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Sunday sermon 14th June – Paul to the Galatians (2)

Readings: Acts 22:1-22; Galatians 1: 11-24

INTRODUCTION

Persecution in the early church was particularly bad during the time of the Roman Emperor Diocletian towards the end of the 3rd Century AD. Not all Christians were courageous enough to face torture or death. There were those who renounced their faith and made offerings to Roman state gods or the Roman Emperor, and often burned their Christian texts.

Those who refused to submit to the Roman Empire and were found with Christian texts were often killed. This meant that the clergy were very vulnerable because they were most likely to have the Bible in some form or another. Many of those who renounced their faith and burned their books were clergy, although there were also lay people.

Later on when the church was restored (in the early 4th C) and persecution died down – it created an issue. Diocletian’s successor Constantine declared tolerance of Christianity in 313 AD (The Edict of Milan).

So what do you think happened? Those who had denounced their Christian faith carried on as priests. One of them was nominated as a bishop. People were less than thrilled about that, and a split, a schism, took place. The church was divided for a long time – hundreds of years – on this issue, and eventually other issues too.

The movement to exclude Christians who had denied their faith, particularly in North Africa, was led by the Donatists. They were one of the earlier charismatic groups – one of the interesting things they did was in confession – the Catholics heard confessions privately. The Donatists heard confession publically in front of the whole congregations. Sundays must have been interesting! (You can read about the Donatist controversy if you are interested in this period of church history.)

HOW WOULD YOU RESPOND?

How people respond to persecution or other threats such as invading conquering armies is always a challenge. What happens afterwards is the key issue. It’s no different from post-war conflicts in Europe – those who collaborated with the Nazis were not regarded as traitors.

Who knows what you and I would if our lives were on the line. Would you own Christ with a gun pointing at you?

So think about Paul then.

This time it’s not about accepting someone back into the fold who was persecuted and renounced their faith. Paul was the primary persecutor of Christians. He was the one hunting Christians down!

You can imagine how tough that was for Christians to swallow. This very committed Jewish, Pharisaical, scholarly and ruthless man, this zealous oppressor who travelled around looking for Christians to lock up, starts showing up at church, so to speak. Walking into Christian meetings. Actually on his mission trips he went around preaching in Synagogues, or in homes or at river sides – wherever he could.

It has been suggested that his role model could well have been the prophet Elijah – Saul the Pharisee would have been determined to keep Israel from idolatry. Like Elijah and the prophets of Baal!

Tom Wright says this about him: He saw himself, it seems, as a latter-day Elijah, cleansing Israel of the horrible nonsense about Jesus of Nazareth, who couldn’t have been the Messiah because he was crucified, and who certainly couldn’t be worshipped because in any case the Messiah wouldn’t be divine.

GRACE – BRILLIANT GRACE

If there is ever an example of grace, it is the conversion of Saul who becomes the Apostle Paul.

And so  the text: In his defense of the Gospel, he writes this to the Galatian churches in chapter one, verse thirteen: Gal 1:13  For you have heard of my former life in Judaism, how I persecuted the church of God violently and tried to destroy it. Gal 1:14  And I was advancing in Judaism beyond many of my own age among my people, so extremely zealous was I for the traditions of my fathers. Gal 1:15  But when he who had set me apart before I was born, and who called me by his grace, Gal 1:16  was pleased to reveal his Son to me, in order that I might preach him among the Gentiles, I did not immediately consult with anyone; Gal 1:17  nor did I go up to Jerusalem to those who were apostles before me, but I went away into Arabia, and returned again to Damascus.

What a remarkable change in this man.

His testimony is very much like that of some of the prophets. Especially verse 15: But when he who had set me apart before I was born, and who called me by his grace…

Listen to Isaiah on this sense of being chosen by God: Isa 49:1  Listen to me, you islands; hear this, you distant nations: Before I was born the LORD called me; from my birth he has made mention of my name. Isa 49:2  He made my mouth like a sharpened sword, in the shadow of his hand he hid me; he made me into a polished arrow and concealed me in his quiver.

And also Jeremiah: Jer 1:4  The word of the LORD came to me, saying, Jer 1:5  “Before I formed you in the womb I knew you, before you were born I set you apart; I appointed you as a prophet to the nations.”

