We Have Access To God

Sunday the 18th of September 2016

1 Timothy 2: 1-7

I wonder if you could imagine a person walking into parliament house in Canberra, seeking an audience with our prime minster Malcolm Turnbull. Better yet, imagine that person is you. Imagine that you want to speak to him because of some burning issues, that are very important to you, that only he can help you with. Not going to happen is it? The fact is that there are too many barriers in the way between the prime minster and ordinary people like you and me. You would have to get through that much security, and the security would not let you in. That would not even know you name. The only way you could see the prime minster is if you knew the right person who could get you in the door so to speak. You could not just walk in and have an audience with him. Life can be like this in that often, when we really need help we feel like we don’t have the right connections with the right person and the right time, to get the important things in our lives dealt with.

One of the things about living in a Western country is that we have very strong sense of being an individual. There are many good reasons why we have this strong emphasis, but it often has a down side when people are struggling, particularly when the issues have to do with injustice. Too often people have issues that they are dealing with in life, where they need others to support them, where they need access to someone in a higher position of authority, but they can’t get this access so they struggle with these alone. People can actually feel very alone, even when they are surrounded by people. It’s like they carry things with them and they don’t have anyone to talk to or anyone who they believe will listen to them or help them. There are people that can help them, but they feel like there are too many barriers in the way, so often they do not seek help, they try to do it alone.

Not only are there barriers that get in the way accessing those in authority on and earthly level, but all the more there are great barriers that exist between us and God. And the major barrier is of course sin. If you go back to the book of Genesis before the fall you have Adam and Eve in the garden talking with God. They had full access to him, they had a perfect relationship with him, but when sin entered this world it put up a barrier between them and God, a barrier that still exists for many to this day.

The apostle Paul says this in 1Timothy 1: 15: “Here is a trustworthy saying that deserves full acceptance: Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners—of whom I am the worst” The reality is that Paul is not the only person who is worst of sinners. You are and so am I. One of the biggest sins that we have in us is that of pride. The thing about pride is that it refuses to say the hardest words in the English language: “I was wrong”, or “ I am not perfect” or “you are right” or even “I think I need some help”, I could go on, but I am sure you get what I am saying here. The thing about this pride is that it blocks our accesses to God. It puts up barriers in our relationship with him.

If we go back, for a moment, to how I started thinking about having access to our prime minister. Imagine if you were at the doors of parliament house and Malcolm Turnbull looked out his window and saw you. And imagine that he gives the command of his security people and they escort you right into his office. And imagine that Malcolm listens to you attentively and makes all the changes you ask for. Now I know full well that this is very difficult to imagine given the state of our parliament at this time in its history. And it would be too good to be true.

When it comes to our God, who has authority over all things, the situation with between He and us is different. Hebrews 9:15 says this: “ For this reason Christ is the mediator of a new covenant, that those who are called may receive the promised eternal inheritance—now that he has died as a ransom to set them free from the sins committed under the first covenant” and in today’s second reading: “For there is one God and one mediator between God and mankind, the man Christ Jesus, who gave himself as a ransom for all people. This has now been witnessed to at the proper time.”(2: 5-6). You see because of Jesus Christ, the one mediator between God and us, we all have access to our Heavenly Father. And how did this happen. Well it happen when Jesus Christ gave himself up for our sins on that cross and took the punishment and paid the ransom for our sins before God. Not only this because he rose again on the third day, you and I have access to our God. The barrier of our sin has been removed. Think about it this way. You and I finally have the right connections with the right person at the right time to accomplish all the right things, for the glory and honour of God!

It is because the barriers have been taken down between us and God that we urged to pray. Hebrews 4: 16 tells us to: “…approach God’s throne of grace with confidence, so that we may receive mercy and find grace to help us in our time of need”. In today’s reading we are urged to pray about all things and for all people. We are even told to pray for your rulers, our government of all things. Notice how prayer is to be made for rulers, not to rulers. This is a subtle rebuke of emperor worship. After all, Jesus Christ is the Saviour, not Caesar, not Malcolm Turnbull or any other government leader for that matter. But also notice why we are to pray for them: “ that we may live peaceful and quiet lives in all godliness and holiness. This is good, and pleases God our Saviour, who wants all people to be saved and to come to a knowledge of the truth” (v 2-4).

