Sermon archive 2023

Sunday 17th September 2023 - Martin Mowat


Readings : Psalm 29 and Galatians 5: 1 & 13 - 18


Last week, when we were talking about the parable of the fig tree, that Jesus told to illustrate the fact that Jewish leaders of his day were not bearing the spiritual fruit that he expected them to. Fruit such as love, joy, peace, forbearance, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control. That’s the famous list that Paul suggested to the Galatians (Ga 5:22).


Today we’re going to take a one week break from our new series on Jesus’ parables, just to talk about “peace”.

If you were with us last week you’ll know that the Church Organising Group has been discussing our order of service and decided to try adding a post-communion prayer. Here it is:

Father, as we have received these gifts of bread and wine, you have fed us with the spiritual food of the body and blood of our Saviour Jesus Christ. Thank you for assuring us of your goodness and love. Renew us by your Holy Spirit, unite us in the body of your son, and bring us with all your people into the joy of your eternal kingdom, through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen

At the same time, we wondered whether or not to change the moment in our service when we share the peace, and we decided to experiment with having it, after communion and before the intercessions, instead of after the sermon and inviting you to give us your comments.


One of the comments we received prompted me to think seriously about what we’re doing when we share the peace, why we do it, and from there what would be the most appropriate moment in our order of service.  I want to share with you some of those thoughts, and once again, I’d be very happy to hear any comments you may have.


What is peace?  Google thinks that it’s “a stress-free state of security and calmness that comes when there's no fighting or war, everything coexisting in perfect harmony and freedom.”  But that, it seems to me, though not incorrect, is a very passive definition.  Is that, I wondered, the peace that Paul sandwiched so demurely between joy and forbearance in his list?


Let’s look at his list again. Love, joy, peace, forbearance, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control. I think that these things are not in any way passive, but very active, take love for example, that’s active, take faithfulness, active, take kindness, active. If we can make love, and make war, maybe we can also “make peace”.  Perhaps that’s why Jesus said in his sermon on the mount “Blessed are the peacemakers”, and do you remember what they will be called? They will be called the children of God.


So what is active peace, the peace that Paul described to the Philippians as “the peace of God that passes all understanding”? What is this inner peace that Jesus was referring to when he said to his disciples Peace I leave with you; my peace I give you. I do not give to you as the world gives. Do not let your hearts be troubled and do not be afraid”?


The clue there is that it’s the peace of God, the peace of the Lord.  It’s something that he endows us with when we walk alongside him; when we allow him to lead us, to share our burdens, to solve our problems, to become the centre of our very existence, and to fill us with his spirit.


What, then, do we do with this active peace? Dare I suggest four things? 

-          We live at peace with God,

-          we live at peace with our brothers in sisters in Christ,

-          we make peace with, and love, our enemies,

-          and we live at peace with the world.  That’s how we “proclaim the kingdom until he comes”. Jesus calls us to be his hands and feet, to live in such a way that the world can see him in us, so that his church becomes attractive, a place people want to go and to stay. A people who represent a king who rode triumphantly into Jerusalem, not on a horse, a symbol of war, but on a donkey, which was a symbol of peace.


What are we doing, then, when we “share the peace” in church? We are making peace with our brothers and sisters in Christ. In the Lord’s prayer Jesus taught us to ask God to “forgive us our sins (or our trespasses), as we forgive each other”. Not forgiving each other is therefore in itself a sin, but that’s another matter.


Strangely forgiveness wasn’t in Paul’s list but I’m sure that’s because it’s part of “making peace”.


What “sharing the peace” is not is a convenient moment in the service to greet those we didn’t see on the way in and ask them how they are, although there’s nothing wrong in that per se.


When, then, should we do it?  It seems to me logical that once we have made our peace with God by confessing our sins, and being forgiven those sins, some of which MIGHT just be not living at peace with another person in the congregation, and before we share the body and blood of Jesus with those people, we should make our peace with them too. 


To put it another way, having made peace with God in the confession and absolution, we also need to reconcile with each other so that when we take communion together, we are in a state of mutual peace. 


This being the case, where we’ve always had it isn’t too bad, but where we tried it last week, AFTER communion, maybe wasn’t so logical, and that’s partly my fault for not having thought this through sufficiently beforehand.


But doing it immediately after the message doesn’t feel that comfortable to me.  Somehow it just doesn’t quite flow.

I’m wondering, therefore, whether a better moment might be immediately after our prayer of forgiveness and before we get into the reading of scripture and the sermon.


I also asked our good friend David for any thoughts he might have on the subject. He agrees that sharing the peace should be before communion but interestingly he also said that “we need to have cleared the decks of all obstacles so we are in the best frame of mind and emotional and spiritual space to respond to the act of communion.  This, he suggests, includes the unburdening of ourselves, through the Intercessions, of those things which weigh on our mind and which could be distractions. So this would put the intercessions before communion as well.

This might mean, for example, that we have the confession which is at the bottom of the first page, then the prayer for forgiveness at the top of the next page, then share the peace, then perhaps the second hymn with the collection as we all go back to our places, then the readings and the sermon without a break, followed by the third hymn, and then, at that point, the intercessions which would lead us into the creed.


Now we would have have cleared the decks, as it were. We would have prepared ourselves for the most important moment of our service, communion.  That would then be followed by the Lord’s prayer and the rest of what we have on the last page.

Might I make a suggestion?  Can we try that for a couple of weeks, and see how it feels? I understand that there are some who don’t like change. I know that some will say, or think at least, “if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it”. But let’s just try it.  At the very least it’ll help us to think about what we do and why.


What we also need to think about, while we’re at it, is HOW we share the peace. Pre-Covid it was a bit of a free-for-all, with everyone greeting everyone. It was good fun but it could be very intimidating for visitors, for those of a shy disposition, and for those with health issues. We had to stop doing that when Covid came along, for obvious reasons, just turning to our immediate neighbours and muttering the peace through our masks. 


Charlotte found an article on line about an Anglican church that during Covid, instead of hugs, kisses and handshakes, made the sign of the cross with their index fingers, while at the same time making the eye contact with one another, and that, they said, worked really well.


Covid is still around, and some health experts are worried about another wave of it this winter. Nevertheless, it doesn’t seem to pose quite the same threat that once it did, so maybe the rule about staying in our pews can now be relaxed a little.


But let’s be sensitive to each other. Whether you decide to make the sign of the cross with your index fingers, or to shake hands or to fist-bump is entirely up to you, but let’s remember that some people do still feel vulnerable.


So, if you offer your hand to someone and they only offer a fist in return, then fist-bump. If you offer the sign of the cross and the other person wants to shake your hand, if you’re OK with that, then shake hands.  Remember that what we’re doing is sharing the active peace of God. Hugging and kissing probably isn’t a great idea, and for the time being, let’s stay close to our pews unless there is someone in particular with whom you need to share the peace for whatever reason.


In conclusion then, I’d like to quote from an article that I read which said that because the Table of the Lord is a meal eaten among family and friends, the sharing of the peace is not a nicety or passive moment; it is a bold act of declaring our reconciliation as children of God. And this is not easy. Healing wounds, hurts and broken relationships is a difficult task, but it was the task of the Cross. Each time we make peace with each other, we point to that triumph of love. Not only have we been reconciled to God; we have been reconciled to each other.

Sunday 10th September 2023 - Martin Mowat

Jesus Parables 2

Readings:  Luke 13: 1 - 9   Matthew 22: 1 - 14


Here’s a piece of useless information for you.  If you bought a packet of cigarettes in England today, you’d find that half of one side of the pack bears the words “Smoking Kills - Quit now”, and half of the opposite side says "Tobacco smoke contains over 70 substances known to cause cancer". As of August 1st this year, each individual cigarette must be printed with a warnings that say thigs like "Cigarettes cause cancer" and, believe it or not "Poison in every puff".


Last week we started a new series about Jesus’ parables and the topic was God’s love, his forgiveness, and how he seeks out and saves the lost.  Today isn’t going to be quite so easy, hence a health warning. It’s not Smoking Kills - Quit now”, but as the passage heading of our first reading says, in the NIV at least, “Repent or perish”.

The parables that you’ve just heard are among those that Jesus told to help his disciples understand the spiritually perilous place of the Jewish nation in their day, as well as the blindness and deceit of its leaders.

….  In Jesus' day Palestine was part of the Roman Province of Judea. After Pompey the Great had brutally conquered Jerusalem in 63 BC, Rome ruled this area through puppet kings like Herod the Great, and through Roman prefects such as Pontius Pilate.

In order to keep good order, these kings and prefects allowed the Jewish religious leaders to administer many of the laws, which they did both through the “Great Sanhedrin” in Jerusalem, and through local “Sanhedrins” in the various towns. The High Priest, Caiaphas in Jesus' day, was therefore more of a political leader than a spiritual one.

The members if these Sanhedrins were made up of Sadducees and Pharisees, who were different. The Sadducees, who included both the high priest and many other priests, didn't believe in angels, in spirits, or in the resurrection on the Last Day.  Sadducees - “sad you see”.

The Pharisees, on the other hand, did believe in these things, and taught strict observance of the law. In fact they added man-made rules, an oral law, that extended the written Biblical law.  The idea was that if people observed this "oral law," they would be in less danger of violating the actual laws in the Torah, the Mosaic law.

These Pharisees liked to flaunt their piety by praying loud, long, pious prayers in the synagogues and on the street corners. They cultivated a reputation for ‘righteousness’ and loved to be publicly honoured, although in reality, on the inside, they were anything but holy. Jesus knew it and wanted to warn his disciples against their hypocrisy, which he called ‘the leaven of the Pharisees’ or ‘the yeast of the Pharisees’ because of its subtle and invasive nature.

Another group of leaders are referred to as the ‘lawyers’, the ‘teachers of the law’, or the ‘scribes’. These were trained to be the nation's recognized experts in the scriptures, which were just the O.T. of course.

The point is that with few exceptions, all these Jewish leaders saw Jesus as a threat to their position of authority. Jesus, of course, knew what they were thinking and plotting, so it’s not surprising that he didn't have much good to say about them, calling them names like “a brood of vipers”, and describing their sale of animals for sacrifice and their money changing in the temple as "a den of thieves".

So knowing all that helps us understand the parable of the barren fig tree that Philip just read to us.

Jesus had just been told about some Galileans who seem to have been killed by Pilate, and their blood mixed with blood used for some sacrifices.  He’d also been asked, it seems, why God had not saved the lives of 18 people when a tower fell on them and killed them.  It was this that prompted his “health warning”, which he repeated twice, "Unless you repent, you too will all perish" (Luke 13:5), and then this little parable about the fig tree that wasn’t fruiting as it should, in the same way that the religious leaders were not bearing spiritual fruit as they should.

What spiritual fruit did he expect them to bear?  Love, joy, peace, forbearance, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control. Personal integrity too perhaps. Against such things, Paul told the Galatians, there is no law.

The punchline of the parable was that if the poor fig tree, having been given the chance to do better, changed its ways, it would be spared. But if it decided not to do so, just continue to do its own thing, then it was to be cut down. It would ‘perish’.

John the Baptist's message was similar. Unless people began "to bear fruit in keeping with repentance," he warned, judgment would come. "The axe is already at the root of the trees, and every tree that does not produce good fruit will be cut down and thrown into the fire." (Luke 3:9)

This was tough stuff.  Moral of the story for the Jewish leaders: - DON’T be so hypocritical.

In his next chapter Luke records the Parable of the Great Banquet.  Matthew also recorded a similar, but slightly different, version of the parable, told on a different occasion, but in his case it was a wedding banquet, and this is the one that we just heard from Tess, and it’s one of the parables that starts “The kingdom of heaven is like”, a phrase I mentioned last week.

Again, we perhaps need to understand the cultural background, and the social rules that applied when one was invited to such an event.

In both parables the host prepares what is called a huge banquet with large numbers guests invited.

While it may seem strange in the light of invitation practices in the twenty-first century, in the first century world, the invitation would be two-fold: (1) the initial invitation some days or weeks ahead of time, and (2) the actual summons to the meal when it was ready.9

Once the host found out how many guests had accepted his initial invitation, he was able to determine how many animals were to be killed and cooked.

This was a society where one's social standing was determined by peer approval, so not to appear at a banquet to which one had previously agreed to attend was both a grave breach of social etiquette, and an insult to the host. For a whole group of guests to reject the final summons could be seen as a conspiracy to discredit the host entirely.

In Luke’s version of the story the invitees made all sorts of implausible excuses. The first claimed to have just bought a field that he must inspect. What? He bought it sight unseen? The second had just purchased five pairs of oxen and had to try them out. Unlikely, no-one buys a second-hand tractor or a car without test driving it first.  The third excuse, that the guest had just been married, was also fake. When he accepted the invitation, he would have known of his wedding plans. That would have been the time to politely decline. But to back out at the last minute could only have been an act of calculated rudeness.

These people had deliberately rejected the host’s invitation, and so no wonder that he said “Not one not one of those men who were invited will get a taste of my banquet”. The meaning of the parable is fairly simple.  Evildoers and unbelievers, those who effectively reject Jesus offer of salvation, no matter how nice, how helpful, how generous, how popular they are, will not set foot in God’s kingdom.

In Matthews’s version the host said to his servants, The wedding banquet is ready, but those I invited did not deserve to come.  Go to the street corners and invite to the banquet anyone you find.  So the servants went out into the streets and gathered all the people they could find, both good and bad, and the wedding hall was filled with guests. But surprisingly it ends with one poor man, who’d been called in off the street at a moment’s notice, being tied up and thrown out bodily into the street, all because he wasn’t wearing the right clothes, clothes which he probably didn’t have, and couldn’t possibly afford even to hire.

WHAT on earth was that all about?

Maybe the text means that some did quickly dress up, or fix themselves as best they could. They’d at least made an effort.

But this particular individual didn't even bother to do that. Rather, he came dirty, smelly, unkempt, and dishevelled, almost as an insult to both the king and his son, perhaps because he despised both them and their offer of hospitality.

The king demands an explanation but the man has no excuse. He is speechless. So the king orders him to be thrown out of the well-lit banqueting hall into the darkness of the night outside. 

We need to understand that this was a King’s banquet. In Jesus' day there were no democracies. The king's word was law, and you insulted him on pain of death. Jesus' hearers understood well enough; they didn't quibble about the king's constitutional authority to punish evildoers, with no right of appeal.

Jesus certainly intended this darkness to be interpreted as hell, for he adds that "there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth."

Hell is something we don’t like to talk about these days. But Jesus wasn’t mincing his words. …. "For many are invited, but few are chosen" was his closing statement.

Earlier I talked about a health warning, “Repent or perish”. As it just so happens, repentance is what next week’s parables are all about, too, so we’ll look at what it means then.

Sunday 3rd September 2023 - Martin Mowat

Jesus’ Parables 1

Readings : Luke 5 :17-20 & 27-32 and Luke 15:1-10


A couple of years ago we asked ourselves the question “What was Jesus' primary objective?”


We said that what it wasn’t, was to prove God’s existence, although he did.  The world already knew that God existed, and deep down, whatever people might say, it still does.


Nor was it to heal sick people, although he did, to preach and tell parables, although he did.

He came into the world both to die and to show us how to live. He came into the world to bring the good news of salvation and to announce the arrival of the Kingdom of God.

This is a new series and it’s about Jesus’ parables, of which the 4 gospels give us at least 100, because parables, in their widest form, include stories, similes, metaphors, analogies, and various other figures of speech that he used to illustrate kingdom truths, and to change lives.


Although it’s perhaps something of an overstatement, Mark says that "he did’t say anything to his followers without using a parable." So before we go any further let’s ask ourselves why that might have been?


It is thought that it was partly to make his teaching more memorable, things for his disciples to ponder and then pass on to others. May I, right at the outset, encourage each and every one of us to “ponder” as we work through this series.  Jesus’ words are as relevant to us today as they were to those who heard them with their own ears.  They are not just part of an historical account of the man who changed the world for ever, but they convey timeless truths for us, truths that we would do well to “ponder” too.


Many of Jesus parables were probably told on multiple occasions, in different villages and to different audiences.  They were designed to teach people about the nature of the Kingdom of God. Let’s remember that the Jews had been expecting their Messiah to come, to overthrow the Roman oppressors, and to restore David's kingdom on earth. So, in order to set them straight, Jesus needed explain a number of things about the spiritual nature of the Kingdom. That’s why many parables begin, "The kingdom of God is like ...." or “The Kingdom of heaven is like ….".


On the other hand, speaking in parables was also a way of obscuring the truth from those who were not spiritually hungry, and particularly from those who were looking for ways to oppose Jesus.


At the beginning of his ministry, the religious leaders listened to him with curiosity. But after a while, they listened in the hope of finding an way to trick him, to trip him up, and then to formulate charges against him so they could have him arrested.  That’s why Mark says that Jesus' preached in parables so that, “they may be ever seeing but never perceiving, and ever hearing but never understanding…”


So where shall we begin?  Let’s begin where we left off last week when we were talking about the God of both the Old and New Testaments, the God who loves us, and who wants to save us from ourselves.


Sheep.  Sheep had been an integral part of Israelite existence for generations, and in Jesus’ day they still were. They bred sheep for their wool, for their meat, and to use for their sacrifices so they needed lots of them. Everybody understood sheep and knew that they are woolly-headed and easily confused. Generally, sheep stick together in groups but occasionally one gets distracted, wonders off and gets lost. It’s not uncommon, I know because I grew up on a farm where we had 30 or 40 of them. So you have to count them regularly, and when the shepherd in the parable counted his 100 and realised he only had 99, there was only one thing to do.


You heard the story, and you heard the story of the poor lady who lost one of her precious coins. It was probably worth at least a day’s wages and she could ill afford to lose it. There was only one thing for her to do too.


Searching for the lost was, and still is, Jesus’ passion. People get distracted, they wonder off and get lost, just like sheep. Lectio this morning talked about how we get consumed with an all-consuming quest for personal wellbeing. People fall to the ground, roll under a piece of furniture, or get stuck in a place where they can’t be seen. They feel lost and don’t know where to turn. That may have happened to you once or twice.


But Jesus seeks them out, and when he finds them he has a party to celebrate.


Levi, the tax collecter, had been lost too. He was distracted by his mission to get rich by exploiting tax payers. Depicted as being shy and introverted, he was hated by his fellow Jews. But Jesus found him, picked him up, and helped him become Matthew the apostle and the writer of the first book in the New Testament.


Luke 15, the chapter Charlotte was just reading, goes on to record another parable about someone else who was lost, the prodigal son.  You’ve all heard it several times I’m sure, and heard sermons and messages preached on the subject.


Inheritance laws in Israel were designed to favour the older son, giving him a double share of his father’s property, probably with the purpose of keeping a family's land holdings together and preserving the family farm intact.


Dividing up a father's estate before his death wasn’t unheard of, but it was frowned upon.


Also, as long as a father was alive, his sons had the responsibility of supporting him, each with his share of the family wealth, but this younger son ignored that completely, he demanded his share and then squandered it. His focus was on "wild living", wine, women, and song. The money only lasted for a few years, and when it ran out, when he was broke, he found that he was a destitute foreigner in a strange land.


His new found friends deserted him, his bright red sports car was repossessed, he was evicted from his penthouse apartment. He was out on the street.


Coincidentally there was a prolonged famine that put everyone, even the best farmers, on the edge of survival. Our friend eventually found a job feeding pigs, but pigs of course were considered unclean and were abhorrent to the Jews.


He had hit rock bottom and had no alternative but to go home and scrounge on the father that he had rejected and abandoned.


Meanwhile, the father had been longing for his son's return for many years. His eyes had often turned to the road that led to the farm, but on this particular afternoon, when he glanced up to the road as he had thousands of times before, in the distance was the figure of a man coming towards the house.


The old man immediately recognized his son's characteristic walk, even though he was still far off. He got up and began to run towards him, his robes blowing behind him as he hurried to greet the son that he had been hoping against hope to see again.

This was no stiff, awkward meeting. The father threw his arms around his son in a happy embrace and kissed him as a sign of welcome and love. The son began his rehearsed speech about sin and lack of worthiness, but the father stopped him.

Instead of being chastised, as perhaps we might think he should have been, he was dressed in the best robe, a ring was placed on his finger as a sign of his love and wealth. Sandals were placed on his feet, the sign of a freeman as opposed to a slave. And most amazingly of all the fatted calf was killed, and a huge celebration feast was hastily organised. The elder brother was jealous but that’s another story.

A hug, a kiss, a robe, a ring, sandals, a feast, doubtless many more hugs and kisses.  It’s such a beautiful, tear-jerking story

Love, forgiveness, this is what the kingdom of heaven is all about.

One commentary that I read said that how we view these three parables has a lot to do with how we view the Church's mission. Is it our job, it asked, to take care of the needs of the righteous who have gathered into our congregations?


Yes, of course. But, what about the lost who seldom or never attend? What about the husband of the faithful wife who stays at home to watch sports? What about those in our churches who seem to drop out of regular attendance? Who goes and searches for them until they find them and discover the reason for their absence?


What about the people who live in our communities? Who will seek after them? What about the Muslims? The Hindus? The agnostics? The younger generation that has fallen away? What about their spiritual welfare? What about their children?    What about the lost?


These three parables reveal God as a Searching Father, actively seeking for the lost, and rejoicing when he finds them. 


The last verse of our second reading said "There is rejoicing in the presence of God over one sinner who repents." (Luke 15:10).  These three parables talk about God, and show us his character of grace, extending favour and mercy to the undeserving. In Jesus, we see an active programme of seeking out the hurting and oppressed, the blind and the imprisoned. This is the message of the cross, the message of grace, the message of love and forgiveness, the message of the kingdom.  Let’s ponder that this week.

Sunday 27th August 2023 - Martin Mowat

Joshua 9

Readings: Psalm 121 & Joshua 14: 6 - 12

You may have been listening to Lectio 365 this week. If so, on Thursday you will have heard Brian Heasley referring to the account of Jacob who, in Genesis 28, while he was on his way from Beersheba to the house of his uncle Laban, to find a wife for himself from among the Laban’s daughters, when he reached a certain place,  he stopped for the night because the sun had set. Taking one of the stones there, he put it under his head and lay down to sleep.  He had a dream in which he saw a stairway resting on the earth, with its top reaching to heaven, and the angels of God were ascending and descending on it.  There above it stood the Lord, and he said: “I am the Lord, the God of your father Abraham and the God of Isaac. I will give you and your descendants the land on which you are lying.  Your descendants will be like the dust of the earth, and you will spread out to the west and to the east, to the north and to the south. All peoples on earth will be blessed through you and your offspring.  I am with you and will watch over you wherever you go, and I will bring you back to this land. I will not leave you until I have done what I have promised you.”

That was the promise that was now being fulfilled in the book of Joshua. 

For the last couple of months we’ve been studying the book of Joshua and last week we found ourselves at the beginning of chapter 13 which starts by saying "When Joshua was old and well advanced in years, the LORD said to him, 'You are very old, and there are still very large areas of land to be taken over.'" (13:1).

