Saturday, 26 December 2009
Once upon a time there was a man who sought wisdom and studied with the wise ones of many countries and faiths. And one day a wise child was brought to him, with the explanation that this child was profound in his understandings and ability to speak. When the man asked whom the child had studied with, he was informed that the child was naturally wise, that his spirit was unsullied, and that no one had taught him. And so the man questioned him. The child answered in utterly simply and direct responses. The man was stunned and overcome with emotion. What child was this? The man was full of questions that he had carried all his life. He poured them out in a stream of never ending proportions, one building upon the next.
But the child grew restless and decided he wanted to play a game, a game of hide and seek. He told the man, ‘You hide and I’ll find you’.
But the man insisted, ‘No, you hide and I’ll find you. After all, I have great knowledge, and I can find anything, and you are just a child’.
But the child refused. ‘No, you go first. Hide and let me find you’.
So the man snapped his fingers and disappeared. The child was delighted and searched for the man. But soon the child was disappointed and almost in tears, because he realized the man had disappeared into another world.
Out loud, he said, ‘That’s not fair. You’re not supposed to hide in another world. This is a game for here.’
The man came back, marvelling at the boy’s insight and perceptions. And, in that instance, the boy disappeared. It was a game of hide and seek, and now it was his turn. The man looked everywhere, but couldn’t find the child. The child had leapt into the man’s heart, a place the man rarely ventured, alone or with anyone else. Finally, desperate to continue questioning the child, he pleaded, ‘Where are you?’
The boy answered, ‘Right here’.
The man listened, but the sound, though near, so close, was also far away, indistinct, barely discernible. ‘Where?’ he called again.
The child laughed, ‘In your heart, of course’.
But the man was lost. He did not know how to get into his heart. The child reappeared before him, stern and sad, and looked at him for a long time. And then he spoke, ‘You know, if you do not look in your own heart you will never know what wisdom and truth are or their power to reveal and transform. Deep, deep down there are rooms and caves that are full of riches and treasures, memories and hopes.’ After a while, he spoke again, ‘And if you don’t look into others’ hearts you will never find faith or love’.
With that the boy turned to leave, and the man grabbed for him, ‘No,’ the child said, ‘I have to go. There are many people I want to play my game with. But someday I will come back to play with you again. I hope you’ve practiced a lot and explored a lot more by then, Goodbye, until we meet again’. And the child vanished.
Today our reading moves us on 12 years to the time when Jesus bridged his childhood and his coming of age as a Jew.
Joseph and Mary went up to Jerusalem each year
for the feast of the Passover,
and this year is no exception.
The rituals are attended to,
the law and the story told in the Passover meal,
and then they return home.
They would have travelled in the company of others, friends,
A large group protected them from bandits, soldiers, and wild animals on the 90 mile trip.
The journey was as much a part of the festival as the rituals in the temple.
They would probably have prayed
and told stories of their history as they travelled.
It was a mini exodus.
It is not surprising that Jesus was not missed the first day out.
Eventually they found him in the temple, listening to the teachers and asking questions.
All who heard him were amazed at his intelligence and answers.
Mary’s reaction is understandable –
‘why have you done this?’
But Jesus sees the wider picture –
himself as God’s son, not only Mary’s.
He is part of the larger family of Israel.
The covenant and the law tell him that he must be in the temple ‘in his Father’s house’.
It was a different world –
one I’m not sure Mary and Joseph understood.
Jesus had vanished into a different world ;
Just as he vanished in the human world –
to a small town called Nazareth
on the border of an oppressed country,
living simply and learning wisdom.
God’s game of hide and seek was in full swing.
Only those who spend time
‘remembering all these things in their hearts’
and those who surrender in love to others’ hearts will ever find the child and recognize him
when he comes again,
grown now into the way,
the truth, the life.
The wisdom of God incarnate,
Jesus the Christ,
born of Mary,
adopted by Joseph,
hides in out of the way places,
in the countryside, on borders,
in the dwelling places of the poor,
and especially among those who watch and wait for the glory of God to be revealed.
These are the chosen ones of God,
his holy and beloved family.
This Christmas, as we come once more to the child Jesus,
let us open our eyes
not only to the human child before us,
but also to the hidden God
who calls to us from within our own hearts.
Saturday, 19 December 2009
Mary rushes off from Nazareth in Galilee to the hill country of Judah with her Christmas present for Elizabeth. Her Christmas present is, of course, Christ Himself.
And how wonderfully wrapped her present is. I don’t know about the rest of you, but at my house, everyone always knows which presents under the tree have been wrapped by dad. The wrapping is, shall we say, unique. Long ago, at many times, God has given His Christmas present to His people of old wrapped in various ways. Uniquely wrapped in a burning bush or in a pillar of cloud and fire; wrapped in manna lying on the ground, wrapped in a rock gushing with water, wrapped in a still, small voice. But now, in these last days, He has given us His Christmas present wrapped in a virgin mother, bread and wine, water and His Word preached. But never has it been so uniquely and wonderfully wrapped as it is in the virgin Mary.
But why the great rush? Luke says that she arose and went in a HURRY to her relative, Elizabeth. For Mary, Christmas was still 9 months away. What’s the rush? Some think Mary rushed out of town before anyone found out she was pregnant. If a good Jewish girl were discovered to be pregnant out of wedlock in those days it would be scandalous and sometimes even deadly. Some think she rushed to Elizabeth’s because she needed another pregnant woman to talk to. I doubt that either of those explanations are accurate. It’s not like the hill country of Judah was any more open and accepting of single mums-to-be than Nazareth. And if Mary needed someone to talk to, surely there were other pregnant girls closer to her own age right there in Nazareth.
No, I rather think that Mary arose and went with haste to see Elizabeth because she believed what the angel Gabriel had told her. And behold, your relative Elizabeth in her old age has also conceived a son, and this is the sixth month with her who was called barren. (Luke 1:36). Gabriel gave Mary a sign to assure her that the incomprehensible news he had just given to her about her own pregnancy was true. And Mary believed the Word she heard and did what the Word invited her to do.
Same thing happens with the shepherd in the fields watching their flocks by night. The angels appear and announce to them good news of great joy for all people. The angels give the shepherds a divine sign that their announcement is true. And this shall be a sign to you. You will find a baby wrapped in swaddling cloths and lying in a manger. And then after they sing their favourite Christmas carol and depart, St. Luke writes, And they went in a HURRY and found Mary and Joseph, and the baby lying in a manger. Why did they leave their sheep in the fields and look for the baby in the manger? Because they believed the Word they had been told and did what the Word invited them to do.
Faith and works go together. Faith without works is dead. How do we know that Mary believed the word of the Lord delivered to her by Gabriel? She went in a HURRY to see if Elizabeth was wearing maternity clothes. Had she not believed this incredible thing that Gabriel had told her she would have simply shrugged the whole thing off and only after she missed her period and started to feeling nauseas for no real reason would have said, well maybe I ought to go see my relative Elizabeth.
So, if we picture the scene in our mind just the way Luke writes it, no sooner does Gabriel mysteriously disappear, than Mary begins to pack her bags for a trip to Elizabeth’s. Mary is not one who’s afraid of travelling, as we who know the whole story well know. And where does Elizabeth live? In the hill country of Judah. I was curious as to just where this hill country of Judah is. None of the commentaries that I have were curious about this, so, me being me, I went on the internet. Lo and behold, up popped lots of maps of the Holy Lands that show where the hill country of Judah is located. And it’s would be something like a county containing several towns and cities. There was one town that showed up prominently within the hill country of Judah. It was a little town called Bethlehem. Now I’m not saying that Elizabeth lived in Bethlehem, (In fact, it seems for sure she didn’t. If she did, Mary and Joseph wouldn’t have had such a hard time finding lodgings on Christmas night). But what I am suggesting is that as Mary leaves Nazareth in Galilee to visit her relative Elizabeth in the hill country of Judah, unbeknownst to her, she’s making a dry run of a very similar trip that she’ll be making again just 9 months later.
Faith believes the Word and does what it says and goes where it leads, in a hurry, without delay. The Word of the Lord to Mary was that the holy, Son of God was present in her womb. That Word is confirmed by the pregnancy of Elizabeth. In faith, Mary goes without delay, and her faith is confirmed.
Likewise, the Word of the Lord says to us that the holy, Son of God is present in the bread and in the wine, present for the forgiveness of all our sins, for the giving of real life and as a foretaste of the feast to come. And to that incomprehensible promise is added the following invitation. Take and eat; take and drink. So in faith, we come to this church, we come without delay expecting to find what we are told to seek. Whoever seeks, finds. God has wrapped His great Christmas gift to us in the bread and wine.
This is only half of the scene as St. Luke records it. To get the complete picture, we need to look see Elizabeth’s reaction to Mary’s visitation. And when Elizabeth heard the greeting of Mary, the baby leaped in her womb. We already know who this baby in Elizabeth’s womb is. He is John, the one who will go before the Lord to prepare His way, to give His people the knowledge of salvation by the forgiveness of their sins. The same angel Gabriel who informed Mary about her baby also informed Zechariah about Elizabeth’s baby. He said, He will be filled with the Holy Spirit, even from his mother’s womb. (Luke 1:15).
