Saturday, 17 August 2013

Opening of a Recent Sermon

Imagine this conversation. Two chapel-goers meet on the street..

“How are you getting on with your minister these days?”

“Very well indeed. He’s lovely – such a kind man, a great listener, and a great preacher too. He’s wonderful considering the problems he has at home.”

“Oh, what problems would they be?”

“Well, his wife is no credit to him.”

“She doesn’t help him much in his ministry then?”

“I’ll say she doesn’t! It’s worse than that.”

“Oh, is she not a Christian?”

“Far from it! She’s an absolute disgrace. To put it bluntly, she’s nothing but a common tart. She goes out at night and he’s got no idea where she is. She’s left him a few times and gone off with another man. There are three children in the manse, but nobody’s sure whether they’re his or not. Needless to say, they’re no credit to him either. They’re completely out of control.”

“Hasn’t he ever thought of a divorce?”

“Well, he has threatened it, but every time she comes back crying on his shoulder he forgives her and they patch it up somehow. I think he’d be far better off without her. But there you are, love is blind I suppose.”

“It must be very embarrassing for him in his ministry. How does he cope? I suppose he keeps quiet about it.”

“Oh no, quite the reverse – he often preaches about it. He says his marriage has taught him a lot about God.”

“Preaches about it! Well, I’ve heard it all  now. I can’t imagine my church putting up with that. We’d have been looking for another minister long ago.”

“But we wouldn’t want any other minister. We love our Mr Hosea.”

Saturday, 5 January 2013

The Questions in a Familiar Story

The Bible is often hard to understand. It is meant to be so – not to hide things from us or intimidate us into servile reverence, but rather to make us think for ourselves. Sometimes the passages that seem simple are actually some of the hardest to understand when we start thinking about them.

Take for instance the story of the ‘Wise Men’ in Matthew 2. It is one of the most familiar stories in the Bible. Every child knows it, though perhaps in its highly embellished form, with crowned kings kneeling alongside the shepherds in a sanitised stable. But reading it just as it is in the Bible, what does it really mean? What is the point we are meant to take from it? It is full of unanswered questions.

First, who were they? At the time when the King James Bible was written, ‘wise men’ really meant ‘wizards’. The Latin Bible, based on the Greek, calls them ‘magi’. This word is connected with ‘magic’. They were really ‘magicians’. The word is used in two other places in the New Testament, both in the book of Acts. First it describes a man called Simon, a sorcerer who offered money to buy a spiritual gift from the apostles: he goes down in history at Simon Magus, the arch-heretic, and ‘simony’ is a word for corruption in religious circles. The second example is Elymas the sorcerer, who tried to prevent Paul from preaching to the governor of Cyprus. So, are we supposed to approve of these ‘magi’?

They came because they had seen a star. In other words, they were astrologers. The Bible never has a good word to say about astrology, and Christians are generally discouraged from believing in it. So is this story telling us that astrology is a way to God?

More unanswered questions:

When they eventually came to the right place and saw the baby Jesus, did they realise how wrong they had been in their assumptions?

Were they converted to the Jewish faith, and did they recognise Jesus as the Messiah? And did they then give up their astrology and their other pagan beliefs?

In later years, did they hear about Jesus?

If so, did they become Christians? And if not (from the point of view of evangelical Christianity) are they in heaven now or in hell?

The point of the story in Matthew’s Gospel, of course, is that Jesus came for everybody. And perhaps what it is telling us in today’s multi-faith world is that if we believe this we will be faced with many unanswered questions. Matthew doesn’t answer them, neither does the Bible as a whole: it just raises more questions. We may think we have our doctrines all worked out, but real life isn’t as simple as that. What this story, and the whole trend of the Bible tells us, is that whatever the questions we have to hold on to the faith that Jesus is for everybody.