Monday, 23 October 2017

Render to God what is God's

Isaiah 45: 1-7 (page 605 in our pew Bibles). The message of this piece is that God works through history, people and circumstances to create the conditions needed for His glory to be known. The people themselves, from Cyrus to Pontius Pilate don't have to know God at all - but they can still be used. 
1 Thessalonians 1: 1-10 (page 986 in our pew Bibles) The earliest Christian words recorded in the New Testament. Paul commends the lively faith of this young church that he planted. 
Matthew 22: 15-22 (page 827 in our pew Bibles) A very clever parable indeed, often misunderstood, that ascribes all things to Almighty God.

Therefore render to Caesar the things that are Caesar’s and to God the things that are God’s”

The Pharisees sent a few of their young guns and a few followers of Herod to first flatter Jesus and then to try and trap him.

Should we pay taxes to Caesar or not? Is meant to trap him.

If he says yes, then he would lose favour with the crowd, some of whom thought it even blasphemous to handle a coin with the Emperor’s head on it, let alone pay tribute to an occupying power.

If he says no, then he is guilty of treason.

Jesus sidesteps the trap and comes up with the enigmatic phrase I started with – pay to Caesar what is Caesar’s and to God what is God’s.

Generations of people have tried to use this as a formula to try and work out what the proper relationship should be between church and state – but misses a deeper central point.

Jesus asks whose image (icon) is on the coin and whose inscription and of course it is Caesar’s.

But fundamental to monotheism is that human beings bear the image of God

They might have to pay the tax but they do not belong to Caesar they belong to God. In fact all things ultimately belong to God – and that includes Caesar – even though he doesn’t know it.

Cyrus too in the Old Testament did not know that he belonged to God – he was a worshipper of the pagan god Marduk – but that didn’t stop him being used as a vessel through whom the one true God could act. It was ultimately through King Cyrus that the Jews were set free from their captivity. Without him, that would never have happened.

God moves in mysterious ways his wonders to perfom and what the Bible reveals to us this morning, that ultimately, at the last, God is in ultimate control and he will use who he uses in order to bring about his will.

From Cyrus to Pontius Pilate and beyond, to unseen and unheralded people acting in your own lives, through people and through circumstances God can and will act.

The unseen hand of God was recognised by Isaiah in regard to King Cyrus, and interestingly Pontius Pilate is recognised as Saint Pontius Pilate in the Egyptian Cristian church for his role, unsought and unacknowledged, in the death and resurrection and salvation wrought by Jesus.

We shall baptise today a child whose parents have recognised in some form or other that she bears the divine image.

She belongs to God and more specifically she shares the divine image with her brother Jesus and she will have that status confirmed today when she is baptised in the name of the Father, Son and Holy Spirit.

She joins all the baptised in this new holy family, where she is born again and becomes not just the daughter of her biological parents but becomes also a child of God  with a Father in heaven.

This same belief is the same belief that energised the young church in Thessalonika. 1 Thessalonians is the very first Christian writing we have in the whole new testament, pre-dating all the gospels so is the earliest written evidence of Christianity.

It starts with an extended Thanksgiving for a faith that changed them and in turn led them to become evangelists themselves.

Fundamentally they recognised what Jesus was pointing out in his altercation with the Pharisees, that Paul recognised in the Thessalonians and what we are all collectively acknowledging in Grace. That we all belong to God, that we bear His image and we are children of the same heavenly Father.

Governments and nations and all manor of human agencies will ask for our allegiance and we will have to give it as part of living in a community, just as the Jews had to pay taxes to Caesar but ultimately we don’t belong to any of them. Our home, and our true allegiance lie elsewhere. 

Monday, 16 October 2017

Rejoice in the Lord always

Isaiah 25: 1-9 (page 586 in our pew Bibles) God is praised for his surpassing glory and then a prophesy is made that this will all be crowned by the swallowing up of death itself 
Philippians 4: 1-9 (page 982 in our pew Bibles) Paul prays that the surpassing peace of God will guard our hearts and minds and transcend the petty squabbles that divide people
Matthew 22: 1-14 (page 827 in our pew Bibles) Many are called and many respond to the invitation to the feast but the guests included a man "without a wedding garment". We must be clothed with genuine repentance to partake of the feast.

Isaiah prophesies a wonderful day, a feast day, a day of rejoicing where the veil that shields our faces from God will be removed and we shall see God face to face, when God will wipe away all our tears, and remove death for ever and the celebration that ensues will be a feast of rich food and aged fine wine.
The day of the Lord will be a day of celebration ushering in a new created order. This is the day when all things will be put right.

We are the heirs of this promise, a people bound together by this hope.

This day of the Lord would be ushered in by a Messiah, an anointed one, and the people ushered in will be drawn from all peoples and all nations.

This then is the background context for Jesus’ parable. The original guests invited to the wedding feast, the Jewish people, by and large refused to come. Some couldn’t care less and were more concerned with their daily business and others were positively malicious.

So God had to gather a new set of guests and welcome them to the feast from every land and people.
That is us the church – the newly invited guests to this feast of the Kingdom of God.