Poor Joshua, he was already at least 80 when Moses died, but nevertheless he drove the wedge between the north and the south by crossing the Jordan and taking Jericho and Ai, then beat up the five kings of the south, and then quite soon after that attacked the kings of the north in the way that we saw last week, and then there had been long methodical business of consolidating their victories.  Joshua was old, well advanced in years, the Bible says and maybe he felt weary.  I think I would J 

Strangely though, the LORD said to him, 'You are very old’. Well, gee; thanks, how encouraging is that? But perhaps it was actually meant as a compliment. I mean it was quite an accolade, only one other person in the whole people was as old as he was.

And that, of course, was Caleb.

Joshua and Caleb went back a long way together. Joshua was the leader of the tribe of Ephraim, Caleb the leader of the tribe of Judah, the tribe of which King David was a member, as was Jesus. As leaders of their respective tribes they had been two of the 12 spies. They had walked hundreds of miles together up to the northernmost part of Canaan and back again.

But that was now some 45 years ago.

These two champions were now 85, no less. By this time the conquest had been going on for a number of years, even though the way it is described in the book of Joshua makes it sound quite quick. But Caleb was indefatigable and claimed he was still fighting fit.

The name Caleb apparently means "whole-hearted" or "single-minded" or even perhaps "fanatical", adjectives which seem to perfectly match his personality.  It was Caleb, remember, rather than Joshua, who insisted to Moses that the Israelites, with God’s help, would have been able to take the land all those years earlier.

According to Wikipedia, traditional Jewish sources record a number of stories about Caleb which aren’t in the Bible.

One says that while Caleb wanted to bring produce from the land, as Moses had asked them to, the other spies didn’t want to, in order to avoid giving the Israelites a positive impression of Canaan. They only agreed to carry that huge cluster of grapes, apparently, after Caleb brandished his sword and threatened to fight over the matter. 

Another says that while spying out the land Caleb split off from the other spies to visit Hebron on his own, in order to see the Cave of Machpelah, where Abraham, Sarah, Jacob, Leah, Isaac and Rebecca are buried, which today is called the tomb of the Patriarchs and is covered by a huge mosque. This will become significant in a moment.

It is also believed that Caleb's voice was so loud that he succeeded in saving the other spies by frightening away the giants, just by shouting at them.

His feet had trod on the whole country. Now, with that same bullish attitude, and unwavering faith, he pleads with Joshua to let him and the tribe of Judah, go and recapture Hebron, a strongly fortified city, and rid its region of the giants that had escaped the initial battles. They were the Anakim, the incredible hulks of the land of Canaan, the big bruisers, and in Israel’s dictionary Anakim spelled terror.


But not to Caleb and of all the places in Palestine that could have been his for the asking, he wanted Hebron.  Why?

And what accounts for such vigour and expectancy in this senior citizen of Israel? 


His vivid recollection of Yahweh's goodness and mercy in the past is certainly part of the answer. 


But verse 12 itself suggests two facts that shot the adrenalin into Caleb's faith.

“Now give me this hill country that the Lord promised me that day. You yourself heard then that the Anakites were there and their cities were large and fortified, but, the Lord helping me, I will drive them out just as he said.”


It was as if Caleb said to Joshua: You remember the sneers you and I heard that day when the other ten spies brought the majority report? Remember all that whimpering about large, fortified cities and large, swaggering Anakim?  And how all they could say for days was, "We are not able, we can’t do it." Well, that's exactly why I want this inheritance, because there are fortified cities and there are real, live Anakim.


So one was the shear difficulty of the task. Precisely what caused Israel to shrink from the task in Numbers 13 is what gave Caleb the passion to take on the challenge of it.


And did you notice how Caleb reminds Joshua, " The LORD promised. ” Here is a man who has learned to trust in the promises of God and stake his whole future on them. He believes wholeheartedly that the LORD will help him as he has before.


Long story short, Caleb did conquer Hebron and his son-in-law conquered next door Debir, about 13 kms away.


In conclusion, according to Numbers 32:12, Deuteronomy 1:36, and Joshua 14:14, Caleb followed the LORD "wholeheartedly", as his name implies. What a testimony!

So often we follow the Lord “most of the time”, or “some of the time”, or when it suits us. But when things get tough, and we must lean on faith rather than sight, we balk. Doubt and fear sets in, and we follow our fears instead of our faith. 

The question for each of us, this week, is how do we match up to Caleb’s example, and what might we need to change in ourselves in order to do so better?

Joshua and Caleb weren’t done yet, though. Amazingly they had at least another 25 years to go. Jumping forward, out of the book of Joshua, into the next book, Judges 2:8 tells us that Joshua son of Nun, the servant of the Lord, died at the age of a hundred and ten, and it appears that when he did, Caleb was still going strong.

Some of you are now saying “Phew, Joshua dead, thank goodness for that!” Maybe he’ll give us a break and take us back into the New Testament. 


Well, yes, that’s the plan, but let’s not forget that, as the little rhyme goes:

       The New Testament is in the Old concealed

       The Old Testament is in the New revealed.

They are BOTH part of the same Bible, and of equal value and importance to us as Christians today, but more than that, the God of the Old Testament is the God of the New Testament too.  They are one and the same.  God has never changed, and never will.  We cannot mold him according to our private preferences. We are the ones who need to allow him to mold us.

He loves each and every one of us.  He has a plan and a purpose for us even when we’re 80 or 85. Let us embrace everything he has for us.

Sunday 20th August 2023 - Martin Mowat

Joshua 8

Readings - Psalm 24 & Joshua 10: 1 - 8


For the last couple of months, we’ve been studying the life and leadership of Joshua, and the Israelite invasion of the Promised land. It hasn’t been entirely comfortable and a number of us have struggled with all the violence and bloodshed. So far, two cities, Jericho and Ai, have been completely destroyed and their inhabitants disposed of, one city, Gibeon, has been left untouched but its inhabitants have been subjugated to permanent servitude as wood cutters and water carriers.


Last week we heard how, despite the need to exploit their military advantage, the Israelites had taken time out to hold a crucial consecration ceremony on the very spot at which God had promised Abraham, and later Jacob, to give them a land “flowing with milk and honey”, where they had been promised that everywhere that they set their feet, they would possess, promises that were being realised in real time. So they took time out to read the law, and to reflect on who they were.   Special.   As are we.


But now it was time to knuckle down and get the job done. They had already split the land in two, so the big question was which half to tackle first, the north or the south. 


In the event, the choice was made for them.


Last week we also heard how the people of nearby Gibeon had deceived the Israelite leaders into believing that they were from a long way away, and had succeeded in making a peace treaty with them. This had saved their lives, but at the cost of their freedom. But when they heard about it, the kings of the south were livid with the Gibeonites for seemingly siding with the enemy, so, at the instigation of the king of Jerusalem, they ganged up and launched a joint attack on them.


“HELP!” the Gibeonites cried to Joshua.  “You made a contract with us, now come and protect us.” So, with God again exhorting Joshua to be ‘strong and courageous’, he marched his army through the night, taking the enemy totally by surprise in the small hours of the morning.  Chapter 10 gives us a graphic account of what transpired, but I’ll save you the gory details. 


There are, however, a couple of details that we shouldn’t miss. The first is that Joshua asked God to stop the sun and the moon, in order to give him more time to affect his defeat. 


There are two schools of thought as to whether Joshua wanted to prolong the darkness and the relative cool of the early morning, or to prolong the daylight and delay the failing light of the evening.  Either way, the text expressly says that God did indeed answer Joshua’s prayer.  “There has never been a day like it before or since,” the Bible tells us “surely the Lord was fighting for Israel.” The clear lesson for us is that God does answer prayer.


Something else extra-ordinary happened that day. God physically joined in the battle, hurling huge hailstones down on the Amorites. Could it be, do you think, that God is not only able to answer our prayers, but to fight with us, alongside us, in our battles and our struggles?  We’ll see that again in a minute.


The attack on Israel had been led by five kings. In general, kings rarely took part in battles personally, but would watch from some vantage point at a safe distance. When these five realised that things were not going their way, they all hid in a cave. But someone saw them and reported the fact to Joshua who ordered the mouth of the cave to be closed with stones so that he could deal with them later. Again, more gory details that we won’t go into.


After the battle Joshua made the most of his situation and immediately went around and dealt with the individual cities one at a time.  The chapter finishes like this “So Joshua subdued the whole region, including the hill country, the Negev, the western foothills and the mountain slopes, together with all their kings. He left no survivors. …. All these kings and their lands Joshua conquered in one campaign, because the Lord, the God of Israel, fought for Israel.  Then Joshua returned with all Israel to the camp at Gilgal.


Chapter 11 sounds very similar to chapter 10, and ends on a very similar note. 


What happened was that when the kings of the north heard what had been going on in the south they united their respective armies and formed what the author describes as a huge army, as numerous as the sand on the seashore.  Not only did they probably have the numerical supremacy, but they certainly had the technological edge too, because they had horses and chariots which the Israelites didn’t have.


Once again God told Joshua not to be afraid and that by the same time the next day he would have handed them all over to him.  Doubtless he remembered that God had told Moses “When you go to war against your enemies, and see horses and chariots, and an army greater than yours, do not be afraid of them, because the Lord your God … will be with you.” God hasn’t changed, nor have his promises.


So Joshua did as he was told and took the initiative, attacking them ‘suddenly’, perhaps even at night, or at dawn, but we don’t know that. 


When I was training in the army, the infantry to be precise, we often practiced moving around at night and doing dawn attacks.  Usually they would be airborne, in helicopters that would speed up to the objective at very low altitude, just a few metres off the ground, drop you off and shoot away as quickly as they had come. Except that in practice our helicopters were usually in the form of four-ton trucks that were more readily available and much cheaper to run.  On one particular occasion, however, while we were training in Bavaria with the American army, to our surprise and delight, we did use real helicopters. 


The helicopters dropped us off just short of our objective and then disappeared. Once we had won our little imaginary battle, we called them back to pick us up.  It was amazing, one moment the sky was empty, and all we could hear were the birds, the next, literally, there were the helicopters, hovering one foot from the ground for us to climb back in.


All that to say that what struck me that day was the power of the element of surprise, and the fear that it engenders. That is what Joshua and the Israelite army were exploiting.  Who would have expected them to appear as if out of nowhere, and in the middle of the night, when they were all in their sleeping bags?


I’m guessing, too, that the Canaanites hadn’t had the time to get themselves properly organised, and it’s thought that where they were might have been suitable as an assembly point, for getting the armies together, but not for fighting and using the chariots, which needed space and flat ground to manoeuvre, and to charge.  Either way, God was on Joshua’s side and verse 7 says “So Joshua and his whole army came against them suddenly at the Waters of Merom and attacked them, and the Lord gave them into the hand of Israel.”

The remainder of chapter 11 and all of chapter 12 tell us that in all Joshua conquered no less than thirty-one kings and their ‘royal’ cities. When you read the list carefully, however, you find that though the land was largely subdued, Joshua didn't completely remove all the inhabitants from the land in that initial campaign.

A study of the Hebrew text, but not by me, you understand, shows that three words describe what was now happening. Take - divide - possess.

The first one is to take.  This is in the military sense I suppose, and this is what we have now seen.  Joshua and the children of Israel are in complete control of the land that God had promised to give them.

The second one is to divide, not in the sense of “divide and rule” but in the sense of to “share out” or to “allocate”.  You may or not remember that there were two and a half tribes, the Reubenites, the Gadites and half the tribe of Manasseh, that had become so enamoured by the countryside on the east side of the Jordan, back when Moses was still alive, that they had asked him if they could settle there.  “A bird in the hand”, perhaps.

Moses agreed to their request but only on the condition that they participate in the conquest first.  This they did, and in fact they had even been the first to cross the Jordan when God stopped it flowing not long previously.

Now they did have to split the land up in such a way as to accommodate all the various tribes.

The third word is “to possess”, which brings us to the beginning of chapter 13, but we don’t really have time to get into that this morning ….

Sunday 13th August 2023 - David Matthews

Readings: Jeremiah 7: 9 - 15. 1 Corinthians 12: 1 - 11


May the words of my mouth and the meditations of our hearts be acceptable to you, O Lord

Jeremiah was a failure. Or so he may well have believed. By the time of his death, in all likelihood as an exile in Egypt, Jerusalem had been sacked twice, thousands of his compatriots had been forcibly relocated by the invading Babylonians and the southern kingdom of Judah had collapsed into anarchy with rival warlords taking advantage of the chaos. He had spent his entire adult life trying to prevent this catastrophe but all his warnings, the harangueings, and heart-felt desperation had been fruitless. Political, moral and spiritual deterioration had become endemic.

From a political perspective, the kingdom of Judah was ripe for conquest. From a spiritual perspective, here was a nation that had abandoned its God; ceasing to live within its centuries old traditions, the people had simply lost their way and, as a result, they were vulnerable to any predatory force. What they got was Nebuchanezzar and the full force of the Babylonian Empire rolling over them.

Jerusalem fell for the second time in 587BC. Not everyone was dragged off into enforced exile. The Babylonians installed a Jew to govern Judah on their terms, a man called Gedaliah. Jeremiah knew him and stayed on in Jerusalem to support him. This was the Jews’ last chance to hold things together. But then, five years later, Gedaliah was assassinated by a rogue member of the Royal house, angry that he had been passed over for the governorship. The Babylonians were not having that. They soon quashed this latest rebellion and that marked the end of any coherent Jewish society. Those who could, fled to Egypt to escape the chaos. This was probably what Jeremiah did. The cruel irony would not have been lost on him: the exodus under Moses, when God redeemed his people, was now turned inside out, as if it had never happened. Egypt was now a place of refuge.

This slice of Jewish history feels incredibly familiar, doesn’t it? Across the world, there are many countries, so riven by warfare or civil turmoil, that their people have no option but to flee. The numbers of refugees seeking security anywhere other than their homeland appears to be growing year on year.

Perhaps we have to accept that human beings lack the collective talent to hold onto stable government. We can now see that, when Francis Fukuyama predicted in ‘The End of History (published in 1992) that the nations of the world were moving inexorably towards Liberal Democracy and that the bitter rivalries which had beset the 20th century were over, he was utterly mistaken. The first quarter of the 21st century has opened an era of new tensions. Old certainties now count for little.

Once again, we can see the rise of the idol, manifest as an autocrat. Strong men surface in times of upheaval and then seek to consolidate their power. Checks and balances are rendered impotent. In countries where democracy has been long established, a ‘Populist’ approach, revolving around the cult of an individual, has emerged, celebrating the dogmatic and spurning the nuanced. Intolerance becomes fashionable. Reasoned argument is replaced by bellowed assertion. Anyone holding contrary views is cancelled. These Populist movements seem to gather momentum around individuals on whom all hope is projected. It is so easy for these leaders to morph into heroes, and the hero to become an idol who is immune to criticism.

Jeremiah knew what he was talking about when he stated over and over again that the problems besetting Judah were because the people were failing to pay heed to God. God was no longer the corner-stone of their political, social and moral structures. They had created their own, alternative idols. Jeremiah understood that disaster would inevitably follow. He couched his warnings as threats, emanating from a jealous God but we have the benefit of living in The Last Days, that period of human existence following the final revelation of God: his incarnation as Jesus.

We can see that devotion to anything or anyone other than Jesus carries enormous risk because, if we do not graft ourselves on Jesus, drawing on his strength, we leave ourselves terribly vulnerable to whatever manifestation of human frailty is prevalent. Not only that, we are left so unreceptive to God’s active agency that the gifts he wishes to bestow upon humankind are rendered impotent.

Humankind has enormous potential – unsurprisingly, as we were created in God’s image. But humankind also has the capacity to fall into extraordinary error if our unbridled impulses are not properly constrained. Two sides of the same coin, we might say.

I have a sense that the idolization of stars (which perhaps began in the middle of the 20th century with the rise of mass media), the rise of the influencer on social media and extreme political movements and ideologies, which are built around iconic figures, occur because the need to worship is built into our DNA. Because we are created beings, we long to know our creator. If that knowledge eludes us, we are in danger of satisfying this primaeval urge to worship by focussing on a human figure instead of God. No man or woman can survive the weight of cult status. Can you name any such leader who has not become monstrous? Distorted by their own ego, tortured by a neurotic, precarious belief that their invincibility is under constant threat, they retreat into their own fastness, companioned by their own reflection, emerging only to order another act of repression.

The sacking of Jerusalem and the dispersal of the Jewish people were actual events, rooted in history. But they are also metaphors for all time as are other passages where he records the Lord saying that Jerusalem will be rebuilt and that there will be a new covenant, “I will put my law within them, and I will write it on their hearts; and I will be their God and they shall be my people. No longer shall they teach one another, or say to each other, ‘Know the Lord’ for they shall all know me, from the least of them to the greatest…for I will forgive their iniquity and remember their sin no more (Jer 30.33-34).”

This passage and others like it are a different sort of  prophecy: not a warning of disaster, unless there is a radical change of heart and behaviour, but a glimpse of a new era where the relationship between God and his creatures is of a wholly different nature, when falling under the spell of an idol will be impossible because God would have ‘written on our hearts’; we will – quite simply – know God.

Paul, speaking to the congregation in Corinth, echoes Jeremiah by reminding them that the days of idolatry must pass. With the Corinthians, we have entered a chapter of the human story where the special status conferred on the Children of Israel has been stretched to include all peoples. What matters now is not whether one is a member of the Chosen Race but whether one has the new law written upon one’s heart. What matters now is not adhering to the old, prescriptive law, the list of ‘Thou Shalt Nots’ and the rituals of Jewish living but responding to the simple stark commandment to Love: to love God first and then to love our fellow human beings. We have to love God first because he is the source of l0ve and without drawing on that source, our capacity to love is likely to shrivel and become barren.

Paul makes it clear that when God’s spirit is made manifest through gifts, this is for the common good. When we look at the gifts Paul lists, we can see how some are obviously manifestations of the love for others. Wisdom, knowledge, discernment and healing count for little when they are not distributed. Faith too, if recognized as a deep-rooted optimism, is a social benefit.

The other gifts are more difficult for 21st century people to relate to. We understand far more of how the world works than Paul’s contemporaries. Our understanding of physics and physiology means that we have more answers to the seemingly inexplicable than were available to the first Christians. What we do share with them, however, is the same need to see God’s agency at work in our lives.

What Paul’s other gifts – miracles, prophecy and glossolalia – have in common is that they defy neat explanations. They remind us that there is a dimension beyond our ready comprehension which nevertheless touches our lives.

I have a feeling that, if Paul were writing to the Christian community in 21st century Mirepoix, he would list other spiritual gifts: one more pertinent to the time and place we inhabit. The key thing is that they would a;; emanate from the same spiritual source and would all be there for the common good. I think it is worth asking ourselves what spiritual gifts are most needed in the 21st century.

Top of my list would be empathy: that heightened expression of consideration that enable us to put ourselves in another’s situation. Empathy acts as a brake on selfishness. It stops us behaving in a way that impinges inappropriately on someone else. It broadens our appreciation of the difficulties and pressures that others experience. Loving our neighbour as ourselves becomes more accessible if we can identify wholly with that neighbour.

I would also elevate the ability to generate Art to a spiritual gift. For so many people in our secular age, the closest they come to a spiritual experience is a profound aesthetic one. To be moved by a powerful piece of music or literature, to be taken out of oneself in that way, can be a significant step towards grasping a sense of the divine. I would not argue that a worthy artist needs to be a Christian. Exploring the human condition – including our unique capacity to appreciate beauty – is, in itself, of spiritual value. Indeed, art which allows itself to be constrained by dogma, is often inferior. What we realise, in fact, is that God can speak to us through the medium of sound, or pigment or words, just as surely as he can through glossolalia, the talking in tongues.

To my mind, the work of scientists and their revelation of the chemistry of the universe, if not in itself a miracle, brings home what is amazingly ‘miraculous’. The mind-blowing, inter-connected complexity of the world is an ongoing miracle. To be able to elucidate this is surely a spiritual gift.

And the human capacity to innovate, to think ‘outside the box’ and invent new, improved ways to support the way we live and the way we interact with the natural world, is surely a spiritual gift as well.

When the motivation is rooted in the common good, these human skills become spiritual gifts. And the capacity to marvel and experience awe is also a gift that draws each of us closer to God.

Those of us who are not great artists, cutting-edge scientists or major innovators should recognise the attributes we do have, including facts of our personality and character, as nevertheless emanating from God: ours to use for the common good. It ought to be be our daily prayer that all we do and all we say should be in alignment with God’s purpose.

This is hard. It involves a hefty dose of humility: not a fashionable quality.

The thing is, we cannot always tell the direction of travel Gods wants us to take. Sometimes, when we pursue, with relentless, unswerving zeal what we consider to be a righteous path – doing God a favour – we have to be nudged (and sometimes knocked) back to where he actually wants us to be. So it is for us to pray every day the gethsemane prayer, “Nevertheless not my will but thine be done”.

In this way, I believe, we can steer clear of the current trend towards idolatry, finding substitute gods, and remain open to the only God there is, allowing him to translate our skills and talents and personal characteristics into spiritual gifts, for which he is the source and the common good is the focus.

It may also help to remember the words ascribed to St Theresa of Avila:

Christ has no body but yours.

No hands, no feet on earth but yours.

Yours are the eyes with which he looks

Compassion on this world,

Yours are the feet with which he walks to do good.

Yours are the hands, with which he blesses all the world.

Yours are the hands, yours are the feet,

Yours are the eyes, you are his body.

Christ has no body now but yours,

No hands, no feet on earth but yours.

Yours are the eyes with which he looks

Compassion on this world.

Christ has no body now on earth but ours.

For we are living in that period in the human story when we blessed with knowledge of Christ and commissioned, quite simply, to live with God’s new law written on our hearts.


David Matthews

Sunday 6th August - Martin Mowat

Joshua 7

Readings - Deuteronomy 27: 1 - 8 & John 18: 28 - 40.


When you look at the Israelite invasion of the Promised Land from a geographical and from a military point of view, you can see that they had two major options. Either they could have gone in from the south and simply worked their way northwards up the country, or they could have done what they did do, which was to circle round and go in from the east.


This latter approach had one major down side and one huge upside.  The downside was that the Jordan river had to be crossed.  That would be a major consideration even in warfare today, and we’ve talked about how impossible it would have been, in spring, the river in full flood, without a miracle of some kind. But even given the sheer number of people, men, women, children and animals, it would probably have been difficult at any time of the year.


But the advantage, one that significantly outweighed all the disadvantages, was that by attacking Jericho and Ai first, they effectively drove a wedge between the kings of the north and the kings of the south, splitting the country into two halves, each of which could then be dealt with separately and more easily, in their own time.


BRILLIANT. But before we get into any of that we need to look at what we heard about in our two readings.


Before I go any further, can I just say something about the book of Joshua.  The fact that it’s about a military invasion inevitably means that there is going to be some blood and guts that as civilians, we’re going to find uncomfortable.  Several people have told me that they’re finding it difficult to hear, that the slaughter is hard to understand and difficult to accept, all of which I understand.

