Pastoral Letter 39
‘Don’t be afraid’, said the angel to the shepherds. Don’t be afraid because we bring good news of great joy. There is a well-known myth, used by preachers, that the words, ‘Don’t be afraid’ in one form or another appear 366 times in the Bible - one for each day. It’s not true! But it is still the message of the Bible, both in the Old Testament and the New Testament. Don’t be afraid, because this is good news of great joy.
It surprises me how many people don’t read the Bible, and I find that it is usually the people who don’t read it who seem to have opinions about what it says; opinions about the difference between the Old and the New Testaments; opinions about what Jesus said. I’ve just read another book in which the author states that Jesus didn’t talk about repentance - his message was all about love. Obviously he has never read the Gospels. Jesus came out of the desert, after his temptations, preaching: ‘Repent! For the kingdom of God is here’. And yet He came with good news of great joy.
Going back to those angels and the shepherds we see their message has been misunderstood so often as well: ‘on earth peace among those whom he favours’. They didn’t come with a message of peace on earth. They came with the message that those whom God favours will find peace while on earth. For centuries the Christian teaching has been that we will struggle during this life and then (as it says on so many grave stones) ‘rest in peace’ afterwards. The angels’ message was peace while we are on earth.
And so, as Christians - people committed to following Jesus, with the Holy Spirit filling us - we live in peace, no matter how many wars are raging around us, no matter how many epidemics and pandemics we have to live through. In my ministry I have lived through The Troubles in Belfast, Swine Flu, Foot & Mouth Disease, Asian Bird Flu and now Covid-19. All of these have resulted in periods of isolation, restricted movements and many illnesses and death. Some of you will remember air raid shelters from many years ago. And through it all there has been the ‘peace that passes understanding’ (Philippians 4: 7). The whole passage says:
6 Don’t worry about anything; instead, pray about everything. Tell God what you need, and thank him for all he has done. 7 Then you will experience God’s peace, which exceeds anything we can understand. His peace will guard your hearts and minds as you live in Christ Jesus.
8 And now, dear brothers and sisters, one final thing. Fix your thoughts on what is true, and honourable, and right, and pure, and lovely, and admirable. Think about things that are excellent and worthy of praise.
And so we have that choice presented to us: we can worry, or we can pray; we can fix our thoughts on false ideas, or on truth, and so that list goes on. If we concentrate on God and his good news of great joy, we will experience his peace, whatever comes our way. That is not to suggest that we won’t be affected by the many viruses and other perils of this fallen world, but it means that we will find what Isaiah said to be true: ‘You will keep in perfect peace all who trust in you, all whose thoughts are fixed on you!’
Pastoral Letter 38
We are out again! For now! But our movements and interactions are limited. And there is a vaccine - people are full of hope that this may solve the problem. Just like the annual flu vaccine that hasn’t actually taken away flu, but apparently makes it easier to cope with. I’ve never had flu, but every year the NHS offer me a free vaccination - I haven’t taken it because I thought someone who needs it should have it.
But people are hopeful, and I have read that we Christians are people of hope. Paul’s trinity of ‘faith, hope & love’ are quoted to justify this belief.
We have faith, we have hope and we love.
But what is the object?
In what, or who, do we have faith?
In what, or who, do we hope?
And who do we love (I’m assuming it’s not ‘what’)?
It is hope that I want to look at. Christians are not to be naive: hoping that things will get better, because we hope they will get better. Our hope is in God; but not just a vague Creator Being who is looking after His creation. Our hope is in the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ.
The Christian hope is in the return of Jesus. And it’s Advent. I treat Advent like I treat Lent. I can’t believe we are hoping that Jesus will be born in Bethlehem again this year. That’s happened! Over and done with! I do believe we are to hope in the return of Jesus, but I don’t think that hope should be confined to the few weeks before Christmas. Everyone is preparing for Christmas; decorations and lights are going up earlier this year, and the traditional churches are out of touch saying, “It’s not Christmas; it’s Advent!” Of course it’s Christmas!
But back to hope. We hope in the return of Jesus because He told us He is coming back and when He does everything will be put right, just as it was in the beginning.
