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Sunday sermon 23 August – Midday encounter: Jesus and the woman at the well

Reading: John 4:5-42

Sermon

We were at Rosedale Village on Wednesday for a communion service. Unfortunately they had expected us the week before. Undaunted, one of the ladies who usually comes along went off to round up the troops. And suddenly there was a bigger crowd than usual with a whole lot of new faces. You never know what can happen.

And we had a look at the first part of John 4. About this Samaritan woman.

We know the story of the Good Samaritan – I think. This is a double sided coin – not just a Samaritan talking to Jesus but a woman too, and one with an interesting reputation. I was saying to the Rosedale congregation that our modern Auckland is also very multi-cultured – and Jesus has an interest in the wide range and diversity of people who live here – wanting to draw them into a new family.

His disciples of course were a bit stuck in their prejudices. They had grown up as people of God – Jewish men mainly – who took for granted that God had included them in His plan. There were times that their prejudices were quite obvious – such as wanting to ask God to send fire from heaven on a Samaritan Village where they were not welcomed. (Luke 9:54  When the disciples James and John saw this, they asked, “Lord, do you want us to call fire down from heaven to destroy them?”)

Jesus was happy to have them out of the way on this occasion. They has gone to town to buy food – good idea to keep some people busy so they don’t mess up the actual mission here.

The irony is enormous. You read this Gospel and you realise that in the previous chapter one of those chosen Jewish leaders – Nicodemus – is the man who comes to Jesus at night. If you missed last week’s discussion about him – read it on the bbpsermons.wordpress.com page – just look for 16 August three posts ago as the sequence is all muddled.

The contrast is huge. This is in the middle of the day – “encounter at high noon” so to speak. The 6th hour is midday. And it’s not the sensible time to walk to a well to get water. She does though – probably to avoid people – and Jesus starts this conversation. Try to read it as a conversation. We pick it up at verse 6:

Narrative:

Joh 4:6  Jacob’s well was there, and Jesus, tired as he was from the journey, sat down by the well. It was about the sixth hour.  Joh 4:7  When a Samaritan woman came to draw water, Jesus said to her, “Will you give me a drink?” Joh 4:8  (His disciples had gone into the town to buy food.) Joh 4:9  The Samaritan woman said to him, “You are a Jew and I am a Samaritan woman. How can you ask me for a drink?” (For Jews do not associate with Samaritans.)

Dialogue:

Jesus: Joh 4:10  Jesus answered her, “If you knew the gift of God and who it is that asks you for a drink, you would have asked him and he would have given you living water.”

 Woman: Joh 4:11  “Sir,” the woman said, “you have nothing to draw with and the well is deep. Where can you get this living water?  Joh 4:12  Are you greater than our father Jacob, who gave us the well and drank from it himself, as did also his sons and his flocks and herds?”

(Jesus – thinking: Yes!)

 Jesus: Joh 4:13  Jesus answered, “Everyone who drinks this water will be thirsty again,

Joh 4:14  but whoever drinks the water I give him will never thirst. Indeed, the water I give him will become in him a spring of water welling up to eternal life.”

Woman: Joh 4:15  The woman said to him, “Sir, give me this water so that I won’t get thirsty and have to keep coming here to draw water.”

Jesus:    Joh 4:16  He told her, “Go, call your husband and come back.”

Woman: Joh 4:17  “I have no husband,” she replied.

Jesus: Jesus said to her, “You are right when you say you have no husband.

Joh 4:18  The fact is, you have had five husbands, and the man you now have is not your husband. What you have just said is quite true.”

Lady: Joh 4:19  “Sir,” the woman said, “I can see that you are a prophet.  Joh 4:20  Our fathers worshiped on this mountain, but you Jews claim that the place where we must worship is in Jerusalem.”

