Tuesday, 23 February 2016

Trust and obey.

Genesis 15: 1-21 (p.10)
Philippians 3: 17 – 4:1 (p.981)
Luke 13: 31 – 35 (p. 873)

Abram and Sarai were very old indeed but God insisted that they would have a child and their descendents would be as numerous as the stars in the sky. Faith and hope of the highest magnitude was needed here. Against all the odds Abraham believed and God reckoned it to him as righteousness, ie. It brought him into a right relationship with God.

Not only that but God also insisted that Abram would possess the land of Canaan. They needed an extraordinary happening or vision to convince Abram in this instance that God really was going to be faithful and fulfil this promise as well.

The vision that ensued was pretty extraordinary.

Assurance comes via a mysterious dream in which a torch and a smoking fire-pot pass between the pieces of sacrificial animals that Abram had cut in two. The origin of the symbolism is probably from the Hebrew idiom that when you make a covenant you "cut" a covenant.

What is implied is that if either one of them breaks the terms of the covenant they will share the same fate as the animals that have been cut in two! Jeremiah 34: 18 spells this out and it appears that the parties to the covenant had to walk between the parts of the severed animals.

God in this vision is represented by the torch and the fire-pot passing between the severed animals in this vision thus sealing his part of the bargain. Human beings are frail beings who constantly need signs and reassurance, and using the symbols of the cultural practices of his day God reassured Abram.

Throughout the whole of the Jewish and Christian tradition Abram or Abraham as he became known is held out as an example of great faith.

But in the church at Philippi there were people who were anything but great examples. Soe of them were enemies of the true church for they were self centred and cared only about their own wants and needs who condoned immorality like adultery and showed no commitment to the rest of the community – they just wanted to fill their own bellies as Paul puts it by revelling in the loose living of the society in which they found themselves.

Their end is spiritual destruction. 

Paul reminds the church that whatever people living around us may be doing, our citizenship is in heaven. We belong to God and so should act accordingly. The gauge of our true fidelity to the gospel is how we act and what we say.

Matthew 7:15-23English Standard Version Anglicised (ESVUK)
A Tree and Its Fruit
15 “Beware of false prophets, who come to you in sheep's clothing but inwardly are ravenous wolves. 16 You will recognize them by their fruits. Are grapes gathered from thorn bushes, or figs from thorn bushes?17 So, every healthy tree bears good fruit, but the diseased tree bears bad fruit. 18 A healthy tree cannot bear bad fruit, nor can a diseased tree bear good fruit. 19 Every tree that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire. 20 Thus you will recognize them by their fruits.

21 “Not everyone who says to me, ‘Lord, Lord’, will enter the kingdom of heaven, but the one who does the will of my Father who is in heaven.22 On that day many will say to me, ‘Lord, Lord, did we not prophesy in your name, and cast out demons in your name, and do many mighty works in your name?’ 23 And then will I declare to them, ‘I never knew you; depart from me, you workers of lawlessness.’

These words ought to frighten the living daylights out of Christians who presume on God’s Grace and think they can do whatever they like and God will forgive them anyway.
Not so. The offer of God’s Grace is always there but our repentance must be real.

Our faith, our example and our assurance is vested in Jesus Christ who in Luke’s gospel here sets his sights on Jerusalem in full knowledge of where that will lead.

His answer to the Pharisees is enigmatic and prophetic.

“I am casting out demons and performing cures today and tomorrow and on the third day I finish my work” (v. 32)

On the third day. I do believe that was the key phrase from the story of the changing of water into wine from John’s gospel and the meaning is the same. The third day is the day of resurrection.

Paul in Philippians speaks of how our frail bodies “the body of our humiliation” as Paul calls it in verse 21 will be transformed into the body of his glory on the last day, by the same power that raised Jesus from the dead.

Let me end in the words that Paul ended this particular address to the Philippians and address it to you, for actually through the Spirit this is addressed to you as is all scripture.

Therefore my brothers and sisters, whom I love and long for, my joy and my crown, stand firm in the Lord in this way, my beloved. (4:1)

Tuesday, 16 February 2016

Jesus the liberator.

Deuteronomy 26:1-11 (page 167 in your pew Bible);
Romans 10:8-13 (page 946 in your pew Bible);
Luke 4:1-13 (page 859 in your pew Bible)

