Saturday, 11 October 2014

Sermon for Sunday 12 October 2014 – Philippians 3:12-4:1 and Matthew 22:1-14 - Kim

Don’t give up
Over the last few weeks we are been looking at the book of Philippians.  We are finding out that Paul’s goal was to know Christ and to be like him and to be all that Christ intended him to be. Is this what we want for ourselves, our children, our family and friends? Paul’s very quick to point out that he doesn’t consider that he’s arrived at that point but is going to expend all his energy for as long as he lives on achieving that goal. True Christian maturity means recognising that you have not arrived and that you must keep on pressing on towards the goal. Whatever life throws at us.
Sometimes it is easier to opt out because situations become too hard, we  give up trying and we don’t pay much attention to reading the bible, or saying prayers.  We dip in and out then wonder why things aren’t going so well. A short time ago we played a game at SMYL. Before a meeting I hid a Mars Bar in the room.  I also had a large supply of short pieces of string of varying lengths in a box. For the first game, I told the group that they had three minutes to make as long a chain as possible by tying the pieces of string together. Then, immediately they finished  I told them that there was a mars bar hidden somewhere in the room and that it can be kept by whoever finds it. After it was found we sat down and discuss the two games. I asked, and you can use your imagination here, ‘How motivated were different people to win them? ‘Was there anyone who didn’t really try?’ And ‘Did anyone compete more strongly in one game than the other?’ And ‘why?’ You can imagine the answers!
And it may be a cliché but this old saying is true: it takes two to tango. It’s true in our human relationships and it is true in our relationship with God in Christ. He will not let go of us, but he needs us to take hold of him if we are to stand firm. We warm to that first truth, but find the second rather harder, don’t we?  (Like the string game and the mars bar). We mean to stay close, but somehow we drift away, disentangling our hand from his to follow our own path and pursue our own interests. Christ is still there, reaching out, ready to respond the moment we ask him, but if we will not hold on then we limit what he can do. And it goes further than that. The joy of faith, the peace of God, the hope of eternal life can all be lost so easily, not because they are taken away but because we lose our grip on them, intent on grasping other pleasures. Paul recognises that he has not achieved all this yet but intends to keep on after it.  
I wonder how many of you have watched this film – ‘Cool Running’.  It’s a true story about the first Jamaican bobsleigh team. The background is that they had no sponsorship – everybody laughed, bobsleigh team, doesn’t that require SNOW! But the team were not interested in what people thought. They practiced in a homemade bobsleigh out of wood and metal wheels.  So determined were they that one of the team members sold his car to pay for the air tickets and accommodation at Calgary. They had no proper equipment, clothing, their bobsleigh was one that had been discarded … Everything was stacked against them YET the team had a goal and that was to complete the race, no matter what.  Nothing was going to get in the way of them crossing the finishing line, even if they had to carry their bobsleigh rather than ride in it.
We too, just like the Jamaican bobsleigh team, will encounter obstacles as we journey with God.  The obstacles can and do distract us from our journeying with God, ‘disappointment’, ‘illness’, ‘what others think’, redundancy, other people and so on.  Things that come out of the blue and stop us dead in our tracks. Knock us off course and the journey becomes difficult and sometimes we think it would be better if we were to give up! Sometimes we need to just stop and think’ what are the real obstacles’ that get in the way of us staying on course?
