Being Led by the Holy Spirit

Sunday 23rd of July 2017

Romans 8:12-17

This morning I am going to preach on the epistle reading from Romans chapter 8. But before I get to this reading I want to start by looking at a passage from Deuteronomy 30: 15ff which says, “16 For I command you today to love the Lord your God, to walk in obedience to him, and to keep his commands, decrees and laws; then you will live and increase, and the Lord your God will bless you in the land you are entering to possess.17 But if your heart turns away and you are not obedient, and if you are drawn away to bow down to other gods and worship them, 18 I declare to you this day that you will certainly be destroyed. You will not live long in the land you are crossing the Jordan to enter and possess.”

The Israelites were about to enter into the promised land that God had given them, they were about to walk into their inheritance, the gift of God which he was going to pass on to his people. Before they walk into this land God gives them this warning: “15 See, I set before you today life and prosperity, death and destruction.” In other words, these people were going to be faced with a choice. History tells us that his people made the wrong choice and instead of choosing life they chose the way of sin, and they paid the penalty for this continually as they kept sinning against God.

When God sent his only son Jesus into this world he did so, so that whoever believes in him may be saved from death. Jesus came and took the sin and its punishment upon himself, and by rising again destroyed the power of death for our sake; so that we who are baptized into the name of our God are his now, his children, a part of his family, a people with an inheritance that awaits us when Jesus returns. It is because of Jesus and what he has done that we have this sure hope.

We now stand at peace with God because of what Jesus has done for us; we have died to sin and risen to new life because of our baptism. And as verse one of this chapter says: “Therefore, there is now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus, because through Christ Jesus the law of the Spirit who gives life has set you free from the law of sin and death.”

All of this is the heart of the Christian faith and is true. However, there is a major problem that we all face; that is our sinful natures still confront us. We struggle against our natures, in which we often give in and live in sin. In this age in which we still live before Jesus’ second coming there is still death; we still have to put to death the practices of our sinful natures. There is still a very real struggle between our sinful natures and the Holy Spirit who lives within us.

In the midst of these everyday battles we have a choice to make. We are told in verse 14: “For those who are led by the Spirit of God are the children of God.” We have a choice to make: are we going to let our sinful nature dictate what we do, or are we going to be led by the Holy Spirit? Notice what it does not say here. It does not say that God’s children follow the Holy Spirit; rather it says they are led by him. If I choose to follow, then I am still the one in charge; I still have control. But if I am led by the Holy Spirit, He is the one in charge; He is the one who decides. Where it says that we are led by the Spirit it is very similar to Jesus in his temptation in the wilderness where Luke tells us: “Jesus, full of the Holy Spirit, left the Jordan and was led by the Spirit into the wilderness.” (4:1) Jesus was led into the desert; he gave himself over to the control of the Holy Spirit. We can’t make the choice to stop sinning, it is in our very natures, but we can make the choice to let the Holy Spirit lead us. This is a very hard thing to do because at its very heart we are faced with the question of do we trust God, or are we going to go our own way? But this is the choice that we are all faced with.

Unlike the Israelites before they entered the promised land, we as Christians do not make this choice alone. The Israelites lived a lot of their lives in slavery to different nations who ruled them, because of their own rebellion against God. But as Christians we can make different choices because we already belong to God’s family through Jesus, because we are already included through him. “15 The Spirit you received does not make you slaves, so that you live in fear again; rather, the Spirit you received brought about your adoption to sonship. And by him we cry, “Abba, Father.” 16 The Spirit himself testifies with our spirit that we are God’s children.”

Because of what Jesus has done for you and me, it means that we have new identities. As Christians we belong to our God; he has adopted us as his children through the work of Jesus. Because of this we know that when Jesus comes back he will take us to be with him. The question that needs to be asked is: what does it mean to live the Christian life, while we are waiting for his return?

Our sinful natures, along with the culture that we live in, can so easily drag us down to its sinful level. Being a Christian living in this world means being prepared to go with where the Spirit leads. Now this may sound simple, but it is a lot tougher than it seems. Take a look around us in our society and see just how much our society and our culture are shaping those within churches. Many people are claiming to be Christians, and yet the very way they live their lives are in line with the world around them. Being led by the Spirit often means letting Him lead you on a path that is directly opposed to our society’s standards in many cases. It often means being prepared to walk against the flow, to stand on our convictions that we receive from God’s word to us.

