Thursday, 30 December 2010
Luke 2:36-40 36 There was also a prophet, Anna, the daughter of Penuel, of the tribe of Asher. She was very old; she had lived with her husband seven years after her marriage, 37 and then was a widow until she was eighty-four. She never left the temple but worshiped night and day, fasting and praying. 38 Coming up to them at that very moment, she gave thanks to God and spoke about the child to all who were looking forward to the redemption of Jerusalem.
39 When Joseph and Mary had done everything required by the Law of the Lord, they returned to Galilee to their own town of Nazareth. 40 And the child grew and became strong; he was filled with wisdom, and the grace of God was on him.
When I read the gospel reading set by our lectionary for today, my instant response was, ‘why are we only reading the verses about Anna? Why not those about Simeon, too?’ Because of course, when the time for Mary’s purification came and Jesus was presented in the temple, Simeon and Anna were both there, both giving their prophetic witness to the true identity of the Christ child. Surely Simeon and Anna go together in bible readings, don’t they? Like Sampson & Delilah, or the Pharisee and the tax collector. But then my feminist upbringing kicked in – ‘girl power’ and all that - and I thought, ‘how great that Anna is acknowledged here on her own in our lectionary reading for today’. I decided to look Anna up in my ‘Who’s who in the bible’ reference book – and it turns out there’s really not much known about Anna other than what this passage in Luke tells us.
Her father was called Penuel, which is Hebrew for ‘face of God’. Her family line was through the tribe of Asher, which was not highly regarded by most Israelites because there was a lot of intermarriage and a history of dabbling in paganism. I suppose that goes to show how God will use even people with dodgy past histories to bring glory to his name – there is hope for us all!
But Anna was a very devout lady – after she was widowed, she spent virtually all her time at the temple, praying and worshipping, and for many decades. I thought a bit about how Anna’s temple-centred life differs from our life, even if our life centres on church. Some of us spend an awful lot of time here at church, but do we spend the majority of that time on worship and prayer? For that matter, our worship and prayer doesn’t need to be done solely here at church, but can be practiced throughout our daily routine.
Not all of us are called to be prophets like the prophetess Anna. But each one of us does have a role to play in God’s plan. For some, it will be active and obvious – as in the roles of evangelists, clergy, readers, intercessors, wardens, choir members or sides persons. For others, it’s quiet and out of public view, like those who care for people in need in the community or witness their faith to co-workers in their workplace. For many, it will be a mixture of the two, sometimes one, sometimes the other. God uses both the obvious and the subtle to reach the people he wants to reach. And the gospel writer Luke wants to draw readers of every age and stage of life into the picture. No matter who we are, or where we are, the story of Jesus becomes our story.
Mary and Joseph needed the wisdom of the old prophets Simeon and Anna at that moment; and the old man and old woman needed Jesus, they had been waiting for him, and now they thanked God for him. Anna and Simeon and all who were waiting for the redemption of Israel were living in patient hope, long-suffering, at a time when suffering had become a way of life.
These two aged saints are Israel at its best: devout, obedient, constant in prayer, led by the Holy Spirit, at home in the temple, longing and hoping for the fulfilment of God’s promises. God is doing something new, but it’s not entirely new, because hope is always joined to memory, and the ‘new’ is God’s keeping of an old promise. Anna and Simeon are a portrait of the Israel that accepted Jesus. Those who rejected him misunderstood their own tradition and so were not capable of recognizing him as the continuation of Israel’s hope.
One thing we can learn from this lesson is that it’s about trust. Time and time again Joseph and Mary had to trust God. They didn’t understand everything the angels had told them about Jesus’ conception and birth, but they trusted. At the presentation in the temple, they didn’t know exactly how to respond to Simeon and Anna, but they accepted how they reacted to Jesus, in trust.
And that’s something we all must learn to do. We all must learn to trust God. Sometimes faith is messy. Things can happen that we don’t understand, or that seem to hinder, rather than help us to accomplish the will of God. And all we can do is trust.
The elderly Anna learned to trust God. She showed her trust in God by living a devout life, something that all of us are capable of doing by the power of the Holy Spirit. Anna was looking forward to the promises of the messianic age, ‘the consolation of Israel.’ Again not only are we capable of that, the New Testament commands us to do it, looking for the fulfilment of God’s promises for the redemption of the whole world.
What Israel didn’t realise was that God’s appointed redeemer would deal with the suffering of the world by sharing it and taking it upon himself. The face of God shown to us in Jesus Christ is that of a suffering servant – who suffered on the cross for our sake – who still suffers alongside us, though glorified in heaven. It’s not about ‘girl-power’, or ‘manpower’, it’s about the power of God and his graceful nature, seen in the face of Christ. Our Emmanuel, who came to raise the lowly, and humble the arrogant – let all creation rejoice before the LORD, for he comes, he comes to judge the earth. He will judge the world in righteousness and the peoples in his faithfulness. Amen.
Friday, 24 December 2010
Despite the still icy and snowy conditions, we had a great turnout for the Christingle service at 4:00pm today - over 225 people. Wonderful to see all the families that come to this service. A real privilege to speak to them about God's love for the whole world, made manifest through Jesus Christ, who is the Light of the World. Now just need to stay awake for tonight's Christmas Eve Communion at 11:30pm!
Are you prepared for Christmas? Every year, I send cards and presents across the pond; and every year, I vow to send them before the international posting deadline. I keep making that vow to myself, but I can’t ever seem to fulfil it. Maybe, like me, you still have shopping to do as well. We probably could all improve in our forward planning. But we can be thankful that God is a forward planner! Our Old Testament reading from Isaiah reminds us that God began preparing for Christmas from a very early time. And that’s what led up to the wonderful miracle that happened in Bethlehem over 2000 years ago.
Matthew’s gospel emphasises the fact that Jesus was the fulfilment of Old Testament prophecies. That’s why he refers back to Isaiah 7:14 – ‘therefore the Lord himself will give you a sign: The virgin will conceive and give birth to a son, and will call him Immanuel’. But expectation of a virgin birth was never actually part of the Jewish vision of the Messiah-to-come. Matthew use this Isaiah text because it fit the actual facts that he needed to tell – in other words, Matthew’s story of the virgin birth was shaped by the true event itself. But the emphasis in both Isaiah & Matthew isn’t the virginal status of the mother; it’s about the importance of the name ‘Immanuel’.
The meaning of Immanuel and the meaning of Christmas are the same - one simple truth, four little words: God – is – with – us. The Holy God of Israel, wrapped up warm in humanity, crying real tears, in a real city, with real parents, who are trying their best to take it all in: God is with us. He’s on our planet – on our countryside – in our manger – Immanuel! ‘God is with us!’
From the birth of Christ, fast-forward 2000 years and those four words that changed history can now change us. In fact, those four words are the only words that can bring meaning to the deepest places of our hearts. The challenge for us is to recognise God’s presence in all situations and circumstances. We might doubt God’s love in times of grief, pain and trauma, but we will find comfort, healing and strength when we are able to experience that God is with us even in such times.
For the woman whose partner has left her and the children, who continually struggles to pick up the pieces: God is with you. For the elderly person who can no longer care for themselves, and must now rely on the care of others: God is with you. For the teenager struggling against peer pressure to fit in - tempted with alcohol and drugs: God is with you. For the person who is seeking truth, and looking hard at Jesus as a possibility: God is with you.