However, the fact is that there are lots of other passages in the Bible that are uncomfortable, and that we might prefer not to think about. My personal conviction, though, rightly or wrongly, is that, as Paul said to Timothy “all Scripture is God-breathed and is useful for teaching, rebuking, correcting and training in righteousness, so that the servant of God may be thoroughly equipped for every good work.” …… “all Scripture”. That means that we need to see the Bible as a whole, not as an assortment of stories from which we can pick and choose, as the mood takes us.


There’s something else.  As we just heard in our second reading, Jesus said to Pilate, “My kingdom is not of this world. ….. my kingdom is from another place.” In other words, it’s a kingdom where the values, the standards and the code of conduct are not just different, they are, for want of a better expression, on another level.


That kingdom, the one that Jesus was talking about to Pilate, is the one of which we have been invited to be members, and the kingdom that, like it or not, we now represent to the world around us. In order to understand that kingdom we need to understand, as best we can, the Bible.


So, back to the last section of Joshua chapter 8 which tells us that after the battle of Ai the people now had to build alters, consecrate themselves, and listen to a reading of the law.  It would be easy for us to just accept that that was something that they had to do, and move ahead with the more dramatic stuff, but I think we need just to pause for a moment and look at the significance of it.


From a military point of view, although they had effectively split the country in two, they could ill afford any delay, because that would give the kings a chance to club together, make military alliances, and even take the initiative to attack them unexpectedly, rather than just wait to be attacked.  And indeed, as we will see next week, that was already happening.


But no.  Despite the need to keep up the impetus, there was something that needed to be done first, because it was even more important. WHY?


Was it just because Moses had told them to do it, as we heard in our first reading? Yes, in a sense it was, but why had Moses said that? why had he made Joshua promise to do it. Why did they now move from Ai to Shechem, some 50 kms, to do what might be glibly described as a Bible study on the 10 commandments?  It’s not a stupid question, in fact far from it.

I’ve said it already a couple of times but it’s important for us to remember that only one generation ago these people had been slaves, indeed they had been slaves for hundreds of years.  Totally displaced, they had lost much of their identity, their culture, and probably much of their religion at the same time.  So perhaps part of the answer to our question is that it was intended to help a virtually rootless people get back, or at least nearer to their roots.


We need to realise that God wasn’t worried about the delay from a military point of view, he could deal with that, but he was worried about them rediscovering who they really were, and understanding why they had to be so different from the idolatrous people currently occupying the space that he was giving them.


We’ll hear more about this but for the moment it’s important for us to realise that one of the things that they had to learn, as do we, is that the spiritual and the physical (in this case their military campaign) were inseparable. As one commentary I read said “there can be no conquest without a covenant, heeding God's word” it said “is more crucial than fighting God's war”.


Can I say that again in a slightly different way? Heeding God's word is more crucial than struggling with our circumstances.


Incidentally, the climax of their ceremony came with Joshua's reading “all the words of the law”. In the passage in Joshua chapter 8, which we didn’t read because it sounds much like a repeat of Deuteronomy 27 that Briget just read to us, the word ‘all' was used no less than five times. All the word was applicable to all the people, regardless of rank or role, regardless of gender or age, it even applied to non-Israelite camp followers like Rahab. What we heard Paul say to Timothy earlier, was very similar.


It is also significant that this covenant consecration ceremony was held at Shechem, the exact place where Abram (Abraham) had first received the promise of the land (Gen 12:6-7). Here Jacob had returned safely after a long exile from the land he had received the same promise (Gen. 33:18-20; 28:13). And now, here is Joshua, Abraham's seed, Jacob's descendant, at that very same spot on the map, experiencing the fulfilment of that amazing promise. It’s enough to give you goose bumps.


And now to conclude today’s episode, you may remember that I said a few weeks ago that there was one exception to the slaughter of all the inhabitants. 


I mentioned a few minutes ago that we will soon see the kings of the region, the Hittites, the Amorites, the Canaanites, the Perizzites, the Hivites, and the Jebusites, setting aside their differences and power struggles to form military alliances in the hope that working together they would be strong enough to put an end to this foreign incursion. 


One king, however, had a different idea.  Somehow, he knew that the Israelites had been told that they could spare the people that were “very far” from them (Deut. 20) 

So this king sent a delegation to Joshua pretending that they had come on a long journey to get there. As proof they produced moldy bread and cracked wineskins, they wore tattered clothes and worn-out sandals. They lied about their identity and requested a treaty, covenant of peace. Joshua and the Israelite leaders were utterly taken in and so didn’t bother to consult the Lord (9:14b). So they made a peace covenant with them, and ratified it by an oath in the name of the Yahweh.

A mere 3 days later, however, they discovered their mistake. The mysterious long-distance travelers had actually been from just next door, the Gibeonites. When the people heard that their leaders had been fooled, they were furious with them, and demanded that they break the covenant, but Joshua refused to do so because it had been made in the Lord’s name.

"We have given them our oath by the LORD, the God of Israel,” Joshua said “and we cannot touch them now. … We will let them live, so that wrath will not fall on us for breaking the oath we swore to them. … And that day Joshua made them woodcutters and water carriers for the congregation and for the altar of the Lord.

Once again Joshua had failed to consult the Lord. Once again he took a blow to his reputation.

The moral of the story is quite simple really. Not only do we need the power of God to overwhelm our obvious enemies, but we also need the wisdom of God to detect our less obvious ones.

So what’s ahead in this series about Joshua – quite a lot – 3 or 4 more messages perhaps. We’ll hear about:

·         The military conquest in 2 phases, first in the south, then in the north.

·         The distribution of the land to the 12 tribes and the actual possession of those lands

·         The allocation of ‘cities of refuge’ and of towns for the Levites

·         Caleb’s request for a special inheritance

·         Joshua’s final instructions to the people


And a few other bits and bobs besides, with plenty of lessons for us.


Then we’ll perhaps have a complete change and look at some of Jesus’ parables.  

Sunday 23rd July 2023 - Martin Mowat

Joshua 6

Readings: Joshua 8: 1 - 8  &  Joshua 8: 24 - 29


In our second reading last Sunday, the one that Jess read, from Joshua chapter 7, we heard that “the Israelites were unfaithful in regard to the devoted things; Achan son of Karmi, the son of Zimri, the son of Zerah, of the tribe of Judah, took some of them. So the Lord’s anger burned against Israel.” … So when they attacked Ai “The men of Ai chased the Israelites from the city gate as far as the stone quarries and struck down about thirty-six of them.


Then Joshua tore his clothes and fell facedown to the ground before the ark of the Lord, remaining there till evening. The elders of Israel did the same, and sprinkled dust on their heads.


The Lord said to Joshua, “Stand up! What are you doing down on your face? Israel has sinned; they have violated my covenant, which I commanded them to keep. They have taken some of the devoted things; they have stolen, they have lied, they have put them with their own possessions. That is why the Israelites cannot stand against their enemies; they turn their backs and run because they have been made liable to destruction. I will not be with you anymore unless you destroy whatever among you is devoted to destruction.”


This was news to Joshua, it was the first that he had heard about it.  Someone had stolen, others must have seen him do it, even more must have heard about it but said nothing. Net result in God’s book “Israel had sinned.”


Ouch ! 


Corporate guilt. Difficult for us to understand because unlike in some other cultures, we are more inclined to look for an individual to blame, a scapegoat, so that the rest of us can drift away, claiming innocence and acting holier than thou.


Not so in God’s thinking, it would seem. Not so for a sovereign God whose ultimate plan was to send his innocent son to appropriate the sins of you and I.


We talked last week about the rights and wrongs of God instructing Joshua to eradicate ALL the existing inhabitants of the Promised Land, and with them their “detestable” idolatrous practices. But we didn’t really have time to think about this specific event which was different because now it was one of his own people who has had the gall to steal from him, who had behaved as if God couldn’t see, as if he wouldn’t know.


Achan’s actions had not only implicated his immediate circle, but he had also effectively caused the death of 36 of his fellow soldiers, as well as the despair of Joshua and the whole fighting force.  No wonder God was so extraordinarily angry that he turned his back on Joshua’s strike force when they attacked Ai.  Achan’s greed had taken a terrible toll on the whole nation!


As we just heard in our reading today, the Israelites attacked Ai a second time, this time with an ingenious plan that God had devised.  We’ll talk about that in a few minutes but first there are several questions that have to be answered about what Achan did.


1.                 Was it realistic to expect that amongst 600 000 soldiers there would not be one who would disobey orders?
Well actually yes, because when you’re fighting a battle, one man’s actions can compromise the whole plan. In a time of war, for example, if one soldier fires prematurely it can alert the enemy and destroy the whole army. One person who shares a secret can expose an entire nation to defeat. Real life demonstrates that all can suffer for the sins of a single person.
In the British army people who do such things are court marshalled and punished VERY severely, to make an example of them, to discourage others from making the same mistake.  Achan’s punishment was severe, too, an example to everyone that would have made them fearful, and rightly so.

2.                 Why were the WHOLE people held accountable?
Partly because sin is contagious. We underestimate its consequences both physically and spiritually, both personally and corporately. Different cultures understand this differently. In Japan, for example, the importance of the group is instilled into them from early childhood, so they wouldn’t have such a hard time understanding this. It also illustrates God’s sovereignty that we talked about last week.


3.                 What do we need to learn from this today?

Joshua hit the nail on the head in verse 9 when he was complaining to God about letting them lose the battle. He said “The Canaanites and the other people of the country will hear about this … What then will you do for your own great name?”


The actions of one person affect the reputation of the group.  We see examples of this this all the time, the BBC, the British government to name but two, even the church when it’s leaders do shocking things.


Talking of the church, people long to see something clean and wholesome where they feel safe and can receive ministry. They want to see a church populated by humble, Christ-loving people who have repented from their sin and now doing their best to live free. Let us not be amongst those who bring God’s great name into disrepute, or worse still cause God to angrily turn his back on us in our hour of need.


Individually, sin hampers our spiritual lives, like hobbling a horse so that it can’t run when it needs to.  It dulls our spiritual edge and hampers our faith.


We cannot afford to settle for its bondage and then call it "normal" Christianity!


Everything that we have and that we are, we owe to Jesus. We either surrender fully to him, or we reserve some things for ourselves, as Achan did.


Jesus taught his disciples in Luke chapter 9: "If anyone would come after me, he must deny himself and take up his cross daily and follow me. For whoever wants to save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for me will save it."

Taking up your cross here means being ready to die to self, and to live for Christ each day.


Paul continues the metaphor when he talks in Romans about being crucified, with regards to sin.

"For we know that our old self was crucified with him so that the body of sin might be done away with, that we should no longer be slaves to sin." And in Galatians he says "I have been crucified with Christ and I no longer live, but Christ lives in me. The life I live in the body, I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave himself for me."


OK, enough said. I’m sure we’ve all got the message.

Let’s get back to what was going on in Canaan. Joshua had learnt his lesson about taking the initiative without consulting God, and as he sought the Lord now about how to take Ai, God gave him a new strategy. Joshua was told to hide 30,000 elite troops out of sight behind Ai. Another 5,000 troops were to be hidden elsewhere. Then, with his main force he was to march up towards the city gates and then feign a retreat when its troops came out against them.


As we heard, Ai's troops took the bait and chased them away, leaving their fortified city both open and unguarded. When Joshua lifted his javelin, the 30,000 troops rushed in, took the city, and set it on fire. Meanwhile the 5,000 attacked the soldiers from behind. They were trapped between the two groups of Israelite forces and totally destroyed. This time, however, the Israelites were permitted to plunder the city and its livestock, and to keep the proceeds. Swash-buckling stuff!


So, to conclude, what do we see?

- If only Achan had been more patient, more trusting, he would have saved himself, and a lot of other people, a lot of grief!

- This time, having done what he needed to do with Achan, God was once more with Joshua and his army, once more he had a plan of action, once more it worked like a dream, once more the inhabitants of the city were annihilated.  We need God on our side.

Incidentally, you might think that the detail about the king of the city being impaled on a pole (or hung on a tree according to the KJV) and left there until evening a bit gruesome and unnecessary, but it’s not the last time we’ll hear that happen.  It’s likely that he wasn’t killed by the impaling or the hanging, but that that happened subsequently to his having been killed. It was a sign to any passersby that the Israelites were a conquering force, and it was a warning to any other kings not to mess with them.


So now the Israelite’s honour and reputation was restored, they’re back on track, and we’ll see what happens next in a couple of week’s time.

Sunday 16th July 2023 - Martin Mowat

Readings: Joshua 6: 15 - 21  &  Joshua 7: 1 - 9


As you either know, or as you will have gathered, we’re moving with the Israelites into the Promised Land. Once they had got themselves across the Jordan river while it was in full flood, or rather I should say once God had got them across, and the men had been through the ordeal of getting themselves circumcised, it was time to move on, they had an invasion to do.


That crossing had struck a significant psychological blow on their enemies, and they couldn’t hang about. Their first objective was staring them in the face.


But as for Joshua, someone else was staring him in the face and brandishing a sword. Whoever it was, he wasn’t human and he wasn’t an angel, he was God himself, declaring himself to be the commander of heaven’s armies, the Lord of Hosts, come to take command.  This didn’t mean that Joshua wasn’t fit for the job, far from it.  It meant that something history changing was about to happen. God had promised Abraham, Isaac, Jacob and Moses that he was going to do this, and now was his moment. God always makes good on His promises.  


Some of us heard Sue talk about the battle of Jericho last week, thank you Sue, very much indeed.  The rest of us have certainly heard about it at Sunday school and/or from preachers and teachers at some time in the past.


It was a seven-day affair (interestingly, 7 is the Biblical number for fullness and completeness) and from a military standpoint, or any other standpoint for that matter, it took a most unlikely form.  Once round the outside blowing trumpets for six days, then seven times on one day, again blowing trumpets, then a huge shout and the walls crumbled.


Sue sent me a fascinating commentary that asked a very interesting question. Would we be willing to do something so illogical because we truly believe in God’s promises and God’s faithfulness? Would we trust in God enough to just walk in circles in a dangerous situation like that?


Sue’s commentary points out that Hebrews 11:30 tells us that it was by faith that the walls of Jericho fell down after they had been encircled for seven daysDo you and I, in all honesty, have that sort of faith?


It went on to say that God does not want us to think that we can deliver ourselves, but rather to rely on him. God uses illogical things and insignificant things to try to teach us this. Why? So that he gets the honour and praise. This, it said, is the same lesson that we learn from the cross.

When the walls fell the army rushed in and killed every living thing in the city, “men and women, young and old, cattle, sheep and donkeys”. It was merciless.  Any articles of silver, gold, bronze and iron were confiscated and put in the Lord’s treasury, and then everything else was burned.  Done and dusted as easily as that.  No-one would have thought it could go so smoothly.


The Israelites were learning some important lessons though, lessons that we would do well to learn too. For instance they were learning that when they put their full trust and hope in Him, that was when the impossible happened.


No matter how much we may like to think otherwise, we need God to win our battles too, to enable us to overcome obstacles, to empower us to love others, and to make a lasting impact in the world. We need God in our friendships, our careers, our marriages, and our families.


Secondly, they were learning the importance of making the space to hear from God, of stopping and taking the time to listen – for us that’s reading our Bibles, spending time in prayer, and something I’m not very good at, just being still.


Thirdly, they were learning that God is purposeful, not random. He had the plan, no matter how crazy it seemed, they just had to follow.


And fourthly, that sometimes things happen in God’s good time, not ours.  We live in an age where we expect everything to be instant, but the Israelites had to wait 7 days to see those walls tumble.


So back to the plot.  Things were going well. Jericho, their single largest strategic military challenge, had been raised to the ground by no more than one huge shout. Their blood was up and coloured, their hopes were high, their confidence as at maximum level. They were on a new diet of milk and honey, God himself had personally taken control, and Joshua had become everyone’s huge hero.  This invasion was going to be a doddle!


And well it might have been, if it weren’t for one greedy person.


In our second lesson, Joshua followed a similar pattern to the one he’d used for Jericho, he sent a couple of spies, got a feeling for what he was up against, and then he attacked.  No faffing around the walls for seven days this time though, no trumpets, no shouts, just straight in with a sudden strike force of 3000 men, but you heard what happened.


Joshua was beyond distraught.  What in the world had gone wrong?


What went wrong was that this time the Commander of heaven’s armies hadn’t been on parade.


Why wasn’t he on parade, because he was angry.  Very angry in fact, because someone had disobeyed his express orders not to touch the silver and gold earmarked for the Lord’s treasury.  He had taken an estimated 25 000 € worth of it and hidden it in his own tent.  That was a fortune when you consider the standard of living in those days.  The sin of greed … , but that’s another matter.


We didn’t read the whole story but the culprit was found, he and his family were stoned to death and all his possessions were burned. Only then “the Lord turned from his fierce anger(Joshua 7:26).


Let’s take time out here because this is all getting rather bloody and it wasn’t just at Jericho that they slaughtered all the people, it was EVERYWHERE, with only one exception.


Let’s ask ourselves whether such massacres and executions were really necessary, and were they in any way justifiable?  What about loving your neighbour and what about “forgive us our sins as we forgive others”?


I don’t want to get too bogged down with this, but nor do I want to dodge the issue because already a couple of people have expressed concern. It might take us slightly over time this morning, but bear with me because its important.


The issue is multifaceted.  Should God kill people, or have them killed, especially in such a cavalier, indiscriminate and undiscerning manner? Were these really God’s instructions, or was it man’s false interpretation? Was it a bad example for future generations, a licence for anyone to kill if it’s in the name of God? What about the crusades? What about killings done in the name of religion more recently, and not just the Christian religion?  The questions go on and on.


Can I say that I do not even pretend to have all the answers, but here are a few things that might help us better understand and accept, even if we will still find it difficult.  Can I say too that I find myself in an awkward spot, because whatever I say may not sit well with one person or another, so can we just keep an open mind and keep loving each other anyway?


I could of course just say, quite callously, that these idolatrous Canaanites and Amorites were going to hell anyway, so what did it change? That might have been true, but had they been given a chance to repent? If not, should they have? Would they have? The Bible doesn’t give us that information. In Achan’s case, he doesn’t even seem to have been given that option, and what about his poor family who were stoned with him? Where’s the justice in that?


First and foremost, we must remember that God is sovereign.  It’s difficult to give you an example, because it’s something quite unique, especially in the west where our royals seem to have been stripped of their sovereignty.


We might think of a farmer being sovereign over his animals, sending them for slaughter, as he alone sees fit.


Or we might think of a judge in court, especially the supreme court, doling out death sentences or lifetime prison sentences.


Man, be he or she good, bad, or ugly, male, female, young or old, rich or poor, is subject to that sort of sovereignty, it’s a fact of life.


The Old Testament makes that perfectly clear that God does judge and he does punish.  Think of Adam and Eve, think of Noah and the flood.  Whether or not those stories are historical or mythical isn’t the point, they teach us that our Sovereign God judges, justly and righteously, and punishes wrong according to HIS standards, according to HIS ideas of right and wrong, according to HIS law.


BUT, God also forgives the repentant. That’s the New Testament message but is not exclusive to the New Testament. There are lots of examples in the Old Testament too, David being one of the most famous, despite breaking several of the 10 commandments, covetousness, adultery and murder to name but three.


We also said, if you remember, that this was the late bronze age, and that we should make our judgements of that generation on that basis. We should be careful when trying to apply our modern western values because, let’s admit it, they are NO better, and have proven to be even LESS effective. 


Then there is the matter of fairness.  Was it fair that these poor people not only be turfed out their homes but lose their lives as well?


The word ‘fair’, or ‘fairly’, occurs only 16 times in the whole bible, 12 in the Old Testament and 4 in the New.  On 5 of those occasions it’s talking about shades of colour, so we’re down to 11 of which 1 is about exchanging goods and 1 about providing for slaves.  That leaves us with 9 and they all talk about how men should judge men, but not, interestingly about how God should judge men.


This leads me to tend towards thinking that maybe the concept of what’s “fair” is more human than divine, with the divine tending more towards what is “right”. You might say that that is just splitting hairs, but I don’t think so.  There is a difference. I don’t want to get into a long debate about this, but I offer it for your consideration.


Two more thoughts that relate to our story, while we’re on the subject, and then we need to finish for today.

1. God had prophesied that this would happen. Look up Genesis 15:16, Leviticus 18:24-25 and Deuteronomy.20:17-18.  But why?  Spiritually speaking these peoples had gone about as low as it was possible to go. What was going on in that country is described as being “detestable in God’s eyes”.  That’s a very strong word. It was necessary for the land to be completely sanitized so that God’s people didn’t fall into temptation and idol worship. When you make a new vintage of wine, for example, last year’s dregs have to be poured away, vats have to be scrubbed, the grape handling machines and pumps have to be squeaky clean, or the whole vintage could be lost.


It was vitally important that the Israelites be separated from sin so they might continue to worship and live before Yahweh with purity.  The same is true for us, of course.


2. It proved conclusively to BOTH the Canaanites AND to the Israelites that that “foreign gods” were powerless to protect them.

Sunday 9th July 2023 - Susan Cross

Joshua 5:13-6:5


Last Sunday we heard how having crossed the Jordan river by God’s hand, the Israelites were “good to go”!

They were ready to take possession of their Promised Land – ready to “get

this thing done”.

God made good on his promise and the Israelites understood who they were in his eyes.

And it was also one of the most significant events in Joshua’s long life too,

because it sealed his credibility as far as his people were concerned.

There was no doubt that he was hearing from God and being used by him to fulfil his purposes


Let’s pray – Father God We ask that You open our ears so that we may hear your voice. Open our minds so that we may receive Your eternal wisdom. Open our spirits so that we may know Your leading and guidance. Open our hearts so that we may receive Your wonderful love.



The book of Joshua is a book about having the faith to trust God, its teaching us about having the faith that God requires to enjoy our promised land, it’s about having the faith to be strong and courageous to do what God asks us to do.


From the reading Philip shared with us, Joshua suddenly became aware of someone standing in front of him.  He looked up, and couldn’t have been more surprised because what he saw was a man brandishing a sword.


He asked him the question “Are you for us or for our enemies?” but he didn’t get an obvious answer. 

14 “Neither,” he replied, “but as commander of the army of the Lord I have now come.” Then Joshua fell facedown to the ground in reverence, and asked him, “What message does my Lord have for his servant?”

15 The commander of the Lord’s army replied, “Take off your sandals, for the place where you are standing is holy.” And Joshua did so.

Basically, Joshua wants to know whose side this man is fighting for. The man answers, “Neither; but I am the commander of the army of the Lord. Now I have come” (5:14). This seems like a strange answer because it does not really seem to answer the question. How can this man with a drawn sword not be on either side? But Joshua understands what this person is saying. This man is the commander of the Lord’s army. Joshua falls down to the ground and worships.

Bowing before this commander of the Lord’s army, Joshua asks what message he has for him and the man said “Take off your sandals from your feet, for the place where you are standing is holy.” 

When things are difficult, we sometimes wonder, "Is God on my side?" But perhaps that’s not the question we should be asking. Maybe we would be better to ask "Am I on God's side?"

We’re reminded of Exodus chapter 3, when Moses saw the burning bush, God said to him “Do not come any closer, take off your sandals, for the place where you are standing is holy ground.”  Then he said, “I am the God of your father, the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac and the God of Jacob.” At this, Moses hid his face, because he was afraid to look at God.


