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Sunday 24 April, 2016 - Easter 5C, An Anzac Memorial - Rev Heather Kennedy
Isaiah 52:7-12, Psalm 76,
Ephesians 6:10-20, Luke 6:27-36
'Do unto others…'
Today's passage from the Gospel according to Luke is the reading set for an Anzac Day observance. This passage takes us back to the Sermon on the Mount, to the teaching Jesus gave to the disciples to equip them for when he would no longer be with them, equipping them for their role in establishing the Christian Church. As members of the church, you and I are also disciples of Jesus Christ. As such we are striving to undertake the roles of discipleship, to become like Christ! As members of this congregation, when we meet for worship we study the teachings of Jesus and try to put them into practice.
William Barclay, a famous author and teacher of the Bible, wrote in one of his commentaries about an old university professor. One time, someone said to the professor that they knew one of his students. The professor replied that the person they knew did attend his classes but he was not one of his students. You see, the college professor was making a clear distinction between a person who merely sat in on the lectures and a person who really studied and learned what the professor was teaching. For the professor, there was an enormous difference between being an attender of a class and a disciple, a true learner. We are disciples of Christ, therefore we are not merely attenders of worship; we don't just sit here and listen. Rather, we are students of Christ. We immerse ourselves in the words and wisdom of Jesus. We become followers of Christ, and follow his teachings.
Today we are taking a look at one of the fundamental, foundational teachings of Jesus from the Sermon on the Mount, often referred to as the Golden Rule. Which states 'Do onto others …as you would have them do onto you.'
Many people have no idea that this rule comes from Jesus teaching or that it's religious in origin but just about everyone knows the Golden Rule. So called because of the high value placed on it, as with gold which is beautiful and durable, is very useful and practical, and it will stand the test of time. Gold has been the most desired and valuable metal throughout all time and there is no metal as precious as gold. The Golden Rule likewise is practical, durable and precious. It is the most fundamental moral principle stated in the positive for all human beings. It's not just about refraining from hurting others or treating them poorly. It's about doing something positive. Jesus says: 'Do onto others…' It's about positive action!
Other religions of the world and their religious philosophers have taught rule like this rule but in a negative form. Do not. Do not harm. Do not cause pain. The Hindu religion teaches: "do nothing to others which if done to you would cause you pain." Do not do anything to cause pain to another. Don't do the negative, but Jesus stated his moral principle positively. Do onto others. The Buddhist religion teaches, 'Hurt not others with that which pains yourself'. The Jewish traditions and the Talmud teach: "What is hateful to you, do not to your fellow men." Again, do not do the negative. Islam teaches: 'No one of you is a believer until he desires for his brother that which he desires for himself'. Great philosophers say: "Do not do unto others what angers you if done to you by others." Religious teachers have taught a similar philosophy to Jesus but always in the negative.
Not doing something bad to a person is not the same as doing something positive for them. It's somewhat easy and expected for people to avoid doing something bad toward another person but it is something quite different to do something positive for that person. Doing good takes more effort and energy than refraining from evil. There is a huge difference between not causing someone harm and doing something positive for that person. To help us understand this difference, the Barclay uses the simple analogy of driving a car. That is, I can drive my car in such as way that I do not harm people with my driving. I simply drive on the correct side of the road and stop for all stop signs. But it is quite another thing to drive my car and pick up someone to take them to the doctor or drive my neighbour to the supermarket. It is one set of attitudes and behaviours that avoids hurting people with my car; it is another set of attitudes and actions that actually go out of the way to help people by using my car.
The Golden Rule is closely connected to another golden rule - the only commandment Jesus ever gave us: to 'love one another as I have loved you' or, 'Love your neighbour as you love yourself'. The problem here is how we, in our modern culture, understand the word "love." For many of us, the word "love" is too wrapped up in feelings, emotions, and attitudes. These are great things but love according to the Bible is active. It is a verb. It has to do with what we do. Our feelings, attitudes, and emotions are great but if they don't lead to any positive action on our part, is that how Jesus intended us to understand it? As followers of Christ, we are to actively do for others. In the Sermon on the Mount, we hear Jesus use the word, "do" many times.
So, what does this mean for us? For our life? Do onto others as you would have them do to you. The reason why we find war, conflict and violence so distasteful is because they are the complete opposite of what this teaching instructs. Jesus gives us a clear moral principle by which to live as his disciples. So, what do we want other people to do for us? How do we want them to treat us? We want to be treated with love, respect, kindness, forgiveness for my imperfections, patience and honesty. We also need them to help us out when we need it. That is what we want from other people and that is the way that God asks us to treat all people. Doing for others means being pro-actively positive to all people.
Many of us could give examples of times when someone has helped us out of a difficult situation. Therefore, we need to do things like that for others. We have lots of examples of that kind of goodness and kindness right here at First Church! Stories of people providing meals for those who are going through difficult times, or where people visit each other, going out of their way. Like those who spent time this week preparing for the Garage Sale, coming together to do something positive in the life of the church. These are the positive actions of followers of Christ.
Not like the example in this story,
A driver did the right thing, by stopping at the pedestrian crossing even though he could have beaten the red light by accelerating through the intersection. The woman driving right behind him went ballistic, pounding on her horn and screaming in frustration as she missed her chance to drive through the intersection with him. Still in mid-rant, she heard a tap on her window and looked up into the face of a police officer, who ordered her to exit her car. He took her to the police station where she was searched, fingerprinted, photographed, and placed in a cell. After a couple of hours, she was escorted back to the reception area where the arresting officer was waiting.

He said, "I'm awfully sorry for this mistake. You see, I pulled up behind your car while you were blowing your horn, ranting, raving and swearing at the guy in front of you. I noticed the 'Choose Life' license plate holder, the 'What Would Jesus Do' bumper sticker and the chrome-plated Christian fish emblem on the back of your." "So, naturally, I assumed you had stolen the car."
We are invited to be disciples of Christ, to follow Christ and his example of love and doing positively for others. It is easy to slap a bumper sticker on the back of one's car. It is another matter to "do for others as you would have them do for you." God's plan is that Jesus would live on in you and me and in all the members of his body, the church. He is experienced as radical love through our words and actions... not necessarily through great and spectacular acts, or empty platitudes but through acts on a par with washing people's feet...through acts of sacrificial love...through supporting and caring and loving others in their need and distress and pain. People need the assurance that they haven't been abandoned by God to go it alone, and that assurance can be shared through even our smallest acts of love and care.
"A new commandment I give you." Jesus says, to "Love one another. As I have loved you, so you must love one another." Each one of us leaves marks on others lives. Do we leave the gentle, creative positive marks of Jesus - or do we leave the scars of our own self-centred lives? If Christ lives within us - shaping our personalities - we will leave glorious, identifiable marks on the lives of those we touch - not just because of our love, but because of his. Pray then that as we hear that commandment of Jesus to love one another that it might also be written anew on our hearts and lived out in our lives, as we 'do unto others, what we would have them do unto us.' Amen.

Sermon - Sunday 3 April, 2016 - Easter - Rev Heather Kennedy

Acts 5: 27-32; Psalm 150; Revelation 1:4-8; John 20:19-31.

'When in doubt talk to a believer'

Watching television these days is often a devastating experience, as we find ourselves looking over the shoulders of rescue workers desperately seeking signs of life after terrorist bombings or interviews with on-lookers somewhere in the world, as with the events in Belgium last weekend and I don't know what to make of the US Presidential Elections. There seems to be so many areas of the world where there is a definite lack of peace. We could be forgiven for thinking that the world has gone mad and that evil has the upper hand.

In a newspaper article about terrorist bombing, the columnist looked at the idea that random violence is becoming more random, more unpredictable, and more widespread than has been acknowledged or understood. It is believed that the various doctrines which legitimise government; that sanction law and order, are being challenged. This is also acknowledged with regard to the role of church and family. The trend seems to be that what a lot of people, everywhere, want to do - and are doing - is their own thing - for their own advancement, to enlarge their own power base, building up their own sense of self-importance. If this just happens to be at the expense of another person's life or well-being then that's just too bad. So, what should do we do about it? What can we do about it?

One of the most discouraging statements made up of just five words would be "It won't make any difference". This could be why we often think to ourselves, whatever I think or say or even attempt to do won't make any difference to what is happening in the world. We certainly feel a sense of helplessness when we see the awful panorama of human need that exists, but can what we do or say really make any difference?

This is why we might even question our sense of helplessness further and wonder if the events of Easter which we have been remembering over the last week really made any lasting difference in the world. There was certainly a local effect at that time to a small percentage of the population, but did the impact of Jesus' death and resurrection go much further. Did these events impact on the Jewish and Roman rulers at all?

I hope that we believe that they did and do - and that they help us to create the five word statement that is the most powerful statement we could possibly put together, that Christ himself is the difference. If we are to believe that we can make any difference at all, then this statement contains the five words we need to give us encouragement to do whatever we can, in whichever small way we can to make a Christ-inspired difference in the world.

These are the words that give people freedom to dream, to hope, to act, to live with confidence and strength. They are the five words which bring us here for this hour of worship today, for Christ himself is the difference.

That is the truth that the Gospel according to John testifies to, from the beginning to the end. John tells us that God's great love for the world was revealed in a person, Jesus Christ and that makes a difference to the way we live our lives. John no doubt expected his readers to have come to that conclusion by chapter 20 of his gospel and the passage we heard read today.
However, John takes into account our human scepticism and it's almost as though he says, if you've read all that I've set before you and you're still not convinced that Jesus Christ is the Son of God, then hear this story. So he tells the story of Thomas, the disciple who was to go down in history as the prime example of the one who doubts the testimony of others. No amount of words from the other disciples would make any difference to Thomas' doubts, he had to 'see and touch'. As a Jew brought up on the Hebrew Scriptures which take the physicality of life and death very seriously, Thomas needed the invitation to 'touch and see' to confirm his faith. Christian faith may be spiritual, but it is based on a person who really lived and died and rose again. Likewise, our faith is lived out in physical observance. It is not accidental that our two 'gospel sacraments' of Holy Communion and Baptism involve real bread, real wine and real water, tangible and touchable elements.
Thomas' confession "my Lord and my God" was only possible because he was convinced that the Christ of Calvary and the Christ of Easter were one and the same.
Jesus is our Lord and God, yet still carries the awful marks of his suffering which makes a difference to how we perceive God in our midst? Not as distant and uncaring, but present, and with the marks of his compassion imprinted in his human flesh.
The extent of Jesus' caring was revealed further in his first words to his disciples gathered in that room - he didn't go on about the awful things that had been done to him, the pain he had had to endure, or the loneliness and the feeling of abandonment. Instead he said "Peace be with you". His words after the resurrection, as with the words he spoke before his death were words spoken in compassion for others.

In Thomas' confession, when he says "My Lord and My God" there is the very essence of Christianity. A Christian is essentially someone who can say "I have recognised the Lord." This does not mean that we no longer have doubts, for we all have doubts, especially when events impact on our lives and we find life a struggle and wonder whether we can rely on God to help us. If we have doubts the best thing to do is to question them, talk them over with other believers, because we all have doubts from time to time and sharing them with others helps us each to see more clearly what we believe and what we can know for sure. If we didn't have some doubts we might even be fooling ourselves. It pays to question our beliefs in order to know for sure what we can believe and what we shouldn't believe. If we took everything we see on TV as believable and never questioned that information we could well be quite deluded.

Having a belief in God, as a Christian does not mean we know everything about Jesus, it means that we know Jesus. It does not mean arguing about who Jesus was or represented, it means meeting Jesus. It means the having certainty that Jesus is alive. That the experience of his life in us provides a source of peace that is beyond our human understanding. There is therefore no desire or need to "do one's own thing" because our desires are Christ-centred rather than self-centred.

So, if we claim to be Christian, if we claim to acknowledge the awesome wonder of God's love for us all - embodied in the loving sacrifice of Jesus - then we cannot keep quiet, we have to share this with others - the difference that Jesus Christ makes to our lives - that he is the difference for our life today. Who knows what difference that might make to another person's life?

Sermon. 1 November 2015. Pentecost 23. All Saints Day. Reformers of the Church. Delivered by Alan Richardson
May the words of my mouth and the meditations of our hearts be acceptable in tour sight, O Lord our strength and our redeemer.
I have been interested in the current Pope since the beginning of his reign early in 2013. He seemed to me to be likely to bring some sort of new look to the Papacy. Now it is true that in practical terms he will have no direct effect on me, but a new look within an institution as conservative as I think the papacy is, may well may well have positive spin-offs for the rest of Christendom in various ways.

As time has gone on it has become a little clearer what might happen, so I want to talk about the Pope, and some other church leaders, under this heading of mine for today's address Contemporary Reformers of the Church? I invite you to take particular note of the final question mark. In the end it will be for you to decide whether or not they might be reformers.

I have found information for this address in a very wide variety of sources which I must acknowledge before I begin. They are the website, which I recommend as a source of much religious news (not just Christian) of which I would otherwise be unaware; but I also read regularly my iPad apps for the ABC (American Broadcasting Corporation) and the Guardian newspaper. I have also copies of my own of the Pope's little book containing the text of his encyclical published on 24 May this year, and the paper by Andrew Norton, the current Moderator of the Presbyterian Church of Aotearoa New Zealand called It's a Matter of Faith, and this other little booklet called Justice and Action, which was published by the Presbyterian Church in the last few weeks or so.

I have been really amazed at some of the discoveries I have made. I have also been overall quite greatly encouraged by discovering some of the things that are happening in the world-wide church, though there have also been some inevitable disappointments.

I decided to begin with the Pope but I realize that there will not have been many times when a preacher in this church will have begun a sermon by giving praise to the Pope, but perhaps that is your surprise for 1 November 2015.
I followed quite closely the Pope's tour of the USA. I managed to see and hear has address to Congress and also his address to the United Nations. Both addresses were very well worth hearing indeed. He seemed very much at home at the rostrum and was forthright in what he had to say, seeming to be unafraid at what anyone may think. His favourite topics have been the environment, social justice and world-wide poverty I have not been able yet to read all of his encyclical which is primarily about the environment. The title of the encyclical and this translation of it is "Laudato Si" which translates simply as "Praise Be". It is a comprehensive coverage from his Christian point of view.

I printed out many articles from newspapers about the Pope's speeches, and followed with great interest the reception he received in America and at the UN, and I noted just how very quickly the press provided political labels for him. I mean he was labeled the Green Pope for his views on climate change but also the Red Pope for his views on economics, and was described as a socialist by several people and even as a communist by a few. I have discovered that it is the fate of the outspoken to be given a label which in my opinion is very unfair.

But as recently as last Sunday a Synod of Bishops gathered in Rome came to an end where discussion was held on the softening of attitudes towards gay men and women, divorced couples and those in other relationships not normally acceptable to the Roman Catholic Church. The Pope himself favours a less punitive treatment of them by the Church, but the Catholic Synod moved only a small distance on this one. It was especially interesting to read that the speaker strongly in favour of retaining the hard line was the Tanzanian Bishop Nkwande who said The Catholic Church must resist any temptation to "compromise the gospel and sacrifice the divine revelation" by seeming to approve of what he called "strange views and new teachings" on the part of the church.

The reason I was particularly interested in this, is that churches in Africa were a major source of the opposition. This leads me on to the next leader, the Archbishop of Canterbury. I read this in the Guardian: "The Archbishop of Canterbury, the most reverend Justin Welby, has suggested that ties between the various warring [Anglican] churches worldwide should be loosened, so they can all go their own way a bit more. He says it would be more like 'separate bedrooms' than 'divorce'.

Now in brief the situation is this. The Anglican Church worldwide, it's often called the Anglican Communion, consists of a number of national churches with ties to the Church of England. In some cases, such a New Zealand, the ties are already quite loose. But African ties are tight and so are those among the national churches of many other countries. But they have been unable for years to agree on doctrine, mainly based on those very matters bugging the Catholic bishops. So amazingly the Archbishop has expressed a desire to loosen the ties so that the more liberally minded can get on with certain reforms and not be constantly be voted out by the others. The Archbishop., it seems, is coming to the end of that particular road.

And so I come to New Zealand. In this case the spotlight is on Andrew Norton, the Moderator of the General Assembly. Andrew has been our Moderator for only about a year, but he is clearly trying to raise the profile of the church and to motivate all members especially on social issues. In June this year, he published on the PCANZ website, what he called a White Paper (or a discussion paper) entitled "It's a mater of faith". He raises in it eight issues which our national church is facing in the hope that his paper will promote "engagement, dialogue and action" which he sees as central to the church's development. His paper is in two parts. The first parts is a discussion about the issues themselves, from an "As I see it" standpoint. The second part, he writes, is "where presbyteries, sessions and parish councils can have their say. He asked for responses to be sent to him, I think it was by the end of September.
Subsequently, he commissioned this study book "Justice and Action" which has been distributed to congregations and copies were distributed to members of our Parish Council at their last meeting. Overall, he is concerned about falling numbers and apathy within in the church and lack of engagement by the church with social issues in this country at this time. He also put a page on Candour (also on the Internet) where he wrote "This booklet is a call to the Church to come back to the public square and speak up for those who have no voice."

I found it significant that the two main parts of his papers were the very things raised by the Pope and by the Archbishop of Canterbury. With respect to the social issues, Andrew raises the questions about child poverty, and family violence; in the case of the internal issues within the church he raises the disunity within our church especially with respect to homosexual and other gender issues, the effects of individualism and congregationalism, and issues related to ministry and to marriage.
So let me now try to pull all this together. It seems to me that all three leaders are struggling with parts of the same issue, but each within the context of his church. Underneath it all is concern about apathy within the church and what I might call conservatism in relation to sexual and marriage issues.
So I have posed the question about Contemporary reformers, and I need now to give some pointers about where I might stand on this one. As usual, I do not ask you to agree with me, I am just expressing my opinion.
My first comment is to say that in my view none of the churches is facing a need to contemplate a reformation anything like what happened 500-odd years ago. What I would support is a thorough-going programme of renewal.

So let me begin again with the Pope. I have a feeling that he would like to go ahead with real change. However, at the moment he lacks support from some of his bishops and is therefore restricted in what he can do. Because I see much similarity between the issues facing the Roman Catholic and the Anglican Church, I would say that the position of the Archbishop of Canterbury is similar; though Justin Welby looks as if he may take some definitive action. Andrew Norton is urging us all to get out there and say and do something about social justice issues in particular. Again, this is a renewal programme. And frankly, I hope very much he gets it. But it will require a groundswell of support from the people in the pews. That is you and me. Indeed, these days, no attempted renewal is going to happen without the support of the people. This puts us, you and me, on centre-stage. Any Presbyterian renewal will be need to be strongly supported by people in the pews. There will be times when we will feel uncomfortable but personally I want to look forward to a church is inclusive, seeks economic and social justice for all people, is tolerant and outward-looking. Of course, I am aware that you know my view, because I have expressed it here before. So you may wonder why I am I repeating it today. It is because today seems the ideal context in which to show solidarity with the Christian church world-wide as jointly, we all, in our own contexts seek to renew our own spiritual lives. Not only that, but it shows we in the 21st century are doing our best to live up to the expectations of all those who have gone before us, including the original reformers of the church. In summary, then the next potential reformers of the church are already sitting in pews up and down this country. At least that is how I see it.

I want now to ask you to join in prayer with me for the leaders of the churches worlds-wide. Our God, on this anniversary of the day which we remember as Reformation Day, we pray for the leaders of the Churches wide. And so we bring before you now these major leaders:

Pope Francis the leader of the Roman Catholic churches;
Batholemew, the Ecumenical Patriarch of Constantinople, the leader of the eastern orthodox Churches
Queen Elizabeth II, the Supreme Governor of the Anglican Communion and Justin Welby, the Abp of Canterbury, the symbolic head of the Anglican Communion
And Jerry Pilliay, the head of the Senior Governing Body of the World Communion of Reformed Churches and the General Secretary of the Uniting Presbyterian Church of Southern Africa.
We remember also Phil King, the Global Mission Co-ordinator of the Presbyterian Church of Aotearoa New Zealand Global Mission group.
Lord , your church has become so fragmented that we cannot mention individually all the leaders of other groups but we pray that whatever they do may be done always to hour and glorify your holy name.

We thank you, God, for the work which these people have undertaken for the Christian Churches worldwide. We ask your blessing on them today, and we ask that each one may receive wisdom from you as they seek to address as well as they are able the problems facing your church in the 21st century. Grant them foresight to understand the implications of the decisions they make on the future of the Church on the people who worship you day by day. In the name of Jesus we ask these things. Amen.

Sermon. 30 August 2015. Pentecost 14. Delivered by Alan Richardson
May the words of my mouth and the meditations of our hearts be acceptable in your sight, O Lord, our strength and our redeemer. Amen.
The OT lectionary readings have been working their way through parts of the story of Solomon so I have chosen to talk a little abut him this morning. However, the Gospel reading I chose was part of the Sermon on the Mount - Jesus' words "Even Solomon in all his glory was not arrayed like one of these." Jesus was talking about lilies, but his words show that Solomon was well known and so was his reputation in relation in relation to fine decoration.

The extract we heard from the Book of Kings was from the dedication of the temple, when all the plans had been followed, the building finally constructed, and the temple was dedicated to its purpose. I want to avoid today going into the detail which is presented to us by the Bible about the structure, and look instead first at the question of why this building was so important to the Jews. It is a given that this building was the pinnacle of Jewish yearning for a permanent physical structure which reflected the great central place they laid in the appropriate surroundings in which to worship God. We read in the Book of Kings about David's hopes to build the temple, about his drawing up of the plans and gathering most of the building material, and also of his being denied the best part of all which was to build the temple itself. And this task is given to his son ans successor, Solomon.

It is another great epic story in the Bible, but maybe our view of all this account changes to some extent when we read that the Book of Kings was not written until something approaching 500 years after the events they describe. It was written during the Babylonian exile about 580BC. This means that the account we rely on was actually written wit the benefit of hindsight and at a time of Jewish anguish over their exile and yearning for a return of the better years of the past.

Anyway, it seems fair to say that Solomon's temple began construction in about 970BC and was completed about 964BC. I was destroyed by the Babylonian invasion in 580BC. The reading today, 1 Kings 8, is about the dedication of the Temple when finally the building was all complete and they brought the Ark of the Covenant to its resting place. It was a very grand ceremony. I hope you will read all this quite lengthy chapter sometime and picture the occasion. The prime purpose of the temple which Solomon built in Israel was really to house the Ark of the Covenant and I spoke to the children about that. The temple was a large building. Just how large, is difficult to say. The actual figures provided by the Book of Kings are 60 cubits long, 20 wide and 30 high. The trouble with this is that no-one is very sure just how long a cubit really is. People say that it was the length of your arm from the elbow to the fingertips, which makes it about 18 ins or about 50 centimetres. So about we might say about 30 metres by 10 metres by 15 metres which is not actually as large as I have always envisaged it. The Book of Chronicles says that the height was 120 cubits, four times the height, but modern engineers say that this would be impossible at the time.

I suppose it was really the magnificence of the decorations - the cedar wood paneling inside and the gold covering outside which was the real display of Solomon's wealth. "What made the temple such a powerful image is this intense combination of glorious idealism constantly haunted from the very beginning by man's inability to live up to it. " So we find that the personal story of Solomon in the Bible after the temple dedication is a rather sorry one of gradual decline in the face of God. The Book of Kings reports God's increasing anger because he "followed other Gods" and "did not observe what the Lord commanded." Nevertheless, he did reign over Israel for another 40 years and then he was succeeded by his son Reheboam. But Solomon ended his life in almost total disgrace, and almost immediately after his death the two kingdoms of Israel which had come together under David, split apart again and the tribes of Israel recommenced fighting one another. There followed the conquering of the northern Kingdom by the Babylonians and then later the same thing happened to the Southern kingdom when it was overrun by the armies of King Neuchadnezzar II of Babylon, the temple was completely destroyed and most of the people taken away in exile to Babylon.

It was the worst time in Israel's history and lasted 70 years. However, many Israelities returned to Jerusalem and they set about rebuilding the temple. A new temple was built, but destroyed again this time by the Romans; and later King Herod renovated and added to the temple and it was Herod's temple that was the one known to Jesus during his ministry.

I want also to say something about the Ark of the Covenant. We know it's importance in Jewish worship, so what happened to it. On the destruction of the temple it to all intents and purposes disappeared never to be found again. To us today this simply means this is one of the most intriguing questions of history. The Ark was not small, it was very visible covered with shining gold, and it is really important. So its loss is a puzzling one lost in the ravages of time.. But although officially "lost' there are some intriguing theories. One is that it is being carefully looked after in a church in Axum Ethiopia and it is said to have arrived there about 3000 years ago. This theory is quite persistent, but no-one is allowed to see the Ark itself.

Then as recently as 14 November 2014, about 9 months ago, on the Internet at "" there was a news item with a rather humorously ambiguous heading: "Ethiopia: Ark of Covenant reported stolen by church authorities". There is a photo of The Patriarch of the Ethiopian Orthodox Church and a simply amazingly dramatic story of the theft involving a helicopter full of a group of terrorists who stormed the buildings. It is also said to be somewhere underneath the Temple Mount in Jerusalem, but no-one is allowed down there. But honestly, the Ark dates back to the time of Moses. Does anyone seriously believe that it could still exist, and even worse, if anyone put it on display, who would actually believe in its authenticity? But I need to round off my thoughts on Solomon.

It seems to me that his main problem could be summed up as pride. He had the power and the position to do what he did, he also had more money than he knew what to do with, and he spent it lavishly on the Temple, his palace, his women and his fine living.

To conclude I want to read you a paragraph from this book. It is called "The temple of Jerusalem" and it is by Simon Goldhill the Professor of Greek Literature at the University of Cambridge. He writes: "The temple can never be described merely in architectural terms. It has to be imagined - made up - in a swirl of stories. Its description is always part of writing history. The Temple is not just a building, but a way of expressing the hopes of religious idealism, and of constructing a picture of humanity's relation to the divine. From the Book of Kings onwards, writing about Solomon's Temple means imagining a building which no longer had any physical existence, and that is one reason why construction and destruction have become such potent imaginative symbols for the aspirations and failings of humanity."

I hope that my very few and very inadequate insights this morning into this amazing building and its contents will have been of interest to you and left you with some thoughts about the complexities of the books in the Bible which are collectively called the Old Testament or the Jewish scriptures. These are the words which Jesus knew so well.

And now to the one who by the power at work within us is able to do far more abundantly than all we can ask or imagine, to God be glory in the church and in Christ Jesus to all generations forever and ever. Amen.

Sermon. First Church, Invercargill. 23/8/2015. Delivered by Alan Richardson

May the words that I speak and the thoughts that we all develop in our minds be acceptable to you, O Lord, our strength and our redeemer. Amen.

I want to say something about Paul’s Letter to the Ephesians today. We read earlier a passage close to the end of the letter which includes that well-known image of the armour of God.

Paul’s first visit to Ephesus was near the end of his second missionary journey. He sailed there from Greece, across the Aegean Sea to the city of Ephesus which is on the coast of present day Turkey. Paul was on his return journey to Jerusalem so this first visit to Ephesus was brief. He went in to the synagogue there and “had a discussion with the Jews.” (Acts 18:19) They wanted him to stay longer but he declined on that occasion, saying, “I will return to you, if God wills.” (Acts 18: 21).

And Paul did return on his third and last missionary journey. He included Ephesus near the beginning of his itinerary, leaving him much longer to spend there. It seems that he arrived there in the year 54 AD and this time he stayed for the best part of three years. So he had time to get to know the city and to set up a small community of Christians.

The ancient city of Ephesus is still there, though it now lies in ruins. Pictures I have seen show that the ruins are extensive and well preserved and clearly well worth a visit. We know that one person present this morning has been there and there may be others. There is no modern city named Ephesus but only about two kilometers away lies the modern city of Selcuk in modern Turkey. We know that Ephesus was a sea port in the time of Paul, but the bay is completely silted up and the coast has receded.

Ephesus is of very ancient origin. It dates from the 10th century BC and was first built as by Greek colonists, who had sailed across the Aegean Sea to get there. Much later, and much closer to the time of Paul’s visits, the city became under he control of the Roman Empire and the likely population at its height was about 50,000 which makes it very much the size of Invercargill today. It was the third largest city in Asia Minor.

If you are into such things as the Seven Wonders of the Ancient World, then the famous Temple of Artemis (or Diana) was located in Ephesus. There is a suggestion that the temple of Diana was destroyed by some invading Goths from the north, but the other persistent claim is that St John Chrysostom and “a Christian mob” (New World Encyclopedia) in 401AD were responsible. No-one knows for certain At the time John was the Abp of Ephesus. Of course, the temple was there for all to see during Paul’s stay and there is an interesting account in Acts 19 of Paul’s encounter with a number of people making money from the sale of souvenir statues of the goddess Diana. That encounter was ended badly for Paul as the crowds there began to grow in size and they took sides in the argument and the result could best be called a riot. In fact this problem resulted in Paul’s ending his visit there and he left to continue his journey.

This city was an influential and wealthy centre, populated first by Greeks, but later became a part of the Roman Empire, but also had a Jewish synagogue where Paul’s ministry was first centered, of course. Being both a multicultural city and a Greek city meant that debate and discussion would be part of the scene.

So Paul continued on his way and some time later again passed by the coast of Ephesus, but decided to stop, not there, but in Miletus another port just a few miles south of Ephesus. From there, he sent a message to the elders in Ephesus and asked them to come down to meet him. Paul’s final rather sad message to them is recorded in Acts 20:17-35.

Following his time in Ephesus, Paul about three years later wrote his letter to them, which is the source of our focus today. There is general agreement that this letter was written about 60 AD, when he was probably already in prison in Rome. The letter to the Ephesians is primarily addressed to the Gentile Christians living in the city.

As a character in the whole Bible story, Paul interests me greatly as the person to be so involved in spreading the gospel. He had two great advantages for this task. He was, like Jesus, a Jew, but he was also a Greek and a Roman citizen. So he was at home in Asia Minor and in Greece and Rome. He was motivated to engage on three quite extensive and rather successful missionary journeys and to have been able to engage the interest of local people in the gospel stories he brought to them. And finally, he churches took root quite quickly and became quite firmly established.

So remembering that Paul was a Jew, he was one of the original target group for Jesus’ message, and also one of those who did not at first accept that message to the extent that he was present at the stoning of Stephen and he approved of the killing. But his conversion was sudden and direct, and after a period of time with a group of the early Christians, he was quickly prepared to set off on missionary activity.

The importance of that activity was that he was convinced that the message of Jesus as he understood it was equally for Jews and Gentiles, and I suspect that Paul’s background in cosmopolitan Greece had quite a lot to do with that. It is interesting then, to read, in the Book of Ephesians how this all worked out in practice. So on Paul’s first brief visit the Book of Acts says “ First he himself, went into the synagogue and had discussions with the Jews.” In other words, he did not ignore the Jews but went to the first and I guess that the willingness of the Jews to discuss with him further formed part of the reason for his later visit. However, on his second visit it all worked out differently. Acts 19:8-10 says: “He entered the synagogue and for three months he spoke out boldly, and argued persuasively about the Kingdom of God. When some stubbornly refused to believe and spoke evil of the way before the congregation, he left them, taking the disciples with him, and argued daily in the lecture hall of Tyrannus. This continued for two years so that all the residents of Asia, both Jews and Greeks heard the word of the Lord.” I was reminded of Jesus saying to a congregation in Nazareth who were not listening to him, “Truly I tell you, no prophet is accepted in the prophet’s home town.” (Luke 4: 24.)

The after his third missionary journey, on his return to Jerusalem, Paul was arrested and ended up in prison in Rome. It was from there that he wrote many of his letters, including this one to the Ephesians.

Overall, this letter is positive, encouraging, and forward-looking. “As a prisoner for the Lord, then, I urge you to live a life worthy of the calling you have received. Be completely humble and gentle; be patient, bearing with one another in love. Make every effort to keep the unity of the Spirit through the bond of peace” (Eph 4: 1-3) “Therefore be imitators of God, as beloved children. And walk in love, as Christ loved us and gave himself up for us, a fragrant offering and sacrifice to God.” (Eph 5:1-2). All very good advice for the modern world, I think.

And he ends with the extended metaphor about the “whole armour of God”. It is a great word picture and a complete account of a very adequate protection available for the spiritually prepared Christian. I have to say that for me the image is very dated and has lost some of its thrust, and I am also aware that the Bible has a number of military images which have lost some of their relevance for us today.

I thought I might end this address by adding a comment about how I think the letters in the Bible are profitably read today. The first point to note is that they are letters, written by specific people and addressed to a specific group of recipients, known to the author. In this case Paul had come to know these people in Ephesus well over his three years of ministry there. We therefore need to know something about the author’s circumstances, and the social and political lives of the recipients. We are also reading a piece almost of private correspondence, intended for the Corinthians, but not primarily for us, 2000 years later, at all. The reason that it has relevance for us at all is that the human condition does not change to the extent that the social surroundings have changed. This means that we can read ourselves into positions similar to those of the Ephesians and we can benefit from that.

On those rare occasions that we receive a letter today, we also sit down and read it all in one sitting, and then maybe go back and re-read bits or all of it again later. It is this overall reading which I think is important, and I recommend you do that with this letter sometime. It is a very good read.

Rev. Ivan Smith
BA BD Diploma in Theology JP.

I pray, Heavenly Father, the message I present for you this morning reinforce in the minds and hearts of these your people their abiding and eternal association with you, with Your son Christ Jesusand with all who shared and share stillin Hislife and work.
We use them every day and we think with them, silently, inside our heads. They make pictures for us inside our heads. Bythem we structure our life and our world. With them we organise our work and recreation, with them we make and break relationships and what are they? They are
thinking and spoken words.

In addition, we scribble on paper, an envelope or type on the internet and hey-presto people close at hand and anywhere in the world can read it and understand. Thewords we vocalise, scribble and type: SPEAK.
People in the construction and transport industry communicate with each other by way of a radio transmitter. The telephone, similarlywe talk and, as if by magic, we have a conversation.
Words spoken and written, then, are unique to human kind. They are , without question, our most valuable tool. With them we have invented every other tool. With them we are able to vocalize ideas that materialize in our minds. With them we are able to be artistically, culturally, mathematically and structurally creative.
Words and the activities they initiate not only hold us to every day chores but they can also initiate new pathways in the mind that change the way we do things, change the way we think about things.

Indeed, words and the ideas they vocalize grow the mind of human-kind continually. Without words we could not be who we are nor could we be what we are for in every human endeavour words give expression to ideas; ideas that create new perspectives, renewed vision With words we are able to foster co-operation and good-will. With words we have been able to establish rules, time-tables, rendezvous. With words we have been able to build in most every mind an understanding of truth and good-will, of justice and fair-play. With words we have developed exchange systemswith people in every country in the world; exchange systems that
encourage co-operation and trust from which every one can benefit. Words, then, they are the creative foundation of the world and they are the foundation blocks of human creativity and culture.
Speak and that spoken materializes, Speak and that spoken has immediate effect and once spoken cannot be unspoken. Fittingly, then ,it was a word, a sound, an assimilation of elements of an explosive nature by which our Universeand this world of our was created. God spoke and having spoken the world materialized.
SimilarlyGod spoke and a kaleidoscope of chemical and atomic assimilationstook place that created all the living fauna and flora that grows and inhabits the world. And happily, we belong to this tradition that speaks of that creativity. Happily we belong to this tradition that speaks of that "Word" that made the world and the universe in which this world spins. We belong to a tradition that holds sacred, words spoken of as from God Himselfand His appointed messengers. Words spoken by Moses, Isaiah, Jesus and Jesus'sfollowers; to name a tiny few. Words Holy in their authorship and sacred for those of uswho work to initiate an enlightened cultural environment that upholds the value of life and the right to life for all the living.

And thankfully, we, in this Judaeo/Christian tradition have a long association with the Word in Creation. We have a long association with the movement of the Spiritin wind and fire and the command to speak and to act doing whatever is required to keep the world and its living breathing fauna and flora alive to the Glory of God. And infused with this Spirit we are required to do stuff that challenges us , frightens us; championing the cause for people orphaned from their society, championing the cause for justice for people unable to seek justice for themselves as Sir Peter Williams Q.C has done all his life. Championing the cause for life for those not yet born as Dr Norman McLean , Father Vaughn Leslie, our very own Reverend Nyalle Paris and a number of concerned citizens here in Invercargill are doing and doing at the cost of being demonised by long time friends.

Remember Moses, Jeremiah and Ezekieleach one an ordinary man; able to speak like we do between friends and family but after their initiation by the Lord's Spiritable to say and do things that were remarkable.
Remember Peter at the Crucifixion cowering along the walls of Golgotha , so frightened he denied knowing his lord and then, infused with the Spirit, spoke and in speaking gave new energy and momentum to the task of establishing the Kingdom of heaven.
Indeed, being imbued with the Spiritspoken of in our scripture is much more than feeling pleasure in the company of the Lord. Being imbued with the Spiritdrives people in our tradition to speak for the Lord and to act for the Lord as the disciples did, each losing their lives to the lions.
Being imbued with the spirit drove the Church fathers to engage in wonderful intellectual gymnastics to stave off each and every crack-pot idea that surfaced relating to the life and work of our lord.
Imbued with the spirit Luther ,cowering from demons for months in hismonastic cell, emerged to nail a listof ideas that needed to be discussed by the institutional Church. An act that put his very life at riskrequiring the protection of powerful political allies.
Imbued with the Spirit Dr Martin Luther King Junior led and inspired a wonderful movement that sought to gain political and civil rights for hispeople in America. A fight that cost him his life.
Imbued with the Spirit Desmond Tutu and many other Bishopsin Africa fight for political And civil rights for their people: a fight that has cost many bishops their lives.
Our democracies, the major ones in particular, America, Britain, Germany and France, throughout the 20th century and to the present have consistently deployed their military might in the hope that they can defeat Barbaric and tyrannical regimes and bring peace to the people those regimes terrorize.
Inexplicably then, we in the Church, and in the world, we who are governed with democratic perspectives, have been grasped by the Holy Spirit; and by way of this Holy Spirit we have access to the mind of that "Word" spoken of in Creation and to the mind of Christ JesusHimself; a mind and a person who upheld all of the injunctions spoken of by the Lord God in the Jewish scripture and who at Pentecost filled Hisdisciples with the Holy Spirit equipping them with the wisdom, courage and determination to continue doing the work of His Father, working toward establishing the Kingdom of Heaven and establishing it throughout this world of ours, and, as the Reverend Heather emphasises in her address to you on the 24th of May, doing what we can by following her 19statements as we speak and work in our homes, in our communities and at our work and recreation.
And, this we are doing still, imperfectly, but we are trying. We have embraced that "Creative Word at Creation" we have embraced those rules of behaviour that seek to ensure peace, justice, harmony and good-will for everyone and thankfully these Creative words are at the heart of our democratic processes today. These "Creative Words" are at the heart of our legal and justice system today and those Creative Words remain stilla touch stone for modern day democratic behavioural standards.
Happily, then, this Judea-Christian tradition in which we are embodied was founded by an audacious claim made by the Lord God at Mt Sinai and Peter at Pentecost that the Word at Creation is embodied in the writings of our scripture and embodied personally in Jesus the Nazarene and embodied severally in each and every believer both Christian and Jewish; all of us in a covenant relationship with this "God" this "Word" and acknowledged as His children. His family, His disciples.
An audacious claim that the "Word" at Creation isfundamentally essential to our humanity so much so that we in the Church make the claim that the "Creative Word" at Creation, spoken of in Scripture and at the heart of our democracies holds within it the very profile of our DNA, and, furthermore, that in that "Word spoken" is profiled the very format of survival for all life forms including our own.

Thisword spoken throughout our scriptural heritage, then, and modified over time to retain its humane perspectives is sacred to us and it is sacred to us because they have, for us and for humanity generally and for the world as a whole, saving value; absolutely. Amen

Sunday, 7th June, 2015
1 Samuel 8:4-11, 16-20, Mark 3:20-35

Who are my brothers and sisters?

We are all members of a family. Some families are loving, some are quirky, some are dysfunctional, some are abusive, and some are a combination of those things. Some of our families are close and some are distant. No matter what type of family we have, we each have a role to play within it. Maybe we are the Peacemaker, the Pretty One, the Black Sheep, the Smart One, the Religious One, the Baby, and so on. But what happens when the Black Sheep starts acting like the Smart One? Or the Peacemaker becomes the Artistic One? The delicate system of roles is shaken and the other players are then put in the position of trying to put the person back in their role or adjust to the new role that is being played. It's not hard to guess which way we usually choose to go?

Fear of the new role usually wins out, and people often try to sabotage the fledgling before anything permanent can happen. We think we know what is best for the other person because really, it is what is best for us. For example, take any attempts at self-improvement - like losing weight, quitting smoking, gaining further education, or going to a counsellor - and there will be people who will not be encouraging because it makes them look at the improvements they themselves need to make and aren't. They fear change in their lives, so why should they support the changes in yours? It takes a strong person to take the step and become who God created us to be and to continue to make positive changes when it puts personal relationships in jeopardy. This is where some of our so-called family feuds come from - with someone asserting their new-found sense of identity and the rest of the family sticking to what they feel comfortable with.
I found it interesting to read in the paper at the time, of a family member, wrapped up in a family feud with one of those who had drowned in Foveaux Strait on the Easy Rider, saying that family feuds are a waste of time and effort, and should be resolved quickly, because you never know when one or some of you might die. Because, then the chance to say sorry and resolve the situation is forever lost.

When we look at Jesus coming back to his hometown where his family lived in our reading from the Gospel according to Mark today, people were crowding him to see if he would heal them. While some others were talking about him, saying "He's gone mad," and "He has Beelzebul in him. It is the chief of the demons who gives him the power to drive them out." People feared what they did not understand. Jesus' family tried to restrain him, but Jesus faced the crowd. Telling them that he was called by God to preach and teach and heal, and that was his mission. He knew his role, but it was not necessarily the role that his family or hometown thought he should be undertaking. God was doing a new thing in Jesus. God was expanding the concept of what it meant to be bonded to others the way we are in a family, and Jesus called attention to this. God knows what is best for Jesus and for us, not the other way around.

When Jesus declared, "Whoever does what God wants them to do is my brother, my sister and my mother." It challenged the Jewish culture he had grown up in. Saying that you are no longer close to God just because you were born into a Jewish household; you no longer just take care of your own kind; instead, your family is being extended to anyone who does the will of God. This threatened their whole cultural and social structure. However, it certainly broadened the margins and challenged those who took that relationship with God for granted.

Today, it challenges us to look beyond our walls, our denominational lines, our socio-economic status, and our faith to see who our brothers and sisters and mothers. God calls us to expand our family in ways that are just as shocking as it was to the Gospel of Mark's first-century audience.
We should be prepared to expect this from God, because we know that what we are called to do by God, is often shocking, or alarming and something we might not of thought of before.

In today's Old Testament lesson from First Samuel, when the people requested an earthly king to rule them rather than God, Samuel is put in a difficult position. The essence of this request is a rebellion against God, but the Israelites want to be "like other nations." How often do we want the same thing? We want to be "normal," we want to have what other people have and we measure our worth by earthly standards. We lose our focus and stop doing the will of God. Brothers turn against brothers, sisters against sisters, mothers against mothers. We get caught up in wanting approval from others and are jealous of what they have, which can leave us empty and seemingly worthless. We forget that we have value because God loves us. Jesus understood this, as he kept his focus on following God's will and was clear about it, despite what his family or the crowds wanted from him.

It's easier said than done, of course.
Anthony de Mello tells a story that reminds us of this:
'A man traversed land and sea to check out for himself the Master's extraordinary fame. "What miracles has your Master worked?" he asked a disciple. Who answered, "Well, there are miracles and miracles. In your land it is regarded as a miracle if God does what someone prays for. In our country it is regarded as a miracle if someone does the will of God."

We may smile at the story, but it speaks of the truth. We might wonder nowadays why people cannot discern God's will for the world and yet we have Jesus demonstrating God's way of love, but because this threatened the power base of the Pharisees, they could not, or would not, see the good being enacted in other people's lives, they could only react out of the threat to themselves. Jesus shared our humanity to show that God is not a distant God enshrined in legalism but rather a God who embraces the hurts and suffering people of the world. There is a beautiful story which I know you've probably heard before, but it's a great story: a little girl was late home from school and her worried parents questioned her as to why so late? She explained that she had been with a friend who had dropped her favourite toy and it had smashed to bits on the footpath. "Oh", said her father "so you stopped to help her pick up the pieces?" "No" said the child, "I stopped to help her cry." Through Jesus, God stopped to help the world cry - to share the pain of the world, to demonstrate that evil does not have the last word...and Jesus says to us - whoever does the will of God is my brother and sister and mother.

Doing the will of God often means leaving our comfort zones. As Christians, our Baptismal Covenant demands that we lead a life that follows God by continuing the apostles' teaching and fellowship, in the breaking of bread, in the prayers, in resisting evil, in repenting and returning to the Lord, in proclaiming by word and example the Good News of God Kingdom in Christ, seeking and serving Christ for all people, loving our neighbour as ourselves, striving for justice and peace among all people, and respecting the dignity of every human being. This is not an easy road to journey! Yet we readily answer, "I will, with God's help."

We see on our TV's every night the struggle between good and evil, the struggle of oppressed people for freedom, of starving people crying out for food, of landless people pleading for a place to call their own, of young girls culturally abused and tortured crying out for justice, lonely and distressed people hoping for an act of kindness, a word of hope. Who are my brothers, my sisters, my mother? Jesus says these are our family.
These are the people we need to help and care for without counting the cost, when we answer God's call. So, where are we - you and me - in all of that? Are we open to hearing Jesus address us personally and as a community of faith? Are we prepared to risk following where he leads?

We know we cannot do this alone and we have Jesus' single-minded focus on God's will as an example for us all. We need to have God's help to us follow the call of Jesus in order to be the people we were created to be.

As the blessing from St. Clare says; May we go forth, to "live without fear: your Creator has made you holy, has always protected you, and loves you as a mother. Go in peace to follow the good road, and may God's blessing be with you always."

Sunday, 31st May, 2015 - Trinity Sunday
Isaiah 6:1-8, John 3:1-17
Born of water and the Spirit
Some of the boldest scenes of worship in scripture have to do with people who happen upon the glory of God and can make no reasonable response other than to participate in it. People like Isaiah in the temple, when the overwhelming presence of God enveloped him, and those people who unexpectedly spoke foreign words in the wake of the flaming tongues of Pentecost.

We are reminded of this participation in the praise of God every time we gather for communion and speak or sing the words of great the passage that says
…and so, with your people on earth and all the company of heaven we praise your name and join in their unending hymn, singing, "Holy, holy, holy, Lord....", for three times over we declare that God is holy.

So today, called Trinity Sunday, is the day when the church celebrates not an event, but a doctrine which is the product of many theological debates in the early centuries of the Christian church, debates that resulted in the Apostles Creed and the Nicene Creed, the founding doctrine of the Church. They affirm the nature of One God in three persons, our Triune God. The debate was undertaken by the early church because it was seen as crucial that the relationship between God, Jesus and the Holy Spirit could be described in an understandable way, a way that we can all understand, even today. That's what the first half of the year in our Christian calendar has been about - God's intervention in our human history in the person of Jesus Christ, whose life continues and energises us with the power of the Holy Spirit. Today then is an opportunity to pause, and to reflect on how these events give meaning to the present and the future, how they can give us the guidance we need through the ordinary as well as the extraordinary experiences of our lives. Of how we too are enabled to join in that unending hymn, when we sing "Holy, holy, holy Lord".

It was certainly a vision of the holiness of God that Isaiah experienced in the Temple:
..."I saw the Lord," Isaiah writes..."sitting on a throne, high and exalted, and his robe filled the whole temple", surrounded by multi-winged creatures which were standing around. The sounds of the creature's voices made the whole temple shake and the temple was filled with smoke. If we had a vision like that, our reaction would probably have been similar to Isaiah's, maybe of sheer terror or abject awe - also realising that God is an awesome king, in front of whom Isaiah is ashamed, saying, "There is no hope for me, I am doomed!" Isaiah feels small and insignificant, crushed and lost for words as the vision continues. Surrounded by such holiness, his unworthiness surfaces ..."Every word that passes my lips is sinful, and I live in the midst of sinful people; yet I have seen the King, the Lord God Almighty."

Isaiah, who sees himself as sinful, needs to be forgiven and rendered guiltless in order to speak on behalf of God, so the picturesque vision continues as he is purified - touched with a divine, transforming fire - when one of the seraphim touches his lips with a live coal. Finally God asks "Whom shall I send? Who will be our messenger?" and Isaiah answered - "I will go. Send me!" His newly forgiven and liberated state allows him to answer with confidence to God's calling. He is now free of guilt and sin so is enabled to serve God as a prophet to his people.

If you think about it, God is not actually described in this event, although the strange and bizarre symbols of God's holy presence certainly are, just as they were in the encounter Moses had with God in the 'burning bush'. The mystery of God is preserved, if we take Isaiah's vision as an example, because for the people of the Hebrew Scriptures, God was indescribable.

When we turn to the reading for today from the Gospel according to John, there are no temples or strange creatures, no flames or smoke here, no, just the opposite - a quiet, dark evening chosen by Nicodemus as the time to visit Jesus. For the most part we see Jesus surrounded by ordinary people, but here, surprisingly, we see him in contact with one of the religious aristocracy of Jerusalem. Nicodemus, a teacher of Israel, member of the Sanhedrin, the supreme Jewish court, comes to Jesus by night. Commentators have suggested that we must not condemn Nicodemus for coming in the night as it was an amazing wonder that, with his background, he came to Jesus at all. It is a miracle of grace that Nicodemus overcame his prejudices and his upbringing and his whole view of life to come to Jesus to seek a better understanding of what Jesus was teaching.

It is as though John, in writing the gospel, allows us to eavesdrop on the conversation that took place between Jesus and Nicodemus. As Jesus teaches him, in a private lesson about the difference of being born of water, from a mother's womb, which is how we are all born and being reborn through the gift of the Spirit, blowing into our lives like the wind, which is something else entirely. We may not actually see, but we see its effect, in the trees and landscapes of our lives. So it is with the Spirit, we may not see or feel the wind when we are re-born but we see the effect of the Spirit in the spiritual landscapes of our lives. We may discover that we are enlightened, empowered or enable to see and do things we have never done before. We too are born of water and the Spirit, it is the way we are able to be effective and lively members of the church, serving in a variety of ways, using the gifts and talents we have received in order to serve a followers of Jesus Christ.
So we have heard of two very different pictures of God in action. There shouldn't be any surprise that Isaiah experienced the vision of God in the temple - for God was expected to be there. But for Nicodemus to experience God outside the temple was most surprising. So we can also find the mystery of God's awesome presence in the temple being unpacked to reveal a human presence whose actions and words were prompted by love and compassion.

Jesus revealed the God who wants to make humanity more human...not the God of
Isaiah's vision who seems so distanced from our human experience. Jesus revealed a God who wants to enter people's hearts so that they can reflect and reveal the gift of love and compassion that Jesus unwrapped with his life.

So, when we gather around the Lord's Table, which we will do in two weeks time - we believe that as we celebrate this sacrament together, that God is truly present with through Jesus Christ and the Holy Spirit, the Holy Trinity. A writer has put this way…'Holy Communion is that very special time when we receive Christ. He enters our minds so we can think his thoughts; he floods our emotions so we can love each other as he loved us...' To which we could add, he empowers us with his Spirit to respond to his call to follow him.

There are many people who ache to have the gift of love unwrapped and revealed in the midst of their brokenness...perhaps today is the day for each one of us to hear God's call anew to discern and respond to these aches.

On this Trinity Sunday we hear about the God who spoke to Isaiah - sending him away with burning lips to do God's work, to prophecy to the coming of a new age and a Messiah who would be a suffering servant and we have eavesdropped on Jesus speaking to Nicodemus, hearing about the possibility of being reborn by the Spirit. Words from both these events tell us about those who have experienced God in three very special ways: as awesome; as compassionate, and as empowering.

Trinity Sunday therefore is a celebration of those who have experienced God as Father, Son and Holy Spirit in the process of having their lives turned around, re-created and re-born by the power and the effect and the work of the Spirit. God's own Spirit which bringing new life into the world. The same Spirit that was in Jesus Christ, now comes as God's gift to us - and with the gift, the call to be Christ to others. To follow Jesus example, to serve others before ourselves, in his name.

That is the challenge - are we up for it?

Sunday 24th May, 2015
Acts 2:1-21, John 15:26-27, 16:4b-15

The Spirit is poured out

On this Pentecost Sunday it is an opportune time to consider the impact of the sending of the Holy Spirit that was poured out over the thousands of people gathered in Jerusalem all those years ago. We may well consider what the Holy Spirit really means to us and in what ways does it act in our lives? What has been our experience of the Holy Spirit, and in what ways do we see the Holy Spirit in others?

The Holy Spirit is often called the Counsellor or the Helper. These are helpful descriptions as they ring true with what has happened in my experience and in the lives of many other Christians. There is that ever present acknowledgement that in our lives there is an unseen Helper who is from God and who is God.

Quite often talk of the Holy Spirit focuses on the unusual; the exceptional, the wildly flamboyant and sometimes the almost unbelievable. People tend to limit the activity of the Spirit to special, exuberant spiritual experiences; like talking in tongues, or rapturous moments of spiritual insight or prophecy. By doing this, we can miss the prime importance of the normal, loving activity of the Spirit in our lives, and through our lives to others. As a result of an over-emphasis on the flamboyant by some, there are wonderful "salt of the earth" Christians and faithful church folk who are inclined to think that they have missed out on something and may even feel guilty because they cannot recount their own extravagant spiritual experience.

Yet the rest of us know and treasure those people who daily in their lives share with others the beautiful fruits of the Spirit: of love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control, along with the gifts and talents they employ. Such folk touch lives around them with the greatest fruit of all: which is love.

In contrast, among those who claim remarkable Spiritual experiences are sometimes found some (note: "some" not "all") who appear to bear very little of the fruits of the Spirit. Their lives are not a witness to a love that can be identified as the kind of love Jesus exhibited. Indeed, among the self-proclaimed "spirit filled" people, we have possibly met some of the most arrogant and insensitive, egotistical yet insecure, dogmatic and maybe frightened, characters in our faith communities.

Those who only connect the Holy Spirit with the spectacular, are probably missing the point. The majority of the Spirit's works are done quietly. The Spirit is our Counsellor, our Helper, our Enabler, the one who resources our ministries. The Spirit is the one who unobtrusively works in us and through us day by day, among the many basic activities of life. Without the Holy Spirit present in our lives, helping us to carry out our responsibilities and our commitments with the church, we would be unable to do anything.

Much of the activity of the Spirit can be taken for granted though and the fruits of the Spirit are accepted as commonplace and not acknowledged for what they are. The appreciation of them we have when we first receive them seems to wears off. Though a new convert is keenly aware of this quiet work of the Spirit. The newcomer sees it through the action of receiving the Spirit and wants to get a part of that action. One such person, who had informally attended worship for a few weeks, said: "It's like looking at a most beautiful painting but being left on the outside. I want to find out how I can get in there?"

We do take much for granted. Its like when I lived in Dunedin, in one of the houses provided by Knox College for theology students, I was in Grandview Crescent with a splendid view of the harbour on one side of the house and Mt Cargill on the other side. I loved watching marine activity in the harbour as well as the clouds rolling over Mt Cargill and descending on the city. I used to get especially excited when Mt Cargill was capped with snow, having moved to Dunedin from the North Island, and to me the view was "magic".

When I arrived in this setting, I was ecstatic, and just wanted to stand for long periods by a window and drink in the scene. But after a while, as life rolled on, and the busy affairs of home, activities at Knox Church and University life occupied my time I started to take the view for granted. Some days barely glancing at it. Only when visitors stood and exclaimed their delight, were we reminded of the beauty to which I had become so accustomed.
So it is with the Helper, the Spirit of God. We tend to get used to the ongoing, quiet beauty of the Holy Spirit at work in ordinary lives around us, especially within the church. We start to take it all for granted.

The Holy Spirit is graciously and unobtrusively busy all over the place, even if we are note in the habit of taking notice. It is the quiet Helper, the unpretentious Friend who makes it possible for us to do all that we do.

For the Helper is quietly at work:
in the sincere concern of a friend for our health and wellbeing,
in those who take a stand against injustice,
in the grace of those who go the second mile,
in the inner resources we discover in times of crisis,
in those who dare to go against the tide of popular opinion,
in the sanity that enables us to admit when we are wrong,
in the resilience of people who fight for the rights of others,
in those who surrender some of their rights for the larger good,
in times when we share the Gospel in spite of our inadequacy,
in finding surprising joy in unexpected places,
in taking on responsibilities that we once thought were beyond us,
in refusing to let the greed of society take over our lives,
in giving thanks always, even in the hard times of life,
in rising above past failures and putting past hurts behind us,
in finding a central core of peace in the midst of turmoil,
in daring to laugh in situations where some would curse,
in knowing ourselves to be children of God, as brothers and sisters in Christ,
in knowing ourselves loved, even when we have been very unlovable.

That is just touching on the edge of the Holy Spirit story. We could go on and on, reflecting on the quiet, pervasive ministry of the Holy Spirit in our midst; that inspiring Lover whose fruits we tend to take for granted. It is only by the Holy Spirit that Christian congregations are able to stay alive and to give themselves in love to the world for which Christ died.

As far as I know, there is only one test for the gift of the Spirit: and that is Love. It has to be the Jesus kind of love. Never forgetting, even for one second, that the most Spirit-filled person of all time was Jesus. Love was his supreme gift. Love is the only infallible sign of the Spirit. For me, for you, for believers around the world, it is either love or be damned. For without love, we are damned.

As the Scriptures proclaim, the greatest gift of all is the Spirit of love. Where love is, quiet Pentecostal miracles happen, and occasionally spectacular miracles occur. But the spectacular is not more important than the subtle work of the Spirit.

On this Pentecost Sunday let us give thanks for both quiet and spectacular, but most of all for the fruits of the Spirit and most especially for love.

First Church, Invercargill. 10/5/2015. Sermon by Alan Richatdson.

I want today in my address to you to begin more or less where I concluded when I last led worship here, on 22nd March. So this is a brief reminder of the sermon I gave on that occasion. That day, I ended as I normally like to, by leaving you with a question for you to consider. I'm glad to say that some of you did just that, and then spoke to me about it later. Very briefly, I concluded that day by asking you the question "What is the Gospel that we have to proclaim in 2015?" This question was intended to link with that portion of the end of Mark's gospel when he wrote: (Mark 16:15) "Go into all the world and proclaim the good news to the whole creation." These words are sometimes referred to as the 'missionary imperative' and they were the words that have motivated a great deal of the missionary activity of our church over the centuries.
I also partly answered my own question by suggesting in that last sermon that the gospel I would want to proclaim in 2015 would be a gospel of peace and I pointed out that we have many ethnic groups living with us in this land who look, speak and worship differently from ourselves so living in peace here is in my view likely to get more complex as the years go by and to require quite large degrees of tolerance from all of us.

This time, I want to get away from war and peace between nations, and concentrate on peace amongst religious group in particular. Now is the time to consider what actions may be required, to in order to promote a view of lasting peace among different religious cultures here and in the world beyond us.
So I thought that first I should outline for us some facts and figures about the diversity of religions now represented in New Zealand. I began earlier, in fact, with the children and we ended up with a group of candles here all representing some other Christian denominations in this immediate neighbourhood and I have hoped in this graphic way to partly illustrate my theme, 'different candles, one light". But I want to go beyond that now into some possibly much more difficult territory.
That territory is called 'religious diversity.' And it is dealt with in this book, which I have borrowed from the Hewitson Library in Dunedin. Just very vreifly, it centres on the challenges of religious diversity in Brimingham in England where there is frequently a tense relationship amongst the members and adherents of various religious groups which breaks out from time to time into violence of some kind.

So I need to turn to New Zealand to talk about religious diversity here. I will not bore you with many figures, but I think you might be surprised to know that at the last census there were counted in this country approximately 3000 Baha'i, 7000 Jews, 19,000 Sikhs, 46,000 Muslims, 52,000 Buddhists, 90,000 Hindus. There are also 1.6 million people who declared themselves to have no religion, and just 1.9 million or just under 50% of New Zealanders now call themselves Christians. Of these, about 300,000 are Presbyterians.
Now, now it might surprise you to learn that all those religions I have listed, include somewhere in their scriptures words which are the same or very similar to what we call the Golden Rule which the Bible records as the words of Jesus, though they are of much more ancient origin. The actual words are written on this poster which I have here which includes 13 of the major religions of the world. The poster was published by the Golden Rule Society which is doing its best to publicise world wide this simple fact that if we all actually followed what our scriptures tell us, the world might be a more peaceful place. The sentiment, then, is not the problem, what the world lacks is the commitment to follow the words.
Just a reminder here, The Golden Rule is in Matthew 7:12 "In everything, do to others as you would have them do to you."
Now if we want to think about peace amongst religious groups, we need to begin with ourselves. and just remember for a moment that denominational relations (i.e. within Christianity) have historically followed a rather difficult path. The Christian faith generally has shown itself prone to division, not unity at all. And so we really must remind ourselves also of Jesus prayer as recorded in John 17:21 "That they may all be one." And yet the first signs of division in the church are recorded in the Bible itself. Fortunately, recent years have seen a great deal to heal the wounds of division in the church, but the long term track record on peace, as far as the church is concerned is not, in my mind at least, a very inspiring one. So today, this symbolic candle lighting which I did with the children is our sign of goodwill here, that we recognise that we are together in our commitment to worship and we also acknowledge the validity for them of what they are doing in their churches this morning. Notice that I have not said we have to agree with everything they do or even say. The unity in my mind is a unity of purpose, and that purpose is worship.
But I found an very useful example of what was really in my mind on the Internet in the website of the Australian and New Zealand Unitarian Universalist Association, and as I delved in there I went to the site for one of their congregations, one in Adelaide, where the minister is Rev. Rob MacPherson. And I found there the text of an address he had given at a public gathering in his church in Adelaide on 18 December 2014. I need also to provide the context in which he was talking. It was immediately after the attack in Sydney in the Lindt Café - a time then when, as he put it, "hate, division and revenge would have been uppermost in the minds and hearts of many people."
I read his address with growing pleasure at finding someone had said so many things that I, too, believe, and I want to share them with you. To cut a long story short, later that same day, I emailed Rob to ask permission to use parts of his address for this sermon - permission which he kindly and readily gave me - and this is how his address began.
"Just last Sunday, a beautiful thing happened at our church - I wish you all could have seen it. We held a service in which Jews, Christians, Sikhs, Baha?'i?, Unitarians, and Muslims came together to worship as one body - an interfaith service. This service was followed by a shared meal, during which people of these different faiths broke bread together and shared fellowship.
"Guess what happened? No one died. No one made threats or was threatened. No one feared for their safety. No voices were raised, except in laughter. The peaceful fellowship we enjoyed that day was more than cordiality, more than the politeness that goes with the religious practice of welcoming the stranger at your table. It had more to do with really seeing that, as the poet Rumi said, 'our lamps may be different but the light is the same'. And so we could let the diversity of our faiths just be, together knowing that abundant plurality is how God actually expresses [himself] in this infinite, expanding, and varied creation. And for a brief time, we looked at the light, and we saw that it was good."
Rob continued: "What is that light known to all, the light that shines from so many different lamps of faith? Every religious or spiritual tradition that ever has been, has known it, though it is refracted differently. Here is but one way of putting it: 'Love your enemies. Do good to those that hate you. Pray for those that persecute you.' We may know it as the Golden Rule, and its golden light shines through the lamps of every faith." (in: Quest Autumn 2015. p.10) []
So what I want to do now is a symbolic act. I want to light two more candles here. I want to light one of them as we remember the many faiths who meet and worship in this country and one for all those 1.6 million people who are not willing to claim allegiance to any religion, in recognition of their right to their point of view, but also to remember that the same light we share here, is also available for them to share with us should the need arise. This symbol will show that they would be welcome here to share our fellowship whoever they are, and I suspect many of them once declared themselves to be Presbyterian.

[Alan lights the candles now]

So now we have one candle here for all the Christians we talked about earlier, one which is for us a symbol of our recognition of the right of all other religions to be here and to worship their god in their way, and the third is a symbolic invitation to all non-believers to share the light with us.
If, as seems to be the case, New Zealand wishes to be known as a place which welcomes people of other races and cultures regardless of their religion, then we need in our welcome to ensure that we follow the Golden Rule ourselves by example so that is the standard we expect from others.
John wrote in this gospel (John 1:5) "The light shines in the darkness and the darkness does not overcome it." And "Jesus said: Love one another. Just as I have loved you, so you should also love one another" (John 15:34).
Invercargill is somewhat removed from clear signs of religious diversity in this city, and New Zealand is clearly blessed with a generally peaceful life in an atmosphere of tolerance. The signs are much more obvious in Auckland where one in four people was not even born in this country but in China. We would do well to consider a much more diverse future and maybe seek the wisdom to adjust out thinking and out theology to cater for the time when we are asked or maybe even told, that we need to accommodate more obviously the needs of others in this neighbourhood.

May God help us in this task.

First Church, Invercargill. 22/3/2015. Sermon by Alan Richardson

The Children's talk this morning was the introduction to this sermon. I spoke briefly to the children about the ancient and once important city of Nineveh, now in ruins, and the fact that it was well known in the Biblical times, in relation to Jonah and Jesus in the Old and New Testaments. I also located Nineveh for the children in a Bible atlas.

Jonah 3: 1-3, 3: 1-5 Luke 11: 29-32

To save us a little time, I have used to Children's talk as the introduction to this sermon this morning. I want now to expand on it as little as far as time allows.

You do not need me to tell you that this part of the Middle East is exactly where fighting is happening together with terrible loss of life, of livelihood and historical artifacts. So Easter 2015 is to be celebrated at atime of war. Today it is not my intention to allocate blame, and I hope as far as possible to keep out of politics. Neither the journalist nor I wanted to talk about the fighting. It is the destruction of archeological sites that have really riled me in recent days and week. I wonder, in this context, whether you saw and read this excellent article in the last Saturday's Southland Times (which I have here) also on the current situation in the area, and I hope you have read it. It was written by a journalist with the London Times newspaper with a rather different final purpose from mine but it is very good on facts. Regrettably destruction like this is a common result of conflict, but the overall loss to the history of humankind on this occasion is very serious. There are just so many things we could say about the situation there and about the human suffering endured especially by all the women and children. Their cry for peace is heard more loudly every day - it does not matter which side they are on - the suffering is the same. And of course, the world in general must always give our priority to attention to the human suffering

So my focus today is on the geographical area in which the current fighting is taking place. I have said a few things to the children about Nineveh, but Nineveh is only part of it. After all, we might say that city has been a heap of ruins for some time already. You hardly need me to tell you that the countries of the Middle East are vulnerable to war and takeover. And history of the area seems littered with stories about them. In Jonah's time in Old Testament history Nineveh was under threat. It is not known in what year Jonah saved Nineveh, some people guess about 760 BC. But the city avoided destruction on that occasion. However, Nineveh was finally totally destroyed in 612 BC and never rebuilt. This proud city of the Assyrian Empire was overcome by an invasion as a result of the growth of the Persian Empire.

However, all the cities down the Tigris River there are very important to the history of the Old Testament, and they all became very early sites for the establishment of Christian congregations following the first Easter. The story of early Christian mission to the area is an interesting one, but is usually ignored by us since the development of the Western church has been due to Paul's mission to the gentiles, at first into Asia Minor (Turkey) then Greece and Rome)

The cities of Mosul and Tikrit are of particular interest to us at the moment. Mosul in reality became the replacement for Nineveh. The new city was planted just on the opposite river bank from its predecessor. Mosul is today a city probably about 600,000 and possibly many more people. The university there used to have 30,000 students and was Iraq's second largest academic institution. It was closed down 6 months ago. Thousands of students have fled to Kurdistan and the university's continued closure raises doubts about the future of higher education there.

The city of Mosul also contained the tomb of the prophet Jonah. This is another reason why we read a little of Jonah's story today. This shrine of course is of ancient origin. Whether it is genuine in the sense that it ever contained the actual body of Jonah or not is irrelevant in today's context. What is important is that Jonah, who tradition says saved the city of Nineveh from destruction, was considered worthy of a memorial for his efforts. The tomb there has been revered by both Christian and Muslim, but it was blown up on 24 July 2014 and reduced to a heap of rubble. It was officially dated at the 8th century BC. It is not the only religious memorial to have had this treatment. Among others is the tomb of the Prophet Daniel. But many places of Christian worship have been destroyed and then there was an attack on the library in Mosul because of the historic works held there. About 8000 historic old books and manuscripts have been destroyed, among other things. Of course, they are invaluable and irreplaceable.
And then of course there was the archeological museum where we saw the contents actually being destroyed. The filmed sequence we saw on TV about two or three weeks ago now, may well have been staged for the media. Later reports have been that many of the portable antiquities had already been removed and sold by Isis to finance their war. Hence the title of this article "Glory of the profit drives Isis vandals." In addition, many of the treasures from there had already actually been transferred to Baghdad, but much has nevertheless now been reduced to rubble.

And then there is Nimrud also on the banks of the Tigris River, another archaeological site which has simply been further destroyed rather than more carefully preserved. That city, like Nineveh was destroyed when the Assyrian Kingdom laid waste to the whole area in 612 BC.
The as recently as last Thursday there was the news of the European tourists killed or wounded as they went to enter the museum in Tunis. Now that's in North Africa and a long way from our interest today, but we get the picture - nothing is sacred, especially not human life, and the war is spreading.

And the motive for the current destruction? The Isil troops say that some of the artifacts they are destroying because they claim them to be idolatrous. We need to remember that what may be idolatrous to one, may also be harmless to another and holy to a third. In that respect it's like an image of the Buddha or the Prophet Mohammed. Believing something is idolatrous does not give you a valid reason for destroying or even defacing it. Defacing something you know is holy to someone else is a reason for leaving it alone. It's a complex world and feelings are running high.

So I now must turn my attention to the fact that we are approaching Easter. Do you remember that hymn that says, "We have a Gospel to proclaim." It goes on "good news for all throughout the earth, the gospel of a Saviour's name. we sing his glory, tell his worth." So the question is "What is that Gospel?" for 2015. And the second question must be; "how and where do we best proclaim it in 2015?" Now these are both huge questions, and I must tell you that I have no good answer for them, but we do need to look at them and discuss them, as our way of thinking will in all likelihood have a bearing on the future ministry of this congregation and of our relations with the other churches and groups in this city. So that is the question which I actually want to leave you with this morning. If you are spending some time in meditation during Lent you might like to consider that as well. I have it in my mind to try it on the Lenten study group tonight.

I will just make a few comments of my own with which, of course, you are entitled to disagree. The gospel I would want to proclaim is a gospel of peace and of reconciliation. In the beatitudes, Jesus said "Blessed are the peacemakers, for they will be called children of God." The question then becomes "How do we become peacemakers in the present-day world where some people want to destroy everyone's history?" We are faced with an extraordinarily diverse world. All of us now must face up to living with and sharing the planet with those who worship differently from us, who think differently, who look different, who speak different languages. And many of them are present in this land of ours. Not only that, but many are also fellow-citizens of this country with us. Learning to live and worship peacefully is going to mean quite a deal of tolerance, towards our neighbours, and towards all people who look, think and worship differently from ourselves. And even worse, some of them may not even like us much. We must have a gospel to proclaim, otherwise why are we here? Is it a gospel of peace we have? Or are there other possibilities?

In this time of meditation for Lent, what do you think, and even more importantly, what do you think the crucified and risen Jesus thinks?

Easter Sunday - April 5, 2015
Acts 10:34-43, Mark 16:1-8

Christ Lives!

As we hear the passage from the Gospel according to Mark's we recognize the women who are named in his Easter narrative - being Mary Magdalene, Mary the mother of James, and Salome. Mark had previously mentioned them watching the death of Jesus from a distance (15:40) and they had also seen where the body of Jesus was laid (15:47).
At Jesus' crucifixion Mark told us that from noon until three o'clock, when he died, darkness came over the whole land (15:33). The women got to the tomb at sunrise the day after the Sabbath, being Saturday. We know the gospel writers aren't just interested in precise days or time, but refer to the time of day, as when the sun had risen, to give us a clue that the women were about to experience something new; something they never could have imagined. For this is the beginning of a new day.

The darkness, which had previously overshadowed all humanity, is now being pierced by a light that only God can provide. We remember, that during the darkness on the Friday, Jesus cried out in agony asking his Father why he had abandoned him. Therefore the light that breaks through at the rising of the sun, suggests that God has entered the story and has overcome the darkness.

The women presumably set out to go to the garden in darkness. We are no strangers to their journey, for most of us here today have had to travel through the dark? We have all, at one time or another, felt sadness, grief from loss and the darkness of pressing questions left unanswered? But darkness does not have the last word; as God comes with light, offering us a new beginning.

On their way the women wonder who will roll back the heavy stone covering the tomb. This then is another symbol of the difficult situation which feeble human effort cannot overcome. The women could not roll back the stone; but God could, and does. We notice that the women "look up" and see that the stone had been removed. Mark suggests this is not merely a physical act of raising one's eyes from their need of looking to the ground or of their downwards gaze as a result of grief. For in the act of looking up they were about to "see" the revelation of God's action. In fact, when they look up they see an event that had already taken place. God had already acted and they are about to hear about God's wonderful activity.

It's the same for us. God has raised Jesus so we hear again, through the "young man dressed in white," the announcement - the Easter proclamation of what God and only God could do. Christ is alive. Christ lives!

The women don't find Jesus at the tomb, just the young man, "wearing a white robe." There is no mention of the garment the dead Jesus was wrapped in. That was for the dead; the young man wears a white rope signifying a new life. Is there a connection here for us to the white robe that many of us might have been dressed in at our baptism?