The temptation is to take our eyes off Jesus and what he has done for us and put them on the troubles that we see. When we do this is when we begin to become discouraged and maybe even at times tempted to do things our own way rather than letting the Holy Spirit lead us. But the thing is that because we have these promises of God, because we are included in him and we have the hope of eternal life with him, we do not need to be afraid. As it says: “15 The Spirit you received does not make you slaves, so that you live in fear again;…” No, it is precisely because God has us and because we belong to him that we can trust the Holy Spirit to lead us. It is because of this that we can prepare our hearts to hear his leading in our lives. And it is because of what our God has already done that we can make the choice in our daily living to be led by Him.

Understanding why we are Christians who belong to God and are forgiven and redeemed, and yet who still struggle with our sinful natures is quite a complex thing to understand. But my encouragement to you all is to open your eyes and your hearts so that you can hear the Holy Spirit and make the choice to let him lead you through his Word, but also through other Christians that he has placed around you. I encourage you all with the fact that you are in God’s family and that he has you in his care and is helping you to overcome the obstacles in your life. Keep persisting in your walk with him, and have an open heart to be led by Him, and God will do the rest.

Hearts Ready Receive the Word

Sunday the 16th of July 2017

Matthew 13: 1-23

The church in New Zealand that I grew up in was started as a mission church. A number of people who were involved in larger congregations from the surrounding area met together and decided to plant a church in the town of Feilding. This church started in the 1970s and it had a small group of people who had a passion for mission. When I was in my teenage years in the 1990s this congregation was still small. I remember quite distinctly that some of the people were despairing, because they had been witnessing to their neighbours and others, yet our church was still small. We had people come for awhile who were enthusiastic, then they fell away and stopped coming. In my early teenage years there was one other person in my age group. The two of us started inviting our friends to a youth group. Within three years it had gone from a group of three or four to a group of one hundred and fifty; we even had to have a waiting list! There was real hope. This church is still going today, but it is very small now and at times has been on the brink of closing. None of the hundred and fifty from that youth group attends the church anymore. Yet there are still those faithful people worshipping and the church continues.

In the Isaiah reading for today the Lord says these words (chapter 55:10,11): “10 As the rain and the snow come down from heaven, and do not return to it without watering the earth and making it bud and flourish, so that it yields seed for the sower and bread for the eater, 11 so is my word that goes out from my mouth: It will not return to me empty, but will accomplish what I desire and achieve the purpose for which I sent it.” In these words spoken to a people who were small in number, who were in a foreign land, in exile, the Lord spoke a word of promise. God speaks his Word and it does bring about fruit.

It is not easy to trust this promise at times, is it? As we look around us do we see God’s Word at work? It seems to me that it is getting increasingly difficult to see Him at work around us.  But this is His promise to Israelites and to us that the Word of God has come down from heaven; already it is working steadily, accomplishing what it was sent to do. This is the promise that we as Christians need to hold on to.  And as we hold on to this promise we continue to bear witness to this. And as we bear witness to this we start to see God working. However, how people respond to Jesus and His Word is a challenge and it is a challenge that Jesus was addressing in today’s Gospel reading from Matthew chapter 13. Today’s reading is the famous parable of the sower. At its very heart, this parable is about the working of God’s Word in the lives of people and how they respond.

Jesus’ ministry began to take a turn for the worse in chapter 11; people who were hearing him did not like what he was saying and were starting to become offended and angry with him. And it is in this context that Jesus tells this parable. In this parable he is again teaching the crowd and his disciples about the reality of how people respond to him and to his Word.

I think that we all would like to be the people whose hearts are the good soil ready to receive his Word and produce his fruit in our lives. And I think many of us have a deep desire that others whom we know and love have a heart that is ready for God’s Word to work in their lives. But the reality is it is not like this. People respond to Jesus and his Word in many different ways and these ways are not within our control. We cannot make people respond to God’s Word no matter how much we may try.

This is where so much discouragement comes. We as a church proclaim God’s Word of forgiveness of Jesus, we meet to worship him, we desire to have him work in the lives of those around us, but our hearts become burdened because there are so many times when we do not see his Word falling on the good soil, but rather we see people falling away. The results of the Gospel which we know and hold to are rarely received immediately, and more often than not, we cannot see God’s Word working.

