with the authorities. And in between, he wrote to newspaper editors and politicians on matters of political concern or social injustice, championing the cause of the poor and inadequate.

I have on my shelves a book by Bob Holman entitled Ordinary Christians. He writes: For nearly fifty years, everywhere that I go God gives me friends, ordinary people with whom I feel comfortable, whom I care for and who care for me. The book tells the stories of twelve ordinary people who became Christians and shows that God still calls such people to serve Him. Like Bron, a converted agnostic, who, in spite of personal difficulties and disappointments, raised funds, supported and visited as a volunteer a ministry in El Salvador. Even in her fifties and in retirement she lived frugally and bought all her clothes from charity shops. She said: As a socialist I gave 10% of my salary, as an Anglican I gave 30%, when I became a Catholic I thought it should be all for the Lord. The stories of the others are similar, converts to Christianity, joining the church, sustained by the fellowship and following in the footsteps of the Lord, loving, caring and working for those who are among the world’s born-losers.’ Converted to new life; converted to serve; back to the world. A worthy response to the Good News of Jesus.

65 years a preacher

65 years a preacher

John Mitchell

3rd July 1929 – 31st May 2015

Rest in peace

The Church – the Body of Christ

A conversion is incomplete without Jesus in central place in our life, Lord of All. And second, conversion is incomplete if it does not bring us into the full fellowship of the Church. Who believes it these days? Fewer and fewer – at least in our country. For more and more people, the church is not for them – an anachronism, the butt of ridicule. Doctor John White, a well-kent figure in church in his day, preaching at an open-air meeting was heckled continuously. One heckler shouted at him, “Why should I go to church? It is full of hypocrites!” “Correct”, Dr White threw back at him, “but there is still room for another!”

There is more room than ever today for hypocrites and whosoever will belong. If we cannot arrest the spiralling decline in church membership by 2040, we are informed, only 0.5% of the population will belong to church. Enough said! There are many reasons given for people ignoring the church, apart from the absurd idea that we are all a bunch of hypocrites, or that we have not moved with the times. I am certain a lot of our friends have voted with their feet because of what they consider to be the entrenched stance of the church over matters of personal morality. And it seems to me that, in this respect, the voice of concern and protest in regard to family planning and contraception has, for the time being, given way to matters relating to same-sex marriages.

Why is the Church in decline? It is not! Maybe in the UK and Europe – yes. It is a different story in Africa and South America. World-wide the church is growing, most certainly giving expression to their commitment to Christ and Faith. A young woman being interviewed as a prospective candidate for the church’s ministry was asked what she would most like to see in the church during her ministry. She replied immediately, “Full churches”. Would not we all? The pessimistic streak in me thought “poor girl”. In a different mood, the prospect of a dying church and the adverse impact on the ministry and mission of Jesus, the vision I have of a church on its last legs is not as bleak.

We began this essay with the bold statement that our conversion is incomplete if our embrace of faith takes no account of the Church. Here we are about to enter to the realm of controversy – Is that opening assertion written in stone? I am not so certain. I do not hold with the view that all of those folk whom we would love to see in church do not share with us a spiritual hunger or are not impressed by the story of a Saviour’s life, his mission and ministry and the breadth of his love. I believe (there will be those who disagree) the many folk who assure us that they have no ambition to commit themselves to the church, that they have found faith and love Jesus without the restricting hindrance of the church. I have a lot of sympathy for that point of view and find myself on occasions asking, might they not be in the sight of God, Christians, entitled as much as you and me to be named disciple? My friends may be relieved that, so far, I have returned to orthodoxy! I still hold that a conversion is incomplete until we embrace the full fellowship of the Church. For a number of reasons – I shall mention two briefly.

First: the journey of Christian faith is far too hard for any one of us to go it alone. We need one another, a helping hand as we stumble along the rough path of faith, a shoulder to lean on, and the wise counsel of those who have “been there – got the T-shirt”, a guide who is heaven-sent. Secondly, God needs the church, which is why it is the Body of Christ (1 Corinthians 12). The Body of Christ to preserve and proclaim the stories of Jesus and of the love that passes all our understanding, to seek out and bring women and men into the embrace of a Heavenly Father’s love. God still needs the church; still uses the church.

Lord of all

Conversion of St Augustine. Fra Angelico (circa 1395–1455) and workshop [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

Conversion of St Augustine. Fra Angelico (circa 1395–1455) and workshop [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

It has been said that there are three conversions in a Christian man or woman’s life. First to Christ, then to the church and then back to the world. Or, put another way, there are three ways in which an alleged conversion may be incomplete and imperfect. I propose in the next two or three issues to have a look at those three facets of the conversion process as stated above.

