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What is your picture of Christ?

Given by: 

Karin Voth Harman

Date given: 

20th November 2011

Book: 

Matthew

Chapter: 

25

Note:  Images of individuals were used in the church service but they have not been reproduced here for reasons of privacy and copyright. A description of the missing slides has been give.  Please use your personal memories or imagination to fill in the gaps.

 

Some months before we were married, my husband to be met my father for the first time. My father, no doubt, asked him many questions. One question, however, became enormously significant in my husband’s search for God. My father asked simply, ‘What is your picture of Christ?’

‘What is your picture of Christ?’ My husband realised that although he hardly ever thought about Christ, he did in fact own a picture of Jesus – a small reproduction of a Greek icon he’d picked up -- for reasons he didn’t entirely understand -- on holiday in Greece. He still has it. This was his starting point as he began to answer a question which has stuck with him over many years.

Today we celebrate the feast of Christ the King, and the whole point of this festival, and of the readings this morning which accompany it, is to ask ‘What is our picture of Christ?’ (which is why it will be a sermon featuring images all entitled ‘Christ the King’ from the Google images website). ‘I pray’, writes Paul to the Ephesians in this morning’s reading, ‘that the God of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Father of glory, may give you a spirit of wisdom and revelation as you come to know him, so that, with the eyes of your heart enlightened, you may know what is the hope to which he has called you…’.

Today’s passage from Ephesians, as well as the Old Testament reading in Ezekiel which you can also find on your pew sheet, and the gospel reading all present Christ as King. The Ezekiel passage predicts a great Shepherd King, who in the style of the first shepherd King David, will separate the sheep from the goats. Jesus’ words in Matthew pick up this imagery –‘When the Son of Man comes in Glory, all the nations will be gathered before him and he will separate them like a shepherd separates the sheep from the goats.’

Interestingly, some of the very earliest depictions of Jesus in art portray him as a shepherd. Once Christianity was adopted as the State Religion by the Emperor Constantine the imagery turned much more regal.

 

Here, from the ‘Christ the King’ collection on google images is a typical portrayal of Christ, dressed exactly like a Byzantine Emperor.    A modern version of this image updates the crown a bit.

 

The link between secular and religious power loosens a bit in an image like this

in which the gold of the crown becomes spiritualised into a kind of halo. But the jewels and rich fabric of the robes continue to negate any sense of Christ as shepherd.

Modern kitsch art continues to explore the tension between the humility and humanity of Christ on one hand, and the power and sovereignty of Christ on the other. Here is an updated version of the Byzantine ruler Christ

but now his heart, burning with love, is made central – the thorns wrapped it around suggest a different sort of crown, though the much larger crown on Christ’s head and the sceptre in his hand let us know which sort of Kingship is being emphasised.

The feast of Christ the King is actually rather recent – instituted by Pope Pious XI in 1925 in the face of increasing secularisation all over the world, and the rise of Mussolini in Italy. Mussolini was declaring himself Emperor, and the feast of Christ the King was an attempt to remind people of their ultimate allegiance to a much greater ruler. It’s a politically subversive festival therefore, in its origins, and we see in the following images, modern catholic desire to locate an alternative sort of power and kingship in Christ.

This one could easily  be titled ‘the power of love’:

 

Here the marriage of Christ as good shepherd and superhero master of the universe is attempted:

 

In this even more kitsch and not terribly well reproduced image Christ appears on a white stallion, wearing a crown, coming to save the day:

  And finally this image:

finds Christ some new territory, declaring him ‘King of Cyberspace’.

 

This trawl through the Christ the King section of Google  reveals more than just the fact that bad art often reflects bad theology. In fact theologians, indeed all of us, struggle to picture both the majesty  of Christ the judge and the tender humanity of Christ the shepherd who lays down his life for his sheep. Our attempts to comprehend this mystery can be as clunky as painting an oversized crown and an oversized heart onto the same body:


Jesus’ attempt to picture this for us, as recorded in Matthew’s gospel, is clearer. Jesus tells us that, at the end of the day, we are going to be judged on how we treated the judge.  ‘I was hungry, I was thirsty, I was a stranger’ etc… ‘But Lord’ we will say to him, whether we are sheep or whether we are goats, ‘when was it that we saw you hungry and gave you food, or thirsty and gave you something to drink? And when was it that saw you a stranger and welcomed you, or naked and gave you clothing? And when was it that we saw you sick or in prison and visited you? And the King will answer us, ‘Truly I tell you, just as you did it to one of the least of these who are members of my family, you did it to me.’

 

I wonder how you feel when you hear this passage. Personally, I feel quite panicked. I go through a mental checklist: have I fed enough hungry people and ameliorated enough thirst? Does offering a friend a cup of tea when they’re really upset count? Can I tick the box for clothing the naked if I simply fill up and leave on my doorstep a charity clothes collection bag? Will I get credit for all those hours of feeding, clothing, tending my own child when they’re ill – I sure hope so, that sure takes a lot of time and expense. Does visiting the prison have to be literal, or can visiting someone imprisoned by, let’s say, grief or remorse count?

My knee jerk reaction to this gospel reading is to turn the focus on myself – am I naughty or nice? a sheep or a goat? Yet, perhaps particularly because this story falls on Christ the King this year, I hear a voice saying to me, ‘What is your picture of Christ?’ Because the astonishing revelation of this parable of the sheep and the goats is not actually which camp I’m in, but the news that Christ the King camps out with the ‘least of these’: he indwells them. In fact the greek verb used in that famous verse from John’s gospel:  ‘the word became flesh and dwelt amongst them’ is the word ‘tabernacled’ – camped out. Christ pitches his tent in the least of these.

Unwittingly the google image website for Christ the King makes this very point. As you scroll down the page, the obvious images of Christ give way gradually to a very different kind of picture.

Image of boy playing basket-ball

Image of teenage boy

Image of teenage boy

Image of Junior girl

Image of Junior Girl 

These photos of children, who presumably all attend schools called ‘Christ the King’ in various parts of the world, ask us, ‘do you see Christ the King in me?’.

Image of teenage boy proudly holding a rather messy looking cake.

Indeed every face we encounter presents the same challenge, ‘Are you still seeing a picture of Christ the King?’

Jesus essentially says in the 25th chapter of Matthew: these are your judges.

Image of infant girl

I put down my power, embed it in them.

Image of football players

Listen to Paul at the end of Ephesians Chapter One: ‘God has put all things under Christ’s feet and has made him the head over all things for the church, which is his body, the fullness of him who fills all in all.

Image of girl playing basket-ball

This is anatomically impossible, to be under Christ’s feet, yet to be his body, to be the fullness of Christ. But this is indeed the implication of Christ’s taking on flesh, and identifying so completely with humankind.

As I considered these passages over the past few weeks, I’ve had the unusual privilege of holding no fewer than 4 newborn babies when visiting their parents. Babies less than a month old, who still have really no muscles at all. They are the tiniest, most helpless scraps of humanity, totally utterly dependent on the human community to keep them alive. They flap and flail and make strange other- worldly faces. Newborn babies always draw out from me an initial response of adoration and wonder. But I know that as soon as they start to need something, as soon as they start to mew and then cry with all the rage and grief of unmet hunger, I will become scared, annoyed, maybe angry that I cannot feed or sooth them. And I will want to hand them back.

Next week, the first Sunday of Advent, we will begin to prepare ourselves to meet Almighty God in the very least of the least, the newborn King. And we will begin again the process by which God enlightens the eyes of our hearts so that we can enlarge our picture of Christ as we encounter Jesus first in the manger, then with his friends, with the lepers, on the boat, at the last supper. We will lift our eyes to see Jesus on the cross, risen from the tomb, and ascended into heaven, the great judge, ruler and sustenance of the world. Finally we will look out to see Christ in the hungry, the thirsty, the naked, the homeless, the prisoners of this world… The question ‘What is your picture of Christ?’ is never ending. And never safe. It draws men and women to leave their comfortable lives, their homelands sometimes, to part with time and possessions and to search out Christ in ever more strange and unlikely places. And sometimes the most strange and unlikely places to notice Christ will be amongst your own family members, and the people next to you in the pews.

Image of football supporters

May Christ bless you in this journey. Amen.

 

He Weeps

Given by: 

Stephen Webster

Date given: 

13th November 2011

Book: 

John

Chapter: 

11

A family in shock; grief – tears – distress: that’s the situation into which Jesus walks in the bible reading we heard earlier. The people described in the reading are some of His closest friends. Mary and Martha and their brother Lazarus live in a little village called Bethany a few miles from Jerusalem. And Jesus – a family friend – is often calling in.

But a few days ago - when Jesus was elsewhere in the country - Mary and Martha sent Him bad news.

‘Lord,’ they wrote, ‘the one You love – Lazarus - is ill.’ So Jesus makes His way across country to Bethany. And in the reading we heard just now He arrives only to discover that He is too late. Lazarus is dead. He died four days ago.

And Jesus walks in on a scene of grief and distress. Many have come (friends and relatives and acquaintances) to sit with Mary and Martha, to cry with them and to comfort them in their sadness. And now Jesus arrives: too late. They sent for Jesus. They thought that He would have been able to make a difference. But He’s arrived too late.

Hearing that Jesus is approaching the house Martha hurries out to meet Him. And she’s prepared for Him some words of rebuke. ‘Lord if only You had been here,’ she says, ‘my brother would not have died.’ Jesus we told you that He was ill. We asked you to come. We thought you could make a difference. But now Lazarus is dead.

And then a few verses later Martha’s sister Mary hears that Jesus has arrived. ‘She got up quickly’ we’re told, ‘and went to Him.’ And what are her first words to Him? Exactly the same as Martha’s: ‘Lord, if only You had been here,’ she says crying as does so ‘my brother would not have died.’

‘If only You had been here, my brother would not have died.’ If only. If only. If only. They believed Jesus could make a difference. They asked Him to come. But He’s too late. If only…

I wonder if like Mary and Martha you’ve ever found yourself crying out ‘if only…’; found yourself asking God, ‘Why?’ If only You’d answered our prayers God. Why did this have to happen? If so I think we can be encouraged by Mary and Martha. You see they walk right up to Jesus and they tell Him that they are disappointed in Him.

Jesus we wanted You to do something differently. We wanted You to make Lazarus well. We wanted You stop him dying. We wanted You to come earlier and You didn’t. If You’d just turned up he would have lived.

And what is Jesus’ response?

 ‘Stop right there Martha!’?

 ‘Mary, do you realise who you are speaking to?’

 Is that Jesus’ response? No.‘When Jesus saw her weeping,’ we’re told, ‘He was deeply moved… and He wept.’ Jesus wept. Mary and Martha bring Jesus their hurt and their anger and their tears. They bring Him their disappointment that He did not answer them as expected. They bring Him their grief that their brother has died.

And Jesus’ response? He does not tell them off, He does not rebuke them, no - He cries with them. And as they tell Him their grief He shares in it. He cries with them. Jesus – God the Son is like God the Father. And what this event shows us is that God likes honesty.

Tonight as we gather to remember those we have loved who have died and to give thanks for their lives it is absolutely fine for us – like Mary and Martha to tell God our true feelings. To tell Him our sadness and our sorrow; to tell Him our disappointments and our pain and - yes like Mary and Martha - to tell Him if we think He could have acted differently; to tell Him if there are prayers we don’t think He answered the way we want. He is not shocked when we are honest. He does not close His ears.

He does not say, ‘You can’t talk to Me like that!’ No – in fact the bible tells us that He knows our pain and sadness and He cries with us. ‘God is close’ says Psalm 34, ‘to those whose hearts are breaking.’

And more than cry with us as we walk through the hardest if times - He walks with us. ‘Though I walk the darkest path,’ we sang in our last hymn ‘I will not fear the evil one, for You are with me, and Your rod and staff are the comfort I need to know.’

It’s a version of Psalm 23. Another version – the one in our church bibles – puts it this way: ‘Though I walk through the darkest valley I will fear no evil, for You are with me; Your rod and Your staff, they comfort me.’

As Mary and Martha walk through this darkest of valleys; as they grieve for Lazarus; as they tell God all their pain and hurt He’s right there with them. Walking every step of the way with them. Crying as they cry. Close to them as their hearts are breaking. And just as He is close to them, so He promises to be close to us walking every step of the way with us - even if through our tears it’s hard to recognise Him.

