The True Heart of the Reformation

Sunday the 30th of October 2016

Psalm 46

On this day, we celebrate and think about the reformation of the church nearly 500 years ago. And of course being Lutheran’s we think about Martin Luther and the role he played in it. Many Christians of all protestant denominations have a great deal of respect for Luther. But all too often when people think of him, they think of him as a hero, who took on the Roman Catholic Church and who changed the history of the Church and also Europe at the time. The problem is that often the very heart of what he was on about is missed. That is that the Gospel be made known to everyone. This is what the reformation was really all about.

On this Reformation Sunday I would like to preach on one of Luther’s favourite psalms, Psalm 46. This psalm was very important to Luther, in the time and place in history that he lived in, just as it is for us here in this time and place some 500 years later. It is a psalm in which God is at the centre of all life, no matter what it looks like to us. And it is a psalm that is full of God’s promise, which Luther hung to dearly, and encourages all Christians to do the same.

Luther lived in a time where he was surrounded by hardship and devastation. Once Luther discovered that Jesus Christ had paid for his sins and that we are not saved by our works, but rather through our faith in him, this put him at odds with the entire Roman Catholic teaching that taught the opposite: that we contribute to our own salvation before God by our good works. His boldness in publically speaking out, standing on God’s Word, set in motion a very turbulent time in history. What followed was wars between Roman Catholics states and between those who declared themselves as Lutherans and the development of many others following Luther’s example in questioning what they had been taught about the Christian faith and developing their own new interpretations of God’s Word.

At the same time a very bad plague was sweeping through Europe killing a significant number of people. Death by illness and disease was a very real threat. If this was not enough the Ottoman Empire, bringing with them their Muslim belief was making its way through Europe and was very close to taking all of Europe. So Luther was in a place where life was very unpredictable and unstable.

So you can imagine those people asking the question: Where is God? Why is God not intervening? Luther was no exception, he really did struggle with these questions and he had long bouts of depression and struggle in his life, but that is why this psalm was so important to him and is important for us here today also.

We here today may not be facing the same struggles, in fact we need to be thankful for those like Luther that have gone before us, who have made it possible for us to be here Worshiping God in the freedom that we have, but we do face different types of struggles.

We look at the world around us and see that it is against God, that the Christian Church is trying to be silenced or destroyed. The pressure put on our young people to conform to the culture around us to leave the faith is great. The values that we have as Christians that have come from his Word are being eroded day by day. There are times when we face human tragedy, family break downs, mental and physical health issues. Whilst we in the western world like to think that life is within our control, we often find that life can be very unstable.

Psalm 46 is the prayer of his people in a time of great chaos and instability. It says God is our refuge and strength, an ever-present help in trouble.Therefore we will not fear, though the earth give way and the mountains fall into the heart of the sea, though its waters roar and foam and the mountains quake with their surging. The earth around us may be in chaos, but we do not need to fear or be afraid because God is our refuge. Verse 6 says: Nations are in uproar, kingdoms fall; again pointing the environment around us not being stable. However, “The Lord Almighty is with us; the God of Jacob is our fortress.

In the times in his life when Luther felt surrounded he would ask himself “who am I clinging to” In times of despair he would answer: “I cling to Jesus all the more” Who we cling to in times of trouble is a very good question to ask ourselves. Whilst we live in a world that appears to be in control, beneath the surface it is a different story. The western world has the highest rates of depression and anxiety. Australia has the highest rate of suicide in world. As a society we may not speak openly about the struggles we face, but there are problems. People are searching looking for things to help them deal with the uncertainties and the chaos they confront in life. What do they cling to in these times? Sadly more and more they cling to themselves. As those who belong to God, as his children, we need to cling to God, not ourselves. The point of this psalm is that nothing on this earth, not matter how volatile is outside of God’s hand. It certainly at times looks like it is to us particularly at times in history when we as his church seem to be surrounded by enemies of God. But as this happens we are to cling to God’s word of promise all the more.

