Bearing witness to the One who is already there.

(Please note that this is my last sermon that I will be putting on this site, as this sermon was a part of my farewell service to the Northern Tasmanian Parish).

Sunday the 17th of December 2017

John 1: 6-8, 19-28

In my last few weeks of preaching I have been focusing on the theme of being prepared for Jesus’ return, and looking at what this means for us in our daily lives. But the thing about the season of Advent is that it is more than just thinking about preparation; it is also a time in the church year when we dwell on what it means to bear witness to Jesus. What does it mean for us in our lives to bear witness, or to give testimony of Jesus in our world?

In today’s Gospel reading from John chapter 1 we again hear the account of John the Baptist, but we hear this account from a different perspective than last week when we heard the Mark account. One of the things that stood out to me from this reading was that John confesses the truth of Jesus, but he does it by confessing who John is not.

At first hearing we may think that this reading is all about John the Baptist and his ministry, but listen to how many times Jesus is referred to and what is said of him by John.

Jesus is the true light; John is not worthy to untie his sandals, which means that Jesus is exalted; Jesus is called the Lamb of God; Jesus takes away the sins of the world; the Holy Spirit is upon Jesus and remains with him; Jesus will baptise with the Holy Spirit; Jesus is God’s Son. This is an impressive witness from John about who Jesus Christ is and what the ministry of the Messiah is.

When it comes to bearing witness to Jesus, let’s be honest, many of us struggle. Talking about him to others is not easy, particularly in our world and society that is becoming more and more anti-Christian and antagonistic towards Jesus’ followers. The very thought of giving witness to Jesus can cause much fear and anxiety for many of us. So as I was pondering the Gospel reading I began to see that we as disciples of our Lord Jesus can learn from John.

For John to witness to others of Jesus, he had to know who he was not, who he was and what he was to do. John was under pressure and a number of the leaders came to him and were grilling him about what he was doing. And the way that he responded is significant. It says, ‘20 He did not fail to confess, but confessed freely, “I am not the Messiah.”’ To truly recognise Jesus for who he truly is, we have to be certain about who is not the Messiah. John was going out of his way to make it clear to the people that he was not the one who could save them. That he was not the way, the truth or the life. Rather, he continually pointed away from himself to Jesus. John is not the Word made flesh; he is only a voice pointing to Jesus.

For all of us here who are disciples of Jesus, and who belong to him, there is a challenge here for us. You and I are called as Christians to grow, to mature in our faith, to become more Christ-like. And this is often a result of genuine repentance. But this begins with an honest confession from us of who we are not. You and I together as the body of Christ gathered together in this Church today, and we have people from all four congregations in Tasmania present, are not the Saviour of this world. We are not the way. People do not have to become like us in order to receive salvation. Others’ salvation does not depend on us, but the one who we bear witness to is the one who saves.

I have in my life been in places where I have heard very powerful testimonies from people who have had the courage to stand up and to speak about what God is doing in their lives. As Lutherans, people sharing testimonies is not a part of our tradition and there is a reason for this. Mainly, too many people put the emphasis on what is happening in them; what has changed about their lives; or on inspiring people that they too can be different. These can be useful, and they can be encouraging—it is good to share with each other what God is doing in your lives, to speak about it, to encourage one another in faith. However, the danger in testimonies is that they can so easily become about what is happening for the person speaking and not about Jesus Christ and what he is doing.

John in today’s reading is emphatic about this. He confesses, he did not just deny it, or pretend that it was not the case, or try to convince others that it was not the case. No, he confessed openly so there was no hint of a doubt that he was not the Saviour. This is important, because John the Baptist was in a position where there were many coming to him; where he had a rather large following; where people were hanging on his every word. He had a name and a reputation so large that the religious leaders came out to see him and to interview him to find out what was going on. John could have used this power he had for his own ego, but he didn’t. He pointed to Jesus. When God works in our own lives, the temptation to claim it for ourselves is a part of our human nature. We like to take the credit at times. But we must always point to Jesus.

When it comes to pointing to Jesus and bearing witness to him in our lives, this needs those of us who are Christians to speak up. Our society needs those of us who confess Jesus as Lord to, like John, stand up and speak. John the Baptist was not afraid to attract attention to himself, in order that he was heard. He strongly and at times unshakably pointed to Jesus, the one coming after him.

But even in this it is important to hear what John says. 26 “I baptize with water,” John replied, “but among you stands one you do not know.” But among you stands One. Jesus is standing right there among them and they do not even recognise him, but he is there. In thinking about this it struck me that many of us may think that we have to help people find Jesus. But where is he? He is here right among them. When we point to Jesus we are not introducing someone new, so to speak, someone who has just appeared on the scene. No, he’s been standing there all the time! Even though the people to whom John the Baptist was speaking did not know Jesus; they did not know who he is. Where was he? He was right there in their midst.

