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Sometimes when beginning to write a sermon I think around the odd quote or truism to inspire me. Today or more correctly earlier this week after examining today’s readings, I kept coming back to the word change. And so I googled the images for change – pages of them on posters, lampposts, on all sorts of amazing backgrounds, familiar and often true words or sayings in their hundreds came up, A few…
The only thing constant in life is change ——-who hasn’t heard that one!
If you do not create change, change will create you. (business quote?)
You change your life by changing your heart (and in reverse? what comes first?)
Life can change in a blink of an eye
Every new day is a chance to change your life
Changing is difficult, not changing is fatal.
Change is a process, not an event (both)
Your life does not get better by chance, it gets better by change
Change your thinking, change your life.
Our gospel today is all about change – the fear of change – and the excitement creativity and unknown-ness of change.
Jesus lived in an ‘honour and shame’ society much more like that of the middle- east today – think Afghanistan, Pakistan, Palestine……. Honour was primary and social classes determined by birth and purity laws. Jesus is in his hometown Nazareth – where people know his birth status and his honour rating. Why he was just a kid not so long ago!
At first they were ‘astounded’ at his teaching, his authority, his power…..and then they (synagogue leaders) ask – who is he really and they look to what counts in their society – family origin, blood relations, honour rank. In asking they attempt to discredit him – he is only the craftsman’s son. Who does he think he is?
Jesus tells them and us and that his own home town doesn’t want to listen and learn. Perhaps ‘familiarity breeds contempt’ – and that there are people elsewhere who are open do want to listen learn and be transformed.
The conclusion tells us that the ability of Jesus to perform great works requires faith. That the participation of the people in their work and life through their faith, is strategic to Jesus’ ability to transform people – lives – situations – it is a two way street – the people are participants, not observers. (and that applies to us too)
Their rejection of Jesus results in their rejection of what he is capable of doing in their midst.
It follows that Jesus sends the disciples out 2 by 2. Travelling in pairs was common in antiquity, travel was dangerous. They healed the sick, cast out demons, taught the faith. They were received openly, enthusiastically, and were able to work the transformation they had come to do. They were, therefore, the exact opposite to the people of Jesus hometown Nazareth.
These two parallel stories in today’s text are ostensibly about the receptivity or rejection of Christ. Yes or no to him and his message. But it’s much more than that too. Jesus challenges the political-economic-religious system of Israel and its leaders, the status quo, making powerful enemies. He is revolutionary – and dangerous. He wants change things radically.
Jesus ministry scandalised the people of his town. It threatened them – and his extended family.
They were afraid they would be implicated, tainted by his actions, his ministry. They looked for ways to dismiss him – belittling his lack of education, making light of his lowly occupation as a carpenter. They distanced themselves and would not believe him – all of them.
So Jesus must create a new family, a new kin-ship. He is a ‘disowned prophet without honour, he withdraws from his past to create a new community, a new family in God that we are part of, a new political- social-economic order called ‘the kingdom of God.’
Among strangers Jesus will build his alternative community to that of Israel, a community not without conflict, with tragedies and pain and fear as well as victories, great love and great change.
Change wrought in the hearts and minds of people as they open to what Jesus offers them. To shake off the fear of the past, to leave it behind as their hearts and their lives change, as their vision of what life is and can be changes.
Transformation, relationship, new eyes, good company, a thirst to understand, a lifelong attempt to love madly and deeply, walking and striving to follow this man, this divine God-man, Jesus, this person in whom they see and find what God intends for them.
We might ask what we see or find God wants for us. We might ask or see what changes we might need to make or address – in our lives, our faith and our way of being in the world.
I believe it’s a process. A moveable feast if you like.
A bit about me – not quite a testimony but a glimpse……. raised Anglican singing in Sunday school – ‘I’m in the Lord’s Arm-ee’ – SING…..and act out?
I may never march in the infantry,
Ride in the cavalry,
Shoot the artillery.
I may never fly o’er the enemy,
But I’m in the Lord’s ar-my. (yes, sir!)
I’m in the Lord’s ar-my, (yes, sir!)
I’m in the Lord’s ar-my, (yes, sir!)
I may never march in the infantry,
Ride in the Calvary,
Shoot the artillery.
I may never fly o’er the enemy,
But I’m in the Lord’s ar-my. (yes, sir!)
I am sure some of you remember it!
Such fun – all the kids with make-believe guns marching up and down eagerly – and swooping around with arms outstretched as aeroplanes and maybe giving a salute at the end – yes sir! The clatter of feet and exuberant yelling that was heard in church.
Gosh we say – rather militaristic and not very PC in this peace longing desperately needing in this world of ours. From there to a Christian rally in my teens where with beating heart I went forward and got a terminal jab of the reality of God of Jesus in my life – my parents suffered with ‘you’ll burn ……if you don’t” – good OT fundy stuff that amazed even me and thankfully not lasting long – off on OE and London, parties, boys, exploring and back to NZ. Married I took my children to Sunday School, my faith rekindling, maturing and growing – shifting my knowledge and perceptions of the world and how it should be.
Your story might be similar – and still I/we continue to change and gain new insights perspectives into what we believe we are called to be and do as Christians in this world. Our faith journey within waxes and wanes sometimes, our beliefs can be challenged and they can change. We hide and we struggle with our world. God is not static, yet constant.
In this story today Jesus is telling us that our social perceptions and our need for approval limit us and our vision, capture our spirit and make us fearful. We buy into our current wildly rapidly changing culture – or not – it’s difficult and can be dangerous to change.
Jesus is asking us to leave behind our fears of change and difference, to leave behind our perceived need for lots of stuff, our media fed desire for accumulation, our predilection for pretty lives, indeed – to shake these off as foreign dust and to walk freely into a world that God wishes and wants for us.
It’s not an easy task, one that asks us to constantly re-evaluate, to walk with others in our spiritual quest, to be open to the prompting of that still small voice within that with courage and honesty changes our actions our way of being, our faith. It’s a revolutionary way this way of Jesus – it demands much. It is ours.
Thanks be to God
Readings: 2 Corinthians 6: 1 – 13 and Mark 4: 35 – 41
To cross the open ocean, has for me, become something of a spiritual experience.
During the 2013/14 summer, soon after joining the Navy as a Chaplain, I made my first voyage to sea, travelling aboard our Anzac Class Frigate HMNZS TE MANA to the coastal waters of Somalia where we conducted counter-piracy operations.
As we sailed from Darwin, and made for the coast of Africa, amid the excitement and anxiety of beginning our mission, I was awakened to the profound reality of just how very big the ocean really is. As hours turned into days, turned into weeks, the horizon remained unrelenting and I realised just how very small we really were… how small I was. We were alone out there and, whilst the weather was calm and spirits were high, there was no one to save us should things go wrong; no ambulance, no supermarket, no gas station; just 181 sailors bound by 118 metres of ship.
I remember one morning as I stood alone on the port waist, looking out and thinking… praying… how mighty is our God to have created all this; to have power over all this; to be watching over us – insignificant as we might be; isolated as we might be; vulnerable to the sea as we were.
The sea often plays a special role in biblical imagery and the Bible starts and finishes with passages that give us some insight into this symbolism. Genesis 1: 1 describes the universe at the beginning of creation as a formless void and darkness, covering the face of the deep waters. And just inside the back cover – in Revelation 21: 1 – heaven is described as a place where the ‘sea is no more’.
Those two passages alone, as well as the many references between, help us to appreciate the way in which the biblical narrative uses the sea as a symbol for the darkness of the world; for chaos; destruction; persecution; and even evil. The sea is a place of the unknown, the abode of demons or, as Luke calls it, the abyss. And it’s in the midst of this context that we might read Mark’s account of Jesus and his disciples that day as their little boat was caught by a big storm in the middle of the Sea of Galilee.
The earlier verses of Mark 4, some of which were read last Sunday, also provide context for the storm narrative. Jesus begins in that chapter by sharing the ‘Parable of the Sower’ in which he implores the disciples not to be the barren or thorny ground, where the seed withers or is chocked, but to be the good soil in which the seed may grow and prosper. In other words, as Jesus explains, the disciples must be receptive to his teaching so that when the time comes, they will stand ready for ministry; ready to take on the challenges that will face them, ultimately, as they build the church. He then goes on to summarise his teaching with the image of the mustard seed in which even the smallest amount of faith has the power to achieve great things in the name of God.