The young man tells of what God has done. Saying to the women, do not be amazed! You seek Jesus of Nazareth, who was crucified. He has been raised; he is not here. "Jesus of Nazareth, who was crucified," - is a reference to what evil forces had done to Jesus, but God's transforming power has reversed Jesus' apparent failure; which is what God can also do for those who follow Jesus. God takes our experience and understanding of death and transforms it. The women are told to go and give the message that Christ was alive to the disciples, including Peter, but the women are so distressed they don't tell anyone of what they have witnessed. Not that their words would have had much weight in their day, as the witness of a women was not culturally acceptable. Maybe like these women we are also afraid to witness to others, that Jesus is alive, even today, and that we are able to have a living relationship with him.
People I have met in other parishes often refer though to the sense of dying they experience in their faith communities: churches that were once full are now barely half-full; everyone is getting older and frailer; a whole generation of young and middle- aged adults don't attend or even come to faith at all; teenagers have other activities to distract them (like sports on both Saturdays and Sundays) and church scandals and hard-line decisions have alienated former active members. Our church, where we look for life, can feel half dead and on the way to the tomb! We are a community of believers who feel abandoned by God, people who feel we need God to step in and do something! Maybe God needs to move the heavy stone; to act in our midst on behalf of the risen Christ! We need to allow God to shine light into the darkness and bring new life into the church and transform our community.

On the cross Jesus asked, "My God, my God, why have you forsaken me" (15:34). Now at the tomb Jesus' question is answered: for God had not forsaken him. Through the obstacles Jesus met throughout his ministry, his arrest, the abandonment by those closest to him, his torture and execution, God had not abandoned him. Through it all Jesus stayed obedient and faithful to God. God didn't desert him in his agony and now we learn God has acted on his behalf, "He has been raised; he is not here."

We have heard of the women who went to the tomb that Sunday morning, but we might wonder what happened to the men in the story? Where are those apostles whom Jesus called at the beginning of his ministry? Weren't they listening to him on the road to Jerusalem? Why didn't they take his three predictions of his suffering and death more seriously? Mark has told us where they are: they have disappeared from the story, symbolized perhaps by the young man who ran away naked in the garden when Jesus was arrested (14:50-52).
Now a new community is going to be created. During his life Jesus had promised that the gospel would be preached to the ends of the earth. But the apostles and men disciples are not around at the empty tomb to hear the first proclamation of the gospel by the young man. So, he commissions the women to go to proclaim the gospel message to the shattered disciples. After the Last Supper Jesus had promised that they would be restored. "After I am raised up, I will go before you into Galilee" (14:28). Now the young man tells the women, "He is going before you to Galilee…." So, the promised new age has already started. Mark has told us that Jesus had led his disciples to Jerusalem, a place of endings (10:32). The disciples are now to go to Galilee where they will encounter the risen Lord, to be forgiven and restored to discipleship.

If we look back from this vantage point at our own life with Christ we, like those disciples, will surely discover moments when we have failed to take up his cross in service to others. We must acknowledge that our discipleship has been less than spectacular. Later, when the disciples are again sharing a meal with the risen Christ he rebukes them for their "unbelief and hardness of heart because they had not believed those who saw him after he had been raised". The rebuke ends there though as he then sends them to the whole world to preach.

So it is with us, at this Easter Day when we gather to share in Holy Communion, sitting with Christ at his table. We began our service conscious of our shortcomings and failings as disciples. Then we heard the gospel mandate to the women and to us, to tell the good news to others. The women have seen the empty tomb and Christ is present to us and the world in a new way. They are told to go to Galilee, the place where Jesus began his mission. More than that though as the Galileans they were a marginalised people, considered half-pagans by "religious pure bloods" in Jerusalem. The disciples will continue what Jesus did in his ministry, to reach out to those on the edges, on the margins of society.

Paul reminds us when he wrote the Corinthians, that we have been baptised into Christ's death. "We were indeed buried with him through baptism into death...." Just as Christ was raised, so have we been raised into "a newness of life". Mark's gospel is ending with the disciples being sent back to Galilee to start all over again with a new beginning - with newness of life. We can be witnesses to the resurrection by accepting the new, resurrected life Christ offers us, putting aside previous guilt and selfishness and helping others experience the freedom that comes with belief in the resurrection.

Christ Lives!

Sunday 29th March, 2015 – Palm Sunday

Isaiah 50:4-9a, Mark 11:1-11

A Triumphant Entry

The image of Jesus entering Jerusalem on that first Palm Sunday is a familiar one for us as we re-read the gospel reading for today, year after year. In Jerusalem, Jesus met with the growing hostility of the authority of the priests and scribes whom his arrival provokes (11:27-33). This reading relating the events of the arrival of Jesus and his disciples and other followers in Jerusalem begins a new section of the gospel according to Mark. The second part of the gospel continues then with Jesus preparing his disciples for when they will have to continue his ministry after his death.

However, we know what lies ahead for Jesus - the darkness of evil, suffering and death. We have heard the story before, but that doesn't make it any less significant - we know that he was prepared to challenge the power structures of his day with a different and totally unexpected kind of power – that of leading a life of servant-hood and humility.

Mark’s account of the triumphant entry into Jerusalem by Jesus, is vivid; but somewhat restrained in its messianic claims. Yet, we catch the messianic signs for Jesus is in control of what is to take place. He gives detailed instructions about procuring the colt on which he will ride to enter the city an arrangement probably arranged with a follower. Usually pilgrims did not enter Jerusalem mounted, they would have completed their pilgrimage to the Holy City on foot.

The prophet Zechariah(9:9) had foreseen three key elements relevant to the entry of the Messiah, which lists as: the one who comes will be the King of Israel; the messianic animal on which he will ride will be a colt, the foal of an ass and the people will be jubilant. The crowds were indeed jubilant, waving branches and shouting “Hosanna” as they would for the arrival of a King or ruler, but they were a fickle crowd, for only five days later they are crying out “Crucify him!”.

That image of Jesus riding into Jerusalem on an insignificant animal - a donkey - to confront all that was evil not only in Jerusalem, but the give life a new direction, is somewhat reminiscent of another image. You might remember seeing on TV a number of years ago a Chinese man, holding onto his shopping bags, who placed himself in the path of the tanks that were rolling into Tiananmen Square in Beijing? The tanks - symbols of evil, violence and oppression - overshadowed that brave soul, who eventually made them change direction - even if only temporarily.

Likewise, Jesus, must have felt overshadowed by the power of the religious leaders of the day - yet he moved right into their territory - the Temple - and overturned the symbols of power and oppression which confronted him there. The only power that should have been present in the Temple, was the empowering presence of God. One of the distressing aspects of this story is that in Jesus, the presence of God was in fact, there in the Temple, but God’s presence was not recognised by those who should have done so - the chief priests and the teachers of the Law.

Instead, we read that the blind and the crippled came to Jesus in the Temple and he healed them. They recognised Jesus' power even with their limitations, which highlighted the blindness of the authorities when they became angry over what Jesus was doing which was empowering others.

Sometimes we feel dwarfed, overshadowed by the immensity of the happenings taking place around us close to home and more distantly throughout the world. We find it difficult to recognise the presence of God in the different events that happen around us, which so often seem to have control over our lives. The road ahead may seem cloudy and dark, but the events of this next week proclaim that no matter how dark the way ahead seems, God is in that darkness with us.

A number of years ago when we lived on a country road, I was driving home from a meeting late at night, when something happened to my car and I was suddenly driving with no lights. Without any lights around to light up the sky the darkness seemed to take on a life of its own. I was somewhat nonplussed and was quite disoriented. Luckily by stopping the car for a while and then restarting, the lights came back on. Much like re-booting the computer, when all other attempts to solve problems fail. (But I did have to get the cars electrics repaired.)

When we are so accustomed to light, it is easy to become disoriented by darkness. Even when one becomes adjusted to it, what we see can be frightening. The shapes of the night can seem odd and out of proportion to our eyes. What was once an innocent tree looms up like something fearful and the familiar becomes as strange as something we have never seen before.

In a sense, this coming week is like that. We cannot go from Palm Sunday to Easter morning unless we pass through the darkness of Holy Week and especially the events of Maundy Thursday and Good Friday. The Scripture readings of this coming week detail the events leading up to Jesus’ death on the cross as we remember the despair of Jesus in the Garden of Gethsemane, the horror of his betrayal by Judas, and his denial by Peter.

Our remembering is our way of seeing in the dark.

Just as we cannot experience the dawn unless we have known the darkness, so we must claim the darkness and move through towards the light, just like when we travel through a tunnel. We cannot come to Easter unless we enter into the passion of Christ as well.

Moving into the darkness helps us to see with a different perspective. Artists and painters know the importance of this way of seeing - when creating a work of art, the artist does not draw the light, the artist draws the shadows. Whereas the darkness in a painting adds depth and dimension to the canvas, the shadows define the shapes and forms within a work of art, in the same way darkness adds depth to our faith.

Entering the darkness of Holy Week, helps us to `see' God in a new way, allowing our faith to adjust to a new understanding of God. In the darkness of Christ's death on the cross, we have to let go of the images of the powerful God of the Old Testament, of the triumphant God of Palm Sunday, of the victorious God of Easter morning. In the darkness of Christ's passion we see the powerless Christ, the victim Christ, the Christ who was betrayed, beaten, accused, mocked and condemned to death on the cross. Then, when we allow ourselves to see in the darkness and experience the darkness of our faith, then our faith is richer, deeper and more alive.

Within darkness there is creation, because darkness is a place of growth, of change, of transformation, of growing into a new thing. Think about how a seed, planted in the dark soil, springs forth into life, to grow and produce a harvest; or how a baby is born into the world after nine months in the darkness of the mother's womb. For the seed and the child, the darkness is a place of nurture, of growth. Darkness is a place of creation. God chooses to work in and through the darkness to bring forth life.

This is the importance of the passion story - it is the central point on which our faith hangs - God took the darkness of death and brought new life. God chooses to take the events of this coming week - the betrayal, the despair of the Garden, the arrest, the cross - to bring forth new life.

Pray then, as we enter the darkness of this week, that we may recognise and bear witness to the creative power of God...who moves with us, through the darkness.

Bear witness to the fact that because of the events of this coming week, we are gifted with a power that sustains our lives in ways more significant than any other.

Bear witness to the fact that we are loved not because of who we are or what we do, but because of who Christ is and what he did for us.

Sunday 15th March 2015 - Numbers 21:4-9, John 3:14-22


At the beginning of the third chapter of the gospel according to John we are introduced to Nicodemus, a scribe from the court of the Sanhedrin, the highest court of justice at Jerusalem in Jesus' time. Nicodemus would have been highly respected, as a learned member of the religious aristocracy. Jesus met with Nicodemus and spoke with him about the need for a person to be born again by water and the Spirit - to have one's life re-created, as it were, with the same power that was in Jesus - therefore, to live empowered by the same love that was in Jesus.

At the extreme other end of the Jewish social scale we find the person to whom Jesus spoke in of John Chapter 4, the Samaritan woman who met Jesus at the well when she came to draw water there. Jews hated Samaritans - a Jew simply would not have spoken to her, yet here we have Jesus offering her some living water, "a spring of water", said Jesus," welling up to eternal life." Again, he is offering the indwelling power of the Spirit.

John is giving us an illustration from his culture of the extent, the breadth, the depth of God's love. It is difficult for us to imagine two people with a greater gulf between them than Nicodemus the Scribe and the Samaritan woman - yet Jesus made himself present to them both, and offered to each of them new life. The living power of the Holy Spirit, a truly radical love. The point that John is making by arranging his material like this is that if these two people are recipients of God's love, if the world that God loves includes these two from either end of the spectrum then it includes everyone in between, it includes us, you and me.

Saying and hearing that God loves the world can remain rather abstract if we don't identify with actual people such as these two, and start off from that point. We are real, we're not abstract. Our identity as real persons is confirmed by God's love for us. God so loved the world...The familiar words of John chapter 3, verse 16, are the central focus for today. In this verse we have the affirmation that God loves the world even if it so often appears that no one else does. John uses his whole gospel to clarify this point, but especially so in the verses that surround verse 16.

John 3:16 is probably the most often quoted verse in the Bible. Many of us will have memorized this verse, but are not able to quote any others. Most of us will have remembered the old King James version; 'For God so loved the world, that he gave his only begotten son, that whosoever believeth in him will not perish but have everlasting life.' So you all know it, and we heard it read in our Gospel passage today; "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." It is the whole gospel message of 'good news' in a nutshell. Martin Luther called this verse "the gospel in miniature." It is the whole story of God's saving love packed into one little verse that is so often quoted. But, have we really thought about what it really means - have we really understood the magnitude of this one little verse?

This verse starts with, 'For God SO loved'. That one little word "so" expresses intensity - the dramatic intensity of God's feelings. The Greek word for "so" is houtos. And like in English, the word, houtos, can be used in many different ways. For example, "Are you going to church today? You are, that's good, SO am I! Or 'How was the service last week?' It was so-so. "You have learned in this verse that God loves you." "Oh, yes, SO what - I already knew that!" SO you see how that one little word "so" can be used in SO many different ways.

However, it is only rarely used in Greek, as the word, 'houtos', is hardly ever used to express deep feelings. In fact, there are only two places in John's writings where 'houtos' is used to express deep and intense emotion. In John 3:16 as we know and the second is found in I John 4:11, when the writer says, "Dear friends, since God so loved us, we also ought to love one another." We sometimes use the word 'so' in a different way in order to show intensity, as if it was written in the way we say it by adding more O's. I might say to you, "I love my husband SOooo much. I love my children, SOooo much." It helps to reveal the inner intensity of feeling I have for them?

But if I said to you "I love you SOooo much." That might make you feel a bit uncomfortable - a little uneasy. Because we all know that we don't love each other that much.
I mean we love each other, but not that much. This one little word SO, expresses intense feelings and emotions for someone so we don't just use it on everyone. But, in this context God does! This is the intensity of feeling this well-known verse conveys.
First of all, the verse says, "For God SO LOVED". It is 'agape' love - a love that is gracious, giving, free, unearned, undeserved, abounding, enduring. The verse goes on to say "For God SO LOVED the WORLD." Not just the church. Not just Christians. Not just good people who stay out of trouble. Not just you and me. But God SO LOVED the WORLD - the whole world!

That includes: People in the world who don't love God, maybe because they see God as vengeful and judgmental, the reason for all their sorrow or dissatisfaction with their life.
People who couldn't care less about God, leading their lives without regard for anyone or anything, even disregarding the abundance of God's creation, by desecrating the land and spoiling the environment. People who reject God, for a variety of reasons, but often because they have been hurt. People who don't have time for God, because they are so busy striving for wealth or power.
People who say, "I don't need God", but might find later in life that God is who they turn to.
People who say, "I don't believe in God", maybe because they have not allowed a relationship with God to enter into their lives. It is possible that they don't believe in God, because they don't believe in anything, or don't know what to believe in.

The Bible teaches that God SO LOVED the WORLD, and the WORLD doesn't love God in return.
The intensity of God's emotion is not just directed towards Christians. That intensity of God's love is not just directed towards church people. The intensity of God's emotion - God's love is for the WORLD. And to be honest, we probably find it really difficult to understand that. We can't comprehend or understand that freely given grace, that God loves people who do not love him.

But God SO LOVED the WORLD that he GAVE his only Son. The word "gave" suggests a gift which is unearned, free, undeserved, unmerited and unconditional. For Jesus' death on the cross was for the sake of the world. For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, that those who believe in him may not perish but may have eternal life. You know we often think of "eternal life" as something we can only look forward to when we die - of being in heaven, that is being in God's presence forever. As with the Jewish understanding of eternal life - a life without end - begins with life right here and right now - it refers to the quality of life we get to enjoy already AND into the future because we believe in Jesus now. People who don't believe in Jesus now are missing out on enjoying life with God in this life.

As we all know, especially as Christians, we know that when we don't daily choose to follow the ways of Christ, then all other paths that this world can lead us along will eventually lead to sin, death and destruction. In John 3:17 our reading goes on to say, "For God did not send his Son into the world to condemn the world, but to save the world through him." Jesus did not come into this world to live with us in human form in order to condemn the world that God SO loves. God does not find fault, make us jump through hoops or work hard. God does not keep account of all the stupid and thoughtless things we have ever said or done, for through Christ we are forgiven.

It is interesting that many branches of the church are forever condemning the world and pointing out the sins, the flaws, and the imperfections of "those other people" because that is what is easy to do. So, instead of presenting to the world this Jesus who has come to save the world, through the church's - through our own words and actions, they hold up this image of Jesus as the Judge who has come to condemn the world and everyone in it.

And what results do they get?
Instead of drawing people into a loving relationship with this God who loves them SO much that he gave his only son for them, through judgmental words and actions, people are created who grow afraid of God and even come to hate God.
So, let us show the world the true picture of who God really is - that God is the God that SO LOVED the WORLD and everyone in it that he GAVE his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life.

This is the God whom we worship.
This is the God whom the world needs to know so that all may come to believe in him. Amen.

Sunday 8th March, 2015

Exodus 20:1-7, John 2:13-22

Throughout the season of Epiphany and the beginning of Lent we have heard readings from the Gospel according to Mark, but today we begin hearing from the Gospel according to John, which we will read for all but two of the coming twelve Sundays - through Trinity Sunday which is the Sunday after Pentecost.

The story of Jesus clearing the Temple in John's gospel is one of the very first acts of Jesus' ministry, coming immediately after the calling of the disciples and Jesus' first miracle at the wedding at Cana where he turned water into wine. In all the synoptic gospels, that is Matthew, Mark and Luke, this event in the Temple follows immediately after Jesus' triumphant entry into Jerusalem at the start of Holy Week. There it is recorded as one of Jesus' last public acts, and is one of the actions that contribute to his arrest and crucifixion just a couple of days later.

Obviously these writers weren't interested in chronology, of recording events in the order they occurred, but rather that they were more interested in the theology, the meaning of these events for us. John puts this event early in his writing in order to set up the rest of his narrative in which Jesus' ministry will overturn the religious laws and drive out greed, hypocrisy and legalism in religious practice. In today's passage John shows Jesus fulfilling the hopes of the prophets Malachi (3:14) and Zechariah (14: 1-21), who had anticipated the messianic age when God would come "suddenly" into the Temple to "purify and cleanse it."

In recalling the context of John's gospel, the last of the four gospels to be written, we are told that it was written in the midst of conflict in local synagogues between Jewish followers of Jesus and the rest of the Jewish community. Apparently the followers of Jesus who ardently proclaimed Jesus as the fulfilment of messianic prophecies became a bit too much for the leaders of the synagogues, so they were expelled from the worshipping community. The expulsion from the synagogues (occurring in some places) probably began in the 80s, so this would have come after the destruction of the Jerusalem Temple in the year 70 AD. Those who heard John's gospel at that time would have been affected by the double loss of worship, in the Jerusalem Temple and in local synagogues.

It is no wonder then that this story of Jesus cleansing the Temple comes early in John, for in his telling Jesus not only cleanses the Temple but proclaims his body as the new and holy Temple - where God and humanity enter into a new relationship. The Jewish Christians hearing John's gospel were seeking to create new worshiping communities after losing their spiritual homes. They no longer had a Temple, or synagogue, so Jesus' body became the central place of their worship. The way to this true worship was opened up by Jesus' death and resurrection.

While the synoptic writers place the Temple cleansing story in the context of explaining the crucifixion, John places the story in the context of describing the new creation that began with Jesus' resurrection. The Jesus of John's gospel knows who he is and what he is about far more profoundly than the Jesus portrayed in the other three gospels. For Jewish Christians who had lost so much because of their faith, this portrayal of Jesus who knows who he is and what he is about would have been deeply reassuring.

Just as these early Christians were starting over again, we all have to do that too, multiple times, in our lives as individuals and as Christian communities. Sometimes, like the people of Israel leaving Egypt, we have been released from restrictions or challenging circumstances and have to figure out what form our new life will take. Other times, like John's community, we might have been side-lined because of who we are and what we believe in, which doesn't fit with the rest of society or the church. We may have been compelled to leave a school, a team, a job, a neighbourhood, a church, a friendship, or a marriage. Getting rejected hurts deeply, and in some circumstances may threaten our very survival. We are confronted with the dilemma of how we will live, and who we will trust after losing so much? In both cases, trusting in God becomes so much more important once the familiar and comfortable former patterns of life, (be they good, bad, or indifferent) have been stripped away.

In such circumstances, we may have actively chosen to recreate ourselves, as the Christians in Corinth did when they gathered together from all areas, across all classes, cultures and religious lines to become a new community of faith. When our faith draws us into new circumstances with new people we would otherwise not associate with, we are challenged too, to trust in God and the gathered wisdom of the community above the individual knowledge that we bring from our former lives. It is in God's strength that we learn new ways of doing things, new languages, take on new initiatives and make wise decisions about our future together. In years to come we will be able to look back and tell others the story of how this congregation has incorporated the Samoan PIC congregation, just as we have been able to tell the stories of when this church was founded by the early settlers and how they worked together to build this new building, one hundred years ago.

We are also in the process of considering options for the ministry needs of the parish, alongside the wisest use of our buildings and facilities. We are on a journey that will lead to a sense of newness similar to the early Christian community after the destruction of the Temple.

In the season of Lent, we are called to prepare for the new creation that Jesus becomes at Easter, and we are called to become part of Jesus' new creation as we prepare for the feast of Pentecost. Being part of what is becoming can be scary, exciting, bewildering, and inspiring - sometimes all at once. Today can be a day to acknowledge and celebrate these truths and the promise that through it all, God is with us. Jesus as the Temple has not eliminated cult and worship. We are a church which observes sacraments, as we do today with Holy Communion, but we need him to cleanse our worship.

Later on in John's gospel Jesus will again be asked for a sign and he will offer himself as living bread, the meal through which we share in his resurrection (John 6:30ff). When we eat the bread and drink the wine, symbols of Christ's body and blood we are aware of our need for forgiveness and the cleansing Jesus' resurrected body brings to us.

The risen Lord enters our lives, forgives our sins, cleansing us so that we can give fitting worship to our God. We become a cleansed temple. Through Jesus, who is the "temple raised up in three days", we are given forgiveness and freedom. We don't receive them because we have followed detailed and perfect rituals, but through the gift we have received in Christ. Jesus doesn't just drive out the merchants and cleanse the temple. John tells us that it was part of the preparation for Passover. Another, more perfect Passover sacrifice is being prepared and Jesus' death will replace the former sacrifices offered in God's house.

Jesus' angry actions might make some of us uncomfortable, but the Jesus depicted in today's story could be described as "Jesus with muscles." Sometimes the gentle images of Jesus risk making him seem too soft, but today's depiction shows us how the wild, zealous Jesus could ruffle the religious niceties of the Temple and cause the Romans to wonder about this brash prophet from up north. But, what was it, besides the merchants' dishonest practices that stirred Jesus' anger? Was he foretelling the fall of the Temple and the end of the practice of burning sacrifices which he would supplant with his own sacrifice on the cross?

Maybe we lack "zeal" for our own temple, our parish church, and attend worship merely to feel good. Do we consider how we might serve and promote the gospel through our service as ministers and as representatives of our "temple" to the community? According to our gifts, our goal should be to make our "house of prayer" a cleansed and respectful place in which to worship God, which is open and welcoming to all, as Jesus desires.

Sunday, 1 March, 2015 - Lent 2

Genesis 17:1-7, 15-16 Mark 8:31-38

'Jesus never promised us a rose garden'
Don't you just love the story of Abraham and Sarah - he's 100 and she's 90 and they have just heard the news that they are going to become parents! Can you imagine them, probably bent over with arthritis, hard of seeing and hearing, his hair already thinning if not gone altogether? No wonder they laughed. We might even imagine them holding each other up as they lean on their walking frames and laugh until the tears roll down their wrinkled faces.The passage we heard from the book of Genesis is primarily about two things: hope and the belief that God can take the most barren and apparent lifeless situation and transform it into new life. It is the first instalment of a continuing, enthralling story about God breaking into the desert places of life with the promise of a kingdom flowing with milk and honey. The story of Abraham and Sarah was imprinted on the Jewish people's memory as an example of God's gracious actions towards them, which reminds them and us of God's ability to honour their covenantal relationship.

Abraham and Sarah's story is one of faith, in the ability to believe in the impossible becoming possible, that is, to dream the impossible dream. They believed that by the grace and power of God, this dream would become a reality. There is something here in this story which challenges and uplifts us all. So many magnificent dreams and visions and plans are knocked on the head, without them even getting off the ground by the decision that it can't be done! We spend a lot of time and energy putting limitations on the power of God. Faith therefore is the ability to lay hold of the strength which is made perfect in our weakness. When we believe that grace - God's power and love - is sufficient for all things in such a way, then, the humanly impossible becomes divinely possible.

Likewise in the reading from the gospel according to Mark on suffering and discipleship, which raises many challenges for those who profess to follow Christ? Mark's message is simply put, in saying that disciples, including us, must be at God's disposal in the same way as Jesus was. We might well consider Peter's reaction in today's gospel story. At first, his boldness is shocking - We might wonder how he had the audacity to take Jesus aside and answer him back? But when we think about ourselves, we might realise that sometimes we have also wanted to take Jesus aside and debate with him.
Peter acts this way because he doesn't like what Jesus is saying. How often have we felt that way too? How often have we wanted to explain the realities of a harsh world to a Jesus who seems naïve and unrealistic in what he expects of us? Especially, when we might wonder what he means by telling us to sell everything we have and give it to the poor, in order to follow him? How can Jesus expect us to "be perfect as your heavenly Father is perfect"? It's certainly is not realistic to "give to everyone who asks for a handout from you."

One of the most difficult aspects of Jesus words is the challenge to change the pattern of thinking we usually use and the ways that we do thing, which we may have built up on the basis of other values. We all have ways by which we protect ourselves. They may involve some attachment to material possessions or to our relationships with other people. In other words, the person who desires above all to keep everything under his or her control, who seeks to dominate every situation, is protecting a self that will ultimately be lost. Jesus is inviting us to share in a covenant of life with him - but it is by following a very different path than we would expect. Jesus promises us life if we have the courage to face death. Jesus promises that if we give our lives wholeheartedly to him by to serving our neighbors, we will have rich and abundant life flowing through us, building up to ensure eternal life.

It is an enticing invitation - but a scary one. To know that Jesus is entering death willingly and expects us to do the same would usually cause anyone pause and think twice. While we know that one day we will all confront literal, physical death, there are many other deaths awaiting us. We will face the death of our pride, the death of our comfortable ideas about what God is calling us to do and be, perhaps even the death of our financial security and the death of our ambition and our striving for success. The covenant to which we are invited has very high stakes, and the urge to take Jesus aside and question him as Peter did starts to make more and more sense.

It seems impossible, doesn't it? It seems as far-fetched to imagine ourselves brave enough to follow Jesus into death, to lose our lives to save them, as he says, as it did for Abraham and Sarah to have children in their old age. This covenant to which we are invited, this covenant that takes this strange and frightening path of cross-carrying and death, is only possible under one condition. We cannot make it by relying on hard work or determination or power or strength. Some of us, including many of our Christian brothers and sisters around the world, may pay that cost of discipleship with their literal, physical lives. But most of us will not go out in a blaze of martyred glory. Most of us will carry the cross one small step at a time, one spiritual discipline or devoted service at a time, or one act of generosity or sacrifice or love at a time. However we carry the cross, the giving of our lives willingly to follow Jesus will be manifest in one perhaps unexpected cost: the risk of being changed. When Abram and Sarai committed to God's covenant with them, they were changed at such a fundamental level that they could no longer be known by their former names. The man and woman who were God's covenant partners had to be known as Abraham and Sarah, names that echoed their former selves but were profoundly transformed, just like their lives and their souls.

This is the risk we take when we sign on to Jesus' covenant of life, the journey with and through the cross and its transforming power, the road through death to resurrection. We will emerge on the other side with the building blocks of our souls familiar to us, but the place of grace into which they have been built will be strange, new and glorious. We can finally let go of our urge to challenge Jesus, to remake him to be like we think he should be, like ourselves, because we know through faith that he will remake us to be like him. That's a covenantal promise worthy of our very lives.
Jesus never promised us a rose garden, never promised us that faithfulness and success go together. Jesus promises us that in our frantic desire to save our lives, we will lose them. He promises that, if we will dare to throw away our lives with him, we shall find the true source of our life. When we do that, who can then say that the impossible cannot become possible?

Sunday 22nd February, 2015

Out in the Wilderness - Then what?
Genesis 9:8-17, Mark 1:9-15

In short densely packed phrases Mark writes of how Jesus embarked on his public ministry. The way is prepared by his cousin John whose call to repentance and baptism signals that the time has come when God will enable a new Israel to emerge. In his baptism Jesus identifies with his people and the judgment they face. His commitment is answered by God in the vision of the opening of the heavens, the descent of the Holy Spirit and the declaration by the voice of his Father. In this moment a very local and time-specific event takes on universal and eternal significance. This is underlined in an unexpected way when immediately after God's affirmation which marked his baptism, Jesus is driven by the Holy Spirit into the wilderness. The action of the Holy Spirit shows concern not only with human reality but also with divine initiative.

The forty days of temptation recalls Moses's stay on Mount Sinai and Elijah's wandering through the wilderness to Mount Horeb, which also models the forty days of Lent, where we are urged to avoid temptation. The adversity Jesus met in this concentrated period points to the confrontation which will mark his entire ministry and lead finally to its climax on the cross. Being with the wild beasts speaks of being far removed from the inhabited and cultivated land that the Bible associates with God's blessing. Despite the hostile environment, however, Jesus is sustained by angels representing the presence of God.

When it refers to time, the Bible is concerned less with 'chronos' - the passing of hours, days or years - and more with 'kairos' - moments of opportunity. Here we arrive at a point where time is fulfilled - the moment has arrived for something decisive to happen. Picking up the message first declared by John the Baptist, Jesus begins his ministry with a real sense of urgency. What he is bringing about is nothing less than the reign of God - now present in Jesus, in order to bring a radical challenge to human alienation and rebellion. The message brings an imperative - 'repent and believe in the gospel'. Which is asking us how we will respond to this summons?

People who have had to make significant changes in their lives - to break a habit or an addiction, adopt new ways of living, or move to another occupation or location - know that such big transformations don't happen easily. They require interior fortitude and determination, courage, persistence and more - an interior change of heart and mind. A new mind-set that does away with whatever has gone before.
Today Jesus asks for such significant changes from those who have heard him preach. In the desert he underwent temptations, was tested by adversaries and with support by the Holy Spirit emerged strong and determined. Jesus then announces the coming of the reign of God and he invites others who hear him to commit their lives fully to God and God's ways. He preaches 'metanoia' - that is, repentance - which requires a change of mind and heart. He doesn't want some superficial or cosmetic change, or just a few minutes, hours, weeks, or months of our time after which we then return to our previous ways of living. Repentance isn't just for a part of the year, it is a full-time, on-going commitment to change. Metanoia asks us to turn away from whatever distracts us from God and to turn to the embrace of the One who is infinite love.
Such total change can easily be postponed till later, to a more 'convenient time'. We say we will start a more serious pursuit of God later on - after we finish school, when we have a family, after retirement, 'When I'll have more time to give to prayer and good works'. But Jesus is speaking in the present, not future tense. 'The Kingdom of God is at hand. Repent now and believe in the gospel'. Now is a 'kairos' moment. Now is a time of grace, in which we will receive the help we need to respond, to make that turn around in our lives towards God. That doesn't mean big changes are easy or accomplished in a short period of time. Metanoia means we will have to dedicate our lives to transformation. It will never be a completed process, but if we listen to Jesus today, we need to start, or start again, being followers of Christ.
There are powerful influences in the world that would discourage us and prevent us from responding wholeheartedly to Jesus Christ and his way. Whether you call these forces satanic, or the allure of possessions, power, fame, indifference, domination, sensual satisfaction, or whatever you call them they are hard forces to resist. However, we are not alone in this process, as we once again undertake a Lenten journey. Through our baptism God's Spirit is with us and enables us to live according to God's ways - to accept the kingdom Jesus proclaims.
As we once again hear Jesus' call to repentance we realise it isn't a call just about us and our individual lives. We ask ourselves what in our homes, at work, local, and parish communities needs to be changed. In those places we are called to repent the in ways we treat others, consume and waste, set ourselves apart and above others and remain indifferent to the well-being of our sisters and brothers? Mark has already indicated how we can make the changes we must undertake. He begins his account of Jesus' ministry with the positive imprint of the Holy Spirit. The Spirit that accompanied Jesus through his 40-day trial is also given to us at our baptism.
The Noah story from the book of Genesis reveals God's graciousness towards Noah, his family and all creatures by making a covenant with them. The rainbow is a sign that God will remember this covenant. Jesus then comes as the covenant-in-the-flesh and he invites us to turn to our loving God, to change our lives and believe the good news. The message of God's grace ties our readings together today - all the readings are linked by grace - but then again, aren't they always?
Mark's gospel is scant on details and he rushes to tell and describe the good news Jesus has brought to us. Still, in his rush, Mark tells us that Jesus needed to take time out before beginning his ministry, with 40 days of solitude and prayer in the desert. We get the point from Mark that Jesus needed time in solitude and prayer in order to deal with the difficult options he had to make in order to confront the forces of evil. We may not have time to spend 40 days in the desert or even one day's retreat, but still, we also need to figure out how to spend time alone listening to God. This time will be particularly important for this congregation as we listen to each other and discuss options for the future of the ministry in this parish. During a time with a ministry vacancy we may think we are in the wilderness, even to be tempted by easy 'quick fix' options. If we follow Jesus' example we need this grace period in the life of this parish for contemplation, to be supported by the Holy Spirit, to pray together and listen to God, in order to be fully prepared for whatever ministry may follow on from the last nine years. We need to think clearly and constructively and pray, in order to discern what might come next.
What we might discover in such prayer is that there will be challenging and testing times and also hopefully, rewarding times. We may be driven by the Holy Spirit, as Jesus was, prompting us to think of new ways of doing things, or not. We may be asked to step up and offer ourselves in service, to fill the gaps and assist those who are in leadership. We may be prompted to go out of our comfort zone and stretch ourselves.
Just as Jesus did not choose to go in the wilderness, but was driven there by the Holy Spirit, that is, he had no choice, we too have to allow ourselves to be driven by the Holy Spirit into 'a wilderness' time, where we will be challenged, confronted with difficult choices and decisions to be made in order to be prepared for the outcomes of a Ministry Settlement process. A process that takes time, discernment and deliberation, to clearly articulate the Parish Profile, the Ministry needs of the Parish and how best to fulfil those needs. We will need patience and wisdom, through the grace of God.

Last Service Rev Richard

2 Kings 2:1-12 Mark 9:2-9
Built to the glory of God!

Today, in fact this weekend, has been a momentous occasion in the life of First Church. What a wonderful celebration combining the occasion of 100 years of worship in this magnificent building, the coming together of two congregations in a formal agreement to ensure that what we value about our faith is honoured and maintained, along with the closure of one ministry, opening the way for a fresh expression of who we are as God's people in this place. Our forebears had vision and inspiration to provide subsequent generations with a stunning place to honour our God and I hope we have the same vision and foresight to walk into the future trusting God as they did as we build the church of tomorrow. The readings could not be more apt as we hear the story of Elijah and Elisha. Elisha did not want to see Elijah go, but in the end he faced the inevitable, and the story of God's people continued as God raised up that new leader to work amongst God's people in a new way.
We all know that at the end of the day, the church is about the people that gather, it is about the community the comes together to honour God in word and action, in song and prayer, in lives lived and changed so that God's glory might be seen.
It was the faith of our forebears that came 155 years ago, stepping out into the great unknown, trusting their God and ours, that he would protect them and subsequent generations. That passionate faith is the same faith that drives us today as each day opens a new page, begins a new chapter, dictates a new volume in the life of God's people here in First Church Invercargill.
We often see people hanker after what once was, or cling desperately for their life to what we have now, or sadly even walk away because it isn't like it used to be. Fortunately the reality is that life and the church never are any of the above. God is constantly leading us down refreshing paths of life that are constantly changing and adapting to the world in which we live. This doesn't mean we have to change for the sake of change, but it does mean that we should always be looking for fresh expressions of God's Spirit at work in our world, in our church and in our own lives both as a community and as individuals.
We are all facing change, and we can be like Elisha was in this story, burying his head in the sand and not want to face change, or we can embrace it with courage and see the exciting possibilities that lie ahead for the next hundred years in the life of this community.
Even in the story of the transfiguration we see that reluctance for change.
The disciples experiencing this wonderfully mystic encounter with God, along with Elijah, Moses and Jesus, unsure of how to respond in the midst of all this excitement, suggest that they might erect three tents. Why would they want to do this? Perhaps to preserve this experience. They wanted it to last just as it was then, at that moment in history.
In the midst of that experience they wanted to hold on to God staying right where they were.
But this in reality is not what life is about is it?
Life is a journey. It takes us to new places, to different spaces, to new heights and sometimes to new lows. Life unfold before us, sometimes with monotonous predictability, and at other times with surprisingly refreshing excitement.
And although we can sometimes capture that moment in word, as a story of our time, or as image, in a picture or painting, we cannot stand still at that point and retain the essence of human life. We are breathing, living, dynamic beings that react and interact with the world in which we live.
It is interesting in this story that Jesus ordered the disciples not to share this experience with anyone else at that moment, not until after the resurrection, and the gospel writer tells us they obeyed this word from Jesus, but among themselves they tried to unpack what all this had meant for them.
It had been one of those life time encounters that changed them, but probably only as time went on and as they looked back in hindsight would they see the full impact that this experience had had on them.
It was a little like this for Elisha as well, as in asking for his one request he asked Elijah for the share of his power that would enable him to carry on Elijah's work, Elisha was told that he would only receive it if he saw Elijah being taken away.
There was that sense of having to look, to seek, to be aware of the change that was going on around him so that he would recognise the hand of God at work in his midst.
If we are all the time fighting change, looking back to the glory days of the past, wanting to stay where we are, we miss what God is doing now.
So we need to be open to God's work at the present time and we need to be able to look back in time and recognise the way that God has walk with us.
For us today, this is a timely reminder as we look back over nine years and even one hundred years. We need to give thanks to God for where he has led us. We need to recognise those times when God has seemed so close that we have wanted to hold on to him, but we also need to acknowledge that we have walked down from those mountaintop experiences and that God has walked with us as we have come off those high planes and down into the valleys of life. We need to acknowledge that we cannot hold God in a box or freeze God in time.
And today as we begin new relationships with our brothers and sisters in Christ we need to look forward in anticipation to the places that we will be going in the months and years ahead. We need to trust God in this journey, and learn to trust one another. We need to listen to each other, we need to be bold in speaking about the joys and sorrows, about the expectations and the fears, we need to share our hopes and aspirations so that we together can follow Christ in this place and bear witness to him and his love in this city.
Like Elisha, keep your eyes open to where God is leading so that you can help to lead the people in this church, the people of this city and in the process bring glory to God who walks with us.
The church is not the building, but is always the people. We are the church, the people of God, and we want to continue to build his church in this place and beyond, and to build it to the glory of God. This building has captured an image of God's activity in the history of this place, but its life did not finish there. It's life has not finished here today. In fact its life is taking a new turn, an exciting change is beginning, and we must continue to look for what the Spirit is saying to us and doing among us as we move forward.
Don't cling to the past, don't rake over the dying embers of by gone issues and arguments, but rather move forward fanning the flames of the Spirit as God leads you all on to a new day with great hope and never ending expectation.
And to God be the glory, now and forever more. Amen.

Christmas Service

Isaiah 62:6-12 Titus 3:4-7 Luke 2:8-2
Christmas Cheer.-

Walking down the road the other day, looking in the shop windows, I noticed a display set out with a table laid for Christmas dinner. The centre piece on the table was a bottle labelled 'Christmas Cheer.'
That got me thinking that although we might often find some cheer in a bottle, it is not where we find the Christmas Cheer.
Our Christmas cheer came in cradle, rough and ready, awaiting the animals that might be coming to shelter from the northern winter weather. In this cradle lay that baby, that brought hope and light to a world that needed to see and know the transforming love of God.
Isaiah looked forward to that time that God would come announcing to all the earth that the Lord is coming to save you, bringing with him the people he has rescued. This calling together of God's people at God's initiative indicates a new era, a new beginning for a people that God has saved.
This was no longer to be seen as a salvation that was to come, but this would be seen as a completed work. Where is this good cheer found? In the true meaning of the Christmas story!
Luke tells of the angel's announcement,
"Don't be afraid! I am here with good news for you, which will bring great joy to all the people. This very day in David's town your Saviour was born - Christ the Lord!"
From Isaiah's announcement that the Lord is coming to save his people, we move from this to the angels proclamation that, "Your Saviour was born."
In the birth of Christ we see the coming of the Lord. We call this the incarnation, the Word made flesh, God come among us.
What a wonderful story to tell, and surely this is where the cheer of Christmas is to be found as each year we are reminded of this event in history. Each year we are taken back to that point that changed the world from that point on and for ever.
People in that day were invited to come and worship. Shepherds and angels, wise men and kings. Some came, and many didn't.
There would have been those convinced of what they saw and experienced and those who were sceptical of the whole thing. And for many this event would have just passed them bye.
Today the invitation is always there to remember the cheer of Christmas in this simple, and yet profound story. However the simplicity continues to get blocked out, shouted down, clouded and diluted by the tills, and the parades, by the bottles of so called Christmas cheer and the glitter of tinsel and the general social pressure to spend, by the lure of supermarkets promoting special foods, and the demands of family and friends calling for all their perceived needs to be met.
Christmas at the end of the day is what we choose to make it.
But in that choice let us be struck with awe by the that simple message;
God has come among us. God continues to come among us. God stands with us, God walks with us. God poured out his love on us and continues to do so.
Paul writing to the young Gentile convert, Titus,
reminds him, "But when the kindness and love of God our Saviour was revealed, he saved us."
When was this? On that first Christmas morn.
What is our Christmas Cheer?
It is the message that, "today in David's town your Saviour was Born!"
To God be the glory, now and forever. AMEN.

Sunday 23rd November 2014

Ezekiel 34:11-16,20-24 and Matthew 25:31-46

There is in Ezekiel's picture a remarkable painting that draws together in our minds the present and the future, it looks at the reality of what is now, along with the hope of what is to come. He uses imagery common to the understanding of a rural, pastoral, nomadic people whose economic base is grounded in that rudimentary farming lifestyle.
How often we see this imagery used in the biblical literature. We know the 23rd Psalm, we know the story of Moses out tending the flock when God came to him in the burning bush, we know Jesus painted similar pictures in his parables of the lost sheep or the Good Shepherd. It was an image that was understood in the setting in which it was told. It was understood in the reality of the world of that time with the dangers that faced both shepherd and livestock, it was understood in the context of wandering around trying to find pasture and water in the harsh conditions of the Middle Eastern setting.
And here Ezekiel sees the chaos and the disorder of a flock of sheep without a shepherd. They were scattered, having wandered off where ever they liked to eke out food for their survival. There was no care, there was no protection. They were dicing with death as danger would face them on every side from predators and other dangers of local terrain and unknown traps waiting to take them by surprise.
This is a picture of chaos and turmoil, but I am sure we can also see it as a picture of so much of our human existence in every generation where there lacks common purpose and common identity. It is a world of greed and a world where everyone is out for their own gain and benefit.
We don't have to look far to see this aspect of human life in our own day and age. We like to think we have come a long way in our journey of human civilisation, but too often we only need to scratch that thin veneer of civilisation or touch a raw nerve of human pride and all hell can so easily break loose.
We see it in communities, and we see it in the lives of individual people.
We also see it, sadly, in the church. We see where judgement and criticism lead to people being excluded, we see where people are made to feel unwanted, unneeded or inferior for some reason or other.
All of this is that sign of our human desire for us to push forward, to succeed, to dominate even at the expense of other people.
It was into a world like this that all those years ago the people of God welcomed the infant King.
Angels, shepherds, foreign kings, and no doubt everyday village people brought their messages of welcome to the Christ-child, born to be King.
There was a recognition from many that they were like those sheep that Ezekiel spoke of, scattered throughout the rugged world, desperately in need of one who would lead them, one who would bring them to the mountain pastures and streams.
So as we celebrate this Sunday, Christ's Reign as King, we remember that coming, we remember his presence today as Risen Lord, we celebrate that he is Immanuel, God with us.
And the question for us must be that question of how do we welcome Christ among us today?
How is Christ's reign as King made real in our world and in our church and in our lives today?
For unless we can begin to articulate that for ourselves as individuals and ourselves as church, we are merely remembering an event in history with no connection to our lives, and no connection with the living presence of God in our midst today.
Friends, we need to remember that as people of faith, we are called together, we are a gathered people. And the basis of our gathering is not about us, but about God who calls us.
This needs to be our starting point. God gathers us to bring us together into the fellowship of God's community.
We are called to be a people of God, a people under the reign of Christ the King. This gives us the common focus of our gathering. This is where the heart of worship lies, in that we come to offer worth to God, who comes to us as Lord of lords and King of kings.
Our gathering is at the behest of the Shepherd who Ezekiel said would, "..look for those that are lost,"
that he would "....bring back those that wander off, bandage those that are hurt, and heal those that are sick."
Jesus seemed to have a very clearly picture of this in his mind when he spoke of God's coming as King and how his people would be recognised. Sometimes if you were to see pictures of Middle Eastern sheep and Middle Eastern goats, you would have extreme difficulty in telling them apart. Many a westerner would be unable to distinguish between them as goats can look so like sheep, and sheep so like goats in this part of the world. Jesus is saying to the people here that they may think they have a clear picture of who the righteous are and who are not, but their perception is quite likely wrong.
Jesus take the distinguishing feature back to that picture of Ezekiel and talks of those that model themselves on the image of the Shepherd. God's people are to be a welcoming people; a people who go out and draw others in, a people who see needs among their own and attend to those needs.
Such is the picture of God's kingdom.
It is interesting that the ones who Jesus welcome are those who feel least worthy. They cannot see when they have done anything that would warrant acknowledgement from God.
Jesus turns to them and says,
"..whenever you did this for one of the least important of these brothers of mine, you did it for me.."
We are often so quick to acknowledge the efforts of those who attend to the rich and famous, to the ones who are viewed as important in society or even in the church, and this was certainly the case in Jesus' day, but here Jesus turns society's perception on its head again, and says it is when we do it for the unloved, the troublesome ones, the underprivileged, the down and outers, those who struggle, that we do it for Jesus.
And this is not an organised and recognised operation Jesus speaks of, it is the spontaneous, the everyday acts of kindness that come from the heart of who we are that God is interested in.
It is actions like this that reflect who we are as people, that demonstrate the underlying motivation from the depths of our being and so in such acts we see the love of God reflected; we see the motivation for such actions being underpinned by our acknowledgement of God's love for us. We love, because God first loved us.
It is not that we feel we are out to earn that love, for our understanding is that God's love is a gift. God welcomes us as we are, as the hymn writer put it,
Just as I am without one plea
but that your blood was shed for me,
and that you call us, 'Come to me',
O Lamb of God, I come.
He goes on in the fourth verse,
"Just as I am - your love unknown
has broken every barrier down -
now to be yours, and yours alone,
O Lamb of God, I come.
It is the Shepherd who calls us, the Shepherd who gathers us, the Shepherd who welcomes us into the fold where we can find protection, safety, and love that exceeds all our expectations. This love is given freely and without strings attached, and it becomes the love that motivates us to go out of that fold focused on the Shepherd to share his love with all around us.
It is God who welcomes us with those words,
"Come, you that are blessed by my Father! Come and possess the kingdom which has been prepared for you ever since the creation of the world."
This is a common call that Christ reiterated time and time again.
"Come to me, all you who labour and are heavy laden and I will give you rest."
Let us heed his call as we listen to his voice.
To God be the glory, now and forever more. AMEN.

Sunday 14th September 2014
Exodus 14:19-31 Matthew 18:21-35

Follow the Leader
The exodus story reaches the real climax in this weeks reading as we see almost the point of no return for the people. Their journey that began in Egypt has now reached the banks of the Red Sea with the Egyptian army pushing up behind them.
The whole account is a story of mystery and a story of power, it is a story of intrigue, but above all it continues to be that story of God's continued presence as a active power in the midst of these people's tumultuous lives.
This story is one of many in the scriptures that sees God's power working in and with the natural world, often in ways that begg belief, but in so doing also challenge our assumptions about what God is able to do and what God is not able to do.
To focus too much on the small detail of a story like this can sometimes cause us to loose the beauty and the thrust of what the story is about, and yet to throw it away as mere myth is to diminish the truth and the power of the story to help shape us and transform us into the people that God wants us to be.
At this point in the Exodus, there is a clear call for the people to be committed. They are to commit
themselves to moving forward or if they choose to stay they would face sure defeat. I suppose it boils down to Hobson's choice. This term orginates from Thomas Hobson who from his stable, in order to rotate his horses, offered travellers the horse by the door or no horse at all.
In effect there was no choice.
But with the people of Israel, although their choice was stark, and very real, we see that theme of God never leaving them. It was a choice of life or death.
God's continue protection is portrayed as the Angel of the Lord, who had been in front of the army leading them, now moving to the rear along with the pillar of cloud.
There is a shift in the picture here from one of God's leading to one of God's prompting, of God's protection. The path is clear and straight ahead, there was no way for them to move to the right or to the left, and as the Angel of the Lord positions himself at the rear to protect them from their pursuing attackers. The cloud is put there to blur the vision of those following and to create that sense of confusion and chaos as the Egyptians get themselves bogged down and slowed up in an unknown and frightening environment.
It is interesting that at this point even the Egyptians acknowledge the Israelites God as working against them and for his own people.
And although at this point in the story the road to freedom seems clear and uninhibited, we know as we continue to read this account the people do no always find it so clear cut. Time and again they will turn their backs on God. Time and again they will forget to look back to the bondage they once knew and acknowledge the blessing that God has brought them thus far. Of course, at times, they struggle to see ahead with eyes of hope and trust in where God might indeed lead them, having brought them safe thus far.
This is after all part of the fickle nature of our humanity. And that lies at the heart of this story. It is a story of human life, it is a real story that gives expression to our humanity. I am sure that we can all find examples in our own experience of how our faith has waxed and waned or has been blown about by the winds of change and circumstance.
This same theme is highlighted in Jesus teaching in Matthew's Gospel as Jesus tells the story of the unforgiving servant. I think for any of us this must be one of the most challenging passages of Scripture. Which one of us could stand up and say we have truly lived our lives with this tremendous attitude of forgiveness for our brothers and sisters.
The parable illustrates a servant begging the mercy of his King to whom he owed a tremendous amount of money. The sums were huge for that day. The King in his mercy released this man of his debt in its entirety. However this servant then goes on to extract from a fellow servant of his some money owed to him, and he offers no mercy at all, and throws him in jail until the debt was paid.
The magnitude of the debt and the willingness of the king to forego that debt in its entirety is an illustration of God's abundant mercy and enormous capacity to forgive.
We so often see this story from the point of view of the unforgiving servant and are shocked by his actions, and so we should be. But if we look at it from the point of view of the actions of the king, then we can stand amazed at the magnitude and willingness of this powerful man to humble himself even to take notice of lowly servant.
Looking at the story from this perspective also illustrates that in relationships with others our prime concern is not what they do to harm or offend us or what benefit we might receive from such a relationship, but rather it is rooted in a deep pastoral concern for our brothers and sisters in Christ.
Jesus has only just told us that sometimes strong actions have to taken to wake people up to their wrong doing. He suggested in v 17 that we read last week that if people wouldn't listen they may need to be treated as though they were 'pagans or tax collectors.' His audience would have understood what that was like to be treated in such a way, but here he follows that up to make sure that we understand that forgiveness is in fact the key.
And that in offering forgiveness there is no counting of the cost, nor the frequency for which such action is required, unlike Jewish law that recommended not more than three times. Three strikes and you were out. Now that has a familiar ring to it doesn't it. Peter's suggestion of seven times, was therefore exceedingly generous. And indeed this sets the context for the King in the story, whose forgiveness of the debt, which in the Greek used the value of their highest imaginable coin, probably in today's standard one commentator has suggest might relate to a billion dollars, rather that the Good New's Bibles million, give us that sense of the unimaginable, unobtainable amount that was wiped off this man's debt.
The mercy and grace of the King was immense and should have motivated this man to act in a like manner to his debtors.
Thus the plea is that we recognise the same mercy and grace that God has offered us so that we too might offer that to others who we feel may be beholden to us.
And of course nowhere more starkly can we see this and be reminded of this than as we come to the table of our Lord.
Here we see, and yet so easily take for granted, the great sacrifice of love that was given for us.
The cross is not a symbol of peace or love unless it is taken in the context of the one who offered his life for us.
The cross was a symbol of cruel pain; a means of extracting what was owed to society in retribution for wrong doing. And Christ took that and turned it into the symbol of forgiving love. In it we see the outstretched arms of Christ saying, "Come to me, all you who labour and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest."
In the cross we see Christ who leads us, just as Yahweh led his people to the Red Sea, and then we see him position himself between us and the world, to protect us, to encompass us in his love opening up that pathway through God's forgiving love, just as he open the path for his people to enter the promised land.
It is the cross that leads us to God's saving grace and abundant mercy. And we come, not because we are good; not because we have managed to stay true to the cause; not because we are strong and faithful, but rather because we recognise that we are weak and need his strength, we are fickle and need what only God can offer. The way, the truth and the life.
Our motivation to love, our motivation to forgive, our motivation for life, is because of what God has offered to us. Let us see that offering through new eyes as we gather together at his table that he has prepared for us.
To God be the glory, now and forever. AMEN.

Sunday 31st August 2014
Exodus 3:1-15 Matthew 16:21-28

No. Not me!
I want this morning to begin from where we left off last week. Remember that conversation about who Jesus was, and then the direct question Jesus put to his disciples, "But who do you say that I am?"
I wonder have you pondered that over the last week? Peter's impetuous response, which of course expressed the truth was, "You are the Messiah, the Son of the living God."
What an affirmation! What a concise expression of the truth in answering this question.
But we need to hold that answer in our minds as we read today Jesus, expansion on this truth and what that will mean, and then see Peter's response to Jesus' definition as he unfolds the implication of what this may mean, not only for himself but also for those who make that choice to follow him.
The choice to follow God's path in our lives is never promised as the easy option. And we have two stories today that illustrate this fact. We have Moses out in the wilderness doing what he knows best, being confronted in a life changing way that leaves him wondering what the future might hold, just as indeed Peter and the disciples experienced. Neither of these stories in one sense are any more special than what faces each and every one of us throughout our lives. They can be seen as challenges that fit our own experiences many times over.
The detail and the telling of the story certainly may vary, but in essence they represent those encounters that confront us in many and varied places and times in our lives that cause us to think of the direction that our lives are taking.
They can be seen as encounters with God, for God is not confined to time and space, and in the old Hebraic tradition God is worshipped at any place where he appears. They would build markers acknowledging those encounters and move on.
God is in no way confined, not by the walls of any building, nor by the experiences or imaginations of people.
So it is often in the unexpected places and circumstances that God comes to us, or that we experience God.
For Moses it was in the fire in that bush out in the desert. The fire was there but the bush was not being consumed.
Fire representing God's presence is seen more than once in the scriptures. It is a powerful force that brings about change, sometimes expressed in that cleansing mode that purifies. And of course we see the Spirit descend on the people in that Pentecost experience as being like tongues of fire.
It is an image of power that confronts us, that arrests us where we are and draws our attention ever closer. We only need to watch the people that are drawn to a fire if it occurs in one of our streets as the emergency services are called to deal with it. Here in this Exodus story Moses' attention is caught by the presence of fire in the bush and Alan Cole in his commentary on Exodus reminds us that, "the true revelation, however, was not the burning thorn bush, but God's word that came to Moses there."
And I think this is an important distinction. Too often we are caught up in the event in which we experience God, we get carried away by the emotion of the moment, rather that the word that comes to us or the truth that hits us in that moment of revelation. Worship can be like that if we are not careful. Rather than coming to hear what God is saying to us in the whole event of worship, we judge the moment by the experience we have, by the emotion that it evokes or by what happens within that period of time. But the question I suppose we should all ask ourselves is, "what has God said to me in this time?" In what way has God challenged my being, my understanding. It is interesting with Peter who had just affirmed Jesus as the Messiah, the Son of the Living God, who now is disturbed greatly as Jesus agrees with him and unpacks the implications of what that might mean. Jesus begins a new section here which Matthew notes with the phrase, "From that time on..." and he goes on to talk about his death and resurrection.
Peter does not like what he is hearing even though it comes directly out of the confession he has just made. The unexpected nature of Messiah-ship had not struck Peter and he was shocked with what he was hearing. God's word does not always bring those smooth paths or easy roads for us to walk down. Sometimes difficult choices have to be made and challenges have to be faced as we hear that voice of God, but we know that in following such a way, that God is with us.
For both Moses and Peter this was the case. They did not like what they heard, but they knew in their heart of hearts that this was God's word for them.
Then in each of these stories we are exposed to their very human traits as they both have that great sense of inadequacy. Neither feel they are up to the task that God is asking of them. For Moses he sees himself as a nobody. He was a wanted man in Egypt, how could he go back to bring his people out of that God-forsaken land? Who would listen to him? For Peter he could not imagine life without Jesus there, and so he just did not want to hear. His inadequacy was in accepting what he had in fact said about Jesus. And he did not want to hear God's word to him at that point because he didn't like what he was hearing. Life without Jesus was unimaginable for him as he felt he would not survive. His people needed his presence and so talk of Jesus' death, for Peter was counter productive.
Both of these reactions are perfectly normal human responses that see us retreating to what we feel safe and secure with.
And Alan Cole tells us that, "Self distrust is good, but only if it leads to trust in God." That's an interesting thought in a world today that constantly tells us we must believe in ourselves and have confidence in what we can do.
And it is a delicate balance. It is not that we should have a sense of false modesty by all the time seeing our shortcomings, but it is that point that our self doubt leads us to trust in God who equips us, who strengthens us, who gives us the ability to do things that are often beyond what we can imagine ourselves doing.
Self doubt must not destroy us, but rather lead us to lean more heavily on God as the source of our being, as the one whose desire it is that we become more fully ourselves as we offer God the glory for who we are and what we can do.
And finally in both of these stories we can see the very raw human emotion transformed over time as God equips them for the tasks that face them both. There is a transformation, a "metanoia" experience, as God's Spirit brings about change in them. It is not instant, there is learning along the way, there is success and failure for them in the process, but God walks with them and equips them both with the skills.
Many of these skills are ones that were part of who they were that God develops further in them.
Moses would have had the benefit of Egyptian education, he would have had leadership skills as he grew up in the royal household. These skills would be honed as he went back to bring his people to freedom. There would have been skills of diplomacy, organisational skills, and people skills. For Peter he had that strong personality that became more refined, he too seemed to be able to manage and enthuse people. God takes who ever we are and is able to use whatever skills we have and helps us to develop those for the good of the Kingdom of God. They become the fruit that the Spirit of God develops within us and they are skills that we are all called to use, not just for our own personal gain, but for the benefit of the whole people of God. God's gifts to us are for the benefit of the gathered people of God and to be used in that context so that the Kingdom of God is extended in our world, in our day and age.
We are the servants not the strategists as we follow the one who leads us. We are called to take up the cross and follow him, not so that we can gain the world but so that the God's reign might be made more real here today and in the days ahead. We are not to look for gain and reward in this life, our motive is always to bring God the glory.
May we continue in our own lives and in our lives together to draw from God's strength as we go out to do His will, equipped and encouraged by the knowledge of his living presence with us.
And to God be the glory, now and forever. AMEN.

Sunday 24th August 2014
Exodus 1:8-2:10 Psalm 124 Romans 12:1-8 Matthew 16:13-20

Today's readings help us to get a handle on what it is to be church. When we speak of church we don't mean the building, but rather the people. The church is an interesting organism, a dynamic living gathering of people. It is not just a club where people come to meet, to get inspired or to share common interests. If it were this we would fail abysmally. I don't think the church in its truest sense is even an institution set up by people to promote the gospel of Jesus Christ.
Church in it essence is a gathering together of the people of God. It therefore draws together a scattered people, a diverse people, and unites them together with the common thread, namely their belief in God as expressed and seen in the person of Jesus Christ. And we gather to worship - or to give honour or worth to our God.
Now that probably sounds somewhat erudite but it is the concept of church, which comes from the Greek word ecclesia, meaning 'the gathered people of God', who come together with God at the heart and purpose of their being.
Out of that purpose and reason for being flows many and varied aims. One of those being to draw others in so that they too may benefit from this relationship centred on God, where we believe we find the truest sense of what it means to be human. This focuses our mission as church.
In this way also, it helps to stop us from retreating into this exclusive club mentality that would have us believing that we hold the keys to all truth, for truth is not found in us, but rather in the One on whom we focus our faith.
And so it is in our coming together, in our gathering from all the scattered and diverse areas of life that we offer ourselves in worship to the God we acknowledge as greater than us, beyond us, totally other than ourselves, the Holy one.
It is this response to the Holiness of God that lies at the heart of what it is to be church.
And so as church we are shaped by God rather than us shaping the God we worship.
The Exodus story gives a good illustration of this. Here were a people who were exiled in the land of Egypt. They had been taken under the wing of this people in time of great need. And generations had passed and rather than still being integrated into the society, they became separated out as slaves to the Egyptian people. And we are told, "The Egyptians became ruthless in imposing tasks on the Israelites, and made their lives bitter with hard service in mortar and brick and in every kind of field labour. They were ruthless in all the tasks that they imposed on them."
The freedom that coming to Egypt had brought them in Joseph's time, had turned into a burden of slavery and oppression in the time of Moses. Where once they had found grace and salvation, they now were experiencing bondage and slavery.
When the Egyptians were willing to be shaped by the God of the Israelites, freedom flowed, the burden of suspicion and hatred of difference gave way to acceptance and grace. It was a relationship rooted in love and mutual respect.
But as the focus moved and the Egyptians retreated into individualism and sectarianism, overbearing rules and work were forced on the Israelites because they were the foreigners, they were different. The Egyptians became ruthless.
And so for the church and our own society for that matter, when we loose sight of the love and grace of God, when we forget that it is God who shapes us, God who draws us, God who makes us the people we are, we too easily slip into binding people with rules and expectations.
You must do this or that, or think in this way or that way, if you are to be a true, or good Christian. So quickly party factions form that only want to exist to push their particular interest and quickly become intolerant of seeing things, issues, or even events from the perspective of any other.
In doing this we subtly begin to shape God in our image and grace goes out the door, and God's love gives way to our judgement.
Pride of our achievements and our power subsume the holiness and awesome nature of the God who shapes us, and our God focus is somewhere lost within the institution that we have built up around us.
This is the whole tenor of the Psalmist who reminds the people of all that God had done for them.
It was God who was with them when they were under siege, it was God who was with them in the flood, it was God who saved them throughout their history and all that they lived through, therefore their song that focused them, the cry that kept them on the track was,
"Our help is in the name of the Lord, who made heaven and earth."
Does that not sum up the essence of who we are?
How similar that is to the cry of the early church, whose first creed was, "Jesus is Lord."
Jesus, the Christ, the anointed one, is the Lord, who made heaven and earth.
Is this not the answer that was offered as Christ questioned his disciples as to who he was, and who the world saw him to be?
Who do the people say that I am? Who do you say that I am?
The cry of the disciples was, you are the Christ, the Son of the living God.
The world around had all sorts of other answers but the Peter was clear in his affirmation.
And so for the church today, the question remains,
Who do you say that I am?
But I fear we spend too much time on the former question, Who do people say that I am? And we allow their answers to shape the church, and therefore to shape our image of God. In our cries to be relevant, in our attempts to connect with the world, we loose the power and the majesty and the awe of the God who shapes us.
Thus Paul cries out, that we not be conformed to this world. Let the world not shape us, but rather let us be transformed by the renewing of our minds to see God as the Lord who made heaven an earth.
Then the God who is totally other than us, and yet who came as one of us, is able to touch us, speak to us, shape us and continue to create us into the people he wants us to be.
Let us not become bogged down, or ruthless in imposing burdens on one another, but let us find the freedom and peace of God which passes all understanding in our lives together as the gathered people of God, as we continue to journey through the wilderness of life with our eyes fixed on Christ, as we seek to reach the promised land in its fullest sense, and as we continue to proclaim Jesus as Lord, and his reign here in our own day and age. Let us be open to the strangers who come into our midst, to those whose needs are great and whose strength is waning. Let us like Christ, stretch our arms wide to encompass those whom society shun, those who struggle, those who can find no rest or peace in this world, to welcome them as part of God's community. As difficult as this is, surely this is what it means to be church.
To God be the glory, now and forever more AMEN.

Sunday 29th June 2014
Genesis 22:1-14 andMatthew 10:40-42
Welcome to all!

I think as we read the story of Abraham and Isaac this morning there would be many reactions to such a story.
There would be that reaction of horror as we contemplate the demand of God for Abraham to perform such a sacrifice and also the willingness of a father to even consider such an act for his only beloved son.
We may read the story and remember back to our Sunday School days and see it just as one of the stories that fascinated us in our youth.
Yet, I think we do need to take this story seriously. It is is part of our faith history. It is part of our understanding of God, and God's interaction with his people, but as we scratch the surface I think we can see it in a much broader perspective as a reflection of our humanity and our faith coupled with God's mercy and grace.
Sometimes were are conditioned to the likes of this story because we know it so well and it looses its impact.
Imagine for a moment that this is the first time you have read this story of Isaac. I wonder what the response would be? It would be sad if there were not some sense of shock and even dismay.
Here is a father willing on what appears some whim to offer up his only son's life as a sacrifice. If we fail to be shocked at this, we loose so much of the meaning behind the story.
We are coloured by our modern obsession with self-esteem and success being so important that we are truly challenged by any suggestion that God might test us in some way. Reno in his commentary on Genesis suggests, "We worry about the perils of competition. Encouraging self-esteem becomes the great preoccupation. Everybody is a winner, and prizes and ribbons are on hand for all the participants. True love nurtures, we imagine; it does not challenge and demand, try and judge."
I think there is a lot of truth in this statement that makes such a story as this uncomfortable for many in our modern age.
And yet the reality of life is so different. Life is not an even playing field with no bumps or bruises along the way. Quite the opposite for many and often with totally inexplicable reasons for why certain experiences colour some peoples lives and not others.
So here Abraham is called to take Isaac out to make a sacrifice, offering him to God.
And as this story unfolds, the hearers are surely getting closer and closer to the edges of their seats. The detail of Abraham's preparation and the way in which with seemingly unquestioning faith Yahweh's instructions are carried out on the surface seem somewhat surprising. And yet I am sure we can imaging the agony that must be tearing Abraham apart. Isaac is described as his "only son, whom you love so much." Even at this early stage in this story, do we not see the parallel in the story of Christ, God's beloved son in whom he was so pleased. God's beloved son who out of love for the world, God willingly gave him up so that the world might be saved from the power of sin and death.
In both of these parallel stories we see actions that were not offered for personal gain, as gain could not be seen from our perspective, but they were offered for the benefit of humanity that showed God's openness to love and to provide for us even in the face of danger and tragedy.
Abraham had an unswerving faith that God would provide. As he took each step toward that altar, as he followed through each stage of preparation right to the end, he believed that Yahweh would provide.
One can almost hear the exacerbating cry where at the end as he draws the knife, he hears that voice "Abraham, Abraham! Don't hurt the boy or do anything to him." and as he looks round and sees the ram caught in the bush, there for him to take as a substitute for Isaac. At this point Abraham's actions are vindicated and his faith rewarded. God is indeed his provider.
The relief for Abraham must have been huge.
God is faithful in this story in providing for his obedient servant who on the surface seemed to be following down a alley of blind obedience, and yet at the heart of it was agonising with himself and with God.
Contrast this with God who willingly gave up his Son in the person of Jesus Christ. Because of the familiarity of this story, and because the main character in the story is God, do we loose sight of the agony, the cost, the utter despair that God must have felt. As this story unfolds where is the faith of God's people in the midst of this drama? Is it in Peter who ends up in denial? Is it in Judas and his betrayal? Is it in any of the others who after the experience in the upper room or the Garden of Gethsemane disappear out of the story until after the crucifixion?
You see, life is full of those moments that call us to ask ourselves, where is my faith at this point?
What does God mean to me in this moment of my being?
And if faith never were to challenge us like this would it be of any use to us? For Abraham, it was in this moment of his life that he came to that realisation that God provides. It wasn't that God grabbed his hand and physically held him back from lowering that knife. It wasn't that God came and struck Abraham with a bolt of lightning taking him out of the picture. It was as Abraham listened, as Abraham looked up, it was as Abraham was willing to exercise trust in God, that he saw and recognised in the ram God's provision for him.
And even in this moment of the story do we not see God who declared Jesus as the lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world. In him we have God's provision. We have the one who came for us, the one who stands with us.
Reno says on this, "In the New Testament, Jesus stands in the place of Israel. He is both the substituted lamb of sacrifice and the beloved son of the promise."
You see Abraham trusted God's promise that he would be the father of many nations, and the only way that that could be fulfilled was through Isaac.
He knew in his heart of hearts that God would provide.
He knew that God's plans and purposes are lived out in the lives of God's people and that his faith had to be grounded in the reality of the world in which he lived. Our faith is no different. Our faith is not just experienced in the warm fussy good things that happen to us, but is grounded in our day to day experience as we face life and death, as we seek to influence the world in which we live, as we have impact in our communities and in our world.
Thus Jesus says, "Whoever welcomes you welcomes me; and whoever welcomes me welcomes the one who sent me."
Our faith is a lived out faith. Our trust in God is expressed not only in the words that we say, but in the actions that follow.
It is James who challenges us by saying, "My brothers and sisters, what good is it for someone to say that he has faith if his actions do not prove it? …..."What good is there in your saying to them, "God bless you! Keep warm and eat well!" - if you don't give them the necessities of life?"
So I suppose the question becomes for us,
"What difference does our faith make?"
How is it that our life would be different if faith were not a part of it?
That's quite a challenging thought. It may not make us any different from our neighbour. It may well not make us any better a person. But does our faith help us to see life in a much bigger picture? Does faith give us a perspective on life that allows us to see life's challenges from a broader perspective? Does our faith open up that knowledge for us that God does provide, whether that provision comes at the hand of our neighbour or a total stranger or in the event that seems to come out of the blue.
Remember Jesus' words, "You can be sure that whoever gives even a drink of cold water to one of the least of these my followers because he is my follower, will certainly receive a reward."
After all as the Psalmist, perhaps as he reflected on stories like that of Abraham and Isaac, put it, "Our help comes in the name of the Lord, maker of heaven and earth."
To God be the glory, now and for ever. AMEN

Sunday 18th May 2014
Acts 7:55-60 John 14:1-14

Life is an interesting journey for most. No two people live the same experiences. No two journeys are ever the same. And today the reading from Acts almost gives us a context for the reading from John.
In Acts, very early in the life of the developing Christian church we see this tragic story. Stephen is arrested and hauled before the High Priest and Council to give an account of himself and his faith. He gives a masterful sermon that covers the entire history of the people of Israel, and then accuses the Council of being deaf and stubborn and this riles them leading to his stoning to death.
Some have questioned why this story is given such prominence in Acts and what its purpose is.
I Howard Marshall comments on this offering three purposes for the inclusion of this account in the book of Acts.
1. It is a defence to the charges brought against Stephen. He denies he has spoken against the law of Moses and in outlining his argument he portrays himself as a defender of the law.
2. It is an attack on the Jews for their failure to recognise the love of God expressed in the Old Testament and revealed through Christ the Messiah in the New.
3. This story forms part of the picture of the rejection of the Gospel by the Jews to whom it was first preached and thus paves way for the church to break away from Jerusalem and the temple.
The journey of Stephen's life ends with this tragic stoning, but the author gives it that triumphant tone as he portrays Stephen as seeing this vision of Jesus standing at the right hand side of God.
He is not seated, but standing. He is receiving his faithful servant into the presence of the Almighty. This is rubbing salt into the wounds of those who are in the process of condemning him. And then there is the picture of them with their hands over their ears refusing to listen. And again in that Christ-like manner Stephen pleads for those who are persecuting him that they may be forgiven.
Put this picture against the words of Jesus in John's Gospel and we get a view of life and the influence that faith can have on it that I believe can be very helpful.
"Do not be worried or upset," Jesus told them. "Believe in God and believe also in me."
These are very well known words, but don't they strike you as rather strange just taken out of context. Why focus on worry and upset? Why not build faith on all the positive aspects of humanity and life?
Jesus has just been predicting his betrayal and denial. He has given his disciples the commandment to love one another, and now he says to them, do not worry and do not be upset.
There is recognition that along the journey of life there will be those times when events and occurrences have the potential to disturb us greatly. That is the reality of life.
Jesus here is offering an invitation to walk that journey of life with him, trusting and believing in him. This offers an anchor outside of ourselves. It offers a point beyond our own predicament where we can get a grip on the reality of life beyond the turmoil or troubles that are in immediate focus.
It really grabs at the heart of what faith is all about. It has both those elements of belief and trust. Faith is frame work of belief. It is a belief in the One who is beyond us, and in Jesus Christ we are able to ground that in the One who was with us also, but it has to have that element of active trust. It is not just intellectual ascent to a set of rules. This is where Jesus was attacking the religious leadership of his day. No, it involves that willingness to take that set of principles and then apply that in our daily living so that our belief makes a difference to how we view the world.
And here Jesus is saying, "do not be worried and upset." What an invitation. Imagine life without those two aspects to it.
Why do we not need to worry and be upset? Because life's journey is seen here in the context of God's overall journey with us and we can walk that journey with God, trusting in him.
Jesus, talks about his Father's house having many rooms. This is often translated many resting places. It sees the journey of life, not as a constant source of worry and upset, suggesting that as we walk that journey trusting in God, we find resting places, places of peace along the way. Maybe it is in those times of trouble that we learn to step aside and rest in the love that God has revealed to us in Jesus Christ. And this journey is pictured, not as an endless and aimless walk in the wilderness, but as a journey of purpose so that eventually we will come to be where he is. Jesus' invitation is to follow him and he will lead the way. He will come back and take us to be where he is.
That gives us that sense of final victory, of lasting peace, of overall purpose. And therefore this purpose helps to shape our lives in the present so that we continue to follow on the path that we are being lead down.
Thomas asks that very practical question that I am sure we all ponder, "Lord, we do not know the where you are going; so how can we know the way to get there?"
Those uncertainties, those doubts that plague us are part of our humanity that sees us all the time wanting to know, wanting to take control, wanting to steer the direction of our lives because we feel far more secure when we are in the drivers seat with our hands on the wheel and our foot on the brake.
And I think we can all relate to what Thomas was saying here and yet in our minds we know there are those times when life is totally out of our hands, when the world seems to swirl around us in confusion and disarray.
And as his disciples listened to these words, this is precisely how their world seemed. On the one hand, hope seemed so high with Jesus feeding them such wonderful teaching and offering them such positive direction, and yet on the other hand, he was speaking of death, betrayal and denial.
But into this mix he feeds those words that have rung down the years, central to the Christian Church's understanding of our faith;
"I am the way, the truth and the life, no one comes for the Father except by me."
To the religious leaders of the day, this was absolute blasphemy. This became the point of difference, the point beyond which there was no return.
And for many in our day an age, this continues to be the sticking point. It seems too narrow, too exclusive, too pointed.
And yet it is open. It is there for anyone to accept or reject. There is no compulsion, Jesus just put it out there for the people of his time and for people of every generation.
And it is in this context that Jesus really lays on the line his own ministry, his own place within the Godhead. His disciples engage in debate with him, which he welcomes. It gives him that opportunity to show them that unique relationship he has with the Father.
"Believe me," he says, "When I say that I am in the Father and the Father is in me."
This is was the real turning point. The religious leaders became entrenched in their opposition to Jesus for they saw this as a threat to all that they had understood about God, and Jesus' followers continued with hope, not fully understanding all that Jesus said at this point, had to cope with the increasing tension and aggravation of the world around them. Only in the light of the death and resurrection of Jesus did this come to make sense.
We still live with that tension in the world as we try to proclaim the concepts of faith in Jesus to an increasingly rationalistic and self centred world. They cannot offer the comfort of peace even in the face of worry and anxiety. They cannot see beyond the years lived on this earth. They cannot give hope when humanity is turning in on itself in greed, anger hatred and even bigotry. But Jesus does offer us hope when he says, "Believe in God and believe also in me."
Let us live with this hope as we continue to put our faith and trust in him.
To God be the glory, now and forever more. AMEN.

