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Sermon, 29 May 2016 – Amazing Faith

Reading: Luke 7:1-10; Psalm 96

Message:

Do you remember the first place Jesus preached at? That great sermon quoting from Isaiah – “the spirit of the Lord is upon me”

Quiz question 1: Where was that?

Nazareth – where he had been brought up.

Quiz question 2: What happened next?

They chased him out. Like modern hearers of sermons they were less than thrilled. In Luke 4:29 (another reminder on 29th May) – they tried to throw him off a cliff.

I always find that comforting when people are less than thrilled by my sermons. It’s never got as bad as Luke 4:29.

In this case Jesus walks through the crowds and goes on his way.

Quiz question 3: where did he go next?

Capernaum of course. Everybody should know that. Here’s a more recent picture of Capernaum than the ones Jesus took on his Kodak bible-matic camera of the day:

Capernaum

Can you see the Octagonal church there? It’s built over the site of an older church which in turn was built over the site of whose house?

Quiz question 4: whose house? Which disciple and first pope? Why Peter of course. We all know that.

Stuff happened in Capernaum. It was a town of about 1500 and the fishing village where Jesus called Peter, James, John and Andrew to leave their nets and follow him. And it was also the village of Matthew the tax collector.

The man in Luke 4:35 who is cleansed of an evil spirit is set free in the synagogue in Capernaum. That got peoples’ attention. It wasn’t your average Saturday synagogue session.

In 4:36 we read this:
Luk 4:36 All the people were amazed and said to each other, “What is this teaching? With authority and power he gives orders to evil spirits and they come out!” Luk 4:37 And the news about him spread throughout the surrounding area. 

Jesus goes to Peter’s house after this – and heals his mum in law. That got them talking I’m sure. Rebuking fevers and what have you.

It gets so frenetic – well just listen to Luke: Luk 4:40 When the sun was setting, the people brought to Jesus all who had various kinds of sickness, and laying his hands on each one, he healed them.  Luk 4:41 Moreover, demons came out of many people, shouting, “You are the Son of God!” But he rebuked them and would not allow them to speak, because they knew he was the Christ.
Luk 4:42 At daybreak Jesus went out to a solitary place. The people were looking for him and when they came to where he was, they tried to keep him from leaving them.  Luk 4:43 But he said, “I must preach the good news of the kingdom of God to the other towns also, because that is why I was sent.”

In Luke 5 there’s another commotion. Such a crowd – that these people carrying a paralysed friend break a hole in the roof of a house to let him down so that Jesus can heal him.

Here’s the line that sets a cat among the theological pigeons: Luk 5:20 When Jesus saw their faith, he said, “Friend, your sins are forgiven.”

The Pharisees are less than thrilled. Knowing what they are thinking, he says:

Luk 5:23 Which is easier: to say, ‘Your sins are forgiven,’ or to say, ‘Get up and walk’?
Luk 5:24 But that you may know that the Son of Man has authority on earth to forgive sins…” He said to the paralyzed man, “I tell you, get up, take your mat and go home.”
Luk 5:25 Immediately he stood up in front of them, took what he had been lying on and went home praising God.

Now you may wonder – why all these details about Capernaum.

Well – it’s because when we get to Luke 7 which is today’s reading – he’s back in Capernaum. We’ve seen quite a bit of faith in Capernaum. Point well made.

But in Luke 7 – this is not a Jewish setting or a synagogue gathering.

Suddenly out of nowhere there’s a Roman centurion in the mix.

Weird. Fascinating. A man from an oppressive foreign power.

With all those Jews less than thrilled about Jesus forgiving sins and healing on the Sabbath – some Jewish elders come with a request on behalf of a gentile occupier from a foreign army.

There’s a bit of sending going on here.

The centurion sends the Jewish elders to ask for Jesus’ help with this sick servant.

The reason they give is fascinating too: “This man deserves to have you do this, Luk 7:5 because he loves our nation and has built our synagogue.”

So Jesus goes along. Game? Curious? Compassionate?

On the way the centurion sends others – this time friends – with a message.

“Lord, don’t trouble yourself, for I do not deserve to have you come under my roof.
Luk 7:7 That is why I did not even consider myself worthy to come to you. But say the word, and my servant will be healed.
Luk 7:8 For I myself am a man under authority, with soldiers under me. I tell this one, ‘Go,’ and he goes; and that one, ‘Come,’ and he comes. I say to my servant, ‘Do this,’ and he does it.”

Up to now people were amazed at Jesus and his works.

This time its Jesus who is amazed. Listen again: Luk 7:9 When Jesus heard this, he was amazed at him, and turning to the crowd following him, he said, “I tell you, I have not found such great faith even in Israel.”

We’ve heard and sung about Amazing Grace. This is amazing faith.

At this point – let’s stop for a while and consider this picture. Ask yourself – is this funny? Is it fair? Where are you in this situation? Are we like Eugene?

Eugene Cartoon

DISCUSSION (in small groups or with the person next to you).

Talk about Eugene and his faith in the cartoon on screen. Here are some questions to discuss about our prayer life and our faith:

1. Are there things I am still asking for after 47 years?
2. Should I give up?
3. What are the big things I am trusting Jesus for?
4. How amazing is my faith?
5. How does it compare with the faith of the centurion?
6. What do you find amazing about his faith?

(group time).

SHARING TIME: So what “ponies” are you still praying for? Do you still have amazing faith for some things – for a break through – for a prayer to be answered.

Go back to Luke 7:

Luk 7:9 When Jesus heard this, he was amazed at him, and turning to the crowd following him, he said, “I tell you, I have not found such great faith even in Israel.”
Remarkable that Jesus should say this.

The man’s words are remarkable: “Lord, don’t trouble yourself, for I do not deserve to have you come under my roof.
Luk 7:7 That is why I did not even consider myself worthy to come to you. But say the word, and my servant will be healed.
Luk 7:8 For I myself am a man under authority, with soldiers under me. I tell this one, ‘Go,’ and he goes; and that one, ‘Come,’ and he comes. I say to my servant, ‘Do this,’ and he does it.”

TWO POINTS TO TAKE HOME

1. “I am not worthy” – it’s so like the prayer of humble access in the Communion liturgy of some churches:

We do not presume to come to this thy Table, O merciful Lord, trusting in our own righteousness, but in thy manifold and great mercies. We are not worthy so much as to gather up the crumbs under thy Table. But thou art the same Lord, whose property is always to have mercy:

It’s so like the Canaanite woman of Matthew 15:

Mat 15:25 The woman came and knelt before him. “Lord, help me!” she said.
Mat 15:26 He replied, “It is not right to take the children’s bread and toss it to their dogs.”
Mat 15:27 “Yes, Lord,” she said, “but even the dogs eat the crumbs that fall from their masters’ table.”
Mat 15:28 Then Jesus answered, “Woman, you have great faith! Your request is granted.” And her daughter was healed from that very hour.

Sometimes our prayers make us sound presumptuous.

2. It speaks of who Jesus really is. The real stunner is this – that he says that Jesus did not even have to be there physically for the healing to take place.

This cuts across everything people believed and experienced about faith healers. Just say the word. He’s saying something about who Jesus is – as the God who speaks and things come into being – like creation. Remember John 1 – nothing has been made that was not made through Jesus, the Word of God.

WHAT ABOUT US

The troubling things about this whole story is where we fit in.

How amazing is our faith?

Are we a bit like the Jewish people who wanted to debate things? Who had preconceived ideas? Cherished notions we don’t let go of?

Especially on healing and whether God really speaks. In two weeks’ time we will have Tony and Sue Kerr and their team here. Will we really expect God to speak and act?

Are we open to learning how to minister like they do? Because they are willing to come along and equip us to be used to bring God’s restoring power and love into other peoples’ lives.

(Are we on another level? Do we think – I wish we had a centurion who would sponsor our synagogue/church?)

Have we given up? – like Eugene’s friends who tell him – “we’re tired of hearing your prayer request. Go and buy a pony!” in other words – solve it yourself.

As we travel through Luke’s gospel we will find other amazing things that God does.

This one is about Amazing faith.

Maybe we need to ask for “amazing faith” ourselves.

Luk 7:9 When Jesus heard this, he was amazed at him, and turning to the crowd following him, he said, “I tell you, I have not found such great faith even in Israel.”

What’s he saying to the angels now about the faith he finds here in Browns Bay?

Amen.

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Sunday Message 10 April, Easter 3 – Harvest Sunday

READINGS: Deuteronomy 8: 7-18;  2 Corinthians 9:6-15;  Luke 12:16-30

SERMON

Have you given anyone a gift recently? I wonder what the occasion was. Perhaps a birthday, Christmas, or the celebration of a new life – the birth of a baby. Perhaps a grandchild?

Think about the gifts you have received in the past year.

  • Do you remember who gave them to you?
  • Did you remember to thank them?
  • Do you think about them when you use that gift?

The overwhelming idea in the passage from the Old Testament today is a warning that we should not forget the gifts God gives us – the blessings he bestowed – the things he has done. And I would add the prayers he has answered.

Over the years I have had amazing conversations with people who have really considered believing in God – or have prayed to him (when they usually didn’t) – or have even come along to church for a while in a crisis. Who contact me in emergencies for spiritual help and prayer – and when things are going well they are suspiciously silent. We pray for people who have needs – are unemployed or unwell –  their prayers are answered and we don’t see them again for a long time.

Deuteronomy 8 reminds us of this amazing gift of life and creation (whether it’s the land promised to Israel or this beautiful country we enjoy) – that we should not forget and become proud about our achievements (v14) – and it also says that he gives us the ability to produce wealth! (v18).

It’s that old attitude of gratitude. We often realise too late when people are dead and gone what a blessing they were. And so too many other things we enjoy.

  1. DON’T FORGET THE LORD! This is the first point today. This generous God – we should not neglect to speak of his kindness and grace, and to praise him constantly for his gifts. Which leads to the second point worth remembering today: 

2. GENEROUSITY IS CONTAGEOUS

The reading from Corinthians picks up the harvest theme from a different angle.

Again it is God who “supplies seed to the sower and bread for food” (2 Corinthians 9:10).

The generosity of spirit in both practical and spiritual things – with cheerfulness – is the natural outflow of knowing we are blessed to be a blessing.

And so Paul says to the church in Corinth (in the context of their giving):

2Co 9:6  Remember this: Whoever sows sparingly will also reap sparingly, and whoever sows generously will also reap generously. 2Co 9:7  Each man should give what he has decided in his heart to give, not reluctantly or under compulsion, for God loves a cheerful giver.

We are not always known to be cheerful givers. The offering time in many churches is not noted for excessive happiness and hilarity!

Paul was dependent upon peoples’ gifts to keep the work going – so that the gospel could reach all the places he travelled to on his missionary journeys. He says:

2Co 9:10  Now he who supplies seed to the sower and bread for food will also supply and increase your store of seed and will enlarge the harvest of your righteousness. 2Co 9:11  You will be made rich in every way so that you can be generous on every occasion, and through us your generosity will result in thanksgiving to God. 2Co 9:12  This service that you perform is not only supplying the needs of God’s people but is also overflowing in many expressions of thanks to God. (As an aside we need to thank God regularly for those who serve with us here).

God has blessed us – we bless others and give to the work of the gospel as part of our thanksgiving and worship.

