Surprised by Joy
Life is ‘normal’ no longer. Or is it more normal than you ever imagined?!
Jesus is alive, risen from the dead!
But before we go there, take a step in your imagination to that first Easter Sunday morning – the first day of a new week. Those first disciples, men and women, followers of Jesus, had seen the most horrendous events take place just that Thursday and Friday – happening to the one they had loved and followed, in whom they’d placed so much hope. And what’s more someone who knew and loved them more than anyone they’d ever known. And all this compounded by how they’d let him down over those days, even betrayed him.
I struggle to imagine where they were in their grief that Sunday morning! But Jesus is his own man, he holds none of this against them. Piece by piece, event by event, he appears and shows them his nail-pierced hands and his feet, he explains. He calls the first to see him by name, “Mary”; he comes among them in a locked room and says, “Peace be with you”; he asks one of them, “Do you love me?”, knowing that this disciple does indeed love Jesus with all his heart despite how he’d let him down. Here is a man, the man, who knows all we can throw at him, and loves us still! He opens new doors to a life that, even with many hardships to come, is full of joy, of hope, of love beyond all loves. Such is the joy every new Christian is surprised by and, for someone like me who’s been a Christian nearly 50 years, takes my breath away fairly frequently as I am once more surprised by his joy over me, those around me, and indeed his world.
When Jesus speaks how do you answer?
In the Jungle book the nice snake Kaa sings a song to Mowgli:- Trust in me – Just in me – Shut your eyes – Trust in me – You can sleep – Safe and sound – Knowing I Am around…… Now of course you should not ever trust the snake but this song came to mind when I was thinking about this week’s talk. Do we treat God’s words to us as though they come from Kaa or Bagheera, as something we can take notice of or not?
Mowgli didn’t always know who to trust and listen too, so got into difficult situations. We however have Jesus to guide us, but do we trust Him enough to obey?
If we trust God the Father, Jesus the Son and the Holy Spirit then why wouldn’t we do as He asks? His disciples learnt to trust Jesus and went to get somebody’s donkey when asked to do so. Maybe that’s the question for each of us today: Do we trust Jesus? Do we believe God when He says I will only bring good things to you?
Generosity and Equality
Today, for the first time in a while, we look at the New Testament attitude to the giving of our money. It’s very interesting how little Jesus says about it! What he does speak a lot about is generosity of heart, and how what we are like inside reflects on what we do on the outside! So, yes, this is about our hearts! The other word in our readings that struck me today is ‘equality’. St Paul writes, ‘I don’t mean your giving should make life easy for others and hard for yourselves. I only mean that there should be some equality.’1 As you read more, you’ll find he’s certainly not talking about everyone giving the same – no, he says, ‘Give in proportion to what you have.’2 But I sense he means all of us as Christians are called to bear the load of what is needed for the ministry of the Church and for those in need, together. So the need for generosity of heart and each responding in their own way is something we all share – as he famously goes on to say, ‘for God loves a cheerful giver’3We all need to find that cheerfulness in our hearts that only comes from a heart set free towards God and towards our neighbour. This is a wisdom found among us which I believe is in itself a gift to those around when times seem to be shaking. For as the New Testament affirms, ‘for we receive a kingdom which cannot be shaken; solet us show gratitude, by which we may offer to God an acceptable service with reverence and awe’4 May you discover the Lord’s grace to you, and build the house that is your life on the rock that is Christ.
1 2 Corinthians 8.13 2 8.11 3 9.7 4 Hebrews 12.28
Discovering a new joy
Today we want to affirm the care and tenderness that can be found in families, especially in the Lodder and Bell families as they bring Ash with great thankfulness for Baptism (it’s OK guys, we know it’s not always perfect!). In a world of much difficulty, troubles, indeed suffering we wonder how this can be?! And yet this care and tenderness is found among us, and not just in married families, but between friends and in many places – and very much so among the family of God’s people which is absolutely open to anyone – as Jesus said, “Come to me all who are weary and carry heavy burdens, and I will give you rest” 
Now many people ask, in this world of so much suffering, how can there possibly be a God, let alone a God of love? Well, here’s something strange to think about – that God really does know all our sufferings (think of Jesus ordeal on the Cross for starters!), but He also has a care and tenderness towards us that is not defeated or in any way falls short of what we need in any struggle. It is a remarkable revelation when you discover this care, and full of a joy that is far more than you ever expected. But let me finish by saying, at root many of us feel forgotten – “what you’ve said may be something others have found, but could never be for me.” On this Mothering Sunday let me end with the Lord’s words from one of our readings: ‘Can a mother forget her nursing child? Can she feel no love for the child she has borne? But even if that were possible, I would not forget you! See, I have written your name on the palms of my hands.’
