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Sunday sermon (Advent 2) 6 December 2015 – Is it well with your soul?

READINGS: 

Isaiah 9:1-7;   Philippians 4:4-7;   Luke 1:66-79

SERMON                                                              

Over the years we have had interesting people in our lives in the Presbyterian Church. Leaders were always fascinating. And occasionally they would visit you – especially when you lived 100km plus from the main centres.

I remember a brother Moderator coming along and sitting us down in the lounge and asking us this question:

“How are things with your soul?”

Great question. I think as a young couple with two small boys charging around, we were in a survival mode and hadn’t really thought about more than coping with the simple things of getting through the day. (And I knew him in a totally other capacity – it just sounded weird when he asked us that!)

  • What fed us spiritually? Who knows, when you are always giving out?
  • What feeds us spiritually?

That’s why going to New Wine each January is so important for us now as a couple, as were the renewal conferences we were part of back in South Africa. (And no – new wine is a Christian group supporting local churches and ministers without bottles of wine! It’s a different spirit if you like – although when we tell some of our friends who don’t know the biblical reference Jesus used about new wine, they are curious about what we actually do for four nights and days.)  (Click here to have a look at New Wine and the summer festivals)

  • What feeds us?
  • What feeds you?

This time of year is saturated – flooded with amazing food. I confess mince pies alone are dangerous enough to cause the collapse of a nation.

John the Baptiser was not big on fancy foods. His sustenance was found in a desert, and locusts and wild honey seemed to suffice.

Something else would have kept him going I suspect. He ministered in the desert, and clearly listened to God. There had been no prophetic voice for nearly 500 years.

We’ve talked before about these desert experiences – do you remember the message that included Mendelssohn’s “O for the wings of a dove?” It’s from Psalm 55: Psalm 55:6  I said, “Oh, that I had the wings of a dove! I would fly away and be at rest— Psalm 55:7  I would flee far away and stay in the desert; Selah Psalm 55:8  I would hurry to my place of shelter, far from the tempest and storm.”

I shared this quote with you about the voices we hear: But underneath all these often very noisy voices is a still, small voice that says, ‘You are my Beloved, my favour rests on you.’ That’s the voice we need most of all to hear. To hear that voice, however, requires special effort; it requires solitude, silence, and a strong determination to listen. That’s what prayer is. It is listening to the voice that calls us ‘my Beloved.’”  (Henri Nouwen).

We need to hear that voice. And we need our souls fed.

There are some amazing hymns in our tradition. And then there are exceptional ones. Guide me o Thou Great Jehovah/Redeemer is one.

“Bread of Heaven, feed me till I want no more!”

Our soul is fed by God’s word and His presence.

Didn’t Jesus say at his temptation (to the devil of course): “It is written: ‘Man does not live on bread alone, but on every word that comes from the mouth of God.'” (Matthew 4:4 quoting Deuteronomy 8:3)

And the starting point is meeting Jesus – the Word of God in John 1 – the one who speaks by his life and words, and who is described prophetically by Isaiah in the prophecy read today in these words:

For to us a child is born, to us a son is given, and the government will be on his shoulders. And he will be called Wonderful Counsellor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace. (Isaiah 9:2).

Wonderful counsellor – what a comfort. Mighty God – how strong that sounds and is. Everlasting Father – contrast with human fathers who abandon us by jumping ship or dying too soon. Prince of Peace – is such a joy to hear.

If our souls are disquieted – troubled – deficient of anything – it is probably peace.

  • Sleepless nights (money, work, family, health – you name the cause)
  • Troubled days (wondering if we will have sleepless nights again)
  • Anxiety about being anxious (that vicious circle which feeds itself)
  • Plain unadulterated fear (fed in my case by nightmares and post-traumatic stress)

It’s all something that needs the prince of peace to park in the troubled zones of our minds, our hearts, our souls – out deepest recesses of darkness and sin.

As an aside – on that matter of sin – It’s interesting when people tell me they are perfect. Without sin. 1 John always comes to mind: 1 John 1:8  If we claim to be without sin, we deceive ourselves and the truth is not in us.

And then I wonder about this verse, when Jesus spoke to the woman caught in adultery: John 8:7  When they kept on questioning him, he straightened up and said to them, “If any one of you is without sin, let him be the first to throw a stone at her.”

Would they then throw the first stone?

Of course John in chapter 1 of his first letter says this: 1 John 1:9 – 10:  If we confess our sins, he is faithful and just and will forgive us our sins and purify us from all unrighteousness.  If we claim we have not sinned, we make him out to be a liar and his word has no place in our lives.

The prayer of a little boy comes to mind: “Dear Lord, please forgive us our sins – those we have done, those we have not got around to doing, and those we haven’t yet thought up”.

Clearly he had an irritating sister or brother.

Sometimes we lack peace because people have sinned against us. Either way we get hurt because of the sinful nature of human beings. We need peace – healing and nurturing deep within our souls.

The absence of Peace – and the need to nurture our souls

Discussions about the soul are about the inner life. Our inner life – involving thoughts and emotions (minds and hearts if you like). And our souls. The word soul crops up a lot in Scripture.

In the Psalms the writer’s speak of their soul in these ways: A soul can be in anguish (6:3); it can be revived (19:7); it can be restored (23:3); it can grow weak with grief (34:2); It can rejoice in the Lord (35:9); it can be left forlorn 35:12); it can be poured out in worship (42:4); and often downcast (42:5,6,11; 43:5); It can be called to awaken (57:8); it can find rest in God (63:1,5)

In fact it’s worth looking at these verses from Psalm 62 and 63:

Psalm 62:1  For the director of music. For Jeduthun. A psalm of David. My soul finds rest in God alone; my salvation comes from him.

Psalm 62:5  Find rest, O my soul, in God alone; my hope comes from him.

Psalm 63:1  A psalm of David. When he was in the Desert of Judah. O God, you are my God, earnestly I seek you; my soul thirsts for you, my body longs for you, in a dry and weary land where there is no water.

Psalm 63:5  My soul will be satisfied as with the richest of foods; with singing lips my mouth will praise you.

Psalm 63:8  My soul clings to you; your right hand upholds me.

Today we sang: “Find rest my soul – in Christ alone – I will be still and know you are God!” It’s a great song.

The reading from Philippians is a timely reminder if you are lacking peace. And listening to the news on Friday about family violence over Christmas, how the shelters have to stay open because stress leads to domestic violence, it’s always a great passage:

Do not be anxious about anything, but in everything, by prayer and petition, with thanksgiving, present your requests to God. And the peace of God, which transcends all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus. (Philippians 4:6-7)

Of course people facing violence can’t just depend on this peace – they also need safety and help. Thankfully there are people who can help us.

