The Feeding of the Five Thousand

Today’s reading is Matthew 14:13-21Open Link in New Window

Here is today’s reflection by Ian.

Right at the beginning of this reading, we have again, a word often used to describe Jesus’ reaction to those around him. He had ‘compassion’ on them… compassion—love that is moved to action, to a response…

And it can’t have been easy for Jesus—in grief having heard about John’s death, and wanting to be alone. Yet despite this, Jesus ministers to the crowd around him.

So often, through his Holy Spirit, God ministers to those around us in unexpected ways and at unexpected times… in grief… when it’s not ‘convenient’—‘in and out of season.’

Even when we are overwhelmed, God can enable us to reach out to others.

I know there are times in my life when in spite of the difficulties of others, it is they who have ministered and given to me—and for you too.

So let’s look at three particular aspects of this passage.

Firstly, Jesus challenged his disciples.

Look at the disciple’s reaction. They wanted to send the people away. Jesus wanted to help them. In a way, the disciple’s reaction was a logical and reasonable response. But it wasn’t a compassionate response.

Sometimes, we can justify our response/lack of response, with logic and reason… But are we responding with compassion to those around us as we do?

I remember in my last parish, the very strong views by a materially very comfortable person, on the many reasons why it was always a waste of time to give to any emergency appeal—the money never got there—the help was misused, there is always corruption…

He denied himself the experience and act of being compassionate—and yes often faithful too with circumstances so unknown and far away.

Jesus ‘gave’ to the disciples, in order that they might give to others. Just as Jesus ‘stretched’ the loaves and fish, he challenges us to ‘stretch’ our faith.
Are you stretching your faith—and how can you stretch it this coming week?

Secondly, Jesus had confidence in God.

Just look at what the disciples actually said. ‘We have nothing here but… we have only…’

NB the half empty/half full… A relative of mine—things are always ‘a nightmare’… great holidays are first relayed to us via the dreadful journey home, life is lived with the worry of all the disasters that could happen—rather than lived in the grace of the LIFE that Jesus brings.

Jesus accepted what God had given him. He accepted what was available. And just look at the sequence of events here. Jesus actually asked the people to sit down (as if for a banquet), before the food was actually multiplied. He then ‘looked up to heaven’ rather than to the small amount in his hand, and trusted God for his grace and provision. That’s living life with the cup of faith more than full.

Through Jesus, God can meet our very deepest needs.

What are your deepest needs today?

Go on trusting him each and every day. And if you are wondering how this is so, let’s look at Jesus next action, because…

Thirdly, Jesus committed everything to God
(breaking the bread)

Jesus broke the bread (NB when did Jesus do this in particular? At the Last Supper) In this act which foreshadowed the Last Supper, we have a reminder of how Jesus own body, broken for us, is the way in which Jesus does meet our deepest need—our need for reconciliation with God, our need to be completely loved and cared for, our need to know meaning and purpose in our lives… fulfilled in knowing Jesus.

So today, look upwards to heaven. Take what God gives, and believe in his love for you… There is only one person who can meet our real and deep needs. Jesus Christ.

There will be a video version of the service.

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Nehemiah: Dedication of the Walls

Today’s reading is Nehemiah 12:27-43Open Link in New Window

Here is today’s reflection by Ian.

Available from 6am Sunday.

Hannah Moore, the great 18th Century anti-slavery and social justice campaigner, once said, ‘A slowness to applaud betrays a cold temper or an envious spirit.’

A dictionary definition of ‘praise’ is, ‘to express admiration or approval of the achievements or characteristics of a person or thing.’

As we end our short mini-series on the book of Nehemiah, today we are going to focus on some verses towards the end, in chapter 12, which are all about the response of Nehemiah and the people of Jerusalem, when the walls if the city were finally re-built—a response of praise and thanksgiving.

But before we do this, we shall have a quick canter through the central chapters of Nehemiah.

In our series, we focused on the first four chapters, because this is where much of the action happens, and where we learn so much from the initial challenges Nehemiah faced, and the responses he gave. As I said last week, I warmly commend the whole book to you. It isn’t long. Read it through, and digest more of what it reveals, to teach and encourage.

