Surprised, ambushed and carried off by God

Sermon preached at St Peter’s Church, Clifton, Bristol – date unknown, but sometime in the 1990s

Thursday week ago, I attended a day retreat for Bristol church leaders. It was held just over the Suspension Bridge, in Leigh Woods parish church. I left Henleaze straight after celebrating the 10.30am mid-week communion and found myself, on arrival, catapulted pretty quickly into a worship experience which was dramatically different to what we take for regular or normal here at St Peter’s. Among those present were our own Bishop Mike, the Bishop of Bristol, and about twenty Bristol clergy that I recognised from the Anglican church. But the other 80 or so were from the large number of free and community churches meeting throughout the city. The flavour of the worship was clearly evangelical.

Our own neighbour, Tim Dobson, from Henleaze and Westbury Community Church, had organised the day, invited the leaders and introduced this period of worship. He started by saying he wasn’t quite sure what would happen, but suggested that we began with a period of music and singing and followed this by prayer – and if anyone felt the Lord speaking to them with something they would like to share, please feel free to come to the front and share it.

So, with everyone on their feet, the music started, words appeared via PowerPoint on a large screen to the side at the front and we sang songs generally centring on the majesty of Jesus – songs which led some, but not everyone, to extend their hands in praise ‘towards God’. The period of song, some of which I knew and some I didn’t, lasted for the next twenty minutes. The time of prayer then started and, after a while, some of those present, especially those of us towards the back, sat down. People around the church voiced their prayers when they felt moved to: at other times there were short periods of quiet. Occasionally over the next half an hour people took it in turns to come to the front and share with all present the prophecy, the vision or the special word they felt God had placed in their heart.

At the first mention of the word ‘prophecy’ I have to admit I felt my eyebrows rise.

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The second coming – and the first

Sermon preached at St Paul’s Church, Bristol (presumably the St Paul’s in Clifton), 15 December 1996

I have sixty-two video tapes on my bookshelf. Some of them I’ve seen. Many of them I recorded because I was out, but I haven’t actually got round to looking at them. Why did I bother? Because I didn’t want to miss the programme, of course. But they stand there patiently in line until I summon my attendance at the video.

An event is captured in real time, and lies suspended until I put the tape into the machine. I cannot say I am reliving the happening because I haven’t seen it before, but when I start to watch I am in two times: the recorded programme’s time which is as linear as the one to which I am recalled, in a shock, say, if the phone rings in the middle of the exciting bits. You can’t be physically in two places at once, but in this model you can be a two-timer; and each offers its own world view.

The world view of John the Baptist was that Jesus would be the expected man of fire, the Messiah purging Israel of her enemies. Their moral teachings were very similar. Matthew saw in John the promised supernatural return of Elijah, whose appearing would announce the Messiah’s coming. But clearly Jesus’s activity was not that which the firebrand John might have been awaiting. Hence his own disciples came to Jesus to ask, “Are you the one, or do we have to look for another?”

Now, Matthew is very fond of Old Testament resources. His Gospel is littered with references to present the expected Messiah in the person of Jesus and one who would inaugurate the expected Golden Age. But Matthew has a trick up his sleeve. The firebrand that John expected (and the Jewish nation too) turns out to be an enigmatic figure: and not one of unlimited power, which must have been a shock to many.

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The Christmas cave

Sermon (entitled “Epilogue”) preached at Queen Elizabeth’s Hospital Carol Service, Christ Church, Clifton, Bristol, 13 December 1989

I don’t know if you are anything like me, but when the alarm clock goes in the morning I sometimes think, “oh no! Time to get up. I wish I could stay in bed for another hour!” But of course I can’t. There’s no escape. I can’t miss the 28 bus into work. I must get behind my desk by 8.30. Diving under the duvet is disastrous. Mind you, the temptation is very strong, and it’s not just limited to staying in bed. If you are unsure or afraid of things, it is very tempting to retreat from them; ducking for shelter is part of the survival instinct. That’s why the Americans are spending $93m on sending men crawling through tunnels to try to find a cave big enough to act as a vast fall-out shelter for the population.

That’s turning the clock back to the Stone Age when caves were selected as places of safety. But it is not just for escape, but for discovery. The biggest discovery I ever made in a cave was that if you didn’t take enough water your calcium carbide lamp wouldn’t work, and you’d be left in the dark! The discovery of paintings in the Lascaux caves, or of Ice Age flint tools lead us to consider caves as the womb of science, art and religion.Read More »