The riches we receive are not physical here. This is not a prosperity business – giving to be blessed – even though we are told we will be blessed!

We give to those in need to glorify God! We need to be generous kids of a generous Father. Generosity is contagious. Like love – its catchy!

And now to the third point today:

  1. SELFISHNESS IS RISKY AT BEST – FOOLISH AT LEAST

The gospel reading is a stark reminder of the power of sin – which focusses on me mine, what I will do for myself. It comes through clearly in the words of the barn man:

Luk 12:17  He thought to himself, ‘What shall I do? I have no place to store my crops.’ Luk 12:18  “Then he said, ‘This is what I’ll do. I will tear down my barns and build bigger ones, and there I will store all my grain and my goods. Luk 12:19  And I’ll say to myself, “You have plenty of good things laid up for many years. Take life easy; eat, drink and be merry.”‘ Luk 12:20  “But God said to him, ‘You fool! This very night your life will be demanded from you. Then who will get what you have prepared for yourself?’ Luk 12:21  “This is how it will be with anyone who stores up things for himself but is not rich toward God.”

What is this guy really after? A nest egg and early retirement? God calls him a fool.

What matters when the plug is pulled and we are gone from all this stuff in a flash?

There’s nothing wrong with providing for oneself and family. But this man is totally obsessed with  himself. The context is greed. Look at the preceding verses Luke 12:13-15:

Luk 12:13 Someone in the crowd said to him, “Teacher, tell my brother to divide the inheritance with me.” Luk 12:14 Jesus replied, “Man, who appointed me a judge or an arbiter between you?” Luk 12:15 Then he said to them, “Watch out! Be on your guard against all kinds of greed; a man’s life does not consist in the abundance of his possessions.

What could he have done?

Probably being content with what he had would be a start. Paul says this on the matter:

1Ti 6:6  But godliness with contentment is great gain. 1Ti 6:7  For we brought nothing into the world, and we can take nothing out of it. 1Ti 6:8  But if we have food and clothing, we will be content with that. 1Ti 6:9  People who want to get rich fall into temptation and a trap and into many foolish and harmful desires that plunge men into ruin and destruction. 1Ti 6:10  For the love of money is a root of all kinds of evil. Some people, eager for money, have wandered from the faith and pierced themselves with many griefs.

Following on from this warning is our last point:

4. TRUST HIM WHETHER IN WANT OR WELL PROVIDED FOR (aka DON’T WORRY BE HAPPY?)

The gospel passage today ends with that wonderful reminder about God the provider:

Luk 12:22  Then Jesus said to his disciples: “Therefore I tell you, do not worry about your life, what you will eat; or about your body, what you will wear. Luk 12:23  Life is more than food, and the body more than clothes. Luk 12:24  Consider the ravens: They do not sow or reap, they have no storeroom or barn; yet God feeds them. And how much more valuable you are than birds! Luk 12:25  Who of you by worrying can add a single hour to his life? Luk 12:26  Since you cannot do this very little thing, why do you worry about the rest? Luk 12:27  “Consider how the lilies grow. They do not labour or spin. Yet I tell you, not even Solomon in all his splendour was dressed like one of these. Luk 12:28  If that is how God clothes the grass of the field, which is here today, and tomorrow is thrown into the fire, how much more will he clothe you, O you of little faith! Luk 12:29  And do not set your heart on what you will eat or drink; do not worry about it. Luk 12:30  For the pagan world runs after all such things, and your Father knows that you need them.  

He ends with this:

Luk 12:31  But seek his kingdom, and these things will be given to you as well. Luk 12:32  “Do not be afraid, little flock, for your Father has been pleased to give you the kingdom. 

Worry is an unprofitable emotion indeed. Remember last week how I said we have to fill our minds with scripture to offset all the other stuff we are fed.

My prescription for you today: Read this passage at least once a week. It reminds us that we are more valuable than the birds who are provided for. He will take care of us!

  • Guard your heart – that insidious love of money and stuff can destroy you.
  • Seek his Kingdom, little flock. He has been pleased to give us the kingdom! This means not storing up for heaven as a kind of investment, but living for different lasting values and priorities now.

To recap we should work on:

  • Not forgetting the Lord – being thankful!
  • Being like Him – generous.
  • Living lives in a mode opposite to greed and selfishness.
  • Trusting Him – he is our provider. The Kingdom kids have the King’s kindness to depend upon! Remember Luke 12:30 “Your Father knows that you need them”.

May His Kingdom come and His will be done on earth – as it is in heaven.

Amen.

 

Sunday Sermon 5 July 2015 – Paul to the Galatians (5)

Father God

Readings: Hebrews 1:1-5; Galatians 4:4-7; Matthew 6:7-15

Story: A group of first graders was asked to draw a picture of God in their Sunday School class. Their finished products contained some interesting theology. One child depicted God in the form of a brightly coloured rainbow. Another presented him as an old man coming out of the clouds. One little boy drew God with a remarkable resemblance to Superman. The best snapshot, though, came from a little girl. She said, “I didn’t know what God looked like, so I just drew a picture of my daddy.”

It would be great if every boy and girl could see God in his or her father. Sadly – it’s not so. The statistics are frightening. In Britain for example, I read this week about the statistics regarding absent fathers:

85% of children exhibiting behavioural disorders come from fatherless homes

90% of all homeless and runaway children come from fatherless homes

80% of all rapists motivated by displaced anger come from fatherless homes

70% of juveniles in state-operated institutions come from fatherless homes

85% of all youths sitting in prisons grew up in fatherless homes.

The writer continues: “We live in a fatherless generation. We need to point them to God’s paternal, compassionate, restoring, gracious desire, and offer to make up that which is missing.” Ponsonby, Simon (2013-05-24). God Is For Us (p. 229). Monarch Books. Kindle Edition.

Here’s a question for you.

Which Bible story illustrates the Fatherly love of God the most? In your view?

My favourite (again I have many favourites) is Luke 15:11 ff – which is the story of the Prodigal Son.

There’s a good argument to suggest that it’s also a story of a prodigal Father – if we take prodigal to be excessively wasteful. Simon Ponsonby puts it like this:

And here is where we see what God is like: the father is waiting and watching, scanning the horizon on the edge of his land, looking longingly as he clearly has done every day since his son left. When he catches the silhouette of his boy, knowing intimately how he carried himself and walked, the old man begins to run and run, and when he gets to his son, breathless, wet with perspiration and tears, he pauses, then crushes his pig-stinking, bag-of-bones boy in his arms of love. Ponsonby, Simon (2013-05-24). God Is For Us (p. 230). Monarch Books. Kindle Edition.

A party is thrown, because the dead son is alive, the lost son is found, and a son is with his dad! This is the most amazing good news – because this is what God is like.

David knew this when he wrote in Psalm 68:

Psa 68:5  A father to the fatherless, a defender of widows, is God in his holy dwelling. Psa 68:6  God sets the lonely in families, he leads forth the prisoners with singing; but the rebellious live in a sun-scorched land.

In our series about Galatians – God is the giver. We know from other passages like John 3:16 that God the Father gives his only son. In Galatians Paul shows that the son gives himself to rescue us.  You may remember from Galatians 1: 3-4 Grace and peace to you from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ, who gave himself for our sins to rescue us from the present evil age, according to the will of our God and Father

We come to him by faith (Galatians 3:26-27) – becoming sons:  Gal 3:26  You are all sons of God through faith in Christ Jesus, Gal 3:27  for all of you who were baptized into Christ have clothed yourselves with Christ. 

  • And then the focal verse in Galatians 4:6 Because you are his sons, God sent the Spirit of his Son into our hearts, the Spirit who calls out, ‘Abba, Father. The spirit is given to the sons of God – so that we can become all we were meant to be.

And – interestingly enough – in this early epistle you can see the formation of a doctrine of the Trinity, even though the term is not used. God the Father of our Lord Jesus is at work. The son is given to rescue us, and the Spirit is given to transform us.

WHAT DOES THIS MEAN FOR THE CHRISTIAN TODAY?

In simple terms, three points!

  1. It’s all about grace.

We don’t have the issues that the Galatians had – whether we need to become Jews in order to become Christians, or whether we are overloaded with burdens from trying to keep the law as they did. The church today is in no immediate danger of over- keeping the laws of the Old Testament in every detail. Too many ham sandwiches in church pot luck suppers? Men’s breakfast would never be the same here without that amazing bacon!

Whatever the law we follow, we will certainly not keep it on our own. We’re not able to. If it is by our doing, then we are setting aside the grace of God. As Paul says in Galatians 2:21:  I do not set aside the grace of God, for if righteousness could be gained through the law, Christ died for nothing!”

  1. It’s all about the truth of the gospel

What we do have from our travels through the letter to the Galatians is a real sense of the truth of the Gospel as something to be treasured and guarded against wrong teachings. There are no substitutes or additions that can be made. The gospel came at the right time in every way.

The gospel, like the exodus from Egypt, is a rescue mission so that we can be set free from our enslavement to the power and consequences of sin. It is initiated by God. At the right time.

Listen to Galatians 4:4 again: Gal 4:4  But when the time had fully come, God sent his Son, born of a woman, born under law

And listen to Hebrews 1 again: Heb 1:1  In the past God spoke to our forefathers through the prophets at many times and in various ways, Heb 1:2  but in these last days he has spoken to us by his Son, whom he appointed heir of all things, and through whom he made the universe.

God initiates this rescue. We who are not Jews – in other words Gentiles (to whom Paul is specifically sent with the Gospel message) – are equally bound and captive. Our wrestling is with sin, the devil, and his minions.

We equally need to be set free. And only God can do this. We are enslaved, and need to be liberated.  We too worship other gods – create our own idols of every sort.

The fact that the Galatian gentiles choose to remain slaves by going back to circumcision and thus the pre-Messianic faith is helpful for us as a warning. We have to hold on to the truth of the gospel.

  1. It’s all about our relationship with God

We do have this – this is the most important thing today: we have a model for prayer and living in an intimate relationship with Abba, Father.  (And of course the Lord’s prayer begins: ‘Our Father’”)

The word Abba is an Aramaic word and is only used three times in Scripture. Galatians 4:6, Romans 8:15. Guess what the other verse is? Yes it’s in the garden of Gethsemane when the firstborn only begotten son wrestles in prayer with his looming execution.

Mar 14:36  – “Abba, Father,” he said, “everything is possible for you. Take this cup from me. Yet not what I will, but what you will.”

And then these two from Paul: Gal 4:6  Because you are sons, God sent the Spirit of his Son into our hearts, the Spirit who calls out, “Abba, Father.”

He unpacks this in his later letter to the Romans in chapter 8: Rom 8:14  because those who are led by the Spirit of God are sons of God. Rom 8:15  For you did not receive a spirit that makes you a slave again to fear, but you received the Spirit of sonship. And by him we cry, “Abba, Father.” Rom 8:16  The Spirit himself testifies with our spirit that we are God’s children.

What a privilege that we can pray like Jesus did. The Holy Spirit cries “Abba” though us. (Galatians) And we can cry “Abba!” (Romans) Simon Ponsonby, who you recall came out from the UK for New Wine Festival again last year – puts it like this:

This passage unveils to us perhaps the most beautiful and glorious insights into the work of the Spirit in the life of the believer. Through faith, the believer has been justified (Romans 3– 5; Galatians 2: 16; 3: 6) and simultaneously has received the Spirit (Romans 5: 5; Galatians 3: 2). They have moved from being slaves, living in fear and servitude before the Law and the devil, to being free sons of God.

