Category Archives: Hebrews

Conflict in the wilderness

Temptations of Christ (San Marco)

Temptation of Christ (mosaic in basilica di San Marco)
By anonimus [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

Journey by car on the minor roads and we may still come across them. Set against a dykeside, often covered in moss with an inscription not easy to read, old-fashioned stone milestones indicating how far we have come on our journey; how far we have still to go. Likewise there are different kinds of milestones that touch on the life of every one of us, events of personal significance, highlights of our journey, thus far, along life’s highway. For some people the moment most cherished – the day they set out on a career. For another the most poignant moment – at the altar at which one stood to be wed. For another the most outstanding event – becoming a member of the church. For another being given a call to preach or to the ordained ministry. And there was the time when we made our response to the invitation from Jesus “to love him more dearly, to follow him more nearly, day by day.” In fact, for most of us, there is more than just one milestone: life is enhanced by a host of memorable occasions. It was true in the life of Jesus.

In the Temple at 12 years of age came the realisation that God was his father in an extraordinary and special way. A way that did not make Joseph, his human father, redundant. Between that milestone and the next, his baptism by John in the Jordan, Jesus must have given thought to what this unique relationship meant for him. Imagine him in early youth in the market-place, in the carpenter’s shop or in the synagogue, listening to friends and neighbours and the religious teachers talking about their hopes and fears, pondering the great question, “what will happen when messiah comes?” Some anticipated a glorious day when everyone would have everything they wanted. Others pictured messiah leading the nation to battle against their oppressors. The distant voices of a variety of people proclaiming their various prophecies would ring in Jesus’ ears. Aware that all of this would have some impact on his life, as he stepped out to go public, he had to be sure that he was working in harmony within God’s scheme of things. Hence to another milestone in his life, so the writers of the gospels tell us,“Jesus was led by the Spirit into the wilderness, to be tempted by the devil.” (Matthew 4:1) They go on to tell how the devil went about his evil intent to discredit Jesus by tempting him to abandon his loyalty to the way of his father God. Instead, for him to surrender to Satan’s devious cunning, was a losing battle. Satan was not as clever as he thought and Jesus not the softie he might have imagined Him to be. “Get out of my sight, Satan” Jesus ordered. How do we know this since he was alone in the wilderness? We are informed that the only assistance to come his way was from the Angels! At some point Jesus must have told the disciples all about it. I like the language The Message ascribes to Jesus in his dismissal of the devil: “Satan, push off – Satan, beat it!” Does that not suggest our language in presenting the gospel might be a little more robust?

Even so, as it is told in the synoptic gospels, we are left to imagine the mental anguish, the physical exhaustion, the sweat, the tears, the praying – a contest fought in the heart, mind and soul. An experience of such intensity there are times when one can almost see the tempter. On one memorable occasion the vision of Satan was so real to Martin Luther, he sent his ink-pot crashing against the wall in his room when he threw it at the devil. The writer to the Hebrews (2: 18) assures us, “Because Jesus himself was tempted and suffered, he can help those who are tempted.” This is at the heart and centre of our faith – for all times.

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Letting off steam

Image: Felix Burton via Wikimedia Commons

Image: Felix Burton via Wikimedia Commons

I could never count myself, even in my younger days, as one of life’s “Angry Young Men”. I was not bold enough to stand up to be counted with those who fought unpopular causes in the interests of justice or in the pursuit of change!. Strangely, and surprisingly, I am becoming an “Angry Old Man”. What is my problem? For this blog it is to do with Church, Methodism in particular – I am on familiar territory.