Sunday 4th May 2014
Acts 2:14a, 36-41 Luke 24:13-35
Eternal Love

This is a gospel story I have really come to appreciate. It is one of the faith stories that holds all the elements that it should.
It resonates with simplicity, with emotion, with the ability to connect, and above all with that element of mystery.
I am sure that any one of us can relate to being out for a walk with some one, intensely involved in discussion and debate and not only the time passing by, but also that sense that everything else around is inconsequential. It is quite different from a walk to enjoy the surroundings of nature where one is absorbed by the beauty. This walk was probably just one of going from point A to point B. Perhaps a road walked many times before as part of daily life so the intensity is in the company and in the topic of conversation.
And so wrapped up in this conversation are they, that the identity of another person on the road who willingly joins in the conversation is not even noticed.
We do not know the exact identity of these followers of Jesus. We know one to be called Cleopas, but that is all. This is not one of the twelve, and so how loose a term a 'follower of Jesus' is here we do not really know. They had obviously heard him and knew of him. They may have been members of one of the crowds that gathered to listen to him during his public ministry and who had obviously come to identify themselves with him during this time. But so engrossed in conversation and eager to hear what he had to contribute to the conversation, they did not recognise Jesus for who he was.
These followers of Jesus had had their world torn apart. They assumed everybody in the community knew of the events of the last few days, and they assumed perhaps that most were moved with some emotion at least at this seemingly unjust execution. They were able to sum up these events with a relatively brief resume putting this assumed stranger into the picture. And in that resume one gets a sense of their anguish and their dashed hopes. All that they had seen and believed had been ripped away from them and they were verbalising where they were at in this conversation. It isn't that they were suddenly switching to disbelief but they were processing their thoughts as they struggled to understand how all this could have happened and what it meant.
I think this is partly why I relate to this story so closely. It is how I tend to operate. One can see the workings of the mind as the dialogue unfolds.
Gently but directly Jesus challenges these two people. He almost chides them for their persistence in only looking at part of the story. They recalled the things that Jesus had taught that gave them hope for their future, but they seemed to ignore the parts that explained the events they had just lived through.
Jesus had spoken many times of his imminent death and resurrection, but they seemed to have not heard that, or perhaps had not understood it and so pushed it back into the recesses of their mind. In the confusion of these first few days they were unable to make the links or join the dots with what they had been told would happen with what actually had happened.
This is one of the things that makes this story so authentic. How often we are like this? We know what we have been taught. We know what we experience. We know the reality of the world in which we live, but we struggle to connect it all together. Perhaps we become so engrossed in one or other of the aspects of life, what we have been taught, our experience or the reality of the world around us that we cannot see beyond that which is uppermost in our minds. We become consumed by that which occupies the space immediately in front of us.
In this story, it was so much so, that they did not recognise Jesus walking with them.
And sadly that often forms part of our experience of life, does it not! We fail to see Jesus whose presence is promised and who journeys with us through life. His love is not just with us in the moments of elation, nor just in the moments of strife, but his loving presence as illustrated in this story is eternal, he walks with us in life and through death to undying life, even through his own death.
These two people failed to see that presence with them at that moment.
But again, the beauty in this story is that Jesus does not abandon them at this point, he does not hold their shortcomings against them, but walks with them and talks with them as they journey on.
He sets their experience into the context of of the whole picture, into the context of their faith and reminds them ever so gently of the things that he had taught them during his public ministry.
And as they listen they become absorbed in what he is saying. You can see the seeds of recognition beginning to dawn as they hunger for the comfort of what they knew in Jesus.
Jesus as he walked with them reignited that flame in them and that passion of faith begins to burn again, so much so, that they invite Jesus to stay. We begin to see this budding fervour translate into response. They want more. They want to continue along this path of further discovery for it is beginning to make sense to them. You can see the scales slipping from their eyes.
And then the lovely twist, or rather the crowning moment of recognition is in the most simplest of acts. Jesus breaks the bread.
Whether this is written in the Gospel writers eyes as one of those Eucharistic moments or not, one cannot help but make the link. Here as the bread was broken, we see the one who said,
This is my body which is broken for you, and at that moment the picture is completed. Here is the the risen Christ.
And it is interesting in this story, that it is not usual that the guest of the house should break the bread. In this very normal and simple act we see the host stand aside from his responsibility to allow Christ to do this task. And it is in this moment that scales fall from their eyes and they see this man for who he is. It is Christ.
When ever we celebrate that Eucharistic meal it is Christ who is the host at the table. We receive from the risen Christ the elements of bread and wine. Together we share with Christ as the host.
In this very simple act the penny drops, it dawns on them who this man is that they have invited into their lives.
It is this mystery and this moment that reflects the reality of who Jesus is and helps make this faith story real for us, for how many times in those simple moments do we discover Christ with us.
We do not need to look for him in the spectacular miracles or only in the deepest moments of need in our lives. We do not need to fossick around trying to discover God in all the out of the way and unusual places; It is not in our attempts to be super spiritual people that God will be most real to us, rather it is in the very simple acts of living, it is in the moments of everyday life that the risen Christ walks with us and is there with us.
And every now and then we have those moments of clarity where that presence is so close, and often like in this story it is only momentary, for in this story as Jesus is revealed for who he is, that sense of closeness is gone. However, that sense of presence still burns within.
This is yet another illustration of God's grace that comes to us. Grace is not about our searching and our endeavours to endear ourselves to God.
Grace is seen in this story as God draws near to us and opens our eyes to the wonder of his glory.
Grace invites us to come, it invites us to follow, it invites us to respond in belief and trust in the risen Christ. It is in this grace that we experience and know that eternal love of God that never leaves us nor forsakes us.
To God be the glory, now and forever. AMEN.

Sunday 6th April 2014
Exodus 37:1-14 John 11:1-45
Overcoming Love
Love that overcomes is love that conquers even the seemingly impossible, and our reading this morning tells of such love in the lead up to the greatest of all stories of God's overcoming love. Just prior to the events that lead to Jesus' final arrest, trial and crucifixion, we are given a glimpse into the hope that lies in the face of all this negativity.
It is a story that I am sure we call all relate too in terms of Mary and Martha's aspect. Here two sisters grieve the death of their brother Lazarus.
And this story leaves us in no doubt that Lazarus was dead. Several days had passed before Jesus' appearance on the scene. Lazarus had been buried, probably within 24 hours, as was the custom and obvious signs of decay were present. This in itself separates this story from other similar stories in the other gospels where the timing of Jesus' intervention was much closer to the death. In Mark's Gospel Jiairus' daughter died while he was on his way to see this ailing girl. When he arrived he found people in those early stages of grief, and he announced she was only asleep. Luke tells us of a widows son who had died and they were already on the way to bury him. Here again Jesus addresses the dead person and he sat up and engaged in conversation with him.
In these other two cases there is always the possibility of a mistaken diagnosis of death which was not that uncommon. We have even heard of similar type incidents in our own day and age where signs of life have been spotted sometime after death was thought to have occurred.
Also in both of these cases they happened reasonably early on in Jesus ministry that raised the curiosity of the religious authorities of that time and had them watch Jesus more closely.
John on the other hand leaves us in no doubt that Lazarus is dead. Four days before his arrival he had been buried and the expectation was that when the grave stone was rolled away the smell would be over bearing. This time delay is necessary if we are truly see the power of God at work. Had Jesus acted purely out of his compassion for Mary and Martha he would have responded quickly to the news of Lazarus' illness and impending death.
This event is also placed at the end of Jesus' ministry just prior to his entry into Jerusalem. Here we see this event in the eyes of the religious leaders as almost the straw that breaks the camel back.
The pressure was on Jesus at this time and he was being watched like a hawk. With the annual Passover approaching and many people visiting Jerusalem, the authorities did not want any disruption. Clearly Jesus and his followers felt they were not that welcome for they feared for their safety. But Jesus was compelled to go to his friends in their time of need. In a very real way he wanted to offer them comfort and life in the face of death.
In this story we begin to see a picture of what faith in Jesus Christ looks like. We see it from the compassion of Christ in his desire to put the needs of his friends before his own personal circumstances. We see it in the fact that his love would overcome the grief and the anguish of those around him taking away their fear and giving them peace even in the face of death itself.
We see it in the deep sense of need that those around Jesus felt as they looked to him in their times of trial. Several times Mary and Martha said to Jesus through their tears of grief, "If you had been here, Lord our brother would not have died."
They both had that sense that Jesus would and could overcome whatever adversity they faced. Here in Jesus was the one who could help them in every circumstance that life may throw at them.
As a precursor to the greatest act of God, we see this event illustrate God's power over life and death. Here is God's power which he has laid on Jesus, the Christ, the anointed one, the Messiah demonstrated for all to see.
And Martha in direct response to Jesus' questioning of her faith in him responds,
"Yes Lord! I do believe that you are the Messiah, the Son of God, who was to come into the world."
At this moment we see the declaration of truth that opens the path leading directly to the cross.
Had Jesus said, "No, No, Martha you have this all wrong," the religious leaders would have walked away happy men. But he did not.
Her statement came in response to his words claiming that He was the resurrection and the life and that in fact belief in him would result in life for any who accepted that.
Here is the turning point, for this claim of power over life and death, that only God could offer was, in effect a declaration that here was the long awaited Messiah that the people of Israel had been waiting for. And in this event of Lazarus being raised, unmistakably from death, the world could see the truth in this claim.
The path was now cleared to walk to Jerusalem and to face the authorities head on and not only the authorities but life itself.
Through the agony that lay ahead, Jesus had a clear vision which is shared with us, that resurrection will overcome even death itself.
God's love for the world will not be compromised even by the best and most experienced plotters. The power of life and death is not in the hands of any man or woman, but in the hands of God alone.
This call of Jesus to believe in him as the giver of life, as the resurrection, was clearly read as blasphemy and for the religious leaders this could only be dealt with by the most severe of punishments, death itself.
And the irony is, that only through such death would the truth ultimately be demonstrated, for out of that death would come life; out of that death would come resurrection to eternal life.
We see just how desperate these people were, for they even contemplated killing Lazarus to take the heat out of the situation. They were so trapped in their own little world, feeling the pressure of loosing control that they had held with such fragile balance, they considered extreme measures were needed to get back to the comfort of what they had built around themselves.
And how often we feel this in an ever-changing world. The comfort of what we once knew, where we felt safe and secure, always seems to be the place we think we should be, and yet God is often leading us forward down those rocky roads testing us to see that our faith is where it should be, allowing us to experience God's real love where we need and appreciate it most.
In this story we see the compassion of God poured out. Even as Mary came to Jesus and declared her faith, Jesus is moved by this and weeps.
This is by no means a cold and detached demonstration of power. It is a picture of emotion and a deeply felt sense of raw humanity reaching out to the needs around. We read again in the lead up to Jesus calling Lazarus out from the grave, "Deeply moved once more...." Jesus does not act out of anything other than his love for humanity. He is moved by our emotion, he reacts to our faith and to our grief, he is motivated by God's love for humanity and by our sense of need and our small steps of expressing our faith. Any one who has experienced grief will know these emotions and the comfort that can be brought, just by the presence of another. It does not require words or even action, but just that presence. And this is the presence that the risen Christ brings in our lives day by day. This became, in the face of Christ's own death and resurrection, the reality of our faith in Him. Here in this story is the hope of our faith, that in the face of death, love overcomes, in the face of death, life is promised, in the face of death, resurrection is experienced.
May God's compassion and grace for each of us be experienced and felt as we live our lives in Him and for Him.
And to God be the glory, now and forever more. AMEN.

Sunday 23rd March 2014
Exodus 17:1-7 John 4:5-42
Stretching Love
Right from the opening verses of our Gospel reading the scene is portrayed in such a way that we can sense the potential tension that is set in this story. To understand these tensions and the dynamics going on in this story we need to consider the three angles from which this scene can be viewed; there is the Samaritan woman, there is of course Jesus, and there is the Gospel writer who conveys the story to us.
John works hard at painting the picture with all the nuances that that would have been in the air as this scene unfolded.
For a start, Jesus did not go this way through Samaria with the intention of preaching the Gospel to these people. He had come to the notice of the Pharisees who had heard that Jesus was collecting larger crowds and followers than John the Baptist, and so this was a concern to them. In their eyes the fragile balance of peace with the Roman occupiers of this region could so easily be tipped that they want to put a stop to his activities. In short they were after him. Jesus was trying to fly under the radar, and so a shortcut through Samaria, a region the Pharisees would not go, was the quickest and easiest route.
But while on his way through this region he took the opportunity to open up conversation with this Samaritan woman who was drawing water from the well.
It was only back in chapter three that Jesus spoke of the Spirit blowing where it would, and here we see the work of the Spirit opening up opportunities in the least likely of places amongst the unexpected of people.
Jesus did not allow the preconceptions of his upbringing, nor the social expectations of his day, to stop him from taking every opportunity to present the love of God to people, stretching those boundaries in every way possible to make sure that everyone knew of that love.
Here was a troubled woman, why would Jesus not offer that love? It is also of course that picture of grace. Once again it is a picture of God who comes to us. God who initiates that love given so freely to us. And is this not a picture of our role as disciples of Christ to present that love that stretches to all people everywhere. It after all forms the basis of the great commission that Christ set his disciples when he said,
"But when the Holy Spirit comes upon you, you will be filled with power and you will be witnesses for me in Jerusalem, in all Judaea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth."
Christ set the pattern and the example on his jaunt through this region, despised by his own people and yet open and willing to hear God's message accepting that love offered to them.
Jesus allowed the Spirit to lead him into places where the society of his day would not go. He was willing to push the boundaries of prejudice because in his eyes, God did not recognise such limits.
Jesus recognised where people were thirsting and offered water that would bring lasting satisfaction and then he sent them out to tell others.
Yes, we celebrate the harvest once a year. We come to acknowledge that all we have, even the most basic of our needs, food, comes from God. But Jesus recognised the harvest around him was ripe for the picking all year round. There were always people hungering and thirsting after righteousness, always wanting to find peace with God, and it is our task as disciples of Christ to tell them and help them discover that food that will satisfy their needs.
So, what of the woman in this story. Here she was just going about one of her daily task of drawing water from the well, and this Galilean man asks her for a drink.
Her immediate response is to reinforce the centuries of prejudice by pointing out the difference between them, "You are a Jew, and I am a Samaritan - so how can you ask me for a drink."
It is interesting that the reason for the divide between Jew and Samaritan is not really known. What is known, is that for whatever reason, the Jews did not consider the Samaritans to be children of Israel. They were not part of God's chosen people and therefore were treated as Gentiles. So for Jesus to ask for a drink from this woman would have meant he was making himself ritually unclean, he was defiling himself under the Jewish law. She recognised this and commented on it. This encounter opened up a life changing exchange for her as we know. But this change came because she did engage. This became a two way encounter, a true conversation as questions and answers were passed back and forth.
In this exchange understanding was opened up. Jesus did not condemn her, as her life was laid bare, but rather he encouraged her in process of change. He encouraged her to walk a journey of discovery with him. "The time is coming and is already here, when by the power of God's Spirit people will worship the Father as he really is, offering him true worship that he wants."
This journey of discovery is an encounter that we are all invited to join. This conversation with the Samaritan woman is a conversation open to us all in our daily walk with God. But it is a conversation that can either help us to become entrenched in what we have always done and thought or it can open up for us knew possibilities and discoveries.
Both parties, the Jews and the Samaritans it would seem were happier just to live with the barriers that time and tradition had erected around them, reinforcing prejudice and even hatred from both sides. Is this not what we still see on our screens each night from that generalpart of the world, Israel and Syria still at each others throats, still blocking one from the other. But we can also see those barriers in our own communities and in our own lives as we keep God at a distance, as we refuse to allow our prejudices and social attitudes to be challenged and changed when confronted by God's love that continues to stretch us. Sometimes such refusal we see as motivated by God's word, sometimes it is motivated by our fear of where it might lead and what effects such changes might have on society and at other times it is just because we ourselves are entrenched in our own ways unwilling to engage in that two way conversation with God.
For the Samaritan woman this was a life changing encounter. We hear nothing of her after this story is told but we can assume by her response that she had begun a new chapter in her life.
"The woman left her water jar, went back to the town, and said to the people there. "come and see the man who told me everything I have ever done. Could he be the Messiah?" So they left the town and went to Jesus."
This encounter did not drive her into isolation and introspection, but rather it sent her out to share her experience and to seek a response from her community. Faith is to be shared, and like the harvest it is not just for ourselves but for the community, for the sustenance of all.
So, why does John tell this story, a story unique to his gospel?
It is a story that speaks of the gospel crossing those cultural and religious boundaries. It is a story that expresses the freedom of the Spirit to move where the Spirit wishes, it is a story that sets that pattern of discipleship that sees us take what God has offered as he stretches his love for us and all people, and we take that and offer that same love to the community in which we live as we too seek to see peoples lives changed.
It is a story that challenges us in our own living as we recognise God who sees all and knows all and who wants always to engage us in that two way encounter. So our relationship with God is enhanced as we question and converse, as we challenge and are challenged in our thinking, in our speaking and in our actions in the world in which we live.
May we continue in our relationship with the God who loves us and embraces us and stretches us in our understanding of what it is to be loved, and what it means to love others as God has loved us.
To God be the glory, now and forever. AMEN.

Sunday 16th March 2014
Divine Love
Genesis 12:1-4a John 3:1-17

The very first verse of Psalm 121 perhaps sums up both of today's readings when it begins with a question. It is interesting that the KJV of the scriptures does not translate this verse as a question, but it is universally recognised today that this is what it is, and this contemporary approach to the translation of this verse makes a significant difference to the meaning of what we read.
The question is posed in a rhetorical form.
"I look to the mountains, where shall my help come from?"
Many of us will remember it, if not learnt it by heart as,
"I will lift up mine eyes to the hills from whence cometh my help."
The inference in the later is that our help comes from the mountains to which we look. The former poses the question of when we look to the mountains, great as they are, where in fact does our help come from.
Of course the Psalmist goes on to state, "My help will come from the Lord who made heaven and earth."
There is recognition that the mountains upon which he is gazing, are part of the created order, part of what the Lord has made, the same Lord who will comes to our aid; the same Lord who will not let us stumble or fall, and who will in fact protect us.
Here, Divine Love is shown to encompass all of creation as it is intertwined, engaging in the world and with its people.
As we look at the world, the perception of where our help comes from is coloured by our understanding of that world.
If we see the limits of our world contained in the horizons to which we look, the mountains and all that is around us, we will look for our help from within these confines. We will be limited to that which we know, that which we can touch, that which we can control. The love which we seek will also come from this contained source.
Such a confined pool forces us only to look inward and pictures ourselves at the centre of all that is around us.
On the other hand if we look beyond the mountains to the Maker of heaven and earth, then we need to look with eyes of faith trusting the One who is beyond, the One who as Nicodemus so rightly observed, when he said to Jesus, "Rabbi, we know that you are a teacher sent by God. No one could perform the miracles you are doing unless God were with him."
Nicodemus' world view was tinkering on the edge of faith.
He was seeking answers that lay beyond what he could see or touch or even comprehend.
It is at this point that Jesus explains his problem,
"I am telling you the truth: no one can see the Kingdom of God unless he is born again."
Now this is a term that in more recent history has had some rather unfortunate connotations attached to it. People have spoken of "Born again Christians" implying that there are some other forms of Christians around, the former being superior in some way or other. This certainly is not the intention of this text. If Jesus were saying this today, he might suggest that if we were to understand the Kingdom of God in any real way, we might need to be reprogrammed. In other words, like Jesus' analogy, we might want to see the world in a different way and experience the world in a way that is open to God's interaction and sovereign way with us.
Rather than looking for the extraordinary things in life to see where God is all the time, we might begin to view the world with our starting point being God. Let us see the world as God's world. Let us experience the world as part of God's creation. This God is free to move and do what is his Divine right, and we are part and parcel of that Divine world in which He has swept us up in his love.
Such a view of the world is quite radical and the implications far reaching. So John describes this Divine presence in terms of Spirit. This word comes from the same word as Breath, God breathed. Thus the Spirit is like the wind that blows where it wishes. We cannot catch it, we do not know from where it comes nor where its final destination might be. Thus, this world view does not have us as the controlling influence, but rather God. God who is both mysterious, the unknown and the unknowable, and yet the God who has come to us in Jesus Christ, making himself known to all humanity.
In this way, God has lifted his presence up before us so that the whole world might see and know the love that God has for us. The old hymn puts it, "Love came down at Christmas."
This is God's Divine love made real for us.
So this whole conversation with Nicodemus sets the scene for that most wonderful gospel truth expressed in v 16.
"God love the world so much that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not die but have eternal life."
God's love is the primary factor and motivating force of this Divine action. This love motivated creation in the beginning, and brought about the remedial action of the cross through Jesus Christ. This love was not just about words, it was not just emotion expressed, but this love came in action, and came in a form that we could relate too, namely Jesus Christ.
His life, death and resurrection was to shine out as that love was personified, and demonstrated so that we might have a very clear picture of exactly how much God loves us and what the implications of that love would be.
We see in this self giving love an offering for all humanity that offers the promise of eternal life.
That universal search of humanity for the answer to our life and death questions is revealed in this conversation. Eternal life is promise for those who put their trust in Jesus Christ as the one who brings God's love into the world.
And with that image of Moses lifting the bronze snake on a pole, God answered the cries of the people of Israel as they perished in the Sinai Desert, offering them healing if they looked at snake. In the same way Jesus answers Nicodemus' question concerning humanities eternal destiny. Just as the snake was lifted up, so when Jesus is lifted up on the cross, our focus on him will be the key to our faith. As we gaze at him and acknowledge the great love of God for the world and for us as individuals and as communities of God's people, we will find love and acceptance not condemnation.
For the people of Israel, the snake on the pole was a focal point to remind them of God's presence and power in their midst.
Is this not what draws us back to God's Divine love for us as we remember again in this Lenten season the cross, and Christ's path to it.
It is the cross that holds for us both the symbol of God's suffering love, and the hope of resurrection to eternal life.
It is here that we see that Divine Love grounded in our world, in the realities of human life, in suffering and pain as well as in joy and triumph.
It is a love that does not lift us out of the world in which we live, but rather equips us to live with and to sometime endure the reality of our humanity.
It is a love that walks with us, rather than standing afar and directing us. It is a love that suffers with us and endures the path of life right to the end. It is a love walks with us even through death to undying life with God.
Such is the hope of our faith. This is the message that we have to offer to a world that searches in so many different directions for the assurance of such love. In the cross of Christ we find it, we see it, we experience that Divine Love.
To God be the glory, now and forever. AMEN.

Sunday 9th March 2014
Genesis 2:15-17;3:1-7 Matthew 4:1-11
Testing Love.

As we move into the season of Lent we begin that journey with Christ toward the cross. This was for Christ, a journey of committed love, but also a journey of testing love. It was a journey that saw that relationship between Christ as his heavenly Father tested. This testing pushed him probably even to breaking point.
And while we can stand at a distance and look at this relationship from afar, it is a relationship that we are all called to, as to be a follower of Jesus we too are invited to take up our cross and follow him.
Thus this journey becomes a path of obedience and a path of endurance.
This concept of perseverance is an interesting one, and this week I was reading Bonhoeffer, and he describe it in the following way;
"Perseverance, translated literally, means: remaining underneath, not throwing off the load, but bearing it." He goes on to say, "We know much too little in the church today about the peculiar blessing of bearing. Bearing not shaking off; bearing, but not collapsing either; bearing as Christ bore the cross remaining underneath, and there beneath it - to find Christ."
It is this picture that lies at the heart of our readings today. The first being set in the Garden of Eden. We begin reading of that setting where Adam and Eve were, with the only boundary being set was that they were not to eat of the one tree in the Garden, the tree of knowledge.
With that one restriction they were set free to enjoy and to cultivate the garden.
We then see the relationship develop between them and the Tempter. Here they are confronted with a challenge seems to great for them to bear and they are unable to persevere. The other story is of Christ's encounter with the same Tempter, but he perseveres.
Both are stories of that testing love that faces any of us in our relationships, not only with one another, but also in our relationship with God.
What do these stories teach us about our relationships and that perseverance that is so essential if relationships are to be lasting and fulfilling?
From the story of Adam and Eve we see where relationships falter, and with Christ we see the essence of what built that strong and persevering relationship.
Looking at the Genesis story we see four key points that eroded that relationship that Adam and Eve had with God.
Firstly, doubt was raised. They had been given one, and only one, simple instruction. "Do not eat of the tree of Knowledge."
It is here that the tempter begins and we see it in v2. "Did God really say that." It is so simple, such a basic technique. Doubt eats away at us and we are left wondering is that really the case. Is that really what was said? Is that really what I believe? And as soon as doubt enters the equation we begin down a path of not only self doubt but doubting others. And doubt can be so corrosive, because we then begin to wonder whether the issue at hand is that important in the whole scheme of things, and it looses its edge.
Giving away important truths or understandings needs to be done with great caution and a lot of thought. The key in the Gospel story, was that Jesus continually confronted the Tempter with the words, "It is written." He was able to confront doubts raise with reasoned and logical answers based on what he knew to be truth.
The Second area that we see in the break down of relationships leads on from doubt to deceit.
In verse 4 the Tempter comes back at Adam and Eve and says, "That's not true; you will not die."
The seed of doubt having been sown is now confronted with contradiction as they are deceived with a total fabrication of the truth.
No longer do they believe what they were once told by God, but they have chosen to follow the lead of the Tempter.
Truth is not always easy to pin point. We know in our own lives and society how things have change with the passing of time and a shifting of social attitudes. Sometimes those changes have been for the better, and sometimes when we look back in hind sight we wonder whether wisdom has in fact prevail with such change.
Sometimes the church has been at the forefront of change and at other times it has lagged behind or stood in opposition to social change. That is surely part and parcel of the role of the Church in society as we seek collectively to determine the mind of God. We must not oppose change merely for the sake of our unease with change, but we can act as a conscience and as a sounding board for such change. This is part of the Divine gift our humanity, that ability to think, to articulate and to reason, that we have been given so that we can engage with God and with one another through such change.
Thirdly in this story we see after doubt having been raise, deceit committed, we see delusion occur.
The writer says in v6, "The woman saw how beautiful the tree was and how good its fruit would be to eat, and she thought how wonderful it would be to become wise. So she took some of the fruit and ate it."
The attraction of what we once knew to be wrong when we have allowed our minds to be changed seems to take on a beauty of its own. The excitement and challenge of contradicting our own standards can sometimes lead us further and further down that pathway of delusion.
For Jesus, he continued to stand firm with that response, "it is written." The promise of personal gain, the temptation of power and control, did not sway him in his willingness to follow the truth and hold on to what he knew to be right, even when the personal cost would be great. Bonhoeffer gives some further insight here when he says,
"For remaining steadfast, remaining strong is meant here too; not weak acquiescence or surrender, not masochism, but growing stronger under load, as under God's grace, in a composed manner preserving the peace of God. God's peace is found with those who persevere."
For relationships to succeed sometimes they require that strength of character, that steadfast resolve, that determination that we hear at every wedding we attend that commits unreservedly to each other with the simple words, 'I do.' Such commitment cannot be put more plainly, it cannot be expressed more clearly, and yet it can take steely resolve to make it work. This is where Adam and Eve got it so wrong, and where on the other hand, Christ got it so right.
One resulted in a break down in the relationship with God and the other in cementing the path ahead, as rough as that would be.
The fourth and final aspect of this story that results in the erosion of relationships is that disappointment that is brought to the fore.
It is often a disappointment in oneself, as witnessed in Adam. When confronted by God in the Garden, Adam's response is "I was afraid and hid from you, because I was naked."
The awareness of his nakedness was something new. This disobedience to the Divine command did not bring the promised knowledge, but rather the shame and embarrassment of his human state before God. He was both literally and figuratively stripped bare. There was nothing hidden, and he was ashamed. The truth of his disobedience had been exposed and it certainly did not bring him peace of mind or useful and constructive knowledge. Quite the opposite. His disappointment in himself and his partner in life broke that relationship asunder.
It is Christ, whose obedience and steadfast love all the way to the cross, who restored that relationship of trust. He walked that path knowing the temptations we suffer, knowing the painful cost that was required, and yet in love he did this for us. It is his body that was broken for us, and his blood shed. Sometimes there is a cost to expressing love if we are to find true peace with God, and the true measure of that peace is often seen in how we face the sufferings that life brings to us. Do we take the seemingly easy way out like Adam and Eve and in the process find that true peace has escaped us, or do we like Christ find that through our suffering for his sake, we ironically discover a peace that passes all understanding? Are we able like the scriptures suggest in a funny sort of way, to "rejoice in our sufferings", knowing that Christ has gone before us, and that Christ stands with us?
To God be the glory, now and forever more. AMEN.

26th January 2014
Isaiah 9:1-4 Matthew 4:12-23
Where is the light?
Last week we had John's view of the launch of Jesus' public ministry, this week we get Matthew's version. Matthew places the calling of his disciples immediately following the baptism of Jesus and that 40 day period in the wilderness. This time of solitude brought focus to Jesus ministry as he reflected on his role. It is a practise that has been engaged in some parts of the church, where prior to ordination some time for personal reflection is encouraged.
Matthew then sets the stage for Jesus' entry into public ministry. He does this based around the geographical area of Galilee and its immediate environment. From here in Chapter 4 through to Chapter 16 we have the bulk of Jesus' public life described. Matthew does this, not necessarily in strict chronological order but more often than not he groups events around a thematic approach. We see this in areas like the Sermon on the mount, his teaching on discipleship, chapters on miracles, the mission of the disciples and then collections of parables. In this way Matthew paints for us a many-faceted picture of the character of Jesus' public ministry.
Historically this area of Galilee had become a predominantly Gentile population until a deliberate Judaizing policy had been adopted giving the effect of a very mixed population. It is interesting that this should the context in which the Jewish Messiah should come, and this in Matthew's eyes needed to be justified. For him this was easy and it came from the Prophet Isaiah. Here was a disgraced nation who was to see the new light come among them. They have lived in the shadows but now the light had come upon them.
For Matthew there was no surprise that in this part of his world the Messiah might come. And as he puts pen to parchment some years later, he can see with even more clarity, as he does not see the coming of the Messiah as only for the people of Israel, but has a much greater vision of God's kingdom. God's coming was to be for all people, for Jew's and Gentile's. Matthew has a place in God's kingdom for the outsiders and the least expected of society. He has a role in God's Kingdom for the Magi, the foreign kings, he has an exalted place for women, which his society struggled to recognise, as did the church for nearly a couple of thousand years.
Matthew's Gospel shines the light of God's hope on all people, and thus Galilee, the understated area of Israel, is the place for this movement to begin. Here is where God will reveal his purposes for the whole world for all time to come.
"The people who live in darkness will see a great light. On those who live in the dark land of death the light will shine."
This is the context of hope. The context of a community of Jew and Gentile, the context of occupied land, the context of an oppressed people, and yet here the sovereign God enters to offer hope to all.
Out of this setting a new beginning is set. Here Matthew described the calling of those first disciples from the shores of that lake.
And Matthew is quite clever in his image of the invitation offered: "Come with me, and I will teach you to catch men."
He portrays this in imagery that is familiar to them. They are after all fishermen. That is their stock and trade. But like the image Gospel writers used of the Shepherd, so too this image of fishing for men has strong Old Testament links. It was probably well known to them that Jeremiah and Amos both used this language.
In Jeremiah 16:16 we read, "The Lord says, 'I am sending for many fishermen to come and catch these people....'"
And Amos says in 4:2, "As the Sovereign Lord is holy, he has promised, 'The days will come when they will drag you away with hooks; every one of you will be like a fish on a hook."
Such would be the familiarity of this language to those first disciples, but as with so much of Jesus' teaching and practice there was a twist to it.
In these Old Testament prophets these fishermen were there to bring people in for God's judgement, but Christ was calling his disciples to go out and to offer God's salvation, saving people from God's wrath and judgement.
Sometimes our understanding is clouded by the preconceived notions we have grown up with or that we have formed in our own minds. And this twist of understanding may have taken the disciples a long time to get their heads around.
They were bringing people in so that they might receive the mercy and grace of God that is freely given, not so that judgement might be dished out.
They were not selectively fishing for one particular group, but were casting the nets wide to offer this grace and mercy to anyone who would receive it.
Often we see this contrast between the Old Testament understanding of God's judgement contrasted with the New Testament idea of Grace.
Think of the woman caught in adultery. She was brought to Jesus by the religious leaders so that he would be forced to condemn her, because this is what the law said. Yet with a few carefully chosen words Jesus rips their argument from under them. "Let he who has not sinned, throw the first stone." Grace prevailed.
And we get a further sense of this if we are to look at Paul's words in the Corinthians reading for today where Paul talks of division in the early church, mainly through groups following different people rather than focusing on Christ and his teaching. It seems that so quickly the early church turned back to this legalism which Jesus brushed aside. It seems that as human beings we are so quick to want to fit everyone into our way of thinking and doing things, as if that is the only way. And our defence mechanism is to make judgements, often harsh judgements that put people down, rather than helping to build them up.
Paul talked of the foolish wisdom of the Gospel offering God's love and grace rather than our judgement and condemnation.
In an argument in Corinth over baptism, Paul says,
"Christ did not send me to baptize. He sent me to tell the Good news, and to tell it without using the language of human wisdom, in order to make sure that Christ's death on the cross is not robbed of its power."
The selective fishermen of the Old Testament prophet's image, was replaced with the broad net approach in Christ's image to demonstrate that God's love was not just for the particular people of Israel, but was for the whole world. It was to draw all people.
And surely that is the approach of the church for today as in every day. We are not to be selective in our offering of God's love and grace, for that would be to rob the cross of its power. We are to go out into the whole world, as the great commission says, and make them disciples of Jesus Christ.
People of all ages, people of all status, people of every conceivable background need to hear the good news that God loves them and that he came into the world for them, and that he died and rose again for them.
If we begin to focus on one group or another, if we begin to exclude some in favour of another we are denying the power of the cross.
We are to follow Christ, just as he approached the world, to love the unloved, to go where others will not go, to accept sometimes when the world will only condemn.
"The people who live in darkness will see a great light. On those who live in the dark land of death the light will shine."
It is God's light that we are to portray to the world. His light that offers hope, his light that shines even when everything else seems to be so gloomy. His light that welcomes with open arms people who are searching, people who are struggling, people who feel that their faith is lacking or inadequate.
And it only takes a tiny amount of light for the darkness to be pushed away.
Jesus' disciples followed him, they learnt from him, they absorbed his teaching and his example. We too are called to be his disciples as we grow day by day in the grace offered and the love experienced.
Let us too follow him.
To God be the glory, now and forever more.


Isaiah 52:7-10 Psalm 98 John 1:1-14

Today we come to celebrate the birth of Christ. It is a birth that has turned the world upside down and has been remembered for over 2000 years. I wonder what it is that makes this birth so special. I mean we all love to see a baby. We love that concept of new life! We all love the sweet scenes that are painted portraying that angelic family surrounded by the harmony of humanity and nature, and often including the supernatural aspects as well. We even love the animals that are portrayed as gathering around. But I suspect those pictures we are presented with are far from the truth of that day. They were in a stable because there was no better accommodation available. All the hotels and motels were full. The best they could find was the area of the house out the back, down in the lower part, where the animals were housed at night. Now lets not get too romantic about this! I am sure that most of you will have spent at least some time in a farm yard. You can imagine the sorts of things that would be happening around you, the smells the disturbances, the noises of animals huffing and puffing. The family on a sort of mezzanine floor above this animal pit.
Really conducive to giving birth, especially when you probably don't know any of the people who dwell in this house and that the only thing they could find to rest the baby in was the manger, the long feeding trough used for the animals. You can just imagine how relaxed they all were, taking it in their stride. Yeah Right!
But this is the basis of the story that we celebrate today and every year.
And I want us to consider three things this morning about this story that I have been pondering.
I want to look at the ridiculous nature of the story,
The Risky nature of the story, and the Redemptive nature of it.
Firstly, because of some of the things that I have already spoken of, and the idea that Jesus came as God incarnate, on the surface may seem absolutely ridiculous. God's coming into the world in human form, not as a king, not as some important person born into the aristocracy, but rather a baby, born in a stable, to a poor peasant girl, when far away from home.
Have you ever thought about that concept of a baby?
What are a baby's characteristics.
Well lets think about it!
What are some of the obvious things that we notice about a baby? (helpless, dependent, lacks independent thinking and rationalizing skills etc)
They need training and nurturing, don't they. Babies are not just little adults, which they did use to be thought of and which they are often portrayed as, in early art work.
But no, a baby is very dependent. And this is how God chose to present himself to humanity! A helpless infant dependant on his mother and father for nurture and learning, for growing and developing. I am sure his crying and his eating, his laughing and his sleeping were just like any other baby, toddler and infant.
And this is the concept that can seem so ridiculous, and yet it lies at the heart of the Christmas message. God, come as one of us, they called him Emmanuel, God is with us! Or as John put it, "the Word became flesh, full of grace and truth, and lived among us."
Inherent in this must surely be the risk that was involved in this move on God's part.
Who was to know that this child would follow the path chosen for him? Who was to know that he wouldn't turn out to be a little horror? We all know how unpredictable the life of any person can be. And what about the parent's commitment to following what had been presented to them? How could God be sure that this Mary and Joseph would follow God's will at this time. Nevertheless, this risky event is bathed in God's trust of humanity. The time was right for the Messiah to appear.
Ultimately we need to remember this coming of God in Jesus Christ, mysterious as it is, is about the redemptive work of God.
Here was God's way of expressing his love for the world in a real and tangible way; in a way that would have God experience what it is to be human. In this way that would bring that relationship between God and humanity back together. Paul expresses it in terms of the first Adam having broken that relationship at the fall, and the second Adam, namely Christ, having restored that relationship, that union, between God and us.
This is the whole point of the incarnation, to restore the peace and joy and love that there is in that relationship between God and humanity. It is only in such a relationship that true peace can be found. A peace that passes all understanding, a peace that defies all that is happening around, and enables us to see God even in the midst of turmoil.
A joy that is not just froth and bubble that floats on the surface, but a sense of contentment that emanates from deep within, that flows out from the peace that passes all understanding. This is a love whose example we see in the concept of the incarnation where God has poured out his love for the world in coming, not as a king, but as a baby, the Word made flesh, come to dwell among us, not in power but in dependence and humility.
May we continue to celebrate Christmas for what it really is, the birth of Christ, the coming of God, the seemingly ridiculous, risky but great act of redemption.
To God be the glory, now and forever. AMEN.

Christmas Eve 2013 (Midnight)

Isaiah 9:2-7 Matthew 1:18-24 Matthew 2:1-12 John 1:1-14
Grace and truth among us!

The Word became a human being and, full of grace and truth, lived among us."
John uses these words at the beginning of his Gospel to tell us of Christ's coming into the world.
It is a strange birth narrative, and yet it is descriptive of God's act of Divine Love coming to us in this child who was born over 2000 years ago. And it is around this theme that the hymn writer wrote when she penned the words, "Love came down at Christmas, Love all lovely, Love Divine; Love was born at Christmas, Star and angels gave the sign."
John's words offer the purpose of God's coming in Christ to reveal to us grace and truth.
This is the place it is to be found, and in the other Gospels, and particularly in Matthew we read in great detail the events surrounding this wonderful birth. It would seem that in these stories everyone was on a journey of some sort or other.
There were Joseph and Mary, they were off to the place of Joseph's birth, Bethlehem, and soon to be the birth of their son. There were the wise men from the East who came looking for the one born to be King. And if we take into account the other Gospels, we have the shepherds, the angels, and we have to wonder about the villagers.
It is a picture of life in all it busyness, people moving from one place to another, and so often in search of truth and grace. But in all of these examples, Mary and Joseph, and the Wise men, and those from the other Gospel accounts, they took time to stop. They found the places they needed to be and they paused from the busyness to take in what lay before them.
It is a picture of Christian life and worship, where we take time out of the busyness of life to contemplate Christ and to worship the one who came among us all those years ago.
In the frantic rush, that Christmas has become, the danger is that we forget the one who lies at the centre of it all and bypass the manger. It is too easy to focus on the family, the occasions the food, the gatherings and we forget that one, born in a quiet back street stable, described to us as the one called "Jesus, - because he will save his people from their sins."
The time taken enabled these people to reassess
their lives. It enabled them to look beyond their own worlds and predicaments to take in a much greater picture of the world and the meaning that was there for them. As the wise men reflected on what they saw and experienced they reassessed their journey and went home by another road. Their encounter with Christ opened their eyes to Herod's evil ways. They saw the grace and truth that lay before them in that manger as they worshipped the one born to be king.
They presented him with their gifts of gold, frankincense and myrrh, symbols fit for a king; costly symbols that demonstrated their commitment and their desire to worship this one who had come among them.
So the question becomes for us, as again we come to this Christmas season, 'what do we do with the one born to be King?'
What difference does the birth of Christ make for us in our lives as we celebrate once again this festive season?
Is it merely an annual event that brings the stresses and strains of life to head once a year and then we pack it away with all the decorations for another year to come?
Or is it like the Magi on their journey? Life changing, giving new direction and new focus as we recognise in this one on whom we focus, Jesus, the saviour of the world."
Here is the message of Christmas that must not be confused with the rampant commercialism, calling us to give what we cannot afford, merely to boost the sales and rack up the profits.
Let us not confuse the ringing of the tills with the bells that call us to worship, nor even perhaps the call to family over and above the call to the one born in that stable.
It is Christ mass after all! The call is to Christ, to come and offer worth to him who came among us so that we might have our relationship with God,the Creator restored. It is only through Christ, the one whose birth we celebrate tonight, in whom we can find peace with God and who can lead us to live at peace with one another.
Let us continue in our worship of him. Let us have our celebrations centred and focused on him as we enjoy the company and fever of this day.
To God be the glory, now and forever. AMEN.

Sunday 22 December 2013

Isaiah 7:10-16 Matthew 1:18-25
He will save his people
Children have always played a special place in the plans of God. Children are perhaps a symbol of hope. They are a graphic illustration of the continued creativity of God's presence in our midst, as we see another generation begin and life continue on that journey that our humanity takes us on. The growth and the development of a children takes us back to our own formative years and reminds us that generation after generation rise up taking the place of earlier ones.
It is fitting that we remember this and celebrate it in the baptism of Elijah as Christmas comes upon us. For the whole Christmas message is about God's coming to us as that baby born in Bethlehem.
This was longed for by God and promised by the likes of Isaiah when he told Ahaz, King of Judah that,
"the Lord himself will give you a sign: a young woman who is pregnant will have a son and will name him 'Immanuel.'"
We know that the gospel writers and those whose stories they were telling, picked up on this theme as they retold and recorded the birth of Jesus. They did this in the light of the prophet's words to confirm that in Jesus, something special was about to happen. In Jesus we were to see this one who would be known as Immanuel, meaning God is with us.
RT France tells us that, "These verses do not relate the birth of Jesus, but explain his origin (the virgin conception) and his name in relation to a specific Old Testament prophecy."
And this certainly follows Matthew's pattern of grounding the Gospel in that Jewish heritage and tradition so that it may be seen as a fulfilment of the Old Testament.
Interestingly, this story focuses on Joseph rather than Mary where as most other writers have very little of this aspect of the nativity.
The source material that Matthew uses may have been different from the other Gospel writers, but it would also tie in with the need, in Matthews mind, to ground Jesus' legal lineage through Joseph. And if we were to look back to v17 we see this confirmed as Matthew speaks of the fourteen generations from Abraham to David, and fourteen from David to the exile in Babylon, and fourteen from then to the birth of Messiah. Matthews careful analysis grounds these events surrounding the birth of Jesus in the context of the history of this people.
Throughout this story, Matthew also understands the concept that Jesus was conceived by a virgin mother without the agency of Joseph, again confirming that Old Testament fulfilment. However, this does not leave Joseph on the side line. It in fact outlines some of the dilemmas that faced him, in the situation he found himself.
Jewish betrothal was a different concept to what we know today. It was a binding contract, which lasted about a year and could only really be terminated by death, and if that happened the betrothed would have the status of a widow, or it could be terminated by a divorce, which would have to go through the same process as for a full marriage.
During the betrothal the woman would remain in her father's house. The marriage was completed when the husband took the betrothed to his home in a public ceremony and thus they came together and commence normal marital relations.
Thus the dilemma for Joseph in this case was great. His own honour was a stake. He could well have divorced her, and by this time death by stoning had given way to public trial and public divorce proceeding.
Matthew records this dilemma for Joseph because it was only through Joseph taking Mary in marriage that Jesus was established in that legal lineage as 'son of David'.
Joseph, like Mary was willing to listen to God in this process and he too was willing to be obedient in his response to God's calling.
Often we leave Joseph on the Christmas story, or we certainly forget him soon after as he seems to disappear off the scene quite quickly.
But his obedience was as important as anyone else's in this story. And I think we forget that point so easily in our daily live.
It is important at what ever point we find ourselves in life, that we are open to the prompting and leading of God. It is important that we are willing to listen to what God says in his word and work at applying that in our living so that we too can seek to be obedient servants of God.
As we bring our children for baptism, we are bringing them into the life of the church. We are claiming the promise God has made to us all, that he will be our God and that we will be his children, and that his promise is for us and for all generations to come.
We here are acting in obedience to the call of God to declare our faith in him and to claim that faith for our children. We then live our lives, trusting God to be there for us and for our children.
And this story today reiterates the reason for our trust. It tells us the reason that we continually come back to this Christmas story and to the child that lies at its heart.
Matthew says, "She will have a son, and you will name him Jesus - because he will save his people from their sins."
The full recognition of this did not come at that moment in history, but rather was part of the unfolding truth of Jesus' life, death and resurrection. And for us the full recognition of the that aspect of Jesus' purpose comes throughout our lives in our own journey of faith. That journey of faith does not begin at a moment of decision on the individuals part, but rather comes as a result of nurturing, of growing, of learning, of developing, of trusting. It can include failures and triumphs, it can hold both times of sorrow and joy, of anguish and celebration, but through it all we learn that process of trust, and develop that sense of faith.
God's part in the process begins long before we know it and long before we acknowledge it but that does not render God inactive.
You see, the whole lead up to the Christmas story is about God's activity in the lives these key characters bringing the world to this point of saying, here is the Christ, here is the Saviour of the world. And an integral part of this process were those who were willing in obedience to say, "yes, here am I, a servant of the Lord, may it be as you have said."
As we focus once again on this Christmas story, may we focus our thoughts and our minds on our own response to the call of God.
Whether it be to declare our own faith in God and what that means for us; whether it be to bring our children in faith, trusting God to walk with them and lead them in their life's journey, or whether it be for us to say again, here I am, use me as you will, let us be challenged once again by this story.
Having experienced this great series of events, it did not radically change this families life. It certainly gave it focus, but they went from Bethlehem to live as any other family. They were not whisked off to some monastery to be isolated from the world in which they lived, they were not placed in some palace and exalted above their peers, they went out to live in the world in which this child was born. Christ went out so that he might understand the world which he came to save.
He went out to understand us, not so that he could be our judge, but so that he might be our Saviour.
Let us acknowledge him as such, and trust him in the role he came to fulfil.
To God be the glory, now and forever. AMEN.

Sunday 10th November 2013
Haggai 1:15b-2:9 Luke 20:27-38

He is the God of the Living!

The writer of Ecclesiastes says, "There is nothing new under the sun."
Or in the Good News version looking at the entire verse, "What has happened before will happen again. What has been done before will be done again. There is nothing new in the whole world."
I am sure that we could agree with the sentiment being expressed here as we contemplate many examples, even of modern day living.
And certainly as we look at today's Gospel reading and contemplate the group know as the Sadducee's, we can reflect on religious life and see how true this saying is in the life of the church.
The Sadducee's were a conservative group within Judaism who existed from around the 2nd century BC through until just after the destruction of the Temple in 70AD. They were a priestly group who tended to come from the upper social class of Jewish Society and fulfilled various political, social and religious roles, including a great emphasis on maintaining the Temple and overseeing many formal affairs of state. They would be keen not to see the delicate balance between their own people and the Roman authorities tampered with too much.
In terms of their beliefs, for the Sadducee's there is no fate. Things just don't happen by chance, so God is interactive in the world. God does not commit evil, man has a free will so is able to choose between good or evil. The soul is not immortal, so there is no resurrection of the dead or a concept of an afterlife and therefore they see no concept of reward or penalties after death. They also did not hold to oral law, but gave great attention to the Torah, the written law. Pharisees of course had created laws to enforce laws and so tied themselves up in knots with a very legalistic system of belief.
The Sadducee's particularly differed from the Pharisees in that concept of a resurrection of the dead and this is the question that they are raising with Jesus in this dialogue.
They take an example of the law from the Torah, and draw it out in an extreme manner to try and trap Jesus.
We read in Deuteronomy 25:5, "If two brothers live on the same property and one of them dies, leaving no son, then his widow is not to be married to someone outside the family: it is the duty of the dead man's brother to marry her."
So here in questioning Jesus, they are trying to point out the problems with a belief in an afterlife and to see what Jesus thinks on this matter, they pose the problem of the man who dies and leaves his widow childless, so his brother marries her, and this happens seven time with no children, and when the woman dies, if there is a rising from the dead which of the seven brothers would be her husband in heaven?
It is interesting that there are very few recorded instance of this type of marriage arrangement actually happening and by New Testament times this custom seems to have fallen into disuse, so the question they raise is largely an academic one.
They clearly thought that a definite answer to this question was impossible and that the impossibility of an answer showed the impossibility of a resurrection.
So the really interesting point here is Jesus' affirmation of the concept of a life to come. He did not side with them on their disbelief in the immortality of the soul. But he did go on to offer a picture of the difference in this life and what we might expect in the life to come and then some scriptural backing for the concept of a resurrection from the dead, as our God is a God of the living, not the dead.
Here he says, in this world men and women of this age marry. Relationships and commitment in those relationships are an important aspect of this life. This is part of the plan and purpose of creation that brings fulfilment to our humanity. Relating to one another and relating to God was part and parcel of our human make up that helps us to express who we are as individuals and as a society.
This is what it is to be human.
And so in contrast to this life Jesus answers these Sadducee's by saying that in the life to come social order will be different. It will not be a matter of belonging to one another, but together in relationship with God we will find filfulment.
Joy Cowley tries to express this in her poem on grief, when she says, "Death is an experience for those left behind, not for those who are moving from one stage of living to another."
I think that is quiet a nice way of expressing it.
That word, 'stage,' denotes a development, a movement, and yet allows for change.
We find it hard to comprehend life in any other way than what we know or experience, but clearly Jesus had some expectation that there would be some form of life following death.
And like I said at the beginning in quoting the writer of Ecclesiastes, 'there is nothing new under the sun.' We have continued to have this debate throughout the history of the Christian church and obviously before that.
Jesus goes on to point out to the Sadducee's, who were so careful to stick to the Torah, the written Law, that in fact all those references to the likes of the story of Moses, to the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac and the God of Jacob, were not merely references to figures in their ancient history, but were reminders that the God who appeared before Moses in the burning bush was the God of the living. He was still the God of these patriarchs just as he had been when they roamed the earth.
Perhaps this puts the story of the transfiguration into a different light. That again is a picture for us of Jesus engaging with the living, and in Joy Cowley's idea, they are in a different stage of living.
You see the idea of resurrection was not new when Jesus came along, but in his death and resurrection we were given the clearest of all pictures of God's concept of life, life that transcends time and space, life that moves beyond what we know and experience now.
And this became one of the core beliefs in the emerging Christian Church precisely because it focused us on that climax of Jesus' ministry.
His ministry did not finish at the cross in defeat, but rather it came to its height in triumph at the resurrection.
And although there remains mystery in it, the resurrection is the key to our understanding of life with God. It is the hope that is held out for us, it is key to understanding the purpose and intent of Jesus' coming among us, as Emmanuel, God with us.
And this thought carried on from the Gospels into the other writings of the New Testament both in the affirmation of the Resurrection and in the concept of our rising to be with him.
Paul in 1 Corinthians is adamant when it comes to Christ's rising from the dead.
He poses the question, "Now, since our message is that Christ has been raised from death, how can some of you say that the dead will not be raised to life?" He goes on...."If Christ has not been raised, then your faith is a delusion and you are still lost in your sin." This points out the centrality of the resurrection for the early church and why it has remained a core teaching throughout the churches history.
God is still the God of the living, and not just the living that we see around us, but the living in a much fuller sense of that word and our understanding of it.
And then in the letter to the Thessalonians, the writer holds out this same hope when he says, "Concerning the coming of our Lord Jesus Christ and our being gathered together to be with him: I beg you not to be so easily confused in your thinking or or upset by the claim that the Day of the Lord has come."
Clearly there was some argument going on here, but Paul draws them back to that idea that we will one day gather with the Risen Christ. This is our hope. It does not take us out of the reality of this life, but it gives us focus for what is to come as the mystery of our being unfolds.
Let us be certain of one thing; God's enduring love for us. This love endures in life and in death, in what we know and in what we do not know, in what we experience and in what we hope for, for God is the God of the living!
To God be the glory, now and for ever. AMEN.

Sunday 3rd November 2013
Habakkuk 1:1-4,2:1-4 Psalm 119:137-144
2 Thessalonians 1:1-4,11-12 Luke 19:1-10

If ever we are going to see a picture of the relationship between God and humanity we will see it in this wonderful story of Zacchaeus. This is not just a story of a rather short man despised by society, shunned by his own people, held in suspicion probably by the authorities. It is a story of the Divine's interaction in seeking out humanity.
I suspect that Zacchaeus was probably feeling rather lonely as one who lived on the fringes of society for the reasons just mention. His shady tax dealings, his creaming off profits for himself, his willingness to work for the Roman authorities, all of these reasons would hardly endear him to the Religious authorities of his day.
And so Zacchaeus slips around the back of the crowd and climbs the tree to see the man that the crowd were waiting for. He had heard of this Jesus fellow and was interested to see him for himself.
Jesus was coming to town, and rumours had been circulating about this character, so people were lining the streets to see him coming.
Today we can see the crowd of people as a picture of society. Society who shuns people by its actions and reactions. Society who so often casts people out who don't fit the mould of "Normal".
Society who judges people by standards that they themselves would not want to live up to. And in making judgements on others, we block people from seeing clearly for themselves a whole picture of the world.
The crowd is like many in society who flock to see the spectacular, who turn out in crowds to see the dramatic, and to look for those rumoured to be great for any number of reasons.
They stand on the side lines and look in, no doubt offering criticism, or comment, usually negative in nature, but not necessarily engaging in what is actually happening.
And then we have this picture of Jesus. Jesus comes to the village and comes right up to Zacchaeus, hidden in the tree and calls out to him. But not only does he call out, he also invites himself to come and stay with Zacchaeus.
There is that piercing directness that cuts right to the heart.
But more than that, we have here a picture of the grace of God at work.
Grace is a word that is small, simple and crisp. It is a word that is profound in its meaning and application. And here in the story of Zacchaeus, we see the Grace of God.
Here is God, in Christ, come, pushed through the crowd of the respectable, the ones sure of their own goodness, the ones comfortable in life's ways, and Christ goes up to Zacchaeus, the one struggling with himself and with society, hiding out of sight.
Christ comes to Zacchaeus, the poor, pathetic man and engages with him.
It is in this interaction that we see the wonderful illustration of the Grace of God at work. Here is God seeking out the lost to save them from the pressures and prejudices of society that force people to the margins.
Here we see the unconditional and accepting love of God that embraces those whom society want to ignore and calls them out from the shadows of hiding, calls them down from the out of the way places. He calls Zacchaeus out of the tree to place his feet on solid ground, and restores him to his rightful place within society.
That after all is what Grace is about.
It is similar in the story of Habakkuk who cries out in desperation for his nation, who looks out and sees all the strife and evil that is around and calls out to God
But the promise comes through the fact that God in God's time will act and when that time comes it will be right.
"Look at the proud!," says Habakkuk, "Their spirit is not right in them but the righteous live by their faith." The spirit of the people who gathered to see Jesus that day, did not come with hearts that were ready to welcome God into their presence. They came to see, came to taste, came to look. But Zacchaeus came in need and with a heart crying out to God.
He came ready to put his trust in Christ. Not because he felt good about himself, but quite the opposite. He came because he recognised a need with in his life that he was unable to do anything about. He came because he believed Jesus could help. There seemed to be that hope that Jesus might have something. He came not expecting Jesus to come up to him, and yet believing that his was his only chance. He came with an openness and willingness to engage with Jesus.
"The spirit is not right in them, but the righteous live by their faith."
Zacchaeus' faith was in his recognition of his own inability to do anything for himself or for God.
And this of course was the cry of Luther, who challenged the church of his day, by nailing his 95 Thesis to the door of the church in Wittenberg on October 31st 1517, thus challenging the church of the day to stand up and argue with him. His argument was along these lines, that our righteousness came by faith alone, only in our willingness to trust in the work that Christ had done on the cross for us, would we find peace with God. So salvation was by faith alone. It was by Grace alone. Grace is what I have been speaking of, God's coming to us, God's approach to us for we are the one who are lost in life, lost in our sin, lost in inability to see beyond ourselves. Only through God coming to us to change our perspective in the world, can we find trust in God. And finally Luther said it was through the word alone, both the Living and the written word, for both speak of Christ. Both point us to God's overall plan and speak of that movement of God's love for humanity spilling over with the coming of Christ.
By grace alone, by faith alone, through the word alone.
Luther's movement transformed the world then and has continued to shape the church and Christian thought throughout the ages.
Christ came to seek the lost. When we get lost we do not find ourselves, but more often than not, some one else finds us. We are the lost ones in the gospel picture, and it is God who comes to us in Jesus Christ.
That is Grace!
The God who seeks us out,
To dwell with us, to stay with us.
To live with us. This is the grace of God; that the world might see God's love at work in our lives, drawing others to himself as we bear witness to that love and grace.
God's grace is open and free to all.
It is there for us to accept as we see our need of God.
Zacchaeus showed us God's coming to us. He showed us the faith he had by climbing the tree, and by coming down to meet with Jesus as Jesus beckoned him to come. Let us continue to walk in faith, knowing that God, in Christ has achieved much much more than we could ever imagine.
And we know that God had a plan for Zacchaeus and has plans for us all, so that by God's grace operating within us, our eyes are opened to faith as he invites us to come and join him in life's journey.
To God be the glory, now and forever more. AMEN

Sunday 20th October 2013
Jeremiah 31:27-34 Luke 18:1-8
You will know God.

We need to remember at this point in our study of Jeremiah that at the core of this message Jeremiah is bringing to his people through out this book, issues pertaining to their own life and faith. They were a people who had wandered from the faith that they once knew. They were not following the ways of God and had out grown the whole concept of faith. And for a long time Jeremiah had warned them of the looming consequences of their sin and rejection of Yahweh.
And what is interesting into today's reading is firstly the apparent feeling of injustice felt by the exiled people and then transferring of blame that they engaged in, and following that the strong sense of hope that Yahweh offers these people as he encourages them to take responsibility for their own relationship with God, challenging them as to their faithfulness to God.
In the midst of this passage of hope and promise where God is promising that there is a future for these people in exile, he points to that day when they will no longer say, "The parents ate the sour grapes, but the children got the sour taste."
This intriguing little saying suggest that these people felt they were suffering for the sins of their forebears. Their forebears had tasted the sour grapes, they had been the ones who had sinned against God, and now the present generation were suffering the consequences of that sin.
The subsequent generations were suffering as a result.
This is quite contrary to the whole message of Jeremiah who had constantly been pointing out to these people that it was their own unfaithfulness that was the problem, and rather than shifting the blame back on to their forebears they needed to examine their own lives and take responsibility for their lack of faith and for their refusal to take God seriously.
They may well have gone through the motions of faith, they may well have followed the form of their religion but there was no substance to it. It was not that personal encounter or engagement with God that faith calls us too.
Such a faith is one where there is a two way engagement. It is not merely seeing God as the one who dishes out blessings or curses depending on good or bad behaviour from some distant and remote part of the universe. The parable that Luke conveys has Jesus teaching the people that they should engage with God constantly. He encourages us to persist in prayer and never to let life get on top of us.
This widow kept coming and putting her case to the judge in her town until finally he listened. She wasn't going to be fobbed off. It was her persistence in pleading to this man that got her justice. This parable basically says, if this is how the judge in this story reacted, what will God do for those who keep coming to him for help. "Will he be slow to help them?"
It is that faithfulness even in our pleading, that persistence in engaging with God, not out of mere ritual or formality, but out of the deep longing of our hearts that God honours. Faithfulness in engaging with God brings a reality to that relationship that does not sit back and blame others for our predicament but accepts personal responsibility and seeks change within ones self.
Thus the promise comes that there will be a new covenant, a new agreement when the law will be written on their hearts.
In other words it will not be an external sense of obey this law or that law and all will be well. Judaism by the time of Christ had almost tied itself in knots with laws. There were laws to define other laws to ensure compliance was understood and met. I am convinced that this is almost a human reaction that we cannot help as we feel the need to control one another and force people to conform.
But God's desire is that we act as if that law was part and parcel of our make up; that our natural reactions is to seek the best for ourselves and for others based on our understanding of God's love for us.
The basis of law seems to be a concept of guilt. If we have a law, then we know if we have transgressed, and then we can be punished. And in the process this leaves us carrying that burden of guilt. Guilt is appeased by the punishment dish out.
Jeremiah points to that time when our desire will be to live our lives in trust of God and with that desire to express that trust in our relationships with those around us.
Is this not what Jesus taught us when he was challenged as to what the most important commandment was? His response was to, "love God, with all your heart and soul and mind and strength and then to love your neighbour as you love yourself."
But hand in hand with this teaching came the action of God that saw his love cemented for us in the coming of Christ and in his life and death and resurrection. This was a love lived out, a love expressed, not just in word, but in action and it was a love that transformed the world.
God's love could now be known through Jesus Christ. His love had been lived out in the context of our world and in a way that we could see and also emulate.
And not longer was guilt to be the controlling factor in our understanding of God, for the promise from God that Jeremiah put to the people was,
"I will forgive their sins and I will no longer remember their wrong."
Such an understanding of God's relating to humanity must surely open up for us that pathway for us to come to God, just as the widow did in Jesus' story. She could persist in her approaching the judge confident that he should hear her.
We too can be confident in our approach to God, for God is not there to condemn, but to embrace. God is not there to judge, but to offer love and compassion. God is not remote and distant from us, but he has come to us in Jesus, the Christ, and God continues to come to us in the power of the Holy Spirit who is at work in us and through us.
Is this not what Peter explained to the people on that day of Pentecost when they were bewildered at what they were seeing.
He quoted the prophet Joel saying to them,
"This is what I will do in the last days, God says:
I will pour out my Spirit on everyone. Your sons and daughters will proclaim my message; your young men will see visions, and your old men will have dreams..." And he goes on quoting Joel and concludes, "And then, whoever calls out to the Lord for help will be saved."
There was this new emphasis that seemed to be consistent throughout the prophets of the Old Testament, that there was that need for that personal encounter with God. It was not just to be about the message of the Prophets, but it was to be about the individuals encounter and engagement with God.
This could only be made possible by God dealing with that sense of guilt that lies at the heart of our separation from God, for we feel unworthy, we sense that we are not good enough to approach God let alone be loved by him. And so God dealt with that by offering forgiveness through our trusting and believing in what Christ has done for us.
Thus because of Christ, we can claim with confidence that God has forgiven us, that our sins are forgiven. Then we are freed to engaged with God and to live out his love in our lives and in our encounters with one another.
In Christ we see the new covenant borne out. In Christ we find the assurance of our forgiveness, the certainty of God's love for his people, and example after example of life lived in relationship with God that so often challenges our understanding of what it is to be human; that challenges our understanding of what it is to be part of a community; that challenges our perceptions of how we should love one another with that same self-giving, accepting love that God offers to us.
Let us live with that understanding of God in our hearts as we trust God, and live together as his Church offering that same challenge to the society in which we live.
To God be the glory now and forever. AMEN.

Sunday 13th October 2013 - White Sunday
Jeremiah 29:1,4-9 Luke 17:11-19
Grace and Gratitude

We see in Jeremiah's writings that Jerusalem has fallen and that many of the people were taken away by King Nebuchadnezzar back to Babylon. In fact according to chap 52:28, 3,023 people had been carried captive back to Babylon in 597BC. This included King Jehoiachin, his household, and some of the priests and prophets.
So the question comes, "What does one do as a people in exile?"
What is the response? Does one fight to be released or returned back home, or does one merely join the people in the new land and take what has been dealt to you?"
These were the questions running through the minds of the people
Many were saying their stay would be short lived holding out that hope, as false as it was, that all would be well and that they would soon be on their way back to Jerusalem.
It would also seem from what we know that these people living in exile were being treated reasonably well. There did not seem to be any sense of abuse and harsh treatment being dished out by the oppressors.
So Jeremiah writes to these people and King Nebuchadnezzar allows this correspondence to reach them. He offers advice about settling in this land in an attempt to face them with the reality of their situation.
It also sets their situation in context that they are not outside the care and protection of Yahweh, their God. He phrases this in addressing them as the people whom the Lord Almighty allowed Nebuchadnezzar to take away as prisoners from Jerusalem.
Often in such situations in life we feel that sense of God having abandoned us, but here Jeremiah is careful to assure them that God is still with them and they are still under God's loving care.
Exile, while a physical separation from their fellow country folk, was not synonymous with being separated from God, and Jeremiah was keen to hammer this point home.
So his advice to them was to settle, to become part of the community, and to live full and satisfying lives even though they were in a foreign land.
They were to have children and multiply. The picture is one of being settle for a while. This was not a short term stay for they would be here for some time to come.
The other warning that Jeremiah put to them was not to let themselves be deceived by the prophets who live among them. They were not to be taken in by the beliefs of the locals, but were to remain faithful to Yahweh just as he was remaining faithful to them.
Is this situation not like that which face us all as followers of Jesus? What is our attitude to the world in which we live to be, as we live in the world but we so often hold values and beliefs that vary from that of the world.
Jesus in his great high priestly prayer prayed, "I gave them your message, and the world hated them, because they do not belong to the world. I do not ask you to take them out of the world, but I do ask you to keep them safe from the Evil One. Just as I do not belong to the world, they do not belong to the world." (John 17:14)
There is that whole tension that as followers of Jesus our place is in the world, to bear witness to the love and grace of God, but also that acknowledgement that we belong to God as children of God.
Paul puts it in Romans, "Do not conform yourselves to the standards of this world, but let God transform you inwardly by a complete change of your mind. Then you will be able to know the will of God what is good and is pleasing to him and is perfect."
This tension of being in the world but not of the world seems to be a thread running through the history of God's people, and at different times in that history there have been different reactions.
Sometimes people or the church have withdrawn from the world. There has been that tendency to isolate the church and its activities from what is going on in the world. The church becomes so wrapped up in it own life and activities that it almost fails to connect with the world in which it is placed. It may see itself a holy and set apart, and in so doing, fails to connect. It seems to me that Jeremiah was saying to his people that this was not the way to proceed. Settled down and be part of the community but don't be consumed by its ways and taken in by its beliefs. And it is always hard to know, isn't it, at what point that might be happening.
And the other reaction that sometimes we follow rather than cutting ourselves off from the the world is that we accommodate the world to such a degree, that there is not distinction at all in what the church stands for. It becomes a club among many that people either choose to join or not but with no clearly distinctive set of beliefs or values. In this way the church does not come into conflict with the world in which we live but rather blends in. Perhaps this is where Jeremiah was saying to his people not be deceived by the prophets who live among you. There was still to remain something distinctive about these people living in exile.
Either way for the church, whether we separate out from the world or blend in we become ineffectual in terms of making any difference or having any voice for change in the world.
This is where the church should seek to remain prophetic in its voice and in its life within the world.
It is part of our role to see that justice is done, to ensure that society does not implode in on itself, to see that the poor are taken notice of and the hungry are fed. None of this can be done by separating out from society nor from merely blending in.
Today I think the church has largely lost its voice of challenge to society. Whether we have been sidelined because we have failed to speak out, or whether we have divided ourselves off having become too inward looking, I am not sure. But when was the church last noted for speaking out on any social issue of any consequence?
On the other hand, as individuals within the church we can still play our part, for as we are involved in our communities, as we are settled in this world, we can still stand up for the things that matter, and still have our voice to challenge assumptions and practices within today's world.
We can play our part in the social, political and institutional areas of our world bringing the flavour of the Christian Gospel through our lives and our attitudes and through our involvement.
The challenge to us then is to ask where we see our home. Is it with this world, or is it in our relationship with God? Is it in finding comfort and security in the things we build up and in the people around us, or is in our understanding that we are pilgrims on a journey and that our fulfilment lies beyond the comforts and securities of this world.
Like the Samaritan in the Gospel story, the foreigner, in terms of the Jewish people, was the only one who came back and offered thanks to God. He was the one who realised where the grace he received came from and he came back with gratitude. As we live out our lives in this world, we want to acknowledge with gratitude that the source of our being comes from God, the Lord and giver of life. Whether young or old, from what ever part of the world we come from, no matter our cultural background, what sets us apart is the love we have from God and our willingness to let that love shine in our lives as we live in this world.
That becomes the distinguishing feature that we can carry with us in what ever we do or where ever we go.
To God be the glory, now and forever. AMEN.

Sunday 8th October 2013
Lamentations 1:1-6 Luke 17:5-10
God's love even in sorrow
The book of Lamentations is one of those that we don't tend to take much notice of, and yet the sentiments expressed in this highly skilled piece of writing can give us much to think about.
I understand that each of the five chapters form a separate poem or lament written after the fall of Jerusalem. And although they cannot be directly attributed to Jeremiah's pen, they certainly fit with the themes that flow from him. The first four of the five chapters are acrostics - the first word of each verse begins with the next letter in the Hebrew alphabet (so I understand). This gives a sense of thoroughness as every aspect of grief is rehearsed: bewilderment and loss, hot anger and attempted blame-shifting, demanding questions and resigned despair. This gives the people a sense of ordered grief and enables the author to express real anger and doubt, yet within a fixed frame work or understanding of his ultimate faith in God.
I think with this understanding it makes this a very useful writing for any individual or group of people who may face such issues in their own lives.
Whether we face natural disaster, or personal tragedy, sometimes the world just seems to fall apart around us, and in those times without a framework of faith, without a structure of belief, what is it that we can cling too? Is there in fact anything in our own make up that can ever equip us for all the possibilities that life may throw our way.
Lamentations goes some way to give expression to that but keeps at the heart of this discourse that theme that holds things together expressed in those well known words from Chapter 3:22-24,
"The Lord's unfailing love and mercy still continue, Fresh as the morning, as sure as the sunrise. The Lord is all I have and so I put my hope in him."
This theme is repeated in the gospel where it is suggested that faith as small as a mustard seed gives effect to great things. It is not the quantity of faith that is the issue, it is the basis or the quality of that faith, the source of that faith that gives substance to our faith. And the writer of this lament sees the God of Israel, the God of the Sinai Covenant as being that source.
This is the God who declared, "I will be your God and you will be my people."
So the lament is written in the raw realisation that they are in exile, they as a nation have been defeated, and they are wondering where is God in all of this.
The opening verses paint the picture for us, don't they, drawing the comparison of a person widowed. That monumental gap that is left that leaves a hole that in the raw moment one feels life will never be the same again.
"How lonely lies Jerusalem, once so full of people! Once honoured by the world, she is now like a widow....."
I am sure that one needs to have experienced this feeling to fully appreciated what the author is saying. And for the people of Jerusalem that hollowness would leave them feeling abandoned by God.
Where is God?
Was this the feeling that Christ expressed in the Garden of Gethsemane when he cried out quoting the Psalmist, "My God, my God, why have you forsaken me."
It is comforting to know that such raw human emotion is very normal, very natural, and something that we should not be afraid of, particularly if we can remember that we feel this in the context of God who never leaves us nor forsakes us. For our human emotions do not always lead us down the right paths, but knowing that does not necessarily make them any less real.
Here, the people of Jerusalem faced enslavement to a foreign nation. That in itself would be reminder enough of the situation in which they found themselves. In the same way in life for many and varied reason we find ourselves facing such emotional turmoil. And it is then that we need to remember that, "the steadfast love of the Lord never cease, his mercy never comes to an end, they are new every morning, great is God's faithfulness."
And is this not the picture we face, as we celebrate World Communion Sunday. We come to the table of our Lord, not strong, and self-sufficient in ourselves, but we come, burdened and heavy ladened, looking for God to give us rest.
We come, not because we are worthy, but because Christ who gave himself for us, has made us whole.
So in the knowledge of such grace given freely, like the writer of Lamentations we too can come with confidence, not in ourselves or anyone around us, but in the confidence of Christ, who died and rose again for us and for our salvation.
Joy Cowley wrote a lovely poem entitled Grief, where she expresses something of how it feels for us as we experience it, and in the closing stanza ties it in to what we are celebrating here today, the death and resurrection of our Lord Jesus Christ.
She says, "So while grief goes on, the tears, the hurting, I know in the truth of Jesus Christ that the hollowness I feel at the departure of loved ones, is in reality, the hollowness of the empty tomb."
As we gather at the table, we are reminded not only of the sacrifice, but also of the triumph in the face of apparent disaster for those who experienced it first hand. We come to the table in the knowledge of God's truimph. We come knowing that God has demonstrated his unfailing love for us in this act, and so we have that framework on which to build our lives so that in sorrow we might have hope, so that in pain and rejection we might find grace and mercy.
This is the message of the gospel. The book of Lamentations does not leave us in despair, but points us to the steadfast love of the Lord that never comes to an end.
May we experience that grace in every moment of our lives, for we know that God lives and that God's love never ceases.
To God be the glory, now and forever. AMEN.