The commander of the Lord’s army has arrived to go ahead of Israel and give victory to the people.

Are you on God’s side?

God will fight for you, not because he is on your side, but because you are on his side. The commander is asking Joshua, “Are you with me?”

Too often we want God to be on our side - we want God to validate our direction, our wisdom, and our desires.

We want God to be on our side and we mean that we want God to support all that we do.

But that is not how God operates with people. He is God and we are his creation. We must want to be on God’s side. It is not about God being on our side but about us getting ourselves on God’s side.

God is leading the way. Are we following him or are we trying to get God to follow us?


The One who went before Joshua and led them to conquer the promised land was the Lord himself. He was Emmanuel, the God with Us.


God had taken them out of Egypt and had been with them as they crossed the Red Sea. God had been with them in the desert, providing food and water.  God had been with them when the priests put their feet into the water and it stopped flowing.  God was with them as they were learning obedience as they were circumcised, God himself was to be with them now as they attacked Jericho and launched their invasion. 


So Joshua reacted in the same way that Moses had, and he fell on his face.  Suddenly he understood that this foolish idea of walking around Jericho every day for a week, and lamely blowing their trumpets wasn’t foolish at all. They were about to see something beyond what they could imagine, beyond what they could believe possible, beyond anything they could do in their own strength.

When Joshua got up from the ground, the Commander had gone, disappeared. But Joshua could now go into battle assured, because he knew that the God who had told him, "Be strong and courageous. Do not be terrified; do not be discouraged”, would not only be with him wherever he would go, but would be one step ahead of him.

God has made that same promise to us in Hebrews 13:5: "I will never leave you, I will never forsake you"


According to archeologists the massive stone walls surrounding Jericho were built about 8000 BC. They were at least 13 feet in height and included a watchtower some 28 feet tall, and were intended to protect the settlement and its water supply from human intruders. I imagine that they were also very thick!

When the moment came it would be the Commander of heaven’s armies who, though unseen, would crumble those walls, destroy the city, and crush its army, leaving Joshua's soldiers to finish it off. That same commander is with us, too.

As for the people of Jericho, to watch 600,000 troops, march around their city each day, must have increased their sense of impending doom. “When will they attack?  What is that God of theirs going to do? Are we all going to die?”

And this begs an interesting question. Was it fair, or right, for God to kill all those “innocent people”?

This is a good, simple question, but the answer is not at all simple.  Martin will talk about it next week, but for now suffice it to remember that they were far from innocent.  Their idol worship and all the abhorrent practices that went with it knew no bounds.  But God is sovereign. He does punish unrepented sin. 

The Battle of Jericho is a story that many of us may have heard as children in Sunday School, but let’s close now by briefly looking at what we can learn from it as adults?


Firstly, it reminds us how crucial it is to lean on God and put our trust in Him. Naturally, the walls of Jericho were impenetrable, but when the Israelites put their full trust and hope in God’s promise, and his faithfulness that He would indeed fight for them, to claim the land that was promised to them, that is when the impossible happened.


Secondly, it reminds us of the importance of making the space to hear from God, of stopping and taking the time to listen – reading our Bibles, spending time in prayer, being still, and worshipping him.


Thirdly, we see that God is purposeful, not random. He had a plan, they just had to follow! Romans 8:28 says that in all things God works for the good of those who love him, who have been called according to his purpose.


Next, we see that sometimes, things happen in God’s good time, not ours.  We live in an age where we expect everything to be instant, but the Israelites had to wait 7 days to see the walls tumble. According to Isaiah, “those who wait on the Lord will renew their strength” (40:31). Waiting on the Lord deepens our faith, increases our trust in Him. While we wait with faith, God transforms and renews us


Another thing we see is that in the same way that the Israelites needed God to bring down the walls, no matter how much we may like to think otherwise, we need God to win our battles, to empower us to love others, to overcome obstacles, and to make a lasting impact in the world. We need God in our friendships, our careers, our marriages, and our families.


There’s also a big lesson about obedience. If the Israelites had resisted the instructions given by God to Joshua, the walls of Jericho would not have come down. Jesus said in Luke 11:28 “Blessed are those who hear the word of God and obey it.


Finally, and perhaps most importantly we see that what God promises, he WILL fulfil. He promised Abraham, Isaac, Jacob and Moses that he was going to do this, and he did. God will always make good on His promises.


Let’s pray.

Father God – 2 Corinthians 10 tells us that the weapons of our warfare are not worldly and of the flesh - we are battling for the Lord.

Help us to remember that our weapons include prayer, love, sacrifice, blessing others, doing good, self-control. Help us to have the faith to respond with these spiritual weapons rather than the way the world would respond.

Help us to Trust in You Lord for the victory and not to rely on our own understanding or wisdom.

Help us to remember that what gives You delight and honour, is that we would have complete faith in You


Sunday 2nd July 2023 - Martin Mowat

Joshua 3

Readings: Joshua 3: 9 - 17 and Joshua 4: 1 - 9 (concurrently).


In our current series about Joshua we’ve looked at how he succeeded Moses as the leader of the children of Israel, and how both God and his colleagues encouraged him to be “strong and courageous”.  Last Sunday we heard how Rahab protected the two spies that he sent to Jericho, and in so doing earned herself a place in the list of “faith heroes” of Hebrews chapter 11.


Today we’re looking at an event that is among the most unusual and significant in Israel’s history.


As we know, the Israelites had been encamped some 16 kms from the Jordan river for some time. We don’t know exactly how many weeks and months. Were they going, finally, to enter the land that God had said he would give them?  This must have been the question on everyone’s lips.


Then suddenly, wonderfully, worryingly, God gives them the command to move out. Spies had been to the city and reported that the people of Jericho were shaking in their boots.


“OK”, said God to Joshua. “OK” said Joshua to the people, “let’s go. Follow the Ark”, and with a mixture of fear, expectation, and excitement they move out towards the river, which, as we’ve heard, was in full flood.


Why on earth did God chose this precise moment, in April, when the river was always in flood and the fords always impassable? Why not a few months earlier or a few months later. I mean, it had been 40 years, what difference would a few months make, either way?


A lot. First of all, it was Passover, 40 years exactly from their walking out on their slave masters in Egypt, and secondly, this new generation needed their own Red Sea experience, it needed to see God do something powerful, something awesome, something out of the ordinary, and we’ve heard much of the story from Vaughan and Barbara, but let’s go back a step or two.


The first thing that happened was the move from Shittim to the bank of the river. That would save time on the day of the crossing, certainly, but it also had to do with their state of readiness, both physically and attitudinally.  At Shittim they were settled, they were going about their everyday lives, nothing ever changed.  Our lives can be a bit like that, can’t they? But now they were all packed up, ready, alert. 


Next they were told to consecrate themselves which involved washing, abstaining, and other rituals, again, why? Didn’t they have more important things to be getting on with? No, because what was about to happen wasn’t just the physical crossing of the river. GOD himself was about to intervene in their history and they needed to be prepared spiritually too.


Then they were told to keep 2000 cubits back from the Ark as it headed for the river.  That’s at least 900 meters, quite a distance if this was just because of it’s holiness.  But I don’t think it was.  I think it was because while they were still on slightly higher ground, everyone would be able to see what was going to happen.  This was going to be a sight worth seeing.


The priests carrying the Ark set off, but it wasn’t until they got their feet wet that the river stopped flowing. Sometimes our Christian walk, particularly for those in ministry, God requires us to get our feet wet, metaphorically of course. He wants us to walk with him, in faith, rather than wait for him to act first.


How God made the river stop is the subject of much discussion and speculation. It runs along a geological fault and over the years land shifts and landslides slides have caused that to happen. An Arab historian reported that landslides dammed the river for several hours in 1267, for example, and we know that a similar thing happened in 1927.


We can easily be dismissive of this event. The crossing of the Red Sea some 40 years previously must have been far more difficult for God to orchestrate, and much more impressive to watch. So this was just more of the same, right? 


Wrong!  For three reasons.


Firstly, the moment the last people arrived on the Canaan side of the river, it started flowing again. This was no geological coincidence. However he did it, God had effectively opened the door for them, and then closed it behind them. It was as if they had moved from one room to another, from one life to another, from one period of their history to a new future, from being dead in the sins of their desert life, to being born again into a whole new world of promise.


Secondly, a whole new generation, none of whom, except Joshua and Caleb, had experienced the Red Sea crossing, had now seen first-hand just how powerful God really is.


And this is why God told then told them to take twelve stones from the middle of the river bed and to erect them as a permanent reminder.  It was critical that they never forget, or take it for granted.


The third reason that this wasn’t just more of the same, if we skip forward to chapter 5, we read that “…when all the Amorite kings west of the Jordan and all the Canaanite kings along the coast heard how the Lord had dried up the Jordan before the Israelites until they had crossed over, their hearts melted in fear and they no longer had the courage to face them.”


This was not just a physical thing, it was psychological. It was as if the war had already been won. We’ll come back to that as we move forward. But now I want to move on to something else that might seem insignificant and is easy to gloss over, but is actually hugely important.


All the men now had to be circumcised. But surely, you might think, they already were. It was the Jewish custom.


Indeed it was their custom, more than that it was written into their law, but apparently it had been ignored. There have been several potential explanations, but if you ask me, it was because of disillusionment.


The generation that had been slaves in Israel and had seen Pharos’s army drowned as the divided waters of the Red Sea crashed back together with a roar that would have woken the dead, a generation that had faced hunger, thirst, and every kind of hardship. They had been told that they would live in Utopia but it hadn’t happened.  Was God a god who kept his promises, was he even capable of doing so, perhaps not they thought. What was the point anyway? Life had no purpose, the law had no purpose, their culture, such as it was, had no purpose, why bother circumcising the children, it was only one more hardship and they had quite enough on their plates without it.


So here we have a whole new generation of men, some 600 000 of them and they hadn’t been circumcised, or a significant proportion of them hadn’t. But why on earth, at this precise moment, when they were launching their invasion, did they have to bother with this detail, what would it achieve apart from making them even more vulnerable until they’d healed?


There they were, between the river and the city.  Why hadn’t God told them to do this BEFORE the crossing, while they were relatively safe in Shittim?


Because now they knew for certain that God was on the move, and that they were on the move.  Now they needed to learn about obedience. Now they needed to remember that they were different from the idol worshippers of Canaan. Now they were being set apart, consecrated, made holy.


God has called US to be different, consecrated, obedient, ….   I’m not talking about something physical but something psychological, something spiritual.


Finally, and before we get into the taking of Jericho, there are three more things we should notice.


1. The Ark had stayed in the middle of the river while all the people crossed over.  This would have given them confidence because presumably God would not have allowed the Ark to be washed away if the water suddenly started flowing again too soon. It was also a sign of God’s presence with them at this significant moment.

2. The men of Reuben, Gad and the half-tribe of Manasseh, who wanted to settle on the East side of the river, they crossed over too, ready for battle, as they had promised Moses they would.

3. This was the moment that the manna stopped falling.  Verse 12 of that same chapter 5 tells us that The manna stopped the day after they ate the food from the land; there was no longer any manna for the Israelites, but that year they ate the produce of Canaan.  Although I find the logistics of feeding that number of people frankly mind boggling, the milk and honey that they had been promised had finally become a reality. This really was a red-letter day!


And it was a red-letter day for another reason too.  They were “good to go”. Ready to take possession of their Promised Land  “OK”, they must have thought, “let’s get this thing done”.


So to conclude, I said at the beginning that that was an event that is arguably one of the most unusual and significant in Israelite history.  I think that we’ve seen that. God made good on his promise and the Israelites understood who they were in his eyes.


And lastly, it was also one of the most significant events in Joshua’s long life too, because it sealed his credibility as far as his people were concerned.  There was no doubt that he was hearing from God and being used by him to fulfil his purposes. 

Sunday 25th June 2023 - Martin Mowat

Joshua 2

Readings:1 - 16 & 21b - 24


Last week we started a new series on the book of Joshua and pretty well covered the first chapter.  “Be strong and very courageous” God said to Joshua several times. If you were with us you will know how significant these words were for Joshua at this particular moment in his life.

We heard that as leader of his tribe of Ephraim he had participated in a reconnaissance of the Promised Land.  Since then he had led that tribe throughout the 40 years of misery in the wilderness, misery that had been wholly avoidable. Now Moses has died, and Joshua found himself with the unenviable task of leading some 2 million men, women and children, together with their cattle, sheep, dogs, cats and hamsters, across a river in full flood right under the hostile eyes of the inhabitants of Jericho. Strength and courage were precisely what he needed.  

Today we going to move on to chapter 2. One commentary that I read said that the author could have gone straight from the end of chapter 1 to the beginning of chapter 3, leaving out chapter 2 completely. But I for one am really glad that he didn’t because this chapter, the one that Janet and Charlotte just read, is a real gem for several reasons.

Let’s think for a moment about the people living in Jericho. Let’s put ourselves in their shoes. They had heard about this huge hoard of what were essentially refugees wandering aimlessly around the Arabian Gulf for the last few decades. Now, relatively recently, they seemed to have settled in Shittim, not 16 kilometres away. The people of Jericho didn’t want any of them straying across the river into their land, even less into their city. Refugees are always someone else’s responsibility, aren’t they?

What’s more, they had heard about how these Hebrews had escaped from Egypt across the Red Sea and it sounded as if their God was a force to be reckoned with.

Then, suddenly, they came closer, and camped right on the other side of the river. Things were getting serious. How should they react?  What on earth could they do against such a vast hoard? The people of Jericho were powerful, they lived in a well fortified city, their defense systems were on red alert, but they were trembling in their boots.

But Joshua didn’t know that. He might have suspected it, but he needed to know for sure. Was there perhaps a huge army of heavily armed men lined up just inside the gate, ready to charge out at them as they were all wading through the rushing river? He desperately needed some military intelligence. So two brave souls were selected and sent to find out what was going on and we’ve heard the story of what happened. Joshua must have been waiting with bated breath for them to get back and give him the lowdown.

We’ve heard that they went and stayed in the house of a prostitute. Was this because they thought that no one was watching and they’d make the most of a once in a lifetime opportunity?  I don’t think so, in fact I’m sure that wasn’t the case. Joshua would have chosen men of total integrity to fulfill such a dangerous and important task. They chose to go there, I think, for two reasons.  Firstly they were looking for what I’m going to call ‘urban camouflage’. If they’d checked in at the Holiday Inn, they would have been spotted, for sure, but they desperately needed to maintain their anonymity. Secondly, it was probably a good place to talk to people and find out what was REALLY going on in the hearts and minds of the city’s inhabitants.

Amazingly, though, this wasn’t just any old prostitute, this was some amazing lady, so amazing in fact that she got her name into the list of all-time faith heroes found in Hebrews chapter 11.

Who was she, and how did she qualify for such an accolade?

To help us answer those questions, we need to understand that the indigenous residents of Canaan worshipped the storm-god Baal. Portrayed as a bull, he was believed to have power over rain, wind, clouds, and therefore over fertility. They also worshipped Ashtoreth (also called Ishtar or Astarte) who was the goddess of love and war. In Babylon, for example, Ishtar was identified with Venus and as such she was also the goddess of erotic love and fertility. 

Difficult for us to understand but that worship sometimes involved intercourse with male and female prostitutes as a ritual to ensure the fertility of the land. We don’t know whether Rahab was a shrine prostitute or not.  Possibly she wasn’t, but either way it’s important to judge her by the standards of her culture, not our own standards, as I said last week. We need to remember that she wouldn’t have been looked down upon and despised as much as she would have in our own, equally corrupt, modern society.

Nor was Rahab a slave, far from it. She was a free, well-to-do business woman, with a business growing flax and drying it on her roof. That flax would then have been turned into linen thread, and then used to make clothing. That’s why it was easy for her her hide the spies under those stalks. She had her own house too, in a nice position in the city wall with great view out onto the countryside.

When the spies arrived at her door, though, despite their best efforts, they didn’t go unnoticed. That wasn’t surprising if you think about it. Every man and woman in the city must have been watching for strangers, and reporting to the police anything at all that looked even slightly suspicious. Our two spies clothing and accents may well have given them away.

Rahab realised immediately who they were but incredibly, instead of barring her door,  she let them into her house and when, inevitably, the soldiers come knocking, she told them a pack of bare-faced lies.

Why?  This was clearly an act of treason to the king of Jericho, for which she would certainly be killed if she was caught. She was playing a very dangerous game.

Again, why?

We’ve heard what she said to the spies when the soldiers had gone, explaining that she had heard how the LORD had dried up the water of the Red Sea for them, and how he had enabled them to completely destroy the two kings of the Amorites east of the Jordan. She said that that she realised that he must be “God in heaven above and on the earth below”. She knew, she said, “that the LORD had given the land to them”.

Since the Hebrews' God had led them to victory in war and had power over nature, Rahab realised that he was FAR greater than Jericho's gods, far superior. For Rahab, this is not a quiet conviction, it had become the truth by which she now reordered her life. She had had a “click moment”. Everything had suddenly fallen into place. She now put her faith in God and took the ultimate risk.  …

There has been lots of discussion over the centuries about the rights and wrongs of the lies that Rahab told the soldiers. But suffice it to say that it wasn’t just save her own neck, or even those of the two spies, but those of a whole nation on the move.

Rahab's faith is mentioned three times in the New Testament. First, in the Matthew’s genealogy of Christ, she is one of only five women mentioned, along with Tamar (who posed as a prostitute so that her father-in-law would impregnate her), Ruth (a Moabite widow whose tender story is told in the book by her name), Bathsheba (a warrior's wife with whom King David committed adultery), and of course Mary.

That is amazing in itself, but remember too that these five women are examples of how our God is in the redeeming business. Instead of hiding "irregularities" in Jesus' family tree, they are pointed out as trophies of his grace and forgiveness. 

No matter what you may have done in your past life, God is ready to forgive you, to give you a new start, and to use you in his kingdom. Our God is the God of the second chance.

The second time we find Rahab mentioned in the New Testament, as I mentioned earlier, is when she appears in the Hebrews 11 "Hall of Faith": "By faith the prostitute Rahab, because she welcomed the spies, was not killed with those who were disobedient." (Hebrews 11:31) 

By Joshua's time, the sins of idolatry and licentiousness in Canaan had reached full measure. Yet, the well-known prostitute of Jericho, who put her faith in God, was saved, both from temporal destruction and eternal destruction. 

The third time we see Rahab in the New Testament, James says of her, "Was not even Rahab the prostitute considered righteous for what she did when she gave lodging to the spies and sent them off in a different direction?" (James 2:25)

Here she is mentioned in the same breath as Abraham, the father of faith, whose faith was "credited to him as righteousness" (James was quoting Genesis 15:6). In the same way, God counts your faith as righteousness and forgives you through Jesus Christ. 

To conclude, this really was some amazing lady, and if Joshua chapter 2 had not been included, in my opinion, we would be the poorer for it, and indeed the Bible would be the poorer for it.

Rounding off the story, Joshua honoured the spies' promise to Rahab. During the battle a few days later (and I quote) Joshua said to the two men who had spied out the land, "Go into the prostitute's house and bring her out and all who belong to her, in accordance with your oath to her”. So they went in and brought out Rahab, her father and mother and brothers and …. her entire family ….. (6:22-23)

Rahab and her family were safe, she was a remarkable woman who demonstrated a remarkable faith and amazing courage. But what’s really beautiful about this story is God's forgiveness and grace towards her. 

Sunday 18th June 2023 - Martin Mowat

Joshua 1

Readings : – Excerpts from Numbers 13 & 14


It’s good to be back and I’m excited because we’re going to do a series about Joshua. We talked about him in passing a couple of years ago when we were studying Moses.


If you think about it, Joshua must have been born in Egypt, in the land of Goshen, prior to the Exodus.


At a fairly young age he became Moses' personal aide. Then he became the leader of the largest tribe of Israelites, the Ephraimites. (Moses being of the priestly tribe of Levites.) And then, as leader of his tribe, he was one of those 12 spies who walked over 350 kms each way on what was meant to be a pre-invasion reconnaissance of the land that God had promised to give his people.


The story that Brigit and Jess just read to us was by way of introducing us to an amazing man.


After the spies had returned and 10 of them had given their negative opinions on the feasibility of the invasion, God was not happy. He appeared to Moses and the two of them had a very frank conversation which sadly is too long for us to have read this morning.


Long story short, the ten dissenting spies were struck down and died of a plague before the Lord, and of the men who went to explore the land, only Joshua and Caleb survived.  The Israelites then spent 40 very difficult years wandering around the wilderness. Joshua must have felt disappointed and frustrated but probably he didn’t get a lot of time to mope. Leading his tribe in those desert conditions must have been a challenging and full-time job.


The book of Joshua begins with the words “After the death of Moses the servant of the Lord, the Lord said to Joshua son of Nun, Moses’ aide: “Moses my servant is dead. Now then, you and all these people, get ready to cross the Jordan River into the land I am about to give to them … . I will give you every place where you set your foot, as I promised Moses.”  That must have been like music to Joshua’s ears, but we need to put the book of Joshua into some sort of context before we start to look at what it says.


First, although it might seem a strange thing to say, this was actually the late Bronze Age and at this point in time the Israelites were a fairly primitive people. They were not affluent, they had left Egypt with almost nothing and they had to trust God to survive.  In order to take possession of their “Promised Land”, which was currently inhabited by other peoples, they had to be willing to fight.  In the West today only a small percentage of us are ever in the armed forces. But in those days, as a man you had to be willing to fight, especially if you were an immigrant, as these people were. 

Also, Bronze Age values were very different from modern values. So we should try to judge them based on their history, their culture, and their values, rather than our own.

Secondly, we need to understand their immediate history. It has been forty years since Moses led the people of Israel out of Egypt, FAR longer than any of them had ever imagined that it would be. Apart from Joshua and Caleb, anyone who was 20 or older when they had left Egypt had all died. What we have now are their children and grandchildren.

Those who had been under 20, and were now between 40 and 60 would have remembered vividly that in the space of only two years, they had seen Israel cross the Red Sea and Pharaoh's army destroyed, they had drunk water from a rock face, they had been sustained with manna and quail that miraculously appeared every week-day, and they had received the Ten Commandments at Mount Sinai. During those two years, their parents had grumbled and rebelled, complained and cursed all the way from Egypt to the southern boundary of the Promised Land.

As we just heard in our readings, when they camped in Kadesh-Barnea, a desert oasis at the very south of Canaan, Moses sent the leaders of each of the twelve tribes, including Joshua and Caleb. to do a reconnaissance of the land, to find out its weaknesses, to evaluate enemy positions, and to develop strategies for a conquest.

On their return Caleb said "We went into the land ... and it does flow with milk and honey!" but ten of the twelve were fearful, and we heard what transpired.

So near and yet so far.  God had promised them the land but they chose to walk the other way. Pathetic? Maybe. But have you ever walked away from what God had called you to do? I’m sure that I have.

