Monthly Archives: March 2016

Sunday message 27 March 2016 Easter Sunday – The gardener

READINGS: Acts 10:34-43;   John 20:1-18


So how’s your garden coming along?

Anything like Eden yet?

It all started in a garden. Eden. That perfect place of friendship – paradise. I doubt that there were weeds and thorns at the beginning. In fact, listen again to Genesis 3:17-18:  To Adam he said, “Because you listened to your wife and ate from the tree about which I commanded you, ‘You must not eat of it,’ “Cursed is the ground because of you; through painful toil you will eat of it all the days of your life. It will produce thorns and thistles for you, and you will eat the plants of the field.

Gardens are these interesting places – potential for chaos, lots of things that die – but life comes through their death. There are even experiments where electricity is being generated in cemeteries. And crematoria are being plugged into the electricity grid in some countries. Bizarre as it may seem.

When our children were young we lived in a place called Oslo Beach. And to get to our house each afternoon we had to drive past a crematorium and cemetery.

Our daughter used to pester me – “when can we visit the grave garden”. After weeks of this I turned into the place after school and we visited the old man who ran the place. And looked inside the oven. No it wasn’t occupied at the time. There were some questions about granny and what had happened to her when she died. And home we went. No more requests after that. That was our visit to the grave garden.

Today we read about another grave garden.

It’s not surprising that we find life springing from this garden. The other gospels don’t mention the garden or a gardener.


It’s not really surprising that Mary assumes Jesus is the gardener. (The word “gardener” is an example of hapax legomenon. You don’t find the word anywhere else in the New Testament or LXX.) (κηπουρός –  garden warden in John 20:15. In John 15:1 the word is γεωργός – soil worker)

It is unique to John – as is Mary’s encounter alone with Jesus.

The most intriguing line is this one in verse 17:

“Don’t cling to me” is the best translation it seems. The word means to fasten – in a reflexive sense to attached yourself to someone or something. Cling is a good word.

I remember an old lady at a funeral I conducted who held on to her husband’s coffin as it was being lowered into the grave. Don’t cling to the past?

Not touch. It would be okay for Thomas to do as much touching as he wanted – poking around in the holes made by nails and spear.

But not for Mary. She had to focus on a new beginning.

She knows he is not the gardener when he says her name. Suddenly she turns from looking to a body to looking at the man. The one of whom Pilate said: “Behold the Man!” (John 19:5).

  • This is the second Adam – who unlike the first resists temptation.
  • The Man Jesus who is the one to whom we all must turn.

He speaks her name – and she turns. Listen to verse 16 again:  Jesus said to her, “Mary.” She turned toward him and cried out in Aramaic, “Rabboni!” (which means Teacher).

Memories of his teaching flood back for John’s readers from John  10:27  My sheep listen to my voice; I know them, and they follow me. And John 10:3 He calls his own sheep by name and leads them out.

The word “turn” is also subtle. It can also mean convert.


Don’t cling to me.

The reason he gives to her is this: “Do not hold on to me, for I have not yet returned to the Father. Go instead to my brothers and tell them… (v17)

Not yet returned to the Father. Literally Jesus was “not yet ascended.” What does this mean? Clearly his day was part of a greater story which we summarised on Friday in the saying together of the Apostle’s Creed. Did you notice which line was left out?

Mary is unmoved by this concept or idea of why she should not hold onto him. Once she hears Jesus’ voice she focusses on his words

She is Apostle number 14 really. “Go to my brothers and tell them…” She is the apostle to the apostles!

And the message is fascinating. There is a new opening in the family now through Christ’s death and resurrection: ‘I am returning to my Father and your Father, to my God and your God.'”

 John is taking his readers back to the beginning – to chapter 1:

Joh 1:11  He came to that which was his own, but his own did not receive him.

Joh 1:12  Yet to all who received him, to those who believed in his name, he gave the right to become children of God—

Joh 1:13  children born not of natural descent, nor of human decision or a husband’s will, but born of God.

 And then back in chapter 19 verse 18:  Mary Magdalene went to the disciples with the news: “I have seen the Lord!” And she told them that he had said these things to her.

Mary does not seem offended by being rebuffed by Jesus. It’s all about getting word out.

And she does. She is a witness to the resurrection and sent by Jesus to tell the boys.

The irony in this passage is that they are still a bit muddled in this way. Listen again to verse 12: Joh 20:1  Early on the first day of the week, while it was still dark, Mary Magdalene went to the tomb and saw that the stone had been removed from the entrance. Joh 20:2  So she came running to Simon Peter and the other disciple, the one Jesus loved, and said, “They have taken the Lord out of the tomb, and we don’t know where they have put him!” Joh 20:3  So Peter and the other disciple started for the tomb.  Joh 20:4  Both were running, but the other disciple outran Peter and reached the tomb first.

They’re still competing – typical boys. It’s quite amusing really – how John points out who won that race.  The “other disciple” is John! He is speaking about himself.

One of the early church fathers had a more delightful explanation of this race: “Ishodad of Merv traces John’s greater speed to the fact that he was unmarried.” Raymond E. Brown, The Gospel according to John XIII – XXI (New York: The Anchor Bible, Doubleday, 1970) 985


It takes more than one look in the garden. Mary saw the stone was rolled away. She assumed grave robbers were at work.

It took his voice to get her attention to notice other possibilities.

Peter and John have their race – John wins but only sticks his head in to look. Peter goes right in. Typical Peter!

