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.

 

 

Living as Sheep

Matthew 25:31-46

This morning I am going to be preaching on the Gospel reading from Matthew chapter 25 where we heard about the parable of the sheep and the goats. This is an appropriate reading to have today as it is the last day of the church year, where the focus is on the end times.

When I was on vicarage at St Michael’s in the Adelaide Hills, I met some young people who are very passionate about their faith, but one of the readings they struggled with, was today’s parable. They could see that Jesus was telling them very clearly that serving the poor and the needy were commanded by Jesus, but they could also see that they really struggled with doing this. One particular person had so much doubt that he even wondered if he was saved or not.

On another occasion while studying at ALC I came across a pastor from another denomination, preaching to Christians that unless their actions lined up with this parable, then they were deceived and were going to hell. He saw himself as a prophet to the churches, warning us all that we will be going to hell unless we strictly follow this parable.

Why this is so concerning is that it put ordinary Christian people in a place where they strongly began to doubt, not in Jesus, but to doubt their salvation through him.

To be honest, when many of us hear these words of Jesus to us, they can be confronting. The fact is that there is no question about the message Jesus intends to convey here: we are to be looking after the poor and the needy. No amount of justifications or interpretation can get away from this. There is no dodging the impact of what Jesus is saying in this parable. His words are clear and easy to understand. And this parable has a very sharp focus on our actions towards others, particularly those in need. Because of this, it can easily be heard from this parable that when the time for Jesus’ return comes, there will be judgement, which is the truth, but that our fate is dependent upon what we do in this life; in other words, that our place in heaven is dependent upon our actions towards our neighbours.

Now as Protestant Lutherans we know that we are not saved by our works, but we are saved by grace through faith in Jesus Christ only. So the question is how do we make sense of Jesus’ words to us from this parable?

As I was reading through this parable some things stood out that I believe are important to highlight. Notice how this parable starts: 31 “When the Son of Man comes in his glory, and all the angels with him, he will sit on his glorious throne. 32 All the nations will be gathered before him, and he will separate the people one from another as a shepherd separates the sheep from the goats. 33 He will put the sheep on his right and the goats on his left.”

The sheep and the goats have already been decided before any actions are spoken about. Jesus is describing what will happen at the end of time. The reasons for our judgement lie well beyond the actions of the sheep or goat in this parable. This was already decided at the beginning of the world. The sheep are you and me, and all other followers of Jesus as the ones who are chosen by God. We do not have any right on our own to be at Jesus’ right hand. We are the righteous by grace in Jesus Christ.

As for the goats, it is important to see that there is no mention of a place prepared for them for eternity. Those who reject Jesus are to go to a place that was not prepared for them. This place was called into existence only out of necessity. You see, condemnation was not the plan of our Triune God at the beginning of the world.

So when we look at the actions, described by Jesus, of his people who belong to him and those who don’t, he is not saying that these actions contribute to our salvation. Rather, he is describing what we do as his children.

Neither goat nor sheep in this parable are aware of the presence of Jesus in what he calls “the least of these.” Now we would expect this to be the case when it comes to the goats—it is no surprise, because they have no belief. But the surprising thing is that the sheep have no awareness of Jesus in the midst of our neighbours.

We often speak about and we hear about “serving Jesus” by putting our faith into practice through our actions, in the world. Often we think that we need to do this to serve Jesus. But this parable is suggesting that we serve our neighbour for the sake of the neighbour; the single motivation necessary to serve is the need of the neighbour. Sheep serve because they love their neighbour for their own sake, not because they perceive Jesus in their midst. The sheep have no idea that Jesus is there, but they just act. This describes the Christian life. The connection between our actions, following Jesus and his command to love our neighbour, and our relationship with our Lord, should not need to be explained or separated. The point that Jesus is making is that because we are his followers we act as his followers.

In this is the challenge to all of us. Jesus expects you and me to act like his people. Sheep take care of their neighbours. There is an expectation, even an obligation, for Christians to serve those in need and this has nothing to do with our salvation. We are to simply act from who we are: God’s children through Jesus Christ.

We do know this, but we all do from time to time become complacent. We forget. Or we become apathetic. Living in our society at this time in history makes it so easy to get caught up in our own lives. We can too often become so distracted and occupied by things happening in our own lives that we struggle to see the need in our neighbours. And whether we like to admit it or not we often fail to serve others ahead of ourselves.