(Click here if you need help through the women’s refuge in New Zealand)

The point is that Christmas is not always an ideal time. There again, the first Christmas also had challenges.

Peace with God – a right relationship

Peace is achieved with God – in the realm of salvation through trusting in Jesus as our Lord and rescuer from sin. Romans 5:1 puts it like this in the NLT: Therefore, since we have been made right in God’s sight by faith, we have peace with God because of what Jesus Christ our Lord has done for us.

I take that as a given. We need to trust in Christ and find forgiveness and peace with God at that level.

Peace in the turmoil of life.

Peace in the turmoil of life comes when you hear God speak to you. Being well in our inner life – our souls – comes out of hearing his voice of assurance, of guidance, and of peace.

You can be forgiven if you sometimes doubt that God knows what he is doing when things are tough in your life. The Christmas characters had some serious challenges too.

There are secondary characters in the Christmas story that teach us about this kind of soul life – stability and peace through hearing God. Simeon the priest for one – waiting for the messiah – filled with the Spirit – knew he would not die until he saw the messiah. He’s led by the Spirit into the temple when Mary and joseph bring baby Jesus there. And listen to what he says:  “Sovereign Lord, now let Your servant die in peace, as You have promised. (Luke 2:29).

I wouldn’t mind that – knowing that I am exactly in God’s plan and when the day comes I can die in peace. Pretty cool hey? His prophecy is powerful. (Read verses 34-5 of Luke 2).

CLOSING THOUGHTS ABOUT JOHN’S MUM AND DAD

And this is John in the Bible. John the Baptiser. Like Mary and Joseph, spare a thought for the lack of peace in their lives. Cousin Mary and Joseph have to deal with politicians and their decisions and go to Bethlehem on a precarious four legged taxi (no Uber here for them) when she is about to pop.

Zachariah and Elizabeth had to deal with the curse of being barren – even though he was a faithful priest.

But its to chapter 1 in Luke where we have to go to see what happens when God speaks and we start our own ideas in response.

John’s father has an angelic visitation in the temple when on duty. He’s rostered on. Funny how the Levites came to our attention last week. This week it’s a priest again. And an angel appears and speaks to him.

He is terrified. The angel assures him. He doubts. (1:18) and gets this response: Luke 1:19  Then the angel said, “I am Gabriel! I stand in the very presence of God. It was He who sent me to bring you this good news! Luke 1:20  But now, since you didn’t believe what I said, you will be silent and unable to speak until the child is born. For my words will certainly be fulfilled at the proper time.”

Oops. It’s taken up a notch. Gabriel reminds him that although he is a professional in God’s presence in the temple. Gabriel is not to be argued with – “ I stand in the very presence of God”. Stilte! (An Afrikaans word). He is silenced.

It helps us understand the passage we heard today – the power of Zachariah’s prophecy, seeing that he had been silenced for 9 months. The silence is lifted when this happens:

Luke 1:57  When it was time for Elizabeth’s baby to be born, she gave birth to a son. Luke 1:58  And when her neighbours and relatives heard that the Lord had been very merciful to her, everyone rejoiced with her. Luke 1:59  When the baby was eight days old, they all came for the circumcision ceremony. They wanted to name him Zechariah, after his father. Luke 1:60  But Elizabeth said, “No! His name is John!” Luke 1:61  “What?” they exclaimed. “There is no one in all your family by that name.” Luke 1:62  So they used gestures to ask the baby’s father what he wanted to name him. Luke 1:63  He motioned for a writing tablet, and to everyone’s surprise he wrote, “His name is John.”  Luke 1:64  Instantly Zechariah could speak again, and he began praising God.

It’s amazing what silence does. He prophecies – after all that time of silence and clearly listening to God. He says this:

Luke 1:76  And you, my child, will be called a prophet of the Most High; for you will go on before the Lord to prepare the way for him, Luke 1:77  to give his people the knowledge of salvation through the forgiveness of their sins, Luke 1:78  because of the tender mercy of our God, by which the rising sun will come to us from heaven Luk 1:79  to shine on those living in darkness and in the shadow of death, to guide our feet into the path of peace.”

The King James version captures the beauty of the words of the man who had to be still for 9 months: Luke 1:78  Through the tender mercy of our God; whereby the dayspring from on high hath visited us, Luke 1:79  To give light to them that sit in darkness and in the shadow of death, to guide our feet into the way of peace.

The dayspring is another word for the rising sun – Jesus. Zachariah’s prophecy is a perfect blend of Isaiah 9 which we heard as well today, and Malachi 4:2.

Isa 9:2  The people walking in darkness have seen a great light; on those living in the land of the shadow of death a light has dawned.

Mal 4:2  But for you who revere my name, the sun of righteousness will rise with healing in its wings. And you will go out and leap like calves released from the stall.

Ring any bells? The Christmas carol “Hark the Herald Angel sing” by Charles Wesley – who didn’t make these songs up. It’s all from scripture:

Hail the heav’n-born Prince of Peace! Hail the Son  of Righteousness!

Light and life to all He brings, Ris’n with healing in His wings;

Mild He lays His glory by, Born that man no more may die;

Born to raise the sons of earth, Born to give them second birth.

Hark! The herald angels sing, “Glory to the newborn King!”

Interestingly the “Sun of Righteousness” has often been changed to “Son of Righteousness” on the assumption perhaps that this is a spelling mistake. Malachi 4:2 speaks however of the sun, referring to the brightness of His glory perhaps (Hebrews 1:3) or His being the light of the world (John 8:12).

One writer put it like this: The sun which is righteousness, in whose wings, that is, rays, are healing and salvation. This Divine righteousness shall beam upon them that fear the Name of God, flooding them with joy and light, healing all wounds, removing all miseries, making them incalculably blessed. The Fathers generally apply the title of “Sun of Righteousness” to Christ, who is the Source of all justification and enlightenment and happiness, and who is called (Jeremiah 23:6), “The Lord our Righteousness.”

Wesley writes of the healing here in these words: “His beams shall bring health and strength, with delight and joy, safety and security.”

How are things with your soul today? May you find this healing and life, his warmth and peace.

May the prince of peace speak peace into your soul today.

Amen.

 

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Sunday sermon 29 November 2015 Advent 1 – Refiner’s fire

READINGS:   Malachi 3:1-6  Luke 3:1-6; Matthew 12:9-21

SERMON                                                                                                    

We have a local website and network called neighbourly. It’s a great tool. You can send out notices of events in specific areas around here, and people get a daily email with the key events.