There is something challenging about walking into a place where the dead are kept.


Our tombs are not empty – that makes it really hard for us when we face death. We have to hold on to hope and be prepared to wait to see our loved ones again.

We were not witnesses of this resurrection. But remember what Jesus said to Thomas: Blessed are those who have not seen and still believe (to Thomas) Joh 20:27  Then he said to Thomas, “Put your finger here; see my hands. Reach out your hand and put it into my side. Stop doubting and believe.” Joh 20:28  Thomas said to him, “My Lord and my God!”  Joh 20:29  Then Jesus told him, “Because you have seen me, you have believed; blessed are those who have not seen and yet have believed.”


The shift in relationship because of the resurrection is the key. Tom Wright puts it like this:

This passage gives us a moment like that. It’s a moment when it becomes clear, to the careful reader of John’s gospel, that something extraordinary has taken place, not only to Jesus –though that’s extraordinary enough– but to the way the world is, the way God is, the way God and the disciples now are. Up to this point Jesus has spoken about God as ‘the father’, or ‘the father who sent me’, or ‘my father’. He has called his followers ‘disciples’, ‘servants’ and ‘friends’.

Now all that has changed. Feel the force of verse 17: ‘Go and say to my brothers, I am going up to my father and your father, to my God and your God.’ Something has altered, decisively. Something has been achieved. A new relationship has sprung to life like a sudden spring flower. The disciples are welcomed into a new world: a world where they can know God the way Jesus knew God, where they can be intimate children with their father. (Wright, Tom (2002-10-18). John for Everyone Part 2: Chapters 11-21 Pt. 2 (New Testament for Everyone) (Kindle Locations 2346-2353). SPCK. Kindle Edition.)

  • Jesus is the new gardener
  • There is a New Eden
  • New cultivation of the fruits of the spirit will begin
  • And a new family!

Wright continues: Mary’s intuitive guess, that he must be the gardener, was wrong at one level and right, deeply right, at another. This is the new creation. Jesus is the beginning of it…

Here he is: the new Adam, the gardener, charged with bringing the chaos of God’s creation into new order, into flower, into fruitfulness. He has come to uproot the thorns and thistles and replace them with blossoms and harvests. (Wright, Tom (2002-10-18). John for Everyone Part 2: Chapters 11-21 Pt. 2 (New Testament for Everyone) (Kindle Locations 2367-2372). SPCK. Kindle Edition.)

It’s a new creation. And it’s for everyone. The reading from Acts today is Peter speaking at the house of the Gentile Cornelius. This family is all inclusive. This is how the passage ends:

Act 10:39  “We are witnesses of everything he did in the country of the Jews and in Jerusalem. They killed him by hanging him on a tree,

Act 10:40  but God raised him from the dead on the third day and caused him to be seen.

Act 10:41  He was not seen by all the people, but by witnesses whom God had already chosen—by us who ate and drank with him after he rose from the dead.

Act 10:42  He commanded us to preach to the people and to testify that he is the one whom God appointed as judge of the living and the dead.

Act 10:43  All the prophets testify about him that everyone who believes in him receives forgiveness of sins through his name.”

It’s a tree that he was hanged on – says Peter. A new source of life, offsetting the consequences of the fruit from the forbidden tree.

The 8th century Old English Poem (written therefore before William the conqueror and genuinely Anglo-Saxon) called “The dream of the Rood” has the poet describe the Rood – the cross –  in his dream like this:

It seemed to me that I saw a very wondrous tree (v5) lifted into the air, enveloped by light, the brightest of trees.”

Later the cross is described as the “tree of glory, on which Almighty God suffered for mankind’s many sins…”

At the end the poet continues:  May the Lord be a friend to me, (v145) who suffered here on earth before on the gallows-tree for men’s sins; he redeemed us and gave us life, a heavenly home.  Joy was restored with blessings and with bliss…

What do we take with us? You can opt for a chocolate egg if you like.

But the crosses we made last Sunday speak more to me. A new tapestry – a weaving of colour and beauty – comes through that cross.

When I survey the wondrous cross – “Forbid it Lord that I should boast save in the death of Christ my God; all the vain things that charm me most, I sacrifice them to his blood.”



Sunday story 20 March 2016 – Passion Sunday – The Day Jesus died

Family Service story – “The day Jesus died.” by Robin Palmer. (A story for children of all ages – with a kiwi flavour and idiom).

So they were having Passover supper – Jesus and his friends – remembering how Moses got their families way back in the day out of Egypt.
And they were eating away – and wondering when Jesus would become a real soldier kind of king and beat up the Romans who had just taken over their country…
And Jesus said – “this is the last time I will have this party with you – until the end of the world as we know it..”
“That’s no good” they said.
And then he told them that one of his friends would rat on him and get him arrested by those same horrible Romans.
“That’s no good” they said.
And they were looking at each other thinking: “I wonder who it is who is going to spill the beans and get Jesus into trouble…” What a rat.
The next thing they were arguing about who was more important in their group.
“That’s no good” he said.
“You have to be the ones who do the dirty work and slave away for others – not be their boss.” Said Jesus.
“That’s no good” they said.
And then Jesus had a little word with their leader, Peter – warning him to be strong – that things would be difficult – and that he would pretend not to know Jesus when he was arrested and locked up.
“That’s no good” said Peter. You know me. I’m not like that.
‘Yeah right” said Jesus. Let’s wait and see…

So they went out to the garden – because Jesus wanted to pray as he knew things were going to get tricky. “Please keep an eye out here” he said to them “and pray too that you will be strong”.
They fell asleep.
And when he came back and found them sleeping he said:
“That’s no good.”
Well then the one he said would rat on him came down the path leading a crowd of people – and kissed him like a brother.
Peter got mad and pulled out his sword and chopped off a man’s ear – actually he probably missed his head but you know Peter.
“That’s no good” said Jesus. And he fixed the man’s ear.
And they took Jesus away.
“That’s no good” they said.
And Peter was warming himself by a fire outside the jail – and some people said – “you’re with that Jesus in jail. You should be there too!”
“That’s no good” thought Peter.
“Jesus who?” he said to the people.
So they left him alone. Very alone. And a rooster crowed and he felt really bad. Extremely bad.
“That’s no good” said Peter.