One of the most important teachings from God’s Word that Lutherans and all other Protestants hold is that we cannot earn our way into heaven. We are not saved by works. So when it comes a parable like this the temptation is to think that God’s Word and promise is that he will work according to his purpose, so this means that we just need to get out of the way and let him work, because there is nothing that we can do—it’s all up to God. However, after telling the parable Jesus says to the crowd: “Whoever has ears, let them hear.”

When Jesus says this he is making a point that is all too often overlooked. It is not only important that we hear the Word of God—after all, the crowds were hearing God’s Word to them through Jesus—but it is equally important how we hear the Word of God. And whether we like it or not, we do have a part to play in how God’s Word is received by us.

It is true that we can do nothing to add to the power of God’s Word, but we can do things to impede its power. Our reading makes this clear; if we’re choked with cares and riches and pleasures of this life, we bring no fruit to bear. When there are too many thorns in our lives, things like carelessness, indifference, worry, grudges, materialism, etc., these can choke the Word of God and get in the way of its working in us.

It is true that if we have too many thorns in our lives, God struggles to get a word in edgewise. If our house is filled with too many things, the Holy Spirit can’t crowd in; there’s simply no room for him.

We do need at times to think about the condition of our hearts and ask if we are receptive to His Word. But as we do this, we need to remember that although the emphasis of Jesus’ parable is on the power of the soil to impact the seed, the Gospel of our parable is that the seed alone (the Gospel of Christ crucified and risen on our behalf) can make the soil grow things—such as faith and good works. For this you and I need to be thankful, that God is at work in our lives through Jesus, that we are where we are with him. There is a temptation to see ourselves as the ones with the good soil and those who are not like us as the ones with the shallow soil or the soil filled with weeds. However, we are not to judge, but rather focus on our own hearts, making sure we receive the Word of the Lord to us, making sure we listen with ears that are hearing.

The farmer in this parable was scattering the seed, and it was falling on many different places. God scatters his Word, and it lands in many different places. Often it is in the unsuspected ways and in unexpected people that the Word finds good soil. It is not always predictable who has the right hearts to hear and receive. But this is how the Gospel in God’s kingdom works—he reaches out to all.

During my time in Australia over the last twenty years, God has given me the opportunity to see his Word taking root in many people, which has always been a great encouragement to me. But at the same time I am aware of those who are faithful and yet don’t get to see the results of their witness, as in when I was a child. I have had the opportunity to be involved in large congregations where there are many things happening, where God is very visibly working in churches and in communities. But being in a small Christian community like ours I can see that many are struggling to see God at work.

My encouragement to you all is that God’s promise is that his Word will bring about its purpose. And his Word is at work here today within our parish. We at times may struggle to see him working, but he is working in people’s hearts. We cannot control how people respond to Him, even though at times we would like to. But we can trust Him. As your pastor I can assure you that as I visit I see his Word at work in the lives of many. He is working in many ways that many of you are not aware of. But he is at work scattering the seed of his Word in the hearts of people. I encourage you to open your eyes and your ears to see how his Word is working in our parish.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Rest For Your Soul

Sunday the 9th of July 2017

Romans 7: 7- 25

At the end of today’s Gospel reading from Matthew, Jesus says these words: 28 “Come to me, all you who are weary and burdened, and I will give you rest. 29 Take my yoke upon you and learn from me, for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. 30 For my yoke is easy and my burden is light.”

“Come to me all who are weary and burdened, and I will give you rest.” Sounds good doesn’t it? We live in a world where rest is often elusive for many. The temptation to be anxious and stressed about all that is happening around us is always with us. We live in such a fast paced world. How many times do we ask someone how they are going and they say: “busy”? Life can be very hectic for many of us with so little time to ponder about life, to think about things that are important.

But there is another type of rest that Jesus touches on here in this reading, the rest that we will find for our souls. This is the true rest that we need in this life, so the question is what type of rest is this?

Today’s Epistle reading from Romans chapter seven is all about sin. It is about how sin works in our lives, how sin seeks to disrupt our walk with our Lord. The Apostle Paul lays out for us to see that sin in this life is a real battle. In fact he speaks in a very direct and honest way describing just how sin works in our lives. He says: 14 “We know that the law is spiritual; but I am unspiritual, sold as a slave to sin. 15 I do not understand what I do. For what I want to do I do not do, but what I hate I do.” As Christians who have the Holy Spirit within us, we know when we are not doing what God asks us to do. When the Holy Spirit speaks to us through the Word and points out to us what God says in his law to us, we are well aware of when we fail. And the evil one has no hesitation in reminding us when we do not obey what God says. When this happens our consciences can so easily become burdened. When we know full well what God is asking of us and we are doing the exact opposite, life can become very difficult.

