Are You Really Listening to Jesus?

Sunday the 26th of February 2017

Matthew 17:1-9

Today is the day in the church year that we call transfiguration Sunday. Now I don’t know about you but I find this reading from the Gospel to be full of mystery. Jesus is changed to be glowing white; Moses and Elijah suddenly appear from nowhere and then strangely disappear; Peter is confused; while James and John are there, we don’t hear anything about them; the disciples are overcome with awe; Jesus tells them to say nothing about what has happened! So what do you and I make of this reading, how do we understand what is going on?

One way to start is by recognising that this scene took place in a context.

In the previous chapter of Matthew, chapter 16, Jesus for the first time makes it clear to his disciples what was going to happen to him. Verse 21 says: “From that time on Jesus began to explain to his disciples that he must go to Jerusalem and suffer many things at the hands of the elders, the chief priests and the teachers of the law, and that he must be killed and on the third day be raised to life.”

And how did Peter respond to this? Verse 22: “Peter took him aside and began to rebuke him. ‘Never, Lord!’ he said. ‘This shall never happen to you!’”

One of the key verses in today’s reading is when God speaks from the cloud. Where the voice says “This is my Son, whom I love; with him I am well pleased. Listen to him!”

This divine voice commands these disciples to listen to Jesus. In doing this it directs their attention to what Jesus had spoken to them about his destiny and about the destiny of disciples in the previous scene. This voice, by commanding that they listen to Jesus, confirmed Jesus’ announcement of what he must do as God’s chosen one. That He must go to Jerusalem, the centre of power for the Rome-allied Jerusalem elite. That He would confront these rulers. They will kill him. On the third day, God would raise him from the dead (Matthew 16:21).

In order for the disciples to follow Jesus a change was needed, because they simply could not receive the truth and accept that Jesus was called to the way of the cross. They had their own ideas and understanding of who Jesus was and what Jesus was to be, but they did not match the actual Jesus. A change was needed. The type of change that challenged their view of the world; a change that needed some sort of earthquake kind of event to wake them up. A change that would help them re-evaluate who Jesus was to them.

It is easy for us here to see how foolish Peter and the other disciples were being by not listening to Jesus because we stand on the other side of the resurrection looking back. But the reality is it is easy to want Jesus to be the messiah that we want, and not receive the truth of who he is. This is a very real struggle, and I believe that it is a struggle that any people have who were once worshipping with us, but are no longer. The struggle to listen to Jesus and follow him in the way of the cross is just as real for us today, it just looks different. We can easily come up with our own ideas and interpretations of who Jesus is to us, but are we listening to him and what he says about himself?

The disciples, who were Jews, would not have been ignorant of the significance of Moses and Elijah appearing before them. Moses represented the Law, and Elijah the Prophets; both of these men were revered by the Jewish people. And perhaps this is why Peter wanted to build tents for them; in doing so he was putting Jesus alongside these great heroes of the faith, but the lesson here was one in which he had to learn: that Jesus Christ, was greater than these, that He was the one to listen to. This stands out clearly in verse 8 where we are told: “When they looked up, they saw no one except Jesus.” To be a true follower of Jesus he told them, “Whoever wants to be my disciple must deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me. 25 For whoever wants to save their life will lose it, but whoever loses their life for me will find it.” (Matthew 16:24, 25)

Listening to Jesus is so important that God used extraordinary ways to communicate this. In the bible God often speaks to people on mountains, as he does here. He often spoke to people from the clouds, again as he does here. When people saw his glory they saw brightness, as these disciples saw Jesus’ brightness. These disciples were left in no doubt, of who Jesus was and that they were to listen to him alone and follow him. This dramatic scene was to get their attention in many ways.

As I was pondering on Jesus’ transfiguration, Jesus showing his disciples His glory, it made me think about the irony of our Christian faith. Whilst these disciples saw a glimpse of his majestic glory, the real glory of God was displayed by his death on a wooden cross; this is where we get the real view of who Jesus is. This is what he was trying to show his disciples. Like them, I don’t think that many of us would see this as a glory event. The transfiguration of Jesus occurred on the eve of his journey to Jerusalem. We have this reading in our church year on the eve of Lent, which begins this Wednesday. The two are connected.

