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The Naming of Jesus

Given by: 

David Teall

Date given: 

1st January, 2012

Book: 

Luke

Chapter: 

2

David Teall

A Happy New Year to you all.

From your Pew Sheet you will observe that today, the 1st January, we celebrate the Naming and Circumcision of Jesus.  The Gospel reading we have just heard tells us, in just one verse, all that we know about this important event:

After eight days had passed, it was time to circumcise the child; and he was called Jesus, the name given by the angel before he was conceived in the womb.

 

At the time of Jesus it was traditional, as it still is for devout Jews, for baby boys to be circumcised and named on the eighth day after their birth.  The circumcision is in obedience to the covenant between Abraham and God described in Genesis 17:

1When Abram was ninety-nine years old, the Lord appeared to him and said: ‘I am God Almighty; walk before me, and be blameless.  2And I will make my covenant between me and you, and will make you exceedingly numerous.’  8And I will give to you, and to your offspring after you, the land where you are now an alien, all the land of Canaan, for a perpetual holding; and I will be their God.’
10This is my covenant, which you shall keep, between me and you and your offspring after you: Every male among you shall be circumcised as a sign of the covenant between me and you.  12Throughout your generations every male among you shall be circumcised when he is eight days old.

Taking Jesus to be circumcised and named at the ceremony of brit milah was therefore a very normal and traditional thing for Mary and Joseph to do, though the name that they gave him was not.  If they had followed tradition and named him after one of his ancestors he might have been called Jacob after Joseph’s father, or Amos, or Josiah or any other of the 41 names of his ancestors listed at the beginning of Matthew’s Gospel.  But he wasn’t.  He was named Yeshua in Hebrew, translated via Greek and Latin into Jesus in English, as decreed by the Angel Gabriel in the annunciation described in Luke Chapter 1.

31You will conceive in your womb and bear a son, and you will name him Jesus.  32He will be great, and will be called the Son of the Most High, and the Lord God will give to him the throne of his ancestor David.  33He will reign over the house of Jacob for ever, and of his kingdom there will be no end.’

The ceremony of brit milah thus gave Jesus two things that are very important to all who walk upon this earth: a name and an identity.  The name Yeshua, or Jesus meaning ‘God Saves’ and an identity as a Jew descended from a King.

When I was thinking about the importance of having both a name and an identity I was reminded of two occasions in my past where one or the other has been an issue.  In my last few years as Headmaster of Battle Abbey in East Sussex we took over a Preparatory School in nearby Bexhill.  My wife Pat took charge of this new department but I went over every so often to take an assembly.

On one such occasion I was a few minutes into my talk when a new girl on the front row – I guess she was no more than three – turned to her teacher and said in a very loud voice: “who is that man?”  That put me firmly in my place for it was a very good question.  Until she knew both my name and my identity she was unable to properly process and store away the information I was giving her.  Even at the age of three, such knowledge about the people we meet is vital.

The second occasion is much more recent.  At the beginning of December Philip, Karin and I went on a three-day residential course for all Ministers within the Diocese of Peterborough.  Prior to the course Bishop Donald wrote to ask us all to wear casual dress throughout the conference including clergy who were specifically asked not to wear clerical collars.  When we arrived we were all given a label to hang around our necks on which was typed our name and our Deanery.  Sitting amongst new faces there was thus no way of knowing whether one was talking to a Bishop, Arch Deacon, Canon, Dean, Priest or Reader which was, of course, the Bishop’s intention.

It was an excellent idea and well received by all but it was interesting to observe what happened when we were in small groups.  As is usual in such gatherings we were asked to introduce ourselves at the beginning of each session.  In doing so almost everyone gave not just their name, but also, in one form or another, their identity.  My name is David and I’m a Reader.  After two or three in a row it did occasionally tend to sound like the start of one of those sessions of Alcoholics Anonymous you see on television:  My name is Oedipus and I’m an alcoholic.  Two very different situations but both with the same need – to let others know both our name and our identity – or at least that part of our identity we perceive to be relevant to the situation.

So what about Jesus?  He had been given his identity as a Jew at his brit milah but who or what else did he consider himself to be?  Did he think he was the Messiah?  Did he think he was the Son of God?