Allow me to digress for just a moment please. We need to switch gears and talk about shepherds. The job of the shepherds of Israel was to raise sheep and raise sheep for several purposes. For the wool to make clothing, for the meat to eat, and for the ceremonial sacrifice at the Temple. The most valuable and profitable lambs were those that were fit for sacrifice. They had to be year old males and without blemish. God had commanded the sacrifice of these lambs as the payment for the sins of the one who offered it. Sort of a mini-Passover every time a lamb was slain. The innocent lamb was accepted by God as a substitute for the guilty sinner who offered it.
Earlier, from Hebrews reading, we heard that these animal sacrifices were only a shadow of the good things to come. Sacrifices and offerings you have not desired in burnt offerings and sin offerings you have taken no pleasure. Then, we hear the one who is speaking these words say, Then, I said, Behold, I have come do to your will, O God, as it is written of me. (Heb.10:5-7). So, if you will stretch your minds just a bit, can we accept the idea that Mary is the shepherd? Mary is shepherding this little lamb who is to be the sacrifice to which all the previous sacrifices were only a shadow. He abolishes the first in order to establish the second. And by that will we have been made holy through the offering, not of sheep, but of the body of Jesus Christ once for all. (Heb.10:9-10).
The digression is now officially over. As Mary shepherds this pre-natal male offering without blemish, the pre-natal forerunner sticks out his foetal finger which jabs into the uterine wall of his mothers womb, and in baby talk that only a mother could understand, says, Behold, the Lamb of God who takes away the sins of the world. John begins his ministry in the womb. And his first congregation consists of his mum and his aunt Mary. And to them, John proclaims the presence of Immanuel - God with us.
And Elizabeth was filled with the Holy Spirit, and she exclaimed with a loud cry, blessed are you among women, and blessed is the fruit of your womb! And why is this granted to me that the mother of my Lord should come to me? For behold, when the sound of your greeting came to my ears, the baby in my womb leaped for joy.
This is the same leaping for joy that adult John would do as he saw the adult Jesus approaching him in the water of the Jordan River where he was preparing the way of the Lord through the baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins. Behold, the Lamb of God who takes away the sins of the world. This is the same leaping for joy that we will do when this same Jesus, who was conceived by the Holy Spirit and born of the Virgin Mary, crucified, died and buried for our sins, comes again in the clouds in all His glory.
Blessed is she who believed that there would be a fulfilment of what was spoken to her from the Lord. And blessed are you when you believe the same. Amen.
So John the Baptiser calls us to prepare the way of the Lord, to repent, and this is the good news.
In Philippians Paul gives us a similarly mixed message, not contradictory, but bitter and sweet, or chocolate with a hint of chilli!
Twofold purposes of the letter:
Thanks for the money (B and B Letter), and
Encouragement to be like Christ, to be changed, to think well and live well.
The passage before us lays out the themes of the whole letter.
First, thankfulness to God: Prayers rejoicing in their partnership in the gospel, and in the good work God is doing in us, until its completion on the day of Christ Jesus. That is the Advent hope.
Paul holds the Philippians in his heart whether he is in chains or free, whether things are good and bad.
1:15 some preach Christ out of envy and rivalry
1:18 Yes, and I will continue to rejoice, 19for I know 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
2:17 even if I am being poured out like a drink offering on the sacrifice and service coming from your faith, I am glad and rejoice with all of you. 18So you too should be glad and rejoice with me.
And they, of course, will share in the same:
1:29For it has been granted to you on behalf of Christ not only to believe on him, but also to suffer for him, 30since you are going through the same struggle you saw I had, and now hear that I still have.
He talks of their sharing in God’s grace, and of his longing, his affection, (literally bowels). This is, of course, to be replicated in the way that they get on with each other:
2:1If you have any encouragement from being united with Christ, if any comfort from his love, if any fellowship with the Spirit, if any tenderness (bowels) and compassion, 2then make my joy complete by being like-minded, having the same love, being one in spirit and purpose.
In the third paragraph, Paul prays that their love may abound in knowledge, and depth of insight. As they discern what is best, this will enable them to be pure blameless until the day of Christ, filled with the fruit of righteousness, to the glory and praise of God.
He is talking about behaving well:
1:27 conduct yourselves in a manner worthy of the gospel of Christ.
2:2then make my joy complete by being like-minded, having the same love, being one in spirit and purpose.
2:12 continue to work out your salvation with fear and trembling,
2:14Do everything without complaining or arguing, 15so that you may become blameless and pure,
He could be quite specific:
4:2I plead with Euodia and I plead with Syntyche to agree with each other in the Lord.
I wonder what they had fallen out about?
He could recommend a Way of Life or Rule of life, and was perhaps more prescriptive than we are used to:
17Join with others in following my example, brothers, and take note of those who live according to the pattern we gave you. 18For, as I have often told you before and now say again even with tears, many live as enemies of the cross of Christ.
And what is most significant in helping us to live well? It is our thoughts and attitudes:
3: 1Finally, my brothers, rejoice in the Lord! If rejoicing in God, there is less opportunity for moping or feeling hard done by.
3:10I want to know Christ and the power of his resurrection and the fellowship of sharing in his sufferings, becoming like him in his death, 11and so, somehow, to attain to the resurrection from the dead.
3:15All of us who are mature should take such a view of things. And if on some point you think differently, that too God will make clear to you. 16Only let us live up to what we have already attained.
4:4Rejoice in the Lord always. I will say it again: Rejoice! 5Let your gentleness be evident to all. The Lord is near.
4:8Finally, brothers, 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. 9Whatever 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 finishes on a note of thankfulness to the Philippians, and praise to God.
4:10I rejoice greatly in the Lord that at last you have renewed your concern for me.
4:19And my God will meet all your needs according to his glorious riches in Christ Jesus.
Amen. May God give each of us grace to be transformed by the renewing of our minds, so that we may act well towards each other and towards God, and that we may become progressively more aware of his great power to change us from within into the image of his Son, and to provide for all our needs.
To understand the Gospel I have just read, you have to go back towards the beginning of the chapter and verses 5 & 6. Jesus and his disciples are in the temple in Jerusalem. We read: “Some of his disciples were remarking about how the temple was adorned with beautiful stones and with gifts dedicated to God. But Jesus said, ‘As for what you see here, the time will come when not one stone will be left on another; every one of them will be thrown down’.” This gives the context for his teaching in our Gospel.
This was the third temple to be built on this site. The first was Solomon’s temple built in the glory days of the 10th century BC. This was destroyed in the 6th century BC, when Israel foolishly took on the Babylonians, Jerusalem was sacked and the people deported to Babylon. After fifty year or so, when Persia become the dominant power, King Cyrus allowed many of them to return, and a second temple was built, although they were only allowed to build a smaller version, and we read in Ezra chapter 3:12, that those who could remember Solomon’s temple wept when they saw the small scale of the new foundations.
Nevertheless, all the temple functions could be resumed, and this temple proved a potent symbol which helped the Jewish people in the great struggle that was to follow, when the Greek empire made strenuous efforts to impose Greek culture and religion.
But when Herod the Great came to power, he planned a magnificent rebuild. Work began in 19BC and by the time Jesus visited the temple at the age of twelve, (as Luke describes in chapter 2), it was substantially complete. However work continued for over 60 more years and it wasn’t entirely finished until 63AD.
To get an idea of what Jesus and the disciples were looking at, you have to turn to the Jewish historian Josephus. The pillars were of white marble, forty feet high, each made of a single block of stone. One of the adornments was a solid gold vine, each of the clusters being as tall as a man. He writes (see quote):
No wonder the disciples from the Galilean countryside were mightily impressed. No wonder it was unthinkable to the Jews that it could ever be destroyed. But Jesus says it will be utterly demolished, and when asked when this will take place, he warns them of the signs. ‘When you see Jerusalem being surrounded by armies, you will know that the desolation is near’ and he goes on to tell them to get out as quickly as possible when they see this happening.
The Roman attack in which this prophecy was fulfilled was in 70AD. A Jewish rebellion led Emperor Titus to lay siege to Jerusalem, sack the city and fire its temple, just seven years after that wonderful building, so greatly admired, had finally been completed. Josephus says that over a million people died in the siege and final assault, and about 100,000 were subsequently deported. So Jesus’ prediction and warning were only too tragically fulfilled. With political upheaval shaking the foundations of the Roman Empire at the same time, it must indeed have felt as if the end of the world was coming. The temple site was destined to lie vacant with little except what we now know as the Wailing Wall remaining, until the Islamic Dome of the Rock was built on Temple Mount at the end of the 7th century. Jewish temple worship was gone for ever.
Jesus could see only too clearly beyond the dazzling temple image in front of their eyes. Perhaps this was partly because, like some of the greatest of the prophets before him, he too came from the countryside, and was never impressed by bright city lights, impressive buildings and political intrigue. But more importantly, he was never deceived by media headlines, popular opinion, impressive people with high-sounding words – all the things which crowd in on us, then as now. His focus was on God his Father, and by daily prayer and obedience to his Father’s will, he could see through it all. He could see the truth about his own life and where it would lead him, inspite of all the reassurances of the disciples that God would step in to prevent any attempt on his life. And he could see through the political compromises of his day. He knew only too well that the impulse to rebellion against Roman occupation was too strong to be kept down indefinitely by those who struggled to maintain the status quo. Jerusalem was doomed and this was intimately intertwined with Jesus’ own fate, and we read on in the next chapter about how Judas agreed to betray Jesus. The two go together.