So when John said, “I am the voice of one calling in the wilderness, ‘Make straight the way for the Lord.’”, he was very simply doing what the prophet Isaiah, so long ago, said needed to, and one day would, be done. He was drawing attention to the One among them that they had been ignoring, failing to see, or even avoiding.

The same is true for you and me. We are to bear witness to Jesus, who is already among people. He is already there. He is already present with them even though they do not know it. We draw attention to what Jesus is doing in the lives of people who are no different to those listening to John the Baptist, to those who don’t know, ignore, fail to see, or avoid him. But even when they do all these things, the fact is that he is still there in their midst. We just point him out and leave the rest up to the Holy Spirit.

And if Jesus is there, right in the midst of people, how much more is he in the midst of us? This means that Jesus is standing right next to each and every one of you, even when you don’t know he is. Jesus, the one who is the Saviour, the one who died on that cross and all of your sins are forgiven because of this, is standing among you. Jesus, the one who sends us the Holy Spirit through our baptisms, and because of him includes us in the family of our Triune God, is right here among you. Jesus Christ, the Saviour of the whole world, is not just among those who don’t know him, but also right here present with us. And this is what the Christian faith is about.

So in this season of Advent, as we think about Jesus’ return, we are also challenged to think about what it means to bear witness to him as we wait. And today’s reading from John chapter 1, highlighting the ministry of John the Baptist, encourages all of us in this.

My encouragement to you all then is to see that, despite the fact that it looks like the world is caving in on us at times, that the world is becoming an unsafe place for followers of Jesus, and the evil one is attacking us, and that living and bearing witness to our faith is getting harder, Jesus is right there in the midst of them, even though they do not know it. As he is with you and me. I encourage you to see that bearing witness is pointing out where Jesus is and what he has done and is doing. As Jesus is the Saviour, not you and me.

And finally, I encourage you to take heart in this, and to be confident that our Lord Jesus is at work, doing his work in us, as we await his return.

Preparing in the Wilderness

Sunday 10th of December 2017

Mark 1:1-8

On this Sunday morning we find ourselves only a couple of weeks out from Christmas and in the middle of the season of Advent. And of course Advent is the time of the year when we focus on what it means to prepare ourselves for Jesus’ return. With this in mind we come to today’s Gospel reading from Mark chapter 1 where we find John the Baptist coming in from the wilderness preaching to the Jewish people. And quoting the words of the prophet Isaiah: “I will send my messenger ahead of you, who will prepare your way”— “a voice of one calling in the wilderness, ‘Prepare the way for the Lord, make straight paths for him.’”

As I was thinking about this I thought, ‘What exactly does it mean to prepare a way for the Lord?’ It implies that in order for the Lord to do his work, some preparation must happen. Perhaps the crooked paths need work to make them straight so the Lord can come.

And given in Mark’s Gospel John appears straight up before Jesus is even mentioned in this Gospel, I believe that it is significant to us, because we are indeed preparing ourselves for Jesus’ coming. Not his first, as in today’s reading, but his return. John the Baptist’s answer to the question is to call people to repentance and, through his baptism, to show them how desperately in need of a thorough cleansing they are. In other words, he is telling them the truth.  This is how the obstacles and obstructions and hindrances are to be cleared away. This is how the very crooked ways of relating to each other, but also to our Lord will be straightened. Repentance and the confession of sins are like bulldozers and road graders, of this road to Jesus’ coming.

John the Baptist’s preaching would have been shocking to those who heard him. Because he was direct and confronting, like most of the prophets are. And in the current climate that we as Christians are living in, we need to hear what he says. We as Christians should no more take for granted our status before the Lord than John’s hearers could take for granted their status as Israel. Jesus was coming to them. Were they prepared for him? Are we ready to meet our Lord? This is an important time to prepare. Every day brings you and me closer to Jesus’ sudden appearance among us. Are we listening to John the Baptist today and preparing our hearts?

As I have looked back over my sermons of recent times, I have noticed that I have frequently been encouraging us to look at the state of our society and the world around us, to help us see what is happening and how God’s word speaks to us in our world today. And there is a great sense here again that the Advent readings, including today’s Gospel reading, call us as a church not to be silent, but to be announcers of Jesus coming again. You see, the world around us has no idea of how late in the game, so to speak, it really is.

