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.

 

What is the Christian Life Really About?

8th of October 2017

Philippians 3:4-14

This morning I am going to preach on the Philippians reading. In order to understand what is going on in this rather difficult reading, you have to understand how the Jews of the time thought. The Jewish faith had come to a point where their relationship with God was based upon keeping the law. To them it did not matter where your heart was, what mattered was your obedience to the law. So, if you were doing the right things by God then you could be confident about where you stood with him. What they were relying on here was their own ability to do what God had asked.

Now we are not Jews and we don’t live like they did. But when it comes to our hearts, can we be more like them than we think sometimes? If I were to ask what it means to be a Christian, how many people would respond by talking about the things we do; by talking about our actions. Living by God’s Word and putting into practice what he tells us to do in it is very important, but if we rely on our actions for our salvation we miss the point of the Christians faith.

The apostle Paul in writing to the church at Philippi lays out his credentials as far as living the life of a Jew. He says: “If someone else thinks they have reasons to put confidence in the flesh, I have more: circumcised on the eighth day, of the people of Israel, of the tribe of Benjamin, a Hebrew of Hebrews; in regard to the law, a Pharisee; as for zeal, persecuting the church; as for righteousness based on the law, faultless.” If salvation with God is based upon his actions he has made it.

But instead he says: “But whatever were gains to me I now consider loss for the sake of Christ. What is more, I consider everything a loss because of the surpassing worth of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord, for whose sake I have lost all things. I consider them garbage, that I may gain Christ and be found in him, not having a righteousness of my own that comes from the law, but that which is through faith in Christ—the righteousness that comes from God on the basis of faith.”

By his words, the apostle is encouraging the church to get its focus right. Because our Christian faith is about Jesus Christ and him only. We all know this? This is in fact why we come to worship this morning. But the temptation is with us, because of our sinful hearts, to lose our focus and put it back on ourselves again. As Australians, the way we talk about things is not as direct as other cultures. You don’t hear people standing up in front of others and saying how good they are. People who do that get hounded down. It is not the way we do things. But the way it comes out is when people say things indirectly. “At least I am not like those people.” “I am glad that I am a Christian because I would never do something like that.” We often use sarcasm or say things indirectly when we are comparing our behaviour to others’, which gives an indication where our hearts are at.

The Christian is not about behaving rightly; those actions come from the heart. The goal of the Christian life is not to perfectly keep the law; rather it is to know Jesus. Paul says: “10 I want to know Christ—yes, to know the power of his resurrection and participation in his sufferings, becoming like him in his death, 11 and so, somehow, attaining to the resurrection from the dead.” He wants to know Jesus.

Sometimes when we hear God’s word and think about it, we tend to miss some of the important things in it. What stands out to me in this reading is the passionate and personal nature of the words. Paul is telling his own firsthand experience of a complete life makeover and reorientation to a new Lord, for whose sake “all things” are now comparatively worthless and so he writes with intensity, personally, and lovingly about his need for Jesus. And he, in this reading, is not chastising them, but rather he is encouraging the church as a way of teaching them about what it means to be focused on Jesus.

When we think about our Christian lives and what it means for us to be focused on Jesus, it is important for us to understand that our relationship with Jesus is a journey. To be a Christian is not to be in a place where we know everything about the faith or the Bible. It is not purely an intellectual thing that we believe in, but it is a relationship that we have with our Triune God through Jesus. Like all relationships our relationship with Jesus grows over time.

And yet we are surrounded by our sins; we are surrounded by the things that have distracted us from him. We experience the ups and downs of life. Many of us have things in our pasts that we would rather forget; all too often we become aware of our sins, and they can get in the way of our walk with Jesus. But even in these times we are encouraged to persist.

The Apostle says: “12 Not that I have already obtained all this, or have already arrived at my goal, but I press on to take hold of that for which Christ Jesus took hold of me. 13 Brothers and sisters, I do not consider myself yet to have taken hold of it. But one thing I do: Forgetting what is behind and straining toward what is ahead, 14 I press on toward the goal to win the prize for which God has called me heavenward in Christ Jesus.”