Jesus: (loudly and emphatically) Joh 4:21  Jesus declared, “Believe me, woman, a time is coming when you will worship the Father neither on this mountain nor in Jerusalem. Joh 4:22  You Samaritans worship what you do not know; we worship what we do know, for salvation is from the Jews. Joh 4:23  Yet a time is coming and has now come when the true worshipers will worship the Father in spirit and truth, for they are the kind of worshipers the Father seeks. Joh 4:24  God is spirit, and his worshipers must worship in spirit and in truth.” 

Probable dramatic pause… 

Woman: Joh 4:25  The woman said, “I know that Messiah” (called Christ) “is coming. When he comes, he will explain everything to us.”

Jesus: (loudly and emphatically) Joh 4:26  Then Jesus declared, “I who speak to you am he.”

Our shoppers (disciples) return from the Samaritan shop and the narrative takes almost a comic tone:

Joh 4:27  Just then his disciples returned and were surprised to find him talking with a woman. But no one asked, “What do you want?” or “Why are you talking with her?”   (silent looks/staring?)

She is of course somewhere else – off she goes without her bucket: Joh 4:28  Then, leaving her water jar, the woman went back to the town and said to the people, Joh 4:29  “Come, see a man who told me everything I ever did. Could this be the Christ?” Joh 4:30  They came out of the town and made their way toward him.

 Here’s the thing. I was listening on Wednesday to the talk at the Alpha course – and wondering whether people who first hear this story about faith and prayer (for example – as they were the topics this week) – whether they actually have any idea what it’s all about.

Did you – when you first heard it all? (Remember how Timothy heard about the gospel from his grandmother – Paul needed a Damascus Road conversion).

I mean some of you sound so certain about everything – even I feel a bit guilty about my doubts.

It takes time for you to figure it out. It’s a journey! Keep working on it!

Nicodemus was smart and shut out the possibility of a new birth. The dialogue which involves Nicodemus is about 8 verses long. He’s got a name, a pedigree, a faith already – but his eyes seem wide shut.

This woman’s dialogue – she is not named, she is socially shamed, she is out of sync with society at high noon – she’s been through a string of failed relationships – but the conversation is about 24 verses of narrative.

And it doesn’t end with certainty – it ends with a question that has possibilities:

Joh 4:28  Then, leaving her water jar, the woman went back to the town and said to the people, Joh 4:29  “Come, see a man who told me everything I ever did. Could this be the Christ?

When Jesus is finished the dialogue with his shoppers about the food that really matters (they are really quite stupid a times aren’t they – eh? What’s he say? What’s he talking about? – verse 31 to 34 is another Fawlty Towers scene – look at verse 33 where they are saying side–stage: could someone have brought him food? Dominos Pizza delivered hey?)

Joh 4:31  Meanwhile his disciples urged him, “Rabbi, eat something.” Joh 4:32  But he said to them, “I have food to eat that you know nothing about.” Joh 4:33  Then his disciples said to each other, “Could someone have brought him food?” Joh 4:34  “My food,” said Jesus, “is to do the will of him who sent me and to finish his work.

The real even happens at the end – she opens the door for two days of ministry to these heretics the Samaritans – half castes who had their own mountain and religious stuff that made the Jews as mad as hell/ mad as hatters!

Joh 4:39  Many of the Samaritans from that town believed in him because of the woman’s testimony, “He told me everything I ever did.” Joh 4:40  So when the Samaritans came to him, they urged him to stay with them, and he stayed two days. Joh 4:41  And because of his words many more became believers. Joh 4:42  They said to the woman, “We no longer believe just because of what you said; now we have heard for ourselves, and we know that this man really is the Saviour of the world.”

I love it!

The thing is – it’s the living water that is the key to all of this. Tom Wright in his commentary tells this story:

A friend of mine described the reaction when he went home, as a young teenager, and announced to his mother that he’d become a Christian. Alarmed, she thought he’d joined some kind of cult. ‘They’ve brainwashed you!’ she said. He was ready with the right answer. ‘If you’d seen what was in my brain,’ he replied, ‘you’d realize it needed washing!’ Of course, he hadn’t been brainwashed. In fact, again and again– and this was certainly the case with my friend– when people bring their lives, their outer lives and inner lives, into the light of Jesus the Messiah, things begin to come clear. If anything, it’s our surrounding culture that brainwashes us, persuading us in a thousand subtle ways that the present world is the only one there is. This is seldom argued. Rather, a mood is created in which it seems so much easier to go with the flow.