Often I have heard, from those who do not believe, criticism of Christians. Why? Because according to them Christians talk about living perfect lives and loving others, yet don’t practice what they preach. In this, their criticism is accurate; we don’t live good Christian lives at times, we do struggle with sins in our lives and to deny this would be foolish and dishonest. But is this what our Christian faith is about: living the good Christian life? Yes we are to live according to what God tells us through his Word. Yes we are to obediently follow him. God shows us very clearly in his Word what he expects of us; just take a look at the Ten Commandments. It is clear what is expected from us by him, but the fact is that we do not do what he asks. Now if you and I did not know any better, if we had not heard God’s Word to us and not heard what he expects of us then we would have an excuse. But the fact that we do know and have heard condemns us even more. This is the point that the Apostle is getting at here in this reading.

Our tendency in situations like this is to think that we have to strive harder, that we have to work harder to overcome the things in our lives that are getting in the way of our relationship with God. The problem is the more we work harder the more obvious it is that we cannot overcome the sin in our lives. This attitude works in most areas of life. If something is not going well, then work harder and it will improve. If you want to meet the goals you have, you have to work hard and eventually they will come about. If we want to overcome difficulties in our lives then we are encouraged to work hard, because hard work pays off. And it does, but it does not when it comes to our sin before God. It is not that we don’t have the desire to follow God and do what he asks; it is just that we are in a battle between where the Holy Spirit is leading us and where our sinful natures want us to go. The Apostle says: “Although I want to do good, evil is right there with me. 22 For in my inner being I delight in God’s law; 23 but I see another law at work in me, waging war against the law of my mind and making me a prisoner of the law of sin at work within me.”

When I was studying at ALC there was a retired pastor, Rolph Mayer, who lived close by and would come into the refectory and talk with us over coffee. One morning tea time he was talking to a group of us of how in his pastoral experience, he had come to the conclusion that the majority of people whom he had served knew the law because they were aware of their sins before God, but he said: “It is a lot harder for many people to hear the Gospel in our day and age, so make sure when you preach that you speak the Gospel loud and clear because we all need to hear it”. There is some very good wisdom in his advice. In our culture it seems to me that we can so easily focus on the negatives in life. We can’t seem to find joy in the good things, because we are always critical of everything we see that is wrong. The same is often true of how we see ourselves. It is easier to see the sin in our lives, that to see the way that God is working in us. It is easier to see when we fail, than it is to see God’s grace at work in us, which leads many to be discouraged and disheartened. It is easy to become burdened to the point of giving up and walking away from the faith for some. This led Paul to ask the question: “…Who will rescue me from this body that is subject to death?” and the answer is: “25 Thanks be to God, who delivers me through Jesus Christ our Lord!”

As those who are called to be God’s children in this life, despite the fact that we all still sin and struggle, because of what Jesus has done for us we no longer have to live life burdened by the guilt of our sins before him, because Jesus has dealt with them. This is the good news that you and I have. This is the joy of the Gospel that we live in. Because we are his children through baptism, we no longer stand condemned, but have the gift of receiving forgiveness and peace from God to us because of Jesus. Jesus said in today’s Gospel reading: “29 Take my yoke upon you and learn from me, for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. 30 For my yoke is easy and my burden is light.” Jesus says to us that his yoke is easy and his burden is light. We can never deny that we sin, or pretend that sin doesn’t have consequences in this life. We have to be honest and admit that to live the Christian life is a real battle to fight against giving in to the sinful temptations that hound us, but we don’t have to fight this battle on our own, in fact we cannot do it in our strength. We are to take a hold of Jesus’ yoke, we are to cling to him, to let him take the burdens of our sins and guilty consciences from us and let him gently direct us in this life in the way that he wants us to go. Notice how the apostle is giving thanks to God because he had been rescued. We too can give thanks to God for rescuing us. We can rest in the joy that we have in Jesus because we know that no matter what happens in this life we are in his hands. We have the Holy Spirit in us guiding us, even when we sin he brings us back to him in repentance. No one is beyond his reach and no sin is too powerful, for those who believe, that he does not forgive.

