I was there when they crucified that man. To be frank, I was there when they crucified a lot of men. It was something of a regular occurrence and as part of my centurion duties I oversaw the job. It was never something I enjoyed doing and this wasn’t a post I volunteered for but you don’t argue with your superiors and I just had to get used to it. After a time you become numb to the suffering, the screams and the pleading for death. It may sound strange to hear me say that but you just learn to block it all out for if not, you’d probably go insane. See, crucifixion was a particularly brutal but effective method of dissuading rebels. That was its main purpose. It was a gruesome, humiliating, and public way to die and that was the point. If you were thinking about rebelling against the authorities or breaking the law and then saw what the likely outcome was of your actions, you’d change your mind in a hurry. Nothing secures obedience more the fear in my experience and if you ever actually saw a crucifixion you’d be filled with fear and would do anything to avoid sharing that fate.
The whole show needed to be public to ensure as many people as possible saw the consequences of disobedience. The men who were doomed to this fate would be forced to carry their own crosses through the town. Marching, or rather slumping, towards their deaths and knowing what awaited them made this the longest journey of their lives. You could see it in their eyes, the fear. When we received the men who had been deemed to deserve this fate we would lay them on the cross, arms outstretched and hammer in a nail through each wrist, just between the bones so they would hold them up, and one large one through their ankles, which were bound together. You had to angle the nail just right so that it would support their weight because the goal was always to make it last as long as possible. If the person feel off, or the nail tore through the flesh then that would be a quick death, which would defeat the whole purpose. If we wanted a quick death, then a sword to the throat would be the way, but no, remember this was a deterrent to others so the longer you made them suffer the better. That extended to after their death as we’d generally leave the bodies on the crosses until they either rotted off or were eaten by vultures.
People responded to this treatment in different ways. Some would scream and shout and protest their innocence, others would try and escape, some would weep and call out to family, some would cry to God and some would be filled with rage and hatred and glare at us and often spit at us; and then, there was Him. I’ve never seen anyone like Him before; this Jesus, who they called the Christ. When he came to us, he could barely stand. Just how he had managed to carry the cross there in the first place was a mystery to me. I have later learnt that in fact he couldn’t manage it and they had to rope some other poor soul in to help him. He arrived looking close to death already.
I had heard about this man before meeting him. There were few people around who hadn’t heard the stories of the man who claimed to be the king of the Jews, a fact that pilot made clear when he ordered us to write, King of the Jews above him on the cross. Those prone to superstition would tell great tales of the miracles he had done. In fact only recently the story went around that he had raised someone from the dead. Well that would skill come in handy, I thought at the time, considering what we were about to do to him. When we lay him down upon the cross he looked exhausted and when we drove the nails through his flesh he didn’t scream or shout but instead let out a quiet whimper of pain. He had clearly been through so much already that he seemed almost ready to meet his end. I could see the marks in his flesh where he had been flogged, I could see the bruise upon his head from where he had been stuck and I could see the thorns digging into his skull from his makeshift crown. This man had little life left in him.
You could always tell the guilty ones. Over my time I’ve developed a certain nose for it. The ones who are angry, who protested their innocence, who shout obscenities at us, they’re the guilty ones in my experience but this man who just seemed resigned to his fate, I looked in his eyes and saw a face of innocence. But, there was nothing I could do now and He was likely not the first innocent man I had helped into the grave and I was in no hurry to be disobedient myself and end up in his shoes. So we lifted His cross into place and dropped the end into the ground. Again, no screams, but a desperate, resigned groan left his lips.
Shortly after we hoisted him up I heard him say the most amazing thing I’ve ever heard. He said, “Forgive them, Father! They don’t know what they are doing.” Forgive them!? Those, who had turned their back on him and put him to death; forgive them!? Those who had beaten, tortured and abused him; Forgive them!? Forgive me? Had I really been offered forgiveness for putting this innocent man to this agonising death? I could scarcely believe what I had heard. My thoughts were soon broken by the sound of the people who stood around to watch what was happening. They all taunted him saying things like, “He saved others; let him save himself if he is the Messiah whom God has chosen!” and “command your angles to rescue you!” These people, who were saying these things and taunting a man in his final hours, were the same people forgiven by Him.
One of the other criminals who was crucified alongside Jesus joined in with the taunting and said “Aren’t you the Messiah? Save yourself and us!” A fair point I thought. Like I said earlier we had all heard tales of this man’s power; why not save himself and the other condemned? Then there would be no doubt that he was the Son of God this so called Messiah. But the other man shot him down and said, “Don’t you fear God? You received the same sentence he did. Ours, however, is only right, because we are getting what we deserve for what we did; but he has done no wrong.” And he said to Jesus, “Remember me, Jesus, when you come into your kingdom!” then Jesus said to him, “I promise you that today you will be in Paradise with me.”
Paradise?! Here stood a man, close to death, in agony and yet, he still talks of paradise? I like an optimist, but this seemed ridiculous. He seemed to be so weak and fragile hanging up there. I’ve seen hundreds of people upon a cross and never felt what I felt at that time. I felt pity, I felt sorrow, I felt guilt. Then as he looked close to the end He looked up, fixed his eyes upon the heavens and said, “Father! In your hands I place my spirit!” He said this and died.
It was relatively and surprisingly quick. It often takes people days for them to die usually from either dehydration, starvation or even blood loss but this man took mere hours. Perhaps it was all the punishment he had already suffered that meant it was so short, or perhaps he was just ready to go. He looked ready. Resigned to what was coming but those thoughts of paradise and being in his father’s kingdom, he didn’t look afraid of death but accepting of it. That’s not to say he was happy, no but ready.
I knew I had seen someone special on that day. I had seen the very face and the grace of God. I stood and stared, tried to process all that I had seen then finally I said, “This was a great and good man. In truth he was a Son of God.” I didn’t care at that point what others would think. I had seen into that man’s eye and saw no hate, no plans for rebellion, no threat of violence; instead I saw the very face of Love. This man was innocent. Far more innocent that you or I that’s for sure and yet he faced his treatment with grace and calm and peace.
That moment transformed my life. Once I had seen all that I had seen on that day I could never go back to the way I was. This Jesus of Nazareth had taught me how to care, how to feel and how to love once again and I could never kill another from that point on. I left the army and became a farmer, tending crops instead of ending lives. I still can’t work out what happened on that day. Why did he have to die a criminal’s death? Why did he have to suffer in agony upon a cross? Why did he forgive me? I may never know the answers to these questions but I decided to turn my life around and live out this demonstration of love that I had witnessed. Please, whatever you are doing now, whatever path you are walking, let that love transform your lives too. Don’t let his suffering, his agony and his death be in vain. I am a happier, more complete person than I have ever been because I was there when they crucified my Lord.

