Monday, 26 March 2012

Sermon for Sunday 25 March 2012 - Hebrews 5: 5-10 and John 12: 20.35 - The start of Jesus' Passion (and ours!)

There, hopefully, is still a strange sight by Dall Burn (Kinloch Rannoch, Scotland), amongst all the Scots Pines and Silver Birches and the Cedar trees, by the side of the burn, there is
an apple tree. It was planted as a sapling over thirty years ago by a boy from the school there who had lost his Father. Apple tree because his Father likes Apples and because the fruit would be eaten by the local people and of course the boys from the school – which it was - planted in sorrow – grew to be fruitful and to be a reminder to the young boy how strong and loving his father was.

John tells us that some Greek travellers who came to Jerusalem for the Passover wanted to meet Jesus. It was not unusual for Greeks to travel. They loved to journey and discover new things. When these Greeks heard of Jesus, they wanted to meet him personally, but didn’t know how to approach him. So they did something a Greek would feel comfortable doing. They found a sympathetic looking insider named Philip, a disciple of Jesus whose name happened to be a Greek name, and asked him how they could meet with Jesus. Philip wasn’t sure what to say. So Philip told Andrew about some Greeks wanting to see Jesus and Andrew fortunately stepped in
and personally introduced these foreigners to Jesus.

Here were seekers who were not Jews coming to meet the Saviour. It was an exciting moment. And Jesus increases the excitement by saying, ‘The hour has come for the Son of Man to be glorified.’ The disciples would see this as the coming of the promised kingdom of God. That was exciting indeed. So the next set of words came as a shock as Jesus started to talk of death. He told them how troubled his soul was. (We all know what it is like to feel troubled) Like any human being he did not want to die. He was only 33 years old; he did not seek out death. But he came to do whatever was the will of the Father.

Jesus’ response to meeting these Greek visitors points to the reason why he came to Jerusalem at this Passover Feast. Jesus knew that this was his “hour” -- the time of fulfilment when he would be glorified through his suffering and death on the cross. John in his gospel account points out that it was not only the Jews who were seeking the Messiah, but foreigners as well. Jesus came to offer his life as an atoning sacrifice not only for the chosen people of Israel, but for all nations as well. It is interesting to note that up and until this moment Jesus had said on several occasions, ‘my time has not yet come,’ (John 2:4 the wedding at Cana being one of them). These Greeks coming to see Jesus seemed to signify to Him that now was the right time to say to people ‘That the hour has come for the Son of Man to be glorified’.

In trying to put across the events which were necessary to happen, Jesus told his disciples a short parable about the nature of seeds to help explain the spiritual significance of death and rebirth. Seeds cannot produce new life by themselves. They must first be planted in the earth before they can grow and produce fruit. So what is the spiritual analogy which Jesus pointing to here? Is this, a reference to his own impending death on the cross and resurrection? Or does he have another kind of "death and rebirth" in mind for his disciples and us? Jesus, I suspect, had both meanings in mind for his disciples. The image of the grain of wheat dying in the earth in order to grow and bear a harvest could be seen as a metaphor for Jesus' own death, burial and his resurrection.
Jesus knew that the only way to victory over the power of sin and death was through the cross. Jesus reversed the curse of Adam and Eve’s disobedience through his obedience to the Father's will -- his willingness to go to the cross to pay the price for our sins and to defeat death once and for all. His obedience and death on the cross obtain for us freedom and new life in the Holy
Spirit. His cross frees us from the clutches of sin and death and shows us the way of perfect love and forgiveness. To show us the way we should conduct ourselves in time of trouble and despondency. For grains of wheat to grow, their burial is necessary. Only by death comes new life. If we hide the grain in a box to keep it safe and secure, it will be useless. Only when it is put in the cold earth can it rise to new life. Only by giving it away to the earth can we receive a good return.

So often we seek comfort and safety. We avoid conflict or having to put ourselves out. We look after ourselves. Jesus tells us that anyone who hoards their life or their talent or skill will lose it. It is no use just surviving; we need to live life to the full. This will involve risk and danger. But of life it can be said: ‘use it or lose it’. Bearing in mind what the world did to Jesus, whoever wants to serve him must realise they will not escape from similar troubles.

