The Scandal of the Christian Faith

Sunday the 29th of January 2017

1 Corinthians 1: 18-31

During the past week there was an article in the New Zealand news paper declaring that New Zealand had been voted the least corrupt country in the world. Now you would think that New Zealanders would be proud of this, wouldn’t you? But as I was listening to N.Z. talk back on the radio, it was clear that many people were very cynical as, they saw the truth, they were able to tell of current corruption and recall many occasions where New Zealanders have acted corruptly, and we might say even scandalously, in the past.

As people we are no strangers to scandals, and we most certainly know a scandal when we see one. It does not matter whether the scandal involves a politician, a Hollywood movie star, a sports figure, or even a church leader; scandals are, unfortunately, rather common occurrences in our society. Scandals involve shameful, distasteful, and outright offensive behaviour and most often cause general public outrage at those caught in them.

So why am I talking about scandals? Because in today’s second reading from Corinthians this is precisely what the apostle Paul was addressing. But it was not just the scandalous behaviour that was being addressed; it is the very fact that the Christian faith itself is seen as scandalous to many. The cross of Jesus in verse 23 is said to be a stumbling block, literally it says scandalous to the Jews and foolishness to the Greeks.

If there was ever a congregation that I would not want to be a pastor of, it would be the church of Corinth. This congregation was full of scandalous behaviour. There were different factions that were against each other; there were battles between those who were rich, ignoring those who were poor; they had many preachers who were false prophets and led the congregation astray and caused discord and division among the people; they had a well-known member involved in incest with a family member and the people tolerated this!; they had divisions over spiritual gifts; also, they had a problem with many wanting to be in positions of influence. The place was a mess.

The church in Corinth was located in a community that was well known for its immorality and idol worship. The city was known for depravity. Because of this, the members of the congregation were tempted to make themselves at home and comfortable with their surroundings, while they waited for Jesus to return.

If you and I look around us today we can easily see that this temptation does not just apply to them, does it? I don’t think it is lost on many of us that we as Christians struggle with letting the culture around us shape the way that we behave. In this way, we might not be that far from that of Paul’s world than we might think.

The response given by Paul in this letter is to focus on Jesus, and more importantly the gospel of Jesus Christ and his death on the cross for all of our sins. This he calls the ‘Word of the Cross’. However, not everybody likes the reality of this message. There are people in this world who refuse to focus on Jesus, but rather their own wisdom. The thing is that the wise of the world who seem to possess every advantage cannot by their wisdom find salvation. In fact our reading says that God comes to us “through the folly of what we preach to save those who believe.” He comes to us in what we as humans would consider to be foolishness. God comes to us through the word of the cross. The Jews wanted spectacular signs from heaven so the cross was scandalous to them. The Greeks wanted logical reasoning so the cross was scandalous to them. Again, if we look around us, is not this true today? Some people are so busy chasing after miracles that they cannot see Jesus, while others simply won’t believe because they can’t rationally and logically make sense of the Christian faith. In fact, many of the most prominent atheists attack the Christian faith because it does not make rational or logical sense.

But here is the thing: God doesn’t come to us through terms made by our human standards. We do not control how God comes to us. He comes on his own terms and this is what offends so many. What looks like undignified, utter foolishness to the world, in reality is far above our human mind and reasoning.

God chose what is foolish in the world. God chose what is weak in the world. God chose what is low and despised in the world. He chose all of that so that we do not boast in our own strength, but in his strength.

For us who believe verse 18 says that the message of the cross is the very power of God. Again in verse 24 it says to those of us who are called by him that Jesus is: “…the power of God and the wisdom of God. For God’s foolishness is wiser than human wisdom, and God’s weakness is stronger than human strength.”

The lesson for us here is that God does not use his power as the world around us does, but rather he uses his power as he comes to us through Jesus and his death on the cross. Again, God’s wisdom is not the same as those of this world who think that they are wise and intelligent. No; God’s wisdom is seen through Jesus Christ and his word to us. Also, the lesson for all of us, is the Christian faith is not about how good we are as people, but it is about the fact that Jesus works in us. Because of this we are not to rely on our own strength and will power, but rely on Jesus alone.

Jesus is at work in us – this is the power of the Gospel. It may not look like it according to our human standards, but this is the reality of what God is saying to us in today’s reading.

In the world that we live in just to admit that we are a Christian can bring ridicule and put downs; many are hesitant to talk about Jesus and his death on the cross. One of the early Lutheran theologians in America, C. F. W. Walther, in a sermon addressing this said:

“Christians should never be ashamed of the cross. Instead, they should carry it secretly in their heart as their most precious treasure and they should carry it on their banner triumphantly throughout the world as a wonderful sign of the redemption of the world and as the dearest symbol…of their faith, and their hope.”

My encouragement to you all is to take heart, because no matter what your life looks like, Jesus is there working in you. Because of this I also encourage you to always look to Jesus rather than yourselves and your own sins and failings, or perhaps your own scandalous behaviour, as when you do you will begin to see him working in the most unlikely ways, and in the most unexpected places in your lives. And when others around you are offended by your faith and take offense at it, remember that it is not you who they are attacking but Jesus himself, and remain confident, because despite what they might see or not see, the power of Jesus Christ’s death on the cross is at work in your life.