Ponsonby, Simon (2013-05-24). God Is For Us (p. 231). Monarch Books. Kindle Edition.

Free sons of God – with Jesus as the elder brother in the family. What a privilege to be his children. (We have to learn about freedom in the light of all this. More about freedom later as we go through this letter together.)

This new status of adoption is rich with historical cultural baggage – adoption under Roman law conferred full rights to inherit on the adopted child.

He adopts us. We can’t choose Him. Most of all is the simple fact that He chooses us. (John 15:16  You did not choose me, but I chose you and appointed you to go and bear fruit—fruit that will last…)

We can’t earn it or buy our way in to the family. He has redeemed us. He pays the price for our freedom.

This is the gospel – that we are saved into an intimate relationship with the Father. And we have the inner witness of God’s spirit – that blessed assurance – as Paul says in Romans 8: 8:16  The Spirit himself testifies with our spirit that we are God’s children.

Conclusion (Quoting Simon Ponsonby)

We have been made sons of God; a party has been thrown in our honour, with status, dignity, inheritance, and authority conferred on us. We can live like sons in the Spirit or like slaves – it’s up to us. The Galatian Christians chose to live like slaves. The second son in the parable of the prodigal chose to live like a slave, bemoaning “all these years I’ve slaved for you” while in fact “all the father had was his”. Such a revelation of our position before God, on the basis of the decree of the Father, the death of the Son, and the deposit of the Spirit, should revolutionize our lives. God is Abba – our Father. I am his son, not his slave. I serve him freely and without fear – I relax in my sonship: security, identity, inheritance, and freedom from anxiety and fear.

Being God’s own sons should cause us to wonder and worship with all our heart. It should cause us to walk with our head held high, that such dignity has been conferred upon us, sons who perpetuate God’s name and inherit his estate. It should compel our passionate witness to this broken, lost, fatherless generation. Ponsonby, Simon (2013-05-24). God Is For Us (pp. 234-235). Monarch Books. Kindle Edition.

It also means that this Abba, Father, is one in whom we need to rest.

He knows our needs before we ask! (Mat 6:8  Do not be like them (the pagans), for your Father knows what you need before you ask him.)

And if we go astray – he is always longing for us to return. Like the prodigal Father and his prodigal son. It’s interesting that in Luke’s gospel when the parables of the lost sheep, the lost coin and the lost son are recorded, there is this wonderful verse:

Luk 15:10  In the same way, I tell you, there is rejoicing in the presence of the angels of God over one sinner who repents.

Amen

IF you feel astray – lost – if you don’t have that intimate relationship with God through Christ and His spirit, there is always today!

Sunday Sermon 21 June 2015 – Paul to the Galatians (3)

Readings: Acts 11:19-26,  Acts 13:1-3; Galatians 2:11-21

Sermon

I once went to two mental asylums in one day. No –  I was not looking for a bed or room. I was completing a Masters in Pastoral Counselling and Psychology, and it made sense to visit the places where people were locked away for their safety and ours. There were all kinds of people who thought they were prime ministers or famous heroes – one lady claimed to be Margaret Thatcher.

Which reminds me of the story of Margaret Thatcher visiting a retirement home – and introducing herself as the British Prime Minister. Thatcher spoke to one of the inmates and asked him: “do you know who I am?” The patient replied: “No, dear, but I should ask the nurse if I were you. She usually knows.”

I don’t think any of us really would know what it must be like to learn again from scratch who you are – say after an accident where you lose your memory. Amnesia is the word.

These lines from Paul’s letter to the Galatians are actually quite difficult to understand – precisely because they involve losing one identity and gaining another.

Refugees have to work on that don’t they – and oh my there are a lot of them trying to get to new countries at the moment. (Just by the way, Saturday was international refugees’ day – and the numbers are higher than they have ever been.) Emigrants also have to find a new identity. This many of us know.

Paul’s conflict in this letter is not just about other missionaries with a different point of view. Or a different interpretation of the gospel. It’s about fundamental Christian identity – who you are in the Messiah Jesus.

Paul’s conflict with Peter is over the same issue – and his conflict with the churches in Galatia.

Peter had had a vision – if you remember – a sheet coming down from heaven loaded with forbidden un-kosher food. He was convinced about the need to break out of that Jewish mould. He associated with gentiles and ate with them.

But here he changes his tune – and refuses to eat with non-Jews.

In short, Paul accused Peter of hypocrisy. The word means wearing a mask. And much to Paul’s horror, his partner Barnabus, known as the son of encouragement, went along with this. For some reason they were concerned about what the Jewish contingency would think about eating with non-Jews.

The point is – the church in Antioch we read about in Acts 11 and 13 – where Paul and Barnabus were sent out from – was a multicultural church, and they certainly weren’t all Jewish. This was where the disciples were first called Christians (Acts 11:26). The moment you identify with this label – and call yourself a Christian – your identity shifts from being a Torah-keeping Jew or a “Gentile sinner” excluded from God’s family – into the family of the New Covenant – your identity is in the Messiah Jesus.

We used to sing a song years back about this shift. “It’s no longer I that liveth – but Christ that liveth in me.” (Galatians 2:20 from the KJV).

I’m not sure that I understood back then. The key verse is Galatians 2:20, which lines up exactly with Paul’s teaching on baptism in Romans 6.

Gal 2:20 – I have been crucified with Christ and I no longer live, but Christ lives in me. The life I live in the body, I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave himself for me. He goes on to say: Gal 2:21- I do not set aside the grace of God, for if righteousness could be gained through the law, Christ died for nothing!”

If we have died to our old selves, then our new identity is “in Christ”. In fact that phrase “in Christ” is key to all of this. Listen to Paul elsewhere:

  • Rom 8:1 Therefore, there is now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus
  • Rom 16:7 Greet Andronicus and Junias, my relatives who have been in prison with me. They are outstanding among the apostles, and they were in Christ before I was.
  • 1Co 1:30 It is because of him (God) that you are in Christ Jesus, who has become for us wisdom from God—that is, our righteousness, holiness and redemption.

And probably my favourite:

  • 2Co 5:17 – Therefore, if anyone is in Christ, he is a new creation; the old has gone, the new has come!

Those who are “in Christ” – Christians – are part of a new fellowship, a new covenant and a new family.

Tom Wright reminds us that the identity marker for Jews was circumcision. The identity marker for Christians is faith. He continues:

And if we are ‘in’ the crucified Jesus, that means that our previous identities are irrelevant. They are to be forgotten. We are no longer defined by possession of the law, or by its detailed requirements that set Jew over against Gentile. ‘I died to the law, that I might live to God.’ We must now learn who we are in a whole new way. Who then are we? We are the Messiah’s people, with his life now at work in us. And, since the central thing about him is his loving faithfulness, the central thing about us, the only thing in fact that defines us, is our own loving faithfulness, the glad response of faith to the God who has sent his son to die for us. This is the very heart of Christian identity. Wright, Tom (2002-03-22). Paul for Everyone: Galatians and Thessalonians (New Testament for Everyone) (p. 26). SPCK. Kindle Edition.

And one of the sure signs of being together in this New Covenant is to eat together. Tom Wright put it this way: To have separate tables within the church is to spurn the generous love of the Messiah. One of the marks of Jesus’ public career was open table-fellowship. God intends it to be a mark of Jesus’ people from that day to this. Wright, Tom (p. 27).

Communion is one of the special meals with profound significance. Every meal together is an intimate sharing amongst those who are family in Christ. And like the church in Antioch – our background is irrelevant!

It’s a new identity that comes with being rescued from the evil age which we spoke about two weeks back: Gal 1:3  “Grace and peace to you from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ, Gal 1:4  who gave himself for our sins to rescue us from the present evil age …” reaches a climax in Galatians 2:20 – “And the life I do still live in the flesh, I live within the faithfulness of the son of God, who loved me and gave himself for me.” (Kingdom New Testament).

Amen.

Sunday Sermon 7 June 2015 – Paul to the Galatians (1)

Readings: Galatians 1:1-10;  6:11-18

Sermon                                                                                                          

We begin this week with a series on Paul’s letter to the Galatians. Most of us know a little about the book – our favourite verses are those about the fruit of the spirit. At least we know about love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control.

What we don’t know is that this little book is possibly the oldest Christian document we have. It certainly is full of passion and energy – Paul gets very stressed and worked up in it – and for good reason. There are big issues at stake.

The renowned preacher John Piper says of this letter: You can’t read Galatians and think, “Well this is an interesting piece of religious reflection”—any more than you can examine a live coal with your bare hands.

Introductory remarks                                                                          

  1. We read the beginning and the end of the letter today – to get a sense of what it is – a letter with a real context. Unlike our letters, the name of the writer comes first.

But note that it is ALSO from the brothers “with him”. He is not really a lone ranger.

  1. We need to know who it is written to, and sometimes we gloss over this. Listen again: “To the churches in Galatia:” There is more than one church that has got in a muddle here, and these churches are probably situated in what is today southern central Turkey. Troubles were brewing in a number of churches that he had planted.
  1. The authority of Paul is spelled out from the beginning:

Gal 1:1  Paul, an apostlesent not from men nor by man, but by Jesus Christ and God the Father, who raised him from the dead— Gal 1:2  and all the brothers with me, To the churches in Galatia:

In case you think that the letters of Paul have less of Jesus than the four gospels, Paul makes it clear that what he has to say and teach is from Jesus himself.

  1. And then the salutation:

Gal 1:3  Grace and peace to you from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ, Gal 1:4  who gave himself for our sins to rescue us from the present evil age, according to the will of our God and Father, Gal 1:5  to whom be glory for ever and ever. Amen.

We often gloss over these greetings too – but here we have some key markers – boundary lines – about the gospel and the cross. “Grace and peace from the Lord Jesus Christ who gave himself for our sins to rescue us from the present evil age, according to the will of our God and Father.” There is an immediate flagging of the broader issue than our individual salvation – it’s more than us – he gave himself for our sins “to rescue us from this present evil age

At that time followers of Judaism believed world history was divided in two ages – the present age (of wickedness and gloom), and the age to come (when God would intervene and fix things).

It’s the new age that we live in – the Messianic age which began with Jesus’ death and resurrection, that is at stake here. What is it meant to be like? Paul is clearly irked by what is happening in these Galatian churches. They had somehow changed the basics, and he was pretty cross with them.

The word “age” is sometimes translated as “world”. Sometimes it is referred to as the “age to come”. For example:

Heb 6:4  It is impossible for those who have once been enlightened, who have tasted the heavenly gift, who have shared in the Holy Spirit, Heb 6:5  who have tasted the goodness of the word of God and the powers of the coming age, Heb 6:6  if they fall away, to be brought back to repentance, because to their loss they are crucifying the Son of God all over again and subjecting him to public disgrace.

Rom 12:2  Do not conform any longer to the pattern of this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind. Then you will be able to test and approve what God’s will is—his good, pleasing and perfect will.