You can imagine that these disciples who had been with Jesus and seen all the miraculous things he had done, all the ways in which he had ministered to people, all the ways in which they were exposed to the miraculous works of God through Jesus, would not have expected Jesus to be speaking of being handed over and killed. It just does not make sense does it? It is easier to see God being the miracle worker, than him being the one who suffers for our sake. It is easy to imagine our God as one who is all powerful (which he is), rather than one who comes in humility and weakness.

This temptation is not just for the disciples who actually saw Jesus in action, but it is for all humanity. We all want God to be the miracle worker, the one who makes our lives happy, the one who protects us from all harm and danger. But we struggle with a God who sends his Son to walk with us in tough times, who comes to us in humility and weakness; who comes to suffer for our sins. But this is precisely who Jesus is and what he has done and still does. This is the true Jesus who is with you always, even in the midst of despair.

As these disciples went down that mountain, their lesson was not over, as throughout Matthew’s Gospel we hear of how these disciples were encouraged to walk the path of the cross, following Jesus. They learnt that He is God and he will perform the saving works his Heavenly Father has given him to do. They learnt that he can and would sustain them as they denied themselves and took up their crosses and continued to follow him. This was a lifelong lesson. The lessons were not just for them, as we have his Word to us that does the same thing. His Word encourages us in our lives to listen to Jesus, to focus on him alone, and to follow the way of the cross with him. This is what being a Christian is all about.

You and I stand here today knowing that Jesus did follow through his Father’s will and did die on the cross for our sins. We are gathered together as God’s children, because of what Jesus has done for us. Despite many of the struggles that we have, that were similar to that of the first disciples, we know that Jesus does not leave us alone in our struggles. My encouragement to you all as we come into the season of Lent is to refocus back on Jesus and to listen to him, as we focus on his journey to that cross for you.

 

 

Who Do We Follow?

Sunday the 19th of February 2017

1 Corinthians 3:3-10

When I was studying at ALC one of the most common questions that I was asked by people was: Do you struggle with studying the languages? My response to them was no I don’t, but I really struggle with English! Many other languages are clear in their use of words, whereas in English we often have to know the context before we understand what is being said. I remember when my youngest son Samuel was little and he heard the postman outside, so he ran to the letter box. The postman gave him the letters and said “this is for you” meaning that the letters were for our family. However, that is not the way Samuel heard it. He understood that the letters were for him personally. We had a difficult time getting the letters off him because according to him they were his.

In today’s reading from 1 Corinthians 3 it says: “Don’t you know that you are God’s temple and that God’s Spirit dwells in you?”(v16). I suspect that many Christians who read this verse would understand that is telling them that they are God’s temple and that the Holy Spirit lives in them. However, when it says you here it is plural. The Apostle Paul is saying the Church at Corinth is the temple of the Holy Spirit, not the individuals. So we would say that here in this Church we together here are the temple of God.

So why is this so important? Well the problem with the Church at Corinth was that they had many divisions among their Christian teachers. Most of them were trying to lead the people forward into faithful ways of following Jesus. But they faced a great temptation. This temptation was not to abandon Jesus for the sake of secular worldly wisdom. The temptation was they were trying to make Jesus conform to their cultural way of thinking and their expectations of greatness. These leaders were trying very hard to get people to follow their idea of what church was supposed to look like, and of course it ended in many divisions and disagreements. The congregation at Corinth had become divided, because it was following certain individuals, rather than focusing on Jesus.

In addressing this situation this is what the Apostle said: “10By the grace God has given me, I laid a foundation as a wise builder, and someone else is building on it. But each one should build with care. 11 For no one can lay any foundation other than the one already laid, which is Jesus Christ.” As a “wise” builder, Paul builds the church with what he has been given: Jesus himself. Jesus, more specifically Jesus crucifixion and resurrection, is the only foundation of the church. And this is the only starting point for our Christian life in God.

In a day and age when the Christian Church is under so much influence from the culture around us, there is pressure. There is pressure to change things, to dumb things down so that people will come back to church. There is pressure to find the right people who will attract others to our churches. And there are many people who are gifted, and passionate about how they see the church working in the future.