Sunday 22nd September 2013
Jeremiah 8:18-9:1 Luke 16:1-13
God's suffering love

Poor old Jeremiah hits a real low ebb in his ministry here where all around he sees the despair of his people as they continue to fail to listen to Yahweh, their God. He can only see the gloom of winter, and cannot see the approaching spring in the lives of his people.
The season seems to be rolling on with no hope of brightness ahead.
And in and through the people's refusal to listen to Yahweh, they then begin to grumble about about their plight, and moan to Jeremiah asking, "where is God in all of this?"
Then in this conversation God comes back and says "Why have you made me angry by worshipping your idols and bowing down to your useless foreign gods?"
Jeremiah is feeling trapped between these two postions.
Jeremiah feels crushed as, while on the one hand he can see where God is coming from, but he also feels the pain of his people.
RK Harrison says, "His out poured grief issued from the conflict between his love for the homeland and his unswerving fidelity to the commands of God."
I think this is a common place that we can find ourselves as we always live out our lives in the context of our world, and yet have that sense that it is indeed God's world. Is this where Jesus found himself as he stood and wept over Jerusalem?
There is almost a sense of doubting, even in Jeremiah's voice, when he wonders if there is medicine for the people, or doctors to offer a cure. And yet this doubt never really takes hold.
But such is the depth of his compassion as he feels that pain for his people, and feels the pain that God is suffering. There would never be enough tears for Jeremiah to adequately express this grief.
This dilemma that catches us between our love for God and our love for the world in which we live, is something of the suffering love that Jesus Christ experienced as he gave his life for us and for our salvation. But I wonder too, if it is something of what Jesus was speaking about when he told this parable of the shrewd manager. This is a notoriously hard parable in terms of interpretation, for it is never that clear how we deal with Jesus' praise of this slightly dodgy manager.
Here is a man of responsibility who has got himself into a fix between his employer and the clients he has been dealing with.
The master is going to sack him for he has been informed that there has been some skulduggery going on.
It is thought that perhaps the manager has been adding sum to each account that enables him to cream off some profit on every deal. And while one might get away with adding small amounts to each account, maybe this manager had been tacking larger amounts on, maybe even doubling the amount to give himself a much bigger slice of the cake.
What ever he was doing, he knew he was in deep trouble and so had to come up with a solution to the problem.
As he contemplates his fate, he has a flash of brilliance.
He calls each of the debtors in one at a time. The secrecy in this means that none of the others knows what he is doing. And he asks them to rewrite the bill, taking off the amount that he would be taking for himself. This way the master will get what is owed to him, and he will be forgoing his share of the profit. The master would not suffer, his debtors would think they were being given a good deal, the account would be rewritten so that the owner would not see the transaction that had taken place as the original promissory note would be destroyed.
The only dilemma that the master faces is that if he punishes the manager for getting rid of the usurious contracts, he could be implicating himself in this action and he could be seen an irreligious and oppressive owner.
It is a really tricky parable as it seems on the surface that the master is praising the shrewdness, which may be he is, but that does not mean he supports the managers intentions or his actions.
Leon Morris says, "Well-intentioned as the children of this world are, they often lack the wisdom to use what they have as wisely as the worldly use their possession for their very different ends."
Maybe this is a challenge to us all to look at the resources we have and to see how wisely we use them and for whose gain.
And like the people of Jeremiah's time who continually refused to acknowledge God and constantly turned their attention to all sorts of idols of their day, maybe Jesus is challenging his disciples to think carefully about what they want to do with their lives. Who is it that is to benefit?
Does the short term benefit come at a cost of the long term gain?
And as we celebrate the beauty of spring, do we think more widely to the gift of God's creation and wonder at the ways in which we exploit creation for our own benefit and gain and give very little thought to our children's and future generations who want to enjoy the beauty that we experience.
How can we be faithful to God, if we are not faithful to those people and things around us that give us the rich heritage that we possess today? That rich heritage is grounded in God, Creator, Sustainer and Giver of life. We have been given that task of caring for the resources that are before us.
And what of God's gift of salvation? Is that there for us to take for granted, there for us to exploit for our benefit, or is it there so that we can share the benefits with our neighbours and friends as we marvel at the wonderful gift given to us.
Perhaps the wonder of the parable was that the manager was prepared, even though under pressure, to offer back the benefits he had received through exploiting the master, sharing those benefits with the debtors.
He befriended those who may well have grown to hate him.
As disciples of Christ, maybe we are not stand in judgement of the world around us, but rather to accept our own shortcomings, and to share the benefits we have received from God with all.
Isn't the Pope making some interesting statements at the moment!
He declared in a candid interview,

"This is the most accurate definition," he said, when asked what sort of a man he was. "It is not a figure of speech, a literary genre. I am a sinner."
There is nothing hidden in this comment, it is a statement of honesty from one who wants to share the benefits that he has found in a life of faith.
It is easy to be consumed by the negativity in the world around us, but as we tally up the benefits and the rich grace that God has given to us, let us share that with the world in which we live.
Let us take the beauty of spring, the hope that it offers as new life burst forth, and share that hope with a world that too often feels oppressed and condemned.
The manager in this story was at the mercy of his master, and his master was keen to see how he dealt with those around him.
Did he exhibit the same grace that was being offer to him, or did he just seek to save his own skin.
The solution seemed to be one that honoured the master and put the needs of the debtors before himself.
Sure he was also taking care of himself in the process. But maybe that is where the wisdom of this man lay. He sought a win win solution. The master's honour was not compromised, the manager was sacrificial in his response and remained faithful to his master offering he same self-giving love that he had received. .
May the season of spring continue to remind us of the richness of God's love for us, a love that embraces us even in the face of suffering, a love that embraces the whole world, and a love that calls us to offer up all that we are and all that we have in the service of him.
To God be the glory, now and for ever. Amen.

Sunday 15th September 2013
Jeremiah 4:11-12, 22-28 Luke 15:1-10

How long suffering is God?

Perhaps in reading Jeremiah we can see where the term, "act of God," comes from in reference to natural disasters. Such is the nature of today's reading where Jeremiah seeks the repentance and spiritual renewal of God's people in the Southern Kingdom and it is not forth coming. And here Jeremiah uses the scorching desert winds as a metaphor of destruction. As this wind sweeps in and withers all vegetation making human habitation unbearable, we are given an insight into life under an invading army.
The blowing wind is too strong to be the gentle help required by the winnower at harvest time. No doubt it would scorch the seedlings and new shoots of spring that would begin to show in that season also.
So Jeremiah paints a picture of God's displeasure at his people's continued refusal to acknowledge his presence among them as their God.
He chastises his people for their stupidity in refusing to acknowledge him saying, "they do not know me."
This is mirrored in the words of the Psalmist who proclaims, "Fools say to themselves, 'There is no God.'"
Compare this with the words in an article in Friday's paper where Lloyd Geering is quoted as saying, "I agree with a great deal that Dawkins and Hitches say but I believe that they do protest too much...They do not appreciate the important role the idea of God has played up to the present and are becoming atheistic fundamentalists....."
Jeremiah's concept of knowing God is not the same as humanities 'idea of God', but is much more about a relationship with the living God, a relationship with the God who is and remains intimately involved in creation and who longs for his people to draw near to him in their trust and reliance on him.
This is the God, that although Jeremiah paints to a dire picture of the world that continues to ignore or reject God, this God never gives up. The picture is one of a world in ruin, of creation in chaos in the pre-creation state. And yet we know that hope is never lost in this prophets mind, for any glimpse of repentance, any hope of humanities willingness to recognise his shortcomings, the slightest inkling of any response to the Divine presence will be met with mercy and grace.
This is the underlying nature of God who continues to work in and with creation to bring about his purposes.
And so we see in Luke's Gospel as series of parables that speak about the lost: the Lost Sheep, the Lost Coin, and the Lost Son.
Each of these parables are addressing the same issue, Jesus' willingness and continue persistence in talking too and mixing with the religious outcasts of his day; tax collectors, prostitutes, lepers, the blind and the lame, and other such people including all gentiles.
In the eyes of the Religious Leaders this made Jesus unclean and unfit for religious service. In fact they had a rule that, 'One must not associate with an ungodly man.' They took this so seriously that the rabbis would not associate with such people even to teach them the Law. We see this in Acts where Peter visits Cornelius and is taken into his house where many people were gathered and he says to them, "You yourselves know very well that a Jew is not allowed by his religion to visit or associate with Gentiles."
So the accusation against Jesus was, "This man welcomes outcasts and even eats with them!" His association with them, in their eyes, lowered his position in society to being treated as one such person.
So in telling these stories, and particularly we look this morning at the one of the Lost Sheep, Jesus gives us an insight into God's long suffering nature that Jeremiah urged his people to look in hope toward. We see the joy of God when people respond to the love offered by God, and in this parable we see that God does not wait passively for people to come to him, but actively seeks them out in his passion to see sinners come to repentance.
The picture is a rural scene of a shepherd with his flock. It is quite a large flock for a person of that day, and so we see a relatively wealthy man here with his hundred sheep.
There are two key characteristics in this short parable that tell us something of the long-suffering and merciful nature of our God.
The first is that God is a seeking God.
In this story the shepherd does not sit passively and wait for the return of lost sheep, hoping that by chance and good luck it will return unscathed.
No, in this picture the shepherd goes out and actively looks for the one sheep that is missing.
I suspect in modern farming terms this intimate knowledge of his flock is possibly something that has gone by the board just due to vast numbers.
But in other stories with similar themes in the Gospels it talks of the shepherd knowing his sheep by name. The usually small number of sheep would make this far more possible. However, as I have said, this is a large flock and still we get that sense of intimacy between the shepherd and his sheep. One would of thought that one sheep going missing out of a hundred would not be worth the effort. In fact he leaves the ninety nine and goes looking for the one. Such is his concern for the individual sheep. And this is the point we are to take. God's concern and love comes down to the one. Jeremiah's picture of gloom and destruction of the nation offers the power and possibilities of Divine wrath, but in the end power and strength gives way to mercy and grace for the sake of minority, even just one. And in this story God does not just sit back and wait for that person to appear but goes out seeking, calling, urging. It is God who takes the initiative. And this is no token search. Jesus suggests that the shepherd wants this one sheep, and he looks and searches until he finds it.
God is not a passive possibility in the in the mind of man but rather we are precious progeny in the heart of the Creator.
God will not sit back and let humanity self destruct, but God will search out his people and gather them to himself, seeking until he finds them.
This in Jesus' time was a radical view of God and stripped the religious leaders of their power and control over people, for who were they to say who was worthy and who was not? Was their role, like ours, not to go out into the world to seek out those who were lost and to help them respond to the call of God?
The second major theme in this story is that of joy.
This was a joyful experience for the shepherd. We are not told that the sheep experienced any particular emotion, but certainly the shepherd was so overjoyed that he picks the sheep up and carries it on his shoulders. There is no grumbling about carrying this sheep, there is not even a hint that the sheep was in fact injured, but just out of sheer joy, the shepherd carries this sheep home.
What a wonderful image of God's loving and merciful nature; there to carry us in our times of need, there to rejoice over our having been found, there to strengthen and encourage us when we are feeling weak and vulnerable.
And as the shepherd carries this sheep back, the joy does not stop there, but in fact he calls his friends and neighbours and celebrates with them.
The joy is not only God's joy, but the joy of the whole people of God.
There was a Jewish saying, "There is joy before God when those who provoke Him perish from the world." "But Jesus offered a very different view of God," says Leon Morris in his commentary on this passage, "He rejoices over the returning penitent more than over many safely in the fold."
Jeremiah's picture is one of God provoking his people, urging them to turn from their sinful ways. Like the Gospel story it is God engaging in seeking response from his people so that he might bring them back to a meaningful and fruitful relationship with himself. It is God holding out his hand of mercy even in the face of antagonism and rejection. God's mercy is great, and the joy God desires is to see his people find fulfilment and joy in his presence among them.
As we remember the season of spring, may we remember the love and grace that continues to come to us in Jesus, the Christ, who lived, who died and whose risen presence continues to seek us out and draw us into the fellowship of his presence.
To God be the glory, now and forever. AMEN.

Sunday 8th September 2013
Jeremiah 18:1-11 Luke 14:25-33
In the potter's hand
Jesus loved object lessons as a method of teaching and it would appear that Jeremiah had used a similar technique some 6-700 years earlier.
This involves looking around you and choosing some thing or event and then building a story around it to illustrate the point that you are trying to get across.
Such illustrations need to be taken as a broad brush picture, not a picture where every little detail can be coloured and shaded into a elaborate work of art.
In the case of Jeremiah he takes his readers into the house of the potter and observes the activity going on with this craftsman.
The careful shaping and moulding of a lump of clay is worked on the wheel. This is two circular stones on central pivot that the potter spins the lower stone with his feet leaving his hands free to shape the spinning lump of clay.
I don't know how many of you have tried this craft, but I remember at Teacher's College having a go at potting. It is one of those crafts that the experts make it look so easy, but in fact it is quite difficult. Centring the clay on the wheel is the first hurdle that needs to be overcome so that the clay does not wobble all over the place, and then drawing the wet clay up into the require shape without it getting too thin or collapsing on you requires patience and real control. It is so often a case of if at first you don't succeed, try, try and try again. Jeremiah would have observed the potter when this happens, punching the clay down into a single lump and then beginning the whole process again. He was taken with the control that the potter had to form and to shape. Here was a creation in progress.
It is a very simple analogy but an incredibly powerful one. And so he poses the question from Yahweh who says, "Haven't I the right to do with you people of Israel what the the potter did with the clay?"
There really can only be one answer to such a question if we are to take the concept of God seriously. Of course God has the power. It is the power of choice and the power to build up and break down.
And this is an interesting question for it in no way says that this is what God will do, but merely that if God is God, then that power belongs to him.
The sovereign nature of God has stood at the heart of the Judeo-Christian tradition for a long time.
Our own Westminster Confession of Faith declares in addressing God's providence,
"God the great Creator of all things, doth uphold, direct, dispose, and govern all creatures, actions, and things from the greatest even to the least, by his most wise and holy providence, according to his infallible foreknowledge, and the free and immutable counsel of his own will, to the praise of the glory of his wisdom, power, justice, goodness, and mercy."
In other words, although God has this power he does not use it willy nilly, but uses it bringing into account those characteristics of wisdom, power, justice, goodness and mercy. Those aspects of God's own nature are used to draw his people to himself.
And so as we see this picture of the power and majesty of God, we then see the God who works his plans out in conjunction with his people.
When a nation engages with God, God listens and God responds accordingly. This whole merciful nature of God is a powerful one that seems to come to the fore. It is not a vengeful search for justice that shows itself in the modern catch cry, 'do the crime, do the time,' but rather if any inkling of repentance is shown, mercy is there to match.
Jeremiah does not see humanity as an amorphous lump of clay, but rather humanity is the crown of creation that God engages with and invites to participate in the on going nature of creation itself.
Thus the invitation for all humanity is always present. "Come follow me and I will make you fishers of men," were the words Jesus used to draw together a group of followers that would set the Christian church on its feet.
And what both Jeremiah and Christ point to in this engagement with the Divine is that it is a real choice that we must make. It is a choice with consequences, it is a choice with demands.
"Whoever comes to me cannot be my disciple unless he loves me more than he loves his father and his mother, his wife and his children, his brothers and his sisters, and himself as well. Whoever does not carry his own cross and come after me cannot be my disciple." Of course these words would only be fully understood in the light of the crucifixion and resurrection, but they illustrate the cost of being a disciple. It is not merely answering yes to a question, but it is a commitment to a lifestyle that reflects the faith that we profess.
It is a willingness to grapple with some hard decisions that will affect the way we live our lives, the standards we set for ourselves, and the interaction we have with the world around us.
It may mean standing up for the underprivileged, it may mean working to principles that others don't see as being relevant or important. It may mean saying no when the rest of the world says yes. But this is surely the nature of engagement itself, and this is the engagement that God engages us in in our relationship with himself.
And this is where it is so vitally important that Christian people are involved in the community, and the world in which we live, for being a disciple involves bearing witness, it involves standing up for what we believe, and involves seeking change in the world in which we live.
This is the heart of discipleship. It is not about belonging to a club and merely adhering to a set of rules and expectations of others.
Yes God has the power of the potter, but God chooses to gently and sometimes firmly mould and shape us. However, God also invites us to participate in his divine activity in the world as we take on being his disciples, his followers, bringing his presence into the world today.
And as we focus on that presence today, we gather at his invitation to remember, to participate, to engage with God through the power of the Spirit in the bread and wine offered for us.
Here is the risen Christ hosting us at this feast saying, here I am, come eat with me." It is here that we acknowledge that risen presence and participate in that presences as we look to the cross and remember that he died for us and that he rose again to life and reigns in our presence.
The invitation is always there,
"come you who are weak and carrying heavy loads, for I will give you rest."
The invitation is not for the good of this world, but rather for the needy. It is for those who recognise their need of God's saving grace, it is for those who struggle and are afraid, for we are the ones who need God's grace, and God's mercy and grace is here.
The question always remains, do we want to follow him? Do we want to be shaped and moulded by the potter to become useful vessels for him?
And the ultimate challenge that Jesus put before the people was,
"none of you can be my disciple unless he gives up everything he has." Christ gave up everything to face the cross. We come to the table in thanksgiving of that gift for us and to offer ourselves in his service.
To God be the glory, now and forever more. AMEN.

Sunday 1st September 2013
Jeremiah 2:4-13 Luke 4:1,7-14
Where is fulfilment found?

Jeremiah is one of the great prophets of the Old Testament, a major prophet because of the length of his work. Jeremiah lived during the latter part of the seventh century and into the first part of the 6th century BC. His ministry involved warning his people of the catastrophe that would fall on the nation because the people persistence in idolatry and sin. He lived to see the fulfilment of this with the destruction of the city and the Temple and the exile to Babylonia of Judah's king and many of the people of that nation.. He did also tell of the eventual return of the people from exile and the their restoration to a nation in their own right.
With the happenings in the world over the last few weeks in the Middle East we may well ask, "what has changed?" But this is also a much broader pattern of human existence as we see a cycle almost of dependence and trust in God give way to a self-sufficiency as people grow to rely on their own knowledge and wealth and see no need for God. This often seems to be followed by a break down in society and again the cycle begins. There is never a simplistic answer to why, but Jeremiah points directly to peoples attitude to, and lack of dependence upon, God.
So this book is divided in four parts, the first being messages from God to the nation of Judah and its rulers during the reigns of Josiah, Jehoiakim, Jehoiachin, and Zedekiah. Secondly there are the memoires of Baruch, Jeremiah's secretary, which include prophecies and important events in the life of Jeremiah. Thirdly there are messages from the Lord about foreign nations and then finally an historic appendix, giving an account of the fall of Jerusalem, and the exile to Babylon.
Jeremiah was a sensitive man who did not enjoy bringing the message that he did, but he felt compelled too even though it brought him no comfort. His call was so strong that the word of the Lord was like a fire in his heart.... he was unable to keep it back.
The initial chapter tells of his call, and like so many others, we hear the excuses of age and inability to speak. And out of this we see God's willingness to equip his servants for the tasks that he calls them too.
Then there is a sort of test as to what Jeremiah sees, almost as if God is training him for his coming ministry.
Then as we come out of that Jeremiah comes to the people of Jerusalem to speak God's message to them.
He has often been referred to as a prophet of doom, and one would have no trouble seeing why, having listened to this mornings reading.
It is set almost as a court scene where the people of Israel are on trial.
They are addressed according to their status as descendants of Jacob. This reminds them of their heritage and encourages them to judge themselves looking back on the history of their people. This lies at the heart of this case. The people have abandoned the faith of their forebears, just as they did in the past also. It is that call to look and learn from the past so that we don't fall into the same mistakes as those who have gone before us.
The Lord reminds them of the exodus as they were lead out of Egypt. This was a story that had continued to be told as it lay at the heart of their faith, just as we continue to tell the story of Jesus and his death and resurrection. Like the Passover, we remember in the Lord's Supper, the sacrifice made on our behalf and we will remember this next week in our worship.
Such events in the life of the community are to designed to draw us back to the heart of our common faith.
Jeremiah speaking for the Lord takes them through the exodus story and how it brought life to this nation and established them in a fertile land. There prosperity was a gift from God and they were not to forget this. The harvest they enjoyed was not so much the result of their hard work but rather the result of God's gift to them.
There was no room for false pride, a pride that left the prime giver, Yahweh, out of the picture.
He then lays into the religious leaders asking them, "Where is the Lord?"
And this puts onus on the leadership of the community. As the people have been wandering off, not merely abandoning their faith, but in a sense even worse, they have changed their religion.
Thus as they are encouraged to look back to their forbears, as they are reminded of the Exodus, they are asked, "was this not good enough for you?" What Yahweh had done in the past seemed to have lost relevance for today and so they went looking elsewhere.
As the case is laid out, the accuser draws in the examples to back up his argument. He says go off and look at other places, look at Cyprus in the west and Kedar in the east. What you people of Israel have done, has not been done elsewhere.
They have not changed their gods.
The heart of the case lies with the people's unfaithfulness. And this of course flies in the face of the commandments that were given on the Exodus journey to help keep them faithful to their God. The very first commandment, the basis on which all the others are laid, states, "Worship no god but me." It could not be put more clearly. And as if that were not clear enough the second, commandment as an expansion of that says,
"Do not make for yourselves images of anything in heaven or on earth or in the water under the earth." And they go on reiterating this idea that we need to be careful that our trust is in the God who walks with us, the God who has lead us this far and the God that will lead us throughout our life's journey. And what is it that brings us back to that realisation time and time again, our faithfulness in worship. Worship reminds us that our life begins at this point and ends with this point. The Christian tradition puts its holy day for worship at the first day of the week because this was the day of resurrection. This was the day that as we enter the new week we are reminded that God is first and foremost in our lives and from Him all else follows.
The people of Jeremiah's time had forgotten this fundamental point.
And like our own day, we live in a generation, sometimes called post-modern, where anything goes. What is right for me, may not be right for you, but I cannot tell you that you are wrong. As long as I feel that what I am doing and where I am going is okay for me, then no one is able to challenge that.
We live in a day an age where people are searching in all sorts of places for fulfilment and satisfaction in life, and if they don't find it in one place they move on to something else. We seem to do this with a sense of almost arrogance expecting that our search should be recognised and accepted by all. And maybe this is what Jesus was hinting at in his story about guests expecting to sit at the place of honour at the wedding feast. We just assume that God will applaud us for our desire to search and that really he doesn't mind where we look. And we can get the sense from reading Jeremiah that there really is nothing new in any of this. This has been part of our human nature for a long time.
And it has been the long standing place of our tradition to sometimes stand up and challenge such trends and assumptions, and to ask the hard questions as to whether people are really finding what they are looking for or have they forgotten what they once knew and what they once had.
He sums up this court session outlining the two charges:
they have turned way from me, the spring of fresh water.
And they have dug cisterns, cracked cisterns that can hold no water.
The people had abandoned their faith, and not only that, they had looked for fulfilment else where. They had ceased to worship Yahweh and they had gone off and built idols for themselves and expected to be satisfied.
When do we ever learn? We have a society that has turned from God, and we build all sorts of things and look in all sorts of places and expect that life will be fulfilling even when we have forgotten the most basic principle. God is the Lord and giver of life.
This is the challenge for every generation and we all do well to examine our own lives to see the areas where such accusations can so easily apply, to re assess and re prioritise as we commit our lives to God afresh, recognising that only he, through Jesus Christ, can bring to us the springs of living water.
"Now none but Christ can satisfy, none other name for me!
There's love, and life and lasting joy, Lord Jesus, found in Thee." -James McGranahan 1840-1907
To God be the glory, now and forever. AMEN.

Sunday 25th August, 2013
Luke 13:10-17
'Keeping the Sabbath!'
Of all the issues facing the church over the years one that has been in the forefront has been the observance of the Sabbath. One statement issued in 1888 by the Anglican Church states that;
"The principle of the religious observation of one day in seven is of Divine and primeval obligation, and was afterwards embodied in the Fourth Commandment. The observance of the Lord's Day as a day of rest, of worship, and of religious teaching has been a priceless blessing in all Christian lands in which it has been maintained. The growing license in its observance threatens a grave change in its sacred and beneficent character. The increasing practice on the part of some of the wealthy and leisurely classes of making the day a day of secular amusement is most strongly to be deprecated. The most careful regard should be had to the danger of any encroachment upon the rest which on this day is the right of servants as well as their masters and of the working classes as well as their employers."
The language and reference to a class structure is a bit dated, but we can clearly see the concerns that have grown in the past 130 years or so over the Sabbath becoming a day of amusement for those with means, sport and recreation for some, and concerns that people who have to work for a living are not getting a day of rest.
Although the Sabbath may not be at the forefront of concerns as we head toward the future, it is still worth addressing? What might church leaders have to say now, in today's fast-paced, technological, consumer-driven society, about the subject of Sunday observance? What might we say about the keeping of any day of the week as a day set aside for rest, worship, and religious teaching? This issue might be more pressing in the lives of some Christians than others, and we may wonder if we should even be bothered about it?

In today's gospel lesson, Jesus argues with his opponents who criticize him for healing a crippled woman; seen as working on Sabbath day. Jesus counters with the reasoned argument; that in healing the woman, he is actually setting her free from bondage, just as anyone would untie an animal to show it compassion. How much more appropriate is it then, to loosen someone from the pressures that work against human health, wholeness, and freedom? Well, I'm sure we would all agree with that. As showing compassion and working for the dignity of every human being is appropriate on every day of the week. We probably agree with Jesus' opposition to the legal Jewish view of the Sabbath, with its strict and rigid interpretation. We applaud him, and then we turn away, thankful that we're not weighed down by faulty and outdated interpretations of scripture that may prevent us from doing the things we really feel are important to do. Perhaps this is where we run into trouble. Are we too quick to place a tick by this story, thinking, "I'm so glad we don't have to worry about this subject"? Do we then fail to engage seriously the gift that God intends for us, in his commanding - that is, commanding, not suggesting - that we have a Sabbath? In Jesus, we are set free from a legal observance of Sabbath, but what are we set free for? Are we simply free to add ten more hours to our working week? To work every day so that those who work for us never have a day during which we have not added something to their list of things to do? Are we free to simply participate every day in our consumer culture, every day making purchases, acquiring, accumulating? I know that I have often been grateful for the opportunity to shop on a Sunday, when I have the time free to do so. Are we free so that our children and grandchildren's lives can be structured every day, fully scheduled, so they never miss a chance to compete, excel, keep up, or add an activity to their list of achievements? Of course, work; the ability to acquire the things we need, to provide for our children's activities and wellbeing are all good things in and of themselves. But is there a price we pay in never designating one day in seven, any day, as a day of Sabbath?

Apparently, people of God have long struggled with how to keep this commandment appropriately. In an alternative reading for today, the prophet Isaiah pronounces these words from God: "If you treat the Sabbath as sacred, and do not pursue your own interests on that day; if you value my holy day and honour it; by not travelling, working or talking idly on that day, then you will find the joy that comes from serving me. I will make you honoured all over the world and you will enjoy the land I gave to your ancestor Jacob. I, the Lord, have spoken." Perhaps this ancient reading still shines a light on our path? The problem for Isaiah's audience was that people were pursuing their own interests, not God's; honouring their own purposes, not God's. It's no accident that the prophet connects their faulty observance of Sabbath with issues of justice, such as feeding the hungry and meeting the needs of the afflicted. Sabbath, it seems, is also a justice issue. If we ignore God's purposes for Sabbath, in the same way as we ignore the needs of others, such as the poor and hungry, then all will not be right in our world.

So what does God intend for the Sabbath? If we're free from the law, what are we free for? We are free for rest. We need it. We all need it: adults and children, executives, bus drivers, students, teachers, nurses, homemakers. All of us. We are mortals, and resting reminds us that we are creatures with a real bodily need to stop, replenish, and rest. This rest is a justice issue because we need an economy in which people can make a living wage, so that no one needs to work every day of the week in order to make ends meet and provide for the needs of their households. We are free to remember our dependency on God. Sabbath reminds us that God is God and we can stop trying to be God. We can rest, worship God, and learn about God. We are free to worship, to immerse ourselves in God's eternity: in a place and time set aside; in an activity in which we produce nothing but praise; where we are valued, not because of what we make, do, earn, deserve, know, contribute, or achieve, but because we are created by God and loved by God and we can rest in God's presence, at all times. If, as the reading from Hebrews for today states, our God is a consuming fire, then worship gives us a place in which all that seems so needful during the rest of the week can be burned away, and we can rest, simply and wholly, in the presence of God.

The woman cured by Jesus on that Sabbath day must have experienced all of this as a gift from God, as the undergirding of gaining her freedom. She experienced rest from the physical stress of her deformity. She experienced reliance on God in the reminder that God alone has the power to bring healing, and she experienced true worship, in praise that issued forth from her lips for what God had done through Jesus Christ, not what she had accomplished for herself. So, what about us? How shall we keep a Sabbath in our own day? One of the tutors at Otago University, Rev. Dr. Lynne Baab, has written extensively on the possibilities for observing a Sabbath day. For us there is the opportunity to tailor the day to fit our lifestyle, to have an intentional rest on any day of the week, to fully experience God in whichever way we choose. Maybe, we can read Scripture, maybe walk in the outdoors, marvelling at creation, maybe we can sing, play with children or just sit with a loved one. To choose a day in which we do as little work as possible, to allow whatever to occur and experience a closeness with God, that we otherwise miss out on when we are busy rushing around, filling our days with so much to do, so that we end the day exhausted and distracted; not aware of God in our lives at all.

I encourage you to consider factoring in a Sabbath day in your week, to allow yourself the freedom to rest, relax and re-create in God's abiding presence. You may well be surprised at what benefits and gifts you gain as a result. For then we too, like the healed women can respond in thankful praise of God.

Sunday 11th August 2013
Isaiah 1:1,10-20 Luke 12:32-40
What does God really want?

Isaiah is a fascinating book. It is named after a great prophet who lived in that latter half of the eight century BC. Often the prophetic writing of the OT are divided into the major and minor prophets. This division is nothing to do with their level of importance but purely to do with the length of their works. Thus Isaiah with its 66 chapters is definitely one of the major prophets. There is wide spread debate as to how much of this book he actually wrote himself, as it has often been separated into three parts. Chapters 1-39 come from a time when Judah, the southern kingdom was threatened by its powerful neighbour, Assyria.
Chapters 40-55 tell us about the time when many of the people of Judah were in exile in Babylon, crushed and without hope.
And then Chapters 56-66 addresses the people who were back in Jerusalem. They needed hope that God would fulfil his promise to them and restore them as a nation. Much of this section we would recognise with that Messianic hope.
“The Sovereign Lord has filled me with his spirit. He has chosen me and sent me to bring good news to the poor to heal the broken-hearted, to announce release to captives and freedom to those in prison.”
And so we return to the passage read today where we see a nation in strife. Not only do we read of that threat from neighbouring Assyria, but we also see God's disappointment in a people who seem to have lost the plot.
We see this in the opening verses that we did not read, v4ff says, “You are doomed, you sinful nation, you corrupt and evil people! Your sins drag you down! You have rejected the Lord, the holy God of Israel, and have turned your backs on him? Why do you keep rebelling?....”
And in verse 10 he parallels this when he says, “Jerusalem, your rulers and your people are like those of Sodom and Gomorrah”
There is no let up in the mind of the people. They may see their threat as coming from their neighbours, Assyria, but in fact their biggest threat is not taking Yahweh seriously. They have abandoned their faith and turned their backs on God.
It is always easier to see such threats as coming from a distance, from somewhere else, for we can put the blame for our woes beyond our own scope and offload them onto someone else. In fact, however, often the blame lies well within our own grasp. Sodom and Gomorrah were well known for their self-destruction and so despite the way in which the proud rulers of Jerusalem saw themselves, here they were being shown up for their sinful ways and the prophet suggest that they deserve the judgement and punishment of that ancient city.
From pointing this out he moves on to the specifics of where they should look in relation to this internal problem. If it is not so much the threat that the should be worrying about, what is it then?
And the prophet goes straight to the heart of the matter pointing them to listen to Yahweh, their God.
“Do you think I want all these sacrifice you keep offering to me?
He hits at the heart of probably what the leaders of Jerusalem think that they do best of all.
Their worship. It is probably what they prided themselves on most of all, and here they are challenged.
There is a sharp rejection by Isaiah of the idea that the simple formal observance of ritual and cultic duty is sufficient to maintain God's blessing and favour.
And he lists specifics in this with the offering of animal sacrifice, that religious gatherings, Sabbath and new moon festivals and other holy days. Basically it tears at the heart of what they think they do so well and yet they seem to miss the mark horribly.
Is it the pride they hold in themselves thinking that they can earn God's favour by what they do? Is it because they see their actions as earning the grace that God has constantly tried to offer them by stating that he is their God and they are his people? They seem come to worship out of a sense to duty and fear rather than gratitude and response for all that God has done for them. They do not come in reliance of God, but rather with an attitude of trying to appease him so that he will protect them from that external enemy, Assyria.
The challenge with such a passage as this is that we can so easily see parallels within our own existence as a community of faith. How much pride do we put in the way we do things? Do we see our worship in some way as superior to the way others engage with God? Are we so rigidly stuck to our form that the content of our worship somehow takes a back seat? So long as we do it right, that's all that matters.
And then we blame society for the failings of the church. Numbers are down because of all those external threats; Sunday sport, a Godless attitude and indifference to religion, the threat from other religions moving in on our patch.
It is far easier to find the blame for our present woes in areas outside our own four walls.
It is always tempting to point the one finger at someone else rather than examining for three fingers pointing back at ourselves.
So it is only fair to ask, what does God require from us then?
Wash yourselves clean he tells these people. The worshippers hands were covered in blood from their sacrifices and the prophet paints this picture. They must not just wash their hands they must change their whole way of life. It is similar to what Jesus is saying to the wealthy leaders of Jerusalem a few centuries later. “sell all your belongings and give the money to the poor. Challenging stuff! Clean up your own act. Look to where you really focus your lives and think about where you really put your trust.
“Stop doing evil and learn to do what is right.” That's pretty direct.
See that justice is done. There is a sense in which he is saying look after those around you. Treat one another as people loved by God. Rather than attacking and blaming those around us embrace them as God's children. We are to recognise the grace with which God treats us and apply that same grace to those around us. We have the ability, the power to do that.
Then the prophet tells us what God will do, and it is only what God can do.
“You are stained red with sin, but I will wash you as clean as snow.”
This points us to God's redemptive act. We can deal with our actions and attitudes, and only God can deal with our standing before him.
We can try all sorts of things to buy God's favour, and the irony is, that the harder we try, the more we put in to trying to appease God, the further we seem to drift from him.
Our efforts should not be in appeasing God but in serving one another as brothers and sisters in Christ.
This is not to say that worship is not important. Of course it is, it is vital, for it focuses us on our dependence on God's grace. It draws us into that sense of both cooperate and individual trust that we must have in the one who has redeemed us by paying the price of our sin. And so worship keeps that focus; that our actions to do good in the world are not to buy favour with God or humanity for that matter, but are our response to our understanding that God loves us, and that God has put us right with himself.
“Though your sins are as scarlet, they shall be as white as snow.”
God provides the way out, just as he provided the sacrifice for Abram when we was about to slaughter his son, so in Jesus we see God's provision. Jehovah Jirah, meaning my provider.
God has provided for us in Jesus Christ the one who has washed our sins and though they be as scarlet they will be as white as snow. This is not because we deserve it, but because of God's abundant love for us.
Nevertheless the challenge remains for us to live our lives for him and honour him in all that we do.
May God give us the strength and the grace to look honestly at our own lives and to live in gratitude for all that God has done for us.
To God be the glory, now and forever. AMEN.

Sunday 28th July 2013
Hosea 1:2-10 Colossians 2:6-15
Build a strong faith

Having outlined who Jesus Christ is, Paul comes to the heart of this letter in outlining the appropriate response of one who believes. If you can accept and believe what he has outlined in the first chapter, then you live in union with him.
Christ has united us with God, therefore we should keep our roots deep in him and build our lives on him.
In the Greek language the tense to keep our roots deep in him has the sense of a once and for all action. We have been planted in him, that has happened, where as the tense used for build your lives on him, has the sense of that on going action that although it has begun we must keep on this path.
So we see our faith as a growing and developing aspect of our life's journey. For Paul it is not an adjunct to life, but lies at the core of who we are and how we live if we are to remain true to ourselves and to God.
Thus, this part of Paul's letter, grounded in what he has already said about Christ moves to looking at our faithfulness to God. He has already expressed the details of God's faithfulness to us in Jesus Christ, so it is only logical that in discussing faith in terms of a relationship, that he should look at our part in that.
It is interesting that those who have developed the Lectionary, the combination of weekly readings, that they pair this reading with the beginning verses of Hosea, where Hosea is concerned with the idolatry of the people and their faithlessness toward God. He boldly pictures this using his own failed marriage to an unfaithful woman as an analogy to the way that God's people have deserted their faith in God.
And despite their faithlessness God still holds hope that one day he will be able to say, “You are the children of the living God!”
This illustrates for us the nature of our relationship with God in that God always holds open his arms of love even as our faith ebbs and flows. There is never a turning his back on us that closes his love completely even if we, fickle as we are, wander away from his love.
Thus Paul's strong plea, that having our roots deep in him that we keep on building our lives on him making our faith stronger all the time.
Here he slips in a little phrase that probably acts, almost as a key to achieving this faithfulness in our journey, when he says, “And be filled with thankfulness.”
Thankfulness keeps us focused, it keeps us looking to Christ. It reminds us of all that God has done for us and because we are thankful to God it prevents us from becoming self absorbed or from relegating our faith to a pocket of our life that has little impact on any other part of our day to day living. Thankfulness is a somewhat underrated and undervalued quality. It demands we look beyond ourselves and our own abilities. It forces us to give credit to someone else where the world desperately tries to tell us to stand on our own feet, to be self-assured, self-confident, self-possessed.
Paul calls this sort of attitude, “the worthless deceit of human wisdom.” And rather than leading us to God it draws us away, it draws us inward, and encourages us to look to our own strength.
Our relationship with Christ encourages thankfulness for what God has done. Thankfulness lies at the heart of what it is to be a worshipping community because we focus on the One for whom we are thankful. And as we look to Christ we hear the words that Hosea promised would be said, “You are the children of the living God.” This is our place, not only in our community, but in our very humanity. This is where we belong, and this is where we find fullness of life.
Paul goes on to talk to both the Jewish and Gentile communities and draws them back to the foundations of their faith as he draws on circumcision and baptism, the outward and physical signs and response to God's activity and reminds them that what is more important is God's activity that underlines these rituals.
Both circumcision and baptism were offered as the human response to the love of God.
They were given as signs of the covenant love that God declared for his people when he said, “I will be your God and you will be my people.”
Circumcision offered in Abraham's time particularly for the Jewish people and for Gentile converts, was a sign of this covenant love and baptism emerged out of growing Christian movement expressing that same love. But for Paul, the argument was not one or the other, or both, but was that thankfulness for what God had done. To argue over ones rightness on such matters was to deny the thankfulness and the gratitude we should have for the grace that God had already given.
Such arguments do nothing for the building up of either ones personal faith, nor for the community of faith and certainly does nothing for the witness to the world around us.
Paul emphasis this line of argument by outlining the hard, cold facts of the gospel.
We were at one time spiritually dead.
We have been brought to life with Christ.
God has forgiven our sins, cancelled the unfavourable record of our debts by nailing them to the cross.
And from that cross Christ freed himself and us from the power of sin and death.
In a nut shell, this is what we have to be thankful for. It is not about us, it is about Christ. It is about the foundation upon which our faith is built. Without this as the foundation of our faith our eyes drift from the heart of our faith, and we loose the real meaning of it. We end up arguing over the trivia, eroding the foundation of all that we believe.
So one has to wonder is faithfulness so much about what we do or is it much more about who we are and being true to the faith that we profess? Is faithfulness about being true to the One in whom we trust and on whom we build our faith?
The warning is definitely not to be distracted by those things that divide or deny Christ. What we eat or what we drink, which day we meet, or how we go about our worship in the church is not what is important, but our thankfulness to Christ, our loyalty to him, and our witness of all that he has done is what is important.
And it is only in Christ that we find the full expression of God's love for the world offered.
People's experiences, visions or claims of superior knowledge or status do nothing to add to the work of Christ. Our love for God and our willingness to offer that same love to the world around us in gratitude for all that God has done for us is what we are called to do.
We are called to be God's children, called to be a faithful people, a people of love and compassion, a people of justice and truth offering to the world that same love that God has given to us.
Paul finishes this section drawing on that analogy of the body with its many different parts, its joints and its ligaments, growing from infancy to maturity, with Christ as the head.
From the head we get the control, we get the reasoning, we get the functioning of the whole body.
Like the rugs we see displayed around us in all their different colours and sizes and textures and designs, so too the people of God, with all their differences, with their abilities, with their personalities, with their talents, contribute to the witness of God's love in our world today. But in doing this we must keep our focus on the one who is the Head, Jesus Christ our Lord. For he is the source and the substance of our all that we are and will be. It is as we remain rooted in him, that we must keep on building our lives as we become stronger and stronger in our faith.
To Him be the glory, now and forever. AMEN.

Sunday, 14th July 2012
Colossians 1:1-14
'What is the real thing!'

In 1970 Coca-Cola came up with the slogan, "It's the real thing." With this slogan, they accomplished the advertising equivalent of striking gold. In January of 1971 the seventh-billionth gallon of Coca-Cola syrup was manufactured and the billion gallon marks started coming so quickly they stopped counting. But - "is" Coca Cola really the real thing? A human tooth placed in a vessel containing Coca Cola for an period of time eventually disintegrates; it completely disappears! Place a lot of sugar in water, put in a special secret mixture of chemicals and, you have - the "real thing!" But the world has bought this slogan, as well as cans and bottles by the billions. Which makes you wonder how did the Coca Cola company manage to convince the world that their product is the "real thing?"

In an article on this topic, one critic says that Coca Cola is not the real thing at all. It is God that is the real thing. Our epistle reading for today from Paul's letter to the church in Colossae says that faith in Jesus Christ is the real thing and love for one another in the church is evidence of the real thing.

The reading from Colossians gives us a wonderful inside view of the apostle's heart for the people of the local church through his prayer. This prayer gives insight that is essential for the life of the church today and in particular into the priorities those in leadership in the local church should have. The things that bring joy to the apostle's heart and the things he most prays for the people of the church, represent the church's critical agenda. Paul tells the Colossians that he is always giving thanks for them in his prayers because, "...we have heard of your faith in Christ and of the love that you have for all God's people."

All churches have reputations. Which I am sure you're all aware of. You can go to any neighbourhood in the city and ask anyone there, "What do you know about First Presbyterian Church?" There will be a variety of responses. Such as "Oh, that's the big brick building with a tower." Or "is that the one across the road from Countdown?' or some might say something like, "First Church? Isn't that's where a lot of old people go." Or perhaps even, "Yes - that's the church that has a big garage sale twice a year."
Wouldn't it be wonderful if the reputation of a church resulted in someone saying, "First Church? That's the place where people really care about each other and they are known for their faith."
It is critical for those of us who love the church of Jesus Christ to know that news travels. Indeed, adverse or un-complimentary news travels the fastest!
One of the essential tasks of the leadership of a church is to have an understanding of the church's reputation. What are we known for? This can be a difficult question to ask and even more difficult for us to hear the answer. One way to approach the question is to ask, "How many people... besides the members of this church... would care if for some reason or other, we had to close our doors?"

If a church was known for its faith and for the love the members of the church had for each other, regardless of their station in life, their past, or their financial status -- then such a church would be sorely missed. What would you say if we asked. "Would anybody out there miss us?" Indeed, did any of you notice the Presbyterian Church notices were missing from yesterday's paper, do you think anyone missed them?

One of the absolute priorities for leadership in a local church is to attend to the question, "What is our reputation? It is not just for ourselves that we ask the question. We need to understand that it is not just our reputation as a church - or as an organization in our community -- that is at stake here. If you read the epistle carefully, it becomes clear that it is the reputation of Jesus Christ that is on the line!

Paul says "You are known for your faith in Christ and love for each other!" What a great thing to say about a church. All of us know very well that far too many churches are more known for bitter squabbles and petty politics than they are for authentic mutual love. Clearly, the priorities of the Church in our time need to be evaluated in light of the fact that the world around us sees Jesus Christ through the window of our reputation in the community.

Paul's prayer points to what takes place when the church attends to its God-given priorities. Namely, "...that you may lead lives worthy of the Lord, fully pleasing to him as you bear fruit in every good work and as you grow in the knowledge of God." [v.10]
As we live our lives with faith in Christ and keep the commandment of Christ to love each other, something wonderful happens. The Spirit of God works in our lives in such a way that our lives are more fruitful and we grow in our knowledge of God and in our relationship with God.
All of this comes together in the epistle reading where there are three aspects to Paul's prayer that stand out. They are the Apostle's joy, the Apostle's request, and the people's thanksgiving. These fourteen verses are filled with meaning and could provide a source of study and reflection for weeks, but we can at least gain a glimpse of the heart of these verses which begin this letter.

There is a most significant phrase in this text which says "In our prayers for you...". A key ingredient of effective spiritual leadership is that the leader prays for the people he or she is called to care for. As one of your ministers, I can reassure you that I pray for you regularly. I am always grateful to hear your concerns, so that I can pray for you, but it is important that we all pray for each other. During our 'Prayers for Ourselves and Others' we need to remember to pray for each other, especially for those in leadership in this parish.

But it is not just that the apostle Paul is praying for the people of the church. He does not simply pray for the people - he says "In our prayers for you we always thank God..." What great encouragement that must have been for a place where a leader can say, "We always thank God for you!" Certainly it is no accident that a healthy congregation has the strongest prayer support of its leaders.

There is much organisational work that has to be done in a church and we want leaders who pay attention to organisation with planning and committee work and we are grateful for leaders in our church who work on committees and give time to planning. However, there is one area of leadership ministry that frequently gets short-changed and that is the work of praying for the church. An increase in this would likely bring about an increase of the Apostle's joy.

As well as giving thanks for the people of the Colossian Church, Paul has very specific requests for them. "We have not ceased praying for you," he says, "And asking that..." And there are four specific things he named:
· To be filled with the knowledge, wisdom and understanding of God
· To live lives worthy of the Lord, living as the Lord wants, doing what pleases God
· To bear fruit and produce all kinds of good deeds
· To continue growing in the knowledge of God, in strength, to endure everything with patience.

When we understand our faith, it becomes apparent that Christian faith is a "life-long learning" commitment. Growing in knowledge of God through reading of the scriptures and meeting together to share in our spiritual journey will have a dramatic impact on our living. We will have a growing sense of fruitfulness in our inner lives.
There is good instruction here for the health of congregations. As we pray continually for a congregation where all are growing in our relationship with God, then we will see a new kind of fruitfulness in the life of the church.

The result of a leadership committed to a ministry of prayer for the congregation results in a church where all can, "...joyfully give thanks to God..." The people's thanksgiving therefore is for:
· To participate in the destiny of God's people
· Being rescued from the power of darkness and set free
· And our sins are forgiven

Our relationship with God and each other in the community of faith will never fade or be taken away. The power of sin which has broken our world has been defeated by the redemptive plan of God and our sins are freely forgiven.

The critic was right. Coca Cola is not the real thing. Faith in Jesus Christ is the real thing and love for one another in the church is evidence of the real thing.
May God give us the joy of knowing the real thing and of living lives that are worthy of our faith in the Lord Jesus Christ.

Sunday, 7th July 2012
2 Kings 5:1-14 Galatians 6:7-18

Endure with the truth
Simplicity is Paul's key to the Gospel and we need to keep on reminding ourselves of this concept. It seems that every generation, every group of people want to add conditions, add requirements to the Gospel usually shaping it to make it more palatable, more comfortable for a target audience of the day, rather than allowing the Gospel to challenge contemporary society in every generation.
In the story from 2 Kings where the Syrian King sent the commander of his army off to the King of Israel to find their prophet who may be able to cure Naaman's illness, there is suspicion and mistrust. Firstly the King of Israel thinks it is a political trap, and secondly Naaman, when asked by the prophet to bath in the River Jordan, felt if that was all it involved, he could have bathed in a much nicer river in his own country. The answer to his problem seemed too simple. The demand placed on him did not seem enough.
How could it be so simple that all he had to do was to go and wash in the Jordan? After advice from one of his servants he went and carried out the simple instructions of the prophet, and he was cured.
How insightful was his servant who challenged Naaman by suggesting that if he had been asked to do something difficult, then he would have been happy to do it, but because of the apparent simplicity of the instructions, he felt he wasn't having to do enough and that he was merely being taken for a ride.
And in many ways this probably sums up Paul's letter to the Galatians as we draw toward the end. Paul has argued vigorously against people adding requirements to the Gospel. Perhaps it was the simplicity of the Gospel message that appealed to the Gentiles, whereas for the Jewish Christians the simplicity became a stumbling block. It seemed too easy. They didn't have to do anything.
Paul begins chapter six by encouraging us to look out for one another. We are to be concerned for our brothers and sisters in Christ and if there are issues, then lets deal with them sensitively, not in an attitude of judgement, but more in a manner of helpfulness. As soon as we make judgements on others we begin to see ourselves as better than or more worthy than. Where as Paul's attitude was that we do not enter the kingdom of heaven in degrees of worthiness, but by God's grace alone.
Therefore we have no right to pass judgement on others.
So this chapter proves to be the practical living out of all that has gone before. It is the call to endure, putting into practice the gospel message in our lives.
If God, in Jesus Christ has procured for us our salvation, then surely that must be worked at in the day to day living of our lives. The outworking of the gospel is not an automatic given, but is that growing in the grace that is given to us.
Paul draws on that analogy, that we will reap what we sow. If we choose to continue drawing our strength from the world around us and the prevailing thought of self gain and self centredness we will get what we deserve, where as if we find fulfilment in the fruits that God has given by his Spirit, which he laid out at the end of the last chapter, then we will find satisfaction and reward in our daily living.
So the suggestion that we should never tire of doing good. This good is as acts of service to others, not for any self gain we might receive out of it, but so that others might truly benefit. Our doing good becomes a witness to God's goodness, not to our own. It offers a reflection of God's goodness given to us, therefore we offer it to others. This goodness is not just offered within the community of the church, but is offered to everyone. If we only offered such goodness within the community of faith we create an exclusive club, whereas the church must always have doors open to the world, open to the community beyond our walls so that anyone may come in and be welcomed by God's grace.
That has to continue to be the distinguishing mark of the church. Christ after all came to die for the world, so that all who come might enter the kingdom of God. We are not the gate keepers to that Kingdom, so therefore should not pretend to be nor offer judgement that might suggest we are.
Paul is so passionate about his message, that as he concludes this letter that he has been dictating to his professional scribe, he takes the pen himself, to add a very personal touch to the concluding words.
And the readers know this because the handwriting changes, and the big letters that he forms, being unaccustomed to writing himself, suddenly stand out on the page.
And he reiterates his central message: Those who try to force external signs and ceremonies on you as a necessary condition of the gospel and those who boast of their own ways of doing things as being right are in fact destroying the efficacy of the cross in favour of their own righteousness.
For Paul, there is only one thing to boast of and that is the cross of Christ. That is the only message that we proclaim. That is why throughout the history of the church it has become the one symbol that unites us. It is the message, it is the key, it is the path that we must follow. Nothing else matters but the cross.
John Bowring captured this thought in his hymn:
"In the cross of Christ I glory,
Towering o'er the wrecks of time;
All the light of sacred story
gathers round its head sublime."
The cross of Christ brings to us and to every generation, to every nation, to every political faction, to every tragedy, to every joy, the picture and the reality of God's love for the world.
The cross of Christ is where heaven meets earth, where God intersected with humanity at its deepest and most vulnerable point. And so any thing, or any one who distracts us or draws us away from that point, is in Paul's opening words of this letter, proclaiming another gospel.
It would seem that Paul could not care one way or the other, whether one was circumcised or not. For him it no longer bore any relevance to God's love or acceptance of that person. What mattered more than anything was that persons faith, borne out by what Christ had done and achieved on the cross, once and for all. And then to see that faith lived out in the lives of those who proclaim such faith. It was important to see that faith, empowered by the Spirit of God, transforming the lives of Christ's followers so that God's love might be made know to all, and so that we might live in harmony with one another.
Christ came to unite God's people, not to divide. He came to draw people together in a common love offered by God, not earned by us nor regulated by the demands of any individual or institution.
One gets the impression from Paul's closing remarks that such arguments are distracting him and others from the real concerns of the church. This seems a timeless problem, as we need to constantly remind ourselves and others of the true message of the church. The scars that we bear should be scars that point to the cross if that is what it takes to convince people of the simplicity of the Gospel message. Let us not make it difficult, let us not complicate the nature of faith in Jesus Christ that calls us to believe, to believe in Jesus Christ who died, and rose again that we might have life, life in abundance, life everlasting.
And what Paul wishes on the people of Galatia?
The grace of our Lord Jesus Christ. The gift of Christ's love. That is all they needed, and that is all we need. God's grace in Jesus Christ is all we need.
To Him be the glory, now and forever more.

Sunday, 30th June, 2013 - Pentecost 6
2 Kings 2:1-2, 6-14, Luke 9:51-62, Galatians 5:1, 13-25
'Clothed in the Spirit'

There are both contrasts and similarities between the readings from the Hebrew Scriptures, the Gospel and the Epistles we have heard today. In the 2 Kings and Luke readings they open with the news that the central character is about to leave.
According to the Old Testament, God was about to take Elijah up to heaven by a whirlwind, and in the New Testament - Luke tells us that "When the days drew near for Jesus to be taken up, he set his face towards Jerusalem …" We get the feeling that we are moving towards a climax - something important is about to happen.

Three times, Jesus gives a challenge to would-be disciples and we are left with the impression that they fail the test. The commitment of following Jesus seems just too much to contemplate. They were unable to leave behind their family commitments and their home comforts, to follow where Jesus was going.
On the other hand, the prophet Elijah's disciple, Elisha, declares three times his utter commitment to following Elijah and continuing his work.

So - what was the difference? Perhaps it was that Elisha fully understood that his commitment was only possible through the gift of God's Spirit. He had seen the results of God's power working through Elijah and knew that he could only take up the role as God's prophet when he had received that Spirit also. So, at the centre of this reading, when the prophet asked his disciple what he could do for him Elisha could have asked for many gifts, but instead he asks for a double share of the Spirit that so obviously empowered Elijah in order that he might take up the prophets mantle when he left.

God's Spirit is not given simply to intensify one's own happiness and wellbeing, although these are welcome experiences, when they do happen. God's Spirit is given so that the recipient can reveal God's image, God's characteristics of love, joy, peace, goodness, justice,
righteousness, etc., more clearly in the world. The symbol of God's Spirit for Elijah was his cloak, his mantle. It was the sign of his authority as God's prophet. A mantle is a garment that "covers, envelops or conceals." Though we now use that word in a less literal way by referring to the responsibilities of a role, usually in leadership.

In our reading from Galatians last week, Paul said that in our baptism we are "clothed with Christ", in another of his letters, he writes about "putting on Christ", so it is reasonable to think of being "clothed with Christ" as putting on the mantle of Christ - the Holy Spirit. According to Paul, we can be either clothed with the flesh or clothed with the Spirit. Clothed with the mantle of flesh for Paul means being clad with a whole range of immoral attitudes including hatred, jealousy, envy, quarrelling and physical desires that are a lot worse. Paul really goes to town to make that contrast with being clothed with the Spirit which brings forth the fruits of love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, humility, self-control and especially love for ones neighbour and ourselves . These gifts of the spirit are what we should be clothed in; this is the mantle that builds people up rather than dragging them down.

The gospel reading from Luke describes the cost of wearing the mantle of discipleship - the cost of following Jesus. This passage could be titled - 'excuses, excuses, excuses', as these would-be disciples list those things which have taken priority over and above the priority of following Jesus. Would we be so very different?
Just as in the reading, the more we are clothed with the mantle of flesh, the more excuses we are likely to find in order to put our priorities first. So - how do we cover our weaknesses - our mantle of flesh and become clothed with Christ - how do we become fruitful disciples?

When we consider what it means to be clothed with Christ, we can recognise that even the way we dress can serve to protect or conceal. Maybe we dress to protect our bodies from heat or cold or to conceal the parts we don't want others to see! We also "use our clothing to reveal what we consider most important about ourselves. When people put on wedding garments or military uniforms, they are signalling the adoption of new values and commitments. In a similar way this is why Priests and some Minister's put on robes for worship, to signify the values and commitment they have made, covering what we wearing underneath. In even more profound and encompassing ways, this is the significance of Paul's imagery of being clothed with Christ. It expresses the radical changes that come with embarking on the Christian way. So - being clothed with Christ, in the Spirit, does not just cover our humanity but transforms it.

Today's readings are therefore about challenge. Are we game enough to step up to the mark, to be clothed with Christ and to be ready for any challenges that may bring - or not? Do we really want to be fruitful disciples of Christ or not? Some words written a long time ago are some of the most beautiful words about the fruits of the Spirit. Words describing how love is the key to making the fruits of the Spirit visible in our lives:
Joy is love singing;
peace is love resting;
patience is love enduring;
kindness is the loving touch;
goodness is love's character;
faithfulness is love's habit;
gentleness is love's forgetting of oneself;
self-control is love holding the reins.

If being clothed with Christ means bearing such Spirit-filled fruit - wouldn't we want to be more like Elisha and ask for a double portion, rather than be like the reluctant followers of Jesus who seem to have been clothed with other priorities. May God help us all to re-order our priorities and visibly display our Spiritual clothing.

Sunday 23rd June 2013
Psalm 42&43 Galatians 3:21-29

United in Service
Over the last few weeks we have been looking at Paul's letter to the Church of Galatia. In it we have seen an argument being had between a group of Jewish Christians who firmly believed that for non Jews, - (Gentiles, that is,) for them to become Christian they must first become Jewish. They must undergo the processes that the Jewish law would require for them to be good Jews before they could become followers of Christ.
Paul argues strongly against this on the grounds that by merely following certain rules and regulations, one did not find favour with God. Paul argues that our favour with God is a gift given to us through Jesus Christ. He argues that through Christ, because of the grace given as God's gift to us, faith is all that is necessary for our ability to engage with God.
It is an age old argument between works or law and grace that has continued down the centuries that sees the church, time and again needing to return to that point of understanding that it is not what I do, but what Christ has already done, that is important in that relationship with God. How often do we hear it today that so and so is a good Christian because of the works that they do. Or that someone else is a good person, as good as any who go to church, as if ones attendance at church is a measure of ones goodness.
And what we have seen so far in this letter that Paul wrote to the Galatians is Paul's arguing that living by the law, by rules and regulations does not prove how good we are, rather it reminds us that none of us are good enough, no one is any better than anyone else. We only need the law because without it we may not even recognise the wrongs we do.
Perhaps we can put it that the law highlights the problem, it does not offer a solution.
Thus Christ came to take on himself the sin of the world so that that problem would be fixed for us.
The Psalmist recognised this tendency for humanity to stray from God, to forget where our hope really lies, in that refrain that is repeated several times in the Psalms read today,
"Why am I so sad? Why am I so troubled? I will put my hope in God,and once again I will praise him, my saviour and my God."
We forget, we strive, we struggle for ourselves to find happiness and peace, and then there is that realisation that what we need to do it to put our hope in God.
Paul recognised this pattern in his life as he had spent so much of his life striving to live by the law thinking that by doing so he was pleasing God, and then God came to him on that Damascus Road and his eyes were opened as he realised that his striving got him no where, but that his trust in God as shown to him in Jesus Christ gave him hope.
In this great act of God in coming to us, what the Psalmist said had come true, "O God, declare me innocent, and defend my cause against the ungodly; deliver me ..."
What does Paul say, "And so the Law was in charge of us until Christ came, in order that we might then be put right with God through faith."
We keep being brought back to this central truth which is the Gospel message. God has put us right with himself, restored us, through Jesus Christ.
And one might ask, "So what?"
Well this is where Paul starts to bring out the implication in his argument with these Jewish Christians. If this is the case, if this is what Christ has done, he has not done it on the basis of any pre condition, nor on the basis of effort that we have offered, then the implication is plain; we are all one. Because of what Christ has done, washed us clean if we take that phrase, "baptised into union with Christ Jesus," then we all stand together as we are. There is a level playing field.
We are here together because of faith, Jew and Gentile, male and female, master and slave. God does not recognise the differences, but embraces all humanity as His children. We are able to come to God because he has made it possible, not by demanding we live by the law to measure up, but rather by coming to us as Jesus Christ and in so doing, fulfilling the demands of the law for us.
In this way Paul explains to these Jewish Christians, all people are able to become descendants of Abraham. This would have hammered it home to them and put clearly to them the whole purpose of Christ's coming.
And so, for Paul, whether Jew or Gentile, no matter what our differences are, like the Psalmist put it when he said, "As a deer longs for a stream of cool water, so I long for you, O God," the human cry for God's saving grace to come among us is universal, and the answer to that human cry is there for us all. It is there in Jesus Christ.
And it was here that some of these new followers of Jesus were having problems comprehending the implications of Christ's coming among them.
But the main implication is that all are united in their service for Christ. And this has probably been the greatest challenge that has continued to plague the Christian church throughout its history. It would seem that more often than not our faith has continued to divide us, even though we proclaim the one Gospel.
And it is too easy to let dogma divide rather than focusing on the unity we have. We often find that unity best lived out in the service we give to others. This is where an organisation like St John, whose roots are very firmly grounded in the Christian faith in offering service to humanity in the name of Christ, can so easily cross the boundaries that the church seems to find so easy to put up. We focus on the needs before us and look for ways to make the lives of people better in the service we offer. We draw people from all walks of life who have that desire to serve their brothers and sisters.
The danger of course in such a group, is that we loose sight of the faith that drove people to set up such an organisation. The Orders aims are still expressed in two very simple Latin phrases.
Pro Fide, meaning for the faith, and Pro Ultilitate Hominum, meaning for the service of mankind.
Faith and action was close to heart of Paul, and he will go on in this letter to express how faith should be seen in the lives of Jesus' followers. It should be seen in our attitudes and in our actions toward others. It should be seen in the motivation we find to live our lives not just for ourselves but for God and for humanity.
Deitrich Bonhoeffer put it, "Actions must follow what one believed, else one could not claim to believe it."
So for Paul while our actions do not buy us merit with God, our actions do reflect the heart out of which we operate. Our actions should reflect the faith that we profess and we should strive to do that. Paul in other letters talks about that as working out our salvation. Salvation has been given, but our actions are an expression of that.
And yeap, we all falter and fail at times, but that does not condemn us as we continue on that path of faith.
May God give us grace as we serve one another. May God give us strength to engage in service so that we may give expression to our faith and to the work of Jesus Christ for all humanity.
To God be the glory, now and forever. AMEN.

Sunday 9th June 2013
1 Kings 17:8-16 Gal 1:11-24

God in Grace Chooses
Over the next few weeks I want us to look at the letter that Paul wrote to the Galatians. Galatia is a region that boardered Tarsus where Paul came from so it was probably a region not unknown to him. It is believed that this may be one of the very early pieces of the New Testament and so deals with issues that the emerging Christian community faced as people from different cultures and backgrounds took up this faith and came to it through eyes that did not understand the Jewish faith out of which it was developing.
This caused tension as the non-Jewish people were being told by some believers from the Jewish background that they must come to Christianity through a path of Judaism. In other words there were particular rites and observances that they should follow if they were to be 'good' Christians.
To be more specific issues surrounding food laws and circumcision were raised. The Galatian Gentile Christians were being told that they would need to be circumcised if they were to be proper Christians
Division and bitter arguments as we well know are nothing new to these parts of the world. We only need to watch our news at night to see long standing bitterness being played out on the streets in some of these countries. The thin veneer of civilisation is quite fragile even in places like Turkey. Take that and think of this new emerging religion that is driving a wedge between itself and Judaism and you quickly get a picture of the passion that people may well have been harbouring in such an argument.
And for our own day we may find it hard to imagine people having such passion over issues of faith, and yet we can find plenty of people and groups who are only too willing to tell us what is right and what is wrong, and what makes a 'good' Christian and what makes a 'bad' Christian.
Last weeks Galatians reading would have had Paul introducing this letter and the fact that Christ gave himself for our salvation. He stressed that there is only one Gospel and that anyone that tells us anything different is in fact preaching a different gospel or is leading us away from the truth.
And in today's reading Paul establishes among this group of people his credentials. If this is such an early part of the New Testament, Paul's place in the scheme of things is probably fairly recent. Although we do need to be careful here, for sometimes the accounts of Paul's conversion leads one to think that the time frame from the Damascus Road experience to active ministry was fairly quick. He gives a bit of time scale in this letter suggesting it was at least three years plus, before he went to Jerusalem to meet with Peter. Those demanding believers become Jews first may well have tried to use Paul as an example for their argument as news of his conversion swept around the communities of this time. This Paul who was once a very important Jew and persecutor of Christians came to faith following this path of having been a Jew, where as the Gentile converts to Judaism may well have seen him as having left behind all that he had once valued and taken on this new faith.
So Paul is quick to lay out his credentials to the community that he is writing to. His authority does not come from once having been a Jew. His credentials are not given to him by his recent associations with Peter and any of the other apostles. As far as he is concerned he stands before them because God in his grace chose him and called him and gave him the task of taking the Gospel message to the Gentiles.
He goes to great lengths to show these people that God's choice was not based on any inherent goodness that he may have had. In fact if anything, his attitude and actions toward the early Christian community should have ruled him out.
And it is this very reason that many of the Christian communities took some convincing that Paul was indeed genuine.
And it is this process of convincing the Galatians that we are reading about today.
And as he does this, looking back over his life, he sees the hand of God at work from the beginning. Although he is not proud of his past, he sees God's working with him as he was led to the experience on the Damascus Road. Here was the turning point where life suddenly made sense to him. Why? Because God came to him.
And it is this point that Paul would go on to emphasise as the basis of all his theological thought.
It is only as God comes to us, which he did in Jesus Christ, that we can see God.
This has so often been the point that theologians down the centuries have brought the church back to time and time again. It was the basis of the Reformation. The Church, tradition nor any other human generated experience does not lead us to God, it is only through Jesus Christ who came as God incarnate to reveal God's love for humanity, that we can know God. Thus the table that we gather at today is that opportunity to meet and engage with the Host, Jesus Christ. He invites us to partake as we remember his life, death and resurrection.
It is this same point that the great 20th century theologian, Karl Barth also brought the church back to. He said that in order to know anything at all about God, one had to rely on revelation from God. In other words, God could speak into this world, but man could not reach out of this world to examine God. It was a one-way street. This of course looked straight back to the Reformation and indeed back to the Pauline experience.
And this does lie at the heart of the Christian Churches life and practice, for we do not come to the table today because we are good, because we have achieved perfection, because we are worthy to stand before God. No, we come because he invites us, just as he invited Zacchaeus, just as he engaged with the Samaritan woman at the well, just as he announced to the thief on the cross, 'today you will be in paradise with me.'
God's choice is not about goodness, it is about Grace. Amazing Grace, abundant Grace, free Grace.
It is a grace that calls us to follow as it invites response. The table is set, the invitation is given, and the response is awaited.
I suppose the proof is in the pudding, and part of the proof is the decision that we make, but also in what the world sees.
Paul could have refused to see what God was doing in his life and walked away, blinded to the truth. But he didn't.
He listen to God and acted in obedience.
And it was borne out in the community.
Paul tells, "At that time the members of the churches in Judaea did not know me personally. They knew only what others were saying: "The man who used to persecute us is now preaching the faith that he once tried to destroy!" And so they praised God because of me."
Paul's calling is no different to any one of us, we are called to live out our faith in the communities in which we live. We are all to be disciples of Christ, not because we are good, but because this is what God calls us too.
Paul's experience on the one had was a unique one. There is no set pattern for coming to that knowledge of God's love for us. But on the other hand his experience is universal in that it is only as God reaches down to us, that we can begin to know God. And this is the essence of the Christian Gospel. God came to us in Jesus Christ. God revealed God's self that we might know God and this was done out of love for all humanity.
Let us respond to God's call as we gather at the table He as set for us, and remember afresh the cost of that love for us.
To God be the glory, now and forever. AMEN.

Sunday 2nd June 2013
1 Kings 18:20-21,30-39 Luke 7:1-10

Stories of faith
The scriptures contain stories of faith from beginning to end. They speak of God's relationship with his people down the ages and show people have engaged with God from the beginning of time. It is often a repeated theme of a people who have once worshipped God, who over time have drifted away and then there has been something that has brought them back to that faith that they once knew.
At other times it is stories of people for whom faith in God is a new experience, perhaps coming from a foreign place which often challenges the cultural and other religious assumptions of those involved and the hearers of the stories.
Often faith can come in quite unexpected ways and through unexpected events but perhaps this is a reflection of the nature of God. God who lies behind all that we see in creation, normally working within those laws nature, but every now and then steps outside that order. As John puts it when talking to Nicodemus about the need to be born of the Spirit, the need to have our eyes opened to recognise the work of God in our lives, he says,
"The wind blows wherever it wishes; you hear the sound it makes, but you do not know where it comes from or where it is going. It is like that with everyone who is born of the Spirit."
And so we read today of two different stories where we see the Spirit of God blowing in the unexpected directions. We see Elijah taking up a challenge with the prophets of Baal, and we see a Roman Officer seeking the help of Jesus and displaying faith in a way that caused Jesus to comment, "that he had never found faith like this." What seems a throw away comment would certainly have been felt by the religious community who saw themselves as God's chosen people and others as being outside the faith.
So what do we see in these stories of faith?
Firstly we see people making choices or being challenged to make a choice.
In the story of Elijah, the people had made a choice to follow the prophets of Baal and they were being challenged to reconsider that decision.
"If the Lord is God, worship him; but if Baal is God, worship him."
In other words make up you mind.
In faith there is always that conscious choice that demands a decision from us one way or the other.
In other parts of the Old Testament we have that same theme, "Choose you this day whom you will serve, but as for me and my household, we will serve the Lord."
Choice to express faith in daily life is something that we all experience. Our faith can influence all sorts of decisions that we make that reflect where our trust really lies. The activities that we pursue, the priorities that we make for ourselves, the mindset through which we view the world all reflect something of the faith that we have, for faith is never just an intellectual ascent to a list of beliefs, but faith is much more about the trust and expression of such beliefs in day to day living.
But I will come back to that.
So the choice is important. Today Stella has made that choice and her parents have supported her in that. Baptism is a declaration of faith and in several of the New Testament accounts of people being baptised, their choice had implications for the whole family. Lydia came to faith and she and her whole household were baptised. The decisions of one person can so often have far reaching implications on others. The Roman Soldier in our gospel story made a choice to ask Jesus to come and visit his dying servant. This was a courageous choice for a Roman to make as it would have been totally counter to his cultural background. And yet through hearing about Jesus and what he had been up to in these parts this man decided to honour the faith of his servant and call this Jesus to help.
As well as making a choice, the focus of that choice was honoured.
"Will you worship Baal or God?"
It wasn't a matter of will you believe, but rather will you honour that belief. Faith so often calls us to change the direction of our living so that our actions reflect our words. For it is not faith in some general idea that we are talking of here, but faith in God. Faith in God as revealed to us as Father, Son and Holy Spirit. This gives context to faith and takes it out of the realm of the intellectual idea and focuses it in the One who is greater than we are, but also on the one who came to us as Jesus the Christ and who continues to come to us in and through the power of the Holy Spirit who draws us to faith. This specific context draws us into a relationship with God who engages with us.
And it is God who recognises that faith in us and honours that faith.
We see this in the New Testament story. The Roman soldier out of respect for his servant calls upon Jesus, and recognises that Jesus does not actually need to come personally, but merely say the word and healing will take place.
For this Soldier, seeing was not necessary for belief. He recognised authority when he saw it, and was able to put his trust in Jesus' word. His word would be his action. This is the faith that Jesus in return honoured.
God honours that faith in us even if it is as small as a mustard seed. God does not demand perfection from us, but honours the focus that we give to our faith as we day by day put our trust in him, leaving our lives in his hands.
William Freeman Lloyd penned these thoughts in his hymn:
"My times are in Thy hand: My God, I wish them there, My life, my friends, my soul I leave entirely to Thy care.
My times are in Thy hand. Why should I doubt or fear? My Father's hand will never cause His child a needless tear."
The question for us all, is how do we honour God in our own lives. What difference does our faith make to the way we view life?
And this leads us on from the choices we make, from the way we honour that choice, to the trust that we exercise.
The people of Elijah's time having watched the altar being built and the water drenching that altar and then the fire being sent down from God, threw themselves on the ground and exclaimed,
"The Lord is God; the Lord alone is God."
This brought for them a change that saw their trust in God exercised.
No longer did they follow the ways of the prophets of Baal, but they turned and followed the faith of their forebears.
The lure of the world around them no longer held the value that it once had.
There are many things that hold out hope for us in this world that we are constantly being told will give us satisfaction and fulfilment. We are encouraged to put our trust in ourselves, in wealth, in things that bring us pleasure. But in the end we have to consider for ourselves where our ultimate trust will lie. This is the dilemma that the Psalmist faced as he posed that question, "I to the hills will lift my eyes, but where will my help come from?"
In other words, as I look around at the world, at the grandeur, at the power and majesty that lies around us where am I going to get my true help from?
And he answers, "My help comes from the Lord who made heaven and earth!"
That timeless dilemma lies at the heart of what faith is all about. It is not a question about science or knowledge or politics, or any of those other disciplines that engage our minds, answer our questions, or opens up even more of the unknown, it is about faith, it is about where we will put our trust, it is about where our lives will be focused, it is about the choice we make to honour God who lies behind all that we see and all that we know, and in whom we are constantly invited to put our trust.
May God continue to journey with us through all our experiences of life enriching our understanding of what it is to be human, of what it is to be loved and what means to have faith.
To God be the glory, now and forever. AMEN.

