Saturday, 12 July 2014

Sunday 13 July 2014 Genesis 25:19-34, Romans 8:1-11, Matthew 13:1-9, 18-23, Bruce

Let me tell you a story.  We will call it “Jacob cheats”.  Over the next five weeks we will encounter various episodes in Jacob’s life: Jacob’s Ladder, Jacob gets married, Jacob wrestles, Jacob loses a son, Jacob regains his brothers.  It is a story of love and trust, but also of deceit, family rivalry, difficult marriages, innovative farming techniques and economic planning.  It is Eastenders meets the Archers, by way of the Nine O’clock news.
The story starts in a perfect garden.  “Since the creation of the world God’s invisible qualities – his eternal power and divine nature – have been clearly seen, being understood from what has been made, so that people are without excuse.” (Romans 1:20)  God places the man and woman there to enjoy the garden and to care for it.  The man decides that the garden is not perfect, and that he can make some improvements if he acts independently of God.  From that act of disobedience comes a cascade of disorder and sin. 
God’s response is to find a man of faith, Abraham.  It is this principle of faith that underlies our every connection with God.  “Abraham believed God and was justified.”  God makes three specific promises to him.  First, he will have descendants, in whom all the inhabitants of the world will be blessed.  Second, he will inherit a land of his own.  Third, he and his family will be blessed, and be a blessing to others.  This family has been specially selected, both to be blessed and also to carry God’s blessings to the entire world.  It is true that condemnation and judgement have come into the world as a result of mankind’s sin, but there is a message of hope that God loves us and wants to gift to us a special position as his children.
These three promises are Abraham’s great legacy, and he bequeaths them to his son Isaac, who in turn passes them on.  They should go to his elder son – Esau.  But Jacob steps in.  The name Jacob means Supplanter, Deceiver, Grabber, Cheat.  From before birth Jacob has been wrestling with his brother.  Now in childhood, he tricks Esau into signing over to him the Birthright, the rank or position of the first-born.  This will have no legal validity, but in a later passage we read of Jacob tricking his aged father Isaac into giving him the blessing (in a passage beloved of Alan Bennett fans).
This episode is referred to in Hebrews 12:16, where we read: “See that no one is sexually immoral, or is godless like Esau, who for a single meal sold his inheritance rights as the oldest son.”  In the words of Paul in Romans 1:25 “ They exchanged the truth about God for a lie, and worshipped and served created things rather than the Creator – who is for ever praised.”  He is speaking about the way that we have “all sinned and fallen short of the glory of God.”  We are talking here about the second commandment: idolatry.  This is not just the setting up of statues and worshipping them.  Idolatry is when we put anything in the place of God.  Jesus comments on this when he talks about the seed of the word being choked by thorns, “the worries of this life and the deceitfulness of wealth”.  We fixate on the things we do not have, and worry about them.  We get distracted by pleasures and pastimes that are not evil in themselves but take a higher priority in our lives than loving God and serving him.
Eating stew is not wrong.  Nevertheless for Esau to casually abandon the great blessing that God had given him merely to fill his belly, was an indication that he was a stranger to the faith of Abraham.
When reading the Old Testament it is sometimes permissible to see foreshadowings of New Testament themes showing through; these are called “types”.  An example would be God saving the children of Israel by the Passover, reminding us of Easter, then bringing them through the Red Sea, reminding us of baptism, giving them manna reminding us of communion, and bringing them to Sinai to receive the Law, reminding us of the coming of the Holy Spirit.
When I read of the two unborn brothers struggling in the womb and the struggle continuing into adult life, my mind is drawn to Paul’s letter to the Romans where he talks about the continuing struggle within every believer.  There is a part of us that seeks to follow God’s ways and longs to grow spiritually.  There is also a part that seems to be resolutely in rebellion against God, called by Paul “the mind governed by the flesh”.
Each of us who has come to faith in Jesus has been born again, and has been received into our new family where God is our Father and Jesus is our brother.  We were before subject to condemnation because of our sinful acts which we committed because of the sin principle within us.  Now we have been set free to live Godly lives.  We are each, if you like, a Jacob.  He was not perfect – far from it in fact.  He did learn and his character was changed as he “encountered God and grew in him”.  Eventually his name was changed from Jacob, Deceiver, to Israel.  But that is a story for another day.
The good news is that God privileged to be as a member of the family, and all the blessings were his.  A New Testament parallel would be that he was justified.  God had granted him a position of right standing.  We are declared righteous and forgiven the instant that we believe in Jesus. “And can it be that I should gain and interest in the Saviour’s blood?”  Yes!  “The vilest offender who truly believes, that moment from Jesus a pardon receives.”  Yes!  “I am a new creation, no more in condemnation.”  Yes!
But Jacob was not instantly perfect.  It took him a while to learn to walk with God.  In the same way, Paul says, we are learning to walk with God, led by his Spirit within us.  (If we do not have the Spirit of Christ, we do not belong to Christ: we are behaving like Esau, spurning God’s kindness.) 
But we are called to be those who admit our sin, trust in Jesus, and receive his Spirit.  We are called to be seed falling on good soil, hearing the word, understanding it, producing a good crop.  We are called to rejoice in our tribulations, knowing tribulations produce patience, and patience produces character, and character produces hope because the love of God has been shed abroad in our hearts by the Holy Spirit who was given to us. 
The New Testament word for this is sanctification.  It is the work of his Holy Spirit as we take advantage of all that he has given us.  We have his word to read and think about.  We have his presence within us to lead and guide us in prayer.  We have brothers and sisters to meet with and to share God’s love.  We have special events like New Wine, Cathedral Prayer Days or workshops.  We have the sacrament of communion to feed us and the sacrament of baptism where we celebrate our immersion in God.
Above all, we have the faith that God gives us, that he finds us as a Jacob but will transform us to be his true Israel.  “There is no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus, because through Christ Jesus the law of the Spirit of life has set you free.”
Discussion Starters
1.     How do you respond to the idea that something seemingly trivial ( a bowl of stew) can have such significance?
2.     Who do you have more sympathy for, Esau or Jacob?

