Thursday, 30 September 2010

The Kingdom of God

Colossians 1:15-20 & Luke 10:1-12

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:

Psalm 9:7-8
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.

Psalm 47:8-9
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.

Psalm 93:1-2
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.

Sunday, 26 September 2010

Harvest Festival

John 6:25-35

There’s something special about Harvest, isn’t there? It’s really starting to feel autumnal, and some of the trees are beginning to change colour. And then there’s the agricultural aspect of harvest - reaping the edible benefits from what has been sown and carefully tended. I had a little patch of vegetables this year (only about 2 ft. by 10 ft). There’s still a few more tomatoes coming, but the beans, peppers and courgettes have pretty much finished. But it’s a sad fact that my melons didn’t grow at all this year!

Harvest is a time when we think about the bounty of the earth, and God’s provision to us. We are very blessed in this country. Most of us have more than enough food. Our supermarkets are full of food. Few of us have to worry about where our next meal is coming from. And we have easy access to good, clean running water. Some of us experienced our water supply being cut off for a little while back in May, and I think a lot of us realised then how much we often take our water supply for granted.

And so when Harvest comes around in our Christian calendar, it’s a wonderful opportunity for us to thank our generous God for all that he gives... and to remember those people all over the world who struggle to achieve a good harvest of food or water. But for the Christian, Harvest also has a spiritual meaning. And our New Testament reading this morning from the book of Revelation, chapter 14, illustrates this quite dramatically:

‘I looked, and there before me was a white cloud, and seated on the cloud was one "like a son of man" with a crown of gold on his head and a sharp sickle in his hand. Then [an] angel ...called in a loud voice to him who was sitting on the cloud, "Take your sickle and reap, because the time to reap has come, for the harvest of the earth is ripe." So he who was seated on the cloud swung his sickle over the earth, and the earth was harvested’.

‘And the earth was harvested’. If anyone here is unsure why Jesus Christ was sent by God to the earth some 2000-odd years ago, it was for this very reason: to harvest the earth. But what on earth could that mean? At harvest the farmer collects the fruits of the passing season and begins preparation for a new season. So ‘harvest’ is a good metaphor for what Jesus came to do. When Jesus came as Son of God and Son of Man, he completed the old covenant between God and his people. When Jesus died, and was buried, and then resurrected, it was the beginning of the new covenant between God and his people. St. Paul says in Hebrews 8: By calling this covenant "new," [God] has made the first one obsolete; and what is obsolete and aging will soon disappear.

This was all pretty radical news to the crowds of people following Jesus around during his ministry, and especially to his fellow Jews. It was a confused and bewildered crowd that got into conversation with Jesus in today’s reading from John’s gospel. If we go back a few verses, this crowd had only just been with Jesus at Tiberius where Jesus fed the 5000 with five loaves and two fish. Our reading today happens the day after that amazing miracle of feeding. Listen again to some of the conversation that occurs in our reading of John 6:25-35, this time from The Message paraphrase:

When [the crowd] found him back across the sea, they said, "Rabbi, when did you get here?" Jesus answered, "You've come looking for me not because you saw God in my actions but because I fed you, filled your stomachs—and for free”.

Jesus is accusing the crowd of following him only to satisfy their empty bellies. He then refocuses the conversation upon more spiritual matters. He says:

"Don't waste your energy striving for perishable food like that. Work for the food that sticks with you, food that nourishes your lasting life, food the Son of Man provides. He and what he does are guaranteed by God the Father to last."

Jesus continues saying, "The real significance is not that Moses gave you bread from heaven but that my Father is right now offering you bread from heaven, the real bread. The Bread of God came down out of heaven and is giving life to the world." "I am the Bread of Life. The person who aligns with me hungers no more and thirsts no more, ever”.

The crowd was confused by Jesus because many were looking for a different kind of saviour – a saviour who would show force and power and strength to liberate the Jews from Roman oppression. But because of the spiritual nature of Jesus’ message, in the end many people abandoned him. And the same thing happens today. Seeking a deep personal relationship with Jesus is sometimes thought less important than seeking material or practical answers to human problems. But Jesus is saying the spiritual takes priority over the material because in the final analysis, material things cannot fully satisfy the human soul.