BUT with this passage we end with a vision of the future. When Jesus has triumphed over the rulers of this world: ‘when I am lifted up from the earth, I will draw all people to myself’. Looking
back through two millennia, we can see how the cross has drawn all nations to come before Him. We come to him who understands our suffering, who has borne our grief and our sins. We come to him who has triumphed over evil and through death opened to us the way to eternal life.
He saw Himself as a seed that would die and produce fruit and as a conqueror, who would defeat Satan (verse 31 and Col 2:14-15). The cross would open the way of salvation for both Jews and Gentiles (verse 32). Jesus could not serve as priest on earth: but He can serve as priest in heaven. He is there ministering for us today.

If we want to experience the new life which Jesus offers, then the outer shell of our old, fallen nature must be broken and put to death. In Baptism our “old nature” enslaved by sin is buried with Christ and we rise as a “new creation” in Christ. This process of death to the “old fallen self” is both a one-time event, such as baptism, as well as a daily, on-going cycle in which God buries
us more deeply into Jesus’ death to sin so we might rise anew and bear fruit for God. There is a great paradox here. Death leads to life. When we "die" to our selves, we "rise" to new life in Jesus Christ.

What does it mean to "die" to oneself? I believe that it means, all that what is opposite to God's will must be "crucified" or "put to death". God gives us grace to say "yes" to his will and to reject whatever is opposite to his loving plan for our lives. Jesus also promises that we will bear much "fruit" for him, if we choose to deny ourselves for his sake. Jesus used forceful language to describe the kind of self-denial he had in mind for his disciples including us. What did he mean
when he said that one must hate himself? The expression to hate something often meant to prefer less. Jesus says that nothing should get in the way of our preferring him and the will of our Father in heaven. Our hope is in Paul's reminder that "What is sown in the earth is perishable, what rises is imperishable" (1 Cor. 15:42). Do we hope in the Lord and follow joyfully the paths He has chosen for each of us?

"Lord, by your cross you have redeemed the world. May we always have the courage to embrace your will for our life? Though it may produce a cross on earth for us; may it produce a crown in heaven that will last forever". Amen

1. Jesus looked upon His death as an opportunity to glorify God. Do you take that attitude when you face a time of trial?
2. How do you meet Jesus in your life and would you introduce Him to others who are searching for him?
3. How can we (all of us at St. Michael’s) help people discover the Lord Jesus today? Please take time to pray with each other in your group I am mindful that these questions may provoke some emotion/s to rise.

Saturday, 17 March 2012

Liquid Church Questions, Gifts and Love John 3.14-21 Ephesian 2.1-10, Anne

On the radio a couple of weeks ago, the author Kathy Lette was promoting her new book about a single mum and her autistic son. The main character is modelled on her own son Julius, who is now a young adult. Because of his disability, he struggles to make sense of the world and he has his own particular, unique way of interpreting the world around him. In the book she uses real examples of the sorts of questions Julius asked as he was growing up, questions such as: If onions make you cry, are there some vegetables which make you happy? Is a harp just a nude piano? What’s the speed of dark? And finally: Why isn't there another word for synonym? (think about it!)

At one level, his questions are both breathtakingly profound and sensible and yet at another they seem a little ridiculous because he doesn’t understand what appears obvious to us. He can't filter out his own particular way of looking at things in order to make connections and to understand new information.

Nicodemus has the same sort of difficulty – like Julius, his view of the world is based on preconceptions, but his preconceptions come from his background knowledge and experience as a Pharisee and leader. We enter the story halfway through a conversation between Nicodemus and Jesus. Nicodemus has come to Jesus in the dark – it’s night-time, but he’s really in the dark – because he’s struggling to understand. But as a Pharisee and a leader, he already thinks he knows what is or isn't possible with God. So, Jesus says to him: I tell you the truth, no one can see the kingdom of God unless he is born again, born from above (Jn 3.3)

Now Nicodemus is a learned man, he’s not stupid. He knows he’s alive, he’s breathing, walking and talking. So he asks what appear to be perfectly sensible questions, but they’re a bit like Julius’ questions: they’re only sensible in relation to his view of the world but that’s the point, Jesus’ view is different. Jesus talks to him about a radical new birth, a life born of water and the Spirit. And so Nicodemus’ questions, How can a man be born when he is old? Surely he cannot enter a second time into his mother’s womb to be born! (Jn 3.4) are a bit ridiculous. Jesus answers him, but Nicodemus’ idea of what’s possible, stops him from embracing His words and so Nicodemus asks a final question, How can this be? (Jn 3.9).