For there is much more to this prophecy than just the destruction of a city and a temple. Luke, who is writing not only after Jerusalem and the temple had been destroyed, but also as a Greek to commend Jesus and his kingdom to Greeks, could see exactly why Jesus here introduces the reference to the prophecy in Daniel which we read earlier.
Daniel has a vision of Almighty God on his throne in great glory, and then of what he calls ‘one like a son of man’ coming with the clouds of heaven (from earth), approaching God’s throne, and being led into his presence, where he is given by God authority, glory and sovereign power.
This is the prophetic vision which is gloriously fulfilled at the resurrection and ascension. Luke has this prophecy clearly in the front of his mind when he describes in Acts chapter one how the risen Jesus ascends with the clouds of heaven to the Father (exactly as Daniel had said). And in the letter to the Hebrews, we read how now we have a great high priest who has passed through the heavens, Jesus the Son of God – who is at the right hand of the Father, and who ever lives to intercede for us.
Luke was Paul’s companion on some of his missionary journeys, and I feel I can see as he writes this Gospel passage, having experienced at least part of its fulfilment, how the temple has now completely lost its relevance and become consigned to history, because our great high priest is now in heaven, having made once for all the perfect sacrifice for sin. And here on earth, Paul has smashed through the barrier of Jewish law and sacrifice, and taken the Gospel of the Kingdom to him, a Greek, and hundreds like him all over the empire. And with the coming of the Holy Spirit, redemption is not now centred in any earthly place, such as a temple, but – free as the wind – can carry to the ends of the earth.
So Jesus could see only too clearly how the day of judgment on Israel was at hand. Their rejection of God’s anointed Messiah brought judgment on them, while (on the positive side), it released the Gospel to the whole world – and of that we ourselves are, of course, among the beneficiaries.
So far so good. But, beyond all of that, we sense here Jesus’ prophetic eyes seeing far into the future and to a final day of judgment. It will be a day of judgment on the world (verse 35), but Advent calls us to note very carefully that it will be a judgment also on the Church (verse 36). We have taken Israel’s place. We are now God’s chosen people to be a ‘light to lighten the Gentiles’. We have the full revelation of God’s promise in Jesus. We have the full power of God in the Holy Spirit. From the fig tree learn the lesson. If the Church fails, God will find another way.
Advent calls us to consider our faith, our worship, our priorities, our mission. Jesus’ words here are a solemn warning to the Church which sadly, at the moment, seems fatally divided and spends its time quarrelling over internal and often trivial matters. How much we need to repent and change our ways. And unless we do, God’s judgment will just as surely fall on us.
But there is also here a message of hope. There is a call here to lift up our eyes and see beyond the sinful mud on our feet that bogs us down, and to focus on the glory that is to be revealed. There is the encouragement that helps us shake off all that weighs us down, and look for the day when Jesus will come again in glory. This Advent, Jesus is here calling us to repent of our pathetic divisions and shameful lack of conviction, and to do so by lifting our eyes to the sovereign Jesus to whom all authority has been given, from whom all our inspiration comes, and who will one day come again in glory. To see that vision is the first step in our preparation for Christmas.
1. In what practical ways can we best prepare to celebrate Christmas?
2. ”He will come again in glory to judge the living and the dead, and his kingdom will have no end.” (Nicene Creed). What do you understand by this?
Saturday, 21 November 2009
When you “imagine Christ” - when you think of Jesus - what image or metaphor do you use most often? Some people think of Jesus primarily in terms of the song that the Choir sang - they think of him as the good shepherd as one who guides and leads as the gentle saviour - who seek out the lost and injured sheep and carries the wounded and the lame on his shoulders till they are safe back in the fold. And I am partial to that image to.
What image do you have of Christ? What metaphor are you partial to? I would wager that the image of Jesus as a King is not one that would win the most votes as the most common image among us here today. Yet it is for claiming to be a "King" that Jesus is brought before Pilate in today's Gospel reading, and even though Jesus is clear to Pilate that his Kingship is not from this world and that the Kingdom which he claims does not function like the kingdoms of this world; and even though Pilate believes his claim and finds no fault in Jesus - or should we say he finds in Jesus no direct threat to his power - for political reasons he ultimately condemns Jesus to death and places over his head the record of the charge that was brought against him - that he had claimed to be the King of the Jews - a charge that Jesus never denies.
When you think of a king what do you think of? What does the word "king" conjure up for you? I came up with a few images: from childhood: - fairy-tale kings: benevolent, often dead, with a wicked queen - king of the hill: the game where the strongest pushes everyone else off the hill - "king me": draughts/checkers king jumps in all directions, taking over and winning . From adult years: - "the" King - Elvis Presley - of which no more needs to be said - the King in the "Wizard of Id" - a self-centred bumbling dictator - king o' the road - a wanderer with no cares - A chess king - one of limited movement and power to protect.
What about you? What do you think of when you think of the word King? Or Kingdom? Do you, like some, think of folk like Pilate? Caesar Augustus? George the III, or Louis XIV? Figures like Saddam Hussein? President Obama? Men of immense power who are unafraid to issue orders and compel obedience, are unafraid to ask others, no - to command others, to die for their causes? Makers of Law whether by democracy or by Order of Cabinet or Council or Decree and enforcers of their own wills and the will of the State they command? Sometimes with popular approval, but often without?
The simple fact is that lots of folk have difficulty with the concept of Jesus as a King and difficulty with the whole idea of the Kingdom of God. When we think of Jesus - our favourite image of him, despite Sundays like this one, is not likely to be that of Jesus as King: more likely is Jesus as a shepherd, Jesus as a teacher, Jesus sitting with the children gathered around him. And when we do declare Jesus is King - when we declare he is the Messiah, the chosen one of God, I think we have a hard time wrapping our minds around what it is we truly are confessing.
But, having said all that, I think that the real problem with talk about Jesus as King is that we know that Kings are people who issue commands that others are supposed to obey - that they are people that their subjects are supposed to be loyal too and whom they are supposed to serve - no matter how they might feel about it. And we, in this age, perhaps even more than in some other, do not like that. We do not like the idea of obedience. We do not like the idea that someone can "command us" to do something, that someone has authority over us.
The real issue of behind the image of Jesus as King is this: Do I want someone other than myself to be Lord of my life? When we imagine Jesus as our friend, as our shepherd, as our brother, as one who comes to us a healer, teacher we accentuate in our minds the love and the grace and the goodness that he had and still has, it makes Jesus - "user friendly". It makes Jesus - first among equals. Jesus states to Pilate that his kingdom is not of this world and that, in effect, his kingship is not like that of the kings of this world.
As our King - Jesus is not in our face. He gives us our freedom. He treats us as equals - he treats us as his friends. We can slip and slide around the throne feasting when we like the fare, and we can dine out when it's not so palatable. And so we loose track of the fact that doing what he wants us to do really might be good for us, - and the fact that not doing what we want might not be so good for us. We loose track of the fact that obeying his commandments might be helpful to us and our world - and not obeying them might be harmful to us and to our world. In other words we sometimes grow too comfortable with our images of Christ. We sometimes resist too much the full consequences of calling him, as we do at Christmas - while thinking of a him as a baby, King of Kings and Lord of Lords We sometimes resist too much the implications of naming him, as our reading from the Book of Revelation did this morning: The Alpha and the Omega, the beginning and the end, the ruler of the Kings of the earth, the one who was, and who is, and who is to come....
In a discussion on the name for this Sunday, Christ the King, my friend and I had this conversation and our roles as ministers: I'm sorry, Kim, but the Christ "demanding respect, awe and obedience" sounds like a Christ of law, not of gospel. For me, obedience means to follow laws and rules whether I feel like it or not. It focuses on outward behaviour regardless of my relationship with God through Christ.
I replied: I am an OLM, not because I "obeyed" the call of God, but because, though I thought it was a crazy idea, I didn't want to disappoint the God who had been incredibly faithful to me. My experience says "obedience" is not the essence of Christian faith. "Relationship" is. I hope my experience is not opposed to the gospel. And I really want to agree with my friend - I know that obedience means doing things whether I feel like it or not; and I know that the unconditional love of God, not obedience, is at the heart of the Christian faith - - but then I keep on thinking that this unconditional love comes to us because of obedience, because there was one who was obedient - even to death upon a cross.
And I keep on remembering that we are called to be like him, to be like the one who came not to be served, but to serve, to be like the one who listened to his Father and kept his commandments and who told his disciples that if they loved him, they would listen to his voice and keep his commandments.
Our faith is indeed based in relationship - a relationship of love. But obedience really does seem to be a part of what we should be about. And while we can all agree that Jesus redefined what Kingship means, while we can agree that his kingship is not in fact from this world or like that of the kingships of this world there is still in fact some measure of power that we should ascribe to Jesus - a power over our lives. A power - not of coercion - but of respect, and love, - a respect and love that has as its fruit willing obedience to God in all areas of our lives. The law, as the New Covenant says, is written on our hearts.
Can we imagine Jesus as a king? And does our image of Jesus as king - extend to making him Lord over even our plumbing whether that plumbing be that within our kitchen or within our bodies? Do we even bother asking Jesus about the little things that happen each day, seeking his help, giving him thanks, asking what he would like us to do next? Do we even allow Jesus to be in the situations we find ourselves in, good or bad?
Do we ask ourselves before speaking to someone who has ticked us off or talking to someone about what is happening in the house next door, or between us and our boss; "What would Jesus say and do here?" "What would Jesus want us to say or do here?" That is the issue at the heart of the Jesus is King language that the church employs. That is at the heart of the Kingdom of God language that Jesus employed.
