God Has a Plan

Sunday the 18th of December 2016

Isaiah 7:10-16

During the last week we had a parish council meeting at Devonport. During this meeting we discussed things that had occurred in the past months since we met, but we also looked ahead to what we need to do to plan for the future; which includes adjusting to some things that are difficult and which we have no control over. It is important to plan things and have strategies for dealing with situations in life. Plans can be good and very helpful in keeping things on track; but plans can also be necessary when dealing with a crisis. When it comes to planning we as a church need prayer and guidance because, all too often, we fall into the trap of putting into place our own plans, rather than what God would have us do.

The world that God created was (and still is) in a great state of crisis. Sin was everywhere; people were doing their own thing, committing their own evils against God. Everyone was doing what was right in their own eyes. All people that God created were rebelling against him and his authority and trying to deal with things their own way. Even God’s own chosen people were doing this. The world was out of control. But God had a plan.

God made known his plan to his prophet Isaiah hundreds of years before the birth of Christ. As it says in today’s Isaiah reading: “Behold, the virgin is about to become pregnant and bear a son, and will call his name Immanuel” (Is 7:14). And as Matthew tells us, after the angel had spoken to Joseph about Mary: 22 “All this took place to fulfil what the Lord had said through the prophet: 23 “The virgin will conceive and give birth to a son, and they will call him Immanuel” (which means “God with us”).” Christmas day is about celebrating the beginning of a plan, a plan to save us from our sins; a plan that involved God acting where we could not.

Ahaz, the King of Judah and God’s chosen leader for his people, found himself in a very difficult and stressful situation. He was afraid that the kings of the other countries around him, the kings of Israel and Syria, would come together and bring destruction on God’s people in Judah. God’s prophet Isaiah comes to Ahaz with news that should have filled him with confidence. He was told: “It will not happen. They will not stand. Ask for a sign to know that God is with you to deliver you.” God had the situation in hand. Instead of trusting in God for help and deliverance, Ahaz had already determined to seek help in an alliance with Assyria to the north. So instead of asking for a sign, since he was not trusting in God for help anyway, he piously states that he will ‘not test the Lord.’ Did he not realize that God can see into his heart? So God gives his own sign: Immanuel.

I can’t help but wonder whether people today think a lot like Ahaz. He had already made up his mind; he was not interested in what God was doing. He had already decided what his plan was. It is like he was saying: “I have already made up my mind; don’t confuse me with the facts.”

You don’t have to look far to see that people are blinded by a world view that opposes a biblical view. They want to explain the existence of the world without giving credit to the Creator God who made it. They desperately look for assistance and support from everyone and everything, other than their loving Father who provides for all their needs. They look for salvation and peace, in man-made religions or the things they have done instead of from the gracious Lord who already provided for eternity in Christ. They have already made up their minds and for some, I think, it will be difficult for even the truth to convince them otherwise. They have their own plans.

But the question is: what about us? Do we have our own plans? Whether we like to admit it or not, we also find ourselves trusting in our own strength or the strength of our own allies rather than trusting in the Lord. We tend to think and make our plans as though we have control of the future, sometimes we even do this without even praying and consulting God for direction and guidance. Because of our sinful natures, we trust our income, bank accounts, retirement funds, the government, to provide for all our needs, and we can easily become anxious and panic when these things fail us.

The fact is that for you and me, God’s promise is that he is with us, and gives us the sign of Immanuel. A virgin became pregnant by the power of the Holy Spirit, and the child born was truly God and truly man. She called him Jesus because he would save his people from their sins, and he is truly Immanuel, God with us. All this has happened for us, but have we already made up our minds and don’t want to change them? Maybe like Ahaz we might think “Don’t confuse me with the facts.” The question is how teachable are we? How open are we to letting God and his word shape our lives and guide our decisions?

God is indeed with us through the virgin birth—the incarnation of Jesus, which we celebrate this coming week. The word became flesh and dwelt among us. And he continues to be ‘God with us’ as he comes into our lives through his Word and Spirit, as he continues to journey with us in our lives with him. This is the blessing of living on the other side of the death and resurrection of Jesus.

But the fact that God is with us through Jesus also has an uncomfortable side to it, as his presence brings a call to repentance for all who trust in their own strength, their own way, their own works, their own world view; for, apart from Jesus, God with us, there is no other way, no other rock, no other salvation.

That Jesus is God with us is also a call to repentance for you and me, who want to trust in Jesus and follow as his disciples. It is a reminder that we need to take inventory of our own alliances and friendships; to be aware of where we place our hope and trust; to make sure that we bring those back to Christ alone.