In the meantime we are to live as people who are expecting Jesus to return - a perpetual Advent if you like. And how should we prepare? Well Peter tells us in his second letter: “Since everything will be destroyed in this way, what kind of people ought you to be? You ought to live holy and godly lives as you look forward to the day of God and speed its coming. That day will bring about the destruction of the heavens by fire, and the elements will melt in the heat.”
We are not hoping that all will be peaceful and back to normal - we know it won’t be. But by the way we live in the face of the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune we will demonstrate our hope. And our holy and godly lives will speed the return of Jesus. So no matter how much Boris wants us to hope, against the advice of the scientists, let us hope in Jesus, who will never let us down.
Pastoral Letter 37
This is my final look at a biblical ‘new normal’, and as we are approaching Christmas I am writing about Pentecost! I do this partly for theological reasons - we live this side of Pentecost, not the other side of Christmas. Our experience should reflect where we are in the real world, not where we are on the Christian Calendar.
Anyway, there they were, just 6 weeks after that weekend lockdown and Jesus tells the disciples that they have to self-isolate in Jerusalem (Acts 1: 4).
They don’t know how long this will be for; Jesus says, ‘not many days’ (Acts 1: 5), but there is the promise that when it is over they will be living in a ‘new normal’. And this new normal will be better than the old normal. Have you considered that this may be the case with us? Maybe the ‘new normal’ will be better. It may be better for our churches - we have come to accept ageing, declining churches as the normal. We accept that … people are not interested in our churches. The future didn’t look too good, but we kept on rearranging the deckchairs, hoping that would stop the ship sinking.
We live in the ‘new normal’ that the disciples experienced at Pentecost, but we tend to act as though Pentecost didn’t happen.
There’s a line in the musical “Jesus Christ, Superstar” where Jesus sings, “You’ll be sorry when I’m gone”. I love watching the musical, but I do argue with the lyrics, because they misrepresent Jesus in so many ways. What Jesus really said was, “It is to your advantage that I go away, for if I do not go away the Advocate will not come to you.” (John 16: 7) Jesus knew that we would be in a better position after his death, resurrection and ascension, because the Holy Spirit would be poured out on the Church; we could be filled with the Spirit and live holy lives, assured of His Presence within us. That’s the kind of normal Jesus came to bring us, and yet it is considered unusual today.
Maybe with this remaining time of waiting, while we consider what this ‘new normal’ of society may be like, we should be thinking about the ‘normal Christian life’ and wonder why we don’t see too much of that.
Maybe it is to our advantage that we have been closed down for as long as we have. Maybe if we only started up those things that the Holy Spirit directs us to we could find ourselves in renewed churches, where the word NORMAL would mean something beyond anything we have experienced till now.
Or we could just go back to how it used to be and count the days till our churches close for good. I know which I would prefer! Jesus came to offer us a new reality; a new life; a new normal. As we do start thinking about Christmas, let’s consider what it is really about.
Pastoral Letter 36
My third look at biblical new beginnings happens at what we call the first Easter. The disciples had had an undisclosed length of time as the disciples of Jesus, listening to him teach, watching him perform miracles, heal the sick, raise the dead, and cast out demons. And after that Passover meal Jesus is arrested and their world comes crashing down. Most of them immediately run away. One of them commits suicide. And then they spend the weekend in lockdown, hidden in one room, ‘for fear of the Jews’.
As tough as it may have been for you during lockdown imagine an upstairs room with 11 men for the weekend, all worried about being arrested. Afraid to go out in case they were caught and lost their lives.
And then Jesus appears! It’s so easy to read the Gospel accounts, or to listen to them being read each year in church. But try to imagine that you don’t know what happens next: there have been reports of the tomb being empty; no one believes it (Peter and John go and see for themselves, but don’t know what to make of it); and then suddenly Jesus appears. And He tells them to not be afraid! Probably because they were terrified! They knew He was dead - no one survived a Roman crucifixion. They knew that dead people didn’t come back to life. And yet here was Jesus alive and well.
This was a whole new normal! What did it mean? How would life be different now? What would the future hold?
