Don’t be Afraid

Sunday the 25th of June 2017

Matthew 10: 24-39

There are times as Christians when we read and hear God’s Word to us, that sometimes, what Jesus says can be confusing or even confronting. This may leave us in a place where we wonder what Jesus is telling us. This morning I am going to preach from the Gospel reading from Matthew 10, but before I get there I want to start with the Old Testament reading from Jeremiah 20.

The Old Testament prophets had to confront a major problem with the people of Israel. The leaders, including priests, were committing great sins before God. They were corrupt and dishonest, they worshipped idols openly; they lied to themselves and to God’s people for whom they were to be responsible for shepherding; in fact they led them away from God. But the biggest problem was they thought that they could do these things without any consequences from God. When God sent his prophets to tell the truth, to call the leaders of Israel to repent, to turn back to God, they were persecuted. They were charged with disrupting the peace, telling people bad news that was upsetting them, causing conflict between people. The leaders were against God’s prophets and they turned the people against them as well, which is why we hear Jeremiah in today’s reading complaining to God about the treatment he was receiving because he was speaking God’s truth.

When Jesus began his ministry of preaching and teaching similar things happened. There were those who turned back to God, but the majority of them turned against him as they did not want to hear the truth. They wanted to keep living their lives as though God would not hold them to account, and when Jesus spoke the truth they persecuted him, even to the point of having him killed on a cross to get rid of him.

In today’s reading Jesus is speaking to his disciples about how this is also going to be the reality for all who follow him. Jesus even says these words: 34 “Do not suppose that I have come to bring peace to the earth. I did not come to bring peace, but a sword.” Now I don’t know about you but when I hear this I resist it. I think to myself this can’t be right because it sounds so wrong. Yet Jesus here speaks the truth. Have you ever noticed that those who speak the truth, those who stand up for what they believe in, do not usually receive a welcome response?

When we look at our society it is very much like this. If you support gay marriage, the legalisation of abortion, or the legalisation of euthanasia as examples, you are considered to be a hero in our society. If you support the right for every individual to do what is right in their own eyes, without taking into account the thoughts and feelings of others, you are held in high regard. However, if you want to publically oppose these things, if you were to stand up and call out what is considered wrong in the eyes of God, there are consequences to this as well and they are usually not good.

Jesus in this reading is not saying that he makes people divisive, that he deliberately brings about conflict. No, he is saying that when you tell the truth, not everyone is going to like it. Just like they responded to him, they will respond the same way to his followers. This is Jesus’ truth-telling at its best. He is providing no sugar-coating here, but telling it how it is. When you stand up and speak out for what you believe, people start falling away.

For his faithful followers who believe in what Jesus says, what Jesus stands for, and we openly speak about it, it is risky business. Relationships will change. Relationships could very well end. That is, in part, what Jesus is saying here. When you stand up for what you believe? Nothing will be the same. Anticipate being unfriended and pushed out, treated differently. Jesus says that it can even happen by those closest to us, our family.

I am sure you can recall relationships, some of them close relationships that have been changed because you are a Christian, because you hold firm to what our Lord says; because you stand up for what you believe in.

Jesus makes it clear that to follow him involves a cost. Are we going to compromise our faith, to please others, or are we going to remain faithful? All of us are confronted by this question at some point in our lives; it is a question we all have to wrestle with.

As I was thinking about this, these verses stood out to me: Verse 26: “So do not be afraid of them, for there is nothing concealed that will not be disclosed, or hidden that will not be made known.” Verse28: “Do not be afraid of those who kill the body but cannot kill the soul.” Verses 29-31: “Are not two sparrows sold for a penny? Yet not one of them will fall to the ground outside your Father’s care.30 And even the very hairs of your head are all numbered. 31 So don’t be afraid; you are worth more than many sparrows.”