We are hearing that the church is only a short distance away from extinction: Lord Carey’s guess is probably one decade. So if the Church is to regain lost ground and survive, change is vitally essential and it is urgent. We are harangued by preachers, church leaders and writers about discovering new ways of being Church – “Fresh Expressions of Church” is how it is described, and Methodists are warned that we are being given a short breathing space to sort ourselves out. I have no quarrel with this – I want to keep change on the agenda. After all, one of the few things we can be certain about is that change is expected, inevitable and embraced. The changes that have taken place in my lifetime are mind-boggling. The hymn writer has us sing, Change and decay in all around I see – interestingly, he gives us the next line, O thou who changes not, abide with me! Now the church, whether we like it or not, is set in the midst of and is part of our secular society; there is no escaping it. Of this we can be certain, it is an environment of constant change and if church is to have an impact, any relevance at all, she will be open to whatever changes may be necessary to enable us fulfil our mission: to explore, to pursue, to engage in whatever new ways of “being Church” are appropriate in our particular neck of the woods.

No, I am not opposed to change: all my ministry I have advocated change, and in each of my larger churches there has been at least one activity that has been the consequence of a “Fresh Expression’” project, although we didn’t call it that. What irks me and angers me is the suggestion (sometimes in a whisper) that we who are of my vintage, or thereabout, refuse to face the need for change, and are determined to resist it totally. I recall reading somewhere, Change is all around, except in church where we find people who want to remain the same – a bastion of unchangeableness. For some change is easy – a challenge to keep up with the ever-changing world in which we now live. For others it is difficult, a painful move away from the familiar which dispels much-needed comfort. And because we are who we are, because church as we know it has meant and still means so much to us, we may well be slow to accept and respond to change – but, I say to those who rile me on this matter: that may be so – but do not accuse us “oldies” of placing obstacles in the way of reform in church. Why? Our commitment and devotion cannot be challenged. We have lived with change for years – yes – in church! I resist the temptation to fill a page telling the stories of the changes I have lived through, granted not as spectacular as today’s ambitious programmes, but change nonetheless. So, please, do not accuse us of being architects of the troubled waters of our current predicament, (to mix the metaphors). We in our generation (the old brigade), steeped in the traditions of church, immersed in its life and programme, who have stuck around, still keeping things going, may be a little slow, somewhat afraid of change and its upset – they love “their church”; they love their Lord, they have found joy, peace and a love reciprocated freely and tenderly and sometimes at cost. Veterans of the good fight, disappointed the battle is not yet won, they will not desert, they will continue faithful, even in the throes of big change.

Of course, not all change is good and not all decay is bad. But thank God for this:

Jesus Christ is the same yesterday, today and forever. Hebrews 13:8

Constant in change

Old cottage at Pollowick © Copyright Bob Jones and licensed for reuse under this Creative Commons Licence

Old cottage at Pollowick
© Copyright Bob Jones and licensed for reuse under this Creative Commons License

It is fascinating to read about life of yesteryear; better still to spend time in the company of people who can tell the story of bygone days from personal experience. I certainly found it both interesting and educative on home visits to sit back and allow my host or hostess to regale me with their testimony, loathe to move on at the dictate of diary and watch, particularly in my early years. Often they were equally reluctant to call a halt to reliving life as it was for them in a different age. Folk like the self-educated lay preacher, who left the pony and trap that ferried him from his preaching appointment on a Sunday evening to change clothing for a night down the pit at the coalface in the most terrible conditions imaginable. Like the district nurse/midwife who rode rough country tracks and fields on a bicycle with solid tyres, to be welcomed at her port of call by suspicion, prejudice and sometimes a closed door, especially if it was a maternity call, and from time to time by the stupidity of the male species! How times change – constantly.

If my paternal grandfather were to be reincarnated now he would assume he’d arrived on another planet. As a boy I visited his country roadside cottage. Even then, for me, it was like another world. Water carried from a well in the middle of a field; rooms lit by Tilley-lamp pumped into action with a bicycle pump; wireless powered by what was known an accumulator; a walk through the yard to the garden for certain essential facilities! In the same house today you turn the tap for water; electricity has replaced the paraffin; television aerial stands against the chimney stack which central heating made redundant.