They are the questions we ask, but do we have that New Testament Christian experience of Jesus risen from the dead in our lives? I don’t mean, ‘Do we have faith?’ I mean, ‘Do we have that experience of Jesus in our lives?’ I don’t mean, ‘Do you go to church regularly?’ I mean, ‘Do you know that Jesus is your Lord and Saviour?’
Lord and Saviour is how the New Testament puts it. When I became a Christian almost 41 years ago I knew about Jesus being my Lord. I didn’t know the Bible too well, and I knew no theology, but I was reading as much of the Bible as I could, and it was about 6 months after I became a Christian that I discovered eternal life - life after death with Jesus. 6 months as a Christian before I realised that death was no longer an issue because I was ‘In Christ’, and ‘There is no condemnation for those in Christ Jesus’. It was like a whole new normal. I was saved in an instant, but it took months before I could live in the new normal.
I don’t know what this nationwide new normal will look like; if/when all the restrictions will be lifted. But I do know that the new normal that Jesus brings is much better than the old normal.
If you don’t know Jesus, take a serious look at what He offers and give him a try
Pastoral Letter 35
This is my second look at a biblical ‘new normal’. This one is after the Exile. The Israelites had been living in the Promised Land for a while; they had had Judges running things for them, then King Saul, followed by King David and King Solomon - the Golden Years. Then the kingdom was divided in two and there were all kinds of problems.
Eventually, as He had promised, God had the people deported to Babylon (this is the short version). The prophet Jeremiah told them it would be for 70 years. That’s 70 years in lockdown! We have nothing to complain about!
Then they get to go home. Some stay in Babylon (as some people stayed in after Lockdown 1.0). Some went back to Israel. Nehemiah (read his book) helped them to rebuild the walls of Jerusalem. They were so enthusiastic it only took 52 days.
Ezra (read his book) had them rebuild the temple. But the enthusiasm wore off, so the prophet Haggai (read his book) had to prompt them to start again - so they did. But when they finished nothing happened! When Solomon built the first temple God’s glory filled it so much that everyone had to get out. This time - nothing!
Ezra 3: 12 tells us, “But many of the priests and Levites and heads of families, old people who had seen the first house on its foundations, wept with a loud voice when they saw this house, though many shouted aloud for joy”.
Those who were old enough to remember what it was like before lockdown were not impressed with the ‘new normal’. They remembered ‘the good old days’ when God’s glory had filled the temple; their psalms reminded them of God’s great deliverance in the Exodus from Egypt. But they forgot their own faithlessness when they repeatedly turned their backs on God to follow gods made in their own image. They forgot why they had been thrown out of the Promised Land.
It will be easy to look back and “Remember when….” But what if God doesn’t want us looking back on ‘the good old days’? What if He wants us to remember how we really lived? What if He wants us to consider where his glory has gone?
I like to read about revivals of the past and that inevitably takes me to the eighteenth century revival, from which the Methodist Church came, but when I read about what it was like then, compared to what it’s like now, I have to wonder - where has the glory gone?
Do we really want to continue quenching the Holy Spirit (1 Thess.5: 19)? Or, instead of remembering how it has always been, should we look a bit further back, to when it was really good, and consider how we can finish well? Maybe we do need to look back, but back to the beginning. We can’t go back to the book of Acts, but what about the beginning of the Methodist Church?
Pastoral Letter 34
Well, so much for the ‘new normal’ - we are back in lockdown again! But, thinking about it, maybe this is the ‘new normal’. Maybe the ‘new normal’ will involve regions of the country being assigned different Tiers; maybe national lockdowns will happen every now and then to keep us safe. And just because we have discovered COVID-19 that doesn’t mean there won’t be more ‘new’ viruses out there in the future. Not an encouraging thought - but possible.
Anyway, this got me thinking about all the ‘new normals’ in the Bible and so I thought for the next few weeks I would look at ‘Biblical New Normals’, starting with the Exodus. The Israelites were slaves in Egypt; pharaoh wasn’t happy with them - he was having their baby boys killed in an attempt at ethnic cleansing - he was having them build new cities and pyramids. And along comes Moses offering a land flowing with milk and honey. And that sounds like a promising future.
It would take them 11 days to get there (which it did, after they spent a year at Mt. Sinai), but first they had to cross the Red Sea and then hang around waiting for the Law.