This is always a challenge for us, but when we become aware of it, we repent, ask for forgiveness and keep on following our Lord.

One of the ways that we can find great encouragement and comfort is knowing that no action of service, regardless how obscure, insignificant or unappreciated, is ever wasted or lost. Our Lord Jesus keeps track.

Notice what the King says in this parable “… ‘Come, you who are blessed by my Father; take your inheritance, the kingdom prepared for you since the creation of the world.” We do these things because we are already blessed and chosen by God, not to earn favour with him.

Our Lord Jesus is the one who calls us as his children, and the one who at the judgement will separate the sheep from the goats. He is the one who showed us throughout his earthly ministry how to love our neighbour as ourselves. He is the one who set the example for us to follow. We as his children are to follow his lead in serving all no matter whether they are sheep or goats; we are to serve them all.

My encouragement to you all then is to look for the ways that you can serve those around you in your ordinary everyday life. In doing this you will be serving our Lord without even knowing you are doing it. I encourage you to see that God already has you as his child, and he has a place prepared for you at the end of time. Knowing this I encourage you to serve him with all your hearts and your actions.

Letting God Work His Gifts Through You

Sunday the 19th of November 2017

Matthew 25:14-30

This morning I am going to preach on the Gospel reading from Matthew chapter 25, which is known as Jesus’ parable of the talents. One of the interesting things about this parable is where Jesus told it to them. Jesus told this parable to his disciples whilst they were on the Mount of Olives. And this was a part of his talk to them about his second coming. In other words, he is giving his disciples a parable to think about which applies to the time between when he ascended to heaven and when he returns the second time. Of course this is for us, as we live in this time.

Before Jesus ascended into heaven, our Lord had spoken to these disciples and told them to wait in Jerusalem until the promise of the Holy Spirit was given to them. He said to them that they were to be his “witnesses . . . in Jerusalem, and in all Judaea and Samaria, and to the end of the earth” (Acts 1:8). Our Lord Jesus is like the man in today’s gospel reading; he has gone to a faraway place and he has left his servants, us as his disciples, behind to use our gifts that have been given to us through the Holy Spirit to do his work. This work which he has given us is to announce the good news of Jesus Christ and what he has done for us, to the world around us.

It would be easy for us to just hear this parable and think that everything had been left to us to do. In other words, to think that Jesus is gone and he has left us here on earth with a task to do in which we will be judged at the end of time. In a way this is true; however, our Lord has given his Word and his Sacraments through which he brings people into his Kingdom. This emphasis is important because it is not all about us. Having said this, our Lord who has provided these means has also chosen to use his people to proclaim this Gospel throughout the world. This requires gifts and abilities, money and energy. So in this parable of the talents, Jesus is impressing upon his followers that he has equipped us with the material and personal resources that are needed to carry out kingdom work. The capital has been supplied, as it were, and the Lord has given us opportunities to invest that capital of gifts that he has given us.

He gives us all that is needed to do what he asks of us. I believe that this is an important thing to think about, because I wonder if so many of us look at ourselves and see all that we lack. All that we don’t have. Maybe all we see is our sinful natures, or our struggles and doubts, and wonder surely God can’t use me. But he can and he does. But it requires trust. Trust that God knows what he is doing.

The man in the parable did not give out the talents in an ad hoc manner; rather, he gave them with a great deal of wisdom. He gave each servant according to that servant’s ability (v. 15).   The Lord asks us, as his disciples, to manage no more than he knows we can handle. Something has been given to each one to work with.

This is hard to grasp, because we live in a society that puts so much focus on the autonomy of our lives. We choose what we want to do. However, when it comes to the Christian’s life, our lives are not our own; they belong to our Lord. The gifts and talents that we have been given are not our own. They have been given to us, and they have been given to us for a purpose. And this purpose is to use them for him. This does not mean that we can’t use the gifts that God gives us for own personal lives, but he wants to make it clear that these gifts are to be understood as gifts that are to be used for his work.