Here’s an example recently – just before the last school holidays:

november29

If you can’t read that it says:

5 Top Posts

  • Mainly Music on Fridays at 10 am – come to BBP @ 45 Anzac Road, Browns Bay New
  • Browns Bay Family Home Cleaner Required New
  • Brown Chickens sighted on Browns Bay Road this morning 17Sep15 New
  • Update on Tsunami Warning New
  • National Warning issued by Ministry of Civil Defence & Emergency Management- Tsunami: Marine and Beach Threat New

Do you see the odd thing about this email?

  • Mainly music – number one! All good really!
  • Then a cleaner needed – number two! Makes sense. They say cleanliness is close to godliness!
  • Then the lost brown chickens – number three! O dear. Sounds tragic really.
  • Then the last two are about the Tsunami coming! Bit late for mainly music, the cleaner and the chickens really – if the tsunami comes, well who cares. Unless you’re a duck, it’s all academic really.

Seriously – the last time there was a serious tsunami warning people went down to the beach front with picnic baskets for an afternoon’s entertainment!

It sounds just like the people in the time of Noah…. Or Lot. Have a look in Luke 17:

Luk 17:24  For the Son of Man in his day will be like the lightning, which flashes and lights up the sky from one end to the other. Luk 17:25  But first he must suffer many things and be rejected by this generation. Luk 17:26  “Just as it was in the days of Noah, so also will it be in the days of the Son of Man. Luk 17:27  People were eating, drinking, marrying and being given in marriage up to the day Noah entered the ark. Then the flood came and destroyed them all.

Luk 17:28  “It was the same in the days of Lot. People were eating and drinking, buying and selling, planting and building. Luk 17:29  But the day Lot left Sodom, fire and sulfur rained down from heaven and destroyed them all. Luk 17:30  “It will be just like this on the day the Son of Man is revealed. Luk 17:31  On that day no one who is on the roof of his house, with his goods inside, should go down to get them. Likewise, no one in the field should go back for anything. Luk 17:32  Remember Lot’s wife!

You know the story of the boy in Sunday school who had to answer the question: what happened to Lot’s wife? He wrote – “she was a pillar of salt by day and a ball of fire at night”.

ARE YOU SERIOUS?

Are WE serious?

When we talk about Advent and being prepared for a major event or happening, it reminds me of our days in Wellington before the Christchurch earthquakes.

We were not that serious about having food and water stored up. I don’t think we had more than one torch and certainly nothing to cook on in the event of a long term power failure.

And that was despite having a number of serious shakes via quakes.

And so we bought our emergency kits after the fact – and then moved to Auckland where you need a boat when you get 12 hours warning of a volcano.

PREPARATION is a big deal.

So John the Baptist arrives. There is a serious pronouncement of an event here. And this is the announcement of the arrival of the one who would do the major announcement to follow. It’s the pre-alert if you like.

Luk 3:1  In the fifteenth year of the reign of Tiberius Caesar—when Pontius Pilate was governor of Judea, Herod tetrarch of Galilee, his brother Philip tetrarch of Iturea and Traconitis, and Lysanias tetrarch of Abilene— Luk 3:2  during the high priesthood of Annas and Caiaphas, the word of God came to John son of Zechariah in the desert.

There had been a silence for a long time. Nothing – heaven had been silent since the time of Malachi which was written so many hundreds of years before this (in about 430BC). God speaks to John – and through John to people about Jesus – and through Jesus the Word of God – to the world. Malachi warns us:

Malachi 3:1-4

Mal 3:1  “See, I will send my messenger, who will prepare the way before me.

THE LORD WILL COME SUDDENLY

The passage quickly turns to the actual event:

“Then suddenly the Lord you are seeking will come to his temple; the messenger of the covenant, whom you desire, will come,” says the LORD Almighty. Mal 3:2  But who can endure the day of his coming? Who can stand when he appears? For he will be like a refiner’s fire or a launderer’s soap. Mal 3:3  He will sit as a refiner and purifier of silver; he will purify the Levites and refine them like gold and silver. Then the LORD will have men who will bring offerings in righteousness, Mal 3:4  and the offerings of Judah and Jerusalem will be acceptable to the LORD, as in days gone by, as in former years.”  

Advent is the event before the event. It’s about being ready for the celebration of the coming of Jesus. For us it’s the pre-Christmas bit.

I’ve been reading some of Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s advent sermons. The one was preached in 1930 in Cuba. Listen to what he says:  “But Advent is a serious matter too, and indeed a terribly serious matter. We are a strange people. As Advent comes around again, we will probably sing a few Christmas carols at home with our children, rush around to by all our gifts, write a few Christmas cards, and the when all the office parties are over, we shall enter the land of fun and laughter, the land of Christmas.”

He goes on to his sermon text from Deuteronomy 32: 48-52 about Moses dying before he reaches the Promised Land. Moses whose life’s journey and mission was to lead the people to that land. What a terrible unfulfilled hope and wish. God speaks to His man – to Moses, and tells him to go up to the Abarim mountain range, to die on the mountain, within sight of the promised land. Because of disobedience, unholiness and sin. Bonhoeffer says simply: Before the promise, the sinner must die. He puts it like this:

“He comes. Are you ready? There lies the shattering question with which the New Testament begins and ends, the only decisive question for the whole world and for the whole of our life. Are you ready for God?” (Christmas Sermons, 2005:p36).

John comes before Jesus. Repentance comes before good news. Advent before Christmas.

At Advent with all the horrible things happening around the world, our hope has to be realistic and not decorated with tinsel.

We need some cleaning up in our lives.

The Malachi reading is the powerful one. It features in Handel’s Messiah. I was listening to it again. I always marvel at the power of the human voices who sing the solo parts.

Would you like to listen to some of it? Of course they repeat the lines from Malachi again and again. Like a preacher repeating herself a lot – maybe because people are slow to hear or hear only what their itching ears want to hear! (Verse: 2Ti 4:2 Preach the Word; be prepared in season and out of season; correct, rebuke and encourage—with great patience and careful instruction. 2Ti 4:3  For the time will come when men will not put up with sound doctrine. Instead, to suit their own desires, they will gather around them a great number of teachers to say what their itching ears want to hear.)

Here it is. What amazing singing. Look out for the visuals about cleansing.

(The singers and musicians: Contralto: Hillary Summers; Bass: Alastair Miles; Orchestra: The Brandenburg Consort; Choir: Kings College Choir Cambridge).

The words are straight from Scripture – staring from Haggai 2:

  1. Accompagnato

Bass: Thus saith the Lord, the Lord of hosts: Yet once a little while and I will shake the heavens and the earth, the sea and the dry land. And I will shake all nations; and the desire of all nations shall come. (Haggai 2: 6-7)

The Lord, whom ye seek, shall suddenly come to His temple, even the messenger of the Covenant, whom you delight in; behold, He shall come, saith the Lord of hosts. (Malachi 3: 1)

  1. Air

Alto or soprano: But who may abide the day of His coming, and who shall stand when He appeareth? For He is like a refiner’s fire. (Malachi 3: 2)

  1. Chorus

And He shall purify the sons of Levi, that they may offer unto the Lord an offering in righteousness. (Malachi 3: 3)

Lovely that they simply sing scripture!