Fear is a crippling thing, it’s the direct opposite of faith. Indeed, faith is the antidote to fear, and according to chapter 10 of Romans, “faith comes from hearing the message, and the message is heard through the word of God”. What’s more Hebrews 11 tells us that “without faith it is impossible to please God, because anyone who comes to him must believe that he exists and that he rewards those who earnestly seek him”. That’s a tempting subject, but let’s not get sidetracked.


So now we’re 38 years later.  Altogether they’ve had 40 years of living in tents, 40 years of scratching a living in desert conditions, 40 years of going nowhere, 40 years for a generation to change.

Joshua and Caleb are now about 80 years old and their friends and contemporaries have all passed on.  Moses had been 120, he had taught Joshua everything he knew.  They had had some amazing times together. Joseph had been with Moses when they received the 10 commandments for example, and he had been there when Moses and God had spoken “face to face” in the Tent of Meeting.

Joshua was also an accomplished military field commander who had organized and led an army to repel the Amalekites when thy had attacked the Israelites at Rephidim, while Moses, Aaron and Hur went to the top of the hill to watch and pray, and Moses had to hold up his hands.

And then, when finally it’s time for Moses to choose a successor, the LORD said to him, 'Take Joshua son of Nun, a man in whom is the Spirit, and lay your hand on him. Have him stand before Eleazar the priest and the entire assembly and commission him in their presence. Give him some of your authority so the whole Israelite community will obey him … (Numbers 27)

So let’s move forward now to the book of Joshua, where, in the first chapter, God is speaking directly to him.

I will give you every place where you set your foot, as I promised Moses. Your territory will extend from the desert to Lebanon, and from the great river, the Euphrates—all the Hittite country—to the Mediterranean Sea in the west. 5 No one will be able to stand against you all the days of your life. As I was with Moses, so I will be with you; I will never leave you nor forsake you. 6 Be strong and courageous, because you will lead these people to inherit the land I swore to their ancestors to give them.

“Be strong and courageous” This is an exhortation that is close to my own heart because it was given to me, many years ago, at a time when I was asked to take on ministry responsibilities for which I felt woefully ill-equipped.

“Be strong and courageous”. Moses had already used these words to encourage Joshua on several previous occasions.  Now God uses the same words, no less than FOUR times in this chapter.

Later, Joshua’s tribal leaders will use similar words to encourage him, and Joshua will  use them himself to encourage the people.

“Be strong and courageous”. Joshua, with all his leadership and military experience, with all that he been taught, filled, as he was with the spirit, was nevertheless hugely aware of the weight of responsibility that now rested on his shoulders.  Yes, Moses had been an amazing example, but he would have been a very hard act to follow.

“Be strong and courageous”.  Over the next few weeks we’re going to see what those four words accomplished in and through Joshua’s leadership of God’s chosen people.  He had a HUGE job ahead of him.  He was going into the unknown with the lives and livelihoods of the 601,730 men over the age of 20, as well as all the women and children, perhaps as many a 2 million people in total.


“Be strong and courageous”. Joshua knew that somehow or other he had to get those 2 million people across that river. But this wasn’t just any river, this one was in full flood, the combined effect of the snowmelt in the mountains and the spring rains would have rendered the fords impassible. But not only that, they were right under the heavily fortified city of Jericho. From a military perspective, they would be highly vulnerable and could have been attacked at any moment.

“Be strong and courageous” Joshua knew, from bitter experience, how capricious this people could be. He had seen how they had rebelled against Moses leadership on several occasions. Governing them, leading them, persuading them to follow him was not going to be easy or straightforward. Already 2 1/2 tribes had asked to settle on the west side of the river. Maintaining both unity and a sense of order was going to be no easy task.

“Be strong and courageous” Yes, he had seen God do amazing things.  Yes, he knew that God would do more amazing things in the future, Yes, God had promised never to abandon him, but he still needed to hear those words.

“Be strong and courageous”. What about us as a church? Where is God leading us, what is he calling us to be, to do?  

“Be strong and courageous” What about you?  What are you facing at the moment that you are not feeling too confident about?  Health issues, family issues, financial issues?  Has God made promises to you that have not yet come to fruition. “Be strong and courageous”.

Sunday 11th June 2023 - Jess Jephcott

Readings: Judges 13: 1 - 5. Judges 14: 1 - 7. Judges 15: 1 - 6. Judges 16: 1 - 5

Good morning. During Martin’s absence, I am standing in for him and am bringing you this lesson, at Martin’s suggestion, on the continuing theme of Old Testament characters. This time it concerns Samson, another legendary Israelite warrior and judge.

First, a prayer:

“May these words of my mouth and this meditation of my heart be pleasing in your sight, Lord, my Rock and my Redeemer” (Psalm 19:14 NIV).

Our two readers brought you the first parts only of each of four chapters in the Book of Judges, chapters 13 to 16, which deal with Samson’s life. Hopefully, there was sufficient there to give a feel for the greater story to come, which I shall elaborate on as I go along.

The Book of Judges includes the exploits of six particularly heroic judges who returned the Israelites to worshipping God, expelled foreign occupiers, and ruled over the lands of Israel in peace for many years. Its main purpose appears to have been to demonstrate that the Israelites were punished when they strayed from God and rewarded when they had faith.

It would be too much to read the full story of Samson this morning, but I do encourage you to do so, if you are so minded. So, turning to Samson’s story in more detail:

Chapter 13. The Birth of Samson. We heard that Samson’s mother (we aren’t told her name), was visited by the Angel of the Lord, who told her that, “You are barren and childless, but you are going to become pregnant and give birth to a son.” He stipulated that she was to abstain from all alcoholic drinks or unclean foods (he didn’t mention smoking), and that she was not to cut the child’s hair. Therein lay a clue. This child would grow up and would, “take the lead in delivering Israel from the hands of the Philistines.” Following a second visit from the angel, this time in the presence of Samson’s father and with a miracle of flames occurring, it was commanded that Samson was to be a Nazirite from birth.

In ancient Israel, those wanting to be especially dedicated to God for a time could take a Nazirite vow which included abstaining from wine and spirits, not cutting hair or shaving, and other requirements. Sure enough, Samson was born and he was raised in accordance with the angel’s instructions.

Chapter 14. The Marriage of Samson. When Samson was a young man, he left home to do what young men do. One day he was in Timnah, where he saw a young Philistine woman. When he returned home, he demanded that his parents get her for him, so that they could be married. His parents questioned his choice of a non-Israelite woman. But Samson insisted. This was, of course, the work of God, who, we must conclude, had decided to confront the Philistines who had been ruling Israel.

When he and his parents went to meet the young woman, on the journey, we heard that Samson was attacked by a lion. His parents didn’t witness this and nor did Samson mention it to them, but Samson, with the Spirit of the Lord within him, performed a miracle, when he tore the lion apart with his bare hands. When it came to meeting the woman (again, we don’t know her name), he liked her and they were soon betrothed.

The chapter goes on to tell us that, on his way to his wedding, some time later, Samson saw that bees had nested in the carcass of the lion and had made honey.

At the wedding feast, Samson, tells a riddle to his thirty Philistine groomsmen. If they could solve it, he would give them thirty pieces of fine linen and garments - but if they could not they would have to give him thirty pieces of fine linen and garments. The riddle was a veiled account of Samson’s two encounters with the lion, at which only he was present. The riddle went:

Out of the eater came something to eat.

Out of the strong came something sweet.

Needless to say, the Philistines were infuriated by the riddle. The thirty groomsmen told Samson's new wife that they would burn her and her father's household if she did not discover the answer to the riddle and tell it to them. Sure enough, his new wife tearfully implored him to give her the answer, and, after some seven days of tears, Samson relented and told her. She then betrayed it to the groomsmen.

So, before sunset, on the seventh day, the men of the town came to Samson with their answer to the riddle, which went:

What is sweeter than honey?

What is stronger than a lion?

So angry was he, with the Spirit of the Lord coming powerfully upon him, he went down to Ashkelon, struck down thirty of their men, stripped them of everything and gave their clothes to those who had explained the riddle. Still burning with anger, he returned to his father’s home. Samson’s new wife was given to one of his companions who had attended him at the feast.

Chapter 15. Samson’s Vengeance on the Philistines. Still in a rage, Samson returned to find his wife, only to find that her father had given her to one of the groomsmen as a wife. The father refused to allow Samson to see her, offering instead a younger daughter. The way that women were treated in those days was appalling by today’s standards. As we heard from our readings, poor Samson, still angry, then went out, captured 300 foxes and tied them together in pairs, by their tails. He then attached a burning torch to each pair and turned them loose in the grain fields and olive groves of the Philistines. The result of that was that the Philistines burned Samson's wife and father-in-law to death, in retribution.

Yet more blood and gore was to come. In revenge, Samson slaughtered many more Philistines, saying, "I have done to them what they did to me." After so doing, he sought refuge in a cave in the rock of Etam. Then, an army of Philistines went to the Tribe of Judah and demanded that 3,000 men of Judah deliver Samson to them. They asked him, didn’t he (Samson) realise that the Philistines ruled over them? Then, with Samson's consent, given on the condition that the Judahites would not kill him themselves, they tied him with two new ropes and were about to hand him over to the Philistines when he broke free. Using the jawbone of a donkey, he slayed 1,000 Philistines.

Samson declared:

“With a donkey’s jawbone, I have made donkeys of them.

With a donkey’s jawbone, I have killed a thousand men.”

Because he was very thirsty, he cried out to the Lord, “You have given your servant this great victory. Must I now die of thirst and fall into the hands of the uncircumcised?” God opened up the hollow place in Lehi, and spring water came out of it. Samson drank, his strength returned and he was revived. More miracles from God! The chapter finishes telling that Samson led Israel for twenty years in the days of the Philistines.

Chapter 16. Samson and Delilah. The chapter starts with Samson visiting a lady of negotiable affections. His enemies in Gaza learned of this and decided they would lay in wait and kill him at dawn. But this was not part of God’s plan for Samson. Instead, Samson rose in the middle of the night, went to the city gates, where he tore them loose and carried them to the top of a nearby hill. Another miracle!

We then learn that he encounters and falls in love with Delilah. She would go on to betray him. She is approached by the leaders of the Philistines, who offer her a lot of money, in exchange for the secret of Samson’s great strength. But Samson refuses to reveal the secret and teased her, telling her falsely that he would lose his strength, if he was bound with fresh bowstrings. Whilst he slept, she bound him so, but when he woke up he simply snapped the strings. He gave her false answers, again and again, she trying and failing. He must have realised what she was doing, but love can do strange things to a man. After she accused him of making a fool of her, he finally told Delilah that God supplied his power because of his consecration to God as a Nazirite, symbolised by the fact that a razor had never touched his head, and that if his hair was cut off he would lose his strength. Uh oh.

The chapter continues, telling how Delilah then wooed him to sleep "in her lap".  She called for someone to shave off the seven braids of his hair, and so it was, his great strength left him. So the rulers of the Philistines returned with the money, gave it to Delilah and took Samson away. The Lord had left him. They then blinded him by gouging out his eyes. Not nice! Then they took him to Gaza, imprisoned him, and put him to work turning a large millstone, grinding grain.

But, with time, the hair on his head grew back and his strength returned!

We are, as you will realise, reaching the end of Samson’s story.

One day, the Philistines assembled to offer a great sacrifice to Dagon their god, and to celebrate, saying, “Our god has delivered Samson, our enemy, into our hands.”

Reading this final passage from the bible,

The Death of Samson

Chapter 16, vs 25 to 30.

25 While they were in high spirits, they shouted, “Bring out Samson to entertain us.” So they called Samson out of the prison, and he performed for them. When they stood him among the pillars, 26 Samson said to the servant who held his hand, “Put me where I can feel the pillars that support the temple, so that I may lean against them.” 27 Now the temple was crowded with men and women; all the rulers of the Philistines were there, and on the roof were about three thousand men and women watching Samson perform. 28 Then Samson prayed to the Lord, “Sovereign Lord, remember me. Please, God, strengthen me just once more, and let me with one blow get revenge on the Philistines for my two eyes.” 29 Then Samson reached toward the two central pillars on which the temple stood. Bracing himself against them, his right hand on the one and his left hand on the other, 30 Samson said, “Let me die with the Philistines!” Then he pushed with all his might, and down came the temple on the rulers and all the people in it. Thus he killed many more when he died than while he lived.


Samson is placed in the timeline of 1154 - 1124 BC. He was one of the last of the 15 judges of the ancient Israelites, mentioned in the Book of Judges, before the institution of a ‘King of the Israelites’.

So it was that, because of Samson's destruction of the temple, and his death, the Israelites were liberated from Philistine rule.

As Christians today, what are the lessons from this 3000 year old story? Although the story ends sadly with Samson’s death by suicide, we can see various powerful lessons in play. Here are a possible three.

1. We must not abuse any gifts God has given us.

God gifted Samson with incredible strength, but he often abused it, using the might to show off, rather than bring glory to God. He learns the hard way that the Lord can give and take away gifts in a moment’s notice.

2. Sin has consequences.

Samson didn’t see the immediate payout for some of his sin until much later, but it tends to catch us at the worst moments. When we feel like acting on impulse, like he had, we need to remind ourselves of the truth of Scriptures. We will encounter many Delilahs in this world, who will try to find our greatest weakness and exploit it.

3. Even at our lowest, God can still use us.

Deprived of all strength and humiliated beyond measure, God returns Samson his strength for one last showdown. Although Samson dies in the process, he ends up killing more of Israel’s enemies than he ever had during his boastful, revengeful days.

I end this message with a prayer, the same prayer that I used to end the story of Gideon.


A prayer for the Book of Judges

Father God, may our generation not reflect the period of the Judges. Send your Spirit to live daily within and among us. Through Christ our Lord we pray. Amen.

Sunday 4th June 2023 - Susan Beddows



Matthew 3: 13-17

Matthew 28: 16-20



Lord God. We ask that You would open our ears so that we may hear your voice. Open our minds so that we may receive Your eternal wisdom. Open our spirits so that we may know Your leading and guidance. And open our hearts so that we may receive Your wonderful love. Amen


In the Church calendar we’ve moved through Advent, Christmas, Lent, Easter, Ascension and, last week, Pentecost. We’ve followed the birth, life, death, resurrection and Ascension of Jesus, and the coming of the Holy Spirit.

The ‘Trinity’ is a real treasure that lies at the heart of Christianity – it’s a unique feature of our faith.


When we’re talking about the Trinity, we mean that there is one God, who exists as three co-equal and co-eternal Persons: the Father, the Son, and the Spirit. They are one in being, united in, power, purpose, and glory, yet they are each distinct in their personality


Every week at the end of our service we share the grace from 2 corinthians:13-14

14 iThe grace of the Lord Jesus Christ and jthe love of God and kthe fellowship of the Holy Spirit be with you all.


This is one of the clearest trinitarian verses in all of Scripture.


The word ‘Trinity’ doesn’t actually appear in the Bible at all. However, the concept of the Trinity is rooted in scripture.

1. Firstly - There is only one God. The Old Testament in particular is full of references to the one, true God; it’s actually what set the emerging nation of Israel apart from its neighbours - who worshipped many different gods.

2. Secondly - The one God includes three Persons. In our first  reading from Matthew 28, Jesus tells his disciples: “Go and make disciples of all people, baptizing them not simply in the name of God but of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit.”

3. These three Persons of the Trinity are distinct – recognizably different!

The baptism of Jesus in Matthew 3 just showed us how distinct they are! Here we have Jesus himself being baptized, the Holy Spirit descending and God’s voice speaking to His son – such unity within their relationships.


So we are going to look at three ways we can describe the trinity, through its unity, diversity and intimacy.


Firstly, we see the unity of the Trinity

In John’s gospel (1:1-14) we read

 1 In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. 2 He was with God in the beginning.

So Jesus himself - was involved in creation

In Genesis 1 We read that “in the beginning… God’s Spirit moved (or hovered) over the waters.” The Trinity, Father, Son and Holy Spirit, working together as one.

The story continues in v.26: “Let us make humankind in our image.” Not “me” or “my”, but  “our.” There’s a one-ness, showing the three involved in creation share a common likeness


Secondly, the diversity of the Trinity.

Although Father, Son and Holy Spirit are of the same substance, and work together for a common purpose, they don’t do the same things.

God the Father watches over the world.

God the Son redeemed the world on the cross.

God the Holy Spirit equips us to live in the world as Christians.

Three very different roles. But all for the one purpose of manifesting God’s glory in the world.


Thirdly, the intimacy within the Trinity.

Father, Son and Holy Spirit are in relationship with one another.

The Father loves the Son and speaks to him – “This is my son with whom I am well pleased”

The Son loves the Father and prays to him –  we see in John:17 where

Jesus Prays to Be Glorified- “Father, the hour has come. Glorify your Son, that your Son may glorify you “

Jesus Prays for His Disciples - 11 I will remain in the world no longer, but they are still in the world, and I am coming to you. Holy Father, protect them by the power of[b] your name, the name you gave me, so that they may be one as we are one

Jesus Prays for All Believers - My prayer is not for them alone. I pray also for those who will believe in me through their message, 21 that all of them may be one, Father, just as you are in me and I am in you. 

The Father and the Son together sent the Holy Spirit at Pentecost.

All three, in different ways, mirror the love that characterizes their relationship. Father, Son and Holy Spirit are constantly in relationship with one another.


God in three Persons, blessed Trinity. ..Creator, Redeemer, Sustainer


So what is our role within the Trinity?

Our reading from Matthew 28 - known as the famous “Great Commission.”

Matthew 28

The Great Commission

Go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, 20 and teaching them to obey everything I have commanded you. And lo, surely I am with you always, to the very end of the age.”

Jesus is sending us out to fulfill His mandate for all followers - Making disciples is the main mission of the church. And on Trinity Sunday we are reminded of the power of the full Godhead:  Father,  Son, and Holy Spirit.  

It is why churches were established long ago on that first day of Pentecost. It is what we should always be doing,  keeping this as our “main aim as we move forward

The first word of the Great Commission is “Go.” 

We shouldn’t keep it all for ourselves, having experienced the saving power of Christ in our life, we’ve got to go and tell others!

Telling them about forgiveness, the new spiritual life, and the promise of heaven are just some of the good news that the whole world needs to know.  Go with the simple truth that in Christ there is life, real abundant life for all people.  We should tell our story and invite people to come find out for themselves.

Perhaps our next fellowship meal could be for each of us to invite someone we know who doesn’t yet know God? Pardon the pun - but Food for thought?

We also heard in Matthew 28

“Therefore, go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, 20 and teaching them to obey everything I have commanded you “

We are to teach people about all of Christ’s commandments.  In order to teach something you first need to know it yourself. I’m aware that I don’t know as much as I would like and need to receive teaching and learning myself. Hence, I am looking forward to coming together in the House Group for Bible study.  I really enjoy planning to teach at our services, it’s a real source of learning! We can never stop learning about God’s word.  So we need to learn all that we can to enable us to go and “teach” the Word.

In the passage from Matthew it also says “lo” in many places – obviously not a word we use much today. It is an old English expression which is an abbreviation of the word “look.”  

That expression “lo and behold” literally means “look - and take a good long look !”  When Jesus says “Lo, I am with you always” he is saying “Look! Take notice, pay attention, I, Jesus, am with you always.” 

Do we ever stop and just look, recognize and realize that Jesus is with us as we do his work of evangelism and teaching.  Or do we feel like it is all on our shoulders and we push ahead in our own strength – or perhaps we don’t push ahead and tell others, because its too overwhelming and fear and doubt sets in? I know I’m often guilty of that! 

The Apostle Paul reminded us a few weeks ago in Chapter 4 of his letter to the Philippians, that “I can do all things through Christ who strengthens me.”   (You may remember he wrote this from his prison cell with none of the comforts of life - except for the gifts that the Philippian church sent to him)  The empowering presence of Christ was strength enough for him and he continued his ministry even from a prison cell. 

So let us call upon the Lord for help to do His work and remind ourselves of the all-powerful-presence of our Triune God, that’s always available to us if we look for it. It’s there for us as we try to be the presence of Christ for people that we may know, who are in need.

When they “look” at us, let them see Jesus in us, as we carry out his works in this world.

I was really touched yesterday morning when Andrew, who I work with, and some of you know, turned to me and asked me to say a prayer at church for Bobby, his very good friend, who died yesterday morning.

He always asks me what I’m doing at church each week and I always share with him if I’m playing worship, or reading, or praying, or leading but I’ve not YET, stepped out further than that……………

Let us pray

Heavenly Father

May we know the life-giving power of the Trinity and may it fill us, so that our community may flourish, that we may truly live up to the image of God in which we were created, that we may be filled with your Spirit and Go and make disciples of  all nations!

Praise be to God the Father, Son and Holy Spirit!    Amen.

Sunday 28th May 2023 - A talk given by Jess Jephcott, a member of the church.

Readings: Judges 6: vs 1 - 18 & 19 - 40.


Good morning. In Martin’s absence during this time of Pentecost, he suggested that I might speak about a character from the Old Testament. So I chose Gideon, one of the characters written about in the book of Judges.

First, a prayer:

“May these words of my mouth and this meditation of my heart be pleasing in your sight, Lord, my Rock and my Redeemer”. (Psalm 19:14 NIV).

As we all know, the bible is history. Starting with the creation, it takes us through thousands of years of events that occurred in what we know today as ‘The Holy Lands’. It was written by many hands, without the aid of the recording devices that we have today, its words coming from God, memories, received wisdom – the creative imaginations of the writers perhaps. What we read in the bible is what scholars have translated from the original texts. We have to trust the accuracy of those translations. We cannot tell how soon after the events happened, that the texts were written down, but it must surely have been contemporary with each time in question.

From the Old Testament, we learn that the Israelites were, and are, the physical descendants of Abraham, through Isaac and Jacob. We read in Genesis 32:28 that God changed Jacob’s name to Israel. From then on, his sons and other descendants were called ‘sons of Israel’ or ‘Israelites’. Jacob (or Israel) had twelve sons, the progenitors of the twelve tribes of Israel. Most properly, any member of one of the tribes of Israel was called an Israelite, although the word Hebrew is also used, just to add to our confusion.

Our readings today gave us an account of the first part of the story of Gideon. He was to become a military leader, a judge and a prophet, whose calling by God, and his victory over the Midianites, are recounted in Judges 6–8 of the Book of Judges in the Old Testament. Our two readings, read by Sue and Janet are Chapter 6 in full. They give us an introduction to this great biblical warrior.

As we heard, Gideon was the son of Joash, from the Abiezrite clan in the tribe of Manasseh and lived in Ephra (Ophrah). He was commanded by God to become a leader of the Israelites, as we shall hear, going on to win a decisive victory over a Midianite army, despite a vast numerical disadvantage. There’s the spoiler.

It’s quite a long story and it presents many questions, some of which I am going to explore this morning. Our readings give a flavour of what was going on at the time, a time when, not for the first time, God was displeased with the Israelites. The bible tells us that:

‘For seven years, the Israelites had done evil unto the Lord, and so He gave them unto the Midianites’

.. and that…

‘Midian so impoverished the Israelites that they cried out to the Lord for help.’.