 Matthew 11.28  Isaiah 49.15-16
What’s worrying You?
Do you ever lay awake at night worrying? Jesus tells us, ‘not to worry about everyday life.’  That’s hard especially if you’re struggling to make ends meet – think of the growing numbers of people reliant upon foodbanks. Even if we’re financially solvent there’s still plenty to worry about our families, our future, our career success, what others think of us, are we popular (how many likes do we get on social media) – the list is endless. We can become so hooked on worrying, that we worry about having nothing to worry about. What did Jesus mean when he told his followers not to worry about tomorrow?
Tom Wright says, ‘We must assume he led them by example. He wasn’t always looking ahead
anxiously, making the present moment count only because of what might come next. No: he seems to have had the skill of living totally in the present, giving attention totally to the present task, celebrating the goodness of God here and now.’  Jesus’ answer to worrying, ‘Seek the
Kingdom of God above all else’  , that should be our top priority, as it was for Jesus himself. When we put that first, praying the Lord’s Prayer and living according to the pattern he sets out here, food and drink and clothes look after themselves. So when you next find yourself worrying remember the advice of Peter, ‘Give all your worries and cares to God, for he cares about you.’ 
 Matthew 6.25,  Matthew for Everyone. Tom Wright,  Matthew 6.33,  1Peter 5.7
This doesn’t sound like very good news! Deserts and wilderness, trial through lack of food and drink (or anything else for that matter!), penetrating temptations that are hard to resist! Our modern world prefers not to think about these things, we just want a peaceful life without
discomfort. The trouble is, there’s a bit of a fight on, or sometimes more than a bit! But watch what Jesus does, what he says as he replies to the devil: ‘People do not live by bread alone’; ‘You must worship the Lord your God and serve only him’; ‘You must not test the Lord your God.’
We’ll unpack those replies a bit today, but they speak of a different way – a way of truth, compassion, and of a different Kingdom where love, justice and mercy are everything (and a Kingdom that we pray may come). And all Jesus’ replies are from His Father in Heaven’s heart, indeed direct from Scripture. I know deep down which I prefer, what I really want in my life
and heart, ways that are really Good News. How about you?
Listening to God
The sun has come out and it feels like spring (whether we get more snow we’ll have to see!) With spring comes new life – flowers, butterflies, baby animals, for a few in the church new babies, and hope. The spring and the sun, somehow lifts us up, makes life easier. On Sunday we are looking at how God’s voice brings life. When we spend time to hear what God says,
situations that seem hopeless, difficult and hard, change. What seems impossible become possible. Sometimes the situation changes and other times it’s that our perspective changes – instead of our perspective it becomes His perspective. We can hear God in many ways: while we pray, reading the bible, a dream, a word from a friend, a feeling etc. On Sunday we are going to
spend time listening to the hope that God brings in creative ways, so be ready to be surprised by the life in God’s voice!
The Call to Faith
The call to faith is one for us all, and at this service of Christian Baptism we are all reminded of Christ’s call down the ages. It is to follow Him, who rose from the dead having died on the cross as a sacrifice for our forgiveness.
What I find interesting about our story today – of a Roman centurion’s encounter with Jesus – is how he was a man who was ‘not of the faith’, although very much supportive of it. He didn’t even feel worthy of the honour of having Jesus come to his house (to heal his slave). But he recognizes Jesus’s authority over life and death. And what is it Jesus then says?: “I tell you, I haven’t seen faith like this in all Israel!” 
Now there’s a challenge to those who say they believe, as much as to those who don’t! Jesus is truly amazing as He says what really matters to Him! As St Paul later put it, ‘We are made right with God by placing our faith in Jesus Christ. And this is true for everyone who believes, no matter who we are!’ 
So we come today, whoever we are. Don’t just look at others, or compare yourself to them – but ask yourself,
“Just who is this man, Jesus Christ?
And what is He asking of me?”