So they brought him before the Roman chief called Pilate. They lied about him, saying that he did heaps of bad things. And that he was a king. And that he was causing trouble. And trying to overthrow the government.
“That’s no good” said people who knew the truth. He’s actually a good guy who makes people better.
Pilate heard he was from the area called Galilee.
“That’s no good” he said.
Herod looks after those people. He’s the king there. I’ll send him there and see if Herod can make this go away.
He did. He sent Jesus to king Herod. Herod was pretty pleased about this as he’d wanted to see Jesus and find out more about what people said he could do. Like magic stuff.
Jesus said nothing when Herod asked him heaps of questions.
“That’s no good” said Herod in an angry voice. Who do you think you are?
The soldiers dressed Jesus in fancy dress like a king and teased him badly.
Herod sent Jesus back to Pilate.
Pilate was fed-up. He didn’t think Jesus deserved to be killed. But he knew that if he didn’t sort this out there would be riots as the people had turned ugly. He would then be in trouble with his boss in Italy.
The mob kept crying for Jesus’ blood.
“That’s no good” he said.
So he set another evil man free – Abbas’ boy – who was a terrorist – he set HIM free to please the crowds – which he liked to do at Passover.
And Pilate sent Jesus to be killed. And his friends and family said;
‘That’s no good!”

So they made Jesus carry this heavy cross. He was already pretty messed up because they had whipped him till be bled.
And he stumbled and fell. And the Roman soldiers in charge said:
“That’s no good.” We’ll never get home for tea.
So they found a random bloke from Africa and made him carry the cross behind Jesus.
And they banged nails into his hands and feet and raised up his cross on the hill.
And it was hard for Jesus to breath – he had to push down on his feet to keep his lungs open.
And he looked at all those people he loved – the ones who nailed him, the one who ratted on him, the one who said “Jesus who?” and the ones who yelled out “kill Jesus!”
“That’s no good” He thought.
‘Father in heaven – forgive them because they have really lost it,” – he called out as he prayed.
He saw his mum there, tears streaming down her face. And his best friend he loved so much.
“That’s no good” he thought. This is terrible for them too.
“Mom” he called out “John can be your boy! John mate – look after mum like your mum! Please John!”
And the bad guys nailed up there on their crosses next to Jesus were wondering what this was all about. This was Jesus the good guy suffering and dying with them.
The one yelled at Jesus – “hey you could fix this mess!”
But the other said:
“That’s no good.”
He shouldn’t be here with us. Please remember me when you are a real king one day!
Righto – said Jesus. You’ll be there with me!
“Sweet as” said the man, wondering a bit how that would work – but pretty pleased to be included anyway. The other bad guy said: “that’s no good.”

So it got dark at midday – which was strange since the sun was usually really bright by then. Pitch dark – dark dark – for three hours.
Pretty spooky really.
And Jesus called out: “Father, I place my life into your hands!”
And he died.
And the people who loved him so, so much cried loudly: “That’s no good!”
And a kind and generous man with his friend wondered what they would do with his cold limp body. So they got permission to bury him in a new grave in the meantime. It was the day of rest as the sun went down. They could not clean him up – but they did wrap him in cloths – like his mum did when he was a baby.
So they did their best and put him in the grave – which was like a cave.
His other friends – with sore hearts – watched and waited.
This big boulder – a huge stone – was rolled in front of the door of the tomb.
And when they went home for the Sabbath celebration, he was dead and alone.

Until the Sunday morning.
God looked down on the cemetery and said to himself:
“That’s no good.”

Sunday message, 13 March 2016 (Lent 5) – Utter abandonment

READINGS: Psalm 126; John 12:1-8


We had this conversation again this week about money. Cash flow. Paying the bills to keep the church running, so to speak. It’s been tricky again. (As an aside please consider signing up for automatic payments or the envelope system. It really helps. Especially when you can’t make it or are on holiday.)

It’s funny how it comes up every now and then – the conversation about finances –  just in that week when the reading set is about generosity. Extravagance. The poor. Or some related matter.

It can’t get any more challenging than this gospel reading.

I read about a pastor’s conference on stewardship – which is about how we look after God’s things, including money. Listen to the story:

One presenter spoke about offering a gift directly to God, and the clergy began to yawn. Then he pulled a $100 bill from his wallet, set it on fire in an ashtray, and prayed, “Lord, I offer this gift to you, and you alone.” The reaction was electric. Clergy began to fidget in their chairs, watching that greenback go up in smoke as if it were perfume. One whispered it was illegal to burn currency. Another was heard to murmur, “If he is giving money away, perhaps he has a few more.” There was nervous laughter around the room. “Do you not understand?” asked the speaker. “I am offering it to God, and that means it is going to cease to be useful for the rest of us.” It was an anxious moment. Bartlett, David L.; Barbara Brown Bartlett (2009-10-12). Feasting on the Word: Year C, Volume 2: Lent through Eastertide (Kindle Locations 5088-5094). Presbyterian Publishing Corporation. Kindle Edition.