We heard that Gideon tests God - three times. Three miracles: firstly a sign from the angel, in which the angel appeared to Gideon and caused fire to shoot up out of a rock, and then, two signs involving a fleece, performed on consecutive nights and the exact opposite of each other. First Gideon woke up to his fleece covered in dew, but the surrounding ground dry; then the next morning, his fleece was dry but the surrounding ground was covered in dew.

The book of Deuteronomy, written some 600 years later, Chapter 6 v 16 gives us, ‘Do not test the LORD your God as you tested Him at Massah.’. This refers to the time of Moses, who was, of course, a descendant of Abraham. The gospels of Matthew 4:7 and Luke 4:12 tell us that Jesus confirms this teaching when he replied, "It is also written: 'Do not put the Lord your God to the test.'" Indeed, wasn’t Jesus often being challenged, tested, to provide proof of who he claimed to be? Gideon clearly got away with it.

The Book of Judges recounts the exploits of six particularly heroic judges (as well as another eleven, not so heroic judges), who each returned the Israelites to the worship of God, expelled foreign occupiers, and ruled over the lands of Israel in peace for many years. The book’s main purpose seems to be to demonstrate that the Israelites were punished when they strayed from God and rewarded when they had faith.

It would be too much to read the full story of Gideon this morning, but I do encourage you to do so, if you are so minded. The story continues.

After the miracle of the fleece, God commanded Gideon to gather an army. This he did, but God decided that the army was too big, and so He commanded that Gideon should:

Ch 7 v 3

Now announce to the army, ‘Anyone who trembles with fear may turn back and leave Mount Gilead.’” So twenty-two thousand men left, while ten thousand remained.

However, God was still not happy. There were still too many men. So He commanded Gideon to take them down to the water.

Ch 7 v 5 – 7

5 So Gideon took the men down to the water. There the Lord told him, “Separate those who lap the water with their tongues as a dog laps from those who kneel down to drink.” 6 Three hundred of them drank from cupped hands, lapping like dogs. All the rest got down on their knees to drink. 7 The Lord said to Gideon, “With the three hundred men that lapped I will save you and give the Midianites into your hands. Let all the others go home.”

To explain why the 300 men who brought water to their mouths with their hands were chosen to fight, while those who lapped the water directly or bowed down, were not chosen, is a mystery. As Martin suggested (when I asked him), perhaps when drinking from cupped hands, it enabled the man to still see what was going on around him, whilst bowing down to drink perhaps left a man vulnerable to attack.

During the night, God instructed Gideon to approach the Midianite camp. There, Gideon overheard a Midianite man tell a friend of a dream in which "a loaf of barley bread tumbled into the camp of Midian", causing their tent, or camp, to collapse. This was interpreted as meaning that God had given the Midianites over to Gideon. Gideon returned to the Israelite camp and gave each of his men a shofar (a ram's-horn trumpet formerly used by Jews as an ancient battle signal and now used in Jewish religious ceremonies) and a clay jar with a torch hidden inside. Divided into three companies, Gideon and his 300 men marched on the enemy camp. He instructed them to blow the trumpet, give a battle cry and light torches, simulating an attack by a large force. As they did so, the Midianite army fled.

It reminds me somewhat of a time when I was asked, in my capacity as a Roman re-enactor (in a previous life), by the leader of the Sunday School at my previous church, to turn out in costume to join the children in re-enacting the destruction of the walls of Jericho, sometime around 1400 BC, through marching and the blowing of trumpets.

Anyway, needless to say, the Midianites did not fare well as a result of this, and the bible goes on tell of how the Midianite kings were hunted down, and that they, together with thousands of Midianites, died ‘orribly. I shall spare you the details. It appears to have been the way of things in those days. Kill everybody – God will know his own.

Of course, this miraculous victory over the Midianites, with only 300 men, could only be seen as the work of God. With a bigger army, the Israelites might have claimed the victory as their own, rather than crediting it to God. All part of God’s plan, presumably.

…and so we come to the conclusion of Gideon’s story.

Ch 8 v 22 – 23

22 The Israelites said to Gideon, “Rule over us—you, your son and your grandson—because you have saved us from the hand of Midian.” 23 But Gideon told them, “I will not rule over you, nor will my son rule over you. The Lord will rule over you.

..and then..

Ch 8 v 28 – 29

28 Thus Midian was subdued before the Israelites and did not raise its head again. During Gideon’s lifetime, the land had peace forty years.

29 Jerub-Baal son of Joash went back home to live.

The chapter ends with details of Gideon’s life that followed.

He had seventy sons of his own, with many wives. He had a concubine, who lived in Shechem, who also bore him a son, whom he named Abimelek. He died at a good old age and was buried in the tomb of his father Joash in Ophrah.

No sooner had Gideon died, than the Israelites again prostituted themselves to the Baals and set up Baal-Berith as their god, not remembering the Lord their God, who had rescued them from the hands of all their enemies on every side.

Once again, the Israelites had lapsed back into idolatry. But that story is for another day.

Gideon is placed in the timeline of 1179 – 1154 BC.

The first king of the Israelites was King Saul (c. 1021–1000 BC). According to the biblical account, found mainly in 1 Samuel, Saul was chosen king both by the judge Samuel and by public acclamation.

To bring some modern day context to this story, we learned early on in our readings, that Gideon’s tribe lived in a place called Ephra, also known as Ophrah. This later became known as Ephraim. Coming forward a few centuries, the Gospel of John tells us that, “Jesus therefore no longer walked about openly among the Jews, but went from there to a town called Ephraim in the region near the wilderness; and he remained there with the disciples.” (John 11:54). The Muslim sultan Saladin changed the biblical name to [Tie Bay] in the 12th century, after he found the inhabitants hospitable and generous.

[Tie Bay], today, is 30 kilometres northeast of Jerusalem. From its elevated site between biblical Samaria and Judea, it overlooks the desert wilderness, the Jordan Valley, Jericho and the Dead Sea. It is the only Christian town left in Israel or Palestine, holding fast to its memory of Jesus seeking refuge there shortly before his crucifixion.

Gideon is mentioned many times in history. In the New Testament, Gideon is mentioned in chapter 11 of the Epistle to the Hebrews as an example of a man of faith, one of several ‘heroes of faith’ mentioned there. Much like the 300 Spartans at Thermopylae, Gideon has become symbolic of military success of a small elite force against overwhelming numerical odds. More recently, ‘The Gideon Force’ was a small British-led special force in the East African Campaign during World War II.

Some of you may have heard the phrase "putting out a fleece". The origin of the phrase is a reference to the story of Gideon meaning, to look for a sign from God before undertaking some action, or carrying out some plan.

Gideons International is an American organisation dedicated to Christian evangelism, founded in 1899, dedicated to the distribution of free Bibles. The organisation's logo represents a two-handled pitcher and torch, symbolizing the implements used by Gideon to scare the Midianite army. Most of us will be familiar with the bibles that are provided in hotel rooms. That is how they got there. A 3000 year old legacy.

In conclusion to this talk, given during the Christian time of the year, the 7th Sunday after Easter, known as Pentecost, perhaps a little more detail is due. The word comes from the Greek, meaning ‘fiftieth’. It is a Christian festival celebrating the descent of the Holy Spirit on the disciples of Jesus, after his Ascension, and is held on the seventh Sunday after Easter.

It is obvious that, in Gideon, God chose a weak, fearful man. Gideon is characterised by fear and inadequacy; he had little or no self- confidence. God comes to him as he is beating out wheat in a wine press. He was hiding because he was afraid. So too, with the disciples of Jesus, the Holy Spirit came to them, just as the angel of the Lord came to Gideon.

‘From cowardly to courageous, from frightened to fearless, from denying - to defending Jesus, Pentecost emboldened and empowered the disciplines to go out and spread the word of God.’

Both Gideon and the disciples went on to change the world.

A prayer for the Book of Judges

Father God, may our generation not reflect the period of the Judges. Send your Spirit to live daily within and among us. Through Christ our Lord we pray. Amen.

Sunday 21st May 2023 - Sue Beddows

Readings Acts 16: 6 - 15 and Philippians 4: 4 - 9

Today we’re concluding our study of Philippians


Opening Prayer

Lord we thank you for the gift of your Word and as we think on the words we are about to hear, open our hearts and minds to hear Your word to us.

Father as I speak, may You speak & may Jesus be glorified.  AMEN


In the reading FROM Acts 16: 6 - 15

Paul’s Vision of the Man of Macedonia

6 Paul and his companions travelled throughout the region of Phrygia and Galatia, having been kept by the Holy Spirit from preaching the word in the province of Asia. 7 When they came to the border of Mysia, they tried to enter Bithynia, but the Spirit of Jesus would not allow them to. 8 So they passed by Mysia and went down to Troas. 9 During the night Paul had a vision of a man of Macedonia standing and begging him, “Come over to Macedonia and help us.” 10 After Paul had seen the vision, we got ready at once to leave for Macedonia, concluding that God had called us to preach the gospel to them.

Lydia’s Conversion in Philippi

11 From Troas we put out to sea and sailed straight for Samothrace, and the next day we went on to Neapolis. 12 From there we traveled to Philippi, a Roman colony and the leading city of that district[a] of Macedonia. And we stayed there several days.

13 On the Sabbath we went outside the city gate to the river, where we expected to find a place of prayer. We sat down and began to speak to the women who had gathered there. 14 One of those listening was a woman from the city of Thyatira named Lydia, a dealer in purple cloth. She was a worshiper of God. The Lord opened her heart to respond to Paul’s message. 15 When she and the members of her household were baptized, she invited us to her home. “If you consider me a believer in the Lord,” she said, “come and stay at my house.” And she persuaded us.


The church of Philippi was the first church that Paul founded in Europe during his second missionary journey.

Paul originally went to Macedonia because of a vision. In it Paul saw a man of Macedonia standing and asking that he come over to help them. Paul responded and so the church was established in Philippi and the first city to be evangelized in Europe.

Paul’s custom was to go to the synagogue whenever he first arrived in a new city, so when the Sabbath came, Paul went outside the city to the river looking for a place of prayer, but it seems there were not enough men practicing Judaism in Philippi to have a synagogue! So Paul went to the river around 1.5 miles away, in the hope of finding a Jewish ‘meeting place’

There Paul met Lydia. She was a worshiper of God. The Lord opened her heart to respond to Paul’s message. When she and the members of her household were baptized, she invited them to her home. ‘If you consider me a believer in the Lord,’ she said, ‘come and stay at my house.’ And she persuaded them”

 Lydia’s conversion was the first of three significant events associated with the beginning of the church in Philippi. The second was the exorcism of demons from a slave girl, which could foretell the future, and by which she earned her masters a lot of money! Paul rebuked the spirit, and it left her but her owners were not at all happy – no more money! So, they took Paul and Silas before the magistrates and they were thrown into prison after being stripped, beaten and severely flogged. Around midnight there was a mighty earthquake, and all the prison doors flew open. Paul and Silas did not flee, but instead they stayed and shared the gospel with the jailer. This brough about the third important event, the jailer and his entire family came to believe in the Lord as a result of Pauls witness.

So to Pauls message in chapter 4

Philippians 4 : Final exhortations

4 Rejoice in the Lord always. I will say it again: rejoice! 5 Let your gentleness be evident to all. The Lord is near. 6 Do not be anxious about anything, but in every situation, by prayer and petition, with thanksgiving, present your requests to God. 7 And the peace of God, which transcends all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus.

8 Finally, brothers and sisters, whatever is true, whatever is noble, whatever is right, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is admirable – if anything is excellent or praiseworthy – think about such things. 9 Whatever you have learned or received or heard from me, or seen in me – put it into practice. And the God of peace will be with you.

In these six verses, Paul closes his letter to the Philippians by summarizing the 4 ways the church should live lives worthy of the gospel

1. Firstly - By always having Joy in the Lord

2. Secondly - Through their gentleness

3. Thirdly - Through prayer

4. Lastly - Through their thinking and their practice


1. Paul’s first point is to always have Joy In the Lord

Verse 4 - Rejoice in the Lord always. I will say it again: rejoice!


Our joy is grounded in God – unlike our circumstances that are always changing, God never changes

Let’s not forget the context of this letter from Paul – he’s writing it from prison – he’s in chains!

The church itself is also in a difficult position, because of the persecution they’re facing plus their own disunity

The whole point of the verse is that regardless of our circumstances, we are called to rejoice in the Lord - always!

That I know is a tall order! Especially when our circumstances are not in a good position, but that’s what should push us to come to God even more so

If our joy was dependent on our circumstances, we would probably be miserable most of the time!

But when the object of our joy is the Lord, we can always rejoice because the source of our joy is the gospel and not the difficulties we face – let’s remember that NOTHING will separate us from the love of God in Romans 8:38-39


38 And I am convinced that nothing can ever separate us from God’s love. Neither death nor life, neither angels nor demons,[b] neither our fears for today nor our worries about tomorrow—not even the powers of hell can separate us from God’s love. 39 No power in the sky above or in the earth below—indeed, nothing in all creation will ever be able to separate us from the love of God that is revealed in Christ Jesus our Lord.


If we Just think back over the last few years, how we all lived in fear and with those restrictions

For me it meant I was able to spend more time reading God’s word and more time in prayer – both personally and with others, Zoom was the order of the days!

Has your joy in the Lord changed? I would say YES - it’s been strengthened!

Whatever our circumstances, we should look to Christ – his joy is a superior joy that overshadows all our circumstances. Don’t look to the world and our situation – look to Christ

For our church, weekly services now mean that finding joy in God is so much more accessible!


2. Paul’s second point is that we live lives worthy of the gospel through our gentleness

Verse 5 - Let your gentleness be evident to all. The Lord is near.


As Christians we are called to be reasonable and gentle, for the sake of our fellowship inside the church, and for the advancement of the gospel outside of the church – our gospel witness!

We should care about our witness to those outside of the church

If there is any conflict or disagreement, we shouldn’t just leave the church, or get angry with one another – we should talk with one another in gentleness – grounding our unity in the gospel.

Don’t be impatient or quick to be irritated – be reasonable and willing to talk it out

Our unity and gentleness display the gospel to the world.

One of the things we may remember Martin saying last week was to do all things without grumbling or arguing


Our gentleness and unity are part of our witness and when that is seen by others - It’s a powerful witness to the world – Janet’s coronation party just a few weeks ago came to mind as I thought about this point, there were many non-Christians there among many of us, and a jolly time was had by all! The coronation itself was a real eye opener for me! Obviously, I was not even born for the late Queen’s coronation, but to see the involvement of God and His church in this was absolutely awesome! A real Christian witness!

Then the final sentence of V5 – The Lord Is Near

There are two trains of thought on this

Be gentle because Jesus is dwelling within you, or it could refer to the second coming of Christ – an event we do not know when it will happen!



3. Paul’s third point is about Prayer

In Verse 6 - Do not be anxious about anything, but in every situation, by prayer and petition, with thanksgiving, present your requests to God. 

We live our lives worthy of the gospel through prayer – the opposite of being anxious about anything is to pray about EVERYTHING!


The Philippians had a lot to be anxious about – Paul is in prison; the church is being persecuted and Paul is insisting they’re not to be anxious about anything!

Anxiety is our failure to trust in God – it’s doubt in God’s goodness and His sovereignty.

Paul is saying that in any situation causing us to be anxious, or to doubt God, there is only one way to respond – PRAY!

This should be our first response – when its often our first response to try and fix things ourselves or take the problem to other people

Yes, it’s good if we take it to other people to pray with us about the situation but we must learn to bring it to God in prayer for ourselves

Prayerlessness shows our lack of trust

But Prayer reveals our dependence on God and should be our knee jerk reaction to any anxiety BUT

 it should not be a reaction for just when trials come along. We should bring everything to God in prayer

That means not being self-sufficient when things are going well and just depending on God when things are going wrong. Don’t just lean on God when we think we can’t handle things ourselves

We need to be dependent on God for everything – spending regular time with Him daily, both in His word and in prayer and to approach Him with an attitude of thanksgiving, not just to make requests.


In LECTIO 365 – the night Prayer time session is spent reflecting on the day and recognizing where God was at work in our lives and thanking Him – thanksgiving in prayer– just asking ourselves when did we experience His goodness and when did we hear Him speak? It’s a real opportunity to give thanks to God for His work in us.

Time is then also spent reflecting on moments of darkness in our day – things that have happened that we need to confess to God

When we come to God in prayer and to thank Him for his loving care – V7 reminds us that the peace of God, which transcends all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus.

Remember The hymn “What a friend we have in Jesus”?

O what peace we often forfeit – O what needless pain we bear

All because we did not carry, everything to God in prayer


We have been praying for a lady named Sharon for several months now who was diagnosed with cancer. She came into the café this week to tell me she is now clear of the cancer! She knew we have been praying for her because I told her we were. Also, Steve, my husband who 18 months ago was diagnosed with cancer is now cancer free!

It’s not easy – I know myself and others are still waiting for answers to prayer but it’s God’s timing and not ours, but we have to hold on!


4. Paul’s final point is about thinking and practice

As Christians, our purpose is to know Jesus in our thinking and to make Him known in our practice – our daily lives

In V8 and 9 we read

8 Finally, brothers and sisters, whatever is true, whatever is noble, whatever is right, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is admirable – if anything is excellent or praiseworthy – think about such things. Our command is to think about these things

c. 9 Whatever you have learned or received or heard from me or seen in me – put it into practice. And the God of peace will be with you.


Paul knows the Philippians minds are caught up in their circumstances – he’s telling them not to be so distracted that they forget to set their minds on Christ


At the end of Chapter 3 Paul makes a distinction between how unbelievers think and how citizens of heaven think

Paul says of unbelievers:

19 Their destiny is destruction, their god is their stomach, and their glory is in their shame. Their mind is set on earthly things. 20 But our citizenship is in heaven. And we eagerly await a Saviour from there, the Lord Jesus Christ


So, are our minds fixed on earthly things or fixed on Christ?

Our minds must be set on Knowing Jesus - There is no greater thing a worship song we sang today


So how are we to achieve this? By the word of God

Holy thoughts centered on God means our minds must be full of God’s word – His Holy scriptures held in our hearts

What we think about informs what we do

The connection between V8 and 9 is that V8 commands us to think about these things and V9 commands us to put it into practice! Thinking and doing go hand in hand

And Paul calls us to imitate him - in v9 he points to himself as an example of living the Christian life

And what better example from someone who was called, lived, walked, made mistakes and learned from Jesus himself - Paul proclaimed the gospel despite being jailed for it

We are called to imitate Paul by knowing Christ and making Him known to others. Knowing Him in our thinking and making Him known in our practice

This is our purpose as followers of Christ – to know Christ and make Him known


If we respond to Christ through these 4 areas we’ve heard about today, we will not only have the gift of peace but the giver of peace, God himself, will be with us!

We are trying to organize a church monthly house group to study God’s word and to pray.

Tess will be shortly sending out an email to try and establish the preferences for the timing of the group, so we can have a way that we can move closer to knowing Christ, together, in unity


Let us pray

Father God thank you, that you have given us Your word, and shown us how we are to live in this world

We ask you to grant us your power and grace to live this way, in all circumstances, that our lives would truly display the worth of knowing You.  

We pray in your mighty and precious name



A Poem based on Philippians  by Deborah Ann Belka


Let us not love in idle words,

that simply roll off our tongues

Let us love in truthful actions

and deeds that are left unsung


Let us not love with conditions

that requires more of another,

Let us love in a forgiving measure,

bracing and lifting up each other


Let us not love over factors,

that causes us to clash and fight

Let us love with assuring hearts,

filled with joy and His delight


Let us not love in competition,

that causes one to win or lose,

Let us love with honest declarations,

His truths be in the terms we choose


Let us not love with a lofty heart,

that brings or puts another down,

Let us love with hope and bold faith,

so others can see the truth that we’ve found


Let us love with pure, honest deeds,

so our conduct awes and inspires

another life to turn to our Lord

for that is what His heart desires!

Sunday 14th May 2023 - Martin Mowat

Readings: Psalm 119: 33 - 42 & Philippians 2: 12 - 18

Today we’re going to continue our study of Philippians, and Sue is going to wrap it up while I’m away.  Last week we were in chapter 3, but this week we’ve taken an apparent step back into chapter 2.  That might seem illogical, but actually it’s not because what we were looking at last week was personal, it was individual, but our passage this morning is corporate, it relates to the church as a whole.

So just what does it mean, then, for us as a church to "continue to work out our salvation in fear and trembling"?

The first thing to say, although I expect that we all understand it already, is that salvation is by faith and grace, and has nothing whatsoever to do with good works, so when Paul talks about “working out our salvation” that is NOT what he is talking about. Not one of us deserves a ticket to heaven, no matter how many old ladies we help cross the street, or how many millions we give to charity. Only by asking for and accepting God’s forgiveness, and then by acknowledging his absolute authority in every area of our lives, can we hope for his gracious work of salvation.

The word for salvation that Paul uses here refers to the rescue by God of his people -- a rescue from the penalty of, and from the ongoing power, of sin. This salvation began in our lives as I just described, and will be completed when Christ returns (1 Peter 1:3-5). 

Salvation is complex and the New Testament uses a number of concepts to explain it, such as: adoption, reconciliation, redemption, regeneration, new birth, repentance, and sanctification. Each element is important. But to keep things short and simple this morning, I’m just going to focus briefly on two of those words, reconciliation and sanctification.

Reconciliation is the process of restoring our estranged relationship with God. It refers to that phase when we surrender ourselves to God, when our resistance to him essentially ceases. In this phase our sins are forgiven, we experience new birth and faith rises. It is sometimes referred to as "getting saved." It is, of course, a process that takes a different period of time for each of us.

Sanctification is different though. It’s also a process, one by which God’s ongoing work causes our character to become more and more like Christ and the fruit of the Spirit, so famously listed in Galatians 5, become evident in our behaviour. They are love, joy, peace, forbearance, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control. 

Whereas our initial salvation sometimes feels like an event, sanctification is always a process.

So, with that in mind, and remembering that Paul is not talking here about individuals becoming like Christ, but a whole church, a whole community of faith becoming like Christ, let’s go back to our text.

Therefore, my dear friends, as you have always obeyed—not only in my presence, but now much more in my absence—continue to work out your salvation with fear and trembling, for it is God who works in you to will and to act in order to fulfill his good purpose. (2:12-13) 

The first thing to notice is that this is a God thing!

"... For it is God who works in you to will and to act according to his good purpose." (2:12-13)

What is he going to do? Two things, “to will and to act”. To will means to “purpose” or to “resolve”, and to act means to “accomplish” and to “carry through”.

That in itself is powerful and encouraging, but why, to what end? “In order to fulfill his good purpose” for the church, Paul says. 

The Philippians were to work out the implications and lifestyle of salvation in their church community, but It appears that there was bickering, selfish ambition, and a party spirit going on. Paul was very clear with them that this had to stop!

They were to work it out "with fear and trembling". That’s an Old Testament expression that describes the "fear that human beings have in the presence of God and his mighty acts”. It implies, if you think about it, humility and complete reliance on God for his strength to carry it out.

Notice too that they were to "work it out," but God was "working" too! It’s a partnership, it’s reciprocal as we said last week. It takes two to tango!  God helps with both the purpose and the accomplishment of this, if we let him.