2Co 4:3  And even if our gospel is veiled, it is veiled to those who are perishing. 2Co 4:4 The god of this age has blinded the minds of unbelievers, so that they cannot see the light of the gospel of the glory of Christ, who is the image of God.  

SO WHAT MADE PAUL SO MAD?

Let me illustrate the problem here with an analogy.

How many of you have built a house? Imagine you hire an architect to draw up the plans, and you get consent, and the foundations are laid. It’s a family home – and even though your family is quite diverse, the home is designed for all to live in community together.

And while you’re away on holiday, someone else comes along and changes the whole thing. You come back to your building site and it’s a mess. Nothing like what you planned. And the different and diverse members of your family are cut off from each other in different sections of the house. They can’t get together at all – not even for meals or to watch a bit of TV.

And the builders tell you – “that architect of yours had it all wrong.  He had some funny ideas, but we are the real authorities. This is how it’s meant to be.”

I can imagine heads would roll. You would be less than thrilled. I haven’t built a house, but I know from those who have that they like to keep an eye on the whole process for good reason.

Paul was less than thrilled in this instance too.

He’d planted churches in the area of Galatia. This was his ministry – starting churches, training and appointing leaders, and then moving on.

Tom Wright puts it like this: Paul’s project is, he often says, building: but he’s building with people, not with bricks and mortar. He lays foundations for this building by telling people some news which is so good it’s shocking. (Wright, Tom (2002-03-22). Paul for Everyone: Galatians and Thessalonians (New Testament for Everyone) (p. 4). SPCK. Kindle Edition.)

There are other building analogies he uses. For example when writing to the Corinthian church where there were people who supported him, and others supporting Apollos (a conflict therefore) he says this:

1Co 3:9  For we are God’s fellow workers; you are God’s field, God’s building. 1Co 3:10  By the grace God has given me, I laid a foundation as an expert builder, and someone else is building on it. But each one should be careful how he builds. 1Co 3:11  For no one can lay any foundation other than the one already laid, which is Jesus Christ. 1Co 3:12  If any man builds on this foundation using gold, silver, costly stones, wood, hay or straw, 1Co 3:13  his work will be shown for what it is, because the Day will bring it to light. It will be revealed with fire, and the fire will test the quality of each man’s work. 1Co 3:14  If what he has built survives, he will receive his reward. 1Co 3:15  If it is burned up, he will suffer loss; he himself will be saved, but only as one escaping through the flames.

To get back to the news he proclaimed when building the foundations of the churches in Galatia. This news – the “gospel” was quite shocking.

We sometimes think about the “gospel” in terms of the four spiritual laws, or a formula to come to faith though repentance, or a reformed faith or post-reformation way of thinking following Luther for example. Or for that matter a Methodist one where Wesley had his “heart strangely warmed” when he met Jesus at a meeting on Aldersgate street in 1738. All of these are fine.

At the very least we have personalised the gospel message – Jesus died for our sins and we are justified (made righteous in God’s sight) by faith and we have peace with God (we looked at all those themes in Paul’s letter to the Romans).

The news is shocking because it has wider ramifications than our personal faith and getting to heaven. Tom Wright puts it like this:

According to Paul, there is one God, the world’s creator (standard stuff for the Jews, that), and this one God has now unveiled his long-awaited plan for the world. The unveiling took place in a Jew called Jesus; Paul says this Jesus is the Jewish Messiah, a kind of king-to-end-all-kings (sounds like a challenge to Emperor Claudius). Jesus was executed by the Romans; that’s what they did, often enough, to other people’s kings. But Paul says that the true God raised Jesus from the dead. That’s the beginning of the good news, but it doesn’t stop there.

According to Paul, Jesus’ death and resurrection mean that this God is now building a new family, a single family, a family with no divisions, no separate races, no one-table-for-Jews-and-another-for-Gentiles nonsense. Jews believed that when the Messiah came he would be Lord of all the world; so, Paul argues, he’d have to have just one family. And, though this family is the fulfilment of what this God had promised to the Jews, the remarkable thing is that, because of Jesus, you don’t have to be a Jew to belong. The God of Israel wants to be known as ‘father’ by the whole world. So, with this good news, Paul has laid the foundation of a people-building in central south Turkey. Then he has moved on.

And then he hears the bad news. Other people-builders have come in. Oh, they’ve said, Paul didn’t really know what he was doing. You could get into trouble for that kind of thing. In any case, Paul just got his funny ideas by muddling up things that other people had said to him. We’ve got it from the real authorities. This people-building has to have two sections. Yes, we all believe that Jesus is the Messiah; but we can’t have Jewish believers and Gentile believers living as though they were part of the same family. If the Gentile believers want to be part of the real inner circle, the family God promised to Abraham, they will have to become Jews. The men must be circumcised. All must keep the law, must do the things that keep Jews and Gentiles neatly separated. That’s the real good news, they said: you’re welcome into God’s family if you follow the law of Moses.

Think about that scenario, and you’ll see why, in this opening paragraph of his letter to Galatia, Paul sounds as though he’s trying to say several things at once, all of them pretty sharp. The key things he’s talking about are apostleship and gospel. Grasp these, and the rest of the letter will start to make sense.

Wright, Tom (2002-03-22). Paul for Everyone: Galatians and Thessalonians (New Testament for Everyone) (pp. 4-5). SPCK. Kindle Edition.

WHERE DOES THIS TAKE US IN OUR JOURNEY THROUGH GALATIANS?

For now – in this small beginning – some key thoughts

  1. If you only had Galatians, and not the longer letter to the Romans, most key aspects of the gospel message would be covered or referred to one way or the other.
  1. This very short introduction asks this question of you: Have you been rescued or delivered from the present evil age? It’s still at work – despite the evil one’s defeat on the cross – the war is still on. You can’t deliver or rescue yourselves. For Paul this is the new exodus from slavery to sin and liberation into God. And remember that Jesus prayed this in John 17:15 – My prayer is not that you take them out of the world but that you protect them from the evil one.
  1. Grace and peace to you from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ, who gave himself for our sins to rescue us from the present evil age, according to the will of our God and Father, to whom be glory for ever and ever. Amen.

John Piper in a sermon on this passage write this: The experience of deliverance from the present evil age enables us to bear witness with our lives that we belong to another King and another kingdom and another age. And it begins with a changed heart and a changed mind. He calls his sermon To Deliver Us from the Present Evil Age but the alternate title he was going to use is this:  “Grace to You and Glory to God.”

  1. Are we building our lives and our church on the right foundation? Always a great question. Are we really committed to the gospel of transformation?

Is there a change from this old age to the Kingdom of God in us?

There’s this fascinating and sad passage in Paul’s first letter to Timothy: (NIV) 2Ti 4:9  Do your best to come to me quickly, 2Ti 4:10 for Demas, because he loved this world, has deserted me and has gone to Thessalonica.(NRSV)  2Ti 4:9  Do your best to come to me soon, for Demas, in love with this present world, has deserted me and gone to Thessalonica

It’s the same word for “age” and “world” that crops up.  Aeon. Eon in English.

I have this deep concern that what actually happens here – and is happening – is that too many of us are in love with this present world.

Demas deserted Paul – because he loved the present world or age too much. That happens here too. Ultimately Demas deserted God and His Kingdom. Romans 12:2 applies – like him we are conforming to the world’s standards rather than being transformed!

Amen. Enough for today.

Acknowledgements: Tom Wright’s thoughts have shaped this reflection:

  • Wright, Tom (2002-03-22). Paul for Everyone: Galatians and Thessalonians (New Testament for Everyone). SPCK. Kindle Edition.
  • https://www.udemy.com/courses/ Here I have been influenced by Wright’s lectures “Paul and his letter to the Galatians”. This is from the course  NTWRIGHT ON LINE through the Wisconsin Centre for Christian studies.

Sunday sermon 17 May 2015 – Are you dead or not? The fight against sin continues…

Readings: Romans 6:1-14; Matthew 6:24

Message

C.H. Spurgeon, that famous preacher of the 19th Century, tells the story of a woman who claimed she had attained “sinless perfection” and had not sinned for years. Then he recalls that someone stood heavily on her toe (was it Spurgeon?) and “her sinless perfection departed her like the morning dew”.

Last week we referred to the Roman Road – Romans 1:16-17- about “the gospel, for it is the power of God for salvation to everyone who believes…”; Romans 3:23 (all have sinned – in fact you need to read Romans chapters 1-3 to see the extent of the sin) – and in Romans 5 in particular, how sin is dealt with (justification, reconciliation, atonement and grace were considered).

The key verses in Romans 5 in this regard are verses 8 and 9: But God proves his love for us in that while we still were sinners Christ died for us. Much more surely then, now that we have been justified by his blood, will we be saved through him from the wrath of God. (NRSV)

Romans 6 – today’s passage – is a favourite passage for people who are enthusiastic about baptism. Most lean towards believers’ or adult baptism, as the symbolic aspects are not lost to us – in Romans 6:3 and 4: Do you not know that all of us who have been baptized into Christ Jesus were baptized into his death? Therefore we have been buried with him by baptism into death, so that, just as Christ was raised from the dead by the glory of the Father, so we too might walk in newness of life.

Those who support infant baptism hasten to refer us to Colossians 2:11-12: In him also you were circumcised with a spiritual circumcision, by putting off the body of the flesh in the circumcision of Christ; when you were buried with him in baptism, you were also raised with him through faith in the power of God, who raised him from the dead. (NRSV) The NIV translates the verse as follows:  In him also you were circumcised with a circumcision made without hands, by putting off the body of the flesh, by the circumcision of Christ, having been buried with him in baptism, in which you were also raised with him through faith in the powerful working of God, who raised him from the dead.

The question is – whichever baptismal tradition you support – have you really died?

Simon Ponsonby gives us this account: George Müller, the 19th Century German (Prussian) saintly founder of orphanages and schools, was asked the secret of his success: There was a day when I died, utterly died; died to George Müller and his opinions, preferences, tastes and will – died to the world, its approval or censure – died to the approval or blame even of my brethren and friends – and since then I have studied only to show myself approved unto God.)  (2 Tim 2:15 Study to shew thyself approved unto God, a workman that needeth not to be ashamed, rightly dividing the word of truth. KJV)

In similar vein, Ponsonby speaks about the worldwide evangelist Billy Graham, who when asked how he coped being away from his wife with the temptations of travel and fame, commented: “I’m dead to every woman but my wife Ruth.” 

If we are dead to sin, then things have to be different. Romans 6:2 and 6:6 confirm this.

The big question Paul asks here, though, is about grace. This question starts here: 6:1 What shall we say, then? Shall we go on sinning so that grace may increase? 6:2 By no means! We are those who have died to sin; how can we live in it any longer?

Because we have this grace that we are positioned in, to which we have gained access to by faith (Romans 5:2) – does that give us a license to sin more to achieve more grace?

Romans 5 ends with these verses (which we did not read last week) – which of course raises the very question we are looking at: Romans 5:20 Now the law came in to increase the trespass, but where sin increased, grace abounded all the more, Romans 5:21 so that, as sin reigned in death, grace also might reign through righteousness leading to eternal life through Jesus Christ our Lord.