That’s the point of this gift. It’s about giving to the one who is worthy. (“Thou art worthy” is the song we used to sing during the offering – it challenges us for our afterthought gifts – when we are scratching around in our purses or wallets.)

“If you offer something to God” suggests the speaker, “it ceases to be useful to you. That’s a challenging idea. Especially since we often have strings attached to our gifts.

The extravagance here in Mary’s gift is not unparalleled in the gospel. The water into wine at the wedding in Cana of Galilee (how much? 180 gallons. 900 litres.)

The 12 baskets left over at the feeding of the 5000?

Jesus after his resurrection telling Peter to cast his net on the other side of the board. 153 fish! And he already had some on his barbeque.

Mind you this is Jesus of whom John 1:3 says casually:  Through him all things were made; without him nothing was made that has been made.

Reminds me of the Psalms:

Psalm 24:1 The earth is the LORD’s, and everything in it, the world, and all who live in it;

Psalm 50:10  For every animal of the forest is mine, and the cattle on a thousand hills. (What I term the ‘hamburger and steak” Psalm.)

How are you with your generosity? Do you love Jesus sacrificially and give to Him extravagantly? With utter abandonment?


Good Friday is lurking here though. In contrast to this generous sensual gift of love (the pouring of the perfume, the taboo of Mary wiping his feet with her hair – the same wiping word we find in the next chapter when Jesus washes his disciples’ feet and wipes them with a towel) there is money-bags Judas.

He’s not just out of relationship with Jesus but reacts badly to someone who is extravagantly worshipping and loving Jesus by his criticism. Sounds like Christians I know. Why do we seem to react to people who are in our view too zealous? Mary knew this Jesus – and his feet. She used to sit at his feet – remember? And listen to his teaching! (Luke 10).

Judas pretends to be concerned with the waste – hence his comment that the value of the gift – a year’s wages – could have been spent on the poor. Of course Jesus’ comment about the poor always being with us is no excuse not to help them. He is quoting Deuteronomy 15 – which says that because they will always be there you have to have an open hand.

It’s about Jesus. “You won’t always have me with you” says Jesus. It reminds me of that lovely worship song: “It’s all about you Jesus!”

And death is in the room you see.

Good Friday is near.

The nard – perfume – is a foretaste of his burial. That’s what they used because they didn’t have our modern embalming tricks – sucking out the dead person’s blood and replacing it with preservatives. So they stank quickly after death.

Like Lazarus did after being in the tomb a couple of days. There’s the classic line from the King James Bible when Jesus instructs them to open the tomb.

Jesus said, Take ye away the stone. Martha, the sister of him that was dead, saith unto him, Lord, by this time he stinketh: for he hath been dead four days.

By this time he stinketh.

Lovely phrase. There are things in our lives that smell of death too. We stinketh me thinketh.

The perfume is for his burial – but won’t be needed after the 3rd day. It’s still not a waste –  because of who he is.

Death is in the room because Lazarus is in the room.

Lazarus is notoriously silent in this passage. He’s the man of the house. Why am I surprised though? When you’ve been dead and you’re alive again – it is a bit disconcerting. I wonder whether he talked about those couple of days in the tomb?

What is interesting and possibly disconcerting for Jesus at his meal is where Lazarus is positioned in the room. Did you notice?

Here a dinner was given in Jesus’ honour. Martha served, while Lazarus was among those reclining at the table with him.

Reclining at the table – they didn’t sit on chairs – they almost leaned on each other and ate with one hand. I wonder how close death was to Jesus?

Lazarus was more than once described as “Lazarus whom Jesus had raised from the dead” (John 12:1; 12:9 12:17). An interesting way of introducing a person socially!

And then there is Judas. The thief – according to John.

Only on one other occasion (great sentence – five words beginning with o) – is a thief mentioned – in John’s gospel. It’s in chapter 10: 1 & 10 – the thief who climbs into the sheep pen another way, who comes only to kill and destroy – compared to the good shepherd who came that we may have life and have it to the full.

  • Satan – the ultimate thief – did not thwart the purposes of God in the temptations of Jesus.
  • Judas’ schemes did not stop the purpose of God.
  • Neither will we – with our meanness or self obsession.

We have no option to be like Lazarus. We will need to be raised one day. Although of course he will also be raised in the final resurrection like us! We are just as dependant on Jesus for life in the meantime too. I’ve come close to death – any rescue buys me time to make the next choice.

We do have an option to choose between Mary or Judas.

  • To give and love extravagantly. And end up with nothing, and yet everything.
  • Or to be a controlling thief. To end up with 30 pieces of silver, and yet nothing.

Both were equally loved by the “lover of our souls” –  to use Charles Wesley’s term.

You and me too are equally loved. Like the two sons of the extravagant Father last week who killed the best yummy fattened calf for the party.

The smell that is left is what counts. Listen again to verse 3:

John 12:3  Then Mary took about a pint of pure nard, an expensive perfume; she poured it on Jesus’ feet and wiped his feet with her hair. And the house was filled with the fragrance of the perfume.

Our lives and gifts should be a beautiful fragrance too.