Three times just before he said that peace would not come but the sword, Jesus says to his disciples, “Do not be afraid” and as always Jesus’ words are not just for those disciples, but to all his followers including you and me. This is the blessing that you and I have as those who hold on to our faith in Jesus amongst the pressure to let go—the blessing that you and I do not have to be afraid because we know that we are in God’s hands, that he is protecting us, that he is working in us. We have the blessing of having peace with God through Jesus, a peace that unbelievers do not have.

It is this peace that we need to trust in. It is this trust that will enable us as followers of Jesus to reach out to those around us, rather than lock ourselves away in fear. As Christians we need to in our world and society stand up for the truth, but often we do not because of the fear of how others will react to us. The truth is that not everyone will react well, but some will. We do not need to be afraid because we know that God has us in his hands and that he can and will use us to reach out to others with the Gospel; how they respond is up to them and the Lord, but we should not let our fear stop us from speaking up.

Jesus speaks in today’s reading of being willing to lose your life to save it; taking your daily cross and following him. I wonder at times whether we as Christians look around us at all the hardship that could be involved in our decisions that we make. It is easy to see the negative consequences that might happen if we live out our daily lives following Jesus. It is easy to see all the bad things that might happen, which is understandable, but I can’t help but think that it would be different if we were to look at the cost of giving up the peace and forgiveness that we have through Jesus; giving up the grace that our Lord lavishes on us, for the sake of pleasing others around us. You and I are in a position where we stand firm with God because we have been blessed by him through Jesus. We are in a place where we have the peace of God that is declared upon us, where we have the knowledge that our Lord has us in his hands.

As Christians living in this world we need to hear these words of truth from Jesus about the hardships that happen to us because we follow him; we can’t just stick our heads in the sand and pretend that these difficulties are not there, but we also need to rest assured in the fact that we do not have to be afraid because we belong to the Lord and we are in his hands. He will look after us as his children. I encourage each of you to hold firmly on to this promise, but also to continue to pray for our world, and those we know that either don’t know him or are drifting away. Stand firm in your faith and trust in Jesus and do not be afraid to speak the truth as the Holy Spirit leads you.

We Hand On To Others What Jesus Gives To Us

Sunday the 18th of June 2017

Matthew 9:35-10: 23

A few weeks ago I was in Melbourne with the rest of the pastors from the Vic/Tas district. The theme verse that we were looking at and pondering on was from 1 Corinthians 11: 23 in which Paul says: “23 For I received from the Lord what I also passed on to you:…” We looked at the way in which our  congregations are handing on the faith to the next generations and what this looks like, particularly at a time when so many are leaving the church once they leave home. One of the things that stood out to me as I was thinking about this was that everything that we have in our faith, is handed on to us from those before us. From the very beginning Jesus handed on to the first disciples his teaching, which they then handed on to others, including the Apostle Paul, and it is still being handed on and taught today.

From now until the beginning of December our Gospel readings are going to be coming from Matthew’s Gospel. In Matthew’s Gospel the theme of Jesus teaching and what it means for those who hear his teaching and follow Jesus, is of great significance. Many biblical scholars agree that Matthew recorded this Gospel for a church that at the time was being severely persecuted. Working out what it meant for them to follow Jesus in the midst of persecution was an important question; the Apostle Matthew recorded this very Gospel to help them. The question that these Christians were struggling with is not too far removed from our own situation that we face in our world. The environment that we live in, as Christians, is becoming more and more hostile towards Jesus and his followers. Our culture is trying hard to make it difficult for Christians to have a voice, and when Christians do speak up there are usually negative consequences to this. All Christian Churches are struggling with how to be a church in a hostile culture.

In today’s Gospel reading we hear of Jesus sending his twelve disciples out into hostile territory with the message of Jesus and the coming of his Kingdom. Jesus teaches them, by his words and his example and then he sends them to do the same. He hands on to them, so that they hand on to others.