We started with listening to Deuteronomy from the Old Testament.
Now within that piece from verse 5 to 9 we have what has been called a mini creed which recalls how God has acted in the past and so is a guide to God’s character.
Now what that recalled memory of how God has acted in their history reveals God to be a liberator from oppression. It creates Hope, because if God has acted before there is the certain expectation that he will continue to liberate, to set free because that is his revealed character.
It reveals that God is not an absentee landlord. He exists but never gets involved. It reveals a God who is involved and active in human lives.
Because creeds are not to remain things in the mind – they are there to govern actions and that goes for the Nicene creed, the Apostle’s creed or any of the other creedal statements taken from the Bible that we have been using lately. They are living and active and are said to evoke a response, not just to enforce unity.
God is a liberator from oppression and Jesus himself as God’s agent on earth is to be seen also in this light. Jesus liberates and sets free.
Now in Paul’s statement of faith in Romans we have just such a liberator, a saviour. Jesus was living active and involved and determined to set us free from the fear of suffering and death, that most basic of human fears.
But more than that, to be a constant companion on our journey through this life and on into the next one. So he sets us free from loneliness and fear.
In verse 12 Paul says “everyone who calls on the name of the Lord will be saved”. There are no exceptions. This is good news – Good news indeed.
For as Deuteronomy says, God is a liberator, a saviour. But saving faith has consequences. It is our sole responsibility to respond and our response can be seen when our lives are affected and changed. It is not just a matter for the mind but a matter for the heart.
You can see this clearly in what Paul writes. “Because if you confess with your mouth that Jesus is Lord and believe in your hear that God raised him from the dead, you will be saved. For with the heart one believes and is justified, and with the mouth one confesses and is saved” (9 – 10)
So let us turn to Jesus as every sermon should, implicitly if not explicitly, and be there right at the start of his public three year ministry in Luke’s gospel.
Jesus is now about thirty years old and has just had a tremendous experience of the Holy Spirit at his baptism. You can read that on the same page (859) at chapter 3 verse 22.
Our reading today commences “And Jesus full of the Holy Spirit, returned from the Jordan and was led by the Spirit in the wilderness for 40 days,”
You might remember that when I did the last family service I asked questions like “who was with Simeon and Anna or who guided them? The same here. Look at the text. What or who was Jesus full of?
Who led him in the wilderness?  The Holy Spirit.
This befits a man who as John says in 3:16 will “baptise in the Holy Spirit”
God himself through his spirit led Jesus into the wilderness, not the devil
Three times Jesus is tempted by the devil to seize and use power for his own benefit and three times Jesus refuses and does so by quoting scripture. All three quotes which refute the devil (satan – the tempter or accuser) are from the same book – Deuteronomy which of course was the book our first reading this morning was taken from.
In doing so, Jesus validates Holy Scripture and gives it his seal of approval and shows that the Bible has authority as God’s unique revelation to mankind
It is also a lesson to us that in order for the Bible to do us any good we need to read it regularly, internalise it. If we can memorise certain parts of it that we find particularly helpful then so much the better. That’s what Jesus did.
But mainly, what Luke wants to convey is that Jesus is going to succeed where Adam failed on behalf of the entire human race – indeed for all creation. Where Adam failed and was tempted Jesus will stand firm and be trusted to be a true liberator. As Paul said;
“everyone who calls on the name of the Lord will be saved”.
So although entirely Christ centred and written to underline the role of Jesus as a righteous and uncorruptable saviour we can draw the most important lesson for ourselves.
When the Spirit works within us, it is wonderful but it is not necessarily a comfortable ride.

The Spirit will also ask serious questions of us. This is what Lent is about. He will seek out all those dark hidden corners of our soul, all our unforgiveness, all our fear and hatreds, and malevolent thoughts and impulses and invite us, with his help to deal with them. Certainly not comfortable, but necessary and true and done in Love.    

Monday, 8 February 2016

All my hope on God is founded.