One thing that can hinder our journey is the past.  What things from the past are you still carrying? There is a saying: ‘If you bring the past into the present, if you are not careful you will take it into the future with you’. There was much in Paul’s life before his encounter with Jesus that he might have preferred to forget – he knows he is not perfect but he is determined to persevere.  How willing are we at persevering when things get tough? Paul is not saying that he wants to forget because he feels so guilty about his past. He is simply saying that if he constantly looks back the feelings of guilt will immobilise him. And they will immobilise us too. Paul knows that God has forgiven him and wants him to focus on following him. The same applies to us. Do we know God has forgiven us? Paul is telling us not to live in the past. If there are things that we have done wrong, and if we have asked for forgiveness, then God’s promise is that it is done and dealt with and you do not have to keep going back and dwelling on those events.
If there are really good things in our past, we need to leave those behind us as well, not saying that they are unimportant but recognising that what matters is how we are living today. You can’t run forwards while looking backwards – if you try it, it won’t be long before you fall over. The aim is to look forward- fully focused on what is ahead, using all your energy to make sure that you win the prize. The prize of living in God’s new world.
Paul is also saying we need to be consistent regardless of the circumstances.  Things happen regardless of the circumstances we are in: the seasons change, the car won’t go if you run out of petrol and so on. We need to pray that God would help us to be consistent in following him, regardless of the circumstances.
Whatever our circumstances Christ is still here, reaching out, ready to respond the moment we ask him, but if we will not hold on then we limit what he can do. And it goes further than that. The joy of faith, the peace of God, the hope of eternal life can all be lost so easily, not because they are taken away but because we lose our grip on them, and end up intent on grasping other pleasures. Paul recognises that he has not achieved all this yet but intends to keep on after it.  His goal was to win the prize that God had set before him – the prize of living in God’s new world. He knew this was a race that was going to take him is whole life to win, but he was determined that nothing would get in the way of him crossing the finishing line.
In a short while Sophie will be baptised into the family of God, and Josh, Zara and Naomi will receive Communion for the first time. Sophie is at the beginning of her journey and Josh, Zara and Naomi are a little further along.  Our hope and prayers for them is that at some time in the future they will each want to stand and face the world and make the promises that were made for them at baptisms for themselves.  In order for them to do that they will need our help.  We will need to teach them how to have a relationship with God and to show them that whatever come their way, not to give up. You pick yourself up, dust yourself down and grab hold of Christ’s hand and move forward.
For Christ is still here, reaching out, ready to respond the moment we ask him, but if we will not hold on then we limit what he can do. Don’t leave it all to Him: each day take hold afresh of Christ and make him yours as you are his. Amen.
1.       Do you keep on going when the going gets tough or do you find yourself wandering off course? What distracts you?
2.       Are there things from the past that are still with you today? Are they hindering your walk with God?
3.       Do you find it easy to pick yourself up and dust yourself down when move on when things go wrong or  do not go according to plan?
4.       What can we do to encourage each other to keep on going?
Pray for each other that that God would help us to be consistent in following him, regardless of the circumstances.