Jesus then likens the lifting up of the Son of Man to Moses lifting up the snake in the desert. He refers back to a story Nicodemus understands and knows well – a story from the Book of Numbers, from Hebrew Scriptures. The Israelites in the desert desert God and are poisoned by snakes. God tells Moses to make a bronze serpent’s head, place it on the top of a pole and lift it high so it can be seen. Those who are bitten who look up at the serpent’s head will not die – they are saved.

And so Jesus then makes a statement, a statement which is the essence of the gospel message, a statement that is one of the most well known pieces of Scripture in the Bible. It’s so familiar – and yet I wonder sometimes if we take the words for granted? I wonder if we recite the verse and yet don't really hear what it says? I wonder if we read it, and don’t really look at it? Jesus says: For God so loved the world that he gave his one and only son, that whoever believes in him shall not perish, but have eternal life. (Jn 3.16)

Using Julius’ and Nicodemus’ questioning approach might slow us down enough to examine the words more closely, might help us to embrace the words. So: -

What does God do? He gives..

What does he give? His only Son

Who does he give him to? The world

What’s ‘the world’? You, me, all of us

What does he give his Son for? So that we shall not perish, but have eternal life

Why does he give? Because he loves us.

As a society, we know about gifts – especially on days like today. On Mothering Sunday we might give or receive a gift to say thank you; at other times we might give a gift to celebrate a birthday, a wedding or to mark some other special event.

An experiment carried out on a busy London street shows how we interpret the giving and receiving of gifts; it highlights our preconceptions about gifts. A man stood on a street corner giving out leaflets to the passers-by. The leaflet said: ‘Return this leaflet to the person who gave it to you and he will swap it for £10’. And what do you think people did? Quite a lot didn't even read it, assuming a piece of paper wasn’t worth having and just threw it away. Others read it – but it was too good to be true, they assumed that there must be a catch in it somewhere, after all, you never get something for nothing - there’s no such thing as a free lunch. The £10 gift must be conditional on answering a survey or signing up to something. The smallest proportion of people by far (less than 10%) took it back to the vendor and hesitantly and tentatively gave back the card and received the £10.

In John 3.16, God’s motivation is clear: he loves us. He gives us the gift of His Son so that we might live. But we’ve got preconceptions - there must be a catch, right? There must be conditions, after all, why would you give the most precious thing you have to a whole bunch of people like us? Surely we have to sign up first; we have to believe in order to be offered the gift? Or maybe we have to earn it by doing good things. So it might be a bit like having a nectar card or Tesco club card, every time you give up your seat on a bus, you get ‘points’ which you can then swap for God’s ‘free gift’ - only the gift is not free because you had to earn the points in the first place. Even on Mothering Sunday there is an expectation that the flowers and chocolates are a thank you for the sleepless nights, for the taxi service, for putting up with the angst of teenage years - we’ve certainly earned those flowers and chocolates – it was hard work!

In the letter to the Ephesians, Paul preaches that love is God’s motivation. Do we have to believe first? Is the gift conditional on ‘signing up’? No - “Because of his great love for us, God, who is rich in mercy, made us alive with Christ even when we were dead in transgressions – it is by grace you have been saved” (Eph 2.4-5).

Do we have to earn God’s gift? No – “For it is by grace you have been saved, through faith – and this not from yourselves, it is a gift of God – not by works, so that no one can boast” (Eph 2.8-9).

What does this mean? The whole point of grace is that it is undeserved and unconditional. The gift of God’s one and only Son is freely given - in love.