Christmas is a time to celebrate. To celebrate that Jesus Christ is our Immanuel, he is ‘our God with us’. Because of this we have hope and the promise of grace and mercy to us, for Jesus has indeed truly come to be with us; and he brings us forgiveness, life, and salvation. He is with us in the good times and the bad, but we really need to know and be confident that he is with us in the bad times. He is with us when everyone and everything is against us. He is with us when the bottom falls out and we are falling into despair or brokenness. He is with us through the tragedies of life, and through the valley of the shadow of death. He will take us through death to share the glory of heaven with him. Trusting in him and his promises, we are truly secure in this life and in the life to come.

Christmas is about the beginning of God’s plan, a reminder of what he did through the birth of his Son Jesus, but also a reminder of what he is still doing, as he is still working his plan of salvation in this world, of which we are a part. It is a reminder of the way that God has taken action into his own hands that he came up with a plan to save us, when we could not save ourselves. His plan is not yet complete as this will happen when Jesus returns again, but one thing we know is that until this happens, we are to trust in him, knowing that he is with us.

As we come into Christmas week I encourage each of you to take time, in amongst the busyness and distractions, to consider what Jesus ‘our God with us’ means for your life and your plans for the future.

 

What kind of Christ do we expect Jesus to be?

Sunday the 11th of December 2016

Matthew 11: 1-15

In the season of Advent, particularly as we get closer to Christmas, the focus in the church becomes more focused on the gift that God has given us in the sending of his Son Jesus Christ. This time is often a time of joyful expectation and excitement leading up to Christmas where despite what the world around us focuses on, we focus on Jesus Christ.

In last week’s Gospel reading we heard about John the Baptist, the one who was called from the desert to prepare the way for Jesus coming by preaching on repentance. This is the one who stood confidently in front of the crowds proclaiming with certainty that one would come after him who would baptise with the Holy Spirit. This is the one whom John would baptise and see the Holy Spirit come down as a dove from the sky. This is the one who knew with great conviction that Jesus was the messiah and he was faithfully preparing the way for him to enter his ministry. Can you imagine the sense of anticipation that John would have had; the expectation that the messiah had finally come and was on the eve of starting his ministry.

And yet some time in to Jesus’ ministry we have John in today’s Gospel reading asking the question: “Are you the one who is to come, or are we to wait for another?” This question was not from any ordinary person, this was John the Baptist! The one in the know, the one who was supposed to know, the very one who knew Jesus. How could he of all people ask such a question? Surely he did not doubt that Jesus was the messiah.

John had reached a point in his life where he was no longer in the wilderness, where he was no longer baptising in the Jordan River; where people were no longer coming out to see and hear him. However, we now find John in a different kind of desert, not one in which he was prophesying, but one in which he was questioning.

I get the sense here that John, who is now in prison, sees Jesus through the eyes of disillusionment. Maybe even through the eyes of great disappointment. I wonder if you have ever been in a place like this; a place or time in your life where you have been disappointed or even disillusioned with Jesus. I suspect that this has happened to many of us in our lives, if we are honest. In the ups and downs of our Christian lives we may see Jesus through different eyes. When our faith appears strong and things are going well then how we see Jesus may be very different to when life gets tough, when we face challenges when life gets hard.

As I was pondering John the Baptist’s question it occurred to me that John did not doubt who Jesus was. But rather he doubted the type of messiah Jesus was.

Was he disillusioned and disappointed because the promised kingdom didn’t come in time to keep him out of prison? Did he not like Jesus’ approach, perhaps wanting a fire-and-brimstone Messiah? He knows that the winnowing fork is in Jesus’ hand, but perhaps the chaff is not being burnt up soon enough for his liking? Whatever the reason John asked this question, Jesus didn’t match his preconceived ideas. For him, the expectation was that Jesus would do what all other messiahs—past, present, and future—would be expected to do: Get rid of our enemies and make us prosper. But Jesus did not come to do what all other messiahs were expected to do. Rather than go to the top and take his faithful with him as the new rulers, authorities, and powerful, he turns this common thinking upside down by going to the lowest—the blind, lame, deaf, poor (even the dead!), where he lifts them up.

It is like Jesus was saying to John, ‘You want to know what this kingdom of God is all about? The least will be served. Look! It is already happening!’