So what about the Levites?

The priests.

Earlier in Malachi 1 we read: Mal 1:6  “A son honours his father, and a servant his master. If I am a father, where is the honour due me? If I am a master, where is the respect due me?” says the LORD Almighty. “It is you, O priests, who show contempt for my name.

 And then: Mal 1:10  “Oh, that one of you would shut the temple doors, so that you would not light useless fires on my altar! I am not pleased with you,” says the LORD Almighty, “and I will accept no offering from your hands. Mal 1:11  My name will be great among the nations, from the rising to the setting of the sun. In every place incense and pure offerings will be brought to my name, because my name will be great among the nations,” says the LORD Almighty.

Malachi was obviously concerned about their shoddy work – their second rate offerings. ABout worship.

In chapter 2 he spells out how they had broken His covenant with Levi (2:8).

They offered him second best, and did not keep the covenant. (By grace – later in the NT when the deacons are elected so that the apostles can focus on preaching the word in Acts 6 we read: Act 6:7  So the word of God spread. The number of disciples in Jerusalem increased rapidly, and a large number of priests became obedient to the faith.)

If there is anything that we are to be judged on – it’s our worship. And judgment begins with the household of God for us too (1 Peter 4:17).

Our offerings. Our passion for worship. Our total love for God. Or lack of it.And how we express it here especially – is this our very best?

Our hearts that become hardened – or indifferent – or locked onto other things.

Again and again Jesus reminds us. Again and again in Deuteronomy it comes up. It’s about all our heart. One quote from the gospels will do: Mar 12:30  Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind and with all your strength.’

  • All this preparation at Advent.
  • All these activities.
  • All the preparation for Christmas too.
  • But are we really ready for his coming?

The one of whom it is said as we heard in Luke 3: “All mankind will see God’s salvation.” And in Matthew 11 today: “In his name the nations will put their hope.”

We also have a covenant – through our baptism. We are also committed to put God first.

But there is so much rubbish in our lives.

The refiner’s fire will cleanse us too. Renewal comes through testing and cleansing. And the word for ‘soap’ (borit) sounds quite similar to the word for “covenant” (berit). Ironically.

So in chapter 3 he says that God will come:

(Mal 3:1 …. Then suddenly the Lord you are seeking will come to his temple; the messenger of the covenant, whom you desire, will come,” says the LORD Almighty. Mal 3:2  But who can endure the day of his coming? Who can stand when he appears? For he will be like a refiner’s fire or a launderer’s soap. Mal 3:3  He will sit as a refiner and purifier of silver; he will purify the Levites and refine them like gold and silver. Then the LORD will have men who will bring offerings in righteousness, al 3:4  and the offerings of Judah and Jerusalem will be acceptable to the LORD, as in days gone by, as in former years. 

One writer put it like this:

“Like a refiner’s fire and cleansing soap, the arrival of Christ in our midst calls us to reverent obedience and faithful praise. The good news is indeed that we will not be left unchanged but will be reformed and refined to become like Christ. The prophet raises a challenge for each of us. As we proclaim Christ’s coming with Advent expectation, the promise of Christ’s arrival should prompt us to self-reflection and even make us uncomfortable. Are we ready?”   (Anne Stewart. Workingpreacher.org)

There is a danger that we are not ready. That we are chasing brown chickens on Browns Bay road when a tsunami is coming.

Amen.

 

 

 

Sunday sermon @ 10.30am, 6 July 2014 – Come unto me, take my yoke upon you

Readings: Matthew 11:16-19; 25-30;

Message.

Our eldest – at pre-school – had to deal with being a pastor’s kid living next door to the church. So he saw me going off for funerals and weddings. On one occasion I asked him “what happens when people die?”. He responded: “they get married” (as opposed to buried!).

In the Gospel reading today Jesus proves again to be a good observer of human beings – in this case children.  We read his words in Matthew 11, verse 16 and 17:They are like children sitting in the marketplaces and calling out to others:  “‘We played the flute for you, and you did not dance; we sang a dirge, and you did not mourn.’”

It’s a game of weddings and funerals – like my son’s mix up between marriage and dying (and they are very close actually) – the kids must have had a game in which they pretended. I’m sure you did this as a child. Playing house, or in my sister’s case “teacher and schools” – the crayons were sorted into their different sizes and you have an instant school with different year groups! She is still loving being a teacher!

Imagine children saying – “we played a flute for you and you did not dance” is like saying – “it’s not fair! (when playing cowboys). “I shot you and you didn’t die”. It’s a wedding and you’re supposed to be happy! We’re playing funerals – and you’re not crying! Typical kids. In fact in those days the kids did play weddings and funerals. Those were the public rituals they would have seen and acted out. Except in Jesus’ illustration they were surly and unresponsive to the one calling them – “come and play”

One commentator on this passage says that for pastors – it all sounds horrible familiar! You can’t please people!!! Good point – pleasing God is what really counts.

Of course Jesus was really talking about the adults of his day and not the children! They complained about John the Baptist and Jesus! Couldn’t please them all! The complained because of Johns ascetic lifestyle (withdrawing from the world and living in a desert) – and muttered because Jesus was too friendly with sinners (he made friends with everyone! Tut Tut!) Or to put it differently: John is too holy; Jesus is not holy enough. John was too strong on repentance! Jesus to strong on acceptance! Sounds familiar to me.

The passage ends with this statement: “But wisdom is proved right by her actions.” This really is the same as “by their fruits you will know them”. In short – the people who complained only had to see what was happening – Matthew 11:5, a little earlier in the passage, tells us; “The blind receive sight, the lame walk, those who have leprosy are cured, the deaf hear, the dead are raised, and the good news is preached to the poor.”

If you want to see whether Jesus was the one (despite his association with the outcasts of the day) then you have to bear witness to his miracles AND listen to his teachings of course.

It’s the teaching that really interests me in this passage:

Mat 11:25  At that time Jesus said, “I praise you, Father, Lord of heaven and earth, because you have hidden these things from the wise and learned, and revealed them to little children. Mat 11:26  Yes, Father, for this was your good pleasure. Mat 11:27  “All things have been committed to me by my Father. No one knows the Son except the Father, and no one knows the Father except the Son and those to whom the Son chooses to reveal him. Mat 11:28  “Come to me, all you who are weary and burdened, and I will give you rest. Mat 11:29  Take my yoke upon you and learn from me, for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. Mat 11:30  For my yoke is easy and my burden is light.”