So, Jesus tells them, hear my words and strengthen your faith that you may not falter, that you may stand firm when the time comes; that you may fulfil your calling as my disciples.
It all then comes together in today’s storm narrative as Jesus’ teaching on faith is tested. Having heard the words on faith, after all that they have learnt, the storm becomes, in many ways, a litmus test. For Mark it’s about the storm, but it’s about more than that too, as it’s also about all that the storm image represents; the struggle with darkness, chaos, evil, the unknown.
And the disciples? Well… they fail… miserably…
With Jesus asleep, confident himself that the Father will protect him in that environment, the disciples fear and fail. Calm when they set out, a storm rises without notice; the winds howl, the waves beat against their small boat, filling it with water. It’s a sailor’s worst nightmare, and they cry out to be saved.
‘Teacher, do you not care that we are perishing?’ they say. Do you not care that we are about to sink… and die?
Jesus responds – disappointed, frustrated, almost heartbroken, I think. ‘Why are you afraid? Have you still no faith?’ I’ve just been teaching you about this; I wanted you to be the rich soil, in which faith will grow. I wanted you to be ready, not just to witness the miracles and enjoy the good times, but to face the dangers of the world head-on; to embrace and overcome the difficulties; to accept the challenges of being a disciple of mine. I need you to have more than just ‘fair weather faith’.
This passage would have spoken loudly to the original audience of the gospel for they were, as the saying goes ‘all at sea’. In the year 64, around the time Mark’s Gospel was being written, a great fire ravished the city of Rome. Historians propose that it was actually started by the Emperor Nero, a twisted plan to clear space for a new palace. Nero blamed the Christians though, this weird group of blood drinking nutters (at least that’s the picture he painted!).
So, just a few short decades after Christ’s death, resurrection and ascension, the Church found itself under threat by an unwelcoming and militant Roman Empire. Christians found themselves facing a very dark time indeed as they became the subjects of brutal persecution. This was the very real storm that Jesus was asking his disciples to be prepared for.
Likewise, we heard Paul’s words to the Corinthian church as he considers his ministry. In the same breath that he celebrates ‘purity, knowledge, patience, kindness, holiness of spirit, genuine love, truthful speech, and the power of God’, he recalls ‘afflictions, hardships, calamities, beatings, imprisonments, riots, labours, sleepless nights, [and] hunger’.
We know, from our reading of the Book of Acts, that Paul came face to face, both figuratively and literally, with severe storms that tested and put pressure on his resolve to see through his call to be an Apostle and a Disciple of Jesus. Ultimately, we celebrate Paul as one of the heroes of the church because he had more than just ‘fair weather faith’. He had, what we might call, ‘foul weather faith’ that called him to persevere in the face of death itself
And, to be fair to the disciples, despite failing in the midst of that storm, they too did grow and learn themselves and, despite stumbling into other hurdles, they did – ultimately – stand up as the leaders that built the Early Church.
The Gospel is full of promises. Yes, God promises much to those who love him; hope, love, meaning, forgiveness, new and eternal life. There is so much to celebrate; no doubt that is high on the list of reasons for us to gather in worship today.
Nowhere though does it promise an easy path for disciples. In a month of sermons themed around discipleship that will no doubt be a consistent message. Jesus promised that discipleship would be anything but easy, saying, ‘See, I am sending you like sheep out into the midst of wolves…’ (Matthew 10: 16).
Discipleship is about accepting the call to go where others will not. To accept a life of vulnerability, healing the sick, forgiving the forgotten, embracing the marginalised, and loving the lost.
And to truly minister in that way, we do have to make ourselves vulnerable; we do have to risk all that we have, because we live in a world where people would often rather be blind because the alternative seems to be too hard.
No, we might not, as the early Christians did, be facing a lion’s den. We do though still live in a world where just a few days ago a young man walked into a Charleston Church and killed 9 people while they prayed. We live in a world that continues to suffer from intolerance and ignorance as factions and nations continue to war; over land, over conflicting ideologies, and sometimes just because they’ve always fought in that way.
All over the world, Jesus’ words ring true, when he said, ‘you always have the poor with you…’ (Matthew 26: 11). In our own backyard, it’s a sad indictment on our nation, that we have over 100,000 kids who have no idea where their next meal will come from. Our own City Mission reports again and again, that the need is growing… and growing.
So the ministry field is as deep as it is wide. There is much work to be done
If we’re going to talk about discipleship then, we need to understand that that is the stormy sea Jesus is calling us to sail upon. It’s a journey that requires a fair amount of ‘foul weather faith’.
Most importantly, the Gospel today concludes with a very important question; one that we need to know the answer to. ‘Who then is this, that even the wind and the sea obey him?’
Jesus is the calm amidst the storm; he is the healer amidst the sick; he is the voice of reason amidst the confusion of life. As disciples, Jesus is the one who calls us to have faith. Day in, day out; Sunday to Sunday, as we read scripture, listen to sermons and gather in prayer, we come… so that we may go… strengthened, encouraged, uplifted, motivated. We come, and we go, so that we can offer ministry, in our own ways and places, in our workplaces, amongst our friends and family, through our influence, in the wise use of our resources and in the decisions we have to make. To be the hands and feet of Jesus, to seek justice, to nurture forgiveness, to be the voice of those without a voice.
At the end of the service, I pray, as we ‘go in the name of Christ’, may we do so hearing the words of Jesus to the storm that day.
May we speak those words to the dark places we encounter and when we come up against a wall, when we find derision from those who scoff at our efforts, when we encounter deaf ears to the message that we bear, may we have the faith to stand firm and trust that Christ is with us. To push through the obstacles. To focus on God’s call. And to speak a little louder.
Mighty God; strong, loving and wise. Help us to depend upon your goodness and to place our trust in your Son, Jesus Christ. Amen.
Mark 4: 26 – 34
We are about to embark on a sermon series called Discipleship in the Gospel of Mark and so I thought I would spend a bit of time today giving you some background on Mark’s Gospel.
Firstly there is no direct internal evidence in the Gospel itself that tells us who the author is. However, it seems to have been the unanimous testimony of the early church that this Gospel was written by John Mark, a close associate of Peter. The content of the book appears to have come from the preaching of Peter. We think John Mark arranged and shaped Peter’s sermons and in so doing produced this Gospel.
The first mention of John Mark in the Bible, is in Acts 12:12 where we learn that his mother had a house in Jerusalem that served as a meeting place for believers.
Then in Acts 12: 25, we learn that when Paul and Barnabas returned to Antioch from Jerusalem, Mark accompanied them.
Mark next appears as a helper to Paul and Barnabas in Acts 13:5 when they were on their first missionary journey.
Then for some reason or other in Acts 13:13 Mark returned to Jerusalem leaving Paul and Barnabas in the lurch at Perga, in Pamphylia, Turkey.
Paul must have been deeply disappointed with Mark’s actions because we see in Acts 15: 36 – 39, that when Barnabas proposed that Mark joins them on their second missional journey, Paul flatly refused to have him along.
That refusal broke up Paul and Barnabas’ missional relationship. Barnabas split from Paul and together with his cousin Mark went to Cyprus instead.
After that no further mention is made of either of them in the book of Acts. However, Mark reappears in Paul’s letter to the Colossians where Paul sends a greeting from Mark. At this point it seems that Mark was beginning to win his way back into Paul’s confidence.
By the end of Paul’s life, Mark had fully regained Paul’s favour see 2 Timothy 4: 11.
It is generally thought that Mark’s Gospel was written around AD70 when the Romans destroyed the temple in Jerusalem. This would make it the earliest of the Gospels.
Many believe that the writers of the Gospels of Matthew and Luke, used Mark as a major source for their writings and this explains the similarity between the 3 Gospels, known as the Synoptic Gospels.
According to early church tradition, Mark’s Gospel was written in Italy near Rome where Peter spent the last days of his life and where he was martyred.
We think Mark was writing for a gentile audience because he takes the trouble to explain Jewish customs 7: 2-4 and 15: 42 and translates Aramaic words. He would not have had to do this if his audience had been made up of Palestinian Jews.
Mark frequently pictures Jesus as a teacher. The words teacher, teach, teaching and rabbi are applied to Jesus 39 times in Mark’s Gospel.
Mark’s writing style is succinct, simple, unadorned and practical in the sense that he emphasises what Jesus did more so than what he said.