You can see the logic. A little boy spills milk all over the kitchen floor – and mum cleans it up. “Never mind” she says, “look how shiny it is now”. He responds with a smile: “maybe I should spill milk more often then!” You can also see the absurdity in this logic. Tom Wright uses this story to illustrate this (my version or summary follows): Think of the prodigal son – who has been welcomed back in an act of grace by the father who breaks protocol when he runs down the road. Life is pretty normal again – dad is getting older, the older brother more tolerant of the prodigal, and things are rather ordinary in the home. Suddenly it crosses his mind again – as he thinks of that wonderful day of being welcomed by his dad – how great the party was – suddenly he begins to wonder if he should run away for a while again – and “play the penitent and come back again. Maybe I’ll get another party!”

Wright goes on to say: Absurd? Unthinkable? Don’t you believe it. It’s exactly what a great many people think. ‘God will forgive me; that’s his job!’ declared a famous philosopher two centuries ago.  (Christian Johann Heinrich Heine is the philosopher quoted here: December 13, 1797 – February 17, 1856. As an unrelated aside, Heine also said some more helpful things like this quote:  If the Romans had been obliged to learn Latin, they would never have found time to conquer the world.)

Twice in this passage Paul asks whether it’s ok to sin more to essentially get more grace. (It also appears in verse 15 which we didn’t read). Twice he answers – “by no means” – literally “may it never be” – or as in the KJV “God forbid!”

Sin should not be our master. (v14). So we can’t make excuses. Simon Ponsonby also tells the story of a speeding fine he got in the post (in the UK). Included in the letter were a list of excuses that they indicated would not be accepted: these included “I did not know the road; I did not see the signs; I have a clean licence; I was late; I didn’t know cameras were there; the road was clear; I was momentarily distracted; the car behind forced me to speed up.”

Ponsonby says this about this power of sin: Paul accepts no excuse for sinning. Though he says Adam influences us, ultimately we are accountable in Christ for our sin, and if we sin we do so volitionally. Shall we sin? No! It is possible not to sin. Does Paul believe we can be free from sin? Yes! Does Paul believe we can live a life, moment by moment, sinless? Yes! Was Paul sinless? No (as Romans 7 will lead us to acknowledge). Have I ever met a sinless person? No. Nevertheless, Paul refuses to take sin for granted – he refuses to resign to its power. 

 SO WHAT’S TO BE DONE? What are the implications of this?

Have you noticed at the traffic light up the road (by the dentist where we can park on Sunday without fear of a needle or drill) that there are a number of permutations – possible combinations of who goes where and when? It takes a while – you can do quite a lot of praying and thinking at that intersection while waiting. The most interesting one is when you go along Anzac and turn left into Beach road by the VINZ workshop. There are times when the lights go red for those going straight and a green arrow allows you to go left. The moment those two are on at the same time, my brain has a fit. It’s the incongruence. The two signals contradict. (I encountered a similar thing recently in Auckland when there were two arrows pointing left – one was green and the other red. Symptoms of complex roads in a city that probably grew without planning!)

Red and green are opposites. Which do you obey? I want to slam on the brakes and the accelerator at the same time. Apparently in the Cultural Revolution in China (1966-76) they tried to change the colours so red would mean go (and thus match Chairman Mao’s red book). It didn’t work. Chaos ensued. A couple of things in relation to this then:

  • We need to be clear about when to stop and when to go.
  • Clear about what is okay and what is not.
  • About what we are against and what we are for.
  • About who we ignore and who we obey.
  • About who we serve, and who we don’t. Listen again:

v13 Do not offer any part of yourself to sin as an instrument of wickedness, but rather offer yourselves to God as those who have been brought from death to life; and offer every part of yourself to him as an instrument of righteousness.

The translations differ here. We are not to offer parts of ourselves, parts of our bodies, or our members to sin as instruments of wickedness. Rather we are to offer them to God (in other words consecrate them to God). The NRSV uses the word “present”. We read in Romans 6:13: “…but present yourselves to God… and present your members to God as instruments of righteousness.” Present – means to place yourselves at someone’s disposal. To stand beside someone. Ponsonby says this: Baptized believers are to present themselves to God – again we have the Greek word parastemi, “standing beside” God. 

He goes on to say: When Old Testament priests were ordained they were anointed with blood on the right ear lobe, right thumb, and right big toe, cleansing and devoting their extremities to God (Leviticus 8: 23). In Anglo-Catholic churches when the Gospel is read, the people often make the sign of the cross three times – on their forehead, mouth and over their heart – symbolizing that their mind, words and affections are consecrated before Christ. It is important to do this, if not physically then spiritually, throughout the day, presenting to Christ all our instruments, offered to righteousness, set apart for God.

We do need to present every part of ourselves to God. The mind, lips and heart actual cover a lot of areas where sin so often abounds in our lives – what we think, say, and feel. You can list the sins that you struggle with in each category!

And if they are persistent sins – we need to die to them. We are not to hang around (presenting our members, positioning ourselves to sin), but rather we are to present ourselves, or “stand” ourselves, or stand beside God.

And we need new habits that crowd out the old ones. Ponsonby says this: Sin is often a programmed habit, an auto-reflex of the flesh – body members and mind. Holiness can become a habit through habitually presenting yourself and your members to God.

The single Gospel verse today (Matthew 6:24) is also about who we serve, who we honour, who our master is:  6:24 “No one can serve two masters. Either you will hate the one and love the other, or you will be devoted to the one and despise the other. You cannot serve both God and money.

Money – wealth – mammon – you will find different words used in different translations. This struggle or choice we have to make is always there. Presenting ourselves before mammon, or wealth is probably a fertile ground for breeding sin! The persistent desire for more (shopping aka retail therapy) is a great example. If we die to sin, and live to God, presenting (positioning) ourselves before Him – we can change our habits.

Simon Ponsonby reminds us of that famous speech by Churchill at his old school Harrow: Never give in, never give in, never never never never, in nothing great or small, large or petty; never give in, never yield to force, never yield to the apparently overwhelming might of the enemy.

And this is Paul’s approach to the problem of persistent sin. Never give in to sin. Never, never, never, never: in sins large or petty, never surrender.

May this be so.

Amen.

 

Footnote: I am indebted to Tom Wright and Simon Ponsonby for the great illustrations and arguments they provide on this passage: Tom Wright (2006): Paul for Everyone: Romans Part 1 (New Testament for Everyone) (Kindle Locations 1717-1719). SPCK. Kindle Edition.  Ponsonby, Simon (2013-05-24). God Is For Us (pp. 193-194). Monarch Books. Kindle Edition.

Sunday sermon 8 March 2015 – Invitations, weddings, banquets and burning cities

Reading: Matthew 22:1-14

Mat 22:1 Jesus spoke to them again in parables, saying:

Mat 22:2 “The kingdom of heaven is like a king who prepared a wedding banquet for his son.
Mat 22:3 He sent his servants to those who had been invited to the banquet to tell them to come, but they refused to come.
Mat 22:4 “Then he sent some more servants and said, ‘Tell those who have been invited that I have prepared my dinner: My oxen and fattened cattle have been butchered, and everything is ready. Come to the wedding banquet.’
Mat 22:5 “But they paid no attention and went off—one to his field, another to his business.
Mat 22:6 The rest seized his servants, mistreated them and killed them.
Mat 22:7 The king was enraged. He sent his army and destroyed those murderers and burned their city.
Mat 22:8 “Then he said to his servants, ‘The wedding banquet is ready, but those I invited did not deserve to come.
Mat 22:9 Go to the street corners and invite to the banquet anyone you find.’
Mat 22:10 So the servants went out into the streets and gathered all the people they could find, both good and bad, and the wedding hall was filled with guests.
Mat 22:11 “But when the king came in to see the guests, he noticed a man there who was not wearing wedding clothes.
Mat 22:12 “Friend,’ he asked, ‘how did you get in here without wedding clothes?’ The man was speechless.
Mat 22:13 “Then the king told the attendants, ‘Tie him hand and foot, and throw him outside, into the darkness, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth.’
Mat 22:14 “For many are invited, but few are chosen.”
Sermon – Invitations, weddings, banquets and burning cities

It’s a long time since we were in that process of planning our wedding. For some of you your wedding invitations are part of the dim and distance past. I had to ask my dear wife this morning about ours – I couldn’t remember how many people were at the reception – our banquet!

I remember the day – what a wonderful bride! And I sang for her! It was 31 years ago…

Very few people turned us down. The one exception was a friend whom I asked to conduct the wedding ceremony.

He wasn’t available on 19 May 1984 as there was an important football game he wanted to watch.

I’m not sure whether my friend remembers that FA cup final. The 1984 FA Cup Final was contested by Everton and Watford at Wembley. Everton won 2–0, with one goal by Graeme Sharp and a particularly memorable goal from Andy Gray. (Maybe that was the link – my friend was James Gray!). Another friend not watching the FA cup was the officiant – and I do remember him talking about marriage and comparing it to baking a chocolate cake!

The excuses people give in this parable for not showing up at the prince’s wedding (the King’s son) are interesting. (Would you have passed up an invitation to Chares and Diana’s wedding, or William and Kate’s?)

It seems that they already knew about the wedding, as the message was “ok we’re ready for you”.

Look at verse 3:

Mat 22:3 He sent his servants to those who had been invited to the banquet to tell them to come, but they refused to come.

So he has another go.

Mat 22:4 “Then he sent some more servants and said, ‘Tell those who have been invited that I have prepared my dinner: My oxen and fattened cattle have been butchered, and everything is ready. Come to the wedding banquet.’

Mat 22:5 “But they paid no attention and went off—one to his field, another to his business.

In Luke’s similar parable (I tell stories and they often turn out different) the excuses were even more interesting. I remember them from the song we sang as kids in church (and adults actually) –

“I cannot come”

Here are the words:

I cannot come,
I cannot come to the banquet,
Don’t trouble me now,
I have married a wife,
I have bought me a cow,
I have fields and commitments,
That cost a pretty sum,
Pray hold me excused


I cannot come.

1- A certain man held a feast
On his fine estate in town.
He laid a festive table,
He wore a wedding gown,
He sent out invitations
To his neighbours far and wide,
But when the meal was ready
Each of them replied:

I cannot come…
2- The master rose up in anger
Called his servants by name, said
Go into town, fetch the blind and the lame
Fetch the peasant and the pauper
For this I have willed:
My banquet must be crowded,
And my table must be filled.

I cannot come…

3- When all the poor had assembled
There was still room to spare,
So the master demanded:
Go search everywhere.
Search the highways and the by ways,
And tell them to come in
My table must be filled
Before the banquet can begin.