Firstly Matthew 11:25-26: “At that time Jesus said, “I praise you, Father, Lord of heaven and earth, because you have hidden these things from the wise and learned, and revealed them to little children. Yes, Father, for this was your good pleasure.”

If you want to know what people believe – listen to their prayers.  “At that time” refers to the verses before – which are left out in the reading today. Like the comparison between weddings and funerals, between John and Jesus, people choose their responses. The cities that Jesus referred to are judged by whether they believe or not! In fact the three cities that failed to believe – says Jesus – will be judged more severely than Tyre, Sidon and Sodom, which will be judged because of their evil ways!

In the context of this pronouncement Jesus prays: “I praise you, Father, Lord of heaven and earth, because you have hidden these things from the wise and learned, and revealed them to little children. Yes, Father, for this was your good pleasure.”

I spent five years in a school – where the focus was on learning rather than wisdom. The truth is that people do set themselves up as wise and learned. And since being back in pastoral ministry for over three years (and in the 19 years in parishes before) – I have found the same thing in churches. There are always those who set them up as knowledgeable and superior.

Jesus in his prayer reflects a clear understanding that the Lord of Heaven and Earth hides these things from the wise and learned.

It is because he doesn’t want them to know the truth?

Or is it rather that their way of going at things is counter-productive. One can only guess that Jesus is referring to religious leaders of his day. I don’t think Jesus minded people using their brains. He probably had issues with people who allowed their thinking to be distorted. And more than ever – he had issues with people who were given the truth – like the Torah – and missed the point of it all.

Isn’t it amazing and lovely that it was for the Father’s good pleasure that little children receive the truth! The children of this church are a delight – not just because they are smart, which they are – but because they believe what we tell them.

The children at Messy church are also a delight. I got a big hug from one on Friday – I only see him once a month. I’m sure the hug represents the acceptance and love he finds among our team of creative people there.

Children  have open hearts. And it helps when parents believe and model faith. It used to break my heart when I worked with 5 years-olds some of whom were cynical and said “there is no God”.  I guess they were imitating their parents.

And now verse 27:

Mat 11:27  “All things have been committed to me by my Father. No one knows the Son except the Father, and no one knows the Father except the Son and those to whom the Son chooses to reveal him.

Verse 27 is a fascinating verse. It’s been described as a “bolt from the Johannine heaven” because its sounds more like John! It’s a great Presbyterian verse!

It places all the emphasis on God’s choosing – the sovereignty of God! We’ve seen already in our conversation at a young adults focussed sermon (they chose the theme) that the conversation about free will and election is complicated and challenging!

What is lovely here is that the relationship between Father and Son is quite unique and special. And think of it this way – we have a glimpse of the amazing love of God through Jesus.

In what way do you think Jesus knew the Father? I should think that the extent of the amazing profound redeeming love of the Father was known to Him. Think of how Isaac trusted Abraham on that altar. Multiply that by an infinite number of times and you get a glimpse of the Father’s love – the Father who commits “all things” to the Son! This “knowledge” that they have of each other is quite exceptional. And we are invited into that relationship.

Think again of another prayer of Jesus: Now this is eternal life: that they may know you, the only true God, and Jesus Christ, whom you have sent. (John 17:3)

And after this comes the amazing invitation and directive:

Mat 11:28  “Come to me, all you who are weary and burdened, and I will give you rest. Mat 11:29  Take my yoke upon you and learn from me, for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. Mat 11:30  For my yoke is easy and my burden is light.”

Here’s the real treat in the passage. If this were a meal (and it is because we should eat these words!) – here’s the main course!

The one that they accused of being a drunkard – the one which the wise and learned still reject – the one whose words cities that had seen miracles would not believe – plays his cards!

He issues the invitation above all other invitations! Yes “follow me”, “believe also in me” are all good and essential. “Come to me” is gold!

Come to me all! All who are WEARY AND BURDENED” AND I WILL GIVE YOU REST!

There are a number of ideas that come to mind when you think of rest! A siesta. RIP – which is long term! A snooze. Collapsing in a  heap…

The word is quite interesting – it’s really close to “respite” which is almost like recovery time.

This is not a laid back kind of Christian holiday camp.

The rest prepares you for the journey – for the yoke that Jesus has for you. The concept of a yoke was not unknown to them as a symbol of burden – even Peter uses the term at the Council of Jerusalem in Acts 15. He says:

Act 15:10  Now then, why do you try to test God by putting on the necks of the disciples a yoke that neither we nor our fathers have been able to bear?

Take my yoke upon you is Jesus’ directive. And his reason for this is quite amazing, considering who He is:

Take my yoke upon you and learn from me, for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. (v29)

“Learn from me” says the best teacher in the world.  Why?

  1. “I am gentle and humble in heart”. Few teachers would claim that as their credentials. This is the Son of God giving us a reason to be yoked to Him – connected closely in a trusting relationship – by faith.
  2. You will find rest for your souls.

The prophet Jeremiah said this many years before: Jer 6:16  This is what the LORD says: “Stand at the crossroads and look; ask for the ancient paths, ask where the good way is, and walk in it, and you will find rest for your souls. But you said, ‘We will not walk in it.’ Sound familiar? “We will not walk in it” was their response to an invitation to go on the ancient path, the good way – where there would be rest for their souls! Tragic and still true of so many.

Here are some ideas I found which expand the concept of the yoke. I think they are quite useful.

The Yoke  (LMP)

Of love                                 L

If you think about it, the one we are yoked to has walked this way before! He is not unsympathetic. In fact he has been tested just like us! His temptations were real temptations. Jesus was fully human! So his empathy is real! It is a yoke of love as he helps carry and directs! It’s not a burden laid upon us like the Pharisees did – cold and harsh.

Of meek obedience       M

You can’t pull in the opposite direction! When you’re on Jesus’ road – obedience is not a chore either because there is wisdom in the one who has done this before! Like an ox – the older wiser ones teach the younger headstrong ones!

Of personal allegiance  P

It is “his” yoke – not a general impersonal journey with Jesus! In fact the first series I preached some 27 years ago when they finally let me loose as a preacher was “Journeys with Jesus” – “Journey with Jesus the one who satisfies! The bread of life! The living water!”

Of faith                                                F

The Yoke is a yoke of faith. It involves faith in the simplest yet deepest sense – TRUST! You have to be committed in faith to Jesus and trust Him when you choose to journey with Him in this way.

It’s risky too – who knows where he may lead you. Often on a Sunday we look at that challenge – what could the Lord be saying to you about your life and the world that needs the Gospel?

It speaks to our young people too – maybe God will call some to reach the ends of the earth with Good News! And Kiwis have great opportunities to work in interesting places – as this country has credibility that opens doors.