He moves quickly from one episode in Jesus’ life and ministry to another often using the adverb immediately.
So let’s take a look at the two parables in today’s reading :
The first parable of the Growing Seed is found only in Mark, while the second one about the mustard seed, is found in both Matthew and Luke.
At the end of this talk I will give you an opportunity to share something it may be saying to you today in your context.
These parables are closely linked and teach us important truths about the kingdom of God. In a sense they support each other. The term Kingdom of God refers to the reign, the activity the purposes of God.
- They each have a sower.
- In each a seed is planted which blossoms into usefulness.
- In both parables we get the sense that the seed will mysteriously produce results which are inherent within it even though in both stories the seeds look insignificant and unpromising.
Jesus often used illustrations from the growth of nature to describe the coming of the Kingdom of God.
Thinking about it, nature’s growth is often imperceptible. We do not see a plant growing. If we see it every day we do not notice the growth taking place. It is only when we see it and then go away and then come back after an interval of time that we see the difference. A bit like a teenager.
Nature’s growth is also constant and unfolding and inevitable. Growth is very powerful. When you leave here today, take a look at the footpath in front of our church and you will notice how the trees have split the concrete pavement with the power of their growth.
So it is with the Kingdom of God. The extension and growth of God’s work in the world is often imperceptible on a day to day basis yet despite this God’s work continues.
Nothing in the end can stop the purposes of God.
Tell my experience when Julian was born with the lilac trees in Shrewsbury.
So what is the life application of the two parables?
I think we can learn much about evangelism, mission and the ministry of the church from them:
- These parables are a great encouragement to us in those times in our ministry when we might feel that the Spirit has gone on holiday; when we feel inadequate and unable to do justice to the calling that God has placed on each of us and on the Church. These parables convey the seed of truth that God’s kingdom works powerfully and effectively despite the skills or lack of skills of those who are the messengers of the Gospel viz you and me. Sometimes God’s Kingdom even works invisibly like a seed hidden in the soil. The farmer who planted the seed had no idea how the seed grows. He simply planted the seed in faith and then waited for it to germinate. He most likely prepared the soil, watered the ground and tended it but he could not cause the seed to grow. It is God who makes it grow. So it is for the Church. It is our task to plant the seed of the Gospel in faith and to trust it’s inherent to grow in God’s time and bear fruit in the lives of those who hear it. We can tend the soil and water the ground but only God grows that seed.
I hope this parable encourages you if you have shared the Gospel with someone and you can see no evidence of that person growing in faith. Remember you have no idea how and in what time frame God is growing that seed.
- Both parables remind us never to be daunted by small beginnings. As God transforms a tiny speck of mustard seed into a 6ft high shrub, so God will accomplish great things including the salvation of the world, through the death and resurrection of Jesus. This mystery of how God accomplishes his purposes in the world also applies to our situation.
Think about a church plant or a ministry initiative you may be involved in. Again the parable reminds us to trust that God will use and prosper our efforts in ways we cannot imagine as yet.
- The second parable in particular teaches about the hospitality of the Kingdom of God. In Palestine the mustard seed was the smallest of seeds. Yet it grows into a tree that, when it goes into seed, clouds of birds hover over to feed on the little black mustard seeds. Like these birds, the Church of Jesus Christ which began in Palestine with one man and his band of 12 followers has grown and flourished and now there is room in it for every nation in the world, all kinds of opinions and many different styles of worship.
Finally the last two verses which conclude this collection of parables, are significant.
The comment that “Jesus explained everything to his disciples privately”, makes it clear that one must come to Jesus as a disciple who will listen carefully, if we are to gain the deeper spiritual understandings he offers.
In a sense the parables are a test of our faithfulness and discipline in that they discern the thoughts and the intentions of the hearts of the listeners. Do we really want to know what Jesus is trying to teach us?
To understand his parables requires more of us than mere intellectual comprehension, it requires that our hearts are open to hearing God’s word to us.
Jesus uses parables to plumb the spiritual perception of his audience, because he knows that the fundamental concept of a Messiah who dies an ignominious death can only be understood through a rare spiritual discernment. The outrageous message that Christ crucified conquers the world, will be an impossible riddle for those who hang on to the worldly understanding of success.
Only when we take the time to gather in faith around Jesus as a listening community of Christ followers with open minds and teachable spirits, will we be able to assimilate such divine wisdom as is embedded in his parables.
What have you learnt from this parable today I wonder?
Isaiah 6: 1 – 8
John 3: 1 -17
Today being Trinity Sunday we have two bible readings that reflect Trinitarian theology. That is the concept of God as being a community of three persons, Father Son and Holy Spirit.
In the Gospel reading reference is made to the Trinity when Jesus refers to himself as the Son who has been given to the world in love by the Father and to the autonomous Spirit that blows wherever it pleases.
Last Sunday we marked the birth of the Church when we discussed the anointing of this autonomous Spirit we call the Holy Spirit on the followers of Jesus at Pentecost,
As we celebrate our naming day we continue to look at the implications of that anointing for each of us and for the church here in Devonport.
In Genesis 1 you will recall that at the time of Creation, God spoke the world into being. “And God said let there be….”
In the New Testament, St John’s Gospel tells us that Jesus is the word made flesh who spoke his church into being when he first called his disciples and then commissioned them to be his messengers and to preach this Gospel to all nations.
There are many examples in the Bible of people being called by God to be his messengers. These include Moses, David, Samuel, Jeremiah, Ezekiel, Daniel, and of course Isaiah whose calling is described in the Old Testament reading set in the lectionary for today. Not everyone who is called responds as Isaiah did with such alacrity to that call. Some people called by God run from that call, try to hide from it, argue with God over it or take years to respond to it.
I have two dogs one called Snowy and one called Max. Snowy is a dog that doesn’t immediately come when he is called. He takes his time and often will only come if Max comes. Max on the other hand comes the instant you call him. I think those who hear God’s call can be divided into two groups: a Snowy or a Max. Moses was more of a Snowy while Isaiah was definitely a Max. I wonder which category you may fall into?
Let’s look more closely at Isaiah’s call or commissioning.
Firstly, Isaiah has an epiphanal experience. He has a vision in which he sees God in all his glory. The language in this passage resembles the language in the book of Revelation when John describes his vision of God.
Then by contrast Isaiah sees himself in all his sinful uncleanness and his society in all its sinful uncleanness.
He is humbled by this contrast and fears for his life and soul.
God’s compassion is revealed as we read that God gave Isaiah the assurance that his sins are forgiven.
Isaiah’s gratitude overflows into a commitment to give his life to serving God. In response to God’s question who shall go for us? Isaiah immediately offers to go and to proclaim the divine message His quick and positive response reflects the profound transformation that has occurred as a consequence of his encounter with God.
Both the book of Revelation and the Book of Isaiah make the point that encountering God is a profoundly transformative experience.
Now I wonder if you noticed one unobtrusive little word in the Isaiah passage which is loaded with meaning in the context of today being Trinity Sunday. It is the word “us”. Who will go for us? Us Here implies that God is in some sense plural and seems to point to the existence of the Trinity, three persons making up one God. Perhaps the seraphs calling holy, holy, holy implies the same theology?
It goes without saying that the message that Isaiah is asked to proclaim is not an easy one. As is often the case when God’s truth is proclaimed the message is a prophecy that his rebellious and stiff necked community will find difficult to swallow. Isaiah would need to equip himself with the power of the Holy Spirit with which he has been anointed in order to proclaim it.
There is much we can learn from Isaiah’s calling:
Like Isaiah each of us needs to prayerfully prepare ourselves for our own personal encounter with God. It won’t necessarily look like Isaiah’s. Take Nicodemus. His encounter with Jesus had a totally different look about it. What both men had in common was that they were hungry for God and wanted to have a meaningful encounter with God. Any Such encounter will be transformative. It will cause us to look at our own lives with an honesty that will inevitably evoke a repentant response in us and cause us to submit in humility to the saving grace of God.
This is what Jesus means when he says to Nicodemus you must be born again. He means we need to be born in a spiritual sense into a new relationship of submission to God through Jesus Christ. We are born into a familial relationship and become children of God, part of the community of God, the Trinity.
However, here’s the thing, this is not where it ends either for God or for us. God has chosen to save the world through Jesus and his church and so it is, having committed our lives to him, we are called like Isaiah to share his message of salvation with others.