That’s what happens in brainwashing. What the gospel does is to administer a sharp jolt, to shine a bright light, to kick-start the brain, and the moral sensibility, into working properly for the first time. Often, when this begins to happen, the reaction is just like it was with the woman of Samaria. Intrigued by Jesus’ offer of ‘living water’, she asks to have some– not realizing that if you want to take Jesus up on his offer of running, pure water, bubbling up inside you, you will have to get rid of the stale, mouldy, stagnant water you’ve been living off all this time. In her case it was her married life– or rather, her unmarried life.

Jesus saw straight to the heart of what was going on. (Remember how he did the same to Nathanael (1.47– 49), with a similar result?) The woman has had a life composed of one emotional upheaval after another, with enough husbands coming and going to keep all the gossips in the village chattering for weeks. We assume that her various marriages ended in divorce, whether legal or informal, and not with the death of the men in question. We don’t know whether she was equally sinned against as sinning. We don’t know what emotional traumas in her background may have made it harder for her to form lasting emotional bonds, though it seems as though the traumas she was at least partly responsible for will have made it harder and harder for her each time.

It’s a great observation. And of course when Jesus hones in on our moral issues, like the woman, we start theological debates of some sort. I’ve had this at many funerals for example – at the “tea” (usually with something stronger) when people have come to tell me about when they used to go to church – and for some reason they stopped. Wright gives some classical examples about peoples’ avoidance as he continues to talk about this woman at the well:

But she knew her life was in a mess, and she knew that Jesus knew. Her reaction to this is a classic example of what every pastor and evangelist knows only too well. Put your finger on the sore spot, and people will at once start talking about something else. And the best subject for distracting attention from morality is, of course, religion. I can hear the voices, again and again. ‘Well, we used to go to the church in town, but then my aunt said we should go with her, and then I didn’t like the minister’s wife, and now we’ve stopped going altogether.’ ‘Of course, my mother was Catholic and my father was Protestant, so I grew up not really knowing who I was.’ ‘Well, I was brought up a Methodist, but then my sister and I used to go to the Baptist youth club, and then when we moved away I never really knew anyone.’

And here, two thousand years ago, the same tone of voice. ‘I was brought up to think that this mountain, here in Samaria, was God’s holy mountain. But you Jews think yours is the right one.’ Implication: we can’t both be right, maybe nobody knows, maybe nothing is that certain, and maybe (the hidden punchline of the argument) the morality we were taught is equally uncertain.

This is a powerful passage. It’s a powerful Gospel account. Remember the quote from Tom Wright last week about John’s Gospel:

 Countless people down the centuries have found that, through reading this gospel, the figure of Jesus becomes real for them, full of warmth and light and promise. It is, in fact, one of the great books in the literature of the world; and part of its greatness is the way it reveals its secrets not just to high-flown learning, but to those who come to it with humility and hope. (So here it is: John for everyone!) Wright, Tom (2002-10-18). John for Everyone Part 1: Chapters 1-10 Pt. 1 (New Testament for Everyone) . SPCK. Kindle Edition.

Amen!

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

Readings: Galatians 1:1-10;  6:11-18

Sermon                                                                                                          

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

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

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

Introductory remarks                                                                          

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

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

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

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

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

  1. And then the salutation:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

SO WHAT MADE PAUL SO MAD?

Let me illustrate the problem here with an analogy.

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

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

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

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

Paul was less than thrilled in this instance too.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

WHERE DOES THIS TAKE US IN OUR JOURNEY THROUGH GALATIANS?

For now – in this small beginning – some key thoughts

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Amen. Enough for today.

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

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

Sunday sermon 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.