As is the case in Paul’s words in 2 Corinthians 2: 14-16 – where he uses the illustration of a Roman victory procession, with the incense of the priests rising up. The aroma symbolized life given by the victors and death to the defeated ones.

Paul uses this image to describe Christians: But thanks be to God, who always leads us in triumphal procession in Christ and through us spreads everywhere the fragrance of the knowledge of him. For we are to God the aroma of Christ among those who are being saved and those who are perishing. To the one we are the smell of death; to the other, the fragrance of life. And who is equal to such a task? Thankfully, says John  Wesley, we are by the power of the Holy Spirit.

May our lives leave a sweet aroma wherever we go.


Sunday message, 6 March 2016 (Lent 4) -Prodigal son, extravagant God

Readings: Luke 15:1-3; 11b-32


I don’t really like it when preachers quote long definitions but I couldn’t help it today:

Prodigal ˈprɒdɪɡ(ə)l/ adjective – spending money or using resources freely and recklessly; wastefully extravagant. “prodigal habits die hard” synonyms: wasteful, extravagant, spendthrift, improvident, imprudent, immoderate, profligate, thriftless, excessive, intemperate, irresponsible, self-indulgent, reckless, wanton

In some interesting research, Mark Powell asks the question of certain contexts. North America, Russia, and Africa: why did the Prodigal Son end up where he did?

  • The answer from Russia? Famine.
  • The opinion from Africa? Nobody helped him.
  • And North America? He squandered his living.

(Perspective matter. Mark Allan Powel, What Do They Hear? Bridging the Gap Between Pulpit and Pew.)

If you insist on calling this lost son “prodigal” then it may well be that you are more American than you think.

Like the titles in the NIV pew bible (which I’d rather you not read out by the way – because they were never there) – when we label something we pre-determine meaning.

Yes – this son spent his money on the wrong things. But extravagance is actually a characteristic of God. In creation, in salvation, in grace and love for us.

In case you think I’m losing the plot here – think back on last week, Isaiah 55.

I know I didn’t say anything about it, but it really was the backdrop to the repentance we were talking about. It’s not just what we turn away from when we change direction. Or like this son when we come to our senses. It’s whom we turn back to.

This son turns back to a generous father who throws a banquet and blesses him beyond what he deserved.Next week we will look at more extravagance in the passionate expression of a woman’s gratitude to Jesus.

So back to Isaiah 55. Listen again:

Isa 55:1  “Come, all you who are thirsty, come to the waters; and you who have no money, come, buy and eat! Come, buy wine and milk without money and without cost. Isa 55:2  Why spend money on what is not bread, and your labour on what does not satisfy? Listen, listen to me, and eat what is good, and your soul will delight in the richest of fare.

The gospel in the Old Testament. Grace. And doesn’t your heart sing for joy when you hear these words:

Isa 55:10  As the rain and the snow come down from heaven, and do not return to it without watering the earth and making it bud and flourish, so that it yields seed for the sower and bread for the eater, Isa 55:11  so is my word that goes out from my mouth: It will not return to me empty, but will accomplish what I desire and achieve the purpose for which I sent it. Isa 55:12  You will go out in joy and be led forth in peace; the mountains and hills will burst into song before you, and all the trees of the field will clap their hands.

The younger brother could have wasted his money in generosity to others. Instead he went on a quest to find himself and life’s purpose. He only found both when he had nothing.

Like our idea about survivor’s arrogance last week – we are in danger when we think that we have been successful (not unemployed, sick or in prison) because we are better or more deserving. We often only get it when we have lost it all – when we are empty-handed.

The older brother in the meantime had everything. And saw none of it. He focused only on being grumpy. There was no attitude of gratitude. After ranting and raving because of the extravagance of his dad towards his brother, dad simply says this:

Luk 15:31  “‘My son,’ the father said, ‘you are always with me, and everything I have is yours. Luk 15:32  But we had to celebrate and be glad, because this brother of yours was dead and is alive again; he was lost and is found.’

We had to celebrate. It’s what I call the party imperative.

  • He was lost and is found.
  • He came home, basically. Like that little girl in the paper this week.

Have you?

And as a last thought? I wonder if the older brother eventually came home too?


Sunday message 28 February 2016 (Lent 3) – Choices

Readings: Isaiah 55:1-9; Luke 13:1-9


There are some questions that have clear undisputed answers. Like who won last year’s FA cup. Whether we like the winning team or not, we can’t argue with the truth. And which flag will win the referendum? An open question now – but after the poll closes, it will be clear and certain.

There are some choices we make that are simple too. What to eat for breakfast? They’re not earth shattering life changing matters.Then there are those complex ones. Grey areas. Moral choices say in war.

And questions that involve faith – what we believe – like the one about loving your neighbour as yourself. As Christians we believe it’s true.

Jesus had difficult choices at his temptations. We looked at those the other day. They were real options – although judging by the looks on some of your faces, you weren’t convinced that they were. He really could have turned rocks into bread and was considering it. Think of the choices you make when you are hungry. In the fridge or at the takeaway.

His disciples had choices – like how to deal with people who did Jesus’ type things but weren’t part of their team. Remember how they wanted to be like Elijah – and call down fire from heaven on one lot who did not welcome Jesus? (Luke 9:54 – Samaritans less than thrilled he was going to Jerusalem).

Most of our challenging choices where we fail are to do with how we treat people – how we judge them.