This psalm continues from verse 8 “Come and see what the Lord has done, the desolations he has brought on the earth. He makes wars cease to the ends of the earth. He breaks the bow and shatters the spear; he burns the shields with fire” Come and see God says, in other Words lift up your eyes so that they are on me. Nothing on this earth can withstand God. Nothing is able to overcome Him. This is the confidence that we have as his children. 1”0 He says, “Be still, and know that I am God; I will be exalted among the nations, I will be exalted in the earth.”

Luther and those of the period of the reformation stood upon the promise of God’s Word to them. Luther was passionate about making sure that the Gospel was not lost, as it had become at that time. Luther stood firm on God’s Word. He stood firm on God’s Word of promise. Even in amongst the challenge of the religious and political enemies, he stood firmly on God’s Word. Even when things around him seemed to be falling apart, and danger was ever so present, Luther stood firm on the promise of God’s Word. No matter what happened around him Luther came back to this psalm. God is exalted above all things; and God is with us in our trouble.

Luther understood God does not just sit up there in heaven and have control over everything from a distance. No he comes near in our times of trouble. He comes near through his son Jesus Christ. He came to us in Jesus the one who was born, who lived with us, the one who died for us. As we are children through Jesus, we belong to him. Because of Jesus Christ and the forgiveness of our sins that we have because of him, we cling to him. He is our refuge and our strength. We stand on Jesus Christ our rock and we stand on the promises that we have through him.

Psalm 46 is about God’s Word of promise: The he is our ever present help in time of need; that God is exalted above all and that his kingdom will stand firm. We are to “Be still, and know that I am God”; In other words stop, trust and have confidence in Him at all times. His promise is that he is with us, that he is our fortress. That he protects us and has us in his hands.

For Luther God’s Words of promise to his Children through the psalms and even more so through our Lord Jesus, were at the very heart of his life and work. And he clung to this tightly in amongst the joys and sorrows of life.

It is this very thing that we are to remember on Reformation Sunday. Not just on this day, but continually. Because like Luther, we live in world that wants to cover this Gospel over, or make it into something else that it is not. As I have highlighted the problems he faced, we also face. But we remember the reformation because it is at the very heart of who you and I are as God’s children, in that we here today stand up on God’s Word to us. So I encourage you to remember not just Luther the man, but to remember what was at the centre of his life and that was to encourage all Christians to have in Jesus and stand in confidence on God’s Word of promise to us, and to hold on to them even through the storms of life.

 

Is the Christian Church about us or God?

Sunday the 23rd of October

Luke 18:9-14

During the recent Pastor’s Conference that I attended, Bishop Greg gave us a book called ‘Disappearing Church’ by Mark Sayers. This book is a very good book addressing how we can be a Christian church in a culture that is not Christian. One of the things this book addresses is the fact that our culture is extremely focused on self. Everything around us tells us that life is about me, my feelings, my experiences and my rights. Now this is not telling us anything that we do not already know, but he takes it one step further by observing that churches are becoming the same, in that they are reflecting the around us. So faith then is about coming to Church so that my needs are met, so that God can bless my life, so that I can feel good about myself and have a good life blessed by God. When I feel good about myself and live a good ‘Christian’ life I will get to go to heaven, because I have done the right thing. There are others who say to themselves: ‘When the church stops meeting my needs, I will go somewhere else’. Many are stopping coming to church because they have found other things. You will often hear people say: “ you don’t have to go to church to be a Christian”  When this happens those of us who remain faithful can easily become judgemental, and think that at least we are going to heaven because at least we are not giving up, walking away, like ‘those’ people. The problem is that faith in Jesus  is not about meeting our individual needs and it is certainly not making Church about us. We can make our relationship with God about what we do for God, how we are behaving, what we are doing to improve our lives and living life as ‘good’ Christians. The temptation to put the entire focus of our faith and worship on ourselves is always with us.

The Gospel reading for today from Luke chapter 18, I believe, speaks to this situation we find ourselves in as Christians.  Verse 9 says: To some who were confident of their own righteousness and looked down on everyone else, Jesus told this parable” It was of course about the Pharisee and Tax Collector.