The Christian life is a journey. We never reach a place where we have arrived. As we walk with our Lord we are encouraged to continually persist. We are called to persevere, to keep our focus on Jesus, to keep the goals of knowing and walking with him at the forefront of our everyday life.

There are many things in our lives that can so easily discourage us. Some of these are the things that we do or don’t do; in other words, we can become discouraged by our own sin. Some of these things have to do with the way that our society and the world are going. There are always going to be things in life that bring discouragement. If we put our confidence in our own human abilities to overcome these, then we will continue to be discouraged. As Christians we lift our eyes off ourselves and look to Jesus. He is the one who guides us; the one who protects us; the one who leads us through the tough places in life that we face.

As we continue to focus on and take hold of Jesus as the apostle encourages us, we are also given a challenge. When the apostle looked back at his works that he did, he saw them as rubbish. Rather, he looked to what Jesus was doing, and would do in him, and saw it as gain. What things in our own lives as individuals and as a Christian community do we need to see as rubbish? What are the things that Jesus is doing in us that we need to see as gain?

In our current world where we live there is great pressure on the Christian church to conform. In order to attract unbelievers the temptation is to make the church look more like the world. In fact many in our society see the Christian church as just another business, just another institution. Of course we are not this; we are the body of our Lord Jesus Christ gathered together where he is present with us. But as we grow closer to Jesus and know him more, it becomes clear that we have to say no to the culture around us and to pursue the things that really matter; that is, growing in our relationship and following Jesus.

As Christians we don’t rely on our own abilities; our confidence does not come from us. It comes from Jesus Christ and what he has done for us alone. My encouragement to you all is to remember this, so that when the discouragements come, as they always do, you can be confident in your relationship with Jesus. The Christian faith is a journey and a journey that will not end until the Lord calls us home. I encourage you all to persist and persevere in your faith in Jesus, knowing that he is with you at all times. Hold on to him, as he holds on to you.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Sermon on Jonah

24 September 2017

Jonah 3: 10-4:11

Expectations. We all have them. We all have expectations about how life will be, what we expect of ourselves and of others. We have expectations around our relationships with others, with our family, with our friends, with people we know and perhaps work with. Our expectations can be good as they can help guide us through life; give us some parameters or boundaries to work under. But they can also be a hindrance, can’t they? Because we all know people who have what would be called unrealistic expectations. Expectations that are too high or perhaps too low. Expectations that are detrimental and not helpful.

Not only do we have expectations around ourselves and others, but we have expectations about God. How God will work in our lives; how and when he answers our prayers. We also have expectations of how he works in the world. But what happens when our expectations of God don’t line up with who he is or what he chooses to do?

In today’s Old Testament reading where we hear about the prophet Jonah, we hear of a prophet of God struggling with this very issue. Right from the first chapter when God called Jonah, Jonah did not like what he was called by God to do. Jonah was more than just unhappy, he was disillusioned and determined not to be the instrument of the Lord’s mercy to that disgraceful city, to the vile people who lived in Nineveh. These people unquestionably deserved to get what was otherwise coming to them in terms of God’s wrath. So Jonah packed his bags and looked for the first opportunity to get as far away from the presence and the purposes of the Lord as he possibly could.

Nineveh was a city in Assyria, with a reputation. A reputation for evil. It can be hard for us to imagine what the city was like. So imagine that this city was filled with the most hurtful spiteful gay lobbyists intent on destroying God’s laws and his people, or picture the hardest-hearted Muslim intent on murdering Christians, or picture the most brutal rapists or serial killers. Think about people who really can make our skins crawl because of their evil hearts and behaviour. Then imagine that there are about 120,000 of these people living in one city. This gives an image of what Nineveh was like. And God tells Jonah to go to them and say that if they repent God will extend his mercy and grace to them, or else they will suffer God’s wrath. Jonah did not want God to show mercy to these people, he wanted God’s wrath to fall on them. After all, this is what they deserve so he ran away hoping that if he did not speak God’s word to them then they would not be able to hear and so they would all rot in hell.