So this account of Jesus’ meeting with Mary and Martha is encouraging because it reminds us that we can be honest with God - in fact that He longs for us to be real and honest with us. It reminds us that we can tell Him exactly what we’re feeling. It reminds us that He as we cry He cries too; that when our hearts break He is close.

But it is encouraging for another reason too. Because Jesus’ goes much further than bringing comfort. He goes much further than sharing in Mary and Martha’s grief. He breaks into their grief and their sadness and He gives them certain hope.

To Martha Jesus says, ‘Your brother will rise again.’ And then He says, ‘I am the resurrection and the life. Anyone who believes in Me will live,  even though they die; and whoever lives by believing in Me        will never die.’

Tonight in our service we recognise that the same Jesus who met with Mary and Martha in their sadness is here with us now. Jesus is here. With us, close to us. And the reason that Jesus is here - the reason that we can speak to Him in prayer is because 3 days after Jesus died on a cross He was raised from death. He defeated death and rose again and is alive today. And that’s why this service is not only a service in which we express our sadness it is also a service of thanksgiving.

One of the earliest Christians - St Paul - wrote that when followers of Jesus grieve for those who have died ‘we do not grieve as those who have no hope.’ We do not grieve as those who have no hope. We grieve because we miss those who have died. We grieve because we see them no longer and we wish we were with them again now. But we do not need to grieve as those who have no hope. Because Jesus defeated death. He is with us now.

And He says, ‘I am the resurrection and the life. Anyone who believes in Me will live, even though they die; and whoever lives by believing in Me will never die.’ Jesus’ promise is that death is not the end. That beyond death lies life and that if we hold on to Him and His promises - even when we die we will live.

In the account of Jesus’ meeting with Mary and Martha which we heard read earlier Jesus demonstrates His power over death by bringing Lazarus to life again. That is an amazing miracle. But it’s just a glimpse – a sign – a foretaste of a more amazing miracle. Jesus raises Lazarus to life again. But Lazarus is raised only one day to grow old and die again.

But what Jesus promises for all who trust Him is something more wonderful. ‘Anyone who believes in Me will live, even though they die; and whoever lives by believing in Me will never die.’ He promises a life spent with God in eternity where He will wipe away all tears and there will be no more death.

So tonight let’s thank God that He walks with us through the darkest valley; let’s thank God that when we cry He cries with us; let’s thank God that with Him we can always be honest; that we can always tell Him all our pain and sadness; let’s thank God for those whose lives we remember tonight -        for the joy they brought into our lives; and let’s thank God that because Jesus defeated death - because He is the resurrection and the life - we can have certain hope that death is not the end - but beyond lies new life.

A Hilarious Giver

Given by: 

Paul Adams

Date given: 

6th November 2011

Book: 

Matthew

Chapter: 

6

Paul consciously urges generosity on the part of the Corinthians. It’s an appeal to generosity founded on a promise that God will supply their needs, and more, and so provide the ability to be generous.

The person who sows sparingly will only reap a sparse harvest.  By contrast, sowing bountifully will produce a rich harvest.   The conclusion Paul draws is straightforward - we need to decide how much we shall give. He then sums up his thinking in the well-known phrase, “God loves a cheerful giver”. 

While Paul is looking for a generous contribution from the Corinthians, he does stress that it needs to be a voluntary gift, not one made simply because he is applying pressure. Why does God delight in a cheerful giver? Because He himself is such a giver and He wants to see His characteristics, in those He created. That’s us!!

It’s not about paying Parish Share or keeping a roof on the church; it’s about our relationship with God and trying to be like Him.

**The Greek word is hilaron from which we get our word “hilarious”.  Are we hilarious givers? I don’t very often hear much laughter when the offertory plate goes round!!

Paul has in mind the joy that comes from enjoying participating in God’s work.

Generosity is born from the heart of the giver. What type of giver are you?

Flint – need to be hit hard, but only small pieces break off

Sponge – need to keep being squeezed to give a bit more

Honey – no hitting or squeezing necessary, just keep giving

It is impossible to talk about sowing without some reference to the field in which we are invited to sow. Your church is your home address, it is your place of regular communion with God with other members of his family. It is the first call on your giving, just as it is the first call on your time each week for worship. There will be other ministries and good causes you are also called to sow in but this is your home and first priority!

It is God the abundant provider who provides the seed we scatter. Any sparse sowing is not because we haven’t got enough seed. I have no doubt in my mind that God provides all and more, to do His work, it’s just we like to hold on to it. Each of us has a ministry of sowing in relation to what we are given - in money as well as gifts and talents. God’s provision means we will have enough to live on, and enough to give and share. Christian giving should be liberating experience, as we learn to receive gladly and share gladly. We either put ourselves first or we put God first. It is He who gives us the seed, we choose how to sow. Do we use all the seed God blesses us with - or is it still in the packet - untouched, and therefore infertile and certainly not productive?           

As regular worshippers we face a tough question: Which field are you sowing in? Yours or God’s? We cannot separate money from lifestyle.  We may have seed but if it is all sown in the field of our own personal choices then we miss out on the blessing twice.  Once because no matter how much we sow in our own field it will never be enough.  Secondly because there will be little left to be sown in God’s field.

For Christians the last thing to be converted is always the wallet. I can give my time and my talents but the acid test is whether I will give my money to God’s work as well.

For all of us, this passage is a reminder of God’s amazing generosity, blessing and daily miracles. Do we wish to be associated with it? Will we trust God sufficiently to put him first in our financial lives as well as our weekly worship? That is the key, will you trust in God. Is our Christian faith, and our relationship with God important enough to us that we will respond to Gods call on our finances? I often hear, or get told, that the Church, or the Diocese is only ever after our money. Well, to me, that is a gross distortion of the truth and a poor understanding of what scripture tells us! We give in response to a phenomenally generous God who wants us to be part of what He is doing in His world.

Each one of us needs to go away from here this morning and prayerfully consider our giving! Do you want to be part of what God is doing in your church and community?

(Talk about packs)

Let’s now focus on the Old Testament reading. We’ll look at v10.  It says “Bring the whole tithe into the storehouse that there may be food in my house. Test me in this, and see if I will not throw open the floodgates of heaven and pour out so much blessing that you will not have enough room to hold it”. Do you get the idea “so much blessing that you will not have enough room to hold it”.

4500 years ago God called to himself a bronze aged people who had “no hot and cold running water, no social services, no TVs, DVDs or CDs, no health care, no carpets in their homes, no “almost any comfort you can name”. No anything (by our standards), and he revealed to them one of the most sophisticated, generous, progressive principles on charitable giving this world has ever seen. He said before you spend any money on yourself, before you pay taxes to the King, before you spend money on food and shelter bring me the first tithe. And when they did, God blessed them. But not JUST blessed them, but “so much blessing that you will not have enough room to hold it”.

On average we give less that 1.5% per person to charity. And yet God’s people 4500 years ago, with almost nothing, gave the first 10%, and then paid taxes to their King on top of that. Humbling isn’t it?

Why did God implement this idea of tithing? And why is it that Giving and Blessing are so linked? Well I want to give you three ideas.

Firstly, because it reveals to us the true priorities of our own heart. To give to God’s work FIRST, and to give SACRIFICIALLY, is just about the best indicator of where our heart and hopes are. Jesus said “where your treasure is – there your heart is also”. Where we invest our time and money not only REVEALS where our heart and ambitions are, but it also LEADS them.

But may be you cannot tithe because your financial commitments are already too high. What if I’m on benefits? What about the recession. This has all come as a bit of a shock. Well, “we live under Grace and not the Law”. God is more concerned about your heart and your motivation for giving, rather than the amount. Determine what you can give and give it joyfully. We would ALL like to give more, if you cannot give a tithe, give what you can. And as your circumstances change (and if they change for the better) then give to God from the first fruits of that change.

Or maybe you don’t earn a wage. Well, the key point about tithing is that you give “in kind” from what you do. If you were a shepherd you would bring a lamb, if you were a farmer you would bring crops, if you were a spice merchant you would bring spice. Why? Because God is saying “what you do is important to me” And I will delight in having a part in what you do. So that, if you work at home looking after the children, tending for the needy (or whatever). Then God wants you to know that what you do is every bit as important to him – and he will accept and delight in a tithe of your time every bit as much. It is not second rate. it is not about money – it never has been. It’s about your heart and your priorities before God.

Secondly, because when we are forced to trust God we always end up experiencing the truth that he never lets us down. God says in Chapter 3v10 ‘test me in this.’

I met a lady in a church where I was preaching. She said to me “I knew exactly what you were talking about today. She went on to tell me that her husband had become ill and had to give up work, and eventually she had to give up work to look after him. Their only income was from the benefit system. She said each Monday morning she would go and collect their money, come home and sort it out. The FIRST thing she did was put Gods money in Gods purse and then allocate the rest as necessary. She said in all of the time her husband was ill they never wanted for anything. They would often get up in the morning and an envelope with £50 or £100 had been pushed through the letterbox. Often a box of fruit and veg was left on the doorstep, or a tin with a cake in. God knew what their needs were and He provided.

You cannot out-give God! He says to us, “Go on test me”

Finally, Why is tithing important? Because ministry costs money!

What would happen if all of us gave 10% of what we earned or received to the Kingdom of God and His work here at St Peter’s? What would happen if that began next Sunday? Your ministry and your capabilities here would explode. They would multiply 3, 4, 5 times. What else could you do to reach out to your community in Oundle and share the love of Jesus? How many more children could you reach? How many young people? How many young families? How many more elderly people could hear about the love that Jesus has for them?  The people of God in this church would become the most powerful force for good in the whole area. Why? Because you would have the material resources that would be limited only by your lack of vision of where you put them to work.

 

Painting by Numbers

Given by: 

Stephen Webster

Date given: 

23rd October 2011

Book: 

Matthew

Chapter: 

22

Painting by Numbers

(Matthew 22: 34-46)

Photo - Stephen WebsterEarly morning sunshine is streaming through the windows of Phinehas the Pharisee. He opens his eyes, yawns, stretches, jumps out of bed and brushes his teeth.  And then he notices.  It’s there again.  That uneasy feeling that despite all his best efforts – something is wrong.

You see Phinehas is a good man.  He is a Pharisee.  And he longs to live his life at peace with God and at peace with his neighbour; a beautiful life lived in harmony with God and people around him.  But how to achieve it?  That’s the question.

Actually Phinehas is pretty sure he knows how to achieve it.  It’s all in Deuteronomy chapter 5.  God describes exactly how to live the beautiful life.  He gives 10 Commandments.  Follow those rules and surely you’ll live how God wants you to live.  And Phinehas is pretty sure he’s doing a good job on the whole 10 Commandments thing.  As he brushes his teeth he does a quick mental audit.

No gods before me

That’s an easy tick.  I mean it’s not as if he’s a Greek or a Roman or anything.  He knows there’s only one God and he’s worshipping the right one.

No idols, no images, nothing to worship and bow down to

Another easy tick.  Phinehas does a walk in his mind through each and every room of his large comfortable house.  Nothing.  Not an image. Not an idol – all absolutely clean.

Taking His name in vain misusing God’s name

Well – the very thought – unthinkable.

Observe the Sabbath day keep it holy – do no work.

One of Phinehas’s strong points this one.  I mean the trick with this one - if you really want to please God and live in harmony with Him - is to make sure you define work.  Phinehas has spent many years thinking about this question.

Apart from walking to and from Synagogue he tries to do absolutely nothing on the Sabbath day but sit still.  And he likes to help his neighbours keep the Sabbath too.  It makes him seethe with rage when they just don’t bother.  Just last Sabbath he’d had to yell across the street to old Miriam as she was blatantly staggering to lift feed for a donkey.

Using God’s name in a way he was sure the Almighty would appreciate he’d yelled ‘Don’t you fear God!’ across the street.  That made her drop her load in fright and run - stupid woman.

Honour your father and mother.

Phinehas has no trouble with this one either.  If occasionally Mother and Father need reminding of the commandments and correcting well isn’t that all part of properly honouring them?