Now we know about Pharisees because they are spoken about often in the Gospels. We know that they were opposed to Jesus and his teaching, we know that were self-righteous, arrogant people and that Jesus often calls them hypocrites. If we have been in church for some time we know that Pharisees are people we want to be on our journey with Jesus. So I suspect that intuitively we would hear this parable and come to the conclusion that Jesus is telling us we are not be like to Pharisee and are be more like the Tax Collector. In other words, we are not to be arrogant, self righteous, but are to be humble and rely on God’s mercy. So this seems like a very straight forward parable. Or is it?  I wonder whether the danger that we have as Christians is that we miss the point of Jesus teaching here. Might our prayers sound more like this: “Lord, we thank you that we are not like other people: that we are not like hypocrites, overly pious self righteous people; we thank you that we are not like the Pharisee in this parable. We come to church each week, listen to your Word to us, and we have learned that we should always be humble.” Very subtlety we can fool ourselves and find that we are just like the Pharisee in this parable.

The Pharisee here is not speaking falsely, the things that he prays would have been true. Pharisees were very strict, and he would not have done any of the things he said he did not do. His actions were not the problem, it was rather that he missed the true nature of his blessing. He has trusted in himself. His prayer of gratitude may be spoken to the Lord, but it is really about himself. He locates his righteousness entirely in his own actions and being. He is centre of his worship and prayer.

The tax collector, on the other hand, knows that he has nothing by which to claim righteousness before God. He has done nothing of merit that he can use; indeed, he has done much to offend the law of Israel. For this reason he stands back, hardly daring to approach the Temple, and throws himself on the mercy of the Lord.

So in this parable we have a contrast between the Pharisee who claimed to be right with God based on his own over inflated view of himself, while the Tax Collector relies entirely upon the Lord’s mercy. Rather than be grateful for his blessings and all that the Lord has done for him, the Pharisee appears smug to the point of despising others. The way the Pharisee thinks is that there are two types of people: those who are right with God and the immoral sinners, and he is grateful that he has placed himself among those right with God. The tax collector, on the other hand, isn’t so much humble as desperate. He is too overwhelmed by his sin to think about us and them type thinking. All he recognizes as he comes to God in his own great need for mercy. He therefore stakes his hopes and claims not on anything he has done or deserved but entirely on the mercy of God.

There is a contrast here. And we are to be aware of how this applies to our own hearts before God. For this is what really matters. But the trap that we fall into when we hear this parable is that our sinful natures always want to compare. We want to see ourselves as being on the right side of what God wants from us. However as soon as we fall prey to the temptation to divide humanity into any kind of groups, having and us and them attitude, we have straight away aligned ourselves squarely with the Pharisee. It does not matter whether our division is between you and I, as the true right ones with God, and sinners, as with the Pharisee, or even between the self-righteous and the humble, as this Gospel tells us, we are doomed.

Life with God does not work this way. As soon as you and I start to question whether or not someone is right with God, we would do well to remember these words of Jesus. As soon as someone points out the inadequacy of others, we would do well to remember this reading. As soon as the justification of another is easily determined, it’s time to re-read this passage. And to ask ourselves: What will our response be?

Behind this parable from Jesus lies the truth. This parable is about God and what he does. The tax collector makes neither sacrifice nor restitution for his sins. So on what basis is he then named as righteous by Jesus? Well it is on the basis of God’s actions towards him. We need to keep coming back to the fact that it is God who justifies, it is God who makes things right with us we need to see ourselves with nothing to claim but our dependence on God’s mercy. The mercy and grace that he gives us all through the death of his Son Jesus Christ, who has taken care of our sin and removed the barriers between us and God, is where our focus should be. As we do this and we stop thinking and comparing ourselves to everyone else around us, we stop focusing on what we can get from God, focusing on our own wants and desires, but rather we look to what God gives us; when we stop trying to look at and judge others; as we stand before God aware of our need, then we too are justified by our Heavenly Father and invited to return to our homes in mercy, grace, and gratitude, just as the tax collector was in this parable.