Someone once said, from time immemorial the scenery and the cast in the play of life are forever changing. True, but not quite everything. Amidst this maelstrom stands One who is our Saviour. Other great leaders have served their time with distinction and made their mark on the stage of life, but for all there was a time for the curtain to come down – yet “Jesus Christ is the same yesterday, today and forever” (Epistle to the Hebrews 13.8) whose love for us does not change, even when we are undeserving of it.

What is needed is a personal conviction of the unchanging nature and ability of Christ to make our faith and lives such as will awaken the world to the presence of Christ in the midst and to the Good News of Christian Faith.

Cheers from the grandstand

Wembley Park Grandstand

Wembley Park Grandstand
Source: Wikimedia Commons

For one reason or other, I am not sure which, I do not find myself dashing to the New Testament Letter to the Hebrews for inspiration or guidance. I’ve heard numerous co-travellers on our Faith Journey declare Hebrews to be a favourite, cherished biblical reading, especially for the space the writer gives to faith in his teaching. Records reveal that in 65 years as a preacher, few sermons have emerged from the Epistle to the Hebrews. I suspect I am in a minority, but do not despair of me, all is not lost. There are two passages in the Letter to the Hebrews that I have turned to from time to time, the inspiration of a number of sermons delivered mainly at a Church Anniversary or All Saints. more often than not concentrated on Hebrews chapter 11.32 to 12.2 or 13.8. In spite of my stance on this Epistle, paradoxically the first is actually one of my favourite passages of Scripture; a beautiful piece and one I need to read or hear again and again: Since we are surrounded by so great a cloud of witnesses, let us run with perseverance the race that is set before us (RSV) or the alternative Since we have such a huge crowd of men and women of faith watching us from the grandstands, let us run…… (Living Bible)

The Letter to the Hebrews – like many others – was written at a time when it was dangerous to be a Christian. Some of these early disciples must have been suffering terribly from the ill-consequences of making public their faith in Jesus in a hostile environment. The unknown author of this Letter writes to put heart into those Christians who, threatened with persecution, might easily give up. How did he do it? He reminds them of their heritage. Relates to them the testimony of the great pioneers and stalwarts of faith who, down the centuries, held to their belief in God through thick and thin. So many of them, he has neither time nor space to do more than mention some by name. It is an impressive Roll of Honour. Hopefully, it was what was needed to inspire those to whom the Letter is addressed to run with perseverance the race that was given to them. A Charge with our name on it. We do not need to be reminded that the Church in our country today appears to be losing the argument and there are those in our secular society who seem determined to engineer her demise. But that is nothing: there is a much more severe persecution of Christians in other countries – North Korea, iran and Central Nigeria to name three. But cheer up, press on, the writer to the Hebrews urges, there are all those pioneers who blazed the Way; all those veterans cheering us on (The Message.) Not an idle promise.Message

Looking back at the end of a long preaching ministry, I am reminded of countless times when I was keenly aware of a presence in the grandstand urging me to keep going with determination the race I was given to run – one of “Mr Wesley’s Preachers.” A couple of examples from early days. Dr Norman Snaith taught me Old Testament in College. Speaking to him at the Methodist Conference in Newcastle on the day he became President of the Conference, he asked where I was currently stationed. When I told him I was a minister in Haltwhistle he said “That’s interesting, my old dad was minister there once.” On my way home, I thought of the stories Dr Snaith told us about his dear old dad. I went back to Haltwhistle humbled by the thought of those in whose footsteps I walked. When I went to Thompson Memorial Hall in Sunderland I was told that Dr W E Sangster preached his last sermon from the platform I was to occupy each Sunday, before he was compelled to retire by the illness from which he was not to recover. Whenever I went on to that platform I felt humbled at the thought of the giants who had climbed those steps before me.

We have this large crowd of witnesses cheering us on in our Journey of Faith, but none would claim the sole, the major credit for taking us past the winning line. Run with eyes fixed upon Jesus who began and finished the race we are on. And it is the same, unknown writer who, in chapter 13:8 turns the command into a promise. Jesus Christ is the same yesterday, today and forever.