Karl Marx said that "religion is the opium of the people". According to Jesus it’s the very opposite - materialism is the narcotic. Materialism anaesthetises people to the reality that real contentment and real security are found only when we come to know God. A devotion to materialism keeps our deepest needs buried down out of sight where we don’t have to face them. Materialism is addictive – we want more and more of whatever it is, and we lose sight of the person that can fulfil us most completely: God.

The Galilean crowd had tracked Jesus down because they wanted a repeat of the miracle meal. "Open your eyes;" Jesus was saying to them, "the bread you are really looking for is right here. It’s not a something but a Someone. It’s me. I am not just the giver; I am the gift”. This kind of bread seemed hard to swallow. People wanted to know what they needed to do – but Jesus said, ‘Just come to me; just believe in me’. And that’s what he still is saying to us today. Eternal life is not a possession but a gift – and we continually receive this gift through a deepening personal relationship with Him.

Of course Christians look forward to a future when all is made right and new through Jesus, but we miss the point if we lose focus on the kingdom here and now. Jesus taught that God's kingdom is among us (Luke 17:21) - he taught that it’s here and now, it’s in our hearts and so it isn't only something we look forward to after we die but it’s our present reality. We can choose to live within God’s eternal kingdom now by allowing God’s Spirit to live in our hearts and demonstrating God's love to others in our everyday lives.

And we are not afraid because we trust that through Jesus, God is drawing all things to himself. That’s the spiritual meaning behind Harvest. Jesus is the bread of life. He’s the bread that truly satisfies and strengthens us, leading us to reach out and care for other people and for the earth. Jesus is harvesting the earth for God’s kingdom. A loving and living relationship with Jesus enables us to work with him in the ongoing harvest of the world.

A prayer: Generous and merciful God, today may we be thankful in the light of your rich gifts to us. Help us to know how essential you are to our lives. Draw us closer to you, that we may never go hungry. Give us faith in abundance, that we might never be thirsty. And may your transforming joy rise up within us, and overflow into the lives of others across your world. Amen.

Monday, 20 September 2010

Praise the Lord! Psalm 146

Psalm 146 begins and ends with Praise the Lord! (Hallelujah, in Hebrew). It’s a hymn of praise for the God who is faithful, the God who cares about the needy, and the God who sets people free. This psalm, along with all the psalms, would have been well known by Jesus and his first disciples. And this psalm carries a message for us today, as well. I want to look particularly at verses 7-9 of Psalm 146. Here are those verses again:

He upholds the cause of the oppressed and gives food to the hungry. The LORD sets prisoners free, the LORD gives sight to the blind, the LORD lifts up those who are bowed down, the LORD loves the righteous. The LORD watches over the alien and sustains the fatherless and the widow, but he frustrates the ways of the wicked.

God did these things for Israel in the past. And God did these things through Jesus Christ while he walked the earth. And God’s will is to continue to do these things through all his people, who are the body of Christ.

The acts of God recited in vv 7-9 point to events in the history of Israel. In verse 7: ‘He upholds the cause of the oppressed and gives food to the hungry. The LORD sets prisoners free’ – the most obvious event remembered here is the Exodus. In Egypt, the Israelites were oppressed as slaves. Moses led them out into freedom and into the desert, where they became hungry. God heard their cries and sustained them with manna from heaven. Freedom from oppression and the provision of food – this is attributed to God by the Israelites.

In verse 8, the psalmist writes, ‘the LORD gives sight to the blind’. But among the miracles written about in the Old Testament, the recovery of sight is absent. I couldn’t find any examples of the Lord giving sight to the blind in the Old Testament. In the Old Testament, the Lord giving sight to the blind was not a reality, but a promise. And it was associated with the Messiah who was to come. It was prophetic. Isaiah prophesied sight for the blind as did our psalmist here in Psalm 146.

Verse 8 continues: the LORD lifts up those who are bowed down,
the LORD loves the righteous.
God loves righteousness because that is one of God’s main attributes. To be righteous is to live your life guided by the qualities of justice, integrity, sincerity and equity. In the Old Testament, Noah, Abraham, and Job were called righteous. In varying situations, ‘righteousness’ means being right, doing right, and putting things right. It includes ‘frustrating the ways of the wicked’ by creating order out of disorder, and unity out of disunity.