At Christmas, in the quiet moments, many of us revisit our own past, which for some might bring back wonderful memories, but that’s not always the case – it’s not always comfortable and cosy - for some it overflows with sadness. But Matthew’s Christmas gospel invites us to look at the wider perspective, that we are not alone. We never have been, and we never will be, because God in Christ stepped out of eternity, and into time. And God chose a cave in Bethlehem to communicate one simple abiding truth: God is with us. And those four words have the power and the beauty to change our every waking moment.
Matthew’s Christmas gospel asks us to take the past seriously, to recognize how the past shapes the present, and to honour what God has done for us through it. And in the present we can find not just a lonely moment, but an opportunity for faith and service and the possibility of new beginnings.
The Advent challenge for us, on our own & as a church, is to follow Christ in becoming Immanuel in our broken world. In simple acts of service, inclusion and grace, God’s love is made clear and present. In particular, an awareness of, and care for, those who have significant need is a tangible reflection of God’s care: Setting aside time to volunteer in a caring ministry, or welcoming lonely people into our celebrations – these actions offer healing and transformation to a world that sorely needs it.
Whatever actions we might choose to do, this is the key to experiencing Immanuel again this Advent and Christmas: to offer ourselves as ‘little Immanuels’ in practical ways in the world.
Heavenly Father, as we make preparations to celebrate the birth of your Son Jesus, we thank you that you have planned our future from the beginning of time. We thank you for Mary’s willingness to say ‘yes’ as you called her to be the mother of our Lord, and that Joseph listened to the Angel and was not afraid. May we, too, be willing and unafraid to do your will. Most of all we thank you that you have not left us alone, you have given us Jesus Immanuel, God with us. Strengthen us, that others might see you in us; and humble us, that we would see you in them and in each other. And may we look to the future with hope, serving you and all your people with joy. Amen.
Sunday, 12 December 2010
The candle we lit today on our Advent ring is for John the Baptist, and our gospel reading helps us to think about his particular role. After all his hard work preparing the way for the Lord, unfortunately John the Baptist was imprisoned for speaking out in truth about King Herod. And from prison, John could only get snippets of news about Jesus. So he sent his disciples to ask Jesus a question: “Are you the one who is to come, or should we expect someone else?”
Jesus affirms that he is ‘the One’, and gives examples of his liberating and healing work, which was fulfilled the prophets: ‘The blind receive sight, the lame walk, those who have leprosy are cleansed, the deaf hear, the dead are raised, and the good news is proclaimed to the poor’. Then he teaches the crowd about the role of John the Baptist, explaining that, as great as John was, anyone who embraces God’s reign and his Kingdom is greater still.
John the Baptist fulfilled the prophecy foretold by Isaiah, ch 40: ‘A voice of one calling: “In the wilderness prepare the way for the LORD; make straight in the desert a highway for our God”’ John lived a life of discipline and simplicity. He influenced many people to come into the desert to be baptized, confessing their sins. He didn’t soften his message to gain approval. When Jesus came, John pointed people to Him. He did a wonderful job preparing the way for Christ. No other prophet was greater than John. But Jesus says that those who embrace God’s reign and the coming kingdom are greater still.
John was filled with the Spirit while still in his mother's womb which helped him fulfil his mission. But John the Baptist didn’t know about the nature of Christ as King in God’s kingdom. His limited knowledge of Christ is obvious from the question he had to send his disciples to ask. But because of the outpouring of the Spirit at Pentecost, followers of Jesus can receive a measure of the Spirit that wasn’t available until after Jesus ascended and was glorified in heaven. St. Peter says in Acts 2:38, ‘Repent and be baptized, 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’. It’s a gift that wasn’t available to those under the Old Covenant. And like all gifts, you must receive it to be able to use it.
John the Baptist lived under the Old Covenant; but even those who are ‘least in the kingdom’ now live under the New Covenant with its better sacrifice, hope, and promises. Those who turn to Christ are immediately brought into the kingdom of God's Son - Colossians 1:13 says ‘...he has rescued us from the dominion of darkness and brought us into the kingdom of the Son he loves’.
We can know many things which Jesus hadn’t taught His apostles until after the Holy Spirit was sent at Pentecost. Jesus said, in John 16, “I have much more to say to you, more than you can now bear. But when the Spirit of truth comes, he will guide you into all the truth. He will not speak on his own; he will speak only what he hears, and he will tell you what is yet to come”.
And the depth of knowledge about Christ has increased over the centuries, because many can read in their own language about Christ from all that’s recorded in the bible, and so we are able to know about God’s grace through the cross and the forgiveness of sin in a very personal and accessible way. We can share God’s kingdom vision of justice and mercy, and the future glory of a transformed creation. Our true greatness only comes by our relationship with Jesus Christ, made possible by the Spirit when we turn to Christ; and by his Spirit, when we ask, Christ lives in us and we live in him.
When we know Jesus has given such great blessings to us, we want to dedicate our lives to Christ, and produce the fruit of the Spirit in our lives, to nurture and enjoy the fellowship of the family of God, and proclaim the gospel of Christ and the kingdom in its fullness. We are called to seek out the places in our world where joy is being robbed, and to challenge the unjust ‘killjoys’ of our society. We are called to wait actively for Jesus to return. This is our source of patience and hope as we wait for God’s reign to be fully realised, both in this world and the next.
As we actively wait for the One who will come again, we must reflect on how we, as a church, can best point people to Jesus and prepare the way for his second coming. We need to identify areas of neglect in our community of New Brighton. To be salt and light, we must refuse to buy into the scepticism of our time, and commit ourselves instead to hope and compassion, and standing for truth and justice. In the way we live, speak and interact with each other, we can demonstrate that joy can be known in this world without oppressing, bombing or ignoring others, and without buying into rampant consumerism and achieveism. We need to allow the light of Christ to search out all the ways in which we inhibit the growth of his kingdom.
To finish, it seems appropriate to pray again the Advent candle prayer we prayed earlier: God incarnate, Prince of Peace, we confess that we have lost sight of your promises. We confess that we have accepted the depths of violence and poverty and despair experienced by so many today. We confess our cynicism and our doubt, and pray that we of little faith, may prepare a path for you, and give you the space to come into a broken world. Amen.
Thursday, 2 December 2010
Sunday, 14 November 2010
Remembrance Sunday brings to mind a variety of feelings. Some people here may have experienced war or have relatives who’ve been affected by war. Some here may have loved ones currently serving in the Armed Forces. Others, like me, have little involvement in the realities of armed conflict, but we all have immense respect for those who have put their lives on the line for our freedom. Today, it is important to remember.
Many of you will have seen some of the many war memorials in France. It’s a humbling experience. Travelling through the Somme in the summer, we visited the Thiepval Memorial to the Missing, which bears the names of more than 72,000 officers and men of the United Kingdom and South African forces who died in WW1 and have no known grave. The whereabouts of their bodily remains will always be a mystery - and how disturbing this must have been for their families.
We have mixed feelings about war. We hope that we live in a country where conflict is only entered into when necessary to protect our freedom or the freedom of vulnerable people. We hope that world leaders consider long and hard whether war is justified before entering into armed conflict. We hope that those who fight in our Armed Forces will fight with honour. But evidence from contemporary conflicts shows that sometimes wars start with questionable motivations, and sometimes conflict brings out the most shameful behaviour, not just in the enemy, but in us and in our allies.