The point of difference between the old and the new testament is this: Isaiah was one individual man called by God and anointed by the Holy Spirit to go out, on his own, to proclaim God’s message to the people. We on the other hand are called to collectively to out in Jesus’ name, as a community of faith, anointed by the Holy Spirit. This is done through the various ministries in the Church. Everything we do or say or plan as Church has this central purpose. To take the message of the Gospel out into the world.
Whether you are a Snowy or a Max, I believe that Church is a community made up of people who have each had an encounter with God, heard his call on their lives, submitted to his authority over their lives and either immediately or eventually responded positively to the call to go out into the world bearing witness to the Gospel message of Jesus:
Who will go for us? ….. Here am I send me.
And what is this message?
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.
It is a message of God’s love for the world expressed most perfectly in the gift of Jesus.
We proclaim it by word and deed through our mission statement as a church:
To know Christ and to make Christ known and through our vision
To be a Christ-centred community that attracts all people into a relationship with God and inspires them to serve.
We do this together as a community.
On this special day it is good to celebrate the ways we are working towards exercising the calling that God has placed on each of our lives and on our corporate life as Jesus’ church in this corner of his vineyard.
by Rev Charmaine Braatvedt
17th May 2015
Acts 1: 1 – 11
Luke 24:44 -53
The ascension of Jesus into heaven comes 40 days after his resurrection from the dead. It is a high feast day in the church calendar because it is such a significant event in the life of the church and a milestone in the unfolding of God’s plan for the salvation of the human race.
The number 40 in itself is laden with symbolism.
40 days is the time period Jesus spent in the wilderness.
40 years was the time the Israelites spent with Moses in the wilderness.
40 days is the time period after Jesus’ resurrection during which he made appearances to his disciples to reassure them that he had truly risen from the dead.
Now it was time for him to ascend into heaven, to return to the Father.
There is profound and divine reasoning behind the ascension. Jesus as one man in ministry had demonstrated how to be in right relationship with God and had through his evangelistic ministry demonstrated how to exercise the call from God to spread the Good news of the Gospel.
In Christ we see the life that God calls each one of us to live. He makes the point that the power to live this kind of life comes from God in the form of the Holy Spirit.
So now it is time for Jesus to return to the Father and for the Holy Spirit to be poured out on his followers.
Today I would like to explore two insights that came to me as I reflected on the readings set for today:
What I noticed in this passage from Luke, is that Jesus commands his disciples to return to Jerusalem and to wait there for the Holy Spirit.
In so commanding them, he introduces a ten day period of active waiting and anticipation. It occurred to me that this waiting time functions like a mini advent or lent if you like. It is an opportunity to be prayerful and reflective. It is a time during which the disciples prepare their hearts and lives so that they might become living temples for the indwelling of the Holy Spirit – Shekinah.
Waiting on God is a spiritual principle that flows through the bible and indeed is present not only in the Christian and Jewish faiths, but seems to be present in all religions.
So after the ascension the disiciples enter into a period where they wait prayerfully for God’s timing and God’s gift of the Holy Spirit.
Acts 1: 14 we read “They all joined together constantly in prayer along with the women and Mary the mother of Jesus and with Jesus’ brothers.”
We are also told that they used the time to replace Judas with Matthias, so that their community of faith was in right order, just as Jesus had ordained.
We take this on board as a church as we too spend the 10 days between Ascension Thursday and Pentecost preparing our hearts for the infilling of the Holy Spirit as did those men and women of the early church.
How might we do this?
This was a question which people asked of Peter in his time and his answer still holds good today.
He says in response to their question:
“Repent and be baptised every one of you in the name of Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of your sins and you will receive the gift of the Holy Spirit. The promise is for you and your children and for all who are far off for all whom the Lord our God will call.”
That’s us, you and me, members of Christ’s body, the Church.
While the principle is a general one and applies to everyone, repentance, what sins we repent for and what things we turn away from, and what we need to start doing in order to prepare our hearts for the Holy Spirit’s power to work in our lives, looks different for each one of us.
Since repentance is not something we tend to give much thought to, perhaps over these next few days we could take the opportunity to reflect on what repentance looks like in our own lives and make our personal repentance by engaging in some honest reflection on the words of the confession we used today:
We need your healing merciful God:
Give us true repentance.
Some sins are plain to us;
some escape us;
some we cannot face.
set us free to hear your word to us;
set us free to serve you.
The second insight that came to me is this.
The passage from Luke follows on from the story of the Road to Emmaus. In this story two disciples are walking to a village. They are doing their every day business and chatting along the way. I don’t know why they were going to Emmaus, the town itself I don’t think had any religious significance.
It may well be that going to Emmaus at that time, was the equivalent today of us walking down to New World to do our weekly shop and chatting with a friend en route. Anyway, it was in the midst of this everyday walk that Jesus appeared to them and gave them great insights and understandings of the Scriptures.
Then it was in a pub over the evening meal that they recognised him as he said grace and broke bread with them. They recognised him in an ordinary everyday activity.
These two men on returning to Jerusalem found the 11 disciples assembled together, not in the synagogue, nor in the temple, but just gathered for dinner.
There Jesus appeared to them, in the middle of their dinner of fish and chips! We read that they gave him a piece of broiled fish and he ate it in their presence. Then he led them to the vicinity of Bethany, to the town where his friend Lazarus lived. There out in the open he lifted up his hands blessed them and revealed his glory to them as he was taken up into heaven.
On each of the above occasions the disciples discover Jesus in the midst of their ordinary daily lives.
Now here’s the thing, having found him, we are told that they returned to the temple, their version of church, where they give thanks and praise for the revelation they had received.
WE read: “Then they worshipped him and returned to Jerusalem with great joy. And they stayed continually (where?) In the temple, (doing what?) praising God.”
So what is my point?
My point is that all too often we come to church with the intention of finding God there mistakenly thinking that this is the only place where God is to be found.
Sure we find God here if we look for him, however, we know that God is omnipresent. This infers that God is everywhere. Most particularly it implies that God is present in our every day lives.
It is not correct to think that church is the only place to meet with God or to find God or to learn about God.
We do all of those things in church it is true, however God is also present in our every day lives and if we look for him there we will find him there just as easily as we find him in church.
Church is the place where we stand in community and give thanks for those discoveries.
In church we stand together in a spirit of gratitude and give thanks to God for the times that he revealed himself to us as we went about our daily business and for the things we learnt about him as he journeyed with us each day of the week. We give thanks for the blessings which come to us in his loving provision, his care and support, his answers to our prayers, his nurturing of us and in those around us , his beauty revealed to us through creation and so forth. We come to church to give thanks, to praise God and to worship God with all those other people in the faith community who have discovered God in the midst of their daily lives.
Look for God in the every day moments of your life and come to church to give thanks for all you have found.
So may you use this week leading to Pentecost as a mini advent during which time you make your repentance in preparation for the coming of his Holy Spirit into your lives.
May you also cultivate the habit of looking for and finding God in your every day lives and having make divine discoveries may you return here Sunday after Sunday in a spirit of gratitude to give thanks and praise to our loving and faithful Father and Friend.
Salvation in Jesus Alone (Acts 4:5-12)
by Tim Denne
Sunday 26th April, 2015
In Acts 4 we read that Peter and John have just prayed for and healed someone in Jesus’ name, and are speaking to the people and teaching them about the resurrection of the dead. This thoroughly annoys the Sadducees who, with the Temple guard, arrest them. The next day they are given a chance to speak and
Peter, filled with the Holy Spirit, said to them, “Rulers of the people and elders, if we are being examined today concerning a good deed done to a crippled man, by what means this man has been healed, let it be known to all of you and to all the people of Israel that by the name of Jesus Christ of Nazareth, whom you crucified, whom God raised from the dead—by him this man is standing before you well. This Jesus is the stone that was rejected by you, the builders, which has become the cornerstone. And there is salvation in no one else, for there is no other name under heaven given among men by which we must be saved.” Acts 4:8-12 (ESV)
Today I want to talk about the idea of salvation, what it might have meant to those hearing Peter, and how that challenges the way we think about salvation.
What does salvation mean to the recipients?
Peter and John have been arrested by the Sadducees for preaching about the resurrection of the dead. The Sadducees appear to have been a ruling class amongst the Jews, who stuck to the Biblical law and did not believe in any kind of resurrection. Theologically their beef with Peter and John may have been no more than it would have been with the Pharisees, who did believe in resurrection.