Harvest Sunday 5 October 2014, Philippians 3:1-11, Bruce

On this harvest Sunday we find ourselves going into the second half of our series of sermons going through Paul’s letter to the Christians in Philippi.  When we receive a letter or email, we normally read the whole thing in one sitting, so it might seem a trifle odd to break what is a short letter up into nine separate chunks.  It does give time, though, to see how themes develop and to ponder the richness of what Paul is saying.
Paul continues from where he left off last week, as it were, talking about the narrow escape that has befallen his comrade Epaphroditus.  This man had been sent from Philippi to find Paul in prison and care for him, but he himself had fallen grievously ill and had nearly died.  Paul is grateful to God for sparing him “sorrow upon sorrow”, and sends Epaphroditus home for his health’s sake.  Other sorrows that he has previously mentioned are that he is locked up in prison and on trial, possibly for his life.  There are rival Christian leaders who seem to be making hay while Paul is out of circulation, preaching Christ out of a desire to do Paul down.
He continues on a familiar theme, that they (and we) should rejoice in the Lord.  He writes this, he says, to safeguard them.  This returns to another theme mentioned earlier, that we will all be presented before Jesus on the day of his second coming; Paul wants them (and us) to be living lives worthy so that he (and we) will not be ashamed on that day.  That will be the true harvest day, when the good seed is revealed.
You will recall from two weeks ago that we saw that a rejoicing heart is a trusting heart.  The opposite of this is to grumble and complain which indicates a heart that is not at rest, trusting Jesus.  Paul talks all the time of the need to rejoice.  This is not because he was of a naturally sunny disposition and everything was going well.  Rather, the more that things went badly, the more that he calls for us to rejoice.
The immediate context is his concern about religious people who had somehow missed the truth.  He warns against the dogs, the evildoers, the mutilators of the flesh.  Paul is talking here of people sometimes described as Judaisers.  They are members of the church, but insist that to be a true Christian one must also follow all the traditional Hebrew laws, as found in the Hebrew Scriptures.  This is an impressive use of the Rule of Three, which is an old trick used by orators.  First, dogs in the ancient near East were not the pets that we have today, but were regarded almost as vermin; Jews often described gentiles as dogs.  Second, the Jews regarded themselves as custodians of the law of God, and as naturally living lives that were better than those of the nations around them.  Third, the defining mark of a Jewish man was to be circumcised, and this had become almost a badge of right standing with God.  Paul brilliantly turns all three of these around.  These people who call others dogs are “dogs” themselves; these who are proud of their righteous behaviour are actually “evildoers”; these are folk who cut themselves -  they are no better than pagan priests who slash their bodies as part of their rituals.
Jesus has addressed this attitude when he told the story about the landowner and the vineyard, and how the tenants rejected the owner.  He was saying that the whole nation had missed the point of their calling and seemed to have declared independence.  They were very religious and very sincere.  They had allowed their religiosity to get in the way of a loving trusting relationship with God.
No, Paul says, it those who depend entirely upon Jesus and all that he has done for us, and is doing in us by the work of his Holy Spirit, who are truly marked as belonging to God.  We worship God by his Holy Spirit, and we glory, we boast in Jesus Christ.  We have no confidence in our own ability to serve God or please him.
Paul himself has an impeccable list of seven attributes that should put him on the highest level of being able to please God.  He is as Jewish as it is possible to be, and was filled with zeal to live well.  If anyone could have confidence in himself it was Paul.  But he acts now like an accountant or a liquidator.  Here is a list of assets which have now become worthless.  Kodak have amassed all this stock of film, but no one wants it because they all have digital cameras.  We have all these slide rules but now everyone uses calculators.  It is worse than that; we have all this stock of frozen fish but someone turned off the power and all we have is stinking fish to get rid of.  We thought we had a container of pure gold, but it turns out to be full of sewage.  Paul is saying that the very thing that seemed such an advantage before is now seen to be a distraction and a problem.
Paul returns to an earlier theme.  Do you remember that at the beginning of chapter two he urges us to have the same mind-set as Jesus Christ?  Jesus abandoned all claim to any rank or position, making himself humble and obedient, even to death on a cross.  Therefore God raised him from the dead and gave him the place of highest honour.  From his prison cell Paul writes that he is on the same path.  Anything that he might have looked to which might give him rank or position are seen for what they truly are, distractions from the real work of following Jesus.  When things seem to go against us, we rejoice in God.  We praise him because we are discovering that beneath the froth of everyday “happy” life there is a reality to be experienced.  You will recall from the story that Jesus told that some of the seed fell on shallow soil and was fried by the sun of persecution, and some of the seed fell in weedy soil and was choked by the cares of this world.  Some, however, fell in good soil and produced a good crop.
How do we get to be that good soil?  By living lives centred on Jesus.  We allow his Spirit space to work in us, the Spirit who is known for love, joy peace …  We boast in Jesus and all that he has done for us.  This is the path to the true harvest.
Discussion Starters
1.     “If ye love me, keep my commandments”.  How, in the light of this section of Paul’s letter to the Philippians, would you suggest that we attempt this?
2.     What parallels can you suggest between the Judaisers of Paul’s time and people today?

3.     What can you find in this passage which suggests how Christians might respond to the fact of suffering?