The world needs to hear that Jesus’ return is not necessarily “Game over!” Though the truth is, it will be for some.  John the Baptist came pronouncing judgment upon the unfaithful people of Israel and he did it so clearly that few could misunderstand or ignore; in other words, the warning was clear, but in this also came the call to repentance, and the call to repentance is always a message of hope. John was helping people get rid of the obstacles and obstructions in the road, to make the path straight so they could receive our Lord Jesus.

You and I, as Christians, have the joy of knowing that the road that was being built by John the Baptist now stands paved, and the way that God’s own Son cleared still stands as the Way between us and God. Jesus has taken the obstacles and made the path straight. This is not something we can do on our own; it has been done for us by him. And he will come back and complete it in his second coming. This is the good news that needs to be told.

Another thing that stood out in this reading was the theme of being in the wilderness. John the Baptist comes to prepare the people and he comes from the wilderness. I don’t think that this is insignificant. If you think about the Bible, the theme of being in the wilderness comes up again and again right throughout scripture. But wilderness in the Bible is the place you want to journey through—it’s not the place you want to live. It’s the place that God’s people pass through on their way from slavery to freedom. In other words, it’s the place where He speaks and works with his people. Where everything is taken away and all is laid bare and God can speak. When the gospel writers speak of wilderness it is important to see that they have this in mind.

Wildernesses are dangerous places. They are often places of temptation and testing. They are places where it is easy to lose your way and spend the rest of your life wandering. They are places where you could easily die, and your dreams and hopes could die with you. They are places where things are beyond your control.

As next week is my final service in this parish, it is not lost on me that this parish and also my family are going into a time of wilderness. There are many uncertainties ahead, much anxiety about what is going to happen. Much of what is ahead is unknown. The temptation for us all is to despair and lose hope. But this is why this reading for today is so important, as it is in times of wilderness that a new voice calls out. In the midst of all the mess that surrounds us, one cries out: “Prepare a highway! A highway in the wilderness! The Lord Jesus is coming to you! He’s not waiting in town. He’s not waiting until you can find the way out, until you can make your way to him. No!  He is forging his way through the wilderness in which you live. And his road in will be your road out!” That’s why the road needs to be smooth and level. Your Lord Jesus will walk this road; that is true. But on this road, he will lead you and all his lost ones out of the wilderness to his Promised Land. He is the way, the truth and the life. This is true of all of life, and it is true of where you and I are now. Our Lord has us in his hands and he is working in this parish among his children, even though tough times are coming. In these times he will speak to us and he will prepare us for what he has in store for us.  The question is: are we prepared to hear him speaking?

As much as today’s reading is about John the Baptist and about repentance and confession and wilderness times, the most important verses of this Gospel reading are verses 7-8: “And this was his message: “After me comes the one more powerful than I, the straps of whose sandals I am not worthy to stoop down and untie. I baptize you with water, but he will baptize you with the Holy Spirit.”

Advent is about preparation for Jesus’ return, his coming. But we don’t do this on our own; we have been given the Holy Spirit to guide us through this life. The focus of Advent is on Jesus and what he is doing and what he is going to do. This is the heart of our Christian faith. This is the hope that we have and that we hold on to, as we wait for him.

I encourage you all as children of our Lord Jesus to remind yourselves and others of who you are and who you belong to. I encourage you to listen when the Lord speaks, even if it means that confession and repentance need to follow. I also encourage you to hold onto the hope that we have that our Lord Jesus is the way, that he is the one who has made and is making the paths straight for us in this life. Finally, I encourage you to know that even when times are hard that our Lord Jesus has us in his hands, as we prepare ourselves for his coming.

 

Who is Watching?

Sunday the 3rd of January 2017

Mark 13:24-37

When I was a child my mum liked to give me surprises. I thought that she did this because she thought that I liked surprises. However, in a conversation with my mum about my own children one day, she told me that the reason that she kept things a surprise was she could not handle my reactions to waiting for things to happen. If I knew that something exciting was coming, then I would not be able to settle, and because I suffered from hyperactivity I would be bouncing off the walls and I would be a real handful until the expected thing had passed. I have always been like this; I still struggle to wait for things that I know are coming.

As I was thinking about today’s Gospel reading, I began to wonder whether there are times in our Christian journey where life can be like this.  In this Gospel reading from Mark chapter 13 we hear Jesus telling us that the time is coming when he will return and set things right. One of the things about Mark’s Gospel is that when Jesus speaks he speaks with a sense of urgency and expectancy. Today’s reading is no different; we need to be alert and ready, on the lookout, expectant.