Of conscience                   C

And it’s the yoke of conscience! Imagine this – being yoked with Jesus means that HE goes where you go. That’s a bit limiting really. Or is it?

Just recently I told the story here about Tony Campolo – a great American preacher and sociologist – who describes how as a minister he used to pop into the pub – and someone would notice things and say loudly ‘HELLO PASTOR!”. Just so that the people would tone down the jokes.

It makes you think – doesn’t it – about wrong decisions – when Jesus is right alongside. It also makes you think about the things people share on-line – one has to ask whether they are a good Christian witness.

I think we need to pray more for our friends -and especially our children and grandchildren to be yoked with Jesus – to save them from being yoked to their peers or to society’s dodgy standards!

“You will find rest for your souls”

There is something deeply attractive about rest for your souls – not unlike that favourite Psalm – Psalm 23 in which David says HE RESTORES MY SOUL.

We come to him because we are physically weary and heavy laden, because he offers physical rest. But then we find a deeper rest – for our souls.

The deepest needs we have are met when yoked to Jesus.

We have to respond! Come unto me (all you who all you who are weary and burdened – “all ye that labour and are heavy laden” (KJV)) and I WILL GIVE YOU REST.

Will you come? When you do a new adventure begins:

 Mat 11:29 Take my yoke upon you and learn from me, for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls.
Mat 11:30 For my yoke is easy and my burden is light.”

The easy and light bit has to be in comparison to other heavier loads placed on God’s people before Jesus. And of course still placed on people today by unscrupulous leaders.

It certainly keeps us on track. And the burden is symbolically halved by the image of the yoke.

In reality it’s the grace of  God that enables us to put our hand up and say “yoke me” – “strap me into the chair – wherever this machine goes I’m in”.

Amen.

Sunday sermon at BBP – 29 December 2013 – Called to serve

Gospel Reading:  St. Mark 10: 42 — 45;  Preacher: Bill Davey

How are we to respond to the Incarnate One?

We know the Lord can change New Zealand ― if we each play our part!

We are, however, needed to help re-kindle the faith in the Christ of the Gospels.  We have a clear exhortation about our service among His people:

 Jesus called them together and said, “You know that those who are regarded as rulers of the Gentiles lord it over them, and their high officials exercise authority over them. Not so with you. Instead, whoever wants to become great among you must be your servant, and whoever wants to be first must be slave of all.

 For even the Son of Man did not come to be served, but to serve, and to givehis life as a ransom for many.”  

Introduction

We will briefly review of some recent Advent Scriptures ― followed by a review of our Gospel reading this morning.

Advent

Every year we begin a great journey ― the story about God among His people: Meaning all humankind ― including you, me, indeed everyone is invited.

Advent (I) ― God’s Plan ― Journey’s End

Advent (I) began with a great thought ― our final focus on journey’s end:

Matthew 24: 44 So you also must be ready, because the Son of Man will come at an hour when you do not expect him.

Our Christian story runs from Genesis (The Creation) to Revelation and ends with the Return of Christ to the earth.

Revelation 22: 20 reads: He who testifies to these things says, “Yes, I am coming soon.” Amen. Come Lord Jesus. The Return of Christ at the end of the age is our ultimate target throughout life.

― sometimes called the Second Coming or
― the culmination or consummation of all things.

Be watching ― Be praying ― Beware of false teachers ― Beware of idolatry

Advent (II) ― God’s Plan ― A great starting point

Advent (II) followed with the first baptisms ― a great start point ― Baptism.

Matthew 3: 11 – “I baptize you with water for repentance. But after me will come one who is more powerful than I, whose sandals I am not fit to carry. He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and with fire.

Advent (III) God’s Plan ― A New Way of living

Advent (III) Jesus demonstrated a new way of living and then He presented a eulogy to John the Baptist, with a paradox we find hard to understand.

Advent (IV) ― God’s Plan ― The Birth of Jesus

Advent (IV) The Joseph and Mary story.

Five days ago we celebrated the birth of the Lord Jesus Christ, the only begotten Son of God, who became our Messiah, Redeemer and Saviour on the Cross at Calvary.   Most of us have known this Christmas story ― about the Incarnation ― (“How God became man and came to live among us”) from our childhood. It has always been the cornerstone of our Christian culture and heritage.

Question: Is it still true ― for the children,  and children’s children in   New Zealand today?

During the family service we spoke of the ministry of John the Baptist. Our minister, Robin, recalled the words of Jesus to the people ― they are part of the eulogy to John the Baptist:

Jesus began to speak to the crowd about John: “What did you go out into the desert to see? A reed swayed by the wind? If not, what did you go out to see? A man dressed in fine clothes? No, those who wear fine clothes are in kings’ palaces. Then what did you go out to see? A prophet? Yes, I tell you, and more than a prophet. This is the one about whom it is written: `I will send my messenger ahead of you, who will prepare your way before you.’

I want to focus on the final words of the eulogy in verse 11: I tell you the truth: Among those born of women there has not risen anyone greater than John the Baptist; yet he who is least in the kingdom of heaven is greater than he.

What do we make of the paradox in verse 11? I tell you the truth: I tell you the truth also translates as “Verily, verilly, I say unto you. I suggest that we do well to highlight or underline all such sentences and ponder them ― They are always the kernel of a significant truth.

Now the paradox declares:

Among those born of women. Nobody “greater than John the Baptist” has been born. We continue: there has not risen anyone greater than John the Baptist; yet he who is least in the kingdom of heaven is greater than he.

Yet he who is least in the kingdom of heaven is greater than he. What is this greater-ness of which He spoke?  I understand the Lord was saying, ′that He was demonstrating His leadership and authority ― not with military muscle or through conquest, but by being a servant of servants, and as a slave of the slaves′.

If you remain unsure of the meaning of the paradox, please do what the Baptist told his disciples to do, Go ask him yourself:  Are you the one who was to come, or should we expect someone else?”

Can you recall the response of Jesus? “The blind receive sight, the lame walk, those who have leprosy are cured, the deaf hear, the dead are raised, and the good news is preached to the poor.”

Please note how giving the good news to the poor is valued by the Lord ― It is the equal of healing or raising the dead.  Surely we can all tell someone about the goodness of the Lord to us?

Now what is our Church response and direction going to be in 2014?

Returning to our Gospel Reading

Our Lord gave a very clear exhortation about humble service among His followers:

Jesus called them together and said, “You know that those who are regarded as rulers of the Gentiles lord it over them, and their high officials exercise authority over them. Not so with you. Instead, whoever wants to become great among you must be your servant, and whoever wants to be first must be slave of all. For even the Son of Man did not come to be served, but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many.”  St. Mark 10: 42 — 45                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                       Our Lord gave a very clear exhortation about humble service among His followers: Jesus called them together and said, “You know that those who are regarded as rulers of the Gentiles lord it over them, and their high officials exercise authority over them. Not so with you. Instead, whoever wants to become great among you must be your servant, and whoever wants to be first must be slave of all. For even the Son of Man did not come to be served, but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many.”