Last week we looked at chapter 4, the opposition Nehemiah and the people encountered as they rebuilt the walls of Jerusalem. We thought about their response of prayer, keeping going, and remembering God’s faithfulness.

In chapter 5, Nehemiah shows his godly leadership in more ways, through his vigorous response to issues of social justice and help of the poor. As governor of Jerusalem, he publicly stood up to the exploitation of the poor which was going on—excess taxes, overly high interest rates, the exploitation and enslaving of the poor and vulnerable. Nehemiah was unafraid to call this out publicly, a s well as ensuring those in leadership with him practised and modelled fairness and justice.

Chapter 6 finds Sanballat and Tobiah renewing their opposition. It never seemed to stop. But Nehemiah and the people, kept praying, kept going, and kept remembering God’s faithfulness. In spite of this persistent and increasingly desperate opposition, the wall was finally renewed, re-built and completed.

We then read of the list of exiles who returned to Jerusalem—all those who had been taken into exile and captivity in Babylon. Following this prayer led and faithful commitment—‘from the first light of dawn until the stars came out’ (Nehemiah 4:21Open Link in New Window), the people returned in their thousands to the holy city. The city of God was being re-filled, re-populated again. Praise God!

In chapter 8 we meet the scribe Ezra in a significant passage. The walls are re-built. The people of God re-gathered and re-stored to their city, homes and to the temple of God. They are then re-minded, and re-taught the Law of God. The Book of the Law of Moses is brought out before the people. (Nehemiah 8:5-6Open Link in New Window) ‘Ezra opened the book. All the people could see him…; and as he opened it, the people lifted their hands and responded, “Amen! Amen!” Then they bowed down and worshipped the Lord with their faces to the ground. begins to read aloud and all listened.’

Such is the holiness of the Word of God—treated with total reverence, wonder and worship. While away in exile, maybe some had drifted away from their relationship with God, maybe they had neglected time God’s life giving Word. Regathered as the people of God, together, they renewed their understating of and commitment to God’s purposes and God’s ways in his holy Word.

Having done so, and having been reminded of God’s grace, goodness, faithfulness and holiness, chapter 9 sees a corporate confession of their sins. Last week we read that Nehemiah encouraged the people to remember God’s faithfulness. When we do that, we are encouraged, inspired and renewed. We are also more aware of the times when our love for God and for each other has gone cold, and when we are in need of God’s forgiveness—when we are in need of a new start, and the slate wiped clean for us, because of the cross of Christ.

God’s people remembered all that had led to their exile in Babylon for those many years, and they said, ‘(Nehemiah 9:33Open Link in New Window) ‘In all that has happened to us, you have been just; you have acted faithfully, while we did wrong.’

As the apostle John said, ‘If we confess our sins he is faithful and just and will forgive us our sins and purify us from all unrighteousness.’ (1 John 1:9Open Link in New Window).

Chapter 10 sees the people re-commit to a binding agreement to the laws of God. In chapters 11 and 12 we read about the re-populating of the city with new residents and the return of the Priests and the Levites—those who looked after God’s temple and the experts in the law.

Continuity is a big theme running through the book of Nehemiah. In spite of the huge disruption to their lives—the destruction of Jerusalem and their exile far away from home, God’s ways, God’s purposes and God’s people endure—restored, re-built, renewed, revived.

Phew…

We now come to chapter 12. After all the challenges, opposition, fears, doubts, weariness, exhaustion etc… the walls are re-built, the gates restored. The people turned back to God’s Word and renewed their covenant with God. The city is now repopulated. It’s time to celebrate God’s goodness and give thanks. Eventually they overcame all odds and completed the rebuilding in 52 days. We can see the hand of God in all that has happened…

It’s time to celebrate God’s goodness and give thanks. Two things stand out here—SINGING and JOY. (Nehemiah 12:27-30Open Link in New Window).

The purpose of the gathering is clear—to give thanks to God. Nehemiah 12:27Open Link in New Window—They are “to celebrate joyfully the dedication with songs of thanksgiving and with the music of cymbals, harps and lyres.”

Before their services of praise and thanksgiving, they PREPARED themselves. For the Jews, this involved a ritual of purification. We may not have those rituals or purification, but I ask us all. How do we prepare for worship of the one true and living God?