If we are doing this rightly and we continue to build wisely then we will build with and as Christ. But this is where the Christian life is difficult because what this means, paradoxically, is we grow as a church community following the wisdom of God. And this wisdom is the foolishness of the cross. The way of the cross for God’s people, must continue to be the means and ways with which we build up our Christian community. This is because, in Jesus Christ and his death on that cross, God’s wisdom is found.

As a church we are to see ourselves, together, as the temple of God. Being faithful in the building of this, i.e. our church community, means that we continue to make it a Christ centred place, built up in the name and manner of Jesus’ own work.

In growing together as Christians in this community, the Apostle tells us that we need to be wise. We all know that there is a Godly wisdom and a worldly wisdom. We know that there are things that we are to do, and ways that we are to approach life as Christians. This is the challenge of discipleship, of following Jesus and what he tells us to do through his word to us. But sometimes it is tempting to look at the way the world does things and how the world thinks about things and then bring them into the church life. This is not being wise, but it is using worldly wisdom and pretending that it is Godly wisdom.

We called as Christians to be wise, but this wisdom is found in those who embody Jesus’ cross-shaped love. Our wisdom is lived out when we follow, what is considered to be foolishness to this world. We are to live with Jesus as our Lord, and then follow him in self-giving love to others.

Near the end of today’s reading in verse 21 it gets to the heart of the matter, when he says: “21 So then, no more boasting about human leaders!”

God has chosen to work in his people, by the Holy Spirit, through others. Given our humanity and its sinful nature, it is amazing that God chooses to use people to spread his Word and build up his church in the world. People are important to the church, but at the same time people can make life hard for the church. God chooses and calls many different people to lead and work in His church, but the problem arises when we start to place our trust in the leaders and not in Jesus.

There are always strong charismatic people in this world who want us to follow them, who believe that they can lead us in certain directions. Take politics for example, we have to decided who we will follow to lead this country. Now while we do this it is not that easy to know who to follow is it? There are people in our Christians churches who are strong and gifted who call us to follow them, who want us to follow their direction for the church. Even in local churches there are always people in leadership who have strong opinions about what a church should or should not be doing. We need to hear the voice of these people, but we are not to place our trust and confidence in them, but only in Jesus.

The divisions that were rife in the church at Corinth were derived from the people’s misplaced desire to find their identity in particular earthly leaders, which meant that they lost their focus on Jesus. It can easily happen to us today in our congregation, but also in the wider church. For example, this happens when people say “we follow Luther!” or “we follow Calvin!” or “we follow Wesley!” or “we follow Jesus!”

It may be a surprise to some, but we as Lutherans do not worship Martin Luther, rather we worship Jesus Christ. We recognise the way that God used him to build up his church throughout the last 500 years, but he is not our Lord. In this congregation there have been people who God has used at various times, to have an impact on this Church community. We thank God for them, but we must remember that it is Jesus who was and is working through them. All of the life-giving ministry that happens in this place will be because of Jesus Christ. All the genuine work in this congregation will express itself in the self-giving love that Jesus demonstrates for us in his life, Word and most importantly in his death on that cross. This may look foolish to the world around us, but for us who are called it is the wisdom of God at work.

I encourage you then as you come to worship here in this place, to remember that you along with everyone else God has called here, are a temple of God for this community. I encourage to you to reflect on what this means for this congregation and perhaps your role in it. And finally I encourage each one of you to remember that our Church’s foundation is on Jesus Christ our Lord. This is His Church and we need to be continually putting our focus on him and where he is leading us.

 

 

Ash Wednesday Service

LAUNCESTON SERVICE

ash-wednesday

Pastor will be at Launceston on Wednesday evening 1st March to lead us in a service for ASH WEDNESDAY. Service begins at 7pm.