And so back to Galatians 1 – we read from verse 15 again: Gal 1:15  But when he who had set me apart before I was born, and who called me by his grace, Gal 1:16  was pleased to reveal his Son to me, in order that I might preach him among the Gentiles, I did not immediately consult with anyone; Gal 1:17  nor did I go up to Jerusalem to those who were apostles before me, but I went away into Arabia, and returned again to Damascus. 

God revealed his Son to Paul – and everything changed. It’s the trip to Arabia that intrigues me. These are the hidden years in Paul’s life.

And there is this angle – Mnt Sinai (also know as Mnt Horeb) was in Arabia. Moses encountered God there. Elijah encountered God there – especially when he was fleeing from Jezebel. There’s that brilliant passage there which has made its way into hymns and songs:

1Ki 19:11  The LORD said, “Go out and stand on the mountain in the presence of the LORD, for the LORD is about to pass by.” Then a great and powerful wind tore the mountains apart and shattered the rocks before the LORD, but the LORD was not in the wind. After the wind there was an earthquake, but the LORD was not in the earthquake. 1Ki 19:12  After the earthquake came a fire, but the LORD was not in the fire. And after the fire came a gentle whisper. 1Ki 19:13  When Elijah heard it, he pulled his cloak over his face and went out and stood at the mouth of the cave. Then a voice said to him, “What are you doing here, Elijah?” 1Ki 19:14  He replied, “I have been very zealous for the LORD God Almighty. The Israelites have rejected your covenant, broken down your altars, and put your prophets to death with the sword. I am the only one left, and now they are trying to kill me too.” 1Ki 19:15  The LORD said to him, “Go back the way you came, and go to the Desert of Damascus. When you get there, anoint Hazael king over Aram.

There’s this fascinating parallel between Elijah and Paul – going to the mountain of God – and being sent off to Damascus.

They each had their own issues.

Can you imagine what was going on in Paul’s head? Tom Wright also says this:

But then – and here he slips into talking about himself as an Old Testament prophet – Paul was stopped in his tracks, just as Elijah had been. Elijah, dejected and depressed, went off to Mount Sinai to meet his God afresh, to learn about the still small voice as well as the earthquake, wind and fire. Saul of Tarsus went off, probably to Sinai (he says ‘Arabia’, which is where Sinai was), most likely for a similar private wrestling with the God whom he worshipped. This God, to Saul’s horror and amazement, had now revealed his son, and had done so in order that he, Saul, an ultra-orthodox Jew, might tell the pagan nations that Israel’s God loved them just as much as he loved Israel. (Wright, Tom (2002-03-22). Paul for Everyone: Galatians and Thessalonians (New Testament for Everyone) (p. 9). SPCK. Kindle Edition.)

GRACE – ABUNDANT GRACE, UNLIMITED PATIENCE

We were praying this week about prisoners. How ironic that we so often want people locked up for the longest time possible. You hear it on TV so often – when people are sentenced for their crimes.

Yet we have this murderer who writes so much of our New Testament.

It is Paul who says this of himself: 1Ti 1:15 Here is a trustworthy saying that deserves full acceptance: Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners—of whom I am the worst. 1Ti 1:16  But for that very reason I was shown mercy so that in me, the worst of sinners, Christ Jesus might display his unlimited patience as an example for those who would believe on him and receive eternal life.

I reckon that Paul wrestled about this grace in those three years in Arabia.

Tom Wright again says this: But it is a central strand of most Christian living that everybody needs, from time to time, to wrestle privately with God and his will. It is necessary, too, that Christian leaders should be seen to be telling their own story truly.

…everybody needs, from time to time, to wrestle privately with God and his will.

We all do. We need time with God – especially alone – where we seriously reflect on his grace in our lives too. And what he may be saying to us.

In Paul’s case it seems that the Gospel was revealed to Paul directly from Jesus – as we saw last week.

Who knows what He will say to us if we take the time to wrestle with his will. Or just to be in His presence. It’s part of the shift that we talked about last week as we looked at 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.

Paul understood the shift he had to make. His zeal was shifted to his new task to share the gospel with non-Jews – with gentiles like us. Galatians 1:23-4 again: They only heard the report: “The man who formerly persecuted us is now preaching the faith he once tried to destroy.”  And they praised God because of me.

As do we!

Amen.

AMAZING GRACE

Closer to our time Amazing Grace worked in the writer of the hymn – the slave trader, John Newton. Let’s see an extract about him and his conversion. In the movie William Wilberforce visits his old preacher Newton more than once.