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My name is Leonard Dober. Most of you won’t have heard of me before now, but my story is one filled with drama as I became the first Moravian Missionary. I lived in Herrnhut alongside my brothers and sisters from Moravia on the land of Count Nicholas Ludwig Von Zinzendorf. After years of persecution that nearly destroyed my beloved church we were now feeling safe and our numbers had started to grow and we allowed our thoughts to turn towards the future for our little seed.

In 1731 Zinzendorf received an invitation to attend the coronation of Christian VI as King of Denmark. Having asked for our opinion on whether he should go he left with our blessing. When he arrived back we were all keen to hear about the coronation. All the finery and pomp and circumstance that he must have seen had gotten us all quite excited. However when he returned he barley spoke of the new King and of the coronation itself, instead he spoke at length about a young slave called Anthony that he had met whilst there. He was so moved by his story that he invited Anthony to Herrnhut to speak to us all as he felt as if his words were a call from God. Anthony had been brought by his master from the West Indies to the coronation. Zinzendorf told about Anthony’s brother and sister back in the Island and of the hard and bitter lived of the slaves who were taught nothing about God and knew only the cruel whips of their masters.

That night, after hearing his story, I couldn’t sleep. All night long I wrestled with the thought that I had been called to go to the West Indies and tell them about God. All the next day I turned the matter over in my mind and that evening I went for a walk with my friend Tobias Leupold. After a while I told him of my dilemma and to my surprise Leupold burst out “I could not sleep last night either. I heard the Voice in my heart too.”

Taking courage from his words the next day we met and worded a letter to Zinzendorf offering to go to the West Indies as missionaries. It seemed a long shot to us. We were not qualified missionaries. We weren’t even ministers or theologically educated but we felt that calling and so we couldn’t ignore it. Zinzendorf was thrilled and he read the letter to the congregation, without revealing our names. There was a real buzz in the whole town that day.

A few days later Anthony arrived and warned us all of the perils of going to the West Indies. “If missionaries go to the West Indies,” he said, “they may find it necessary to become slaves themselves if they wish to reach the people.” Slaves, he continued, were not permitted to leave their plantations after sunset. Teaching them was forbidden, and they were not permitted to attend public worship. A slave who had driven his master’s carriage to church had been cruelly whipped because he had dared to peep through the doors of the church at the worshipers inside. However instead of putting me off, these words strengthen my desire to go and help. My heart ached for those poor people who had never heard the word of God or that, as St Paul wrote, “There is neither Jew nor Gentile, neither slave nor free, nor is there male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus.”

It soon transpired that not everyone shared our enthusiasm for mission work. Many people thought that we were just being young and headstrong. Discussions went on for months and once again I had to stand in front of the congregation and repeated my offer. Despite all their concerns and the inevitable hardships I couldn’t sake this sense of call and my desire to fulfil God’s plan never wavered. Zinzendorf suggested that the matter be decided by the lot. This was something we used a lot in major decisions. It was decided a long time ago that this was the fairest way in which God could make the decision. Three pieces of paper were placed in a box, one marked yes, the other no and the final one was blank which meant not yet. After prayer I placed my hand in the box and drew the slip which this time said, “let the lad go, for the Lord is with him”. However my good friend Leupold was instructed not to go at that time.

I was excited but also extremely anxious but I trusted in God and in the strength of his call. As a potter I intended to go and work alongside the people. It was decided though that because of the perils of traveling alone and because I would need somewhere to live that David Nitschmann who was a carpenter, would travel with me and stay until I was settled and established in my new land. On 18th August 1732 we all gathered and said our goodbyes. As was the custom, we sang covenant hymns as the brothers and sisters wished me well. There must have been over a hundred verses sung that evening. On the 21st August at three o clock in the morning David and I left with Zinzendorf in his carriage. When the time came to leave Zinzendorf he gave us a small amount of money and said, “Let yourselves be guided in all things by the spirit of Jesus Christ.”

We eventually found a ship sailing for St Thomas that was willing to take us. We had to pull a few strings and appeal to the Queen of Denmark but at last we were on our way. Many weeks and months passed and then finally on Saturday morning, December 13th 1732 we saw the island of St Thomas. When we landed on the shore we searched for Abraham and Anna who were Anthony’s brother and sister and we delivered a letter he had asked us to pass to them. Then a number of slaves gathered around and we used the doctrinal text for the day which was, “This is life eternal, that they might know you the only true God, and Jesus Christ whom you have sent”, and we preached the word of God. In spite of the fact that our Dutch wasn’t exactly fluent, some of our words must have hit home. They began to clap their hands and tears of joy streamed down their faces. For the first time, the Gospel, the Good News, was being preached to them.