Today, because of the work of Christ on the cross, we prepare ourselves not by doing some ritual but in confession and repentance. We examine our hearts and confess our sin. We admit our wrongs and repent, honestly and without pretence. We come before God with clean hands and pure hearts. Quiet time before our services in preparation, and giving ourselves time for preparation makes all the difference to how we approach praise and worship. Is there perhaps space in your life to come a bit early, for some quiet time in the chapel, or your seats in prayer?

The people of God came to worship God Almighty in the temple, and they prepared for this hugely important time.

They PREPARED for time with God, and they PRAISED God with THANKSGIVING.

There was no messing about here. Nehemiah organised choirs and processions around the walls—those same walls they had been mocked for trying to build, and intimidated as they did so. The people are happily singing and making music to God for what they see. And what are they seeing? The fully restored city of Jerusalem. The act of God!

If we have a hard time worshipping God, it is sometimes because we are not seeing—we are not seeing the character of God and we are not seeing the acts of God in our lives.

If we are oblivious to WHO He is and WHAT He has done or is doing, then we have nothing to sing about. But when we see the risen Jesus, we understand the cross of Christ, we know the overwhelming, never-ending love of God for us—the victory of Christ for all eternity over sin and death. ‘It is done’ / ‘It is finished’—our hearts are full to bursting with love and thanksgiving for the goodness of God.

This is why the key themes of our mission at St Matthews are Discipleship, Outreach and Community. We go deeper in our personal relationship with God, and we go out to proclaim the Gospel to the world, so more people will know who God is and what he has done—and also live lives filled with praise and thanksgiving. There are many ways of doing this, and one important one for us is of course the Alpha Course. Please continue to pray and listen to the prompting of the Holy Spirit about who to invite and bring along.

In Jerusalem, no one is a spectator. No one is watching. Everyone is engaged in praising God, and they are doing it with great joy! Nehemiah 12.27Open Link in New Window: read… And this JOY, Nehemiah says, comes from God. God had given them great joy.

Joy goes beyond just happy occasions. It is a gift from God, not dependent on external circumstances. Habakkuk 3:17-19Open Link in New Window“Though the fig tree does not bud and there are no grapes on the vines, though the olive crop fails and the fields produce no food, though there are no sheep in the pen and no cattle in the stalls, yet I will rejoice in the Lord, I will be joyful in God my Saviour. The Sovereign Lord is my strength; He makes my feet like the feet of a deer, He enables me to tread on the heights.”

It’s not our circumstances; it’s Him. God is present in our lives. The Sovereign Lord is our strength. And we can be GLAD because of that.

Prepare for Praise and Thanksgiving. After their journey from exile, through challenges of restoration and renewal, they were a revived and re-invigorated community—all because of the grace and love of God. Nehemiah said, The joy of the Lord is your strength.” (Nehemiah 8:10Open Link in New Window).

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Nehemiah: Opposition to Rebuilding

Today’s reading is Nehemiah 4:1-23Open Link in New Window

Here is today’s reflection by Ian.

Thousands of years ago, God took an obscure man by the name of Nehemiah and began to use him to rebuild the walls of his city, the city of Jerusalem. For the past three of weeks, we’ve been looking at lessons from the Nehemiah. In addition to today, we have two more looks at this book—this morning chapter 4, and then a gathering together of what happened in the end. Nehemiah gives us encouragement and hope as we seek to renew and rebuild our lives following challenging times.

We have three choices in life—to leave things the way they are (the status quo), to live our way, or to live God’s way. God has a unique calling for each of our lives and for also for this church. He’s created you and me for a purpose, and there’s nothing more exciting than discovering and living out God’s purpose in our lives.

Nehemiah shared the vision of re-building and God prepared the people to respond. Nehemiah 2:18Open Link in New Window says, “They replied, ‘Let us start rebuilding.’ So they began this good work.” After months of preparation, things were finally starting to happen.

Today we’re going to look at one of the major obstacles to living a life of faith in God’s purposes. When we do so, we will face opposition, doubt and difficulty.