Jesus then turns to the crowd because their expectations also were not being met. John was popular. Crowds went out to him. But what did they go out to see? A celebrity? A man starting a revolution? Had the preaching of repentance by John done what it was meant to do? The crowds were not responding to Jesus’ ministry any better than John. The crowds’ praise and high opinion of John was not enough. He was the forerunner, the prophet promised at the coming of the great and terrible Day of the Lord.

What Jesus was saying was that this winnowing fork that John spoke of and which Jesus has was not intended for others. It was intended for them: he who has ears, let him hear! In other words, judgment is at hand! It is like Jesus is saying to them ‘You filtered out what you wanted from John and his message. And as a consequence you filtered out what you wanted from the Messiah spoken of.’ This raises the question: Do you and I have a filter that hears only what we want to hear? Again if we are honest the answer could often be yes.

But the reality is that Jesus does not fit the mould. He is not a messiah or Christ that we can shape into how we want him to be. To a certain extent the world around us has done this to Jesus. In their eyes there is nothing unique or different about Jesus. To them Jesus Christ is like all other religious leaders; his teaching is reduced to modern day spirituality and moral advice. When this happens he becomes comfortable, undemanding and easy to contain. Yet Jesus and the kingdom of God will not conform to the way we want and at times this is a great struggle for us. You and I cannot control or make Jesus into our own image, yet we try.

John was a great prophet. He came to announce the kingdom of heaven was near, and with that announcement a call to repent. This kingdom does not match expectations; neither our expectations of victory and glory, nor the expectations of those who wish to establish themselves as king and so seek to destroy the kingdom of heaven. But this kingdom will not be conquered. The kingdom will remain.

The thing about John’s question that he asked Jesus was that he in faith asked him. John had the freedom to ask Jesus the question.  I believe that we need to have the same freedom to ask: “Are you the one who is to come, or are we to wait for another?” This is the question at the heart of Advent. I say this because in asking this, it gives voice to our hesitancy and the uncertainties that we like John the Baptist have, even in the midst of expectation and anticipation. It allows us to express uncertainty even though our viewpoint is on the other side of Jesus’ death and resurrection. It provides us with the words to articulate what our hearts, our souls, actually feel at times in our journey with Jesus. Like John we can ask our questions. But at the same time we need to be open to Jesus’ reply, because like with John the Baptist, his answers don’t always match our expectations of him.

Jesus calls us to trust him, to trust that he is the perfect Christ that we need, not the one we want. He calls us again to hear the message to repent, to turn to Jesus as our king and receive his forgiveness that he freely offers us through his death on the cross. And he calls us as members of his kingdom to take off the filters that we have on our lenses so that we can see what he is doing in this world, how the kingdom is growing, and what he is doing in our lives; and he calls us to walk with him.

Walking with Jesus does not mean that we will not have struggles or questions or times of doubt. During these times we have the freedom to ask and speak them but at the same time we need to trust that he knows what we need to hear. I encourage each of you to think about, in these last weeks leading up to Christmas, how you see Jesus and to ponder on what it means for you walk with him.

The Importance of Repentance

Sunday the 4th of December 2016

Matthew 3: 1-12

The season of Advent, leading up to Christmas, is a season where we often look forward to what is to come. We often focus on the hope that we have because of Jesus Christ and what he has done for us. Advent often brings with it a sense of longing and waiting for the promised return of Jesus. But at the same time, it is not only about what will happen in the future. And today’s reading from Mathew chapter 3 reminds us of reminds us of this.

God our Father through his Son Jesus Christ was about to change the direction of history. Through Jesus Christ, the reign of God was coming near. The reading begins: “In those days John the Baptist came, preaching in the wilderness of Judea and saying, “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven has come near.” Things were about to change. Jesus was about to start his earthly ministry that would eventually lead him to his death on the cross and his resurrection. Our triune God was about to act in this world. But before he did he sent his prophet John to prepare the way. And how did he prepare the way, but preaching and requiring repentance.

But why start with repentance? I believe that it was necessary for this to happen, in order that they might receive what was about to come, the ministry of Jesus. In our reading today it tells us that the ordinary people flocked out to hear John and that many people received his baptism of repentance. I don’t think that it is a coincidence that many ordinary people responded to Jesus, when he spoke and taught.

The religious elite on the other hand, the Pharisees and the Sadducees, the ones who had the power and thought that they had the control over God’s people, were the very ones who struggled to accept Jesus. Why because their hearts were hardened and they refused to repent.

Repentance is something that is not very well understood in our church culture. If I were to ask what it means to repent from our sins, I suspect that I would receive many different answers. Repentance includes feeling sorry for our personal sins against God; and a feeling of not wanting sin against him. Whilst these are a part of repentance, repentance is much more that these.