 

 

Jesus: the light in our darkness

Sunday the 22nd of January 2017

Mathew 4: 12-13

I don’t know about you but often when I read the bible I sometimes over look details that I think are unimportant. I want to move on to the interesting parts, the parts that speak to me. But detail is very important in God’s word, nothing written in there is by mistake. In today’s reading from Matthew chapter 4 we have details that are worth looking at, namely the places Zebulun and Naphtali. The first time that these places were spoken of by God, was about 700 years before Jesus. They were spoken about in a time where the two Northern tribes of Israel were conquered by Assyria. In other words, Zebulun and Naphtali had not been on the lips of God’s people for a very, very long time. The last time they were, in the book of Isaiah, this was what was said: ‘In the former time he brought into contempt the land of Zebulun and the land of Naphtali, but in the latter time he will make glorious the way of the sea, the land beyond the Jordan, Galilee of the nations’ (9:1).

And now in today’s Gospel we have Jesus moving from his home town in Nazareth to the town of Capernaum that was also occupied by a foreign power, just as the areas of Zebulun and Naphtali were all those years before. It is interesting that Jesus leaves Nazareth and goes into a hostile territory. He does not go to the safe place of Jerusalem, but the dangerous place of Galilee. It is like the Father was saying to Jesus: “it may look like empire is in control, but you know the truth, and you have to be the truth”. It is of no coincidence that in the very next chapter, Jesus would go on to tell his disciples who and what he needs them to be in places where they will be persecuted; who and what he needs them to be in the midst of powers that will seek to overpower them; who and what he needs them to be when it would be so easy to give up. You see Jesus has moved from the safe place of Nazareth to an unsafe territory.

And why did he go there? He went there on a journey of promise, so that what had been spoken through the prophet Isaiah might be fulfilled: land of Zebulun, land of Naphtali, on the road by the sea, across the Jordan, Galilee of the Gentiles might see the light. The people who sat in darkness have seen a great light, and for those who sat in the region and shadow of death light has dawned. At the mention of these two tribes, those who were paying attention knew that in and through Jesus, God was up to what God does best: making good on God’s promises to God’s people. He was bringing his light into the darkness.

Jesus took a journey into a place filled with darkness, to bring them the light of God through him. There is something about this that is worth thinking about.

As Christians we know that Jesus is the light of the world and that through him his light shines through us. And the image of Jesus being the light is a great comfort to many, particularly as they face seasons in their lives that seem to be filled with darkness. But I wonder whether at times we need to pause and reflect on what it means to be in darkness a bit more often than we do. Wherever there is sin there is darkness. As we look at the world around us, it is not that hard to see this truth, is it? Sometimes just thinking about things can bring a heavy darkness, almost depressive feeling when we do.

But what about when we think about the church? Is there any darkness here in this place? The thing is that whenever anyone of us sins it clouds Jesus light. When we are prideful and act proud, we live in darkness; whenever we do what we know is wrong, we live in darkness; whenever we judge others, or spread untrue gossip we live in darkness; whenever we let our anger get the better of us, we live in darkness; whenever we let the conflicts and the sin amongst us, stop us from praying and building each other up, we live in darkness.

The people who Jesus went to “were sitting in great darkness”. In other words they were stuck in their sins before God and unable to break free. Because of this it says that “they sat in the region of the shadow of death”. When any of us sin against God it brings consequences and as we, as Christians, know the ultimate consequences of sin is death. Now we may know it is true, but do we think about it in how we behave? Every time we are prideful, deceitful, judging, gossiping, acting in unrighteous anger etc the consequences should lead to death. There are times when we need to be confronted with the reality of our own sins before God.

But here is where Jesus’ actions are so important. Notice that Jesus did not wait for those people in Galilee to come to him, rather he went to them. He went to them in amongst their sin and darkness and he shone his light as he preached “repent for the Kingdom of Heaven is near”. Jesus took the risk of leaving his safe place to go to a place that was full of darkness. Jesus is the one who takes the initiative.

And he does all these things for you and me. Here in this place, among all of us who are full of sin and where darkness at times does cloud out God’s light, Jesus is present. Here in this place where we so easily take our eyes off of him, Jesus is present. In this place where sometimes we struggle to see him, because of conflict with others, Jesus is still present. But Jesus is more than present, he comes to us, he comes into our darkness to shine his light on us. He comes to us to speak his word to us. Jesus takes the initiative. And as he comes to us he brings us more than just his light – he gives us forgiveness. Every single one of us here sins against God, but Jesus comes and gives every single one of us complete forgiveness because he paid the penalty of death that we deserve for us. Again this is something worth spending some time thinking about. Jesus paid our death penalty.

Jesus began his ministry by walking into the dark places to bring his light of salvation, and in Matthew he ends his ministry by telling his disciples to Go and make disciples of all nations. Leaving their comfort zones and travelling into the darkness of the world. Jesus took risks to bring his light to others; he also empowers us as his followers to do the same. We live in a world where the forgiveness that we have in Jesus Christ needs to be proclaimed to those who do not know him and are stuck sitting in their sins, sitting in their darkness. But it is not only out there in the world where this Gospel needs to be proclaimed, it needs to be proclaimed at times to each of us here, by each other, so that we can receive Jesus as he comes to us.

Our Triune God is with us throughout the entire time we worship in his house, he is always present with us. But it is at Holy Communion that we come, in repentance, to receive him as he comes to forgive and strengthen us in faith. This is a place where he comes to give us strength to do what often we cannot do by our own strength. This is a place where he comes to give us everything we need to grow in faith in him and in love towards each other.

I encourage you in your walk with Jesus to reflect on the lengths that he has gone to come to you in your life, the lengths that he has gone to come into your darkness and give you his forgiveness.