If you look at our world you can see why this speaks to us today; society is falling apart; our faith seems to be under threat; decisions are being made by our government that will have disastrous results into the future; I look at the news and see that the world as a whole is getting gloomier and that it is sometimes hard to be positive because all we hear is bad news. And sometimes in my prayers I have said to the Lord: “Lord I know you are coming back to take us to be with you, but what are you waiting for?” “How long are you going to let things continue like they are?” “When are you going to do something?” I am confident that I am not the only one here who has prayed like that to the Lord.

Jesus says this to us: 26 “At that time people will see the Son of Man coming in clouds with great power and glory. 27 And he will send his angels and gather his elect from the four winds, from the ends of the earth to the ends of the heavens. 28 Now learn this lesson from the fig tree: As soon as its twigs get tender and its leaves come out, you know that summer is near. 29 Even so, when you see these things happening, you know that it is near, right at the door.”

You and I know that what Jesus tells us is true. That the end is set. That the day and the hour when he returns is firmly established. It will happen. He will come and get us. And yet we have to wait. We know that it is going to happen and we look forward to it, but we have to wait. And the danger with waiting is that we lose our hope and focus and drift off. Jesus told his disciples, “33 Be on guard! Be alert! You do not know when that time will come.”

In the chapter after today’s reading Jesus took Peter James and John to the garden of Gethsemane, and while he went off to pray he told them to watch and pray, but instead they fell asleep. The day was coming, the hour was upon them, but they did not see it coming, despite the repeated warnings. One of the biggest events in history, our Lord’s death on a cross, was about to happen and yet they were not ready because they slept.

For us as Christians living today, we are in a similar position. Our Lord has spoken to us through his Word; he has told us about his second coming. Our God has established the last hour, and it will come; we have been told and warned. 32 “But about that day or hour no one knows, not even the angels in heaven, nor the Son, but only the Father.”

This is why Jesus says to you and me as his disciples, “33 Be on guard! Be alert!…keep watch…” You and I need to hear this because we so easily become impatient; we pray, “What you are waiting for God?” and when we don’t see him working, perhaps we begin to think: “Maybe it isn’t really going to happen after all”; or maybe we just become impatient; we allow other things to distract us from our focus on Jesus and his Word to us. We may even let ourselves drift off to sleep so to speak.

But this is why Jesus’ words are important. It is not just about the end, but also our journey towards the end. The command to watch applies not only to doormen and watchmen, but to all disciples of Jesus, as we journey through this life. Careless, sleepy people who are taking a journey risk missing a flight, or an exit, or the “bridge out” sign. However, those who keep watch and are alert pay attention to maps, weather, the road, luggage, other people and the destination. Because the day and the hour is unknown by us, we need to watch and be alert to God’s Word and direction every day. It is a whole of life thing, because when the end comes it is too late.

So I wonder what difference it would make if we turned the question around, and instead of asking God, “What are you waiting for?” whether we hear God asking the very same question to us, where he asks you and me: “What are you waiting for?”

We have a life to live. We have a destination that we are going to. We have a direction for each day. We do not want to be caught missing out on what God is doing in us because we are sleeping.

The reality is that all of us are guilty of not watching or being alert. We all, because of our sinful natures, have drifted away at times. We do not do what our Lord Jesus is commanding us to do in today’s reading. But this is where we need to remind ourselves of the good news. And this is the fact that it is our Lord who is the real watcher.

This comes out very clearly in one of my favourite psalms, Psalm 121. Listen to what it says: “He will not let your foot slip—he who watches over you will not slumber; indeed, he who watches over Israel will neither slumber nor sleep. The Lord watches over you— the Lord is your shade at your right hand; the sun will not harm you by day, nor the moon by night. The Lord will keep you from all harm— he will watch over your life; the Lord will watch over your coming and going both now and forevermore.”

 

It is only our Lord who never falls asleep and is always watching, and his promise is that he is watching over you and me as his children; not only is he watching, but his promise is that he directs our paths.

 

The reality is that it is our Lord Jesus who accomplishes what you and I cannot. When the disciples’ time of trial came, Jesus died on the cross and rose again from the dead. When the time of trial comes to you in your daily lives here and now, today, our Lord Jesus comes to you and graces you with his gifts at the Holy Communion table. And when the time comes for judgement at the end of time, Jesus will come again and take you to be with him forever. Our confidence is not in ourselves, but in his promises to us.

 

The challenge that Jesus gives you and me is to be alert, to watch over our lives as Christians and be ready for his return. This includes watching so that we don’t drift away or become complacent, but that we continue to live each day alert to what he is doing.

 

I encourage you all that you are never alone in your walk with him and that he is always with you, doing what you are unable to do at times.

 

As he commands you to be alert and to watch, so too he is alert and watching over you.