As a Christian, I have been inspired in my own life and faith when I have seen and heard about how God has worked his grace and love in the lives of those who have not deserved it. There is something that is amazing about God working in the most extraordinary circumstances changing people’s lives around. I believe that we all want to see God working in our community like this, to see him work in ways that are awesome. But sometimes the truth is that God and his ways can be challenging and unsettling.  Sometimes God’s love for the loveless is nothing short of shocking. You mean he loves everyone? You mean he actually earnestly longs to extend his love and forgiveness to everyone? Even the evilest people in the world? Some will say no! This can’t be right. God only loves and gives his grace to people like us, not them.

Jonah tried to run away, but as we all know he could not get away from God and so he eventually came to the people of Nineveh and warned them that if they did not repent of their evil ways then they would suffer the wrath of God, but also that if they did repent God would shower them with his grace and kindness and forgiveness. And the people responded and repented. This should have been wonderful news; this should have been a joyous moment. Yet not for Jonah. He was angry. “I knew this would happen,” he says. “That’s why I fled to Tarshish in the first place; for I knew that you are a gracious God and merciful, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love, and easy with punishment.”

Every single prophet in the Bible hopes prays and dreams of the response of the Ninevites. Yet it never ever happens this way. When they are worn out, chased, harassed, run down, and at their wit’s end, the prophets can only say, “Lord, it would be better for me to die.” Jonah, on the other hand, after witnessing 120,000 people and countless animals change their ways in one day — goes on to say, “Lord, please take my life from me, for it is better for me to die than to live.”

After God providing Jonah with a plant for shade and taking it away, this book ends with God asking Jonah a final question, “You are concerned about the bush, which you didn’t work for and which you did not grow … Shouldn’t I be concerned about Nineveh, that great city, in which there are more than a hundred and twenty thousand people who do not know their right hand from their left, and also many animals?”

It is easy to judge Jonah here, but if we look at him a bit closer we realise that he is very human. We all struggle with how God works sometimes. And the danger is that because of our expectations that we put onto God, we can be just like Jonah. We can become so fixated on those sinful evil people, and miss the fact that God has been gracious and merciful to you and me. We can become hard-hearted to the point of not wanting God to work in people we do not like. People whom we think don’t deserve God’s grace.

But the account of Jonah pushes us to see how God and his Word works in spite of us! We may strongly have opinions and attitudes about others, but God’s Word of the Gospel is for everyone, regardless of what we think. Isn’t it amazing that God provides a shade bush so that Jonah can watch the transformation of the city unfold before him in comfort, but he just can’t seem to enjoy it? It’s easy to blame Jonah for being petty, but we often do the same thing ourselves. Can we lift up our eyes from our own concerns, just for a second, to see God acting right in front of us?

When God responded to the Ninevites, it says: “When God saw what they did, how they turned from their evil way, God relented of the disaster that he had said he would do to them, and he did not do it” (3:10). God was faithful to his Word and he did not do it. For Jonah maybe this was about a betrayal of God against his own, for these people were in fact Israel’s enemies. But for us, we are to see not a betrayal but the lengths to which our God is willing to go for everyone, for the good, the bad, and what we could call ugly, which includes you and me. For the Lord, our God is “a gracious God and merciful, slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love, and relenting from disaster” (4:2). If his love is for some, his love is for all, the appalling, the abhorrent, all. We can be thankful to God, for it matters not who the sinner is, God’s way has won out. And rather than focusing on others, we need to see that God has his way in us. We are the recipients of God’s mercy and grace, we are on the end of the lengths that he goes to reach us, which includes the innocent death of his own son for our sake. God comes to us through all our sin, to give us his grace. If we keep this in mind then we are more likely to rejoice with God when he brings this grace to others, even those we think don’t deserve it.

The world around is a harsh place, there are many people who are hurting, whether from their own sins or the sins of others. There is much judgment, condemnation, criticism of people. God wants to reach them with his mercy and grace through Jesus, and he wants to use us like he did Jonah to reach out to them with his Word of the Gospel. God will work, but are we going to be like Jonah, or are we going to rejoice and be open to letting God reach those around us.

