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Sunday message 28 February 2016 (Lent 3) – Choices

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

Sermon

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Jesus says to them:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Lent realities

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Bearing fruit. Changing. Making good choices like Jesus.

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

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

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

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

Amen.

Sunday 22 February 2015 – forgiving from the heart?

Readings:

Psalm 32:1-2; Matthew 18:15-35

Message         

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

  1. Excommunication

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

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

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

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

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

  1. Being forgiven and forgiving

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

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

Here’s the line that speaks of consequences:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

So what do we do with this?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

THE COMMUNITY WE BUILD

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Let’s learn to fix things!

Amen.

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

18 February 2015 – Ash Wednesday reflection at Rosedale Village

Ash Wednesday Reflection

  • Mat 18:1  At that time the disciples came to Jesus and asked, “Who is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven?”
  • Mat 18:2  He called a little child and had him stand among them.
  • Mat 18:3  And he said: “I tell you the truth, unless you change and become like little children, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven.
  • Mat 18:4  Therefore, whoever humbles himself like this child is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven.
  • Mat 18:5  “And whoever welcomes a little child like this in my name welcomes me.
  • Mat 18:6  But if anyone causes one of these little ones who believe in me to sin, it would be better for him to have a large millstone hung around his neck and to be drowned in the depths of the sea.

REFLECTION

What’s your earliest memory as a child?

I have this picture of an ice cream cake at a 4th or 5th birthday. Apart from a pleasant memory like that I remember my first teacher at school – who wore dingle-dangle earrings and had a cane! Scary lady.

Mostly I remember needing my parents – especially when I was unwell. I needed my mum! She seemed to know what to do. And I trusted her.

Becoming an adult meant you had to take responsibility yourself. And in time – if you were blessed with children – they had to trust you. And you had to care for them!

It’s not surprising that abuse of children makes us feel ill and angry. It shouldn’t be like that.

As we get older still – the hard thing is that we have to trust other people to look after us. Our children start parenting us! And we need care-givers again.

In the frailty of advancing years, we become angry once more when frail and dependent people are abused. It shouldn’t be like that!

In Matthew 18 he disciples asked this question: Mat 18:1  At that time the disciples came to Jesus and asked, “Who is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven?”

Jesus used a child as an object lesson when he brought a child to them and said: Mat 18:3  And he said: “I tell you the truth, unless you change and become like little children, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven. Mat 18:4  Therefore, whoever humbles himself like this child is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven. Mat 18:5  “And whoever welcomes a little child like this in my name welcomes me. Mat 18:6  But if anyone causes one of these little ones who believe in me to sin, it would be better for him to have a large millstone hung around his neck and to be drowned in the depths of the sea.

 The “little ones” are all those who are dependent upon others.

One commentator (Elizabeth Johnson) says this:

Jesus then continues talking about “little ones” (hoi mikroi) in the figurative sense — those without power or status in the community of faith. With shocking imagery, he states the utter seriousness of causing the downfall (the Greek verb skandalizõ) of any of these “little ones who believe in me.” Indeed, he warns that “it would be better for you if a great millstone were fastened around your neck and you were drowned in the depth of the sea” (Matthew 18:6).

Johnson goes on to say: This text is well chosen for Ash Wednesday, a day that focuses on self-examination and repentance, remembering that “we are dust, and to dust we shall return.” Indeed, we are all “little ones” before God, completely dependent upon God for the breath of life here and now and for the life to come.

Ash Wednesday and the season of Lent call us to repentance and renewal — to a drowning of the old self in the waters of baptism, with all the old self’s evil deeds and desires and potential for causing others to stumble, in order to be raised to new life from those same baptismal waters. This is dramatic imagery as well, but that which it symbolizes is much better than being drowned with a millstone in the depths of the sea!

The bottom line – for us – for the disciples of Jesus back then – and for those being martyred in this generation – is that we have to depend on God with the absolute trust of a child.