(Video “Amazing Grace” – the wrestling of John Newton.)

Note: I am indebted to Tom Wright again.

References:

Wright, Tom (2002-03-22). Paul for Everyone: Galatians and Thessalonians (New Testament for Everyone) (pp. 8-9). 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 23 November – prophets, preachers and predictions

Readings: Jeremiah 1:4-10; 7:1-11, Matt 21:12-13  (Following the Narrative Lectionary).

(Note: these sermon notes include various quotations from Scripture in the narrative).

SERMON on Christ the King Sunday

I wonder whether you’ve ever considered that God may be calling you to some unique ministry?

The prophets of the First Testament – those of huge influence like Moses, Isaiah and Jeremiah, for example, record their story of God’s call.

For Moses – it was the voice of God at the burning bush. A holy place where he takes of his sandals.

Exo 3:1  Now Moses was tending the flock of Jethro his father-in-law, the priest of Midian, and he led the flock to the far side of the desert and came to Horeb, the mountain of God.

Exo 3:2  There the angel of the LORD appeared to him in flames of fire from within a bush. Moses saw that though the bush was on fire it did not burn up.

Exo 3:3  So Moses thought, “I will go over and see this strange sight—why the bush does not burn up.”

Exo 3:4  When the LORD saw that he had gone over to look, God called to him from within the bush, “Moses! Moses!” And Moses said, “Here I am.”

Exo 3:5  “Do not come any closer,” God said. “Take off your sandals, for the place where you are standing is holy ground.”

Exo 3:6  Then he said, “I am the God of your father, the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac and the God of Jacob.” At this, Moses hid his face, because he was afraid to look at God.

 

For Isaiah – a vision of angels crying Holy, Holy, Holy and a hot coal touching his mouth.

Isa 6:1  In the year that King Uzziah died, I saw the Lord seated on a throne, high and exalted, and the train of his robe filled the temple.

Isa 6:2  Above him were seraphs, each with six wings: With two wings they covered their faces, with two they covered their feet, and with two they were flying.

Isa 6:3  And they were calling to one another: “Holy, holy, holy is the LORD Almighty; the whole earth is full of his glory.”

Isa 6:4  At the sound of their voices the doorposts and thresholds shook and the temple was filled with smoke.

Isa 6:5  “Woe to me!” I cried. “I am ruined! For I am a man of unclean lips, and I live among a people of unclean lips, and my eyes have seen the King, the LORD Almighty.”

Isa 6:6  Then one of the seraphs flew to me with a live coal in his hand, which he had taken with tongs from the altar.

Isa 6:7  With it he touched my mouth and said, “See, this has touched your lips; your guilt is taken away and your sin atoned for.”

Isa 6:8  Then I heard the voice of the Lord saying, “Whom shall I send? And who will go for us?” And I said, “Here am I. Send me!”

 

For Jeremiah – well we heard that read earlier:

Jer 1:4  The word of the LORD came to me, saying,

Jer 1:5  “Before I formed you in the womb I knew you, before you were born I set you apart; I appointed you as a prophet to the nations.”

Jer 1:6  “Ah, Sovereign LORD,” I said, “I do not know how to speak; I am only a child.”

Jer 1:7  But the LORD said to me, “Do not say, ‘I am only a child.’ You must go to everyone I send you to and say whatever I command you.

Jer 1:8  Do not be afraid of them, for I am with you and will rescue you,” declares the LORD.

Jer 1:9  Then the LORD reached out his hand and touched my mouth and said to me, “Now, I have put my words in your mouth.

Jer 1:10  See, today I appoint you over nations and kingdoms to uproot and tear down, to destroy and overthrow, to build and to plant.”

Both Major Prophets had their mouth touched – one was a cleansing touch, and one an empowering touch. Jeremiah is the one who is consecrated. The NIV is unhelpful – I prefer the ESV – the English Standard Version:

Jer 1:5  “Before I formed you in the womb I knew you, and before you were born I consecrated you; I appointed you a prophet to the nations.”

(het Ek jou geheilig; AOV) (sanctified KJV)

  • They were called – no doubt – just as ministers today are still called. And missionaries too.
  • The thing is – whatever you do, you can’t shake that call off.
  • The Holy Spirit keeps at you – with this ongoing stirring in your heart.