The people in the two tragedies Jesus refers to today would have been judged by people. Surely if they were good people those things should not have happened. (In John 9:2 the debate about the blind man and sin is an example of the view of the day. Joh 9:1  As he went along, he saw a man blind from birth.  Joh 9:2  His disciples asked him, “Rabbi, who sinned, this man or his parents, that he was born blind?” Interesting that that man was sent to wash in the pool of Siloam – where the tower fell.)

And then your attitude to authorities that do bad things – like Pilate. Or Herod whom we talked about last week. It’s easy to become enraged. Pilate murdered pilgrims from Galilee in the temple in Jerusalem. It would be like killing people in church. It happens a lot in parts of Africa where there are terrorist groups. It happened in South Africa in Cape Town – people were shot dead in church.

It’s easy to be enraged. And people were probably telling Jesus these stories about injustices by those in authority, and tragedies because of failed health and safety systems and building codes. (Did you hear about that Jesus?) Perhaps they were expecting him to judge the people too –  they must have been bad to deserve that.

  • How we respond a choice.
  • Forgiveness is also a choice.

Anything that depends on emotions – well we’re done for.

We do the same thing today as we judge categories of people. Well maybe you don’t… But some do.

  • To the unemployed (what’s wrong with them?)
  • Mentally ill (they should pull themselves together)
  • The sick (they’re weak or sinners – a classic bible view cf. John 9:2)
  • Prisoners (they’ve only got themselves to blame).

Jesus says to them:

Jesus answered, “Do you think that these Galileans were worse sinners than all the other Galileans because they suffered this way? Or those eighteen who died when the tower in Siloam fell on them—do you think they were more guilty than all the others living in Jerusalem? (Luke 13:2-4)

What are we to do? What’s the correct response?

Unless we repent – says Jesus – twice in vss. 3 and 5: Luk 13:5  I tell you, no! But unless you repent, you too will all perish.”

Be careful about the moral choices you make – the judgmental ones. You’re on shaky ground.Repentance is an ongoing turning away from self and sin. From self obsession.

The rest of the passage is equally challenging for us – about that fig tree. In a nutshell – you don’t want to be like a fruit tree that is a waste of space. In time you could be cut down. Be careful how you judge. Are you bearing fruit appropriate to being a Christ follower?

We’re not here except by God’s grace to bear good fruit for him. The fruits of the spirit are a great place to start.

Patience, kindness, goodness are a good place to begin when you see the plight of others. And always – love.

To go back to the people killed in the temple, or in churches today, or when the tower fell.

There’s a thing called survivor guilt in tragedies. Person number 19 under the tower that fell would have felt bad that he made it and the others did. Why me? To bear fruit of course. Anyone who survived Pilate’s massacre in the temple – survivor guilt.

It’s been suggested there is also a survivor’s arrogance or presumption.

  • Because I made it I must be good. Worth more. Righteous.
  • Because I am successful, healthy, free etc.

The Gospel requires repentance – change in thinking about what really matters and about how we are rescued from our mess.

  • It’s not because of us.
  • We are not more deserving.
  • It’s through him. Through Christ.
  • And we need to be useful. Fruitful.

The parable is in our face really. The tree has sat around for three years. It’s given one more year to do what it is supposed to, or it gets the chop.

Lent realities

If you take Lent seriously – self-examination is at the heart of things.

The Shrove Tuesday thing – all those words for repentance – being sorry, apologizing, shriving (cleansing), admitting, being pardoned, being acquitted, absolution, mercy. Remember the word chart we built on the white board?

They are part of the pruning – and the fertilizer is needed too – for growth to come. Digging and dung is involved. The gardener will “dig around it” or “throw dung at it”.

Augustine was clear on the symbolic importance of manure: “[It] is a sign of humility.” (DANIEL G. DEFFENBAUGH Bartlett, David L.; Barbara Brown Bartlett (2009-10-12). Feasting on the Word: Year C, Volume 2: Lent through Eastertide (Kindle Location 3438). Presbyterian Publishing Corporation. Kindle Edition.)

The best story I heard was a talk on this passage where the speaker spoke about his father who was a pastor who in his retirement was often an interim pastor in churches. We call it “transitional ministries” today. You know when you need someone at the end of a ministry to help the church find its way for the future – often whether there is a future at all. He says this passage was one of his dad’s favourites.

He showed up at a church that was particularly difficult and conflicted (he was Lutheran I hasten to add) and told the congregation at his opening sermon:

“I’m going to be here for a little while and I’ll spread a little manure and see if you grow… and if you don’t….” An open ended statement.

It takes the issue seriously the mission of Jesus and our purpose as a church – and it’s all about growth. Our growth as individuals and as a family welcoming new people in to know Jesus better.

Bearing fruit. Changing. Making good choices like Jesus.

The fruit of repentance that John the Baptist was keen to see. He too said he had an axe.

To end – a reflection by a writer on repentance and manure. Smelly stuff that it can be.

Here we find the essence of repentance: the faithful affirmation that “while we still were sinners Christ died for us” (Rom. 5:8). The manure around our roots is the very blood of the one who pleads for our justification before God, the one through whom we may offer up the fruits of the kingdom to our Creator. Lent is the season of metanoia, but our sanctifying acts of penance are nothing unless we are able to claim as our own the very humility of Christ, who “did not regard equality with God as something to be exploited, but emptied himself, taking the form of a slave,… [who] humbled himself and became obedient to the point of death—even death on a cross” (Phil. 2:6–8).  (DANIEL G. DEFFENBAUGH Bartlett, David L.; Barbara Brown Bartlett (2009-10-12). Feasting on the Word: Year C, Volume 2: Lent through Eastertide (Kindle Location 3438). Presbyterian Publishing Corporation. Kindle Edition.)