I encourage each of you to confess your sins to God, but also to actively receive his grace, mercy and forgiveness that he offers to you. And in doing this I encourage you to look for all the positive ways that God is working in your life, all of the ways in which he is at work in you, so that you may be full of joy and giving thanks to him for what he has done, and what he is doing for you.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Welcoming And Being Welcomed

Sunday 2nd July 2017

Matthew 10:40-42

Over the last three weeks I have been preaching from Matthew chapter 10, where the focus has been on what Jesus was teaching his disciples about what it means to be a disciple of Jesus. What it means to follow him? Also we have looked at what Jesus tells us about how others may respond to us as we follow him. Today we come to the last part of Jesus’ teaching of his disciples in chapter 10. And it ends in a rather unusual way. It ends in today’s reading where Jesus is talking to his disciples about the role of hospitality in the work of his people.

Jesus says: 40 “Anyone who welcomes you welcomes me, and anyone who welcomes me welcomes the one who sent me. 41 Whoever welcomes a prophet as a prophet will receive a prophet’s reward, and whoever welcomes a righteous person as a righteous person will receive a righteous person’s reward. 42 And if anyone gives even a cup of cold water to one of these little ones who is my disciple, truly I tell you, that person will certainly not lose their reward.”

Anyone who welcomes you welcomes me. Notice who is doing the welcoming here. It is not the disciples who are doing the welcoming, but they are the ones being welcomed.

One of the most well known missionaries of the 20th Century and someone who has greatly inspired me is a woman named Jackie Pullinger. Jackie became a Christian in her early twenties and very early in her walk with the Lord had a great passion for spreading the Gospel. She applied to a well known missionary organisation in the UK to be missionary in Hong Kong, but they refused to support her.  So believing that she was called she decided to go anyway. She paid for a boat ticket and arrived in Hong Kong with no money and no place to stay. Once she arrived she went straight to the slums area of Hong Kong, where she thought the Lord was leading her, and a stranger, upon hearing her situation, invited her into their home. Jackie went on to spread the Gospel to children in poverty and to those involved in a life of crime in Hong Kong, for the majority of her life. And became one of the most well known and well respected Christian missionaries in that area. Her books about her experiences are well worth reading if you get the chance. Jackie Pullinger is well known, but I doubt that anyone can tell the name of the person who took her into their home.

We can easily look back at the past and know about famous missionaries, but I wonder whether at times we miss the importance of those who supported them and welcomed them in to their homes. Maybe the well known missionaries can be overrated, and their support teams who make the mission possible through prayer, planning, and financial support are so often unknown and perhaps undervalued.  Yet these unnamed people have a significant role to play in God’s kingdom and his mission for the world.

God brings others to faith in him often by using unnamed people who provide a thirsty servant a cold drink of water and who we don’t find named in the pages of Church History.

When we read the book of Acts and hear about the beginnings of the Church, I wonder whether we tend to focus on the apostles and what God did through them in growing the church, but if we take a closer look the Gospel spreads through people who seem to have such minor roles and are not really mentioned much. There are people like Ananias, Simon the Tanner, Cornelius, Lydia, Priscilla & Aquila, Sergius Paulus and many more. The key thing about all of these characters is that they played a part in the spread of the Gospel, by their simple acts of receiving others. Their hospitality played a significant role in the spread of the early Church. In understanding how God’s mission to this world works, and how our role as a church reflects his mission, maybe we need to start by celebrating those offering the cup of cold water. Those who hospitably receive the Lord’s people are just as influential, if not more so in the spreading of the Christian faith. “None of these,” Jesus tells us, “will lose their reward.” (10:42) Hospitality plays such a significant role in our lives as disciples of Jesus.

As I thought more about what Jesus said about welcoming, it occurred to me that he was speaking to his disciples about them being welcomed. In other words he was sending his disciples out to spread that Good news, but in order to do this they had to be prepared to be welcomed. It is one thing to be in the position of welcoming others, whether it is into your church, into your home, into your life. When we are welcoming we have the power. We get to make the decisions as to whom we will invite and when we will invite them. We can control the circumstances, the setting, and the surroundings. And we are able to determine when the welcoming will come to an end.

But it would be a different story wouldn’t it if we were to find ourselves on the other side; where we are the ones being welcomed; where we are the ones at the mercy of others; where we are the ones wondering if we will be welcomed or not.

