Sunday Sermon, The Visit of the Magi

I’ve been wanting to start recording my sermons for a while. I don’t actually write anything down, so having some sort of a record of what I said for future reference would be useful. I also get a few requests from corps folk for recordings. So a few weeks ago the corps bought a small recorder we could plug into the sounddesk, and it works really quite well.

I haven’t done a lot of processing—just tidy up the beginning and end, run a noise removal filter, and that’s about it. I might try getting fancy later on, but in the meantime, I’m sure this will suffice. Eventually I want to be able to set it up as a podcast, get a proper web host and so one but one thing at a time!

Oh, apologies for the file size. I’m going to fiddle with a few settings to get the size down a bit in the future.

This sermon is based on Matthew 2:13–23.

The visit of the Magi

Towards a manifesto for Progressive Salvationism

Over the last few months I’ve been involved with a Facebook group called the ‘Progressive Salvationist.’ The aim of the group is simple: “This group is for Salvationists with a liberal/progressive worldview to talk freely about their beliefs without fear of condemnation. We’re not heretics, just heterodox!”

I was having a conversation on the group a while back, and somebody suggested we come up with a manifesto. I was looking for a writing project, so to cut a long story short, here we are.

This post isn’t intended as that manifesto. Rather, I just want to kick a few ideas around in case I ever get to writing the thing. Feel free to weigh in!

At this stage I’m assuming we know what is meant by ‘progressive.’ There are plenty of descriptions around the internet.

Towards a Manifesto for Progressive Salvationism

We march behind one flag

In another context I’d prefer to say, ‘There’s plenty of room at the table.’ It’s an historical peculiarity that this metaphor doesn’t work so well for the Salvation Army, but we have some good metaphors of our own.

Generally speaking, we see Progressivism as not only compatible with the fundamental core of Salvationism, but consonant. Progressive Salvationists identify as Salvationists and gladly serve in the same Army as non-Progressive Salvationists. We’re happy to work and worship alongside brother- and sister-Salvationists who might disagree with us on many points.

Progressive Salvationists affirm the Eleven Articles  of Faith. It is recognised that there are a range of interpretations of these articles.

There’s room behind the flag

We’re committed to welcoming as many people as possible into the Army’s fellowship. Welcoming the ‘whosoever’ has been an historical strength of the Salvation Army and we wish this to continue as a defining aspect of Salvationism.

Progressive Salvationists particularly see that the mission of the Salvation Army to the poor is a necessary response to the claims of the Gospel. It is incumbent on the Progressive Salvationist not only to help meet the material and spiritual needs of poor people, but to advocate for poor people as a matter of justice.

Progressive Salvationists do not believe people should be excluded from soldiership or officership on the basis of their sexuality or gender identity. Moreover, we affirm the right of same-sex attracted people to live fulfilled sexual lives according to the same standards as opposite-sex attracted people. We do not believe the gender of either party in a relationship should prevent them from being married.

There’s only one flag for me

Progressive Salvationists see that their loyalty is to the Commonwealth of God rather than a particular state or nation. Whilst they may enjoy a particular affection for their country, and they may legitimately and conscionably take part in some celebrations, observances and obligations of their country, they recognise that their allegiance is to God alone.

Other things I’d like to put in here…

I haven’t really dealt with theological things yet. I’d like to put in something about evangelism and reaching the lost, perhaps with an explanation of what we mean by ‘lost.’

Do I offer a run-down of some of the interpretations of the Eleven Articles? For example, it would be good to mention that Progressives don’t necessarily like the idea of Penal Substitutionary Atonement, and that there are other ways of reading the Fifth Article.

I’d like to add something about environmental matters. This could also address eschatology, a Progressive view of science and creation…

A sI said above, this isn’t even at the rough draft stage. Comments, please!


Lenten worship 2014

The Salvation Army doesn’t generally observe Lent in any organised way, but at the very least I like to use the Sundays between Ash Wednesday and Good Friday to look at the Cross. I try to have an overall theme to tie it all together. This year I took as my theme, ‘Fix your eyes on Jesus.’ All of the Scripture readings expanded on this in some way.

For each week I’ve provided the Scripture reading and a note about the specific verse I looked at. For most weeks I’ve suggested songs that might be particularly appropriate. Most songs suggested are from the Salvation Army Songbook. I also asked artists and photographers in our Corps to contribute artwork for use during our meetings according to a one-word summary I provided.

Please, feel free to use this outline however and whenever you wish!


(Not strictly in Lent, but the title fit the theme!)
Scripture: Matthew 17:1-9
Title: Take a look at that!

