On Active Service: Three Priorities in War and Peace

“High Noon” released in 1952, starring Gary Cooper and Grace Kelly, is one of my favourite films. Gary Cooper was the sheriff of a small western town. Earlier a gang of four outlaw brothers had terrorized the town. The sheriff had brought them to justice and sent them to prison. 

In prison they vowed that when they got out they would kill the sheriff. The movie focuses on one particular day. The sheriff has just married Grace Kelly. She happens to be a devout Quaker utterly opposed to all violence. The sheriff resigns from law enforcement and the couple are to leave town on their honeymoon. He is going to start a new life as a rancher. Suddenly word comes that the outlaw brothers have been released from prison and are due to arrive that very day on the noon train. Everybody urges the couple to get out of town quickly. They ride away, but the sheriff is troubled. Finally, he turns the wagon around and heads back to town, much to the consternation of his bride.

He cannot stand to run away from his old enemies. He pins the badge back on his shirt. Quickly he tries to round up a posse. It’s a Sunday morning. Lots of people are in church. The sheriff interrupts the service, explains the emergency, and asks the men of the congregation to help him form a posse. Several people stand up and respond. One of them says, “We’d like to help you, Sheriff, but we’re not trained gunmen. That’s what we hire sheriffs for.” Then another says, “You know, Sheriff, we Christians don’t believe in violence.” Still another says, “Sheriff, you’re a brave man but it would probably have been wiser if you had not come back to town.”

The Sheriff turns and walks out in disgust. In the background you hear Tex Ritter singing the theme song-“I do not know what fate awaits me; I only know I must be brave, and I must face the man who hates me, or lie a coward, a craven coward, or lie a coward in my grave.”

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Praise my soul the King of Heaven

139834321The “Pillars of Hercules,” which flank the entrance to the Straits of Gibraltar between Africa and Europe were from Roman times associated with the Latin phrase ne plus ultra, meaning “No More Beyond.” Certainly no one dared question the prevailing belief that there was nothing beyond the horizon. That was until 1492 when Christopher Columbus boldly sailed westward and discovered the New World. On his return, Spain celebrated with a new national logo. Coins were struck with two words: plus ultra meaning “More Beyond”. We are here tonight for this special remembrance service because ‘out of sight’ does not mean ‘out of mind’. But is there more beyond? More than simply the act of remembering the past? The Christian hope is that there is a new world beyond our horizon. Our Psalm this evening teaches us to look beyond our limited horizon, beyond what we can see, feel or touch. Psalm 103 inspires us to feel the heart beat of God’s love and realise there is indeed yet ‘more beyond’ our horizon to discover. More of God’s character to understand. More of his purposes to discover.

More of his love to experience. More of his commission to fulfil. More of his justice to proclaim. More of his love to share. More of his glory to praise. Psalm 103 inspired Henry Francis Lyte to write one of the most opopular hymns in the English language “Praise my soul the King of heaven”. No wonder. We have here in Psalm 103 the authentic utterance of a redeemed child of God, who piles up words to express his gratitude to the God of grace. There are three sections to the Psalm.

God’s personal blessings (Psalm 103:1-5).
God’s Covenant Mercy (Psalm 103:8-18).
God’s Universal Dominion (Psalm 103:19-22).

Let us consider them in turn and discern whether there is indeed “more beyond”  Continue reading

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The Pentecostal Spirit for Power Evangelism

Scientists have proven that birthdays are good for you, the more you have, the longer you live. Norman Wisdom once said, “As you get older, three things happen: The first is your memory goes, and I can’t remember the other two.” Inside every older person is a younger person, wondering what on earth happened.  In a couple of weeks we will celebrate the 176th birthday of Christ Church. Today we remember the birthday of the Church under three headings: the context, the message and the experience of Pentecost. Please turn with me to Acts 2.

  1. The Context of Pentecost

To make sense of Pentecost we must see it within its biblical and historical context. The most obvious is:

1.1 The Confusion of Languages at the Tower of Babel

There is clearly an obvious parallel with the Tower of Babel. In Genesis when people tried to make a name for themselves and build a tower reaching to heaven, God cursed them by confusing their languages and scattering them across the earth (Genesis 11:1-9). On the Day of Pentecost people “from every nation under heaven” (Acts 2:5) came together in Jerusalem and were able to hear the same good news of “the wonderful works of God” in their own languages (Acts 2:11). At the cross of Jesus, the curse of the Tower of Babel had been removed. The good news of Jesus is for all peoples. He is building a church of all nations. The Tower of Babel. Continue reading

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The Clash of Two Kingdoms

“When Britain first, at Heaven’s command,
Arose from out the azure main,
This was the charter of the land,
And guardian angels sang this strain:
Rule Britannia! Britannia rule the waves
Britons never, never, never, shall be slaves.

The nations, not so blest as thee,
Must, in their turns, to tyrants fall;
While thou shalt flourish great and free,
The dread and envy of them all.
Rule Britannia! Britannia rule the waves
Britons never, never, never, shall be slaves.