Their real problem seems to be more with over-excitement.
The Jews were living in the land promised to their ancestors, but it wasn’t really theirs. It was the Roman province of Judea governed by a prefect and an occupying army. The Jews were given some autonomy over their own affairs but they were not in charge.
The Sadducees were worried about the people getting over-excited because they are trying to keep their heads down with the Romans. The Sadducees don’t believe in any kind of afterlife. Their hope is of restoration of Israel and freedom from Rome, but antagonising the Romans will only make things worse. They are pragmatists and politicians.
Jesus’ followers always had a different set of disagreements with the Pharisees, the other major and more popular Jewish group.
The Pharisees problem with Jesus and his followers was because they believed that the Jews’ freedom from Rome, the restoration of the land to the people of God would only come when they were forgiven of their sins and this would only happen when they were living rightly; observing the law. Jesus and his followers were a problem from this perspective because of their attitude to the Sabbath and the extent to which they seemed to make no effort to only associate with the righteous.
But all of these Jewish groups were thinking about salvation (or rescue) in terms of freedom from Rome and restoration of the land.
Stepping back a bit, in the Hebrew Scriptures they were familiar with, salvation (both in Hebrew and in the Greek version, the LXX) is used with reference to:
- rescue from Egypt being God’s salvation (Ex 14:13; 152; Ps 106:9-10);
- rescue from the exile in Babylon (Isa 46:13; 52:10-11);
- God’s help to Israel in battle (Deut 20:4 LXX; Judg 3:31); and
- salvation from the judgement of God in the sense that God allowed bad things to happen as judgement on Israel; this included their current situation (Hos 1:2-7)
Salvation was all about God saving his people from slavery, assimilation into other nations or death. And they understood their place in the world; their salvation was ultimately for God’s own sake so that he still had a people through which the whole world could be blessed.
Salvation for the Jews was not about whether they were God’s people or not, whether as individuals they were in or out. They knew they were God’s people. Salvation was about whether they could live in peace in the land, some kind of precursor to the kingdom of God.
Some of their hope for salvation settled on the idea of a messiah. He would deliver Jerusalem from the Gentiles, gather those who were still dispersed, and rule in justice and glory. It comes to its head in some of the Jewish literature written in the time between the Old and New Testaments, such as the Psalms of Solomon that talks of a new king and son of David who would purge Jerusalem from the nations that trample her down, throw out the sinners, and would gather together a people who he would lead in righteousness.
But to the Jewish leaders Jesus was certainly not the source of salvation; he was part of the problem, particularly because he didn’t seem to be standing for righteousness as they would define it, particularly in his attitude to the Sabbath.
And, provocatively, Peter uses language here originally used of David in Psalms 118 (the stone the builders rejected has become the cornerstone) to described Jesus. The same cornerstone (or capstone) language had been used in Isaiah 28:16 also to talk of something that can be trusted in Jerusalem (possibly the temple in Isaiah’s time) in contrast to the corrupt leaders. The cornerstone language used of Jesus is not only saying that Jesus is the foundation for faith in Yhwh; it is doing so in a way that contrasts him as cornerstone with a deeply suspect leadership that was built on a foundation of lies; they have made lies their refuge and taken shelter in falsehood (Isa 28:15).
But the main point is that the original hearers are not concerned about personal salvation. They are concerned about the fate of Israel. Whether it will enjoy peace and whether it will start to play its role as light to the rest of the world. Salvation was about restoration of Israel to its proper place.
When we think of salvation, we tend to think of it in very personal terms. Am I saved? Or is such-and-such saved? But I think there are many similarities to this Jewish idea.
The Greek word used in the NT (and in the Greek OT, the LXX) is soteria hence theology relating to salvation is soteriology.
The same word that is used here “there is no other name under heaven given among men by which we must be saved” is used:
- when Jesus heals blind Bartameus and tells him his faith has made him well (Mark 10:52); or
- the woman with the issue of blood who is healed when she touches Jesus’ garment and Jesus says that her faith has made her well (Matt 9:22); and
- the demon-possessed man who was made well when the demons entered the herd of pigs (Luke 8:36), and
- there are numerous other examples.
Salvation has this sense of wholeness; things are as they should be.
And we get an idea of a bigger picture when we read Paul in Romans 8 talking of how we are saved in the hope (or confident expectation) of our resurrection and the restoration of creation. Paul uses language of creation eagerly waiting for us. Jesus’ resurrection was a pattern for us and the world as a whole.
So the idea of salvation hasn’t got narrower, it’s got much bigger. It hasn’t shifted from Israel getting its land back to me going to heaven; it’s moved from the land of Israel to the whole of creation coming back to how it should be. The world is being saved; not just you and me.
So how does this happen?
There are loads of theories of what Jesus achieved when he died on the cross and exactly how that act achieved salvation. They include:
- penal substitution – we deserve the penalty of death but Jesus took our place; or
- ransom theory – as in the Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe – Jesus (Aslan) dies in a deal with the devil to save everyone but tricks him when he rises from the dead; or
- moral influence theory – Jesus’s supreme act of love inspires us to love
And there are several more which are more or less helpful. But Tom Wright (Surprised by Hope) makes the interesting point that the answers we get to the question of why Jesus died depend on the question we ask. So that if the question we ask is “’how can I get to heaven despite the sin of which I deserve to be punished?’ the answer may well be ‘because Jesus has been punished in your place’. But if the question is ‘how can God’s plan to rescue and renew the entire world go ahead, despite the corruption and decay which has come about because of human rebellion?’, the answer may well be ‘because on the cross Jesus defeated the powers of evil which have enslaved rebel humans and so ensured continuing corruption.’”
And this is the thing – if salvation is about restoration, then the act that says “all is made well” is the resurrection. Sin or corruption no longer leads inevitably to death. Scripture mixes the cross and resurrection together, so we get Paul speaking of Jesus being raised for our justification. It’s tempting to try to separate these out and to say Jesus’ death did this and his resurrection that, but the Bible writers seem annoyingly less interested in this kind of systematic theology than many of us are.
Now a quick word on sin; I started by saying that for the Jews at the time of Jesus, their status, the fact that things were not as they should be, was related to God’s judgement on their sin. And the shift to things being put right depended on forgiveness of sin. Jesus deals with sin in a way that rings bells all over the place for the Jews: as sacrifice of atonement and Passover lamb. And the way to think about this sacrificial system is not so much God requiring sacrifice for sin (he makes it clear elsewhere that he has no particular interest in sacrifice) but for Israel it was an action that they could take and then get on with life. One of the problems with sin, as Romans 7 makes clear, is that you can end up focussing on your sinfulness rather than on life. An atonement sacrifice dealt with sin so they could get on with life. That’s what Jesus did once and for all.
And remember, in the Gospels Jesus forgives people on the basis of his authority (not his death). His resurrection vindicates this. He demonstrates that he is Lord and thus able to forgive. As Richard Beck (Experimental Theology) puts it: “you are forgiven because Jesus is Lord. Not because Jesus died. You are forgiven because Jesus is judge, and he will forgive those who appeal to him for mercy.”
If we think that salvation is just about me and what happens to me after death, then getting ready for the future is just a mystery because it is all very “other” to now.
But if it’s this bigger picture, that God actually has in mind the rescue of the world from injustice and corruption in all its forms, and that the future resurrection of our bodies applies to the world also, then the response is very different, and preparing for the future includes using God’s gifts, just as Peter and John were healing people in Jesus name, and working for justice or peace or health or wholeness or the environment in a way that anticipates a future in which all of these are put right.
And salvation is not just from something it is to something. We are saved to live differently. The living differently doesn’t bring the salvation. Jesus does. But the living differently is kind of the point.
So when we read the words in Philippians 2 about working out your salvation in fear and trembling, I do not think this is saying we should be worried about whether we are saved, but that salvation is so tied up with living differently, that to work out your salvation will mean you inevitably clash with the culture in which you live. Just before this fear and trembling line Paul is writing to the Philippians about Jesus being willing to go to his death rather than claiming his god-ness. The point Paul was making to the Philippians was to be prepared to be persecuted also. Working out their salvation may mean they too face death.
Our risks are thankfully much reduced, unlike Christians in many parts of the world. But the underlying message is still the same. Salvation should mean something because it is actually saying I want to be part of this brand new world in which there is justice and peace and wholeness and in which creation is not groaning that can only come when Jesus is lord and salvation means we can and should start to act that way now.