The opening words of our readings from 2 Corinthians today are “Since we have hope we act in great boldness”.
Since we have hope....
When hope is mentioned in the Bible the temptation is to give it our modern way of interpreting hope as wishful thinking as in I hope England win the six nations championship or I hope it doesn’t rain tomorrow.
Simple wishful thinking could never produce the results of acting with great boldness that Paul talks about this morning.
Hope in the Bible is not like that. Hope is a certain expectation that something is going to happen in the future and based on verifiable knowledge of and experience of things that had already taken place. Because “that” happened, “this” is going to happen.
The resurrection of Jesus Christ was the verifiable fact that transformed the disciples from being a scared and disunited people into being people filled with hope about the future – their own personal futures and the future of the whole of creation.
It is that same resurrection of Jesus Christ that has continued to instil hope ever since. It inspired Julian of Norwich to declare boldly that in the end “All will be well and all manner of things shall be well”.
It is the resurrection of Jesus Christ which inspired the Christians who were decapitated by ISIS on a beach in Libya to die with the Lord’s prayer and the name of Jesus on their lips.
They died not with wishful thinking, but with a certain expectation in their hearts and minds.
An expectation of what? That God is in control and he will raise them up on the last day, because Christ has overcome evil, suffering and death.
There are many other experiences that the disciples had that came before the resurrection which also bolstered their hope while Jesus was still with them.
One such is the vision that Peter, James and John had when on a mountain – High places always signifies a Holy Place in near Eastern symbolism.
This vision, or religious experience happens in Luke’s gospel just after Peter’s revelation of who Jesus really is. “You are the Christ” exclaims Peter but then reveals immediately that the popular Jewish understanding  of who the messiah is was vastly different from the Messiah God sent. Indeed so different that Jesus calls Peter Satan for wanting to protect Jesus from having to suffer.
In the vision on that Holy Place Jesus is revealed as the culmination, the fulfilment of the God given destiny of the Jewish people.
He shone with the uncreated light of God whilst talking with Moses (representing the law) and Elijah (representing the prophets) which emphasised his dominion over both.
And to add to their awestruck fear  - in fact the gospel records that they were terrified - the Lord God himself appears in a cloud and out of the cloud the voice of God echoes the words heard at Jesus’ baptism “This is my son, the chosen one, listen to him”
Its import would only have struck them in hindsight. Like most of us, they would be reacting with a curious mixture of terror and confusion.
But afterwards Peter recalls this miraculous event in his second letter; 2 Peter 1: 16-18
16 We told you about the power of our Lord Jesus Christ. We told you about his coming. The things we told you were not just clever stories that people invented. No, we saw the greatness of Jesus with our own eyes. 17 Jesus heard the voice of the great and glorious God. That was when he received honour and glory from God the Father. The voice said, “This is my Son, the one I love. I am very pleased with him.” 18 And we heard that voice. It came from heaven while we were with Jesus on the holy mountain.[a]
Going back to Paul, he contrasts the awesomeness of God which was largely veiled in the Hebrew scriptures to seeing the glory of God in the face of Jesus Christ.
In the Orthodox East, there is a form of Orthodox practice called Hesychasm which through deep personal prayer and contemplation the ultimate goal is union with God – where one perceives the uncreated light of God shot through all things.
It is this uncreated light of God which Peter, James and John perceived on that day on the mountain.
If true, the light of the gospel can and will shine through our lives as we slowly incorporate these truths into our life. We are as Paul writes;
“Being transformed into the same image from one degree of glory to another; for this comes from the Lord, the Spirit.” (v. 18)  
What does this mean for me and my life now?  Well for one thing knowing these things happened will instil comfort and confidence and give us hope. We do not follow cleverly devised myths. We are following a chain of belief that stretches right back to these eye witness accounts.
We do not lose heart. We do not abandon the truth. We gain comfort, peace and hope.   The certain expectation that all will be well and all manner of things will be well. 


Monday, 1 February 2016

Now let your servant depart in peace!

Written about three to four hundred years before Christ in a period where there were sorcerers, adulterers and perjurer, corrupt employers and landowners, Malachi 3: 1-5 is God’s response to those who think that God is either powerless or unwilling to do anything about the situation.
God will send a messenger or Angel – it is the same word in Hebrew – to warn people of the impending Judgement.
And this divine message or coming will be painful for those who experience it.
The judgement will start with the temple and its worship – with the place which supposedly exists to glorify God, which supposedly has experts in prayer, sacrifice and holiness, but had become corrupt, hypocritical and empty.
Religion had become corrupt. The temple is first in the firing line and will be purged and refined until their worship is worthy of God .
Once religion has been purged, God will then move on to the social sphere to judge and minister justice because a religion that is pure but accepts and even condones and perpetuates  social injustice is an abomination to the prophets.
Although this Old Testament reading is put with the presentation of Christ in the Temple it probably is much better suited to Jesus cleansing the Temple, unless we see Jesus’ presentation as a foretelling of that event.
Now no writing in the entire New Testament is more concerned with the Temple and Jesus’ relationship with it than the letter to the Hebrews.
In this short extract Hebrews emphasises again that Jesus humanity was all important. While He had the character and nature of God, he was indeed a full human being, who because he suffered was able to completely identify with us.
Hebrews asserts that before the resurrection of Jesus  that our whole lives were held in slavery by the fear of death.  
In Jesus’ glorious resurrection we were given assurance that, on the contrary, our lives are written against an infinite horizon and we can be released from that fear when we believe and put our hope and trust in the resurrection of Jesus.
In the gospel passage itself today Luke tells us of the cause of that hope, Jesus, being recognised while being presented in the Temple.  Luke writes in the manner of Old Israel.
It is the atmosphere and link with old Israel that is much more important to Luke than the actual details as the actual religious duty he is describing is not the presentation of a first born son which carried no obligation to bring Jesus to the Temple, he is describing the purification of Mary, which carries much more accurately the theme of judgement and cleansing introduced by Malachi.
We are being transported back to the days of the sages and prophets of old who find their embodiment in Jesus’ time in Simeon and Anna.  Why? Because Luke is desperate to convey that while Jesus is indeed a new thing, he is no boly from the blue but is inseparable from the story of Israel and is indeed its fulfilment.
Simeon and Anna fit the mould preferred by God exactly. They are obscure but devout figures which fits with God’s preference for using the lowly and they are led by the Holy Spirit.
And it is by the Spirit that they recognise Jesus immediately. And they prophesy that he will be the cause and the object of people’s hope for their salvation.
The lessons we can draw for our own journey it seems to me, is that we should never forget that we are all part of something much greater than ourselves, a story that started thousands of years ago with  Abraham and we are integral to that story.
We are led to Jesus by the Holy Spirit and we recognise his significanace by the same Spirit just like Simeon and Anna.

And when we put our faith and trust in Jesus, we are set free from the fear of death for in Jesus Christ we know our Salvation is secure.