When we put these gifts into practice, his promise is that they will do what he has given them for.  The men who had received five and two talents proceeded to trade with the money which had been given to them. Each had a high degree of success, for each doubled the capital which the master had given (vv. 16-17). The results are not so much about the men, but the giver, as we are reminded in Isaiah 55:11 “My word . . . shall not return to me empty, but it shall accomplish what I please, and it shall prosper in the thing for which I sent it.” They acted in faith, took the risk, and the results came.  We are to do the same with what God has given us and we can do this because we know that he is the one who is doing the work through us.

This should be a great encouragement to all of you. In our worldly way of life, we often invest time, money, and energy without the least assurance that our labours will have any success. Often, we can be unsure because there is so much risk. But when it comes to our Lord and following him this is not the way things work. It is not this way as we work and follow him. The blessing of the Lord rests upon our faithful labours. He wills that his purposes be carried out through the use of the talents which he has given.

Now this sounds all good. But we must remember that whilst God does give us these gifts he does also expect from us as his children, accountability.  This was the issue for the third servant in this parable.

For the third servant in the parable, the master’s return was not good, for the servant had been wicked and lazy. He failed to exercise good judgment by neglecting to deposit his one talent for interest with a banker. The servant had been given by the master what he needed according to his ability. And yet he was lazy and did not use what was given.  When the master returned, he tried to make excuses for his laziness and negligence by alleging that the master was a harsh master.

The thing is that deep down, the third servant didn’t want to work for his master. He was happy to be a part of the household but was willing to leave the doing to others. This kind of thinking is picked up by James in his letter to the Christians, where he says: “14 What good is it, my brothers and sisters, if someone claims to have faith but has no deeds? Can such faith save them? 15 Suppose a brother or a sister is without clothes and daily food. 16 If one of you says to them, “Go in peace; keep warm and well fed,” but does nothing about their physical needs, what good is it? 17 In the same way, faith by itself, if it is not accompanied by action, is dead.”

The reason that he was cast out is because at the end of the day he had been given all he needed, but he did not put it into action. This is the rather shocking and disturbing warning to all who refuse to let their faith come into a life of action. And it is a reminder for all of us that because of our sinful natures, we have never been perfect in living our faith by taking advantage of the gifts that he has given to us. This is why we need to confess our sins and seek Jesus’ forgiveness. But at the same time, we also receive the renewed strength and the gift of the Holy Spirit to help us into the future to live out our faith.

I encourage you all as you think about this parable to hear the heart of God in it. He is the one who gives out his gifts; he is the one who works these through us as his children. He is the one who gives us the grace we need to walk and live out our faith in him and as we do this, results will come. It is because of these things that we can rely on him to do his work, as we participate with him in growing his kingdom on earth. I encourage you all to be wary of making excuses for not wanting to serve our Lord with your actions. I also encourage you to pray so that you may see the opportunities that God gives you each and every day to serve him.

 

 

 

 

Preparing For the Lord’s Delay

Sunday the 12th of November 2017

Matthew 25:1-13

During this season of the year leading up to Advent, you will find that the readings that we have each Sunday are focused on the end of time; more particularly, on the return of our Lord Jesus Christ. This is one of the advantages of having a lectionary that leads us to hearing and thinking about this, because I suspect that for many of us it is not something that we think of too often in the midst of our daily lives. But it is important for us to realize that the expectation of Jesus’ return is very important to how we live out our lives as his followers.

The lives of us as Jesus’ disciples are to be shaped by knowledge of his return. Now there is much that we do not know when it comes to Jesus coming back; this includes the exact time when he returns. We are clearly told that the day and the hour is not known to us. This fact that we do not know, makes being ready for Jesus’ return more important.

The Gospel for today from Matthew 25 is all about just this: being ready or being prepared. The last verse of this reading says: “Therefore keep watch, because you do not know the day or the hour.” In this, Jesus points us as his followers to be watchful, and it contrasts the foolish bridesmaids who were unprepared.

But what does it mean for us to be watchful and prepared? Certainly, we take from this parable that we should continually be alert and ready for Jesus to come back, having this in our minds often. There is no doubt we need to take this seriously. But one of the things that is perhaps overlooked in this parable is its focus on the delayed return of the expected one. There is a sense that in this parable Jesus does not simply call for right action in his absence, but rather that he calls for a recognition that he may be delayed.