The challenge that John the Baptist puts to these Pharisees and Sadducees shows us that repentance is about not only behaviour, but our hearts. It says “But when he saw many of the Pharisees and Sadducees coming to where he was baptizing, he said to them: “You brood of vipers! Who warned you to flee from the coming wrath? Produce fruit in keeping with repentance. And do not think you can say to yourselves, ‘We have Abraham as our father.’ I tell you that out of these stones God can raise up children for Abraham. 10 The ax is already at the root of the trees, and every tree that does not produce good fruit will be cut down and thrown into the fire”

Repentance literally means to change your mind. The bible tells us that as sinful humans we naturally have a mindset and a heart that is against God. One that is rebellious towards him. So it means that when we repent we change our mind and turn our lives back to him, we make a decision not to deliberately keep going down a path that we know that God does not want us to. This usually involves us checking our hearts, making sure that our hearts in the right place. If it is not in the right place then we will not produce the fruit of repentance in our lives. This is the point that John was making to these religious leaders, repentance comes from your heart and mind, not only your actions.

Johns’ challenge to these religious leaders also indicates to us that to repent, means taking a clear minded look at the ways in which our lives can be shaped by the assumptions and behaviours of the culture around us. It means to turn way from being complicit with the world and our own worldly values, and to turn towards God, so that our attitudes and actions reflect what he is doing in this world. God through Jesus changed the way that we relate to God forever, but the Pharisees and Sadducees could not look beyond their own assumptions and ways of doing things to see God working, because they were so focused on themselves and their own world.

So John offers them a choice. They could repent, and join the movement toward what God was doing in his kingdom, or they could continue to collude with the old age and face eternal condemnation at the final judgment. It was that clear.

As Christians, our repentance is the same but different, because we are the ones who have been baptized and received the Holy Spirit, the ones who comes after Jesus death and resurrection, repentance requires that we also accept what Jesus has done for us by forgiving us; that we listen to the Holy Spirit’s leading through the Word. For us repentance is a change of mind in terms of not wanting to rebel against God, but also a change of mind that says that we will listen to the truth he tells us and live accordingly.

As Christians it is important for us, particularly as we live 2000 years later, to recognise that Jesus came in to a sinful, broken and rebellious world, and he came into it to bring about a new reign, a new way of being in relationship with God that is based on his death and resurrection for the forgiveness of our sins. As Christians we are to see to world around us through this lens, not through the world around us that lives as if Jesus never came.

And this starts with repentance. As Matthew’s gospel unfolds, Jesus will reinforce the importance of making this choice. But he goes a step farther. Jesus teaches his disciples that the life of following him needs to embody the qualities of the new way of seeing the world, while still living in the period of transition between old and new. In other words while we wait for his second coming. You see repentance is just the first step.

As Christians it is important for us to have a sense of our time and location in the plan of God for the world. God in Jesus, through the Spirit and his means, is still at work in the world even as that world continues in its blatant rebellion.  Where Jesus is present—in the gospel and the sacraments—God is reigning to call a people together as a community to be salt and light for the world (5:13–16). The Last Day is coming near, when all will finally be put right—God’s repentant people will be known and his stubborn enemies will be turned away into the hell of judgment.

John the Baptist’s proclamation is needed as much now in our time as when he said to the Jews then. What is John’s message? I it is that we need to repent and to embrace Jesus in faith.

As Christians we acknowledge again the need for God to reign over and repair this chaotic world; but not only that we acknowledge that he needs to reign over and repair our own lives. As Christians we can rejoice over God’s unexpected reign in Jesus. As Matthew, and the whole NT proclaim, God’s mighty agent of judgment has come in astonishing and unexpected ways—to be baptized in the place of sinners (3:13–17) and ultimately to suffer and die for their sins. God vindicated his Son, and now the Son’s work continues in the world— and in our small congregation here today—as we as God’s people wait for the day he returns.

John the Baptist’s proclamation was only the beginning. God is the Lord of history and he has called each of us here as a part of his body at this time in history to walk with him as he has about working his kingdom in this world, which began with the coming of Jesus, but is not complete until he returns again.

So Advent is about looking forward to the future with hope, but it is also recognizing that while we wait for Jesus return, God is at work in our lives and in our church community. The focus on repentance is important because through it, it helps us to have eyes to see what God is doing in us, it helps us to see where the world is influencing us, but most importantly it brings us back to listening to God and what he says to us, so the we live our lives according to how he would like us to.