Lent 1

Scripture: Hebrews 12:1-12 (verse 2)
Title: Fix your eyes on Jesus
Songs: Never mind, go on! (805); The old rugged Cross (124); Turn your eyes upon Jesus
Thought: Discipleship is an endurance event. We are to fix our eyes on Jesus as our goal, but also as an example. Glory in this race comes not through winning, but through a Cross.

Lent 2

Scripture: Psalm 121:1-8 (verses 1-2)
Title: Look to the Lord for help
Art word: HelpDSC02982
Thought: This is a Psalm of Ascent, meaning it was traditionally sung by pilgrims on their way into Jerusalem to worship at the Temple. It may have been sung by Jesus and his disciples as they approached Jerusalem before Holy week. At the time the Psalm was written it was common for people to set up shrines to their gods on top of hills. It was also common for bandits to hide in the hills in order to prey on unsuspecting travellers. Where does help come from? The hills? The Temple? Or does it come from the God of all, who is the Creator of Heaven and Earth?

Lent 3

Scripture: Psalm 123:1-4 (verse 1)
Title: Look to the Lord for mercy
Art word: Mercy
Songs: A mighty fortress (1); Trust in God (711)
Thought: This is another Psalm of Ascent. Mercy here doesn’t refer to mercy from an angry, vengeful God. Rather, it is a cry for justice from our Master when others would do us harm.

Lent 4

Scripture: Psalm 141:1-10 (verse 8)
Title: Look to the Lord for shelter
Art word: ShelterDSC05053
Songs: Guide me, O thou great Jehovah (578); Jesus lover of my soul (737)
Thought: On the Jesus road there is no guarantee of safety. Remember, this is an endurance event, not a Sunday afternoon stroll. The only shelter we find is in the one who’s path finished on a Cross. This Psalm finds someone bruised and battered and at the very depth of their experience. It’s not a song we’d usually sing on a Sunday. Even so, the author has just faith enough to see that after all he’s experienced, God will bring him through.

Lent 5

Scripture: John 12:20-36 (Verse 32; also John 3:14-15)
Title: Look to the Lord for life
Art word: Life
Songs: He came to give us life (274); O love that will not let me go (621)
Thought: Looking to Jesus is ultimately about saying that we too will die with him. Yet this is the way to life.

Palm Sunday

Scripture: Matthew 21:1-11
Title: Look, the Lord comes!
Art word: Majesty
Songs: Crown him with many crowns (156); All glory, laud and honour (Not in the songbook, but easy to find online.)
Thought: Many people watched Jesus go into Jerusalem. What were they cheering? A king? A prophet? A warrior? A suffering servant? What sort of Messiah do we expect Jesus to be? What do we see when we look at him?

Good Friday

Scriptures: Isaiah 53:1-12, Psalm 22, Matthew 27:27-55
Title: Nothing much to look at
Art word: Desolation
Songs: There is a green hill (133); When I survey (136); The Old Rugged Cross (124)

In keeping with the theme of looking at the crucified Jesus I chose songs which gave rather descriptive (but family safe!) accounts of the crucifixion. I also found a reasonably family-safe video of the crucifixion, muted the sound and played it with the old song, ‘Were you there when they crucified my Lord?’ The video had different shots of onlookers—people in the crowd, soldiers, religious authorities, the two men crucified with Jesus and the women disciples watching from a distance. The disciples, as in the Bible, were notably absent.

In my sermon I looked at Isaiah 53:2-3, which might be taken as a description of Jesus on the Cross. I looked at Psalm 22 which suggests that God didn’t turn his face from Jesus, even if Jesus felt differently. I asked the congregation to consider where they might find themselves in the scene.


Scripture: Matthew 28:1-15
Title: Nothing to see here!
Art word: Hopedsc01459
Songs: Up from the grave he arose (148); Christ the Lord is risen today (143); Thine is the glory (152)
Thought: I printed off many photos (as supplied by Corps members) and gave the congregation a chance to look at them, asking them to choose one that particularly resonated with them. In my sermon I reflected on the way that all the people involved with Jesus’ death must have been feeling. Some felt victorious, others had forgotten, and the disciples would have been at various stages of grief and disbelief. I asked the congregation to think about which photo the various actors would have chosen. Then I asked them to consider which photo they might have chosen after they heard of the resurrection. They were then invited to consider what effect the news of the Resurrection might have had on the photos that they had personally chosen.

Toilet Tissue Issues

I just came across this on my hard drive. I wrote it years ago when our church seemed to be using toilet paper far more quickly than we would have expected.