Sung with gusto at the Last Night of the Proms, “Rule Britannia” was a poem composed by James Thomson and set to music by Thomas Arne in 1740 to commemorate the accession of George II. [1]

The Clash of Two Kingdoms (Acts 1:1-14) from Stephen Sizer on Vimeo.

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Surviving the Storms of Life

There is deep inside each one of us a subconscious awareness that life is precarious. It is implicit when we kiss the children goodbye on their way to school with the words ‘Take care’ or to an adult friend, “Hope you keep well.” The fact is, disease can strike, accidents do happen, and unforeseen events interrupt our carefully planned and manicured lives. Naturally, we do everything we can to reduce the possibility. And in our relatively affluent, peaceful community, we can convince ourselves that we really are in control of our lives, cocooned from the world outside. Bad things happen to other people, and we’re confident they won’t happen to us.

When we live calamity-free for long periods of time, when the big issues have to do with the length of the grass at the golf course or whether the trains are running on time, or the availability of our favourite products at the local supermarket, not only do we feel a kind of invincibility, but we slowly begin to take life itself for granted. We stop thanking God for the daily blessedness of it – for sunrises and sunsets, for spring rains and autumn mists, and for our very own lives. We so easily grow complacent with our partners, our children, our parents, our friends. We get accustomed to the privilege of living.

Then a day like Tuesday September 11th 2001 or a Thursday like Thursday 7th July 2005, or a Tsunami floods whole countries or a Hurricane devastates an entire city, and our world is turned upside down. With biological contagions like Ebola seemingly out of control and terror extremists like ISIS radicalising our world, we realise no one is immune from danger, fear and even death.

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Ambassadors Needed

Heartened by the recent historic meeting between Prime Minister David Cameron and Iranian President Hassan Rouhani, at the United Nations, signaling a long-overdue thawing of Anglo-Iranian relations, I was delighted to attend the New Horizons interfaith conference in Tehran last week, as a member of a UK delegation.

The conference addressed issues where faith and politics intersect in the Middle East such as Israel’s war on Gaza, Islamophobia in the West as well as the rise of ISIS and those sponsoring extremism.

“There is no teleology in western society, no guiding morality, only an obsession with materialism,” argued organizer Arash Darya-Bandari. “We believe it is necessary to control the negative tendencies in culture, such as pornography, alcohol, drugs, prostitution, to strive towards a more moral and justice society.”

One of the contributors, Eric Walberg wrote, “Contrary to the shrill cries in the western media that the conference was anti-Semitic, it was unique in my experience in addressing Zionism and US imperialism forthrightly and intelligently, without a hint of racism. The issue of anti-Semitism was addressed and dismissed, as “There is no issue with Jewish people or the Jewish religion,” explained Darya-Bandari, “but rather with Zionism, that secular distortion of Judaism that itself is racist, and has been used as a pretext to dispossess and kill Palestinians.”

He went on to report, “The conference issued a resolution condemning ISIS, Zionism, US unconditional support of Israel, Islamophobia, and calling for activism locally to boycott Israeli goods and to promote understanding between the West and the Muslim world, and to fight sectarianism. “This was a great opportunity to meet anti-imperialist activists from around the world, to bring Russians, Poles, western Europeans, North Americans together with Iranians and other Muslims, both Sunni and Shia, in a forum without sectarianism, truly supporting peace and understanding,” said delegate Mateusz Piskorski, director of the European Centre of Geopolitical Analysis in Warsaw and former MP in the Polish Sejm.”

I was invited to contribute to the opening ceremony and present a biblical perspective on Jihad and in particular, a Christian refutation of the Islamic State (IS). Later in the conference I was asked to present a paper on the impact of the Israel Lobby in the UK, especially in parliament and in the media, ahead of the publication of my new book on the subject.

“We are therefore Christ’s ambassadors, as though God were making his appeal through us. We implore you on Christ’s behalf: Be reconciled to God.” (2 Corinthians 5:20)

Ambassadors, of necessity serve in foreign countries, where perspectives may be different and at times even hostile to one’s own. But given the dire consequences of any breakdown in relations between countries, dialogue and diplomacy are always to be preferred over war and strife.

In the journal Diplomat, Michael Binyon asks,

“Are Christian church leaders becoming the world’s most active peacemakers? Only a week after President Peres of Israel and the Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas accepted the Pope’s invitation to pray together with him in Rome, the Archbishop of Canterbury made a dramatic flight to Nigeria to pray with President Goodluck Jonathan and encourage him to make every effort to find the schoolgirls kidnapped by the terrorist organisation Boko Haram.

The Archbishop’s impromptu trip came hard on the heels of a visit to Pakistan, where he visited a small embattled Christian community and praised their efforts to forge closer links with the wider Muslim community, despite regular attacks by militants, the threats of mob violence and the increasing use of the notorious blasphemy laws to force Christians from their land and property…

Peacemaking and reconciliation – within the Anglican Church and between the world’s main faith groups – were the declared priority for Justin Welby from the moment he became Archbishop. He is well qualified for the role. As an oil executive who visited Nigeria often before his ordination, he has seen at first-hand the conflict raging between Christians and Muslims in Central Nigeria that is now taking a deadly toll. As a former head of Coventry Cathedral’s Centre for Reconciliation, he has himself conducted delicate negotiations between militant groups in an effort to free hostages, often risking his own life.”