The next thing he says is VERY down to earth and quite blunt.  "Do everything without complaining …” without ‘murmuring’ as it says in the KJV and the NRSV, without utterances made in a low tone of voice, without talking behind-the-scenes “or arguing".

Note that Paul is NOT trying to stop the free exchange of ideas in love and in a spirit of unity, but maintaining the unity of the Body of Christ hugely important, as I said a few weeks ago.

But can we just take a moment here? If we’re honest, we ALL, myself included, have to be aware of Satan’s ability to exploit our natural temptation to think or speak critically of others or of the church as a whole, and to think of ourselves as better or wiser than others.  That’s dangerous ground, and we must NOT do it, says Paul.

“Make my joy complete by being like-minded, having the same love, being one in spirit and of one mind. Do nothing out of selfish ambition or vain conceit. Rather, in humility value others above yourselves not looking to your own interests but each of you to the interests of the others.’ Paul said earlier in the chapter.

He’s talking about attitude. The Philippian church needed to repent and to change. "Do everything without grumbling or arguing so that you may become blameless and pure, children of God without fault in a crooked and depraved generation, in which you will shine like stars in the universe as you hold out the word of life...." (2:15-16a)

"Nobody's perfect!" that’s true, but God calls his church to emulate his perfection -- no if’s and no but’s. Why? Because unless we start reflecting the Lord, we're no different from the rest of world, which Paul described as "crooked" and "depraved".  Seems that not a lot has changed, right?

The world is perverse, it’s morally twisted and most importantly it has become deformed from God's original creation. The church mustn’t be the same! God calls it to a higher standard, to ".... shine like stars in the universe as you hold out the word of life...." (2:15b-16a)

The world has to see the church as different from other human institutions. What is attractive about our church? Can outsiders sense the presence of Christ among us? Do outsiders see us as lights in a dark world?

Jesus himself said, "By this all men will know that you are my disciples, if you love one another" (John 13:35). He also said: "You are the light of the world. A city on a hill cannot be hidden. Neither do people light a lamp and put it under a bowl. Instead they put it on its stand, and it gives light to everyone in the house. In the same way, let your light shine before men, that they may see your good deeds and praise your Father in heaven." (Matthew 5:14-16)

There’s one more thing that we HAVE to notice in this passage, and with this I’ll finish. Not only are we called to "shine like stars in the universe” but also to “hold out the word of life...." (2:15b-16a)

The Greek verb that Paul used means "to maintain a grasp on someone or something, to hold fast." It involves holding the Word fast so that we don't lose it. Sadly, many churches today don’t do that, they have left their moorings in Scripture and prefer to drift on the seas of liberalism.

But we are also “to hold the word out to the world”. Our proclamation of the Word is their only hope of eternal life. Think about that for a moment. Our proclamation of the Word is their only hope of eternal life.

That is why Paul said in Romans, "How, then, can they call on the one they have not believed in? And how can they believe in the one of whom they have not heard? And how can they hear without someone preaching to them? And how can they preach unless they are sent? As it is written, 'How beautiful are the feet of those who bring good news!' ... Faith comes from hearing the message, and the message is heard through the word of Christ." (Romans 10:14-15, 17)

Sunday 7th May, 2023 - Martin Mowat

Readings – Philippians 3: 1 - 15 & Ephesians 1: 3 - 14

Last time we saw how his imprisonment in Rome enabled him to share the gospel message in ways and places that would not otherwise have been possible, and then we talked about the unity of the church and saw how dangerous our natural selfishness and vanity can be if they’re not checked.  Today we’re going to look at what it means to be ‘in Christ’.

In our first reading Paul set out his position on circumcision, which had been made obligatory for the Israelites under Moses, some 1500 years earlier, certainly for reasons of personal hygiene and public health when they were wandering about the desert.  But, Paul argues, times had changed and the circumstances for gentiles in the relative civilization of their day were completely different.  We’re not going to go into that, you’ll probably be very glad to hear, but his argument leads him into making this statement.

What is more, I consider everything a loss because of the surpassing worth of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord, for whose sake I have lost all things. I consider them garbage, that I may gain Christ and be found in him, not having a righteousness of my own that comes from the law, but that which is through faith in Christ—the righteousness that comes from God on the basis of faith. 

Paul had addressed this letter “to all God’s holy people in Christ Jesus at Philippi”.   What exactly did he mean?

One commentary that I read said that Paul was referring to the Judgment Day, when all would be revealed. On that day, Paul wanted it to be discovered that he was "in Christ," that he knew Christ, that he trusted Christ, that he lived for Christ and that he would die for Christ.   I agree, but personally I think that there’s even more to it than that.

In Revelation 3:20 Jesus said “Behold, I stand at the door and knock. If anyone hears my voice and opens the door, I will come in to him and eat with him, and he with me.  This one verse could be a sermon on its own.  “Look, he says, don’t ignore me.  I, God incarnate, have taken the time and the trouble to come to your door, to you personally, totally undeserving though you are, and to knock.”  He comes, giving us the option to open or not, and if we do he will come in, not just into our home, not just into our lives, but into our hearts, into our very centres.


And then what does he do?  He eats with us. 


I don’t know about your house, your family, your spouse, but in my home some of the best and most meaningful conversations happen at meal times, around the table, while we’re eating. The commander of heaven’s armies is offering to have some of those sorts of conversations with you, with me.


But that’s not all, there’s more, he says I will … eat with him, and he with me.

Here is something which I don’t know whether I had fully noticed before in this particular verse.  I will … eat with him, and he with me.  It works BOTH WAYS. Not only do we get Jesus sharing with us, we share with him.  It’s reciprocal.  That might sound obvious, basic even, but if you think about it, it’s huge.

So in the light of that let’s go back to what Paul said to his friends in Philippi.

… that I may gain Christ and be found in him, .. having a righteousness … which is through faith in Christ—the righteousness that comes from God.

Brothers and sisters, he continued, I do not consider myself yet to have taken hold of it. But one thing I do (if I do nothing else in my life): one thing I do, forgetting what is behind and straining toward what is ahead, I press on toward the goal … for which God has called me heavenward in Christ Jesus.

That was Paul’s personal priority, dare I suggest it be ours too? Forgetting, straining forward, pressing on.

If being “in Christ” is a theme of Paul’s letter to the Philippians, it was also a big theme in his letter to the Ephesians, which is why we read that this morning too. Just in that short passage the expressions “in Christ” and “in him” occur no less than 8 times.  What did that tell us?

1. That “in Christ” God … has blessed us in the heavenly realms with every spiritual blessing.

2. That he chose us … before the creation of the world to be holy and blameless in his sight.

3. That “in love he predestined us for adoption to sonship … in accordance with his pleasure and will.

4. That “in him” we have redemption and the forgiveness of sins through Jesus’ blood in accordance with the riches of God’s grace that he lavished on us.

5. That with all wisdom and understanding, God made known to us the … mystery of his will according to his good pleasure, which he purposed … to be put into effect when the times reach their fulfillment—to bring unity to all things in heaven and on earth under Christ.

6. That when we put our hope in Christ, it is for the praise of his glory.

7. That when we heard and believed the gospel of our salvation, we were included in Christ and marked with a seal, the promised Holy Spirit, who is a deposit guaranteeing our inheritance until the redemption of those who are God’s possession.

8. And all this to the praise of his glorious grace, which he has freely given us in the One he loves. 

What more could we possibly want?

So let’s get practical.  How do we know whether or not we are in Christ ?

By looking to see whether he is in us.  For this I want to quote from an article I found by the famous preacher, John Stott, an English Anglican cleric and theologian who was noted as a leader of the worldwide evangelical movement and ranked by Time magazine among the 100 most influential people in the world at the time he lived.


He said that when we are in Christ, when he is the source of our lives, it shows in everything we do. Using Biblical expressions, he said that “The peace of Christ rules in their hearts,” “the power of Christ is made perfect in their weakness,” and “the life of Christ is made manifest in their mortal flesh.”


He pointed out that the expressions “in Christ,” “in the Lord,” and “in him” occur 164 times in the letters of Paul alone, and are indispensable to an understanding of the New Testament. To be “in Christ” does not mean to be inside Christ, as tools are in a box or our clothes in a closet, but to be organically united to Christ, as a limb is in the body or a branch is in the tree. It is this personal relationship with Christ that is the distinctive mark of his authentic followers.


To be “in Christ”, he said, is to find personal fulfillment, to enjoy brotherly unity, and to experience a radical transformation. Only then can we become the world’s salt and light, sharing the good news with others, making an impact on society, and above everything else seeking to bring honor and glory to his wonderful Name.

To summarise John Stott, we are “in Christ”, only when he is “in us”, and that shows, we can’t help it showing, that’s its nature. If it doesn’t show, it’s not there.

That’s the “what”. Now let’s have a look at the “how”, and to do that we can simply go back to our text in Philippians.

You see, we can be tempted to think that because we’re Christians, because we go to church on a regular basis, because our salvation is assured, and indeed it is when Christ is our Lord and Saviour, that we’ve made it.  But listen to Paul, who said “I want to know Christ—yes, to know the power of his resurrection and participation in his sufferings, becoming like him in his death, and so, somehow, attaining to the resurrection from the dead.”  That’s what we all want, don’t we?


But then that great apostle, that great man of God, that mazing example of Christian living, goes on to sayNot that I have already obtained all this, or have already arrived at my goal, I’m not there, he says, not yet but I press on to take hold of that for which Christ Jesus took hold of me. Brothers and sisters, I do not consider myself yet to have taken hold of it. But one thing I do: forgetting what is behind and straining toward what is ahead, I press on toward the goal to win the prize for which God has called me heavenward in Christ Jesus.


Getting to be “in Christ” is NOT a one-time event, it’s a lifelong quest, an ongoing journey, a spiritual adventure.


I hope you won’t mind if I conclude by quoting a few words from Archbishop Justin Welby’s powerful sermon yesterday.  “The Holy Spirit” he said “draws us to love in action. This is promised by Jesus who put aside all privilege, because, as” the epistle to the Colossians “tells us, God will give all things for our sake, even His own life. 

His throne was a Cross. His crown was made of thorns. His regalia were the wounds that pierced his body. Each of us is called by God to serve. Whatever that looks like in our own lives, each of us can choose God’s way today.”

Let’s join Paul in pressing on to take hold of that for which Christ Jesus took hold of us, pressing on toward the goal to win the prize for which God has called us heavenward in Christ Jesus.  Amen. 

Sunday 23rd April 2023, Martin Mowat

Readings: Isaiah 35: 1 - 10 & Philippians 2:  1- 11

And this is my prayer, said Paul to the Philippians in our reading last week, that your love may abound more and more in knowledge and depth of insight, so that you may be able to discern what is best and that you may be pure and blameless for the day of Christ, filled with the fruit of righteousness that comes through Jesus Christ—to the glory and praise of God. 


Paul was writing from prison to a church he had founded some five years earlier, a church that was flourishing, that he loved deeply and that he cared for with all his heart.  He wanted nothing but the very best for them, so, as he faced the possibility of a death sentence, he wrote them a letter in which he tackles four important themes – joy, fellowship, unity, and what it means to be ‘in Christ’.

Today I want to do two things, to cover the second half of chapter one, that we started last week, and then to look at that wonderful passage that Sue just read to us from chapter 2. I believe that there are some important lessons for us today.

If only everything went smoothly In life. If only we didn't have problems. If only ... if only. We tell ourselves that if only this or that weren't in our way, we would have a better Christian life and be better witnesses. But interestingly Paul’s experience was that sometimes it’s in spite of, or even because of, our problems, that Christ can be glorified in our lives. 

As I said, Paul was in prison, awaiting his trial before Caesar himself, a right that he had claimed as a Roman citizen.

"Now I want you to know, brothers, he writes, that what has happened to me has really served to advance the gospel. As a result, it has become clear throughout the whole palace guard, and to everyone else, that I am in chains for Christ." (1:12-13)

These two verses show us something of Paul’s attitude. We see that he CHOSE to see the positive side of his situation. It is thought that his imprisonment was more like house arrest with a soldier bound to him, 24/7, by a light chain that went from his wrist to that of soldier, in shifts of perhaps 6 or 8 hours.

It seems too that he would have been allowed to entertain guests and carry on his preaching and teaching, at least to those who came to visit him.

These soldiers weren’t just any soldiers either, they were members of the "palace guard" that was also responsible for the security of the governor's official residence.

Can you imagine being alone with, and chained to, the Apostle Paul for a straight six-hour shift?

Many soldiers, no doubt, became Christians as a result, and their influence began to spread throughout their entire unit, to their families, and beyond. Even if some didn’t become Christians, they would have known that Paul's imprisonment was not because of some political misdemeanor, but because of his testimony for Christ.

You or I might be tempted to complain about being in such a difficult situation, but not Paul. He knew that it wasn't about him, but about Jesus and his kingdom. This positive attitude had an affect not only on the soldiers, but on the Roman Christians who saw in Paul the example of a person who was unafraid and faithful. If Paul could be an effective, courageous, bold and fearless, witness in spite of his perilous situation, so could they. 

Paul’s problems weren’t just linked to his imprisonment.  It seems that he also had a few enemies in Rome.  He talked about some who preach Christ out of envy and rivalry, …. out of selfish ambition, not sincerely, supposing that they can stir up trouble for me while I am in chains. But what does it matter? The important thing is that in every way, whether from false motives or true, Christ is preached. And because of this he said I rejoice." (1:15-18)

Paul was being criticized for his openness to uncircumcised Gentiles, his willingness to eat with them, to share the gospel with them, to baptize them, and to allow them leadership roles in the church. He was probably criticized too for his lack of speaking skills.

But Paul, ever positive, realised that as long as “Christ was preached” the motives were relatively unimportant, which is why he said I will continue to rejoice”. 

As I said last time, "rejoice," and "joy," are two of the important keywords in Philippians. Paul is not only happy that a church has been birthed and is growing well, despite opposition, but also that individual’s lives are being turned around and that the gospel message is spreading.

… for I know, he continues, that through your prayers and the help given by the Spirit of Jesus Christ, what has happened to me will turn out for my deliverance. I eagerly expect and hope that I will in no way be ashamed, but will have sufficient courage so that now, as always, Christ will be exalted in my body, whether by life or by death." (1:19-20)

Paul CHOSE to rejoice.  How? Because he was confident that he was "in Christ," (a theme that we’ll pick up later) and that as a result it was Christ who controlled his destiny, not the Romans, and not his critics. This meant that he was free to rejoice.  Whether he was sentenced to death, or whether he was released, really didn’t matter, because God was in control. For Paul it was win-win. For to me, he said, to live is Christ and to die is gain." (1:21)

Jesus said in John chapter 14 Do not let your hearts be troubled. Trust in God; trust also in me. In my Father's house are many rooms; if it were not so, I would have told you. I am going there to prepare a place for you. And if I go and prepare a place for you, I will come back and take you to be with me that you also may be where I am. (John 14:1-3).

So, says Paul, whatever happens, conduct yourselves in a manner worthy of the gospel of Christ. Why, because whether we like it or not people are watching us, we are like open books, read by all.  Christianity is not convenient these days.  People, either consciously or unconsciously, are constantly looking for excuses not to practice it, and this brings us right into chapter 2.

Therefore, one of Paul’s favourite words, Therefore, if you have any encouragement from being united with Christ, if any comfort from his love, if any common sharing in the Spirit, if any tenderness and compassion, then make my joy complete  ‘joy’ - there it is again, then make my joy complete by being like-minded, having the same love, being one in spirit and of one mind. Do nothing out of selfish ambition or vain conceit. Rather, in humility value others above yourselves, not looking to your own interests but each of you to the interests of the others.

It seems that the Philippian church had a problem with unity, and more profoundly with the selfless, Christ-like humility required to achieve that unity.

I have been around churches for nearly all of the last 70 years, Anglican churches, independent churches, Pentecostal churches, Evangelical churches, English speaking churches, French speaking churches, and for more than half of that time I have been involved in church leadership in one way or another.  I am not saying, for one moment, that I am any sort of expert, or that I have all the answers, but one thing I know, Satan’s favourite trick, and one that he’s a past master at, is sowing division in relationships, and in churches.

Just like the church in Philippi, our churches today also need unity and humility, and we need to understand that following Jesus means following him as a servant who humbles himself.

I beg you to listen to me”, Paul is saying, “have the same attitude of mind, the same love, the same spirit, and the same purpose.” I quote "Do nothing out of selfish ambition or vain conceit." (2:3a) and there they are, the two things that destroy unity, selfishness and vanity.

In the Greek world of Paul's day, humility was looked down upon, considered a sign of weakness. It is much the same in western cultures today. But Christians know that far from being weak, genuine humility takes the strength of the Holy Spirit since it goes against our human nature.

"Amazing Grace" begins "Amazing grace, how sweet the sound that saved a wretch like me." John Newton knew that even though he was a ship’s captain and a wealthy man, he was a ‘wretch’, and that it was only because of God’s amazing grace of that he had been set free.

In humility consider others better than yourselves. Each of you should look not only to your own interests, but also to the interests of others. Your attitude should be the same as that of Christ Jesus, who, being in very nature God, did not consider equality with God something to be grasped, but made himself nothing, taking the very nature of a servant...." (vv 3-5)

God said to Solomon just after he had dedicated the temple,  if my people, who are called by my name, will humble themselves and pray and seek my face and turn from their wicked ways, then I will hear from heaven, and I will forgive their sin and will heal their land. 


Jesus said "Therefore, whoever humbles himself like this child is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven." (Matthew 18:4) and concerning seeking to be called exalted titles by men he said: "For whoever exalts himself will be humbled, and whoever humbles himself will be exalted." (Matthew 23:12)


Peter said "Humble yourselves, therefore, under God's mighty hand, that he may lift you up in due time." (1 Peter 5:6)


It is no accident that genuine, self-imposed humility is the only way that love and unity can flourish in the Church, the Body of Christ. And Jesus himself leads the way.    

Sunday 16th April 2023 - Martin Mowat

Readings: Psalm 111.   Philippians  1: 1 - 11

For the next few weeks we’re going to be looking at Paul’s letter to the Christians in the Macedonian city of Philippi. It’s going to be a bit different to some of what we’ve been doing recently, but it’s a great epistle and there’s a lot that we can learn from it.

As you just heard, this letter starts off with the words “Paul and Timothy, servants of Christ Jesus, to all God’s holy people in Christ Jesus at Philippi.” Nearly all scholars accept that the great apostle Paul was indeed either the author, or one of the two authors, but there is some discussion as to whether it was written in Ephesus, Caesarea or indeed in Rome which is the traditional view. Fortunately, that doesn't affect the teaching of Philippians, which is very rich indeed. 

Was Timothy a co-author, or was he just with Paul at the time? I suspect the latter but again, that doesn’t really affect the content.


One thing we do know is that Paul was in prison on a serious charge, awaiting a trial that could result in the death penalty if convicted.  What people say when they think that their days are numbered is always pertinent, but particularly so in this case, because as we’re about to see, Paul had a very soft spot for this particular church.


Let’s just take a brief look at the geography, history and religious culture of the city to put it all in context.

Geographically we’re in Greece, ancient Philippi was situated to the north of the Aegean Sea, some 16 kms from the coast. Its history goes back to 361 BC, when Greek settlers took over the obscure village of Krenides, meaning "springs". Five years later Philip II of Macedonia, the Father of Alexander the Great, annexed the whole region and formally established Philippi as a city bearing his own name, and he fortified it with an extensive city wall, part of which still survives, to guard gold from the nearby mines.

Some 200 years later the Romans conquered the region and Philippi became a Roman colony, governed by Roman law. Its citizens were Roman citizens and wore Roman dress, its constitution was modeled after Rome's, its architecture copied Roman styles, its coins bore Roman inscriptions, and Latin was widely used. 

In spite of this strong Roman influence, the city's religious life was quite diverse. It included, of course, emperor worship, but also that of both Greek, Roman, Egyptian and Phrygian gods.

According to Luke in the book of Acts, there was also a small Jewish community there, but it consisted only of several women who met for Sabbath prayer outside the city.

It wasn’t until Paul and Silas’ second missionary journey that the Gospel came to Philippi, sometime around 49 to 52 AD, which we see in the first few verses of Acts 16.  I quote:
Paul came to Derbe and then to Lystra, where a disciple named Timothy lived, whose mother was Jewish and a believer, but whose father was a Greek. 2 The believers at Lystra and Iconium spoke well of him. 3 Paul wanted to take him along on the journey, so he circumcised him because of the Jews who lived in that area, for they all knew that his father was a Greek. 4 As they traveled from town to town, they delivered the decisions reached by the apostles and elders in Jerusalem for the people to obey. 5 So the churches were strengthened in the faith and grew daily in numbers.


So you’ll doubtless have noticed Timothy’s name and that he joined the missionary team as it passed through Turkey. Luke then goes on to say that as they travelled Paul and Silas were "kept by the Holy Spirit from preaching the word in the province of Asia" (v6), so they tried to go into Bithynia, "but the Spirit of Jesus would not allow them" (v7). Then, while in Troas, Paul had a vision of a Macedonian begging him, "Come over to Macedonia and help us" (v9). Paul took this as God's call and went there straight away. 

In Philippi, Paul, Silas, and Timothy met that group of Jewish women praying on the Sabbath. Paul must have preached the gospel message to them and they evidently liked what they heard. A woman called Lydia, who seems to have been their leader, and her household were baptized, and that’s how the  tiny church was born and began to grow.

One day they were met by a slave girl who prophesied from an evil spirit. This caused Paul to turn to her and say to the spirit, "In the name of Jesus Christ I command you to come out of her." With their slave girl no longer able to prophecy, her owners had Paul and Silas flogged and thrown in prison on a trumped up charge of "throwing our city into an uproar by advocating customs unlawful for us Romans to accept or practice" (vv20-21). At midnight an earthquake opened the prison doors with the result that the jailer was converted and baptized, along with his household, all in the middle of the night.

The following morning Paul and Silas were thrown out of town, but too late, the Christian church had already been established. 

As the years went on, Paul kept in touch with the Macedonian churches through Timothy and visited them twice more over the next few years.  But that wasn’t all because we see in 2 Corinthians 8 that the church at Philippi provided Paul with generous financial and material support several times during his subsequent missionary trips.

This all helps us understand why Paul and Timothy were so fond of their church in Philippi, and why this letter is couched in such warm and loving terms.

It wasn’t all plain sailing, however, for this budding church.  As we’ll see, there were rival Christian preachers, there were non-Christians who actively opposed the Gospel message, there were people in the church feuding with each other, and there was a group that Paul referred to as "those dogs, those men who do evil, those mutilators of the flesh" (3:2). This latter group were probably Jewish Christian missionaries who wanted Gentile Christians to also become Jews, particularly by having them circumcised.

All that said, therefore, we can understand that Paul's immediate concerns in writing this letter were:

1.                   To encourage the Philippian believers to quiet their dissention and be more united.

2.                   To prevent those Jewish Christian missionaries from persuading the Philippian Christians to submit to circumcision.