I cannot come…

4- Now God has written a lesson
For the rest of mankind:
If we are slow in responding
He may leave us behind.
He is preparing a banquet
For that great and glorious day,
When the Lord and Master calls
Us be certain not to say:

The details of the wife and the cow are from the Luke story. Here is the whole passage, for comparison:

Luk 14:12  Then Jesus said to his host, “When you give a luncheon or dinner, do not invite your friends, your brothers or relatives, or your rich neighbours; if you do, they may invite you back and so you will be repaid. Luk 14:13  But when you give a banquet, invite the poor, the crippled, the lame, the blind, Luk 14:14  and you will be blessed. Although they cannot repay you, you will be repaid at the resurrection of the righteous.” Luk 14:15  When one of those at the table with him heard this, he said to Jesus, “Blessed is the man who will eat at the feast in the kingdom of God.” Luk 14:16  Jesus replied: “A certain man was preparing a great banquet and invited many guests. Luk 14:17  At the time of the banquet he sent his servant to tell those who had been invited, ‘Come, for everything is now ready.’ Luk 14:18  “But they all alike began to make excuses. The first said, ‘I have just bought a field, and I must go and see it. Please excuse me.’ Luk 14:19  “Another said, ‘I have just bought five yoke of oxen, and I’m on my way to try them out. Please excuse me.’ Luk 14:20  “Still another said, ‘I just got married, so I can’t come.‘ Luk 14:21  “The servant came back and reported this to his master. Then the owner of the house became angry and ordered his servant, ‘Go out quickly into the streets and alleys of the town and bring in the poor, the crippled, the blind and the lame.’   Luk 14:22  “‘Sir,’ the servant said, ‘what you ordered has been done, but there is still room.’ Luk 14:23  “Then the master told his servant, ‘Go out to the roads and country lanes and make them come in, so that my house will be full. Luk 14:24  I tell you, not one of those men who were invited will get a taste of my banquet.'”

Back to Matthew… 

To return to Matthew 22: Mat 22:5 “But they paid no attention and went off—one to his field, another to his business.”
In fact the NRSV translates this verse like this: But they made light of it and went away, one to his farm, another to his business…

And Eugene Peterson (The Message paraphrase) translates it like this: “They only shrugged their shoulders and went off, one to weed his garden, another to work in his shop.

The parables from Matthew that precede this one focus mainly on the Jewish leaders and authorities, and the unfruitfulness of the Jewish nation. A similar thread is seen here – because the first lot that refuse and that make light of the invitation is a reference to the Jewish rejection of Jesus again.  Remember that this series of parables are taught after Jesus had entered Jerusalem before that fatal Friday. We’re not talking about teaching the disciples or correcting Peter here – rather this is in the face of the Jewish authorities.

We are reminded of the tenants in the Parable of the vineyard (Matthew 21:33) when in verse 6 we read: The rest seized his servants, mistreated them and killed them.

This has the added angle of consequences here as the judgement in this story is swift. We assume that Matthew would have been aware of the destruction of Jerusalem by the Romans if the gospel was written after AD 72. If not, we certainly are aware of it now, and those who read this gospel after Jerusalem was destroyed would have made the connection.

Listen to verse 7: Mat 22:7 The king was enraged. He sent his army and destroyed those murderers and burned their city.

THE NEXT ROUND OF INVITATIONS

We are pretty sure that the category of people that are found in the streets and brought in refers to us. Unless you have a Jewish lineage you are a Gentile or an outsider from God’s original plan. We are part of the “anyone you can find” intake.

In this parable the King says this: Mat 22:9 Go to the street corners and invite to the banquet anyone you find.’ Mat 22:10 So the servants went out into the streets and gathered all the people they could find, both good and bad, and the wedding hall was filled with guests.

So it’s all good then. “Sweet as” is what young kiwis and their mates say. “Free party and we weren’t even on the original list of guests.” But no.

There is further judgement – this time of one of the people who are brought in as undeserved attendees is in trouble:

Mat 22:11 “But when the king came in to see the guests, he noticed a man there who was not wearing wedding clothes.
Mat 22:12 “Friend,’ he asked, ‘how did you get in here without wedding clothes?’ The man was speechless.
Mat 22:13 “Then the king told the attendants, ‘Tie him hand and foot, and throw him outside, into the darkness, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth.’
Mat 22:14 “For many are invited, but few are chosen.”

There are suggestions that this is a separate parable. Even if it was, it is part of the whole story line here.

It’s a bit odd really – these people were dragged off the streets. Why would they be expected to be in wedding garments? How could they? There is the suggestion that wedding garments would have been provided in those days by the host. But there is little evidence for such a practice.

SPEECHLESS RECIPIENTS OF GRACE

Maybe this man was so caught up with the benefits of the banquet that he forgets that he is undeserving – a recipient of grace – and as a bit of a glutton focuses on what he can take rather than on his need for gratitude and respect of the king.

I like what a preacher wrote about this (a lady called Sharon Ring- it has a nice ring about it)”

Eschatological insight (vision again! – see last week’s message about the evil eye!)

For Matthew those purposes centre on the issue of the “worthiness” of the guests (verse 8). The criterion apparently is not an ethical one (for both “good and bad” are brought in), but rather a matter of eschatological insight–the ability to recognize the urgency of the invitation and to respond. The real issue is not whether you are of Jewish or Gentile pedigree, or whether you are a deserving Jew or Gentile ethically or morally.

I think our Sharon is onto something here – it’s about discernment of the importance of the event! The Will and Kate wedding was THE wedding of the century –surpassing that of Charles and Diana no doubt. (Am I being unfair to dear Charles?).

I guess if you are a parent with a daughter – then that wedding will be the wedding of the century for you! It’s a matter of who and what matters to you.

The image of a banquet and a wedding has eschatological connotations! Big word which means it is to do with ultimate and end time matters!

Listen to verse 12 again: Mat 22:12 “Friend,’ he asked, ‘how did you get in here without wedding clothes?’ The man was speechless.

The man was speechless! The point is that when you stand before the judge of all the earth I suspect you will be speechless!

And so the speechless man gets sorted in verse 13: Mat 22:13 “Then the king told the attendants, ‘Tie him hand and foot, and throw him outside, into the darkness, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth.’

And the parable ends with these fascinating and challenging words: Mat 22:14 “For many are invited, but few are chosen.”

Now let me be honest – I’m not sure here. Some of you want everything very clear and black and white, when the Bible is challenging and slippery at times.

For many are called, but few chosen – is a reasonable translation. The invitation – the call – comes to us to be at this wedding banquet – to be part of a great celebration – pointing to a banquet at the end of time – but in the meantime as we experience this grace now – invited or called to be in this new community – by grace alone (dragged off the messy streets of our lives) – the warning is that there is more!

Accountability? Yes. Obedience? Yes. Gratitude and humility? O yes.

What, then, is the symbol of the wedding garment?

John Calvin in his commentary asks whether the wedding garment refers to faith or a holy life?

He goes on to say:

This is a useless controversy; for faith cannot be separated from good works, nor do good works proceed from any other source than from faith. But Christ intended only to state, that the Lord calls us on the express condition of our being renewed by the Spirit after his image; and that, in order to our remaining permanently in his house, we must put off the old man with his pollutions, (Col_3:9; Eph_4:22) and lead a new life, that the garment may correspond to so honourable a calling.

The verses Calvin refers to help us here:

Col 3:9 Do not lie to each other, since you have taken off your old self with its practices
Col 3:10 and have put on the new self
, which is being renewed in knowledge in the image of its Creator.

Eph 4:22 You were taught, with regard to your former way of life, to put off your old self, which is being corrupted by its deceitful desires;

Eph 4:23 to be made new in the attitude of your minds;
Eph 4:24 and to put on the new self, created to be like God in true righteousness and holiness.

Calvin goes on to say:

We know also, that there is no other way in which we are formed anew after the image of God, but by putting on Christ, (Rom_13:14; Gal_3:27) It is not, therefore, the declaration of Christ, that the sentence of casting them into outer darkness will be executed on wretched men who did not bring a costly garment taken from their own wardrobe, but on those who shall be found in their pollution, when God shall come to make a scrutiny of his guests.

The verses he refers to are these:

Rom 13:14 Instead, put on the Lord Jesus Christ, and make no provision for the flesh, to gratify its desires.

Gal 3:27 As many of you as were baptized into Christ have clothed yourselves with Christ.

There is an invitation to come to the wedding banquet. There are clothes to be worn. We are to respond. How do we respond today?

Oh it’s just a story, you may say. Don’t take it too literally. The problem is that our biblical literacy is poor and we want easy solutions.

This invitation to put on Christ as your wedding garment is radical – counter-cultural – and morally and ethically challenging. Like the man who said to the preacher: “I don’t like the Bible – it interferes with my work”. It turns out he was a pick pocket.

If you think that once a week will transform your life in this Christian journey – then think again. If you think a cursory daily prayer muttered on the bus will do it – think again.

We don’t put on a wedding garment that is fashionable and expensive. We put on Christ – who died to get us into this relationship and journey with God. There is no cheap grace! It is a radical transformation of our minds, hearts and lives.

Going back to our commentator Sharon Ring again – we find this perspective on this passage: He affirms the boundless generosity and inclusive reach of God’s grace, but he also affirms that for us to be “worthy” of God’s gift requires nothing less than our whole life. There are songs that try to capture that today. But one hymn wins the prize – When I survey the wondrous cross. We’ll sing this one on Tuesday at Tuesday Church.

Listen to this verse of response in the hymn:
Were the whole realm of nature mine, That were a present far too small;
Love so amazing, so divine, Demands my soul, my life, my all.

I don’t lie the modern version – it used to say “That were an offering far too small”. Better, don you think?

But look at these verses of the hymn we don’t see often: His dying crimson, like a robe, Spreads o’er His body on the tree; Then I am dead to all the globe, And all the globe is dead to me. Are we dead to the globe – the world?

And our response: To Christ, who won for sinners grace, By bitter grief and anguish sore, Be praise from all the ransomed race, Forever and forevermore.
Amen.

Sunday sermon 1 March 2015 – The upside down Kingdom…

Reading: Matthew 20:1-16

Sermon

It’s no surprise that the parable today is in direct response to our main character through the story. I wonder who that could be, you may be thinking. Why Peter, of course.

In the previous chapter is that challenging saying about the young man who turned away. The rich young ruler. Remember him? Listen again: Mat 19:23  Then Jesus said to his disciples, “I tell you the truth, it is hard for a rich man to enter the kingdom of heaven. Mat 19:24  Again I tell you, it is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to enter the kingdom of God.” Mat 19:25  When the disciples heard this, they were greatly astonished and asked, “Who then can be saved?” Mat 19:26  Jesus looked at them and said, “With man this is impossible, but with God all things are possible.”

Mat 19:27  Peter answered him, “We have left everything to follow you! What then will there be for us?”

The bit at the end of Matthew 19 is for you to read at home. Especially verse 28 – I bet you’re surprised by that one.

At the end of Matthew 19 Jesus says to Peter:  Mat 19:29  And everyone who has left houses or brothers or sisters or father or mother or children or fields for my sake will receive a hundred times as much and will inherit eternal life. Mat 19:30  But many who are first will be last, and many who are last will be first.

And then Chapter 20 begins with the word “for”. Remember that there were no chapters at the beginning when the bible was written. Not even spaces between the letters of the early bible. So here we go then:

Mat 20:1  “For the kingdom of heaven is like a landowner who went out early in the morning to hire men to work in his vineyard.

It’s addressed to people who have left everything to follow Jesus, and applies to every generation. Things are upside down in terms of this Kingdom. This is a unique parable about the Kingdom and God’s grace in the kingdom. It ends again with Mat 20:16  “So the last will be first, and the first will be last.”

So let’s consider firstly what’s the parable is not about!

  • It’s not about trade unions and fair wages. Elsewhere in scripture it’s very clear that workers are to be paid properly.
  • It’s not about lazy people. There’s a temptation by those who have never been without anything, especially a job, to look at those standing around doing nothing and say “lazy bunch – why don’t they get a job?”