There are several accounts in the New Testament where we learn that Jesus clearly understood that he was the Messiah, but only one account in which he said so directly.  In Matthew, Mark and Luke Jesus affirms Peter’s statement that he is the Messiah and the Son of God, but he does not utter the words himself.  Later in the same three gospels, Jesus admits to the High Priest that he is the Messiah, but only in response to a question.  It was in conversation with the Samaritan woman at the well that he volunteered the information at a point when he could easily have remained silent.   ‘I am he,’  he said  ‘the one who is speaking to you.’

The words ‘I am’ spoken by Jesus appear again in the seven great ‘I am’ sayings in John’s Gospel the best known of which are:

  • I am the light of the world.
  • I am the resurrection and the life.
  • I am the way, the truth and the life.

These sayings are all bold statements of identity by Jesus as is the similar statement in John 8: 58:  “Jesus said to them, ‘Very truly, I tell you, before Abraham was, I am.’”

To realise just how bold these statements were, as is so often the case, you have to know your Old Testament.  The words I am come from Exodus Chapter 3 and the story of Moses at the Burning Bush in which God said to Moses:

‘I am who I am.’   ‘Thus you shall say to the Israelites, “I am has sent me to you.” ’ 

By using the words I am in this context Jesus was deliberately equating himself with God.  He was saying that the God who was at work revealing himself to the Israelites in the Exodus, was the same God who was now revealing himself through him.

So, if Jesus was clear about his identity, what about you?  Who do you think you are?  Imagine yourself, for a moment, at a function where you are asked to introduce yourself.  Not a church function like the conference I went to last month, but perhaps some form of village gathering.  The Chairman starts off by saying “My name is Roger and I’m an accountant” and he’s quickly followed by the Secretary who says “My name is Michelle and I’m a carer.”  It’s going to be your turn in just a few seconds.  What are you going to say? 

I won’t ask for all your answers now but I would love to hear some of them over coffee after the service.  In particular, I shall be interested to hear if anyone thought that they might introduce themselves by giving their name and saying ‘I am a Christian’ or even just ‘I am a vaguely practising Christian’ as David Cameron did recently.

Is being a Christian part of our identity and, if it is, where does it fit amongst all the other things that contribute to that identity?  Is it something that we are happy to proclaim to all around us no matter what the circumstances or is it something that we prefer to admit to only within the safety of these four walls?  Is being a Christian something that is reserved for Sunday mornings or does it permeate our entire life and influence our day-to-day decisions?

These are questions that we all need to ask ourselves from time to time, and what better time than on the first day of a new year whilst there is still time to make an appropriate resolution.  Why not make 2012 the year in which we make it clear to all that being a Christian is at the central core of our identity?

God will give us life

Given by: 

John Barratt

Date given: 

11th December 2011 - Advent 3

Book: 

John

Chapter: 

1

[John 1, 7]: [John the Baptist] came as a witness to testify to the light ...”

Today’s lessons proclaim the Advent message that God will give us Light in a troubled world’s darkness.  Our world is darkly troubled.  Here are five examples taken from recent news items:

1.  In a recent Big Issue article [1-7 August 2011], a Celebrity chef describes how, in disguise, he sold The Big Issue in London, and returned home overwhelmed by how invisible he had become as shoppers gave him a wide berth.  “I was five minutes away from my restaurant,” he wrote, “but suddenly I felt like I was in another world.  I wasn’t in London any more.  All these lovely people who know me and enjoy my food were the same people now ignoring me in the street.  ...  presenting myself as a homeless working person was really tough.  The first person that bought from me ... said ‘I don’t want your magazine, and don’t touch me’.  ...  Some people were great, but the rest were miserable.”  

2.  In his evidence to the Leveson Media Inquiry, the comedian Steve Coogan described tabloid devastation of individuals as: “a dispassionate sociopathic act by those who operate in an amoral universe.” [Guardian, 23:11:11]  It is a mouthful, but it’s an accurate description of human beings caught up in organisations which are dispassionate - free from human emotion; sociopathic - unhealthy for human society; and amoral - disconnected from human morality. 