Sadly, we still count the dead, as bodies are flown back to the UK, and we read their stories in the newspaper. At the end of WW1, you wouldn’t be able to fit the names of the dead in a single newspaper. The sheer numbers are hard for us to comprehend today. WW1 was known as ‘the war to end all wars’. It has been followed by WW2, Korea, the Falklands, the two Gulf Wars, the Balkans, Iraq and Afghanistan and conflicts in other areas where British & Commonwealth troops have been engaged. It is important to remember.
Some of us who were at the service of Remembrance in Liscard on Thursday were disappointed because at the 2 minute silence at 11:00, some people just walked on past, carrying on their conversations. At that one point in time, which is set aside for remembrance, they had forgotten. But on reflection, those people remind me of the fact that all of us, at times, take our freedom for granted. And that’s why the work of the Royal British Legion is so important, lest we forget.
This year, the British Legion has done something really different to mark Remembrance Sunday. They’ve made a single called ‘2 Minute Silence’, which is available online to download for £1 - and as well as the silent track, buyers also receive a video file showing individuals standing silent in remembrance: famous actors, sports stars, politicians and musicians as well as serving and injured soldiers. I found it quite moving. Chris Simpkins, from the British Legion, hopes that people will appreciate the significance of the absence of sound: ‘Rather than record a song’, he says, ‘we felt the UK public would recognise the poignancy of silence and its clear association with remembrance.’ Let us hope so, too.
A Facebook campaign has boosted the single into the Top 40 – and because it’s a ‘new entry’ in the charts, BBC Radio 1 is going to play this silent song during the Sunday afternoon countdown. A completely noiseless charity single in the charts for the first time. The Official Charts Company says they’re ‘not aware that any track like this has ever made an impact on the Official Singles Chart before. But even aside from that, this [is] a great achievement by the Royal British Legion - and for a great cause, of course’ – what a contemporary way of encouraging Remembrance in the public arena, especially amongst younger people. The Royal British Legion knows it’s important to remember.
We remember the many people who have fought to protect freedom and bring peace. But in our remembering, as Christians, let us not forget the one who puts the vision of freedom and peace into our hearts – he is the one who comes to bring us ultimate freedom and peace.
Our bible readings today are all about God’s promises for freedom and peace. The reading from Revelation 22 reminds us that the day will come when there will be no more pain, no more conflict, no more war. It’s a prophecy of the New Jerusalem, of Eden restored, the time to come when earth will merge with heaven in the new creation. And the first reading from Isaiah 25, written some 700 years before Jesus came to begin the merger, prophesies the same thing:
The context of the Isaiah reading is a time in Israel’s history when things are bleak – civilised society has become disordered, and Israel is badly afflicted. Verse 2 says: ‘You have made the city a heap of rubble, the fortified town a ruin...’ We’re not told which city this is – it could be Babylon, but it seems to move beyond this to any city characterised by arrogance, injustice and the misuse of power. It’s every city devoted to greed and exploitation. This city is in ruin, and Isaiah praises the Lord for having done ‘wonderful things’, which he had planned long ago. This prophecy speaks of God’s ultimate intentions to humble those who exploit the weak.
Isaiah is inspired to speak for all the poor and needy, those who are crushed and abused by indifference and greed. In the abusive city the poor are surrounded by the merciless who care only for themselves. Isaiah speaks the word that God will intervene against that city, and even the heartless will glorify and fear the Lord because God eliminates the old way of living and being. From verse 6 both the city and the ruthless have disappeared, leaving only the generous and caring presence of the righteous Lord. The vision is of a mountain. On ‘this mountain’ is the great banquet for all peoples, in the fullness of the Kingdom of God, who offers this feast as a sign of generosity, security, and joy - but goes even further than that. Isaiah imagines that the whole earth has a ‘pall’ over it – a shroud of death – weighed down by sadness and loss. The world is gripped by the power of death that crowds in upon every chance for life. This isn’t just about the awareness that we’re all going to die. This is about the active negation of well-being; everything that limits humanity and our well-being, and prevents communion with others or with God. That’s who death is, and that’s the death that God will swallow up. The apostle Paul says in 1 Cor 15:54, ‘Death has been swallowed up in victory’. This is the good news of Jesus – this is his accomplishment on the cross. And 700 years before Jesus, Isaiah envisions nothing less than a radical, complete transformation. The final act of transformation removes the shame of helplessness and exploitation; of not being able to resist the powers of death. All of that will be overcome. This is our faith – it is important to remember.
In verse 1, Isaiah says, ‘You are my God.’ By the end of the passage he’s joined by all who welcome the Lord’s kingdom: ‘This is our God.’ This is the community that hopes in confidence that the Lord will prevail. The city of abuse cannot escape the God whom Israel trusts and praises: the Lord who has power to save and to transform. Armistice is about peace, but Christians understand ‘peace’ as more than just the avoidance of war. It’s about building relationships between people, communities, and nations, founded on justice. We start here in our own parish, in our own community, building relationships of peace. And for that we need God’s help, to change each and every one of us: to give us a passion for peace and justice and to follow Jesus, who is the path to peace.
Lord God, give us the will to pledge ourselves to serve you and all others, in the cause of peace, for the relief of want and suffering, and for the praise of your name. Guide us by your Spirit, give us wisdom, give us courage, give us hope, and keep us faithful now and always. Amen.
Thursday, 4 November 2010
Philippians 4:4-9; Luke 15:1-10
‘...There is rejoicing in heaven over one sinner who repents...’, these words tell us just how much every person matters so much to Jesus our Great Shepherd – he goes to great lengths to look for those who turn to him - and it’s amazing to think that each one of us is so loved by God our Father in heaven.
When the shepherd in the parable finds his lost sheep and the woman finds her lost coin, both the shepherd and the woman do the same thing: they call their friends and neighbours together and say, ‘Rejoice with me’, because I’ve found what I have lost. And in our first reading from the letter to the Philippians St. Paul says to the church, ‘Rejoice in the Lord always. I will say it again: Rejoice!’
Joy can be experienced in many circumstances and in human relationships. But we live in a world where there are natural disasters, political catastrophes, economic hardships; accidents, illnesses, death and widespread wickedness, and none of us are exempt from suffering. So how in the world does the apostle Paul expect us always to be joyful? Does he want us to move through life as if we’re on some kind of spiritual ‘cloud 9’, oblivious to the awful things that sometimes go on in the world around us? No - that kind of joy is mindless naiveté and it isn’t attractive to anyone seeking a real and grounded basis for faith. So how can we rejoice when the road seems long and tiring, the skies are dark, the path is rough and when life is hard?
We can be sure a sense of well-being that ignores what’s going on around us isn’t what Paul has in mind when he tells the Philippians to ‘Rejoice in the Lord always’. The letter he writes is filled with recognition of the difficult circumstances they are facing. At the beginning of the letter Paul speaks of his own situation as a prisoner facing execution. A little later he encourages the Philippians to remain strong in the face of the opposition that threatens them as well. But in spite of the realities of persecution and suffering, Paul repeatedly calls on them to rejoice in the Lord.
Among the many situations in which joy is experienced, Scripture tells us that it’s especially important in the life of God’s people to experience joy in response to all that God has done for us. There are some lovely poetic expressions of joy found in the Old Testament, especially in the psalms: Psalm 100: Shout for joy to the LORD, all the earth. Worship the LORD with gladness; come before him with joyful songs. Know that the LORD is God. It is he who made us, and we are his; we are his people, the sheep of his pasture.