The offer of salvation to others must still be made. Jesus has done all that needs to be done but we still need to choose to live in hope. I used to travel to work with someone who would regularly greet me with “another day closer to death”. And so it is. But it’s also another day closer to resurrection. Living in a way that anticipates it is declaring our trust that it will happen and that there is no other name but Jesus by which we and the whole of creation can be saved.
By Reverend Charmaine Braatvedt
Sunday, 15th March 2015
John 3: 14 – 21
Today’s Gospel reading is a continuation of the teaching that Nicodemus received when he came to Jesus in the darkness of the night to be enlightened by him.
Nicodemus was a Pharisee and a member of the Jewish ruling council whose great attribute was that he was willing to learn from Jesus.
What fabulous lessons Jesus taught him!
Today’s reading picks up the story from just after Jesus had spoken to Nicodemus about the importance of being born again in a spiritual sense.
He goes on to reveal to Nicodemus
- the truth about his identity as the Messiah
- and why he has come into the world.
Like the wonderfully good teacher that he is, Jesus works from the known to the unknown as he teaches Nicodemus. He starts with a very familiar story that comes from Moses and the Exodus narrative.
Let’s take another look at today’s Old Testament Reading from Numbers 21: 4 -9.
In this story Moses is leading the Israelites, who have escaped from slavery in Egypt, on a journey to the Promised Land.
They are a complaining and a difficult lot and Moses spends much of his time very frustrated with them, as this cartoon reveals.
On this particular occasion they are complaining about the food:
“There is no bread, there is no water and we detest this miserable food”. Every parent of every teenager can identify with Moses on this one.
Their lack of gratitude to both God and Moses is astounding. Rejecting the heavenly manna was tantamount to spurning God’s grace.
At this time they are struck by a plague of venomous snakes that bit the people and many died. As is the way with painful experiences, this crisis caused the people to reflect on their behaviour. The outcome of this reflection was repentance for their ingratitude to God and Moses.
Moses took pity and prayed for the people and then the Lord responds by giving Moses a most puzzling instruction:
“Make a snake and put it up on a pole; anyone who is bitten can look at it and will live.” Is God being ironic here? The instrument of their pain becomes the location of their healing.
Anyway, Moses obeyed and sure enough, whenever anyone was bitten by a snake and looked at the bronze snake, they lived.
There has been much discussion and debate about the significance of this story. However, it is clear that its significance does not lie in whether snakes are good or bad. Rather the story tells of God’s power and compassion. As long as the Israelites looked upward and submitted their hearts to God, they were cured. When they did not they declined.
Now there’s a method of biblical interpretation called typology. This is when an element found in the Old Testament is seen to prefigure one found in the New Testament. The story of Moses and the snakes is a case in point.
Jesus uses this story typologically.
He says that just as people were healed physically by looking at the bronze snake which Moses lifted up, so people will be healed spiritually when they look in faith to him, the Son of Man.
In both stories, the source of salvation is God in whom we are to have faith.
It is significant that both stories make the point that those who confess their sins find God’s healing.
In the Numbers story, once the people had repented of their sins and turned back to God, they were physically healed.
So it is with Jesus, the Son of Man. Once we repent of our sins and turn to Jesus, we are spiritually healed.
It is somewhat ironic that it was pain and death that brought them to their knees and hence brought the people to a place of healing.
Just so the pain and death of Jesus brings healing to a repentant sinner.
Jesus goes on to say that just as Moses lifted up the snake which became an instrument of healing, so “the Son of Man must be lifted up so that everyone who believes may have healing, ie eternal life in him.” V15.
Those words lifted up signify not only that Jesus would be lifted up to die on a cross on a hill,
they also foretell that he will be lifted up from the dead, resurrected, glorified and lifted up to heaven.
Verse 15 also introduces Nicodemus to the idea of eternal life.
Then in John 3:16 we read that it was essentially to give believers eternal life that Jesus came into the world.
“For God so loved the world, that he gave his only begotten Son, that whosoever believeth in him should not perish, but have everlasting life.”
John 3: 16 has been called ‘everybody’s verse’ because in it Jesus declares that Jesus has come so that the whole world might have eternal life.
This is the essence of the good news of Jesus Christ.
I wonder what you understand by this term, eternal life?
Most commonly, eternal life refers to continued life after death. However it is in the Gospel of John we learn that the term means more than this to the Christian believer.
John’s Gospel makes it clear that eternal life is a present-tense possession.
Eternal life is something we can gain in this life here and now. It’s not something that begins when we die and go to heaven.
There are a number of verses in John’s Gospel that support this theology (See John 4:14; 5:24; 6:27; 6:40, 47).
This eternal life is defined for us in John 17:3.
“Now this is eternal life that they know you as, the only true God and Jesus Christ whom you have sent.”
So Jesus defined eternal life as knowing God, meaning experiencing an intimate, close, personal relationship with God as Abba Father.
Many people believe that Jesus died to forgive their sins.
But how many people feel as though they have a close, personal, intimate relationship with God?
There are those who think that kind of relationship is reserved for when we get to heaven.
While it is certainly true that we will be close to God in heaven, the eternal life that Jesus offers is available here and now and it is a life in God that brings with it an intimate relationship with God right here and now.
Many Christians are trapped by a theology that says your sins are forgiven but you have to wait for your time in heaven before you can really start living. That is missing the main point of salvation.
Eternal life is the very life of God available to us right here and now in Jesus.
However, having just said that God did not send his son into the world to condemn the world, Jesus then appears to go on to contradict himself saying that whoever does not believe in him stands condemned.
Wow that’s a bit harsh Jesus! Or is it?
The Israelites rejected the heavenly bread out of ingratitude. What’s to be done with those of us who reject the one who says I am the bread of life?
The Biblical scholar William Barclay tells the story of a man who went on a tour of an art gallery in Europe. At the end of the tour he said to the tour guide:
“Well I don’t think much of your old pictures.”
The tour guide replied:
“Sir I would remind you that these pictures are no longer on trial, but those who look at them.”
This is so with Jesus.
When we are presented with the Gospel of Jesus we have a choice to either accept it or reject it. If we accept it we are accepting salvation if we do not we are rejecting salvation. The choice is ours. A bit like a drowning person who may choose either to accept the life buoy or not.
God sent Jesus in love for our salvation.
It is not God who has condemned us but we ourselves if we do not receive him.
God only loves us. He offers us eternal life, intimate fellowship with him out of love. It cannot be forced on us we have a free will to accept his gift or to refuse it.
Now there are many reasons why people may reject a relationship with Christ.
- Have you noticed that it is often the case that in any really good person there is always an unconscious element of condemnation within them, for they show us up for who we are and we don’t always like what we see. Christ is the light. His life, teaching and presence reveals to us the truth of our own fallibility and we don’t always want to engage with that revelation.
- Furthermore, when we are engaged in unworthy activity, like addictive destructive or unloving behaviours, we don’t want a flood light shed on that activity or on us.
Tell the story of cockroaches who scatter when the light goes on.
In those times or situations when our own consciences convict us that we are doing what is wrong we gravitate to the concealing darkness of secrecy rather than towards the revealing light.
Adultery, theft, exploitation are all done in secret.
When our deeds are wrong we prefer darkness.
John is spot on when he writes:
Everyone who does evil hates the light and will not come into the light for fear that their deeds will be exposed.
Coming into the light refers to coming to Jesus as Nicodemus had done.
It also implies full disclosure, for light illumines dark places and makes secret places public.
Nicodemus’ lecture on Theology 101 is concluded with these words
“But whoever lives by the truth comes into the light so that it may be seen plainly that what they have done, has been done in the sight of God”.
There we have it Jesus calls us to come out of the darkness into his light not to condemn us but to offer us a relationship with God that will last for all eternity. We have a choice that is open to everyone in the world to accept this gift or to reject us and there are consequences to either choice. The good news is that the door is always open and like the Israelites in Moses time we can always come back and he will always take us back because that is the nature of love.
Time for Reflection.
Take a moment to consider:
- What is the heavenly manna with which you are being fed at present? Give thanks for it.
- Is there an area in your life that requires spiritual healing? If so would you turn your eyes towards Jesus the son of man lifted up and ask him to heal you in that area of your life.
- Eternal life is a life of intimate fellowship with God available to us right here and now in Jesus. Ask the Holy Spirit to infill your mind and heart that you may experience the fellowship of eternal life with him right here and now today.