God through his son Jesus Christ has made it possible to be in a right relationship with him. This is something that we need to be thankful for and respond to him in gratitude. This is difficult to do when our focus is on what we can get, or on our own achievements, works, morals, or comparing ourselves to those around us. I know that this is easy to do, because we all do it, but I encourage you all to lift your eyes off yourselves and put them on Jesus Christ as this is where you will find grace and mercy that comes to life in your life. The grace and mercy that God give you through him, that makes all the difference.

Persisting in Prayer

Sunday the 16th of October 2016

Luke 18:1-8

Today I am going to preach on the Gospel reading from Luke 8:1-8 which is commonly known as the parable of the persistent widow. The purpose of the parable is made clear when it says in verse 1: “Then Jesus told his disciples a parable to show them that they should always pray and not give up.”

He then tells a story of a widow, who was denied justice because a judge who refused to give justice to her. The man is described as a judge who neither feared God nor cared what people thought. He had all the power and authority to do as he pleased, yet had no regard for God or people. The Widow is the one who is the complete opposite of the judge, in that she has no power at all, yet she is the one who names and even demands justice for all, even her. The judge is self absorbed and only cares about himself and does what he sees fit in his own eyes. The widow gets at the very heart of the matter, she pleads for justice. The widow is not asking for just anything here, but for justice that she is owed, deserved and which God has promised.

The fact that this widow is asking for justice, is often overlooked when we think about this parable. I have often heard people relate to the widow, in that she is pleading with the judge, and that we should be doing the same with our God, with the hope that eventually, just like the judge, God will relent and listen to us. So if we are praying to God and we do not seem to be getting the answers that we want we are encouraged to keep persisting, keep praying to God and eventually he will give us and answer and reward us for our persistence. The problem with this is that it can all too easily lead us in to the trap of thinking that we can manipulate God by nagging him, if we just keep praying are not giving up eventually God will give in.

I would like today to encourage you to see this parable from another point of view. Jesus is telling parable to his disciples. He is teaching them. These disciples were with Jesus, he was there he was speaking with them, they were hearing and seeing everything that Jesus was doing. But in the not too distant future he would be crucified, risen and ascended in to Heaven. What was going happen to these disciples when Jesus ascended? Jesus is saying this parable so that they might pray and not become disheartened, discouraged or to give up. This is all well and good while he is physically present with them, but what about after. What about after when they would be living as his follower in a word that does not fear God or care for people. What about when the culture around them was going to be pressing in on them and persecuting them. what was going to happen these disciples and the early believers faced discouragement, whether caused by the delay of Jesus’ return or the difficult or unjust circumstances they were enduring? What were they going to do, when they were in the middle of difficult times in their lives and they could not see God being faithful this is word and promises to them. It is all well and good when Jesus was walking with them, but what about when they found themselves feeling alone in this world. All of these things happened to the disciples and the early believers and they are still happening to us as his church today.

Jesus goes on to say in verse 7: “And will not God bring about justice for his chosen ones, who cry out to him day and night? Will he keep putting them off? I tell you, he will see that they get justice, and quickly” The question was would they believe these words of Jesus? Do we believe them? This parable speaks to all of us here today as his chosen ones, because we are surrounded by a world and a culture that does not fear God, that is self-centred and has no care for others, and which is making it extremely difficult for us believers to have a voice. There are many Christians who are crying out in this world for justice, but are being ignored. We are protesting against things that we believe to be unjust and wrong, but our pleas seem to be falling on deaf ears. The temptation as his church is then to be discouraged, disheartened and to give up. To sop praying and asking God because it seems to us that he is not acting, that he is not stepping in.

God in his word makes a lot promises to us and we are told to cling his promises. That he is faithful and will always keep his word. But when we look around us and take our eyes of him, what do we see? Many people who have grown up in the church community are walking away from God. Why believe in him when he does not seem to be answering the prayers of his people? Many people in fact do see God as the unjust judge that this parable talks about in the fact that he does not seem to care.