Moses had a stutter. Isaiah was inadequate and needed cleansing – because, in his words, “I am ruined! For I am a man of unclean lips, and I live among a people of unclean lips, and my eyes have seen the King, the LORD Almighty.”

I identify with all three of these great prophets.

  • Like Moses – I don’t feel adequate. And many times I am fearful.
  • Like Isaiah – I feel unworthy and sinful.
  • Like Jeremiah – it started in my life as a child. (he may have been early 20s)

This sense of knowing that God has a hold on you. My childhood years in the Methodist church came with a sense of stirring, and yielding.

It was a hymn that summed it up – I had to sing it as a solo somewhere along the line:

It’s by John Burton (about 1850).

Saviour, while my heart is tender, I would yield that heart to Thee;  All my powers to Thee surrender,Thine and only Thine to be.

Take me now, Lord Jesus, take me; Let my youthful heart be Thine; Thy devoted servant make me; Fill my soul with love divine.

Send me, Lord, where Thou wilt send me, Only do Thou guide my way; May Thy grace through life attend me, Gladly then shall I obey.

Let me do Thy will or bear it; I would know no will but Thine;  Shouldst Thou take my life or spare it, I that life to Thee resign.

May this solemn consecration, Never once forgotten be; Let it know no revocation, Registered and confirmed by Thee.

Thine I am, O Lord, for ever, To Thy service set apart; Suffer me to leave Thee never, Seal Thine image on my heart.

It’s a powerful hymn.

  • Jeremiah could just as well have sung it.
  • He is the most human. He wrestles with God. He fails. His life is threatened.
  • Jeremiah himself was attacked by his own brothers, beaten by priests, and thrown into a cistern. (Jeremiah 38)

Jer 38:6  So they took Jeremiah and put him into the cistern of Malkijah, the king’s son, which was in the courtyard of the guard. They lowered Jeremiah by ropes into the cistern; it had no water in it, only mud, and Jeremiah sank down into the mud.

I think he would have been a good minister’s elder or supervisor. He gets it – the struggling, the wrestling with God. For example in chapter 20:

Jer 20:7  O LORD, you deceived me, and I was deceived; you overpowered me and prevailed. I am ridiculed all day long; everyone mocks me.

Jer 20:8  Whenever I speak, I cry out proclaiming violence and destruction. So the word of the LORD has brought me insult and reproach all day long.

The power of the call follows again in the next verse:

Jer 20:9  But if I say, “I will not mention him or speak any more in his name,” his word is in my heart like a fire, a fire shut up in my bones. I am weary of holding it in; indeed, I cannot.

Being a prophet is a challenging thing really. Jeremiah speaks to the national situation – and also to the church people of the day.

Chapter 7 is classic – his so called “temple sermon”. 

Jer 7:1  This is the word that came to Jeremiah from the LORD:

Jer 7:2  “Stand at the gate of the LORD’s house and there proclaim this message: “‘Hear the word of the LORD, all you people of Judah who come through these gates to worship the LORD.

Jer 7:3  This is what the LORD Almighty, the God of Israel, says: Reform your ways and your actions, and I will let you live in this place.

Jer 7:4  Do not trust in deceptive words and say, “This is the temple of the LORD, the temple of the LORD, the temple of the LORD!”

Do you get it? He is standing at the door – at the church door really – challenging people.

It’s provocative but it fits with these words from later in chapter 1:

Jer 1:17  “Get yourself ready! Stand up and say to them whatever I command you. Do not be terrified by them, or I will terrify you before them.

Jer 1:18  Today I have made you a fortified city, an iron pillar and a bronze wall to stand against the whole land—against the kings of Judah, its officials, its priests and the people of the land.

Jer 1:19  They will fight against you but will not overcome you, for I am with you and will rescue you,” declares the LORD.

  • How can I describe this situation? In the time of King Josiah there was a major “church growth” kind of movement. Spiritual things had been neglected for about 250 years.
  • And King Josiah, who came to the throne in Judah at the age of 8, had brought huge change. (Grandfather 55 years – Manasseh; Father Amon 2 years. Killed. Josiah 8 year old. Seeks God at 16. Reforms at 20 (628BC).
  • Jeremiah probably started his prophetic years under Josiah. (2 Kings 22:1ff).
  • In 2 Kings we read about the rediscovery of the Book of the Law in the temple.