That evening we attended the local public service held at the fort in Tappus. As we exited we were met by a slave who said his master wanted to speak to us. His master, it turned out, was a friend of Zinzendorf and he offered us both jobs working on building a house in his land. Both David and I couldn’t believe our luck. This was going to be easier than we thought. Every evening when we had finished working on the house we would go and preach the gospel to the slaves however we quickly noticed that their excitement in greeting us and their warmth of welcome were fast ebbing away and giving way to fear. We discovered the true extent of the oppression and violence that they were used to from white people and so they simply didn’t trust us.

After four months David left to return home as was the plan. The work on the house was completed and so I was left alone. I decided to try and earn a living by plying my trade as a potter, only I soon discovered that we had landed on an island were there was no clay. I soon became the butt of many of the slave masters jokes as a potter with no clay. However the Governor came to see me one day and knowing I was a Christian offered me a position as steward in his house. Suddenly things were looking up. I ate at the governors’ table and even bought a new suit of clothes. I was starting to feel comfortable but then I released I had made a huge misjudgement.

As my life became easier and I joined the elite of the island, my missionary work came to an end. No slave would listen to a man who ate with their oppressor and they feared me as well, thinking the words I brought them were a trap. I had forgotten the people I actually came to help and chosen instead a life of comfort. Once I realised my error I handed in my notice to the governor who was surprised to say the least. “Do you prefer starving?” he said to me, but I knew I had to make that choice.

I rented a small hut and went back to a very limited diet and earned a few pennies acting as a night watchman all the while trying to regain the trust of the people I came to save. One night while I was keeping watch I heard a voice that sounded familiar. It was that of my old friend Leupold. He told me he had come to relieve me and that I could go home as I had been elected a chief elder of Herrnhut. They had sent 18 other missionaries to the neighbouring islands. Our work had not ended, but only begun.

So you see then, that my journey was far from straight forward. But now as I look back I wonder what would have happened if I hadn’t have said yes in the first place. All the missionaries that followed me had similarly difficult times but because of all of their courage and through the wisdom and strength of God, our little church in Herrnhut, is now a world-wide unity, all gathered as brothers and sisters united in Christ. And so I say to you what Zinzendorf said to me, ““Let yourselves be guided in all things by the spirit of Jesus Christ.”

 

An Unknown Soldier

I am a man without a name. I had one once. I had a mother, a father a sister and a big family, but now I am a man without a name. I am a soldier. I am a hero. I am a victim. I am a number among many who lost their lives protecting those whom we love from the evils of others. I am a casualty of the Great War, The War to End All Wars. At least, that’s what I hope I am. For after seeing the things we’ve seen, losing the friends we’ve lost, how can man ever go to war again? Listen and learn from my story so that no more men, women or children will die surrounded by violence and hate, no more people without a name.

I joined up when I was 16. Like many of my friends I wanted to help my county and fight in the great and glorious battle against the evil Kiser and I wasn’t going to wait till I was 18 to go and win the war because by then the whole thing might have been done and dusted. They said it’d probably be over by Christmas and I didn’t want to miss out. I had grown up hearing great tales of heroes fighting great battles and winning glorious wars. I had heard all about Nelson, Wellington and Drake and listened as their glorious victories were told as a fantastic adventure. I had seen all the posters telling me that I was the one they wanted, and asking, “Who’s absent? Is it YOU?” and I had no doubt in my mind, no hesitation at all that as soon as I could pass for 18 I would join the long queues at the recruitment offices and join the glorious fight. I had worked in a mill from when I left school at 14 and it seemed like going off to war would be a bit of fun. A break from the norm and like an adventure holiday. I’d never been abroad before. Six months or so spent with my friends by my side sounded like a brilliant brake from the boredom and humdrum of normal life.

Many of my friends had already signed up and were off fighting. Some were 18 but many of us were younger. Some of them you could tell were not yet 18 but that never seemed to stop them from getting signed up and shipped out. Some of the people in the queue told me that they were going to use a false name so they’re parents wouldn’t find out. That wasn’t for me though but still I didn’t tell them I was going. I thought it would be a nice surprise. I thought they’d be proud of their little solider, as they always used to call me, finally going off to help his country. I wrote to them when I was all signed up and it was too late for them to stop me and they told me how proud they were. Mum worried, but that’s mum’s for you. I’d planned on writing to them again when I got to France to tell them where I was and how the fight was going and even how many of the Kiser’s men I’d killed. But by then, everything had changed.

Once I’d passed the medical we were kitted out and headed off for training. Training seems like a generous word to use for what we received in order to prepare us for war. All the senior soldiers and instructors were needed overseas and so many older and retired officers were brought in to hand the training. I was to be in the infantry and the man charged with our training was some old man in his mid-sixties who looked like he’d drop dead while we were out on parade. That’s not as far-fetched as it might seem as we’d all heard storied of some other instructor actually having a heart attack while doing a drill. This was nothing out of the ordinary though. In our camp there was even an old Cavalry officer brought back who weighed over twenty stone and who had to have a special loading platform to get him onto a horse. But these were the kind of men charged with training us. As part of basic training we used to do 25 mile marches in full kit that weighed 55lbs and learnt basic war skills like how to shoot and how to fight with a bayonet. We spent endless hours on drills listening to the officer’s bark out orders that we’d have to obey instantly.

