Monday 5 December 2022


For unto us a child is born, unto us a son is given: and the government shall be upon his shoulder: and his name shall be called Wonderful, Counsellor, The mighty God, The everlasting Father, The Prince of Peace.

Of the increase of his government and peace there shall be no end, upon the throne of David, and upon his kingdom, to order it, and to establish it with judgment and with justice from henceforth even forever. The zeal of the Lord of hosts will perform this.  (Isaiah 9:6-7)  

Every year, during Advent and at Christmas we hear these words. They are words that echo down the centuries to us from ancient Jerusalem, words from the prophet uttered by God through Isaiah four hundred years before the birth of Jesus. But these words, Isaiah’s prophesy gave hope and comfort, all those centuries ago, to a people who were facing an uncertain future to say the least. To not put too fine a point on it, the people of Israel and Judah would eventually be conquered, enslaved, and taken away from their homeland.

And we too, like them, live in an ever more changing and uncertain world, like those people of the Old Testament, when we look out onto our own world as it is today, we should be able to see the parallels in terms of uncertainty, where food, security, peace and freedom is precarious, and like those people of the Old Testament and their king, we too can witness a loss of faith where we can see our society moving away from God. In fact, in Britain and in much of the West, God has been closed down in the hearts of minds of most people. Even our own King Charles III has abandoned the Christian God, the one true God. He prefers to talk about faiths instead of the faith.

Well, we recall that story of Ahaz, the King of Judah to whom Isaiah tried to minister too, that king who God wanted to bless with a sign, that king who tried the patience of Isaiah by refusing to accept that offer from God that the prophet conveyed to him leading Isaiah to say to him, ‘Must you exhaust the patience of my God as well? All right then, (said Isaiah to Ahaz) the Lord himself will give you a sign. Look! The virgin will conceive a child she will give birth to a son and will call him Immanuel (which means “God is with us”). The prophesy of that sign was made without the king’s request or even his consent, for we can be sure that he certainly didn’t want to hear it.

What we had here in God’s prophesy, his promised action was a twofold approach. In the first instance we have a king and therefore a nation under judgement, because the hearts and minds of this nation have been closed to God a nation and a king that God had but no choice to abandon, to its fate. God simply said, ‘Unless your faith is firm, I cannot make you stand firm.’ The twofold approach lies in the second part of the prophesy, that such abandonment would not be forever, that Jerusalem would not be abandoned forever because in spite of everything the prophesy gave hope and a promise in that the sign foretold of a child born of a virgin, a child born to be king who’s name would be Immanuel, the Son of God; meaning, ‘God with us.’ We must see that in spite of the seeming ever presence of evil and the darkness of despair, ultimately God is in control.

Our text this morning opened up with these words, ‘For unto us a child is born, unto us a son is given: and the government shall be upon his shoulder.’ ‘The government shall be on his shoulder.’ Now, that’s the word we should be interested in ‘government’. Look how that word is prioritised in Isaiah’s prophesy: government, ‘the government shall be on his shoulders,’ government, it speaks to me of at least three components: leadership, administration and management, leadership being the most important. Someone once said words to the effect that people get the government they deserve. Perhaps they do, but things are never quite so simple as that. The role of government is essential in informing people’s decisions, but what can people do when they are made subject to saturation propaganda, as they are today and as they were in the last two years, made subject to lockdown when billions was spent on the psychological manipulation of the masses and those who objected came up against the repressive power of the state, the police and the army. This is always the response of corrupt leaders when dissenting voices speak power to truth. Even churches get locked down and church leaders get imprisoned as they did in Canada at the time as they continue to do in China. Under these conditions it’s not easy for those who remain faithful to God, to Biblical truth to take a stand and to hold firm.

In this time of Advent, in these weeks now the darkest months of the year, this season behoves us not merely to wait for the joy and celebration of Christmas and to reflect on the state of the world but more importantly - to reflect on ourselves, on our own spiritual lives, our prayer life, and our relationship with God. And the question is, or at least it should be not so much on how much we have sinned and fallen short of the glory of God, because we know we have if we are honest with ourselves and that should always be a ready confession.