First, a conversion is incomplete if it does not leave Jesus in the central place in our life. In fact, without him it cannot happen. I have told the story; I repeat it without apology. It takes me back to Salvation Army days when I was young and had never witnessed an altar call. I have told in an earlier edition how I missed out on a visit to the penitent form. It was not uncommon in those days for the sermon in worship to conclude with an appeal to those who were not saved to claim the gift of salvation here and now. As I recall, the first testimony given by a convert went something like this: The worse of drink one Saturday night I followed the band to its meeting place [the SA Citadel] and I heard the story of Jesus from the Major. At his invitation, I staggered to the altar and knelt there and surrendered my life to the Lord Jesus Christ, my Saviour. I have never looked back; Amen!’ The testimony of a man for whom it happened the way St Paul told the people in Rome. He said: If you confess with the mouth the Lord Jesus and believe in your hearts, you shall be saved. (Romans 10:9) How we describe who Jesus is may differ from person to person, circumstances may differ, but down through the centuries women and men have told the same story. Even so, the Christian church is far from monochrome in the way it does things, the way it says things, what it believes on certain issues and its expectations of its members.

When the Second World War ended and the need for reconciliation and the restoration of broken relationships was both urgent and necessary, the first post-war Conference of World Christians was planned to convene as soon as possible. The big question, in view of the great diversity, ecclesiastically and nationally – how could this large and diverse community come together and hold together? No easy matter, in the circumstances. Jesus Christ is Lord was the banner that united all who gathered in Oslo on that historic occasion. Surprisingly, Jesus was not called Lord very often in the Gospels. But of all the titles of Jesus, the word Lord became the more commonly used. By the time of Paul, in one form or another, the Apostle refers to Jesus as Lord some two hundred times and it was Jesus the risen Lord who saved and redeemed, that convinced them he is Lord. A bishop in some branches of the church is addressed as My Lord, although no one pretends that he or she ranks alongside Jesus in status or authority. Nevertheless, it is a pity that any servant of the Church is accorded the same title given to the One whose unique authority alone merits it. Do not let us confuse the one with the other, or even compare or imagine any likeness. Jesus is Lord, the one person with the sole right to claim our full obedience.

There is no better illustration than to think of our elder forebears in the faith subjected to the authority of the Roman Empire. At the very beginning of the Jesus movement, Rome was a force to be reckoned with throughout the then known world: there were few places where the Roman Ensign was not raised. But the Roman Empire was a vast heterogeneous mass, difficult to unite and hold together. Rome looked for some unifying bond and thought it had hit on the ideal solution. Caesar worship would do the trick. Once a year anyone living under the flag of the Roman Empire was required to burn a mere pinch of incense to the godhead of the Emperor and to say Caesar is Lord. Do it, then go home and worship whichever god or gods took your fancy. A simple and innocuous ritual, but it was too much to ask of Christians. They dug in their heels: there was to be no surrender and no compromise. Jesus alone was entitled to their obedience and none other than Jesus was Lord.

Richard Holloway, a former Bishop of Edinburgh, put it like this: They heard from Him a divinely compelling demand. What Jesus stood for had an enormous intrinsic power. It compelled people, converted them, it turned them around. This is the touchstone of our Christianity, the first step in our Christian conversion – to be confronted by the wonder of Jesus that He can do for us what we can never hope to achieve by ourselves.

Say and do

How can I understand unless someone explains it to me? Philip told him the Good News about Jesus. Acts 8: 31 & 35

The Baptism of the Ethiopian Eunuch by the Deacon Philip. Lambert Sustris [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

The Baptism of the Ethiopian Eunuch by the Deacon Philip. Lambert Sustris [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

We do not know a lot about Philip. What we do know is that he was one of seven Church Leaders appointed to sort things out, following a quarrel among the members of the church about the management of certain funds and other practical matters, so that the Apostles could concentrate on their ministry of prayer and preaching, unhindered by such trivial distractions. Philip was also a preaching evangelist, sent to head a mission to the Samaritan people. A bold undertaking, for Jew and Samaritan had not got on with one another for a thousand years – the hostility intense and bitter. And tradition has it that Philip was the first to lead a black African to faith in Jesus. That is what the opening verse of this reflection is all about.