I encourage you all to think about all that God has done for you, particularly about the grace and mercy that he has given you in your life. I encourage you, rather than to judge and condemn others, to lift your eyes up to see what God is doing in the world and to rejoice with him as his Word does its work in bringing others to faith. And to rejoice with them, as they were once lost but now have been found.

RECEIVING AND GIVING FORGIVENESS

Sunday the 17th of September

Matthew 18: 21-35

If there is one thing that is difficult to talk about within the Christian church it is the word ‘forgiveness’. When it comes to forgiving others, it is often deeply personal, and because the hurts we receive from others’ sin can affect us so deeply, it can be hard to speak about. We know that we should forgive; in fact, we know that Jesus tells us to, but that does not mean that it is easy to do.

In today’s Gospel reading from Matthew Chapter 18, Peter asks this question of Jesus: “Lord, how many times shall I forgive my brother or sister who sins against me? Up to seven times?” Have you ever wondered why Peter asked this question of Jesus? It strikes me that Peter was asking Jesus here for a boundary line. So that, when someone sinned against him for the eighth time, he would be justified in not forgiving them. In Peter’s mind, and perhaps in ours too, there has to be a limit to how many times we should forgive someone who sins against us.

Jesus’ response to Peter, I suspect, does not give him, or us, a satisfactory answer to the question. The parable that Jesus gives, however, points to the real issue: the problem is not about numbers, it is not about how many times or how often we should forgive. The real issue is that there is never a time in our lives and in our relationships, where forgiveness is not required. This is the point. Forgiveness comes with being disciples of Jesus. It is a constant. It is not an option. It is not a choice. And this is what makes it so difficult because we want it to be a choice. I believe that this is at the heart of Peter’s question to Jesus.

When we talk about forgiveness it usually brings to mind those who we know who have hurt us and our reluctance to forgive them. It also can bring about questions like: what about those wrongs which are unforgivable? And there are many. Or perhaps it causes us to be unsure what to do with these situations. But the purpose of the parable of the unforgiving servant is not so much to get us to think about the sins of others, but rather to see that forgiveness begins with us. Jesus is challenging us to think again about the purpose of forgiveness, not in others’ lives, but in my life – to see when I need it, when I give it, when I hold back; to ask myself the hard questions.

God has forgiven us so much, he has poured out his grace on us through Jesus, in a way that is incomprehensible, by taking all our sins upon himself. How then are we going to respond to those who sin against us? This is a very difficult question to answer at times, but the point is that it is hard, almost impossible at times.

Forgiveness challenges us. We live in a society that likes to have its boundaries. It likes to have things in their right places, likes to know where the limits are. And too often we are like this in our relationships with each other as well. We like knowing how much we have to give and what we will get in return. In other words, we want to know what’s in it for me. And forgiveness can at times be no different. Why should I forgive this person? What’s in it for me? Often when we are hurt we may look for controls and limitations when it comes to forgiveness. And yet somewhere here, it seems to me anyway, there is a deep sense of irony. Because in most of life we want freedom, choice, autonomy to do as we please, we don’t always like having limitations. Yet why is it different when it comes to forgiveness?

By telling the parable of the unjust servant, Jesus makes the point to Peter, and to us, that firstly forgiveness starts with our relationship with our Heavenly Father. It starts with his forgiveness of us and what that means. As much as we place controls over when and where and why we forgive others, we first must recognise and receive our own forgiveness from the Lord.

In one of Martin Luther’s sermons on this reading, he applies it to the church. He said, “In this Christian church, he daily and richly forgives all my sins and the sins of all believers.” Notice what Luther was saying here. Our Lord forgives my sins, but also the sins of all believers. Luther goes on to challenge people in how they see themselves. Do we see ourselves as a Christian community of forgiven sinners?