And Psalm 96: Let the heavens rejoice, let the earth be glad; let the sea resound, and all that is in it. Let the fields be jubilant, and everything in them; let all the trees of the forest sing for joy. Let all creation rejoice before the LORD, for he comes, he comes to judge the earth. He will judge the world in righteousness and the peoples in his faithfulness.
And in the New Testament, Jesus encourages his disciples to be joyful in spite of persecutions: In Luke 6, Jesus says, ‘blessed are you when people hate you, when they exclude you and insult you and reject your name as evil, because of the Son of Man. Rejoice in that day and leap for joy, because great is your reward in heaven’. [Luke 6:22-23].
We know that God’s purpose is to redeem the whole world through the cross. And that is why we rejoice. We can rejoice that God the Father loves us so much, in spite of all our failures and mistakes, that he sent Jesus into the world to be our Saviour and our Lord. Jesus Christ’s coming into the world has brought great joy. In Luke’s gospel when the angel appears to the shepherds keeping watch over their flocks at night, the angel says to them, “Do not be afraid. I bring you good news that will cause great joy for all the people. Today in the town of David a Saviour has been born to you; he is the Messiah, the Lord”. [Luke 2:10-11].
We can rejoice in the resurrection and the ascension of Jesus: in John’s gospel after Jesus hints at his ascension to his disciples, it says, ‘Jesus saw that they wanted to ask him about this, so he said to them, “Are you asking one another what I meant when I said, ‘In a little while you will see me no more, and then after a little while you will see me’? Very truly I tell you, you will weep and mourn while the world rejoices. You will grieve, but your grief will turn to joy. ...Now is your time of grief, but I will see you again and you will rejoice, and no one will take away your joy...’ [John 16:19-24].
We can rejoice that after Jesus ascended into heaven he sent the Holy Spirit to be our comforter and our guide. The Holy Spirit can bring an inner joy to believers – a joy that doesn’t have to depend upon external circumstances – when we remember and trust in God’s promises and the work of Christ on the cross.
Every day we can choose to believe in the unconditional love of a faithful God. Even in the midst of disaster, we can be joyful if we know we are loved by a God who is in control of the bigger picture, a God who will bring order out of chaos. We will still grieve; we will still shed tears, but there is light at the end of the tunnel, and hope that he’ll see us through the storm; his grace and mercy will sustain us. Choosing to rejoice in the Lord means choosing to receive all that he wants to give to us. It doesn’t mean we deny the reality of our circumstances or pretend we have no pain. Choosing joy means acknowledging the truth of what is happening, accepting that this is a difficult time, even mourning and grieving; but also, at the same time, looking to Jesus as our Lord and Saviour. He has determined our eternal destiny and he knows what he’s doing, even when we don’t really understand.
Paul isn’t asking us to rejoice in our circumstances. He’s asking us to rejoice in the Lord and he says this repeatedly. Paul knows it’s good to be reminded again and again to rejoice in the Lord. Paul rejoiced in the Lord because what he desired above all things was to be in Christ, close to Christ, content in Christ and ultimately to be with Christ forever. His rejoicing is not about smiling at the tragedies of life. He rejoiced because even as he looked at the chains on his ankles and wrists, and had few to none of the comforts of life that most of us strive for, and as he heard about the persecution of the Philippians, Paul rejoiced ‘in the Lord’ because he knew that if he trusted God, God would make something good come out of his suffering, something that would glorify God, and Paul desired to glorify God far more than he desired to live in comfort.
Paul instructs the Roman Christians to rejoice in their sufferings [Romans 5: 3]. He didn’t say rejoice because of sufferings, but to rejoice IN them. And Paul isn’t alone in this instruction. The apostle James says: ‘Consider it pure joy... when you face trials of many kinds, because you know that the testing of your faith produces perseverance’ [James 1:2-3]. And the apostle Peter says: ‘In this you greatly rejoice, though now for a little while you may have had to suffer grief in all kinds of trials’ [1 Peter 1:6]. So it seems that the New Testament teaches us to rejoice even through suffering, because God will bring something good out of something bad.
Finally, rejoicing ‘in the Lord’ is about priorities. What do you most desire? What is most important for you in life? What drives you to live and behave in certain ways? Whatever it is that we most desire, that is what we’re hoping will give us joy. But true joy isn’t found in the passing things of this world – it’s only found in the eternal relationship with God ‘in the Lord’. Rejoice in that.
Rejoice in the Lord. Rejoice that he loves you.
Rejoice that he suffered and died for you; that he rose from the grave for you. Rejoice that he promises to return one day and that we’ll be with him in glory. The angels in heaven rejoice over everyone who turns to the Lord. Rejoice in the Lord always; again, I say, rejoice! Amen.
Monday, 25 October 2010
Remember 1966? 1966 was the year the Beatles wrote the song ‘Taxman’. Already by then they had started earning enough to be placed in the top tax bracket. In fact they were in the 95% ‘super-tax’ bracket, under Harold Wilson’s government. I don’t think I’ll ever have to worry about being placed in the top tax bracket. In any case, rather than income tax rises the current coalition government is more interested in deep spending cuts, despite the moral difficulties: it's said that disadvantaged children could be the ones who suffer most. But high taxes are not something that people are naturally fond of either, and ‘the Taxman’ is surely considered ‘the bad guy’ by many.
In reality tax collectors share a similar stereotype to that of lawyers: generally described as greedy and dishonest. But in today’s gospel reading, it’s the Taxman that comes out tops in the eyes of Jesus. The Parable of the Pharisee and the Tax Collector clearly points to the Tax Collector as ‘the good guy’, and the Pharisee as ‘the bad guy’. And that’s not too surprising because throughout his ministry Jesus made plain his views about the Pharisees: they were hypocrites, phonies – who pretended to be righteous, but were not - Self-righteous, but not actually righteous.
The Pharisees thought they were superior to everyone else. They sought praise and attention as guardians of the Jewish laws. They prayed loudly in the synagogues so people could hear them. They made sure that people would see them giving money to beggars on the street. They wanted to be honoured for their pious behaviour, but their pious behaviour was all for show. In today’s parable, the Pharisee stands as a symbol for anyone who thinks to themselves, ‘I’m better than those other people, the riff-raff who are vile and disgraceful’. The Pharisee said, ‘I thank God that I am not like those thieves, rogues, adulterers and even that tax collector right here next to me in the Temple. Because really, I am a good person. I am at least a lot better than these other people. I go to temple every week. I give ten percent of my income. I say my prayers daily and loudly. I’m not like the riff raff of society. I’m much better than that’.
This conflict between the self-righteous hypocrites and the sinners of the world goes back to the beginning of Jesus’ ministry, when Jesus called his first disciples. We read in Matthew’s gospel, ch. 9 v. 9, one of the disciples is Matthew, the tax collector. When Jesus called Matthew to follow him, he knew that tax collectors had a bad reputation. The tax collectors were the villains of Jewish society. For one thing, they collected taxes. But to make matters worse, they collected taxes for the despised Roman government. And they made a lot of money from collecting taxes. If anyone was considered a thief and a betrayer in Jewish society, it was the tax collectors.