Murder – adultery – theft – false testimony

Well they’re all simple ticks aren’t they?  However angry old Miriam makes him with her godless ways

 - however deeply he dislikes her - he isn’t actually ever going to murder the old fool is he?

And as for coveting.

Well what is there to covet?  Life is pretty well set up for Phinehas.  He has a very comfortable home, a good income, and lives a godly life.  I mean who could there possibly be to envy?  He can’t think of anyone he’d rather be than himself.

So as Phinehas does his daily mental check of the commandments he thinks – with all due regard to modesty - that he can probably award himself 10 out of 10.  Yep.  Ten ticks.

But the problem is: it’s there again.  That uneasy feeling – that despite all his best efforts something is wrong.  Why doesn’t he feel that he’s living the beautiful life in harmony with God and neighbour?  Why - despite having a big tick against each commandment doesn’t he feel at peace?

 ***

Well obviously I made Phinehas up.  He’s a stereotype.  But the point is this:

This fictional character Phinehas, he sets out in a committed and serious way to obey all the 10 Commandments: God’s blueprint for living a holy life.  And the result?  Pride. Anger. Hatred. And even though Phinehas sets out to have no gods before Yahweh, to worship no idols, he’s left with a sense that the God He wants to be at the centre of his life is somehow far away.  You can apparently follow all the rules and entirely miss the point.

As Nick helpfully pointed out last week we’ve reached a point in Matthew’s gospel chapter 22 – where the Pharisees and other religious leaders are in open confrontation with Jesus. They spend chapter 22 trying to trick Him and in chapter 23 Jesus will give them both barrels.

He will call them ‘sons of hell’ - ‘whitewashed tombs’ on the outside a respectable thin white veneer covering inside a pile of everything unclean and dead.  And why?  Well the Pharisees set out to follow God’s laws to the letter but end up proud and bitter and angry and full of hatred.

Remember old Miriam yelled at across the street?  ‘You tie up cumbersome loads on other people’s shoulders’ says Jesus, ‘and then are not willing to life a finger to help.’  ‘You shut the door of heaven’s kingdom in people’s faces.’  How could a people so set on following God’s laws end up behaving in such an ungodly way?

I recently saw a book for sale in The Works bookshop.  It was called Painting the Great Masters by Numbers.  Do you know about painting by numbers?  I’m not exactly sure – but I think it works like this.  You receive a copy of a great master.  Perhaps the Mona Lisa.     And you receive a canvas for you to paint onto.  And onto the canvas is marked the outline of the picture - a basic line drawing.  And on the line-drawing are lots of numbers.

You also receive masses of tubes of paint.  Instead of having their colour name on ‘cobalt’ or ‘cerise’ each tube has a number.  And what you need to do as the artist is put the right number paint onto the right number on your outline picture.  And lo and behold as you patiently do this so appears a perfect copy of the Mona Lisa.

The results are sometimes impressive and I’m sure it requires a good deal of skill and effort.  But of course you haven’t suddenly become Leonardo Da Vinci.  At best you’ve made a good forgery.  But not one that any art critic couldn’t see through.  Because the point is the painting didn’t come from within.  It’s just a reproduction – a fake made by following the instructions.  Following the instructions doesn’t make you a great artist.

Take the numbers away leave, you on your own and you can’t paint a great master.  You’re missing something vital: the flair – the creativity – the essence of the great artist.

The Pharisees aren’t great masters.  No, they’re just painting by numbers.  They’re following external instructions -  no work on the Sabbath, tithing all their goods, avoiding murder -  but missing the essence.  And the result?  Not the beautiful life – but a fake.

You can’t live the beautiful life of harmony with God and neighbour by following external instructions.  No, it has to come from within.  ‘Hearing that Jesus had silenced the Sadducees, the Pharisees got together,’ it says in today’s reading.

‘One of them a top lawyer tested Jesus with this question: “Teacher which is the greatest commandment in the law?”’

Now what will Jesus say?  Which bit of Deuteronomy 5 will Jesus turn to?  ‘You shall have no gods before Me’?  After all surely the very beginning of living that beautiful life is putting God first?

Or maybe ‘Keep the Sabbath day holy.’  A commandment that reminds us to put God at the centre and to have balance in our lives.

But no Jesus doesn’t go to any of Deuteronomy 5.  No he jumps straight to Deuteronomy 6. In the verses straight after the 10 Commandments.  ‘You shall love the Lord Your God with all Your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind’.  ‘That’s the greatest commandment’ says Jesus and for the second most important He takes the second half of a verse from Leviticus.  ‘Love your neighbour as yourself.’

‘All the Law and the Prophets’ he says ‘hang on these two commandments.’  The whole bible – all the scriptures ever written He says that’s what they all hang on; that’s what they’re all about:  ‘Love God with your whole being love others as yourself.’

Those 10 Commandments: that’s what they’re all about loving God and loving others.

‘I am the God who freed you from slavery.  I am the God who forgave you your wrong doings and rescued you from your old life, the addictions and the sorrows and the sins so don’t turn back to them.  Don’t worship idols or golden calves or money or possessions or rules or anything else.  They’ll leave you empty.  No put me first – because I love you.

And don’t work every hour I give you so forgetting me, forgetting yourselves – forgetting family – no, put aside the Sabbath day for worship, and rest and recreation because I love you.  Honour your parents, care for and don’t neglect an older generation.  And don’t harm each other.

Don’t kill; don’t commit adultery: think of the pain and grief it causes; and don’t steal or lie – or be forever longing for others’ possessions. No – if you love Me and love others this is how you will live.  That’s the beautiful life.  But the rules – they aren’t the point – love is the point.

Phinehas you strive and strive and think you put me first developing your allergy to anything that might possibly be a graven image or that might possibly by a stretch of the imagination be thought of as work on the Sabbath - but do you know Me?  Do you love Me?  You’ve followed the outward rules but don’t have the inner essence.  You put your rules before Me and you hate your neighbour.’

You see the 10 Commandments describe the kind of life we will live if we love God and others.  But if we have no love for God or others then following them slavishly simply as instructions will lead us to living a life that is fake.  Well stupid Pharisees I say.  How blind they were.  How lucky we are to be part of the Church following Jesus’ teachings and living lives of grace and love and forgiveness.

I have a friend. She’s not a Church goer. Won’t go near Church.  Her Father is a Christian minister.  ‘When I was a kid,’ she said, ‘I hated Sunday.  Church was so boring.  And afterwards we weren’t allowed to play out.  We had to wear our best clothes all day and only read books Dad had chosen in silence.’

Was that what God had in mind?  Is that why He gave us the Sabbath?  Because He wanted us to be miserable once a week?  Or was it because He wanted us to dedicate a day a week to having fun praising Him and thanking Him for all He has done for us?  A day resting and having recreation?  Of spending time with Him and with friends and family - enjoying the fact that we’re His family.  Love is the point not a dry keeping of the command.

You see I think that we’re just as tempted to fall into the trap of painting by numbers as the Pharisees.  After all painting by numbers is easier.  You’re not faced with a blank canvas.  You don’t have to work out what to do.  But the result is a fake, a travesty.  No – much harder is to paint the beautiful life inspired by love, working out at every step what to do next.   Much harder – but it’s the only authentic way.

In his book Getting Your Kids through Church without them Ending up hating God Rob Parsons tells of a young lad called David.  For a time Rob Parsons was involved in a Church where David – then  a young teen – played in the worship band and was part of the Church youth group.  A few years later Rob went back to speak at the Church but David was nowhere to be seen.

Later Rob bumped into David in town.  He was buying a Big Issue when Rob saw him.  They got chatting and David told him about a half-marathon he was planning to run for an AIDS orphanage in Uganda.

‘I didn’t see you at Church,’ says Rob.

‘Yeah well’ says David, ‘I stopped going there when I was 17.’

‘Why?’ asks Rob

‘Oh you know – I was a bit ashamed really, you know I got in with the wrong crowd.  Started smoking - got my nose pierced, my lip pierced – you know – not really Church kind of stuff.’

‘I cannot get David out of my mind,’ says Rob Parsons, ‘because David’s church had a list of “performance indicators” - maybe unspoken but powerful nevertheless - that were no where near high on God’s agenda.’

Smoking – not the best of habits; body piercings – not to everyone’s taste.  But on God’s agenda?  Not anywhere.  Not compared with - coming in at number 2 - ‘loving your neighbour as yourself.’

Loving your neighbour like the homeless Big Issue seller or AIDS orphans in Uganda.  And yet David felt he wasn’t good enough to be part of God’s family.

‘You hypocrites;’ says Jesus ‘you sons of hell you tie up cumbersome loads on people’s shoulders and don’t lift a finger to help.  You slam heaven’s door in people’s faces.’

‘“Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind”; that’s the greatest command.  And the second is like it: ‘Love your neighbour as yourself.’

Are you ever tempted to paint by numbers?  Are you ever tempted to make walking with God just about rules and ways of behaving?  So tempted that you forget to know Him and love Him With your whole being?

Ever so angered by other people’s rule-breaking that you forget to love them?

Something to think about as we finish: ‘Love God and do as you please.’ So said St Augustine.  Was he right?  ‘Love God and do as you please.’

Sorry Sir Sam and the 77

Given by: 

Steven Webster

Date given: 

2nd October 2011

Book: 

Matthew

Chapter: 

18

Sorry Sir Sam and the 77

(Matthew 18: 21-35)

 

Photo -Steve WebsterAs you might know  I used to be a secondary school English teacher. And one of my Year 11 students was nicknamed Sorry Sir Sam- Sorry Sir Sam. Sam’s two favourite words were, ‘Sorry Sir!’ – which he could deliver with amazing cheerfulness.

‘Have you got your homework Sam?’                                    ‘Oh Sorry Sir.’

‘Where’s your coursework Sam,’                                           ‘Oh Sorry Sir.’

‘Sam are you listening?’                                                      ‘Sorry Sir’

‘Sam have you still got no coursework?’                                ‘Sorry Sir’

‘Sam will we ever see a piece of coursework?’                         ‘Sorry Sir’

‘Sorry… Sorry… Sorry’

It has to be said at this point that the sorrow that Sam expressed almost never resulted in the production of coursework.

Sorry, Sorry, Sorry. ‘How many times must you forgive?’ That’s the question Peter asks at the beginning of today’s gospel reading. How many times must I forgive?

They’ve left their clothes in the middle of the floor                 AGAIN;

They’ve stacked the dishwasher all wrongly                           AGAIN

That loo seat – it’s been left up                                           AGAIN

Or that person at home or work or church, they’ve said that hurtful thing AGAIN.  They’ve put you down again.  How many times must you forgive?  At what point does it become reasonable to say, ‘I wash my hands of them. I’ll ignore them. I’ll keep out of their way.  They’ve done it once too often for us to remain friends.’  How many times must someone hurt you before that response is OK?  It’s a question on Peter’s mind.  ‘Lord how many times must I forgive someone who sins against me?’

All through these chapters of Matthew the disciples are constantly bickering.  So maybe Peter has someone specific in mind.  ‘Lord how many times must I forgive him?  Up to 7 times?’

7 times.  In Jewish thinking the perfect number.  7 times seems a reasonable amount.  More than reasonable; generous.  Maybe Peter’s expecting a pat on the back from Jesus.  ‘Well done Peter. You’re right.  You’ve got it.  Be generous.  Forgive people up to 7 times.’

But no.  ‘Not 7 times…’ says Jesus, ‘but 77 times.’ The perfect number 7, multiply it by 10 add the perfect number again.  7 times? No - keep on going Peter and keep on going.  By the way I don’t think the point here is to keep a very careful count and lie in wait until crime 78 happens and then pounce.

If you’re still counting at 77 you probably didn’t forgive them the other 76 times.

No Jesus’ point is… keep going Peter.  Don’t keep a count.  The day when you can think, ‘Now I don’t need to forgive’ - it isn’t coming.  So why?  Why should Peter keep on forgiving? That person who has hurt me… why do I need to forgive and to keep forgiving?

To explain Jesus tells a story…‘The Kingdom of Heaven’ he says, ‘is like a king.’ Want to know what heaven’s like?  How God operates?  Then listen to this story about a King. Here was once a King who wanted to settle accounts.  A man was brought in who owed him 10, 000 bags of gold or ten thousand talents.