Ash Wednesday is the Wednesday of the seventh week before Easter and the first day of Lent. The day is named for the practice of imposing ashes, a practice that many Lutheran congregations have found to be a very meaningful part of the Ash Wednesday liturgy. Using ashes as a sign of repentance is an ancient practice, often mentioned in the Bible (e.g., Jonah 3:5-9; Job 42:6; Jeremiah 6:26; Matthew 11:21). The early Christians adopted the use of ashes from Jewish practice as an external mark of penitence. Ashes symbolize several aspects of our human existence:

  • Ashes remind us of God’s condemnation of sin, as God said to Adam, “Dust you are and to dust you shall return” (Genesis 3:19).
  • Ashes suggest cleansing and renewal. They were used anciently in the absence of soap. Even on Ash Wednesday, this most penitential day, we receive ashes in the form of the cross, the same symbol placed on our bodies with water in our baptism. Even in this ashen mark of death, we anticipate the new life of Easter.
  • Ashes remind us of the shortness of human life, for it is said as we are buried into the ground or as ashes are placed in a columbarium (see “What are columbaria and memorial gardens?”). “We commit this body to the ground; earth to earth, ashes to ashes, dust to dust” (Evangelical Lutheran Worship, p. 284).
  • Ashes are a symbol of our need to repent, confess our sins, and return to God.

 

Remember to Give Thanks to God

Sunday the 12th of February 2017

Deuteronomy 8: 7-18

If I were to ask you what you give thanks to God for? Many people might respond by saying that they give thanks to God for all they have in this life. Whilst friends and family would come to the minds of many, I suspect that our possessions, what we have or own, would also come into our thinking. When I have read what Jesus has to say in the Gospels about money and possessions, the impression that I get is that it is as if he’s talking about possessions as if they are somehow ‘radioactive materials’. In other words I get the impression that our possessions can do a great deal of good in this world if they’re used properly, after all this is what Christian stewardship is about, but it is also clear that we have to be extremely careful how we handle them if we want to avoid being ‘contaminated’ by them.

The Old Testament reading for today from Deuteronomy chapter 8 has this same warning. To the Israelites the prosperity of the nation of Israel was a blessing from God for which they gave thanks, but it also had potential dangers. Therefore they were wrestling with the same question we do. How do you handle prosperity without being poisoned by it?

Listen to what it says in verses 7-9: “For the LORD your God is bringing you into a good land, a land with flowing streams, with springs and underground waters welling up in valleys and hills, a land of wheat and barley, of vines and fig trees and pomegranates, a land of olive trees and honey, a land where you may eat bread without scarcity, where you will lack nothing, a land whose stones are iron and from whose hills you may mine copper”.

You can imagine the Israelites, who had spent their whole life in the desert, thinking to themselves that this sounds too good to be true, as they were on the edge at the borders of the Promised Land. But there’s a potential danger, which Moses goes on to outline in the following verses. They have the freedom to go into the Promised Land, to settle into their new homes, enjoy the prosperity of the land, but this freedom could lead to them getting so used to it that they forget the land and the freedom they had, was a gift of God to them. As verse 17 puts it, they might start to think ‘my power and the might of my own hand have gained me this wealth’.

I don’t think that it should be any surprise that we can see that today we face the same temptations and danger that these Israelites did. We are living in one of the most prosperous societies that have ever existed. I’m not very old, but even in my lifetime our expectations around ‘standard of living’ have increased to an almost unsustainable point.

We enjoy the possessions that we have; we give thanks for them, and we don’t relish the thought of living without them. But, from a spiritual point of view there are dangers and temptations. In our prosperous society the danger of what Moses calls ‘Forgetting the Lord your God’ is very real; we can so easily get so self-satisfied with our prosperous lifestyle that we lose all sense of need for God at all. Also we know that not everyone shares in the prosperity we have. I came across some American research that was saying that twenty years ago the average American CEO of a large corporation earned about 44 times as much as their lowest paid workers. Today the average CEO earns more than three hundred times what their lowest paid workers earn. That’s a dramatic example of the way the gap between rich and poor in society is increasing.

So what would God have us do to protect ourselves from the dangers we face? Well according to today’s reading the Israelites were to remember where they had come from. Before our reading starts, in verse 2, Moses says “Remember the long way that the LORD your God has led you these forty years in the wilderness”, and in verse 14 he goes on “…do not exalt yourself, forgetting the LORD your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of slavery, who led you through the great and terrible wilderness…and fed you in the wilderness with manna that your ancestors did not know”.