It is fair to say as I have been doing visiting throughout this parish that I have heard many people talk about the state of our Christian Faith, and also the Lutheran Church here in Australia and the world at the moment. There are many who are deeply concerned about the decisions that our government is making and how it is impacting, or is likely to impact us as Christians. The temptation is always to think that there is nothing that we can do. There is a sense among Christians at the moment, that we are alone or powerless to do anything. However because we do have access to our Heavenly Father through Jesus, we are encouraged to pray, knowing that there is no barrier and we will be heard by him. We are told to pray for peace and quietness so that the Gospel of truth may be proclaimed and people come to know of Jesus Christ and who he truly is. It is important that we do not stop praying for our leaders and those in authority.

It is not only about praying for those in authority, we are encouraged to pray for all things in our lives. Again one of things gets in the way of our praying is that many of us feel as we are on the outside, alone, standing on that sorry sidewalk, feeling as though we have no access to the most powerful person in the universe? The reality however is that we do have access to God, because of Jesus. And our prayers are important, they are heard by him, God does indeed act on our concerns.

I encourage each of you, when you see so many things getting in the way of your relationship with God, to remember that Jesus Christ has removed those barriers. You are able come to him and any time and pray to him about anything, and he promises to listen. Be encouraged by this and encourage one another to not let pride get in the way, but to come freely to him who wants to hear you and speak to you about your concerns in this life. It is easy to be discouraged as we look at the world around us at the moment, but don’t let this take your focus away from your access to our Heavenly Father, in whom you can always pray to.

 

 

Who are the lost?

Sunday the 11th of September 2016

Today’s Gospel reading from Luke chapter 15 has one of the most popular images of the Christian faith in it. It is the picture of the shepherd and the lost sheep. In the many church buildings that have been in over the years, where there have been stain glass windows, often there is a picture of Jesus carrying the sheep on his shoulders. It is a very vivid and powerful image and it speaks to many people, which is why it is a favourite of many.

The way we use the words ‘lost’ and ‘found’ are also very powerful descriptions of how we as Christians think about the world. The popular hymn, Amazing Grace, has these words: ‘I once was lost, but now I am found…’

I wonder what comes to mind when you hear the word lost. And what do you think it means to be lost? When we as Christians speak of ‘the lost’ we are almost always referring to those who are outside the church, in other words the lost are the non believers. Often when we talk about mission we speak about reaching the lost; we think in terms of our efforts beyond the walls of our church, beyond the people gathered here and toward the reaching those outside; reaching “the lost.” Rather than “preach to the choir” or concern ourselves only with “the ninety-nine,” We can get the idea that a church that is faithful to its mission must develop a heart or perhaps a zeal for the lost: Those who do not know Jesus.

This can be very helpful for us because it is important that we pay attention to those who are hurting, to those who need to hear the gospel. There is some truth to the criticism that often the church gets stuck looking inward, directing all our efforts toward our own community rather than looking and living with an outward focus. We are called to be sacrificial and self-emptying, looking always to those who are in need; to those who are suffering; to those who we see as being lost.

The problem however, is that when we focus on those who are lost in this way we tend to become black and white in the way we see things. We tend to draw a line between those who are saved, meaning us, and those who we believe are lost. I would like to challenge you to rethink this way of thinking about ‘the lost’.

Listen again to verse one and two of today’s reading. It says: “Now the tax collectors and sinners were all gathering around to hear Jesus. But the Pharisees and the teachers of the law muttered, “This man welcomes sinners and eats with them.”

The parables that we hear today, of the Lost Sheep and the Lost Coin are said as a direct response to the grumbling of these Pharisees and the teachers of the law who were highly offended that Jesus would receive sinners and that he would even consider eating with them. And so the “lost” in the parable—the lost sheep, the lost coin, are these people who are drawing near or close to him to hear Jesus’ words. It is these tax collectors and sinners, whose repentance brings joy into the heavenly places, who Jesus is referring to when he speaks of the lost. And so who are the other ninety-nine?  Or to put it another way: Who are those that Jesus leaves behind? Well they are the so called righteous people who need no repentance. They are the Pharisees and the teachers of the lay of course, the very ones that grumbled and complained against Jesus’ relationship with the lost.

In these parables Jesus is strongly rebuking the Pharisees and the teachers of the law. The point of these parables was to condemn them, to make their grumbling stick in their throats. Jesus was directly challenging them and their hard hearted attitudes.