In a healthy family – children trust because they know that their parents are trustworthy. Jesus wants us to know that God is trustworthy too. That’s why he says elsewhere in His teaching on prayer:  Luk 11:9  “So I say to you: Ask and it will be given to you; seek and you will find; knock and the door will be opened to you. Luk 11:10  For everyone who asks receives; he who seeks finds; and to him who knocks, the door will be opened. Luk 11:11  “Which of you fathers, if your son asks for a fish, will give him a snake instead? Luk 11:12  Or if he asks for an egg, will give him a scorpion? Luk 11:13  If you then, though you are evil, know how to give good gifts to your children, how much more will your Father in heaven give the Holy Spirit to those who ask him!”

May we be able to trust Him like little children, in the knowledge that we all have sinned and are undeserving recipients of His love and grace. May we also repent for our part in any way in the hurting and abuse of others through our lives.

Amen.

Sources: Elisabeth Johnson – Professor – Lutheran Institute of Theology, Meiganga, Cameroon

https://www.workingpreacher.org/preaching.aspx?commentary_id=2355

 

Sunday March 10 – Prodigal sons

READING: Luke 15:1-3, 11b-32

SERMON REFLECTION

So what do you feel when you hear this story?  Who do you relate to? Which character? I was thinking – I’m a man who has two sons. Hmm.

Take a moment to become one of the characters. What you would say if you were them? How would you tell the story from their point of view?

So what did you think?

The father – many could relate to him. How challenging parenting is and how different our children turn out to be.

The younger son – I guess many could relate to him too. We have many in our churches who have come home to the Father (God) – some after years of being away. Many who wasted their resources and opportunities. Remember that the word “prodigal” which we use to describe this parable means one who wastes and squandours their wealth and resources!

The older brother – there are plenty older brothers who can easily be resentful.

And there are other points of view in the story – think of the mother (perhaps saying to her husband: “I told you it wasn’t a good idea!”).

Or the servants in the household wondering how this could be.

Think of the neighbours – the local rabbi if there was one – family friends and of course the lawyers of the day who were guardians of the way estates were handled and retirement planned!

MY REACTION TODAY

As a father – I understand completely. As a counsellor and as a pastor – I see so many fascinating dynamics in families. There are so many interesting possibilities. This story resonates with many of our experiences does it not?

There are two issues I want to consider however – to stretch your thinking:

1.    Repentance

I would suggest that the younger brother didn’t repent when he was in the pig pen. Yes he was in a serious mess. People sometimes say that he did repent – but I think it’s more basic than that. Listen again:

17 “When he came to his senses, he said, ‘How many of my father’s hired servants have food to spare, and here I am starving to death!

They all come home when they’re hungry. I’m speaking of children of all ages.

And as an aside people come to church for all kinds of reasons too – they walk in here and discover while looking for a meal – a practical solution – support in their new language – songs for their children to learn at mainly music – skills for their boys to develop at ICONZ – while looking for these things they find the extravagant grace and love of God!

And by the way that begins in us – our being extravagantly gracious and generous!

This prodigal was driven by a famine! By circumstances! By his stomach! And he had some bridges to mend! The road to repentance begins here – but its not the whole explanation for what was happening.

What follows is a rehearsed speech – kids do this all the time – when they’ve crashed the car or messed up in some way. Here’s verse 18 again:

 I will set out and go back to my father and say to him: And then there’s the speech. He would have had lots of time to practice it on the road: Father, I have sinned against heaven and against you. 19 I am no longer worthy to be called your son; make me like one of your hired servants.’

Yes the speech includes “I have sinned against heaven and against you”. So people do argue that he repented. And following what I said last week – there is a change of direction and a change in mind here!

In the context of the other parables – remember the lost sheep and the lost coin before this parable in Luke 15? The shepherd found the lost sheep. Someone has noted that the lost sheep did not repent either!

In Romans 5:8 Paul reminds us: “But God demonstrates his own love for us in this: While we were still sinners, Christ died for us.”