 Luke 7.9  Romans 3.22
Counter Cultural Love
Dr Lasana Harris says  our minds are “trained to disconnect” when we see a homeless person. “We readily help kids and cute animals, in part because we know that whatever trouble they’re in, they can’t really be held accountable.”
He says, “We’re less likely to be so understanding and forgiving when it comes to homeless adults or drug addicts.” “This tendency to judge rather than help is partly the result of a spot in the prefrontal which appears to modulate the degree of empathy by regulating the release of dopamine. No dopamine means no reward from engaging with the other person, which makes it less likely that we’ll reach out empathically.” This sense of disconnect could be at the heart of everything that divides society today.
“Of course these kinds of responses occur, ultimately, in our brains; where else would they occur? But social processes have enormous power to change neural processes.”
So is our humanity something we can turn on and off – if only we found the right buttons to push?
“We’re trying to figure out what brain mechanisms allow us to switch these responses on and off,” Harris says. “We want to make empathy the default response because now, the default response is to switch off entirely. If we’re going to get that to change we need a complete cultural shift.
As Christians we believe that living God’s way will turn our response around – we will love others as God loves us. That is Counter Cultural Love
 Associate Professor of experimental psychology at University College London, studies neurological responses, specifically the way our brains engage with other people and the world
How then do we really love?
Today we have the famous letter from St Paul about love, you know the one, ‘Love is patient, love is kind…..and not envious or boastful…’1 and so on. We love to hear it, even if we feel a bit inadequate by the end!! The truth is of course, it is about God’s love, for God indeed is love, as St John tells us .
Some bits of the letter are a bit strange – surely if we gave everything we had to the poor that would be loving? Or if we sacrificed our bodies? Well, as I hope we can explore today, working out what is truly loving is quite difficult! What it means for real, discerning it, and even more than that, actually doing it! Jesus even asked us to love our enemies, saying “If you love only those who love you, what reward is there for that? Even sinners do that!”  Gosh!
But let’s not despair, the Holy Spirit  is here to help all who call on and believe in the name of Jesus. We can pray and hear what the Father wants us to do in his love, and the Holy Spirit is then ready to help us do it! Let’s tread gently with this today and see what we hear. A Roman non-believer in the 2nd century famously said, ”See how these Christians love one another” ; I read somewhere that one of their Emperors was rather cross, “They don’t just love their own, but our people needy as well – we need to do put a stop to this!” The presence of God among us has been deeply known through Jesus himself coming as a human being, and (to some degree at least!) by His people since by the power of the Holy Spirit. May we know God’s presence among us as we seek to love in His name.
 1 Corinthians 13  1 John 4.16  Luke 6.27 & 33  Symbolized today by the dove
 Apologeticus – Tertullian c160-c230
My moments in history
Can you recall a moment in your life when you suddenly ‘heard’ the Word of God speaking to you from the words of the Bible? You may not know he Bible well, but that doesn’t mean that one day something very important suddenly cannot become clear to you from what you hear in the Bible (and then you’ll become thirsty for more!). Many people haven’t a clue what I’m on about, but countless thousands have suddenly had their eyes opened! It can be quite a shock, although always a very joyful shock! “Well, I never, I wasn’t expecting that!” The famous Gideons society are with us today, and will doubtless have stories of people being impacted in just this way; and right throughout the world as they’ve
opened the Bibles left for free in hotel rooms and other places. But what about you, here in Oldfield Park? Pray that the Holy Spirit will open the power of the Word of God to you soon, again, whenever….. And strangely it’s not just about your personal history. We’ll hear 2 stories from the Bible today of moments when the Scriptures have affected the course of
a nation’s life as well as the individuals there at the time of the stories. Some countries have for this reason banned the Bible, even in our day!
Transforming the ordinary
We prayed on Epiphany Sunday that in the mess and muck of our ordinary lives, when things go wrong, when all is not as it should be, we may lift our eyes and see the light of Jesus’ star, and follow him. Our culture thinks this is most unlikely, but then did anyone think Jesus would turn water into wine either? For some reason the first disciples logged this as Jesus’ first miracle,
or sign of Jesus’ real glory. Jesus’ mother said, “Do whatever he tells you.” Really that is not a bad motto for any of us. So let’s pray for open eyes, to be listening and following, that his transforming power may be seen in our own lives and reach those around us too.