Every day began with prayers and a reading from the bible. I had always gone to church ever since I was a baby. It was the done thing back then and most of our neighbours and all my friends attended the local parish church. When I was confirmed I had received a bible and it was one of the first things I grabbed from home when I made my way to sign up. I used to read it in the evenings when training was done. It made me think of home and gave me the strength to carry on fighting. The vicar particular liked telling the story of Joshua and how he had destroyed the walls of Jericho leading God’s warriors to a mighty victory. It was one of my favourites too growing up and now as we prepared to be heroes ourselves in a mighty God blessed quest to rid the world of evil, it seemed fitting and right.

Finally we were told we were ready to be shipped out. I didn’t feel ready. I wasn’t a very good shot, I was cold and damp from sleeping in a tent over the winter and I didn’t yet feel like the brave warrior I’d seen in all those posters around the town. But we were told we’d get extra training on route and so off we went…to war.

When we arrived I clutched at my bible pressed in my pocket. I knew instantly, this was no holiday, no adventure and nothing I could have done would have prepared me for what I saw. The first thing that hit me was the mud and the smell. We arrived and headed straight into the trenches.

We had been given trench waders, a sort of boot, which we were told would keep us dry and our feet clean. These were only a half boot half canvas creation that failed in its basic goal, to keep us dry or clean. As soon as I stepped foot in the trench I landed in a puddle of brown water that went straight through my waders and made me walk with squelch. Then I saw the rats. Lots of rats all running around as the latrine had overflowed into the trench. I was sick. The sheer smell along with the rats and everything, I just couldn’t take it all in. This was not what we were expecting. The war had been going on for a whole year and the news at home was that things were going well. That we were close to victory and it would only last a short time now. That’s why I rushed to join up in the first place but as I looked around I knew, this war was far from over. We had been lied to. Tricked, manipulated and now, trapped in this place. There was no place to run. No way out. Men had been shot for even talking about it. We were stuck in hell.

Hell seemed the right word for this place and you could see what it had done to my fellow brothers in arms. Gone were the heroic faces of brave warriors smiling as they fired off another round closer to victory. They were replaced with faces that were empty of emotion, tired and sullen and covered in dirt. I could see disease all around me. Trench foot was rife caused by the dirty freezing water getting through our waders and rotting our feet away. Trench fever was around too with men huddled in one corner shaking with fever and then there were some who just stood there blank, the noise and the chaos just too much for them.

The noise was deafening. From the booming of the canons to the sound of machine guns ripping through the air but there was one sound that all the men fear most of all. The sound of the whistle. The whistle that would mean going over the top. Before I arrived I longed to hear that whistle. Like the horns blown by the priests at Jericho this whistle would mark the moment we leapt into glorious battle. But I soon learnt there was nothing glorious about battle. It was dirty, horrible and deadly. There were bodies strewn around the trench of people they’d just not been able to burry yet. Their eyes looked shocked and empty as if that truth had dawned on them too late. War is not glorious, war is hell.

Then the whistle blew for me and we readied ourselves on ladders ready to venture into no man’s land and move us forward towards victory. But no man there perched looked excited or happy about that whistle. Rather faces of fear and resignation were upon them. My thoughts turned to home. Of the things I’d done and the things I’d yet to do; of my family left behind and the open fires we would sit around at wintertime all warm and cosy telling each other stories and reading of heroes and victories. How I longed to be there. Then the second whist blew and awoke me from my dream. I clutched once again to my bible and then knowing we had no choice and little chance, off we all leapt and the machine gun roared. I ran as hard and as fast as I could and I saw the enemy lines. I saw men fall, I saw men leap into the air and scatter…then I saw the stars. I had fallen. I reached down and felt the warm dampness of blood from my chest and then I reached to my bible once more and as I lay, I remembered another passage. No longer the story of fighting and victory at Jericho but instead the words of Jesus rang in my head, “Let not your heart be troubled: ye believe in God, believe also in me. In my Father’s house are many mansions: if it were not so, I would have told you. I go to prepare a place for you. And if I go and prepare a place for you, I will come again, and receive you unto myself; that where I am, there ye may be also.” And as my life ebbed away I clung to those words with all that I had and I prayed to the God of love and of peace.

And now, I am a man with no name. A number among many who once thought that they could change the world with a gun in his hand and a stomach full of courage. I wish I had known that to change the world we need to put our guns down and no longer turn to war for war is not an answer it is another problem. This war was called the war to end all wars and as I lay in the cold ground I hoped and I prayed that at least some good would come from this for how can we not learn from the horrors of war. I prayed for an end to war and for peace to rule in the place of hatred and for people to realise that true courage comes from loving your neighbour not trying to wipe them out. It’s too late for me. I am gone. But remember me. Remember my brothers and learn from the mistakes of the past and never again turn to war for war is not heaven, war is Hell.

 

What’s the first thing that comes to you mind when in mention the word, Shakespeare? I think the answer to this question will depend a great deal on how you were taught Shakespeare as a child. For many people just the very mention of the word Shakespeare conjures up feelings of boredom. For those he was a man who lived many years ago, wrote plays that were very complicated and that were written in a language which was very difficult to comprehend and that meant that his plays were largely inaccessible to them. This is what I felt when I first started to study his works in school. We were looking at Macbeth and the teacher would have us reading out loud the story with each of us reading different characters pausing frequently to analyse what Shakespeare meant when he wrote this specific part. I remember her asking things like “what was Shakespeare thinking when he wrote this line”, whilst inside my head I was thinking, “how can we possibly ever know what he was thinking!? He could just have easily been thinking, I’m hungry but I’ll jot down this little bit then have a break as he could be thinking about the very nature of humanity”. The very mechanical way of breaking down the text and looking at it in a slow and methodical manor absolutely killed Shakespeare for me and for many others as well. It was only when I had the opportunity to practically study Shakespeare and understand something of the reason he wrote the way he wrote, that I finally developed and understanding and love of the great bard.