It is amazing to think about who Jesus sent out. He chose twelve ordinary disciples. He does not send out the spiritually elite, or those that are of high social standing in society. He sends out normal mixed up people. There is Peter, who will deny Jesus three times; there is Judas who will betray him; there is Matthew who was a tax collector for Rome, who would have been despised and considered a traitor. And along with Matthew you have Simon the Zealot, who was strongly opposed to Roman occupation and would fight against it. These two could not have been more opposite in their views. The point is that these people were a real mixture of personalities and beliefs, and yet these are the ones whom Jesus chose to send out to do his work of teaching, proclaiming and healing.

And notice what it says in verse five: “These twelve Jesus sent out with the following instructions:…” The mission that these twelve were sent out to do was not one that they were to do on their own. They were sent as a group, but also they were sent with instructions. In fact, specific instructions; they were told where to go, whom to visit, what to say and what to do. We are left with the distinct impression that these twelve were being sent to participate in the ongoing mission of Jesus in this world.

It is very easy for us in this world of specialisation to think that mission is for those who are qualified, those who are called specifically, but the point is that Jesus calls all his disciples, all of his followers, no matter what character flaws, what personality struggles we all have, to participate in what he is doing. So much of the burden comes to us when we think that we have to do everything on our own.

One of the most powerful teachings of Luther, in my opinion, is what he teaches us about vocation, or our calling in this life. Luther says that we are called to serve and love God to whoever and wherever he has placed us. We are called to serve God by ministering to our spouses, our children, our friends, those we meet in our ordinary work places, whatever that work may be. God will bring people into your life wherever you are; we just need to be willing to respond and love and serve God by loving and serving them. What this means is handing on to them, what has been handed on to us: that is, the truth of who Jesus is and what he has done for us. As Jesus says in 10:8: “Freely you have received; freely give.” God has worked in our lives, we have received from him grace and salvation, now we hand it on to others.

One of the things that Jesus made clear to these disciples, was that to follow him was not going to be easy. When they went, some people would respond well; they would respond in peace and welcome them and the Gospel. But others would not. Others would not accept. Jesus makes it clear that it is highly risky in this life to follow him. In fact, he is brutally honest with them when he says: 16 “I am sending you out like sheep among wolves. Therefore be as shrewd as snakes and as innocent as doves.” He describes how others will not respond well, even family members will be in conflict over Jesus. Sometimes there will be persecution because they do not want to hear the Gospel.

But even in the midst of all of this, Jesus tells his disciples not to worry, because the Holy Spirit will give them the right words to say at the time. God has got things in his hand; he is at work in amongst the difficulties that we face. There are times that I really struggle with in my walk with the Lord in letting him work the way he wants to. Often I try to do things, or analyse things or try to manipulate things to go the way I think they should. So when Jesus tells us that the Holy Spirit will give me the right words at the right time, I often struggle with this, because I want things done my way in my time. But as the Lord teaches me again and again as I watch him at work in the lives of his children in this parish, he knows what he is doing. Even as your pastor I participate in what Jesus is doing among you, he is working and I work with him in his way and in his time. Often it is in those visits where I am lost for words, and suddenly I say things that build people up and strengthen them in faith, but as I reflect on the visit I think to myself: where did those words come from? The Holy Spirit is at work. The same is true for all of us and he uses us to reach out to others by often giving us the right words at the right time to hand on to those who need hear them.

It is easy to focus on the negatives, to see that society is changing so fast and is going in a very dangerous direction. It is easy to see that our churches are empty, that people are walking away from the Lord. It is easy for us to become discouraged. But our call from the Lord is to be willing to go where he sends us and give to others what our Lord has given to us, regardless of how they respond. In the bible studies I led this past week I highlighted that Jesus’ sending begins with his compassion for the lost sheep. Jesus sends out of compassion. I believe there is a challenge for us here. In the climate that we live in it is easy to become fearful, angry, bitter, negative and cynical. When we feel this way we can’t reach out to others easily, can we? It is difficult to have compassion at times. However, this is where you and I need to remember that Jesus reaches out to us with his compassion, we then, in response reach out to others with this same compassion shown to us.