In ourselves, we know that we are sinful people. Often our sins can even burden our consciences. We know all too well and have felt all too often the weight of our own unworthiness of forgiveness; many times I believe this is what keeps people away from the church. They are aware of their own sins and struggle to believe that God would forgive them. If this is true then how can we possibly declare it for others?

But this is why we need to hear and speak about it. As a Christian community, we are all called here to this place because we have the freedom that comes from being forgiven freely through Jesus. This is the Gospel, the good news. This is something that most Christians know, but I wonder if it is spoken about. The world around us has this image of Christians as being those who preach about morals and law and doing the right thing. Preaching about how sinful we all are and that we need to stop sinning against God. This is all true, but if we do this without the gospel it becomes a barrier.

In order for Peter to understand how misguided his question was he had to understand the gospel. In other words, Peter needed to identify himself as the unjust servant, the one who had been forgiven so much and got what he did not deserve, which was mercy and grace from his Heavenly Father. We too need to identify ourselves with him and think about how we will respond.

Over the years of being a counsellor and now a pastor, I have seen many times when forgiveness is extremely difficult for people. And many people feel very condemned by Jesus’ words: 35 “This is how my heavenly Father will treat each of you unless you forgive your brother or sister from your heart.” If forgiving someone is hard for you, I offer you the following encouragement.

Firstly, Jesus is the one who forgives, and he is the only one who forgives all sins. There are times when it is okay to say to him, “I can’t do this; I need you to help me forgive.” The reality is that there are times when our Lord has to help us, but in order for him to help, we have to have willing hearts. Forgiveness is about letting go, and sometimes we need to let go so the Lord can help us do as he commands.

Secondly, I encourage you to come to the Lord’s Table. It is here that he gives us himself. He gives us his body and his blood to strengthen us. When we come to the altar we don’t come to give, but we come to receive. In my pastoral visits where I take out my home communion set, I have often had the chance to speak of how in Holy Communion it’s not just our own sins that are healed, but we also receive healing from the effects of sin that others have caused us. This is the one place where Jesus promises to give us healing in body and soul. If you have trouble forgiving, rely on the one who forgives you to help you.

Forgiveness is something that is hard to talk about, but we need to encourage each other with. Because as Jesus’ disciples, forgiveness is not an optional extra, it is something that he commands us to do. I would encourage you all to see yourselves as belonging to this church community of forgiven sinners because that is what we all are. I also encourage you to extend this forgiveness that we have so greatly received from our Heavenly Father to each other.

The Promise of Jesus’ Presence

Sunday the 10th of September 2017

Matthew 18: 15-20

As I was thinking about today’s Gospel reading from Matthew Chapter 18 during the week, the first thing I thought about was the word ‘conflict’. If you look at the world around us, it is everywhere. Turn on the news, it’s there: people in arguments with one another, taking each other to court; people strongly expressing their views on the marriage plebiscite; people making death threats and bullying others to get their own way; the international conflicts with North Korea over its behaviour; conflicts within the US over Donald Trump; the list could go on and on.

We are surrounded by conflict and yet you would think that in the church, among those who follow Jesus, there would be less conflict, but think again. There is lots of conflict within the LCA at the moment, over various issues. And of course to get closer to home there have been and there still are serious issues of conflict between people in our parish.

The fact is that sin runs rampant in the world, but also in the church.

Matthew 18 tells us as Christians how to handle conflict. It outlines for us how Jesus tells us to handle the sin of others against us. But this morning I want to take a look at this reading from a different perspective. And I am going to start by looking at verse 20 which says this: 20 “For where two or three gather in my name, there am I with them.”

The significance of Jesus’ statement here cannot be underestimated. Jesus’ promise is that when we gather together as Christians in his name he is with us. We need this promise regularly, because it is so easy for us to be discouraged by the things that happen in our lives and in the world around us.

We need to hear this Gospel promise of Jesus. He is with us. This is good news, isn’t it? Well, it is dependent on where you are with Jesus. The promise of Jesus’ presence, “for where two or three are gathered in my name, I am there among them”, is very comforting, but only if you want Jesus to be that close to you. Jesus is with us, but I suspect that some of us, if we are honest, don’t always want Jesus in such immediate proximity to us.