But perhaps the big question should be how much we desire to be with God, how much we desire to serve him, to truly worship and love him, to be witnesses to his glory and in spite of the wickedness of this world, the question should also be how much we would wish to remain resolute in faith. I am not using these words as a general exhortation, or as filler for this sermon, but to point out to you that today you have a choice to decide in case you haven’t already decided, to decide which side you want to be on. There is the easy option, just to go with the world and all its superficial values but faith rather requires us to hold out against it and hold out in the face of doom as that faithful minority have always done. Such people in the Bible were referred to as the faithful remnant and so Isaiah in spite of all the bad news for Israel and Judah said:

In that day the Lord will reach out his hand a second time
to bring back the remnant of his people—
those who remain in Assyria and northern Egypt;
in southern Egypt, Ethiopia, and Elam;
in Babylonia, Hamath, and all the distant coastlands.
He will raise a flag among the nations
and assemble the exiles of Israel.
He will gather the scattered people of Judah
from the ends of the earth. (11:11-12)

As Moses led the Israelites out of Egypt to the promised land so too will come a new leader and so we return to Isaiah’s prophesy:

For unto us a child is born, unto us a son is given: and the government shall be upon his shoulder: and his name shall be called Wonderful, Counsellor, The mighty God, The everlasting Father, The Prince of Peace.

Today, we might ask where the prophetic voice of the Church is today, where is the leadership, where is the voice that can bring hope? I think our experience might show us that whatever we might wish, our experience shows us that events are outside of our control and that political decisions, despite the lip service that is paid to democracy, at the highest levels, decisions are made without our being asked. And when others neither seem to care or to believe, when others despair, God calls us to be that faithful remnant in the world. Without faith there is no future, when the disciples asked Jesus when he the going to restore the kingdom to Israel:

He said to them: “It is not for you to know the times or dates the Father has set by his own authority. But you will receive power when the Holy Spirit comes on you; and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, and in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth.” (Acts 1 6:7-8).

Likewise in the Gospel of Matthew, we remember that Jesus told the parable of the wise and foolish virgins.

Keep your lamp trimmed and burning.

Watch therefore, for you know neither the day nor the hour in which the Son of Man is coming.  



 Photograph: The annunciation, University of Gladzor. Wikimedia Commons

Wednesday 2 November 2022

The Pilgrim's Progress


On Sunday 6th November (at Oldham) after the morning service we’ll be watching that film: The Pilgrim’s Progress which in modern parlance is known as a CGI movie. CGI stands for Computer Generated Imagery. The Pilgrim’s Progress was first published as a book in 1678 and has never been out of print. Written by John Bunyan whilst he was in prison for preaching the Gospel, The Pilgrim’s Progress has sold more copies than any other Christian book except the Bible. What we can say about The Pilgrim’s Progress is that it is a Protestant spiritual classic, and that book, that story exists to serve as an inspiration to all of us as we embark on or continue with our journey of faith.

So, this CGI movie, The Pilgrim’s Progress is going to be our special event at Oldham Chapel, there will be an intermission for food and refreshments and the event will be open to anyone who wishes to attend. So, if you can attend, please pencil Sunday the 6th November into your diary and let us know you if wish to come. At this point, I think it’s worth hearing these words from the movie’s Executive Producer, Steve Cleary who said:

“More than any other story (outside the Bible), The Pilgrim's Progress has been used to inspire and challenge Christians to set their eyes on God,” 

“We are thrilled to offer this tale to a new generation through CGI animation, and are confident that the timeless themes of faith - such as hope, persecution, persistence, doubt, hardships - will resonate in a whole new way.”

In these ever changing ever secular times of ours, where Christians today find themselves in a minority, it’s easy to forget the enormous influence and sway that Christian belief once held in this country. In my own copy of The Pilgrim’s Progress the introduction reads:

So widespread was the influence (of The Pilgrim’s Progress) in the nineteenth century that it has been described as one of the ‘foundation texts of the English working-class movement’. British soldiers in the First World War drew upon memories of reading The Pilgrim’s Progress in trying to understand and express what was happening to them. Images, names and phrases from it are part of the common currency of the English language.