And God – way back in Genesis – went LOOKING for Adam who had become the first prodigal!

Luther said that repentance follows forgiveness. In fact the first of his 95 theses that he nailed to the wall so to speak and got the Reformation going reads like this:

When our Lord and Master Jesus Christ said, “Repent” (Mt 4:17), he willed the entire life of believers to be one of repentance.

The story of the prodigal son is a story if anything about forgiveness.

I mean the father didn’t even let the younger son finish his speech. And he didn’t do what dad’s do today: bread and water and to your bedroom! We’ll talk about this tomorrow!

He threw an amazing party! They celebrated with the very best! That’s an act of forgiveness. Welcoming him home is an act of forgiveness.

When you realise how generous God is, you repent! When you understand grace and the power of His love – you repent. The woman Jesus stopped from being stoned in John 8:11 would have repented when Jesus said – neither do I condemn you, go and sin no more.

Christians who have walked the path a long time are more aware of their sins further down the track. And they repent. Pascal wrote this on the subject: “God is none other than the Saviour of our wretchedness. So we can only know God well by knowing our iniquities… Those who have known God without knowing their wretchedness have not glorified him, but have glorified themselves.” Blaise Pascal

And the fruit of repentance – the evidence of that repentance – for the prodigal son –  would have been seen in the sequel or next story– “The kindness of the prodigal son to his grumpy bitter brother” and then perhaps in the next movie or newspaper article:  “prodigal son puts in amazing hours on dad’s farm” followed by ” Prodigal’s lamb production puts large pig farm out of business”.

Forgiveness and grace – unmerited favour shown in love and kindness – lead us to full repentance as we realise how unworthy we are and that comes from the celebration of our return to God as well! Remember that in the previous parable where the shepherd find the lost sheep and brings them back, Jesus has this to say:  I tell you that in the same way, there will be more joy in heaven over one sinner who repents than over ninety-nine righteous people who have no need of repentance.(Luke 15:7)

2.  The other voice in the story.

There is another voice in the story. A second silent narrator if you like – perhaps outside of the story but commenting anyway.

It’s the voice of the accountant/retirement advisor.

It’s the voice of the one who looks at the Father’s high risk behaviour – foolishness – in giving the brother his inheritance in the face of the insult that he presents in the original request. After all, to ask for you money from dad before he dies is as good as saying he is dead. The dad takes the insult on the chin. And he gives the wealth away to his son who ends up squandering it – wasting it – spending it.

How similar that is to the very first story in the Bible that involves two brothers – yes the story of the parents of Cain and Abel. God in His grace gives their parents the right to name the animals and the responsibility to rule and care for the world on His behalf. They too are prodigal – wasting opportunity and resources as they turn to their own devices!

The voice of the account-cum- retirement advisor screams out – I told you so! You should not have done that! It was a bad idea.

But this Father is not into keeping up with the social standards of the day. His love is too extravagant.

He’s the dad that runs down the road! Bad bad bad! No self respecting dad would have done that in those days!

He’s the dad that kills the fatted calf! There’s no discussion about how the prodigal was to pay anything back. No restorative justice here.

One commentator, David Lose writes: Jesus paints a picture of this world in his story of a foolish son and even more foolish father. It is a world of unmerited grace. Counters won’t understand. Pulled down by the weight of their own claims, they can only sputter, “All these years….” “You never….” “This son of yours…”.

Yes the older brother is the spokesperson for the ones who want it to balance on paper – who want it to be fair.

David Lose also writes about this “other country” that the story describes like this: What I’m thinking of really is another country, another land, one that feels, smells, even tastes different. You know right when you’ve stumbled into it, even if you didn’t notice the boundary lines.

What makes this country different is that nobody counts things here. Do you know what I mean?  No tracking billable hours, no counting the days until school lets out, no ringing up debits on the balance sheet, no cries from the backseat of “are we there yet?”