3. Ken Costa, a leading financier heading the Bishop of London’s initiative to reconnect the financial world with morality, wrote recently in the Financial Times: “Economics cannot flourish without mutual trust and respect or without fundamental honesty and integrity.  We all need to learn the grammar of morality, ....  For many, this will be exactly like learning a new language.” 

4.  Studies have shown that although extremist Muslims make up less than 1% of the Muslim population they dominate the nearly 95% of the negative media coverage of Muslims.  Why do we stereotype strangers?

5.  Tonight one in seven of the world’s population will sleep hungry.  Water shortages will affect half the world’s population by 2030.  These statistics are people!

Archbishop Rowan Williams’ recent reflections on last summer’s riots concluded with a question: “whether, in our current fretful state, with unavoidable austerity ahead, we have the energy to invest what’s needed ...”.  [Guardian, 05:12:11]

For those who do look for energy to enlighten the darkness, does Christmas provide inspiration? For many, the traditional promise of joyous peace on earth has become just another traditional decoration.  Last month a ‘Private Eye’ cartoon showed a couple passing a pile of Easter Eggs in a shop, the man saying to his wife: “Is it November already?”.  Last weekend, “Tis the Season to be Greedy” was a newspaper supplement’s rubric!  [Guardian Weekend, 03:12:11]  Christmas becomes superficial when a reformed humanity seems a pipe-dream.  A 10th century Jewish rabbi said: “The main causes of irreligion are the weak and ridiculous arguments advanced in defence of faith”. [Guardian ‘Face to Faith’ 03:12:11].  Is our understanding of Christmas joy, based on the introductions to Matthew’s and Luke’s Gospels, persuasive?   

Scholars cannot work out the precise year when Jesus was born.  Paul, whose Letters were written about 20 years after the Crucifixion, merely says that Jesus was Jewish, “born of a woman” and “descended from David according to the flesh”. [Gal. 4: 4 and Rom. 1: 3]   In Mark’s Gospel, written about 40 years after the Crucifixion and probably based on Peter’s recollections, there is nothing about Jesus’ young life.  John’s Gospel, written 70 or more years after the Crucifixion, gives no details about Jesus’ birth.  To those first Christians it was irrelevant to the good news they courageously proclaimed.

We have gained so much from the scientific revolution which explores the physical universe by careful observation and measurement, but this leads us to set up too narrow a correlation between facts and truth.  Jesus was noted for using stories to convey powerful truths, e.g. about the Good Samaritan.  The factual accuracy of that story’s background is irrelevant.  Careful reading of Matthew’s and Luke’s detailed and magnificently fantastic birth stories, containing much poetry, quickly shows that the two accounts are, in factual detail, incompatible.  And did you ever know under which star your house is?  Concern about factual accuracy will distract us from the meaning.  Matthew and Luke, each separately dealing with their current situation, prepared their readers for the real significance of Jesus using the Old Testament and Roman imperial religion as contexts.  They are not merely attractive stories, but a skilful framework emphasising that in Jesus hard-pressed people will find valuable leadership, justice and peace, joy and light.

Matthew wrote to show that Jesus fulfills the prophets’ hopes, at a time when Jewish Christians were being excluded from synagogues.  Luke wrote to show that it was Jesus, not the all-powerful Roman Emperor and his cronies, who provides the way to joyous peace.  About 30 years before Jesus, Julius Caesar’s nephew, Octavian, had brought Rome’s civil war to an end, and greatly expanded its Empire.  Octavian’s success resulted in him being worshipped - that is the meaning of his title ‘Augustus’. 

Listen to these examples, made shortly before Jesus’ birth, and catch the imperial style which Luke subversively uses to exalt the crucified nobody his Gospel celebrates.  The Governor of Asia Minor described:

“... the birthday of the most divine Caesar... [as] the day which we might justly set on a par with the beginning of everything, ... in that he restored order when everything was disintegrating ... and gave a new look to the whole world, ...  For that reason one might justly take this to be the beginning of life and living, ...  It is my view that all the communities should have one and the same New Year’s Day, the birthday of the most divine Caesar.” 

The League of Asian Cities accepted this suggestion.  They said:

“Since the providence that has divinely ordered our existence has ...  brought to life the most perfect good in Augustus, whom she filled with virtues for the benefit of mankind, bestowing him upon us and our descendants as a saviour – he who put an end to war and will order peace, Caesar, who by his epiphany exceeded the hopes of those who brought glad tidings, ...”.   etc.