I don’t know about you, but I am someone who does not like delays. I find waiting for things hard because I am so often impatient. It is not just me, but it is our society as well. We live in “I want it now world”. We perhaps don’t deal with delays very well. We don’t like to have to wait.

We need to realize that it is hard for us as Jesus’ disciples to be anything like the bridesmaids, wise or foolish, because perhaps we have stopped waiting. We give little thought to Christ’s return, let alone what we should do to prepare for it. If we were to contemplate ourselves in relation to the end time, it might be easier for us to identify ourselves as the slaves who work diligently while the master is away than as the bridesmaids whose primary job is to await the groom’s return. After two thousand years, it’s a long time to wait expectantly. It is so easy for us to become so complacent, to move on and stop anticipating his return.

Perhaps in this way we are tempted to be like the foolish bridesmaids, and live life complacently; live life knowing that Jesus will come back, but not actually living like it could take a while.

But the wise bridesmaids in this parable were the ones who prepared for the groom’s return, but they also prepared for his delay. Perhaps there lies the lesson in this for you and me as Jesus’ disciples here. We need to prepare for his delay as much as we do for his return. If the groom was coming quickly there would be nothing wrong with taking one’s lamp full of oil to meet him. But the wise disciple packs a supply of oil, knowing that the wait may be unpredictable. In other words, we prepare ourselves for the long haul.

We prepare ourselves knowing that his promise is that he will return and that when he returns, the wedding banquet will begin. The language of a wedding banquet is one that is to give us hope. The image of a wedding where the Lord is the bride groom and the church is the bride is right throughout scripture. So the image of a wedding banquet is one in which we are with the Lord in celebration. The prophet Isaiah says this: “I will greatly rejoice in the Lord, my whole being shall exult in my God; for he has clothed me with the garments of salvation, he has covered me with the robe of righteousness, as a bridegroom decks himself with a garland, and as a bride adorns herself with her jewels. For as the earth brings forth its shoots, and as a garden causes what is sown in it to spring up, so the Lord God will cause righteousness and praise to spring up before all the nations.” (Isaiah 61:10-11). When the wedding banquet begins the prophet sees a restored Israel, where human unfaithfulness and sinfulness has faded away, and is replaced by righteousness and praise.

The book of Revelation describes it this way: “See, the home of God is among mortals. He will dwell with them; they will be his peoples, and God himself will be with them; he will wipe every tear from their eyes. Death will be no more; mourning and crying and pain will be no more, for the first things have passed away.” (Revelation 21:3-4).

The bridesmaids in this parable await not only the groom, but also the removal of pain and suffering. The wedding feast symbolizes the beginning of a new life, where God’s grace justice and mercy abound in love; the realization of all the hopes of Israel and all his children are fulfilled. The wedding banquet is a time of celebration and joy.

The hope that you and I have because of Jesus Christ and what he has done for us is that we too will enter into this celebration through him, when the day of the Lord comes. This is the hope that we hang onto as we walk through our daily life with all its complexities and challenges it has for us. But this hope is not something that is just in our head; this is the hope that we also prepare for in our daily living, as we continue to trust Jesus and hold onto him as we journey with him.

For us to act like the wise bridesmaids in this parable, is to stand true to and affirm our faith in the coming of Jesus Christ. Doing so demonstrates our trust in his promise, but also that our God is a God of grace, forgiveness, justice, mercy and hope. As we wait for his return, we wait by continuing to live out our Christian life, following our Lord as he teaches us, holding onto his promise and the vision of what is to come.

The wise bridesmaids keep the vision of Jesus’ return, and all that it stands for, alive through their faithful and patient waiting in the midst of delay. By preparing for the day, the timing of which no-one knows but God, they proclaim that God’s promises are true. They act out their hope for that day when God will establish justice and righteousness and peace.

As we live in this world where waiting is so difficult, I encourage you to hold onto Jesus and the hope that we have through him. I encourage you as you wait to continue to grow through his Word, to continue to grow together with other Christians around you. I encourage you to keep persisting in patience and in faith, as you keep trusting Jesus and his promise that he will return and that he will take you to the wedding banquet with him.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Where Do We Get Our Identity From?

Sunday the 5th of November 2017

Matthew 23:1-12

This morning I am going to preach on the Gospel reading for today, from Matthew chapter 23. In this reading, Jesus is speaking to the crowds and also to his disciples, where he gives a very strong warning to avoid behaving like the Pharisees.