Sometimes being faithful is a difficult thing. Sometimes loving someone or being dedicated to them means doing things we do not want to do, a kind of tough love approach, but when we trust in God and believe that he will be faithful to us, when we try to do what is right then, as Jesus says over and over again in the gospels the Kingdom of God is not far from us - indeed it is at hand - it is over us - and in us.....
Blessed be the name of Jesus – Christ the King - he who is our friend, our brother, our shepherd, our Lord, and our King, now and evermore. Amen
1. What image or Metaphor do you have of Jesus? What image or Metaphor do you have of Christ the King?
2. Do you regard Jesus as King in your life?
3. We are called to be like Jesus. How difficult/easy do you find this? How can we help?
4. Do you find having a relationship with Jesus easy or difficult? How can we help you to keep going?
(This poem was found among the possessions of an old Irish lady who died in a geriatric hospital)
What do you see, nurses
What do you see?
What are you thinking
when you look at me?
A crabbit old woman,
not very wise.
Uncertain of habit,
with far away eyes?
Who dribbles her food
and makes no reply
when you say in a loud voice
I do wish you’d try!
Who seems not to notice
the things that you do.
And forever is losing a stocking or shoe?
Who, unresisting or not
lets you do as you will
with bathing and feeding
the long day to kill?
Is that what you’re thinking
Is that what you see?
Then open your eyes –
you’re not looking at me.
I’ll tell you who I am
as I sit here so still.
As I move at your bidding
as I eat at your will.
I’m a small child of 10
with a father and mother.
Brothers and sisters who love one another.
A young girl of sixteen
with wings on her feet.
Dreaming that soon now
a lover she’ll meet.
A bride soon at twenty
my heart gives a leap.
Remembering the vows
that I promised to keep.
At 25 now I have young of my own
Who need me to build a secure happy home.
A woman of thirty,
my young now grow fast.
Bound to each other
with ties that should last.
At forty my young will now soon be gone,
But my man stays beside me to see I don’t mourn.
At fifty, once more babies play round my knee.
Again we know children
my loved one and me.
Dark days are upon me –
my husband is dead
I look at the future
I shudder with dread.
For my young are all busy
rearing young of their own.
And I think of the years and the love I have known.
I’m an old woman now
and nature is cruel.
Tis her jest to make old age look like a fool.
The body, it crumbles ;
grace and vigour depart.
And now there’s a stone
where I once had a heart.
But inside this old carcass
a young girl still dwells.
And now and again
my battered heart swells ;
I remember the joys
I remember the pain
And I’m loving and living life over again.
I think of the years
all too few –
gone so fast
and accept the stark fact
that nothing can last.
So open your eyes nurses –
open and see.
Not a crabbit old woman –
I was reminded of this poem when I read today’s gospel reading.
We have an image of Jesus sitting on the Mount of Olives,
opposite the temple in Jerusalem.
It was a huge building,
dominating the landscape of Jerusalem –
a central focus of the Jewish faith.
I wonder what we would have commented on
had we been sat in that same place?
Perhaps the splendour of the building?
How good it was to see a symbol of faith?
Or how privileged we were to be there?
How many of us would have commented
on the apparent weakness of buildings –
their sign of temporary splendour –
how weak buildings are compared with God’s glory.
Jesus sees beyond what the human eye sees.
He sees beyond what is in front of him –
to a time when buildings will be destroyed ;
when there will be wars ;
Many have looked at this passage
and used it to predict signs of the end of time.
But perhaps a more important message
is to see what Jesus sees.
To see beyond the human eye –
beyond what is immediately in front of us,
and to see God.
To see behind the face of the crabbit old woman
and to see God ;
to see behind the words of those saying ‘I am he’
and to look for the face of God.
Sometimes we may not even have a face, or words
to look behind.
Sometimes, like this picture, we may have a few objects.
an empty room.
Is that all we see?
Can we see beyond the image –
is there a sense of loss?
What we see beyond the image will probably
be different for each of us.
God speaks to us in different ways,
and where we sense God’s presence will vary.
But the message from the gospel reading
is that our eyes only give us a one dimensional view –
we need an inner sight too,
a sight that reveals God
in unexpected places.
Perhaps our challenge as we approach advent
is to see the unseen –
see God in our own lives,
and in the lives and faces of those around us.
Questions for discussion
1 The picture is called Hidden Place. Are there hidden places in your own lives? Or can you see hidden places in the lives of others?
2 The poem ‘Crabbit old woman’ touches many people. Why is this?
3 How can we see God’s face in our own lives and in the lives of others?
Nurses reply to the Crabbit old woman
What do we see, you ask, what do we see?
Yes, we are thinking when looking at thee.
We may seem to be hard when we hurry and fuss.
But there’s many of you, and too few of us.
We would like far more time to sit by you and talk,
to bath you and feed you and help you to walk.
To hear of your lives and the things you have done ;
Your childhood, your husband, your daughter, your son.
But time is against us, there’s too much to do …
Patients too many, and nurses too few.
We grieve when we see you so sad and alone.
With nobody near you, no friends of your own.
We feel all your pain, and know of your fear
That nobody cares now your end is so near.
But nurses are people with feelings as well,
and when we’re together you’ll often hear tell
of the dearest old Gran in the very end bed,
and the lovely old Dad, and the things that he said.
We speak with compassion and love and feel sad
when we think of your lives and the joy that you’ve had.
When the time has arrived for you to depart,
you leave us behind with an ache in our heart.
When you sleep the long sleep, no more worry or care,
There are other old people, and we must be there.
So please understand if we hurry and fuss …
There are many of you, and too few of us.
Saturday, 7 November 2009
Remembrance Sunday, and also Tuesday 11 November, are times for reflection, remembering and for prayer.
We live in confusing and dispiriting times, when there seem to be threats all around. The majority seem convinced that our climate is changing, but there is no agreed view about this, or whether human activities are the cause; if they are, it is doubted that any practical steps will be taken to address the situation. The economy seems to persist in depression, whether of the V, W, bathtub or dead cat bounce variety, and jobs, pensions and savings will never seem safe again. So many folk are afflicted with suffering, - physical, mental, emotional or spiritual. And there is the constant fear and threat of terrorism and war. So many of us know of someone serving in Afghanistan; if we hear of the news of a death or injury, we are fearful if we recognise the unit, and perhaps feel guilty if we are relieved to hear it is not someone personally known to us. We live in confusing and dispiriting times.
Our readings this morning call us to raise our eyes, our hearts, our minds, and look to Christ.
The short extract from Hebrews picks up from our studies earlier this year when we looked at the Tabernacle, the Tent carried by the people of Israel in the wilderness, where sacrifices could be made and God would appear. The temple was later constructed on the same pattern or blueprint in Jerusalem. Countless sacrifices were offered , culminating each year on the Day of Atonement when the High Priest would enter the Most Holy Place alone, to offer before God sacrifice on behalf of the whole nation. The point is that sacrifice is required, blood must be shed, but that the ancient system then being kept going in the temple was obviously not good enough – always more sacrifices had to be offered. It was a perpetual reminder of the imperfection of this world, that all is not well.
And so Jesus came. He was the great High Priest, but he did the unthinkable – he offered himself. The passage stresses repeatedly he did this once, once for all. The language and thought forms of Old Testament sacrifice pointed to a greater truth, now fulfilled by Jesus. All the visual language of the tabernacle and temple give us a language to speak of heaven, where Jesus has now gone, having sacrificed himself for us. In one mighty act he has changed everything. Once we might have imagined this world going on and on; there would always be wars and warlords, always injustice and impoverishment, always disease, famine, earthquake, fire and flood. Once we might have been tempted to despair and give up all hope.
But now Jesus has appeared. The signal for him to act reminds us of the very harsh realities of this world that we have been speaking about. His cousin John has been arrested and thrown into prison, so now it is the turn of Jesus to step, as it were, into the firing line.
What a blessed relief. Have you ever been in a situation where you felt alone, in difficulty, perhaps in danger, and someone, just the right person, has appeared to solve the situation and come to your relief? It might be as seemingly trivial as you are locked out in the pouring rain, and someone else with a key arrives. It might be a life saving situation where you have been on the floor, and someone has at last heard your cries or come round and discovered you and raised the alarm.
Jesus arrives and announces that the time has come. Not only Israel, but the whole world, the whole cosmos is in a terrible mess. Every human seems to be determined to live a life independent of God, and even the religious have fashioned ways of worshipping and living that primarily benefit themselves. Squabbling and fighting are the norm, whether in the school playground, over the garden fence, or between nations.
But now God’s kingly rule is breaking in. We should get on the bus, join up, throw in our lot, be whole heartedly committed.
To repent is not to feel guilty, it is to have a complete, deep rooted change of heart and mind. We aspire to live differently and better because we are under new control and direction.
To believe the good news – the Gospel – is not to be able to recite the creed, but to depend utterly upon God, his fatherly goodness, the sacrifice of his son, the welling up of his Spirit within us. I believe and trust in him.
Those earliest disciples were called to leave family and profession and set out to follow Jesus wherever he led them. Each of us is called to a similar abandonment – we might go on living in the same home, following the same job or pastimes, but we do so now under the direction, the kingship of our God. Soldiers, especially on active service, are called to be obedient and so are we. Our lives right now are not the rehearsal, but the real thing. Our call to follow Christ is not an optional extra, to be fitted in where possible amongst other hobbies and pastimes – rather it is the foundation position from which we can be loving, joyful, peaceful, patient, kind, good, faithful, gentle and self-controlled, disciples and followers of God and servants of others.