I don’t know if you’ve lived anywhere where people stand around near a work and income/person power or labour office hoping that someone will hire them for the day. It’s a hand-to-mouth existence. And it’s terribly discouraging. It’s common in big cities.

Looking after workers and the needy is part of the biblical standard given to us. If you want a biblical reference for this read Leviticus 19:

Lev 19:9  “‘When you reap the harvest of your land, do not reap to the very edges of your field or gather the gleanings of your harvest. Lev 19:10  Do not go over your vineyard a second time or pick up the grapes that have fallen. Leave them for the poor and the alien. I am the LORD your God. Lev 19:11  “‘Do not steal. “‘Do not lie. “‘Do not deceive one another. Lev 19:12  “‘Do not swear falsely by my name and so profane the name of your God. I am the LORD. Lev 19:13  “‘Do not defraud your neighbour or rob him. “‘Do not hold back the wages of a hired man overnight.

And of course Deuteronomy:  Deu 24:14 Do not take advantage of a hired man who is poor and needy, whether he is a brother Israelite or an alien living in one of your towns. Deu 24:15 Pay him his wages each day before sunset, because he is poor and is counting on it. Otherwise he may cry to the LORD against you, and you will be guilty of sin. 

SO WHAT IS IT ABOUT?

Verse 15 gives us a clue: Mat 20:15  Don’t I have the right to do what I want with my own money? Or are you envious because I am generous?’

If the Landowner in the extended simile is God – then he is both generous and sovereign.

And it’s the labourers who were hired at the beginning of the day that the landowner has issues with. Or the ones that had issues with the Landowner.

And this verse 15 is a fascinating one – which actually says this: (BBE)  Have I not the right to do as seems good to me in my house? or is your eye evil, because I am good? 

The idea of a bad or evil eye takes us back to Matthew 6. Mat 6:22  “The eye is the lamp of the body. If your eyes are good, your whole body will be full of light.Mat 6:23  But if your eyes are bad, your whole body will be full of darkness. If then the light within you is darkness, how great is that darkness!

And of course in this passage the concept of the evil eye is translated  with words like “jealous” or “envious”. And jealousy and envy are aspects or manifestations of the breaking of the last commandment – do not covet. It’s all about what and how you see things. And what we want for ourselves.

A comment in the Life Application Study Bible says this: Spiritual vision is our capacity to see clearly what God wants us to do and to see the world from his point of view. But this spiritual insight can be easily clouded. Self-serving desires, interests, and goals block that vision. Serving God is the best way to restore it. A “good” eye is one that is fixed on God.

It’s about how you see things and how you judge them. About whether you have an eye for the things of the Kingdom or whether your shades have dollar signs on them – or “me, me, me” as a filter – whether you think of your own reward first like Peter. It puts his complaint in context:

Mat 19:27  Peter answered him, “We have left everything to follow you! What then will there be for us?”

His complaint does rather sound like a whining petulant child now. It has this “unfair” kind of feeling implied. Like the people hired at the beginning of the day for a fair wage who are resentful of the Johnny-come-lately people whom the Landowner gets in at the last minute – and pays the same rate for the day.

The Landowner is totally fair and keeps his agreed deal with the workers who worked all day. What they don’t get is how the 11.00th hour people also get that same wage.

This is grace revealed. Generous grace. It’s about the character of the Landowner, who represents God in the parable.

SOME SIMILAR BIBLICAL EXAMPLES MIGHT HELP:

  • Like the penitent thief on the cross. No baptism – no catechism – no chance to serve in endless duties at church. Just grace.

Can you think of others?

  • Perhaps the elder brother in the Prodigal Son story comes to mind – whining that his dad was throwing a party for the prodigal who was so selfish and who squandered everything. One commentator reflecting on this says the words of the elder brother might be like this: There are the sounds of a party in progress. “My brother is receiving a celebration? What is going on here? This is certainly not fair.” Jarvis, Cynthia A. (2013-12-09). Feasting on the Gospels–Matthew, Volume 2 (Kindle Locations 4518-4519). Westminster John Knox Press. Kindle Edition.

SO WHAT ABOUT US

In every church (certainly in the 6 or more I have served in over the years), you get the workers who have served there for many years, some of whom believe they are entitled to more reward because of years of service. A meritorious kind of status.

The Kingdom of God is not like that. There is no ladder of importance really – we all are recipients of gifts from God. But the moment we treat the church as our club, then there will be a pecking order of some sort.

So is this about the church today? In fact Tom Wright’s thoughts are helpful – he writes with church people in mind – doing church stuff:

God’s grace, in short, is not the sort of thing you can bargain with or try to store up. It isn’t the sort of thing that one person can have a lot of and someone else only a little. The point of the story is that what people get from having served God and his kingdom is not, actually, a ‘wage’ at all. It’s not, strictly, a reward for work done. God doesn’t make contracts with us, as if we could bargain or negotiate for a better deal. He makes covenants, in which he promises us everything and asks of us everything in return. When he keeps his promises, he is not rewarding us for effort, but doing what comes naturally to his overflowingly generous nature.

There is always a danger that we get cross with God over this. People who work in church circles can easily assume that they are the special ones, God’s inner circle. In reality, God is out in the marketplace, looking for the people everybody else tried to ignore, welcoming them on the same terms, surprising them (and everybody else) with his generous grace. The earliest church clearly needed to learn that lesson. Is there anywhere in today’s church that doesn’t need to be reminded of it as well?  Wright, Tom (2002-03-22). Matthew for Everyone Part 2: Pt. 2 (New Testament for Everyone) (pp. 57-58). SPCK. Kindle Edition.

Amazing and generous grace is revealed in the character who portrays the nature of God.

Do you know this God? May you come to discover his amazing grace.

And like the shepherd who leaves the 99 to look for the lost sheep, the Landowner (God) is out in the marketplace seeking those in need and inviting them to participate in a different vineyard in his upside down Kingdom.

Amen.

 

Sunday 22 February 2015 – forgiving from the heart?

Readings:

Psalm 32:1-2; Matthew 18:15-35

Message         

This is an amazing passage. If you thought the Sermon on the Mount had challenges, read Matthew 18!

  1. Excommunication

The first few lines where we pick up the narrative in verse 15 are used by some churches as a process of excommunication. Listen to the process. It’s quite simple really:

Mat 18:15  “If your brother sins against you, go and show him his fault, just between the two of you. If he listens to you, you have won your brother over.

Mat 18:16  But if he will not listen, take one or two others along, so that ‘every matter may be established by the testimony of two or three witnesses.’

Mat 18:17  If he refuses to listen to them, tell it to the church; and if he refuses to listen even to the church, treat him as you would a pagan or a tax collector.

And of course treating them like pagan or gentile or a tax collector is not the end of the road. These people were not beyond redemption. Ask Matthew about his career!

  1. Being forgiven and forgiving

The story of the unforgiving servant is like stand-up comedy really. When you consider the amounts of money involved. Jesus’ listeners would have had a good chuckle! 10 000 talents equals about 100 million days’ wages. It raises some questions thought – as all good stories do. Why did the master let that debt get so big, for example? *

And of course the Master catches up with this man who fails the requirement to forgive as he was forgiven. So the debt is reinstated – all 100 million days’ wages worth. He gets handed over. The idea of a debtors’ prison has always struck me as odd. How do you pay your debts when you are in jail?

Here’s the line that speaks of consequences:

Mat 18:34  In anger his master turned him over to the jailers to be tortured, until he should pay back all he owed.

This would have got Jesus’ hearers in a tiz/tizzy too – Jews didn’t practice torture, but Romans did!

And of course, the original plan was this: Mat 18:24  As he began the settlement, a man who owed him ten thousand talents was brought to him.

Mat 18:25  Since he was not able to pay, the master ordered that he and his wife and his children and all that he had be sold to repay the debt.

The most expensive slave in those days was worth about 1 talent. Even if he had three kids, the guy would have recouped only 5 talents.

So the grace act begins with the man’s plea:

Mat 18:26  “The servant fell on his knees before him. ‘Be patient with me,’ he begged, ‘and I will pay back everything.’

Mat 18:27  The servant’s master took pity on him, cancelled the debt and let him go.

So he goes off and demands that the other man pay him. You know the rest of the story. People notice the injustice and tell on him!

The story is in response to Peter’s questioning of course! Who else?

It is told to illustrate the teaching on forgiveness that Jesus gives. It should not have been a surprise to Peter – who starts the conversation. We’ve talked about this before – how Peter thinks that forgiving your brother up to seven times is okay. No, says Jesus – 77 times. Or is it 70 times 7?

It would have been no surprise to them because they would have heard Jesus’ teaching in the Lord’s prayer: Mat 6:12  Forgive us our debts, as we also have forgiven our debtors.

So what do we do with this?

I think that the first passage from verse 15 is key to making things right. Accountability and truth telling are closely connected to forgiveness. And remember – follow this pattern and you won’t be using the old triangle method – You – person A – are mad with person B – so instead of going to sort things out – you tell person C. (Gossip and scandal – both serious sins). Listen again to the pattern:

Mat 18:15  “If your brother sins against you, go and show him his fault, just between the two of you. If he listens to you, you have won your brother over.

Mat 18:16  But if he will not listen, take one or two others along, so that ‘every matter may be established by the testimony of two or three witnesses.’

Mat 18:17  If he refuses to listen to them, tell it to the church; and if he refuses to listen even to the church, treat him as you would a pagan or a tax collector.

When we see “church” here we sometimes assume that this is the big organisation of today – and “telling it to the church” means standing up and announcing to the assembled people of God that the person is being kicked out, after due process of course.

That’s probably a mistaken view. Here’s why.

The context is a shepherding or pastoral one. Right before this discussion is this telling passage:

Mat 18:12  “What do you think? If a man owns a hundred sheep, and one of them wanders away, will he not leave the ninety-nine on the hills and go to look for the one that wandered off?

Mat 18:13  And if he finds it, I tell you the truth, he is happier about that one sheep than about the ninety-nine that did not wander off.

Mat 18:14  In the same way your Father in heaven is not willing that any of these little ones should be lost.

Anything to do with sheep is what we call today a pastoral matter. And when people are excluded in some way for not responding to correction, the purpose is to bring them to their senses (or to bring them to repentance) so that they will admit that they have wronged and for the sake of the church’s witness and unity they should make right and return. Return to the fold!

And central to this is relationships. When “church” is mentioned in bible times the chances are it’s a small group probably meeting in a home. Not in a church building.

So relationships would matter a lot. You could not hide in a crowd in a small group.

And confronting people is not easy. We are also sinners. Tom Wright puts it beautifully:

Every time you accuse someone else, you accuse yourself. Every time you forgive someone else, though, you pass on a drop of water out of the bucketful that God has already given you. From God’s point of view, the distance between being ordinarily sinful (what we all are) and extremely sinful (what the people we don’t like seem to be) is like the distance between London and Paris seen from the point of view of the sun. And so on. We can all relate to that.

The key thing, as I have already said, is not that one should therefore swallow all resentment and ‘forgive and forget’ as though nothing had happened. The key thing is that one should never, ever give up making forgiveness and reconciliation one’s goal. If confrontation has to happen, as it often does, it must always be with forgiveness in mind, never revenge.