And it was while they were hanging around that they started to complain about this ‘new normal’. There is a wonderful phrase in the King James Version of Exodus 16: 3, when the Israelites complain about missing the “flesh pots” of Egypt.
They were actually complaining that they preferred the way it was before. They didn’t like this ‘new normal’.
They had been in lockdown for four generations. Their movements were restricted; they couldn’t go on foreign holidays; there were so many inconveniences. But they forgot all that!
They just knew that they didn’t like things as they were now.
And that makes me wonder….
How good is your memory? Do you look at the past with rose-coloured glasses? The future is an unknown country, we are told (in a paraphrase of what Hamlet really said). But the present is where we are. This is life as we now know it, which makes this the ‘new normal’.
For the Israelites their ‘new normal’ was a stage on their journey to the Promised Land - the as yet undiscovered country. And there was a lot of impatience. You will know that outcome - when they arrived at the border of the Promised Land they were too scared to go in, so God sent them back into the desert to wander around for 40 years until all the old complainers had died.
The time spent in the ‘new normal’ was spent badly. They should have looked back to their salvation and realised that the God who had saved them had not now abandoned them. The hope for the future should have sustained them in the present.
In Romans 15: 4 Paul tells us, “whatever was written in former days was written for our instruction, so that by steadfastness and by the encouragement of the scriptures we might have hope”.
So let’s learn from the mistakes of the Israelites and trust that the God who saved us in the past, with a hope for the future, can sustain us in the present. And let us not give up hope. It might seem like we are wandering aimlessly at the moment, but keep looking to God and see where He is leading.
Pastoral Letter 40
Boris has wished us “A very little Christmas”. And there will be nothing wrong with that. We have saved Christmas! In all those American films where Santa gets sick, breaks a leg, gets drunk, or arrested, Christmas always needs saving, because you can’t have Christmas without Santa. In our reality the Prime Minister has saved Christmas, because you can’t have Christmas without … what?
What is it that we (apparently) need to make it Christmas? Family gatherings? The TV soaps always have major revelations and fights in their Christmas episodes; demonstrating that some families shouldn’t get together.
Is it alcohol that we need to make it Christmas? Pubs seem to be a major concern, so they may be essential to make it Christmas. How else can we celebrate without the deadliest drug known to humanity (at least it’s still legal). I say this as a teetotaller: “My name is Martin … I haven’t had a drink for 41 years!”
Is it Brussel sprouts (Brexit hasn’t happened yet!), Turkey (is Turkey in the EU?), Christmas Pudding (there’s the alcohol again)? Can it be Christmas for vegetarians and vegans?
What is the significant ingredient that makes it Christmas? Presents? At least we have the InterNet.
Or is it a combination of all of these? Answers on a postcard.
I’m quite pleased to hear how Christmas is essential. It has become ingrained in our society. Remember when those Labour councils, many years ago in the North of England, tried calling it, ‘Winterval’? They didn’t want to offend the Moslems, and they thought Christmas was an offensive term! It has ‘Christ’ in it. And there’s a thought! Is it Christmas without Jesus? Of course it is! We may not be able to have Carol Services this year; there may be no Christmas Day service, but Christmas will still go ahead. I used to refer to it as throwing a birthday party, but not inviting the Birthday Boy.
It’s time we went back to early church practices and realised that we don’t need the Church Calendar to have Jesus in our lives. They celebrated Easter every Sunday. Birthdays weren’t so important in the ancient world. The day of death was more important than the day of birth, which is why we don’t know when Jesus was born - certainly not December.
But that brings in a different aspect of Christmas: many of you reading this will be experiencing a different Christmas this year: there will be an empty chair; you may be alone for the first time at Christmas; there will be a phone call you don’t make, or receive; you will be signing cards with just your name. And it can be a time of sadness. While everyone else is worrying that Christmas won’t be the same as ‘normal’, many of you know that it will never be the same again.
And so I say again, remember the Birthday Boy! The reason we celebrate Christmas is to remind ourselves that God loved the world so much that He broke into history, to live a human life and to die that death on the cross so that we could know eternal life. So that we could have the assurance that one day … one day it will all be over and we will be in a world without pain, without sadness, and without ever having to be alone again.