Look at the footnote to verse 24.  ‘One talent’ it says, ‘was worth about 20 years of a day labourer’s wages.’  One talent: 20 years wages. And this man owes 10 000 talents. That’s 200,000 years of wages.  If we take the average UK wage to be £18 000, he’s racked up 3.6 billion pounds in debt.

What Jesus omits to say at this point is that this man obviously worked in the city of London probably as a trader for a Swiss bank.

200,000 years of wages.  Unless you’re a rogue trader in the city the numbers are ridiculous.  How on earth could you possibly rack up 200,000 years of wages?  Why is Jesus so extreme?  Why make the debt so large?  Well whatever the reason the point is: the man has forfeited his freedom.  The King orders that everything the man has be sold and that he and his family become slaves. The man owes an unimaginable debt and so everyday for the rest of his life he will work as a slave.

“Be patient with me,’ He says “I will pay it all back.”  Don’t you love his optimism?  200,000 years of wages.  ‘Be patient. I’ll pay it all back.’

Why did Jesus make the debt so improbably large?  Because it’s unrepayable.  The debt is unrepayable; the man faces a lifetime of slavery.  The Chief Rabbi Jonathan Sachs was on Thought for the Day on R4 this week and he said this.  In Hebrew and Aramaic the word for debt and the word for guilt are identical.  It’s the same word.  Debt and guilt the same.

I wonder if anyone here identifies with this man?  Once you did something wrong you hurt someone – you wronged them and now you can never ever put it right?  And you carry that around everyday.

Why does Jesus make the man’s debt so large?  Because sometimes we are like the man in the story.

Rev Maake Masango was the moderator of the South African Presbyterian Church and served on the Truth and Reconciliation Commission.  The Truth and Reconciliation Commission was set up as a way of bringing healing to South Africa after the pain and wounds inflicted during Apartheid.  At the Commission those who had committed crimes were brought face to face with those they had wounded.

In exchange for telling the truth about what they had done, facing up to the pain and grief they had caused, they received an amnesty from prison.  Rev Masango relates the story of a Captain in the South African Police brought face to face with an elderly South African woman.

The woman had been forced to watch as first her son and then on a separate occasion her husband were shot and murdered by a squad led by the Captain.  Rev Masango tells how the Captain explained that since those days he had become a Christian but then broke down in the court room.  Faced with this elderly grieving woman he broke down.  ‘How can I ever put it right?’ he said, ‘What can I ever do?’

An unrepayable debt that a lifetime of slavery will never put right.  None of us here has done quite what the Police Captain did.  We don’t carry his burden.  But maybe we carry around our own burden of debts we can never repay.  But there is good news.

We left the man in Jesus’ story on his knees begging for patience until he could repay the unrepayable.

But there’s no way to pay, just a lifetime of slavery. Until he hears these words: ‘Cancel the debt.    Write it off.  He owes nothing. Set him free.’

Imagine his reaction.  What was it like walking out from there?  Not a penny to pay. 200,000 years worth of wages – cancelled.  No life time of slavery ahead; no debt to work and work and work never to pay off.  Free.  Absolutely free.

Why did Jesus make the debt so large?  Yes - because sometimes we are like that man in the story.  But also because God is like that King.

You see forgiveness isn’t free.  Forgiveness costs.  Yes free for the man; he walks free; but not free for the King; it cost him 200,000 years of wages.  The man walked free – the King took the hit.

The God who says to us ‘Forgive not 7 times – but 77’, He is the God who forgives us, and forgives us again and again and again to 70 x 7 and far beyond.  But forgiveness is not free. There is a cost.  And it is the King who pays.  Remember Isaiah’s words spoken hundreds of years before Jesus.  ‘Surely He has borne our griefs and carried our sorrows. He was pierced for our transgressions, He was crushed for our iniquities.  The punishment that brought us peace was upon Him, by His wounds we are healed.’

Remember Jesus’ words the night before He died.  ‘My body will be broken for you.’  ‘My blood will be shed for you and for many for the forgiveness of sins.’

Forgiveness is not free.  It costs.  But the good news is that God has paid the price for our freedom.

On the cross Jesus carries our punishment that we – like the man in the story might walk free.  Forgiven.  Free.  With no lifetime of slavery and drudgery ahead.

Maybe you identify with the man in the story.  Maybe you feel you have a debt that can you never repay have done a wrong you can never put right.  What God wants you to know today is that the price is paid.  On the cross Jesus took your guilt.  It is enough.  It is finished.  You are His child and He loves you.  He doesn’t want you to live a lifetime of slavery and drudgery.  He wants you to be free – to live in freedom as His child.  From today. If any of that strikes a chord with you why not pray about it with the prayer team during communion or find a moment with Richard or me.

Of course Jesus’ story doesn’t finish with the man walking free.  It takes an extraordinary twist.  Because as the man skips out of that place 200,000 years of debt written off, he bumps into a man who owes him a denarius one day’s pay – perhaps £200.  And this man who’s been forgiven 200 000 years of debt takes the man who owes him one day’s worth of  wages begins to choke him and says, ‘Pay back what you owe me!’

The man begs on his knees.  ‘Be patient with me – I will pay it back’.  Where have we heard that before?  But the newly freed man has this debtor thrown in prison.  How absurd!  What an absurd detail for Jesus to put in the story!  Who – having been forgiven 3.6 billion could ever quibble over £200?

Why did Jesus put that in the story?  How could the man behave like that?  Well the only way of course is because he didn’t see himself as a forgiven debtor.  Ludicrous as it seems he’d forgotten what the King had just done for Him.

Why did Jesus put that in the story?  Because we’re like that all the time.  We forget who we are.  We forget what the King has done for us.

‘How many times must I forgive?’  Isn’t that the question of the person who feels they have nothing to be forgiven for?  And the truth is that that is none of us.  It’s not just that some of us here might be like the man who racked up an unrepayable debt.  It’s that we all have.  ‘We all like sheep have gone astray,’ says the prophet Isaiah, ‘each one of us has turned to our own way.’  All of us owe God big time.  But God loves us and through the cross He has wiped the debt clean.  He has paid the cost of forgiveness Himself.  We can be free forgiven today.

But each time that in our hearts we say, ‘I wash my hands of them.  I’ll ignore them.  I’ll keep out of their way.  They’ve done it once too often, I won’t forgive,’ we are forgetting who we are and what God has done for us.  Our debt He has wiped clean.  We’re free.  We’re His children.

All He asks is that as He has forgiven our billions so we forgive the pennies others owe.  And this comes with a warning.  If we refuse to forgive how can our heavenly Father forgive us?

These words can be really hard.  ‘If you do not forgive your heavenly Father will not forgive.’

I mean a thoughtless slight is one thing but what if the pain done to us is severe and deep.  What if a person has harmed us deeply and the harm can never be undone.  Will our heavenly Father punish us for failing when the task is so hard?

At one point in the gospels Jesus says to a man, ‘Do you believe?’ and he replies ‘Lord I do believe help me in my unbelief.’  If you’re the person struggling to forgive a deep and severe wound then how about this prayer: ‘Lord I want to forgive, help me in my unforgiveness.’ Because the person who asks for God’s help everyday to forgive; the person who wrestles with forgiveness and seeks help and prayer from other Christians as they struggle; that is a person who is working to do what Jesus asks.

‘Lord I want to forgive.  Help me today.’  That is a good prayer.

Because ultimately forgiveness is the only hope for our world.  Where ever the war, whatever the conflict, whatever the ancient hatreds, there’s only one way of ending them.  ‘Sorry’ and ‘I forgive’.  Without ‘sorry’ and ‘I forgive’ the pain never ends.  But with the kind of forgiveness seen through the cross comes the possibility of healing.

‘Where is justice?’ the victim may say, ‘What about my pain? I can’t just write it off.  Who’s going to take it?’  ‘He bore our griefs’ says Isaiah, ‘He carried our sorrows.’  The one on the cross He will carry it.  ‘By His wounds we are healed’

‘What about my guilt?’  The offender may say. ‘I can’t just pretend it never happened, I can’t just ignore it.  Where does it go?  ‘He was pierced for our transgressions,’ says Isaiah, ‘and bruised for our iniquity.

He – the one on the cross – that’s where it goes - He will take it.  ‘The punishment that brings us peace is upon Him.’

I mentioned an account of a Police Captain brought before the Truth and Reconciliation Commission who faced an elderly widow whose husband and son he had brutally murdered, A wrong he could never put right. The Captain who said he had become a Christian and then broke down saying, ‘How can I ever put it right?’ he said ‘What can I ever do?’  The woman did answer the Captain.  She was asked by the Chairman if she had anything to say.

‘Yes’ she said.  ‘I wish to say to the Captain that I too am a follower of Jesus.  And Jesus died to forgive me and him.  And I want him to know that I have forgiven him.  And there are three things the Captain can do. First I would like for him to come sometimes to my house and to visit me.  Maybe sometimes to bring me flowers because my husband used to bring me flowers and I have no husband now.

And second sometimes maybe to help me with the garden because I have no son to help me with my garden and third I would like it if the Captain were to think of himself as being a new son to me.’

He bore our griefs, He carried our sorrows, by His wounds we are healed…

What will it take for you today to know you are God’s forgiven child?

And what will it take for you to be His forgiving child?

Never, Lord!

Given by: 

Stephen Webster

Date given: 

28th August 2011

Book: 

Matthew

Chapter: 

16

‘Never Lord’

(Matthew 16: 21-28)

 

Photo - Stephen Webster On November 2nd 2008 a remarkable event happened in Pakistan.  A country with a population 95% of which are Muslim gained its first Christian cabinet minister.

Shabbaz Bhatti was 40; a deeply committed Christian with a reputation for integrity and opposition to corruption; a man who had repeatedly turned down preferment if it compromised his work advocating  the cause of Pakistan’s poorest communities.

In an interview before he became a government minister he said, ‘I don’t want government positions. I don’t want popularity; I don’t want any position.

Just a place at Jesus' feet is what I want.  I want that my life, my character, my actions speak for me and indicate that I am following Jesus.

Jesus lived with ordinary people, the poor and those in need.  I want to live for Jesus and if need be to die for Him.  Until then, until my last breath, I will continue to serve Jesus, to serve the poor, the suffering, the needy."

But in 2008 though, he did accept a government position.  He was asked to be ‘Minister for Minorities’ a post which for the first time became a cabinet post.

The 5% of Pakistan’s population who are not Muslim Christians, Hindus, Sikhs are amongst Pakistan’s poorest communities.  And often face exploitation, discrimination and worse.

On becoming Minister for Minorities, Shahbaz Bhatti said, ‘I accept this post for the sake of the oppressed, down-trodden and the marginalized.

I wish to do all in my power in the struggle for human equality, justice and religious freedom.’

One of the many people Shahbaz Bhatti tried to help as a government minister was Asia Bibi.  In 2010 after a conversation with some women in her village about Jesus she was accused of denigrating the prophet Mohammed and sentenced to death for blasphemy.  Shahbaz Bhatti championed her cause and campaigned for Pakistan’s blasphemy laws to be overturned.  Because of this he received frequent death threats.  But Shahbaz Bhatti refused to be intimidated saying he was not afraid to die for what was right.

A Christian in Pakistan’s government; a man standing up for justice; God’s person in the right place at the right time in a position to influence his country for good; someone able to campaign for reform at the highest level; able to do their bit to make the world a better place.  What a fantastic God-given opportunity!

But on the March 2nd this year as he was driving to work gunmen stepped out into the road and sprayed Shahbaz Bhatti’s car with bullets killing him instantly.

Why? Why did God allow it?  Why didn’t God protect this godly man?  Why allow this to happen to someone who was doing so much good?  Why would God allow His own purposes to be frustrated like that?

Do God’s ways ever seem baffling to you?  Do you ever find yourself crying out ‘Why?’

God why me?  Whatever did I do wrong?  Why do I have to struggle with this illness?  Why does everything go wrong for me?  If God loves me why does He let me go through such hard times?

If God’s ways ever seem baffling to you then you’re in good company.  The events of today’s gospel reading leave Peter baffled.

Peter has just had a moment of great revelation.  We heard about it in last week’s reading.  He has just put two and two together and worked out who Jesus is.