How will we respond the exhortation of Jesus?

Here are seven possible priorities for our consideration for 2014?

1.     Hospitality: Highlighting the dignity of being members of the Household of God.

2.     Caring: Helping any person in need, especially those experiencing misfortune or suffering from some disability.

3.     Reconciliation:    Seeking the recovery and restoration of those who have been separated in any way from God.

4.     Worship:   Guiding private and public worship. ― Time with God in prayer and study.

5.     Formation: Fostering the spiritual life of each member of our Fellowship and all who       wish to be associated in any way.

6.     Education: Providing appropriate learning experiences ranging from simple guided learning to advanced leadership training and studies.

7.     Evangelisation:     Pursuing opportunities to communicate the living vitality of our Lord Jesus with all in need of His love and care.

Summary

Our Lord’s new and living way is our example!

Are we willing to be a servant of servants and a slave of fellow slaves?

What will we consider the priority ministries in our own life this year?

Some thoughts as we finish:

Recall, the Lord can change New Zealand ― if we each play our part!

and we are all needed to help re-kindle the faith in the Christ of the Gospels.

It will work best ― when we gather one person at a time.   Amen!

Closing Prayer: May the Lord bless you and keep you. May the Lord cause His face to shine upon you and be gracious to you. May the Lord lift up his countenance toward you and give you peace!

Sunday Sermon 16 December – Tidings of comfort and joy

Readings: Phil 4:4-7; Luke 3:7-18

Here we are in the middle of Advent – on the Sunday where the theme is JOY – and we have enjoyed an amazing modern yet traditional children’s pageant.They told the Christmas story using borrowed adults from the congregation as actors and had angels prompting four different parts of the audience to call out at key moments in the tale. What a wonderful time. Every time we heard the word “angel” our sector leapt up and cried out “glory to God”. You get the idea! Great to see everyone having so much fun in celebrating this old old story.

And then the story “Annie’s Treasure” followed – for our little ones and oldies to enjoy together. The Gospel of Jesus the baby in the nativity scene with scarred marked hands. Jesus the boy whose birth we celebrate with joy – who was Jesus the crucified suffering God.

The candle for this Sunday in Lent is pink – while all the others are purple. Pink represents joy and reminds of times when people were more austere during Lent and not very festive. The pink candle let them off the hook, if you like.

Tidings of comfort and joy are desperately needed by so many at this time. For the families of those tragically killed in Connecticut, the happiness of the season is horribly marred with terrible shock, horror and grief. Such depth of comfort is needed.

Of course each day tragedies unfold around the globe, especially where little ones and innocent mums suffer from the ravages of war and terror. Perhaps we are immune to the endless bad news that we see on TV each day.

One has to say again that JOY is a far cry from the Happy Christmas that so many seek. Joy and the biblical idea of rejoicing is really deeper, richer and wider. It is so profound that Paul captures some of this sense when he writes in Philippians 4:4-7:

Rejoice in the Lord always. I will say it again: Rejoice!
Let your gentleness be evident to all. The Lord is near.
Do not be anxious about anything, but in everything, by prayer and petition, with thanksgiving, present your requests to God.
And the peace of God, which transcends all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus.

For those in the depths of despair and grief at this time, the Lord is at hand too and only He in time can help them to deal with their pain. They may, in time, find the peace of God through prayer and petition. So too we in our anxiety need to look to Him for peace. So many people face illness, loneliness through bereavement, and real need at Christmas. We continue to love them and pray for them. I encourage you to take some time to visit them or give them a call.

John the Baptizer features again in the Gospel today, in a continuation of last week’s reading.  He continues to spell out the implications of his message calling for repentance in order to prepare the way for God to act. If people were to heed his message (in its practical applications of justice and sharing) there would be joy for many millions rather than the ongoing suffering we see. In verse 8 John bluntly declairs: Produce fruit in keeping with repentance.

And he continues in verses 10 and 11 of chapter 3: “What should we do then?” the crowd asked. John answered, “The man with two tunics should share with him who has none, and the one who has food should do the same.”

That would bring great joy to many if it were applied today. And John continues with clear instructions to tax collectors and soldiers that involve fair play and justice. For many that would bring great joy were such acts real in their lives.

Christian joy was something that came a lot later in the story. Yes there was rejoicing at His birth. But soon afterwards there was the “slaughter of the innocents” as the political ramifications of the birth of this King were played out by the paranoid King Herod the Great. There were weeping mothers on that day too. And years later after three years of powerful teaching with signs and wonders, Jesus’ confrontation of the truth in the lives of the rich and powerful culmunated in his execution on Calvary (the hill of the skull). And of course John – this powerful preacher and prophet – had been executed by another of those in the Herod dynasty – Herod Antipas.

It is some time later – after Jesus’ resurrection and Ascension – that this passage in Luke 3 begins to become a reality. In verses 15 and 16 we read these words: The people were waiting expectantly and were all wondering in their hearts if John might possibly be the Christ. John answered them all, “I baptize you with water. But one more powerful than I will come, the thongs of whose sandals I am not worthy to untie. He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and with fire.”

The ultimate source of transforming power was the outpouring of the Holy Spirit – God in action in people making the life of Jesus real to them. It is no coincidence that the fruits of the spirit listed by Paul in Galatians 5 read, “Love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control…” (5:22). Joy is something that God works in us by His transforming Spirit. It seems clear that we can’t “cook these things up” on our own. The fruit of the Spirit makes real transformation possible. A few of these fruits of character in the mix and the world again would be a better place.

Last year around this time I wrote these words on a related theme. I would like to revisit these thoughts as they take us further:

During the week ahead I would ask you to read Luke 1:1-25. It’s the story of the conception of John who features so much in these Advent readings as the one who prepares the way for Jesus. The anointing of the Holy Spirit on the infant John in his mother’s womb – before his birth – interests me. This man is anointed early on for his unique prophetic role in history. (Actually read the whole of Luke 1 as it explores the relationship between Elizabeth and Mary).

John lived a reclusive life and preached a tough message in a challenging context of an occupying force and religious leaders who had lost the plot. He was the last great prophet in that tradition. God raised him up in power and people repented of their sins.

Here’s a thought for you. You can sing the right songs – whatever that means for you – you can modernize or traditionalize your worship and church life. You can get it all right, so to speak, and have great sermons. You can run great programmes and do amazing things that bring delight to those who listen.

