Monday, 23 January 2017

Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand

Isaiah 9: 1-4 (page 573 in our pew Bibles) "The people who walked in darkness have seen a great light". So familiar at Christmastime, it gets another airing this week because it is quoted in the gospel reading. It refers to the parts of Israel overrun by the Assyrians in 734BC which became the "land beyond the Jordan, Galilee of the nations" but then introduces the notion of "Holy war" by referring to "the day of Midian" referring to Gideon's military victory over the Midianites (Judges 7:15-23) with just 300 men, so was only achieved with God's help against impossible odds. 
1 Corinthians 1: 10-18 (page 952 in our pew Bibles). A reminder that what unifies us is the cross of Christ, a fact that is central and supersedes all other things and personalities and internal movements and denominations within Christianity. 
Matthew 4:12-23 (page 809 in our pew Bibles). It is clear from this passage and from Mark's gospel that the content of Jesus' preaching was "Repent, for the Kingdom of heaven is at hand". Our call to repentance, of turning our lives around and aligning them with God's rule, is akin to Paul saying "Be transformed by the renewing of your mind"(Romans 12:2). This command of Jesus is still central to our call.

If you had gone to hear a sermon preached by Jesus, what would you have heard? The central message upon which everything else was based, like the sermon on the mount is made pretty clear in the Bible and is repeated in our gospel reading this morning in verse 17.
From that time Jesus began to preach saying “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand”.
That is what you would have heard primarily. “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand”.
The word translated “Repent” in our Bible is actually a very interesting word in Greek with layers of meaning.but it primarily means “change”, change your mind and change your ways. An actual literal translation is “Go beyond your mind”.
So you meet Jesus and what would he tell you….he’d tell you to change. But why should you?
Well he tells you that as well. He tells to “change” because the “kingdom of heaven” is at hand. The content of Jesus ‘ preaching was “the kingdom of heaven” or as the other gospel writers call it, “the kingdom of God”. The two phrases are interchangeable. Matthew talks about heaven rather than God because his is the most Jewish of the gospels and his audience were mostly Jews and culturally they didn’t like to use the name of God too freely because the name was considered too holy.
So your meeting with Jesus would be a bit confrontational because that’s how Jesus is. He’s tell you to change because the kingdom, which he, Jesus, was inaugurating is in your midst or “at hand”. So a Christian faith that invites you to have no growth or change at any level is not Christianity, it is something else.
So if you were to meet Jesus or been in the crowd listening, he would be issuing you with a challenge. To change your beliefs to change your perspectives, to change the way you relate to God, your neighbour and the world.
Now as the famous joke has it. “How many Anglicans does it take to change a lightbulb?” and the answer is “Change, what’s that” is symptomatic of our general attitude to change.
It is tempting to think that if you had met Jesus in his physical ministry that you would have been drawn to him, but that wasn’t the response of most people. They took what they wanted, which may have having their appetites satisfied with loaves and fishes on a hillside, or Uncle Timaeus had had his sight restored (Thank you very much) and then forgot about him and didn’t respond and didn’t change.
Most people in Jesus’ time let’s not forget were not drawn to that message. Some were, including a central tiny core of just twelve people, but most were repelled.
Most people wanted Jesus’ death and were baying for his blood come Good Friday.
That central challenge , the gauntlet that is thrown down to us, is the same today as it was then and shall be tomorrow.
Change your mind, your perceptions and your actions, change your way of life, because because God wants you to. “Repent for the Kingdom of heaven is at hand”.
And this is before the full revelation of the depth of God’s love and sacrifice were revealed to us in the death and resurrection of Jesus on the cross!
In the light of that earth shattering event – the cross - that  Paul says is the biggest motor for change and the thing that is absolutely central to the Christian revelation for aiding this change of heart that the church has. Paul says, make the cross central to your mission. That goes before everything else, and transcends all other divisions in the church, whether denominations or personalities.
But what if after all that, you are left thinking. Yes, I do want to follow Jesus more and more and change my mind and my life, but I just can’t do it alone – I am too weak and I haven’t got the will power.
Just remember that you are not alone. If you decide to move closer to God he will provide the help and support you need.
Isaiah uses the image of a famous battle in the Old Testament which he calls the “day of Midian” when a tiny force of 300 commanded by Gideon prevailed against a much bigger army. Gideon could do so only because he had the support and help of God.
And we have the help of God’s Spirit whenever we decide to take more tentative steps toward God. As we take those few faltering steps closer, God joyfully runs towards us to give a helping hand. God will also provide that helping hand through other people – especially from within the church
Our moment of Epiphany this morning is the realisation that God wants us to change, but also that provides us with the help we need to make that change.
Jesus says “Repent for the kingdom of heaven is at hand”