Moses reminds them that they were slaves in Egypt in conditions of backbreaking labour and unimaginable suffering. He reminds them of the long forty-year trek through the desert. But he also reminds them of the good things: how God set them free from their Egyptian taskmasters, how God provided them with food every day on their desert journey. “Remember how you depended on God day by day”, he’s saying, “and how God came through for you”. We would all do well to remember what God has done for each of us, where he has been at work rescuing and providing for us.

Verse 10 says, that they were to ‘Bless the LORD your God’. To bless God means that they were to continually thank God for all the blessings they had received. Again the same is true for you and me.

Being thankful to God is a habit that needs to be cultivated. Some people never learn to cultivate it; I believe we live in a culture that has largely forgotten how to cultivate the habit of thankfulness. Rather, we’ve developed complaint into an art form, and we usually aim our complaints at different levels of government. Our modern governments of course provide us with incredible services and benefits that most of the people of the world can only dream about, but so often our response is complaint: we’re not being given enough, or we’re being charged too much for it.

Thankfulness is an antidote to this. According to today’s reading, thankfulness is not a feeling but a habit. Moses did not say, “Feel thankful”; he said “You shall eat your fill and bless the LORD your God for the good land that he has given you” (v.10). Thankfulness, in other words, is not a matter of waiting until we feel gratitude; it’s a matter of saying thank you, and saying it every time we eat. Our words, you see, have the power to shape us. The more we repeat something, the more it sinks into us and becomes true for us.

The Israelites were also to keep God’s commandments. Verse 11 says: “Take care that you do not forget the LORD your God, by failing to keep his commandments, his ordinances, and his statutes, which I am commanding you today”. Obedience, in this passage is not what many people think it is. It is not a way of buying blessing from God; rather, it’s a way of saying thank you to God for the blessing we’ve already received. Our obeying God is our response of thankfulness for what he has done for us.

Prosperity can be a great blessing in our lives, but the thing is that we have to handle it carefully. We have to remember where we have come from; we have to cultivate the habit of thankfulness; we have to live in obedience to God’s commandments, especially the ones that require us to care for those less fortunate than ourselves. In other words, God challenges us to see our prosperity as a trust from God, to be used to advance God’s purposes in the world. If we can do that, we might just be able to handle it without being contaminated by it!

So I encourage you all to be thankful for the life that God has given you, including the possessions that he has given. I encourage you to regularly stop and reflect on this so you don’t forget God’s blessings in your life. And lastly I encourage you to share the blessings that he has given you with those around you.

Which lens do we see this world through?

Sunday the 5th of February 2017

1 Corinthians 2:1-16

During the week as I was thinking about what I was going to preach on today, I happened to be reading the news and they were talking about Donald Trump. What struck me was that people see Donald Trump through many different lenses. Many people have different opinions about him. It is clear that there is much conflict in the US at the moment over his behaviour, but how they deal with this is the key question. And it does not have an easy answer, because it depends upon which lens, or angle people are looking through.

I have been wearing glasses since I was two years old, as I have what is known as two lazy eyes. If I did not have glasses I would continually be cross-eyed. I have had surgery on them when I was younger, but I still have to wear high prescription glasses in order to see properly. As you can imagine I have been through many eye tests. The optometrist usually tells me that: “Things are going to get very blurry for a minute.” Then they put all these different lenses in front of my eyes and then they click them over. In an instant, where I had been able to read the letters on the wall chart, they become just grey-black blobs in front me. At this point there is nothing I can do on my part to bring the wall chart back into focus. I simply cannot see what was there a moment before. But then as they keep changing the lenses, things begin to change. It changes from not being able to see, to things becoming blurry, and finally, usually after some time, when the right lens is found everything comes into focus again.

At the beginning of today’s second reading from 1 Corinthians chapter 2, the apostle Paul says to the church at Corinth: “I decided to know nothing among you except Jesus Christ and him crucified” (v 2). At the end of the chapter, he says this: “We have the mind of Christ.”

The apostle is writing to a church with many conflicts in it, as I indicated in my sermon last week. He had a very hard task to attempt to sort things out.