Jesus is the Messiah.  He’s the one foretold in those ancient promises.  He’s the Saviour, the Messiah, the Rescuer God promised to long ago to send.

You remember how the promises went.  The one who would proclaim good news to the poor, freedom for prisoners, sight for the blind; the one who set the oppressed free and usher in a Kingdom of God’s rule.

And Peter has seen Jesus at work.  He’s seen Jesus welcoming and restoring outcasts; healing the sick – freeing people from the burdens that weigh them down.  He’s seen God’s power at work in Him calming storms and feeding multitudes.  And Peter puts two and two together.

This is the Messiah.  ‘Who do you say I am?’ Jesus asked in last week’s reading. ‘You are the Messiah’ says Peter, ‘the Son of the Living God.’

Peter’s got it.  He understands.  ‘The Messiah - the Son of God.’

And if Jesus is the Messiah – then the best is yet to come.  The world hasn’t seen anything yet. Because Jesus and His disciples are on the way to Jerusalem to the city where once King David reigned. 

And if Jesus is the Messiah, well this can only mean one thing: when they get there God is going to do something amazing through Him.

In Jerusalem surely God will put His servant to reign on the throne of their Father David.  Messiah Jesus will take the government upon His shoulders.

God’s servant standing up for justice; God’s servant in the right place at the right time to usher in God’s rule; His Kingdom.

There in the right position to make the world look like God wants it to look.  What an amazing opportunity.  But… ‘No’ says Jesus. ‘No…’

Matthew writes: ‘from this time on Jesus began to explain to His disciples that He must go to Jerusalem and suffer many things at the hands of the elders, the chief priests and the teachers of the law, and that He must be killed and on the third day be raised to life.’

Imagine Peter’s bafflement.  ‘Never Lord,’ he says, ‘this shall never happen to You!’

What sense does it make?  Why would God let His long-promised rescuer – His own Messiah suffer and be killed?

Why would God allow this to happen to His servant when He is doing so much good?  When He’s just about to do so much more?

It makes no sense.  ‘Never Lord,’ says Peter, ‘this shall never happen to You!’

The Messiah suffer?  Be killed and on the third day rise?  Why? Suffering, pain, failure, shame, weakness, defeat where do they fit in with God’s plan?  How do they further God’s purposes?

Doesn’t God sort things out for His servants?  Doesn’t He protect them from hardship?  Isn’t God there to prevent us suffering?

Yes Peter wants to follow Jesus but at this point in Peter’s life he wants to follow Jesus down the road to victory.  He doesn’t want to follow Him down the road to pain failure and death.

And if I’m honest I’m not sure I do either.  But Jesus’ suggests that there’s a flaw in Peter’s thinking. And that there’s a flaw in my thinking too – and in many Christians’ thinking.

In 2005 a sociologist called Christian Smith undertook a survey of the beliefs of young people the 18s-30s - in American Churches. It was called the National Study of Youth and Religion.  After analysing the findings, he described the beliefs of Young American Christians as being what he called ‘Moral Therapeutic Deism’.  Moral Therapeutic Deism.

The Christians surveyed believed that God wants us to be kind to each other.  Their belief was Moral.  They generally expressed the view that the Christian life gave them a sense of meaning; of happiness and well-being.  Being a Christian was therapeutic.

They didn’t expect God to be very involved in their day-to-day lives.  A belief in a God who doesn’t involve Himself in human affairs is Deism.  Of course they didn’t believe God was always uninvolved. Their faith was after all therapeutic.

When faced with a difficulty or problem  They believed that God could be called upon to resolve it.  God generally uninvolved – but there when you need Him.

Moral Therapeutic Deism, thinking probably not confined to American Christians or young Christians.

Of course truths underlie this thinking.  God does want us to love one another and our enemies.  The Christian faith is moral.

Following Jesus does give us a right meaning and purpose in our lives.  And God does tell us to cast our cares and worries and problems on Him.  He is involved in our lives.

So what’s wrong with Moral Therapeutic Deism?  Well Jesus never promises that the Christian life will be a therapeutic ride.  He doesn’t say, ‘Want a sense of happiness and well-being? Come and follow Me!’

He doesn’t say, ‘Stephen come and follow Me.  I have rolled out a soft thick carpet for your feet - walk My way and I will make sure you never encounter hardship.’

No Jesus says, ‘If you want to be My disciple, deny yourself, take up your cross and follow Me.’  He says, ‘Lose your life for Me and you will truly find it.’

You see if I believe that the purpose of following Jesus is therapeutic to give me a sense of well-being then as soon as hardship and suffering come,I may begin to doubt that God loves me.    

I may ask ‘Why me?  What did I do wrong?  If you love me God why do you let me go through such hard times?’

But Jesus words in today’s passage show us that God never promises that those He loves won’t encounter hardship and difficulty.

‘Jesus began to explain to them that He must suffer many things and that He must be killed and on the third day rise.’

God’s own beloved Son suffered many things

‘Never Lord,’ says Peter, ‘This must never happen.’

‘Get behind Me Satan!’ says Jesus ‘Peter you’re doing Satan’s work for Him, tempting Me away from the road I must walk.’

‘You do not have in mind the concerns of God,’ He says but only human concerns.’  

Human concerns: ‘This must never happen.’

The human outlook: ‘Surely suffering, pain, failure, shame, weakness, defeat have no place in God’s plan.’

So what about God’s perspective?  What is that?  Why must the Messiah suffer many things and die?

Remember the words of Isaiah, ‘Surely He took up our pain and bore our suffering.  He was pierced for our transgressions and crushed for our iniquities.  The punishment that brought us peace was on Him and by His wounds we are healed.’

You see as Jesus walks towards the cross God doesn’t march in and stop Jesus suffering at the hands of human beings.  He doesn’t prevent apparent defeat;

No. He does something different.  He takes the bleakest looking defeat and He turns it into victory.

As the crowd hurl abuse Jesus says, ‘Father forgive them’, as a thief hangs next to Him in sorrow and despair, He says, ‘Truly I tell you today you will be with Me in paradise.’

‘My blood’ says Jesus, ‘shed for you and for many for the forgiveness of sins.’

Yes in Jesus God could have charged into Jerusalem on a stallion, swept away the Romans and established an empire.

But ‘My thoughts are not your thoughts’ says God, ‘neither are your ways My ways.’

No instead God chose to take up a cross, to take up our pain; to carry our sorrows. to be pierced for my wrongdoing and your wrongdoing.  Punished so that we might have peace; wounded so that we can be healed.

And as the good news of a God who knows the depths of human pain, a God who has paid the price of human wrongdoing, a God who through the cross brings forgiveness, cleansing, restoration, reconciliation has swept across the world and transformed billions of lives so Jesus’ death that looked so like shame and weakness and defeat is demonstrated as the greatest victory in history.

Following Jesus isn’t therapeutic.  He doesn’t promise us a pain free life.  In fact He promises the opposite.  ‘Take up your cross and follow Me’

He doesn’t promise to step in and prevent all defeat but He does demonstrate that at the cross, God turns defeat into victory.

He doesn’t promise to step in a prevent all sadness and suffering, but He does promise to walk with us every step of the way.

He does not say you will have no sorrows;  No. But He does say that on the cross He has carried them.

He says, ‘Give Me your all, your everything.  Lose your life for Me and you will truly find it.’

I don’t think that Shahbaz Bhatti expected the Christian life to be therapeutic.

‘Just a place at Jesus' feet is what I want.’ He said, ‘I want that my life, my character, my actions speak for me and indicate that I am following Jesus.

‘I want to live for Jesus and to die for Him.  Until my last breath, I will continue to serve Jesus, to serve the poor, the suffering, the needy.’

Living for Jesus wasn’t therapeutic for Shahbaz Bhatti.  It brought him hostility, pain and an early death.

But imagine a Church full of Shabaz Bahattis, a church full of people wanting nothing but to serve Jesus until their dying breath.

Wanting nothing but to share His good news and to serve the poor, the suffering and the needy, whatever the cost.

Imagine St Peter’s – full of people, me and you – giving our lives - our everything to Jesus.  Imagine the transformation that might bring in the community around us.

Shahbaz Bhatti received many death threats.  ‘Are you frightened of dying?’ asked a BBC reporter just before his death.  ‘I am very much inspired by the life of Jesus’ he said.  ‘When I see that Jesus sacrificed His everything for us,I ask myself, “How I can follow that path of Calvary?”

Our Lord said: "Come to Me, take up your cross, and follow Me".  I know what the meaning of the cross is and I am following the way of the cross.  I want to live for Jesus and I am ready to die for Him.’

‘Whoever loses their life for Me’ says Jesus, ‘will truly find it.’

What does it mean for me?  And what does it mean for you? to give your life to Jesus? To lose your life – your everything - for Jesus?

What might that begin to look like today? This week?

Compost Heaps and Pepper Shoots

Given by: 

Stephen Webster

Date given: 

17th July 2011

Book: 

Matthew

Chapter: 

13

Compost Heaps and Pepper Shoots

(Matthew 13)

 

Stephen WebsterIn our back garden is a compost heap.  Onto it we throw all our kitchen waste. Old tomatoes, apple cores, peelings and the like. And from it eventually comes lovely black rich compost for using in our flower pots and veg containers.

This year for the first time we decided to plant peppers.  After a few days little shoots began to emerge.

‘Fantastic!’ we thought, ‘that was easy.’  But as the little shoots grew taller we noticed that they all looked different.

Some with little hairy leaves, some spiky, some a pair of leaves, some in a pattern of four.

Buried in our lovely rich compost are all sorts of seeds.  Tomato seeds, cherry pips, all manner of weed seeds, that have found their way in.

And the problem is: Jane and I haven’t got a clue what pepper a shoot should look like.

So which ones need weeding out and which ones are peppers?

We had a look on the internet, studied lots of pictures of shoots but they all looked kind of small and green and shooty and we couldn’t quite agree on which ones to pick out.

So we let them grow.  I mean one day one of them might grow a pepper and that will be quite a strong indication.

Actually some of them are definitely tomatoes so we’ve repotted those…but otherwise who knows?

Sometimes you can’t tell the difference between the plant that you want and a weed until it’s full grown.

That’s the point Jesus makes in the parable He tells in today’s gospel reading.

He tells of a farmer who plants a field of wheat.  But overnight an enemy spreads weeds among the wheat and when the shoots come up the farm workers see that some of the shoots are weeds.

‘Shall we go and root out all the weeds?’ they ask the farmer?

‘No,’ he says, ‘because you might pull up some of the wheat by mistake.

No, leave it until harvest and we can sort it then when we can clearly see what’s weed and what’s wheat.’

So that’s the story Jesus tells but what does it mean for us?

Well Jesus does explains it for us.  ‘The one who sowed the seed,’ says Jesus, ‘is the Son of Man.’

So the farmer stands for Jesus who often calls Himself Son of Man.

‘And the good seed,’ He says, ‘are the people of the Kingdom, those who follow Jesus and accept Him as King.  ‘And the weeds,’ says Jesus, ‘are the people of the evil one, ’those who do not accept Jesus as King, who allow the evil one, Satan to reign instead.

The harvest says Jesus stands for the end of the age; the great sorting out when weeds are separated from wheat and thrown into a furnace;

Well, that’s Jesus explanation.  This is a parable about those who follow Jesus and those who don’t.

It’s a parable about judgment. It’s a parable in part about Satan – the evil one.  Uneasy listening.

The devil, fire and judgment?  Didn’t Jesus come to tell us about a God of love and grace and mercy?

An uncomfortable parable.  Uneasy listening.  But what does it mean for us?

In some versions of the bible  the word for ‘weeds’ is translated by the word ‘tares’ or ‘darnel’.

Tares and darnel both have something in common.  They’re both grasses that look very like wheat and they are both very common in Middle eastern grain fields.

And until you see the grain ripening until you see the fruit it’s very hard to tell whether your plant is wheat or weed.

So why did Jesus tell us this parable?

In 1095 Pope Urban II got distressed by the fact that the city of Jerusalem had come under Islamic rule.  So he issued a decree to the Christian Kings of Europe to have a pause in waging war against each other and to join forces and raise a Christian army and march to Jerusalem and win it back under Christian control

So began the Crusades : two hundred years of bloodshed.