Jesus says that the Pharisees were the ones who were in the seat of Moses. What this means is that they were the ones who, in the synagogues every Sabbath day, read out God’s Word from the scrolls to the gathered people. More particularly, they would have read from the Torah, which is the first five books of the Bible. At this point, this was all they did; they read God’s Word. So, when Jesus says, “So you must be careful to do everything they tell you…”, he means they were to do what the Pharisees were saying directly from God’s Word. But as far as the Pharisees’ actions after reading from God’s Word, well, this is a different story.

The problem that the Pharisees had was nothing to do with their devoutness. They were very devout people, very committed, very diligent towards God and his laws. This was a good thing; no, the real problem was that in their actions they revealed where their hearts were. These people were guilty of pride and arrogance, due to the fact that their identity was in their comparing themselves to others. They acted and they believed wholeheartedly that because of their devoutness they were more elite, spiritual, more favoured by God, than other people.

In comparing themselves to everyone else, they were quick to point out the sins of others, whilst dumbing down or ignoring their own sin before God. They pushed the law so hard that others’ sins were exposed, but they looked really good compared to others. Their attitudes and their hearts were concerned about themselves and how they looked in front of others, not in how they really were before God. Jesus says, “Everything they do is done for people to see…”

One of the common things that non-believers say about Christians is that we are a bunch of hypocrites. We say one thing and do another. Now it is my opinion that this can be used by them as an excuse, but at the same time, we need to pay attention to their accusation. The sin of the Pharisees is the temptation of us all. We like to be acknowledged for everything we do for the church and other people of the church. We like to be thanked for what we do. We like our hard work not to go unnoticed. It is good that we do all of these things and that we give things, show our appreciation and the like. But what happens when we do these things so that we receive these responses? In other words, what are our motives for doing what we do?

Are we members of this church because of what we get out of it, what the church does for us. Or are we here to worship our God and to serve others. Do we look around and see the sins of other people, and yet think to ourselves, “I’m okay with God, look at all I do for him.”

The Pharisees were a group of people that were highly respected by the society that they lived in. They were admired, looked up to, and many tried to emulate them, be like them. They were considered to be role models in their communities. And yet Jesus says: “But do not do what they do, for they do not practice what they preach.”

The thing about Jesus is that he has no time for status. Every one of us is equal in God’s eyes. Every single one of us is guilty of sinning against God and others in our lives. Every single one of us needs to receive God’s grace and his mercy to us through Jesus. There are no favourites in God’s kingdom. There are no spiritually elite people, there are no people who are more highly favoured by God than others as his children. Yet the temptation is to think that there are. Often people can think of themselves as being more important to God and to the church than they are, but also people can be put up on a pedestal by others, who hold them in greater reverence than they deserve. But we are not defined as people of Jesus by our status in the church; if we let this happen we are in great danger, which is what Jesus is warning us about in this reading. Rather, our status, who we are as people, needs to be found in Jesus and what he has done for us.

The problem is that when we become so focused upon comparing ourselves to others, we lose focus on and stop listening to God. The more we do this the more our relationship with God erodes over time, where we no longer seek to please him, but please other people. Other people’s opinions of us become more important than God.

Jesus says, “11 The greatest among you will be your servant. 12 For those who exalt themselves will be humbled, and those who humble themselves will be exalted.” These words of Jesus would have been highly offensive to the Pharisees, because Jesus was calling them out, exposing their real motives and telling them that there will be consequences. We can fool others, but we cannot fool God.

This is the issue that many are tempted with as church life becomes all about them; then they begin to think of themselves more than they do of God himself. So Jesus warns us by saying, “But you are not to be called ‘Rabbi,’ for you have one Teacher, and you are all brothers. And do not call anyone on earth ‘father,’ for you have one Father, and he is in heaven. 10 Nor are you to be called instructors, for you have one Instructor, the Messiah.” Jesus is the one who leads, teaches and instructs us as his followers and he did this in a very real way.