In that first appearing, that once-for-all act that encompassed Jesus’ birth, baptism, teaching, miracles, death, resurrection, ascension, glorification and sending of his Spirit, this world has been changed. The church is here now as the sign and evidence that there is a God of love, might and justice. We are called, like the boy on the beach with the starfish, to incarnate God in this world, today.
As we look towards the season of Advent, so we remember that there will be a second appearing, and that God will complete his work. All that causes death, disease, suffering, warfare, distress of any kind will be dealt with and it will be judged. Where today we look back with gratitude on those who have given their lives for others, and pray for those on active service, and hope that war and fighting can be avoided in the future, we know that there is a time coming when there will be no more wars, no more suffering. Our call is to follow, to be obedient, and to do all that we can to bring in his kingdom here on earth, as it is in heaven.
Questions for discussion
What for you is the ‘Good News’?
We are ‘destined to die once, and then face judgment’ …. How do you respond to the fact there is no reincarnation, but rather we will be judged? (2 Corinthians 5:10, Romans 8:1-2 and 31-39 might help!)
How might the world look different if we saw more of God’s kingly rule? What are you encouraged to imagine and pray for?
Wednesday, 4 November 2009
He raised Lazarus to life again, although we know that he would die again, and this was a foretaste of the greater victory when God would raise Jesus himself from death. As Jesus has been raised from death, so he promises to give eternal life to all his saints.
But who are the saints? Stained glass images come to mind of Michael, Peter, King David, James or John. Perhaps we call to mind images from the book of Revelation of countless souls carrying palm branches and standing round the throne, while prayers go up before God like incense. (There is a problem with this that we shall come back to.) Perhaps we think of modern’ saints like Albert Schweitzer, Billy Graham, Mother Teresa, or Tim and Linda Ng?
The bible, however, makes it plain that all who believe in Jesus are his set-apart ones, his saints. The feast of All Saints is when we remember that we are all part of this heavenly family, those of us here on earth (the church militant) and those who have gone to be with God (the church at rest).
To be a saint is not, and never has been easy. You might be laughed at by your friends. If you choose to wear a cross, or offer to pray with your clients, you might risk losing your job. You might be taken advantage of if you choose to split and the other chooses to steal.
And yet we still have it incredibly easy here in the UK, in Camberley.
On 20 July 2008 a mob in the town of Andulo, Angola killed one school age girl and left another with head wounds requiring 20 stitches.
At least 50 Christians were murdered in Orissa by Hindu extremists in August 2008: the Barnabas Fund distributed aid to the displaced.
Hundreds of Christians were killed and an estimated 7,000-10,000 fled their homes after rioting, started by Muslims on 28 November, engulfed the city of Jos, Nigeria.
Martha Samuel, an Egyptian convert from Islam to Christianity, was detained, stripped and beaten at Cairo airport on 17 December as she tried to emigrate with her family. Her two children witnessed her assault and were deprived of food to pressure their mother to return to Islam. The judge, who tried her case, imprisoning her for a month, told her that if he had a knife he would kill her for leaving Islam.
The Rev. Noble Samuel, a Christian minister at a United Reformed Church in London, UK, was attacked by three men in March on his way to the TV studio where he films a Gospel programme. Police characterised this as a ‘faith-hate crime’.
Christians, our fellow saints, are persecuted in many places throughout the world, and are called upon to live with the firmness and perseverance that Peter writes of in his letter to persecuted Christians in the first century.
What can we do? First, we can live well. Our fellow Christians overseas and those of other faiths in this country are amazed at the laxness and half-heartedness that they see amongst so-called Christians here in the west. Far from facing persecution for our faith, Christianity is seen here by many as one among many competing lifestyle options, to be fitted in at our convenience. Our ethos here at St Michael’s is deliberately to be low key and not hound people – you have to be motivated by the love of Jesus and by his Spirit deep within. Nevertheless, we shall all be judged and will give an account of ourselves.
Second, we can pray and take action. There are hopeful signs. A debate has been started within Islam as liberal and moderate scholars are arguing for an end to the death penalty for apostasy. On 4 June 2009 in a speech in Cairo President Obama argued for this and called for human rights for all. We can sign the petition to our government to work for the end of the apostasy laws.
So we can pray for those in authority and for the weak, the innocent, the downtrodden, and especially for our brothers and sisters throughout the world.
In Revelation 7 and 8 it speaks of the martyrs around the throne of god, who have come through the great tribulation. And it speaks of the prayers of the saints offered up like incense before God – but the saints doing the praying are us here on earth. And our prayers have an impact, as an angel pours them back out here on earth, there are rumblings and lightning flashes – pictorial language for God at work changing situations.
Saturday, 24 October 2009
“You don’t really believe what it says in there do you?”
“Every word”, she replies.
“OK, he asks. How about the Noah story, the flood, the animals – do you believe that?”
“Absolutely ”, she replies.
“What about God creating the universe in six days?”
“All true, I believe every word”.
“What about Jonah – how could a man live for three days in the belly of a whale?” he asks.
“Yes, I believe that too”, she says.
“Well, how could that be? How could he breathe?”
“I don’t know”, she said. “When I get to Heaven, I’ll ask him”.
“What if he’s not in Heaven?” the man asks.
The woman replies: “In that case, you can ask him”.
Interpreting the Bible today:
We can laugh at the joke but have you ever had conversations like that or found yourself asking those sort of questions? I’ve been having long distance discussions via Facebook with a long lost school friend in Australia, who’s a fervent atheist. His big problem with Christianity isn’t that he thinks science or Richard Dawkins have disproved the existence of God but that he finds the Bible utterly incomprehensible. He accepts that not all Christians take every word of the Bible as literally true and that there are different traditions and approaches within the Church towards interpreting the Bible.
But he really struggles with the tricky bits, that if we’re honest, we probably struggle with also.
For example, the parts of the Old Testament, such as the Fall of Jericho, where Joshua’s army are told to slaughter every living thing in the city. The section ends with the verse: “So the Lord was with Joshua”. Did God really tell his people to slaughter innocent women and children? If so, how do we reconcile this God with a God who according to the Psalms, like Psalm 103, is “gracious and compassionate, slow to anger and abounding in love”?
The God of the New Testament, who “so loved the world that he sent his only Son…not to condemn the world but to save it”.? These are questions that people often ask, including my friend, and questions that some Christians struggle with also.
Today is Bible Sunday and as we think about the Bible and today’s world, its good to address these issues. How do we handle and interpret the Bible as Christians? We’ve had the famous passage from 2Tim.3: “All Scripture is God breathed and is useful for teaching, rebuking, correcting and training in righteousness, so that the man (or people of God) may be thoroughly equipped for every good work”.
I’m sure that no matter which church tradition we’re from, we’d agree that all Scripture is God breathed, it is inspired by God and carries divine authority. Its stood the test of time but its under tremendous attack in the secular humanistic age in which we’re living., even to the extent where at an art exhibition in Glasgow, a copy of the Bible was daubed with profanities for its so called homophobia – you may have heard about this on the news not long ago.
Its perhaps never been more important that Christians are engaging with these difficult issues on how we interpret the Bible in the world we’re living in today. Its not easy, and its not going to satisfy enquirers and sceptics if we simply say we believe what the Bible teaches because even Christians can’t agree about what the Bible teaches.
What can we agree on? What are the aspects of our faith that are non-negotiable? The Creed encapsulates the essentials of our faith, and most Christians from a variety of backgrounds can unite on that. But other issues are not so clear cut. Women bishops, homosexuality – there are equally sincere Christians who hold opposite views.
The danger is that the Church can become so bogged down in these arguments that it loses sight of its main purpose for existence – to be part of God’s mission in the world, pointing people to Jesus Christ. And the media dismisses the church as being irrelevant and outdated when its perceived as hung up on these issues. And yet, for many Christians, who are passionate about the Bible , these are deeply serious issues as they are about something far deeper and fundamental.
What are the timeless, unchanging truths in the Bible? How do we express them in the kind of language that modern people understand?
Are there aspects of the Bible that need to be reinterpreted for each generation?
Fascinating questions and ones that I think we should all be wrestling with if we want to meet the challenges of faith in the 21st century.
Perhaps this seems disturbing for some of us. For those people who have been brought up as Christians and can remember when Britain was far more ostensibly a Christian country it perhaps seems shocking to be asking these sorts of questions. Are we showing irreverence to the Bible by attempting to interpret it and apply our own human understanding?
Does the Bible have anything new to say to us?
From my own experience, and I’m sure a vast body of Christians from all ages, I would say that as we come together, with an attitude of humility, recognising that the Bible is the Word of God, its divinely inspired, and we ask it to speak to us afresh, it will do so. It won’t undermine its key message, of God’s love for the world, and his supreme self revelation and saving act in Jesus, but it will throw up new insights and perspectives as we seek to discern God’s saving work in the world today.
A rabbi likened the scriptures to a precious gem. As you turn it over, the light refracts differently , giving you a reflection you haven’t seen before. Have you had that experience of reading a well known Bible passage and suddenly seeing something you’ve never seen before? What fresh insights might the Holy Spirit be wanting to show us as we study the whole Word of God and apply its timeless truths to today?