In October 1097 a Christian army marching behind the cross of Jesus reached Antioch and for 8 months besieged its population. When they finally gained entry in June 1098, the Christian army set about systematically slaughtering the city’s Muslims and ransacking the mosque.

That was nearly 1000 years ago but that event and events like it continue to make it very difficult today for Christian people to share their faith with Muslim people.

How come Christians could ever have behaved like that?

How could you do that and claim to follow Jesus who said, ‘Love your enemies; do good to those who persecute you.’

Love your enemies,’ He said. ‘Do good to those who persecute you.’  Those were King Jesus’ orders.  Yet marching behind a great big cross they massacred people in the name of Jesus.

How come Christians have ever behaved like that?  Why did God let it happen in His name?

Over the centuries priests and bishops and archbishops and monarchs have engaged in battles and power struggles.

At the Reformation Christians tortured and burnt each otherfor believing different things about bread and wine.

On April 19th 1791 church bells rang out across cities like London, Bristol, Liverpool and across the land.

Churches celebrated by ringing bells: because William Wilberforce had been defeated in his first attempt to get a bill through parliament abolishing the slave trade.

How come Christians have ever behaved like that?

In South Africa parts of the Dutch Reformed Church were complicit in Apartheid.

Throughout Europe churches have had their part to playin a millennium of anti-semitism.

In Northern Ireland Christians of different traditions have for hundreds of years fought and killed each other.

Today Churches stand accused of condoning abuse, covering up scandal and of deceit.

How come Christians sometimes behave like this?

Well darnel and tares they’re very hard to tell apart from wheat until they’re full grown.  But by their fruit you can know them.

‘The good seed,’ says Jesus, ‘are the people of the Kingdom.’  The people who accept Jesus as King.

‘And the weeds,’ He says ‘are the people of the evil one.’  But wheat and weeds can be hard to distinguish.

A person might sit every Sunday in a church pew, might put on fine robes and wear a clerical collar, might be able to quote from scripture at length, might look like the real thing, like real wheat, might wear a great big red cross on their front, might raise a giant cross and march behind it, and claim to be winning territory for Jesus might do all those things but not actually be a child of the Kingdom, not actually have made Jesus the King of their heart.

King Jesus who said, ‘You’ve heard it said “eye for eye and tooth for tooth,” but I tell you if anyone slaps you on the right cheek, turn to them the other also.’

King Jesus who said, ‘You’ve heard it said, “Love your neighbour and hate your enemy”  but I tell you, ‘love your enemies and do good to those who wrong you.’

Who said,‘You’ve heard it said, “do not commit adultery” but I tell you ‘anyone who looks in lust has committed adultery in the heart.’

The wheat they are people of the Kingdom, people who have made Jesus their King.  The weeds – they allow Satan to rule.

So I don’t know about you but that poses a challenging question for me:  ‘Am I really serious about making Jesus my King?’

In my work, among my family, with my colleagueswith my neighbours?

Am I allowing Jesus to be King over all my attitudes and actions?  Am I wheat?

 

There is good news.  But before we get there, notice two challenging things about Jesus’ teaching.  

  1. For Jesus the evil one, Satan, the devil is real.

How come weeds grow up alongside wheat?  How come people who say they follow Jesus can live so differently from how He wants them to live?  This - says Jesus - is the work of the devil.

‘The enemy who sows bad seed’ says Jesus in v 39, ‘is the devil.’

Want to follow Jesus?  Want Jesus to be your King?  Then take Jesus’ teaching seriously. Listen to Him carefully.  There is an evil one who doesn’t want you do that.  For Jesus Satan is no myth.  He is real.  He is personal.  He wants to cause mayhem.

How come over the centuries Christians have done evil in Jesus’ name?  Because they allowed the devil a foothold.  They let him rule.

But stick close to Jesus.  Listen to His teachings each day.  Talk to Him each day.  Allow Him to be Your King and you’ll give Satan no foothold.

Challenge 1: For Jesus the evil one, Satan, the devil is real.

Challenge 2: In Jesus’ teaching judgment is a reality.  For Jesus judgment is real.

Listen to these words:  ‘As the weeds are pulled up and burned in the fire, so it will be at the end of the age.

The Son of Man will send His angels and they will weed out of His Kingdom everything that causes sin and all who do evil. They will throw them into the blazing furnace, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth.’

I don’t know how you feel hearing those words but I feel uncomfortable reading them.  But it’s today’s set passage.

The words of Jesus plainly speaking of fire and judgment.  Of judgment and punishment for all who do evil.

Jesus talking about fire and judgment?  Didn’t He come to tell us about a God of love and grace and mercy?  What has love got to do with judgment?  How could a God of love be a God of judgment?

Isn’t the judgement God – isn’t He Old Testament?  And the loving one New Testament?

Some Christians try to bring these two different views of God together by talking about balance.

Yes they say God is loving but we must balance that by remembering that He is a holy God of judgement who sometimes burns with wrath.

The problem for me, though, is that I’m left wondering, “Which God am I going to meet when I pray?”  The one angry with my lack of holiness or the gracious forgiving one who pardons it?

The problem with balance is that it gives us an incomplete God.  A God who is quite gracious but not completely gracious.

Yes there’s grace but He’s not all grace because we must never forget His wrath.

But surely there’s no such a thing as, “some grace”?  Some grace is no grace at all.

No the bible tells us that God is love. God is love; and when He’s angered – and when He judges - when He promises to root out everything that causes sin and to prevent all who do evil from entering His Kingdom, that is because He is Love.

God is a God of judgment because first of all He is a God of love.

You see, faced with evil what should love do?

A couple of weeks ago I listened on the radio as the parents and sister of Milly Dowler stood on the steps of a court in London and tried to put into words their grief and sorrow and rage at the fact that a man called Levi Bellfield had cruelly, violently, unjustly robbed them of a precious daughter, a much loved sister.

Standing on those steps, hearing the depth of their pain what is the response of love?  Doesn’t love cry out for justice?  When love sees the exploitation and murder of street children throughout the developing world; when love sees the sale of women into the sex trade in the Philippines; or grossly unfair trading practices that condemn millions to lives of permanent poverty;

What is the response of Love?

Is not Love enraged by the cruelty humans mete out to each other

Doesn’t a loving Father God burn with anger when His children are mistreated and abused?

It is because God is love that He judges.

It is because God is love that He promises a day when He will weed out of His Kingdom all that causes sin.

It is because God is love that He promises a day when He will say ‘No more.’  ‘You who hurt and damage and destroy and exploit,  all you who do evil – you have no place in My Kingdom.  For I am love.  My law is love.’

But I’m left worried.  Because I’m thinking am I wheat or weeds?  I mean if I really look honestly at my heart?  Do I meet the standards of the King?  Have I really made Him my King?  Do I love as He loves?

And the only answer I can give is no – by a long way no.  And I’m in despair – but God who is Love has good news for me.

On the night before Jesus dies He has a meal with His friends.  And taking the cup of wine He says to them,  ‘Drink this – all of you – for this is My blood of the new covenant.  It is shed for you and for many for the forgiveness of sins.’

A cup of wine, a sign pointing to blood shed, Jesus’ blood shed for you, for me, for many, for our forgiveness.

Love must judge must judge everything in me that is unkind, hard, selfish, unloving.

Love must judge; But the King of Love, He dies in my place, receives the judgement that should have been mine so that I can be free.

Jesus’ blood shed for you, for me, for many, for our forgiveness.  Grace. God’s free forgiveness, for all want to turn from wrong and accept Him.

And the response?  To say ‘Thank You!’ And to decide every day to make the King of Love My King; and to let Him little by little change me.

A Beautiful Blue Pearl

Given by: 

Stephen Webster

Date given: 

3 July 2011

Book: 

Genesis

Chapter: 

1

A Beautiful Blue Pearl

 (Genesis 1, Matthew 20:20-28)

In 18 days time it will be 42 years since a human being first stepped onto the moon.  Astronaut Jim Lovell said, ‘We went to the moon to learn about the moon.  And we did learn a lot about the moon but what we really learnt about was earth.’

Beneath Neil Armstrong’s feet dry barren dust.  For millions and millions and millions of miles in every direction airless hostile emptiness populated only by occasional worlds, some so cold that methane freezes or so hot that rock melts or balls of nothing but thick toxic gas.

And then they saw a sight never before seen in human history.  They watched from the moon as the Earth rose.

They watched as the rays of the sun lit up a tiny beautiful blue pearl.

The only thing of colour in an expanse of cold lifeless black and white.  A stunning heart-stoppingly heartbreakingly beautiful blue pearl.

‘When I first looked back at the earth, standing on the moon,’ says Alan Shepard from the Apollo14 Mission ‘I cried.’

There floating free in an empty expanse in a moist membrane of bright blue sky, the earth.

Covered with oceans of temperate water and teeming green forests, a tiny blue pearl –  everything set up just perfectly: a paradise of life.

Just the right distance from its star with just the right protective bubble of atmosphere to make life possible.  Beautiful, perfect but tiny.

‘I put up my thumb and shut one eye,’ says Armstrong and that tiny pea, pretty and blue - planet Earth – was blotted out.  I didn't feel like a giant. I felt very, very small.’

‘Put your thumb up and hide the Earth’ says Jim Lovell. ‘and everything that you've ever known, your loved ones, your business, the problems of the Earth itself - all lie behind your thumb. How insignificant we really all are.  And how fortunate.’

How insignificant. How fortunate.  How amazingly fortunate you and I are.

‘When I consider your heavens, the work of your fingers, the moon and the stars, which you have set in place,’ says the Psalmist,

‘What are mere mortals that you are mindful of them, human beings that you care for them?’ 

And yet our amazing creator God has made this stunning paradise on which we live and has given us life so that we can enjoy it and care for it.

‘God saw all He that He had made,’ said the words of our first reading ‘and it was very good.’

So very good, so precious, so beautiful, so fragile - in need of our care.

Space shuttle astronaut Ulf Merbold said this about his first flight. ‘For the first time in my life’ he says ‘I saw the thin seam of dark blue light - our atmosphere.

This was not the ocean of air I had been so often told about but a thin delicate precious membrane standing between us and the hostile vacuum of space. I was terrified by its fragile appearance.’

The precious blue pearl held within a delicate membrane.  A beautifully self-regulating atmosphere.  Carbon – in the form of carbon dioxide put into the atmosphere by living organisms.

Carbon locked back into the earth by dying organisms. 

‘The LORD God took the man and put him in the garden’ we’re told in Genesis, ‘to work it and care for it.’

Put here in this earth to work it and care for it.

‘So God created human beings in His own image, in the image of God He created them, male and female He created them.’  You and me created in the image of the creator, created to reflect the character of the creator.  Created to care for this beautiful fragile blue pearl just as the creator does.

But something went wrong didn’t it?  We human beings, we looked round at this gorgeous paradise and we said,‘The earth is OURS and everything in it.’

Over the last 200 years we’ve found amazing uses for the ancient carbon stores coal and gas and oil that we found under the earth. By burning this carbon we found that we could power amazing machines that over 200 years transformed the western way of life.

It began with steam powered engines in factories.  Now nowhere in the country is more than a day away in our oil burning cars.  The other side of the world is only a day’s jet-engined flight away.  

And gas and coal fired power stations, fire up our houses with light and power our computers and dishwashers, washing machines and tumble dryers and mobile ’phones.

It has transformed our way of life and given us in the western world wealth unimaginable to previous generations.  Populations that ate meat on feast days now demanded it daily.

Where for one generation a holiday by train in Skegness or Bournemouth was a prized luxury, a new generation grew up expecting to fly to Spain, Greece, Indonesia.

Once a novelty for the rich having, one car, two cars per family became a necessity - we designed our towns that way.

New cars, new phones, new computers, new houses, new clothes - we became used to consuming, consuming, consuming.

And in the next 20 years 2.5 billion people in China and India are about to catch up and do the same.  But there’s been a cost to all this consumption.  Since 1950 we have stripped the earth of half – yes – half of all its rainforests.  We have deprived countless species of plants and animals and native peoples of their habitats and means of life.

Species are currently going extinct on our planet somewhere between 100 and 1000 times faster than has been the case over earth’s history. The ocean’s fish stocks in many places are in danger of collapse.