A measure of the influence of this Christian book was certainly exemplified in the Queens first televised Christmas speech in 1957 when speaking to the nation she said:

In the old days, the monarch soldiers on the battlefield, and his leadership at all times was close and personal. Today, things are very different. I cannot lead you into battle. I do not give you laws or administer justice, but I can do something else. I can give you my heart and my devotion to these old islands and to all the peoples of our brotherhood of nations. I believe in qualities and in our strength. I believe that together, we can set an example to the world, which will encourage upright people everywhere. 

Then, she went on to say: 

I would like to read you a few lines from Pilgrim’s Progress because I’m sure we can say with Mr. Valiant-for-Truth these words. “Though with great difficulty, I am got hither. Yet now I do not repent me of all the trouble I have been at to arrive where I am. My sword I give to him, which will succeed me in my pilgrimage and my courage and skill to him that can get it. My marks and scars I carry with me to be a witness for me that I have fought his battles who now will be my rewarder.”

I hope that 1958 may bring you God’s blessing and all the things you long for. And so I wish you all, young and old, wherever you may be all the fun and enjoyment and the peace of a very happy Christmas.

It's very interesting that the Queen should have referred particularly to that part of The Pilgrim’s Progress at that particular time. In 1958, the nation as some of you will recall was on the verge of the post war boom, the war time austerity and the tribulations of the Second World War were beginning to fade. A new generation was hungry for change, for consumer goods, the swinging sixties were beckoning, people were becoming better off. But our Queen young as she was then saw that there were dangers too. Dangers that were not quite so obvious, but dangers all the same. And what response did she get for her wise words? Well, a certain Lord Altrincham published his thoughts on Queen Elizabeth’s first televised Christmas speech in his magazine, the National and English Review. He said Her Majesty sounded like a “priggish schoolgirl” and called her style of speaking “a pain in the neck.”

Of course, the Establishment considered this to be a complete outrage, but I think the truth of the matter was that this was indeed a stinging rebuke that reflected the outlook of a generation that wanted change and they were not in any mood to compromise. Not in any mood to compromise.

I would like to suggest that we do find this uncompromising, thoughtless, self-seeking attitude in The Parable of the Prodigal Son, now more modernly called The Parable of the Lost Son, whatever, the story is just the same. Those brutal words from the younger son, to his father, ‘I want my share of your estate now before you die.’ And of course, he got his way and we know the rest of the story. A young man squandering his inheritance on loose living in a new country, with all his new friends, wasn’t he just the life and soul of the party till his adopted country found itself in famine, till all his money had run out, where were all his friends then when he was suffering hunger, starvation, and poverty? Thankfully for him humiliation brought him to his senses, through the depths of his suffering he saw the truth; the folly of his ways. We know that Jesus told this story to illustrate the mercy of God to those who repent, the story goes further because Jesus revealed the profound depths of God’s love, the Father’s love and compassion not just for the wayward son but for the elder son as well.

The power and the mystery of such love, the Father’s love, God’s love, in day-to-day language can be so in expressible that we have at times to use figurative speech, metaphor, allegory in order to make it accessible to those who will listen. Even then we hear Jesus’ words, ‘He who has ears, let him hear.’

And so, in that televised speech all those years ago the Queen employed allegory to get her message across to the nation:

Today, things are very different. I cannot lead you into battle. I do not give you laws or administer justice, but I can do something else. I can give you my heart and my devotion to these old islands and to all the peoples of our brotherhood of nations.

I have no doubt about the sincerity of her words, her words of warning to a prodigal nation anxious to go to that distant land and to wantonly squander its inheritance, to do exactly just what she was warning us not to do and what in my opinion we have done ever since. And what exactly was that? Well, this is what she said and we should mark it well and remember it. She said:

But it’s not the new inventions which are the difficulty. The trouble is caused by unthinking people who carelessly throw away ageless ideals as if they were old and outworn machinery. They would have religion thrown aside, morality and personal and public life made meaningless, honesty counted as foolishness and self-interest set up in place of self-restraint.