Sunday 26th May 2012
Proverbs 8:1-4,22-31 John 16:12-15

The ultimate Committee
We always need to remember that to speak of God, we are constantly limited by our language and in many ways our experience. How does one put into words the inexpressible.
Walter Chalmers Smith struggled with that as he penned the hymn that we began our service with today. I encourage you to look at the language he uses there.
"Immortal, invisible, God only wise, in light inaccessible hid from our eyes, most blessed, most glorious, the Ancient of Days, almighty, victorious, thy great name we praise."
Each of those words or phrases are packed with anticipation looking beyond what we can know and feel and touch. They take us beyond ourselves into the heart of the mystery of God.
But they do not contain an image that limits, but opens our minds to great expansive possibilities.
This is the very reason that the ten commandments forbade the making of graven images. For as soon as one fashions any physical image it limits what we can see and know and ever imagine.
And when it comes to the Trinity, this becomes so important because although we may have a picture in our mind, it is always limited by how we perceive and express this concept.
The scriptures never mention the word Trinity and in fact it took until nearly the end of the 2 Century AD for the word to begin to be used. But the essence of this concept is clearly portrayed throughout the scriptures, holding both the closeness of God and the mystery of God in tension.
Donald Guthrie comments on this when he says,
"Undoubtedly there are deep mysteries in the New Testament conception of God, but what must strike the thoughtful reader is the complete absence of any attempt to explain the mysteries. Christian convictions were strong enough to maintain the divine nature of both Jesus Christ and the Spirit without falling into the trap of postulating three gods."
And yet as the distance of time formed between those who knew Jesus and those who looked back on the the stories told, questions were raise about the nature of Jesus. Was he man? Or was he God? And how could these concepts be held in tension?
How could the Word become flesh? And today of course we too engage in this debate with a scientific world view, asking for proof, or detailed explanation of how this might work, how three individual persona's might become one in substance.
And yet when we over analyse this we so easily fall into that danger of confining the God of all creation to what 'I' can understand and we loose that tension of the human and the divine, we loose the beautiful mystery of God who came and who comes among us in ways that in one sense can never be proved.
Thus the concept of Trinity becomes crucial to our understanding of God. It is what makes Christianity uniquely Christian. And while it does not draw on any one particular text from the scriptures, it does draw on the whole body of scripture to build that picture opening up the mystery to some degree. But we must be careful to see it in that light, that limited light, that gives us an insight into the magnitude, into the glory and majesty, of God.
So if we turn our attention to the passages read today we see something of the breadth of the language used to express this inexpressible nature of God.
Let begin with Proverbs. And here we see God being expressed as both Wisdom and Reason. It is Wisdom that calls us. Wisdom calls from the hilltops, from the cross roads, from the entrance to the city. From where ever people gather Wisdom calls. Now one of the intriguing things of this language is that it presents God in a feminine light. Sophia is certainly the Greek word for wisdom, and we recognise that as a name used even in our society.
And the writer here says, "At the entrance to the city, beside the gates, she calls.
Derek Kinder, comments that this concept was probably used to counter the Phoenician concept of a goddess and her cult prostitutes.
So this figure of Wisdom is offered to contrast that love-goddess, "offering love not lust; truth, not flattery; and life instead of disillusion and death."
And then as we move into that latter part of Chapter 8, the writer of Proverbs uses language to describe this figure in ways that reflect what we can read of Christ in some of the Pauline literature.
V22-23, the writer says, "The Lord created me first of all, the first of his works, long ago. I was made in the very beginning, at the first, before the world began.
Compare that with Colossians 1:15-17,
"Christ is visible likeness of the invisible God. He is the first-born Son superior to all create things. For through him God crated everything in heaven and on earth, the seen and the unseen things....
Christ existed before all things, and in union with him all things have their proper place."
And so in essence we see in the scriptures a concept of God as a relational being. There is a relationship within and a relationship that spills over and relates to creation.
The relationship within is expressed as Father, Son and Spirit, or sometimes in terms of functions, as Creator, Redeemer and Giver of life. It is in this concept of relationship that we see Christ, praying to the Father, it is where see in Genesis God saying in the plural, "and now we will make human being and they will be like us."
There is that collective unity that although speaking in the plural, clearly does not imply three separate beings.
And then we see that self contained relationship spill out into the created order, engaging with humanity as the Word becomes flesh and dwelt among us full of grace and truth.
That presence of God, limiting God's self in human form continues with the Pentecost even as the Spirit is poured out on all God's people.
This lies at the heart of what John is saying in his gospel concerning God's continued presence and activity in the world. Here is how God brings and reveals truth to us. It is by that same Spirit that brought the world into being, it is by the same Spirit that inspired the prophets of old, it is by the same Spirit that was poured out at Pentecost. Here is God who remains active in the world in the lives of his people inspiring and invigorating the church motivating it to action so that God's presence can be known not only be those who believe, but as we bear witness to our faith, the whole world comes to experience the love of God.
One of the intriguing aspects of this passage in John is that the Spirit does not speak alone, "He will not speak on his own authority, but he will speak of what he hears, and will tell you of things to come."
The Spirit in coming to us, remains as part of the Godhead. Thus we do not get the Spirit telling us things that contradict what Christ taught. The Scriptures remain our prime tool to interpret what the Spirit is saying to the church, for God will not contradict God's self.
The Trinity is not an easy concept, but then if we were able to comprehend God in God's fullness God would cease to be God. There must always remain mystery. There must always be that otherness to God's being, while on the other hand there needs to be an awareness of God's closeness through the indwelling of his Spirit in the hearts and minds of his people.
May we and the church continue to hold these aspects of God's being in tension so that we can honour more fully our God. May we never be fooled into thinking that we know God so well that there is nothing more to know. For then we will have confined God in our minds to a box and our eyes will be dimmed to the possibilities of all that God can and will continue to do in our lives and in our world.
To God be the glory, now and forever more. AMEN.

Sunday 5th May 2013
Easter 6

Acts 16:9-15 John 14:23-29
A vision of God's love.
Love is a concept that is always hard to put into words and is much better when it is illustrated in the lives of people. And God's love for the world and for individuals is no different. That love is expressed in many and varied ways and the scriptures tell stories of such love.
There is a common thread in this story of love. God's love is initiated and sustain by God. However, God's love invites response, it awaits response, it even pursues response. This whole focus takes us back to the concept of covenant, where God's declaration is that he will be our God and we will be his people. However this does not negate our human emotion, nor our human will to respond by accepting or rejecting that love offered.
It is also noted that this love through the eyes of Christ is expanded greatly on what had previously been expressed through the formality and institutionalisation of the Jewish religion.
In Acts we see a systematic expansion of this love in the lives of the early followers of Jesus. Last week we had the Gentiles coming to faith and Peter raising all sorts of religious and cultural questions for the Jewish followers of Christ. This week we see the role of women opened up in the early church pushing once again people's comfort zones and perceptions that had been shaped by centuries of tradition. Where Jewish tradition had kept men and women apart in worship, and had kept woman away from leadership and prominence in the functions of religious life, the early church began to open doors and take seriously the faith experience of women.
Today's reading tells of one of these stories.
Philippi was a predominantly Roman town, and Paul and his followers suffer persecution from the authorities and were forced to leave earlier than they might have wished. And yet through their engagement with the Jewish women of this town they planted the seeds of a fruitful church that Paul enjoyed an ongoing relationship with for many years as it grew and developed in influence throughout that part of the world. Paul and his associates would normally begin their missionary campaign by seeking out the synagogue as the place to proclaim the coming of the Messiah and this would normally begin on the Sabbath. The suggestion here is that in this predominantly Roman town, where religious persecution seemed to have been practised, there may well have only been a handful of dedicated women, one of whom was a convert. Thus it may have taken some time, with vague information from locals to find out where exactly this group of people met.
But here again, we see the early apostles listening to the stories of peoples faith and all the while being challenged by their preconceptions and having to discern God's Spirit at work in places and in ways that they previously would not have seen as being possible.
So here was Lydia from Thyatira, a dealer in purple cloth. What an intriguing description of this woman, and what does it tell us about her?
She in fact came Thyatira a region in Asia Minor and from a place called Lydia. So she was named after that place. This part of Asia Minor was famous for its selling of goods made with purple dye. There was a Jewish community in this region, and so there or somewhere else this woman Lydia became an adherent of the Jewish religion, a God-fearer, or as the Good News Bible puts it, "She was a woman who worshipped God.
Lydia would have come to hear what Paul had to say through Gentile eyes but with a grounding in the Jewish faith, and we are told that "the Lord opened her mind to pay attention to what Paul was saying."
Just as the Lord open the eyes of Paul, here he opens the mind of Lydia. This is a common phrase in coming to an understanding of faith, and it puts the emphasis on God's work in calling us to faith. Without that openness of heart or mind we so easily close ourselves off to the truth that is in front of us. There is an arrogance in a closed mind that assumes a self containment, a self possession and that there is no need for any outside input or knowledge.
And yet here Lydia in particular, and perhaps those other women who had gathered, warmed to the message that Paul, Timothy and Silas had brought to them. And remember, they came because God gave Paul that vision to go to these parts. Luke is careful in his telling of the story that all the way along, it is God's initiative, God's leading, God's calling.
Our work as followers of Christ comes at his leading as opportunities open, as paths are crossed, as situations unfold. Sometimes this seems clear and at other times we may feel uncertain. In the end it is God's work and we leave it in God's hands to complete offering what we can in his service.
The beginning of this work of Paul and his friends in Philippi resulted in the establishment of quite a thriving Christian settlement that he continued to have warm relations with. They continued to support Paul, even later when he was imprisoned for his faith, and the letter he penned to them from prison was marked with joy and confidence, unity and a perseverance in the Christian faith.
This seemed to be a particularly solid group of believers that despite persecution continued to grow and remained faithful to Christ.
All this from that conversation with a group of women who must have set about sharing what they had heard and experienced on that day.
As an expression of the faith that had come to her that day, Lydia and her household were baptised. She had understood God's love for her and wanted to acknowledge that. Baptism had become the outward expression of that inward change that had taken place for her, and because she had experienced this the effect and ramifications were applied to the whole household.
This is that expression of God's covenant love grounded way back in Abram's time when God declared, "I will be your God and you will be my people." The sign of this covenant was to apply to the whole family as God's love is an encompassing love. Too often we want to narrow this love and confine it to what we can understand. And yet here in this story we see it, as I have said, pushing those boundaries of acceptability. Here in Philippi, these women became the conveyors of the Gospel, just as it was the women who brought the news of the resurrection that first Easter morning. It took the church two thousand years to fully comprehend this truth, and yet despite the slowness of the institution we know that history is littered with examples of women whose lives were given in the service of Christ.
You see throughout the Gospel's, the stories told of Jesus' life and ministry, were that he often came to the marginalised in society, those whom others rejected, Jesus welcomed.
John tells, "Whoever loves me will obey my teaching. My Father will love him, and my Father and I will come to him and live with him."
The 'whoever', is an all encompassing term, not one that marginalises. It is not one that puts up barriers of gender or race or creed. And so not surprisingly right at the beginning of the early church we see these accounts of the establishment of communities of faith coming out of the more unexpected places. Gentiles taking a lead, women taking a lead.
God is seen to be doing a new thing that challenges not only the established religious community of the day, but also the secular society. And as we will see as we continue this journey of the early church, the reaction was often swift and cruel, but that did not put the followers of Jesus off.
The peace that the Risen Christ brought them sustain them even in the face of persecution. Christ peace is not about an easy life, but about a contentment to live with courage even in the face of upheaval and even danger.
Let me conclude with those words of comfort that Christ offered as he promised a continue presence with his people in and through the Holy Spirit when he said,
"Peace is what I leave with you; it is my own peace that I give you, I do not give it as the world does. Do not be worried and upset; do not be afraid."
To God be the glory now and forever. AMEN.

24th March 2013 Palm Sunday

Isaiah 43:16-21 John 12:1-8
Giving Love.

Isaiah quotes the Lord as saying,
"Do not cling to events of the past or dwell on what happened long ago. Watch for the new thing I am going to do."
Those words are always hard ones to take in as they immediately put us on edge. They give us a certain unease as we are comfortable with what we have, and we don't want the boat rocked. The status quo is always much easier to cope with, why would we want to do anything any differently.
I was struck this week by the Catholic community around the world and how with the election of a new Pope, the whole community expect and embrace the possibility of change. It was not a sense that they had tired of the old, but just that a new face taking up that office in the church would inevitably bring about change. This of course is a generalisation, and there will no doubt be those who don't hold such a view.
But contrast this general attitude with our gospel reading today, as I think Jesus was struggling to bring his disciples on board with the idea that God's lavish, unconditional and self giving love was being expressed to the world in a new and vibrant way. He knew that even if they weren't struggling with that concept now, the events that were about to happen would soon leave them floundering.
What do I mean? Well picture for a moment the scene.
Here in the lead up to the Passover, the annual festival that reminded them of God's salvation in bringing his people out of the land of Egypt, out of oppression and slavery into the freedom of the promised land, Jesus brings his disciples to the home of his friends Lazarus, Mary and Martha.
This was no ordinary home at this stage, for only a few day before Jesus had performed one of his greatest miracles, he had raised Lazarus from the dead. Four days in the tomb and Jesus brought him back to life. This was no ordinary event, this was no ordinary expression of love for this family, and yet God in Jesus the Christ, brought life from death. Here was a demonstration of power of God over life and death, and yet we know that this was only a foretaste of an even greater miracle with the cross looming high on the horizon.
Remember Isaiah's words,
"Do not cling to events of the past or dwell on what happened long ago. Watch for the new thing I am going to do."
Don't we take for granted the power of God in creation. We only need to look at the God's creativity and God's gifts in the harvest that we see before us. Is this not in itself a miracle of grace? God's creation out of nothing.
Jesus was beginning to reveal a new expression of God's love for the world which would ultimately be expressed in his own life, death and resurrection.
But there was more involved than just an intellectual ascent to the idea that God's love was being demonstrated in new ways, there was a call to follow. There was a call to participate in this love, and Lazarus' rising was a taste of this.
And this story read today is a picture of the response that that community made to God's grace that had been seen so dramatically in their brothers rising from the dead.
They had experienced God's love first hand and so they hosted a dinner for Jesus and his friends.
And we are, in one sense, pulled quickly back into the real world with this story, and yet also given a glimpse of what this love of God can do in our lives.
The devotion and thankfulness offered by this family to Jesus seems so natural, and yet it was lavish. A meal and hospitality for Jesus and his friends, and then Mary comes with her jar of incredibly expensive perfume.
As a picture of real servitude, Mary pours this perfume on Jesus' feet and wipes them with her hair. She has recognised the love of God poured out in Jesus and sees that nothing she can offer is too much. Her devotion is from the heart, and is forward looking.
Some commentators see this as an anointing in preparation for his coming death, as in his response and commendation of her actions, Jesus suggest that any that is left might be kept for his burial.
Mary's act of devotion is a picture of true Christian worship, that in realising the love of God, she acknowledges it in giving all that she had.
There was no holding back and her great act of love permeated the gathered community challenging them all in their own love and motives.
And this is where Judas Iscariot offers the response that we so often see and probably even feel within ourselves, "Why wasn't this perfume sold for three hundred silver coins and the money given to the poor?"
A silver coin was equivalent to the daily wage of the average rural worker of the day. So this one jar of perfume was equivalent to almost a years wages. That really puts Judas' question into perspective and which of us would have the same response. And yet can we measure love and devotion in such terms.
God's love for the world cannot be measured in such a quantitative way, for that would give it a finite quality. We could suggest that God's love was about to run out, it had been used up. However we know that that is not the nature of God's love for it has no end, it cannot be exhausted. And Mary's expression of her understanding of that love, was that nothing that she had or owned was held back when offering gratitude to God for his freely given love.
It is an acknowledgement that all she is, and all she has, comes from the gracious hand of God and therefore rightly belongs to him and should be offered back to him.
Jesus' rather harsh sounding retort to Judas, that
"You will always have poor people with you, but you will not always have me," is a reference to that fact that his time on earth was drawing to an end. Riches alone will not solve the social problems of the world, but the real issue lies with the hearts of men and women, who like Judas focus on self interest, on self preservation, and on personal gain. Mary on the other hand saw that God's self giving love in Jesus Christ, brought life, even out of death. A heart transformed to look beyond ones self to the source of all love would bring life to this world.
In Jesus, she saw God's love in a new way. She became open to the new thing that God was doing right in her midst and so she offered all that she had, and was willing to humble herself at the feet of Jesus.
This is surely the call of Christ down the ages as many of his words echo in our ears.
"Come to me all who labour and are heavy laden and I will give you rest."
"Follow me and I will make you fishers of men."
Mary as a true disciple of Christ took up her cross that day to follow him as her eyes were opened to giving love of God who poured out all that he had for the world.
"God loved the world so much that he gave his only Son, so that all who believe in him may not perish but have everlasting life."
We come to follow Christ, not because God will gain from our devotion, not because of what we might get out of it, but because we are called, because we are enveloped in the love of God that he gave freely for us and for our salvation. This does not demand payment, or works, or bind us to any obligation, but rather it invites us to a way of life that begins with offering all that we are and all that we have to acknowledge the glory and the wonder and power of God who is at work in us.
Jesus accepted the praise that Mary offered for it came from deep within her heart and was a response to the realisation that God loved her with an everlasting love. There was a recognition that in Christ, God was doing a new thing; that God had come among them, and had brought life out of death, he had offer hope in the face of despair.
Let us continue this Lenten journey, exploring in our own mind as individuals and as a community of faith the height and depth, the breadth and length of God's love for us.
And to God be the glory, now and forever more. AMEN.

Sunday 6 January 2013
Isaiah 60:1-6 Matthew 2:1-12

The coming of the Magi is definitely one of those stories that centuries of biblical scholarship and numerous theologians have struggled with over the years. Theories abound amongst such people and the scientific community as to what it could be all about, if indeed it actually happened. So the disciplines within both science and religion have traded ideas back and forth over the years.
There are those who merely want to say that it was a story framed around an Old Testament extract and inserted into Matthew's birth narratives. But we would want to ask why?
The only historically improbable aspect of the story is the Star, and that is certainly debatable as to what this phenomena was and how in that time it was read.
A similar story told of a visit to Nero in AD66 vouches for the likelihood of this story having some substance to it.
The Star is certainly an interesting aspect of this story, and to start with one would wonder why an early church writer would include a story about astrology to confirm the birth of the Messiah when in fact the church came into struggle with this primitive science.
There are three possibilities concerning this astrological appearance.
1. That it was a planatry conjunction, where there is an alignment between the Sun, the Earth, Jupiter and Saturn. This is a rare occurrence but would certainly give a spectacular display.
2. The second option would be that of a very bright comet. Haley's comet appeared around 12/11 BC and so is too early, but there are records of a bright comet appearing in the constellation of Capricorn in 5BC which would tie in with the time around the birth of Christ, taking into the account the inaccuracies of our modern calendar. The snag with the comet theory is that they are quite common and that traditionally they have been associated with the 'four D's' - doom, death, disease and disaster,.
3. The third option is that of a Nova, (the birth of a new star). This starts off with an explosion resulting in a period of extreme brightness in the night sky. This level of brightness is temporary in nature.
So it appears that it is not impossible, and perhaps highly likely that there could have been some astrological event that caught the eye of these Magi, who were observers of such happenings. But why include such a story in the Gospel account?
Is it perhaps to tell the readers that the impact of the coming of Christ was not just for the people of Israel, but for the whole world? The coming of the Messiah was to draw all people together as the Spirit of God unites both Jews and Gentiles, males and females, slave and free, all are one in Christ.
The Magi, with perhaps a limited knowledge of Judaism recognised in this birth, one who was born to be a ruler. By what ever means they gained that understanding, the truth led them to that stable, via Herod, as they sought to acknowledge this child, born to be King.
They did, what in their cultural terms was appropriate, as they brought gifts of Gold, Frankincense and Myrrh. These were gifts fit for a King.
They were gifts that honoured, not the son of a peasant couple, on a backpacking tour of Judea, but they honoured one who would, in their eyes rise to great prominance in his life.
Contrast this with Herod's attitude, where we see suspicion and jealousy as he becomes paranoid about this own place in society. He was not popular among his own people and held is position as an appointment from Rome. So naturally as the years went on he was plagued with fear of rivals who might come along with an eye to toppling him.
He would have wanted to keep the peace so he could secure his favour with Rome. Any suggestion of a take-over or rebellion might result in Rome loosing confidence in Herod's ability to do his job. Herod therefore set out to squash any such possibility. This can be a tendency that we all need to keep a check on, that we don't trade truth for security. It is too easy to stick rigidly to the familiar, and to block the truth that may be staring us in the face.
Even if Herod had kept an open mind to the possibility that the one whom these men were looking for may have been the one born to be King, truth could have prevailed without the dire consequences that Herod invoked. He sought the advice of the Chief Priests and teacher of the Law, and even when their knowledge married together with that of these Gentile soothsayers, he still tried to secure his own power and position.
His means to try and find the Christ child by piggybacking off the pure motives and actions of these honourable gentiles was despicable and had dire consequence for innocent people.
Again we see something of the beginning of the broadening of God's activity in the world through this story. One would have expected the truth of Christ's coming to be brought through the establish channels of their religious world, particularly those who had been looking for this event throughout the history of their people, but no, God used other means to confirm this event in history, thus beginning the mission to the Gentile people. The Gospel writer saw this as important in transmitting this story to his hearers. Let us not forget that God can speak to us in many and varied ways, but all those ways point us to Christ. He is the one who has revealed God's love for us and for the world, and our role is to point others to that same source of truth.
The opening verses of the Letter to the Hebrew's reminds us of this also when he says,
"In the past, God spoke to our ancestors many times and in many ways through the prophets, but in these last days he has spoken to us through his Son. He is the one through whom God created the universe, the one whom God has chosen to possess all things at the end. He reflects the brightness of God's glory and is the exact likeness of God's own being, sustaining the universe with his powerful word. After achieving forgiveness for the sins of mankind, he sat down in heaven at the right-hand side of God, the Supreme Power."
The Gospel stories also have this image of pointing to Christ, and we will see this in the story of Jesus' baptism by John, where John clearly sees Christ as the focus, the one to whom all honour and glory should go to.
Such is the continued mission of the church. Herod's mistake was drawing attention to himself rather than being willing to point to the one whom God had placed in his midst, Jesus Christ, our Lord.
This story fits well into the whole picture and meaning of Christ's coming into the world. And far from being some spurious addition to titivate the birth narratives, it can be seen as that opening up and offering of the free grace of God that transcends traditions, races and creeds. It crosses the bounds bringing that free trade of knowledge and culture and resources to acknowledge God's supremacy in our world as both Creator and Redeemer.
Whether Jew or Gentile, whether rich or poor, whether free or enslaved, God's love reaches us because of Christ who was born in Bethlehem.
And like the wise men who encountered this baby, we too must consider our response. Like them, will we bow down and worship, awe struck by the presence of Christ in our midst?
Will we bring with us the gifts that we can as we offer ourselves, our lives, our very being to the one to whom every knee will bow and every tongue confess, Jesus Christ our Lord?
This is what we are all called to do if we are to be followers of Christ acknowledging God's loving presence in our midst.
To God be the glory, now and forever more. AMEN.

Sunday 23 December 2012
Micah 5:2-5a Luke 1:39-45

Joy in Obedience!
How excited we can get at the prospect of meeting someone important. Whether it be a sportsman, or an important political figure, or member of the Royal family. I am sure who ever the person or what ever the circumstances, we have known that sense of anticipation and excitement. And as our minds and imaginations race, all sorts of responses are triggered.
We don't know in this gospel story what Elizabeth had already heard about her cousin Mary before she came to visit. We do know it was when Elizabeth was in the sixth month of her pregnancy and we know that Mary stayed for about three months, and the sequence would suggest that she left possibly just before the birth of John the Baptist. During this time, I dare say they would have explored many issues and had many interesting discussions.
There are some very interesting links with our Old Testament reading that speak directly of Bethlehem as the birth place of one who will, "come from the Lord and with the majesty of the Lord God himself." I have no doubt that Elizabeth, and possibly even Mary, would both have been well versed in the writings of the Prophets. Elizabeth's husband, Zechariah was himself a priest. So the connections were made.
Out of his small and humble beginning was the potential for great things. And this is recognised through the movement of the baby within her. While there is nothing unusual in the movement of a baby within the womb, it would appear that maybe in this case it was something a little out of the ordinary, stronger, more definite, and the timing reinforced the sense of occasion.
But it is the Gospel writers words he records, as Elizabeth greets Mary; "Why should this great thing happen to me, that my Lord's mother comes to visit me?"
In this Elizabeth is acknowledging the special nature of this child who is to be born. Here we get a glimpse of mortal child in the womb of Mary who at the same time is the eternal God.
John Calvin expresses it, "The title of Lord really belongs to the Son of God revealed in the flesh, to whom all power is given by the Father, and who is appointed highest Governor of heaven and of earth, by whose hand God directs all things."
These two women express faith in a way that we can all learn from.
There is an acceptance of what is happening and an acknowledgement that this is all beyond their control. All that can be done is to trust God and to accept the role that has been given. There is no hint of jealousy, that one may have been favoured more highly than another, but rather there is mutual support and a willing obedience to carry out the task that God has called Mary too.
In this she finds joy; that deep seated peace, that where she is being led, God is with her.
And we may well see that as no hard task, but in that day, the embarrassment, and in fact the danger she faced was real and could have been life threatening.
To bear a child out-of-wedlock, could have resulted in public humiliation and even death which may be why she went away for those three months, but during this time came to recognise the honour which had been bestowed on her.
Obedience is not always the easiest of paths, but often calls for courageous action.
Obedience does not always allow one to go with the majority, or to follow the crowd, but more often than not calls us to stand against the tide of public opinion, to stand counter to the culture of our day, to bring the light of truth out into the open.
Mary and Elizabeth never allowed that sense of call, that sense of obedience to bring the focus to them, but always pointed to God, the one incarnate, the one to be born into our world as Saviour.
Mary had already uttered those words in her conversation with the angel who had brought the news to her, "I am the Lord's servant, may it happen to me as you have said."
And while her sense of call to this awesome task was becoming clearer by the day, those around Mary, family, friends and the community in general would have taken much longer to recognise the meaning of what was going on, and there would always be those who would never recognise, let alone acknowledge such understanding.
As well as joy and courage in obedience these two women also exhibit humility in their obedience.
There is no sense of pride shown in their attitude, but rather a humble acceptance, why should this happen to me?
Elizabeth's shows restraint as she considers God's goodness to Mary in choosing her to bear the Saviour of the world and yet offers her the honour that is her due without drawing our attention away from God, to whom the honour and praise is due.
It is easy in life to forget this delicate balance. John Calvin says on this, "Some are so excessively pleased with themselves that in order to shine alone they despise God's gifts in their brothers, while others exalt men with such a degree of superstition that they make idols of them for themselves; which has resulted in Christ being shoved down the bench, so to say, while Mary is given the place of honour."
I think this is a trap that we can all fall into in what ever sphere of life we find ourselves called to. It is one of the dangers of our materialist and egocentric generations that we find ourselves in.
We measure our success by the things we have achieved. And in our self sufficiency we fail to acknowledge the place God has played in bringing us to where we are.
In fact our 'shoving of Christ down the bench,' as Calvin puts it, results in either a sense of total irrelevance or a total denial of the existence or need of God.
And yet we cling to the trappings for a while, the ritual or the language that brings us comfort, or we redefine the festivals so that we can enjoy them without acknowledging the real meaning that lies behind them. We only need to look at Christmas and Easter to see how over time society has so totally redefined these events that Christ is taken right out of them.
Now we unashamedly, in some settings, insist that this is the case, so that people are not embarrassed or offended by the religious aspect of Christmas or Easter.
And even in the church there is a tendency to organise such events around family and whatever else is going on in our lives.
We need to be very clear that Christmas is about this child that was born as Saviour of the world.
We must, like Mary and Elizabeth, have the humility to put ourselves and our needs and desires secondary to the focus of Christ, who came among us, as one of us, to bear the sin of the world.
Paul reminded the early Church of this when he said in 1 Cor 8:5, "Even if there are so-called 'gods' and 'lords,' yet there is for us only one God, the Father, who is the Creator all things and for whom we live; and there is only one Lord, Jesus Christ, through whom all things were created and through whom we live."
Humility keeps that focus on Christ and away from claiming the glory and the power and the honour for ourselves. It keeps us focused on the one who is the King of kings and the Lord of lords.
There is joy in obedience and we see this in Mary and we can find it in our own lives as we engage with God, as we listen to him, as we read his word, as we follow his ways. Mary could have followed another path, and that would not have prevented God fulfilling His purposes. But she is called 'blessed', for by faith she received the blessings offered to her. Let us also seek, in following Christ, to receive and acknowledge the goodness and the blessing of God in our lives as we live with him and for him.
To God be the glory, now and forever more. AMEN.

Sunday 25 November 2012
2 Samuel 23:1-7 John 18:33-37

Language can be very interesting and particularly when we have a collection of writings that come from different sources and appear in different genre. In reading such literature we need to take into account the style and purpose of the writing, before we can unpack more of what it is saying.
And today between our Old Testament reading and our Gospel, this is particularly the case.
Towards the end of 2 Samuel we have what is recorded as David's last words. The writer gives us a picture of the David, the speaker of these words, and then conveys a message that is clearly prophetic in nature. Not prophetic in the sense of fore telling the future, but prophetic in the sense of conveying or proclaiming or forth telling God's word to us. We are told something of David's history and his sense of call. He is the son of Jesse, and man whom God made great.
We know in and of himself he was anything but great. He was small in stature when called to this role. He was a shepherd boy. Later we know also that he had his weaknesses. Clearly as his life and ministry draws to an end he attributes anything that he has achieved to the power of Yahweh who has made him the person he is. His life is described in terms of his relationship to God. This separated him out from the kings of Egypt who considered themselves divine. And therefore provides and interesting contrast with Christ and his conversation with Pilate.
But David also sees himself as anointed by God. This of course has also been confirmed by the wider community, who acknowledged and revered that calling. Thus David feels confident to express to the people the mind of God in these prophetic words.
David is King by virtue of his Divine appointment.
He sees himself as the voice by which God speaks to his people, and the community on the whole respect the position David holds.
His message points to the King who rules in obedience to God. It is a King who does not necessarily command popular acclaim, but whose rule is based on Godly obedience, on truth, on justice.
If we are to compare and contrast this with Jesus' concept of his reign as King, there are some interesting points to note.
Jesus' claim to Kingship does not depend on the popular backing of the people. The one who came into this world, incarnate from God, who had an understanding of his calling, and the who spoke on numerous occasion to his small band of followers about his death, does not enjoy the popular support of his own people. Had this been the case, the Pilate would have been far more wary of him. A threat to the political peace of the empire would have been jumped on, quickly and with force. Pilate is bemused by all the fuss over Jesus, as he can see no harm, nor any wrong in him. So in asking that question in
v33, "Are you the King of the Jews? He is saying, "Can you, poor creature that you are, really be a king?"
There is that note of disbelief not only that he might see himself as a king, but that his own people could believe that it was possible.
He is almost bewildered by the fuss and seeks ways to quell the growing excitement.
What perhaps he doesn't understand is the anger over the claims Jesus has made about himself in terms of his relationship with God. This is a relationship that is distinct from that which David claimed. David saw himself as a servant of God, where as Jesus' claims were to an equality with God. It is this point that really irked the Jews. This was blasphemous, and in their eyes punishable by death, usually carried out by stoning. But under Roman law they were unable to exercise that level of justice and so needed the Roman Procurator to authorise Jesus' death, in effect to help them out of their bind.
There is also a difference here in the understanding of the term Kingdom.
When Pilate asks Jesus if he is King of the Jews, his concept of a kingdom is of a geographical area and a prescribed group of people, probably distinguished by their birth. How ever Jesus' concept obviously varies as his reply eventually in v36 states, "My kingdom does not belong to this world; if my kingdom belonged to this world, my followers would fight to keep me from being handed over to the Jewish authorities. No, my kingdom does not belong here!"
Kingship for Jesus was a much greater concept that was far more encompassing, and it was the culmination of his ministry. Where those who plotted his death saw an end, Jesus was seeing a fulfilment and dawning reality of Kingdom of God on earth, as it was in heaven.
Tom Wright in his book, "How God became King," states, "The cross constitutes Golgotha as the new holy mountain. This is where the nations will now come to pay homage to the world's true Lord. The one enthroned there, with 'King of the Jews' above his head, is to have the nations as his inheritance, the uttermost parts of the earth as his possession. His victory over them will not be the victory of swords and guns and bombs, but the victory of his people and of their derivative suffering and testimony."
This is a Kingdom not displaying power and authority and domination over it subjects, but rather is a Kingdom that invites people to serve, it invites people to follow and it is not focused on one nation but is drawn from all the earth.
I am sure Pilate was utterly bewildered not only by Christ's concept of kingdom, but also by his unwillingness to make any attempt to save himself. Jesus understood that his death was a necessary part of the coming of this Kingdom. The sacrifice of his life was a sacrifice for the whole world. It is interesting that the Jewish authorities took no part in this private interview with Pilate. This was because they were preparing themselves for the Passover. Were they to enter the house of Pilate, they would have made themselves ritually unclean for the pending Passover. The Passover was a reminder to the people of God's forgiving love, and was the sacrifice that demonstrated the all sufficient provision of God's forgiveness for his people. And yet Jesus was there facing this interrogation and staring crucifixion in the face. This was a death only for those who were cursed. And yet it was this death that became the once and for all sacrifice as God provided the Passover Lamb in Christ, the Lamb of God who takes away the sins of the world.
Jesus declares his only motive and only purpose is to speak about the truth.
His mission was to bring the truth of God into the world, to cement the Kingdom of God in the truth of God's love for all people.
Even in the face of rejection and persecution, even in the face of death, Jesus remained steadfast to his purpose. He did not waver, he did not look for the way out that people expected he might take. That which he had spoken of to his disciple's, he steadfastly stuck too, so that God's will might be done.
And has it changed today? No! The world still has not clear idea of God's Kingdom, sometimes the church looses sight of it, but in Christ it was established. In Christ, God's reign was opened up for all to see. In Christ we still find God's love made real, we find a tangible ground for our hope and we can view the world, not in terms of physical boundaries and earthly rulers, but as God's world, with a reign that is supreme.
And like King David, there are still those who are placed in authority, and they are there for the good of society and for general rule of order.
Above all, we are all part of God's Kingdom and his rule.
To God be the glory, now and forever. AMEN.

Sunday 4th November 2012
Ruth 1:1-18 Mark 12:28-34

How far from the Kingdom are we?
The Gospel reading this morning gives a wonderful glimpse of the age old divide between law and grace. It is the argument of what must I do, what does it require to ensure that we become part of the Kingdom of God? It is a trick question because we know that our faith teaches us on the one hand that we can do nothing to earn that place, but on the other hand the church and society down the centuries have placed requirement upon requirement on to the lives of people giving us the sense that we deserve, or don't deserve such a place.
Jesus engages with a teacher of the Law in a discourse that almost skirts around the edges of this debate and yet it lies at the heart of it.
It is a little like nervous sparing in a boxing bout, where each tries to land a hit, but never quite openly makes it.
Or like "Beyond the dark lands" programme I watched the other night with Nigel Latter speaking to victims of violent crime. The in-depth interviews drew on peoples experience, emotions, and ways in which they dealt with the events and the aftermath for years later. One of the victims spoke of it being a life changing experience that made him look at the world in a whole different light, so that when his home was destroyed by the Christchurch Earthquake, he could only see it as bricks and mortar and it wasn't really that important in his life. But there was a real reluctance to question people, or even mention, how faith may have helped them or what impact spirituality had on them.
So here Jesus is asked, skirting around the heart of the question, "Which is the most important commandment?" It appears to be an attempt to find out what the one thing is that one must do if one is going to lead a good and wholesome life, and it also seems to be an attempt to polarise the views of the Sadducee's verses what Jesus had been teaching, thus forming the basis to be able to condemn Jesus' point of view.
However, Jesus in his wisdom draws this teacher of the law from a point of law and opens up the heart of grace. And I really wonder if this is a pivotal point of what it means for us to live in this world but to live with a life giving and freeing attitude to all that life brings to us? What do I mean?
In the question asked about the priority of the commandments, there is a desire to rank, a desire to set a measure from which an external judgement can be made; a judgement of worthy or not, of success or failure, of being able to look at others with a critical eye rather than focusing on self. In other words we would be able to measure whether one was fulfilling this commandment or not, and seeing that it is the most important, if we fail here, we fail everywhere!
However the response is far different, as Jesus offers both an outward and an inward view of the question.
Yeap! No doubt at all, "Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your mind with all your soul, and with all your strength."
That's straight forward, obvious almost. No one could dispute that putting God first is the fundamental position we must take if we are to claim to have faith, because it grounds our faith in the context of God. However, this love for God is grounded, not in our emotions but rather in the concept that God has loved us: "we love, because God first loved us." Here is a switch from works to grace. If love is generated from within ourselves and directed toward God then it is our effort. On the other hand, when we recognise that our love is generated from God, then it becomes part and parcel of our response to God, the source of all love. Our response is a response to the Grace given freely to us and to the whole world. And then Jesus masterfully adds the second commandment, which is in essence an extension of the first and illustrates what I have just explained. "Love your neighbour as yourself."
Love for God is not purely an individual and isolated experience or emotion. In fact this sort of love may have emotion, again as a result, but it is much more about commitment. It is a state of being that brings with it an external application. If we are going to claim to love God, then we must as a result or consequence of that love, love our neighbour. And this is where the story of Ruth and Naomi is so relevant. Here is a family torn apart by grief as a result of the death of, firstly a husband and then two sons. Naomi tells here daughter in laws to go back home to their families where they can start their lives over and they would at least have the opportunity to have both happiness and the means to survive, rather than being consigned to a life of poverty.
Ruth, out of love for her mother in law, and her husband resolved to stay with Naomi. This was not necessarily a choice of logic. It certainly wasn't a choice that would give her an easy life. No, out of love and in response the love she had received from this family she resolve to commit herself to Naomi, and to go where she would go.
This is a lovely illustration of the commandment that Jesus is speaking about. The story of Naomi and Ruth could have had a vastly different ending had the characters acted out of self interest and in ways that would have been best for them as individuals. Naomi would have been left alone, destitute and vulnerable and unable to support herself in that society.
This is a story of faithfulness and that steadfastness that commits not only to each other, but to God. Again we get that principle of love God and love your neighbour, both in response to the grace given to us by God.
And this is where Jesus was able to comment to the teacher of the Law when he had got the point and seen that these two positive reactions of loving God and neighbour was far more important than all the other religious sacrifices that were demanded of them in their day.
He said to him, "You are not far from the Kingdom of God."
Why was he not far? Because the Kingdom of God begins here and now with our daily living out of these two commandments as Jesus put them. "Love God and love your neighbour as you love yourself."
This stands in stark contrast to a world that almost demands that we focus on self first before worrying, if at all, about anyone else.
Being part of God's kingdom demands that we engage in response to the King of kings in living out these commands.
Tom Wright in a recent book, How God became King" links the coming of the Kingdom with Cross. One of the key purposes of Christ's coming and his dying was to inaugurate God's kingdom here on earth. Thus this teacher of the law was not far form it, it was almost upon them. We live in God's kingdom and we subject ourselves to his rule and in response we are called to love God first and foremost and to love one another in the same way. John reminds us in his Gospel, it is by this love that the world will know we are his followers. That is a universal call to all who will take up the cross; to all who will follow Christ. It remains for us all, I am sure, the constant challenge in living this out. It is the challenge for the church as a community of God's people, where ever we gather, that we live together with that single focus of Christ, the King and Head of the Church, as we focus our lives on the faith that we profess. May God continue to equip and strengthen us as we live our lives for him.
To God be the glory now and forever more. AMEN.

Sunday 4th October 2012
Ruth 1:1-18 Mark 12:28-34

How far from the Kingdom are we?
The Gospel reading this morning gives a wonderful glimpse of the age old divide between law and grace. It is the argument of what must I do, what does it require to ensure that we become part of the Kingdom of God? It is a trick question because we know that our faith teaches us on the one hand that we can do nothing to earn that place, but on the other hand the church and society down the centuries have placed requirement upon requirement on to the lives of people giving us the sense that we deserve, or don't deserve such a place.
Jesus engages with a teacher of the Law in a discourse that almost skirts around the edges of this debate and yet it lies at the heart of it.
It is a little like nervous sparing in a boxing bout, where each tries to land a hit, but never quite openly makes it.
Or like "Beyond the dark lands" programme I watched the other night with Nigel Latter speaking to victims of violent crime. The in-depth interviews drew on peoples experience, emotions, and ways in which they dealt with the events and the aftermath for years later. One of the victims spoke of it being a life changing experience that made him look at the world in a whole different light, so that when his home was destroyed by the Christchurch Earthquake, he could only see it as bricks and mortar and it wasn't really that important in his life. But there was a real reluctance to question people, or even mention, how faith may have helped them or what impact spirituality had on them.
So here Jesus is asked, skirting around the heart of the question, "Which is the most important commandment?" It appears to be an attempt to find out what the one thing is that one must do if one is going to lead a good and wholesome life, and it also seems to be an attempt to polarise the views of the Sadducee's verses what Jesus had been teaching, thus forming the basis to be able to condemn Jesus' point of view.
However, Jesus in his wisdom draws this teacher of the law from a point of law and opens up the heart of grace. And I really wonder if this is a pivotal point of what it means for us to live in this world but to live with a life giving and freeing attitude to all that life brings to us? What do I mean?
In the question asked about the priority of the commandments, there is a desire to rank, a desire to set a measure from which an external judgement can be made; a judgement of worthy or not, of success or failure, of being able to look at others with a critical eye rather than focusing on self. In other words we would be able to measure whether one was fulfilling this commandment or not, and seeing that it is the most important, if we fail here, we fail everywhere!
However the response is far different, as Jesus offers both an outward and an inward view of the question.
Yeap! No doubt at all, "Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your mind with all your soul, and with all your strength."
That's straight forward, obvious almost. No one could dispute that putting God first is the fundamental position we must take if we are to claim to have faith, because it grounds our faith in the context of God. However, this love for God is grounded, not in our emotions but rather in the concept that God has loved us: "we love, because God first loved us." Here is a switch from works to grace. If love is generated from within ourselves and directed toward God then it is our effort. On the other hand, when we recognise that our love is generated from God, then it becomes part and parcel of our response to God, the source of all love. Our response is a response to the Grace given freely to us and to the whole world. And then Jesus masterfully adds the second commandment, which is in essence an extension of the first and illustrates what I have just explained. "Love your neighbour as yourself."
Love for God is not purely an individual and isolated experience or emotion. In fact this sort of love may have emotion, again as a result, but it is much more about commitment. It is a state of being that brings with it an external application. If we are going to claim to love God, then we must as a result or consequence of that love, love our neighbour. And this is where the story of Ruth and Naomi is so relevant. Here is a family torn apart by grief as a result of the death of, firstly a husband and then two sons. Naomi tells here daughter in laws to go back home to their families where they can start their lives over and they would at least have the opportunity to have both happiness and the means to survive, rather than being consigned to a life of poverty.
Ruth, out of love for her mother in law, and her husband resolved to stay with Naomi. This was not necessarily a choice of logic. It certainly wasn't a choice that would give her an easy life. No, out of love and in response the love she had received from this family she resolve to commit herself to Naomi, and to go where she would go.
This is a lovely illustration of the commandment that Jesus is speaking about. The story of Naomi and Ruth could have had a vastly different ending had the characters acted out of self interest and in ways that would have been best for them as individuals. Naomi would have been left alone, destitute and vulnerable and unable to support herself in that society.
This is a story of faithfulness and that steadfastness that commits not only to each other, but to God. Again we get that principle of love God and love your neighbour, both in response to the grace given to us by God.
And this is where Jesus was able to comment to the teacher of the Law when he had got the point and seen that these two positive reactions of loving God and neighbour was far more important than all the other religious sacrifices that were demanded of them in their day.
He said to him, "You are not far from the Kingdom of God."
Why was he not far? Because the Kingdom of God begins here and now with our daily living out of these two commandments as Jesus put them. "Love God and love your neighbour as you love yourself."
This stands in stark contrast to a world that almost demands that we focus on self first before worrying, if at all, about anyone else.
Being part of God's kingdom demands that we engage in response to the King of kings in living out these commands.
Tom Wright in a recent book, How God became King" links the coming of the Kingdom with Cross. One of the key purposes of Christ's coming and his dying was to inaugurate God's kingdom here on earth. Thus this teacher of the law was not far form it, it was almost upon them. We live in God's kingdom and we subject ourselves to his rule and in response we are called to love God first and foremost and to love one another in the same way. John reminds us in his Gospel, it is by this love that the world will know we are his followers. That is a universal call to all who will take up the cross; to all who will follow Christ. It remains for us all, I am sure, the constant challenge in living this out. It is the challenge for the church as a community of God's people, where ever we gather, that we live together with that single focus of Christ, the King and Head of the Church, as we focus our lives on the faith that we profess. May God continue to equip and strengthen us as we live our lives for him.
To God be the glory now and forever more. AMEN.

Sunday 26th August 2012
1 Kings 8:(1,6,10-11) John 6:56-69
Where else is there to go?

At the end of this discourse on bread, which began with the story of the feeding of the five thousand and then led into the great, "I am" statement, Jesus lays down a challenge for his disciples, and a challenge for us all who read these words. The crowds had followed and then dispersed. Some remained interested and struck by what they had seen and heard, and others found it too difficult so left, and probably plenty of others just followed the crowd disinterested in any further engagement with Jesus.
It is a picture of life, it is the story of the churches on going challenge, as we seek to engage with people today. It is a mirrorred response of every generation that has heard the words of the gospel and experienced something of God's wonderous and mysterious presence.
And we too must allow such stories to challenge us in our faith, in our response to God and in our engagement with the world.
John, as he looked back on some 70 years of Christ's influence through his life death and resurrection, could see a mixed response. He could see people struggling with the realities of Christ's humanity. Had he really come among us as one of us, or had he merely put on an illusion of humanity? This is where the people were struggling and where John ties Christ's life, death and resurrection into the everyday happenings of Jesus earthly life.
You see, John does not give an account of the last Supper, but rather integrates it into the picnic on the hillside as five thousand people were fed.
He uses this occasion to tell us that the mystery of God's coming among us is not just for the special religious events, especially those carried out behind the closed doors in an upper room among the faithful, but his coming among us is every time we meet, every time we gather to eat, every time we open ourselves to his presence that is with us no matter where that might be.
Christ, as the Word made flesh, full of grace and truth, who dwelt among us, is with us throughout our daily lives.
It is this daily, intimate relationship that Christ opened up, or demonstrated, or even reignited in the people of his day, and then invites them to partake in this life giving relationship through the Spirit of God who dwells in us.
And I say reignited in us, for is this not the picture that we get from our reading in Kings, where God who had been present among his wandering people in the tent and the covenant box, and who is brought to the new temple and made the focal point in this permanent dwelling. Here is the God of Israel who was seen in the cloud shining with the dazzling light of the Lord's presence."
Here was the God who was described as, "there being no god like you in heaven above or on earth below."
You see this God had faithfully wandered with them throughout their experiences in the wilderness, he had been with them in the exile of Egypt. He would continue to be with them in exiles to come. Why? Because although they were placing the symbol of his presence in a perminant dwelling, is actual presence remained with the people.
Although the people wanted to house God in the Temple this in no way contfined the presence nor the power of God.
And how often has this been the response of the people of God, and of the church down the centuries. We have wanted to box God into the confines of our imaginations rather than allowing the reality of his glorious presence and power to be seen and experienced among us.
This is the pattern of our human ways and this is where Jesus was breaking centuries of tradition and institutionalisation that had people seeing God contifined to the Temple and only accessable by the appropriate people, the Priests.
But as John interprets Christ's mission, he sees the presence of God in Christ dwelling among the people, eating with them on the hillsides, meeting the everyday people, the sinners and socially unclean people where they are and restoring them to the communities who have excluded them.
Many were not comfortable with this concept of God being among them, for this brought their understanding of that transcendent God who dwelt out there at a distance, into their presence.
And one would think that this was something that people would grasp with both hands.
Here is God who is so remote and totally other than us, coming among us as one of us. What could possibly be so disturbing for us about such a concept that would cause people to turn and walk away? Jesus in fact offered his disciples this opportunity. If they did not wish to stick with him, they too could follow the crowd and walk away. Such is the nature of God's call on us all. But why do people not take that which is on offer, that presence and power of God to be with us.
Barclay suggests, "And to day many a man's refusal of chirst come, not because Christ puzzles and baffles his intellect, but because Christ challenges and condemns his life."
As we live before God whose presence we recognise in Jesus the Christ, we see ourselves in contrast to the wonder and awe of God, and sometimes rather than dealing with what we see, it is easier and more comfortable to walk away. It is easier to push aside the things that in the light of Christ's presence we would rather not see in our lives. It is much better, one feels, to leave them in the shadows and not expose them to the light of Christ's scrutiny.
And yet this is the sad part where so often people fail to see the true message of the Gospel which John had already proclaimed a few chapters earlier, "For God did not send his Son into the world to be its judge, but to be its saviour."
Where do we find Christ condeming people? It is not when they come burdened and broken, but rather when they fail to see in themselves their own shortcomings. It is when they are only to willing to point to others failures when they are blinded to their own inadequacies, or when they are consumed by self condemnation.
Christ's presence as we feed on him, exposes us to the realities that lie within. It bring to us the reality of God, who was, and is and is to come.
No wonder the cry of the people of God throughout the ages and down into the Christian era has and will continue to be,
"Holy, Holy, Holy Lord, God of power and might, Heaven and earth are full of your glory, Hosanna in the highest. Blessed is the one who comes in the name of the Lord"
God's presence can bring to us the assurance of God's love even in the face of sin, even in the face of our own shortcomings and inadequacies, or it can bring self condemnation as we refuse to recognise or deal with our own humanity in the face of that Divine and yet human presence, Jesus Christ our Lord.
Where else is there to go? Peter recognised this in his answer to Christ, "Lord to whom would we go? You have the words that give eternal life. And now we believe and know that your are the Holy One who has come from God."
I wonder what our response is as we come face to face with Christ every time we gather, as we walk from here hand and hand with the one whose love cost him the cross?
He is the Bread of Life, the One who satisfies our every need.
To God be the Glory, now and forever more. AMEN.

Sunday 19th August 2012
1 Kings 2:10-12,3:3-14 John 6:51-58
Mana from Heaven

We continue on John's drawn out theme of the Bread of life, being left in no doubt as to the claim that Jesus was making concerning his own being. However that perhaps is about all that is clear in this passage, for the language and the line that John takes in his blending of the story of the feeding of the five thousand, the death of Jesus on the cross and the teaching relevant to the Christian rite around Holy Communion is anything but simple.
We do need to remember that this Gospel was probably the last one to be written, and that it is framed much more around theological themes than it is around the chonological order of Jesus life. Thus he is able to draw these stories together, as well as the teaching that the early church may have been struggling with, to frame this section of his gospel.
It seems that it deals with the fundamental aspects of the emerging Christian faith as it breaks away from its old Jewish roots, and yet remains connected in the sense that it is still the same God who has fulfilled what was promised for so long.
It is the same God who has fed his people down the ages, it is the same God who continues to sustain them in the present, and who in fact we cannot do with out if we are to know what it is to be fully human, fully satisfied in ourselves and our humanity.
Jesus unashamedly asserts his divine nature and orgin by describing himself as the "living bread that came down from heaven". Every Jewish reader would understand this as relating back to the wilderness experience and know the implications of such a claim. This is a persistent theme relating his own being to the Divine. And then he so quickly ties it into the sacrifical concept that his body would be the bread for the people, was a notion that they would have understood much better than we do.
Barclay sets this in context when he says,
"The ideas in this section would be quite normal and usual to anyone who had been brought up in ancient sacrifice." He goes on...."the animal was very seldom burned entirely. Usually only a token part was burned on the altar although the whole animal was offered to the god. Part of the flesh was given to the priests as their perquisite (share); and part of the flesh was given to the worshipper wherewith to make a feast for himself and his friends within the temple precincts."
With that understanding, don't we get a much clearer picture of Jesus' words here, as we see ourselves whenever we gather at the Table of our Lord.
Here in these words he offers himself as that sacrifice so that we may share with him and with at the same time with the God of all eternity. There is a clear invitation to engage with God in a way that had not be understood before.
Here is Jesus, declaring himself as the Christ, the annointed one of God, who offers himself not as some great earthly ruler, but as one who would be slaughtered as an offering for the sins of the people.
And just as the people would partake in that ritual sacrifice, so too with Christ, the invitation was there.
It is no wonder that this narrative caused anger among those who first heard it, and confusion in the early church as rumours of cannibalism circulated. They related this story at so many levels to Jesus' claim of Divine Status. The living bread that came down from heaven, was what brought life and sustainance to Moses and the people in the wilderness. The hearers of the Gospel wondered how they could eat his flesh, but as so often is the case, they tried to take his words at face value and missed the mark of what he was actually getting at.
Tasker comments on his teaching here in relating this to the early church's teaching on Holy Communion,
"So, in the Holy Communion, there is no magical participation by the believer in the physical flesh of Jeus, but an ever fresh appropriation of the spiritual benefits of his passion."
John sees Jesus as offering the people a real sense of his own mission. He is preparing them to see the greater picture of Christ's presence among them and how that will continue even in the absence of his physical humanity.
Christ becomes the key to our understanding of God and his life with us and our life with him.
And without that union with Christ, that union with the one who was fully and completely human, and yet that gift of God himself, we ourselves will fail to know what it is to be fully human as children of God.
Christ is drawing us in to that relationship with himself and that oneness that he enjoyed with God, and it is only as we understand Christ in this light that we understand God's complete love for us.
John later, in his letters expresses this unique relationship when he encourages his hearers to be discerning and says, "This is how you will be able to know whether it is God's Spirit: anyone who acknowledges that Jesus Christ came as a human being has the Spirit who comes from God. But anyone who denies this about Jesus does not have the Spirit from God."
Barclay points out about the hearers of Jesus words and of those who are willing to follow him, "They would know something of that effable experience of union, closer than any earthly union, of which these words speak. This is language that the ancient world could understand - and so can we."
This whole passage is that call to union, that invitation to draw near to Christ, that plea to take up the gift that God has given so freely, to engage with God in our lives and to live according to his ways. It is a call to follow Christ acknowledging the gift that has been given to us and to draw from the benefits of that gift so that we might understand life and our humanity and ourselves in the light of God's love.
"The living Father sent me, and because of him I live also. In the same way whoever eats me will live because of me."
Our ability to understand God and to understand ourselves is found in Christ who bridges that gap between heaven and earth, between God and humanity. And the invitation stands to engage in that life that was and is given for us.
Our strength, our sustainance, our being as men and women, as children and young people, is found in Christ whose life and whose death and resurrection was, and is, for us.
May we therefore continue to feed on him, continue to draw strength from Christ whose life inspires us and whose example leads us and whose sacrifice enables us to know and to experience God's love in our world today.
With this experience may we go out into the world to love as Christ loved, to live as Christ lived, to serve one another as Christ served us. May our prayer be like that of Solomon, that God would give us the wisdom we need to live with justise and to know the difference between good and evil. As we live in union with Christ, as we live following Christ, may we learn those skills that Solomon sought, and Christ taught.
To God be the glory, now and forever more. AMEN.

Sunday 5th August 2012
2 Samuel 11:26-12:13a John 6:24-35

What does God want?

This whole story that we have read in the Gospel this morning is a continuation of the account of the feeding of the five thousand people. One thing in particular that strikes me as I read this story is the persistance with which this crowd follows Jesus and the lengths they go to in order to doing that. We are told they got into boats, as the previous day there had only been one boat which Jesus and his disciples had gone off in, so when these other boats arrived near where the crowd had been they got into these and went looking for Jesus. They were keen to find him.
When they asked him, "when he had got there,"
Jesus did not even respond, but rather challenged them as to their motives for coming and following him. Were they really there for the right reasons; to understand his teaching or merely for seeing more miracles or getting more food?
One would think that Jesus would be bouyed by such an enthusiastic response to his presence and teaching, but in fact he is quite weary, or at least very realistic about what is going on. He is not about to be carried along by the emotion that such behaviour whips up, as so often crowds draw crowds. He is not into the numbers game but rather is questioning the motives of these people.
It strikes me that there is a real picture here of society in general: people searching for the things that will satify them the most; people looking for what they can get out of life that will improve their well being and give them perhaps that sense of excitement along the way. I suspect that this has been part of human life from the beginning of time. It is part of our make up, part of our DNA. These people had experienced something extra ordinary, they had seen something that offered them a sense of promise and hope, and they wanted to follow that up. It is interesting that obviously the whole crowd did not fully understand what Jesus was on about, there is certainly no suggestion that all those who witnessed this event became devoted followers of Jesus. The curiosity of people does not automatically follow with dedicated commitment. We see a range of responses to Jesus in the gospels from the disciples who were called, gave up all they were doing and followed, to those who were antagonised by his message, to those like Nicodemus who continued to enquire with perhaps an open mind. Such, again is the nature of people; we enquire, we analyse, and we make choices.
But the underlying question perhaps that comes out of this whole story is, "What does God want?"
What is it that God wants or requires, or invites from us?"
God is looking for our trust and faith. In verse 29 Jesus says, "What God wants you to do is to believe in the one he sent."
Faith and trust, or belief are concepts that come from the one greek word, and they invite us to believe in God just as God believes in us. God has come among us in Jesus, the Annointed One to bring us the good news of God's love for all humanity and the only requirement from us is an acceptance of that love as we live out our lives.
God in Jesus Christ is able to provide us with all that is essential for our lives.
This he illustrated in the miracle of the feeding of the five thousand. As is usually the case, Jesus' miracles were illustrating particular truths or concepts that he was trying to get across to his followers. They were not deemed as an answer or solution for particular problems for all time to come, otherwise surely we would seek to cure the hunger of the world, with loaves and fishes that Jesus would multiply, or the health system would be replaced by the miracles of Jesus. No he usually had a point to make, and here is no exception.
God's provision for all of mankinds hungering after the meaning of life is to be found in Jesus.
"I am the bread of life" is one of the six great "I am" statements that John records Jesus as making. And he is careful to point out that this is what he is getting at, as he takes them back to the days of Moses. The mana in the desert was to feed the hungry people. They were in a desperate situation and facing physical starvation and the mana was offered as food for the stomach. But here Jesus tells us, "For the bread that God gives is he who comes down from heaven and gives life to the world."
Jesus never saw himself as that miracle worker but rather as the one who would open the way for us to see and know and experience God's eternal love.
Thus later on Jesus says in perhaps the ultimate 'I am" statement, "I am the way, the truth and the life, no one comes to the Father except by me."
So it would seem that there is an open way offered to understand the fullness of life that God offers to us, and that can only be found in Jesus Christ. And why is that? It is surely because this is God's gift of love to humanity.
He is the bread that comes from heaven. He is the one who will satisfy the needs of all who look to him.
Thus all that can be done by us is to accept that offer. It is not a matter of trying to do one thing or another. It is not a matter of trying to please God by the works that we do. It is not a matter of striving to live up to certain expectations or standards so as to proove our worthiness. No! What Jesus is offering here in the miracle of the feeding of the five thousand, and on which Jesus continues to expand this idea, is that God with what little resources are avaliable, even though they seem totally inadequate and unfit for the task, is able to achieve all that is needed for his purposes. God is willing to take the raw material of humankind and create a more than sufficient people who will honour and express faith and trust in him.
So when all our striving ceases we can learn to trust him for our salvation, or as that song put it, we can learn to, "put our hand in the hand of the man from Gallilee."
In this simple relationship of faith and trust, Jesus becomes for us the bread of life. He becomes the one who will supply our every need.
Paul in his letter to the Philippian's picks up this same thread when he concludes his letter with these words,
"And with all his abundant wealth through Christ Jesus, my God will supply all your needs."
This teneant of the Christian Gospel was built on the Hebrew understand of Jehovah Jirah, a name given by Abraham to Yahweh when and angel of the Lord appeared to him and not only arrested the sacrifice of Isaac, but provided a ram in his place.
Thus in Christ, if you like, an angel of the Lord was given to provide for the sins of the world.
Again and again, we see God who supplies all we need despite who we are, despite our human limitations, despite our sinful ways.
And what does God require? Our willingness to trust him, to believe that this is what he has done and achieved for us, turning from our old ways, as David did, and to follow him in that faith and trust.
May God give us eyes to see, and ears to hear and hearts to follow.
To God be the glory, now and forever. AMEN.

Sunday 1st July 2012
2 Samuel 6:1-5,12-19 Mark 6:14-29

When power goes to the head!

I don't know about you, but having read the readings for this morning, I can't say they were ones I might have chosen to have preached on if they had not come up in the lectionary. (That is the usefulness of a lectionary, it gives you passages that one might otherwise choose to avoid). Nevertheless, we have here a part of the gospel story that illustrates for us the world in which God chose to enter in the person of Jesus the Christ. This was not a world, receptive and open to the message of the Gospel, in fact is was a world openly antigonistic to such a message.
It was a world where people were put to death for their faith, and where governments ruled by oppression and the sword.
There was anx and division even within the religious community. It would seem that nothing really changes. All that I have mentioned can be found as part of our modern world. Thus a story like that of John the Baptist reminds us that our world continues to see events of corruption, discention, power play, and struggle where ever humanity gathers. And this is the world that God continues to enter through his risen presence, and his Spirit, dwelling in the lives of his people.
It points us to the unflattering nature of humanity that Christ stood against in his earthly life, as he spoke of how God was able to transform our view of the world if we would but follow his lead.
It is in such an episode as this, that we can see clearly those traits that so often besiege us as human beings, as we clamour for power, or glory, or prominence within our nations, communities or even families.
Why is that? Is it because basically as human beings we prefer to focus on self, on our own achievements, our own glory, our own success. This seems to be the way we are programmed.
History is littered with episodes of ego centric, megalamaniacs grasping for power to build up their own empires and not considering the cost for everyday people. But we don't only need to look to such major figures in history, we can see such traits around us and even in the mirror if we are prepared to be honest with ourselves. Often that line between self confidence and self grandisement is a fine one.
It is also this very basic aspect of our human nature that Christ came to challenge, which upset both the religious and secular leaders of Jesus day. As is so often the case, the Gospel turns such concepts on their heads.
The gospel does not speak of self, but of God and others.
The call of the gosepl is so clear, Love God, and love your neighbour as your self.
The story of Herod and his rash promises in order to impress and to buy favour ends in nothing but anguish, cruelty, deceipt and terror.
John's message of turning from sin to follow God, his pointing to Christ as the annoint one of God, brought him no favours, but illustrates the task of the church today.
Our role is not to build ourselves up in granduer and glory, but rather, always to point people to Christ just as John did. Remember when we first meet John in the Gospel when he says, "The man who will come after me is much greater than I am. I am not good enough even to bend down and untie his sandals." . The best way for us to point others to Christ is in the way we express ourselves to one another. We don't do it by always being out for personal gain, but rather in offering ourselves in service to others. This is living the gospel and this seems to be a bit of a theme running through Mark, for later he says, "For even the Son of Man did not come to be served; he came to serve and to give his life to redeem many people."
The gospel turns many popular conventions, perceptions and customs on their head, often setting us against the prevail cultural thought of the day. This is what electrified the situation for Jesus.
Herod was interested in maintaining his power and control politically and in the family he wanted to be loved and looked up too.
John had already challenged him over his marriage to his brothers wife, and although Herod had a quiet respect for him, he allowed himself to be compromised by promising Herodias' daughter anything she liked. Conspiring with her mother, she asked for the head of John the Baptist. She probably thought that by being rid of John the Baptist, Herod's conscience would settle down and they could just get on with living.
Power gained by deceit and manipulation is bound to lead to compromise and an openness to being played at the same game.
And having been caught once, Herod was now weary of Jesus. His conscience was not at peace, but in fact heightened and rekindled by anyone who challlenged him. Guilt would continue to plague him. Thus his immediate reaction was, is this John come back to haunt him.
Herod recognised in Jesus, the same qualities he had seen in John, and it concerned him. It is interesting how unsettling truth can be to those are not used to living by such ideals. The concscience works in overdrive and we have the choice to respond to our conscience or to let it go wild.
Is this a way that we listen to the voice of God?
Is this how we hear that still voice that prompts us? If it is, there is still a choice we have to deal with. We have to ask ourselves whether the choices we make are for the good of all or merely for self gain? Will they benefit others, or merely ourselves?
Will our choices result in others being enriched in their living or in a denial of their basic rights and what it means to be human?
I think we need to allow ourselves to be constantly challenged by those words of Jesus,
"For even the Son of Man did not come to be served; he came to serve and to give his life to redeem many people."
If this were Christ's mission surely it forms the basis of our being as Christians, and as a community of God's people, the church, so that as a collective in the world today we can also turn the values of our world upside down.
Today society plays lip service to this concept of serving. Unlike Christ, there is usually a cost involved. Have you ever tried to do something for someone with the insistence there be no recompense. Again, people feel very uncomfortable with that concept. It is counter to our culture, and counter to our very humanity.
And yet this concept of gift is the very basis of our Christian existence.
That gift, we call grace. That gift of grace is what God holds out to us all, saying I have done it, I have paid the price, your sins are forgiven, now live life as a redeemed people.
And as we unwrap that gift in our own lives, as we come to understand what God has done for us, we offer ourselves in service to the world around us.
It sound easy, and in a sense it is, as it is living being true to our faith. But sometimes it is what has been coined costly grace. For John the Baptist there was certainly a cost. He had a clear conscience and a clear vision of faith and of God's love for him, but some in the world in which he lived continued to be antagonistic toward him. Sometimes we have to be prepared to take the hard road if our faith is not to loose it's cutting edge, otherwise we cheapen the grace that is costly to God who offers it freely to us.
May we keep that focus to our faith in the world that wants to continually draw us away. May we hold onto that faith drawing strength as we offer our lives in service to God.
To God be the glory, now and forever. AMEN

Sunday 1st July 2012
2 Samuel 5:1-5,9-10 Mark 6:1-13

I wonder do we ever ponder why home is so important to us as human beings. As a concept it brings great comfort and security. It is the place from where we have been nurtured. It is often a place where we can relax and unwind.
And yet it can also be a place of great vulnerability. It can be the place where others feel most able to question and challenge us.
For Jesus, Nazareth was always considered his home. And in that place the synagogue lay at the heart of his life. The synagogue was the gathering point, the place of worship, the center of teaching. It was where people were shaped and challenged, where the life of the Jewish community centred itself. As such, as Jesus entered his public ministry, it was only natural that when he was back in those parts he would go to the synagogue. There he would be known.
And we are told that people were amazed at his wisdom and at the things he was doing. Part of that amazement consisted of the fact that they knew him and his heritage. He was the boy, the son of Mary, the carpenter, the brother of James, Joseph, Judas and Simon, and even his sisters rank a mention here. You can just hear it can't you! Who does he think he is? So in the comfort of this being his home, comes the challenge of him being able to express himself and grow and offer something back even if that is beyond what people might expect as possible.
Alan Cole in his commentry makes an interesting point here when he says,
"In this they were not unlike our modern scientific age, which is much more concerned with the mechanical question "how" than the theological "why". How often we ask the wrong questions and are side tracked from the real answers.
The religious leaders started on the right course but didn't take the obvious answers. They did ask, "Where did he get all this, What wisdom is this that has been given?" But it's then that they box him in to his background and who he belongs to, rather than expanding the original thoughts of the source of his wisdom and power.
God is the source of wisdom. Proverbs reminds us, "It is the Lord who gives wisdom; from him come knowledge and understanding."
Surely the religious leaders of Jesus' day would have know this and should have started, as Cole puts it, from that theological point pursued this line of thought.
And as we come today and celebrate the baptism of Damian, we to begin from that theological point. Too often in our day we have that argument about when one should be baptised. Should baptism happen when the person is old enough to make up their own mind, or should parents take that step for the child?
Again, the wrong starting point. We start with God, we start at the source of love, God who first loved, so that we might love. We start with the God who declared his grace for us in that he would be our God and we would be his children. We start with God who came in Jesus chrsit and died for the sin of the world.
At this starting point it is only natural that we present our children to God acknowledging that love already given. Acknowledging and claiming the cleansing power of Christ for those we love most dearly.
We do this with the hope that they too will one day declare for themselves their love for God.
We declare this love in the context of our own faith, in the faith of our immediate family and the faith of the gathered community. In this way it becomes both an expression of our own faith and the faith of everyone gathered as we commend Damien to God and welcome him into the life of the church.
In this we recognise Damien as one who is loved by God so that in this act God introduces himself to us and to this child, so that unlike Christ in his home town, Damien may never be rejected, but always recognised as a child of God.
Jesus was only too well aware of such rejection,
"A prophet is repected everywhere except in his own home town and by his relatives and his family."
That is often the way with those who are close to us; we do not recognise the gifts that they have that others outside the immediate community see in them. We need to firstly recognise that those in our midst are gifts from God and that God in his wisdom and grace gives gifts to each and everyone of us to use to help build up the community of God's people.
This is God's power and desire to commission us as his disciples. As Jesus went about teaching he called people to follow him, and then he sent them out two by two to take that love that God offers into the world around.
Thus the love of God was shown in helping those in need, in offering healing and help where they could. This was in direct response to the wholeness they had found in what God had offered them through Jesus of Nazareth.
We too go out into our communities to offer that same love, using the gifts and talents that Christ has given us. Recognising that we love God, because we have first been loved by him.
Jesus' disciples, like Christ himself, did this even in the face of opposition. Just as Christ was despised and rejected, that same response was often dished out to his followers.
We too, know that reaction to the Gospel message in our own day and age. Gone is the age where we would expect people to at least listen, even if they were to ignore the gospel. Today they will oppose it and actively try to shut the message out. Nevertheless our task remains to continue to stand up for what we believe. It is our responsibility to tell our children and to encourage them in the faith, so that one day they can make that choice for themselves, based, not on ignorance, but rather on the foundation of their experience and knowledge of that love that God holds out for them.
May we never give up that vision of what Christ calls us all to: that commission that empowers us to go out into the world in which we live with the motive bringing others to the knowledge and experience of God's love for them.
When we loose that sense of our own commission to which Christ has called us, we loose the cutting edge of what it is to be church, a community of God's people, loved and accepted by God, made whole in our understanding of who God is and who we are in relation to him.
Ainoama and Brian, continue to teach Damian about God's love for him, which we have acknowledged today. May he grow up, held in that love, assured of that love, nurtured in that love and able to express that love for himself with a willingness to share it with others.
May God give us all such focus and confidence and a willingness to follow his ways as he commissions us all to be his disciples in the world today, active in going out and helping people in their needs and sharing God's love with them in word and in action.
To God be the glory, now and forever. AMEN.