Nicodemus was a good man, a faithful man but like all of us he had his dark spots. His salvation lay in his willingness to learn from Jesus as does ours. As you come forward for communion today, you may like to symbolically light a candle to indicate your thankfulness for some new insight some new understanding or conviction that God has placed on your heart or mind or spirit today.
“A man with leprosy came to Jesus”.
When we read the Gospel stories it is tempting to gloss over the diagnosis of leprosy with a shrug and to give it no more thought. However in New Testament times there was no disease regarded with more horror than leprosy.
Those who had leprosy developed tumours which ulcerated and emitted a foul discharge. The nerve ends of the limbs were affected and this led to a loss of all sensation. Tendons contracted and hands and feet became like useless claws. Eventually the sufferer would lose their limbs, feet legs hands noses would drop off and the victim became utterly repulsive to themselves and to everyone else. The term leprosy also included other skin diseases and any such disease rendered the sufferer unclean. Therefore victims of what was described as leprosy were forced to live apart from the rest of the community and wherever they went they had to shout out loud “unclean, unclean.” A modern equivalent might well be the Ebola virus.
Lepers not only bore the physical pain of the disease but also the mental anguish of being banished and shunned. Worst of all was that in those days leprosy was incurable.
Here confronting one such victim of the disease we see a most revealing picture of the nature of Jesus and by definition of God also. Jesus does not drive the leper away as anyone else in the same situation might have done. Instead he responds to him with understanding and compassion.
“A man with leprosy came to Jesus and begged him on his knees,
“If you are willing you can make me clean.”
Earlier in the chapter we read that Jesus drove out evil spirits and demons and that he healed many who had various diseases. Today his gift for healing is taken to a whole new level. The man had leprosy. There was no known cure for leprosy in those days.
Jesus’ response to the man was inspiring. We read that
Jesus was filled with compassion.
He reached out his hand and touched the man.
By touching the man who is unclean, Jesus ran the risk of making himself ritually unclean also. However Jesus’ compassion for the man superseded his risk of personal defilement. He focuses on the man’s desperate need and says:
“I am willing “he said “Be clean!
Understanding that though the man might be healed of the disease he was not yet healed of the forces of social and religious prejudice against someone with leprosy he wisely sends the man away to the priest to offer sacrifices that the law of Moses demanded for him to be ritually cleansed. The sacrifices would be evidence to the priests and the people that the cure was real and that Jesus respected the Holy Laws of Moses.
So we learn from this passage that Jesus was compassionate, powerful, wise and that he had divine power since the Jews believed that only God could cure leprosy.
What strikes me about Jesus in this story is his spiritual discipline. He is grounded in his truth, in the love of God, in the divine wisdom of God and in his belief in the healing power that is vested in him. This gives him a confidence that is awe inspiring. We read:
“Jesus stayed outside in the lonely places, yet the people still came to him from everywhere.”
The challenge for you and me is that we have been called to be like Jesus. Our church has been commissioned to be his hands and feet in the world. When I examine my life I see that there are many ways in which I fail to measure up to that calling. How as we stand on the brink of another year of ministry can we grow into a church which is worthy of our calling?
Paul gives us some clues.
I have a pair of marathon runners in my family. They buy special shoes and gear, get up at the crack of dawn, run endless kilometres, eat special food, do stretch programmes daily, measure their heart rates and breathing rates and any other rate they can think of in order to prepare for the marathons they are to run. The marathon is a primary focus of their attention. I gather this is all very necessary if one is to succeed at finishing the marathon. Apparently you cannot just get up one morning put on your jogging gear and go. No you have to train for such an event, discipline your body and your mind punish your body even for its own good if you like. Paul was always fascinated by the picture of the athlete. He shares the metaphor of the intense training of the athlete with the church of Corinth because athletics was a big deal in Corinth. If he were writing to New Zealanders he may well have used the metaphor of the intense training of the All Blacks to make the point that there is no easy way to be a Christ follower. An athlete gets nowhere without self-discipline and training and so it is with the Christian faith walk.
The Christian life is counter intuitive.
It is easier to be prejudiced than tolerant, it is easier to be judgemental than compassionate, it is easier to be self- interested than to be self- less, it is easier to be comfortable than to be challenged, it is easier to be cautious than to be brave, it is easier to be silent than to speak the truth and all too often it is easier to hate than to love. The Christian life is a battle and a flabby soldier cannot win the battle; a slack trainer cannot win races and a lazy Christian cannot become more Christ like.
Just as a runner has a goal in mind to cross the finishing line to get a medal or a certificate that says you completed the race in good time, so the Christian journey has a goal. Paul calls it the crown of eternal life. The Christian walk has an aim and a purpose just as the marathon runner has an aim and a purpose and if we lose sight of that aim, if we do not intentionally train in order to achieve that aim we become aimless. It is a truism that to just go anywhere is the certain way to arrive nowhere.
So how do we train ourselves for the Christian journey?
1.Firstly we need to catch the vision and set our eyes on the prize. By that I mean we need to fully appreciate the worth of the goal that is the great appeal of Jesus. The goal of following him is life LIFE in all its abundance and fullness. Life today tomorrow and forever!
That is the crown , that is the prize.
- We need to know who we are following and in knowing who we are following we also need to know ourselves. We need to discipline ourselves to truly knowing who Jesus is in order to truly know who God is. We do this by following a training programme called the spiritual disciplines. Spiritual disciplines can be described as those behaviors that augment our spiritual growth and enable us to grow to spiritual maturity. This process of spiritual growth and development begins to take place the moment a person encounters the risen Christ and comes to Him for salvation.
The foremost of the disciplines is that involving the Word of God and constitutes the reading, study, memorization, and meditation of Scripture.The second discipline is that of prayer. Our prayers are a spiritual communion with God through means of thanksgiving, adoration, supplication, petition, and confession. The wonderful thing about prayer is that God meets us where we are. He comes alongside us to lead us into a deeper, more real relationship with Him, not motivated by guilt, but driven by His love. Prayer changes us. Prayer changes lives.The third spiritual discipline is that of fasting. It’s about submitting to God, acknowledging that He is your source for everything and realizing that you don’t always have to give your body what it screams for.
The fourth spiritual discipline is that of gathering as the church community for worship and for support. We train together as a community.
The fifth spiritual discipline is giving. Giving of ourselves to others in ways that are sacrificial. This includes our time and our talents. Jesus models this sacrificial giving time after time culminating in his death on the cross.
For some of us the hardest thing is giving our hard earned money away. But it usually stems from this idea that it is ours. It’s not, it’s Gods. He gives it to us to manage, not to keep. If giving money and resources is difficult for you, this is a great time of year to engage in the spiritual discipline of giving.
As we move into lent both individually and as the church let us take on board the challenge Paul sets us to discipline ourselves that we might become worthy of our calling. As spiritual athletes let us embark on a training programme that will lead us into Christ likeness. Let us hold before us the life of Christ and may his life set our direction as we strive for the prize the crown that will last forever, the life that Christ promises, life in all its abundance and let us do so not in our own strength for we cannot cure ourselves but in the strength of the Holy Spirit. May the cry of the leper be our cry also “Jesus If you are willing you can make me clean.”
And may we ever discipline ourselves to embrace his unfailing response:
“I am willing “; “Be clean!
by Tim Denne
9.30am Service, 8th February, 2015
The word translated “believe” in the New Testament (pisteuo) is the verb form of the noun (pistis) which is translated as “faith”. Using believe as the translation can often give the impression of a very passive response to God, as though all we do is give some kind of intellectual assent to who God is and what he’s done.
“Trust” is an alternative translation of the word for believe that gives a different, more active sense of the word.
I was thinking about all this a couple of years ago when Peter Enns, one of my favourite theologians, put up a blog article entitled “Why I don’t believe in God anymore” in which he made much the same point. As he puts it:
The older I get, making sure all my “beliefs” of God are lined up as they should be loses more and more of its lustre. I see the Bible focusing a lot more on something far more demanding: trust.
So the title of my talk today is trusting God and if I was to give it a subtitle, I would borrow from Peter Enns, and add: “why I don’t believe in God anymore”
I’m going to start in Isaiah, because the church calendar places us there, but also because as I read it, trusting God is a major theme of the book.