So the Pharisees were deeply offended that Jesus called a tax collector to be his disciple. One day, Jesus was invited to Matthew’s home. Lots of other people were also there who were regarded as ‘sinners’: the social and moral outcasts of society. Jesus was having a meal with these people, chatting, laughing, and telling stories. The Pharisees were there, too, watching the action around the table. The Pharisees asked around, ‘Why does Jesus eat with such contemptible people like these?’ Jesus answered, ‘I have come not to call the righteous, but those who know they are sinners’ – Matthew 9:13. So from the very beginning of his ministry, Jesus said that his disciples would be sinners and not self-righteous folk like the Pharisees.
In his parables, Jesus wants his listeners to discover where they fit into the picture. So perhaps we need to ask ourselves, in what way might we resemble the Pharisee? Who do we think we are superior to? Who do you think you are ‘better than’?
Let me tell you about last Wednesday. I had the most amazing day last Wednesday. It was one of the regular training days that curates have to attend, and this time we spent the day at a prison, a Young Offenders Institution for males aged 18-25. The 'restorative justice' programme offered there was a real eye-opener, and I'm sure it will influence future sermons. But thinking about prisoners and connecting it with our parable for today, the question begs: do we think we’re better than a prisoner who commits crime and deserves to get locked up in prison for months or years?
Or what about thinking that we’re better than those alcoholics that hang around our streets late at night asking for money? Or that ‘I’m better than all those people on benefits who spend the tax-payer’s money on cigarettes or in the betting shop’. How about, ‘I’m better than those Muslims, those Jews, those gays, lesbians and transexuals. You know, those abominable kinds of people (who I would never call ‘abominable’ in public, but I can think it). I’m better than them’.
Well this is exactly what the parable has to do with us, because Jesus doesn’t want us to be like the Pharisees - to have hardened hearts towards other people who the world considers as ‘substandard’ in some way. Jesus was angry with the Pharisees because their hearts were hard. Their hearts showed no sign of the compassion of God. Jesus’ heart is full of compassion for the outcasts of society. And this is the problem: if our hearts are not compassionate to others here in our own community of New Brighton and beyond.
Jesus wants us to be a bit more like the tax collector in this parable. So let’s think about this Tax Collector for a moment. The tax collector was at the temple to pray, but he stood back at a distance. The text says that he would not even look up to heaven, but beat his breast and said, ‘God, have mercy on me, a sinner.’ And Jesus says, ‘I tell you that this man, rather than the other, went home justified before God. For everyone who exalts himself will be humbles, and he who humbles himself will be exalted.’
Jesus wants us to be honest in assessing our own sinfulness, and not to secretly feel that our sinfulness is not as bad as someone else’s sinfulness. So at the heart of this parable today is the tax collector’s deep awareness that he is a sinner in need of the mercy of God. And we never outgrow the need to be aware of this ourselves. Throughout our whole lives, we need to have this awareness that we are imperfect people who need God’s grace and his mercy. None of us are worthy of God’s grace, but yet he offers forgiveness and mercy as a gift to all.
Jesus taught at the beginning of his ministry: ‘Those who are well have no need of a physician. Those who know they are sick know that they need a doctor.’ On this side of eternity, we never outgrow our need for the healing touch of Jesus.
Last Easter we hosted an Easter egg hunt for the carers and tots group in church. One of the child-minders said something interesting as she came out of the church and back into the hall that probably sums up what many outside the church think:
She said she’d better get out of there quick before she was struck by lightning because she wasn’t ‘good enough’ to be in church.
I quickly pointed out that I’m not ‘good enough’ either, but really, do we think we’re better than those outside who (for whatever reason) don’t want to come in? Even Jesus said, ‘no one is good except God alone’ (Luke 18:19). But the sad truth is that we Christians can be arrogant and critical of others and to come across as “holier than thou” and this has left many people feeling hurt and angry and put off church altogether. Contrary to this, the gospel is most powerfully demonstrated when our brokenness is acknowledged, and when we engage with the world outside in humility, recognising that we have much to learn from those we should be seeking to serve - the poorest and the weakest in our community. This is the way we discover the signs of God’s reign that go before us as disciples in mission in any place or time.
The truth is, yes sometimes we are like the Pharisee, but sometimes we can also be like the tax collector, too much – despairing over our sinful condition and never getting up off our knees. Yes, we’re sinners and we’re broken, but we also have hope – the hope of Christ that lives in us - that in Christ we have been set free. Only in Christ are we counted worthy in God’s eyes. And Christ welcomes everyone to his table – so who are we to condemn?
Arrogance always robs the ‘other’ of their humanity and dignity. Humility, on the other hand, results in an openness to other person's story – to compassion for the many complex causes of their predicament (many of which are beyond their control) - and humility commits us to mutual care. Humility opens us to God’s Spirit which works among us and in us as we serve one another, allowing us to experience God’s reign here and now.
Let us pray: Dear God, whenever we are tempted to think of ourselves as better than others, more worthy, more deserving, more important to you, may your humility break in and challenge us, reminding us of our brokenness and need, and teaching us to serve and to love others with the grace and humility you show towards us. Amen.
Sunday, 17 October 2010
The sea plays a big part in the lives of many people here in terms of both employment and leisure pursuits. I have a great love of the sea myself; I come from a family that loves to ‘mess about with boats’. My step-father built from scratch a 50-ft sailboat in our back garden when I was growing up in California. Later I spent around 10 months sailing around the islands of the South Pacific on an 85-ft schooner as paid crew together with my future husband, who was a professional yachtsman at the time. He was one of the eight who survived the sinking of the tall ship Marques near the Bermuda Triangle from a sudden squall in the 1984 Tall Ships Race. Many didn’t survive that sinking, because they were below deck when the squall hit, but Andy, who was on deck, managed to find one of the ship’s life rafts which kept him safe until he was rescued by another ship. That was a rescue he’ll never forget. And now here our family have a small dinghy and our two children are learning to sail. It’s a great relief to know that the RNLI are prepared and equipped for rescue operations 24/7 right here in our local waters.
Well, I’ve been the curate here in this parish for just over a year now, and I’ve also recently taken on the role of chaplain to the Sea Cadets, who, of course, meet just across the road – around 70 young people who are learning the skills of seamanship and the fun of ‘messing about in boats’. These young people, and many people like them who live near the coast, are naturally drawn to the sea for its sheer magnificence and for all the opportunities of recreation and employment it provides.
You might remember that the first disciples of Jesus Christ also did a bit of ‘messing about in boats’. Most of them were fishermen, who made their living on the Sea of Galilee, where conditions are notoriously unpredictable. On the night when the story from our reading from Matthew’s gospel takes place, the sea was particularly choppy because of the strong wind. The disciples were in the boat on their own, as Jesus had sent them on ahead of him to the other side of the sea. But now they were in difficulty. Professional fishermen though they were, here they are struggling with the oars, unable to make headway against the wind - a familiar sight for RNLI lifeboat crewmembers. The disciples were afraid, even though they knew first-hand of Jesus’ power. They knew his teaching and they knew the prayer that he taught them. And still they were fearful and doubtful.
One way of looking at this story is as a picture of the life of faith – and the life of faith isn’t always smooth sailing. Faith is often mixed with occasional fears and doubts as we’re buffeted by the events of life that can threaten us or sometimes overwhelm us. But at the heart of the gospel story are Jesus’ words, ‘Take courage! It is I. Don’t be afraid’.