The sending of the twelve ordinary people to preach and teach and bring healing to the lost sheep, begins with Jesus and ends with Jesus’ return. It does for us also. He sends us to reach others around us, we don’t do this alone, but he sends us together with our fellow Christians, but also with the promise that the Holy Spirit will give us the words that are needed at the right time. You and I just need to be open and willing to be used by him and participate with him in what he is doing.

 

 

 

 

In Christ You Are A New Creation

Sunday the 11th of June 2017

Genesis 1-2:4

As a young pastor who is still learning the art of preaching God’s Word to his people, there is a temptation to feel the need to explain everything to people. Sometimes this is helpful, but other times it can be quite unhelpful. Today is the day the church called Trinity Sunday, with a focus on our Triune God. And I am resisting the temptation to explain the Trinity, which is impossible to do, but instead will focus on what our Triune God is doing in this World. In other words looking at the way he works, rather than trying to speculate.

In today’s reading from Genesis we hear about our God creating the world—how he spoke and all things came to be—our world and everything in it, including us. And what struck me as I was reading through this account was that God said at the end of each day when he looked at what he had created: “…and it was good.” In fact, six times in six days God said what he created was good, and on the sixth day, after he created humans, he said: “it was very good”. Some translations will say that God was very pleased with what he had made. Our Triune God had made the world, he made us humans in his own image and he was pleased. God created the perfect world.

If we go a few chapters further to Genesis chapter six we hear a different story. There we hear these words: “The Lord regretted that he had made human beings on the earth, and his heart was deeply troubled. So the Lord said, “I will wipe from the face of the earth the human race I have created—and with them the animals, the birds and the creatures that move along the ground—for I regret that I have made them.”

In just a few chapters of the bible we see a contrast, between the world that our Triune God created which he said was very good, to a world which he was grieved he had made. Notice here that it is not just humans he regretted making, but the whole world.

This sin that came into this world through Adam and Eve continues to this very day. We only need to look around us to see what it is doing to this world: broken relationships, family breakdowns, violence, abuse and criminal activities, not to mention wars and terror attacks. From the very beginning since the fall, sin has spread through all creation. This anger at sin by God, which made him think about undoing his creation is not limited to the time of Noah and the flood. In the midst of this time of grievous sin against him, we see his grace in his promise not to destroy the world in flood again. But this does not stop God from bringing destruction upon humans and creation due to his anger over their sin. Take, for example, Sodom and Gomorrah where God razes not only the city, but as it says, “what grew on the ground as well,” or, as another example, if you read through the Old Testament we find repeated threats to destroy his own people (Exodus 32, Numbers 16), to say nothing of the repeated verses that talk about the coming of the “Day of the Lord”, that are recorded writings of the prophets.

I realize full well that what I point to here is very controversial in our modern world. We don’t like talking about God’s anger or his wrath at our sin. We like to hear that God loves us and accepts us for who we are, whilst hoping that he ignores the consequences of our sin. But this is the reality that the world faces—there will be a time of accountability before God, for the destruction of what he created to be very good.

From the view point of our Triune God, because sin has corrupted everything in this world, he is unable to call what he has made very good. And if our God did not act then we would be doomed to destruction.

For something to change God has to be able to declare once again that his creation is good. And this happens through his sending of his Son into our corrupt sinful world. Something that stood out to me as I was thinking about this sermon was the Father’s words to Jesus at his baptism in Matthew chapter 3. As the Father’s Son—the one who was there at the beginning and through whom all things were made—stands in a river being baptized, the heavens are torn open, the Holy Spirit appears in the form of a dove, and the Father declares, “This is my beloved Son, with whom I am well pleased,” (Mt 3:17). It is through this man Jesus, whom the apostle Paul in Romans 5 calls ‘the new Adam’, that God is able to step back and declare of his creation “it is very good.”