In fact, the first sentence of Nehemiah 4:1Open Link in New Window says: “When Sanballat heard that we were re-building the wall, he became angry and was greatly incensed”. God’s purposes attracts criticism. How do we handle criticism, opposition, disappointment? How can we live out God’s purposes, even when we’re up against it?

This is one of the biggest things I wrestled with before responding to God’s call back into parish ministry at St Matthews. I knew from experience—my own and others in Christian ministry and leadership, that living out God’s call for my life will lead to criticism, to disappointment, and sometimes to conflict. The same applies to you in different parts of your lives too.

It’s a fact of life isn’t it—and the baying public judgementalism of social media is a sad modern reflection. We will be criticized if you begin to live for God. We need to anticipate and prepare for it.

I don’t mean to suggest that all criticism is wrong. But I am suggesting we have to learn how to handle criticism with grace if you’re going to life a life of faith in God’s purposes. I struggle with this as much as anyone. But Nehemiah is a book to encourage. He faced it in bucket loads. Anybody who is trying to do something for God will face opposition. It will happen. The good news is that you can win over this. We can live out God’s call and purposes even when things feel against us. We can live a life of calling even if we’re sensitive to other people’s opinions.

If there was anybody who shouldn’t have received criticism, it was Nehemiah. God commissioned him. He was rebuilding a wall that would make Jerusalem a safe place for its people. This would mean people could worship God in the Temple again without fear. You would think everybody in Jerusalem would be happy about this. But you’d also be wrong.

Nehemiah encountered three types of opposition The first is the subtlest, and this was APATHY. Helen referred to this last week, as were rightly challenged to think, ‘How much do we really care about God’s purposes for his Church? Nehemiah 3:5Open Link in New Window says, “The next section was repaired by the people of Tekoa, but their nobles would not put their shoulders to the work under their supervisors.” The people had started to rebuild the wall. Everybody pitched in, with one exception. There was a small town, about 5 miles away from Bethlehem. The leaders of that town refused to work. Is everyone really pitching in together? When we begin to share God’s purposes, we will find that some will respond with apathy.

The second was ANGER. Nehemiah 4:1Open Link in New Window says, “When Sanballat heard that we were re-building the wall, he became angry and was greatly incensed…”

Has anybody here ever been the brunt of somebody’s angry attack? It’s very likely that if you begin to live a life of faith in God’s purposes, somebody will get angry with you. Expect it. Don’t be surprised when people get angry. There may be all sorts of reasons why. But it will and does happen.

The third was RIDICULE. Nehemiah 4:1-3Open Link in New Window says: “He ridiculed the Jews and in the presence of his associates and the army of Samaria, he said, ‘What are those feeble Jews doing? Will they restore their wall? Will they offer sacrifices? Will they finish in a day? Can they bring the stones back to life from those heaps of rubble—burned as they are?’ Tobiah the Ammonite, who was at his side, said, ‘What they are building—if even a fox climbed up on it, he would break down their walls of stone!’”

This was full on. They questioned the character of the builders, their ability, their commitment. They called everyone incompetent. Things can become personal as your character is questioned and the petty insults fly.

But none of it worked. Nehemiah 4:6Open Link in New Window says, “So we re-built the wall till all of it reached half its height, for the people worked with all their heart.” The people worked with all their hearts, souls, mind and strength for the purposes of God, despite the huge difficulties they faced.

But things still didn’t stop. When they saw they couldn’t win with words, they went to the next level. Nehemiah 4:8-11Open Link in New Window says, “They all plotted together to come and fight against Jerusalem and stir up trouble against it…” “Before they know it or see us, we will be right there among them and will kill them and put an end to the work.”

Being faithful to God’s purposes requires courage. There will be struggle, challenge and disappointment. Nehemiah had it all.

And all of this also began to feed doubts in the people, undermining confidence in God’s purposes. Nehemiah 4:12Open Link in New Window says, “Then the Jews who lived near them came and told us ten times over, Wherever you turn, they will attack us.” They’re coming at us from all sides! Rebuilding was a much harder project that they first thought. They were tired. They met difficulty after difficulty. The excitement of the original call had been worn down by events, and they were distracted and downhearted. Sound familiar? After 15 months of a global pandemic, everything feels harder now—everything.