Monday, 16 January 2017

The Lamb of God

Isaiah 49:1-7 (page 609 in our pew Bibles) The second of four "servant songs" applied by Christians to the person and work of Christ, in which the hopes vested in Israel by God to be "the light to the gentiles" become focused in Jesus 
1 Corinthians 1:1-9 (page 952 in our pew Bibles) In Paul's otherwise standard opening he nevertheless expresses his theological belief in "calling". He is called "by the will of God" but also the whole church is "Called" to be Saints. God is the one calling and we in turn call upon the name of Jesus.
John 1: 29-42 (page 886 in our pew Bibles) "Jesus is the lamb of God". In the Jerusalem Temple lambs (as perfect as possible) were sacrificed to make amendment for sins committed. What John the baptist is referring to is that Jesus sacrifice on the cross will atone (make amends) for the sins of all people in all times if we put our faith in that atoning sacrifice. We all need atonement because we are all sinners and the sacrifice is offered once for all time just because God loves us. All we need to do is believe in this good news

Have you ever wondered why the cross has become the defining symbol of Christianity?
The cross is an instrument of torture and execution.
A modern equivalent would be to hang a gallows or an electric chair around our necks. But the cross, a method of execution so barbaric that even the Romans eventually banned it has become the symbol of a religion that is supposed to reveal the love of God for his creation.
The paradox is on the face of it astonishing.
But when John the Baptist says “Behold the lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world” that throws light on this central mystery.
The lamb is the sacrificial animal killed in the Temple. A terrible thing – an innocent dies. John points at Jesus and says – that’s Him - the sacrifice, the one that will suffer and be killed (unbeknownst to John at that time on the cross). He didn’t know the means but he knew he had to die.
John would have had in the back of his mind, the story from the bowels of the Old Testament when Abraham was called upon to sacrifice his only son Isaac but in the event Abraham said “God will provide for himself the lamb for the burnt offering my son” (Genesis 22:8).
And God did. He provided Jesus. The lamb of God.
For why and for what?
The answer is given in that same short pronouncement. Behold the lamb of God “who takes away the sin of the world”
 Through his death he brings forgiveness of our sins and restores fellowship with God. Jesus’ death opens for us a path, a way, to God. And this is open to anyone who believes.
“Behold the lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world” is if you like the whole gospel in one line. That is the Good news. It contains the method by which this will be achieved – Jesus’ death and what will result, the sins of the whole world will be taken upon his shoulders and who it is for – the whole world.
The result, the end product is a restored and renewed relationship with God. And God wants that because he loves us.
So we end up with this central paradox that the ultimate symbol of love is a means of execution.
Epiphany is a time of revelation and today we have revealed the complex, multi-faceted nature of  the cross of Christ. Symbolsed by the gift of Myrrh from the Magi.
And what does it reveal about Love?
We learn That love and sacrifice are closely related. What would you not do for someone you truly loved. Have you not sacrificed willingly for love.
We learn that God’s love is closely related to service.
Do we not call Jesus the servant king in hymns and songs and litrugies? We read the servant songs of Isaiah and apply them to him. Yes he did serve mankind. He healed the sick, he cured the lame, he made the blind to see”
But his greatest act of service was the cross – He laid down his very life that we might live.  What faith Jesus must have had to go willingly to his death because he truly believed that it would make a difference.
Serving, sacrificial love made concrete in that self-giving sacrifice on the cross. The suffering and pain he went through and bore without complaining , could have been done only with the greatest faith in his Father and with the highest love for us driving him on despite the pain. “Take this cup from me, yet not my will but yours”.
The good news is a person. The good news is an event. The good news had wonderful consequences. The good news was achieved through sacrificial love and faith.
John saw Jesus and said,