Often people’s biggest stumbling block is the language. But the language Shakespeare uses is deliberately ornate because he was working in a world where there was no scenery, or special effects, you had to use your imagination. People didn’t actually speak like that in day to day society! But the reason I love Shakespeare and when Shakespeare is at his best is when he shows how wonderful an observer of the human condition he is. He knows what makes us tick; whether that is his brilliant understanding of love in Romeo and Juliet, of greed in Macbeth or of our lust of revenge and justice in Hamlet. It is this final part that I want to draw particular attention to. It can be argued that wanting revenge when we have been hurt and wronged is a very human thing, at the core of who we are. Shakespeare says it best in the Merchant of Venice when Shylock, a Jew who has suffered endless discrimination at the hands of his enemy, Antonio, asks why he should not be allowed to exact his revenge now that he has been given the chance when he says this,

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=IGXUGhIYW-4

Shakespeare is making the case that it is human nature to want revenge. How many of us would feel like Shylock when placed in his shoes? Most would at least initially. So when Jesus talks to us in our reading this morning and tells us that we should never want revenge and that we should turn the other cheek he is asking us to do something that goes against our very human nature. And that is why he is doing it. Escalating violence caused by a feeling of injustice and hurt is not some new phenomenon but rather something that has been around since our very creation. But we are called to be examples of reason and peace and to overcome our initial gut reaction. We all know a story where someone has said something to somebody else, they’ve then told someone and then the whole thing snowballs. It’s how wars are often started. Look at what’s happening now in the Ukraine. It all started when the government decided to go with Russian Aid rather than forge closer relations with Europe. Protests started then tensions rose, then violence happened and with each day of violence that passed the process towards peace and reconciliation got harder. The best way of stopping this snowball effect is to, at the very first opportunity, turn the other cheek. That’s not to say that I don’t acknowledge that at times like this the hurt, pain and anger that are felt are very real and often hard not to justify but as Ghandi said, “An eye for an eye will make the whole world blind.”

This difficulty was no more evident when we witnessed last summer the awful attack on drummer Lee Rigby by two people who call themselves Muslims. I word it that way very deliberately as they have a very warped view of Islam which is at its heart is a peaceful religion. But after that attack I was shocked but not surprised by many peoples response.  Mere moments after the news broke a hand full of my friends were saying that the attackers should be hacked to death, burnt at the stake, hung drawn and quartered etc etc. they were all engaging the same text, the same saying, that had been used to justify the attack in the first place. After the attack one of the attackers tried to justify it by saying, “An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth”. But we know that Jesus says instead “you’ve heard it said, “An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth.” But I say to you, do not resist and evil doer. But if anyone strikes you on the right cheek, turn the other also.” He was taking that message and moving forward and reinterpreting it because it forgiveness and turning the other cheek is not something new as we heard in Leviticus the lord says, “Do not take revenge on others or continue to hate them, but love your neighbours as you love yourself.” But my interpretation of Jesus’ interpretation of the original Hebrew text means that I don’t believe that Jesus is saying that those guilty for the attacks should get away scot free. That’s why I’m happy that the decision to jail them for life has been upheld this week. But Jesus is speaking about the danger of revenge and how quickly that attitude leads to more death and more suffering.

I understand the anger that this attack caused and I share in that anger and frustration, but the way to defeat a war fought on ideals is not to lower our own ideals to the level of those who have such a warped view of God and humanity but rather to take the moral high ground and respond in peace.

But Jesus knows that this is something that we will find difficult. Anyone who thinks that life as a Christian, following the teachings of Jesus, will be an easy life, you’re in for a disappointing shock because this kind of counter cultural, counter intuitive thinking is at the heart of much of what Jesus says and does. Jesus says later in his sermon on the mount, “But the gate to life is narrow and the way that leads to it is hard, and there are few people who find it.” following Jesus and obeying his commands is difficult but when you can, it’s worth it. God didn’t send Jesus to us to say “keep up the good work! You’re all doing very well!” because we weren’t, and we aren’t. But as I’ve said before just because we are aware and God is aware of our imperfection, doesn’t mean we should not try to live as God would want because if we can achieve even a brief moment where we do the right thing, the feeling we get is wonderful.

There are many powerful stories of forgiveness out there that show the joy and release that you can get when you let the love and forgiveness offered to you by Christ transform your lives. One such story is about Connie Ten Boom. Corrie Ten Boom’s family hid Jews above their family watchmaker’s shop until eventually she and her sister Betsie were arrested by the Nazis and put in Ravensbruck concentration camp. There Betsie died. After the war Corrie was speaking in a church in Munich. Then, as she shook hands with people, she found herself confronted by a man she recognised as having been a guard in the camp. She heard him saying, “You mentioned Ravensbruck in your talk. I was a guard there. But since that time I have become a Christian. I know that God has forgiven me for the cruel things I did there, but I would like to hear it from your lips too. Fraulein, will you forgive me?