Jesus knew what these disciples were going to face. He knew what was ahead of them. He also knows full well where you and I are. He knows what is ahead of us, what pressures and temptation we are going to face in this life. Therefore this parable is not admonishing his disciples, or telling us off, but it is a parable of comfort and assurance. There are times in this life of ours we where cannot see God at work, when he seems hidden from us. There are times when we cry out to him and plead with him, and he does not seem to be listening to us. It is in these times, that like the widow, we are to persist in prayer. To say to our selves: “While I know that God may seem like an unjust judge, that he does not care, God’s actions are just and God will deliver justice in due time.” This parable is to encourage us in faith in times of distress.

The widow was in a position where she had nothing else, where she had no power, no ability to change things in her life, she was dependent upon the judge giving her justice, the widow did not stop believing, she kept persisting. All of us as believers, like the widow, are encouraged to pray and petition without ceasing and not lose heart, confident that God’s justice will in time prevail.

Jesus finishes this parable by saying: “…However, when the Son of Man comes, will he find faith on the earth?” Many people automatically will connect the fact the God will give them justice on the basis of how much faith they have. The widow for example had strong faith, she would not give up, she kept persisting and kept believing even when things were dire for her, and she prevailed, therefore it was her faith that mattered and we are to follow her example. But i believe that faith here is the faith to hold on, not the faith that overcomes. The faith that Jesus is talking about is to believe that God will provide justice to his people, because that it what God has promised to do, even when the situation seems hopeless. To have the faith to hang in there with God, even if it is only be a thread, and to trust that God is faithful to his promises

It is of course a challenge to respond to the parable he just told. When Jesus comes back will he find us hanging in there, persisting in our praying to him, trusting him knowing that has is faithful and has everything in hand, or will we have walked away, turned our back on him, given up and stoped praying and believing.

God is our Heavenly Father and he does listen to our prayers and he does keep his promises to us, even when we don’t see them. I encourage each of you to hang in there during those difficult times we face in this life, to keep persisting and praying to him. Be confident and know that he is faithful and true to his promises and will bring about his justice to all.

 

 

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How much faith do we need?

Sunday 1st of October 2016

Luke 17:1-10

If there is one common thing among all Christians in this world it is: faith, particularly our faith in Jesus Christ. But even though faith is something that is very important to our lives, is not the easiest thing to talk about. And I find that in private when nobody else watching or listening, people talk to me, as their pastor, about their faith. The thing about these conversations that I appreciate more than anything else is that people are usually honest. Faith is something that burdens many people. Have I got faith? How much faith does a person need? Do I have faith when all I see is my doubts and struggles in this life? How do I know that my faith real? Faith is not something that we as Lutheran’s talk about in public, perhaps like some other churches, but it something that we think about in private.

In today’s reading from Luke chapter 17 Jesus has spoken to his apostles about the fact that their sin in this world, that there will be temptation, there will be judgement and he warned them. He also spoke to them about how as followers of him we are to forgive one another. He says: “If your brother or sister sins against you, rebuke them; and if they repent, forgive them. Even if they sin against you seven times in a day and seven times come back to you saying ‘I repent,’ you must forgive them.”

Make no mistake this is hard teaching from Jesus. Living a life where we forgive those around us is not easy in fact it is extremely difficult. The Apostles response to this was to say to Jesus: “…Lord, “Increase our faith!”

I get feeling here that what Jesus is asking of his apostles, seems impossible in their eyes. Behind this request for Jesus to increase their faith, perhaps has the real question: can I really do this? What they are asking of him, might reveal that they are desperate, that they have doubts, that they have fears, that they are wondering about what faith means for them. Of course then it speaks to us as well doesn’t it. It speaks to our faith. In midst of being asked by Jesus to things that seem to us impossible, we might ask: what is our faith good for? Does our faith get us anywhere? Is our faith worth anything? We come to points in our lives we might make the same plea that these apostles did. “Lord increase our faith” in other words “help us to believe” because sometimes it just feels like it is impossible to. We are like this in those moments where only the belief in the power of God can truly make a difference; those times when our own faith is on the line both because it is being challenged but also because we have never needed it more.