Forgiveness is fundamental to the fabric of who we are as a Christian community.

Wright says “forgiveness is like the air in your lungs.   There’s only room for you to inhale the next lungful when you’ve just breathed out the previous one. If you insist on withholding it, refusing to give someone else the kiss of life they may desperately need, you won’t be able to take any more in yourself, and you will suffocate very quickly.

Whatever the spiritual, moral and emotional equivalent of the lungs may be (we sometimes say ‘the heart’, but that of course is a metaphor as well), it’s either open or closed. If it’s open, able and willing to forgive others, it will also be open to receive God’s love and forgiveness. But if it’s locked up to the one, it will be locked up to the other. This is a hard lesson to learn.

Wright, Tom (2002-03-22). Matthew for Everyone Part 2: Pt. 2 (New Testament for Everyone) (pp. 39-40). SPCK. Kindle Edition.

THE COMMUNITY WE BUILD

So all of this is about community in the Kingdom of God – the kingdom that we pray to come on earth “as it is in heaven”.

Our church Mission statement is printed every week: “Building loving communities that help people find and follow Jesus”.

These communities are more likely to “find” Jesus (although I hasten to add that he is not lost – usually we are) – people are more likely to find and follow Jesus in a community that is open, honest, and walking in the light. (cf 1 John 1).

We put people on committees when in fact they are needing community.

And community is more likely to sort out relationships than a large crowd of people who don’t really know each other anyway.

Which is why the apparent harshness of the final verse is so important.

Mat 18:32  “Then the master called the servant in. ‘You wicked servant,’ he said, ‘I cancelled all that debt of yours because you begged me to.

Mat 18:33  Shouldn’t you have had mercy on your fellow servant just as I had on you?’

Mat 18:34  In anger his master turned him over to the jailers to be tortured, until he should pay back all he owed.

Mat 18:35  “This is how my heavenly Father will treat each of you unless you forgive your brother from your heart.”

There is a serious warning here. These are matters of the heart.

When someone apologises to you for doing wrong, you know when it’s not from the heart.

I’ve experienced that. And I saw it in action when boys who were fighting were forced to apologise without them actually understanding how damaging their behaviour was. Forcing kids to say sorry (usually to siblings or friends at school where there has been a scrap over something) usually involves body language that is the direct opposite of their words.

Without repentance – confession of sin can also be perfunctory. Unthinking, an obligation, a kind of a duty. Often self-focused – wriggling getting out of trouble without really feeling remorse.

Those kind of apologies usually say something like “if I have offended you or hurt you” when we all know that they did. And they follow with “it wasn’t personal” when you know it was totally!

Let’s learn to fix things!

Amen.

*  Jarvis, Cynthia A. (2013-12-09). Feasting on the Gospels–Matthew, Volume 2 (Kindle Location 3734). Westminster John Knox Press. Kindle Edition.

Sunday Sermon 27 October – Always and only by grace, through faith, in love… (Reformation Sunday)

Luke 18:9-14

New International Version – UK (NIVUK)

The parable of the Pharisee and the tax collectoricon pharisee tax man

To some who were confident of their own righteousness and looked down on everyone else, Jesus told this parable: 10 ‘Two men went up to the temple to pray, one a Pharisee and the other a tax collector. 11 The Pharisee stood by himself and prayed: “God, I thank you that I am not like other people – robbers, evildoers, adulterers – or even like this tax collector. 12 I fast twice a week and give a tenth of all I get.”

13 ‘But the tax collector stood at a distance. He would not even look up to heaven, but beat his breast and said, “God, have mercy on me, a sinner.”

14 ‘I tell you that this man, rather than the other, went home justified before God. For all those who exalt themselves will be humbled, and those who humble themselves will be exalted.’

Reformation Sunday!

It’s Reformation Sunday! By all rights I should be speaking about FAITH ALONE, THE BIBLE ALONE, AND GRACE ALONE! The text could be Romans 3 – how all have sinned. And how we are saved by faith.

Instead we’re back to prayer!

In a sense prayer is everything – the outcome of all the issues that the reformers fought over – add up to this one thing. You and I have direct access to God.

And the conflict of Luther with the Catholic church of his day is neatly portrayed in these two characters:

  • The Pharisee
  • The Publican (or tax collector).

The one basis his relationship with God on his achievements. The other has nothing to offer – except to plead for mercy. The first is about salvation by works – the second salvation by faith, through grace.

Over the past couple of weeks we have looked at the loving kindness of God – his mercies that are new every morning. And we have looked at that persistent widow knock, knock, knocking on heaven’s door.

Today’s parable takes this further. We loved the story of the widow – because we like supporting the outsider, the underdog. Kiwis love this – they don’t like people who are too full of themselves – like the judge who didn’t care too hoots about God or people.

But we are stretched today.

Because the guy who walks away from the prayer time justified is a pretty bad guy really.

A publican. A tax collector. In a modern version of the story it would be like some terrible occupying army from Australia or the old Soviet Russia controlling our lives from day to day and taking our money. And one of our own working for the occupiers – and people from your own side would come knocking at your door to take your money – and extra for themselves.

This is a recipe for valid resentment, rejection, revolt, revision of your values – I mean why should you give these kinds of people time of day?

Think of other teachings of Jesus – like walking the extra mile. The contrast is equally radical! A Roman soldier had every right to make you carry his heavy pack for a mile. No more. And you would hate that – that sense of powerlessness and being trapped by other peoples’ rules.

Jesus says – carry the pack two miles! This is extending grace to an enemy and an occupier – one who threatened all you stand for and believe!

So the parable of the Pharisee and the Publican praying is also radical.

It’s a church goer who shows up and does the stuff – paying their 10 percent (we could do with more faithful people paying their ten percent here! ) and a rotten deceptive sneaky embezzler coming into church – like one of those guys who sold you a great investment – only for you to see your retirement money gone in a flash.

Everything in us wants to punish those horrible people.

REFORMATION SUNDAY

Lucky for us this is Reformation Sunday! All have sinned (Romans 3:23) – that’s the point. Romans 6:23 talks about the gift of God. Romans 8:1 declares those in Christ to be free from condemnation.

It’s actually about grace! Unmerited favour and lots of forgiveness.

How good to see our mayor in the local paper this week – saying that he has received real compassion from Christians in Auckland.

Oh we should be careful not to judge!

THE DETAILS OF THE CONTRAST

Look at Luke again:

To some who were confident of their own righteousness and looked down on everyone else, Jesus told this parable

Well that’s a good warning – as self-righteousness is a serious problem. So too looking down on everyone else. I guess that’s pride or arrogance.

The prayer itself needs examination:

God, I thank you that I am not like other people – robbers, evildoers, adulterers – or even like this tax collector. 12 I fast twice a week and give a tenth of all I get.”

We may think – gosh these Pharisees were bad – what a bad attitude?

And yet we are equally dismissive of the three categories

  • Robbers – creative bunch. We’ve opened our home to homeless people – and they’ve wandered off with our things! (Tell the story of the Smiths in Witbank – or the thief that came back after being prayed for… )
  • Evildoers – nice broad category really. We tut tut and the terrible things people do these days – forgetting that this is nothing new. Sometimes you read these historical quotes about bad people and you think it’s something written yesterday – only to find it came of some Pharaoh’s tomb or the writing was found on the wall of a cave dating back thousands of years!
  • Adulterers – gosh Auckland has been really in a tailspin about this one and our mayor.  Trouble is Jesus again – look at what he said:

“You have heard that it was said, ‘Do not commit adultery.’  But I tell you that anyone who looks at a woman lustfully has already committed adultery with her in his heart. (Matthew 5:27-28).

Tricky one isn’t it?

And of course the Pharisee lists his strengths! And they show discipline and generosity don’t they.

But it’s this line that gives away the arrogance: God, I thank you that I am not like other people…

And that’s exactly how Luke introduces this story: To some who were confident of their own righteousness and looked down on everyone else, Jesus told this parable.

What we need to really examine is verse 13:

13 ‘But the tax collector stood at a distance. He would not even look up to heaven, but beat his breast and said, “God, have mercy on me, a sinner.”

The heart of the matter is humility. I have real issues with this. Humility is the virtue, the attitude that enables people to follow leadership, to trust others’ judgement, and to be teachable.

Being teachable – just by the way – is the thing that I look for in people – especially leaders. You may remember the acronym FAT – I’m looking for Fat people. Faithful, available and teachable!

What can we say about humility?

Lack of humility – its antithesis – is probably pride. Its part of every marriage argument, every case of broken relationships. And its there in the hearts of people who can’t for the life of anyone see the need to have God in their lives.

Because they are self-sufficient!

The longer I serve Him – the more inadequate I feel in myself.

Sin is there because we are sinners by nature.

And the inner battle goes on until the day Jesus takes us home.

So how is your prayer life going?

Persistence (last week – from the story of the unjust judge who got a black eye from a  little old widow).

Be careful that persistence doesn’t come from a sense of entitlement and pride – that you think you actual deserve your prayers to be answered.

Luke 18:14  “I tell you that this man, rather than the other, went home justified before God. For everyone who exalts himself will be humbled, and he who humbles himself will be exalted.”

Too many of us get the words of the song confused – the one that goes like this…  I’m thinking of the Michael Smith Song – It’s all about you Jesus. It’s called “The heart of worship”. The chorus goes like this:

I’m coming back to the heart of worship
And it’s all about You,
It’s all about You, Jesus
I’m sorry, Lord, for the thing I’ve made it
And it’s all about You,
It’s all about You, Jesus

Too many of us change the words and sing” And it’s all about me, it’s all about me Jesus…”

You get the point. Bruce Larson gives us this formula to help us get the humility thing right. We’ll end with this:

Being a new being in Christ means reversing our natural tendencies. Someone once said to me, “Larson, do you know what’s wrong with you? You judge other people by their actions and yourself by your intentions. If you could reverse that, it would change your life.” Since then I’ve been trying to judge others not by what they do, but by what they meant to do. Try judging yourself not by what you meant, but by what you did—which is how people perceive you. That’s a giant step on the way to humility.

And on this Reformation Sunday there is one extra thing – central concept – that is here:

The humble man went home justified before God”. (v14)

Justification is at the heart of Paul’s teaching in his letters, especially His letter to the Roman church.

He was made righteous because his sin was blotted out! Pardoned.

That’s the heart of it.

It’s a dangerous parable. I last preached on it on the Sunday I came here with a view to a call. I did a pretty bad job of the sermon. And some of the people rated me badly and voted against me coming!

You see you rated me and decide whether I was okay or not. Clearly that is the grace of God (if it was based on the rating of that sermon!) Most – almost all -voted to have me as pastor here! 🙂

We’re always rating each other.

And on that Sunday I preached I warned of the danger here.

That all too easily we might say – “I thank God that I am a repentant sinner and not like that arrogant Pharisee!”

Justification by faith – the heart of the reformation – is what it is. We don’t deserve God’s love – and it is bounteous. I once tried to quantify it in a children’s chapel. We had glasses, then buckets, then wheely bins to answer the question – how much love is there?

The answer is – it reaches to the heavens – and to the end of the universe – to the multiverses out there – and beyond – way beyond where the Star Ship Enterprise and Captain Kirk will ever go.

What a relief! Enjoy this love today and always!

God bless you as you seek Him.