During my training, we were split into groups and asked to prepare and preach a six minute sermon on the passage from Mark 4 on Jesus calming the storm. It was fascinating to hear the different insights and perspectives that came out of that one short passage. God had something unique to say through each person but he also used the experiences, personalities and backgrounds of each person.
Whilst I wouldn’t presume to compare trainee Readers with the patriarchs, prophets and apostles, I think it’s a bit like that with the way the Bible was written. God breathing his word, divinely inspired, through many different people from many different backgrounds over a huge period of time. There’s an underlying unity and thread all through the Scriptures which is God’s gradually unfolding self revelation to humanity, through Israel and supremely through Jesus.
Its God breathed but also human. God used human beings, with their different cultures, experiences and backgrounds through which to speak and as we approach the Bible we need to interpret it afresh for our generation and understand that that we haven’t extracted all the meaning we can get out of it . It’s a living word, that continues to speak to us today. To quote from Rob Bell, a minister and speaker, “When you embrace the text as living and active, when you enter into its story, when you keep turning the gem, you never come to the end”.
Jesus is the Living Word
I don’t know about you but I find that exciting. And to return to our gospel reading today from John 5 Jesus himself rebukes the Pharisees for being so bogged down in the Word of God that they can’t recognise the Living Word himself, standing amongst them! Jesus is the Word made flesh. Sadly its possible to know the Bible like the back of your hand, be able to quote it but not know the One who is himself the Word. There have always been people who claimed to be Christians, who knew the Bible thoroughly, but didn’t have “the love of God in their hearts” as Jesus says in this passage. The Crusaders, the Inquisition, and all the persecution carried out by Christians against so called heretics.
And to a lesser degree, the factions that are still around in the Church, that divide Christians. No matter how much we claim to know and love the Bible, if we don’t have the love of God in our hearts, we don’t truly love and know Jesus, the Supreme Word Himself.
Going back to my friend in Australia, I suspect that his problems in making any sense of the Bible stem partly from his baggage and preconceptions that he’s bringing with him as he reads it. It may also be that he’s not coming with an open mind, genuinely seeking spiritual truth, but looking for ammunition to further his own atheist agenda. But God has a habit of catching people unawares and as he picks out the parts of the Bible he believes undermines its truth claims, it may be that he’ll meet the Living Word, Jesus, himself.
We need that relationship with the Living Word, Jesus, to understand the written Word . He illuminates it, brings it to life so that it has the power to speak to us. In John 6:63 he says “The words I have spoken to you are spirit and they are life”. The Word of God is spirit and life to us when we’re in a relationship with the Living Word. Before I became a Christian, I knew certain parts of the Bible but they didn’t mean anything to me. At best, I thought they were nice words but they had no personal impact on me. It was only when I started searching spiritually, or, maybe, God was searching for me, that it started to make sense. And as I read the Gospels particularly, Jesus started to become real and his words started speaking to me personally.
Some of you know my father and have heard his testimony but he’s an example of someone to whom the Bible made little sense until he encountered Jesus Christ. He came from a non-observant Jewish background, and had been spiritually seeking for years. The rest of my family became Christians but church and the Bible did nothing for him. He just couldn’t see where Jesus fitted into it all.
Eventually, out of the blue, he received a letter from a woman who had met my mum through a Christian healing group, five years previously and had been prompted to pray for him. In the letter she explained that she believed God had asked her to tell him that it was time to choose, and she quoted from several parts of the Bible, all with the same theme of choosing.
“Choose this day whom you will serve”. (Joshua 24:15)
Many people, receiving a letter like that, would probably dismiss it as serious religious derangement , but the moment he read it, my father knew instantly that he was a believer in Jesus Christ. He started to read the Bible and Jesus’ words hit him, “like a sledgehammer” to use his words. When he read “I am the Way, the Truth and the Life”, he knew beyond any doubt that He is and wondered why he’d never seen it before. Now he can’t get enough of his Bible and is passionate about sharing its truths to help Christians grow in their faith. Isn’t God amazing!
We need Jesus, the Living Word, to bring life to the written Word
The Living Word and the written Word coming together. Without knowing the Living Word, we cannot partake of the power of the written word. And it does have power. Heb. 4:12 puts it like this: “The word of God is living and active. Sharper than any double edged sword, it penetrates, even to dividing soul and spirit, joints and marrow; it judges the thoughts and attitudes of the heart”.
Jesus, the Living Word, comes to live in our hearts, as we offer our lives to him, and so his written word comes alive within us, speaks to us and nurtures us. Isaiah 55, our Old Testament reading for today, says “Listen, listen to me, and eat what is good, and your soul will delight in the richest of fare. Give ear and come to me, hear me that your soul may live”. Similarly, today’s Psalm, Psalm 19: 7 says “ The law of the Lord is perfect, reviving the soul”. God’s word nourishes, feeds and strengthens us. It teaches, and comforts. The writer, Victor Hugo, says:”I have found in the Bible words for my inmost thoughts; songs for my joy, utterance for my hidden griefs and pleadings for my shame and feebleness”.
How is the Bible changing us? How do we use it to engage with our world?
Its an amazing Book . Divinely inspired, yet provoking a whole range of reactions, from love and reverence to confusion, bewilderment, anger, division and even hatred.
How are we responding to this Book? Dare I ask it but are we reading it regularly? The Bible Society produced some disturbing statistics indicating that its a low percentage of churchgoers that read their Bibles regularly and yet in Third World countries people will walk for two days to get a copy of the Bible.
If we’ve been Christians for a long time is it still speaking to us in fresh ways? Exciting us, challenging us, disturbing us? Changing us? Are we wrestling with it as we hold the Bible in one hand, and a newspaper in the other and attempt to discern what God might be saying to the Church and today’s world? Can we engage in discussion with the Richard Dawkins’ followers, a hostile media, the spiritual seekers who won’t come near church?
Are we praying and thinking through together our response to these challenges? And above all, are we continually coming to Jesus, the Living Word, that we might have life and the love of God in our hearts? Lets pray that we may be people rooted in God’s Word, filled with his Spirit, showing Jesus, the Living Word, to our rootless, lost generation.
Questions for Small Groups:
Do you find parts of the Bible difficult? If so, how do you respond to that?
What would you say are the “essentials” of Christianity, that are non-negotiable?
Have you experienced fresh insights or perspectives when reading a well known Bible passage? Can you give examples?
What is your own faith story? What impact has the Bible had in your life?
Do you agree that Christians need to be engaging with the issues of today? In which ways can we do so?
He was announced by John the Baptist, preaching a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins, and quoting Isaiah: ‘Prepare the way of the Lord.’
Jesus quotes Isaiah of himself, that he has been ‘sent to proclaim freedom to the prisoners’.
After many healings, miracles and exorcisms, he says that he must keep on the move: ‘I must preach the good news of the kingdom of God to the other towns also, because that is why I was sent.’
He calls Simon and the others to ‘come and catch men’, and they follow him’. He calls Levi, who ‘got up, left everything to follow him.’
He responds to enquiries from the disciples of John that miracles are taking place and that ‘the good news is preached to the poor’.
He teaches his own disciples that not all will receive the good news and act on it, by telling them of the parable of the sower and the soils, in the context that he ‘travelled from one town to another, proclaiming the good news of the kingdom of God.’
He says we are all to be like a lamp on a stand, shining brightly. We should ‘consider carefully how we listen. Whoever has will be given more; whoever does not have, even what he thinks he has will be taken from him’. As if to prove it, his own family try to have him committed! He miraculously sets free the demon possessed man called Legion, but the people of that land are scared and ask him to leave.
Then Jesus sends out the Twelve, to ‘drive out all demons and cure diseases’ and ‘to preach the kingdom of God and to heal the sick.’
On their return, when they witness the feeding of the five thousand, Peter correctly announces that Jesus is the promised Messiah, and Jesus responds that he is going up to Jerusalem to die; shortly after he is transfigured before them, and Moses and Elijah appear to discuss his departure. The whole direction of the Gospel changes, as Jesus ‘resolutely set out for Jerusalem. And he sent messengers on ahead, who went to a Samaritan village to get things ready for him.’
‘After this the Lord appointed seventy-two others and sent them two by two ahead of him to every town and place where he was about to go.’ When Jesus appeared at a place, they were expecting him; they had had a foretaste of who he was and what he could do.
‘The harvest is plentiful but the workers are few.’ This is still true today! If the numbers of people in church is reported as declining, what can we do about this?
‘Ask the Lord of the harvest, therefore, to send out workers into his harvest field.’ The mainspring is prayer, something we can all do, from the youngest to the oldest.
‘Go! I am sending you out like lambs among wolves.’ We will often be the answers to our own prayers! And the task will not always be easy.
‘Do not take a purse or a bag or sandals’ How often do we allow concerns for comfort and security to slow us down and possibly miss opportunities to serve?
‘Do not greet anyone on the road’ Middle eastern politeness meant that you might be involved in long conversations, obliged to accept hospitality, and therefore kept from your urgent mission.
‘Say “Peace to this house”.’ Offer the shalom of God; it will be accepted by those who are seeking after God.
‘Eat what is set before you.’ Share the lives of the people you visit; this is incarnational. It is also appropriate for those who receive ministry to provide the resources to pay for it!
‘Heal the sick who are there and tell them: “The kingdom of God is near you.”’ Do good for them in material ways, but bring them the spiritual blessings of prayer, healing and God’s word.