The disciples saw Jesus, a shimmering figure out on the water, and Peter, feeling both wonder and terror, started walking on the water towards Jesus. Peter’s eyes were focused on Jesus, and there in a moment of doubt, his attention diverted by the strength of the wind and the size of the waves, he began to sink. And so often it is with us in our lives. In the midst of our worst storms, Jesus asks us to keep focussed on him, on his strength and power, rather than on the storm that is raging around us - to take his hand and depend upon him - to trust him and to lean on him. Into the storms of our lives, Jesus says, ‘Take courage. Don’t be afraid. I am with you’. But it isn’t easy to trust.
Much of our world knows at least a little about Jesus, but to some he seems a kind of fanciful dream, unrelated to us and to our real problems. Others find Jesus frightening. Some wish he’d just go away and leave people alone. Even those who believe in him, as the disciples already did, aren’t always sure what to expect from him. Yet they are compelled to try and do what he asks, even when it sometimes seems impossible: to bring his love and his power, his peace and his hope to the needy world. But then we let our eyes drop for a moment to the waves - like a small boat in trouble on big seas, surrounded by darkness, fear and a howling gale. That’s what it can feel like when you try to bring God’s love and healing power into the wild night of the world.
While I was preparing this sermon, I do confess my concentration was distracted by the extraordinary rescue shown on TV of the 33 Chilean miners. To a large extent, that astonishing achievement was made possible by the great skill and courage and fortitude of all involved. But also the faith which the Chilean people openly proclaimed was so obviously an integral part of the rescue operation and the survival of those miners. One of them said afterwards, ‘it has been a nightmare, but I grabbed God’ hand, and I never doubted that he would get me out of there’.
I was amazed to hear those words while at the same time I was reading the words of the scripture set for today’s service, because when Peter begins to sink, the scripture says, ‘immediately Jesus reached out his hand and caught him’. If we would just look to him in times of trouble, Jesus reaches out his hand to us.
At the same time I was also making a connection in my mind between the rescue that I was witnessing on TV with the Chilean miners, and the purpose of the RNLI, because of course, the RNLI is in the rescue business. And it’s a measure of the very best of humankind when people work together, using their skills and time to rescue others. Courage in the face of adversity is something the RNLI lifeboat crew have to face every time they are called out. And it is my belief that all who are involved with the RNLI - either in the front line or in supportive roles - are working alongside God, because God is also in the rescue business. God’s work is being done when people are compelled in their hearts to reach out sacrificially to rescue people from trouble and despair. It’s God who upholds us, and he can equip us with the inner strength and resilience that we need when the going is rough.
It has been an eventful year for our local RNLI. 2010 began on a sad note with the passing of one of the station’s most inspirational members... But of course, the task of the RNLI goes ever on, and over the spring and summer months the lifeboat crew were called out many times. And with grateful thanks to The Lifeboat Fund, the new lifeboat is now in service, which will enable the lifeboat crew to carry out their life saving work more effectively than ever before.
Here in this service we thank God and we praise God for all the people who make this work possible: The Lifeboat Fund, our local fundraising guild and all those who support the RNLI financially; the local RNLI Management Group; the lifeboat crewmembers, who sacrifice time with their families or at work to go out and help people in trouble on the sea; and we thank the families and employer’s who support them in this calling. So let us pray:
Loving God, our God of rescue,
We thank you that you put it into our hearts to want to help others in need. Thank you for the RNLI: for all who contribute in so many ways to its effectiveness in saving lives.
And we thank you that by the example shown to us by Jesus we know just how much you want to save and help us. Help us to trust in Jesus. Help us to live and work hand in hand with him, to your praise and glory. Amen.
Monday, 11 October 2010
I know that some of you use the social networking website called Facebook, and I know that because I'm 'Facebook friends' with some of you, but even if you aren't on Facebook, you’ve probably at least heard of it. I use Facebook mostly to keep in touch with friends and family that live in far away countries. Not only can you add ‘friends’ on Facebook, you can also join groups. I found out recently there’s a group on Facebook called ‘Attitude of Gratitude’, and nearly 3000 people have joined that group. The purpose of the group is to encourage thankfulness and gratitude, which is an admirable purpose. Their information page says that ‘Having an ‘attitude of gratitude’ is one of the easiest and most powerful ways to transform your life’! Well, I have to agree with this group that gratitude is powerful and transformative, but I’m not so sure that it is easy.
The Protestant Reformer Martin Luther considered gratitude to be “the basic Christian attitude” – that gratitude is the basic attitude Christians should have. I know that when I do remember to be thankful, it makes me feel more positive about life, even when things aren’t going well. But it’s not always easy to remember. It actually takes effort and it takes discipline.
When a child receives a gift, more often than not, the parent prompts a response from the child by asking, ‘Now what do you say?’ and hopefully the child responds with a ‘thank you’. We want children to learn to be grateful for gifts given, and we begin to teach them from a young age. I was taught to write thank-you notes when I was growing up, and I try to encourage my children to do this as well. But often it takes weeks to get around to writing thank-you notes. Why is it we find ourselves so easily distracted from showing gratitude, not only to other people, but even more importantly to God, from whom all blessings flow? We have so many blessings from God it’s impossible to count them all. But we often forget to be thankful; we often take for granted all that we have.
Our gospel reading is about the importance of gratitude. In the gospel story, ten lepers have an encounter with Jesus. Leprosy was the dreaded disease in Jesus’ day. Leprosy was and still is highly contagious. Today it’s treated with a long course of antibiotics, but in Jesus’ day, whether it was mild or serious, lepers were kept in isolated groups separated from their families and friends, sometimes for the rest of their lives. If you had leprosy, no one could come within twelve feet of you. You were untouchable and ‘unclean’ under Jewish law.
Jesus had already healed at least one leper before, and the news of that healing had spread. So these lepers, too, were hoping that Jesus would come by and perhaps one of them would be healed. Well Jesus did come by, and the 10 lepers began shouting to him: ‘Jesus, Master, have pity on us’. Jesus very calmly and simply told them ‘Go, and show yourselves to the priests’. So on their way, the ten lepers noticed their lesions began to disappear and they knew they were being healed. Well of course, they were elated! Off they ran as fast as they could to see the priests, to be officially declared ‘clean’, and then they could return to the family and society they hadn’t seen for who knows how long. As fast as they could go, they were so happy to be well after all this time. But one remembered, one turned back and fell at Jesus’ feet, worshipped him, and thanked him.
What happened to the other nine? Why didn’t they also come back? When they needed God, they were close to God; but when they didn’t need God, they were off busy being well. The ironic thing was that their healing drove them away from God. So what does it take to heal the human heart of ingratitude ...an even greater miracle than healing the skin of leprosy?
The nine lepers became so busy being well... rushing off to see mum and dad, brother and sister, aunt and uncle, and the garden and the farm and the shop and the fishing boat, all those people and places they hadn’t seen for so long. They were so busy being well, they had no time to express appreciation to Jesus. And perhaps we understand this - being too busy to live gratefully; being too busy even to pray. We hit the floor running each morning and fall asleep exhausted at night - Who has time for words of thanksgiving or feeling gratitude? Busy, Lord. We’re very busy being well. The tragedy of the gospel story is that the nine lepers got the healing, but not the healer; they experienced the miracle but not the miracle worker; they received the gift but they didn’t acknowledge the giver.
We can become so busy with life that we forget the God who has given it all to us, who came to be with us in Jesus, who died for us, and who lives in us by his Spirit. That’s the tragedy of the nine who didn’t turn back: they missed out on the true blessing.