In Paul’s experience and in his preaching to them, and to us, “Jesus Christ and him crucified” is not just a statement of fact, or something to believe in. It is very centre of how he interprets life. To put it another way, it is the interpretive lens, for which he, and you and I, are to view events through. Jesus Christ and his death on that cross, is not the wall chart to look at, but it is the small piece of glass that we look through to see so that things come into focus.

Things in the world we live in are so often out of focus. We live in an age where we are bombarded with constant information, differing opinions and people’s puffed up egos come to the fore. Trying to decipher what is true, from what is false in this world for many is becoming more difficult. As a church we are not immune from this either. Congregations are full of people from all walks of life, with different personalities and different backgrounds, and different opinions about things, even the way churches should be run in this day and age and often things can be confusing at times. I remember a conversation a retired pastor had with me when I was studying at ALC, where he said: “Being a pastor would be so much easier, if we did not have to work with people” Often there is so much going on in life in the world and in the church that sometimes it is hard to focus and we can easily become distracted.

The church at Corinth was in a place where they were distracted, where the church had become about how powerful and influential people were; where the preaching had been about how eloquent the preacher was, rather than about the actual content of the preaching. In my opinion, this still occurs among some of our brothers and sisters in Christ today. The church had become about how intelligent and wise people were, rather than about following Jesus example in humility. This congregation had come to a point where it had lost its focus; they were not focusing on Jesus, but on their own strengths and abilities.

So the Apostle reminds the congregation that when he was with them, everything he knew — from the meaning of the Jewish Scriptures to the wisdom of their best thinkers to the status of various individuals within the community — he perceived through the lens of Jesus Christ crucified. That is how he saw them then, and how he now sees them with their conflicts and questions about leaders, worship, spiritual gifts, table fellowship, the resurrection, and all the rest of the messy issues he had to deal with. The point is that Jesus Christ and his death on the cross is not what he sees, but it is how he sees. And how does he see? Through the role the Holy Spirit plays in the life of the church.

It says in 2: 4-5: “My message and my preaching were not with wise and persuasive words, but with a demonstration of the Spirit’s power, so that your faith might not rest on human wisdom, but on God’s power”. In 9-10 it says: “What no eye has seen, what no ear has heard, and what no human mind has conceived the things God has prepared for those who love him10 these are the things God has revealed to us by his Spirit”.

And finally, it says in verses 12-13: “What we have received is not the spirit of the world, but the Spirit who is from God, so that we may understand what God has freely given us. 13 This is what we speak, not in words taught us by human wisdom but in words taught by the Spirit, explaining spiritual realities with Spirit-taught words.”

The Corinthians had forgotten that it was the Holy Spirit who helped them to believe and have faith in Christ. They had drifted away and were relying on themselves. The same is true for you and me today. We are a congregation of believers in Jesus Christ, because the Holy Spirit has drawn us together here to this congregation. The fact that we do believe, is evidence that the Holy Spirit is at work among every one of us, pointing us back to Jesus. This fact should give us all encouragement. Too often we forget that He is the one who has called us here, and He has called us here for a purpose.

The reality is that because of our sinful natures it is very easy for us to become distracted, to let other things get in the way of the reality of who we are as God’s children. The temptation to look at the world and the church through lenses other than Jesus’ death on the cross is all around us, and we often fail to put Jesus at the centre of our thinking. But the reality also is that this is Jesus’ Church and He does not give up on us, even when we do stray. Our Triune God is at work drawing us together as His body, which includes all types of people, personalities, gifting and the like. At the bible study last Thursday I spoke of how one of the strengths of this congregation is that God has called so many diverse people here. This is a strength I believe that God can and will use in His purpose of building this congregation up.

My encouragement to you all is that you keep your eyes focused on Jesus Christ and His death on the cross for your sins. I encourage you to pray that the Holy Spirit will help you in your life to view the things of this world through this lens, so that you may see God at work. And I encourage you to pray that the Holy Spirit will work in the hearts of those we know that have drifted away from this congregation, so that they may join in worship with us again. Finally I say to you be encouraged and have hope, because God is at work in this place.