So however you are celebrating this year, and even if you are not celebrating, get behind the tinsel and lights and remember the hope that we have because of that first Christmas, where there was no alcohol, no turkey, no parties, no pudding, and no Brussel sprouts!
Pastoral Letter 41
It seems I can’t predict the future! Last week I said that Boris had saved Christmas, and now look what’s happened!! No more! I will look at the first Christmas instead.
Imagine what it was like for Mary and Joseph. First of all, it wasn’t Christmas yet. Christmas, as we know it, was invented by Charles Dickens. But anyway: because of Caesar’s census it was a time for families being together. Funny things politicians! 2,000 years ago they were saying, ‘Get your families together’, and now they are saying, ‘Don’t mix with too many people’. That’s the thing with politicians: no consistency!!
But I imagine for Mary it wasn’t the Christmas she was hoping for - heading off to Bethlehem to meet Joseph’s family, and her pregnant, and them not married, and he not the father. I suppose if you look at it like that it was like a typical Soap Opera Christmas.
But not what they would have wanted. Whatever was to happen that first Christmas was going to affect the rest of their lives. And here we are, wondering how this Christmas will affect the rest of our lives.
Some of you have had the vaccine - that’s good new for you. Some of you are still isolating - nothing much has changed out here. Barton’s Christmas Tree on Sea Road has been cut down - I took some photographs of it this morning - there is a Grinch, or Scrooge about!
Everyone is in a different position. Christmas plans may be messed up, or it may be Christmas as usual. I always used to say that the one good thing about the Church Calendar is that in the Eastern Church Christmas is celebrated on the 6th January, so if this weekend doesn’t work out for you, you can always try again in a couple of weeks (as long as you have an artificial tree - the real ones will be looking a bit rough by then).
Anyway, I didn’t want to be too serious this week. Just to say: look after yourselves and remember that the Christmas message is: Immanuel - God with us. Whatever Tier we may be in, God IS with us!
Pastoral Letter 42
And so we begin a new year! But how will it be different? We call it Covid-19 because it was discovered in 2019, but it still affected 2020, and no doubt will affect most of 2021.
We seem to have survived Christmas, and now we look ahead to new strains of the virus and new vaccines to prevent it. We just have to see which wins.
I was thinking about where we began all this and my seventh letter talked about Psalm 91, which assures us that “the disease that prowls through the darkness” is not something to be feared. I wrote then that this was the psalmist’s viewpoint, not hard and fast biblical doctrine.
I just recently had a “discussion” on Facebook with someone who believes we shouldn’t take the vaccine because God will protect us and this is the government trying to control us. He is a biker, and as a biker I think he wears a helmet because it’s the law, as Christian bikers are never involved in accidents!!!!
This pandemic has brought out all kinds of strange ideas about where God is in this. There are those, like my Facebook friend, who think that we just have to trust in what Jesus did on the cross and we will not be infected. The New Testament doesn’t back that theory up!
There are other Facebook friends who claim this is a government conspiracy to reduce the population and bring in a One World Order, and so the Antichrist will come. The New Testament doesn’t back up that theory either.
The balanced Christian approach is that we live in a fallen world (Genesis 3; Romans 8: 18-23), that Jesus has overcome the world (John 16: 33) and that God’s purposes will be fulfilled. There is no assurance that we will avoid all disease, disaster, or even death. The assurance we have is that Jesus has conquered death (Hebrews 2: 14-16). We are not immune to the troubles that everyone else faces.
And so whatever these people with their strange conspiracy theories think, I will carry on trusting the Bible. It’s because of all these strange ideas floating around that we need a good understanding of what the Bible actually says, instead of listening to the wrong interpretations that just cause confusion.
So as we are now in Tier 4 (which is a government conspiracy to keep us in lockdown!!!) maybe committing some time each day to reading the Bible in a good, reliable, modern translation, would help us to approach the new year with hope and confidence.
And while we don’t know what the future holds, we do know who holds the future.
Happy New Year
P.S. And just for the record: the vaccines will NOT alter your DNA and they are NOT the Mark of the Beast!