Best yet, no counting old grievances and grudges, no dredging up past wrongs or unsettled scores. For some reason, people in this country have lost track of all that; in fact, they can’t remember why you’d keep count in the first place.

This is the Kingdom of God! The country of God, if you like.

This is Grace land – literally.

This is our place – God took a risk with the human race by putting us in charge here. And we too waste and squander. And he celebrates when we come home too!

So we too can fill in the blanks when we come back to our heavenly father: you can write your name in the spaces below:

______ was dead and is alive again;  _______  was lost and is found.

It’s never too late! He too waits for us to come home!

Amen! May it be so for you today.

Sunday 3 March – Jesus the teacher digs deep

Reading: Luke 13:1-9

Jesus the teacher digs deep

There’s a great story of a teacher who got arrested for a traffic violation and appeared before a judge who said: “Teacher, I’ve been looking forward to this moment for a long time”. “Will you sit down over there and write five hundred times, ‘I will not go through a red light again.’”

There are all kinds of ways of getting your message across. I threatened to take our home groups books in to mark them this week – to see how many people had answered some of the questions. Or any. It’s the teacher in me – it was said in jest of course.

Teachers also get asked interesting questions – some of which it is best not to answer. A great strategy is to ask the students questions in response – because they have to learn to learn through inquiry themselves.

In this case people come to Jesus with bad news. I suppose no TV and internet meant you were the news people.

In verse 1 of chapter 13 people in the crowd tell him that Pilate “mixed the blood” of some Galileans with their sacrifices. They were murdered one assumes when at worship. Various theories exist as to who and why. The point is they were killed.

Jesus – perhaps sensing that people were fishing for his thoughts on the matter – or just seeing a teaching opportunity – creates the questions for himself and gives the answers!

The issue is the age-old problem of suffering – the question of theodicy – the justification of God’s existence or fairness in the face of the suffering of the world. The question about WHY people suffer – why “GOOD” people suffer, and whether this is all a punishment we deserve anyway. Or is it “random?” – another word that is complex because random things are not very random at all.

Here’s a bizarre one this week – that poor man who was killed by a shark (or more than one shark) – the headline at the bottom of the screen on Thursday on TV one said something like this “not to worry about this (talking I assume to would-be swimmers) – it was a case of mistaken identity”.

That is odd! Who was that shark after then?

So in another place (in John 9:2) his disciples asked this question:  “Rabbi, who sinned, this man or his parents, that he was born blind?” That question was settled with this response:

 “Neither this man nor his parents sinned,” said Jesus, “but this happened so that the work of God might be displayed in his life. (John 9:3)

Of course we also would like a cause – someone to blame – for the tragedies we see.

They would – in Jesus’ time – still have seen disaster as a punishment for sin. So if it was a great disaster, perhaps it reflected really bad sin or lots of sin in the people’s lives.

And so in this passage Jesus responds with a sobering thought:

To the question he raises about the Galileans murdered by Pilate – “Do you think they were worse sinners? – the answer is No.”

And to the question he poses about the people who had a work accident – with a tower falling on them: “Were they worse sinners? – the answer is No.”

In both cases he is very direct, and even more so in verses 3 and 5 which are identical:

“But unless you repent, you too will all perish.”

We are all sinners who need repentance.

As Paul was to say later – in Romans 3:23:  “…for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God…”

We are not really good at this repentance thing. There are mixed views:

  • Some of you love it when I mention the word. I get good feedback.  In every church I have been in there are always those who love the preacher preaching hell fire and brimstone.
  • Others avoid repentance. They’d rather not deal with it – for some it seems a bit too old world perhaps.

Repentance is not a one-off thing. I’ve mentioned before that the word in Hebrew means to turn as in change direction- and in the New Testament Greek it means a change in mind or a change in our thinking. They both apply. Turning and changing.

In my personal readings last week I revisited Jonah and found this amazing passage about the repentant people of Nineveh. Perhaps we will learn more about repentance through example. Listen to the proclamation of the King of that city: “By the decree of the king and his nobles: Do not let any man or beast, herd or flock, taste anything; do not let them eat or drink.