Isaiah’s prophecy is addressed to the southern kingdom of Judah a couple of hundred years after the split from Israel. It is a small nation, surrounded by other more powerful nations, surviving partly because of its olive oil industry that supplies the regional super-power, Assyria. There is almost constant tension between Judah and its northern neighbour Israel.
The problem from Isaiah’s perspective was that the links Israel was developing with other nations to ensure survival were having other impacts. Israel was assimilating with the other nations, was adopting their practices and serving their gods. Isaiah’s appeal to Judah, as they started to look to Assyria for protection against Israel, was to not copy Israel, but to trust YHWH their God. They weren’t to be either pro-Assyria or anti-Assyria. They should be pro-YHWH.
Isaiah was saying don’t go down the same route as Israel has, turning to other gods rather than YHWH. That route leads only to destruction. And the history is that soon after this period, Assyria invades and captures most of the people of Israel and carries them off to be slaves elsewhere, pretty much never to return.
The reason for God’s concern is that Israel is meant to be different from other nations. It is meant to be a light showing others what God is like.
In Isaiah 36 we see the Assyrian army moving into Judah, annoyed that Judah has rebelled against it and has made an alliance with Egypt. They destroy their towns and are on the outskirts of Jerusalem. The king’s envoy mocks the Judeans:
‘Thus says the great king, the king of Assyria: In whom do you now trust, that you have rebelled against me? Behold, you are trusting in Egypt, that broken reed of a staff, which will pierce the hand of any man who leans on it. Such is Pharaoh king of Egypt to all who trust in him. But if you say to me, “We trust in YHWH our God,” … Come now … I will give you two thousand horses, if you are able on your part to set riders on them …
“Do not let Hezekiah make you trust in YHWH by saying, “YHWH will surely deliver us. This city will not be given into the hand of the king of Assyria.” Do not listen to Hezekiah. For thus says the king of Assyria: Make your peace with me … Then each one of you will eat of his own vine, and each one of his own fig tree, and each one of you will drink the water of his own cistern, …
King Hezekiah cries out to God, asking that he saves them for his own sake, so that all the kingdoms of the earth may know that YHWH alone is the great “I AM”
This trust is rewarded and that night the angel of YHWH kills 185,000 Assyrian soldiers and they leave the next morning.
But Hezekiah’s prayer was an interlude in the inevitable drift towards destruction for Judah. Around about 590 BC the people are invaded by the new kingdom of the neo-Babylonians, Jerusalem is destroyed in 586 and the people captured and deported to Babylon.
We pick up the story again in Isaiah 40:21-31, some 200 years later. This is now addressed to the people of Judah in exile in Babylon. It reminds them why their God is to be trusted and makes promises for those who trust him.
Do you not know? Do you not hear? Has it not been told you from the beginning? Have you not understood from the foundations of the earth?
It is he who sits above the circle of the earth, and its inhabitants are like grasshoppers; who stretches out the heavens like a curtain, and spreads them like a tent to dwell in; who brings princes to nothing, and makes the rulers of the earth as emptiness.
This is a God you can trust in. He made the world and everything in it. He can do what he wants.
YHWH is the everlasting God, the Creator of the ends of the earth. He does not faint or grow weary; his understanding is unsearchable. He gives power to the faint, and to him who has no might he increases strength.
Even youths shall faint and be weary, and young men shall fall exhausted; but they who wait for YHWH [or those who place their trust in YHWH] shall renew their strength; they shall mount up with wings like eagles; they shall run and not be weary; they shall walk and not faint.
This is the promise: for those who place their trust in God: they will have renewed strength, they will run and not be weary; they will walk and not faint. Worrying, in contrast, is exhausting.
As I read Isaiah this whole stretch to chapter 40 has been making the same point; if Israel (in the wider sense) as a nation is fulfil its role, to be the nation that is a light pointing to God, different from other nations. The clear point of difference is that they trust God.
This message to Israel was put in place from the beginning:
when Israel was first formed as a nation, during the Exodus from Egypt, they lived on manna. And the key lesson that went with manna was trust. Those who tried to store it found it mouldy in the morning, but there it was again the next day. For the most basic of things, food, God instilled a lesson for them day after day after day – trust me and I’ll look after you.
We can go back even further to the stories of the garden. The basic lesson there is not to look to define good and evil for themselves. Trust the God who made the world to have the knowledge of what is good and what is evil.
So let’s move forward to the New Testament and we hear similar stories of trust. I want to pick on one in particular.
The story of the rich young ruler is a curious tale in which the young man asks Jesus “Teacher, what good deed must I do to have eternal life?”
Now just as an aside, references to eternal life in Scripture are more about quality than quantity. They are almost always better translated as something like “life of the age to come”, ie how are we meant to live in the kingdom of God. This is a life that starts now (the already but not yet) but only fully comes about at our future resurrection, when heaven comes to Earth and life is as it should be. We are called to start living now the life of the age to come. Eternal life starts here. So his question is not so much “how can I be saved?”, but if “I’m meant to live now as in the age to come, what does that look like?”
And after talking about keeping commandments Jesus’ suggestion is to sell everything he has to give to the poor. It’s a shocking story for many of us who read that and think – really is that what you expect? But I think, without trying to diminish the story, the point coming through here, yet again, is Jesus saying that the life of the kingdom is one in which people put their trust in God. You can see the contrast with this rich young man. At the most basic levels he was confident about life because he had nothing to worry about. He did not have to trust God for anything.
Jesus makes the wider conclusions that it is difficult for a rich person to enter the kingdom of heaven. Now again, I don’t think this is equivalent to saying, it is difficult for a rich person to be saved, but it is hard for a rich person to live the life of the age to come … because it is difficult for them to learn to trust God.
Jesus at the end of his sermon on the mount, tells his disciples, who are not rich young men, not to worry about anything. They should look for examples to the birds of the air and lilies of the field (Matt 6). They don’t worry.
This is the life we are called to: not worrying when we have every reason to, but trusting God. And learning to trust God when we have no need to.
So why trust?
For the ancient Israelites, trusting God was what was meant to differentiate them from other nations, because they were meant to be a light drawing others to God. Trusting God makes so much sense as a differentiator because it pulls a nation out of the constant cycle of alliances and wars, all of which are fundamentally about finding protection, increasing wealth, moving ahead.
The step of saying everything I need comes from God is a step off that ladder, with implications for peace and justice.
The implications for peace are obvious. A nation that is trusting God for its security does not need to be expansive to protect itself. The conflicts at the time of Isaiah included Israel making alliances with others to make pre-emptive strikes against other nations.
Trusting God also has implications for justice. Throughout history, and certainly at the time of ancient Israel, nations progressed on the back of injustice in the form of slavery. That’s the only way to get ahead. If ancient Israel had been able to live a life that trusted God, it could truly develop a just society because the pursuit of justice or equality does not compromise prosperity (shalom).
Now I am not suggesting that this argument has political capital now. We are still in the not yet of the kingdom. But you can see how, if Judah had truly lived like this, it would have been a radically different society that would have shone like a light in an unjust world.
If we look at this at the personal level a similar pattern would emerge. If we were to say that a person that fully trusted God, (1) acknowledged that everything they had came from God; and (2) that they had full confidence about their future, it again frees a person from the cycle of driving ambition or nagging fear.
Again, I think the vision of a fully trusting person and a fully trusting society is a vision of the life of the age to come. Post resurrection, when God’s kingdom is fully come. But we are called to start to live like this now.
not worrying when we have every reason to, but trusting God. And learning to trust God when we have no need to.
Because those who trust in YHWH shall renew their strength; they shall mount up with wings like eagles; they shall run and not be weary; they shall walk and not faint.
From the beginning God appears to have made trusting him as the main requirement on us. We miss the point if we reduce this simply to some kind of intellectual assent of who he is and what he’s done. And to be clear, I am not talking salvation here: Israel had been chosen when God asked the people to trust him. We are talking about what it means to start to live in the already but not yet world of the kingdom.
So what does a life of trusting God look like. One that makes us different from others? For some people here, trusting God is probably a daily reality. Whereas for others, who may be more comfortable, may have little opportunity to trust God.
And here I think the response is something like, add a bit of adventure to your life. Look for something to trust God for. Ask him for something to trust him for. Start praying for something, for someone; trust God to do something. Because it’s trusting God that lifts us out of the ordinary.
Help us not to worry when we have every reason to, but to trust you.
Help us to learn to trust you even when we think we have no need to.