The Roman idea of a good, well-ordered world under the divinely successful Augustus was peace through military victory.  At best violence establishes a lull; at worst it begets escalating violence in return.  Those non-violent but later executed subversives, John the Baptist and Jesus, both rejected this kind of peace, having suffered and lived under its yoke.  Shortly after their birth King Herod died, and there were armed revolts against Roman power.  As part of their retaliation, Roman troops captured and destroyed a town as near to Nazareth as Fotheringhay is to Cliffe, and enslaved its surviving inhabitants. [Josephus, 4.488 – 489].  

The Roman authorities persecuted the early Christians because their rejection of imperial worship gained converts, yet they continued determinedly to celebrate their subversive Christmases  For them it was not a folksy tradition, but an opportunity to proclaim the salvation inherent in Jesus’s way of living.  The world’s false Gods who need placating and flattering were as nothing to the crucified Jesus.

Matthew’s and Luke’s Gospel Prefaces make, in particular, a metaphorical assertion of Light in our darkness.  Our Advent services of Compline use the same symbolism and provide space to reflect.  Advent is an opportunity to change as we prepare to accept the Light of the World, so that we, individually and as a church, can respond to our own and our community’s diverse needs.  What we know of Jesus sheds light on the darkness in all five of the situations with which we began.

The 13th century Meister Eckhart said Christmas should be the birthday of Christ within us, metaphorically-speaking, of course.  When that happens we can wonder with angels, shepherds, star-struck sages, seers and animals at the glorious potential of an obscure vulnerable baby who would defy the mightiest military power humankind has known, by embodying his Father’s care for all.

The Get Ready Man

Given by: 

Lloyd Caddick

Date given: 

4th Decenber 2011 - Advent 2

Book: 

Mark

Chapter: 

1

One of the more bizarre figures that flit in and out of James Thurber’s memories of his boyhood in Columbus, Ohio, was the Get Ready Man.  This lank, unkempt, elderly gentleman with wild eyes and a deep voice used to drive around the city in a bright red car and startle people by suddenly, in the most unexpected places, bellowing at them through a megaphone, “Get Ready!  Get ready!  The world is coming to an end”.  He had got hold of one part of the Christian message but got it out of context.  Moreover he did nothing to show his hearers what they ought to do about it, unlike the Get Ready Men of the Bible, the prophets.

The coming of God in judgement is part of the Bible’s message.  The early prophets warned their hearers that their neglect of the poor and their compromises with the religions around them would lead to the destruction of their state.  Towards the end of OT things had got so bad that the prophets began to look for God to sweep everything away and start again, but with Israel as top dog, of course.  Jesus, too, called his hearers to accept God’s kingdom.  It was already among them and would come in its fullness in God’s time, although he understood that in a very different way from his contemporaries.  We proclaim this belief that Christ will come again in glory to judge the living and the dead each time we say the Creed.  

Like every symbol, this one needs to be interpreted and explained in terms of our knowledge of the world.  In view of the different ways scientists tell us this world will come to and end, I do not know what to say about this cosmic end.  Will the world burn in a great flare up of the sun, or will it freeze as the sun’s furnace consumes itself and the planets die with it?  Or is our over-consumption and over-population going to poison the earth and its atmosphere so that life dies out?  I do not know, but the symbol points, not only to a future event, but to a spiritual reality: we are responsible for what we make of our world and of ourselves.

In history the world has come to an end many times.  Forty years after the time of Jesus, the Jewish world came to an end in fire and bloodshed with the destruction of Jerusalem and the fall of Masada.  The centre of their religion and their world, the great Temple, was not just destroyed, it was replaced by a Temple of the Jupiter of Rome.  It took upward of two hundred years for the resurrection of a new Judaism, centred not on the Temple but on the Holy found in the twin centres of home and synagogue.  Later in history the world came to an end with the Fall of Rome, or the capture of Byzantium by the Turks, in the French and the Russian Revolutions, perhaps with the collapse of Soviet Communism.  As we try to understand what is happening in the current economic crisis are we seeing the end of historic capitalism and the end of our world?