To be on the receiving end of someone else’s hospitality means being open to being vulnerable. To take up someone else’s invitation means to trust, to be willing to accept what they have to offer. Jesus refers to his disciples as “little ones”, the reason being his disciples are vulnerable because they are open to attack, and in the eyes of the world, they can be of little significance. This is as true today as it was for those first disciples. These words from Jesus are a challenge to all his disciples, because nobody likes being vulnerable, but as his followers he calls us to be just that.

In his teaching on what it means to be a disciple of His, Jesus has told things like they are; he has pointed out that the way of the Christian life with him will have joys, but it will be difficult as well. To follow Jesus does mean being vulnerable at times. We are called to put ourselves in uncomfortable situations for His sake.

But as we do this, we do it with the encouragement that he gives us. In today’s reading he gives his disciples great encouragement. He says: 40 “Anyone who welcomes you welcomes me, and anyone who welcomes me welcomes the one who sent me.” His disciples are not alone. Jesus is with them to the point that when the disciples are received by others, the ones receiving are receiving Jesus himself. Wherever His disciples go Jesus is with them. As Jesus says in Matthew 28: 20 … And surely I am with you always, to the very end of the age.” So he is saying here. Jesus tells us that he and his Father will accompany us in the difficult times as we walk with him.

It is this that we need to remember. It is very easy in our lives to get bogged down by what is going on around us; to see all the negative things that are happening in our lives, but also in the world at the moment. It is easy to see the challenges that are in front of us. Sometimes in the midst of all of this we might wonder whether we can survive. Jesus never promises his followers an easy life; in fact there are times when he is very honest about this in his Word. But he does promise us that He along with his Father and the Holy Spirit are with us, that as we walk with him he goes with us. And because of this others will respond to him. This is what we need to trust: his promise that He is with us. As we do we will be able to step out in faith, to take the risks in life that he asks us to make in following him, which includes welcoming others, but also being vulnerable enough to be welcomed by others.

I encourage each of you in your walk with our Lord to take comfort in his promise to you; to take heart in knowing that our Lord is present in your life. I also encourage you to look at the opportunities that he places before you to reach out to others and to take a step of faith trusting that he is with you and bringing the Gospel to those around you as you walk with him.

Matthew 10:40-42

Over the last three weeks I have been preaching from Matthew chapter 10, where the focus has been on what Jesus was teaching his disciples about what it means to be a disciple of Jesus. What it means to follow him? Also we have looked at what Jesus tells us about how others may respond to us as we follow him. Today we come to the last part of Jesus’ teaching of his disciples in chapter 10. And it ends in a rather unusual way. It ends in today’s reading where Jesus is talking to his disciples about the role of hospitality in the work of his people.

Jesus says: 40 “Anyone who welcomes you welcomes me, and anyone who welcomes me welcomes the one who sent me. 41 Whoever welcomes a prophet as a prophet will receive a prophet’s reward, and whoever welcomes a righteous person as a righteous person will receive a righteous person’s reward. 42 And if anyone gives even a cup of cold water to one of these little ones who is my disciple, truly I tell you, that person will certainly not lose their reward.”

Anyone who welcomes you welcomes me. Notice who is doing the welcoming here. It is not the disciples who are doing the welcoming, but they are the ones being welcomed.

One of the most well known missionaries of the 20th Century and someone who has greatly inspired me is a woman named Jackie Pullinger. Jackie became a Christian in her early twenties and very early in her walk with the Lord had a great passion for spreading the Gospel. She applied to a well known missionary organisation in the UK to be missionary in Hong Kong, but they refused to support her.  So believing that she was called she decided to go anyway. She paid for a boat ticket and arrived in Hong Kong with no money and no place to stay. Once she arrived she went straight to the slums area of Hong Kong, where she thought the Lord was leading her, and a stranger, upon hearing her situation, invited her into their home. Jackie went on to spread the Gospel to children in poverty and to those involved in a life of crime in Hong Kong, for the majority of her life. And became one of the most well known and well respected Christian missionaries in that area. Her books about her experiences are well worth reading if you get the chance. Jackie Pullinger is well known, but I doubt that anyone can tell the name of the person who took her into their home.

We can easily look back at the past and know about famous missionaries, but I wonder whether at times we miss the importance of those who supported them and welcomed them in to their homes. Maybe the well known missionaries can be overrated, and their support teams who make the mission possible through prayer, planning, and financial support are so often unknown and perhaps undervalued.  Yet these unnamed people have a significant role to play in God’s kingdom and his mission for the world.