Lent is a good time to reflect, to question, to face our struggles and challenges. As we journey towards Good Friday, towards Jesus being lifted up, towards the act of God’s saving love, we can place before Him our questions and struggles. In your group, after discussing the questions, you might want to have some time for silence, to bring before God your questions, your struggles and the preconceptions that make it difficult to receive his most precious gift.

1. Are there parts of the gospel message you struggle with?

2. Like Nicodemus, are there parts of the gospel message that challenge your preconceptions?

3. God offers his gift – what’s our response?

4. In John 3.16, the word “believes” means ‘believing into”. It is more than believing in whether Jesus exists or not, but rather has the meaning of trusting in and commitment and obedience. Thus the verse calls us to discipleship - to be followers of Christ. Paul also says: “For we are God’s workmanship, created in Christ Jesus to do good works, which God prepared in advance for us to do.” How are ‘discipleship’ and ‘in Christ Jesus doing good works’ linked and played out in our lives?

Saturday, 10 March 2012

SERMON 11 MARCH 2012. THE CROSS - GOD’S POWER AND WISDOM 1 Corinthians 1: 18 – 25 John 2 : 13 – 22, Robert

“For the message of the cross is foolishness to those who are perishing, but to those who are being saved, it is the power of God.” This is one of those riveting verses that was instrumental in galvanising the Reformation in the 16th century, and this whole passage really ought to jump off the page at us today and fill us with joy in our salvation through the cross of Jesus Christ. Yet it is not immediately clear exactly what Paul means. I want to take a closer look with you this morning at this highly compressed passage which nevertheless packs such a mighty punch.

First of all: What is this message of the cross? This is just such a highly appropriate question for us to explore as we travel through Lent. The message of the cross...

Let’s start by looking at what Paul means by the words ‘the cross’ – which comes over as a sort of short-hand expression. The message of the cross.....

Jesus has spent some three years in a ministry of teaching, healing and exorcism, in which he has confronted every kind of sin, and disease, and human failing - every kind of malicious opposition and threat – and indeed confronted Satan himself; and has shown such authority, discernment and command that on each occasion he has been victorious. But all the time, that ministry has been leading towards a climax – a final show-down between the forces of good and evil.

And that climax comes quite suddenly as Jesus is forcibly arrested, led away to a trial on trumped-up charges in what we would describe as a kangaroo court, handed over to the Roman authorities who find that the easiest way to keep the peace is to condemn him to death by crucifixion. It would seem that this is a classic case of the triumph of injustice and cruelty – indeed the triumph of all the powers of evil, personified in the New Testament in Satan himself.

But what is not apparent at the time, either to his followers let alone all the powers arraigned against him, is that – in his suffering and death – Jesus, representing us all – is absorbing all our sin and wrong-doing, which is to be buried with him for ever, while he himself rises victorious from the grave to offer us all a new life. And that forgiveness of sin and offer of new life is now the good news which is offered freely to all who turn to the risen Jesus and put their trust in him. This is the ‘message of the cross’. Not easy to grasp, certainly, and full of mystery and awe. But as God himself helps us to glimpse by faith its life-changing impact, we discover in our own lives that it is a message of forgiveness and hope and freedom.

Now Paul goes on to say, (not surprisingly), that to those who see no particular need for forgiveness and are perfectly happy in their own way of life, this makes no sense at all. Paul’s word for their reaction is that the message of the cross is simply ‘foolishness’. It confounds all reason and common-sense. Is it not obvious that – as usual – the well meaning efforts of a good man have been ground into the dust. Evil has triumphed and we just have to face facts and accept that the world is full of such manifold injustice.

But to those whose eyes have been opened and have perceived the reality beneath the surface, God’s love and power have actually triumphed and the powers of darkness have been decisively defeated.

To ordinary human eyes, the cross was a disaster and confirms all our fears about a meaningless world in which the strongest triumph using whatever means they choose. That is the received worldly wisdom.

But the good news of the Gospel always confounds worldly wisdom. In human terms, the Gospel is always a paradox. Jesus had taught us all along that, if you want to find life, you have to give it away. It is the poor in spirit who find true riches. Above all, true victory is not achieved by human force, but by selfless and self-giving love. To believe that, and put it into practice, is the key to true life, freedom and fulfilment. Christ himself, therefore – declares Paul – is the power of God and the wisdom of God. And the proof of it lies in the cross and the resurrection. It is only love and self-sacrifice which will ultimately triumph over sin and evil. God’s power does not express itself in worldly force, but through the power of love to change lives.