It is through Jesus Christ that our Triune God acts through His life, through His death and through His resurrection to bring about the beginning of a new creation. My Grandparents were not believers, in fact my dad’s Father was very aggressive and agnostic towards Christians. I remember occasions where both of my Grandfathers spoke of how they had gone to church as young people and heard ‘hell, fire and brimstone’ preaching—enough to put one of them off for life. When I was studying at Sem I had to do pastoral work in nursing homes; as I did this, people would often talk of the damage this preaching caused them in their lives, which I found very sad. Our God does acts in anger at sin, but he is also a God of redemption. He is a God who comes into the very middle of our sin, through the sending of his Son, he comes into this world to redeem it. The most popular and well known bible verse is John 3: 16: “For God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son, that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life”, but many cannot recall the very next verse in which Jesus says: “For God did not send his Son into the world to condemn the world, but to save the world through him.”

Just as in the beginning when sin came into the world and spread through all creation, our Triune God acts through Jesus Christ to bring salvation and redemption to sinful people; this redemption spreads and is continuing to spread throughout the world, and it has come to you and me. This is the commission given in today’s Gospel reading from Matthew chapter 28 which says: “All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. 19 Therefore go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, 20 and teaching them to obey everything I have commanded you. And surely I am with you always, to the very end of the age.” Our Triune God is at work in this world saving and redeeming his creation from sin. And it is through his work in us that he is able to look at us as a new creation, to look at our lives through the eyes of our perfect Jesus and see that what he has made and is making in us is “very good”. The apostle Paul often writes like this in his letters; he often refers to us as being a new creation in Christ Jesus.  I was reminded recently of a song that I learnt at Sunday School called: ‘I am covered over’. In this song it has these words: “I am covered over with the robe of righteousness that Jesus gives to me; I am covered over with the precious blood of Jesus and he lives in me; when he looks at me he sees not what I used to be, but he sees Jesus.” This is the Gospel for you and me; this is the good news that we who believe in Jesus are redeemed from our sins and our Triune God can look at us and say that, it is very good or that he is very well pleased.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The Unexpected Work of the Holy Spirit

Sunday the 4th of June 2017

ACTS 2:1-21 PENTECOST SUNDAY

Today is the day in the church year when we celebrate the day of Pentecost, the time when the Holy Spirit was poured out on the disciples and what is commonly thought of as the beginning of the Christian church.

The account of this which is found in today’s reading from Acts chapter 2 is full of mystery and happens unexpectedly.

The context of this account tells us that there is a bigger picture at work here. When the Holy Spirit comes we see the completion of what John the Baptist began. Acts 1:5 says: “For John baptized with water, but in a few days you will be baptized with the Holy Spirit.” In one way the disciples were waiting as Jesus had told them to, but they did not foresee or expect what happened on this Pentecost day. When the Holy Spirit acted that day things happened; this is why it is considered to be the beginning of the church, but the more I think about it, I believe it was more than just this. I see that the Holy Spirit was empowering the believers to bear witness, just as Jesus had told they would.

After today’s reading, as a result of Peter’s sermon, prompted by the Holy Spirit, we see the conversion of nearly three thousand people who come to put their faith in Jesus.

The coming of the Holy Spirit was a major time in history and the consequences are still being felt today.

But I would like to take a closer look at what did happen that day, and to explore what this means for us.

It begins with the disciples, what is thought to be about one hundred and twenty, meeting together as Jesus had told them when suddenly the Holy Spirit came upon the disciples with something like flames above their heads, but also with the sound of a violent wind. I wonder if we miss the sense of drama that occurred at that time. It was sudden, taking them by surprise. The Holy Spirit did not come nice and gently upon them, but suddenly and violently. And he came enabling them to speak other native languages so that God’s glory may be shown, which, if you think about it, is very strange.