2Ki 22:8  Hilkiah the high priest said to Shaphan the secretary, “I have found the Book of the Law in the temple of the LORD.” He gave it to Shaphan, who read it.

2Ki 22:9  Then Shaphan the secretary went to the king and reported to him: “Your officials have paid out the money that was in the temple of the LORD and have entrusted it to the workers and supervisors at the temple.”

2Ki 22:10  Then Shaphan the secretary informed the king, “Hilkiah the priest has given me a book.” And Shaphan read from it in the presence of the king.

2Ki 22:11  When the king heard the words of the Book of the Law, he tore his robes.  

There were major reforms that followed. Passover was reinstituted. Idols were smashed. But, as one commentator puts it:

“Josiah had gotten the idols out of the temple, but he had not gotten idolatry out of the people. No one knew that better than Jeremiah.” (John Guest).

Listen to these words again – God speaking to Jeremiah:

Jer 1:18  Today I have made you a fortified city, an iron pillar and a bronze wall to stand against the whole land—against the kings of Judah, its officials, its priests and the people of the land.

Jer 1:19  They will fight against you but will not overcome you, for I am with you and will rescue you,” declares the LORD.

John Wesley once said, “Give me one hundred men who fear nothing but God, and who hate nothing but sin and we will take over the world for Christ.”

  • Jeremiah was that kind of man.
  • He preaches his message at the gate of the temple – where people were probably quite pleased with themselves that they had actually shown up.
  • The sermon extract we read today ends with these classic lines: 

Jer 7:9  “‘Will you steal and murder, commit adultery and perjury, burn incense to Baal and follow other gods you have not known,

Jer 7:10  and then come and stand before me in this house, which bears my Name, and say, “We are safe”—safe to do all these detestable things?

Jer 7:11  Has this house, which bears my Name, become a den of robbers to you? But I have been watching! declares the LORD.  

Jesus picks up on this when he cleanses the temple:

Mat 21:12  Jesus entered the temple area and drove out all who were buying and selling there. He overturned the tables of the money changers and the benches of those selling doves.

Mat 21:13  “It is written,” he said to them, “‘My house will be called a house of prayer,’ but you are making it a ‘den of robbers.’”

THE APPLICATION TODAY

You know – you can have a wonderful time at church – and miss the point.

If there is no evidence of change – we have a problem too.

God sees all.

That’s Jeremiah’s message.

And Jesus’ message seems to follow in the same prophetic tradition.

In fact – when Jesus asks his followers: (Matthew 16:13)  “Who do people say the Son of Man is?”

Mat 16:14  They replied, “Some say John the Baptist; others say Elijah; and still others, Jeremiah or one of the prophets.”

Mat 16:15  “But what about you?” he asked. “Who do you say I am?”

Mat 16:16  Simon Peter answered, “You are the Christ, the Son of the living God.”

The people in Josiah’s day destroyed their idols, and conformed to the rediscovered Law. But it was all a public display – being seen to be doing the right things.

Jesus had issues with that too.

Remember this verse?

Mat 23:27  “Woe to you, teachers of the law and Pharisees, you hypocrites! You are like whitewashed tombs, which look beautiful on the outside but on the inside are full of dead men’s bones and everything unclean.

Mat 23:28  In the same way, on the outside you appear to people as righteous but on the inside you are full of hypocrisy and wickedness.

This is Christ the King Sunday. He knows whether we have really let him take his rightful place in our lives.

That’s my job and calling. To make sure that we are doing church in such a way that we live lives faithful to the Gospel and the Scriptures as a whole.

There are those who fancy themselves as church police – wanting to check the preacher out for heresy.

In fact that’s my job! Those who are called to speak – they speak for God. That makes it a very scary calling. I don’t take it lightly.

In a sense – preaching comes closest to prophecy – because the word means to “speak forth”.  The older more mature Peter says this of ministry:

1Pe 4:8  Above all, love each other deeply, because love covers over a multitude of sins.

1Pe 4:9  Offer hospitality to one another without grumbling.

1Pe 4:10  Each one should use whatever gift he has received to serve others, faithfully administering God’s grace in its various forms.