Then she said:

At this critical moment in our history, we will certainly lose the trust and respect to the world if we just abandon those fundamental principles which guided the men and women who built the greatness of this country and Commonwealth.

Who now in hindsight, who may I ask with any smattering of common sense, some sixty-four years later could deny such prophetic words; I wonder? Thus she brought this, her first televised speech to a close and that like her fellow Englishmen, inspired by the words of John Bunyan’s spiritual analogy, The Pilgrim’s Progress, from her own copy of that same book she read this excerpt to the nation:

I would like to read you a few lines from Pilgrim’s Progress because I’m sure we can say with Mr. Valiant-for-Truth these words. “Though with great difficulty, I am got hither. Yet now I do not repent me of all the trouble I have been at to arrive where I am. My sword I give to him, which will succeed me in my pilgrimage and my courage and skill to him that can get it. My marks and scars I carry with me to be a witness for me that I have fought his battles who now will be my rewarder.”

If there’s only one message that I can give you today, it’s simply this, that there are no political solutions to the world’s problems, all our problems are in fact spiritual problems that’s why Queen Elizabeth II conveyed that particular spiritual message to a bored and restless people. That’s why she warned the nation against throwing religion aside. The analogy and the meaning is this, don’t give up on your Christian faith, but be like Mr Valiant-for-truth who with his sword, his wounds and his scars Valiant-for-truth who had fought and defeated three other swordsmen who all attacked him at once. Wild-head, Inconsiderate, and Pragmatic were their names. Wild-head, who came in for the attack first holding all kinds of ideas in his head vacillating between atheism and idolatry, then we have the second attacker, Inconsiderate, inconsiderate not inconsiderate in the normal rude way but inconsiderate in the thoughtless fluffy way that some people promote religion, you can hear them say, ‘I’m spiritual but not religious or I’m not comfortable with the ‘God word’ and their friends and followers all mindlessly agreeing with them. And finally, the third assailant, Pragmatic. Pragmatic. Pragmatically arguing that there is no objective, out there, only the pragmatic assertion that ‘there is nothing right or wrong that only thinking that makes it so’ no God no final authority, no eternity, just as John Lennon wrote:

 No hell below us,
Above us, only sky

Oh, how easily those swordsmen can persuade us, can slay us, and rob us of our faith! But of Valiant-for-Truth, bloodied yet unbowed, the valiant fighter for truth, the pilgrim bound for the Celestial city, he dares to be a pilgrim, and will not to be swayed by the blandishments of the opposition and the admonishments of the enemies of faith no matter how cunning or well argued.

This brings me to mention an opinion piece that I’ve just read that brings Mr Valiant-for-Truth’s struggle alive once more. The author of this opinion piece reflects on the Queen’s death but goes on to assert that the Churches have ‘become remote from most people because they’ve clung onto teachings that are as he says, impossible to believe, and attitudes as he says, that we find unacceptable.’ The writer observing the Queen’s funeral desires ritual and ceremony, ‘If only,’ he says ‘it was possible to give people this without unbelievable dogmas and intolerant attitudes.’

But these religious values which the writer so evidently abhors and describes as ‘unbelievable dogmas and intolerant attitudes’, are the same values that the Queen was exhorting the nation to hold on to all those years ago, that Christmas in 1957. The same Christian values that the pilgrim Valiant-for-Truth fought for against Wild-head, Inconsiderate and Pragmatic. These three characters, amongst others, are the same demonic forces we must all face, in order to meet God, to enter that Celestial city, that’s why the book is called The Pilgrim’s Progress. It’s a book written for each one of us, its’s a book written for your journey of faith, and it’s written for mine

You know, I too have stood in that high central pulpit at Dukinfield Old Chapel, and I recall particularly the times when the sun has shone through its enormous stained-glass window, that window depicting the crucifixion of Christ our Lord and I have gazed at its beauty and sensed something of the uniqueness of the Christian faith of a God, of a man who can come to earth and die for us. The power of that depiction of love divine, so deep and so profound, it is impossible to plumb its depths, the glory of the God of the Christian faith gives lie to the vanity of such foolish objections to the truth, and that is why St Paul in his First Letter to the Corinthians could say, ‘We preach Christ crucified.