So, what do we do? Nehemiah took three steps that we can also take when facing seemingly impossible odds.

  1. PRAY

    Nehemiah 4:4-5Open Link in New Window: “Hear us, O our God, for we are despised. Turn their insults back on their own heads. Give them over as plunder in a land of captivity. Do not cover up their guilt or blot out their sins from your sight, for they have thrown insults in the face of the builders.”

    Often our inclination and immediate response is to try and take everything on ourselves first, and then pray later—if we think about it. Nehemiah’s first response to difficulty and challenge was prayer. Prayer is our first response—God is our first line of defence.

    His prayer is gritty and honest. Be honest with God about how you feel. He can take it. God is interested. He wants to know.

  2. The second step that Nehemiah took: KEEP GOING

    Right after Nehemiah’s prayer, we read, “So we rebuilt the wall till all of it reached half its height, for the people worked with all their heart” (Nehemiah 4:6Open Link in New Window). One of the dangers of struggle, challenge and opposition is that is that it can exhaust and then immobilise us. Despair can take over and we feel like giving up. Keep going. Once you’ve prayed, in the power of the Holy Spirit and with a renewed God perspective, keep going.

    If Nehemiah had given up in the face of challenge and difficulty, the wall wouldn’t have been completed. In fact, Nehemiah’s team worked even harder. After they were criticized. Nehemiah 4:21Open Link in New Window tells us that they worked “from the first light of dawn till the stars came out”. They adapted and responded to what they faced. One thing I do know that God has been saying to me amidst the confusion of these times is—Keep Going! (Be bold, be strong, for the Lord your God is with you!!!)

  3. One last step that Nehemiah took when criticized: REMEMBER

    Nehemiah kept praying and kept going. He also remembered who it was who brought him to Jerusalem in the first place. He remembered God’s intervention with King Artaxerxes and God’s call on his life. He remembered what could and should be in Jerusalem. This all gave him hope and courage to run the race.

    When we remember God’s faithfulness in our lives, it changes everything… (Richard and Gaby’s journeys to ordination…)

    Nehemiah could have remembered all the bad things—exile, broken walls, enemies and difficulties all around. But he chose to remember God’s faithfulness and goodness. Nehemiah 4:14Open Link in New Window “After I looked things over, I stood up and said to the nobles, the officials and the rest of the people, ‘Don’t be afraid of them. Remember the LORD, who is great and awesome, and fight for your friends, your families, and your homes!’” Nehemiah said, “Remember the LORD.” It’s much better to remember God’s goodness.

We are all tempted to think about past failures and dwell on all the challenges, difficulties and obstacles. And this 15 months of global pandemic has thrown up everything, hasn’t it. Vicars are not immune to this, and I need to hear God speaking through the words of Nehemiah as much as anyone.

But the walls will be re-built—not just physically, but spiritually and emotionally too—by us following the example of Nehemiah—to pray first—God is our first line of defence; to keep going—be renewed by seeing things from God’s perspective, and to remember God’s faithfulness, which will fill our hearts and minds with hope and praise.

As we look to the future—with the challenges of our stewardship responses, reconnecting with our scattered church family and the uncertainties of knowing how life will unfold over the next year, will you join with me in these, and be re-filled by God’s grace and those streams of living water? Let’s start with the first one. Let’s pray.

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Nehemiah 3

Today’s reading is Nehemiah 3:1-5Open Link in New Window.

Here is today’s reflection by Helen.

This week, we carry on through the book of Nehemiah. We looked last week at Chapter 2—you will remember that Nehemiah, heartbroken to hear of the destruction of the city, received help from the Persian King Artaxerxes to begin a massive building project in Jerusalem. He made an 800 mile journey, inspected the city and made a plan for the work. You’ll recall the initial opposition from Sanballat, Tobiah and Gesham—local rulers with vested interests who did not want to see a neighbouring state regain too much power. Imagine them today, lurking resentfully as we watch the rebuilding taking place.

So, this week chapter 3—described in one of the commentaries I read as a ‘preacher’s worst nightmare’. I could see why when I first looked at it—name after name after name of those employed in rebuilding various section sof the wall and descriptions of what was repaired which are particularly challenging to me as I have virtually no special awareness. But I like a challenge. And having studied the chapter, I think there is plenty for us to ponder.