1Pe 4:11  If anyone speaks, he should do it as one speaking the very words of God. If anyone serves, he should do it with the strength God provides, so that in all things God may be praised through Jesus Christ. To him be the glory and the power for ever and ever. Amen

ESV again:

1Pe 4:11  whoever speaks, as one who speaks oracles of God; whoever serves, as one who serves by the strength that God supplies—in order that in everything God may be glorified through Jesus Christ. To him belong glory and dominion forever and ever. Amen.

Hebrews 5 says this:

Heb 5:12  For though by this time you ought to be teachers, you need someone to teach you again the basic principles of the oracles of God. You need milk, not solid food,

Heb 5:13  for everyone who lives on milk is unskilled in the word of righteousness, since he is a child.

Heb 5:14  But solid food is for the mature, for those who have their powers of discernment trained by constant practice to distinguish good from evil.

Paul says this of preaching:

1Co 9:16  Yet when I preach the gospel, I cannot boast, for I am compelled to preach. Woe to me if I do not preach the gospel!

To get back to Jeremiah 7 – Jeremiah’s temple sermon (his church sermon if you like):

Jeremiah 7:11 is a sober warning, re-enforced by the words and actions of Jesus:

Jer 7:9  “‘Will you steal and murder, commit adultery and perjury, burn incense to Baal and follow other gods you have not known,

Jer 7:10  and then come and stand before me in this house, which bears my Name, and say, “We are safe”—safe to do all these detestable things?

Jer 7:11  Has this house, which bears my Name, become a den of robbers to you? But I have been watching! declares the LORD.

Mat 21:12  Jesus entered the temple area and drove out all who were buying and selling there. He overturned the tables of the money changers and the benches of those selling doves.

Mat 21:13  “It is written,” he said to them, “‘My house will be called a house of prayer,’ but you are making it a ‘den of robbers.’”

You know – you can have a wonderful time here each week.

Just don’t miss the point!

So be it.

Amen.

Sunday sermon 1 December 2013 (Advent 1) – Hope

(The Word Isaiah saw – and hope today)

Readings:

Isaiah 2:1-5; Romans 13:11-14; Matt 24:36-44

Isa 2:1  This is what Isaiah son of Amoz saw concerning Judah and Jerusalem: Isa 2:2  In the last days the mountain of the LORD’s temple will be established as chief among the mountains; it will be raised above the hills, and all nations will stream to it. Isa 2:3  Many peoples will come and say, “Come, let us go up to the mountain of the LORD, to the house of the God of Jacob. He will teach us his ways, so that we may walk in his paths.” The law will go out from Zion, the word of the LORD from Jerusalem. Isa 2:4  He will judge between the nations and will settle disputes for many peoples. They will beat their swords into plowshares and their spears into pruning hooks. Nation will not take up sword against nation, nor will they train for war anymore. Isa 2:5  Come, O house of Jacob, let us walk in the light of the LORD.

Rom 13:11  And do this, understanding the present time. The hour has come for you to wake up from your slumber, because our salvation is nearer now than when we first believed. Rom 13:12  The night is nearly over; the day is almost here. So let us put aside the deeds of darkness and put on the armour of light. Rom 13:13  Let us behave decently, as in the daytime, not in orgies and drunkenness, not in sexual immorality and debauchery, not in dissension and jealousy. Rom 13:14  Rather, clothe yourselves with the Lord Jesus Christ, and do not think about how to gratify the desires of the sinful nature.

Mat 24:36  “No one knows about that day or hour, not even the angels in heaven, nor the Son, but only the Father. Mat 24:37  As it was in the days of Noah, so it will be at the coming of the Son of Man. Mat 24:38  For in the days before the flood, people were eating and drinking, marrying and giving in marriage, up to the day Noah entered the ark; Mat 24:39  and they knew nothing about what would happen until the flood came and took them all away. That is how it will be at the coming of the Son of Man. Mat 24:40  Two men will be in the field; one will be taken and the other left. Mat 24:41  Two women will be grinding with a hand mill; one will be taken and the other left. Mat 24:42  “Therefore keep watch, because you do not know on what day your Lord will come. Mat 24:43  But understand this: If the owner of the house had known at what time of night the thief was coming, he would have kept watch and would not have let his house be broken into. 

Sermon.

Mat 24:43  But understand this: If the owner of the house had known at what time of night the thief was coming, he would have kept watch and would not have let his house be broken into.

We’ve been burgled twice in my life – that we know about. Who knows what else has walked out of our house over the years. During times when we’ve opened our home to waifs and strays – sadly other things have walked too. That has not changed our commitment to care.