But there is no joy in what you do without the work of the Holy Spirit. The true joy is much wider and deeper – born out of a relationship of transformation by Jesus through the Spirit. It was through the Holy Spirit that John was empowered from the beginning. And despite his destiny he persistently pointed to Jesus the greater one. He made it clear that he was not the light – Jesus was. How much more we as ministers, elders, youth leaders, children’s workers, and members of the church and all its organisations. We are not here for our own pleasure. We are called to point to Jesus, and to minister to the world – showing the light of Jesus with joy and integrity. We are to reflect his light and shine in our world – in the power and joy of the Holy Spirit. Without His anointing we may miss God and miss the point of it all.

May the joy of Jesus become yours again! May we seek and experience the true anointing of the Holy Spirit in all we do.

Amen!

Sunday sermon 9 December 2012 – Ready or not? Prepared?

Gospel reading: Luke 3:1-6

Reflection

In the midst of all these world events and powerful people – Luke mentions leaders from Caesar to Pilate – to Herod and his brother Phillip, Lysanias – and the high priests in the temple at Jerusalem – with all their power and influences in their various sectors – there’s John the son of Zachariah hanging out in the wilderness. The desert. A typical prophet. Alternate. Different views and different diet. Weird – in fact. Dressed in camel skins and eating wild locusts and honey. Locusts are very tricky – those little bits stick in your teeth…

The focus is not on this unusual man, however. After the sweeping statement locating this story in historical time and its politicians and priests – the focus is not on the man.

The subject of Luke’s pronouncement is very specific:

“.. the word of God came to John son of Zechariah in the desert.” The Word of God comes! The focus is not on the man  – but on the message God gives him. Wonderful. Awesome! God’s word came to John after hundreds of years of prophetic silence. And God – through John – declares that they are to get ready.

There are different kinds of readiness and different levels of seriousness in our preparation in life.

I meet so many people really who when I mention Christmas get a pale frightened look on their faces and bleat out an apology: “I’m not ready”.

Last week we talked about being ready for Jesus’ return – or at least for our death and journey to eternity.

READY OR NOT – is a game children play. ‘Coming – ready or not!’

Death comes our way.  In the secular world people who are dying are often encouraged to sort things out – to focus on preparations for their stuff and family – not wanting to leave a trail of mess and unfinished business, and wanting to provide for their loved ones. Funeral insurance is sold on this basis – don’t leave them with a huge debt, and so forth.

On a daily basis people get ready each day for work (many struggle to get this right too!).

And there are other preparations we make. On a more spiritual note people used to get ready for church each week.

READY EVERY SUNDAY

There was a time when the one really important readiness ritual we went through was on a Sunday. Churches were quiet places to enter into. And for the newcomer it seemed odd and boring. Nevertheless there was a sense of getting ready (in dress) and preparing (in heart and mind) to come into God’s presence. Of repentance and making right – confession and new beginnings. Stillness. (Very different now as we are a rowdy bunch really).

PREPARING THE WAY TODAY

In the midst of our Christmassy busyness today we hear God’s Word in the words John the Baptizer (he was never a Baptist!)

John’s task is to get people geared up for the salvation that comes from Jesus! Listen again:

“A voice of one calling in the desert, ‘Prepare the way for the Lord, make straight paths for him.

TODAY IT’S ABOUT READINESS FOR WORKING WITH GOD IN THE HERE AND NOW

Or God working in us.

The desert – the wilderness – was not an unusual place God to speak to people. In fact people today are quite keen on those desolate yet beautiful places for retreats and reflection. They are less distracting.

But for most of us – if we don’t take the time and open our hearts and minds – our daily routine in the city or at home – can be like a desert. Dry. Dusty. No water of life. No energy. No word from the Lord.

The Essential Jesus 20 weeks and 100 readings have given many of us a new discipline and a new commitment to read the Bible. The point is – in our deserts – God speaks to us today – through the Bible and through His Holy Spirit.

THE CHALLENGE OF JOHN’S MESSAGE AT ADVENT

In the midst of the tinsel and Christmas expectation – all that wrapping paper and exotic food – it’s a very challenging thing for preachers to be true to this passage.

The candle we lit was for peace. It’s a lovely idea and all our hearts are softened when we think of the conflict of the world and the need for peace. We admire peacekeepers and pray for peace.

But true preparation for the coming of the Messiah – required repentance. Peace came at a cost. Changing direction and changing one’s mind – these actions are associated with repentance in the Bible.

I am sure that John – in his time of preparation in that lonely place we call God’s calling – the calling of prophets and preachers alike (in fact preaching is prophecy in the literal sense of speaking God’s word – “speaking forth”) – would have some straightening out of the paths in himself – smoothing out the rough places in his heart. He would have had his own repenting to do.

This repentance – if you are looking up – means you have to look down at the world from God’s point of view (imagine being able to see all the rage, anger and abuse going on with a view from heaven). If you are going north, it would mean changing direction to south. You get my point.

It’s a spiritual 180 degree turn which inevitably leads to a physical change in direction as well.

The truth is we need so much turning that we can easily become disorientated and dizzy. And our world can be like a desert, or a steep hill, or even a deep valley to claw out of. I remember a serious road crash we had some years back – where we went over a steep hill – and only a sand trap by a tree prevented us from disaster. We had to crawl out of there.

As we hear God’s word – and if we are serious – we have to make some moves. Our interior landscape can be quite bumpy.

And we do struggle sometimes because we want instant results and answers. The truth is a lot of the change that happens in us is slow and painful.

It takes time to clean things up in our lives. Like those bits of locusts that get stuck in your teeth. It needs some digging around.

So it makes sense that we are told to keep our eyes on Jesus. (Hebrews 12:2 Let us fix our eyes on Jesus, the author and perfecter of our faith, who for the joy set before him endured the cross, scorning its shame, and sat down at the right hand of the throne of God.)

We need to set our compass with Jesus as our true North.

Wesley understood the challenge of true conversion and ongoing repentance and transformation when he wrote his hymn Love Divine. Listen again:

Love divine, all loves excelling, joy of heaven, to earth come down;
Fix in us thy humble dwelling; all thy faithful mercies crown!
Jesus thou art all compassion, pure, unbounded love thou art;
Visit us with thy salvation; enter every trembling heart.

Finish, then, thy new creation; pure and spotless let us be.
Let us see thy great salvation perfectly restored in thee;
Changed from glory into glory, till in heaven we take our place,
Till we cast our crowns before thee, lost in wonder, love, and praise.
– Charles Wesley

You can’t get that movement towards a new creation if you’re stuck somewhere in the wrong place or going in the wrong direction.

And changing the landscape of our lives takes time. Like changing the course of a river there is a lot of stuff to be shifted.

May you work on your spiritual preparation this Advent as we prepare to celebrate the coming of Jesus to the world.

May we make the right moves and let him change us – bit by bit – on our journey.

Amen.