The bible is full of contradictions, they say.
Ok: here's one. Moses and God spoke face to face but wasn't allowed to see God face, because if he did he would die.
Some people will no doubt see this as yet another reason to write the Bible off.
But for those of us who know God, it's the only sort of language we can use. We need words to describe a God who is present everywhere and revealing himself everywhere, yet who so often appears to be hidden. We need words to describe a God who is approachable yet scary. We need words to describe a God who sees our frailty, weakness and sin and tells us that this is the place we can be strong. We need words to describe a God who has great power, yet whose power is shown in his Son being crucified.
In the end, there are no words. They run out long before we can make sense of God.
I want to see God face to face. I believe I can. But then, maybe not too close ....
Just suppose, Moses hadn't gone over to the burning bush. What would have happened?
Silly question - we don't know. Nobody knows what might have been.
Yet I can't help thinking that God engineered things to persuade him to come over. God revealed himself indirectly and waited for Moses to make the next move.
I think this happens quite a lot. God makes the first move and waits for us to make the second one. I see a lot of that in the Bible.
So let's try and keep our eyes open. Maybe God will make a first move for us, that we really don't want to miss.
As the Lord's Prayer comes to a close, we ask to be protected. There is an 'evil one' and we need to be protected from him.
But what does this evil one want to do to us? He's mentioned one other time in the Sermon on the Mount:
"Let your 'Yes" be 'Yes' and your 'No', 'No'; anything beyond this comes from the evil one." (Matthew 5:37, italics mine)
It seems that the evil one likes it when we swear an oath. He likes it when we promise to do something. He likes it when we begin a sentence with, 'to be honest ...'
Maybe you think it's a bit trivial. Shouldn't I be writing about bombings? persecution? the big sins? Yes, that is the risk and it's a big one. But Jesus wants us to be his light for the world, and he wants us to stand against everything that undermines us.
We need to pray because we need God's protection or we fall. Peter would find that out later, when Jesus warned him to watch and pray or he would fall into temptation. The Sermon on the Mount tells us about many ways we can fall: anger, sexual desire, revenge, love of money, doing good things for bad reasons, worrying. We're all prone to these things so we need God's protection or we won't be the bright light that God call's us to be.
So let's pray.
“Do you know what forgiveness means? It’s a decision we make to release a person from the feelings of anger we have against them.” (Mr Rogers in the film "A beautiful Day in the Neighborhood.")
This isn't a film review, but I very much enjoyed this film, which explores forgiveness and what it looks like.
Jesus put forgiveness at the heart of prayer. The word Jesus used for 'forgiveness' is a word that means to leave, to leave alone, or to put some distance in between.
I was brought up in Scotland where we recited the line as 'forgive us our debts, as we forgive our debtors.' When I moved to England I was taken by surprise when people said 'forgive us our trespasses.' I mentioned this to my friends and they made some comments about the Scots and money.
But in Matthew's gospel it does say, "forgive us our debts." It's not just about the times people sin against us; it's about the times when we feel that we are owed something. To forgive someone, then, is to walk away from the idea that they owe us something, which we often do feel when we are sinned against.
So we pray that God will forgive our debts, and we forgive the debts of others. And we do it at our church together, every Sunday. It matters.
I've often heard that Christians aren't meant to worry. It doesn't always help. Sometimes I worry about the fact that I'm worrying and then worrying about .... I guess you get the idea.
The Lord's Prayer is there to help us deal with our worries. We have a Father in heaven who cares for us. We can seek first his kingdom and ask him to care about our daily needs. The Lord's Prayer is a discipline to help us to trust.
Specifically, Jesus tells us not to worry about food and drink. We need them, but there's more to life than food and drink. And don't worry about clothes. It's the you inside the clothes who really matters.
The Lord's Prayer is there to help us sort out our priorities. Father first. Kingdom second. Our needs third. All important, but in that order.
Do you see why Jesus told us to go away on our own and talk to our Father in heaven? It's to help us get the priorities in the right order. We need time away from the busyness to sort it out.
Here's a question and I don't want you to tell me the answer. If you were at Mills Hill a couple of Sundays ago, did you try my suggestion, that you take time alone, talk to the Lord and tell nobody? You can see, I hope, why answering that question would not be a good idea.
But if you did, keep going. And if not, it's not too late. Your Father in heaven will reward you. That's what Jesus said.
On a related note, Monday is Holocaust Memorial Day, a day to remember the Holocaust, under Nazi persecution, and the later genocides in Cambodia, Rwanda, Bosnia and Darfur. Monday is 75 years since the liberation of Auschwitz. The world is not as it should be, and we do not seem to be learning.