Brilliant. But before anyone gets too complacent there is a sting in the tail.

One of the invited guests isn’t wearing the appropriate wedding clothes and is thrown out of the party – so what can this mean?

The wedding clothes are symbolic of several warnings given in Matthew’s gospel at various points about being genuine. “Doing the will of my Father in heaven” (7:21) not just paying lip service to the commandments of God or “Having a righteousness that exceeds the scribes and the Pharisees”  (5:20) or “producing the fruits of the kingdom” (21:43)

These are all expressions that point out the consistency between words and deeds that is appropriate for anyone who calls Jesus “Lord”.

The wedding garment represents authentic discipleship.

That doesn’t mean we have to be perfect but we must have our heart and mind attuned to the demands of the kingdom and to sincerely want to put those commandments into action in our lives.

What that means in practice is written about by St. Paul in his letter to the Philippians. He starts by exhorting two women who have obviously fallen out over something to “agree in the Lord”.

Whatever divides them at the moment, that is nothing compared to what they agree on as fellow workers with Paul and Clement for the surpassing glory of the gospel.

Rejoice in the Lord always.

Be reasonable.

Finally, brothers, whatever is true, whatever is honourable, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is commendable, if there is any excellence, if there is anything worthy of praise, think about these things.

Take everything to God and trust Him to deal with it and your reward will be peace.

The peace of God which surpasses all understanding. Not peace as in a temporary absence of conflict as in “North and South Korea are currently at peace” but a much deeper sense of wholeness, contentment represented by the Hebrew word shalom.

Monday, 9 October 2017

Glory glory Hallelujah!

Isaiah 5: 1-7 (page 569 in our pew Bible) Israel is God's vineyard but because Israel has forsaken God, God will remove his protection from his people and abandon them to their fate.
Philippians 3:4-14 (page 981 in our pew Bibles) Paul views his Jewish heritage as worthless when compared to the surpassing worth of knowing Jesus Christ.
Matthew 21: 33-end (page 827 in our pew Bibles). Jesus prophesies in this parable that the tenants of God's vineyard (the Israelites) will be replaced by a people gathered around Himself ("the stone that the builders rejected")

I went to a conference recently called the “Glory of God in the church” and how to communicate it, and the only way it seems to me to communicate God’s glory is to embody it – to put flesh on the bones.
Paul’s enthusiasm for the gospel, his joy, where everything he had known before he counts as rubbish, in the face of the surpassing glory of Jesus Christ filled his life.
Paul says “I count everything as loss because of the surpassing worth of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord”
Glory is a very difficult concept to embody or explain – brightness, magnificence, splendour, majesty – but as a shorthand I use the word “worth” the worth or weight of something. What is God worth?
We give glory to God by giving adoring praise and thanksgiving. In doing so we reflect God’s glory back to him. 
Without ever mentioning his conversion experience Paul nevertheless now rests fair square on that revelation where he was captured by Christ.
What is truly significant it seems to me is that Paul wasn’t in any kind of spiritual crisis or doubted what he was doing according to this passage, in persecuting the church, and he doesn’t seem to having any problems keeping the law either as he calls himself “blameless” according to righteousness.
In other words, Jesus Christ was not an answer to any kind of problem, spiritual or physical, that Paul might have been happening, and that is quite a difference to the premise underlying a lot of Christian evangelism, that Jesus is the answer to your problems.
According to the text, Paul didn’t have any particular problems. He was just blown away by the surpassing glory of God who confronted, challenged and changed him so much that everything he had known before he could dismiss as “dung”
He discovered the glory of God’s Grace and a righteousness that depended on faith.
Grace and faith are the two cornerstones of the Christian faith. It is God’s grace that saves us, that heals us, that sets us free, that bestows fullness of life.
We appropriate those glorious gifts through faith in the actions of his son Jesus who revealed God’s love on the cross by dying for us.
This reveals the multi-faceted glory of God where the ultimate symbol of Love is a man willingly dying on the cross to set us free.
The revelation of the glory of God to Paul, was not any answer to unanswered questions, it was a revelation of the glory of God through the revelation of and encounter with a raised and living man, Jesus Christ. He was blown away by the resurrection of Jesus.
Far from being an answer to anyone’s questions or offering the gospel as an answer to anyone’s problems, in fact this proved to be just the start of a whole host of new questions and set him on the road to try to comprehend the new vision which “upset” his previous answers which leads us to the next part of Paul’s writing, that he now wants to get to know this Christ and the power of his resurrection.
This is a task that will stretch to the end of our physical lives and beyond.
The Westminster catechism states “that man’s chief aim is to glorify God and enjoy him for ever”
Our scripture set for today ends with Paul saying that he is not perfect by any means and hasn’t fully grasped the glory of God but he presses on to make that his goal.

The Christian church is conjoined with this mission – so that each of us in our own way and at our own speed progressively discovers – unwraps – the gift of life bestowed on each of us as Christians. We pray that our enthusiasm for this gospel will consume us and will make it easier to communicate to others.