So, what should we be spending our money on? As a church community, we are here primarily for mission. We are heirs to those first disciples and the only way that we can with any integrity claim to be Christ’s is to follow his methods and mission. We are called to pray and seek him, but also to plan and work methodically to share the good news of the kingdom of God with the people of our generation.
The good news is that this does not have to be expensive. If we, each of us, take our share in being messengers, gossiping the good news, this will be far the most telling, effective way to help those whom we like and love, serving them by sharing the good news of the kingdom with them. And all else that we do, the building, services, groups, meetings, all – are held up the light of Jesus, to ensure that we are not doing them in any way just for our convenience but so that God’s kingdom can be built.
And above all, we need to pray. Jesus tells his disciples to wait for the power of the Holy spirit to come upon them, and then the will be his ‘witnesses in Jerusalem, and in all Judea, Samaria, and to the ends of the earth.’
Questions for discussion
1. What do you make of the picture of Jesus on the move, planning and orchestrating his mission?
2. How often do we allow concerns for comfort and security to slow us down and possibly miss opportunities to serve?
3. What examples can we give of times when we have been distracted by ‘greetings along the road’?
4. What do you understand by ‘Eat what is set before you’?
5. What message would you like the PCC to hear about the way that we raise and spend money?
Saturday, 10 October 2009
(How Big is your Heart?)
When I first read the theme title for today sermon - ‘Anyone who had a Heart’…. Cilla Black’s song came to mind, then ‘Give it some Heart’ – the advertisement for Heart Radio, Shredded Wheat, The logo ‘Give Blood’, and The British Heart Foundation. Amazingly four words had conjured up five different things in my head all of which have nothing to do with the sermon. Except the word Heart. A relatively small organ that does some amazingly humongous things – let’s face it – if it didn’t work we would be dead.
I remember the first time I read this story I was seven years old, reading Mark’s Gospel in bed. When I got to verse 25, I was so alarmed that I shut the Bible, jumped out of bed, and ran into my parents’ room. I shook my mother out of a sound sleep. "Mum," I whispered urgently, "Jesus says that rich people don’t go to heaven!" "We are not rich. Go back to bed," came my mum’s response.
I knew better. I knew I had all I needed plus lots more. I would later learn of fascinating attempts to soften the text (the use of the word "camel" for "rope," of "eye of the needle" for "a small gate"), but the little girl inside me knew that these words of Jesus were clear and hard and scary.
Mark 10:17-31 hangs on the question of eternal life. The rich man wants to know how to get it. The disciples want to know who can have it. And the good news that Jesus offers is this: "For mortals it is impossible, but not for God; for God all things are possible."
This story is one of the healing stories. The rich man runs up to Jesus and kneels, just as countless other Jesus-pursuers have done throughout the Book of Mark. The scene is set for him to request and receive healing, and his running and kneeling show that his request is both urgent and sincere. But he is the one person in the entire book who rejects the healing offered him.
"Jesus, looking at him, loved him." He offers him healing. "You lack one thing; go, sell what you own, and give the money to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven; then come, follow me." What is the healing that this man needs? What he lacks is that he does not lack. This man is possessed -- but only by his possessions. Jesus is offering to free him of his possession, to cure him of his excess. But the rich man turns his back.
I grieve too. I have accumulated so much since first reading this text. Am I also possessed, but only of possessions? Am I refusing to be healed by Jesus? What can I do to inherit eternal life? Nothing. For mortals it’s impossible. But not for God. To say we must give up all our wealth in order to be saved puts the burden on us to save ourselves. Neither wealth nor divestment of wealth saves us. God does. Even Jesus realised he could not save himself.
Yes, there is still the problem of having too much stuff. It keeps us from realising our need for God because we use it as a buffer against vulnerability. We use it to fill the emptiness in our souls. We use it to feel less susceptible to the vagaries of life. It keeps us from seeing how needy we are.
The rich man’s secure status in life led him to keep asking the wrong question: What can I do to inherit eternal life? Jesus’ response was that there was nothing he or anyone else could do. And Jesus told him to release his wealth and give it to the poor -- to grow closer perhaps to the fragility of life, to take his own place among the poor.
The poor, the sick, the demon-possessed and the children of whom Jesus speaks all live close to the fragility of life. They are thus more likely and more able to respond to a vulnerable Christ. The disciples freed themselves of what would stand between them and that fragility and were somehow able to follow the One whose life would soon be a ransom for many. In many ways we have to be like children, like Samuel or like those who know they are really sick or like disciples who have let go of all the things they once relied on -- in order even to see how much we need Jesus.
What must we do to inherit eternal life? We must let go of all that we have and all that we do that gets in the way of seeing that there is nothing we can do to save ourselves. Even then, letting go of it all is beyond our capacity. The hardest news Jesus has is the best news we could get -- our salvation is impossible except for God. "But not for God; for God all things are possible."
So what can we do with the problem of too much stuff? There is always the danger of being possessed by things. Instead of owning things, they begin to own us and we become possessed by our possessions – or some of us are possessed by the lack of them! We spend much of our lives seeking to gain, to get, to have, and we can be in danger of losing sight of loving and giving of ourselves. Money can be a good reflection of this. Some people’s pockets are as hard to touch as their hearts.
How BIG are our hearts? Are they big enough to look at what we have and decide to share it with our neighbours, those in need? Are they big enough to get involved with the community outside these four walls? Are they big enough to be a disciple of Christ seven days a week? Are they big enough to get involved with the down and outs, the sick, the vulnerable, the children, the abused and the abusers? Are they big enough to give more of our time, talents and money? Are they big enough to give God ourselves? Are they big enough to abandon our comfort zones to share God’s Heart with the world we live in? If they are not, then just like we would die should our heart stop beating, the love of God would cease to be known.
In a moment Samuel, who as yet knows nothing about wealth and possessions except perhaps a favourite toy or his dummy, if he has one, is to be Baptised into the Family of God, a family who loves him and who will do what ever they can to encourage him to grow in the love and knowledge of God so that he will not be like the young ruler. Prayerfully, he will grow up to have a BIG heart. But before Bruce wets his head let us close our eyes and imagine:
Imagine a table. I want you to put on it all the things you want to give to God: your time, your talents, your money, your home, your friends, your loved one; your job, your plans, your future. We are going to need a great big table. We raise up the things we want to give God and say, ’All things come from you, O God, and of your own do we give you.’ But wait, one thing that God wants is still missing. Who knows what it is? GOD WANTS YOU – your Big Heart – More than any gift, more than gold or silver, God wants you. God wants you to give yourself to him. God wants you to give your love. God wants you more than anything. St. Paul said, ‘If I give away all my possessions….. but do not have love, I gain nothing’. (1 Cor 13:3).
1. Towards the end of the sermon there is a list of things that God wants from us. Which ones do you/would you find hardest to give over to him and why?
2. We all have talents/gifts/skills. Name yours. If you are unsure what they are, ask the person sitting next to you.
3. How often do you get to use your T/G/S's. If not often or do not use them - would you like to? How can we help you to use yours?
4. How do you feel about the fact that 'for mortals it is impossible, but not for God; for God all things are possible?' Knowing that all things are possible with God - does it inspire you to give over to God the things you are unable to? To use your gifts to His glory?
Tuesday, 6 October 2009
Saturday, 26 September 2009
He wanted to see Jesus, but he was too short. He may not have wanted to be jostled by the crowd. Therefore he does something childlike and undignified – he climbs a tree. This will give him a good view, and perhaps allow him to remain anonymous.
But Jesus stops the procession, looks up and fixes his gaze on him. Come down, Zacchaeus! Quickly! I must come and stay at your house.
As Zacchaeus is such a renegade and all round bad person, this caused outrage amongst so-called respectable people. And it is why we are looking at this story together on a day when churches all over the land are inviting people ‘Back to Church’. The strap line comeasyouare is inspired by the attitude of Jesus as we find him in this story.
Jesus does not insist that Zacchaeus be different or reform himself. There are no conditions. True, after his encounter with Jesus, Zacchaeus is different. From a life apparently centred on material things and the gaining of money, he changes radically when he determines to give away half of his possessions. The penalty for theft in the Old Testament was to repay double what was stolen (Ex. 22:4) – Zacchaeus promises to repay four times as much.
He has really changed. But it is before all this that Jesus says he will come to him. Again and again, Jesus breaks the norms, upsets the established order of things. He accepts us as we are, and loves us.
This is the message we all need to hear. You will find at the back of church some postcards. The drawing of this incident is by Sunhee Joo from Korea. No matter what culture we come from, irrespective of our class, education, wealth or background, we all need to know above all that God loves each of us, as we are, and Jesus came to include us in his love.
As a church community we are seeking to learn how to live in the spirit of acceptance that we see in Jesus. It is not automatic, and there are all sorts of pressures that can make any of us defensive and judgemental. Our heart’s desire, however, is to be Open for All, accepting all as Jesus did. This is especially important as somehow the church in general has gained the reputation of being inward looking and oppressive, instead of being the place where we can find life and hope in Jesus.
The fact that you are here suggests that you have done something, maybe started to climb into a tree, to try to see Jesus. May I encourage you to respond to his invitation of love? He would love to come, as it were, to stay with you and share your life. This is not just a life-enhancing feel-good factor, but will affect you deeply in every area of your being. You may find yourself being better as you get to know him.