It's the job of the church to cry, 'Your Kingdom Come.' We are here to express our frustration at the way the world is. We are here to believe in something better. And here to listen to God as he, maybe quietly, tells us the work we have to do.
We are here to cry out that God's will should be done on the earth.
This is the essence of prayer when the church comes together. So let's gather together on Sunday, ready to pray together for God's world.
Just remember, though, that the reward is for those who take time alone, and seek God when nobody else is looking. We may act in public, but we are shaped in private.
If we are going to pray well, we need to know something about the one we are praying to.
So here's the first lesson in prayer: God loves to reward us.
Do you mind if I say it again? God loves to reward us.
I repeat myself, because the first lesson of prayer is that God loves to reward us.
"Anyone who comes to him must believe that he exists and that he rewards those who earnestly seek him." (Hebrews 11:6, NIV.)
Look a few verses around the Lord's Prayer and you will find the word 'reward' seven times.
Some people might object to this: isn't it better to serve God without looking for a reward? Well, I guess it depends on the kind of rewards that you are looking for.
Jesus starts his famous sermon by listing people that God will reward .... people who will be called God's children, people who will be filled, people who will see God.
So here's the second lesson in prayer: do it to please God. Don't try and impress others, for God won't reward you for that.
Try it now, or soon. Take a few moments to pray. Make it your sole aim to please God. Tell him you want his rewards.
As the season of Christmas comes to an end, one more thought about angels.
Angels get a lot of press in the Christmas story. They are the news announcers, telling people what God is doing and telling them the right way to respond. You are going to have a baby ... don't be afraid to marry her ... go to Bethlehem ... flee to Egypt etc etc.
And they don't stop their work when Jesus grows up. They help him at the hardest times. They are there at the resurrection. But they are not just there for the big events.
Jesus tells us not to look down on the little ones who believe in him. He means the people that others don't notice, the people we think are not important or significant. Don't despise them, says Jesus. Their angels in heaven always see the face of the Father in heaven.
Do you feel insignificant? There are angels looking after you who always see God's face. Do you look down on others? They have angels who always see God's face. When Jesus was reduced to nothing, the angels were there. He has now approached the Father with the holy angels.
I believe in angels. But it's not just about believing in them. It's about believing they are there for the ones that are written off. And for the ones who are under attack. I need to hear their message again.
The New Testament begins with a list of names, then quickly moves on to the story of a man who thought his fiancee had cheated on him. The man's response is exemplary.
He lived in a culture where engagement (betrothal) was legally binding and adultery, in theory, carried the death penalty. Yet here she was, pregnant, and there was no doubt that the baby was not his.
Joseph, we are told, was a righteous man. He still cared for Mary. He did not want to expose her to public disgrace. So he made plans to divorce her quietly. This meant that he would give her a certificate that would allow her to marry someone else. When adultery is a criminal offence you need to be very sure before you before you marry a divorced woman*. The certificate was all-important. Joseph would give her the certificate with the minimum of fuss.
And this matters. Matthew's gospel tells us that Jesus has a lot to say about righteousness. Here, right at the beginning, we get a glimpse of the righteous behaviour that Jesus is looking for. Maybe Jesus was influenced by his dad.
We can only guess how Joseph felt.
The story goes on to say that things were not as they seemed. It's a wonderful story. But let's not miss the wonderful character of Joseph, a man who embodied the teaching of Jesus, even before it was given.
* If that sentence sounds sexist, that's how the law was.
For most of us, though not all, Christmas is a busy time.
For some it's our jobs, for others family or social activities or, dare I say it, church.
On a bad day, Christian faith can add to the pressure. We feel we ought to be inviting people to carol services or delivering invitations. And we feel that our celebrations ought to be different, when we are caught up in the same rush as everyone else.
So this Sunday I want to focus on one phrase from the Christmas story. It's the bit that says Mary treasured up all these things and pondered them in her heart.
Mary didn't go rushing around. She didn't, as far as the story tells us, tell everyone in sight. I guess she had enough to do with a young baby. Or maybe she grasped that what had happened was so wonderful, that she couldn't help turning it over and over in her mind.
A virgin birth.
A king in a manger.
The power of the Holy Spirit.
And yet, nothing had changed. The Roman Empire still had the people under its thumb. The job of raising a child hadn't changed.
Only those who ponder will really get it. Treasuring and pondering may be the most important things to do this Christmas time. Take a deep breath and try it for a few minutes.