The prayer “Increase our faith” comes from the fact that we do fret and we do not trust in the Lord as we should.(Psalm 37:1-9). It’s the appeal to him that comes from our anxiety. It’s the wish that gives witness to our uncertainties.

This is what we pray in those times in our lives when we just need Jesus to make things easier, when we need some answers. We pray this way when our tendencies toward self-indulgence mean that we want quickest way to get to the end; when we just want to get done and be done; when we are tired of thinking and just want assurance; wanting quick solutions instead of the making the effort that is necessary to discover the root cause.

But behind these prayer to increase our faith, what is at the heart of our prayer? What do we imagine that more faith will get us? An easier life? Less pain? More certainty? Effortless answers?

The thing is if it only about a request for faith, that would be one thing, complicated, but we could manage it. Clearly, having faith is better than not having no faith. But for us the thing is we do not leave it at that. It is not so much a question about faith, but how much faith? How do we measure faith? how do we know if we have enough? We live in a world and culture that depends of being able to define, measure and compare. But when it comes to our faith in Jesus it does not work like this. And this, in my opinion, is one of the reasons why Christians struggle with faith so much. Faith is not quantifiable and this one of the most difficult things for us to accept.

If you were to look at the disciples in the bible, you can see that not one of them has perfect faith or trust in Jesus. Rather they have what could be called mixed faith. On one hand, they have left homes and jobs and families in order to follow Jesus. They encountered hostility from many who oppose Jesus. Still they stuck around, even for this final journey toward Jerusalem, and even when they received a warning of what is to come.

But at the same time, in our own world where we experience turmoil and fear, we can empathize with the disciples when their faith wavers. When the wind roars and the waves batter their boat as they cross the Sea of Galilee, even as Jesus sleeps beside them, they are overwhelmed by terror. “Where is your faith?” Jesus asks, after calming the storm (Luke 8:25). Later, he chides their limited trust in God. “If God clothes the grass … how much more will God clothe you — you of little faith!” (Luke 12:28).

Being close to Jesus does not guarantee unwavering faith. In fact all people at times in their lives waver in their faith.

But faith is present among us and it shows itself in many ways, by a variety of people. Faith is persistence in reaching out to Jesus; trusting in Jesus’ power and authority. Faith is responding with love to forgiveness received; not letting fear get the upper hand; being willing to take risks that challenge the status quo; giving praise to God; having confidence in God’s desire for justice; and being willing to ask Jesus for what we need; and these are just some of the ways that faith expresses itself.

Some moments of faith in our lives are as insignificant as a mustard seed, so small that it is not even noticed, and there are other times when our faith seems as magnificent as if a mulberry tree were to uproot itself and be replanted in the sea. And these can depend on what seasons and places in life we are at in our journey with our Lord Jesus.

The apostles in today’s reading recognized that, in their hearts and minds, they did not have the faith required to do what Jesus was asking them. But the reality is that their faith was not the issue. After Jesus resurrection the Holy Spirit was given to them to help them and enable them to follow Jesus and what he was teaching. The same is true of you and me. If we look at our own faith, all we will see how much we lack. But the reality is that God give us faith, he enables us to trust Jesus. Jesus spoke of the faith as small as a mustard seed, how much faith they had was not the issue, it was the fact that they had been given faith. God himself works his love for us by giving us faith. God’s love and grace are immeasurable, unable to be estimated, and we cannot calculate these. God does not measure our faith any more than we can measure God’s love for us. Faith in Jesus is a gift that he gives us. The focus of our faith is not to be on our own faith, or lack of it, otherwise faith can become and idol, rather faith is always focused on Jesus Christ and what he has done for us.

In this I encourage you to keep your eyes on Jesus, the focus of your faith. Keep looking at him, rather than focusing on how much or how little faith you have. Be thankful to God that he has given you faith and be confident in the faith that he has given you. When you walk through the difficult seasons of this life, lean on and trust that Jesus is with you and upholding you. Because this is what true faith is. Trust simply that God knows what he is doing, and that he has given you the amount of faith you need.