Corrie says that she could not. Betsie had died in that place. Could this man erase her slow and terrible death simply by asking forgiveness? Corrie says that it could not have been many seconds that he stood there, hand held out. But to her it seemed hours as she wrestled with the most difficult decision in her life. She stood there with the coldness clutching her heart. But she knew that forgiveness is not an emotion, it is an act of will – she had to hand on the forgiveness she knew.

“Jesus help me,” she prayed silently, “I can lift my hand; I can do that much. You supply the feeling.”

So, woodenly, unfeelingly, she thrust her hand into the guards hand and offered the forgiveness God had given her. As she did, an incredible thing took place. She says that a current started in her shoulder, raced down her arm and sprang into their joined hands. Then a healing warmth seemed to flood her whole being, bringing tears to her eyes.

“I forgive you brother,” she cried “with all my heart!”

For a long moment they grasped each other’s hands, the former guard and the former prisoner. Corrie had never known God’s love as intensely as she did then. She was able to forgive as she had been forgiven.

As hard as it is, as much as it can go against our initial and very human instinct, we must learn to turn the other cheek and live a life of forgiveness and peace. Then we, like Connie and many others who have forgiven in impossible circumstances, will know of that the transforming power of God’s forgiveness in our own lives. Yes it is difficult, it wasn’t easy even for Christ, but it is so worthwhile. So let us all on this day, pray for the strength to live like Christ would have us live and cast off the shackles of hatred and move forward in the freedom of forgiveness.

Sermon Isaiah 58:1-9 & Matthew 5:13-20

09.02.14

 Out with the old and in with the new. What a terrible expression that is really when you stop to think about it! I believe that that expression or rather that attitude is a large part in why people fear new things, because people fear being left out. But just because something new comes along it doesn’t mean we have to get rid of the old. This leads me to a question. How do you view our Old Testament? I want you to think about that for a moment. For some people the Old Testament is redundant because of the teachings of Jesus. It is something that we can take a passing interest in if we like but don’t be too concerned about because Jesus came and changed everything and only what he said matters. This was similar to my view on the matter prior to my training. I knew very little about the Old Testament and I still admit it is my weaker of the two testaments but that is something I’m actively looking to rectify because I honestly believe that without even a basic understanding of the Old Testament or Hebrew Scriptures you cannot truly understand the New Testament. Because Jesus did not come to do away with the Old Testament, the prophets of old and the law but rather he came to refine it and adapt it.

Jesus was starting off a revolution. The passage we heard comes during his famous Sermon on the Mount and right after the beatitudes which we have already reminded ourselves of as part of our liturgy. It was his first chance to lay out his plans and say, “this is me, this is what I’m all about”. There had already been a buzz about this man, who was going around preaching to people. Some people had even dared to suggest he could be the new Messiah. A large part of the reason that Jesus has to deliver his opening messages on the top of a mountain in the first place was because there were so many people there waiting to hear what he had to say, waiting to hear something different.

That’s why it’s important that very early on in his ministry he sets out his position with regards to the old ways. He could have said, enough of the old stuff, I’ve got something new to teach you. But instead Jesus shows how important his heritage is and indeed how import God’s heritage is with his people. It is something laid down in the foundation of the whole bible. Jesus could have stood up and said, “right guys and girls, I’m the son of God. God has hit the reset button and what he’s now all about is different so it’s out with the old and in with the new.” Instead he says, “Do not think that I have come to abolish the law or the prophets; I have come not to abolish but to fulfil.” There is so much great teaching in the Old Testament that to simply say, “we don’t need it anymore, we have Jesus” means you will be missing out on so much.

First and foremost you’d miss the Ten Commandments which are not some overly theological statement or anything that really needs further study because they are just the basis of having a happy and fulfilling life. Imagine a world where everyone actually lived by the rules set down by the Ten Commandments? There’d be no murders, no jealousy, no adultery, no crime, no lies, people would respect their parents, take a Sabbath day to rest and spend time with God, they’d be no bad language, and all people would worship God and only God. What a wonderful world that would be. But we don’t live in a perfect world and we are, by our very nature, not perfect. But that doesn’t mean that we should ignore the rules just because they are hard and just because God knows we are imperfect. That’s not an excuse to not even try. That’s why the prophet Isaiah is being so seemingly harsh on the people of Israel for not obeying the laws that they keep promising to God that they’ll keep. But which of the laws is he most bothered with?

The Ten Commandments are far from the only laws in the Old Testament. The first five books in the bible are known as the Torah or books of the Law and were historically known as the law of Moses out of the belief that Moses himself wrote those books, something which is largely not given a lot of credit today. They are made up of laws that detail every aspect of life from what you should eat and on what day, to how much it is right to pay someone back for their transgressions, “an eye for and eye” comes from Exodus and deals with this issue. But many of these laws were intended for specific circumstances and not really designed for everyone to follow every day. Think of them as more like case law, specific to that circumstance, being recorded for more for prosperity rather than a model for everyone to follow. But if you look at all the laws that were laid down, including of course the Ten Commandments, they can all be summed up with one simple expression, “Do to others as you would have them do to you.” they are all about mutual love, respect and peace. Even the law “an eye for and eye” was intended to help bring about peace because at least it was setting limits as to the extent a person could expect revenge as you’ll notice that escalation is not permitted. You are only allowed to do back what was done to you. Equality, justice. This is what Isaiah is most interested in. throughout the whole book Isaiah shows that nothing angers God more than injustice and people not looking after the poor.