Jon 3:8  But let man and beast be covered with sackcloth. Let everyone call urgently on God. Let them give up their evil ways and their violence.

And it started with him – the King: Jon 3:6  When the news reached the king of Nineveh, he rose from his throne, took off his royal robes, covered himself with sackcloth and sat down in the dust.

They had been given 40 days to sort themselves out. His response seems quite quick – but I’m not sure whether it was immediate. It must have been early on in that 40 day period.

Sackcloth and ashes were the way. It certainly sent a message to those who witness the transformation. It meant a prolonged period of reflection and remorse.

As we have seen in the gospel reading today: Jesus said to his learner audience:

“But unless you repent, you too will all perish.”

Sobering. Perish is a strong word. There are sins all around us in our city that lead to death. Like the seven deadly sins.

Even more sobering this week was the study released on the seven deadly sins in New Zealand – showing where the badest (worst!) places are for lust, gluttony, pride, sloth, wrath, greed and envy.

Have a look if you want to see the maps on line:

http://www.nzherald.co.nz/nz/news/article.cfm?c_id=1&objectid=10857167

Auckland scores top in 4 of the 7. Like to guess which?

Yes you were right. Lust, pride greed and envy. Repentance in our city may be more urgent that we think.

In this passage Jesus our great teacher doesn’t end it there. The parable that follows is a parable of grace. Here it is again from verse 5:

Luke 13:5  I tell you, no! But unless you repent, you too will all perish.”

Luke 13:6  Then he told this parable: “A man had a fig tree, planted in his vineyard, and he went to look for fruit on it, but did not find any.

Luke 13:7  So he said to the man who took care of the vineyard, ‘For three years now I’ve been coming to look for fruit on this fig tree and haven’t found any. Cut it down! Why should it use up the soil?’

Luke 13:8  “‘Sir,’ the man replied, ‘leave it alone for one more year, and I’ll dig around it and fertilize it.

Luke 13:9  If it bears fruit next year, fine! If not, then cut it down.'”

1 – The tree

The use of a tree to measure growth and fruitfulness is common in the bible. The very first Psalm goes like this:

Blessed is the man who does not walk in the counsel of the wicked or stand in the way of sinners or sit in the seat of mockers.But his delight is in the law of the LORD, and on his law he meditates day and night. He is like a tree planted by streams of water, which yields its fruit in season and whose leaf does not wither. Whatever he does prospers. (verses 1-3)

In this parable the owner of the tree is unimpressed with it’s performance. Here’s verse 7 again: Luke 13:7  So he said to the man who took care of the vineyard, ‘For three years now I’ve been coming to look for fruit on this fig tree and haven’t found any. Cut it down! Why should it use up the soil?’

2 – The axe

is about to swing!

John the Baptist’s message also makes this connection: John said to the crowds coming out to be baptized by him, “You brood of vipers! Who warned you to flee from the coming wrath?  Produce fruit in keeping with repentance. (Luke 3:7-8)

John the Baptist continued with this line as well: The axe is already at the root of the trees, and every tree that does not produce good fruit will be cut down and thrown into the fire.” (Luke 3:9)

In the parable of the vineyard there is only really one main point. You’ve not producing – you’re wasting the soil.

No pressure – but that is us. So how are you – tree person? Are you rooted right – fed properly – and bearing fruit? Are you growing at all?

The gardener or caretaker– in this allegory – asks for time. One more year.

3 -The gardener of grace

This is the gardener of grace. Grace means that although we don’t deserve it we are being given time. Don’t waste that time!

The gardener of course does not just want time. That would assume that the tree would somehow suddenly grow figs. Why would it if the three previous years were unfruitful?

He says: Luke 13:8  “‘Sir,’ the man replied, ‘leave it alone for one more year, and I’ll dig around it and fertilize it. Luke 13:9  If it bears fruit next year, fine! If not, then cut it down.'”