When I first read Nehemiah chapter 3, this picture came into my mind. It’s a picture of the German Trummerfrauen—translated as ‘rubble women’. In the aftermath of the second world war, with millions of men imprisoned or dead, these women laboured to clear the estimated 400 million cubic metres of rubble and debris across 62 German cities. and reconstruct buildings in devasted cities across their country. A different place and a different context to our reading today, but I can sense something of the determination, sticking power and intense energy which runs through this 3rd chapter of the book of Nehemiah.

As we move to the building site, a picture of the wall with the gates which are repaired in this chapter. Significantly, we start at the Sheep Gate. We hear that the High Priest sets and example by getting his hands dirty, along with the other priests. The Sheep gate was highly significant—it was the gate through which the sheep were brought on their way to be sacrificed in the temple. It’s specifically mentioned 400 years later in John Even today there is a sheep market in Jerusalem near the sheep gate.

It’s significant that this gate is specifically mentioned as being dedicated—maybe that’s because through the dedication of this first gate rebuilt by the priests, the people were recommitting the whole city to God. The excitement is tangible. This isn’t just any wall—this is the wall which protects the place where they could once again live out their faith and serve God as a testimony to the nations.

Let’s take an imaginary tour round the building site—here it is—the repairs are generally described in an anti-clockwise direction. Let’s pause to watch Shallum repairing the wall with the help of his daughters. Like many others on site, he is ruler of a ‘half district’—splitting up the districts was a Persian strategy to ensure that no one grew too powerful. We see how some of those working on the wall don’t speak with a Jerusalem accent—like Hasabiah who has travelled from Keilah, 15 miles away. Look at Meremoth who finishes his bit of the wall in Verse 4 and then instead of taking a well-earned break goes off to help somewhere else in v21. We note how many of the workers have been tasked with repairing sections of the wall in front of their own houses—Nehemiah knows that they will be particularly invested in this—he’s not mentioned directly in this chapter, but we can be sure that he is going round project managing. We pause to speak to some of the men working on the wall and discover that they have many different trades—we meet goldsmiths, merchants, priests. All working together. We note the team work—the wood and stones being carried onto the site, the sawing and carving, the hammering as doors and bolts and bars are put in place. We also see the nobles of Tekoa in their fine clothes who consider the work beneath them and don’t want to get dirty.

We can now fast forward around 400 years—these same fountains, pools and gates are the ones which Christ would come to know in his earthly life. Jesus will come in through the East Gate and will exit through one of the gates on his way to calvary. And praise God—we know how that story ends.

We know that around 40 years after the crucifixion, the walls which Nehemiah’s builders had repaired were breached—and the city and the temple was destroyed by the Romans under Titus. But scripture points us towards a New Jerusalem revealed in the vision of John in the book of Revelation—the city where Jesus will dwell for ever with his people—the ultimate fulfilment of God’s plan for restoration with humanity. Like the city in Nehemiah’s time it has 12 gates, but these gates are made of pearl. But it has no temple, for as John tells us, ‘I did not see a temple in the city because the Lord God Almighty and the Lamb are its Temple. The city does not need the sum or the moon to shine on it, for the glory of the Lord gives it light, and the Lamb is its lamp. The nations will walk by its might and the kings of the earth will bring their splendour into it’. That, my friends, is our New Jerusalem—our ultimate spiritual home.

Let’s finish by going back and watching the builders. Like Nehemiah, they really, really care about that wall—about the city where they worship. That challenges me. How much do I care about the state of the church—about the fact that in this country adult weekly attendance at C of E churches has declined by 24% for adults and by 47% for children in the last 20 years? How much do I care about friends and family who are heading towards an eternity without God? There’s rebuilding to be done and we all have a part to play. I pray that God will show us this week how he wants us to build—maybe through responding to a need, through a word of witness, or through spending more time with that great master builder, Jesus. I believe that when we start building, he’ll help us lift the bricks! Let’s pray every day that God will use us in his great building project. May he send us out in the power of the spirit to live and work—and build—to His praise and Glory. Amen.

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