It’s fine to have Jesus’ presence with us when we need him, but what about when Jesus challenges us? What about when he points out our sin? What about when we simply don’t want to hear what he has to say to us?

One of the things about living in our world, and the way of our society, is that we don’t always take time to think about what we are doing. Life is busy with so many things to do, so many distractions. We don’t think about things as much as we should, and this can affect our walk with Jesus. How much of what we do individually, but also as a church, do we do without giving these words of Jesus any thought? Perhaps we just don’t want to for whatever reason, or perhaps we are too involved in our own worlds to not give them thought. I believe that we can hear this promise of Jesus that he is with us, and take this promise of his for granted.

So I would like to challenge you. What difference does it make that Jesus is with us and present in everything we do as a community of faith? He is present with each of us in everything we talk about. Does this make a difference in the way we speak to each other? What about the decisions that we make together? Does his presence make a difference?

These are very confronting questions but they need to be asked. It is easy to just get on with life without thinking about this. We all know that Jesus is present with us in worship—that is a given, but what about when we gather together as Christians, whether it be friends visiting each other; whether it be church council meetings, Bible studies, men’s shed, women’s breakfast, prayer group, or whatever else we do together as Christians as a part of this church? Do we believe that Jesus is with us and do we act accordingly?

I would suspect that a lot of the time, we don’t give Jesus a thought.

When it comes to dealing with conflict and the sin that underlies the conflict that happens between Christians, Jesus is present. All too often we get carried away by our own thoughts, justifications of our actions; our own pride gets in the way; our refusal to admit that we are wrong, because the other person is always to blame. But what difference would it make believing that Jesus is with us in those times? Does it affect how we see others, knowing that they belong to Jesus and that he is with them as he is with us? That these are our brothers and sisters in Christ and not our enemies.

Jesus’ promise is comforting to us, but it is also very confronting at times. Sometimes Jesus’ presence with us is not what we want. We don’t want a Jesus who insists on staying close, persists in being in the middle of what we do and say, especially when it comes to those things we do and say in the name of Christ. But that is exactly where he said he would be.

If you and I were left on our own to deal with our sins, we would not be here. But the fact is that Jesus has taken our sins, he brings forgiveness and healing to us, where we cannot. This is the good news of the Gospel. We are all here in this church because we have been called by our God to be his children, through his son Jesus Christ. Jesus is the head of the church—that means he is the head of this church, and he is present with us in this life, even outside the doors of this church building. He is present with us to give us peace, forgiveness, healing, community. I do not believe that any of us are here by random chance. God has called each and every one of you here because he has a purpose for you and because he is giving each of you his word and his sacrament to strengthen you in faith.

When we gather together, by the fact of who we are as his baptised children, we carry his name. We don’t come to worship in our name, this would be considered outrageous. But we also don’t meet together outside worship in our name. Jesus is not just with us in this building on Sunday and then not with us when we leave.

The process of dealing with sins and conflict is laid out by Jesus in this reading today. I would encourage you all to re-read it and see what God is saying to you specifically through this word. However, the fact is it actually takes courage to follow through with what he says to do, but this is why it is important for us to realise that we do this in Jesus’ name, therefore he is present and leading us. We don’t do it alone.

I would encourage each of you to stop for a while and to consider what it means for you that Jesus is present when you are around your brothers and sisters in Christ. This doesn’t just have to be among us, but any Christians. I had the privilege of hosting the ecumenical ministers’ meeting here at Burnie last week, and I read this Gospel reading out and we talked about it together and Jesus was with us, because we were gathered as Christians. Knowing this was something special on that day, and we had great prayer time with and for each other.

I encourage you in those times where it is hard to trust Jesus to reach out to him, because he is the only one who has your best interest in his heart; he is the only one who gives you what you need. I encourage you not to ignore him, but to follow him even when things are difficult, because he will lead you on the right path.

And finally I encourage you to give thanks that Jesus is true to his promise of being with us, because we all need him in our lives.