Only one thing is certain; our world - yours and mine – will come to an end when we die and after that the judgement.  Some of the great masters of the spiritual life encourage us to get ready by meditating on our death, but so far I have not found it much benefit.  I cannot imagine dying, still less what happens then. None of us knows, but the Biblical authors use different pictures to say that God will show us what we have made ourselves ourselves, even as he has fully known us. In one of his poems G.A. Studdert-Kennedy, the WW I army chaplain known as Woodbine Willie, writes of a soldier dreaming he had died. He seems to see his wife, mother, children, friends, and all kinds of people with whom he had had dealings, some sweet, some sad, and some shameful.  Gradually they all coalesced into one figure who seems to say, “You did ‘em to Me./  The dirty things you did to them,/ the filth you thought was fine,/ You did ‘em all to Me”, it said, /“for all their souls were Mine”.   The figure looked hard at him and then, after a pause, he said just one word – “Well?”  And the soldier replied, ‘Please, can I go to Hell?” And he was told “No”; Hell is not for the likes of those who can  accept and acknowledge the truth about themselves, that they have indeed sinned and fallen short of the glory of God which we were made to reflect.

St. Paul uses a different metaphor to say much the same.  He talks about each of us working together to build ourselves as stones into the Temple where God’s Spirit dwells.  The only foundation is Jesus Christ, but each of us builds with different kinds of material as we are able.  The Day will come when what sort of work each of has done will be revealed, as if by fire – note Paul uses a metaphor, the fire of God’s holines. If the work is burned, the builder will suffer loss, although he will be saved.

This awareness of our responsibility for what we make ourselves in our relation to God is part of the Christian gospel and that is why the Get Ready Men, like John the Baptist, are so important.  The world will come to an end, so “Repent”, which does not mean beating yourself up because you are so bad, but taking a sober look at yourself in the light of what you believe.

Find somewhere quiet – your bed room, perhaps – or a church – become still and with God ask yourself

  • What about your way of life?  Do you live what you profess?
  • What are your expectations for life?  How do they compare with what Jesus tells us about real life?
  • What kind of person are you becoming?

What needs to be changed?  What is really important?  Give God time and a space to show you his answers, and what you need to do about it.  And then make any changes.

 

As we get older, we have less energy, and we need to sit more, which provides more opportunity to think, and some of that thinking can be called prayer.  And we – well I certainly do – find ourselves remembering the past.  For many of our memories – people, events, achievements – we can properly thank God; very useful material for our prayers.  But sometimes suddenly out of the past comes a memory of a person or situation, an action or a word, which makes me go hot and cold.  First reaction is to push it away with “I don’t want to know that”.  But over the months, years even, it keeps popping up, until I face it squarely.  Why did I do that?  What made me do it? What about people it affected?  What does it tell me about the person I was, am?  Knowing what I do now, would I have done the same now?  If you can say honestly, “No, in those circumstances I would not have done it” then you dealt with it.  You have repented.  Face the uncomfortable memories; through them God is guiding you to know yourself more clearly, and to know he accepts you.  I find this a more helpful way to prepare myself to die, which is not being morbid but realistic.

Get ready for judgement; that is one theme of Advent, but, as one of the greatest prophets tells us, “Be strong, fear not, your God is coming with judgement, coming with judgement to save you”.  Some people find those words of our Opening Prayer, the collect Purity, threatening: Almighty God, to whom all hearts are open, all desires known and from whom no secrets are hidden. How can one bear such scrutiny.  But the God whose Word pierces and dissects us to the very core of our being, is not a cruel and vengeful god.  He is one of us, Jesus our Great High Priest who can sympathise with our weaknesses, having gone through the same temptations. We get ready for judgement, but we get ready too, to celebrate the coming of God into the world in Jesus not to condemn the world but to save it.  Jesus is God’s floodlight who shows us what we are so that we can be changed to become like him.  That is why my Christmas Communion prayer is usually

                                O holy child of Bethlehem, Descend to us we pray;
                                Cast out our sin, and enter in, Be born is us today
                                We hear the Christmas angels the great glad tidings tell:
                                O come to us, abide with us, Our Lord Emmanuel.

He comes to us but are you ready to receive him?  Am I?  He comes to judge and to save.  Get Ready.

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.

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