Please take home a copy of this postcard if you wish. Stick it on your fridge door or have it on your desk. You may find it helpful to look closely at it. Who are you in the story? Are you Zacchaeus, up in the tree, hoping to remain inconspicuous? Do you sympathise with those who muttered because Jesus was lavishing attention on a self-confessed ‘sinner’? Where would you like to be in relation to Jesus?
If you want to pursue these questions, you might want to chat them over, perhaps with the person who brought you this morning, or catch me over coffee. You might want to come along to the launch of our Alpha course this Tuesday evening at Bonnys.
Jesus asks us all to come as we are. We are all accepted, all loved.
1. What is the most surprising thing about this story to you?
2. How do you respond to the suggested motives Zacchaeus might have for climbing the tree? Does this tell you anything about how you see yourself, and how you respond to Jesus?
3. What ways are we aware of that the church can be like the ‘muttering’ crowd? How should and could we be different?
4. The Son of Man came to seek that which was lost. How can we collectively do this today?
Friday, 25 September 2009
Last week Bruce spoke about ‘The Word became flesh and made his dwelling among us’. Literally, he set up his tent among us, he tabernacled himself among us. We are meant to understand that all that was promised and foretold in the Old Testament stories has now been fulfilled in Jesus. That we are pilgrim people, travelling with God, and he delights to make his home not just among us but actually within us as we believe in him. Our whole lives are centred on him. Today we are talking about ‘The Divine Impulse to draw us to himself’. An impulse to worship Him in spirit and in truth.
In our gospel reading we encounter Jesus at Jacob’s Well. Tired and thirsty he meets a local woman from Samaria and begins to gently expose her need of God’s forgiveness by asking her for a drink of water. A little defensive, she tries to engage Jesus in a debate about the best time, place and style for worship.
"Believe me, woman, a time is coming when you will worship the Father neither on this mountain nor in Jerusalem. You Samaritans worship what you do not know; we worship what we do know, for salvation is from the Jews. Yet a time is coming and has now come when the true worshippers will worship the Father in spirit and truth, for they are the kind of worshippers the Father seeks. God is spirit, and his worshippers must worship in spirit and in truth." (John 4:21-25)
Jesus reveals that questions over where we worship are not as important as how and why we worship. In Hebrews 12:28 the writer calls us to be grateful and worship God in a way that will please him. That is our objective this morning. To discover from these words of Jesus how to worship God in a way that will please him. We can observe from this passage that the kind of worship that pleases God has four characteristics:
God is pleased when our worship flows from being saved, when our worship is scriptural, when our worship is spiritual and God is pleased when our worship is sacrificial.
God is pleased when our worship flows from being saved
“You Samaritans worship what you do not know; we worship what we do know, for salvation is from the Jews.” (John 4:22)
Worship is linked to salvation. This is the most profound truth we can learn about worship. Only those who have accepted Jesus as their Lord and Saviour can truly offer worship that is pleasing to God. Remember at this point the Samaritan woman did not recognise Jesus as her Lord and Saviour so her worship was in ignorance. Perplexed by Jesus’ reply, “The woman said, "I know that Messiah" (called Christ) "is coming. When he comes, he will explain everything to us." Then Jesus declared, "I who speak to you am he." (John 4:25-26). Jesus reveals himself to her. Amazed at his answers she runs back to her village to tell everyone she has found the Messiah. The whole village returns and urges Jesus to stay with them. The village people worshipped no more in ignorance. It now sprang from thankfulness for who Jesus is and what he has done for us. Worship that pleases God springs from a heart that is saved and will lead others to salvation. We pray in Jesus name. We proclaim in Jesus name. And we do both when we praise in Jesus name and this pleases Him.
God is pleased when our worship is scripturally accurate
“true worshippers will worship the Father in spirit and truth, for they are the kind of worshippers the Father seeks.” (John 4:23)
Worship that pleases God must be scripturally accurate not scripturally ignorant. Occasionally someone will say to me “I like to think of God as…” and then they go on to describe a god they have created in their own image that they worship. The bible has a word for this approach. It’s called idolatry. Worship must be based on the truth of scripture. Jesus acknowledged that there are two kinds of worshippers - true worshippers and by implication - false worshippers. “true worshippers will worship the Father in spirit and truth.”
“To ‘worship in truth’ means to worship God as he is truly revealed in the Bible.” The best way to worship God, therefore, is to use scripture in worship. The Psalms, for example, are a divinely inspired hymnbook without the tunes. Indeed our study of the bible should not only feed our worship, it should also shape our view of what true worship is. Our faith is based on God’s progressive revelation of himself. That is what Jesus meant when he said “salvation is from the Jews”. The Jews were intended to be a light to the Gentiles. But Jesus also predicted to the Samaritan woman that the time had now come when it was no longer necessary to travel to Jerusalem and enter the Temple or offer sacrifices to worship God. Much of our thinking about worship, however, is still shaped by obsolete Old Testament concepts. Our churches are seen as holy places, with altars and priests. That is why it is so important that our understanding of worship focuses on the teaching of Jesus and practices of the New Testament. If Jesus is your Lord and Saviour, your body is now the Temple of the Holy Spirit. This means we can worship God anywhere. No place is more holy than any other. If we limit worship to what happens in this building, the minute you leave, you will leave your attitude of worship behind like a crumpled-up news sheet.
So if we are to please God, our understanding of worship must be shaped by the Bible and He is pleased when our worship is scripturally accurate.
God is pleased when our worship is spiritually authentic
“true worshippers will worship the Father in spirit and truth, for they are the kind of worshippers the Father seeks. God is spirit, and his worshippers must worship in spirit and in truth." (John 4:23-24)
“When Jesus said we must ‘worship in spirit’ he wasn’t referring to the Holy Spirit, but to your spirit.” Our innermost being. That is why only those who have been born again and made alive by the Spirit can worship in a way that pleases him. We are to worship with all our heart, with all our soul, with all our mind. “God wants all of us.” He doesn’t just want part of our life on Sundays. Jesus told us to give God, all of our heart, all of our soul, all of our mind and all of our strength. Rick Warren insists, “God is not interested in half-hearted commitment, partial obedience, and the leftovers of your time and money.” Spiritual worship therefore engages the whole person including our emotions. God gave us emotions so you could worship him with deep feeling - but those emotions must be genuine, not faked. God hates hypocrisy. He doesn’t want showmanship or pretence or phoniness in worship. He wants your honest real love. We can worship God imperfectly, but we cannot worship him insincerely. How ironic then that worship seems to be the most divisive issue in many churches today. Christians often differ on the most appropriate or authentic way to express praise to God, but often these arguments usually just reflect personality and background differences.
The Bible describes many different ways to praise God. These include, confessing, singing, shouting, standing in honour, kneeling, dancing, making a joyful noise, testifying, playing musical instruments, and raising hands. What is the best style of worship? The best style of worship is the one that most authentically represents yours any my love for God, based on the background and personality God gave you and me. We don’t bring glory to God by trying to be someone God never intended us to be. God wants us to be ourselves. God is pleased when our worship is spiritually authentic.
God is pleased when our worship is sacrificial and practical
What the Samaritan woman did involved great sacrifice. Sacrifice to her pride, to her self-esteem, a risk to what ever reputation she still had. She went to the villagers and said "Come, see a man who told me everything I ever did. Could this be the Christ?” Sacrificial and also practical. Indeed Jesus gently rebukes his disciples when they return and points to the Samaritan woman returning with her neighbours, praising her actions.
“Open your eyes and look at the fields! They are ripe for harvest. Even now the reaper draws his wages, even now he harvests the crop for eternal life, so that the sower and the reaper may be glad together.” (John 4:35-36) God is pleased when our worship is sacrificial.
When I come through the door of the church on Sundays, I ask myself ‘what am I bringing as my contribution to the worship?’ I do this because I could very easily forget the real reason why I am here. Ok on one level I’m here to bore you with my sermon! But it would become ‘what I can get out of it’; But it isn’t about me it’s all about God.
We could go through the motions, sing the songs, say the prayers, listen half heartedly to the sermon but our heart is far from him. We become connoisseurs of worship instead of participants of it. We could forget that we are ALL the performers of worship and that God is the audience. We could forget that sacrifice, the giving of ourselves is central to biblical worship.
I wonder what would happen if one Sunday we came to church and found that there was no clergy, no choir, no organist, no sidesperson, no order of service. With all the comforts stripped away. What would we do? Turn around and go home? Or would we sit down say the Lord’s Prayer and then go home? And what would we do if that happened Sunday after Sunday? Spending the entire time in silence, I think that would be very painful, learning not to rely on the music. How long would it take before we would bring our prayers, our readings, our thanksgivings, our praises and our songs? How long would it take for the excitement to come back as we worshipped from the heart and we met with God?
Unlike the Old Testament days we don’t need to sacrifice sheep and goats today and certainly no sacrifice on our part can earn God’s forgiveness or our salvation; the one perfect sacrifice of Jesus on the cross has done that for all time. Yet we ARE called to bring sacrifices in worship. We are called to offer our bodies as living sacrifices - this is OUR spiritual act of worship (Romans 12:1). We are called to offer our sacrifice of praise. Amen.
How do you feel about be a participant in our worship and God being the audience?
What part/s of the service do you find helpful in your worship to God? (i.e. prayers, hymns, reading/s etc.)
What do you find unhelpful?
Is there something you would like to see included? Or happen more often?