Sunday 1st July 2012
Mark 5:21-43

Stretch out your hand

The Gospel according to Mark is the shortest of the gospel writings and Mark's narratives are usually short and sharp, and have a sense of urgency. Jesus is in a hurry to accomplish his task of announcing the good news; while it seems as if his disciples lag along behind, often depicted by Mark as slow on the uptake. Today's story though is one of Mark's longer narratives. The story is characteristic of his style of "sandwiching" two stories into one. One story begins and is interrupted by another; which is then completed, before Mark returns to the original.
Today's "sandwich" technique links two diverse characters in one narrative and it naturally highlights comparisons between the two. We can begin looking at this passage by comparing the two characters in the story, their similarities and differences. Both the woman and Jairus' daughter were not able to be helped by those in authority, and mostly by their doctors. The woman hadn't been helped over twelve years by her many doctors and Jairus' religious colleagues couldn't help him. So what do they do? They take the initiative and go to Jesus, but each in their own different ways.
Jairus is a desperate parent and, although he was a synagogue official, he threw off all sense of propriety, rushed to Jesus, fell at his feet and "pleaded earnestly with him", reaching out to him in desperation. That act would have certainly damaged Jairus' reputation with his friends and other important synagogue leaders! It would have been unheard of for a religious dignitary to humble himself before an itinerant preacher and healer. But, then he has to wait, and don't we all hate to wait? We all hate being put on hold on the phone; or in long queues at the supermarket or to get a ticket at the movies; for an extra long red light; for water to boil when you're in a hurry for a cuppa; or for a prescription to be filled at the chemist. But those are only minor inconveniences, aren't they? Even though they may add stress to a busy day.
There is also another kind of waiting fraught with tension, anxiety, fear and helplessness. When we wait while a loved one undergoes surgery; for the results of a scan; for a long overdue child to return home late at night; for exam results to arrive or for the outcome of a job interview. These, and others like them, are forms of waiting that are high-pitched, extremely intense and stressful. We usually like to attack difficult situations and problems to solve them or bring them to a satisfactory solution, but these stressful forms of waiting are completely different, because we can't do anything about them, they are out of our control, so we have no choice but to wait and pray for a happy outcome.
Mark is a wonderful storyteller as he inserts one story into another. He builds anticipation and drama and we wait to discover the outcome. But Jairus wasn't there to appreciate a good story and he was being put on hold as Jesus addressed the woman. Jairus had to wait. We can probably imagine what he must have been going through. He had rushed to Jesus in desperate need. He describes it matter-of-factly, "My daughter is at the point of death." There's nothing he or any other of his influential friends can do and he sees Jesus as his last hope. He makes a direct request, "Please come and lay your hands on her that she may get well and live." When we are in need, our prayers don't have to be fancy. Jesus responds immediately, "He went off with him and a large crowd followed him and pressed upon him."
Jairus was in a hurry and it must've seemed to him that Jesus was not, because he stops to talk to the woman with haemorrhaging who had reached out her hand and touched him and was instantly healed. Her flow of blood had made her ritually unclean for twelve years. To her suffering was added the horror of being ostracised from her family, friends and the support of a praying community.
That Jesus stopped to address the woman shows he considered her and her need as important and as pressing as that of the prominent religious leader Jairus. Once again Jesus shows that the marginalised have an important place in his ministry and his invitation to the Kingdom of God. The place where this story takes place suggests the same message. Jesus has just returned from the "other side" of Lake Galilee, Gentile country, where he had expelled the evil spirits from the man from Gerasa who was possessed by demons. Now he is back on the western, Jewish shore. This geographic detail tells us that Jesus is healing on both "coasts." His blessing shows no partiality between Jew and Gentile, between those far off and his own people. Both those acceptable to the religious establishment and those considered "outsiders" fall under Jesus' healing and grace-filled touch.
The story returns then to Jairus who is still waiting and, in crisis situations, waiting for God to act can be a severe test of our faith. While we wait, as in the case of Jairus' daughter, things can go from bad to worse. When that happens the cracks in our faith can show. We wonder if God loves us and cares for us at all; we question our own worthiness; whether we are using the "proper prayers"; if we are worthy of God's attention, or if our faith is being tested. Jairus must have had some of those feelings, as well as frustration, fear, desperation and maybe even a little anger as well.
Jesus invited Jairus to have faith in his power to heal. The voices of doom are powerful in our world - those of poverty, addictions, war, racism and death itself. Neither we, nor even the church, can face them on our own. When we are confronted by one or more of these devastating situations we need to hear what Jesus says to us today, "Do not be afraid, have faith." Then we do what Jairus and the other disciples did, we follow Jesus, even to the place of death itself and we do so because we "have faith." The crowd who heard Jesus say, "The child is not dead but asleep," ridiculed him. Maybe some of his disciples were part of that ridiculing crowd? Even in the face of the impossible, Jesus urges us not to listen to the voices of cynics and pessimists. Instead, he encourages us to not be afraid. Jesus has the power to heal.
Let's not forget the woman who stretched out her hand to touch Jesus clothes. She must have had some wealth at one time and a higher status. But she has "spent all she had." On this particular day she is out in public by herself, something rare in the culture of the day. She was an unprotected and vulnerable female in a crowd. There is no male relative present to protect her. And, to make matters worse, she is ritually unclean. Because of her condition, if anyone had touched her they would have become contaminated and made as ritually unclean as she was, but she is desperate, so maybe that's why she risks so much. Or, perhaps, it is her faith in God which makes her take such a bold step.
There were two deaths in this story and they are linked by the number twelve. For twelve years the woman was socially dead, an outcast of the community and any family she had. Jairus' daughter was twelve years old and had just died. Jesus was able to bring them both back to life and reincorporate them into their community of family and faith. The woman's healing takes place as a result of her own initiative. Jesus plays no active part in it, which underlines what he tells her, "Daughter, your faith has saved you." Lots of people must have been bumping into Jesus and brushing up against him. But this woman's presence and touch were different; she had faith and she acted on it and Jesus knew it.
Jesus' words to the woman after her healing must have been reassuring, for he calls her, "Daughter." Not only has her healing made her acceptable to reputable society, but she's also included as a member of Jesus' family. He was gathering a new family to himself, not based on blood, but on having faith and doing God's will. We don't know if the woman had any male relatives, but now she is under the protection of a new "father," Jesus - who calls her "Daughter." We too are his sons and daughters when we trust him enough "to not be afraid." All we need to do is 'stretch out our hand' in faith to receive wholeness and a place in community through Jesus Christ, who is our Lord and Saviour.

Rev Heather Kennedy

17th June 2012
1 Samuel 15:34-16:13 Mark 4:26-34
Growth, a gift from God

Peter, in addressing a wide circle of Christians in the early church ends his letter with these words,
"But continue to grow in the grace and knowledge of our Lord and Saviour Jesus Christ."
Growth is a concept that never stands still, and it never looks back. The parables that we read today are a continuation and reinforcement of that well know parable of the sower. Jesus continues to hammer home the point that Christ's reign in our hearts and lives is an act of Divine grace.
As such, growth is initiate and driven by the power of God at work in us. And in our ignorance of what is happening, whether through lack of knowledge or our inability to know and understand, or even our blindness, God continues that work of grace; God continues to bring about growth.
Such is the nature of his work in creation and in the lives of His people. This, if you like draws the back drop to our existence as human beings, and as people of God, but on to the canvas is painted our reponse to that back drop as our lives are lived out in faith and as that faith develops in us.
There is a sense given of the certainty of God's presence and God's power to work within us. While this is the given, nevertheless it can and does remain mystery to us. For as much as we try, we can never fully understand the why's and the wherefores of such activity.
There is often no apparent rythmn nor reason for that activity of God and yet in mystery God continues to move and shape our lives and continues to call for us to engage with him and with the world in which we live so as to acknowledge and promote that understanding and acceptance of God. Throughout the story of our faith, there has existed such mystery. The ways of God have often confounded the minds of his people. Take for instance our story in 1 Samuel. Everybody assumed that the eldest son of Jesse would be annointed as the next King, even Samuel. This was the logical and "right" person for the job. But God had other ideas. And as so often is the case, it was the least expected choice that God ran with. David, the runt of the litter, the youngest, the weakest, the least likely, was the one that God built up to be the most powerful.
We see this so often in life. In our own time we only need to look at such figures as Desmond Tutu or Nelson Mandella, Deitrich Bonhoeffer. God can use the most humble, the least likely, the lowliest in society to bring about his plans and purposes. Such is the power of God to bring about growth.
Jesus' own ministry was not spent among the religious leaders and most educated and hopeful members of society, but among the poor, the needy and the marginalised.
Sometimes it is where growth is least expected that the most hope arises, it was after all from the cross that the hope of the gospel found its power and strength.
This, of course is the theme of the second parable that takes the illustration of the small seed, that, given time and the right conditions flourishes into the tree, or bush where birds can rest, and nest and find their shelter.
It is from small beginnings that great things can grow.
So what does this say of faith? What does this say of our response to God whose grace is there for us in the beginning?
Are we to live only with what is possible and achievable in our sights? Are we to confine ourselves to what we know we can do and do well? Or are we to step out in faith trusting that God will take the very smallest thing we can offer and use that to do great things?
We naturally seem to want to track quietly along comforting ourselves with what we know, and what we can perceive as possible. We naturally seem to fight against change and challenge which might throw us into uncertainty, even though we know that in the past, we have come through such periods with God's help and strength and supporting us. But still we seem too afraid to step out in faith, too afraid to walk that path of faith in simple trust and obedience.
Another factor that inhibits us along the way is perhaps fear of failure. None of us like failing at anything. It hurts our pride, we feel it damages our reputation, or our chances to move on. Fear is always crippling and can so easily take hold of us. It heightens our senses to the negative influences leaving us often unable to look forward with any sense of hope.
This can so easily become the framework by which we view all of life and faith disappears.
This is not the way Jesus nor any of the New Testament writers thought that we should look at life.
The writer to the Hebrews in Chapter 11 gives us a wonderfully positive view of life through the eyes of faith when he begins the chapter with that wonderful definition.
"To have faith is to be sure of the things we hope for, to be certain of the things we cannot see. ….It is by faith that we understand that the universe was created by God's word, so that what can be seen was made out of what cannot be seen." (Hebrews 11:1,3)
There is an openness, a hope, a confidence, a trust that oozes out of these words, that would do us all well to ponder on. And these words come out of the context of a world of turmoil and trouble, out of a world where opposition to the gospel was rife. People's lives were on the line for their belief.
Today we suffer in a different way. We suffer a world that largely ignores the Gospel, and a church that suffers from apathy and a lack of vision; one that has lost sight of God's love for them and for all people and the cost to God of that love.
We tend to be consumed by the worlds power to bring us down, rather than transformed by God's power to bring life out of death, and hope out of despair.
We continue to live in a world that God loves, a world where from those small seeds of hope, God can bring life and vitality and growth, even if we are still asleep, for it is God who bring such growth.
I wonder where see we ourselves on that canvas of the world that God loves? Are we part of the picture that brings hope and life and vitality to the world as we allow God to inspire us? Or are we in danger of expiring under the pressure of the world squeezing that Spirit of God out of us, blinding us to the truth of the Gospel and to ongoing creative power of God in the world today?
Jesus was rounding off his talk to his disciples about the seed and the ground in which it was planted. He was hammering home that point that we picked up on last week, that it is God's work that Jesus was doing and that we are called to do, for God's work can only bring about good and good can only come from God, and those who do what God wants are his true followers.
May God's Spirit continue to inspire us all as we seek to follow him and to do his work in the world today.
To God be the glory, now and forever. AMEN.

Rev Richard Gray

3rd June 2012
Trinity Sunday

Isaiah 6:1-8 John 3:1-17

In the art world images are presented to us in a range of ways. We can have the detailed photographic type painting that shows us what the artist sees as it might be captured by a camera. Detail is transferred to the canvas as close as possible to the way the scene or image is viewed. At the other end of the spectrum we have more abstract art where the artist interprets what he see telling a story to the ones who views his work. In this case the observer of the art work cannot merely look at the work and say isn't that a wonderful likeness. One has to ask what the artist is trying to tell us.
In many ways we have two representations of the Divine in our readings today that present to us images of God in such contrasting ways.
Isaiah paints a picture that expresses something of the majesty, and the 'otherness' of God. We have a very abstract image that leaves us in no doubt that Isaiah saw the greatness and the majesty of God in a way that left him spell bound and gasping at the wonder of it all.
His careful language honours his tradition that forbids the
the making of graven images that will limit ones picture of God. He describe the robe filling the whole temple and surrounding him, flaming creatures.
So holy and awe inspiring is this image that even these creatures do not look directly at the figure for their eyes are covered with two of their six wings.
And we also see Isaiah accentuation this further, as he contrasts himself with this vision.
"There is no hope for me! I am doomed because every word that passes my lips is sinful, and I live among a people whose every word is sinful."
His awareness of the greatness of God gives him a sense of his own inadequacy and his inability to save himself. The contrast between humanity and the Divine is great and needs to be acknowledged for failure to acknowledge that difference leaves us in danger of striving for, or usurping the place of God in our lives. In other words it leads to a lessening of our understanding of God's power and place or in fact ultimately to a denial of the very existence of God.
As we diminish the power of God we begin to paint God into a box that we can understand and contain.
Isaiah's vision of God leave's leave us with a sense of the almighty, of power, and of mystery.
Compare and contrast that with John's account of a conversation with Nicodemus, a religious leader in Jesus' day. He was searching for some understanding of God, He seemed to be seeing glimpses of the power and majesty of God in Jesus, but was struggling to understand.
Jesus' invitation to a rebirth, to be born again, is really an offer to see the world from a completely different perspective. There is that need for one to come back and view the world through different eyes, to forget our preconceived notions, or the platform from which we have built our understandings of all that we have seen around us.
We need to come back according to Jesus, with the eyes of God to see the world from that perspective. He speaks of the need, "to be born of the water and the spirit."
Is this a reference to baptism? It could be! May be it is a reference to creation and the, "Raging ocean that covered everything, engulfed in total darkness, and the power of God was moving over the water." Genesis 1:2.
John certainly drew on that whole creation imagery in his prologue and may have continued it through, to link Jesus directly to this creation event.
Again there is this abstract nature to John's picture of God at work in the world. And yet he moves from this to the more photographic image as he presents Christ to us in that direct link to God.
"God so loved the world that he sent his son." Here we are given that image of Christ as God incarnate. God has come among us as one of us with the sole purpose of saving the world.
Our inability to believe is acknowledged, and we see ourselves in the struggling figure of Nicodemus.
"You are a great teacher in Israel, and you don't know this.....You do not believe me when I tell you about the things of this world; how will you ever believe me, then, when I tell you about the things of heaven." says Jesus.
How can we ever put into words, or understand in our minds God's love for the world. Why would God ever bother, let alone offer us love?
The only way is through Jesus, the Christ. Here is the one who is the visible likeness of the invisible God. Here is our picture of God who loves us and understands us for he has come among us offering to the world the definitive picture of God's love.
When in Moses' time the people failed to see God's hand at work they were offered the image of the snake on a pole. This gave them a reminder of God's healing love for them. It reminded them that his power was in their midst.
John draws for us the same picture with Christ, and points to the one who will be lifted up; the one whose death on the cross will become a symbol of our salvation.
Thus the call continues to be for us to put our trust in Christ for he is the one who leads us and guides us and who brings us to the full understanding of who God is.
"For God did not send his Son into the world to be its judge, but to be its saviour."
So often when we see an image of God presented to us we want to see that judgment and anger that we imagine is a dominant part of God's nature, and yet John says 'no' to this, for God's nature is first and foremost love.
How do we know this? Because of Jesus Christ who came into the world to cement that relationship of love.
He came to show us the way to understand God's love for the world. He came to lead us to experience that love in our own lives and in the world in which we live.
In doing that we are given the opportunity to offer that same love to the world around us. His example offers us the chance to live for him and with him, it gives us the role model to follow so that we might become more and more like him.
And like Isaiah, we too feel that complete sense of inadequacy as we attempt to follow him and to live by his example, but we are given the assurance that we stand in hope, not in judgement. We stand support by God who came among us in Jesus, and we stand support by God who is among us as risen Lord, and who remains with us in His Spirit to strengthen and encourage.
We are not called to faith in some unknown quantity or abstract quality, but we are called to faith in the one who is with us and stands with us.
We are called to express that faith in our actions and attitudes always looking to him for help and guidance.
We are called to faith in the one who said,
"I am the way, the truth and the life," and who reminds us that, "no one comes to the Father except by me."
May we walk every step of life putting our faith and trust in God who offered us that concrete image of his love for us, by coming among us as one of us.
To God be the glory, now and forever more. AMEN.

Sunday, April 29, 2012
I AM the Good Shepherd
Acts 4:5-12; Psalm 23; 1 John 3:16-24; John 10:11-18
As is often the case, Biblical passages that are not included in our readings for today may also be of importance in helping us to understand what is going on in the readings we have heard from the Book of the Acts of the Apostles and the Gospel according to John.
For instance, in Acts a lame man has been healed, and Peter and John have been hauled before some sort of ecclesiastical court to explain why the lame man is not still lame. Also, our gospel narrative begins in Chapter 8 where Jesus is accused of being possessed by a demon, and in Chapter 9 when he heals the blind man by the Pool of Siloam. Then just before our reading Jesus uses an 'I am' statement to help the disciples understand who he was, by saying 'I am the gate for the sheep, through which is the way to salvation'. These readings all support our understanding of Jesus as one who is able to heal and save us.
Then when Jesus says 'I AM the Good Shepherd' he is reflecting God's words from Exodus 3:14 where God speaks to Moses from the burning bush, saying 'I AM who I AM'. In Hebrew this is written with letters of their alphabet, YHWH, which becomes the name used for God, Yahweh. Jesus uses other I AM statements elsewhere in the gospel writings but probably one of the most well-known is today's statement "I am the good shepherd," and the response to this claim which ends: "There was again a great division among them because of these words. Many of them said, 'He has a demon and is mad; why listen to him?' While others said, 'These are not the saying of one who has a demon. Can a demon open the eyes of the blind?'"
In these responses we hear what is perhaps the central question of faith; 'Why listen to Jesus; by what authority should we take any note of what he has to say?" Indeed, we may well wonder why we should listen to Jesus? In fact, why do we listen to Jesus' teaching at all? After all, there are so many other voices competing for our attention. Take, for instance, the appliance in the corner of our lounges, and possibly other rooms in our homes, constantly providing us with news broadcasts, reality shows, singing, dance and cooking competitions, a plethora of crime and legal programmes , even on three channels simultaneously, not to mention the commercial advertising that makes all this television possible in the first place! They also seem to speak with authority!
Then there are the politicians of all stripes: the members of parliament and spokespeople of the various political parties, issuing "important announcements" and speeches almost daily, not to mention those on the local scene; mayors and councillors, activists and campaigners, all demanding we listen to them, while their opponents are crying, "Don't listen to them, listen to us!" Then there's corporate interests such as big coal and big oil conglomerates insisting that the environment is just fine and would actually be improved if we could find a way to use more fossil fuels; and as well as all that there are the investments schemes, weight reductions schemes, this-can-only-be-purchased-on-TV schemes, all the way down to schemes designed to take more money out of our already empty pockets. It's no wonder we're confused!
There are also family members unhappy with others in the family, neighbours unhappy with the neighbourhood, immigrants seeking just some shred of dignity, talk-show hosts who know it all, and of course every lay person, minister and leader trying to convince us that they know what is best for the church! Just like those at the end of the gospel passage, and those in the Acts of the Apostles, who are offended by what Jesus says and does? There are all these competing interests and voices trying to get us to turn away from Jesus and turn our lives over to them instead.
Jesus the Good Shepherd has spread a table before us in the presence of those who trouble us! We know he wants us to listen to him! If we are listening to Jesus for just one minute, just for one second, then we might be able to shut out all the competing voices, interests, merchants, politicians, and commentators for just a few moments of silence? Then Jesus can still the waters, make us lie down in green pastures, comfort us, touch us, protect us, and heal us with his rod and staff? He gives us the time, the place, and the space to listen to him! When we look and listen to the many voices that surround us on all sides every day, we begin to know and understand the situation of the one who wrote the Twenty-Third Psalm. If we are paying attention at all, we will stop, and listen for the Good Shepherd - the Son of God. We will stop and listen for Jesus. What we will hear if we are listening closely is just those two important words: "I am." For people of faith, for people of the God of Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, and Jesus, those are the only two words we need to hear: "I am."
Jesus says, 'I am.' The people of God have heard these words before. Standing barefoot, in front of a bush that burns and is not consumed, which is the image we have on the logo of the Presbyterian Church of Aotearoa New Zealand and we will hear a voice say the same words as spoken to Moses when we ask, 'Who are you?' The answer comes back, 'I am who I am. … I am what I will be. … Just tell them I AM sent you.'
The one who says 'I am the Good Shepherd' also says, 'I know my own, and my own know me, just as the Father knows me and I know the Father. And I lay down my life for my sheep.'
So, let us pause for just a moment and understand what is being said here. We are known and loved by God. We all want nothing more than to be known and loved. We spend a lifetime looking for relationships, reflecting on experiences, searching for someone who knows and loves us, or even more fundamentally, we are searching to know ourselves. There is no doubt, the most fundamental human condition is a desire to know who we are, where we fit into the larger scheme of things, and to be known and loved for who we are. All those other voices competing for our attention do not really want to know us. They can't possibly know us, but there is one who does. The one who says, 'I am,' wants to know us. In fact, the one who says, 'I am the Good Shepherd,' already knows us just as the God, the Father knows him.
God knows us and in that knowledge, we know God. If we really let ourselves hear what Jesus is saying, we can come to know God. Not a lot of theories about God, not information about God, but we can experience the reality that is God. This is naturally quite a frightening realisation, but such fear is not mere sentiment, but rather it is the manifestation of a way of life, as the First Letter of John speaks about it - a way of life that shows we respect the majesty and power of the God who says, 'I am.' A life that ought to be prepared to 'lay down its life for another'.
How could God's love abide in anyone who has all the world's goods and sees a brother or sister in need and yet refuses help? Children of God, brothers and sisters in Christ, let us love, not in word or speech, but in truth and action. Not just in what we do, but in who we are.
For all those who listen to Jesus - the shepherd who becomes the Paschal lamb slain on the feast of the Passover to save us from our sins- we are the sheep of his pasture. We are poor sheep like those he tends and leads beside still waters. We become his people, his body and blood for the world. We are sheep turned to shepherds through the mystery of the breaking of the bread. The one hope is that as folk come to know us, they find not the sheep turned to shepherds, but in truth, the hope is that they will find the Shepherd, the Good Shepherd, the Son of the God, the I AM. It will be so if we abide in him and he in us. It will be so if we let him set our hearts on fire with the breath of his Holy Spirit. It will be so as he opens our hearts to the Word of God. The lame will walk, the blind will see, captives will go free, if when he calls us by name we will listen.
There are many competing voices. But only one voice calls each of us by name. Only one voice knows us by name. Only one voice speaks the great, "I am." That voice is Jesus Christ. To God be the glory for ever and ever. Amen.

Peace be with you…
John 20:19-31

We encounter again the story of 'doubting' Thomas on the Sunday after Easter. Thomas could be the patron saint of modern people, for we all have doubts and questions we want answered; even the mass media teaches us to question everything, to probe deeper into stories, to discover cause and effect. Facts and events are examined to the nth degree to get to the bottom of every story, to inform everyone, to allay confusion and disbelief.

Thomas was reported to have been a twin, and it's possible he was an identical twin or some think he closely resembled Jesus and could have been a relation - as such, he would have known all about mistaken identity. He would have known how easy it is to be wrong about something, even when we see it with our own eyes. He couldn't take the disciples' word about having seen Jesus alive; he needed proof; he needed to be sure.

Jesus says to Thomas, "Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have come to believe." That could well be said about any of us, in most situations, especially with regard to things we have heard second-hand. Like Thomas, we weren't at the empty tomb, we didn't see the angels and we didn't hear Jesus call us by name in the garden. We weren't in the upper room with the other disciples when Jesus entered and saw him in the flesh, so it is understandable that Thomas needed to confirm or deny the rumours for himself.

When we hear the gospel stories, we sometimes identify with the characters in them. Maybe we are we like Peter, overcome by fears when things get tough, saying we will be strong when the going gets tough, but buckling under the strain? Maybe we are more like the women who were strong, who were determined and ready to suffer, who stayed with Jesus despite the cost? Maybe we relate to some of those that Jesus healed, being thankful, maybe a bit confused, wondering what now? But most of all, many of us are like Thomas. We have heard rumours, wonder if they could possibly be true, have real doubts and we want proof.

Most of us long for accuracy in the stories about Jesus so that we can feel that we have that proof - stories where all the witnesses are in agreement, that confirms for us exactly what happened. Some of us can create that neat and tidy bundle of facts and information in our heads, but many of us only manage to produce a package of loose ideas that looks like it was wrapped by a child, a package that definitely would not stand up to the rigors of being posted. Yet we long for that neat and tidy package of hard evidence on which we can build our faith, which helps us believe when we're in a crisis, and keeps us going on throughout the long haul and pressures of discipleship.

What we get from the gospel accounts are stories filled with conflicting accounts. Some people see only the empty tomb, some see an angel or two angels, some see Jesus, some talk with Jesus, some only come to recognise Jesus when he discussed scripture with them and when he breaks the bread and shares a meal with them. Everyone seems to have been caught off guard by the resurrection. The disciples don't seem to be able to re-tell their experiences with any great accuracy. They always seem totally surprised by Jesus' appearances. They seem to struggle to deal with how resurrection works. Yet Jesus comes to them in their fear, their confusion, and their doubts and greets them with the comforting words "Peace be with you." He even makes a return visit the next week so that Thomas can experience the resurrection first hand, to have the physical proof he needs to base his belief on.

Jesus does not come to the disciples in a blaze of glory, surrounded by angels or accompanied by trumpet fanfares. Rather he comes into their presence quietly; surprising the disciples. He comes with his wounds - he is the wounded saviour coming to his wounded disciples. He is not all neat and tidy, as depicted in many pictures of the crucifixion and resurrection, but still bears the marks of his suffering, the marks of his humanity. His resurrected body still shows the signs of his dwelling among us. As humans, we attempt to hide our woundedness, to avoid showing what is thought of as a sign of weakness, yet the risen Christ still bears his woundedness as he comes to meet us and bring us his peace. For it is this peace which is given that brings forgiveness. His resurrection gives us hope that we will be healed and made whole.

When the risen Lord came to the disciples in the upper room, he brought them his peace, he breathed his spirit on them and commissioned them to live and preach his message of love, forgiveness, and peace. This spirit is given to all of us as well, commissioning us to go into the world, just as the disciples were instructed to do.
In the creation story, God moulded Adam out of the clay and breathed life into him. In the upper room, Jesus breathes the restoring life of God into the disciples, making them new people and, through them, offering new life to the world. The very fact that we are here this morning, continuing to celebrate the resurrection of our Lord, is testimony to the power of the Spirit present in the disciples and in the church throughout the ages.

This story isn't a moment frozen in time in that upper room in Jerusalem; it is gospel, the good news that transcends time and place. Whenever we practice forgiveness, whenever we overcome the power of death in its many forms - in hatred, violence and indifference - the spirit of Christ is alive and well in believers, and resurrection life is expressed again in this time and place. We can't "prove" the resurrection, but we can be fingers pointing to it, wherever and whenever we act as signs that the life of Christ has not been extinguished, but is fleshed-out in us and in every Christian community.

Jesus' appearance to Thomas reminds us that doubts do not disqualify us from discipleship. Jesus says to Thomas and to us, "Do not doubt, but believe." The theologian Paul Tillich said that doubt isn't the opposite of faith; rather it is an essential element of faith. Frederick Buechner, an American Presbyterian minister and writer, puts it more basic terms. He says that if we don't have any doubts, we're either kidding ourselves or asleep. He characterizes doubts as "the ants in our pants" of faith - they keep our faith awake and moving! Doubts are what keeps us on the move, making our discipleship effective and real to those we share the good news with.
At the very beginning of the Gospel of John, the author proclaims that, through Jesus, God has brought life and light to the world. In the death of Jesus on the cross, it appeared that the powers of darkness were stronger than the power of light, that darkness had overcome the light. Through the resurrection, we are shown that the light still shines. Jesus commissioned the disciples to continue his work, to spread his light throughout the world. Their future changed through Christ's gift of the Spirit. In our baptism, we are sealed by the Holy Spirit and made Christ's own forever. We, too, have a new future because of Christ's resurrection. We, too, have been commissioned to spread the light of Christ.

A contemporary theologian compares the resurrection to the sun. "We cannot look directly at the sun, because the brightness blinds us - our eyes are not suited to that strength of light. Yet the sun, which we cannot see directly, illuminates everything else, and in its light we make our way in the world. Likewise the resurrection illuminates the entire New Testament; the resurrection is the confirmation of everything Jesus revealed in his life and death and it is the catalyst that transforms the disciples, releasing the power that led to the foundation of the church."

On this April morning, we continue to be challenged to live as though the resurrection really does light up our lives. We are challenged to reach out and embrace the future in faith, believing that the light of the resurrection will enable us to make our way in the world. We are challenged to seek peace and reconciliation, knowing it is the work of Christ and the Church. And most of all, we are challenged to remember that while we may look at ourselves and see only doubting Thomas', God looks at us and sees beloved children, faithful friends, and spirited partners empowered to undertake the on-going work of creation.

Sunday 18th March 2012 - Lent 4B
Numbers 21:4-9, John 2:14-21
When you were a child, were you ever afraid of the dark? Did you imagine all sorts of scary things living in the dark of your closet or under your bed? Did a night-light give you that little bit of reassurance and comfort so that you could go to sleep safely? Most of us grow out of that fear rather quickly. Some of us adults might get impatient with our children who call us out of a deep sleep because there's a monster lurking in the shadows. As children, we rarely make a friend of our imagined worst fears.
Most adults no longer fear the dark. But listening to our readings from Numbers and the gospel according to John today, maybe we shouldn't be so quick to put that fear of the dark behind us. Certainly, we no longer imagine monsters hiding in closets, but as adults, maybe we ought to look at darkness in an adult way. The Israelites in the desert actually did have a sort of real-life monster to contend with: poisonous snakes! Anyone with any sense will stay away from them, and we're lucky in New Zealand that we do not have to watch out for them, but these people were suddenly set upon by snakes that bit them, so many of them died. Indeed, it was for them a real-life type of monster. We hear that this happened because the Israelites were grumbling against not just Moses, but God. But they soon found that was a big mistake! But we can't really blame them - they were wandering in the desert, hungry, hot and thirsty. They may have been desperate. They may have feared a death of another kind before the snakes came upon them. Of course, we know that God heard their cry - like a child waking a parent out of fear - and God had Moses set up the bronze serpent on a pole and those who would look on it would live. Our passage from Numbers talks about a real fear of bodily harm - a fear of death in a natural way. Yet, underneath that natural fear was the darkness brought on them by cursing God. It was their lack of belief that God would keep the promise of bringing them to a land of milk and honey.
Children are usually much more trusting than adults. What happens to us, is that as we grow to adulthood we begin ignoring the true darkness of ignoring or disobeying God. This is what Jesus is talking about in John's writings. As he does so often in scripture, Jesus refers to the Old Testament, and he tells his hearers that he is the new caduceus - the new serpent wound around the pole, the symbol that doctors today use as a symbol of their ministry as healers. He tells them that when the Son of Man is lifted up, whoever believes in him will have eternal life. God did not send Jesus into the world like the snakes to kill the people. God sent Jesus into the world to show how much God loves us.
Jesus goes on to bring out the importance of understanding light and dark as adults. There is something very frightening about living in the dark, especially if it is an interior darkness - a despair or hatred. Jesus talks about evil deeds hating the light. Many of us might feel we could sit back right now and breathe a sigh of relief, because surely none of us are evil. None of us hate the light. If we did, we might be living in a situation that we see in so many thriller movies - skulking down dark, wet streets of a city with guns in our pockets and drugs to sell. We've read about people in the news or seen them on TV who have no conscience, no way to keep them from killing people for money or revenge.
But we can't just ignore that darkness. We are even reminded constantly in popular media of the darkness around us; warning of what we should be afraid of, almost encouraging us to dwell in that darkness. We are all potential sinners, who as we are all born human, we are born with a sinful nature. We all have a place where our darkness hides so others might not see it. It comes in many forms. Are we wallowing in grief or in fear of what might happen to us if a tragedy occurs.
We need to ask ourselves how we feel about discrimination. How do we relate to those who come from somewhere else, who might be a bit different and do things differently to us.
We might have family members that we no longer bother with. It might be their fault, but have we given reconciliation one more try?
How do we feel about ourselves? Darkness could be our self-loathing for whatever reason. God does not want that of us. Each of is a child of God and gloriously unique in God's sight.
Maryanne Williamson, is a spiritual activist and author, and she wrote a wonderful description of how we should look at ourselves. In it she said, "We ask ourselves, 'Who am I to be brilliant, gorgeous, talented, and fabulous?' Actually, who am I not to be? I am a child of God."
Yes, indeed, that is what God expects of us, to be what we created to be and if we throw that back in God's face, couldn't that be a form of darkness? Remember, the second great commandment is that we love our neighbours as ourselves. If we don't love ourselves, we are giving our neighbours less than they deserve.
To do this, we must live in the light. John's gospel is full of images of light and dark, as are John's letters in the epistles after Paul's. If we go right back to the beginning of the Gospel according to John, we hear those wonderful words: "The true light that gives light to everyone was coming into the world." We hear those words: "to everyone." That means us. We are fools if we choose to live in the darkness, especially if it's a darkness of our own making, that which is thrust upon us by others.
Unfortunately, we know that we adults often do choose to live in the darkness. One of the most tragic verses in John's gospel, maybe in all of scripture, follows that verse: "He was in the world, and though the world was made through him, the world did not recognize him. He came to that which was his own, but his own did not receive him." Here's the crux of the matter. Jesus came to us. God took on the flesh of a human so that God could live among us and show us first hand how much we are loved - and yet we chose not to recognize him. Not only that, we also chose not to receive him. That is darkness of a really tragic type.
The Season of Lent is a time to consider our darkness - to see if we have been so grown-up in a foolish way that we no longer believe that the influence of the world can surround us with darkness. God so loved the world, God so loved you and me, that he came into the world, died for our sins, and rose again, so that we can have everlasting life.
The light of the Resurrection is the light that can transfigure all of us every day of our lives.

Sunday March 4th, 2012
Mark 8:31-38
Many people over the course of history have asked, "Why must a person believe in God to be nice and do good things?" Why, indeed? What separates our faith communities from other social activist groups like the Lions Club, Rotary, Worldvision or Mission Without Borders? The answer lies in our deepest motivation: that of following Jesus. With this understanding, we have a lens to look through, which enables us to filter through everything we do.
Of course, we should all be nice, decent people, but to follow Jesus - that calls for something deeper, something more weighty and more involved. You can be a nice person without believing in God or following Jesus; but you can't truly believe in God and follow Jesus without being a person of conversion: your heart must be where God's heart is, as well as your hands and feet. This takes courage. It is often easier said than done.
In Jesus day; at the time of crucifixion, some victims had to carry their own crossbeams to the hill where they were to be crucified, as part of their punishment. Imagine how terrible that road must have felt, as they walked themselves to their impending death, carrying one of the implements of their own death on their backs? Then, once there, being humiliated by being seen in all your vulnerability as a human being - not able to care for your basic human functions while others watched; spending hours in unrelieved pain; having other people jeer and laugh at you and not see you as a person, but as an object of ridicule; all the while knowing that you are going to die.
When Jesus turns his face to Jerusalem, and sets off from Galilee with the disciples to travel there, he knows that this is what it will come to. He knows what he will encounter; fickle crowds, encounters with authorities and misinterpretation of his mission. However Jesus chooses this vulnerability. He chooses obedience and courage and tells the disciples that if they are to follow him, that they must choose this, also.
Even though the disciples chose to go with him, it was nevertheless a very lonely choice for Jesus as he knew what the outcome would be. This is not what a person would typically want for his or her life. Brother David Vryhof of the Society of Saint John the Evangelist has written, "It is no wonder that Jesus' family was concerned about him. By his actions he was showing that those principles which most people value above everything else - of security, safety, and a good reputation in the eyes of others - meant nothing to him. How countercultural is that?"
In order for us to live within the integrity of God's call to us, we need to realize that instead of living within a popular group, that the other option of being countercultural, can be a very lonely choice. Being a follower of Jesus means that we also need to embrace this loneliness. God came to be fully human in Jesus, so we too can understand what it means to be fully human through Jesus. This is where we find the glimpses of God's grace freely given to each and every one of us, in our vulnerability.
The idea of a vulnerable, suffering God is a concept as unacceptable to us as it was to Peter in our gospel reading today. Peter saw the Messiah as something very different - an invincible war hero, a Zealot who would lead the Jewish people to freedom, and redeem them from their own vulnerability. We are all like Peter in our own way? Believing that Jesus is the Messiah - a Messiah who will save us from the cruel, harsh world that surrounds us? A tame and cosy Messiah that will come when we call and keep the bad things at bay? "Get behind me, Satan!" Jesus demands of Peter. In other words, get those comfy thoughts behind all of us, so that we can have the clear and sobering view of the path of the cross. We need to look instead at the things that discomfort us; situations where we too can act a Jesus would, to counter the popular culture of our day.
When we are baptized, at any age, it is a joyous occasion of being received into the Christian community. But even as we receive the water of life, we are also handed a crossbeam of our own and are pointed to the path of Jesus and told to do likewise, to follow his example. We look at that road and the figure of Jesus struggling in the distance and wonder if there has been some mistake. The road looks difficult, and at the end is death.
We need to remember that we are all dust, and to dust we shall return. All our lives end in death, as we are reminded at the beginning of Lent. The difference for a Christian is the singular intention to live our lives following Jesus. We deny our notions of who we think we are in order to truly become who God created us to be. The more we know God, the longer we follow Jesus' path, the more we become ourselves in Christ, his brothers and sisters, in the family of God. There is true freedom in what Jesus asks of us - the freedom to draw near to God, to love and accept one another and ourselves without constraint. Jesus shows us how to do it. He keeps his eye on the prize: obedience to God's will. And nothing deters him. We are asked to do the same in our own lives, but we have a guide. When we keep our eyes on Jesus, everything else falls away.
Where is it that Jesus is asking you to follow him in your life right now? Is it too far out of your comfort zone? Perhaps it's time to take that step of faithfulness, of vulnerability, of being loved by God, of living and sharing the Good News; to take that step of becoming the human that God has created you to be. So, what are you waiting for?

Acts 10:44-48 John 15:9-17

Costly Love

The central theme, or the climax of this passage lies in the words, "You did not choose me; I chose you and appointed you to go and bear much fruit."
In these few words we see the nature and purpose and character of God summed up.
Choice is an interesting thing. Why do we choose? Why do we choose one thing or person over another? It usually comes out of some inner desire or some recognition of value.
This statement of Christ's points to God's choice of us, motivate from and born out of God's desire to love and to express that love.
Love on its own and with no context is merely a word. Love has to be set in a context or given expression with some action. Thus God's love begins and is initiated, giving it expression in his willingness to pour out that love on humanity. This is a free and gracious choice generated from the heart of God. There is no obligation on God's part, nor any external pressure to do so, nor is there any guaranteed outcome. And so it is in the context of this love that we are invited to respond in kind.
William Barclay sums up this concept of God's gracious call and the invitation that emanates from it when he says, "The great interest of this passage lies in the fact that out of it we can compile a list of the things for which we are chosen and to which we are called."
This morning let us explore this list of seven things that Barclay identifies.
He says we are chosen for joy, chosen for love, called to be his friend, chose to be his partner, chosen to be his ambassadors, chosen to be his advertisements and finally, chosen to be privileged members of the family of God.
Having assured us of God's abiding love, present and remaining in us, Christ goes on to tell us that the whole reason for this conversation is that his joy may be in us and that our joy may be complete. The Christian life is a way of joy, even when the travelling is hard. Our joy is based on our assurance of God's love for us. Despite our circumstances, despite the turmoil in the world around us, the Christian can surely have a bigger overview of life seeing that there is purpose and meaning behind all that we experience and all that we do. Christ's life, death and resurrection serve as a picture of hope and as example of how we can live life and how we can expect God's presence to be with us at every moment, even beyond the present.
Thus we live with the joy of this hope.
Barclay says, "The Christian is a person of joy; the Christian is the laughing cavalier of Christ. A gloomy Christian is a contradiction in terms and nothing in all religious history has done Christianity more harm than its connection with black clothes and long faces."
There are always those who want to point to judgment and matters of condemnation, those who want to bind people with rules and regulations rather than seeing the freedom and the joy that the gospel brings.
We are chosen for love. Christ's command is that we love one another. Having expressed his own love for the world he now commands us to go out and to love in the same fashion. We are to mirror his love in our actions and attitudes, so that in some small measure we bring his presence into the lives of others. In this way God's love continues to be felt and experienced in a variety of ways in peoples lives.
We are called to be his friends. "What a friend we have in Jesus all our sins and grief's to bear." His love was demonstrated in that he gave his life up for his friends. The world was not an enemy of Christ but he invited them to be his friends. So the invitation to follow him and to have that friendship is on offer for all. This was fleeting invitation in history seen grounded and planted in his death for the sins of the world. What greater love could be offered than one who gives up his life for another?
The other contrast that Jesus draws here is that no longer are we to be slaves but friends. Again there is a sense here of being set free, of not being confined by the limits of this world, but being free to relate to the God of all creation.
Barclay says, "He gave us this intimacy with God, so that God is no longer a distant stranger, but our intimate friend."
Closely linked to this concept of friendship is that he calls us to be his partners. A slave could never be a partner. A slave was defined by Greek Law as a living tool. Barclay says, "His master never opened his mind to him; the slave had to do what he was told without reason and without explanation. Jesus says, You are not my slaves your are my partners. I have told you everything."
God's plan of redemption for the whole world has been opened up for us in the person of Jesus Christ. He has engaged us in that plan and invited us to be partakers in it. Such is the nature of partnership.
In this role he calls us to be ambassadors. "I have chosen you, to send you out." We are not to be retired from the world, shut out from it, and living in cloistered surrounds, but rather we are to be in the world, but not of it. We are God's representatives in the world, living that life of faith and love. How important it is that as Christians we engage with the world. In other analogies Christ talks of us being light and salt to the world. By our presence and participation we can have effects on the world which bring God's love.
In this way we are called to be advertisements. The fruit we bear advertises God's love in the communities in which we live and in the groups in which we participate.
Barclay suggests, "The only way to bring others into the Christian faith is to show them the fruit of the Christian life." Living advertisements are far more effective than printed ones, or even spoken ones over some remote device. By engaging with others, as Christ did, others will be drawn to faith and trust in Jesus Christ.
Finally we are made privileged members of his family.
So close is this relationship, that we are told that whatever we ask in his name the Father will give to us.
This sounds great but must not be taken thoughtlessly.
Our prayer must be brought in faith, prayer from the heart, believing in God who is able to do all things. It must be in the name of Christ, acknowledging his rule and his authority. It is no use praying for things that are contrary to his standards and purposes. Prayer should not be about personal ambition, but rather about our participation and purposes in God's plan for the world.
Even Christ prayed in the Garden before facing the cross, "Not my will but yours be done." What a great example to us all.
We are not there to change the will of God, but to see that God's will is done and done well.
Prayer should never be selfish in its focus.
Barclay says, "The greatest temptation of all in prayer is to pray as if nobody but ourselves mattered; such a prayer cannot be effective."
And the answers to our prayers must always be left in the trusting hands of God whose wisdom and knowledge and understanding far exceeds anything that we can imagine. That relationship of prayer is a growing developing one that continues to engage us throughout our lives if we will but trust him.
All of this flows from that costly love that Christ offered the world and that he continues to offer to us as his love is lived out in our lives.
The cost he bore was for us all, so that we might respond in faith and love to his call on our lives.
To God be the glory, now and for ever more. AMEN.

18 March 2012
Numbers 21:4-9 John 3:14-21
Our God provides where ever we are!

Life is a journey that we travel both as individuals and as in the context of community, whether that be family, friends, or much wider circle of acquaintances. And depending on who we are with at the moment, the memories and stories of the past will be shaped by our own actions and those whom we have shared those moments with. Community stories and family stories have shaped who we are today and help to shape generations that are to come. No doubt as families gather they remember both the people and events of the past that have been handed down. There will always be those notable stories that will raise a laugh, or there might be the embarrassing moments that people would wish could be forgotten, or the tragedies that bring those moments of reverential silence.
The Israelite people were great story tellers. They often looked back to the major events in their history and remembered all that happened. They made sure that they told and retold those stories so that they would never forget.
In fact they shaped those stories into religious rituals and festivals so that they would never forget that whatever was happening to them, or where ever they were, God was with them and God provided for them. Think of the Passover, and the Harvest. There stories were a constant reminder of this one vital truth.
One of the amazing things about the stories of the people of Israel is how universal they are. And I think this is because they are told as it was. Nothing was glossed over, there were the joys and the sorrows, the triumphs and the tragedies, the excitement and the mundane.
We see how the people lost their patience, how they got angry with God, and how their loyalty waxed and waned. We see them looking to God for guidance and strength, and then we see them turning away and ignoring God.
They are the stories of very real people who lived very real lives, in often quite trying circumstances, and yet they survived.
The resilience of the humanity is amazing. What can be survived and endured often incredible. We see programmes like that current one, "I shouldn't be Alive" and that sort of resilience that is illustrated. We travel to other countries and see the conditions that less privileged people live in and wonder how they do it, and yet they do.
And then we think back to our forebears who gave up everything to move to a foreign land. There was no security, no guarantees, everything that had been worked for and built up around them was left, and they came to start a new life. They too survived.
One of the things that amazes me in the stories of the Israelite people, is how often they and how quickly they seemed to forget the good things that God did for them. They constantly remember the negative things, the struggles and the persecutions, but they forget so easily the way that God saved them from such peril.
That phrase, "But on the way the people lost their patience and spoke against God and Moses," seems to be a recurring theme. And I think it is a recurring theme among every generation. It seems to result from either the great comfort that we build around us and then forget where that has come from as we become more and more content with our own ability to survive, or on the other hand it comes as trouble and persecution swamps us and we begin to drown in self pity. Either way, it is easy to loose sight of the God who provides. Thus something as basic as remembering say, the harvest, helps to ground us in our understanding of all of life being a gift of God.
It is interesting that the snakes that had caused havoc among the people of Israel was shaped into an image to remind the people of God's presence with them.
This snake would be held up on the pole, and as the people looked at it, they were reminded how God had saved them.
The negative image can also be a stark reminder of God's salvation.
And that is no surprise to us really is it, for during this Lenten season we look to the later image of the cross.
This was no positive image. It was an image of cruelty, and image of oppression, and image of torture used to suppress the people by the occupying forces.
It was an image of shame, as one who was hung on the tree was cursed by God. This is such a powerful image and such horrid experience, and yet we use it to remember God's great act of salvation.
Christ, who was despised and rejected by humanity, was lifted up so that all who looked to him might be saved.
All who put their trust in him would find God's love poured out for them. In him, their needs for everyday living, for the ability to face life with courage and confidence, would be found.
No longer did people need to fear God's anger or rejection, but they could find love and acceptance. Why?
For, "As Moses lifted up the bronze snake on a pole in the desert, in the same way the Son of Man must be lifted up so that everyone who believes in him may have eternal life."
God's love for the world was expressed in this very practical way so that every time we were reminded of this great act of grace, of God's coming to us in Jesus the Christ, we would remember God's presence in our midst. The crucified and risen Christ is in our midst, understanding our joys and sorrows, knowing what it is to suffer, but also understanding the concept of ultimate victory.
So God's presence cannot be taken from us. Does this not offer us the ability to live life with the courage of those who wandered in the wilderness, with the courage of our forebears who left the comfort of their homelands for the great unknown world?
God's promise is never for and easy life, but always offers us the constant presence and knowledge of his love with us where ever we go.
The harvest reminds us that God provides in the most practical ways, caring for our bodies as well as our souls. He cares for the present as well as that eternal nature of our being.
God never gives up, but is lifted high that we might acknowledge his love and live life depending on his presence with us to guard and to guide.
May God continue with us in all that we do, may he go with us where ever we are led, but may we always look to the Cross as God's expression of his love for us, acknowledging that love and living in his presence.
To God be the glory, now and for ever more. AMEN.

4 March 2012
Genesis 17:1-7,15-16 Mark 8:31-38

Be a follower.

Nothing sharpens our thinking more clearly than contemplating the mortal nature of our life. Last week I quote the Psalmist when he puts it in such a plain way comparing our life to the grass or the flowers of the field; we grow and flourish like the flowers of the field or grass and then the wind blows and it is gone.
And if we stop our thinking there, we can too easily become consumed by such thoughts, but Jesus wants to push us beyond that by challenging his disciples even further.
We need to remember a few things when reading these passages where Jesus addresses his disciples about his impending death.
One thing to remember is that his disciples where not contemplating his death. In their minds he was beginning and exciting and challenging new way of looking at life. He was a young man in his prime and so their focus was on his life, not his death.
Another thing to remember is that the Gospel writers are telling these stories some years after the events of Calvary and so they are looking back on them with the clear vision of hindsight. They are remembering the events and stories as Jesus told them with the understanding of what came later. They did not have this understanding when they first heard those words or experienced those events.
Often such perspective on an event of history gives us a much clearer picture of what was happening at the time.
So while the mistakes that we see the disciples making as they stumble their way through the lead up to that first Easter makes them seem to us a bit dim, or slow on the up take, in reality they could not see the whole picture, and the vision they had of where they were heading was vastly different from what Jesus saw and understood.
The Gospels draw together those two strands of understanding and focus' our vision on that one point, the cross.
And in that drawing together, Jesus' challenge to us is to whether we are going to follow Christ on his path, or whether we are going to go off on our own, insisting we know what is best. This is really a challenge as to what true discipleship is all about.
In this process of being a disciple we see Challenge, we see calling, and we see of course the cross to which it all points.

Jesus did seem to have a reasonably clear understanding of where his life was heading. He seemed to know with some clarity what was expected of him. And in this understanding he was able to face the reality that he would face some challenges and some fairly serious ones at that.
He sums this up in a couple of sentences. "The Son of Man must suffer much and be rejected by the elders, the chief priests, and the teachers of the Law. He will be put to death, but three days later he will rise to life."
He knew his life was going to be lived in the public eye and that those who role in life was to promote religious belief would be the very ones who would offer the most challenge to him.
The elders, the chief priests and the teachers of the law; these were the people who would scrutinize his every move. They are the ones who will question his words and his actions down to the most minute detail. They are the ones who will follow him, not in support, but so that he might be tripped up at every point along the way. Where we are told that he must suffer and be rejected, there is that sense in terms of the rejection that he will not pass that scrutiny.
His actions and reactions, and his motives will be challenged at every point, and so he must be crystal clear keeping his focus on the whole purpose of his life.
That in itself becomes a challenge to those who want to follow Christ. Can we be as crystal clear in our vision as Christ was? Are we prepared to face those challenges along the way as the world scrutinizes our every move, as the world scrutinizes our motives behind every action and thought that we have. This Lenten period gives us that opportunity to look forward to the cross, as Christ was, and to run some checks and balances in our own lives as to where our lives are focused and how we have handled the challenges of the last year, and where the challenges may lie in the coming year.
We can ask ourselves where Christ is in our lives; in our leisure, in our work, in our family lives and then think about how we might better serve Christ as we focus on his mission in our world today, for if we are to take up such challenges, we must surely consider, like Christ the calling that we are going to follow.
Will that calling be the calling of the world, with all its values and foci, or will it be the calling of Christ to follow him?
Peter in his understandable attempt to encourage Jesus and help him be more positive, took him aside and gave Jesus a pep talk. He wanted to see them move forward with courage and perhaps more positive force.
But Jesus recognised Peter's line of thought, and saw that worldly thinking and worldly focus emerging. Thus we get that phrase that is so often used in our language, "get behind me Satan." It wasn't that he saw Satan and Peter as one in the same, but he recognised that thinking that sounds good, but leads one in another direction. It may make us feel good for the moment, but fails to address the real and eternal issues of life.
We only need to look at our world today to see how we live in a very nice and often caring society. However, we live in a secular society whose focus more, often than not, discourages any religious thought or certainly puts it into a box on the sideline for those who wish to dabble in that. Jesus' take on life calls us to put our main focus on God and his love for the whole world, and to see him as the prime focus for all that we do. This is quite contrary to the general populaces way of thinking, and is often reflected in the motives of what we do as followers of Jesus Christ.
Peter wanted to avoid the hard stuff in life and to take the easy path at this point, where as Jesus often leads us through the tough issues teaching us to trust him as we go.
The calling to follow Christ involves the cross.
"If anyone wants to come with me, he must forget self, carry his cross and follow me."
Christ could see the cross looming, and faced it head on.
He knew that this was not for his benefit, but for the benefit of the world.
Any attempt to save his own skin, would be detrimental to the mission of God, and ultimately detrimental to the whole world.
He looked beyond himself and his needs to the needs of the world.
That is, I suppose, the challenge we all face if we are to be followers of Jesus Christ. Do we hold the cross before us with all the implications that that may bring, or do we look for what is best for me and my situation today?
If we do the later, are our motives to save our own skins, rather than giving our lives in the service of Christ.
Do we want to gather the world around us winning what is there for us, or do we want to focus our lives and others on the Cross, where the focus is not only for here and now but takes us beyond that to a much fuller sense of life.
A view of life like this takes us beyond the flowers of the field to the ones whose love lasts forever and whose goodness endures for all generations.
This was basis of God's covenant to love us with an everlasting love. "I will be your God and the God of your descendants. I will give to you and to your descendants this land in which you are now a foreigner. The whole land of Cannan will belong to your descendants for ever, and I will be their God."
God's covenant to love us is seen in the cross, and our view must surely focus on that cross.
And this view of the cross includes both the cross of suffering, which Christ endured for us and calls us sometimes to endure, but also the cross of hope which is a symbol God's conquering glory as the power of suffering and death is broken.
Only with both views of the cross can we see the complete picture of God's love for us and the world. Only with this complete picture can we live with hope and trust in the one who came among us as Jesus the Christ, and whose risen hope can guide us and guard us throughout our days here and beyond.
To God be the glory, now and for ever more. AMEN.

19 Feb 2012
2 Kings 2:1-12 Mark 9:2-9

What do you see?

Sometimes we see what we want to see! We see what we are expecting to see, rather than observing what it is that actually lies before us.
When surprises arise and we are greeted with something different from what is expected, we don't quite know what to do. Our automatic default setting seems to be to try and make sense out of our experience.
So imagine the disciples for a moment who have heard over the last week, Jesus talk about his impending death and resurrection and what it means in personal terms to follow him and now they are led up this mountain, and in that moment a change comes over Jesus and he is greeted by two extra guests. Such an experience is hard for us to comprehend and make sense of, just as it was for them.
They weren't really taking on board all Jesus' talk about his coming death and resurrection. The Gospel writer has them recognizing these other two people as Elijah and Moses. These two patriarchs represented for the Jewish people the law and the Prophets. And so before them stood, perhaps God's completed revelation and set in context Jesus as the Son of Man, come to set his people free from their sin. This freedom from sin had been purpose of the Law and the message of the Prophets, and now we see it personified in Jesus the Christ.
This episode for Mark, draws upon that dawning realisation of who Christ is in the minds of his disciples and in the context of all that they had been experiencing.
We have seen in this gospel word and action moving hand in hand. Jesus would speak into the situations that faced him and people were healed, changes took place before their eyes.
So while quite different, and equally bemusing, what they are experiencing now is part and parcel of the whole series of events so far, and he sets it firmly in that process, or journey, God's revelation of God's self to his people in history.
And while there is a transformation before their eyes in this story, it is also about the transformation within the lives of individuals and the life of the church, of God's people.
What we see is not always the full picture, what we experience in life is only part of the total canvas of the world in which we live.
We are told that cloud descended on this scene. Cloud occurred on Mount Sinai at the time Moses received the Ten Commandments, cloud was used as a means of leading the people through the wilderness by day. Cloud is often associated with mystery as it allows glimpses of what lies within or behind, but never gives that full picture. Thus the mystery of life, the mystery of God and our place within mystery is an ever unfolding story.
And the danger that we need to avoid is that in the glimpses we catch of life, that we don't assume that that is the total picture. God must always be allowed to surprise us further.
Life is always that continual unfolding pattern of surprises that has the potential to lead us into deeper and more trusting relationship with him if we are willing.
What we do with those surprises is what is perhaps the crux of the matter. Do we run and hide in fear, not wanting anything to change, clinging on to what we know and what is apparently certain? Or do we want to capture the new excitement of the moment and cling to it as if this is what life will mean from now on or do we absorb the moment, and continue to hold out our hand so that God will continue to lead us through that experience and on in life day by day.
I think we see all of these reactions from the disciples in this story.
We are told that the disciples were frightened that they didn't know what to say. Fear can paralyse us and leave us clinging to anything that seems steady and sure. We see that in the church, where people are so afraid of change that they put up barriers when ever they suspect something different might be happening. In such cases there is usually very little analysis of what change might do, or why it might be needed. It is easier to cling to the forms of our faith, rather than looking forward to and with Christ in hopeful expectation of what God might be doing. We must allow Christ to lead us, to guide us, to go with us through all that life brings us, for in him we can draw strength and see hope through the clouds of mystery as they unfold before us.
The only other alternative is to let go of Christ and fumble our way through life seeking the path on our own and in our own strength, unsure of where the next step will lead us.
The disciples also wanted to fix their position. It was such an awe inspiring experience that they wanted to hold on to it forever. Thus their suggestion, "We will make three tents, one for you, one for Moses, and one for Elijah."
This desire to hold on to the great times, is natural and understandable, but in reality we know life doesn't work like that.
The fleeting moments in life flicker before our eyes and we must savour them and enjoy them as they come but also we must move on in trust as they go.
The Psalmist captures this when he says, "He knows what we are made of; he remembers that we are dust. As for us, our life is like grass, We grow and flourish like a wild flower; then the wind blows on it, and it is gone - no one sees it again. But for those who honour the Lord, his love lasts for ever, and his goodness endures for all generations of those who are true to his covenant and who faithfully obey his commands."
The secret lies in the lesson the disciples were having that day. Follow Christ, walk in his steps and he will lead us on.
They were not able to capture and cling to this moment of euphoria, but having heard the affirmation that "This is my own dear Son - listen to him," they too walked down the mountain with Jesus to continue their journey in the world.
Life for us all, has those moments, those times when we seem to stand and watch the world from a distance, those times when the world swirls around us and we are confused or frightened or swept up on a high, but there is always that point where we must come back in the reality of the world and continue that path. Christ's presence remains with us, Christ's hand is still there to reach out too.
As they came down the mountain, Jesus told the disciples not to tell anyone of what they had seen. This seems somewhat strange. You would expect that this would be a selling point for the Gospel.
But Jesus does not build our faith up on the extraordinary experiences of life getting us to look from one high point to another. If we do this, we then struggle to find Christ in the low moments. When we find ourselves alone or in despair rather than reaching out to Christ we might find ourselves yearning for another fix of a spiritual high, and if unable to find that, we would want to know where Christ is and wander off disappointed.
But that is not what the Gospel is about. The Gospel is about Christ who walks with us in the highs and the lows, in joy and in sorrow.
The hymn writer, John Bowring captures this as he looked forward to that Easter Season when he wrote,
"In the cross of Christ I glory,
towering o'er the wrecks of time;
all the light of sacred story
gathers round its head sublime."

"When the woes of life o'er take me,
hopes deceive and fears annoy,
never shall the cross forsake me; lo!
It glows with peace and joy."
This is a picture of a God whose life is intimately intertwined with ours, never abandoning us along the way, thus even in the Cross, the lowest point in our Christian story, we are able to see and experience the height and depth of God's love for us.
Let us, in life, not only see what we think we want to see, but let us always be prepared to look beyond the limits of our own vision to see where God has, and is, and will lead us, so that we live day by day, trusting in his mercy and grace all the days of our lives.
To God be the glory, now and for ever more. AMEN.

2 Kings 5:1-14 Mark 1:40-45
If you want you can…!

Today's Gospel reading open up for us something of the very early ministry of Jesus as he began to gather that group of followers around him. It gives us a glimpse into the lives of ordinary people and follows on from last week where we saw even into the homes of ordinary people of Jesus' day.
I have sometimes spoken of the relationship between word and action in the biblical writings, and how in creation when the word was spoken it was synonymous with action. To speak was to act to act was to speak. And here we see how this theme continues in the life and ministry of Jesus as he begins to teach and preach and heal the lives of many, often illustrating what he was saying with the actions that flowed forth.
And so I think we can see from this early part of Marks Gospel the interrelationship between word and action and also between worship and living, between who we are and what we say. These concepts merge into one and the same. And here we see Jesus not only initiating conversation in the villages and synagogues of the area, but also we see him responding to the needs and demands that are being placed upon him.
There is a recognition here from this man suffering from a dreaded skin disease that the answer to his problems lie with Jesus; not only his health problems, but all the social problems that brings with it, in terms of social isolation and exclusion from the city. He sees in Jesus' words, as he recognises the transforming power of that word, the answer to his situation. Here in this man whose word brings with it action is the only thing that can bring him the relief that he needs.
So this man comes in utter desperation and utter dependence upon Jesus word. Only in his speaking to this man will his problems be taken away.
"If you want to, you can make me clean."
We can see in that short sentence that acknowledged dependence upon the power of Christ's creative word.
"Only say the word and I shall be free."
Simple, and yet profound.
And it is in the simplicity of the Gospel that we all too often loose sight of what the message of God's saving love is all about. We too often get tied up with all that we must do, if God is to be real or if God is to act, or we struggle and strain to find meaning and relevance and look for all sorts of ways to 'make' our faith such, and yet this man recognised in Jesus all that was needed, and that was for Jesus to speak.
He saw that the initiative lay with Jesus, "If you want to, you can make me clean."
Grace always begins with Jesus, with his coming to us, with his making known the needs that we have so that we can come in humility realising our need of that word, of that grace.
This man came, not with the answers to his problems, but with the path that would bring him to wholeness.
He did not know the outcome, but recognised where and with whom the power lay to make him whole. We all, at times, live through those moments in life where they are clouded with the troubles of our lives, whether in grief or pain, sorrow or confusion and we struggle to see the light and the end of the tunnel, but it is in our faith, surely that we learn to hold out our hand like this man, to the one who can make us whole.
And in this journey we do not know where the path will lead, but we trust that the one leading us will bring us through to a fuller sense of being, to a greater and more fulfilled sense of God's abiding presence.
Our place is not to prescribe the out come, but we are invited to come with our needs and place them before Christ, as we await his word to us in our day.
It is interesting that this man was instructed to go straight to those who had the power in their society to declare him clean. He was not to tell anyone, but was to have what Christ had done acknowledged. Our task is similar, we are not to put ourselves out there as the ones who achieve, but always to point to Christ. We are to point to Christ who transforms, Christ who brings hope, Christ who fulfils the potential in us all enabling us to be witnesses and disciples of his in our world today.
Thus our words and our actions and our worship all draw together to give expression to our faith in Jesus Christ, the Word made flesh. We see throughout the Gospels this interaction of word, worship and action and life is not complete if one of these elements is absent. Too often we want to drop one or other or more, or we put them in the too hard basket, and yet together they give expression to our faith.
Worship is our response to God's initiating grace, our actions bear testimony to the one whom we worship and our words speak forth in harmony, giving expression to that which we think and do.
May God give us his grace as we live out our faith in the world today.
To God be the glory, now and for ever more. AMEN.

Deuteronomy 18:14-22 Mark 1:21-28

What do you want with us, Jesus of Nazareth?

Throughout the history of humanity there seems to have always been that conflict between the world or the general populace and its thinking and between that of people who have found faith in God.
Moses chastises those in his day who, followed practices of divination, and promised to the people of his day a prophet who would come among them and who would reveal the will of God.
This promise gave them hope that would steer them away from the pagan prophets of their day helping them to look forward with faith and trust.
However like any other generation, they too longed for the instant answer, longed for that time to come now, so that they could have certainty and could perhaps match the power and signs that these other people appeared to offer.
Moses reminds the people that they had once seen such power from God on Mount Sinai, and had in fact pleaded not to see God's presence with such awe. And the question that always seems to arise between these swings in life seems to be, how do we know that it is God's presence that we are experiencing? Is it really God whom we are seeing? And is seeing and experiencing God what faith is actually all about?
For after all, later in the Gospels, after the resurrection Jesus challenges Thomas when Thomas demanded to see the holes in is hands and side and feet, with those well known words,
"Do you believe because you see me? How happy are those who believe without seeing me!"'
But perhaps the real question should be the one that the man in the gospel story, whom we are told was possessed by an evil spirit asked, so what does God really want with me?'
We often find ourselves asking the wrong question when it comes to faith, and I think this has always been a problem.
We want to see, we want to touch, we want to feel God, so that we can have absolute proof about God. Our scientific world has reinforced this notion, that if something is true then it is provable, repeatable, and it is constant.
God's presence has never been any of the above, and yet that does not disprove anything about God, except maybe, that we are unable to contain God into a framework that conforms exactly to our preconceived notions or expectations.
So what is it that God wants of us?
The first thing we can notice in the Gospel story, is about Jesus. There seemed to be some recognition, that in his teaching, in his presence, in his very persona there was something that was different.
People recognised an authority that seemed different, and almost compelling. His words had power and brought authority to what he said.
This recognition of the power of the word in Jesus seemed to be a constant theme with all the gospel writers, even if they expressed it in different ways. While Mark sees this recognition of power being recognized from among the people, John speaks of the Word being full of grace and truth and coming to dwell among us. Doesn't that tie in nicely with God's promise to Moses, that he would send a prophet to his people, one from among their own!
And that word that is spoken of is just like the word that was spoken in Creation bringing life out of nothing. God's word is powerful and creative, it is synonymous with action, because in the biblical text word and action are intertwined, God's speech is creative action. God's power is seen in God's speech.
And this is what seems to be recognised in Jesus' speech. As he teaches, people recognise that quality in him.
There is a consistency in his word and action, and yet a oneness with us.
One who is from among us.
Thus in the prayer of St Richard of Chichester those words draw together both the holiness of God and the closeness with us when he prays, "O Holy Jesus, most merciful redeemer, friend and brother, may I know thee more clearly, love thee more dearly and follow thee more nearly."
There is that quality in Jesus that points us to his unity with God, and yet calls us to follow in his footsteps striving to live our lives like him.
The Gospel story goes on to tell of the man possessed by an evil spirit, and it tells of the evil spirit's reaction to Jesus.
The demons in this mans life recognised Jesus and reacted. The picture again is that struggle between good and evil, between right and wrong, and in the face of truth, evil or falsehood reacts.
Truth overcomes evil. It doesn't negate its presence but ultimately the power lies with truth. Without such hope would our lives not be in despair, would we not be left with the overwhelming sense that evil reigns. And I suspect that this has been humanities problem down the ages right from those time of Moses. As people have looked for the ways in which they perceive God as being and working, they have turned in all directions and many have lost sight of the fact that God is with us. God's presence does not leave us. And in ones search and struggle to discover a god in the form that they want to see God, they turn to all sorts of other forms for comfort; whether that be in the comfort and security of our own wealth, or our homes or some search for a religious or spiritual high or direction that will make us feel good, it becomes that human endeavour.
But in this gospel story, Jesus' presence was enough to bring out that truth, that authority, that presence of the most merciful redeemer, the one who draws us to God and brings us back into that relationship with God, Creator, Redeemer and Giver of life.
God's presence transforms life and brings about radical change as it did in this man's life. The spirit became quiet and left. The light of God's presence dispels the darkness and takes away our fears.
Jesus' word and action again display that consistency and it is that consistency that Jesus challenges us with as he calls people to follow him. "come with me and I will make you fishers of me." Your life and your actions will focus on God's redeeming love, drawing us and others to faith in him.
As we are challenged by God's love, I wonder are the demons in our lives, what ever they be, challenged by the truth of God's presence. Do we allow our lives to be challenged so that in our living we become more and more Christ like, more and more transformed into the likeness of Christ, taking on the holiness offered by God?
We cannot do this in our own strength, nor for our own pride, but we must embark on this journey because this is what God calls us too if we are to be his disciples.
We do not have the authority, nor the power, but it is Christ who comes among us, Christ whose life and death and resurrection dealt with our sin and bought us the freedom of God's love bringing us and all God's people into the fellowship of God's reign.
Recognising God's presence among us forces us to look at our living, to look at our priorities, to examine our hearts and our motives in all that we do and say.
How do we treat others, where do our priorities lie, what drives us in life? These are the challenges that face us as we recognise Christ, the one who has come among us to save us from our sin. Christ's risen presence has continued to challenge generation after generation. Some have chosen to follow and some have ignore that call. Our responsibility remains to live out that presence in our world and to witness God's love as seen in Jesus Christ. May God continue to give us the strength and the grace to do that to the best of our abilities in all that we do and say and think.
To God be the glory, now and for ever more. AMEN.

Jonah 3:1-5,10 Mark 1:14-20

Today our readings focus us on God's activity in communicating with his people. In such activity God works in the lives of ordinary people involving them the mission of the Kingdom of God in the places were they are.
Jonah, an ordinary man, son of Ammittai was initially called to go to the people of Nineveh to point out to them that God knew of their wickedness and was not pleased with them. And we all know how, Jonah, daunted by this task tried to flee, but eventually gave in and did as God had asked him.
Simon, Andrew, James and John, similarly were going about their daily tasks when Jesus approached them and placed a challenge before them.
They too had the choice at that point to take up the challenge or to move off and continue in their daily work.
We can all, no doubt place ourselves in the shoes of these characters when at times in life, when challenged in some way, we wonder,, Who, me?
The challenges placed before us seem to come from left field or are so out of our comfort zone that we feel the wrong person must have been asked.
But maybe that is just part of the nature of God's call that he can place on anyone of us, whether it be a call to a particular task, or whether it be the challenge that brings us to a deep and more trusting faith in God. The danger is that we see in these stories the specific circumstances and fail to see that God's approach to anyone of us follows a similar pattern, and this is a pattern that begins with God's initiative in coming to us and inviting from us a response that can bring radical change to our lives.
The nature of God's call on our lives is shown in these stories and can be seen in the continual and persistent nature of God's call, the courage that is required from us and the respondents and the commitment that is called for.

With both Jonah and Jesus' disciples the initiative in the approach lies with God's coming to them. Jonah tried to run and hide when he heard that voice of God speak to him, and yet God kept coming and persisted with him until Jonah was compelled to go to Nineveh. There was a real sense in which he was unable to let go of that voice telling him to go. There was no other way for him to find peace in his life except in the obedience that was being demanded of him.
Although we are not given such detail in Jesus' calling of his disciples, we still get that sense that there was something in the approach from Jesus that compelled these men to lay down their nets and to take a radical new direction in their lives. Radical not only for them, I dare say, but radical also for those who were close to them, their families and friends.
This compulsion must have been strong as there is very little detail as to the processing of this decision in their lives. The Gospel writer merely records Jesus as saying, Come with me, and I will teach you to catch men, and their immediate response as being, "At once they left their nets and went with him." Now this most likely would be, like any journalistic reporting, offering the bare bones of the story, leaving out the perceived, and unnecessary detail showing the processing of such thought.
Nevertheless, the call is compelling and continual until the desired response is achieve. These men were wanted for this particular task, and Jesus appears not to want to look anywhere else. Their skills in one field, have potential in a vastly different field, which they themselves had probably never considered before.
They had spent their lives fishing for food to provide sustenance for their families and their villages, and now they were being invited to draw in a different catch and for a much different purpose. And to fulfil this they would need the persistence of the one who had called them. They would need to be continually out in the crowds inviting people to put their trust in God, to turn from a reliance on self, to trusting God who had come to them and who had challenged them to change the focus of their lives.

For this task they would need courage. In the story of Jonah, he was only too painfully aware of what the reaction of the people might be. He knew his community well, he no doubt knew some of their strengths, but he was also well aware of their shortcomings, and of God's displeasure with them.
The story is an unfolding one, one of a growing understanding for both Jonah and the people of Nineveh, the full ramifications of which could not be understood or comprehended in that process.
The same would apply to Jesus' disciples. They lived in a stubbornly nationalistic part of the world, among a people who resented their oppressive invading government. They had long looked for the overthrowing of the Roman Government by one who would bring about cataclysmic change to their society. Maybe they saw a glimmer of hope in Jesus, and their courage was fuelled. But they would need to learn that Jesus' call was to a much quieter change, a change in the hearts of people to give up a seeking or self fulfilment and self gratification, for a focus on faith in God to strengthen them for the challenging task of drawing people to trust in God. They would face opposition from both their friends and their foes in this task, and it would require them to face opposition even to the point of disappointment and death. Such was the nature of God's call.
And in the process or journey of this growing faith, they would find the courage that only God could give to face life head on with all its challenges, with all its opportunities and even its disappointments.

For this task, such a call to faith required not only courage but also commitment. This was not a call to the faint hearted who might fall over at the first sign of challenge and return to the comfort of their fishing boats, or the life they had once known.
This commitment meant a leaving behind of all that was dear to them and all the earthly security that they had built around them, and to follow the one who would lead them and teach them, Jesus, the Christ.
Commitment, requires focus and determination, and a single mindedness that keeps one on track, putting aside other things in favour of that focus. This was the call the disciples responded to and it is the call that comes to each and every one of us as we are all challenged to have faith in God and to express that faith in our daily lives.
We can all ask ourselves where our real faith lies, is it in God, who came to us in Jesus Christ, or is it in the things and securities that we build around us to keep us comfortable in our living.
I wonder how we would cope if all our so called security were stripped away from us, if all that we had built up was suddenly taken. Many people face such situations and find that their so called secure things in their lives are puffs of wind, gone and seen no more.
What Jesus offers is an anchor that holds steady even in the storms. It is a security that tells people that when all else fails, God is there, and the challenge is to build that relationship of trust focused on God even before the storms come so that we can stand firm in faith and secure in the knowledge that God loves us.
Who? Me? Yes, God's love is here for us all, and God calls each and every one of us to follow him, to take up that challenge of faith with courage and commitment knowing that, yes there is a cost, the cost of where we are willing to put our trust, and the cost of being prepare to accept what the world may think of us because we believe and have faith in God.
May God give us all such courage and help us to grow in our faith and in our understanding of God's love for us and for the world.
To God be the glory, now and for ever more. AMEN.