A walk through the deserted US embassy in Tehran last week was a poignant reminder of how a failure to pursue diplomacy has fueled not only decades of missed opportunities but also perpetuated misunderstanding and animosity between our countries.

Ironically, the leaders in Jesus day, tried to dictate whom he could and could not meet with, criticizing him for eating with “tax collectors and sinners”.  Clearly they considered his actions “conduct unbecoming” a rabbi. Thankfully for us he did not listen to them.

Critics of conferences such as New Horizons should think more carefully about how their inflammatory words will negatively impact on their own communities in Iran.

They would be better served following the examples set by our Prime Minister, the Pope and the Archbishop who, as true ambassadors, are working for peace and reconciliation.

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Christian Jihad: A Biblical Response to the Islamic State

I hope that we would all agree ISIS is no more representative of Islam than Zionism is of Judaism, or the Crusades and Inquisition are of Christianity. But the reality is ISIS has attracted at least 3,000 young idealistic Muslims from Europe. And apocalyptic Christian Zionists are the dominant supporters of Israel’s colonialist expansionist agenda in Palestine.

ISIS has made their vision for the world very clear. Carl Medearis says,

“We know what it is – evil personified. They have morphed out of Al Qaeda who were ironically too liberal for their most radical Islamic interpretations, namely that there should be a new national Muslim identity – a Caliphate. They have chosen Iraq and al-Sham (the Levant) as the territory from which this new “state” will emerge.

ISIS has brutally killed 1000’s, mostly non-Sunnis, in this quest for power. Ethnic Christians and a small people-group called Yazidis have found themselves in evil’s path, but so have the armies of Syria (both the national army and the various rebel groups), Iraq and even Lebanon.  It seems anyone who isn’t willing to lay down their “flag” and join the newly self-appointed ISIS Caliphate is deemed a traitor and deserves to die.”[1]

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Harvest Festival

Why do we celebrate Harvest Festival? The Bible mentions Harvest a lot! Lets consider Harvest past, present and future.

Harvest Past – When did Harvest Begin?

Do you know when the first Harvest Festival took place?

“In the course of time Cain brought some of the fruits of the soil as an offering to the LORD. But Abel brought fat portions from some of the firstborn of his flock.” (Genesis 4:3-4)

From the very beginning and right through history, people have given back to God some of what he has given them. Harvest Festival began as a way of saying “thank you”.

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Jesus and Climate Change

Three sermons on Jesus and Climate Change

Jesus is Lord of all Creation (Psalm 24)
Jesus is Lord of the Covenant (Genesis 7)
Jesus is Lord of the Sabbath (Luke 6)

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Jesus is Lord of the Sabbath

unnamedRemember when you were at school and you were told that science and religion were incompatible?  You were told to choose between scientific facts and religious faith? Well, not any more! “Scientists turn to God to save the planet” was the headline in the Independent on Friday.

“Two of the world’s leading scientists have made an unprecedented call on religious leaders to spark a “massive mobilisation of public opinion”, insisting that only through God can we save the environment.

Writing in the journal Science, Cambridge University’s Partha Dasgupta and Veerabhadran Ramanathan, of the University of California, have made an impassioned plea for help in curbing the “potentially catastrophic” effects of what they call “the ongoing abuse of the planet’s natural resources”.

Naomi Oreskes, professor of history of science at Harvard University, said the call was a remarkable development in the world of climate science.

“This is a watershed moment. For 20 years, scientists have been reluctant to speak out on the need to change business as usual for fear of being labelled ‘political’ and reluctant to address the moral dimensions of climate change for fear of being labelled ‘unscientific’,” she said… “I think a lot of people see the religious contribution as a cosy topic which we should only discuss on Sunday mornings, but it could prove decisive.”[1]

I think you will agree that so far, this sermon series on Jesus and Creation has been far from a ‘cosy topic’ only for ‘Sunday mornings’. Some of us have been troubled and disturbed as we have considered the devastating consequences of climate change globally, especially on the poor and vulnerable. From the scriptures we have been reminded that Jesus is Lord of Creation, and that we are responsible to him to be good stewards of the earth entrusted to us. Jesus is also Lord of the covenant God has made with the earth. All of creation is connected, all of creation is significant and all of creation is to be cherished.

Jesus is Lord of the Sabbath (Luke 6) from Stephen Sizer on Vimeo.

Howard Snyder says:

Here is the biblical basis for a theology of creation care. In the biblical view, earth’s creatures and species are to be “stewarded” for four key reasons: God created them; God delights in them; we depend on them; they are part of God’s larger plan…. [because] Salvation Means Creation Healed.” Jesus is Lord of the Sabbath rest too.  Continue reading

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