3.                   As well as to let them know about the current state of Paul's welfare.

4.                   And also, as we’ll see, to recommend to the Philippians one of their number, a man called Epaphroditus, who had come to help him in prison, but had been extremely ill and was now being sent home. 

At the same time, though, the letter provides the Philippians with the inspiration and encouragement of a friend, a mentor, and a fellow believer, from someone who finds Christ's strength and peace while struggling not just with physical needs, but also with opposition, anxiety, and fear for his life. To see how this man, an apostle, meets obstacles and overcomes them in Christ, makes this letter very relevant for our day, too.

Paul develops four major themes in Philippians – joy, fellowship, unity, and what it means to be in Christ, and these are the things that we’re going to be looking at over the next few weeks.

So that brings me back to the what xxx read to us earlier. Paul and Timothy, servants of Christ Jesus, to all God’s holy people in Christ Jesus at Philippi, together with the overseers and deacons (notice that the church must have got a lot bigger to have such a leadership structure): Grace and peace to you from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ.

3 I thank my God every time I remember you, Paul says. 4 In all my prayers for all of you, I always pray with joy 5 because of your partnership in the gospel from the first day until now, 6 being confident of this, that he who began a good work in you will carry it on to completion until the day of Christ Jesus.  I love that phrase, don’t you? … “being confident of this, that he who began a good work in you will carry it on to completion until the day of Christ Jesus.”

And then he goes on 7 It is right for me to feel this way about all of you, since I have you in my heart and, whether I am in chains or defending and confirming the gospel, all of you share in God’s grace with me.8 God can testify how I long for all of you with the affection of Christ Jesus.

9 And this is my prayer: that your love may abound more and more in knowledge and depth of insight, 10 so that you may be able to discern what is best and may be pure and blameless for the day of Christ, 11 filled with the fruit of righteousness that comes through Jesus Christ—to the glory and praise of God.

Do you sense Paul’s feelings?  He uses the word joy or rejoice no less that 15 times in this letter alone, either referring to his own heart, or encouraging his readers to do the same. 

Not only is joy the key to this epistle, but it’s absolutely key to the Christian faith in generalSometimes Christians act as if Christianity were a sorrowful religion. It is not. It is a religion of joy and love.

Sunday 9th April, Easter Day 2023 - Martin Mowat


Readings: Matthew 28: 1 - 10, Matthew 28: 11 - 20


Although they differ in some of the detail, all four gospel writers recount in some detail what happened that particular Sunday, and well they might because NOTHING quite like it had ever happened before, or would again.  Yes, they had seen miraculous healings, they had seen Jesus bring several people back from the dead, his great friend Lazarus for example.


But this was something else.


Let’s just think about it because at dawn on the first day of the week, Mary Magdalene and the other Mary, described by Mark as the mother of James, and a woman called Salome went to the tomb.  Matthew says that they just went to look, to mourn I suppose, but Mark tells us that they went to anoint the body

When they got there, while they were standing there; there was a violent earthquake, and then they saw an angel … from heaven who went to the tomb, rolled back the stone and sat on it. That in itself was notable because it is clear from their conversation that the three women thought that they would not be able to do it, even between the three of them.

They knew he was an angel because his appearance was like lightning, and his clothes were white as snow.  The guards, apparently, were so afraid of him that they shook and became like dead men. Can you imagine it?

And the guards weren’t the only ones to be afraid, the women were too, so much so that the angel said to them, “Do not be afraid, for I know that you are looking for Jesus, who was crucified. He is not here; he has risen, just as he said. Come and see !

Note that Matthew is very specific about the chain of events. The angel did not cause an earthquake to make the stone move. The earthquake, the second in 3 days, happened, and then the angel moved the stone all by himself. 

And note too that he didn’t move the stone to let Jesus out.  Jesus was already out.

Come and see the place where he lay, he said to them. Then go quickly and tell his disciples: ‘He has risen from the dead’

‘Gob smacked’ is one word that might come to mind, dumbfounded, awestruck, ….

But did they fully appreciate, I wonder, that what they were the first two people on the planet to witness what would change the world forever? Nothing would ever be the same again. No, to be honest I’m sure they didn’t.  Even with hindsight, even with two thousand years of history, it is difficult for us to fully appreciate what happened that morning.

“He has risen from the dead” said the angel, “and is going ahead of you into Galilee. There you will see him.”

So the women hurried away from the tomb, afraid, bewildered, yet filled with joy, and ran to tell his disciples. Suddenly Jesus met them. This is the bit that gives you goosebumps “Greetings,” he said.

Strangely, those three blessed souls didn’t recognise him at first, hardly surprising in the shock of the moment, and Jesus being the very last person they expected to see.  But as soon as Jesus said Mary’s name, they did recognise him and came to him, clasped his feet and worshiped him.  Then Jesus said to them, “Do not be afraid. Go and tell my brothers to go to Galilee; there they will see me.”

Difficult to describe their emotions.  All their hopes had been dashed to pieces not two days ago.  The man that they loved, that meant so much to them, who had changed their lives in ways that no-one could imagine, had suffered so cruelly.

Betrayed by one of his closest and trusted friends, abandoned by all the others, subjected to a mockery of a trial, very severely beaten, had a crown of thorns pressed down onto his head, mocked by the soldiers and then tortured to death on a rough wooden cross.

Their lives were effectively over.  That was it.  They couldn’t get those images out of their minds, they couldn’t sleep, they were physically, psychologically and spiritually dead beat, exhausted, wiped out, and so at dawn, on the first day of the week, they had been to look at the tomb.  There was nothing else to do.  Nowhere else to go.

“Do not be afraid.” The angel had said, well that was a tall order in itself.  They were petrified, and then, all of a sudden, right there in front of them, there he was.  It was TRUE. The impossible, the unbelievable had indeed happened.  No wonder they “clasped his feet and worshiped him”.


It’s worth just taking a moment to think about how those three must have felt.   …..   How would you have felt if you found yourself standing in front of the risen Jesus?  …. And what would be your instinctive reaction? 


We’ll come back to them in a minute, because I just want to touch on Matthew’s account of what the guards did.


They had been placed by the tomb by the Roman governor at the suggestion of the religious leaders.  It had been a long night and they must have been feeling drowsy, but as the sun came up they were beginning to feel more refreshed.


But then the earthquake happened.  Now they were wide awake.  All their senses were functioning 110%.  So they were taking everything in, and that means that they too saw the angel go to the tomb and singlehandedly roll back the stone, and they too would have seen that the tomb was already empty, apart from the unoccupied grave clothes.


How could that be? The tomb had been permanently under guard. 


There was no doubt about it, they were going to be held responsible, and there was no escaping it.  So they didn’t go to their superiors, they went and told the chief priests “everything that had happened” who must have been devastated.  Just when they thought they’d solved their biggest headache, it was back, and with a vengeance. So they “met with the elders and devised a plan”, which was to bribe the soldiers to say that his disciples had come during the night and stolen him away while we were asleep.  Quite how they would have known that if they had been asleep isn’t quite clear, but nevertheless the story stuck.


But anyway, let’s go back to the two Mary’s.  They had gone and found the 11 remaining disciples who had all run away when Jesus was arrested, despite their promise not to during the Passover supper.

The Mary’s told them to go to Galilee, “to the mountain where Jesus had told them to go”. What would they have been expecting? Would they have been preparing in their minds what they were going to say to Jesus about their cowardice, and working out their excuses? When they saw him, Matthew tells us, some worshiped him, but some doubted. 


Jesus spent several weeks with them, appearing and disappearing, and eating with them to prove his humanity.  We actually know surprisingly little about those few weeks, but I imagine that he continued to teach and minister to his disciples in what must have been an intensely powerful experience, preparing them for his ascension into heaven, and for what they would face after it.


But then, just before he finally did ascend “he came to them and said, “All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me.  Therefore go and make disciples of all nations, baptising them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit,  and teaching them to obey everything I have commanded you. And surely I am with you always, to the very end of the age.


We call that “The great commission”, and it describes what he expects of his church today. So how do we, in reality “make disciples”?  I don’t believe that we are all called to evangelise, but we ARE all called to witness, which is not the same thing. Witnessing has to do with how we behave, and how we are perceived by those with whom we come into contact, and how we answer their questions.


In conclusion, in our lent course today, Jill Duffield,  talking about “Moving Stones”, said this “All of us encounter seemingly immovable stones. We face loss or illness, disappointment or depression, oppression or exploitation, grief or separation. Unimaginable circumstances become all too real and we feel the pain of slamming into a boulder that refuses to budge. If we remember Jesus' resurrection, and all he taught and lived, angels whisper, "Jesus is risen. Transformation happens. Death does not have the last word." 


Alleluia! Christ is risen! Today we celebrate the resurrection of our Lord. Morning bas broken on the dawn of redemption. Reconciliation has been won. Death bas been defeated. Surely 

nothing is impossible for God. The stone once blocking access to our Lord bas been removed, forever. No longer can anything separate us from the love of the triune God. Transformation 

not only is possible; through Christ's resurrection, transformation is inevitable.


Rejoice, give thanks and sing! Jesus Christ is risen today!   Alleluia!

Palm Sunday, 2nd April 2023 - David Matthews

Readings:    Psalm 31.9-24

                     Philippians 31.9-24


May these words and the meditation of our hearts be acceptable to you, O Lord.

We know the story: the first ‘Palm Sunday’ Jesus, his celebrity status confirmed by the raising of Lazarus from the dead just days before, rides into Jerusalem to popular acclaim. Loud hosannas reverberate throughout the city. Shouts proclaiming him the Son of David, the Messiah, add a political dimension to the event. This is the man of the Moment.

But let’s pause and try to imagine the scene. Some things do not quite add up. Even if we take into account the fact that horses, two thousand years ago, were not the magnificent beasts we imagine bearing Napoleon or Wellington as they head a victory parage, a donkey or a donkey’s colt (it’s not quite clear which Jesus chose) is definitely not the ideal mount for a popular figure launching his publicity campaign. An objective spectator would have seen something faintly ridiculous. The legs of a grown man, rising a donkey, would have dangled down practically reaching the ground. He would have been barely visible above the heads of the crowd lining the streets. It is unlikely that Jesus would have done anything to encourage those cheering his entry. Perhaps he kept his eyes down. Perhaps he stared straight ahead. What he would not have done is nod or smile; there’d have been no regal wave, none of that pointing, beloved by American presidents, seeking to convey a personal connection with individuals in an exultant crowd. For all the cheering, for all the exuberance. Jesus – the focus of it all – would have been curiously, peculiarly unresponsive. ‘What’s going on here?’ our objective spectator might ask. ‘This guy’s not playing his part. Seems like he doesn’t want to be here. This publicity malarkey doesn’t appear to be his sort of thing at all.’

Jesus’s ride into Jerusalem was his last major, public appearance. If he cleansed the Temple of moneylenders, later that day (the chronology is not absolutely clear) that would not have attracted the same degree of notice as this parade. The next time he had the attention of the whole of Jerusalem was when the citizens were baying for his blood, switching their support to Barabbas, less than a week later. The contrast could not have been greater.

So it’s worth considering the significance of this massive disjunct between the events we now commemorate on Palm Sunday and Good Friday.

The conventional explanation of Palm Sunday is that this was an example of the Jews’ total misunderstanding of what sort of person the messiah, long awaited, long foretold, was. They were expecting a political figure, a liberator, someone to free them from Roman rule, who might overturn the puppet-monarchy and restore the land to God’s chosen people. We can see how potent this idea was from the fact that, within a generation, there had been a major uprising against the authority of Rome, culminating in the last stand of the Jewish people at Masada. It failed, of course, and the Jews were deprived of their homeland for nearly 2000 years. So we can understand how hungry the Children of Israel were for this type of messiah, for a political liberator. To be free, to be led to freedom, was so embedded in their cultural and religious DNA that they snatched at the possibility that this charismatic miracle-worker form Nazareth was The Man.

They cast Jesus in a role of their own creating.

Of course ‘freedom’ is not just a political or social concept. It has a spiritual dimension too. The tangle of the political with the spiritual is a particular issue for the Jews, whose identity as a nation is inextricably tied up with their identity as a chosen people, spiritually marked out as distinct from all other races. It would, in fact, be odd if they did not conflate spiritual salvation with political emancipation.

So what is the spiritual significance of Palm Sunday? I think, if we ask this question, the answer will have a relevance to all Christians, including us in the 21st century.

Which brings me to Psalm 31. Which we heard earlier. This is a classic appeal to the Lord, uttered in desperation. But the focus is absolutely not on God but the psalmist. He laments his situation:

“be gracious to me”, “I am in distress”, “my life is spent with sorrow and my years with sighing”, “my strength fails”, “my bones waste away”, “I am the scorn of all my adversaries…they plot to take my life”, “I have become like a broken vessel”.

The psalmist is obsessed by his own personal predicament; he cannot see beyond the circumstances that hem him in.

Eventually, perhaps having exhausted himself with the litany of all his woes, the focus does shift. He recognises that help can only come from God. “But I trust in you, O Lord,” he says, “My times are in your hands.”

But then, he starts to give God instructions:

“Do not let me be put to shame…let the wicked be put to shame”. “Let them go dumbfounded to Sheol.” “Let the lying lips be stilled that speak insolently against the righteous.”

The psalm does indeed end with a sense of salvation but even this is presented as praise to the Lord for doing what was requested:

“You heard my supplications when I cried out to you for help. The Lord preserves the faithful but abundantly repays the one who acts haughtily.”

Psalm 31 is not unusual. It is an example of a mindset that we see repeated time and again, throughout the Old Testament, as the Children of Israel try to make sense of their relationship with God ‘Spare me’, ‘save me’, ‘free mee’, ‘protect me’, even ‘avenge me’. These are the sort of phrases that reoccur. These prayers are all ego-focussed. The relationship with God hinges around God stepping in and doing what his mortal creatures demand. Salvation is limited to the immediate, pressing present.

This could be termed ‘Palm Sunday behaviour’, where the hosannas and the jubilation are offered up because God has obliged us. We knew what was necessary and God has done what was needful.

We knew what was necessary…or did we?

If Psalm 31 is an illustration of ‘Palm Sunday behaviour’, the passage from Philippians could be ‘Good Friday behaviour.

‘Let the same mind be in you that was in Christ Jesus,’ we are told. Not the other way around! It is for us to conform to Jesus. Not the other way around. It is for us to shape ourselves to a Jesus who ‘emptied himself’, ‘took on the form of a slave’, ‘humbled himself’, and ‘became obedient’.

The language here is all about surrender. It is about sloughing off one’s personal ambitions and shedding all that constrains us. It is about losing oneself within the wide embrace of Jesus.

The imagery of triumph is wholly absent.

The spiritual  journey from Palm Sunday to Good Friday and beyond is therefore symbolized by the physical journey that Jesus made in the last week of his mortal life. This surely is the spiritual journey we should all aspire to make.

Of course, God wants us to confide in him. He wants us to admit to what frightens us, to confess to what distracts us, to lay before him our concerns and dreams and aspirations – after all, we are only mortals, living in a time and place not of our own choosing, affected by so much beyond our control. Unburdening ourselves to God is natural because we know him to be a loving God and Jesus has revealed him to be an intimate God.

I am not denouncing the Psalmist for his wholly human cry for help; heaven knows there are millions of people who have to endure similar attacks and abuses. But I am suggesting we strive to move beyond Palm Sunday, casting God as the agent who will lift us out of our own personal predicament. I am suggesting that, to reach Good Friday, every time we pray we should end our prayer with Jesus’s words in Gethsemane, “nevertheless, not my will but thine be done”.

Surely, only in this way, can we make real headway on our spiritual journey from a Palm Sunday mindset – casting God in the role we have assigned for him – to a Good Friday attitude – when we place ourselves in complete submission. From there, we can hope to journey further to that ultimate Easter Sunday, when every tongue confesses “that Jesus Christ is Lord to the glory of God the Father”. Amen

Sundy 26th March 2023 - Martin Mowat

Lent 4 – The last supper. Exodus 12:1-13 & Matthew 26:17-35

Our second reading started with the statementOn the first day of the Festival of Unleavened Bread, the disciples came to Jesus and asked, “Where do you want us to make preparations for you to eat the Passover?”

During our study of Moses we talked about the Israelites being enslaved by the Egyptians, about the plagues, about them crossing the Red Sea, wandering about the wilderness, and finally entering their Promised Land under Joshua’s leadership.

Without doubt, one of the most significant moments in that entire chain of events, if not THE most significant one was at the time of the tenth plague when God, in the person of the “Angel of Death” killed all the firstborn Egyptians, and spared the Hebrew ones.  It was so significant, in fact, that the Jews remember it to this day with a feast called “Passover” because God "passed over the houses of the Israelites in Egypt", as Moses said in Exodus 12.

You know, of course, that the Israelites had to kill a lamb, cook it and eat it completely and quickly, together with “unleavened bread”, that would have looked a little like this pitta bread. That’s of course why, today, Passover is celebrated by eating lamb and unleavened bread.

The “Paschal Lamb”, as it’s called, represents innocence and obedience. For Christians it’s a symbol of Jesus bringing light into a world of darkness, and a reminder that he died, innocent, on the cross to save mankind from sin and an eternity in hell.

Why was the bread unleavened, in other words without yeast? You might well ask.  Some scholars suggest that sacrifices offered to God should involve the offering of objects in "their least altered state", so that they would be nearest to the way in which they were initially made by God. Other scholars think that it’s because leaven or yeast symbolizes corruption and spoiling.

So this is what Jesus and his disciples were doing that Maundy Thursday evening, they were celebrating the Feast of Unleavened Bread.  According to Luke, despite the fact that it would be his last few hours of freedom, Jesus had “eagerly desired” to do this with his friends.

The supper party seems to have been organised quite secretly in advance and they had borrowed, or hired, a private room. It was a quiet, relaxed moment to “recline at the table”, a personal time devoid of the constant flow of hangers on and those wanting Jesus to do something for them.  Moments like that, when you’re in ministry, are special, they recharge the batteries, it was just what Jesus needed, but, unbeknown to them, it was just what the twelve needed too, a moment to remember, but more importantly a battery recharge ahead of the horrors that were about to turn their worlds upside-down.

Who cooked the lamb and the bread that day, we have no idea but John tells us that while the “meal was in progress” Jesus “got up from the table, took off his outer clothing, and wrapped a towel around his waist. 5 After that, he poured water into a basin and began to wash his disciples’ feet, drying them with the towel that was wrapped around him.

It was during these happy moments that Jesus delivered his bombshell. “Truly I tell you,” he said “one of you will betray me.

Matthew says that “they were very sad” but that must have been an understatement.  They began to say to him one after the other, Judas included, “Surely you don’t mean me, Lord?”

Jesus replied, “The one who has dipped his hand into the bowl with me will betray me.  Dipping your hand into the bowl with someone talks to me about love, trust, mutual confidence.  It’s just so shocking.  But we talked about Judas last week, so we’ll not get sidetracked talking about him again.

Going back to our passage in Matthew, then, “while they were eating, Jesus took bread, and when he had given thanks, he broke it and gave it to his disciples, saying, “Take and eat;.”

The breaking of the bread is HUGELY significant, and it’s a pity, I think, that we don’t do it in our Communion.  “This is my body” Jesus said, “it’s about to be broken FOR YOU, and I want you to associate with it, relate to it, be part of it, receive it, IN ITS BROKEN STATE. As often as not we take the bread cut into little cubes the size of sugar lumps, and not ‘unleavened’. Some churches have little white wafers, others use Matzos biscuits.

Then Jesus took a cup, and when he had given thanks, he gave it to them, saying, “Drink from it, all of you. 28 This is my blood of the covenant, which is poured out for many for the forgiveness of sins.

I tell you, I will not drink from this fruit of the vine from now on until that day when I drink it new with you in my Father’s kingdom.”  What does that mean, it means it’s a signpost. He’s telling them exactly where he’s going, and he’s telling them that they’re going there too.

But let’s just take a few moments to imagine, not only the mixed emotions that Jesus must have had, the fear and the dread of what he knew lay in store for him, and the love he had for his followers and for mankind, but also what was going on in the heads of those 12 men.

We are accustomed to reading about the Last Supper, and sharing communion, but for these guys, it was a first.  True, breaking bread was a customary way of saying grace, but now it had new meaning, new significance.  It would have been difficult for them to get their minds around it, but there had also been that amazing statement that there was a traitor in their midst.  Three years they had been together.  They knew each other almost as well as they knew themselves, or they thought they did, but clearly not. Which one of them was it?

I guess that there might have been an ominous silence, so, perhaps to break it they sung a hymn, or maybe it was a psalm.  I wonder which one they sang.

And then, they all went off to the Mount of Olives. My guess is that this is something that they were used to doing.  It’s a beautiful quiet place to be in the cool of the evening.  And maybe Judas anticipated this, or maybe Jesus had said “Let’s all go to the Mont of Olives”.  But again, we talked about that last week too.

The chief priests and the guards arrived and there was a curious incident with a sword.  I don’t think I’ve ever seen a picture of Jesus or of any of his disciples wearing or brandishing a sword, but it seems that between them they had taken two that evening.  Someone gets his ear cut off but Jesus heals it. And then he’s taken of for a trial that was far from what you’d call a fair trial, and also, apparently, because it was at night-time it was strictly illegal.

On Thursday morning’s Lectio 365, Hannah Heather pointed out that with her lovely Irish accent that “in Deuteronomy, the Jewish law on witnesses to a crime is that ‘One witness is not enough to convict anyone accused of any crime or offense they may have committed. A matter must be established by the testimony of two or three witnesses’ But in the trial of Jesus, the Council, desperate to put Jesus to death, calls forward several witnesses. However, their stories don’t line up so they are therefore legally considered “false witnesses”. In such a case, Deuteronomic law demands: ‘do to the false witness as that witness intended to do to the other party. Show no pity: life for life, eye for eye’ In other words they should have been taken for execution.”

She goes on to say “But we know that that didn’t happen. Instead, Jesus, the innocently accused, ultimately received the full punishment of death on a cross. We could say that Jesus silently accepts their punishment as His own.

Replacing vengeance with grace, punishment with forgiveness, Jesus changes humanity’s story forever.”

Sunday 19th March 2023 - Martin Mowat

Lent 3 – Judas Iscariot.

Readings Psalm 108. Mark 14: 1 - 2, 10 - 11, 17 - 26


During his three years of public ministry, Jesus accumulated a large group of followers. At the core of that community were twelve men that he was especially close to, men with whom he shared almost every area of his life, men he loved, men he nurtured and taught, men he trusted. One of those trusted men was Judas Iscariot.

- So who exactly was Judas Iscariot?

- Did he really betray Jesus?

- If he did, what on earth possessed him to do so?  Was he disappointed that Jesus wasn’t living up to his expectations or was he just a money grabber? Did he perhaps think he was helping Jesus achieve his goals, and who initiated the deal between him and the chief priests?

- Couldn’t Jesus have dissuaded him ahead of time?

- If the authorities wanted to arrest Jesus, couldn’t they have done so without Judas help?

- Did Judas really commit suicide, and if so why?

There are so many questions.  Some of them seem self-evident, but are they?  There are all sorts of hypotheses.  Let’s have a closer look.