Humility. Obedience. Surrender. Lifting our hands (“hands up!”) is a sign of surrender – and we do that in worship. Like Jesus did as recorded in Philippians 2. We are emptied too.


Sunday message 21 February 2016 (Lent 2) – Jesus, hens, chicks and foxes

Readings: Luke 9:37-51; Luke 13:31-35


How do you respond to warnings or threats?

We don’t know much about the Pharisees who come to warn Jesus that Herod is planning to kill him. We do know Herod Antipas. John the Baptist encountered him in a rather grim way. Jesus was rattled by his cousin’s death I am sure. He was not impervious to grief and sorrow. His weeping at Lazarus’ death reminds us of that starkly in that shortest verse of the Bible in John 11:35.

But he is not put off by the threat. And he goes into prophetic mode. The imagery is graphic and colourful. And bold.

Foxes and hens.

People would have expected him to talk about eagles – following Old Testament verses like Deuteronomy 32:11

But this was a specifically political moment. And Jesus was an astute politician.

To use an eagle as a metaphor or simile would have conjured up associations with the Roman authorities and their eagle.

So he uses a chicken. A brooding mother.

In the first verses of the Bible, few translations capture this brooding image which is attributed to the Spirit of God.

The NIV puts it like this: Gen 1:1  In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth. Gen 1:2  Now the earth was formless and empty, darkness was over the surface of the deep, and the Spirit of God was hovering over the waters.

The Message captures the Hebrew best: Gen 1:1  First this: God created the Heavens and Earth–all you see, all you don’t see. Gen 1:2  Earth was a soup of nothingness, a bottomless emptiness, an inky blackness. God’s Spirit brooded like a bird above the watery abyss.

Don’t be fooled by the casual style of The Message. The Presbyterian professor Eugene Peterson who gave us this version is a top Hebrew scholar.

The image of the Spirit here is of expectancy prior to birth or creation. Why should the image of the Son be any different?

Jesus’ hen is the mother who is trying to gather the chicks together in a storm – but they are stubbornly staying in danger rather than coming under her wing.

Jerusalem, Jerusalem, killer of prophets, abuser of the messengers of God! How often I’ve longed to gather your children, gather your children like a hen, Her brood safe under her wings– but you refused and turned away!


That Fox

The fact that he calls Herod a fox is interesting. It had the same connotations as it does today. Sly, stinky, sneaky, sleazy, slippery fox. Well those were my words in my children’s stories I used to tell – except that the hero was “Ronny the rooster” who overcame his fear of the dark and ninja-kicked the marauding fox out of the hen house.

Listen again to Luke 13: Luk 13:31  At that time some Pharisees came to Jesus and said to him, “Leave this place and go somewhere else. Herod wants to kill you.”

Jesus’ response is blunt: Luk 13:32  He replied, “Go tell that fox, ‘I will drive out demons and heal people today and tomorrow, and on the third day I will reach my goal.’

What do you make of his response? His goal was probably his resurrection, or at least the completion of his task as Messiah.

Calling someone a “fox” in antiquity would not necessarily imply that the person is sly; instead, it could portray the person as worthless, slanderous, treacherous or (often) cunning in an unprincipled manner.

Jesus is direct and deadly serious. He clearly knows what his mission is, and is not about to be derailed by a member of the Herod family.

He is not pastoral in his response. There is no polite thank you to the Pharisees for their warning. He probably knows that the messengers are up to no good. Perhaps their motive was to get him out of their area as it interfered with their popularity.

Jesus’ mission to the demon possessed and sick was all about the ordinary people. They were signs of the Kingdom he proclaimed, and the Kingdom teaching would have been the thing that got Herod anxious and explains his plot to kill Jesus. His father had tried when Jesus was an infant – so it ran in the family – that paranoia.

He knew that Jerusalem meant potential death as we see in the next verse: Luke 13:33  In any case, I must keep going today and tomorrow and the next day—for surely no prophet can die outside Jerusalem!

Maybe he wouldn’t die in Galilee, but he would in Jerusalem (Luke 9:51). He had set his face towards that city. In the NIV we read that he “resolutely” set out for Jerusalem. It was a deliberate choice – he resolved to do it.

And so the lament for Jerusalem follow. It’s not a judgment – but a sadness as they are not willing – and their house will be left desolate.

To go back to the barnyard image, Jesus us the hen! Tom Wright talks about fire in this story. It’s an interesting angle. He writes:

Fire is as terrifying to trapped animals as to people, if not more so. When a farmyard catches fire, the animals try to escape; but, if they cannot, some species have developed ways of protecting their young. The picture here is of a hen, gathering her chicks under her wings to protect them. There are stories of exactly this: after a farmyard fire, those cleaning up have found a dead hen, scorched and blackened – with live chicks sheltering under her wings. She has quite literally given her life to save them. It is a vivid and violent image of what Jesus declared he longed to do for Jerusalem and, by implication, for all Israel. But, at the moment, all he could see was chicks scurrying off in the opposite direction, taking no notice of the smoke and flames indicating the approach of danger, nor of the urgent warnings of the one who alone could give them safety.

  1. T. Wright (2004-01-01). Luke for Everyone (The New Testament for Everyone) (pp. 171-172). Westminster John Knox Press. Kindle Edition.