Verse 9 says: The LORD watches over the alien and sustains the fatherless and the widow, but he frustrates the ways of the wicked. God's love and concern for people who are disadvantaged is obvious throughout the Old Testament. God’s covenant with Israel included the obligation not to abuse the weak or defenceless, as we see in Exodus 22: "Do not take advantage of a widow or an orphan. If you do and they cry out to me, I will certainly hear their cry”.

The Law of Moses contained several rules for the fair treatment of orphans, widows and foreigners, for example in Deuteronomy 24: ‘Do not deprive the alien or the fatherless of justice, or take the cloak of the widow as a pledge. Remember that you were slaves in Egypt and the Lord your God redeemed you from there. ...When you are harvesting in your field and you overlook a sheaf, do not go back to get it. Leave it for the alien, the fatherless and the widow, so that the Lord your God may bless you in all the work of your hands.’

So we see that this short Psalm touches on several aspects of Jewish history. The ‘God of Jacob’ rescued Israel from oppression, hunger and slavery, and formed a covenant with his people, that they would be a blessing to all the nations of the earth. And for us as Christians, if we reframe this psalm and view it in the light of Jesus Christ, we recognise a connection between what God has done for Israel and what God has done for us through Jesus Christ. Through Jesus, God came to rescue all people from spiritual oppression, hunger and slavery, when we turn to him. In Luke chapter 4, Jesus stands up in the synagogue in Nazareth and reads from the scroll of the prophet Isaiah (61):

"The Spirit of the Lord is on me, because he has anointed me
to preach good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim freedom for the prisoners and recovery of sight for the blind,
to release the oppressed, to proclaim the year of the Lord's favour." Then he rolled up the scroll, gave it back to the attendant and sat down. The eyes of everyone in the synagogue were fastened on him, and he began by saying to them, "Today this scripture is fulfilled in your hearing."

Everything Jesus did had both a spiritual dimension and an earthly dimension. When we’re released from spiritual blindness, we see the greater purpose to which our earthly good works contribute. We understand that God’s kingdom is breaking in, and that God wants our lives to be formed into this Kingdom shape, where Jesus reigns.

Today we can have a real impact on people’s lives – by giving our time, our talents, or our money. Through charitable organisations such as Open Doors, Christian Aid, the Barnabas Fund and the Ark, as individual Christians and through the Church, we can uphold the cause of the oppressed and the unfairly imprisoned. We can give food to the hungry and sight to the blind. We can arrange hospitality for refugees and the homeless, and we can care for orphans and for widowed people. Selfless giving of time, talents, and money for the sake of the kingdom of God aligns us with the will of God.

In the short space of Psalm 146, we remember God’s saving grace in the past, and are pointed towards the reign of Christ and our responsibilities as his disciples. Under the New Covenant, we are the body of Christ. We are to seek out the lost and fight the corner for the oppressed. We are to feed the hungry and liberate those enslaved by the things of this world. When this happens through Christ’s church in the world, it’s a sign of his kingdom breaking in on earth, and he is to be praised. Hallelujah! Amen.

Wednesday, 8 September 2010

It has been a busy couple of weeks. My training incumbent has been away on holiday. Two funerals, six church services, pastoral visits, a chapter meeting, standing committee, music group, ladies fellowship. And school starting up again for my 14-year-old daughter and 11-year-old son. My son started high school, which begins at year 7 here. A big change for him, but so far, so good.

With the end of summer, church activities start up again - like the parents/carers & tots groups. I'm looking forward to being involved in those two groups again. I have to finish off my application for the Sea Cadet chaplaincy asap, and start to increase our level of involvement with a local care home and the local primary school. I've also got a paper to write for my master's programme, about the book we curates had to read (Remembering our Future). I need more hours in each day and more days in each week!

I've been reflecting a lot on preaching. I'm not happy with my preaching. I would like to get better at preaching without a written script. It doesn't feel right to read my sermon, no matter how well I do it, and no matter how often I make eye contact (a lot, I think). There isn't enough engagement with the congregation. I need to work on this.

In conversation with a parishioner, I've come to realise that most of our sermons are too long, and people switch off. What good is that? I think I need to make my sermons a lot shorter, and try to learn how to preach it without relying on my manuscript.

Wednesday, 1 September 2010


Psalm 113
1 Praise the LORD.
Praise, O servants of the LORD,
praise the name of the LORD.