Toilet Tissue Issues

We have had a few problems over recent weeks with the amount of toilet paper being used. Unless we get a fresh, new supply of paper in the next few weeks, we will have to consider the imposition of restrictions.

In the meantime, we would ask all users to review the amount of paper they are using in the course of their duties.

For your information, here is a copy of the official Schedule of Restrictions.

Schedule of Restrictions (Toilet Paper)

Section 1: Regulations

Paragraph (1)

Notwithstanding Paragraph (2), restrictions may be imposed at the discretion of the Corps Officer. There are no absolute measures indicating the necessity to move between levels. The Corps Officer is not bound to move from restriction to restriction sequentially.

Any imposition of Restrictions should be accompanied by appropriate counselling and training in the care, use and conservation of Toilet Paper.

Paragraph (2)

Restrictions Level 5 may only be imposed with one week’s notice from the Corps Officer, issued by way of

a.prominent notice in all bathrooms
b.memo to all regular users

Section 2: Schedule of Restrictions

1. Toilet paper will be rationed on a bathroom by bathroom basis:

a.Women’s bathroom two rolls per week.
b.Men’s bathroom one roll per week.
c.Disabled bathroom one roll per week.
Any variation to these levels must be approved by the Corps Officer.

2. Toilet paper will be rationed on a bathroom by bathroom basis:

a.Women’s bathroom one roll per week.
b.Men’s bathroom one roll per fortnight.
c.Disabled bathroom one roll per week.
Any variation to these levels must be approved by the Corps Officer.

3. Toilet rolls will only be issued on application to Corps Officer (or nominee). The Corps Officer (or nominee) will not normally dispense more paper than prescribed in Restriction Level 2.
4. Toilet paper will only be issued on application to the Corps Officer (or nominee):

1. (Women only) two squares.
2. (Men and women) four squares.
3. Other uses must be accompanied with a written explanation.

5. Toilet paper will issued according to the provisions in Level 4. It may only be used with supervision by the Corps Officer (or nominee).

Nigerian wedding scam?

I just received one of the most creative 419 style spams I think I’ve ever received. Given the nature of my occupation I actually thought it might be real for the first sentence or so. If I were Catholic and lived in England, I may well have fallen for it!


I am Martin Vrzal, I will like to make a wedding booking on the 5th
September 2009. I will like to know if you can handle the wedding
arrangements/planning for the couple.

The details of the wedding are as follows:
Names of couples:William Walsh and Linda Gardener

Religion: Christians ( Catholics)
Nationality : British
Date of the wedding: 5th of September, 2009
Type of wedding: Social
Number of Invited Guests: Maximum of 30 persons.
venue of the wedding: Catholic Church
reception Venue: Suggested by you
Time of wedding: Suggested by you
You will provide: Videographer and photographer if convenient for you.
Every other necessary details will be forwarded to you as soon as they
are available. Please Let me know the deposit to be paid so as to have
you booked for that, details will be forwarded to you as soon as they
are available.

Please Let me know the deposit to be paid so as to have you booked for that day.
Mode of payment: via credit card.
Your swift response shall be well appreciated.

Warm regards,
Mr. Martin Vrzal
40 Murrayfield Avenue ,
Edinburgh , EH12 6 AY, Scotland

Repaying a curse

I was at a meeting of various Christians this week and one of the guys made an interesting comment. It turns out, he said, that the main difference between the Vietnam War and the wars that had gone on before it was that American (and presumably Australian) troops were cursed by Buddhist monks when they landed. The effect was, apparently, to cause a much higher than expected incidence of mental illness after the war in our veterans.

Now I really don’t go in for the whole idea of monks actually being able to inflict some sort of spiritual disturbance on our troops by simply praying at them, or whatever their technique was. I’ve been scratching my head about this one for a few days now, wondering what to make of it. The Bible says a bit about curses, but trying to figure out what it means in the 21st Century is something of a puzzle.

I also realise that what soldiers in Vietnam went through (and still go through) isn’t a trivial matter. I think the sort of comment my friend made was intended well, but somehow trivialises what many of my father’s generation have to endure.

It occurred to me today, though, that the Bible has a few very clear things to say about curses. Here’s the clearest:

“But I say to you that listen, Love your enemies, do good to those who hate you, bless those who curse you, pray for those who abuse you.

(Luke 6:27-28, NRSV)

Here’s another one like it:

Bless those who persecute you; bless and do not curse them.

(Romans 12:14 NRSV)

I’m going to guess that the troops being cursed didn’t respond with blessing. Did any of the chaplains pray blessings back at the Buddhist monks? Were the soldiers instructed to lay down their weapons and wish their enemies all the best?