Christ has given his life for us. He is the hen who has risked his life in the face of the marauding foxes, or fires. He set his face towards Jerusalem and was undaunted by the cross.

What do we do in return? The questions for us today are challenging.

  • Are we derailed from our true calling? Are we not sometimes more daunted than undaunted? For Christians in other parts of the world – being faithful often means risking their lives.
  • For us – what is the cost? Do our lives lead to the cross?
  • Can we make sense of our lives as part of the establishment of God’s Kingdom in the world? Or are we frightened from our mission by the probable threats from those who don’t share our kingdom values? Or just embarrassed?

Perhaps for Lent we need to give up fear, and take on courage! Set sail in our own “resolutions”.

At least we must not give up. We need to surrender to God and keep on keeping on to the end!





Sunday message,14 February 2016 (Lent 1) -Valentine’s Day and faithfulness

READINGS: Deuteronomy 26:1-11; Romans 10:8b-13; Luke 4:1-13


God has sent this card to us. It’s much richer than a Valentine’s Day card. It doesn’t say “be my valentine”. It does invite us to a relationship though!

A love relationship.

What kills off a love relationship? (Apart from not working on your relationship as you get older – not dating – not saying you love her – withholding favours – not taking showers – bad financial habits – all that mundane helpful or unhelpful stuff depending where you are here?) Unfaithfulness is sure to kill it off!

Having your heart in other places – whether it be things or people or inappropriate individuals! Idolatry – is to substitute something else for the one you love. If the greatest commandment is about loving God with all your heart, mind, strength – Jesus clearly had to model that too! The trinity is key – God is love and Father, Son and Holy Spirit are fully united and connected in love!

Jesus’ testing – these temptations – (there’s a debate about which word is best) – imagine what it would have done to his Father’s heart had he succumbed to the deception!!

We can’t think like that because we have this superhero view of Jesus – forgetting that he was fully man. These were real temptations.So we should not see them as a cartoon scene – devil with horns and Jesus like Captain America with a shield – or Thor with his hammer! This is real temptation! Nope. I can see you don’t really believe me.

In all the readings today – the tragedy is that people who knew better turned away from God (who was utterly faithful) and whored after other things.

It’s not my language. It’s bible language. Read the prophets. It’s called harlotry if you want a politer sounding word. A best unfaithfulness. In Deuteronomy 26 the people who were given the promised land were told to bring the first fruits of that land as an offering to the Lord.

More than that they were to declare who they were. They were to declare what God had done to rescue them. And together the community were to celebrate the giving of the offering of the first fruits of the land. And the process culminated in this wonderful line:

 Deu 26:9  He brought us to this place and gave us this land, a land flowing with milk and honey; 

And the declaration: Deu 26:10  and now I bring the firstfruits of the soil that you, O LORD, have given me.” Place the basket before the LORD your God and bow down before him.

Deu 26:11  And you and the Levites and the aliens among you shall rejoice in all the good things the LORD your God has given to you and your household.

The “milk and honey” phrase is not about a perfect utopia. Milk means there were cows or sheep or goats – and that meant grass – and rain – and nurture. Honey meant bees, and flowers, and colour, and germination – and pollination! It’s a great declaration of a beautiful gift which mirrors the whole gift of creation.

How can you declare these things in worship and then walk out ungrateful, behave like a cad, (a rogue or scoundrel if you don’t know what a cad is) and be unfaithful to God by letting the side down?

That’s unfaithfulness. That’s idolatry. That’s succumbing to the temptation to make yourself more important than God and his faithful love.

The four verses from Romans 10 in the lectionary this week might also seem odd.

What are they doing here in Lent?

How do they relate?

Remember where they are in Romans – in the middle of Paul agonising over the Jewish people and their place – and the overall message of Romans that all have sinned.

Rom 10:10  For it is with your heart that you believe and are justified, and it is with your mouth that you confess and are saved.

Rom 10:11  As the Scripture says, “Anyone who trusts in him will never be put to shame.”

Rom 10:12  For there is no difference between Jew and Gentile—the same Lord is Lord of all and richly blesses all who call on him,

Rom 10:13  for, “Everyone who calls on the name of the Lord will be saved.”

  • We won’t be put to shame if we trust in Him (Jews or Gentiles)
  • He richly blesses all who call on him (Jews or Gentiles)
  • How can you be unfaithful to this God?

And so we come to Luke 4 – the temptations of Jesus.

He has to be a real human being to be tempted like this. In the words of Tom Wright: “There is a sense in this story of a deep wrestling, a heart-searching, a personal struggle with the powerful pull of bodily appetites, ambition and prestige. Most of us know only a little of that struggle, because we tend to give up and give in, early on in the process. Jesus went all the way through the tests and still didn’t break.”

But he made it. Like us, he two depended on God’s grace and strength. It is only Luke who says this: Luke 4:1 Jesus, full of the Holy Spirit, returned from the Jordan and was led by the Spirit in the desert,

He had to get through these tests on the mountain of temptation – so that on that grubby little hill called Golgotha (the place of the scull) he would see it through, knowing that he would be vindicated. How could He be unfaithful to the Father who loved him so? He was the beloved son! The chosen one. The only son. The voices from heaven had reminded him so clearly.

And he did it all for you. And for me. He was victorious here and on the cross – winning the battle for us. Because we don’t last the distance. Thankfully it’s all called Amazing Grace. Amen.