Jesus, in his life and his actions, lived out the way of life that we are to imitate. He humbled himself in the eyes of his heavenly Father. Jesus took on the lowly road to life on a cross for us. Jesus is the one who washes his disciples’ feet and then tells his disciples, “Do you understand what I have done for you?” he asked them. 13 “You call me ‘Teacher’ and ‘Lord,’ and rightly so, for that is what I am. 14 Now that I, your Lord and Teacher, have washed your feet, you also should wash one another’s feet. 15 I have set you an example that you should do as I have done for you.” (John 13:12-15).

Jesus is the one who became the biggest servant of all, in giving up his very life for us so that we may have life. He is the one who comes to us to serve us with his grace and his mercy and his forgiveness. He is the one who teaches us what it is to live a Godly life. If we forget these words from Jesus, then we are likely to fall back into the path of the Pharisees, making our walk with God all about our own sense of self before others.

Jesus made the point that what God said in his Word is true and that they were to follow it. But when it comes to the actions of believers, unless our behaviour lines up with his Word, then we must be wary of falling into the same trap as the Pharisees did. Jesus is warning people that we need to be grounded in who we are before God, particularly through Jesus, but also that we as his followers have an attitude of humility. Knowing that all of us are in the same boat, we are all guilty of sin just like any other person around us. We are no better than any of our fellow brothers and sisters in Jesus, and we are all dependent upon his grace and mercy.

But this is the good news for us. We are gathered here today because of what Jesus has done and is doing in us. We are gathered here today because of his saving work on the cross for us. We are gathered here today because we are included in his family through Jesus. We are gathered here today not because we deserve to be blessed by God, but because we come to receive from him his grace and his mercy to us which he continually offers us.

My encouragement to you today from this Gospel reading is to remember who you are and that your identity as a Christian is found only in Jesus, not in what you do. I also encourage you all to be mindful that the same grace that is being offered to you is offered to all the body of Christ who are his children. Finally, I encourage you to rest in his grace to you and receive the peace and forgiveness that Jesus comes to give you in your life. Rely on Jesus only, not on yourselves.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Reformation Sermon: Freedom of the Gospel.

Sunday the 29th of October 2017

John 8: 31-36

A number of years ago when I was living in South Australia there was a Lotto advertisement on television. This particular ad had a bus driver driving a bus through the city, but the driver was not stopping to pick people up, he just kept driving. In the background to this was the song by Queen, “I want to break free.” Whilst the song was playing the bus driver just kept driving until you see him driving the bus on an open road in the country with a huge smile on his face. The ad then said something like, “Get your lotto ticket for this week’s super draw, and you too can break free.” The point of the ad was to suggest that if you won lotto then you would be free from all the burdens of life, that you would be able to go where you wanted in life. This ad speaks to and appeals to our culture and society.

Freedom. Our culture and society have a desire for freedom and many strive for it. People want to be free. Free from debt; free from responsibilities; free from a job they are doing; free from the pressures of life they face. But it is more than just that—these people want the freedom to do as they please; the freedom to do what they want when they want it; the freedom to have autonomy and to choose what their life will look like; the freedom not to be accountable to anyone else but themselves; the freedom to not be constrained or constricted by others; the freedom not to have to conform to society but to do what feels best for them; the freedom to live free of responsibility but also of guilt; a freedom to live a life without God interfering in it. People in our world understand the language of freedom and they fight for it. But are they really free?

At the time of Luther and the other reformers, there was also a desire to be free. The Roman Catholic Church of the time had so much power and control over society and it had so many rules, superstitions, and false teachings and corruption, that ordinary Christians were burdened and disillusioned. The focus on works and earning salvation had come to a point where the consciences of many were not even sure if they were saved or not. Many in that society lived in ignorance and uncertainty. Many were longing to be free.

Luther and the other reformers are considered by many church historians to have fought the power of the Roman Catholic Church at the time and brought freedom to the people. Some see Luther as the freedom fighter, one who stood upon his conscience and fought for the truth. Luther did fight for freedom, but what kind of freedom?

Jesus says these words in John chapter 8: “If you hold to my teaching, you are really my disciples. 32 Then you will know the truth, and the truth will set you free.” These words of Jesus here are powerful because he links freedom to the truth.