There is the digging and the manure! They are very specific. The translation is a bit understated really. “Fertilize it” is not the application of modern fertilizer, but the application of animal dung.

4 – The dung

Digging and dunging is the term people use. We need God to do that. Some have suggested that the dung – is a sign of humility (Augustine). The digging and dunging means that we are dependent on the gardener.

Repentance is not saying sorry I WILL DO BETTER next time. It’s saying – I can’t do this. It’s about grace – God doing it in me and through me. Despite me!

Some have talked about the dung as something warm in a cold garden bed. They did not have what they needed in bags then. It was pretty fresh and smelly. Humbles us doesn’t it?

As individuals and as a church – perhaps God is speaking to us today!

  • About grace! God giving us time!
  • About getting help through digging around in our hearts and minds (which need changing and renewing)
  • About some manure/dung – how deep and how much for each of us?
  • About fruitfulness!

5. Fruitfulness

God’s grace giving us time and our openness to the Lord’s digging around in our lives and applying what we need for our growth is the key to bearing fruit. And there are various biblical references to fruit bearing – like Galatians 5 in which Paul contrasts the acts of the sinful nature with the fruits of the Spirit: But the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control (Galatians 5:23).

John 15:16 is a great reminder though that this all begins with God who works in our lives and brings us to repentance, and chooses us for his purposes. Jesus says: You did not choose me, but I chose you and appointed you to go and bear fruit – fruit that will last.

Amen. May it be so in your life and in mine.

(Note to on-line readers around the world: I hope you enjoy reading these messages. If you have questions feel free to post them here or contact me via the website http://www.bbp.org.nz/contact.htm. More importantly we believe that you can know the Lord who we write about – that Jesus is alive and at work in our lives. May you trust Him as your Lord and Saviour and find a local church where you can grow in your faith journey. Robin.)

Sunday Sermon 10 February @ 9.00am – Listen to Him

MESSAGE (Sunday 1)                    Reading: Luke 9:28-36

It’s a great passage – I love it.

  • It reminds us that the Law and the Prophets (Moses and Elijah) are fulfilled in Jesus.
  • That Jesus is greater than the prophets (or a prophet) and the greater teacher (than Moses)
  • It’s a foretaste of heaven, and heaven and earth meet here on this mountain
  • It’s a powerful description of the transformation of the face of Jesus – and the brightness of his appearance
  • It reminds us that we have mountain top experiences – and that like Peter we want to stay up there on the mountain with those wonderful experiences! Of course we don’t stay on the mountain tops!
  • And that it was in prayer that Jesus was transfigured (verse 29) – reminding us that we too are transformed in prayer! (Only Luke mentions that this was in the context of prayer. Yay for three gospels!)

But here’s the thing. There’s one of those voice from heaven passages – and it’s a great reminder that God speaks!

That this is all about God revealed to us!

The cloud (verse 34) is about the presence of God! That’s what we need and that’s actually the privilege of access we have (access in Ephesians is referred to in chapter 2, verses 7-8 –  He came and preached peace to you who were far away and peace to those who were near. For through him we both have access to the Father by one Spirit. And in Romans 5:1-2 – Therefore, since we have been justified through faith, we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ, through whom we have gained access by faith into this grace in which we now stand. We have a new place of grace to stand before God! By grace!

And the voice! This is so important! Listen to verse 35 again:

35 A voice came from the cloud, saying, “This is my Son, whom I have chosen; listen to him.”

Are you listening to Him?

That’s the key to all of this really.

I remember being taught – if you haven’t a clue where you are in life and what God’s will is for your next step – go back to the last thing He told you to do! And do it! Listen!

I was reading one of George Whitfield’s sermons on this passage! I love it! This short interesting Anglican of the 18th century who preached to tens of thousands at once in England and America!