The people around them who witnessed this were amazed. To be amazed here is not something that is positive. This is not a joyous amazement. These people had gathered because they also heard the violent wind. There is a sense that these people are reacting in confusion and shock. It says “When they heard this sound, a crowd came together in bewilderment, because each one heard their own language being spoken.”

There is something about the Holy Spirit who acts mysteriously and in a way that is unexpected that can cause us to be hesitant. The way the Holy Spirit came upon these early disciples and the way he guided them throughout the book of Acts, may lead us to have a picture of how the Holy Spirit works in the lives of Christians. There is something dramatic, something spectacular, something that is even unsettling about how he acted in this account.

Notice how the Spirit came upon the disciples. There was nothing that the disciples were necessarily doing to make him come. He just came. In this I think we need to be reminded here that the “mighty works” that the Holy Spirit works in us are God’s, not ours. The Holy Spirit works in ways he chooses, not in the ways we want him to.

When we hear a reading like this I wonder whether we can get easily distracted by the wrong question. In our world we like to know and understand everything, we like to be able to logically put things in boxes, and maybe we try to do this with the Holy Spirit also. Maybe we look too much to how the Spirit works, focusing on and looking for the specific details, rather than resting assured of the fact that he is at work in our lives. He works in our lives in many ways that we do not recognize or see, but he is at work.

As I was thinking about this I began to think about whether a part of our hesitancy and sometimes our inability to recognize him at work comes from our longing for him to work in ways that make us feel good. The Holy Spirit prompted Peter’s first sermon in which he spoke from the prophet Joel; a passage that has to do with judgment and the end times. The day of the Lord refers to Jesus’ second coming. In the reading that follows today’s it shows us how the Holy Spirit convicted people from this sermon and brought them to faith in Jesus.

This is not the way we imagine the Holy Spirit to work in our lives. I suspect that we tend only to look for the Spirit’s work in our lives when it is comfortable and convenient; perhaps when he affirms to us what we want to hear, not what we need to hear. Because the Holy Spirit does work in ways that are often spectacular, we look for those times and fail to see him working in the difficult and confronting times in our lives.

As Lutherans we do not put too much focus on the Holy Spirit in our speaking about God, which can be a very good thing at times. But I believe we need to be challenged in this — to ask the question, ‘Why don’t we?’ I suspect that the answer to this question lies in what we believe about the Holy Spirit, and whether what we believe has more power than our trust that he is at work in us.

When we look to the Holy Spirit to always be doing great things in us, we may despair when our lives are just normal. It can cause us to doubt that he is even at work in us at times. Perhaps we think that the Holy Spirit has better things to do than to show up in our lives, because we are too sinful.

But this is where we need to remember from our reading that, yes, the Holy Spirit has been poured out on all flesh, and that through him our Triune God has come to us, his children, baptised into his name, the people whom he made for himself at the beginning of creation. You and I who have faith in Jesus Christ have this because the Spirit has called us, he has gathered us, he is making us holy through his working in us, and he is keeping us. This is something that you and I can rejoice in and have confidence in.

One thing that stands out from the book of Acts and the history of the early Church was that they gave witness to the work of the Holy Spirit regardless of whether or not people recognised, agreed with, or accepted him at work. From the very beginning as the Holy Spirit came upon his disciples and declared the work of God to those people, right up to this very day, the Holy Spirit is still at work. No one is out of the range of the Holy Spirit. He targets every human heart. As we go about our ordinary Christian lives telling others about Jesus, we receive what appear to be so many closed doors. Often it appears that our testimony of the truth of Jesus is rejected by others around us. But the Holy Spirit keeps about his work and will continue to do so until the very last day.

On this Pentecost Sunday I want to encourage you that the Holy Spirit is indeed at work in your life working faith in you; also, that he does not give up on those who have wandered away or those who don’t know God. Just as from the very beginning the Holy Spirit works and acts in ways that are not predictable to us, we cannot dictate to him how he should be working, but we are to trust that he is; to trust that he is bringing people to faith and salvation, not only in our lives, but in the lives of others.