We are living beyond our means.  We are using and spending the earth’s resources faster than they’re being replenished.

And by burning all this oil, gas and coal we’ve begun to mess with that beautiful self-regulating atmosphere.  We’re burning the carbon we’ve found locked in the earth and throwing it up into the atmosphere as carbon dioxide.

Our planet is getting hotter and almost every scientist who studies this - 98% of climate scientists say that it is our burning of carbon of oil, coal and gas in the engines of our cars and planes to make electricity for our homes that is causing this.

And this warming is having a serious effect. 6 years ago scientists studying the arctic ice predicted that by the end of this century the arctic will be free of ice in the Summer.

Having made more studies of the water beneath the arctic ice this week the prediction was revised.

Ice free summers in the arctic may be between 10 & 20 years away.

5 years ago scientists said that the Antarctic ice sheet was so thick it would probably never melt.

Recent satellite images suggest that it may now be melting faster than the arctic.

The rise in sea levels this will bring is very bad news for some of the world’s poorest populations like those living in the low-lying Maldives and flood prone Bangladesh.

And so are the changes to weather patterns that happen in a warmer world as deserts grow and extreme floods and wilder hurricanes become more common.  The truth is that within the lifetime of my children - Emily, Daniel and Samuel life on our planet may become much less comfortable, much more challenging.

Well enough of all this doom and gloom Stephen.  What does God have to say about all this?

Well to answer that question I want us first to think about 2 things Christians sometimes say about it all.

  1. God told us to rule over the earth didn’t He?  So isn’t using its resources for ourselves fine?

     2.  Worrying about the environment isn’t the Church’s job.

God told us to rule over the earth.

Using its resources for ourselves is fine isn’t it?

Look at Genesis 1: 27 and 28 it’s right there:

‘So God created human beings in His own image, in the image of God He created them; male and female He created them.’ ‘and God blessed them and said… ‘fill the earth and subdue it. Rule over the fish in the sea and the birds in the sky and over every living creature that moves on the ground.’

So there we are.  Chopping down rainforests, industrialised fishing of the sea are fine.

Just part of subduing the earth and ruling over it.

I don’t think so.!

In the ancient world when a King had a great empire which stretched over many lands he might appoint in a faraway colony, someone to act as His viceroy.

And he might give that viceroy a ring to wear a ring which was imprinted with the face of the King, his likeness – his image.

And the viceroy’s job was to rule with the authority of the King, to rule in the manner that his King would rule and to use the ring he’d been given to stamp the King’s image on the laws he passed.  To rule in the manner of the King.  In all his acts to make an imprint of the King’s image.

We are made in God’s image.  To be his viceroys on earth.  To rule in the way God would rule, that all our acts might bear His image.

God has clear ideas about what makes a good ruler.

And I’m told that the Hebrew word ‘rada’ used for ‘rule over’ in these verses carries those meanings.  In God’s eyes good Kings are Shepherd Kings.  A King made in God’s image cares for and serves for those they rule.

Kings who act as tyrants, who use those under their care for their own ends, who ravage and exploit and destroy, they are not Kings made in God’s image.

No a King made in God’s image, well, He washes the feet of those He came to rule.  A King made in God’s image – well He might die for love of those He serves.

‘You know that the rulers of the Gentiles lord it over them’ says Jesus, ‘Not so with you.  Instead whoever wants to become great among you must be your servant and whoever wants to be first must be your slave.’

‘Rule over the earth’ says God, ‘be my viceroys. Bear my image.’  But what will the King say when He comes to see what His viceroys have done.

How we have treated the precious fragile beautiful planet we were entrusted with?

When He comes and finds the whole of creation groaning under the rule of a tyrant?

Here’s a second thing Christians sometime say about the environment.

Worrying about the environment isn’t the Church’s job.  Going out and making disciples, encouraging more people to follow Jesus that’s the Church’s job.  Preaching the gospel is the Church’s job.

To which I say ‘Amen.’  That is absolutely the core of the Church’s job.  And I’ll tell you what I understand the gospel to be.

 God made a beautiful world and he made people to love Him and know Him.

  1. But human beings turned away from God.  They turned to greed and selfishness. They hurt each other and spoilt the beautiful world He had made.
  2. So God came to rescue them.  In Jesus He came.  To show humans a different way to live and by dying and rising to bring them forgiveness.

At the heart of the gospel is the fact that I need a Saviour.  Someone to save me from my selfishness and greed, someone to bring me forgiveness, someone to help me live differently.

And Jesus is that Saviour and His Holy Spirit helps me to live differently.

That is the Gospel.  God made a beautiful world.  We spoilt it.  Through Jesus He calls us to repent.  He forgives us and calls us to live differently.

At a time when humans are busily and selfishly harming that precious blue pearl God gave us, I think that the call to repentance, the offer of forgiveness and the wonderful possibility of a different way of living is a message that has never been more relevant.

So what is God’s message to us this morning?  How is He asking us to change?

 1. Care.

 ‘The LORD God put the man in the garden to care for it.’  God wants you and me to care for His world.  So next time you politely curse the energy efficient light bulbs, and next time someone nags you about recycling or switching lights off or bangs on about whether car journeys or plane journeys are necessary,

and you feel yourself (in spirit) about to roll your eyes and think, ‘how boring,’STOP. And think ‘God wants me to care. It matters.’

 2. Think

            As you begin to care, think.  Think about the ways that you and I consume more than our fair share of the world’s resources.  The food we buy – how far has it been flown across the world?  The clothes we buy – do we buy often and cheap and discard?

The way we travel, the energy we use at home.  Maybe for you it’s ‘start thinking’.  Maybe it’s ‘carry on thinking’.

As far as I’m concerned, I’m perhaps only beginning to think through the implications of all of this for our life.

3. Do something

            Take steps to make a difference.  Maybe small steps.

That mile journey to the shops in Oundle, are you in a position where you could walk it or cycle it?  Could you get in the habit of walking and cycling those distances.

Going further away?  Could bus or train replace the car?  Could the ferry replace the plane?  Those options burn much less carbon per passenger.

Too complicated?  Too inconvenient?  Think about this: On about October 15th this year an important person will be born: the 7 billionth alive on our planet.

Now 7 billion people can’t live the way I live: in a home with central heating or air conditioning, eating meat every day, driving a car to the shops, machine washing and tumble drying the clothes, flying off on an annual holiday.

At least if 7 billion people do try to live that way then I think in no time we’ll turn our beautiful blue planet into a dry lifeless wilderness.

Caring for God’s world, loving my neighbour as myself -

Maybe my distant neighbour living in poverty in a lands where the desert is encroaching or flooding threatens.  My distant neighbour who dreams of a life like mine  -

Caring for God’s world. loving my neighbour as myselfmeans that I do need to start thinking of ways that I can live more simply.

And embracing new technology that can give us less harmful ways of creating energy.

‘So God created human beings in His own image,’ put them in the garden to care for it, said, ‘rule over the fish in the sea and the birds in the sky over every living creature…’

So you and me this week?  How will we choose to rule?

Will the image of our loving gentle good creator God be seen in all our actions?

Will we be like the King Jesus we follow?

Will we love and serve all that we have been given to rule?

The Great Commandments

Given by: 

John Barratt

Date given: 

23rd October, 2011

Book: 

Matthew

Chapter: 

22

Matthew 22. 40:  “On these two commandments hang all the Law and the Prophets.”

   Last week we had an unusual experience, listening to a Jewish teacher in our church service.  Today’s Gospel reading, as with so much of St. Matthew’s Gospel, reminds us that Jesus of Nazareth was a Jewish teacher, whose teaching came from his understanding of the Jewish sacred texts we call the Old Testament. 

   The question was, which of all the many commandments in the Jewish law was the greatest. The answer came from the Book of Deuteronomy [6:5]: “You shall love the Lord, your God, with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your might”, but then immediately a second is added, this time from the Book of Leviticus [19: 18]: “You shall love your neighbour as yourself”.  Strictly, there can only be one ‘greatest’ commandment; why did Jesus answer with two?  Since this teaching is recorded in all three very carefully written Gospels of Mark, Matthew and Luke, we need to look more closely.

   We then find that Jesus regarded the two commandments as meaning the same thing; the second is “like” the first.  Throughout his Gospel, St. Matthew starkly records Jesus’ scorn of hollow, formal religion.  Here, Jesus steers away from empty formalities which might be encouraged by the greatest commandment’s abstraction, and gives it some challenging substance.  Jesus was concerned that ordinary people, not just experts, should understand the heart of religious faith and, together, the two commandments enable anyone to do so.  Other New Testament writers follow this lead.  St. Paul, writing to the Galatians [5: 14] and to the Romans [13: 9], states that “You shall love your neighbour as yourself” summarises all commandments. The Letter of James [2: 8 and 17] refers to it as “the royal law according to the scriptures” and states that “faith by itself, if it has no works, is dead”.  So much for the Law.

   What about the Prophets?  Repeatedly through centuries of hardship and foreign oppression, prophets had insisted that God does not want prayer, ritual, liturgy, or sacrifices as formal ends in themselves, but he does want the practice of righteous justice throughout the world.  Here are some brief extracts of those courageous messages, when prophets challenged abuse by powerful people:

  • Amos [5:21-24]:  “I hate, I despise your festivals and I take no delight in your solemn assemblies. ...  But let justice roll down like waters, and righteousness like an ever-flowing stream”.
  • Hosea [6:6]:  “For I desire love and not sacrifice, the knowledge of God rather than burnt offerings.”
  • First Isaiah [1: 11-17]: “What to me is the multitude of your sacrifices ...?  ... bringing offerings is futile; incense is an abomination to me.  ...  Wash yourselves; make yourselves clean; remove the evil of your doings ...; seek justice, rescue the oppressed, ...”.
  • Micah [6: 6]: “Shall I come before him with burnt offerings ...?  Will the Lord be pleased with thousands of rams, with ten thousands of rivers of oil?...  He has told you, O mortal, what is good; and what does the Lord require of you but to do justice, and to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God?”
  • Jeremiah [7: 4 – 11] was commanded by God to stand before the Temple gates and address those entering.  “Do not trust in these deceptive words: ‘This is the temple of the Lord, ...”.  If you truly amend your ways ..., if you truly act justly one with another ... then I will dwell with you in this place ...”.
  • Finally, third Isaiah [58: 5- 7]:  “Is not this the fast that I choose: to loose the bonds of injustice ... to let the oppressed go free, and to break every yoke?  Is it not to share your bread with the hungry, and bring the homeless poor into your house ...?”.

   The two apparently separate Commandments thus become the two sides of a single coin when we understand the connection between them.  Hosea is a good example:  “I desire ... the knowledge of God rather than burnt offerings.”  We don’t ‘do’ burnt offerings in King's Cliffe [apart, perhaps, from next week’s fireworks!], but we do need knowledge of God.  Our own unfocussed understanding, rooted only in ourselves, is far too limited to accept the immense challenge of meeting our neighbours’ needs in Good Samaritan style.  We must use our worship, prayers and reverence, privately and here in church, as a means to knowledge of God – seeking more clearly to understand how God sees our circumstances, and thus being energised to act accordingly. 

   Three remarkable African women were recently awarded the Nobel Peace Prize.  My newspaper’s account [Guardian, 8:10:11] of Leymah Gbowee’s story begins after Liberia had endured 14 years of civil war when, in her words she “started to cry and to pray”.  More and more women joined her “on a dusty football field opposite the fish market in [the capital city].  In 2002, this is where she sat every day dressed in white, with thousands of women praying and fasting for peace.  The then dictator’s convoy drove past the field every day, where the women risked their lives by sitting there in the knowledge his men could simply open fire on them.  ...  ...  [I]n 2003 ... she led hundreds of women to [the] City Hall, demanding an end to the war.  ‘We the women of Liberia will no more allow ourselves to be raped, abused, misused, maimed and killed,’ she shouted. ... ”  Under her leadership the women gave the three warring factions three days to deliver an unconditional ceasefire, and soon afterwards a Peace Accord was negotiated.  The title of a film about her life shows the link between her visionary courage and her prayers.  It is Pray the Devil back to Hell”.  