Even less is known about the Ethiopian who heard the good news about Jesus from Philip. We are led to believe that he was most probably black but a eunuch, and that he held high office, none other than Chancellor of the Exchequer in the Court of Candace, Queen of Ethiopia. Candace was not her real name, but a title given to all the Queens of Ethiopia. When the two characters in our story met, the Chancellor had just been to Jerusalem to worship God. So, he was religious, either a Jew or a devout man fed up with the multiplicity of gods on offer, looking to Judaism for something better. When Philip meets him on the road out of Jerusalem he was riding in his carriage, reading and struggling with the text of Hebrew Scripture. Philip, man of the hour for this wandering pilgrim in search of true faith by asking the pertinent questions, longing and hoping for answers that made sense.

And Philip knew what to do and what to say – with great effect. Philip, grasping his chance, told him the good news about Jesus as they travelled the road together, unlikely to be looking at the scenery through which they journeyed. The Word of the Lord was by far more important and urgent. Whereas most of the commentaries consulted translate that Philip, “preached to him the good news”, I prefer the alternative, “told him the good news.” No chance of the award ‘PhD’ for that little morsel of biblical criticism! It is simply that as I endeavour to imagine the scene, “told” the good news somehow fits better, speaks more eloquently. What matter, the great thing in this story is that Philip knew what to say and what to do and a new convert was baptized and went on his way rejoicing. A conversion to Christian faith, always an occasion of great joy but it is just the beginning!

The body of Christ

Bartolomeo_Montagna_-_Saint_Paul_-_Google_Art_Project

St Paul: Bartolomeo Montagna [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

You are the body of Christ (1 Corinthians 12:27 ) –  the hands to do his work, the feet to lead folk in his way, the voice to tell them how he died; for Christ has no help but our help to lead folk to his side.

So says a verse – a familiar, well-worn verse that tries to put Paul’s concept of the Church in context for us. A. J. Gossip once said that Christ’s aim for this world was to produce a race of Christs. Not a phrase I very much like, although when Jesus said I have set you an example, you are to do as I have done for you, the invitation is to be like Him. If people want to know what Jesus is like, they ought to be able to see Him in us, His body! Really! Just think of it, our body, unfit, crippled frail, slow, ageing.

It is a folly to sing of Gentle Jesus, meek and mild; folly to go to the other extreme; folly to impress on Paul’s picture an Atlas type figure. Paul presents a different image: the Church – the Body of the Risen Christ – a crucified body: the body broken for you, for me, for the world’s salvation.

Three things to remember:

First, Paul does not doubt that the contribution of the weaker parts is valued.

Second, when the church is under pressure God does not write her off.

Third, we cannot be in the company of Jesus without personal cost.

A followers prayer:

Lord Jesus Christ in our weakness may we find your strength, In our failure , your forgiveness, In success, your humility, In all things, your peace.

Forsaken

Carl Heinrich Bloch [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

Carl Heinrich Bloch [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

At 3 o’clock Jesus cried out with a loud shout, Eloi, Eloi, lama sabachthani, which means, My God, My God, why have you forsaken me?

There is a mystery behind this cry of Jesus from the Cross that we have not been able to penetrate. It is almost impossible to imagine Jesus utterly forsaken by God. We ask – how could it be? Jesus, always so sure of the presence of his Father God, how could it be that he should feel so abandoned by Him, just at the moment he needed Him most? In the course of my ministry I have watched people die and sometimes not without considerable suffering. There has been on their faces a light and a peace that spoke more eloquently than any words of assurance promising that God does not forsake us even as we draw our last breath; that He may be closer to us in death than we have been aware of him in life.

We are surprised and puzzled by those words of dereliction that reach out from the Cross. Very difficult to explain. So difficult some people say those words could never have crossed the lips of Jesus, that the writer of the Gospel, to make the quotation from Psalm 22 more palatable, has deliberately inserted it in the editing of the Gospel with the intent of giving it a more dramatic ring to impress upon the reader and listener how much was the cost of our salvation to Jesus. In one early manuscript, for example, the words are altered and read Why hast thou taunted me? The explanation for this change is that the copyist took offence at the words of the orthodox translation and edited it for what he considered a more appropriate utterance. There are biblical scholars who solve the problem with the theory that, since it is impossible to think of Jesus being left in the lurch by his Father God, the quotation from Psalm 22, this cry of dereliction, was appended to the story of the Cross by the Gospel writers to underpin the sentiment encapsulated in the words of a well-known hymn: what pains He had to bear and it was for us He hung and suffered there. Well, maybe to quote from the same hymn – we may not know, we cannot tell.