I want you to listen to what he said to his hearers:

I can now only mention one thing more, and that is, Did the Father say, “This is my beloved Son, hear him?” then let every one of our hearts echo to this testimony give of Christ, “This is my beloved Saviour.” Did God so love the world, as to send his only begotten Son, his well beloved Son to preach to us?

Then, my dear friends, hear Him.

What God said seventeen hundred years ago, immediately by a voice from heaven, concerning his Son upon the mount, that same thing God says to you immediately by his word, “Hear him.” If ye never heard him before, hear him now. Hear him so as to take him to be your prophet, priest, and your king; hear him, so as to take him to be your God and your all. Hear him today, ye youth, while it is called today; hear him now, lest God should cut you off before you have another invitation to hear him; hear him while he cries, “Come unto me;” hear him while he opens his hand and his heart; hear him while he knocks at the door of your souls, lest you should hear him saying, “Depart, depart, ye cursed, into everlasting fire, prepared for the devil and his angels.” Hear him, ye old and gray-headed, hear him, ye that have one foot in the grave; hear him, I say; and if ye are dull of hearing, beg of God to open the ears of your hearts, and your blind eyes; beg of God that you may have an enlarged and a believing heart, and that ye may know what the Lord God saith concerning you.

Must have been great preaching in those revival days. In England and America.

They didn’t listen politely and go off to tea. They fell to their knees and wept in repentance.

Now I know that Presbyterians are not given to too much emotion!

But this preacher didn’t mince his words!

This is good stuff: “If you’ve got one foot in the grave – hear him! If you are dull of hearing – beg of God to open the eyes of your hearts!” Whitfield is preaching scripture here! Where is it from? Ephesians again! He’s preaching these truths: Ephesians 1:18-19  I pray also that the eyes of your heart may be enlightened in order that you may know the hope to which he has called you, the riches of his glorious inheritance in the saints, Eph 1:19  and his incomparably great power for us who believe.

And of course he wants his hearers to have enlarged and believing hearts! Again Whitfield is preaching from scripture – as Psalm 119:32 says this: (MKJV)  I will run the way of Your Commandments, when You shall enlarge my heart.

And of course he wants them to know what the Lord was saying concerning them!

We’ve watched a video about the response of some Lutherans in America on this passage – have a look at this:

VIDEO: Bible story jam video Luke 9:28-36    http://vimeo.com/58940441

Interesting how different people read and responded to this text.

I liked the last man’s comment about “this I can do” – listening to his voice. I can do this – if I work on it!

And also my thought was – listening to what he has to say to us and about us.

If the Father says to the Son: “my son whom I have chosen” in Luke’s record. In Matthew the writer says: “This is my Son, whom I love; with him I am well pleased. Listen to him!” (Matthew 17:5). And then Mark puts it this way: “This is my Son, whom I love. Listen to him!” (Mark 9:7)

We get three versions – and of course it’s not surprizing as Matthew Mark and Luke were not up there – only Peter James and John.  The passage ends with these words:  “The disciples kept this to themselves, and told no one at that time what they had seen.”

I don’t know about you, but they’re all rather encouraging are they not? Chosen, Loved, well pleased. While they are directed at the disciples (‘This is my son’, not ‘you are my son’) the Father still encourages the Son in this amazing time of prayer! Apart from the reminded of the voice there is the unique  nature of the transfiguration itself. I’m not going to try and figure that out today.

I’m really keen that we listen to the Son!

As an aside – I suspect that the Father also wants to tell us as children (the younger brothers and sisters of this elder brother Jesus) how much he values us too! That’s a different issue of an affirmation of his love for us – especially where we face challenging times.

But here it’s about listening to Jesus – and that’s a life changing habit we need to work on in our prayers.

The conversation about this passage can continue.

  • The Son still speaks!  Please listen to Him!
  • We must not ignore Him!
  • We need to open His book (the Bible) and give Him time so we too can encounter him and He can speak to us!

Let this conversation continue as we reflect on it. Over tea, or better on our knees!

Amen!

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.