But let’s focus on the one - the one who came back to say “Thank you” - the Samaritan, the foreigner, the outsider. The one who came back wasn’t a Jew; he was an outsider to the faith. In several gospel stories it’s an outsider, who shows great faith and great gratitude. If we’ve been on this faith journey for some time, we can become used to God blessing and caring for us and we can begin to take God for granted; we can begin to expect his blessings as God-given rights. But those who’ve only recently found faith are often deeply grateful to God for the smallest of gifts, for the littlest of his blessings. With familiarity, we can take things for granted - we experience that in our family life sometimes, don’t we? And we can do that with God. So in our bible lesson it was an outsider to the established religion who was the only one to come back to Jesus to say ‘thank you’.
And what was Jesus’ response? "Were not all ten cleansed? Where are the other nine? Was no one found to return and give praise to God except this foreigner?" Jesus’ response seems almost bad-mannered. He’s not even directly addressing the one who returned; he’s speaking over that guy’s head to the crowd listening in. Jesus points out that the thankful man is a ‘foreigner,’ because the whole point of this story (which only occurs in Luke’s gospel) is to chastise those among the Jews in Luke’s day who have not shown gratitude and acceptance to Jesus and his mission. Only the foreigner remembers the giver of the grace he has received.
But of course, Luke’s context is not our context. So how can this story about gratitude impact on us today? Why is gratitude such an important attitude? Well of course, it’s more than just a show of good manners or discipline. Gratitude is crucial for our well-being; for our health in mind, body and spirit. And that’s something God’s very interested in. A person can be physically and even mentally well, but if we’re not spiritually well, we’re not whole, and we’re not living the fullness of life that Jesus came to give us.
But with gratitude our inner focus is re-directed, and that radiates out to our whole life. But we have to put it into practice – we have to develop the habit of gratitude as a rule of life. Monks and nuns dedicate their whole lives to this pursuit. Their frequent prayer times help to develop this continual thankfulness. But none of us live in a monastery, as far as I know. But in our better moments, we know that a grateful heart, full of thankfulness to God, is the secret to contentment, satisfaction and joy.
I’m going to finish with a little exercise. Don’t worry; it’s not physical exercise – just a little easy mental & spiritual exercise. Let’s close our eyes to block out distractions, and think of something or someone that you are grateful for.
It could be simply the air that we breathe, or this new day.
It could be we’re grateful for our faith, or a relationship.
It could be a particular person.
Just hold the situation or the person in your mind and in your heart.
Now we’re going to gently move our focus from the gift to the giver.
We’re going to focus on our maker – the maker of heaven and earth,
and of all that is, seen & unseen.
And we’re simply going to say,
either silently or out loud if you wish,
those two simple words of gratitude to the Lord: Thank you.
Sunday, 3 October 2010
Suppose you are in a room with two windows on opposite walls of the room. One window is very small, and the other is large. The large window looks out on a cold landscape characterised by chaos, conflict and hostility. The other window, which is very small, looks out on a land of justice, mercy, love and peace.
Faith can be compared to a window. It doesn’t matter whether the window is 6 ft or just 6 inches. What matters is what the window looks out on, and whether we choose to look there. If we’re looking to the God who loves us, who has compassion on us, then even the tiniest little peep-hole of a window will display aspects of the justice, mercy, love and peace of God. In a world where the daily news keeps the knowledge of evil at the forefront of our minds, we know life is often a struggle and sometimes very tragic indeed. It’s no wonder that we sometimes cry out to God to increase our faith so that we can make it through the day.
But as we heard from Luke’s gospel, even faith as small as a mustard seed is enough to move a mulberry tree. Matthew and Mark’s gospels put even more emphasis on this, where faith ‘as small as a mustard seed’ can move a mountain. The primary message is that it’s God who empowers our life of discipleship and with God, all things are possible. So if you sometimes feel as if you haven’t got enough faith, remember this: It’s not great faith we need; it’s faith in a great God. Its faith and trust in a God who will hold us and help us.
I read this story the other day: A tourist was hiking in the Lake District. She fell over a precipice. As she plummeted down, she grabbed the branch of a small tree. She looked up to the top of the rock face and cried out, “Help! If there is anyone up there, help!” Suddenly a voice from heaven said: “I am here. I will help you. Let go of the branch and I will send the holy angels to hold you safe in my supporting arms. Have faith. Let go.” The girl looked up, looked down to the jagged rocks below, looked up again, and asked: “Is there anyone else up there?”...
It’s not an easy thing to let go.
In some places in our gospels, people are praised and even healed by Jesus for their strong faith in him. But here in Luke 17, Jesus reassures his disciples and us that he knows we aren’t always capable of sustaining a fired-up faith. He knows that sometimes in place of a flame there’s just a small spark. He knows there will be times when we will doubt his faithfulness to us, as even his first disciples sometimes doubted. And this is ok, because our God is a great God. He can handle our weaknesses. He loves us, and he can take it.
But what God doesn’t like, and this is illustrated by the second part of our reading from Luke 17, what God doesn’t like is when we get arrogant about our faith – if we begin to think of ourselves as privileged. Here’s that part of the reading again:
"Suppose one of you had a servant ploughing or looking after the sheep. Would he say to the servant when he comes in from the field, 'Come along now and sit down to eat'? Would he not rather say, 'Prepare my supper, get yourself ready and wait on me while I eat and drink; after that you may eat and drink'? Would he thank the servant because he did what he was told to do? So you also, when you have done everything you were told to do, should say, 'We are unworthy servants; we have only done our duty.' "
Does the servant get special thanks for doing what's expected of him? No. By this little parable, Jesus shows his disciples their need for deep humility. We don’t deserve any reward from God for our faithful service. No matter how hard we work for God, God is not in debt to us. Jesus came among us as one who serves, and his followers are also called to be servants. We hear it said (and how many more times is it thought): ‘I’ve done all this, I’ve given all that, I’ve worked so hard – surely God (and my fellow church members) will be satisfied with all that I do, and I will be honoured. The reality is that all genuine service to God is done from gratitude, and not to earn anything at all. God is never in our debt.
Likewise, in spite of all the work we might do for the Church, we must not hold fellow members of the body of Christ in our debt.
Jesus asks all his disciples to uphold the kingdom values of justice, mercy, love and peace. But so difficult seem the teachings of Jesus that his disciples ask for greater faith, to which Jesus points out and affirms that even the little faith they have is adequate enough. It’s interesting that Jesus uses the mustard seed image here in relation to faith, and in Matthew 13, he uses the mustard seed image in relation to God’s kingdom. Listen to that passage:
“The kingdom of heaven is like a mustard seed, which a man took and planted in his field. Though it is the smallest of all your seeds, yet when it grows, it is the largest of garden plants and becomes a tree, so that the birds of the air come and perch in its branches.”
How reassuring it is that faith as small as a mustard seed is enough for God’s Kingdom to grow within and among his people. And going back to the imagery I used at the beginning, where faith is like a window looking out on a kingdom under God’s rule, even a very small window of faith is enough for the living Lord to work with. The more we let go and trust, the wider that window becomes. But even Jesus’ closest disciples were forever doubting and confused. How often did Jesus say to them, ‘O you of little faith’? But our generous God takes our little faith, and grows it like a seed within his kingdom and into his kingdom - his kingdom of embracing love and hospitality, of welcome, of inclusion, and of more grace than we can ever imagine. It’s not what we do; it is what he has done. To God be the glory. Amen.