Now this is not to say that we meekly allow manifest evil to trample the poor and innocent, while we stand by and hope that somehow love will win out. There is a time to be angry and a time to fight the forces of evil, and in our Gospel reading we find Jesus both angry and violent in his cleansing of the temple. Sometimes I believe we should be more angry than we are when we see wrong prevail. The ravages of disease should make us sufficiently angry to give every support to the battle for a cure. The evil and cruelty that we humans are capable of inflicting on one another must be forced into the open - exposed and opposed. We must fight to ensure that – sooner or later – those who perpetrate barbarity and death are brought to justice.

But ultimately only the cross is the bench-mark of the final victory over sin and death. And this is because the root of the problem does not lie in people’s actions, but in the depths of their hearts. That is where the critical change has to happen. You don’t change people’s hearts by meeting violence with violence. You change people’s hearts through prayer and the power of love.

There’s no time to recount examples this morning – of which there are hundreds. But I remember vividly the testimony of a town under gang rule where violence and death were everyday occurrences. And a small group of Christians moved in and begun to pray and become a community that had the cross at the centre of its message. And miraculously the life of that town changed because people’s hearts and attitudes were wonderfully changed by the power of God. The message of the cross was revealed as the power of God.

On the other hand, whenever an institution – particularly a religious institution – tries to impose its own will by force, it may force everyone into line, but - in doing so - it automatically becomes a mirror-image of the Kingdom of God, and therefore, by definition, demonic. Whereas true authority and true royal power are exemplified by loving and faithful service to others – Jesus, the Master, kneeling to wash the disciples’ feet and dying on the cross for your sins and

mine. This is true royalty – the only kind of royalty in God’s kingdom which He recognises. (And, just to say at this point, a description of true royalty wonderfully exemplified at this point in our history, by our own Queen, who has dedicated herself so entirely to this model of Christian service).

The world is divided, so Paul tells us here, between those who live by this world’s rules and standards, where might is right and if you can’t beat them, you have to join them. They are the ones who have got it wrong, and are on the road which blindingly leads them to destruction. And, on the other side, are those whose eyes have been opened by the grace of God, and come to the foot of the cross seeking forgiveness and new life, and find that their lives are now filled with hope and a new strength – not in worldly power and ambition – but filled with outgoing love lived out in the empowerment of the Holy Spirit. Those whose attitudes and actions live out God’s words through the Old Testament prophet Zechariah (4:6): “Not by might, nor by power, but by my spirit, says the Lord of hosts.”

As we travel with Jesus on the road both to the cross and the resurrection, we need to discover where God’s power and God’s wisdom are truly to be found. And that lies in the cross of Jesus, where (as Paul says) Christ is for us the power of God and the wisdom of God.” “For the message of the cross is foolishness to those who are perishing. But to those who are being saved, it is the power of God.” Robert


1. What do you understand by the ‘message of the cross’? Why is it ‘foolishness’ to normal human values? And what does it mean to say that people are ‘perishing’?

2. Can you think of experiences – either personal or ones which you have read about – where prayer and God’s power have changed lives/situations in a particular and positive way?

3. ’Jews demand miraculous signs and Greeks look for wisdom’. Can you think of modern equivalents?

Saturday, 3 March 2012

Sunday 4 March 2012, Romans 4:13-25, Mark 8:31-38, All you need is ...., Bruce

All you need is faith. Well, you also need love and hope and a few other things, but in order to receive a not-guilty verdict from God and be guaranteed a place with him in glory, Paul tells us that all we need is faith. He cites Abraham as the father of all those who have faith.

Some will say that is too easy. What about living an ethical life, being kind to others and working hard at our salvation? Is this not the kind of “easy believism” that results in a shallow Christian experience that has not been thought through?