One of the things that I have noticed is that when we talk about the picture of the Jesus the shepherd and the lost sheep, we tend see ourselves and indentify with the sheep. So we are the ones who were lost, but Jesus came into our lives and rescued us, saved us, brought back into the fold so the speak; but it is very rare that someone would identify with the Pharisees, in other words the ‘ninety nine’ in this picture. The ones who like to say who can come in to God’s kingdom and who can’t; the ones who judge others who are not like them; the ones who set standards of behavior for the true people of God; the ones who focus on the sins of others, while blatantly ignoring their own. It is easier to identify with the lost sheep, than to admit that at times we can very much be like the Pharisees. We might indentify ourselves with the lost sheep, but our actions can often be that of the Pharisees and the scribes.

You see the line between the lost sheep and the ninety-nine, the lost coin and the other nine coins is not, as we like to think, between Christians and non-Christians, or between churched and unchurched. This, in my opinion, is not what these parables are about. However, there is a line. The line is between those who, on the one hand, draw near to hear Jesus and his Word, who repent, those who need Jesus, those with whom Jesus chooses to have fellowship with; and, on the other hand, those who have no need of Jesus, who see themselves as having no need to repent, and are secure in their own righteousness.

That was always Jesus issue with the Pharisees, they thought that they were better than others and were okay with God because they saw themselves as being better than others; they saw themselves and being better than those ‘sinners’ Jesus was eating with and having fellowship with.

The reality is that the same temptation faces you and me. We make a serious error when we speak as if the lost is a line that simply divides church members from non-members. We make a mistake if we see our church as one that asserts that we can know who is ‘in’ and who is ‘out’ of the body of Christ; that we can identify who are ‘lost’ and who are ‘found’ You and I simply do not have the right to judge others like this, to do so is simply arrogant on our part.

There are strong lessons from these parables for you and me as followers of Jesus. We are not to draw lines and label people. We are not to have and ‘us’ against ‘them’ attitude. Rather we are to be to the true lost ones, who come to Jesus to hear his Word to us, we are ones who need to repent and recognize our own sins before God.

This is where the Gospel is so important. The Gospel is this: That we are forgiven our sins because of Jesus Christ and his death for us on that cross. As Lutherans we believe that we cannot hear this Gospel without knowing our own sin before God. The Pharisees could not hear the Gospel because they simply did not believe they needed forgiveness for their sins. We won’t hear the Gospel either unless we recognize our own sins.

When we turn to Jesus and repent then we can stand alongside the world—not over against it—and bear witness to this Jesus who has come only for sinners—he has given himself for us all.  Then will the world be able to look at us and begin to see in our midst is: “this man who receives sinners and eats with them.”

God in his mercy, searches out those who are lost. Through Jesus Christ he comes to them and they listen to him. Jesus says of those who are lost: I tell you that in the same way there will be more rejoicing in heaven over one sinner who repents than over ninety-nine righteous persons who do not need to repent. And again in verse 10: “In the same way, I tell you, there is rejoicing in the presence of the angels of God over one sinner who repents.”

To be an effective witness to Jesus Christ in our world, we need to see ourselves as those who are lost, not those who are found and believe we do not need saving; those who need to come close in order to hear Jesus and his Word and respond. And as we do this we point others who do not know Jesus to him as the one who comes to search for them to save them as he saves us. And when we do this there will be much rejoicing in heaven.

 

The potter and the Clay

Sunday the 4th of September 2016

Jeremiah 18:1-11

If I were to ask you: How would you describe God’s character? Or to put it another way: what image do you think about when you think about God? I suspect that there could be many different ways of responding. When it comes scripture itself there are many different images that are used to describe him. God is often described as a Judge or a Ruler; a teacher; a builder; a father, and even a bridegroom. All of these pictures invite us to think about God and his character in different ways and to ponder on the different ways that these relate to us as his people.

In today’s Old Testament reading from Jeremiah chapter 18 we are given another picture of what God is like, and the image is of a clay artist. A God who creates from clay and shapes and moulds it into what he desires it to be. This is not a new image, in fact it goes right back to Genesis chapter 2 where God first shapes clay, sculpting and forming humankind from the dust, or we could say clay, of the earth. God formed and shaped us and then breathed his life into us.

As a child growing up in Feilding in NZ an elder of our church owned a little shop that he had in the front of his property. In this shop he used to sell crafts which included pottery, which he made himself using his own potter’s wheel. Regularly he would come to our youth group and teach us how to use the wheel and make things from clay. Once the clay was shaped and formed on the wheel our creations were then taken back to his place and put in a kiln where they would be heated at high temperatures so that the clay would then become strong and once cooled our creations would be set.