When we were first married – 30 years ago next year – thieves got in to our place while we slept – and came into our bedroom and removed things. Thankfully we slept. In Wellington people got into the house in the middle of the day – and carried quantities of things out. No one questioned them somehow – or even noticed. The funny thing was that we didn’t notice either when we got home – we’d been sitting the lounge room for a while and then our children came in  – and wanted to know where the TV was.

The unexpected is exactly that. SURPRISE! And even if you plan a surprise party – someone lets the cat out of the bag. If you’re lucky – the person will not pick up on the signs. Hindsight though is a wonderful gift. You realise afterwards why people were behaving differently.

Advent is about waiting – about being prepared – it is a future looking time. It’s not a time of repentance like Lent. Lent is like spring cleaning – spiritually speaking.

Advent is about openness and anticipation.

And this week we focus on hope.

And we turn to the passage from Isaiah to get a sense of how powerful hope is.

Here it is again: Isa 2:4  He will judge between the nations and will settle disputes for many peoples. They will beat their swords into plowshares and their spears into pruning hooks. Nation will not take up sword against nation, nor will they train for war anymore.

What is even more powerful is how this prophecy is introduced: Isa 2:1  This is what Isaiah son of Amoz saw concerning Judah and Jerusalem: (NIV)

The NIV short changes us here. Listen to the more literal New Revised Standard Version: Isa 2:1 The word that Isaiah son of Amoz saw concerning Judah and Jerusalem. (NRSV)

How do you “see” a word? There was no text message or twitter option – we can see words today more readily. In fact some people exist in a word of written conversation – and don’t actually know what a telephone is for. You have to remind kids that they can phone people for free!

Lots of images are visual words. The doves you have today. The Christmas tree that we will hang them on. The anticipation portrayed in the wrapping paper that hides our Christmas presents.

So too body language – it speaks.

But Isaiah sees a word. There is a visionary sense here. This is Isaiah 2.

When you read chapter one – it’s not a pretty picture. It begins like this: Isa 1:2  Hear, O heavens! Listen, O earth! For the LORD has spoken: “I reared children and brought them up, but they have rebelled against me. Isa 1:3  The ox knows his master, the donkey his owner’s manger, but Israel does not know, my people do not understand.” Isa 1:4  Ah, sinful nation, a people loaded with guilt, a brood of evildoers, children given to corruption! They have forsaken the LORD; they have spurned the Holy One of Israel and turned their backs on him.

Bribery, violence, unfaithfulness, wretchedness, terrible treatment of the poor. And the prophet says this: Isa 1:15  When you spread out your hands in prayer, I will hide my eyes from you; even if you offer many prayers, I will not listen. Your hands are full of blood; Isa 1:16  wash and make yourselves clean. Take your evil deeds out of my sight! Stop doing wrong, Isa 1:17  learn to do right! Seek justice, encourage the oppressed. Defend the cause of the fatherless, plead the case of the widow.

There are glimpses of redemption though. The very next verse says this: Isa 1:18  “Come now, let us reason together,” says the LORD. “Though your sins are like scarlet, they shall be as white as snow; though they are red as crimson, they shall be like wool.

But then you read these words: Isa 1:21  See how the faithful city has become a harlot! She once was full of justice; righteousness used to dwell in her— but now murderers! Isa 1:22  Your silver has become dross, your choice wine is diluted with water. Isa 1:23  Your rulers are rebels, companions of thieves; they all love bribes and chase after gifts. They do not defend the cause of the fatherless; the widow’s case does not come before them. Isa 1:24  Therefore the Lord, the LORD Almighty, the Mighty One of Israel, declares: “Ah, I will get relief from my foes and avenge myself on my enemies.

It’s much like today – people far from God – violence and rebellion.

But he says a new word: Isa 2:4  He will judge between the nations and will settle disputes for many peoples. They will beat their swords into plowshares and their spears into pruning hooks. Nation will not take up sword against nation, nor will they train for war anymore.

But who will believe this:

This word he sees – is on the wall to be seen today. Can you tell me where this is?