My first answer is that faith is allied to obedience. Paul says of himself in Romans 1: 5 Through him (Jesus) we received grace and apostleship to call all the Gentiles to the obedience that comes from faith for his name’s sake. We all want to live obedient lives; the problem is that none of us manages it. Thus we need forgiveness, and that is something our Father God chooses to give to us, on the basis that Jesus has died in our place. An attitude of submission to the will of God is a primary evidence that we have received his grace, and have gone through that narrow door of faith in Jesus. Peter is very happy to make the joyous statement that Jesus is the longed-for messiah; he is not so willing to accept it when Jesus talks about his necessary betrayal and death. Peter has his own ideas about how the will of God should play out. He (and we) must learn obedience, and this is the flip side of believing and trusting Jesus. God is good – all the time, even when outward circumstances do not seem to confirm that.

My second answer is that faith is allied to perseverance. Paul here assumes that we are familiar with the life history of Abram, whose name was subsequently changed to Abraham. He originates in Ur in Mesopotamia, and we meet him in Haran, aged 75, married to Sarai who is barren. God promises him descendants, a land of his own, and that he will be a blessing to many through his descendants. He has many adventures in Canaan and Egypt, and by the age of 85 has become prosperous and respected – but he has no children. God renews his promise of descendants; they will be as numerous as the stars they can see in the heavens. Genesis 15: 6 says Abram believed the LORD, and he credited it to him as righteousness.

So all is well, except that Sarai his wife is still barren. Sarai persuades Abraham that God needs a little help, and that he should sleep with her servant girl Hagar who duly conceives. This causes upset in the family(!). Furthermore it appears that the son Ishmael who appears 9 months later is not the child of the promise. Silence falls for 13 years and then God speaks again. He changes the name of Abram (exalted father) to Abraham (father of many), and changes Sarai’s name to Sarah. God reaffirms his promise that Abraham will be the father of a son, and that Sarah will be the mother. Abraham is at this point 99, and Sarah is 89 or 90.

Do you see the patient nature of faith? Abraham has been carrying this promise for 13 years, wondering how God would fulfil it, watching himself and his wife getting older. It was not getting any easier. He was obedient, and he was dogged in his expectation that God would do what he had said. He was obedient in that he acted; nothing much would have happened if Abraham and Sarah had slept in different beds or even tents. And in due course Isaac, the child of promise, was born. Do you see that faith is far from easy? Abraham looked at that which was as good as dead, their own bodies, and saw the possibility of life. He staked everything on this.

This is the same faith that we have that God could take the lifeless body of Jesus and raise it to new life. This is the same faith we have for ourselves. We trust that the Holy Spirit will shed God’s love abroad in our hearts and help us to a personal relationship with him. As we offer our bodies as a living sacrifice, so we will be transformed by the renewing of our minds, proving in our own lives what his good and acceptable will is. We will truly encounter him and grow in him, as we experience his love and forgiveness across all that life throws at us.

How can we have this faith? It is a gift that we receive. Ephesians 2: 8 For it is by grace you have been saved, through faith—and this is not from yourselves, it is the gift of God— 9 not by works, so that no one can boast.10 For we are God’s handiwork, created in Christ Jesus to do good works, which God prepared in advance for us to do.

So we see that an ethical life, being kind to others and working hard are entirely in keeping with a life of faith in God through Christ Jesus. We live the life of Christ in the office, shop or school where we work, at the school gate, or when we meet our neighbours and friends. We are God’s handiwork when we are pacing the midnight hours away with a fractious child, or brushing away our neighbour’s snow.

These things are not what make us Christian, though. They are rather what we should expect to see in our lives because we are Christians. Our Lenten disciplines of prayer, bible reading, fasting and the like are ways that many find helpful to unfog the mind, remove the distractions, and free us to receive the gift.

May God give us obedience and perseverance as we grow in the faith of Abraham, and follow Jesus in the way of the cross.

Discussion Starters

1. What do you think Sarah (Sarai) thought when it was announced to her that she would conceive Isaac? (Genesis 18)

2. Paul bases his argument upon the experiences of Abraham. How do you respond to the stories of the patriarchs (Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, Joseph)?

3. How would you define faith? What is it in your experience?

4. Please take time to pray for each other to encounter God afresh by faith, and take steps of growth in him.