“Behold, the lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world”

Monday, 9 January 2017

The Baptism of Christ

Isaiah 42: 1-9 (page 602 in our pew Bibles) God here is speaking and he heralds his servant who will have God's Spirit upon him and will bring forth justice to the nations (the whole world). Justice is a way of life based on God's teachings and judgements. Jesus embodies in his person everything that God's servant Israel was supposed to be but failed to do.
Acts 10: 34-43 (page 919 in our pew Bibles) A sermon by Peter that starts by stressing the impartiality of God. It summarises the public ministry of Jesus from his baptism onwards and refers to his crucifixion and resurrection. He is the one about whom Isaiah prophesied.
Matthew 3: 13- 17 (page 808 in our pew Bibles) Jesus is baptised by John and the Spirit of God descends on him and the words "This is my beloved Son, with whom I am well pleased". Note that Matthew has changed "You are my Son" (Mark's gospel) to "This is my Son" a much more public pronouncement than a private experience as expressed in Mark. According to John's gospel (1:12) these are the words that each of us should hear in our hearts when we become believers!  

Epiphany is my favourite season in the liturgical year. At Christmas we celebrated the birth of a baby but in Epiphany we answer the question “Who is he? And in that process of having revealed to us not only who he is - we find out who we are!
The main Biblical story attached to Epiphany in the West used to be the arrival of the Magi, BUT the main story attached in the East has always been the Baptism of Christ.
But Why would one be preferred to the other? From my perspective I can offer only this;
The visit of the Magi spoke in “symbols”  - the gifts of Gold, Frankincense and myrrh representing Kingship, priesthood and the significance of his death but Jesus’ baptism speaks in much more “personal” terms of his relationship with God – Father and Son.
The greatest revelation of the nature and being of Christ and the beginning of his public ministry was his Baptism  when the Holy Spirit descended upon him and the Father declared “You are my Son” or the much more public announcement “This is my son” as recorded in Matthew’s gospel.
The Bible makes clear that this relationship was eternal. Jesus was always the Son of God and was there at the beginning of creation, begotten, not created.
“In him was life and the life was the light of all men” as John said.(1:4)
In his baptism Jesus found out who he was and the people who were open to the truth also found out who he was.
Coming alive in our new identity is also the aim of baptism today. As Christians our identity is found in Christ. All of us who are baptised have a new identity.
Jesus has revealed who he is and we have revealed who we are.
So who are we? We all find our identity in terms of relationship. In our normal lives We are all someone’s Mother or Father, son or daughter, husband or wife, brother or sister, friend, enemy, nationality.
The core of Christianity is that through believing in Jesus, we have another identity that tells us who we are. At our baptism we have the right to all become adoptive children of God.
Ever stopped to think what an honour and privilege it is to address God, the Alpha and the Omega, the Father of lights, the ancient of days as Dad?
That’s what we say every time we say “Our Father” and we say so because that’s what His Son Jesus told us to say. Jesus often used the term “Abba” which is Aramaic for Daddy.
When we become Christians we become adopted sons and daughters of the Father and adopted brothers and sisters of Jesus.
It is my greatest desire that we all know our own true identity and ours is that we are a child of God when we come to believe that Jesus is the Son of God.
Jesus’ baptism is our baptism – His Father is our Father.
In Jesus’ revelation of who he is we also find out who we are. We are born again and discover an identity that is for ever and is the most important of the many relationships through which we build our identity.
The reason Jesus says that we won’t see the kingdom of God unless we are born again is that fact needs to move from mere intellectual assent to being felt in the heart though the Spirit.
To feel it in our hearts the words spoken to us by our Father, exactly the same words spoken to us as to Jesus and allowed to change us-
So God says to me
Martin, you are my child, the beloved. With you I am well pleased.
All Christians need to hear that they too are beloved children.