I’d love to hear that I’m wrong about this, but somehow, I don’t think so.

How do we deal with adherents of other religions?

Adam Walker-Cleaveland of pomomusings has been running a series of posts called ‘Plurality 2.0.’ Each post has been contrinuted by a guest author. I’ll admit that I haven’t really followed the series, but I was struck by a comment made by the most recent contributor, Brian McLaren:

Of course there’s a place and time for speculating on the fate of people of various religions and no religion. (Where and when – and for how long – is another question in itself.) But my sense, after spending quite a few years on the path of following Jesus, is that my primary duty is to look in the mirror and focus, not on the failures or deficits of “the other,” but on my own. My identity as a disciple prompts me to ask what it would mean for me to love my neighbor of another religion as myself, to do for my neighbor of another religion as I would have her do for me, to be willing to sacrifice and suffer (and even die) on her behalf, to take the Christ-like posture of a servant toward my neighbors of other religions – washing their feet, showing them true respect, considering them as better than myself and not looking out for my own interests only, but also theirs.

And this line of thinking raises still more questions: would I want my neighbor of another religion to be preoccupied with my status as an outsider – as “other”? Would I want him constantly seeing me either as a potential convert or as a threat and competitor in the religious market? Would I be happy for her to minimize any common ground we might share and instead, repeatedly and habitually maximize our differences? If my answer to these questions is no, then how can I justify doing these things to my neighbor?

Hmm. When Jesus told us to treat others the way we want to be treated, I think he might have meant it.

The Burial of Jesus—a review

Some time ago I received a review copy of James F. McGrath’s book The Burial of Jesus. Professor McGrath is associate professor of religion at Butler University, specialising in history and biblical studies.

The book sets out to look at the burial and resurrection of Jesus using the standard toolkit of the modern historian. It begins by exploring the relationship between objective historical study and faith. These are often seen to be in tension with one another, because one relies on evidence and the other is often invoked without or even in spite of evidence. However, this is a misunderstanding of the role of faith, which is more to do with trusting the object of faith (i.e. God) rather than merely accepting a set of propositions with little more proof than wishful thinking.

The second chapter looks at how historians go about their business and some of the criteria they have for judging their sources. In keeping with the object of the book it focuses on the four canonical gospels. There is a good overview of the ‘synoptic problem’ (which refers to the relationships between the gospels of Matthew, Mark and Luke) and the reasons why most scholars today subscribe to the two source theory. The chapter finishes with a discussion of how historians judge the reliability of the contents of the gospels.

The third chapter uses the same techniques to ascertain what we can know about the crucifixion and burial of Jesus. McGrath marshals all the resources at his disposal here—our knowledge of Jewish law at the time of Jesus, first century historians, extra-biblical texts and of course, the biblical texts themselves. It’s important to note this isn’t apologetics—McGrath isn’t trying to arrive at a particular destination. He plays all the pieces of evidence against each other, finding points of agreement and disagreement. This is an important point—as much as many Christians would like to think otherwise, there are fundamental differences between the biblical accounts of the Easter story. Sifting through the evidence McGrath continually asks, ‘what is the most likely explanation for all of the evidence before us?’

The crucifixion and burial of Jesus are all accessible through the normal historical means. It seems reasonable to conclude that Jesus was crucified, his body was disposed of quickly, but disappeared soon after. However, the question of what what happened to the body of Jesus is far more complicated for the historian.

And thus the fourth chapter, which deals with the accounts of the resurrection appearances. Because of the highly unusual nature of a resurrection an historian is unlikely to consider it the ‘most likely’ explanation for the events recorded. Again, McGrath looks at all of the biblical evidence and comes to the conclusion he believes is most consistent with what he finds. (Don’t worry, folks! I won’t give any spoilers. If you want to know what McGrath’s conclusion is, you’ll have to read the book!)

The final chapter is somewhat more theological, asking what sort (if any) of resurrection is required by the church today. More broadly, he looks at some of the consequences of our view (stated and unstated) of eschatology. He also revisits his earlier material on the nature of faith, and how it has more to do with trust in a person than certainty about a doctrine.

I found this book quite invigorating. I’m not sure I agree with some of the conclusions. I’m also a bit concerned McGrath might have made assumptions in places that weren’t warranted, or at least need to be challenged. Overall, though, I would recommend this book to anyone who is serious about studying Christianity rationally. It would make a good primer for first year theology students who are trying to ‘unlearn’ a lot of the more dogmatic approaches to Christianity they may have picked up elsewhere.