You knew something was troubling my old landlady when you heard her quietly reciting the words of Psalm 23 – The Lord’s my Shepherd, a favourite passage of Scripture for her because, she explained to me, of its soothing and assuring effect, it lifted her up! Perhaps Jesus was similarly reciting the Psalm to ease the pain, the agony of it all. Who knows? Dr Vincent Taylor, Principal of Wesley College when I was a student, presented the evidence for and against the authenticity of this saying of Jesus, and said: It is improbable that tradition would have assigned to Jesus such a saying, except under warrant of past testimony. What he is saying is that, for a moment or two, as He hung on the Cross, Jesus did have a feeling of being abandoned, not only by His nation and His friends, but even by His Heavenly Father.

Two-sided picture

Jeremiah by Rembrandt [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

Jeremiah by Rembrandt [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

Jeremiah might have been forgiven for thinking God had a grudge against him when God chose him to be a prophet. But when many supposed God to be dead or slumbering, Jeremiah had to tell them that, far from it, God was active, chastening his people in the presence of their oppressors. In all that was happening to them, hard though it was to accept or understand, God was working his purpose out. Jeremiah was certain that he was entrusted with a Word from the Lord and that he must proclaim it. Nevertheless there were occasions when he wished, as did The Great Messenger still to come, the Lord Jesus, that God would take the cup from him. There is a passage in the story of his life and mission that explains his dilemma, described as “one of the most impressive and most revealing passages in all the writings by the prophets”.

If I say, I will not make mention of Him, or speak any more in his name, there is in my heart as it were a burning fire shut up in my bones, and I am weary with holding it in, and I cannot. (Jeremiah 20: 9)

Here, in Chapter 20, the soul of Jeremiah is exposed and disclosed in his bleakest and darkest hour. He curses the day he was born. He is driven to the depths of despair. He was flogged and put in the stocks and thrown into a pit – and this is just part of the mockery and suffering he endured, the cost of loyalty to his Calling. Derision is hard to take, worse than violent blows, and few can cope with it. Jeremiah began to think himself a failure. He blames God for getting him into this sorry mess. God is still the subject of blame.

But there is another side to his story. There comes a time when Jeremiah is in prison and, during this time, he does a very unusual thing. From his cell in a city besieged, and his hopes daily diminished, Jeremiah bought a field in Anathoth. He was a native of Anathoth and the land, left in the hands of his cousin Hanamel, Jeremiah had a right to purchase. Jeremiah bought it and in a single act reveals the religion of a Great Heart. Jeremiah had every reason to think that his incarceration was nothing less than a life sentence. What was a man in his position wanting to do with a piece of land? Folk must have concluded that he was completely round the bend. There was every possibility that in a few years there would be no Hebrew land left. But Jeremiah bought a field in Anathoth. In Jeremiah’s darkness a light shone, admittedly at times a mere flicker, but still a glimmer of hope – a light that cannot be quenched. The troubles he had seen and borne made him conscious of a resource in God, providing us with a double-sided picture of a true man of God whose faith sustained him. He does not warrant the reputation that has pursued him down the centuries. A pity there would appear to be very few babies who are given his name.

In a German concentration camp, imprisoned because he would not compromise his faith, Dietrich Bonhoeffer wrote about the cost of discipleship (for him it was martyrdom) and there is a prayer to which Jeremiah could subscribe – to which hopefully we might say Amen however we might be confused by God.

In me there is darkness – but with thee there is light – I am lonely but thou leavest me not –I am restless but with thee there is peace – in me there is bitterness but with thee there is patience – thy ways are past understanding – but thou knowest the way for me!

An investment in faith

When I was christened in the parlour of our ground floor flat, common practice in those days, I was given a family name – another not uncommon practice. I was ‘John Gordon’ after my father, Gordon my mother’s surname. My wife was also given family names and so were our two daughters. That was just the way it was done then, unlike today when little bairns have fancy and unusual names. Once upon a time it was the normal thing to give a child a biblical name. They still do it, although parents and offspring may not be aware of it – it’s just a nice name. In the olden days to which I refer there was no question that a biblical name was the name of a character who, for one reason or another, had come down to us as part of biblical history. So we have our Adams, our Jacobs and our Sarahs, our Ruths, our Marys. In the deep south of the USA and in African countries people are proud to be a Moses, even an Ephraim, Ebenezer or Naomi or Leah and such like. I should not imagine anyone opting for Jezebel!