(With thanks to Tom Wright for ideas!)
Thursday, 30 September 2010
In our gospel reading, Jesus instructs the disciples to tell people that ‘The kingdom of God is near’ – but what does that mean? Is the kingdom of God something we experience now or something that is in the future? The kingdom of God is a hugely important thing for us to try and grasp as Christians, but why is it so important? Well, the main reason is that the kingdom of God is our goal – it’s the goal toward which Christians strive. So if we’re striving towards the kingdom of God, we should in theory at least know a little bit about what it means. And assuming you don’t want to be here all day, it’s only a little bit that we have time for in the space of this sermon.
What does the word kingdom conjure up for us? - A realm, an empire, a monarchy, and perhaps even a territory; or the kingly rule of God in the lives of people and nations. By definition, a kingdom has to have a king, and from the earliest days of Israel’s history, God was worshipped as King, and we can look to the psalms to illustrate this:
The LORD reigns forever; he has established his throne for judgment.
He will judge the world in righteousness; he will govern the peoples with justice.
God reigns over the nations; God is seated on his holy throne.
The nobles of the nations assemble as the people of the God of Abraham,
for the kings of the earth belong to God; he is greatly exalted.
The LORD reigns, he is robed in majesty; the LORD is robed in majesty
and is armed with strength.
The world is firmly established; it cannot be moved.
Your throne was established long ago; you are from all eternity.
So for Israel God has always been considered sovereign over his creation. Even when the kingdom of Israel was established under Saul and David, these were not absolute monarchs – they were ‘the Lord’s anointed’, and only derived their sovereignty from the heavenly King.
The eternal future reign of the Messiah was prophesied by Isaiah in what has now become a very familiar passage, especially at Christmas (Isaiah 9:6-7):
For to us a child is born, to us a son is given,
and the government will be on his shoulders.
And he will be called Wonderful Counsellor, Mighty God,
Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace.
Of the increase of his government and peace there will be no end.
He will reign on David's throne and over his kingdom,
establishing and upholding it with justice and righteousness
from that time on and forever.
The idea of this coming Kingdom excited the imagination of the Jewish people; and in Israel, about the time of our Lord, many were looking for the Kingdom of God as Luke puts it in his gospel. Paving the way for the Lord, John the Baptist’s message in Matthew 3 was, ‘Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is near’ (the kingdom of heaven and the kingdom of God being the same thing). The message of John the Baptist was taken up by Jesus, who after his baptism, and the temptation by the devil in the wilderness, also began to preach ‘Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is near.’ In Luke 4, Jesus said "I must preach the good news of the kingdom of God... because that is why I was sent." And at the Last Supper, in Luke 22, Jesus said to his disciples that he was giving to them a kingdom just as his Father gave to him.
There are many imaginative references to the kingdom of God in the Parables, especially in Matthew chapter 13, where several times Jesus says, ‘The kingdom of heaven is like...’ followed by an illustration using things or activities with which the people could make a connection. So here’s a scriptural memory question (just to see if you’re still awake): Who can tell me something that Jesus said the kingdom of heaven is ‘like’? It doesn’t have to be a big thing; it can be just a tiny little thing. [a mustard seed: “The kingdom of heaven is like a mustard seed, which a man took and planted in his field. Though it is the smallest of all your seeds, yet when it grows, it is the largest of garden plants and becomes a tree, so that the birds of the air come and perch in its branches.”] Jesus also liken the kingdom to yeast, to a fishing net that was let down to catch all kinds of fish, to treasure hidden in a field, to a merchant looking for fine pearls - when he found one of great value, he went away and sold everything he had and bought it. The emphasis of some of the kingdom parables is on the present signs of the kingdom and in others it’s on a future aspect of the kingdom when it comes in its fullness at the end of the age, the timing of which we are not to know.
So having laid a little bit of the foundation for why the kingdom of God is important to us as Christians, let’s move on now to a little bit of what it actually might mean for our lives. As I hinted before, there are two possible aspects of biblical teaching we could look at – the kingdom in the present time, which is a gift enjoyed by all who believe in Jesus Christ, and the kingdom in the age to come, when as Matthew’s gospel puts it in ch. 25, ‘the Son of man shall come in his glory, and all the angels with him’. These two aspects are sometimes referred to as the ‘now’ and the ‘not yet’. We live between earth and heaven, between God's act in Christ and the completion of that act. We haven’t time this morning to look at both aspects, so I’m going to focus on the first one: the kingdom of God in the present time – the kingdom of God that is accessible to us now.
So if the kingdom is here now, how do we access it? How do we become a part of it? The answer, of course, is through faith and trust in the Lord Jesus. By acknowledging the authority of Jesus over the whole of our life the kingdom of God breaks in to our life. A living relationship with Jesus brings the kingdom of God into our homes and into our relationships – I’m sure many of us can testify that our faith certainly helps in dealing with difficult issues within our family life. A living relationship with Jesus also brings the kingdom of God into our workplaces and into our working attitudes. We’ve probably all heard the maxim that we should perform our work as if we were working for the Lord himself. And finally, a living relationship with Jesus brings the kingdom of God into our leisure time. It’s great when people know that we're Christians and are surprised that we can still enjoy life – because joy is part of the kingdom. But however we choose to spend our leisure time, if we have given Jesus authority over the whole of our life, then our leisure time should also reflect kingdom principles.
It’s important to remember, though, that in each of these spheres of life we will sometimes fail to live up to this – that’s our human condition. We don’t seem to be able to allow Jesus to have authority over each and every aspect or issue of our lives. And that’s part of the kingdom being both ‘now’ and ‘not yet’ in its fullness. We hold this treasure in jars of clay, so easily chipped, cracked and broken.
In Luke 17:21 Jesus says something interesting – he said, ‘The Kingdom of God is within you’; sometimes it’s translated as ‘The kingdom of God is among you’, but I think it is both. The kingdom is ‘within’ us as God’s Spirit dwells within us; and the kingdom is also among us, among the members of Christ’s body, the Church. It’s not really clear which of these translations is most accurate, but both meanings are pretty special, and represent the intimacy of relationship that God wants with us, despite the fact that, in the words of my favourite Christian band, we are a ‘beautiful letdown’.
In an unsettled, anxious and sometimes despairing world, the positive and welcoming message of the Kingdom of God takes our faith to a counter-cultural level. When taken seriously, a focus on the kingdom of God in the present can make a great difference in the Church, and through the Church it makes a difference to the world. But there’s still too wide a gap between personal religion and social religion, and also between the various factions in the Church. What matters is the Kingdom of God – and the kingdom of God is present wherever human beings love and serve God and seek to extend the acceptance of his reign over all the earth. The kingdom is present in all acts and attitudes of compassion and efforts to bring about a better world.
The day is coming when every knee shall bow in Jesus’ name and every tongue confess that He is Lord, and we anticipate that day today by acknowledging his Lordship here and now. When the Kingdom is fully come, God’s will shall be done on earth as it is in heaven. Yet here and now believers in Christ may know the power of his resurrection and walk in newness of life. And at home, at work or at leisure, the kingdom qualities of justice and mercy, peace and truth should sought by and be seen in God’s people until, as the prophet Habakkuk foretells, ‘the earth shall be filled with the glory of God as the waters cover the sea’. Amen.