3.     How do you react to there being no condemnation at all for the believer?

Saturday, 5 July 2014

Sunday 6 July 2014, Romans 7, Matthew 10, Come to me, Bruce

It is truly with joy that we bring Sophie for baptism today.  But we do so in the knowledge that baptism is a hot topic.  I have had passionate debates with people very near to me about whether we should baptise children.  Famously, this is one of the defining differences between us and the Baptist church down the road.
The concept is that when we are baptised we publically align ourselves with Christ and promise to live lives under his lordship and control.  We baptise babies when their parents and godparents promise to model this life for the child, to bring them up actively in the faith, and to involve them in the life of the worshipping community.
The problem is that so few families seem to really be able to live up to this promise.  I have personally carried our 423 baptisms during my time here at St Michael’s.  Even if half of them have moved away, that should still leave a couple of hundred young people and their families joyfully sharing with us the adventure of following Jesus.  Please understand that this is not said to blame them or their families.
The challenge is for us, the church.  We profess the faith uniquely revealed in the Holy Scriptures and set forth in the catholic creeds, just as we will do in a short while in this service; but we are called to proclaim it afresh in each generation.  As Sophie grows up, we must find ways to help her understand and live this timeless faith in ways that make sense to her.
The challenge is for us, each of us, for me.  In our reading from Matthew Jesus comments on the way that he was received by the people around him.  Some thought he was too straight laced and boring, while others thought he was too easy living and lax.  What they had in common was that they found it difficult to follow him and obey him.  It seems to be a common human trait to rebel against God.
Paul picks up this thought in this puzzling passage from Romans 7.  We replay the sin of Adam and Eve: God places us in the perfect garden but we think that we can do better than God, and improve it.  We replay the sin of the nation of Israel: God rescues us from Egypt and gives us the Law as a sign of belonging, but we find ourselves unable to keep it.  In deeply personal language, this great Christian leader Paul talks about the paradox that the more we want to live God’s way, the less we seem able to do so.
Every one of us faces this experience.  We may agree with the truths of the Christian faith, and about what constitutes a good life, but we seem chronically unable to live them out.  The biggest reason I encounter among people who do not belong is a feeling of inadequacy and guilt.  We do not feel good enough.  We might even be tempted to ask whether being a Christian “works” or not.
For Paul, who learnt from Jesus, the answer is clear.  Of course we are not good enough, of course we are not able to live lives that are pleasing to God.  We know that, we have experienced it.  If we think that we are living lives good enough, we are fooling ourselves (Jesus said, Matthew 9:12).  We were stumbling around in the darkness of our lives, and God gave us the Law, like a bright torch that shines everywhere – and shows us just how disordered we are!  We can make frantic efforts to put things right, but really we are just rearranging the mess.  What we need is a complete clear out.
And the good news, the gospel, is that God has done this.  It is as if a kindly friend has paid for a squad of cleaners to come and sort your life.  The contract has been signed and the fee paid.  Your life is sorted, in principle.  But you have to let them in.
Like all analogies this is a pale reflection of the truth.  The death of Jesus on the cross was a historical event that brought forgiveness for each and every sin that we have ever committed.  God raised Jesus to life.  He is alive today and he promises to come and share our lives today.  Every one of us who has been baptised and has said the words “I turn to Christ, I submit to Christ, I come to Christ” is saying that we have welcomed Jesus into our lives.
Do you see the problem?  It is not just that there might be questions about whether or not to baptise infants.  How could any of us dare to be baptised?  Every one of us who is an adult believer is challenged to experience the truth of these words and let Jesus into our lives.  Once we have done so, we are challenged to encounter him afresh and to grow in him – every day.
But how?
Jesus says it all, when he asks us to come to him.  To be a Christian is more than having a good knowledge of scripture or being able to sing lots of hymns.  To be a Christian is more than having a good ethical basis for life.  To be a Christian is to know Christ and to be fixated on him.  “Be thou my vision, O Lord, master, commander, of my heart,”  “be thou my best thought in the day and the night, both waking and sleeping, thy presence my light.”
Paul’s response to the practical problem of how to live this out is to say: “Thanks be to God, who delivers me through Jesus Christ our Lord!”  Understand that God loves you and that Jesus died for you, and open yourself to the possibility that he wants to share your life and take an active part in helping you to live. 
·         Look to encounter him in his word, as you read it privately and as you spend time with others exploring its meaning. 
·         Look to encounter him in prayer; spend perhaps four or five minutes in silence each day, asking Jesus to help you come to him. 
·         Look to encounter him in meeting others, as you discuss and pray together and support each other.
Discussion Starters
1.       22 For in my inner being I delight in God’s law; 23 but I see another law at work in me, waging war against the law of my mind and making me a prisoner of the law of sin at work within me.”  What sense can you make of this?
2.       25 Thanks be to God, who delivers me through Jesus Christ our Lord!”  What is your practical, day-to-day experience of this?
3.        28 ‘Come to me, all you who are weary and burdened, and I will give you rest. 29 Take my yoke upon you and learn from me, for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. 30 For my yoke is easy and my burden is light.’  Spend some time praying, for yourself and for others in the group, to encounter the living presence of Jesus.