27 November 2011 Advent 1
Isaiah 64:1-9 Mark 13:24-37

Hope is something that has been a mark of the Christian Church from its very inception, and was in fact part of the foundation built on from the beginning of the Judeo-Christian tradition. It is, I believe, a characteristic that is essential in our faith, for it forms the basis of vision, of forward looking momentum that brings expectation and reason to our lives as individuals and as a collective.
It is said in the scriptures that without vision we perish. In other words, without hope there is that sense of drifting aimlessly and being lost.
But to merely speak of hope, without any context in which that hope is placed, is nothing more than wishful thinking, and so the context in which we bring our hope is grounded in the Advent Season as we focus our hope on God's coming among us.
This hope is born in the context of God who has come among his people throughout the ages. In theophonies, or appearances like the burning bush, God came to people. The prophet Isaiah had a picture of God who would come down from the sky. This was a God who did not remain remote from his people, but in fact came and dwelt with us.
There is almost a challenge here, "Why don't you tear the sky apart and come down? Show yourself to the world as you have done in the past. In the events of nature, in the activities of people around, all that we are involved in, this prophet suggests that we can experience God at work and we can hope to see God on into the future.
Such is his hope. Such is the intense nature of his desire to experience God. And yet contrasting this intense desire is the reality of the human nature that so often betrays that desire. That contrast between wanting to experience God and the reality that our actions are too often self absorbing and
Self gratifying, drawing us away from God and into our own world of corruption and greed.
This takes us away from that forward movement of hope into a circle of stagnation grasping for anything that will bring instant satisfaction.
So Isaiah sees that contrast of looking in hope to God who is like the potter, that master craftsman, that creator who shapes and gives beauty to the lump of lifeless clay.
The call is for God to come among us and breathe into us that life giving Spirit that will excite us and draw us on in hope, looking for those moments when God's presence can be seen and felt.
This really does sum up for us the whole picture of Advent, those moments of coming.
And of course it is that moment of coming that we remember particularly in the birth of Christ. Here is seen the ultimate moment of God's coming among us.
Emmanuel, God is with us. In the simplicity of that of birth, in the stable, devoid of any of the trappings of human luxury or comfort, God came among us in this moment of history.
Isaiah's picture of God tearing the sky apart has found its place in time and space.
God's remoteness comes to us in this simple scene and begins to unfold in ways that we can relate to in our own world.
And like always, people wanted to cling to that moment, cling to this one hoping that this experience would stay forever. But hope that remains as a fix point, as a concrete and tangible part of our lives would soon become an object of our control which as human beings we would massage and manipulate for our own comfort and benefit.
Jesus in his teaching didn't just give a picture of a positive future, of a hope devoid of trials and tribulations, but rather chose to face the world with the realities of human life.
Having just spoken of those who would come seeking to deceive; of those who would come as false Messiahs and prophets, he spoke of the dark times of human history and how we would read such events and even natural occurrences as signs of despair, in those moments we should expect God's coming.
So like Isaiah who contrasted God's majestic coming with the short comings of humanity, so Jesus here in this Gospel reading encourages us to look for God's coming even when it would appear that the world around us is falling apart. We are not to be put off even if sun grows dark and the moon no longer shines. Such times should not be seen nor lived without hope, for it is as the world panics in despair that we should look for the hope of the coming of the Son of Man.
God's presence, God's coming will be there in those times to lead us on, for he will not abandon the world.
Jesus paints that picture of the four angels travelling to the four corners of the earth. There is nowhere that we can escape from his presence for he will continue to gather his people together.
Thus rather than despair his message is one of being open and prepared to see God's coming among us. He gives that very short and simple lesson using the fig tree as the example.
As winter ends, we look for those signs of warming. We don't only feel those signs in the tangible warming of the air, but we probably begin to see the coming of spring more visibly if we look to the trees around us. The seemingly dead branches begin to bulge as the buds thicken and the brown outer covering breaks away revealing the bright green of the bud below. We can't necessarily race this process but we look eagerly for those signs.
So Jesus suggests that we do the same for his coming among us. One commentator says, "every generation should be eagerly looking for and expecting the Lord's coming."
But are we so focused on expecting to see his coming in a particular way or fashion that we fail to see his coming in those everyday moments, in those times when we are looking too far into the future that the present does not register in our minds.
Hope therefore should not be a pipe dream of future romantic euphoria, but rather an expectation of living with our eyes open to the reality of our present day moving us on in simple trust of God's presence to guide and to guard.
"Heaven and earth will pass away, but my words will never pass away," says Jesus. The world can so easily pass us bye and we fail to open our eyes to God's presence in our midst.
That presence that was made real in Jesus the Christ who came among us as a baby and whose risen presence continues to fill our lives.
Jesus of course was being even more provocative in this short extract from the Gospels, as his claims that the coming of the Son of Man should be sought, was a clear reference to himself. This piecing together of Old Testament apocalyptic material building on the hope that these people had been brought up with and lived for, would have left them in no doubt that Jesus was speaking of himself in this role. His disciples cannot have failed to see the reference to himself in this teaching. Jesus was the hope for them, and remains the hope for us as we can see in him the presence of God in our midst.
His constant call to follow; his constant challenge to believe; his constant assurances that trust in him would give hope and fulfilment in life, remain for us our hope. The message of Advent remains one of hope as we continue to look for signs of God's coming among us, as we live in hope that he will come again into our midst especially as we seem constantly to be facing a world that appears to be in a mode of self destruction. We can choose to see the despair and to be weighed down by the problems, or we can choose to follow Christ brings God's presence to us. We can live in hope as we address the issues the world faces with the resources that we have. It is too easy to live in despair as we become overwhelmed by the enormity of the world's issues and then we fail to address the issues on our door step. Jesus chose to deal with what lay before him, he chose to bring God's presence into the midst of his world where he was, and still people looked beyond for supposedly bigger and more convincing evidence. May be the message of hope is to live in the present, to deal with the world as we experience it and to bring God's love and peace to that place rather than trying to save the world.
God's presence can be seen in our response to the world where we are.
To God be the glory, now and for ever more. AMEN.

6th November 2011 Pentecost 20

Joshua 24:1-3a,14-25 Matthew 25:1-13

Jesus is Coming!

Paul's encouragement to the church in Thessalonica has been well ground to this point in his praise for them and the things he is hearing as news continues to reach him.
He now turns to one of the recurring themes of Christianity which was particularly poignant in this early stage of the Christian church where it was expected that Christ would return, and it would be soon.
This is a theme that has continued down the ages. It was written into the creeds of the church, if you think of the Apostles Creed where it says, "he is seated at the right hand of the Father, and he will come to judge the living and the dead." And the Nicene creed, "He will come again in glory to judge the living and the dead and his kingdom will have no end." Both of these early church documents dated in the 300's reflect this belief that was expressed early in the life Christian believers. Skip 1300 years to the beginnings of our own tradition and the Westminster Confession of Faith's closing words speak of our need of watchfulness, "because they know not at what hour the Lord will come; and may be ever prepared to say, Come, Lord Jesus, come quickly. AMEN.
This belief in Christ's second coming has formed part of the mystery of faith from the beginning and is based on Jesus' own teaching as recorded in the Gospel's.
After telling the Parable of the five wise virgin's and the five foolish ones waiting for the customary arrival of the bridegroom and the need for them to be prepared, Jesus concludes, "Be on your guard, then, because you do not know the day or the hour."
The Thessalonians firmly believed as, did many others at that time, I suspect, that this return would be in their life time.
They eagerly awaited the return of Christ, expecting that they would see this event and share in the excitement of it. But as time went on, as people of their generation no doubt aged and died, the question arose of what would happen to these people at that time when Christ returned.
How indeed would they take part if they had already departed from this world?
These questions interestingly enough, show that this was indeed part of the earliest writings of the New Testament. Many of these people may have know someone, or would have heard second hand, or maybe had been part of the Pentecost gathering from around the known world in Jerusalem recorded at the beginning of Acts, and their expectation was that Christ's return would occur sooner rather than later.
This whole focus on life as a journey that is not disrupted, even by death, is something that gives cause for hope and a positive attitude.
Paul challenges these people, that this gives those with faith a whole different outlook on life and as such it can be a distinguishing feature of such people.
This is a challenge that faces every generation for death faces us all, it is something that we cannot avoid, and yet often the question becomes how do we face it, and how do we handle it? Whether this be our own, a loved one a friend or even a stranger? Do we see it as the end, or do we see it as part of that journey with something more glorious to hope for.
Sentiments from this passage form the basis of any Christian funeral service, and they offer the hope, that as I have said, has formed part of the creeds of our Church that have been recited from very early times.
And yet grief and death is something that we all need to face at sometime in our lives, and it is interesting seeing how society handles it even when there is no faith present.
Today society uses language that often suggest a view of life that would go beyond the grave.
Euphemisms of 'passing on,' passed away to express death give the impression that it is not final. And these more often than not come from people who give no expression to faith in their own lives, but often don't want to face the reality of what has occurred. Even with this language though, the reaction to death is one that sees it as final, where as surely what Paul is saying to the Christians here is, yes grieve, there will be that time of sadness, but don't let that sadness overwhelm you to the extent that you forget the hope that we profess in our faith.
Jesus' coming is not interrupted by anything, not even death. His presence will be there to sustain and comfort, to strengthen and to help in times of distress and trouble.
And for those who expect Christ's return in their life time, death is no barrier to ones participation in this parousia, this coming again of Christ.
Many in our own day have seen this coming as being imminent and have placed great focus on it in their faith journey. While this can be of benefit it can also have some drawbacks. What ever our view, the one thing both Jesus and Paul were clear on when it comes to this coming that is spoken of, is that it is in God's time and that no one knows the day nor the hour.
So what are the benefits that I referred too? I will probably cover this in a little more detail next week, but the biggest benefit is that if we live with that expectation of Christ's imminent coming, it helps to keep us sharp in our response to God's activity in our lives and in the world in which we live.
That sharpness means that we do not want to be caught unawares of God's presence. But I think that should be viewed on much broader basis than merely looking for some future one off event known as the parousia, no we should always be aware of God's activity in our midst on a daily basis. We speak of God presence with us and in our midst. The whole coming Advent season reminds us of both God's coming in Jesus Christ and his coming again, but what about God's daily activity in our world and our lives and in the lives of those around us. Maybe we need to be more aware of that coming so that we recognise God in our midst in all that we are engaged in. It is so easy to only remember God in the big things and more often than not in the 'Acts of God' that bring adversity to us and our world. God's presence brings us joy in the every day activities and relationship in life if only we would recognise it.
I have already spoken of the effect such a vision can also have on our attitude to death, which offers hope and certainty when for others there is nothing but despair.
But the one warning I would want to leave you with is one that probably every generation experiences and that is an obsession with the teaching around Jesus coming again. Why? Firstly because as I have already pointed out, no one knows the day nor the hour, but secondly, if we are focused so far into the future we forget about the present, we not only fail to see God's activity at work, but we don't even look for it because we are so focused on the concept of the end of the world. Our present world looses any sense of importance and the injustices and the problems of this world fail to touch us because they matter no longer. With this approach we fail to look for Christ's presence today or to be his presence as his disciples because we are too concerned with what is going to happen some time off.
We must be grounded in the world of our day, to be part of the presence of Christ in the world today, to do as Christ did in feeding the poor, of fighting injustice, of tending to the sick. Without this activity of God's people God's coming into our world in Jesus Christ was wasted, and his suffering for us meaningless. God's compassion and grace must be lived out in his people and in his church.
This is brought out in the story of Joshua and his plea for the people to continue to "honour the Lord and serve him sincerely and faithfully." This has been God's call to his people of every generation. Not to naval gaze into the future, but to serve God in daily life, in the real world, in the places were we live and work and sleep.
It is a call to remain focused on our God and the God of our forebears and not to let the many things that would draw us from such a focus, take our attention away.
Remember those familiar words that should constantly challenge us, "Choose you this day, whom you will serve, but as for me and my household, we will serve the Lord."
To God be the glory, now and for ever more. AMEN.

23rd October 2011
Pentecost 19
Deuteronomy 34:1-12 1 Thessalonians 2:1-8

Having spent the last few weeks looking at the Exodus story as Moses led the people out of Egypt and away from the tyranny that they suffered at the hands of the Egyptian people, we now end that story with Moses death and skip to the time of Paul and expansion of the early Christian Church.
Moses journey ends with the people in sight of the Promised Land and his death in the land of Moab meant that he himself never experienced the fulfilment of Yahweh's promise. Nevertheless Moses died a faithful man, knowing in his heart that God had remained faithful to his promise.
We then turn to Paul's life which involves journeys, it involves people, it involves dissatisfaction and disruption; all the things that seem to be trademarks of humanity as we strive for justice, truth and peace. One only needs to think of the people of Libya at the moment and the struggles for freedom and justice that they have encountered over the last months and years. We do have to wonder what that freedom will involve for them, will it be all that they hoped for and expected.
Like the Moses, Paul travelled. He took with him the message of God's love and freedom as seen and experienced in the person of Jesus Christ.
And in this time Paul's mode of operation seemed to be to visit particular cities and spend time at the synagogues and among the people sharing the story of Christ's death and resurrection and the implications of this for daily living. He shared his own experience and the transformation that his encounter with the risen Christ brought in his life.
His message did not always fall on sympathetic ears. In fact it would seem that there may have been a group of Jewish fanatics that followed him around stirring up trouble where ever he went. And yet it also appears that Paul's preaching was having great results and people were warming very quickly to his message.
At this stage the Christian Church did not have its own identity apart from Judaism, but was still a group within which was at this point tolerated even if it wasn't embraced by the mainline leaders.
Thus Paul still had access to the Synagogues to teach.
Of course part of the irony in the treatment that Paul was receiving from his detractors, was the fact that he himself, prior to his Damascus Road experience had been part of this group that would persecute the followers of the Christ.
So some might say he was reaping that which he had once sown.
But as he moved about sowing the seed of the Gospel, he developed relationships with these people. These were relationships based on his knowledge of God's love for God's people, based on his experience of the change that God could bring in the lives of people who were open to that love making a difference for them.
It would appear therefore that Paul's visit to Thessalonica and many other places on this missionary journey were fairly short as they were followed about by a group wanting to cause trouble. This group would wind up the locals inciting them against what Paul was preaching. And yet under this persecution, there were many quite influential people who took on board what Paul was saying and moved their allegiance to follow his teaching.
Thus Paul, as he moved on, under pressure, felt for these people.
So when news arrived in Corinth where Paul had met up with Timothy, and they heard that the Christians in Thessalonica had remained faithful and were continuing steadfastly on their journey of faith, Paul wrote to offer them some encouragement.
There were some questions that had arisen in this community around Christ's return and the timing of that which he addresses as he encourages them to work quietly for the cause of the Gospel while waiting in hope for Christ's return.
Someone has described this passage we read today as, "one of the richest descriptions of the work of a Christian minister to be found in the New Testament."
In this short passage we see something of Paul's experience in ministry, of his motives, the mode and the message that focus his work.
As we have discussed Paul's experience of ministry, not unlike Moses' was not an easy one. Paul, being hounded by his antagonists from outside, was a constant strain, never allowing him to settle and form long and personal pastoral ties. He says, "You know how we had already been ill-treated and insulted in Philippi before we came to you in Thessalonica." This seemed to be an on going problem where ever he went. Opposition to the Gospel is nothing new. We think we have it bad as we have come to live in an increasingly secular society. Where once the church had standing and a voice which was treated with respect, now we are lucky to be invited to offer an opinion on anything. We are viewed as a minority voice within our society.
Our experience of presenting the gospel in our society is that we are largely ignored.
The question is, should we be surprised by this or is this part of human nature? The other experience where I think we differ today from Paul's time, which is probably the difference between and emerging movement and that of an established movement, is that while Paul suffered attacks from within, the church often finds its biggest detractors outside. And this pattern did develop reasonably quickly within in the emerging church and has been a constant problem down the ages.
Perhaps it develops from the second view we get of ministry here, and that is the view of motive.
Paul says, "Our appeal to you is not based on error or impure motives, nor do we try to trick anyone. Instead, we always speak as God wants us to, because he has judged us worthy to be entrusted with the Good News."
What motivates us is crucial in our approach to our faith. If our motives are for self gain, or for scoring cheap points, or for what ever, they detract from the message of the truth of the Gospel which is to point people to God's love for God's people as shown to us in Jesus Christ.
It is a message of hope that affirms people and encourages people, drawing people together in harmony.
If our motives however bring discord and disharmony to the body we need to look very carefully at the message that is being proclaimed.
However, for Paul this did not mean that his mode was just to set out to please everybody with kind words. His mode was to speak the truth in kindness, but not merely to say what people were wanting to hear. He didn't just go about scratching where people were itching, offering words that would please people because that is what they wanted to hear.
Paul seemed to be incisive in what he had to say touching the raw spots and encouraging those who were heading down the right track with words of hope.
He reminded them that the path was straight but not necessarily an easy one.
His message was one grounded in the reality of the world in which he lived. It was not just about Gentle Jesus, meek and mild, but it was about the Jesus who suffered, who died, who rose again, and the Jesus who continues to come to us challenging us in our daily living. It was about working and toiling to ensure that this Jesus was made knowing to the world around them. It was not just about assuming that people would come to a knowledge of Jesus by osmosis, but the fact that we have to go out into our communities and tell people, encourage people, exhort people to consider these matters of God's love for the world.
We today, assume that people have a basic knowledge of the Christian faith in our communities. They do not!
We live in a secular society, probably even more secular than Paul's time, and yet there is that yearning out there for something spiritual, but people need the opportunity to hear the most basic tenants of our faith, and we can no longer assume that in wanting to hear that, that they will just walk through our doors and join us.
While we view the church as open and accepting, I suspect the world out there see us as a group that meets behind closed doors, where one needs an invitation to come.
We need to work at recapturing the church as an open place where the wider community can gather.
So as we look at this letter of Paul's to the church in Thessalonica, we need to look again at our own life both within our community of faith and within the wider community of this city and let ourselves be challenged as we seek to be faithful. We must not let our faithfulness turn into complacency, by only listening to what we want to hear, or doing only that which makes us feel comfortable and good. We must allow the Gospel, the Good News of Jesus Christ to continue to challenge us.
To God be the glory, now and for ever more. AMEN.

25th September 2011
Pentecost 15
Exodus 17:1-7 Matthew 21:23-32

The journey continues for the people of Israel wandering, it seems to them anyway, aimlessly through the Sinai Desert.
Last week we read of the hunger that faced them and God's ability to provide. One would think that that would settle the moaning and groaning, and yet here again this week we see a similar theme, except now it is deprivation of water.
This is hardly surprising in the setting of a desert, although there would have been the odd oasis around, but obviously not close at hand at this stage of the journey.
And while being understandable, the incessant moaning and groaning of these people must have worn the nerves of the most patient of saints.
Moses was called by God, and this call was confirmed by the people as they listened and then followed him out of the land of Egypt. But as the difficulties of daily life consumed their energies and occupied their minds remembering the land of the plenty that they had left, the vision that was before them waxed and waned.
It would seem that unless God's provision was there for them to see and experience on a constant basis then their interest would falter in those times of spiritual quietness.
There are some interesting but hardly surprising parallels here for every generation, as faith in God is never something that is provable beyond doubt, nor is it so blindingly obvious that one can't help but take up a life of faith, otherwise, where would the faith itself be. Faith would become an acceptance of what was obvious.
And yet here it seems even the moments of surprise when God did supply and meet their needs, it didn't take long for that assurance of God's presence and power to be knocked back and doubt and mistrust to creep back in.
This is surely part of our fickle human nature that constantly see us falling into doubt, changing our minds, forgetting what has gone before us, or just that desire to go off on our own direction in paths that suit us most of all.
While the people of Israel were in somewhat of a bind, as to go off in their direction would almost certainly lead to them perishing in the extremes of the desert climate, continuing on without a vision of what lay ahead would leave them feeling as if they were no better off.
Life in many respects is like this. We find ourselves knowing where we have come from, remembering what life was like before, or imagining what it had been like for others as we build mental pictures based on the stories we have heard or been told.
Often what is in the past seems so much better than what we are facing at the present, or where we imagine life might lead us in the future.
And yet, is this not what lies at the heart of faith, for faith is about the stories of the past and the hopes of the future.
As the writer to the Hebrew's so aptly reminds us,
"To have faith is to be sure of the things we hope for, to be certain of the things we cannot see." And he goes on to remind us, "It was by their faith that the people of ancient times won God's approval…..It was faith that made Moses leave Egypt without being afraid of the king's anger. As though he saw the invisible God, he refused to turn back."
It is about sometimes walking with uncertainty in the present and in reality not knowing what the future holds. But we do this confident that God walks with us and that God will provide. We do it steadfastly holding on to God's love, even when we feel it is not there or if we feel God may have abandoned us.
Why? Because from experience we know that that sense of God abandonment is about us, and not about God moving away from us.
Moses picks up on this in a recurring thought that he keeps putting out there when he answers them with the question, "Why are you complaining? Why are you putting the Lord to the test?"
This ties in with last weeks episode of the hunger of the people and the falling of the manna from heaven, when Moses said to them, "He has heard your complaints against him - yes, against him, because we are only carrying out his instructions."
Although the people moaned to Moses and against Moses this was taken as a complaint against God. That for a start in interest, for I am sure that we all fall into that trap from time to time, but I do not believe that this calls for blind obedience to anyone who sees that they are working for God. History is littered with examples of tragedies where people have done this sort of thing. Discernment and accountability are always necessary, and the church over time has worked on these concepts so that people are not led off down blind alleys.
And also that concept of complaining to God is not necessarily a negative thing either, as that is part and parcel of relationship. It is part of our engagement. However in this story, there is one episode after another where the complaints are the same, and it doesn't seem to matter what God provides in answer to their complaints, there is always something else the matter. I think we always need to be careful that we don't get into that mindset of perpetual complaining, but rather look for ways to engage to bring about change within the structures and groups
Ones relationship with God is always about engaging, of sharing the highs and the lows, of expressing doubts, fears and disappointments, of giving thanks for the times of triumph and elation.
Such is the nature of relationship, and this is what the story of the Exodus is from beginning to end. It is God's engaging with his people, and their engaging with him.
The word engage has some interesting meanings, to bind by contract, to hire, to fasten or interlock, to hold fast, to bring into conflict, take part.
All of these meanings have that sense of being active together with someone or something. Our engagement with God does open up the full spectrum of human emotion and invites that opportunity to share this with God in our daily lives. The Psalms are full of such expression.
But as we have seen in this story there are some emotions that are negative when it comes to relationship building. Here in this story it was blame, blaming Moses was in effect blaming God. Blame lumps guilt onto others when that in fact may not be justified. Sometimes it is even transferring our own guilt onto others to deflect if from ourselves.
Blame was rife within the group wandering the Sinai Desert.
But all the time God was present with them. And just as God had an answer for their hunger, so to he had one for their thirst.
Moses was to tap on a rock and from it would flow fresh water. Again, enough to satisfy the needs of these people.
Images of God supplying springs of life giving water are not unusual. The Psalmist talks of, "leading to pools of fresh water." Jesus engaged in the conversation with the woman at the well and tells her, "Whoever drinks this water will be thirsty again, but whoever drinks the water that I will give him will never be thirsty again. The water that I will give him will become in him a spring which will provide him with life-giving water and give him eternal life."
It is God who offers to us satisfaction and meaning in life that helps us to keep things in perspective, to keep a balance between our own self interests and the interests of others, that helps us to see our place in God's world rather than setting our selves in the centre of a world trying to make it fit into the mould we create.
God is the one who gives us to us all that sense of life giving refreshment that will last forever, helping us to see life in a much bigger picture than just our own world around us. At times it may seem to us that this journey is aimless, or that we are lost, or we may feel we are in the wilderness, but in reality, God is with us. It is this exciting and dynamic life that God walks with us never leaving nor forsaking us.
To God be the glory, now and for ever more. AMEN.

31 August 2011 Pentecost 11

Exodus 3:1-15 Matthew 16:21-28

God calls the most unlikely.

In this wonderful story of the call of Moses, we see some interesting parallels to many other examples of God's interaction in the world and in the lives of his people throughout history.
Moses' life from the beginning seems to be one of upheaval and turmoil, and yet it is one where God's engagement is unrelenting.
As we read this encounter, I think we can see a pattern to God's activity, we can see something of the power that God can exercise, and we can see the persistence with which God pursues his purposes. All of this, as so often is the case, contrasts with where Moses sees his life heading and the final response he makes to God's call on his life.
Contrast this with Christ, who although at times he struggled with what lay before him, he pursued with determination the tasks set.
"From that time on Jesus began to say plainly to his disciples, 'I must go to Jerusalem and suffer much from the elders, the chief priests, and the teachers of the Law. I will be put to death, but three days later I will be raised to life.'"
Clearly this clarity comes towards the end of his ministry, and perhaps he sees what lies ahead with better vision than earlier in his life, nevertheless he continues on steadfastly toward the cross.
The pattern that can be discerned in this call of God begins with the fact that Moses was not expecting this encounter with God. He was out in the fields tending to his father-in-laws sheep. Furthest from his mind is an encounter with Yahweh. And yet in that moment of surprise, God comes.
The writer of Exodus tells us, "There the angel of the Lord appeared to him as a flame coming from the middle of the bush."
This is not an angel in the sense that later came to be understood as a separate heavenly being, but rather there is always, as one commentator puts it, "a fluid interchange between symbol, representative, and God himself."
Moses soon comes to acknowledge that it is indeed God in this encounter. Such encounters are known as Theophanies and these encounters occur on odd occasions throughout the scriptures.
Thus in this story, God comes to Moses, not in some prearranged meeting, and certainly not at a time when Moses was out seeking some religious experience or on a pilgrimage to some holy site, but possibly when God was furthest from his mind, and in some remote part of the countryside.
Ultimately God came to us in Jesus Christ, that baby born in a manger, that man from Galilee.
God comes to us in many ways and at those times when we may least be expecting it, and yet he comes. The initiative lies with God, and awaits our response. It is interesting that it took some time for Moses to recognise and acknowledge what was going on here. He had come to this place Sinai, which is described by the writer as a holy place, but it is not holy for any other reason than this is where God came to Moses. Moses comes only with the intention of feeding his flock, and yet it is here that he saw the bush burning and noticed it was not being consumed by the fire, and as he was examining it, again God took the initiative and spoke to him.
Fire and light are common themes when it comes to stories of God's interaction with us. They can speak of illumination, of consuming, of warming, of purifying of bringing one out of darkness. All these images open up for us something of the character of God who engages with us in ways that we cannot sometimes imagine.
This pattern of God taking the initiative is what we term as grace. God comes to us and it is only as God comes to us that we are able to make any response, and like Moses sometimes it takes a while for the penny to drop.
So the pattern is God's move toward us, and we see this ultimately in Jesus who came into the world, not estranged from it, but as one of us to be with us, so as to understand our humanity.
Secondly we see the power of this encounter in that it arrests Moses and grabs his attention. He cannot ignore what he is seeing or put it to one side, but he is drawn into this experience and begins to engage with God.
In his engaging he is respectful of the relationship as God sets the parameters that indicate something of the nature of this holy encounter. He answers the questions put to him and he follows the instructions of taking his sandals off as a mark of respect.
God's holiness is not a barrier of exclusion, but is mark of difference acknowledging the limits of humanity and the infinite nature of God and only seen as God reveals himself to us.
And in that revelation comes both the recognition of God's understanding of who we are and his invitation for us to join with him in transforming the world.
Here Yahweh acknowledges the plight of the Hebrew people captured in Egypt and he recognises their pain and suffering.
And in doing this God invites Moses to join him in the task of freeing these people from their oppression.
Here Moses clearly must make a choice. This choice comes with the assurance of God's continued presence.
This is the same invitation or challenge that Jesus put to his disciples when Peter tried to push aside Jesus' talk of what lay ahead in his mission to free God's people for all time.
His challenge was no less demanding and it came with the same assurance when Jesus said,
"If anyone wants to come with me, he must forget self, carry his cross, and follow me."
Thus this call of Moses becomes a call to us all, to take up the challenge to follow Christ, to live in his ways and to express the freedom he offered the world to live at peace with God and one another.
And like Moses, I dare say most of us prefer to resist this call for many and varied reasons. We use all sorts of excuses as to why our lives are just OK as they are, and yet God persisted with Moses. He listened to Moses' reasoning and then assured him that he was just fine as he was. He answer his doubt and countered his excuses.
God's persistence is one that will not let us go. As the hymn writer put it, "O love that wilt not let me go."
God's grace is gripping and draws us with assurance. For Moses it was God's declaration that "I am who I am."
This clearly refers to the name of God, Yahweh. It is thought to be a shortening of that phrase and a running together of the clause into one word.
There is debate as to exactly what Yahweh was meaning here, but there is that sense of self-sufficiency, that God exists without need or support from anywhere else, I am who I am. But in this statement there is also a call to faith. Yahweh is looking for the response of Moses and Israel to this statement. Will they accept Yahweh for who he is.
This is a theme again picked up by Christ in the many times he referred to himself often with the word, I am. I am the light of the world, I am the good shepherd, and of course in that great call to faith, I am the way the truth and the life, no one goes to the Father except by me. This is where Jesus laid his cards on the table, and those listening would have understood the implications of his statements as they knew the story of Moses and God's coming to him in the burning bush. Was this God, come in Jesus of Nazareth? It was after all such claims that led to the cross, and so the invitation for us all to follow Christ, is not an invitation to an easy life, but to a life that seeks justice and truth, a life that focuses on God even when the world around has its own opinions on that.
I wonder do we like Moses and many others follow that same invitation that God offers to a life of faith? Do we allow ourselves to let God speak to us, even in the most unexpected times and in ways that we have not imagined?
May we walk through life with the same commitment, determination and focus that Christ did, even when treading that path to the cross.
May God's grace be with us all through our journey of life.

24 August 2011 Pentecost 10

Exodus 1:8-2:10
Matthew 16:13-20

The bible from beginning to end is a testament to God's working in His world. And as we leave the stories of the beginning of our faith with Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, who ended up moving from the land of Canaan to settle in the land of Egypt we see that period of their history begin to come to an end.
The book of Exodus explores the departure of this people out of Egypt back into the land of Israel. It is a story that takes them from slavery to freedom. Within this freedom the covenant relationship is enhanced as they settle bringing down the law of the covenant to give moral, civil and religious guidelines by which to live. And finally they establish a place of worship for their people along with the institution to oversee the governance of God's people.
Many of the stories in Exodus as well know and memorable, not least today's where we are told of the birth of Moses in the most trying of circumstances.
And of course there is the stories surrounding the giving of the ten commandments of Mount Sinai.
Exodus is the second book in the Pentateuch, the first five books of the Bible, sometimes know as the books of Moses as they were once attributed to his authorship.
Later scholarship has disputed this, but nevertheless these books form the foundation of the Judeo-Christian faith as they track the history and tell the stories of the early people of Israel.
This morning's reading sets the context of this period of history by informing us that Egypt had come under a new King who did not know the history of Joseph and his family. We are not sure of the time lapse here, but obviously some considerable period of time had passed since the days of Joseph, as the number of Israelite people had so expanded and this history had faded into the recesses of their collective memory.
Out of this memory failing and a lack of any sense of history, Egypt did what so many societies do when no cognisance is taken of where we have come from, they began to pick on the differences of others to bring dominance and power over minorities.
I have commented often in recent years over the thin vale of civilization that exists in any society. How time and time again we see developing and developed countries slip into civil unrest and even war destroying years of social unity. It begins by picking on the differences in others and highlighting those as the sources of all social problems.
Such behaviour is almost universal, and we have even seen it in recent days in the likes of the United Kingdom with their riots. It only takes one or two people and the crowd follows.
In Moses time, it was the Pharaoh, wishing to make his mark on his newly acquired kingdom, bringing with him a tradition of proud nationalism that made the Hebrew people an easy target.
His first plan was to force them to leave by driving them into slavery. He forced them to work, perhaps in areas that they had not been accustomed too.
That failing, he then tries genocide. There is nothing new under the sun is there! We have seen the cruelty dished out upon generation after generation as one after another is threatened and craves power over others.
But part of the lesson here is that failure to recognise what has gone before. There is a failure to connect to the stories of the past and thus not to fall into the traps of the past.
And the secret lies in two places at the beginning of this story of the Exodus.
Firstly in the Midwives. These woman had nurtured generation after generation and remembered and told the stories of their past. They knew their roots and valued their past. They were engaged in lives of service to their community, not caring for their own lives but honouring the lives of the women in the community and the children who were being born. They could not bring themselves to acquiesce to the demands of this new Pharaoh who seemed to have no value for life, especially for the down trodden in their society. So these midwives quietly got on doing their job and sticking to their standards maintaining the value that they placed on life and above all maintaining the faith that drove them.
Why, because they also feared God. That term is not fear in the sense of being scared of God, but rather that they honoured God and that their faith was what motivated them in their actions.
One commentator says on this aspect of these women's life,
"Just as Abraham's faith was reckoned to him as righteousness, so the midwives reverence for God, insuring the protection of his purpose in Israel, became the means of blessing for them."
These women were the one preserving the faith of the people of Israel at this point, and they were not about to give that away.
God honoured their faithfulness as they were only too willing to answer the question that Jesus hundreds of years later asks his disciples, "Who do you say that I am?"
This is a question that we must allow ourselves to be asked and must surely be prepared to have some answer too.
It also illustrates for us the importance and responsibility that we have to hand our faith stories on from one generation to the next so that they too can answer that question for themselves as they grow and develop.
For it is in the stories of our faith that we can find both peace with God, and then peace with one another.
One of the main questions that is addressed in all of these stories is about God's presence among his people. And it is not a question of "if" God is present, but rather "how" God is present and how that presence might be seen. It is often in the least expected places among the least expected people. For in this story of Moses birth we see God's presence in the lives of those Midwives, and we see the emerging presence of God in His servant Moses.
The image of God's presence coming in that helpless babe set in the small boat made of reeds and tar, is somewhat similar to the theme of that babe born in Bethlehem. God's presences comes when we least expect it and in the most unassuming ways. It is interesting that the word used for the reed boat is the same as that used in Genesis in reference to Noah's Ark. God salvation coming when all around seems to be drowning in despair.
And like in the time of Noah, did the general populace recognise God at work.
"Who do the people say that I am?" was the first question addressed to the disciples, before he asked who they thought he was.
The crowd does not always have the right answer, the majority is not always right. God's people have not always been large in number and influential in society, but it is the faithfulness of the few, of the midwives in this story, of the twelve in Jesus' day, who are willing to say,
"You are the Christ, the Son of the living God."
God's faithfulness is there for all, but not all recognise or acknowledge it.
God's call is always one of acknowledgement, one which invites us to express our faith and trust in Him who is able to keep us safe, even through those times when the world appears to be against us. Against the odds, God's presence is with us to guide and to guard.
May we grow in appreciation of God's abiding presence and grace which is there to sustain us throughout our lives and in the face of every situation the confronts us.
God did not abandon his people under the rule of the new Pharaoh but continued to bring his message of his saving love through many and varied people, through old and young alike.
We all have that part to play expressing the faithfulness of God in our lives, so that we do not forget or put aside the message of God's saving love for all.
In Moses' life we see that move from danger to privilege, from bondage to freedom. We see this same movement fulfilled in Jesus Christ and it is that same movement that is there for us all, for God wants us to be free, not to be in bondage to the world and all that it demands.
Jesus said, "I have come that you might have life, life in all it's freedom." And it was Paul who reminds us that there is no condemnation (bondage) for those who are in Christ Jesus. May we find that freedom in the faith we profess as we put our trust in Jesus Christ as Lord of all.
To God be the glory, now and for ever more. AMEN.

Sunday, 7th August 2011 – Pentecost 8

Genesis 37:1-4, 12-28 Matthew 14:22-33

Getting in and out of Trouble

This week's passage from the book of Genesis, is quite a challenge if we like a happy ending (and who doesn't?). We're drawn into the story of the charismatic and cocky Joseph, the "golden boy" of his father Jacob's twelve sons. Handsome and undoubtedly precocious, Joseph stirs up feelings of envy in his brothers so deep that they spill over into the ugliness of fraternal violence, brother against brother, even to the point of murder. Of course, Joseph's brothers had a history of striking out when they were angry or wronged: just three chapters back, they executed a murderous rampage against the town of Shechem to avenge the perceived rape of their only sister, Dinah.

Understandably, Jacob may be nervous about his sons as they are tending their father's flocks near Shechem; it may have weighed on Jacob's mind that they could get into some more trouble while they're in that neighbourhood. So he sends his beloved son, born to his favourite wife Rachael; Joseph, who is just seventeen years old, goes to check up on his older brothers. For all of his self-confidence born of his dreams of a future of lording it over his family, the boy Joseph wanders, lost, until a stranger helps him find his way. But that's the last good thing that happens to Joseph for quite a while.

Today's episode ends badly; and it's understandable that we may finish reading this text by asking, "Where's the good news in that?" However, we shouldn’t skip too easily over the suffering displayed in this story, or the questions it provokes, even if we do have a sense of where the story is going, and who is the unseen presence is, at work the whole time in the background.

That's why it's important to stay with the story, all the way to the end. Next week's passage will help us to do just that. In fact, next week's text brings this all together and, in a sense, brings the book of Genesis together, to a satisfying close and then sets the scene for the grand narrative of the Exodus from Egypt by the Hebrew people. So, Joseph brings the book of Genesis to a happy end. The saga that began with banishment from the garden of Eden and violence between earth's first two brothers ends with a family reunion in a land of plenty. Earlier in the book of Genesis, God was never hard to find, but now, in Joseph's time, God has become silent. There are no more direct addresses from God, even in response to fraternal violence. So, when Joseph wanted to hear the voice of God, he listened to his dreams, to the people he met along the way and to the things that happened to him each day.

Unfortunately, its his dreams that have helped to get him into trouble and ultimately into the pit and then on his way to slavery in Egypt. It shouldn't be his fault that he dreamed of his family bowing down before him, as dreams in that world were usually understood to be externally and divinely generated, that is, not a product of Joseph's ambition. Yet his brothers interpret Joseph's dreams as if they are the product of Joseph's own arrogance rather than a divine word about destiny, which is why Joseph finds himself in a strange land, having to get out of the trouble his brothers have gotten him into.

In our gospel reading today we also find the disciples in a spot of trouble. What sort of advice would you have given the disciples caught in the storm Matthew tells us about? He paints a very bleak and desperate picture of their situation: the waves and the strong head winds are ripping at the boat and it is the darkest part of the night, the usual time for many to worry about any troubles and concerns they may have on their minds. The disciples are not going anywhere against those winds and waves. You could have given them some encouraging words like "It’s always darkest before the dawn", "You can do it – don’t give up!" or "Row harder!" But, these were seasoned fisherman. Who knows what those frightened and pre-occupied men would have shouted back in response to our "good advice?" Probably words that wouldn’t be fit for polite company. Maybe, if we were there with them, they would have thrown us overboard, shouting after us, "So much for your advice!" Good advice might help people who can do something for themselves.

But this is a storm at sea! While we all appreciate encouraging words and some wise advice from concerned people, if the storms we face or the trouble we get ourselves into are really bad, their well-intentioned words are just not enough, platitudes can seem insincere when we can’t see a way ahead. We might give an appreciative, "Thank you," and then turn and face the "strong head winds," – on our own. Just as Joseph had to cope with his situation on his own.

We all face storms in life, our own or those of people we love: a friend with a tumor now undergoing chemo; a son or daughter who makes a foolish mistake and their having to pay the consequences; a marriage disintegrating after many years, affecting children, family and friends.

Noticing the storms of others, we might ask ourselves, "What if that happens to me…?" There are storms in life we fear, thinking we may have to face because we’ve witnessed others, whose strength we have always admired, get tossed around by them. What is there to protect us from the same kind of struggle? How would we handle those same kind of catastrophes? These fears surface, for example, when we hear that a friend our age has had a crippling stroke; or, we read of people our age who have died, "after a long illness."

What advice should we give a person going through a dark storm, or stuck in deep trouble? Have you ever tried and found yourself tongue tied? Or, just felt that you have no words at all to say in such a situation? Some might say "Keep your eyes fixed on Jesus" or “rest in God’s comforting arms” which can sound like a platitude, except when we know that they have also had to get out of similar trouble and weather the storms of life, and then we can know that what is said is genuine and valuable advice.

What others advise out of their own stormy experiences, is that we’re not alone in the boat; on the stormy seas, here in church or around the dinner table. For when we gather here, or in with friends over a meal that is when we share our troubles and know that those are the ones who support us, and if they have been sustained by their faith in God, then we can be assured that we will be too. Praying together can also help us to know that there are others in the boat with us in stormy seas, keeping "our eyes fixed on Jesus." We are not alone, for in prayer we are reminded that Jesus was there too, not watching us from some distant shoreline, but right there in the boat on the stormy seas with us. As we pray we can feel a kind of calm come for which we can give thanks.

Praying is what we can do for one another. By our presence with someone in crisis we remind them that they are not alone in the boat, we are with them. Our presence, we hope, is also a reminder that Jesus is there too. If we want to take a chance, as Peter did when he left the boat to step out onto risky waters, we might that we can do what others do, in saying a prayer with the one who is struggling. Doing that is a reminder that someone else is in the boat with us, the one whose voice and silent presence can bring calm and give us courage as we try to walk through the tumultuous crisis raging against us and threatening our faith.

It’s not just about illness or crisis. In many ways being a Christian is a very risky business. Doing what Christians are supposed to do might mean facing various kinds of upsetting situations – like stormy seas. For example: calling someone we’ve been alienated from; standing up for someone suffering ridicule or prejudice; being honest in a job where other workers take shortcuts; not following the pack at school when we know their actions or attitudes are wrong; or, just saying a gracious word to a cranky person. Storms can be stirred up by our living the way we should, as disciples of Christ.

Being a Christian isn’t a warm fuzzy, it means taking a chance with Jesus. When Peter put himself in a vulnerable position he learned again about his own weakness, but he also experienced the power of the Almighty. If he hadn’t taken the risk, he wouldn’t have known the power of God and experienced Jesus’ presence with him in the midst of the storm.

31 July 2011 Pentecost 7
Genesis 32:22-31 Matthew 14:13-21

Wrestling with God

In both the Old Testament and New Testament stories today we see people wrestling with God. Neither in the sense that they have gone out to have an argument with the Divine, but rather that God has faced them in the everyday setting where they have found themselves.
God has come to them, not only in times of need, where we most often picture God coming, but at times perhaps when we least expect to have such an encounter.
The disciples were about to go off to the local supermarket to find some food, but Jesus encouraged them to use what they had and we are told that God supplied all they needed plus more. Where as Jacob was on the final stage of his journey, having sent his wives and concubines and children across the River, he stayed one more night before re-entering the land of promise. Was he afraid of meeting his older brother Esau, whom he had done out of his birthright? Maybe it was a time for personal reflection and a chance to give thanks to God for all that had gone on before. We don't really know. But the land of promise lay before him and all he needed to do was to cross the river.
There are certainly indications that Jacob's life had been a series of struggles, and this was yet another; his struggle with his brother, which I have eluded too, his struggle with Laban, his father in-law to get the wife of his choice; and now this struggle with God.
And one can ask, "Does such a struggle set Jacob against an enemy, or does it bring Jacob into intimate contact with a friend?"
We often see such struggles in a negative light. At the time there is pain and anxiety, uncertainty of how people will react, and the emotional hurt that can accompany such interaction. But if we look back and even if we observe many relationships from the outside, more often than not the tempestuous nature of the relationship is balanced by an ever deepening and often intriguing affection.
The latest royal couple, Zara Philips and Mike Tindall's relationship is described as Ice and fire, but goes on to say how they adore one another.
I have observed many such relationships where on the surface they seem tempestuous but underneath there is a huge affection and underlying respect for each other.
I think this story of Jacob wrestling with God shows us that we are free to express in many and varied ways our relationship with God. God is not a static, unresponsive being who is uninterested in us as individuals, but rather like our friends, God engages with us in ways appropriate to who we are.
There are many interesting aspects of this story.
Firstly, this is one encounter of many that Jacob has with God. His experience of God is not a once only point in history, but is an on going day to day relationship that has memorable moments, and I dare say times when things coasted along. This encounter at Jabbok was notable and a point of growth in Jacob's life. This is further reinforced with the name change, where the man said to Jacob, "You struggled with God and with men, and you have won; so your name will be Israel."
Reno tells us, "Name changes signal new identities. The blessing that accompanies the new name adds to the atmosphere of benediction. That the new name denotes the nation that will claim Abraham's inheritance - and will have a history marked by many occasions of conflict with God - only reinforces this interpretation."
This occasion is the fulfilment of the promise made all those years before to Abram that he would be the ancestor of many nations. This promise was also noted with the change of name from Abram to Abraham. We see this tradition carry on in Jesus' time when calling Cephas to be his disciple, that Jesus declares you will be called Peter, meaning rock, because upon this rock will I build my church.
When we enter that relationship with Christ, Paul tells us that we are new creations, the old has gone behold the new has come.
All of this comes as we see the world from that whole new perspective. No longer do we see it as our world, but God's world, no longer do we see ourselves at the centre of the world with it revolving around us, but we see God as the ultimate authority to whom we give our allegiance and pay our homage.
The Westminster shorter Catechism reminds us at the very beginning, when asking the question, What is the chief end of man? It is to glorify God and to enjoy him for ever. This is so contrary to the world's way of thinking, it is so contrary to our natural inclinations as human beings, and yet this is what a call to faith is all about, and sometimes we need to wrestle with it.
It is also interesting in this story that as the wrestling continues, the man, who is later acknowledged as God is not seen as having the upper hand. Verse 25 tells us, "When the man saw that he was not winning the struggle, he struck Jacob on the hip, and it was thrown out of joint."
There was no overpowering imposition of Divine wrath, but rather an engaging struggle that became more intense as time was running out. And to balance this, there was that final awaking and recognition of Jacob that his opponent was in fact God. So often we want to blame God for the bad things that happen to us, particularly as we imagine God standing at some distance observing from afar. We see this as being the easy and most convenient way to rationalise our own difficulties, but here we see the struggle that God had with Jacob, and out of it comes a respectful acknowledgement that God is God, the supreme Lord and giver of life. Jacob declared, "I have seen God face to face, and I am still alive."
He recognised not only the power and supremacy of God, but also God's incredible mercy and grace.
Many today deny God's existence, or feel that they have not seen God, or that God has abandoned us, but maybe we do not look in the right places to see God at work.
Philip Yancey in his book, The Jesus I never Knew, speaks of our concept of God as seeming absent, and says, "God has not absconded at all. Rather, he has taken on a disguise, a most unlikely disguise of the stranger, the poor, the hungry, the prisoner, the sick, the ragged ones of earth: 'I tell you the truth, whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers of mine, you did for me.' If we cannot detect God's presence in the world, it may be that we have been looking in the wrong places."
Too often we look to see what we have achieve for God, or where the miracles might happen, when we fail to notice the miracle in our presence through the least expected moment or person or happening. The disciples desire to be hospitable to the crowd had them wanting to race off to buy great quantities of food, but God supplied from what they had. The miracle isn't so much in the event, as it is in us recognising and acknowledging God's presence in whatever form that may take. It is where we look and where we are willing to recognised God, that we will find his hand at work.
And the final interesting aspect of this story I want to touch on is something of the personal interaction that God engages in, and that is seen in his asking Jacob his name, and that whole conversation.
God was not just interested in any passer by, he was interested in Jacob and as I have said, this relates to the covenant promise handed down from Abram. But in asking the name he was personalising and localising his activity in human history and in the context of time and space. Jacob at Jabbok. For the hearers of this story, there is no doubting who it is that was being spoken of. It formed part of their history, and they could place it in the context of their world.
However when Jacob asks the man his name, why is it that he is not so forthcoming? "Why do you want to know my name? Then he blessed Jacob."
God cannot be localised and confined by name, and time and space for all of these concepts lie beyond the Divine, and go no way to enlightening us in anyway. It is very like the idea that we make no graven image of God, for exactly the same reason. It is too easy to confine God, and hold God in the limits of our understanding of what is possible and impossible. And every time we do this we narrow the power and the majesty of God. Jacob was happy to recognise and acknowledge he had met God. This experience and the blessings that he then recognised in his life was enough for him to see and to know God and to then declare his continued faith in God who had lead him thus far, and who would continue to lead him into the future.
I wonder do we see God as the God of possibilities, or do we limit God to what we can perceive as possible. Do we want to label God and name God to satisfy our own images that we hold? Do we hold these images so tight and paint such a defined picture of God that we are never able to see beyond that which we can imagine.
God is God and we are unable to contain him.
To God be the glory, now and for ever more. AMEN.

Sunday 24th July, 2011

Genesis 29:15-28, Matthew 13:31-33, 44-52

‘What do you value the most?’

The story of Jacob continues, as does our journey through Genesis, and the saga of the development of the lineage of Abraham. Today’s reading is at the centre of the promise for Abraham to be a nation, and it’s difficult to discuss in isolation from the past to which it is connected and the future it represents. These verses are the key elements to the weaving of the future for the nation that is to come from Abraham. The weaving of this story comes in two ways. We begin to see the connection of the stories with elements of the past as we read the text for this week. There is also the weaving, or zigzag course, revealed throughout as obstacles are encountered and surmounted.

We have learned that Jacob is not the most upstanding citizen. His story to date has been steeped in greed, self-interest, scheming and cheating. Now, Jacob is on the run after cheating his brother out of his birthright and the blessing of their father Isaac. Jacob's scheming ways could be headed up as "The trickster gets tricked! “ Though there is more to this story than revelling in Jacob receiving "pay back" for what he has done to his brother and his father, with the help of his mother. For the manner in which Jacob took advantage of Esau's vulnerability to coax from him his birthright and then took advantage of their father's infirmity to steal the blessing that rightfully belonged to Esau, resulted in a deep rupture between the brothers. Then, because his life is in danger, Jacob flees from Esau and heads for the homeland of their Uncle Laban and their mothers relatives.

Jacob's arrival in Haran is no coincidence. In a previous reading from Genesis where he stole the blessing of his father from his brother Esau, he is told not to marry one of the Canaanite women but to go "to the house of Bethuel, your mother's father; and take as wife from there one of the daughters of Laban, your mother’s brother" So, in running from Esau, Jacob enters the land of Haran for the express purpose of finding a wife.

Missing from the lectionary reading is Jacob's initial encounter with Rachel, the younger daughter, at the well where she arrives to water her father's flock. Jacob knows who she is and is then taken to the home of his uncle Laban, where he strikes a deal to work seven years for Laban to get Rachel's hand in marriage. To fulfil the promise given to Abraham of a great nation, that will be of a large number, there have to be babies and babies require women so finding a wife is always important to the narrative.

Our reading today focuses our attention on Jacob finding a wife. There is concern here as elsewhere with having children and fulfilling the promise made to Abraham in Genesis 12. The men in the story are the fathers of the children – the women seem secondary – necessary only for bearing children, and they prove problematic as barrenness continues to be a theme, a barrier to the fulfilment of God's promise. Somewhere in the midst, we encounter God's grace, mercy and forgiveness that continues to be present even with Jacob who repeatedly lies and cheats his way through life.

The story is similar to when Isaac's servant meets Rebekah at the well. Jacob asks for Rachel, but he gets Leah. Leah is almost a non-entity, introduced as having "lovely eyes" in contrast to her sister Rachel who is "graceful and beautiful" and is loved by Jacob. When Laban fails to meet his end of the bargain with Jacob at the end of seven years, Laban's response is that the firstborn daughter has to be married before the younger. One has to wonder if Jacob is once again trying to cheat the system by marrying the younger instead of the older as was the custom. Is he really tricked? Or was Laban just a little wiser in not breaking with tradition to give Rachel in marriage before offering Leah?

After promising to work for Laban for another seven years, Jacob is given Rachel as his wife. Each of the sisters is given a maid by their father. Laban gives Leah his maid Zilpah and gives to Rachel his maid Bilhah. Jacob's story is woven with the two women he marries as well as the two maids they bring with them as gifts from Laban. These four women become the mothers to the twelve sons and one daughter named as his children. You may still have the bulletin of a few weeks ago that outlined these details in a diagram of the descendents of Abraham.

We might well ask if God is present in the midst of all this trickery and bending of the rules? Can the presence of God be sensed in the company of these women who have no voice in the matter of their lives, and find themselves pawns in the deception and manipulation? What happens to Leah who is given although she is not wanted and Rachel who is loved by her husband from the beginning and "bought" with twice the time he gives for her sister? What of the lives of the servants who are mere appendages to these wives and yet serve a purpose in producing the offspring required for the great nation that eventuates?

There are always challenges in finding God's presence and God's grace in the midst of a text where God is not explicitly named. But, God can bring good even out of betrayal, as God will do with Joseph and his brothers. From the unhappy but prolific union of Leah and Jacob, will come six of the twelve tribes of Israel, including Judah, the father of the royal line and Levi, the father of the priestly line. The other six tribes come from Rachael, Zilpah and Bilhah. The progeny of these unions was the most valued object of this episode in this family story. The deceitful and devious dealings of the key members were all deemed necessary in order for the promises of God to be fulfilled, the risk of their machinations back-firing was minimised by their faith in God, and their belief that God was on their side.

All that risk seems to put a lot at stake just to ensure a positive outcome. But then many still undertake many risky undertakings for the things they value. I wonder if any of you have ever seen the movie called, "Everest", it’s based on a true story about a mountain climbing expedition that went bad when an unexpected storm came up. The climbers got stranded, some died and one man, whom they thought was dead, survived, but he had his toes and fingers amputated because of frostbite.

To us this seems like a risky and crazy thing to do. The survivor was asked, "Will you ever climb again?" His response, without a pause, was "Absolutely!" The person interviewing him asked, "But why? You almost died on that mountain!" The climber’s response, "You just have to be there. It makes each minute of life so alive, so precious. Your whole life is affected by your experience on that mountain. You see everyday things, including your family, job and life choices, in a different light. You become more aware, once you’ve climbed, and nothing is ever the same in your life." I suppose he was able to see more clearly what he valued in life.

The climber has another perspective on life that is probably different from ours. Though other climbers would probably be in agreement with him. They seem to live with a completely different worldview than we do. They are the insiders and we look into their world from the outside. This is similar to the way we look at the story of Jacob, Leah and Rachael. We see their story as from the outside while they were the ones inside the story at the time.

Something like that insider/outsider worldview was also working when Jesus told parables to his disciples. He has an experience of God and life that he is sharing with those "insiders" who are beginning to understand his view of life and God. When he lays out these stories to people who are looking from the outside, they don’t seem to understand. To them the parables don’t make sense and even sound crazy. But for disciples like us, we may not be biblical scholars and we are far from complete and perfect followers, but we have come inside to this place of worship where we hear with ears of faith and know a little of what Jesus is describing. It is about a way of believing and living which, though risky, we have accepted, for we have come to know these stories as truth. These parables have a wisdom we wouldn’t get on our own.

So we hear again the stories Jesus tells us today in our reading from the Gospel according to Matthew; parables that illustrate the kingdom of God. A man stumbles on a treasure hidden in a field. When he found the treasure it changed his life and held out great promise, for he sells all that he has and buys the field to possess the treasure hidden there. Also, when the merchant finds a pearl of great price, he too goes and sells all that he has and buys it. His life has been changed by the treasure he has found and no sacrifice is too great to possess it.

We are like the people in these parables who have made personal sacrifices, for what we have found is truly the most valuable possession we could ever have. We hold a treasure and are willing to make sacrifices to hold on to that treasure, so we also "buy the whole field."

In order to honour that belief which we value the most we do not live according to the prevalent standards around us: instead, we choose honesty, even when it means not making extra profits on the job; we treat all people, not just family, in a loving way, even if others don’t think these people are worth it; we are faithful in marriage and friendships, even though the world treats promises, spoken and unspoken, casually; we help people who need us, even if we don’t owe them anything; we have hope as we look into the future, even though there is a lot that could make us despair; we forgive those offend us, even though our world keeps a long memory of wrongs.

But none of this makes sense to outsiders, they don’t get it; the way climbing Everest doesn’t make any sense to most of us, especially since some die there! The risk just isn’t worth it. But when Jesus tells stories about finding treasures and a pearl of great price, we take the risk and make the sacrifices necessary to receive and hold on to the treasure. We sense that we have stumbled onto something very valuable, that which we have searched for all our lives, even though we hadn’t realised it. We have stumbled onto a treasure and we will try to let go of whatever holds us back from embracing it – like the two men in the parables who sell all they have for their new-found treasures.

It’s a risky undertaking, maybe even more risky than mountain climbing, because we have to risk and take a chance on Christ and what he is offering us each and every day of our lives; sometimes in large ways requiring big sacrifices, but mostly, the daily risks are little, but constant. It’s all for the sake of the treasure, life in God’s kingdom. In fact, while there are other things that the world considers valuable, like personal gain, possessions at any cost, time and certain pleasures, we are willing to let all those "pearls" go whenever we sense they keep us from having the pearl more valuable than all the rest.

Jacob was in a similar situation, he saw Rachael as his pearl of great price and was willing to pay a great deal to have her as his wife, little knowing that even more would be asked of him, after he was married to Leah. But for him he saw that the pearl was worth it.

So, like Jacob we need to identify what we value the most, what we think of as the pearl of great price and be prepared to pay the price in order to achieve it.

17th July 2011
Genesis 28:10-19a Matthew 13:24-30,36-43

A couple of weeks back we had Abraham sending his slave back to his homeland to find a wife for Isaac, now we see Isaac sending his son Jacob back to that same place to find a wife for himself.
It is interesting that while Isaac was not allowed to go himself, Jacob is. Some have suggested that Abraham did not sense that same commitment to the Godly vision in Isaac that was recognised in Jacob. Reno says of Jacob, "he has Abraham's personality to match Abraham's vocation."
As Jacob travels to the homeland of his father to find himself a wife, he stops to rest as the sun goes down and spends the night at what is described as a holy place. Whether this place is a holy place in retrospect as the story is told, or whether it was a recognised holy place which Jacob chose to stop at, thus perhaps reinforcing Jacob's own personal piety, we are not told. But certainly it is a place where God's presence is felt as Jacob sleeps the night away.
And again we see God coming in grace. He is not on a pilgrimage, he is not seek a particular religious experience, but rather God comes to him as he sleep.
Derek Kinder describes this as "a display of divine grace, unsought and unstinted:
Unsought in that Jacob is no pilgrim or prodigal - yet God came to meet him, and unstinted, for there was no word of reproach or demand, only a stream of assurances".
Such is the nature of grace and the nature of God's working with humanity down the ages.
So what was it about this encounter, as God comes to Jacob in his sleep. This of course is another picture of the Grace of God here. Jacob passive in his sleep, and yet God is able to engage with him.
Reno describes two movements here, the forward movement of Jacob toward a wife and the upward movement toward God who transcends space and time. These two movements operate together in the life of Jacob. Jacob is not called up and out of his earthly life to encounter God, destroying and interrupting nature, no God comes to him where he is in the midst of his life, in the day to day journey and movement of life encountering him where he is.
While we are fixed with our feet firmly on the ground, God is free to move backward and forward between the Kingdom of this world and the Kingdom that is to come. Thus grace must always be the starting point of our relationship with God, for he comes to us enabling us to respond to that approach. He comes to us in the place where we are at, in the world which has many different foci pulling us in many and varied directions. There are those who follow God and those who choose to take different paths, those who are absorbed by the world in which they live and those who are willing and able to look to a much bigger picture.
This theme is very like that parable that Jesus told about the weeds. The field that was sown with good seed that someone came alone and scattered the seed of weed among it.
It is thought the weed was probably darnel, a poisonous plant related to wheat and virtually indistinguishable from it until the ears form. Thus is cannot be separated out until the harvest, otherwise the interwoven roots would destroy the good wheat and the chances of pulling out wheat instead of the darnel would be a danger also.
To sow wheat as an act of revenge was punishable in Roman law, which would suggest that this was sometimes done, and also reinforces the idea that Jesus took real life examples when he told these parables.
Jesus was suggesting what Jacob had discovered, God is in our midst meeting us in the midst of life and engaging with us. In this life there are those who will believe in God and those who will not, and we are not to make judgement for that is over to God. The uncertainty of whether one is a believer or not, or saved or not according to the parable is by no means clear cut. The plant and the weed can be quite indistinguishable until late in the growth process, and is done quite close to the harvest and the only way to tell is by the ear that is formed, the fruit of the plant, if you like.
And so in life we are to live with our feet grounded in this world but with our focus on God.
Like Jacob we are to look forward on the journey, engaging in the world in which we live, but also to look upward to the God who transcends time and space.
Reno says, "The central saving mystery of the Christian faith does not rise up and out of space and time, but rather both ascends and descends upon the crucified body of Christ."
In the cross of Christ, we can see the ascending and descending movement of God who came to us in Jesus Christ, and we can recognise his outstretch hands that are open to embrace us as he engages with us.
Thus both Jacob's ladder and the cross of Christ are pictures of God's grace in coming to us. They speak of God's loving embrace of his world and all who dwell here.
They both speak of the invitation offered to follow and to respond to that love given so freely.
Jacob woke up and built a cairn as a memorial to that moment. He then offered himself in service to God and named the place Bethel, meaning house of God. It was not in any way to confine God to that place, but to acknowledge that that is where he met with God.
Many see that what comes next is Jacob bargaining with God, but it is much more an affirmation and acknowledgement of all that has gone on in this story. It is an affirmation and acknowledgement of what God has already promised, His presence and blessing. In many ways it is Jacob, saying, 'God, I have heard you and I will do my best. This is surely the essence of worship. As we come together each week we come to acknowledge that we have heard God and are open to hearing God. We are expectant in our coming that he is in our midst. Jesus after all said, "Where two or three gather in my name, there am I in the midst of them." That is God's promise, and like Jacob we respond, not in a bargaining mode, but in a spirit of affirmation that if this is what God has promised then we will take up the invitation and join with him.
Jacob also responded with a promise to tithe everything that God gave him. This was not prescribed nor demanded, but was something that Jacob saw he could do that was tangible and appropriate to express his gratitude to God for the grace so freely given.
Thus in the church throughout the ages, the offering of God's people has been an important element in our worship. It is part of the response we make along with the prayers offered, and the hymns sung, we offer a portion of our income in gratitude to God.
The concept of proportionate given has been a long establish practice. Derek Kinder described the prescription of a tenth of ones income as becoming a fetish among the Pharisees, and I fear it has among many Christians when such demands are placed on people, often those who can least afford it. But the opportunity to give freely and proportionately as one is able remains a central part of our worship, for this is always a tangible contribution to God's work in the world of our day as it is for every generation. It is our own personal way of offering what we are able, with no pressure of how much that should or must be, but rather it is the response of our heart.
God has been gracious to us as individuals, and to us as a church and to the church throughout the world, and as such we are given the opportunity to express as part of our response, our giving, our song, our prayer, in fact our whole being. It is interesting that just as God gives freely, so Jacob affirmed the promises God had made as part of his response in promising to follow God's ways. Although he phrases it as, "if you will be with me and protect me," this is merely repeating what God had said to him, but Jacob does not insist on the success of his mission as being a condition of his to follow God. No, he merely affirms the promises made by God and leaves the rest to God, accepting that whatever happens along the way will be in God's hands. He was not going to be swayed in his commitment according to the day to day encounters in the world, as he is in the world, but declaring that he is not of the world.
His focus, while embracing the world in which he lived, was directed to God, who came and continued to come to him as there was that descending and ascending motion.
We must ask ourselves how much our commitment is swayed by the world in which we live or do we have that same covenant love that God has for us that is immovable and always abounding in its focus on God through the Cross of Christ. God's promises remain for us as they did for Jacob and as they were given and demonstrated in Jesus Christ, based on the premise that God is with us.
To God be the glory, now and for ever more. AMEN.

10th July 2011
Genesis 25:19-34 Matthew 13:1-9,18-23

In today's reading from Genesis we begin to see the fruit of the promise of God to Abraham as it unfolds into the next generation as the story continues on this journey of God's love down this particular family line.
Parallel this with the story of the sower that Jesus told and we begin to see the theme that questions why some people follow God and others reject him.
This has been the prerogative of humanity from the beginning, in that we are not programmed in one sense to make that choice leaving us powerless to make real decisions for ourselves, and yet on the other hand it would seem from the story that right from the beginning in this account that one brother would follow God and the other would not.
Jacob the younger of the two would in the end have power over the older, Esau.
As with so many biblical stories they contradict the commonly held points of view or expectations of the hearers. It would have been far more normal for the elder brother to have held sway over the younger.
And there are many other puzzling aspects to this story, which is not uncommon in the Biblical literature.
Why are the manipulating and deceptive actions of Jacob seemingly rewarded by God's acceptance of him as the righteous one?
Such questions have occupied the minds of plenty down the centuries as we try to rationalise and in a sense humanise the choices and decisions of the Divine, fitting God's thought patterns and concepts of justice and righteousness into our own minds so that we can feel comfortable with the outcomes.
It would seem the more we try to do this the greater confusion we can find ourselves in.
The parable of the sower goes some way to answering these questions, in the sense that it gives an illustration that points to many influences that affect ones effective participation in the kingdom of God.
Where the seed falls, the nature of the ground on which it falls, the competition of other growth, the sun and so on. All external influences beyond the control of the seed affect its chances of survival to be useful and productive in the way in which it was intended.
Humanity in creation was meant to bring honour and glory to God and because of the very nature of humanity this is not necessarily the case.
But God in his love comes to us.
And so we pick up the story of Jacob and Esau. These two lads, were the result of the earnest prayers of their parents, Isaac and Rebecca. And right from the very early stages, Rebecca was aware of the antagonism between them as we are told, "She was going to have twins, and before they were born, they struggled against each other in her womb."
They were told that this would be pattern of their lives, one of struggling against the other, and that the older would serve the younger. Little could they know as to how this would pan out in the years to come and what the longer effects would be.
So the questions left in our minds relate to the concept of particularity. Why Jacob and not Esau? Why is the divine blessing to run through the family of Abraham and not someone else? Why Isaac and not Ishmael?
We can rationalise the latter question as Isaac was the child of the marriage and not the child of a slave, but that in itself is fitting the reason into our human logic rather than exploring apparent arbitrary nature of God's election.
If we try to weigh up the positive characteristics verses the negative ones in these two people to try and justify the reasoning behind the choice of Jacob over Esau, we come up with a very mixed picture. Both have their faults and quite serious ones, and both have their strengths. This does not help us forward.
Reno says, "Both brothers seem less-than-ideal children of the promise."
Thus this idea of election can never be boiled down to, or solved by recourse to personal merit.
In fact the Apostle Paul interprets this in Romans 9:11 by saying, "But in order that the choice of one son might be completely the result of God's own purpose, God said to her, "The elder will serve the younger." He said this before they were born, before they had done anything either good or bad; so God's choice was based on his call, and not on anything they had done."
It is by grace alone, by God's unmerited, unearned, undeserved love that any of us can stand before Him. It is in all of this that we see some fundamental differences between God and humanity. We puzzle over this issues of choice for we base our assumptions on our human experience of choice where merit becomes so important. Ones deservedness is crucial when making choices for reward, and thus we become very careful in the choices we make.
So often in our relationships with others, we make choices based on all sorts of things, common interests and values, appearance, attitudes, other acceptable social networks. But in no way can we boil God's choice to love, down to any such human way of thinking, for immediately we are then pushed back into that corner of merit becoming the basis. We almost automatically look for reasons to love or be loved or not to love.
Reno says on this, "The fierce purity in God's love eclipses reasons, motives, and judgements we can share. We partake in God's nature only insofar as we know that God reaches out to grab us - Christ crucified and risen - and not because we know why?"
The true nature of pure love moves beyond reason and stands alone unable to be justified.
The cross if reasoned becomes meaningless and yet it stands as an expression of love. Or as Paul puts it, it is foolishness to the wise and wisdom to the foolish.
In the parable of the sower, there is no reason in that picture where the seed falls, unlike today's methods of planting where we place seed in well prepared ground, although in the parable we can explain to some degree or other why there is a better chance that some seed will survive over the other.
Unmerited love is given, and is there for us.
To quote Reno again, "The sheer fact of love sways the heart. Love's reasonless abandonment to another is what gives love its burning necessity. This is why God's name is good news."
In this family line that we have been looking at we see that commitment to the love offered by God, and a willingness to trust the promise made by God of that unconditional love. Isaac's prayer, that Rebecca have children is answered. In faith they trusted God, not limiting God to the conventions that were considered normal. They were perhaps getting on years beyond those where children were normally born, and then the older would serve the younger. Restriction and conventions that govern our humanity are never limiting to God in the offering of his love and fulfilment of his promises. For such love is beyond reason.
So where does this leave us. It can only leave us with the question of our own response to such love as we can only ask ourselves what we desire most in life as we seek to respond to that great love offered. Our response is purely that, response. It is never a means of justifying the love given, or earning or making us deserving of such love. That is out of the question.
For us, it is what does that love evoke in us that will change our lives and the way we view the world and others.
If God's love can be offered without reason or justification, are we able to offer that same love to those around us. Can we look beyond reason, beyond motive, beyond personality?
We may struggle with such concepts and yet is our desire to allow God to be seen through us and in us as we live as his children in this world.
To God be the glory, now and for ever more. AMEN.

26th June 2011 Pentecost 8 - St John Service
Genesis 22:1-14 Matthew 10:40-42
God Provides:

Last weeks readings drew us into the story of Creation and I suggested that those stories are not written as scientific treatise explaining the beginnings of the world as we know it, but are far more about the relationship between God and humanity from the beginning of time.
Like the world, that relationship has been on an ever evolving and changing path from those beginnings until today, and the scriptures bear witness to varying stages in the relationship over time and throughout history.
And as we look at some of the more unusual stories that we have been given, we need to look at them as much as possible through the cultural eyes of those who were involved, or for whom these stories were primarily told.
The story of Abraham does not fit well with us if we merely try to overlay it on our social, moral and cultural values that are expressed in our society today. Blood offerings as recompense for our wrong doings is not seen as being particularly relevant or appropriate in our society today, but for these people this was becoming the way in which they gave expression to their human frailty and at the same time offered something back to their Holy and awe inspiring God. For them, this was offering something of great personal value in thanksgiving to God, recognising that only God was worthy of such praise.
Obviously in this story of Abraham such an offering was also extraordinary and came as a bolt out of the blue. Even for Abraham, a Godly man, he struggled with this, although the call to obedience was strong.
He had always honoured God and he wished to continue to do that, even in the face of such a demanding and strange request. One commentator says,
"From Abraham the harrowing demand evokes only love and faith, certain as he is that the 'foolishness of God' is unexplored wisdom."
For Abraham there was trust in the good times and in the uncertainties of life, during the times of blessing as well as in those times when he was unsure of what the future held.
Abraham had been promised that he would be the father of many nations, and here in his son was this promise borne out, so Abraham trusted God not to go back on his word. As he went off preparing the sacrifice as instructed he told those with him, that he and his son would return. Thus in the face of what seemed foolish, Abraham continued to exercise trust.
He exercised this trust believing that just as God had provided a son for him in fulfilment of his promise, so he would provide that which was necessary for him to please God in his sacrifice as he continued to worship God.
Thus, this story speaks of God's abundant provision for the needs of his people not only here in this story but throughout history.
This story is a foreshadow to the greatest story of all time, the one whose life and teaching we base our faith around today. The one who came as Son into our world to be the sacrifice for all humanity. The one who came to take away the sin of the world.
And the parallels are interesting. God's son came and dwelt among us as one of us. He understood what it was to be human, he lived with joy and sorrow, with both acceptance and rejection. And like Issac, with his father leading the way he walked the path to that point of sacrifice.
And just as Isaac did he carried the wood with him that aided in that sacrifice.
The horror of both stories can leave us with a certain unease.
And yet in both stories there is hope, hope of resurrection. For Isaac it was prior to his death, and the hope that Abraham had as he parted from the group with Isaac, "The boy and I will go over there and worship, and then we will come back." Such was Abraham's faith.
Then with Jesus, he spoke often enough in the lead up to the cross, that he would rise again. And of course this has formed the basis of the Christian faith, that without such hope our message would be meaningless.
And it is in this great act of God's love for all humanity that has down the centuries evoked response in people from generation to generation to offer their own selves in the service of mankind. It was indeed the basis of the movement that led to the formation of the Order of St John, those who gave their own lives in the service of others, tending to the needs of the pilgrims and crusaders all in the name of Christ.
In Jewish thought a man's agent is like himself, so he does the things that the master would have done. And this is what Christian discipleship is all about, is it not?
We follow the teaching and the example of Jesus, just as he followed the example and love of God and lived that out in the world of his day.
And so if we are to be followers of Jesus we are all called to offer ourselves for the service of those around us.
The little snippet of the Matthew's gospel that we read today picks up this theme encouraging us to consider our treatment and service of others.
If we welcome on of God's children, we are indeed welcoming God himself, for God's children are agents of their master.
Even a drink to the least of his followers is offering service to God.
This is basis from which the church and organisations like St John with its Christian roots work from. Whether it be picking up the elderly or sick from their homes and getting them to where help can be provided, or whether it be helping the person who has collapsed on the side of the road, or been injured in a car accident, or whether it is service cups of tea to those in the emergency department of our hospital as they anxiously wait for treatment for a friend or relative to be seen too, it is all about the offering of ourselves for the service of others.
Like Abraham, we all have to weigh up the cost that is being asked of us as we consider the service we might be called to. But like Abraham we too can believe that God will provide as we step out in faith, often with feelings of personal inadequacy, of time pressure of, fear, of all sorts of things that could prevent us from moving forward.
Reno in commenting on this passage reminds us,
"What seemed an unbearable loss to Abraham, becomes, through an enduring faith, an unaccountable gain."
And isn't that so often the case in the sacrifices we make in life, that we initially think of the unbearable cost, the time, the commitment, the cost to personal life, and then as we engage in service, we gain so much more from it.
Abraham saw God and named, as Jehoval Jira, which meant, my provider. He saw God as the one who even in the face of huge personal cost and possible tragedy, God was the one who would provide, and he did.
Just as he did in the sending of his Son into the world to be our Saviour.
May God be with us all in our service to Him and to those around us as we each consider our commitment to Christ and what that means in terms of our commitment to one another and our community.
To God be the glory, now and for ever more. AMEN.