Once clay set like this the only way to change is to destroy the creation and start again from scratch. As I was thinking about this, these words from verse 4 stood out to me: “But the pot the potter was shaping from the clay was marred in his hands; so the potter formed it into another pot, shaping it as seemed best to him”

The clay here had not been fired. Clay that has not been fired is mouldable and is able to be changed. It can be shaped and reshaped over and over. It is a material of possibility: it is mouldable, flexible, and responsive.

God himself made us and breathed life into our nostrils, but he did not fire the clay from which he made. Life is not as set as we often think it is. We all have aspects of our own sinful natures that we struggle with and the temptation is that we begin to think that things cannot change; that this is just who we are. The reality however, is that God is able to shape us and reshape us, and God labours tirelessly at the wheel on our behalf. God assesses our character, perceives our strengths and our weaknesses, builds on our strengths, and, when flaws are found in us, works diligently to remedy them.

How often is it that people often talk about how in hindsight they can see how God had used an experience in their life, to shape and from them to the way they are in the present. I am sure that we could all in some way look back and see how God has shaped and formed us even when we were not aware that he was doing so.

When clay is spinning on a wheel, the clay responds to the potters touch. Clay does not always do what it should, it often goes different directions and needs to be reshaped by the potter. In today’s reading God’s plans for a nation, a people, or a kingdom are not fixed, and they are not determined apart from our own choices. God says to his people: “If at any time I announce that a nation or kingdom is to be uprooted, torn down and destroyed, and if that nation I warned repents of its evil, then I will relent and not inflict on it the disaster I had planned” So on one hand, we see that God’s good plan to build up a people may be thwarted by their choice to do what is evil. On the other hand, God may plan to pull down a kingdom that has made itself great on the backs of the oppressed, but if that nation turns from its evil, God may change his mind concerning the destruction he had planned. What this tells us is that just as we, the unfired clay, respond to the potter’s touch so God responds to us.

One of the remarkable things about our God is that he is a relational God. In our journey through life with him there is interaction between him and us. God is the artist and the maker and we are the clay in this image. But God does not control everything; there is room for us to move in our relationship with him. In other words, we have free will. We can choose not to follow God, to not listen to him, to sin against him, and when we make these choices there are consequences to them. Our lives are definitely shaped by our own choices that we make and the actions that we do. But at the very same time God is always there next to us and he has the ability to shape and reshape our lives. He can use the consequences, the hard times, the bad times in our lives to reshape us as he sees fit. He can reshape the things that happen to us in our lives for good. God is the potter and he is always ready to work, we sometimes just need to be willing to respond to his touch.

I have heard many people say to me over time that they believe they are not able to change. They say things like: “God made this way”, “this is just who I am” “I can’t change” or maybe even “you can’t teach an old dog new tricks” The reality is however the shape of our character and our lives is not fixed. As God’s creation we are not set and hardened. We always remain supple or mouldable. We, as individuals and as communities, may be formed through education or life experiences. We may be strongly impacted through abuse of others or ambition. We are susceptible to influence, suggestions, temptation, and even corruption. And we are also resilient, and capable of doing great and Godly things in our lives. Through it all, even in the company of others and even in relationship with God, each of us forms our own intentions and exercises our own free will. Again even in these God is there and willing to work with us, if we are willing.

At the time of this reading God had planned an end for the kingdom of Judah because of their sinful behaviour, but even this future was not fixed. Just as the potter returns to the wheel, so God asks the people to return, each one, from the evil path they have chosen, and to make their paths and their deeds good ( 18:11). Even in the midst of his judgement God is ready to work with them in their lives for good if they return to him.

No person is beyond God working with them. No matter what mess people make of their lives, not matter how many sins they have committed, nothing is beyond the ability of God to reshape for good. As Christians who stand here forgiven, because of Jesus Christ, can hold on to this hope even more so, that the hearers of these words by Jeremiah. We can stand confident that our God the creator is working in us to shape us and mould us into the people that he wants us to be and when we sin and make mistakes, he does not hold them against us because of Jesus, but he continues to reshape us. Yes we do have to face consequences for our choices and actions, but nothing is beyond God’s repair.

I encourage you to think about your life with God. The journey that you are on with him and to think about the ways in which our God, the one who creates, is moulding you and shaping you in your life. I also encourage you to look at others in the same way, to look for the ways that God is shaping others around you, so that you can speak words of encouragement and build them up. Finally I encourage you to be willing to let God work with you wherever you are in your life, to trust that he can and will, shape and reshape you for his good.