UN Isaiah wall reduced

Who can believe that? Isaiah’s words are carved into the wall across from the United Nations building. Who believes these words across the street in the General Assembly as they debate sanctions against Iran, as they wring their hands over 100,000 killed in Syria, and chastise the United States for inhumane treatment of prisoners at Guantanamo?  (Barbara Lundblad – commentary on Isaiah 2:1-15)

That’s the thing about hope. It’s not obvious – but you can still see it. In the Christian scriptures Hebrews put it like this when speaking of faith: Heb 11:1Now faith is the substance of things hoped for, the evidence of things not seen. (KJV)

(NIV84)  Now faith is being sure of what we hope for and certain of what we do not see.

(NLT)  Faith is the confidence that what we hope for will actually happen; it gives us assurance about things we cannot see.

  • Hope today – is symbolised by the lighting of the first Advent candle.
  • It is a dream we have – that can become a reality
  • It can change how we cope with huge challenges and struggles – the knowledge that we too can see a Word – the Word Jesus coming into the world as a baby to bring hope
  • Hope galvanises us and strengthens us in the face of death itself. After all that is our scariest certainty – I was reminded of that again this week when we went to Rosedale. There were fewer in the hospital section than last month. Some were out, but the helper said to me: “we’ve lost a few since you were last here”. Makes going there even more significant really.

People in war torn Syria, and in every other conflict zone – have a greater need to see a word of hope.

Walter Brueggeman makes the connection:  in Texts for Preaching: The vision of Isaiah is “an act of imagination that looks beyond present dismay through the eyes of God, to see what will be that is not yet.  That is the function of promise (and therefore of Advent) in the life of faith.  Under promise, in Advent, faith sees what will be that is not yet.”  (A lectionary commentary based on the NRSV – Year A.)

So if this about hope – then where is the solution? Do we just hang in there until Jesus comes and sorts it all out?

No – our very life is found in the one who gives hope.

Even for Isaiah – 8 centuries before Jesus (and like Micah) they knew the source:

Isa 2:2  In the last days the mountain of the LORD’s temple will be established as chief among the mountains; it will be raised above the hills, and all nations will stream to it. Isa 2:3  Many peoples will come and say, “Come, let us go up to the mountain of the LORD, to the house of the God of Jacob. He will teach us his ways, so that we may walk in his paths.” The law will go out from Zion, the word of the LORD from Jerusalem.

Life comes from where God is – in their case it would be Zion. For us it is Christ – we turn to Him who is the living Word of God – light of the world – Good shepherd – bread of life – giving living water.

Isaiah says in verse 3:

He will teach us his ways, so that we may walk in his paths.” The law will go out from Zion, the word of the LORD from Jerusalem.

We have Jesus the Word of God – we have the Word of God in the Scriptures – He speaks through them to us.

We too are to walk in his paths. Living and walking are the same – remember the first Christians were called people of “The Way”.

While we wait – always ready in case like a thief in the night it all happens – we have a life to walk! Note that we don’t sit around. Listen to these New Testament verses:

Rom_6:4  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.

2Co_5:7  for we walk by faith, not by sight.

2Jn_1:6  And this is love, that we walk according to his commandments; this is the commandment just as you have heard it from the beginning–you must walk in it.

And my favourite (from last week): 1Jn_1:7  but if we walk in the light as he himself is in the light, we have fellowship with one another, and the blood of Jesus his Son cleanses us from all sin.

And hope is part of our walk. The most famous passage and one of my favourites is this one:

Rom 5:1  Therefore, since we are justified by faith, we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ, Rom 5:2  through whom we have obtained access to this grace in which we stand; and we boast in our hope of sharing the glory of God. Rom 5:3  And not only that, but we also boast in our sufferings, knowing that suffering produces endurance, Rom 5:4  and endurance produces character, and character produces hope, Rom 5:5  and hope does not disappoint us, because God’s love has been poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit that has been given to us.

The future hope as come to us already in Christ, and through His indwelling Holy Spirit. For this reason Peter writes these important words on our being “good news” or evangelists today: But in your hearts sanctify Christ as Lord. Always be prepared to give and answer to everyone who asks you to give a reason for for the hope that you have! (1 Peter 3:15)

And of course Paul, talking of the mystery of the Gospel which he passionately lived for and eventually died for says this: “… the glorious riches of this mystery: Christ in you the hope of glory. (Col 1:27)

May we be living words – living letters, to use Paul’s term – words that people can see – as they see the living Word Christ in us – and as we extend His presence and hope in our world.

Amen!

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