Isaiah talks to those who think they are righteous, who are observing all the little laws like fasting and thinking, “gee, aren’t we good, God’s going to love us.” But who are missing the main point. That is why God says to them, “The kind of fasting I want is this: Remove the chains of oppression and the yoke of injustice, and let the oppressed go free. Share your food with the hungry and open your homes to the homeless poor. Give clothes to those who have nothing to wear, and do not refuse to help your own relatives.

“Then my favour will shine on you like the morning sun, and your wounds will be quickly healed. I will always be with you to save you; my presence will protect you on every side. When you pray, I will answer you. When you call to me, I will respond.”

That’s the law that God wants us all to follow, to respond to. Not to be worried about the little things but the big picture.

So how does Jesus then respond to these laws? By refining and reemphasising the central themes of the law. He stands up and delivers his beatitudes, his commandments, and they are all about love, peace and justice. But again, these are just refinements on the central themes of God’s law. The only new commandment Jesus actually gives is this, “love one another. As I have loved you, so you must love one another. If you have love for one another, then everyone will know that you are my disciples.” And this new commandment he gives right before he knows he is going to die during the last supper with his friends. Jesus top and tails his ministry by saying, all that matters in the world and in the law is that you love one another and even that new commandment is not really new as it flows throughout the Old Testament as well. Yes there are parts of the Old Testament that make for uncomfortable and difficult reading, but just because they are difficult doesn’t mean we should ignore them as you need all parts to make a whole.

Something many people don’t like admitting is the simple fact, Jesus was Jewish. Last week we heard about Jesus being taken to the temple as a boy to observe the rituals that all Jewish children had to undertake. A large part of the reason that story was included in the Gospel has to be to make that point, Jesus was Jewish and we are descendants from the same people of God that started with Abraham and we have the same promises and responsibility as they had.

Jesus’ new commandment should always be at the heart of what we do and we should never think of ourselves as above this rule. That’s the mistake that the priest and the Pharisees made that so angered Jesus throughout his ministry. They focused so intently on the fine print that they missed the big picture. That’s why Jesus uses the strongest of insults towards them, Hypocrites! They preach the law but yet fail in their responsibilities to live up to the purpose and the spirit of the law.

So now that we know that we have this central command that is at the heart of all the bible’s laws, what do we do with it? Do we just keep it to ourselves and live a good and holy but largely pointless life? Or rather do with take this gift and put it into practice and let the light of God shine? How many of you received a gift at Christmas which you have now either given away, returned to the shop or just thrown away? And how many of you have ever had a gift you’ve given returned? It doesn’t feel nice does it? Because more often than not there’s been a lot of thought into getting that person a gift that you feel they would like or that they need. That’s one of the big differences between Christmas as a child and Christmas as an adult. When you’re a child it’s all about what you want but there comes a point in one’s life when presents are all about what you need or at least what that person thinks you need. Of course there are always those gifts you receive that make you question the amount of thought that went into them. My dad recently bought mum three DVD’s which were quite a random selection. He then admitted that he bought those 3 for £20 at Tesco. Well that went down well. But you don’t have that problem with God’s gift. God’s gift is a wonderful gift of love for all people. So why then do we waste it? Why do we hide our gift of light?

This gift is not something for us to keep to ourselves, but it is a gift for all people. The early people of God were told that they were a light to all the nations through the prophet Isaiah which is a title that comes with it a sense of honour and responsibility but the aspect of responsibility that went sadly missing. They were meant to be God’s messengers of hope and love and instead they preached messages that made them sound over confident in their covenant with God and used language that was exclusive and not inclusive. “Look at us,” the preachers would say, “we’re the chosen people of God. We’re righteous because we keep all the laws. You’re unclean and if we get touched by you we have to go to the temple to be made clean again”. How is that being a light to the nations? How is that reflecting God’s love?

It is because of their failure to live up to their covenant with God that God send Jesus down to live among us and forge and new covenant with God. So now, we are the light to nations but we should not rest in the honour that that bestows upon us but instead we need to let that light of God shine through us and through everything we do. This is what Jesus says to us as part of his great first sermon. Do not make the same mistakes with this new Covenant as you did with the last. The gift of God’s love, as displayed throughout the ministry of Christ, is a gift that you don’t want to return or waste, but it is a gift that we must share with all people. Its light warms our hearts and has given us great joy and comfort and so we all should want to share that joy and comfort to all people.

So remember that God’s law is not something that we should shy away from because at its heart and in its foundation is a message of love for all people. We are called to share that message, that gift of love with everyone by being mirrors, reflecting the light in even the darkest of places. So let the joy of the law of God flow through your heart and let your light shine.

Hello again dear reader.

Just a quick note about the use of my work on here. I’m conscious that there may be aspects of my work which you would like to use that i post on here specifically the monologues. my position is simple, i’m happy for them to be used for church work but would like to know beforehand. the reason i’m saying this is just so i know what’s being used and what’s not.

Hope this sounds reasonable.