   At his recent Party Conference, David Cameron said: “If you’re cynical, go to Wythenshawe ...it used to be ravaged by crime and drugs and graffiti.  But local people opened a community hall and gym.  They got the kids of the streets.  They cleared up the graffiti and kicked out the drug dealers.”  He didn’t say that this remarkable enterprise began with the decision of a small church, declining in numbers, increasingly irrelevant to its situation and in 1996 threatened with closure.  Its members decided to engage with the reality of people’s lives around them. 

   After much prayer, they linked up with potential local youth leaders, and their former church now houses the gym and a whole range of community facilities.  An ever-stronger church’s activities take place within an enlarged and modernised charitably-owned building complex, alongside and involved with the well-used community activities.      

   The same sequence of prayer providing enlightened empowerment to undertake risky action when speaking truth to power, was shown by Archbishop Williams’ and local church leaders’ in their recent confrontation with President Mugabe.  The Archbishop afterwards declared: ”I have seen the church here, and it works!”

   St. Paul, reasoning with Athenian philosophers [Acts 17: 27 – 28], spoke of people “groping for God, ... in whom we live and move and have our being”.  Just after last Christmas, the Archbishop spoke on the radio about “the root of religious practice.  It’s looking down and down and down to something that doesn’t have a bottom ... but seeing that that very infinity somehow opens out onto what I call God, who is the context, the environment in which everything makes sense, the bottomless Resource of action, intelligence and love.” 

   Paul’s, and the Archbishop’s, message was that this indescribable power was prayerfully made personal by Jesus, a crucified rural peasant who defied social and military power to fulfil the vision of the Prophets.  Jesus’ practice for recognising reality can become an alternative normality for us, building up our maturity as human beings.     

   The cheap emptiness of merely formal religion doesn’t work; we end up either utterly bored, or obsessed with insubstantial trivialities.  As that world-renowned medieval theologian St. Thomas Aquinas is reputed to have said: “God is not the answer; he is the question”!  Dare we obey ‘the greatest Commandment’ by using our worship, our prayers, our contemplations, in such a way that they enlighten, extend and empower us to value others properly? 

The second meeting between Moses and God

Given by: 

Geoffrey Dannell

Date given: 

16th October 2011

Book: 

Exodus

Chapter: 

33

Good morning. It is a privilege to stand here before you and to be asked to comment upon a portion  of the Old Testament, the equivalent of  the weekly  portion known to Jews as the Sidra, which forms part of the annual Sabbath readings from the  Torah, read  over the course of a year.

It is appropriate to be talking about the period the Jewish people spent in the wilderness, since today is part of the festival of Succoth, when Jews are enjoined to build replicas of the temporary booths, which they lived in at that time of the Exodus, and to celebrate the Harvest Festival.

Today we come to Exodus Chapter 33, verses 12 -23, which deal with the second meeting between Moses and God, after the Children of Israel had danced before the Golden Calf, and the Tables of the Law lay shattered at the foot of Mount Sinai, and I am asked to comment on the passage from a Jewish perspective.

For context we must remember God's commitment in the earlier Verse 2, where it is promised that an angel will precede Moses and the Children of Israel into the lands promised to them; and also Verse 11 where God is said to have spoken 'face-to face' with Moses. Both of these elements are reflected in the interpretation of our current passage.

It is a seminal piece, because it sets out the terms of Jewish Revelation,  not only the extraordinary relationship between Moses and God, and therefore man and God, the essence of God's attributes, but deals with the often vexed question of Israel - or Jews - as a 'chosen people', and the often ill-perceived sense of the superiority of that position.

In Verse 12 Moses displays his unease at being asked to fulfil his mission alone, for previously, as we have seen, he was promised the guidance of an angel. The most famous Jewish commentary was given by the Rabbi Nahmanides known better as the Ramban, born at Girona in 1194.

He explained in The Guide for the Perplexed, 2:34 that the verses refer to a prophet to whom an angel would speak and give guidance, and later commentators explain that the reference must be to Moses himself, perhaps inspired through the medium of an angel representing the 'Glory of God'.

In verse 13, even while apparently God's voice has assured Moses of his favour, doubts persist for Moses says, 'Now therefore, I pray thee, if I have found grace in thy sight, show me thy way, that I may know thee, that I may  find grace in thy sight; and consider that this nation is thy people.' The Talmud, which is the Rabbinic commentary on the Pentateuch or Torah, understood this to mean that that Moses wanted to know the principles upon which God would deal with humans, granting goodness, health and prosperity to some, but adversity to others, so that he, Moses,  could both lead and govern the people in accordance with the divine will.

God's reassurance in verse 14 is ambiguous, 'My presence shall go with thee ' but Moses is concerned that this may not extend to those who had so lately profaned. So he tries again, saying in verses 15 and 16, that unless God accompanies the Israelites on their journey, they would be better to stay at Sinai, but if they were to travel together, then Israel would be distinguished from all other peoples by that honour.

Now this word 'distinguished' was considered by the Rabbis only to mean the closeness of the bond between the Divine and Israel as expressed in the Ten commandments. This was the covenant between the  Israelites and their God. It had no purpose beyond them, for it had no relevance to those nations who were outside, or chose to be outside,  the contract. But it was natural, that later  in a world of competing religious beliefs 'distinction' should have been used by non-Jews to insinuate that Jews thought themselves in some way superior by their preferment.

The relationship of the covenant  is clearly expressed in the prayer known as the 'Shema' which is said by observant Jews three times a day. It replaced the recitation of Ten Commandments which was eliminated in the Rabbinic  redaction of the Torah around  c. 220 CE by Juda ha Nasi when the persecution of the Jews and the passage of time raised the possibility that the details of the oral traditions dating from times of the Pharasees could be lost after the destruction of the Second Temple. The first verse found in Deuteronomy Chapter 6:4-9 encapsulates the monotheastic essence of  Judaism and declares "Hear, O Israel: the Lord is our God, the Lord is one," and goes on in Chapter 11:13-21:

'And it shall come to pass, if ye shall hearken diligently unto my commandments which I command you this day, to love the LORD your God, and to serve him with all your heart and with all your soul,

That I will give you the rain of your land in his due season, the first rain and the latter rain, that thou mayest gather in thy corn, and thy wine, and thine oil.

And I will send grass in thy fields for thy cattle, that thou mayest eat and be full.

Take heed to yourselves, that your heart be not deceived, and ye turn aside, and serve other gods, and worship them;

And then the LORD's wrath be kindled against you, and he shut up the heaven, that there be no rain, and that the land yield not her fruit; and lest ye perish quickly from off the good land which the LORD giveth you.

Therefore shall ye lay up these my words in your heart and in your soul, and bind them for a sign upon your hand, that they may be as frontlets between your eyes.

And ye shall teach them your children, speaking of them when thou sittest in thine house, and when thou walkest by the way, when thou liest down, and when thou risest up.

And thou shalt write them upon the door posts of thine house, and upon thy gates:

That your days may be multiplied, and the days of your children, in the land which the LORD sware unto your fathers to give them, as the days of heaven upon the earth.'

That is the covenant, and the duty of all those who wished to be Jewish, was to observe this two-way relationship.

Thus  Jewish Rabbis emphasised the need to know and to understand the Torah, which became the central part of synagogue, family and social life. Paradoxically as I view it today, it was within the Moslem world that Jews, known as the Sephardim from the Jewish word for Spain Sepharad,  flowered in a golden age until their expulsion by the  militant Christianity of Ferdinand and Isabella in 1492.  In Eastern and Northern  Europe, where the so called Ashkenazi Jews lived, they were forced into closed communities, with little outside contacts and study was almost the sole outlet. No wonder that Jews have the reputation for academic prowess - it was simply part of their enforced lifestyle, and of course as they were forcibly separated, so that separation became construed as wilful.

Returning now to our current passage, we come to the most difficult part of the reading. God assents in verse 17, showing his trust in Moses, who, perhaps overcome by the event, asks for Divine revelation - the Glory of God  or his eternal qualities. Those God is prepared to reveal, saying: 'I will make all my goodness to pass before thee; and will be gracious to whom I will be gracious, and will show mercy on whom I will show mercy.' Grace in this context, the Hebrew word 'Chen', means 'favour' or 'goodwill', while the mercy is held by the Rabbis, to be for  the fallen and penitent House of  Israel waiting at the foot of the mountain.

This revelation of favour and mercy should be for Jews, the sublime principle of the Imitation of God and the Rabbis expressed it: ' Even as I am merciful, be thou merciful; even as I am gracious, be thou gracious.' For man does not innately have, or can have, the qualities of God, but in life must imitate those qualities for the good of all mankind.

Perhaps this can best be illustrated in the way in which Jews are enjoined to observe the Sabbath as set out in the  the 4th Commandment:

'Remember the Sabbath day, to keep it holy. Six days shalt thou labour, and do all thy work: But the seventh day is the Sabbath of the LORD thy God: in it thou shalt not do any work, thou, nor thy son, nor thy daughter, thy manservant, nor thy maidservant, nor thy cattle, nor thy stranger that is within thy gates: For in six days the LORD made heaven and earth, the sea, and all that in them is, and rested the seventh day: wherefore the LORD blessed the Sabbath day, and hallowed it.'

So nothing which might be construed as creative or work of any kind was permitted. However, the Rabbis explained that God's mercy meant that it is a paramount duty for a Jew  to act to save life, no matter what Sabbath laws concerning work might be broken in so doing.

In Verse 18, Moses asks that God should reveal himself in his glory but  God refuses to reveal his physical form and attributes - they are too all consuming, so he proposes to Moses that he be placed in a cleft in a rock, while God passes by, presumably as Divine radiance, and that God's hand shall shield him until, Moses can see Gods back.

The Rabbis see in this the effect of the teachings of God, and man's imitation of those teachings. God is to be seen by Moses as the wake of a ship which has passed, by the Divine footprints in human history or his traces in the human soul.

It is also a reflection of the Second Commandment already give to Moses in Verse 20.4:

'Thou shalt not make unto thee any graven image, or any likeness of any thing that is in heaven above, or that is in the earth beneath, or that is in the water under the earth: Thou shalt not bow down thyself to them, nor serve them: for I The Lord thy God am a jealous God, visiting the iniquity of the fathers upon the children unto the third and fourth generation of them that hate Me; And showing mercy unto thousands of them that love Me, and keep My Commandments.'

This insistence on the mystery of God is central to Judaism as a monotheastic faith. Remember that it took nearly 300 years for Christianity to accept  the conception of the Trinity which was only formalised at Nicea in AD 325. Pictures and representions relating to Jesus himself seem only to have emerged slowly, probably  in the fourth-century AD, and became an increasingly decisive feature of the difference between out faiths.

So where does this leave Jews today and what are the lessons of this strange meeting of man and God. I take no comfort from standing here to say that it poses moral dilemmas, which are hard to square with life in the Age of Enlightenment. The simple statements of the Ten Commandments, formulated within the culture of a nomadic agriculturist society, seem to many to be irrelevant to a world which thrives on so-called self-expression, complexity and technology. A world in which there is massive disenfranchisement caused by disparities in resources and knowledge, and where only too clearly exploitation both at  the interpersonal level, and between nations, is a source of catastrophic frictions.

At the same time it certainly does not leave Jews irrevocably welded to the Judaism of Exodus, Deuteronomy and  Leviticus - where sets of detailed laws found their expression in the ghetto and the shtetl of Eastern Europe. With the passing of the Temple in Jerusalem, went sacrifice - but not the honour of God which it was meant to represent. And for Jews that honour  is the very imitation of mercy and graciousness which was revealed to Moses on Mount Sinai. In today's world it may be hard for Jews to reciprocate that kernel of faith, which was expressed by God's willingness to accompany Israel on its journey, but we are constantly taught to remember that our survival  depends upon our willingness to keep to the covenant. Judaism has always been adaptable in its practices, while conservative of its moral principles.

In this the  first week of  the Jewish New Year of 5772 - I hope that I have shed a little light on how we view this passage, and as befits Jewish tradition I wish you all 'Shalom' - Peace.

Geoffrey Dannell was invited to All Saints and St James to give a Jewish perspective on a reading from the Old Testament.  He is a member of the Finchley Reformed Synagogue and the Peterborough Liberal Synagogue.

 

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