5th June 2011 Easter 7
Acts 1:1-11 1 Peter 4:12-14; 5:6-11

The Life God calls us to

It is easy when talking about faith and religion to become lofty in our thoughts and pie in the sky in our attitudes, when in fact the Christian faith has always been grounded in the reality of the world in which we live.
No where is this seen more clearly than in the Gospel's and in the accounts of the early church as it became established around the know world, firstly within Judaism, and then gradually as it moved out of that to become an independent movement in its own right.
The life, death and resurrection of Jesus of Nazareth grounded the Christian faith very much in the reality of our world as we come to understand that God, in Jesus Christ came and dwelt with us as one of us, experiencing life as we experience it, facing joys and sorrows, trials and tribulations, just as we face them. He too came face to face with those who opposed or despised him. Such was the experience of his life, as all he tried to do was to give expression to God's love for the world.
We see this in John's Gospel in that great high Priestly prayer which comes at a turning point in Jesus life as he shifts his focus from his earthly ministry on to his coming Priestly role as he will take upon himself the sins of the world. But in that shift he does not abandon his connection with the world, but rather grounds his shift in that very point as he prays earnestly for his disciples. His prayer is that in what he must go through, that God would receive glory, that his disciples would be kept safe and that they may know through him the oneness with God that has strengthened him in his earthly life. He goes on to pray for all those who will respond to the ongoing ministry in which his disciples and subsequent generations will be involved.
Such was his understanding of the world in which he lived and the needs that flow from our human existence.
Peter writing to the churches in Asia Minor in the second half of the first century AD, to a scattered congregation who were beginning to suffer more and more persecution did not promise that pie in the sky religious well being. There was no idea that, positive thinking will make your life go well, or the power of self to be able to improve ones lot, but rather his advice was based on the reality of what was happening in the world of their day.
And what was happening? Increasingly the growing Christian community were becoming isolated from the Jewish community and there was a growing persecution of people who claimed to follow Jesus, probably from both the religious community and the general populace.
So again and again Peter addresses this issue of how as Christians we can find strength to face such suffering and trials when persecution for our faith confronts us.
In the closing section of this letter Peter reminds us that we should not be surprised in the fact that we might suffer for our faith. People will always look for a point of difference to isolate and confront others so that power or position might be obtained. Faith becomes an easy target for this.
In summing up this first letter, Peter suggest that suffering for faith is not to be seen in a negative light. If we suffer for our faith it allows us to remember all that Christ went through for us. Now he is not saying here, to go out and look for ways to suffer, there is no sense of creating a situation so that we might suffer. No, this is purely a coping mechanism if for reasons out of our control suffering for our faith should come our way.
If Christ was prepared to suffer to the extent that he did for us, should we not find strength from that if we are asked to suffer for him? And it is made clear that this is only in the context of suffering for our faith.
Peter says, "If any of you suffers, it must not be because he is a murderer or a thief or a criminal or meddles in other peoples affairs. However, if you suffer because you are a Christian, don't be ashamed of it, but thank God that you bear Christ's name."
I suppose to look at this from another angle would be to say, don't hide your faith under a bowl, but always let the light of Christ shine through you. If others have trouble with that, that is in fact their problem.
It is not that we have to be in people's faces with our faith, always pushing our ideas onto them, but rather the idea that our faith is so much part of our make up that one cannot separate out that aspect of our faith from the rest of our being.
We certainly don't live in a day and age where there is open antagonism on any mass scale against religious belief in our country, but perhaps the greatest threat for us against faith, is that of apathy. No one cares that much at all; therefore faith becomes almost irrelevant to the world. In a sense that may be harder to cope with.
Peter's call is to put all such worries with God and to humbly walk with God in our own lives. As a community of faith, as individuals, we are to concentrate on our own relationship with God and with one another, and to leave all such external threats and persecutions with God, for it is in his strength that we can live with confidence, even in the face of suffering.
How many people do we hear, who face all sorts of trials, who testify to have found strength for what they face through their relationship with God.
"Leave all our worries with him, because he cares for you."
It is easy to say and sometimes hard to live out, but the reality is that worrying merely eats away at us, and usually achieves nothing constructive.
Worrying can destroy ones confidence and even erode relationships with others, and Peter sees such destructive forces as not being of God, but rather from the Devil. So he urges his hearers to keep a watch out for such behaviour so that we might concentrate on more positive attitudes in life.
We are to concentrate on building up ones own faith, as well as encouraging others in theirs, we are to work toward those things that are good and pleasing to God, and leave the rest with God. Suffering in a world that is resistant to God is to be expected and is not out of the ordinary, but get on with life, is Peter advice in such times and he suggests we be firm in our faith. Trust God, for our lives are in his hands and he will bring all things to perfect completion in the end.
It is too easy in our modern world to be consumed with worry by the things that surround us and entrap us our modern lifestyle as we seek to be in control when in fact we never have ultimate control. That is, and always will be the domain of God. And constantly we are reminded of this, whether it be through climatic events, natural disasters, health issues, we seem to be in a constant struggle, almost, to contain and control our world, rather than acknowledging it as God's world in our pursuit to understand that more fully.
Peter finishes that main body of his letter with some wonderfully assuring words.
"But the God of all grace, who calls you to share his eternal glory in union with Christ, will himself perfect you and give you firmness, strength, and a sure foundation."
This is about our God, who never abandons us, who walks our lives with us, understanding us and encouraging us to keep our eyes fixed on him.
Such trust enables us to leave the worries that so often bind us, with him, so that we can live with confidence, faith and joy, even in the face of hardship and suffering.
To God be the glory, now and for ever more. AMEN.

Sunday 29th May, 2011
'Truth gets personal'
John 14:15-21

In our reading today form the Gospel according to John, Jesus continues his farewell speech to the disciples, in which he says, "God will give you another helper, who will stay with you forever; the Spirit who reveals the truth about God. The world cannot receive it, because it cannot see it nor know it. You know the Spirit because it lives with you and will be in you."

Have you met the Truth lately? In the New Testament, truth is personal. Not some thing, but someone. Through Jesus and the Holy Spirit, truth becomes a personal experience.
In the upper room, on the night of his betrayal, Jesus assured his bewildered disciples that they would not be left without divine assistance. There would be another helper, the Counsellor, the Spirit of truth. Here truth is not some abstract quality but a personal relationship. In our world where deceit and lies are practised as a major profession, via political "spin doctors" and advertising specialists, it comes as a relief to know that there is someone Jesus calls "The Spirit of truth."

In the Ten Commandments the most important command after the first two concerning worshipping God alone, is the ninth commandment: you shall not bear false witness. It seems that as long as truth is respected, a community can deal with wrongdoing. But when deceit rules, then everything becomes chaotic. Society can deal with theft as long there is integrity in the Police and witnesses. Society can cope with the breakdown of marriages as long as the participants are honest with each other. Society can even come to terms with murder, providing witnesses, police, jurors and judges retain their commitment to the truth.

However, when the essence of the ninth commandment breaks down, when truth ceases to be the common bond in community interaction, then all hell breaks loose. We are very much in that situation in today's times, where using other people like furniture for one's comfort or profit, is widespread, and this is graphically displayed in most of the programmes we watch on TV.
This media that lives in our homes, brings us into a new world, not so much of immoral people but of amoral people. Honesty no longer has status, people are to be exploited, even one's best friends can be laughed about behind their backs but praised in their presence. Parents are portrayed as a burden. Commitments are avoided. Marriage is a trap and sex is a bargaining chip. These programmes portray a society of mostly non-violent sociopaths.

We can all appreciate the humour of some shows; seeing comedy in trivial situations, comments and attitudes. We probably watch it more for its humour rather than pondering its social comment. But mostly it is a superficial existence that most situation comedies portray, and if they reflect in some degree our contemporary Western way of life, then we are in deep trouble.
We could well ask 'To what degree are we being seduced by this deceitful portrayal?' Thank goodness we can rely on the knowledge that there is a Spirit of truth, for there is little else in this world that we can depend on.

The truth of God in Christ Jesus, made known through the Holy Spirit is what we can depend on. This is one reality which is not relative, one on which we can completely rely, one voice that never fools us, one great love which will never cheat on us. Because this truth is personal. It is our personal relationship with God; as the Spirit of truth is, that God with us. As Jesus said: You know it because it lives with you and will be in you." (John 14: 16-17)
This truth is not information we learn about physics, or astronomy, or psychology, or theology. It is God's relationship with humanity. A relationship which God initiates and to which we can respond with an emphatic "no," or with a joyful "yes" each and every day. It is the sheer strength of God's love leading us towards the fulfilment of ourselves and our community.

The Spirit of truth sees us as we really are, yet accepts and treasures us. Nothing can be hidden from this truth. Nor is there any need to hide anything from this truth. For the love of God can face our simple humanity without disgust or despair. This is one of the wonderful things about the Spirit of truth. We do not have to pretend, or makes excuses, or try to hide any ugliness. Just as men and women found themselves at peace in the presence of Jesus of Nazareth, so we too find ourselves at peace in the Presence of the Spirit of truth.
The Spirit also sharpens our perceptions of life, and at times alerts us to dangers or opens our eyes to new opportunities for serving Christ. Traditionally the church used the word "conviction" to describe this ministry of the Spirit of truth. The Spirit convicts us of sin, or convinces us of wrongs to be righted, neighbours to be helped, enemies to be forgiven, apologies to be made, achievements in others to be applauded.

To trust the Spirit of truth may mean we need to be reshaped, which may be a painful experience. We generally don't like to make changes; especially not changes deep down in our being which might make us feel uncomfortable and challenged. The Spirit of truth is also called the Counsellor, (who like a barrister conducting a cross examination in court) can make us face things that we thought were good but we now begin to see, fall short of the best that God wishes for us.
It is implied that Jesus himself has been God's helper up to this point, as he says, "God will give you another helper." The Spirit of truth is not different from Jesus, but gives the same hard challenges and the same warm comfort and healing that Jesus gave to those around him. It is no wonder that in the New Testament the words--the "Spirit of God" the "Spirit of Christ" and the "Holy Spirit" are used interchangeably. God's truth therefore, is no kinder and no tougher than Jesus, whose life we admire, praise and love. There is laughter in God's truth. There is compassion in God's truth. There is judgement in God's truth. There is grace in God's truth. There is the cross in God's truth. There are wounds in God's truth. There is the joy of the resurrection in God's truth.

Around us in this twenty-first century, there are masses of lies and deceits; like smog over a large city on a still autumn day, infiltrating our offices, our homes and our lungs. There are a few, maybe more than a few, deceits within us. Some of them are the same lies and deceits that lead to Jesus being hounded, abused and slaughtered. But in the midst of all this the Helper, the Spirit of truth, will be personally with and within the friends of Jesus, determined to set us free from all falsehood.

In two weeks time we will celebrate Pentecost, that great explosion of the Spirit of truth in the early church. Through the days of these two weeks, consider making it your prayer and discipline to empty out some of the junk in your life and make more room; more room for more of what you already have but can also have in abundance. For when you have an abundance of God's love it will show itself in more love for others, for love is the sure sign of the Presence of the Spirit of truth.

15th May 2011
Acts 2:42-47
1 Peter 2:18-25

Today our readings focus our thoughts on us as member of the Christian community. What does it mean to be part of the church? The church as the people of God, the gather people, the people called by God. Often the church is criticised by some as being a clique. And it is a criticism that we need to be mindful of, for I am sure that in no way are we to be a closed group of people. It is not a club, with a set of rules for membership that we are tested against and held to account for. The church is a unique organism if you like. It is a gathering of a wide cross section of the community, from all walks of life and from a wide variety of backgrounds. There was obviously from its very earliest inception a gathering together to meet the spiritual, social, economic, and emotional needs of those who held a common belief in Christ as Risen Lord and Messiah.
In Acts we read how they shared possessions, gathered for prayer and worship, and shared meals together.
The common bond of belief had a profound affect on the way these people lived their lives. That sense of being a community, of being responsible for and accountable to each other seemed by all accounts to be much more heightened. They were obviously under enormous strain both from within the established religious community of that day and from the wider political community and their sense of community gave them both comfort and strength to face the difficulties which lay before them.
The cooperate nature of the church is something that was fostered right from our very beginnings. And in talking of the church here, I mean God's people from the beginning of time. We see in Psalm 23 that we know so well, a theme Jesus also picks up in a Parable he tells in John's Gospel using the whole imagery is of the shepherd and the sheep. Clearly the community of God's people is seen as being like that flock of sheep, a collective that is gathered together and cared for by a superior or Supreme Being.
In Psalm 23 the people Israel had no difficulty there with the concept of God as their shepherd. It was an image that came from their day and drawn out of their setting. They could visualise the scene that was painted for them in the words of this Psalm.
Today we might prefer to talk of God as our Chairman of Directors, the one who lays out our policies and gives us our daily directions:
The one who fills our pay packets and gives us power to go and spend: The one who leads us to the supermarkets where we can fill our pantries with those goodies that will supply our needs.
Imagery like this might certainly be more applicable to today's world and give us more of a sense of the power that the Psalmist was writing of.
But when Jesus drew on the imagery from this Psalm to paint a picture of himself, it left his hearers in no doubt as to the parallels that he was drawing. The murmurs of disquiet began to ripple around the community. Here was Jesus claiming to be the shepherd. Here he was taking that Psalm of old that they loved so much and claiming that status for himself.
But for the emerging Christian community this imagery began to draw parallels and began to confirm for them, Christ as Messiah. As the early church developed, these stories of Jesus became more and more important. They became the foundation for the beliefs surrounding the risen Christ.
From these stories they could draw strength for the growing persecutions that were facing them.
As people were faced with difficulties and situations that caused discomfort and unease, many were dropping away. So people like Peter would write and offer advice and encouragement and such advice and encouragement would be enhanced by remembering the stories of old.
Peter urged, "For it is a credit to you if, being aware of God, you endure pain while suffering unjustly."
Suffering and endurance is part of human life, and for some they suffer more than others. As a community of faith we are there to support people in their suffering, we are there to fight injustice, but above all we are there to tell the stories of the one who suffered with us and for us. No suffering that we encounter is outside of God's experience and God is with us in such suffering. In fact as the shepherd guides his sheep, so God guides us. And in another parable where Jesus speaks of himself as the shepherd, he speaks of going out and seeking out the sheep that are suffering , the sheep that are lost. In John's Gospel it is about God who protects us and keeps us from ultimate harm, for there is nothing in the end that can separate us from the loving concern of our Shepherd, not even death itself.
These stories offer us that sense of comfort and in all the paths of life that we walk, the presence of God is with us. God is enduring in his love for us, and calls us to endure in our faith with him. In all the struggles that we face, we are not alone, for Christ who walked and talked with his disciples, who suffered with his people, is the same risen Christ who walks with us and who strengthens and encourages us in our journey of life enabling us to endure in the faith that we profess.
We as a community of God's people are the body of Christ, and so there is a sense in which we have the responsibility to live out the presence of Christ in the world today.
Each of us have a part to play in bringing Christ's values and Christ's teaching into the world. We are here to encourage one another and support one another in the struggles that face us. We are here to tell and retell the stories of our faith, that we too may draw strength from Christ, crucified and risen; The living Christ who is in our midst.
That's what it means to be God's people, to live in union with God and to live as the church today.
May we continue to seek ways in which we can be effective in not only living our lives and expressing the enduring faith that we hold dear, but also in helping others to live theirs knowing and experiencing the enduring love that God has for us and the world.
May we learn to stand with others in the joys and the sorrows of life, in the successes and the struggles, pointing others always to God, whose love is there and never lets us go.
As one song writer puts it,
To be God's people - in this place,
Live his goodness share his grace,
Proclaim God's mercy through his Son
Be his love to every one.
Almighty Father, give us a vision
Of a dying world that needs your love and care.
We see the need, the searching for a Saviour
In Jesus' name, grant this our prayer.
In our searching for such enduring faith, we can surely only find that in Christ, Crucified and Risen. He suffered and died for us, but rose victorious, and that is where our hope must lie, for in him we too can be guided and led through this life, with the Lord as our shepherd.

To God be the glory, now and forever more. AMEN

8th May 2011
Acts 2:14a,36-41
1 Peter 1:13-25

Personal Faith

Having outlined Christ's work of salvation through his life, death and resurrection, Peter goes on to encourage his scattered congregation throughout Asia Minor in the response that they should make.
Salvation has been achieved. God has reconciled humanity to himself through Christ and this aspect of our salvation must always be attributed to God. There is nothing that we can or could do to affect this work in our own lives.
He reiterates this in today's reading as he alludes to Christ as the Lamb without defect or flaw, drawing his hearers back to the Passover and the whole Old Testament ideas of sacrificial rites where the spilt blood paid the price. In Christ, that work was complete, the price was paid, and this was the once and for all sacrifice God required, God initiated and achieved in Jesus of Nazareth.
But here Peter says, although that is the case, and that is the vital part achieved, we as people, as individuals, as communities of God's people, we as the church, are called to respond in the way we live.
Peter offers some sound practical advice laced with good theological reasoning. That reasoning being grounded in what God, through Jesus Christ has already achieved. That is the given, the rest is our response, as faltering and as fickle as that may be.
He begins by appealing to the mind.
"Have your minds ready for action. Keep alert and set your hope completely on the blessing which will be given you when Jesus Christ is revealed."
Have your minds ready. This is an appeal to reason, to think carefully about your faith in relation to the rest of your living. I am sure that although this sounds simple it is easier to talk about than most of us find to put into practice.
But it is the human mind that drives the actions of most people. And it is the mind which we need to constantly work at training, so that our actions more and more conform to the faith that we profess.
I suspect that this is the area that at various times and in various ways lets us all down, as it is our minds that that define us as uniquely human. It is our capacity to think and to allow our thoughts to be reflected in our actions, and our ability to have some control over that capacity that lies at the heart of being human.
There is the choice of right and wrong, there is the decision to believe or not believe, to accept or to reject.
And so Peter reminds us of the need to have our minds ready, to be alert.
This is a call to actively shape our lives into the image that God calls us too.
Now that sounds easy, but it is not for a number of reasons.
We all know of the conflicting pressures and messages that we face in life, areas where decisions have to be made that are not necessarily clear cut. We need to remember that Jesus' own teaching came out of a tradition where rules and regulations were made to help people confirm to what others thought was appropriate behaviour and actions. But legalism is not the answer. The Gospel calls us to a change of heart, to pursue a way that encourages the individual to see life as a response to God's love for us.
This does not fit with a regimented set of rules that determine for us a clear cut notion of right and wrong but encourages us to use the freedom we have to equip ourselves for honouring God in our living.
Peter draws this picture of humanity with that nature that offers choice and invites us to build on the choices we make to give substance to the faith that we profess.
This is never a single choice offering a once and for all solution, but is a journey that we travel, sometimes seeing smooth paths ahead and at other times having to deal with the turbulence that life can throw at us.
The one constant and enduring aspect of this relationship is God and what he has done, and Peter reiterates this time and again.
That becomes the given factor. God loves us, God has achieved his purpose in offering salvation for all humanity.
And even the seemingly enduring things like gold and silver, Peter suggests, can in fact be worn away, where as God's love in Jesus Christ stands and endures.
That relationship was in the beginning, and will be for ever more.
And it is here, in this relationship that God offers that Peter says were are to fix our eyes.
It is out of this relationship that we are invited to shape and form our lives around, relying on God, but also responding to him in ways that demonstrate that life in our world today.
How does this show? In our love for God and our love for one another!
Love can never be regulated, and must always be the response of the heart and mind, and act of the will that responds with grace.
Peter calls for this earnest love even in the face of trouble and persecution, and again grounds this love in our understanding of God's love for humanity.
So dramatic is the difference between our human nature and the nature that God calls us to put on, that like John, Peter calls for that total transformation and aligns it with the idea of a complete rebirth. It is like coming to the world in which we live with totally new and fresh eyes, seeing our lives and our community from a different perspective.
Unfortunately that rather worn and tired clique of being born again, has had laid on it today, many connotations and nuisances that were not intended, and it certainly wasn't meant to be a particular brand of believer, for none of us can be Christian unless we have that new view of the world, no matter how small our glimpse is of it, for we are born in this way not through our own efforts or actions but by the Spirit of God at work in us transforming us into the people he wants us to be.
Our acceptance of our place in God's world with God at the centre stands in stark contrast to those who see humanity at the centre of the world with us having ultimate dominion over it.
Peter reminds us that we really are just like the grass and the wild flowers that wither and fade, where as God remains from generation to generation, from everlasting to everlasting.
His word who came among us in Jesus the Christ, his living risen presence stands as the everlasting reminder that this is indeed God's world and this is the message we have to continue to proclaim as his church in our day as in every day. Our choice is always to follow him or not to follow him, and no one apart from we ourselves can make that choice.
May God give us the grace and continue to open our eyes to the wonder of his love that surrounds us on every side.
To God be the glory, now and for ever more. AMEN.

1st May 2011
Acts 2:14a, 22-32 1 Peter 1:3-9

Doubts disperse:
While we have just celebrated the Easter event with the death and resurrection of our Lord Jesus Christ at the heart of that celebration, it struck me as I read this passage from 1 Peter, as to the passion with which he was penning this letter.
This letter was written nearly 30 years after the events of that first Easter around AD 62 and yet here Peter writes as if it were yesterday.
The impact of that first Easter on those who witnessed it was so powerful and lasting in its effects that nearly three decades later Peter was encouraging the church scattered through northern Asia Minor to continue in their walk with God despite any persecution and suffering they might encounter.
If doubts were to loom in their minds because of what they had or might suffer they were to put those behind them because they had so much to be thankful for. Rather than gloom and doom they were to see joy because of what Christ had done for them, and Peter grounds this in the historic events of that first Easter that he and his fellow apostles had been so intimately part of.
So as the doubts were dispersed their hearts were filled with joy; joy in the future heavenly blessings that awaited them,
joy in spite of the suffering that faced them and the inexpressible joy in knowing Christ.
So this joy is grounded in our response to God. Peter's understanding of God at this point has overtones of Trinitarian language as expressed in, "God, the Father of our Lord Jesus Christ!"
God as the Father is not in any way to be conceived as having created the Son or caused him to exist, for the Son has always existed in the fullness of the Godhead. This relationship is much more in terms of the Father who directs and the son who responds and obeys, the Father sends, the son goes.
Peter's encouragement is a helpful remedy for people weighed down by the worries of the world and reminds us that the joy of looking beyond the immediate can sometimes help us to live through the present. It is too easy to become weighed down by what is happening now and to wallow in the burdens of the moment, where as to focus on something greater which lies beyond the present, especially where we can see and know something more certain can give strength for the here and now. Peter puts this in the context of his faith, and probably still relives the horror days leading up to the crucifixion. And as he reflects in hindsight on those days, he can also relive the glorious moment of encountering the risen Christ as it dawned that he is risen.
No doubt the implications of that took sometime to sink in.
Now his theology is grounded in that event.
New life, a new way of living, and new way of viewing life, a new and certain hope is held out for all who are prepared to trust in him, This new hope offers both a remedy for the present and a certain hope for the future where the fullness of God's love will be experienced. And for Peter this holds both certainty and mystery together in tension. This tension is ultimately held secure by God and therefore our joy is found in God alone; it is found in his actions for us and his promises offered to us. Peter will also look back to the promises that Christ offered in the months and days leading up to that first Easter and realise that they did not really understand that mystery, but in the full light of the resurrection these mysteries were opened up for them. So too, for us when it comes to the mystery of God and life with its trials and triumphs, they too will only be fully understood in the context of that Divine love.
Peter offers that confident expectation quelling our doubts and our fears, for this is something that God has kept and continues to keep for us.

Peter suggests that this forms the basis of a Joy that endures even in the face of suffering. Joy is not to be understood as a frothy happiness, put on to merely counter the bad things that are happening. It is not a put on expression to cover up the present misery. No! Joy is to be understood as a deep spiritual joy, emanating from that understanding of what God has done and is doing and will do in our lives.
This overlays the sufferings and trials of life as experienced in so many and varied ways and continually points us to that hope that we have talked of.
He draws that analogy of the precious metal, gold. It is refined and made pure and more beautiful through a process of heating and cooling to remove all the impurities. So too our lives with all the pressures and trials must be seen in this light.
The question has to be about how we want to view life. Do we see the glass half empty or half full?
How do we view aging? How do we view illness, how do we view children and grandchildren? How do we view work? How do we view church, marriage, neighbours, friends, government, anything for that matter? All the issues we can think of in life that influence us and our attitude to such issues determine how we live and what we get out of life.
And I am not saying it is all about the power of positive thinking, and I certainly don't think this is what Peter is getting at. No, just as Peter says, the trials and tribulations of life will be there, but it is out attitude to facing them and particularly in the light of God's abiding and eternal love for us as demonstrated in the life death and resurrection of Jesus Christ, and in the knowledge and belief that life is longer than our years lived on this earth.
This is where our faith, based on the person of Jesus Christ can surely give us such confidence and allow our hearts to be filled with joy even in the face of adversity.
Finally, Peter suggests that such joy in and of itself is inexpressible.
In v8 he says, So you rejoice with a great and glorious joy which words cannot express, because you are receiving the salvation of your souls, which is the purpose of your faith in him."
Mystery can never be fully expressed, otherwise it ceases to be mystery. The certainty we can have is that God loves us, the mystery is why and how, and often this comes in times when we feel God is so far away. And yet those are the times when we need to remind ourselves and be reminded of the Easter encounter the disciples had with the risen Christ and that that same risen Christ is with us where ever we stand in life.
Such is the promise of our faith, and such is God's working out of his salvation in our lives.
It is not worked out in a cocooned environment isolated from the realities of the world, but is worked out in context of life with it joys and with its trials, with its times of celebration and with those unpleasant moments that leave us gasping for breath.
Faith must be grounded in reality otherwise it would loose all integrity.
Peter says, "You love him although you have not seen him, and you believe in him, although you do not now see him."
He is writing to a generation after that first Easter, but encourages them in that same response as those first disciples made, to offer love and belief. This belief has that meaning of an active trust, to rest one's confidence in or to depend upon. That is the crux of faith, it is not an intellectual assent to an idea, but an active trust in Christ's power to love us and to reconcile us to God. It is this active trust that continues to bring us that joy, that deep seated contentment, in knowing God through every moment in life, through the up's and down's, through the trials and triumphs.
May God continue to give us grace and the courage to share our joy and our faith with those around us.
To God be the glory, now and for ever more. AMEN.

Easter 2011
Acts 10:34-43 John 20:1-18

Over the weeks leading up to Easter we have looked at some of the conversations that have been held with Jesus and some of his followers. The conversations with Jesus, certainly at this point, for the disciples was apparently over. Death brings that finality to the conversation but on this first Easter Morning something different had happened, and the conversations between his followers must have been intriguing. Looking at those conversations through the eyes of artists in history give us glimpses both into their own times and thoughts and also into our own as we interpret such works in our day. The actual conversation in the Gospel is patchy to say the least.
Eugene Burnand's work of Peter and one whom we assume is John , running to the tomb portray the urgency along with the hope and determination to check out the story that woman had told them. The Gospel tell us that Peter and the other disciple, whom Jesus loved, were told by the women of the disappearance of Jesus' body.
In their eyes there is that sense of disbelief that this could not possibly be true, and yet hope that maybe, just maybe all is not lost. The trauma and confusion of the last few days has left them alone and scared, and yet this news that they have just received offers them hope beyond belief.
The eyes in this painting convey both hope and fear in a complex mix of emotions. There is wonder about what indeed they might find. The forward leaning posture shows the speed and determination with which they are pursuing this news. There is not creeping around with hesitation but that determined forward motion that suggests nothing would hold them back in their pursuit of the truth. The beloved disciple is forward of Peter as the gospel writer tells us, 'The two of them were running, but the other disciple ran faster than Peter and reached the tomb first. This order is backed up by the painter in the build of the characters. John is portrayed as finer and slighter build, with Peter being older, bulkier and therefore slightly slower as he strains to keep up.
I wonder does the Easter message evoke such determination in us even though we are never sure what that journey will turn up for us.
The hand of John, the beloved disciple gives further expression to that hope and prayer that what they have been told is indeed the truth and that Jesus is alive.
And Peter's hand on his heart, perhaps he is thinking back to his denial and the many times he blustered in thinking he was helping out. Maybe he is hoping that this one time his enthusiasm will lead him directly to the truth.
You see the contrast of these two very different figures the fine features of the well dressed John with his smooth textured skin, contrasting with Peter's rugged and wild look in more common clothing and his gnarled hands from a life time of hard work on the fishing boats. This covers the spectrum of those for whom the Gospel message is given. God loves the whole world, from where ever we come, if we are but eager to follow the truth.
And like these two character portrayed by Burnand, we are on a journey of discovery, never sure of what God has for us, never certain of the how the truth of God's love for us will pan out, and yet the question remains, how focused are we on discovering the truth of God's love for us.

The second picture is quite different: Tanner, and African American, paints the "Two disciples at the Tomb.
There is much more about thoughtful contemplation. The artist has also set the scene much more in his own day judging by the dress and the stance of these figures. So he is looking at the disciples response through his own eyes rather than directly through the eyes of those first disciples.
Again one can only guess at the conversation going on here, but there is no doubting that what they have discovered is momentous and brings about a new era in the world.
The masterful use of light captures this with the early dim light of dawn appearing over the trees in the top right hand corner of the painting, playing this off with the bright light of recognition emanating from tomb and lighting their faces.
John's open radiant face reflects the luminous emptiness of the arched sepulchre, while next to him Peter's head is bowed in awe. Is Peter wondering what this will mean for him as the leading disciple? What weight will this place upon his shoulders as he goes out to tell the world that Jesus' Body is gone? There is much more of the sense in this painting of a realisation that Jesus is risen, although the complete dawning of that realisation is yet to come, so the light, although bright on them, is not the light of the full day sun.
They are still processing the scene that lies before them from two completely different angles, giving cover to the fact that across the board of humanity, we process faith in a wide a varied way when faced with the truth of what lies before us.
The gospel writer tells us "Then the other disciple, who had reached the tomb first also went in; he saw and believed. (They still did not understand the scripture which said that he must rise from death.)
And as I have said, the conversation is patchy, but these artists fill in some of the thoughts that must have been going through their minds.
For us we too, must process what the resurrection means for us today. It is easy for us to proclaim the story as we have always heard it, to tell it as it was, but what does that mean for each of us? How has the dawning of that truth impacted on our lives as individuals and as a church together? Jesus is risen! His presence is with us! It is the risen Christ who welcomes us into his presence at the table today, and welcomes us to walk through life knowing and experiencing that risen presence. "Come to me, all who labour and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest!
To God be the glory, now and for ever more. AMEN.

Easter - Good Friday 2011
Isaiah 52:13-53:12 John 18:1-11, 19:38-42

The irony of the Easter Story lies in the fact that in the face of the agony and suffering that Christ had to endure comes the message of salvation for the world.
In a perverse and cruel act of humanity God is able to offer hope and courage to the world.
Such is the nature of the gospel message. Paul writing to the Corinthians captures this as he talks of that which is foolish to the world is wisdom to God and that which is folly to God can appear as wisdom to the world.
This to me sums up the Easter celebrations.
And as we remember today the extreme cruelty and suffering that Christ endured, let us not skip past this as we are prone to do, to get the bit that in hindsight we know happens, namely the glorious resurrection.
No! we need to take time to reflect on the cost to God that he put in to the world, the world which he want to pour out his love upon.
The imagery of Isaiah, that looked forward to a time when this suffering servant would come to us, can leave us gasping.
Words and phrases like disfigured, he hardly looked human, he had no dignity or beauty to make us notice him, remind us that what he had to go through would be no party.
It was human wisdom that judged him guilty, human wisdom that condemned Christ, why? Because human wisdom struggled to see beyond a self centred and self serving world that wanted to protect the political fragility keeping peace at any price. And others did not want to upset the religious piety that kept people controlled and consumed by a sense of guilt. Jesus had spent his life challenging the norms of the times, challenging the assumptions that people had built their whole lives around, and pushing the boundaries of acceptability, choosing to consort with the marginalised, the sick, the ones who were different, and through his time with them restored many to a way of life where they had to be accepted back into the community. He restored people to health and strength and acceptability, and ultimately his mission was to restore the world to that oneness with God where we felt acceptance rather than rejection and wholeness rather than condemnation.
Isaiah says, "Because of our sins he was wounded, beaten because of the evil we did. We are healed by the punishment he suffered, made whole by the blows he received." Just as in his living he turned our concepts of justice and acceptability on their heads, so too in his death, he made the curse of dying on a tree, into an act of redeeming love.
But in doing that he took the pain and humiliation of the world upon his shoulders and bore that for us all.
Jesus died, there is no doubting that. His death was cruel, his death could not be justified, and yet he did not fight back.
Not because he did not value life, but quite the opposite, he valued life for all humanity, for then and for all generations to come.
He valued life so much that he willingly gave his own.
That was the cost of his love, the cost of obedience to God's will.
This is the cost that we are not called to bear for it has be borne for us all.
Let us remember again the sacrifice made, not so that we might be consumed by guilt, but rather so that we might be freed to live full and meaningful lives in the context of our understanding of God's love for us.
To God be the glory, now and forever more. AMEN.

3rd April 2011 - Lent 4
1 Samuel 16:1-13 John 9:1-12,35-41

Over the period of Lent we are exploring conversations that Jesus engaged in with a variety of people. We have seen Jesus and the Devil in a battle of wills, Nicodemus being reminded of God's love for the whole world, and the Samaritan woman at the well challenged as to what was really important for her in life.
The conversations this week are a bit more involved as Jesus engages both with his disciples, and the man born blind, and then there are other conversations with the blind man and the wider community and the religious leaders.
The whole passage revolves around the question asked of this man born blind, "whose sin caused him to be born blind? Was it his own or his parents'?"
This is an age old argument and we see it resurfacing all the time. People struggle with blaming someone for suffering that is experienced as we live in a world where people are exposed to such challenges in many and varied ways.
And although we see the question around suffering asked after big events such as Japan and Christchurch or the West Coast, it is not uncommon for issues to be raised in the case of individuals like the man born blind that we have read of today. We see it particularly where children or famous people are involved. We seem to want know why. Why if there is a loving God do such things happen? Surely God, in God's power is able, and therefore by inference should intervene in some dramatic way to solve all the problems that face us individually and collectively. It all sounds so easy and straight forward. If this were to happen all would be well? Do we really believe this would be the case? And if it doesn't happen, does it mean I have done something wrong to limit God's ability to act?
It seems to me, that this line of thought forgets to look at the whole purpose and function of creation. The world in which we live is a dynamic and unfolding story of God's ever active and creative presence. But this active and creative presence includes in our human activity and the activity of the whole of creation as part of that which reflects in some limited way that same Divine image. Part of the nature of creation was that continued unfolding of Divine activity in many and varied ways within the created natural order within which we live.
So surely for God to constantly step in to those natural processes and to contradict the choices we make or the activity of nature would be to contradict his own creative purpose and power. Now, I don't want to deny the possibility or even reality of miracles, far from it. But if God were to act in such a way as part of everyday life, then miracles would cease to be miracles. By definition a miracle is an event that appears to be contrary to the laws of nature and is regarded as an act of God, or it is an event or action that is amazing, extraordinary or unexpected.
Thus Jesus' miracles that were recorded in the Gospels, were not part and parcel of every day life, but more often than not were stories of wonder and amazement that Jesus used to illustrate theological points he was trying to make.
Today's story of the healing of the man born blind comes at a time when Jesus was struggling to get the Pharisee and religious leaders of his day to comprehend his message of God's love coming among them through him.
He had declared to them, which had not gone down well, that he was the light of the world. And after much discussion and rising antagonism, ending with the Pharisees almost stoning Jesus and driving him from the temple, Jesus comes across this blind man and heals him. The disciples ask the question about blindness and sin, but Jesus sees the opportunity to show that God is able to open our eyes to see the light.
As Jesus picks up the mud, and rubs it on the eyes of the blind man, he is instructed to go and wash the mud from his face in the Pool of Siloam. Interestingly, the Gospel Writer tells us this name Siloam means sent. If one is sent one can act in two ways: in obedience or disobedience.
This blind man chose the path of obedience and went, doing as he was instructed. Faith is about trust, and a willingness to obey. Jesus' call on our lives is always a call to follow in obedience, not to the things that make us feel good, or that we want to do, but to follow, sometimes with nervous uncertainty trusting God in what we are doing.
There must have been something compelling about the conversation Jesus had with this blind man that gave him the confidence to follow the instructions. And having carried out the instructions given and receiving his sight, he of course had no idea who it was he had spoken with except that his name was Jesus.
Thus this man was taken to the Pharisees by people around for them to investigate. Only the Pharisees would be able to declare this man well, and of course they wanted to know all about it, for it would appear this was carried out on the Sabbath and that they considered the act of making the mud as being work, and thus breaking the Sabbath rules about work.
In reality this was just another way of trapping Jesus, and yet another example of their own blindness to the real work of God in their midst.
We all need to be careful of our own refusal to see the work of God in our midst as it is so easy to be blinded by our own prejudices, or preconceived notions of how or why or what God will or will not do.
It is interesting that Jesus once again engages in conversation with this blind man after the healing had taken place and after the man had been interrogated by the Pharisees, and only at that point does Jesus question the man about his belief. Jesus' act of Grace in healing the man was not dependant upon that man's belief. Having dismissed the notion that this mans blindness was a result of his, or his families sin, Jesus now debunks another myth about God's activity that we often hear today. You sometimes hear it said that a healing hasn't happened because the person did not have enough faith or did not believe. In this case Jesus did not check out the level of faith or the man's beliefs before he healed him, but rather he healed him and then challenged him about his faith.
Grace is always the precursor to belief. Grace is God's coming to us in unmerited or undeserved ways. Grace is about God's initiative which prompts in us our belief. Christ's coming among us to walk that path to the cross, was God's ultimate act of grace, and the religious leaders of the day refused to recognise him, and yet this man whom they considered sinful because of his blindness was able to see Jesus for who he really was.
When asked, "Do you believe in the Son of Man?" after some discussion he replied, "I believe!:"
That is surely the question that faces us all and lies at the heart of this whole conversation.
"Do you believe in the Son of Man?"
That is why the Christian church down the ages has been a confessing church, a church willing to confess its faith in Jesus Christ. Our great creeds all begin with "I Believe."
Together and as individuals we have been called to affirm our faith in Jesus Christ as Lord and Saviour.
That is the heart of our faith that this man discovered as he washed that mud from his eyes. The Pharisees refused to wash the mud from their eyes and remained in darkness.
One commentator says on this,
"Hence the indignant and touchy question of the Pharisees in verse 40, Are we blind also? But as Jesus proceeded to point out to them, it is precisely when people say that they see, and because they say that they see, that their sin remains They continue to be guilty, however unconscious of their guilt.
We can so easily be blinded by our own sense of self-righteousness and thus we do not see the need of a Saviour.
Thus there are two responses in the closing part of this dialogue.
"I believe, Lord!" or that of the Pharisees "Surely you don't mean that we are blind, too?" We each must choose which response best fits our own, as Jesus asks us, Do you believe in the Son of Man?
To God be the glory, now and for ever more. AMEN

27th March 2011 - Lent 3
Exodus 17:1-7 John 4:5-42

Last week we looked at a conversation that Jesus held with Nicodemus, a member of the group of Pharisees, the religious leaders of Jesus' time. This weeks conversation is with a woman Jesus encounters at a well, as he and his disciples are travelling through Samaria.
Jesus had heard of the growing tension that was developing as a result of the Pharisee's becoming aware of the increased interest that was being generated around Jesus' teaching. Such an increase in public interest concerned them as any uprising among the people of that time, might jeopardise the delicate balance that existed with the occupying Roman forces. While John the Baptiset tended to work alone, and was probably seen as a lone voice in the wilderness, the pattern developing with Jesus was showing distinct signs of spreading among the general populace. The Gospel writer notes that the observation was, that more people were being won over to Jesus' teaching than had been observed with John the Baptist. These followers were even going through this initiation ritual of baptism indicating a certain commitment to the teaching of Jesus. And the little aside that is inserted here perhaps indicates the realisation that this movement had far more potential to out-grow what had been observed with John the Baptist. Here Jesus' followers were doing the baptising, thus this movement although centred around Christ, was beginning to be transmitted by those who were willing to follow this new leader.
Thus we can see the concern being expressed, but also we can see the setting to this story where Jesus was beginning to feel the heat and thus the need to retreat from the region of Judea. The quickest and most direct way for this to happen was to cut through Samaria which lay between the provinces of Judea and Galilee. The interesting thing here is that good Jews would not lower themselves to taking such a route, as this took them through countryside of a people whom they considered to be outside the covenant people of God.
Politics in this part of the world has long history of such antagonism. Is it any different today with the Palestinian people?
And from the conversation we see with the woman at the well, we could not be sure that this attitude was all one sided.
Jesus initially requested a drink of water from the Samaritan woman as she is drawing water from the well. One could think nothing of such an innocent request from some wary travellers. She, however, seemed to recognise Jesus as being a Jew, and so raises the issue commenting, "you are a Jew, and I am a Samaritan - so how can you ask me for a drink?"
Was there a note of sarcasms, or surprise? Why raise the issue if it wasn't an obvious issue to the person making the request. Too often as human beings we want to keep age old arguments alive and take every opportunity to make a point that merely adds fuel to the fires that have raged for years.
We see this time and time again on the international scene, but also in the lives of individuals. Life is not about putting up barriers, but rather of opening possibilities.
Jesus by his journey through Samaria and engaging in conversation with this woman opened up possibilities.
Rather than barriers being maintained the conversation has given opportunity for preconceived prejudices to be explored and new pathways to be developed.
This makes plain the concept that Jesus' ministry was not just confined to the people of Israel, but was in fact much wider.
His mission was to all. Last week it was with the Pharisees, this week the Samaritans, and we will see some with the gentiles.
Jesus came as Saviour, not of Israel, but Saviour of the World.
Jesus again, as always, is willing to meet people where they are at in life, and here it is at the well, with a woman, and not only a woman, but one whose history is a little questionable.
The Gospel writers are constant in their insistence on telling the stories of Jesus meeting such people, for it reiterates the fact that God's love is for the whole world and not just the ones that the world considers as worthy. In fact it is quite the opposite. Those who consider themselves as worthy, as good enough, as better than average, see no personal need for any help, thus there is no place for God.
If people are not thirsty, they will not seek out a supply of water.
In recent weeks we have had it driven home to us just how important water is in our lives. In Christchurch it became an issue very quickly. Not just water itself, but good clean drinking water. Such water when not available leads to all sorts of disease and sickness. Japan has of course suffered the same. The irony often is in such disasters, that there is water around, it is just not clean water. It is water that would bring death rather than health.
Thus Jesus here speaks of water that brings life.
Not literally water, but that which is necessary to bring sustained life even in the face of death. Despite all the things that might condemn one in the eyes of others or even the community, what is on offer here is acceptance from the Divine, and not just acceptance but that embrace that is everlasting.
The conversation that Jesus has with this woman reveals all those things for which many would want to condemn her, race, life style, gender, you name it, one can always find fault.
Jesus looks at her and sees the sincerity which underlies the external bravado.
Her plea of acceptance as Jesus offers the water of life has touched a raw nerve and she engages more deeply with him, saying, "give me that water! Then I will never be thirsty again, nor will I have to come here to draw water."
Her honesty with Christ is met with equal honesty as Jesus acknowledges that God's love is not confined to time, or place or race or creed. God's love is to be expressed for the whole world through him. Jew or Gentile, free or slave, God's love will be demonstrated in the life of Jesus, the Messiah.
In this story we see the plain and explicit claim to this role as Jesus states, "I am he, I who am talking with you."
So in this story, again we see this invitation to engage with God. There is an invitation to a conversation of brutal honesty expressing who we are and allowing God in that process to challenge us. In such a way true relationship is built. Remember, this story is set in the shadow of last weeks chat with Nicodemus, where we are assured that Christ's coming is not about condemnation and judgement, but about love and acceptance for the whole world, for the Jews, Gentiles and Samaritans.
God's love is for those who see their need of such grace, and who are blinded only by ones own sense of self righteousness.
This woman was clearly able to be honest, first and foremost with herself, and then when challenged by Christ, was open to that gentle prompting that enabled her to see with clarity her own life before God.
From this point her life's direction had changed and now her desire was to engage others in that same relationship that she had experienced.
She went back to her people and invited them to come and meet the one who was able to tell her everything she had done."
She asked that piercing question that we must each answer for ourselves, "Could he be the Messiah?" In the face of all that she experienced, in the face of the challenge he offered her, this question stands for us all. Is Jesus the Messiah, the Christ, the anointed one? We must all ask ourselves, "who is Jesus?" Clearly he claimed this role, and his life death and resurrection stand as testament to it, but are we willing ourselves to afford him that place in our lives?
Clearly he does not force that on us, but God's love is shown through him and is there for us to claim and accept, just as it was for this despised Samaritan woman at the well. It doesn't matter what the world thinks of us, for God's love is there.
To God be the glory, now and for ever more. AMEN.

20th March 2011 - Lent 2
Genesis 12:1-4a John 3:1-17

God loved the World

The recorded conversations Jesus held with a variety of people always provide us with an interesting insight into people thoughts and how the Gospel message challenges individuals as they encounter Christ. Over the Sunday's of Lent it seems that we have a whole series of such conversation that Jesus has with different people about faith. His encounters meet people at their points of need and always direct them to what faith means for them, and where that faith should be focused.
So at the beginning of these conversations we see Jesus' meeting with Nicodemus. He is described to us as a Jewish Leader, one who belongs to the Pharisees. This is one of the groups of people who throughout Jesus' public ministry seemed to spend their time trying to trap Jesus through their insistence of tying people up in knots, and of making faith into a religious ritual of does and don'ts.
So, rather than an emphasis on the externals of faith, Jesus looks to the motives that drive peoples actions to express faith from within. These underlying motives really touch at the nerve base of who we are, at what drives us to do the things we do.
Thus Jesus' suggestion to Nicodemus that we must be born again, is a suggestion that we need to see life in a completely different way, through a different mindset. I suspect the analogy he might draw on today might be that we need to be reprogrammed.
The eyes through which we see the world, or in this case the Kingdom of God, must be completely different. Here I think John is seeing the Kingdom of God as the whole of the created order, the seen and the unseen, that which is confined by time and space that which is eternal.
If we are to view the Kingdom of God from the normal human perspective, we would be seeing, what I want to call, a crime and punishment model. For a certain action, there would be suitable reaction. For the wrongs I commit there would be an appropriate punishment. For the good I do there would equally be a matching reward. And if we are honest this is probably the mindset through which we all view the world to some degree or other. But it is not the mindset that Christ was promoting through which we can view the Kingdom of God. This model just did not fit.
Because on this model, despite all our best efforts and all our strivings, none of us would ever measure up to the necessary level to reach the fullness of the Kingdom of God. And yet this is the model through which Nicodemus and the religious leaders of Jesus time were viewing the world.
This is seen in the conversation between Nicodemus and Jesus.
Nicodemus, in addressing Jesus, comments on all his good deeds. He pays him the complement of calling teacher, or Rabbi, acknowledging a role he must have been playing within that community. He identifies the miracles that were being performed as evidence that he must truly be sent by God.
But all of this was building up a case on the view that here was a good man; a good man in the eyes of the community, a good man even within the religious community, his goodness is seen in his actions. And this frames the normal human mindset that I have been speaking off. The evidence is seen that here is a good man.
It would seem that Jesus can see the angle which Nicodemus is taking, and cuts him off at the knees suggesting that this line of thought is not the way things are. Good deeds do not determine ones standing before God.
He points this out in verse 3 with the words, "I am telling you the truth: no one can see the Kingdom of God unless he is born again.
No one can see the Kingdom of God unless one views the world through the eyes of faith.
Nicodemus struggles with this taking the literal angle and protests that of course one cannot re-enter the mothers womb and be born a second time. Of course not!!
But one can learn to view the world through different eyes by having a total transformation of ones way of thinking if the Spirit of God so moves. God, being God, is able to move and do what God desires to, and so this process of seeing through the eyes of faith, is dependant on God. It is God initiated, and we are reliant on his power. Thus our goodness is not at issue here, but God's will. Our power to do what is right is not at issue, but God's willingness to look beyond our shortcoming and his willingness to love us in spite of our human nature that tends toward sin, rather than righteousness.
Nicodemus like many of us, struggle to reconcile what we see and know, with what we believe, and yet Jesus put that aspect of faith as the prime focus, and points to past events in the life of the people of Israel to say that in such events, although unexplainable, God was still at work, and that this will be the case on into the future.
He looks to the story when Moses lifted up the bronze snake on a pole in the desert, pointing out that the people bitten by snakes who looked to this pole would be saved. This at the time was a mystery to them, but just as that happen so too people would look to the point where he would be lifted on up pole in order to save his people.
Of course the context of this conversation would only be recognised following the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ. But John inserts this conversation at the beginning of his Gospel to give the theological context and framework for expressing Christ's purpose and mission.
Why must he be lifted up? So that everyone who believes in him may have eternal life. This mysterious action of God, is what brings salvation, not any ones ability to live good and upright lives, or perform great deeds. Our calling that God offers to all, is a calling to live that life of faith. It is a calling to acknowledge God supremacy and his great love for the world demonstrated in Jesus, made plain in his death and resurrection for us all.
God's primary focus is that of love. His primary action is always to love, and therefore John rightly points out that God did not send his Son into the world to be its judge, but to be its Saviour.
God's actions are not to promote destruction, but rather to promote his love for the world.
People often ask in the face of disaster, where is God in all of this? And in all the mystery of such events in life, we can only say that God is in the midst with us, even in the face of disaster. Even in Christ's own experience of that God forsakenness, the reality was that God remained steadfast and sure.
Such is God's nature, such is God's love for the world that he comes into the midst of our lives even in our suffering, to be with us.
Just as Abram was called to step out in faith, to leave the comfort of what he knew, and the security of his home land, to go to an unknown place, so too, faith calls us to step out and take the hand of the one who has walked our path, Jesus Christ our Lord.
Faith enables us to trust, and not just to trust in some unknown quantity or empty space, but to trust God, the one who came among us as one of us. He came in time and space, he came as part of our history, and he continues to come to us in the through the power of the Spirit, and John reminds, moving where ever he will. Just as the wind blows and we see the effects of its passing, so too do we see the effects of God moving through us and in us. Our view of the world is transformed, as we walk in faith trusting God
To God be the glory, now and for ever more. AMEN.

13th March 2011 - Lent 1
Genesis 2:15-17;3:1-7 Matthew 4:1-11

Where are you Lord?

This intriguing story of Jesus' preparation for public ministry gives us a wonderful insight into the character and nature of Jesus. We see here a very human side to his character and yet cloaked in that heavenly nature that has him engaging in this direct conversation with Satan. This reads as a beautiful parallel to Genesis story of Adam and Eve's encounter with the serpent in the Garden of Eden.
Both show humanity in its most basic context revealing the struggles that we have in that on going tension between good and evil.
In the case of Adam and Eve they struggle to the point of failure, and in the case of Jesus, equally he struggles, but to the point of overcoming that moment of testing.
It is at this point that we find the most basic understanding of Jesus' role that later on the Apostle Paul draws out when he speaks of sin and humanity in relation to the first Adam and the Second Adam, as he refers to Christ.
As sin came into the world through the first Adam at the fall, as it is known, Paul points out that sin is then dealt with by Christ at the point of the crucifixion and resurrection.
So it is appropriate that at the beginning of this Lenten season, as we spend the next forty or so days reflecting on Christ's role in dealing with the problem of human sin, that we start with this moment that defined him in that role as he encounters Satan in the wilderness.
It is worth noting, that in both of these stories there is that sense of being isolated and alone. Although God created the companion for Adam, and together they were in the garden, they were there in isolation, just as Christ was in the wilderness. It is in those moments of being alone where perhaps we are most vulnerable to the testing of our humanity. We are in reality social beings that have that innate need for companionship, even though many are comfortable with the quiet contemplative or solitary life. Nevertheless we are perhaps more vulnerable in those alone moments for there is no one else to bounce ideas off, no one else to correct us, no one else to share the burdens of life with.
Jesus' period of self imposed isolation was no doubt intended to prepare him for his forthcoming ministry. It was that opportunity to focus his attention on the relationship he had with God as he was about to embark on his period of public ministry among the people of that part of the world.
While this time in the desert may have separated him from other people, it did not separate him from his humanity. We see clearly that he was tested in all those areas of life that are so common to us all.
Firstly there was hunger. This is probably the most vulnerable part of our humanity, for if we are not satisfied in terms of our hunger it can distort many other areas of our human existence. He had gone without food, this passage suggests, for forty days and nights.
I suspect hunger was the polite way of expressing this. One could imagine that one would be visualising every shimmering movement of light crossing over those hot desert sands as being a banquet table laid with the most exotic and mouth-watering food.
And yet Matthew says, "Jesus was hungry."
Is it any wonder that he could picture the Devil coming to him and suggesting he order to stones to become bread.
And yet Jesus was so focused in his mind on what he was doing and what lay ahead of him, that he was able to deflect this test right back to the place where it belonged; with God's will and purpose.
'Man cannot live on bread alone.' Bread, food, the things that sustain the physical constitution of the human body, are rightfully placed second to the will and purpose of God.
Humankind apart from God is not complete, and from the time of Adam and Eve until the point of Christ's coming among us that gap seemed impassable. Christ's work in his life, death and resurrection that we celebrate today around his table, reminds us so clearly of our need of his saving grace to bridge that gap. As Paul put it so clearly in his letter to the Romans 5:19 when he said, "And just as all people were made sinners as the result of the disobedience of one man, in the same way they will all be put right with God as the result of the obedience of the one man."
As we need food for the body, we also need Christ and his grace for our eternal sustenance. Thus as we eat the bread and drink the wine, we feed on him with our souls. We draw from the rich blessings of his risen presence among us.
Secondly, the devil tempted Jesus with that very human desire for power and control. We like the think that everything that happens to us can be determined and controlled by our own human ability and initiative. And yet over the last months have we not seen how little power we have as humankind. Earthquake, wind, fire, floods, Tsunamis, nature constantly demonstrates to us the total powerlessness that we can so often face.
The Devil was probably right in this testing, that God was able to alleviate the suffering Christ would face if he were to leap from this highest point in the temple. But why would God choose to override the foolish actions of an individual. Should we presume on God to jump to our commands by putting God to the test? Do we test authority by pushing the boundaries? In reality that is a very human emotion, whether in our childhood, teenage years, with our employer or employee, people push boundaries all the time to see what they can get away with.
Finally we see Jesus tested in terms of his desire to have dominion over all that he could see, and beyond.
Here was the temptation to desire power over all the world; World domination. This is probably an extreme and yet we have seen it in history, and Jesus was living in one of those moments with the vast expansion of the Roman Empire. We have seen it with others and we continue to see it in individuals: people who assume that right to control the lives of others exercising power and control in ways that oppress people beyond belief.
It is not always on such a large and international scale that such human behaviour is exhibited, but it boils down to that self absorption that sees us putting our own needs and desires at the centre of our own world, rather than looking beyond ourselves and working together for the good of God's world and the communities in which we live or participate.
Christ's experience of his own humanity was real and grounded in those things that we all face.
He was tested with the greed and desire to feed his own needs, he had the desire to grasp for power and control focused on his own wants placed before him, and the temptation to dominate others for his own self gratification.
And yet as we gather today around his table, we see so clearly the path he chose, the path of obedience to the one who was greater and to whose authority he always bowed.
His cry was, "not my will but yours be done." In the story of his testing he always referred the Devil back to the Word of God, "But it is written, Man shall not live by bread alone," "Do not put the Lord your God to the test," "Worship the Lord your God and serve only him." The clarity of his response is demonstrated at the table today, where he came not to be served but to serve and to give his life as a ransom for many.
Such was the clarity of Christ vision and purpose for his ministry among us. And that ministry continues today as we feed on him in our hearts with thanksgiving, as we partake in his risen life among us with the bread and the wine, not in isolation, but as the gather community of God's people. We gather, not because we are good or deserving, but because we recognise our need of his saving Grace.
To God be the glory, now and for ever more. AMEN.

27th Feb 2011 - Epiphany 8
Isaiah 49:8-16a Matthew 6:24-34

And what about tomorrow?
The texts today are part of the three yearly cycle of the lectionary we follow along with the a large segment of the church worldwide, and the title I chose for the sermon was chosen some weeks ago, but how both tie in to the week that we as a nation have experienced. They stand as timely reminders of our place in the world where we are not the dominant controller of all that happens. Although we like to think of ourselves as in control of at least our own destiny, events like Tuesday's earthquake remind us of the very fragile nature of our existence in this world.
All sorts of emotions will have been experienced this week by each and every one of us. It is unlikely that any of us will not have known someone in Christchurch, someone affected directly by this tragic event.
So our emotions are likely in overdrive.
And in a way this illustrates for us part of the problem of the Sermon on the Mount, or maybe not so much the problem as the dilemma that is faced by the reader. The high ideals expressed through this sermon, do not always match the reality of life. Or maybe they offer to us some piercing insights into our human nature and challenge us about our actions and reactions. Last week it was about loving our enemies, this week it is about attitudes to our possessions and the stress that we put ourselves under, in other words it challenges us to what is really important in life.
Nothing brings into focus such things as our priorities and what we value, more that an event like we have seen Christchurch experience this week.
How quickly the possessions that we value most can be stripped away from us in a moment. And when we line our possessions up against the people that we value, what becomes more important? The people of course!
Then in reflecting we can look back and wonder at how much time and energy we have put in to building up those things that we value so highly and wonder in the end, when push comes to shove, how important they really are.
I think it was this sort of engagement that Jesus was trying to get with his audience, challenging them and us to the core of our being.
His light hearted look at nature provided an illustration with the birds that surely don't worry about what they will wear, and even what they will eat, that in fact God will take care of them through the provisions of nature. Stripped back to the raw realities of life, we will in some way survive. In fact being stripped back to the raw realities in life leads us to a greater dependence on the one who is the Lord and Giver of life.
This becomes the key to this whole passage, and I think the key to life itself.
An acknowledgement that this is God's world in which we live and that our lives are in his hands, should help us to lead a life that is not consumed by a sense of overwhelming anxiety, because our trust is in one who is greater than we are and in the one who knows the beginning from the end.
Such an understanding of life provides an, "ultimate antidote to anxiety", says French in his commentary on this passage.
Anxiety is one of the modern day killers in our society, as I suspect is was in Jesus' day. I think it is probably a natural part of our human make up that throws lives out of perspective on a regular basis; none more so than when faced with enormous tragedy. It is interesting that reporters have been commenting on the superb job that the Mayor of Christchurch and others are doing in facing people with the reality of what is unfolding in Christchurch but liberally laced with words and sentiments of hope. If we have no hope then there is no future. This is a message that remains central to our faith, for our ultimate hope, we continue to maintain, is in the one who is Lord of heaven and earth and who was made know to us through Jesus the Christ.
When we approach life with such hope, we can then with confidence hold on to the sentiments expressed by the Psalmist, "I am not concerned with great matters or with subjects too difficult for me. Instead, I am content and at peace. As a child lies quietly in its mother's arms, so my heart is quiet within me."
Isn't that lovely imagery? That picture of the mother nursing her child, giving that child all that is necessary for life, while the child snuggles up warm in mother's arms in simple and yet profound trust.
Such is the trust that we are called to have in God, even when all around seems hopeless. Nothing suggests that such faith and trust will not be sorely tested at times as is being experienced in our own land at this time. But often it is during such times that again we come to the realization that all those things that we build up around ourselves to gain security and strength for the future, can so easily be whipped from under us in just a fleeting moment, in the twinkling of an eye.
Our prayers and thoughts, and whatever help we are able to offer goes out to those who face this desperate situation in Christchurch, and at the same time we surely re-evaluate our own lives and what is really important to us.
So Matthew suggests that worry over the food and clothes and drink fade into insignificance as we contemplate the greater things of life; the relationship we have with God, first and foremost.
Those well known words that we have sung this morning ring out don't they,
"Seek ye first the kingdom of God and all these things shall be added to you."
This points us to where our only hope can lie in the end.
For when all else is stripped away, there is still hope. God who was, and who is, and who is to come, remains the sure hope of our salvation.
Let tomorrows worries take care of themselves as we live each day to the full. This message from the Sermon on the Mount is not one of callas disregard for tomorrow, nor one of living without thinking of tomorrow, but one that warns us that in the end, it is the present moment that is important in life, and what we do now, matters.
Our relationship with God, as we seek out his everlasting love that calls us to honour him first and foremost, remains our priority. "Love the Lord your God with all your heart and soul and mind and strength, and love your neighbour as you love yourself" gives us the picture. For as we seek God, and discover his love and his ways for our lives, then our response becomes to not only honour God, but to offer that same love to the world around us. In offering that love, we also offer that hope that sustains us even in the face of tragedy and despair.
I am sure that as we move through the next days and weeks that our prayers and thoughts will be with the people of Christchurch. Although we seem helpless being so far away, there are ways that help can be offered, not least through prayer. At times that can seem a trite or passive response, and yet how often we hear people express that they have been buoyed by the knowledge of those praying for them. Prayer can help in ways that we will never know, and ways that perhaps we cannot even express. It is an acknowledgement of God's connection to us and to those we love in other parts of the country or world.
Worry achieves nothing and throws people into unnecessary confusion and chaos, prayer on the other hand can bring that sense of calm and perspective as we focus our thoughts in the direction of the One who is all powerful, and gracious, slow to anger and quick to offer mercy.
Let us all take some time to reflect on the question of what is most important to us in life. Let us reassess where meaning and purpose is found, and consider again those words,
"Instead, be concerned above everything else with the Kingdom of God and with what he requires of you, and he will provide you with all these other things."
To God be the glory, now and for ever more. AMEN.

13th Feb 2011 - Epiphany 6

Deuteronomy 30:15-20
Matthew 5:21-37

A couple of weeks ago, when we began to look at the Sermon on the Mount, I put out there the question as to what this Sermon is all about. The easiest thing to read it as, is an ethical code for us all to strive for. But most commentators would suggest that this interpretation of the Sermon on the Mount misses the whole point, for here Jesus would be offering a code that no one would be able to live up too. We would all strive, but be crushed by the constant guilt of defeat as time and time again we failed to live up to the demands issued.
Philip Yancey, in his book, 'The Jesus I never knew,' tells of the struggle that the Russian novelist, Leo Tolstoy went through as he tried to come to grips with this teaching. He says, "Tolstoy got it halfway right: anything that makes me feel comfort with God's moral standard, anything that makes me feel, 'At last I have arrived,' is a cruel deception. He goes on to point out that another Russian novelist, Dostoevsky got the other half right: "anything that makes me feel discomfort with God's forgiving love is also a cruel deception."
Yancey sees the Sermon on the Mount as giving expression to that old tension between works and grace. If we strive to always achieve the perfection that we can never meet, we will never make it, but God's ideal is laid out before us, so that we can recognise our shortcomings and accept that God has done it for us in Christ Jesus.
Thus Paul was able to proclaim with confidence,
"There is no condemnation to those who are in Christ Jesus."
Our relationship of trust and acceptance of God's love for us, is the choice we are called to make. It is the choice between life and death, between good and evil that the writer of the Law in Deuteronomy lays before us.
If we fail to see the balance in the Sermon on the Mount between the ideal of God and our response to that, along with the grace that is given we will be consumed by the guilt of our shortcomings, rather than overwhelmed by the love offered.
Jesus begins each of these issues with the phrase, "you have heard it said, …..but now I tell you.
Here he is putting what he has just said about the importance of the Law in the context of our need and dependence on Christ so that the fulfilment of that law may be seen as Christ's work in us. Then the words of 5:48 are at the conclusion of this lengthy section are made possible,
"You must be perfect - just as your Father in heaven is perfect."
Each statement that Jesus makes is more demanding than the law has allowed for in the past as it examines not only our actions but also our motives and our underlying thoughts.
He speaks of murder to begin with. In the Old Testament times, as in places still today, the punishment for murder was the death penalty. Thus being brought to trial in this context infers that death will result, but it distinguishes the killing through judicial punishment, from the actual crime that is being punished.
Jesus goes behind the murder itself to the motive and talks about the anger and hatred that lies at the heart of such a crime that drives people to this action. It suggests an attitude of angry contempt. It is an attitude like this that opens us up to judgement, and the threat is not of human judgement through the courts, but rather the divine judgement of God.
What is being called for here is an attitude of forgiveness. There needs to always be that willingness to forgive as we have been forgiven. Ultimately forgiveness comes from God through Jesus Christ. What does the Lord's Prayer remind us of, that prayer that comes later in this sermon? "Forgive us the wrongs we have done, as we forgive the wrongs that others have done to us."
It is all about relationships and a willingness to keep building on those. Just as God in his covenant of Grace has declared his love for his people, so too our response to that must be the willingness to hold out that hand of mercy to others that they too may take up that offer of mercy and respond in love.
Anger only ever harbour resentment and retrenchment forcing people into corners of self-righteousness and self protection rather than offering reconciliation and redemption.
Christ's offering of himself was to bring about that salvation, not by doing away with the law, but by fulfilling the requirements of it.
He goes on to the question of adultery. We know what the law says, but he pushes that out to our hearts desires that lead to that action. The very eye that we should be using to keep us from stumbling is the eye that trips us up as we desire those things that are not right and that do not belong to us.
And in the usual over exaggeration, Jesus suggests we would be better off without the eye itself. Self control, and responsibility for our own actions lie at the heart of the disciplined life. And if one is to be a disciple of Jesus Christ, then one is to be disciplined in ones life style.
It's an old fashioned concept in our world today, I know, but how often the Christian faith stands in contrast to the prevailing culture of the day, whenever that may be. This whole Sermon on the Mount attacks the prevailing religious and cultural thought of its day as it pushes the letter of the law to the motives underlying it.
Divorce was easy, a husband, (and notice the emphasis here), only needed to write a notice of declaration. The grounds became wide and varied. Some suggest even for burning the dinner a divorce could be issued. Jesus again links it back to motive and intent. Relationship is what is important in the interaction of one with another.
Words and thoughts underlie the actions that gives the picture to who we are. And Jesus goes to great length to show that God sees and acknowledges those underlying motives and thoughts. Such is the nature of our humanity, and such is the need that lies there for us all. The need is our inability to function to the level of perfection that the religious leaders were demanding of others in Jesus' day. It is this same level of perfection that so often we place on one another in our society today, when we cannot meet those same standards ourselves. Thus our need is in Christ who came to fulfil for us the demands of the law.
He came as the Reconciler, bring God and us together. He came as the Redeemer, saving us from perils of our own human nature that in and of ourselves we are unable to escape from.
So while we may never be able to fulfil the full requirement of the law, we are called as disciples of Jesus Christ to engage with the law as part and parcel of our response to God's grace given so freely. We are called to dig deeper than the mere outward workings of law. Our challenge is to dig down to the motives and to examine who we are so that we might see our need of Christ's transforming love at the very roots of our being. In this way we can engage with God to allow him to transform us in that process of making us more and more like Christ in our being. We can do this with the assurance of God's abiding presence to pick us up when we fail, to walk with us in our weakness, and temper us when our self reliance begins to take over.
In understanding our humanity, which Jesus demonstrates in this sermon, he is able to walk with us and work with us. But this demands our willingness to respond, not only to God, but to respond in our actions and our attitudes to on another, for it is by our love that the world will know that we are disciples of Jesus Christ.
It is by our choices that we make between good and evil, between life and death, as we respond to God's love in our lives and seek to bring that love out in the lives of others.
To God be the glory, now and for ever more. AMEN.

6th February 2011 - Epiphany 5

Isaiah 58:1-9a Matthew 5:13-20

The Sermon on the Mount represents some of Jesus' very early teaching and perhaps some of his most direct and focused teaching as well.
Having begun with the Beatitudes, he now launches into a whole series of examples of how, as followers or disciples of Jesus Christ, we might be different from the world.
His rationale for this is that if we are to be his followers and if we are to be true to that calling, then our lives should make a difference so that the world will become a more palatable place.
That certainly offers a challenge to any generation reading this material, and reflecting on its impact in ones own life.
So what of salt and light in this couple of illustrations?
Firstly, Jesus announces to the crowd that, "You are salt for all mankind."
There is no distinction made here between any particular group of people, Jews or gentile, Religious leaders or peasants. No! Jesus throws this statement out to the crowd placing that responsibility upon them all.
You might well wonder what the initial thoughts of those first people hearing this might have been. But I suggest they would at least have been wondering, what's coming next?
What does he mean by salt? In those day's salt was an incredibly important ingredient. Its two major uses are still around today, one of preservation of food, and the other of enhancing the flavour of food.
Both of these function fit beautifully with the picture that Jesus is painting here in proclaiming the people as the salt of the world. It is the task of those who are disciples of Jesus to both enhance life in this world and to preserve the very fibre of what it is to be human.
By our presence as disciples of Jesus Christ we are to seek the truth and proclaim it to see that justice for all people is observed.
What does Isaiah say God requires of us, "to remove the chains of oppression and the yoke of injustice, and let the oppressed go free. Share your food with the hungry and open your homes to the homeless poor", and so on.
This is the flavour enhancing and preservative qualities that the world needs so that everyone is treated with fairness and respect. When these qualities are lacking the world is in strife. We see it time and time again in places like Egypt at the moment. What ever the rights and wrongs, which is very easy for us to offer an opinion on, at the heart of it lies that basic problem of people demanding their rights at someone else's expense.
Where are the flavour enhancing and preservative qualities in such a situation as this?
But Jesus puts little twist in with the knife here, I suspect. For he asks that question, "But if salt loses its saltiness, there is no way to make it salty again."
In reality pure salt cannot loose its salinity. Salt is a chemical compound, sodium chloride. But the impure salt taken from the Dead Sea could gradually become unsalty as the actual sodium chloride dissolved and I suppose, leeched away.
My thought here is that Jesus was narrowing his focus in his second statement, from having addressed the whole crowd to getting the religious leaders to look at themselves more closely.
You see, as Religious Leaders they should have been at the fore front of this preserving and taste enhancing aspect of life as they encouraged people in their religious life. But in reality they had become the ones who put up the barriers, who made it impossible for people to reach the targets set by these leaders, and they kept the common crowd at bay through their rules and regulations.
The flavour of life was not enhanced, but was overlaid with a heavy burden of legalism.
Had those leader's lives had the saltiness leeched out them? Were they no longer pointing people to God, but rather tying them up in knots of legalism?
Was Jesus pointing to the demise of the religious/political institution of the day as he brought in a new order that would give all people that direct access to God and to God's ways?
Jesus may well have raised the ire of some of the hearers while exciting others who were open to hearing what God was saying to his people.
That is of course the same tension that always exists, the comfort of what we know and have always done, verses hearing what God is saying today, and seeing new ways ahead.
It is interesting that in Rabbinic teaching salt is used as an image for wisdom, thus the hearers were probably not entirely unfamiliar with this analogy, but maybe just with the application Jesus was forging with it.
And the Greek word for lost its taste, interestingly enough, means to become foolish. So have those who have lost the saltiness that Jesus spoke of, become the foolish ones, even though they imagined themselves to be wise.
Such, may well be the case.
The second analogy is that of light, and like salt, this also affect the environment by being distinctive.
Again Jesus points this concept to the crowd, by saying "You are the light for the world."
I am always amazed at the power of light. The smallest amount of light destroys darkness. I remember well, converting a garden shed into a darkroom at home, for photographic purposes. Having blocked all the cracks and covered the windows, it was amazing how much light could be seen after a few minutes in what you imagined to be total darkness.
It seemed that light crept surreptitiously around every bend, or through the tiniest of cracks, allowing all sorts of shapes and objects to be seen. Such is the power of the smallest amount of light, that it in effect obliterates darkness.
Think of when one gets away from the city lights and at night can peer up into the night sky. How those stars can stand out so clearly and seem so close.
Jesus tells us that our lives should stand out in such a manner, not so that people might think that we are wonderful, but so that God's presence and love might be made known.
Our actions in the world should not make people stand back in awe of us, but should be such that they envelope even the weakest members of society and enfold them in the company of God's people. Such should be the nature of the church.
And we should not be slow in emitting this light, for Jesus suggest one does not light a lamp and then stick it under a bowl. How crazy would that be, for it would not only hide the light, but of course the lamp would eventually fade out as it became starved of oxygen.
How often do we prefer not to talk about our faith? How often is it easier just not to mention that God is important to us?
Church gets pushed aside for all the other important things that are happening in life, and our priorities are muddled in the process.
Jesus commands us to let that light shine, to let our faith radiate through every area of our being. Faith is not just about church on Sunday, but faith is about allowing God's love and God's presence to filter through every part of our being.
Faith is about letting God's presence and love change who we are so that the fullness of our humanity is developed and used for the good of the whole community. Our service, our love, our commitment to God and to one another, are all part and parcel of the witness that we can give to our recognition of God's love for us.
To God be the glory, now and for ever more. AMEN.

30th January 2011
Epiphany 4

Micah 6:1-8 & Matthew 5:1-12

True Happiness

Having learned of the call that Jesus made on the lives of Simon and Andrew, James and John, Matthew goes on to look at what impact this radical change in direction might look like for those who take up the challenge to follow Jesus.
Many see the Christian life as the soft option, the easy way out of the reality of life, a life for nice people, to make them even nicer.
The Sermon on the Mount, as we know it, is often seen as a moral code, that when followed will give people a fulfilled or happy life. To read it as such is to miss the point. One commentator says, "To interpret it (the sermon) legalistically as a set of rules is to miss the point; it represents a demand more radical than any legislator could conceive, going far beyond what human nature can meet, a demand for perfection."
In 5:48, Jesus said, "You must be perfect - just as your Father in heaven is perfect."
This of course creates a dilemma, for we know how impossible it is for any of us to be perfect. It just is not part of our human nature. So then in this portrayal of life, what is Jesus doing? Is he placing impossible demands on his hearers, or is he laying out God's redemptive plan that will allow that perfection to be achieved through him. Hand in hand with Christ we walk through life clinging to the one who makes the seemingly impossible possible. The repentance that John called for, is both about that metamorphic change in our being achieved by God, through Jesus Christ, and about the change in direction as seen in the lives of Jesus' disciples as they left their fishing nets to follow Christ.
The latter is in response to the former. The disciples change of direction in life is in direct response to their change that God has brought about in them.
So perhaps we can begin to see the Sermon on the Mount as the eyes through which we, as followers of Jesus might begin to view life, the world, and those around us. The fundamental shift in our understanding of who we are in the world and in relation to God must surely be expressed in some way.
The Sermon on the Mount helps us to see things from a completely different perspective, and I think can act as general principles from which we can begin to apply faith to our daily living.
Nothing in this says it will be easy. In fact quite the contrary, for much of what is expressed here is so contrary to the way the rest of the world chooses to view life.
And I say chooses, as we all make choices in life. We can make the choice to follow Christ, or in not making that choice, we make the alternative choice, not too.
Thus the Beatitudes give us this visual concept of what it might be like to be a follower of Jesus Christ. It is not a matter of pass or fail, but here are the challenges for us of putting our faith into action, or here is the recipe for making life that much better as our faith becomes entwined as part of the fabric of our being.
Part of the genius of Jesus' sermon is the poetic form in which he frames it. It is design with elements of Hebraic scriptural language and set in a poetic form that enables the hearer to remember this teaching with more ease. Jesus wants his hearers to go away and contemplate these concepts in more depth so that they might become life changing in their effect.
In his first statement he engages his audience making it clear to whom he is speaking. He is not speaking to those who consider that they are righteous in their own right. He is not addressing the religious leaders who stand aloof and think that they are more holy than the rest. No, he is speaking to those who see themselves as less than adequate. He is speaking to the ones the religious leaders look down on. Happy are the spirit