Jesus speaks of freedom, but the freedom that is based upon truth: the truth of who he is, and who we are. Now we might think that we ourselves as Christians know this. It’s obvious. This is what the Christian faith is all about. But listen to who Jesus was talking to. It starts off: 31“To the Jews who had believed him…” He said this to those who believed in him. We might expect him to be speaking to the Pharisees here, or to false teachers of the law, or to those who were against him, or to those who did not believe. But he was speaking to those who had believed.

And how did these believers respond? 33“They answered him, “We are Abraham’s descendants and have never been slaves of anyone. How can you say that we shall be set free?” The problem for these believers was that they did not get that Jesus is the truth and that knowing the truth means believing in Jesus the Son of God. And believing in Jesus means staying grounded and immersed in his word; He was teaching and challenging them that being a disciple of Jesus means living your whole life in relationship with Jesus and doing what he teaches and acting on his promises to us. Truth here is not a rational belief about Jesus, it is a relationship with him and there is a big difference. You and I as believers need to also hear this challenge from Jesus.

It would have been well understood by those listening to Jesus that the opposite of a free person is a slave. The fact that they were told that they needed to be made free they found offensive. They insisted on their free status as descendants of Abraham and denied that they stood in any need of being set free (v. 33). They objected to any hint of a suggestion that they lacked something which only Jesus could give. They wanted to define their freedom as having autonomy, which did not depend on Jesus. They wanted to believe in Jesus, but at the same time wanted to live life their way; they wanted to keep their own identities and follow Jesus. But you cannot do both. This is a reality that we all struggle with because we live in a society that has a worldview that is no different. Living in our culture which surrounds us, tempts us, as believers, into thinking that we can have our belief in Jesus and live life as the world does. But we can’t because when we sin we are slaves to sin. Sin needs to be confessed and repented of. We often pray this when we pray, “We confess that we are in bondage to sin and cannot free ourselves.” When Jesus says that everyone who sins is a slave to sin he means exactly what he says; he does not make excuses or remove personal responsibility. He emphasizes that, whether we recognize it or not, what we call freedom is often the worst kind of imprisonment from which we cannot break out of on our own.

Jesus’ response to these believers is direct and his words become even harsher in the verses immediately following our reading. Keeping in mind that these are believers, He tells these same people that they are trying to kill him because his word finds no place in them (v. 37) and even calls them children of the devil! (v. 44). There should be no mistake about what Jesus is doing here. He forces a clear choice between our made up, self-centred ideas of freedom and identity on the one hand, and being his disciple on the other. Our freedom and identity as followers of Jesus come from him alone.

These words of Jesus are a warning to these people, to you and me. What do we think of when we think of freedom? Where are our identities? Who and what are we putting our trust in?  As much as we think we have things right, a regular check-up will more often than not reveal a need for a change of heart. It is so very easy to lapse into a self-centred existence where following Jesus becomes an obligation rather than living in freedom from our own egos. In other words, we are not to become blinded by our own sins to the point where we too, just as those Jewish believers did, don’t recognise our need for Jesus Christ.

This is the freedom that Luther was so passionate about. The freedom of knowing that we can freely admit and confess our sins before God and through Christ, they are forgiven. We are free because of him.

I wonder if you have ever noticed that often the people who are the most honest about their sins are the ones most on fire for Jesus. These people whose lives are scarred by bondage, addiction, oppression, victimization, among other sins, get it. For them, these words of Jesus their saviour are precious gospel promises, because they know what he says about the slavery of sin is true. They don’t pretend to hide it away or ignore it; they are honest. They know that Jesus, by his words and his saving works, makes them free from every enemy—from sin, death, and the power of the devil, and they rejoice in this.  They know that they have to rely on Jesus Christ who is the truth and that through this they are set free.

This is the Gospel that Luther fought so hard to preserve in his life. This is the freedom that Luther strove to be made known to all. Martin Luther did not free the church; the Son of God is the one who sets us free, and as disciples who remain in his word we are free indeed.

This is what we are to remember on this Reformation Sunday. Not just on this day only, but continually. Because like Luther, we live in a world that wants to lead us away from Jesus Christ; a world that wants to divert our attention away from the truth.

But we remember the Reformation because it is at the very heart of who you and I are as followers of Jesus. So I encourage you to remember not just Luther the man, but the Gospel of our Lord Jesus Christ and what he has done for you to make you free and think about what this means for you and your life as you follow him.