2 Let the name of the LORD be praised,
both now and forevermore.

3 From the rising of the sun to the place where it sets,
the name of the LORD is to be praised.

4 The LORD is exalted over all the nations,
his glory above the heavens.

5 Who is like the LORD our God,
the One who sits enthroned on high,

6 who stoops down to look
on the heavens and the earth?

7 He raises the poor from the dust
and lifts the needy from the ash heap;

8 he seats them with princes,
with the princes of their people.

9 He settles the barren woman in her home
as a happy mother of children.
Praise the LORD.

Continuing with our sermon series on the Psalms, this morning’s Psalm [113] is known as one of the Hallel Psalms. The Hebrew word Hallel is familiar to us in the word Hallelujah. Hallel means ‘praise’, and Yah is the shortened form of Yahweh, the name of God. So Psalm 113 is a hymn of praise about God. It’s a call to the people of God to remember who God is and what God has done.

All day, every day, and everywhere – as the psalmist says, ‘from the rising of the sun to the place where it sets’, ‘both now and forevermore ...the name of the Lord is to be praised’. Praise shouldn’t be something we only do when we feel like it – praise is supposed to be something that we do at all times – in ordinary and extraordinary times – in good times and in bad times. The method of praise comes down to individual preference, but whatever way we do it, God’s people are called to praise God.

The call to praise God is followed in the psalm by reasons for praise: God’s glory is above the heavens and wide as all space! There is nothing in all creation that can be compared to this God, and yet this God is concerned about people, and the ordinary activities of people. God watches over all his creation. God raises the poor, lifts the broken and oppressed, corrects inequality, and injustice, and provides fruitfulness in otherwise barren conditions. Disparities between wealthy and poor, powerful and powerless, elite and excluded – situations present at the time the psalm was written, and still present today – these do not harmonise with the attributes of God.

What must then be called into question is people’s attitudes towards those who suffer from poverty, inequality, and despair. Those who participate in activities that contribute to the poverty of others; those who isolate people into categories for discrimination; those who exclude the childless from circles of friendship are reminded that these attitudes do not align with God’s care for people.

Instead, the psalmist affirms that those in the ash heaps of life and dust piles of despair will be lifted up. This mighty God helps people find dignity within the community. This God hears the prayers of the discouraged. This God also hears the prayers of the childless couple. Coming out of the Hebrew tradition, the psalm reminds people of God’s answer to the prayers of Sarah, Rebecca, Rachel, & Hannah who were once barren women. The psalm reminds people that the experience of the desolate will not be forever. There will be a day of justice, a day where the fields are levelled. The people of God will have security, contentment and fruitfulness. Their day of despair will not triumph, and a day of praise shall break forth.

Psalm 113 speaks of a God who is high and exalted, who also ‘stoops down’ to care for people. This is the God who sent Jesus, whose name in Hebrew is Yahshua, which means ‘Yahweh saves’ – Jesus, who came to live among us, and who died and rose again for the world.

At this point our psalm connects with our two other readings. As Jesus says in our Luke passage, we are called to love and to serve others, and to invite those less fortunate than ourselves to our table. As St. Paul says in the Hebrews passage, we’re called to love each other, but we are not to forget to entertain strangers. That’s hospitality in its most God-honouring form.

I have this crazy vision of how exciting it would be if we focussed our energies on inviting strangers to come and eat here with us. Yes, it would be risky, and it might be uncomfortable. But I think it’s what Jesus would do if he were walking around our town today – he would invite everyone to come and eat at his table. Isn’t that what we, as the body of Christ, should also do? Not just our friends, our family and our 'presentable' neighbours; but as Jesus said, ‘...when you give a banquet, invite the poor, the crippled, the lame, the blind, and you will be blessed’.

One of the most powerful ways God lifts up the lowly is through other people, so if we claim to be disciples of Jesus, then we will actively seek ways to serve the people who need to experience God’s love. That is praise in action.

We praise God for who God is, we praise God for our ongoing salvation, and we look forward what God has planned for the future when Jesus returns. Every time we sing ‘Hallelujah!’ we can be reminded of what God has already done, and that God will finish the salvation that is still taking place. God’s saving presence was demonstrated in the past, and will be demonstrated again when Jesus Christ, Yahshua Messiah, returns in glory. ‘Through Jesus, therefore, let us continually offer to God a sacrifice of praise – the fruit of lips that confess his name’. Amen.