Jeremiah by Michelangelo Buonarroti [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

Jeremiah by Michelangelo Buonarroti [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

There is another name that may not be contender. Calling someone a Jeremiah is no compliment. All down the centuries, Jeremiah is denounced as the great pessimist of Old Testament times. His reputation is that of a ‘dismal Jimmy’, a melancholy sort of guy – one reason why we can thank our lucky stars our parents did not have us christened ‘Jeremiah’. However, thus far there is no suggestion that we have met up with the real Jeremiah. A more detailed portrait of this man of God, this great prophet, would reveal that he is much maligned, misunderstood and misrepresented. In his biography, the Old Testament Book of Jeremiah, he is shown to have been a given very difficult assignment by God. For 40 turbulent years he gave himself to the service of the Lord, a vocation not marked by outstanding success. So much militated against him.

In the early days, Manasseh was king and the Bible has little good to say about him. With Manasseh around, Jeremiah was on a hiding to nothing. Certain of the Word given him by the Lord, Jeremiah showed tremendous courage in the face of such opposition and persecution. Jeremiah was the king’s thorn in the flesh, especially when he made it clear that God was on the prophet’s side. Religiously the king was a dead loss, a corrupter, schemer who indulged in his personal whims and fancy to shape Hebrew religion as he pleased. Dr Norman Snaith, who taught me Old Testament in College, did not spare the king. He tried to make our hair stand on end with indignation at the thought of Manasseh’s prostitution of religion. He accused him of every abominable thing he could think of introducing in the Temple. Although never a lover of priestly religion, Dr Snaith had some harsh things to say of those who tolerated the variety of dark superstitions initiated by Manasseh in the temple, despoiling the pure religion of Jeremiah, for which Jeremiah vigorously campaigned. He denounced those whose preaching was false, those who proclaimed all is well when there was no peace. Jeremiah was well aware that his message was not popular. Society was corrupt and Jeremiah dare not ignore it. He did not have a growing movement of supporters. Instead he was headed for defeat, imprisonment, death, exile. Few listened, few heeded, but Jeremiah continued to fulfil his calling. He is misunderstood and misnamed, so much so that few babies are named after him.

Jeremiah will be back next time.

I’m H-A-P-P-Y

Sermon on the Mount. Carl Heinrich Bloch [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

Sermon on the Mount. Carl Heinrich Bloch [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

The second thing I want to say about happiness (as promised) is that to be happy is to do good to others. There is no prize for the right answer, but there is a question. Who said “There is no such thing as society?” Of course, it was former Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher. The statement was part of her thesis that life is enhanced by an individual’s personal initiative and self-motivation. Many people can live with that, and do, their philosophy more political than religious. In practice looking after number one is not the same as doing good to oneself. The doctrine of looking after number one does not quite gel with the teaching of Jesus in the Sermon on the Mount and the Beatitudes. Two things stand out: take the Beatitudes alone and they are all about happiness and community and the two are interrelated. To be content with our lot, we are truly blest. One example, “Happy are those who are merciful to others.” The Sermon on the Mount demonstrates clearly and bluntly how much we are bound together in the bundle of life. Take one small example, the desperate need for Food Banks and the magnificent response of so many people. And the Sermon on the Mount also makes clear that to belong to Christ is to belong to a community. A community, or society, shaped by the conviction that no one is an island. So, those first Christians shared with one another as each one had need. Happy are those who are merciful to others.

There is the third thing to be noted about our quest for happiness. We must not equate the Beatitudes with the Ten Commandments: they are not the same! The Beatitudes are not a collection of moral rules of conduct or code of ethics. They do not mean you must do those things in order to deserve and win divine approval. They have nothing to do with being well-thought of. The happiness God promises comes to those who claim no merit for themselves but, knowing their own hearts, are content to rest their need on the mercy of God. A description I have borrowed: “not so much the ethics of obedience as the ethics of grace.” The picture we are given is of a gracious giver and ourselves as humble receivers. Side by side with the teaching, there are the promises. The happiness of the Beatitudes is not the product of an alliance of human will and strength. The happiness of the Beatitudes is the promise of a living relationship with the One Christ Jesus, who not only taught them but exhibited them in his own life. And the more closely we walk in His Way, the more firmly we walk in His footsteps. The closer we are drawn into His presence, the more we become like Him, the more Blessed we become.

Epilogue: “I have spoken to you,” Jesus says “that My Way may be in you and your joy be complete.”

Happiness, Happiness, The greatest gift that I possess; I thank the Lord that I’ve been blessed with more than my share of happiness. (Ken Dodd)

I’m H-A-P-P-Y (song)

Sermon on the Mount: Matthew 5 / Luke 6