God brings others to faith in him often by using unnamed people who provide a thirsty servant a cold drink of water and who we don’t find named in the pages of Church History.

When we read the book of Acts and hear about the beginnings of the Church, I wonder whether we tend to focus on the apostles and what God did through them in growing the church, but if we take a closer look the Gospel spreads through people who seem to have such minor roles and are not really mentioned much. There are people like Ananias, Simon the Tanner, Cornelius, Lydia, Priscilla & Aquila, Sergius Paulus and many more. The key thing about all of these characters is that they played a part in the spread of the Gospel, by their simple acts of receiving others. Their hospitality played a significant role in the spread of the early Church. In understanding how God’s mission to this world works, and how our role as a church reflects his mission, maybe we need to start by celebrating those offering the cup of cold water. Those who hospitably receive the Lord’s people are just as influential, if not more so in the spreading of the Christian faith. “None of these,” Jesus tells us, “will lose their reward.” (10:42) Hospitality plays such a significant role in our lives as disciples of Jesus.

As I thought more about what Jesus said about welcoming, it occurred to me that he was speaking to his disciples about them being welcomed. In other words he was sending his disciples out to spread that Good news, but in order to do this they had to be prepared to be welcomed. It is one thing to be in the position of welcoming others, whether it is into your church, into your home, into your life. When we are welcoming we have the power. We get to make the decisions as to whom we will invite and when we will invite them. We can control the circumstances, the setting, and the surroundings. And we are able to determine when the welcoming will come to an end.

But it would be a different story wouldn’t it if we were to find ourselves on the other side; where we are the ones being welcomed; where we are the ones at the mercy of others; where we are the ones wondering if we will be welcomed or not.

To be on the receiving end of someone else’s hospitality means being open to being vulnerable. To take up someone else’s invitation means to trust, to be willing to accept what they have to offer. Jesus refers to his disciples as “little ones”, the reason being his disciples are vulnerable because they are open to attack, and in the eyes of the world, they can be of little significance. This is as true today as it was for those first disciples. These words from Jesus are a challenge to all his disciples, because nobody likes being vulnerable, but as his followers he calls us to be just that.

In his teaching on what it means to be a disciple of His, Jesus has told things like they are; he has pointed out that the way of the Christian life with him will have joys, but it will be difficult as well. To follow Jesus does mean being vulnerable at times. We are called to put ourselves in uncomfortable situations for His sake.

But as we do this, we do it with the encouragement that he gives us. In today’s reading he gives his disciples great encouragement. He says: 40 “Anyone who welcomes you welcomes me, and anyone who welcomes me welcomes the one who sent me.” His disciples are not alone. Jesus is with them to the point that when the disciples are received by others, the ones receiving are receiving Jesus himself. Wherever His disciples go Jesus is with them. As Jesus says in Matthew 28: 20 … And surely I am with you always, to the very end of the age.” So he is saying here. Jesus tells us that he and his Father will accompany us in the difficult times as we walk with him.

It is this that we need to remember. It is very easy in our lives to get bogged down by what is going on around us; to see all the negative things that are happening in our lives, but also in the world at the moment. It is easy to see the challenges that are in front of us. Sometimes in the midst of all of this we might wonder whether we can survive. Jesus never promises his followers an easy life; in fact there are times when he is very honest about this in his Word. But he does promise us that He along with his Father and the Holy Spirit are with us, that as we walk with him he goes with us. And because of this others will respond to him. This is what we need to trust: his promise that He is with us. As we do we will be able to step out in faith, to take the risks in life that he asks us to make in following him, which includes welcoming others, but also being vulnerable enough to be welcomed by others.

I encourage each of you in your walk with our Lord to take comfort in his promise to you; to take heart in knowing that our Lord is present in your life. I also encourage you to look at the opportunities that he places before you to reach out to others and to take a step of faith trusting that he is with you and bringing the Gospel to those around you as you walk with him.

 

Don’t be Afraid

Sunday the 25th of June 2017

Matthew 10: 24-39

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

We Hand On To Others What Jesus Gives To Us

Sunday the 18th of June 2017

Matthew 9:35-10: 23

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

 

 

 

In Christ You Are A New Creation

Sunday the 11th of June 2017

Genesis 1-2:4

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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