James

Simeon Monologue (based on Luke 2:22-40)

A long time ago I had a dream, or rather a vision. The lord spoke to me and told me that I would not die until I saw the Messiah. Now, I know how that sounds. Many a madman has been condemned for saying the Lord spoke to me, but you have to believe me, and believe this is true or else the story I’m going to tell you, will not seem real either and then you will be missing out.
My name is Simeon by the way and I’m a priest in Jerusalem. That vision I had was a long time ago. At the time I was filled with excitement and hope. “Imagine,” I thought “I’m going to see the messiah! And he is coming in my lifetime.” You must remember of course that the coming of the Messiah was something written about many times in our holy scriptures. He was going to come and free us all from our oppression and save us all. We were all expecting great things from the coming of the messiah and his coming would be in a way that would be hard to miss. Mountains will tremble and all our enemies will quake at the coming of the lord. And I was going to get to see it all. But, like I said, that was all some time ago and I confess, I’d started to doubt.
I know that they say, good things come to those who wait, but I was so excited by this news that each passing day that went by without me seeing the messiah, seemed to take forever. I would wake up every morning and think, “is this the day? Is this when I will finally see the messiah?” but the sun rose and the sun set and still I saw nothing. I would just go about my usual business in the temple, praying and waiting for that day to come soon. Many years passed and still I saw no messiah and so eventually, I’ll admit, I started to doubt. I wondered, whether it had all been a dream and not a vision. That when I heard God telling me of my fate it was nothing more than my own wishful thinking and my own desire to see the coming of the messiah. But still I waited. I never gave up but I did doubt.
Don’t get me wrong, it’s not like I sat around and twiddled my thumbs whilst waiting for the moment to come. I got on with what God had initially called me to do and serve his people in the temple. A large part of my job, and the part that I liked the most, was meeting and blessing the new-born children and their parents. It is a large part of our tradition that when a new-born baby is born the parents bring them along for a series of rituals which are, the purification of the mother, the presentation of the child for the service of God and if the child is their first born then also the ritual of the redemption of the first born. The purification of the mother is required because of Leviticus 12:6-8 which I’m sure you’re all familiar with but just in case it’s slipped your mind it reads;

“When the days of her purification are completed, (which was 40 days after the birth) whether for a son or for a daughter, she shall bring to the priest at the entrance of the tent of meeting a lamb in its first year for a burnt offering, and a pigeon or a turtledove for a sin offering. He shall offer it before the Lord, and make atonement on her behalf; then she shall be clean from her flow of blood. This is the law for her who bears a child, male or female. If she cannot afford a sheep, she shall take two turtledoves or two pigeons, one for a burnt offering and the other for a sin offering; and the priest shall make atonement on her behalf, and she shall be clean.”

The redemption of the first born is about making sure the child can start life without the burden of sin upon him. And the final part of this process sees the parents presenting the child for the service of God. This comes out of the knowledge that each child is a gift from God and whatever role that child goes on to fill in our world, he or she will life their life for the service of God. Because this is so much part of our tradition performing these ceremonies has become a large part of my job but I love seeing the smiles on the faces of the new parents, even with their bags around their eyes and expressions that tell of both joy and exhaustion.
But still I had always a part of my brain focused on that question, would today be the day I met the messiah? I am now quite old and an awful lot of time had passed since that vision appeared to me. But despite my growing doubts, God was true to his word, as he always is, and the day did come when I met the Messiah. It was a day like many others, nothing particularly special about it. No reports of mountains shaking, loud trumpets being heard or anything else out of the ordinary.
This ordinary family arrived ready for the ceremonies to take place. They handed over an offering of two pigeons or two turtle doves, I can’t remember which, but I remember it was one of those because they were regarded of as poor offerings. Not that they were less valued by God but a rich or wealthy person would be expected to bring a sheep or a lamb. So clearly they were not from a wealthy background. I took one look at them, and at this beautiful little boy and my heart leaped up into my throat. I knew. I just knew that this was the moment. He was Messiah. This little baby, so helpless and tiny was going to be the one to change the whole world. I took the baby in my arms and raised my head to the heavens and said to the Lord,
“Now, Lord, you have kept your promise,
and you may let your servant go in peace.
With my own eyes I have seen your salvation,
which you have prepared in the presence of all peoples:
A light to reveal your will to the Gentiles
and bring glory to your people Israel.”

When I finished I looked in His parents eyes and I could see a look of shock and amazement. But then something else struck me. I remembered all the teachings and prophecies that say how the story of the messiah was to unfold and that His life would be one of great suffering and that ultimately he would have to make the ultimate sacrifice for our sakes. I felt I had to warn his parents that being the parents of the messiah was going to lead to great times of trial and so I said to Mary, his mother “This child is chosen by God for the destruction and the salvation of many in Israel. He will be a sign from God which many people will speak against and so reveal their secret thoughts. And sorrow, like a sharp sword, will break your own heart.” I knew that many would reject him because it was clear to me, as I looked into this child’s eyes that he was going to be a very different messiah that the one people were expecting. I saw that there was something powerful and meaningful in the way that this child had been brought into the world as a humble child born to poor parents, that would challenge people’s perspectives and attitudes and that often leads to conflict, hatred and even death. He was not a wealthy prince who would carry on the old ways but rather he would challenge our very perception of God. But I knew that he would be wonderful. There was just something peaceful and beautiful about him, an ora beaming off him, which ensured I knew that this child truly was a gift from God. And not just in the way that all children are gifts from God but this was a gift for everyone.
After they had left, I felt at peace; a kind of peace that I had not known for a long time. I no longer had that niggling doubt in my mind that I was going to die have never met the messiah, that God would not live up to his promise or that perhaps I had already seen but simply missed the messiah. But I need never have doubted because God always keeps his promises you just have to keep your faith, keep your trust and keep you hope in Him and He will come through. Just like with the messiah. God promised that a time would come when he would send his only Son to live among us and that that messiah would come and bring good news to the poor, free those imprisoned, make the blind see, free the oppressed and bring closer the kingdom of God. It’s just that God moves in mysterious ways and things are not always done in the way that you’d imagine. But just because things may appear different, never doubt that God has your best interests at heart. So keep your faith in Him and trust in his love for you and God will never let you down.