Light of the world

Click here to listen to this 15-minute message.

(This message was preached at Irene Homes, a residential care facility for women with intellectual disabilities. They are an engaging and participating congregation. I was moving around a bit, so the volume varies as I move away from the recorder. Also, at about 13 minutes, we spent a few minutes passing out battery-operated candles; I’ve edited this out, which explains the slight jump a few second after 13 minutes.)

Jesus says of all of us who follow him (Matthew 5:13-16):

You all are the very salt of the earth!

You all are the very light of the world!

He states this as a present fact – you are, not you should be or you will be or you ought to be or one day you might be. No! He states is as Truth: You are! In our lived experience, however, we’re probably often not salt and light. So, Jesus here appears to be declaring a Truth that is to come as a present reality, much as he does when he says “The Kingdom of God is here”. It is a ‘now, but not quite yet’ statement. A prophetic Word, that encourages us to live up to the image Christ already has about us.

What does it mean to be salt and light?

Salt has many uses (primarily flavouring and preserving), but Jesus emphasises the saltiness of salt. If I presented a white powder to you that did not taste salty, you’d be reluctant to call it ‘salt’. Saltiness is the essential characteristic of salt; without saltiness, salt is not salt. So what are the essential characteristics of a follower of Christ, without which we can hardly call ourselves Christians? The most immediate answer is the qualities Jesus has just presented in the Beatitudes (Matthew 5:3-10), which open the Sermon on the Mount (Matthew 5-7), which speak about being poor in spirit, mourning, meek, hungering and thirsting after righteousness, merciful, pure in heart, peacemaking and being persecuted because of being righteous. These qualities of Christian living – love, mercy, inclusivity, justice, reconciliation – are the distinctive qualities of a Christ-follower. They are the saltiness of a Christian.

Light also has many uses, but Jesus emphasises that light enables things to be seen. It is not the essential characteristic of light he highlights, but rather the purpose to which it is put, viz. so that people can see us putting into practice these distinctive qualities of a Christ-follower, so that people will praise God in heaven. He thus speaks about how silly it would be to place a light under a bowl, or to put it in a corner on the ground rather than up on a stand. When we do that, you can’t see the light; it is wasted.

When Jesus says, “You are the salt/light”, he uses a plural ‘you’, thus “You all…” or “Y’all”. Our individual distinctive qualities and our individual light may be insufficient to be seen from far or to make much impact. But our collective qualities and our collective light, like a city on a hill with many lights burning from many windows, can be seen from far and make a real difference in the world.

Just imagine if every Christian truly put into practice the distinctive qualities of a Christ-follower set out in the Beatitudes! What a remarkable place the world would be!!

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The ladies of Irene Homes being the light of the world!

Are you wise or foolish?

Click here to listen to this 12-minutes message.

This message is short and punchy.

Are you wise or foolish?
Are you smart or stupid?
Are you sensible or a moron?

These are the questions Jesus implicitly asks of his followers in Matthew 7:24-27:

24 “Therefore everyone who hears these words of mine and puts them into practice is like a wise woman who built her house on the rock. 25 The rain came down, the streams rose, and the winds blew and beat against that house; yet it did not fall, because it had its foundation on the rock. 26 But everyone who hears these words of mine and does not put them into practice is like a foolish man who built his house on sand. 27 The rain came down, the streams rose, and the winds blew and beat against that house, and it fell with a great crash.”

This passage draws to a close Jesus’ lengthy Sermon on the Mount, which covers the whole of chapters 5, 6 and 7 in Matthew’s version of the Gospel. In his sermon, Jesus covers a wide range of topics about ethical and Godly living in the world, speaking to the hidden inner thoughts of our hearts, to the public actions we display to the world and to the prayers that we offer to God. It is, arguably, a crucial distillation of Jesus’ wisdom teaching.

And at the end of this long sermon, he says (in effect), “All of you who have heard my words? Don’t think that merely hearing them makes you wise or smart or prudent or sensible or thoughtful. No! In fact, you are foolish, stupid or a moron if you hear what I’ve said and don’t act on it. To be wise, is to put what I have said into practice.”

(At this service, we were observing Education Sunday, and after the service people were also invited to sign up to participate in the life of the church – music, tea, men’s fellowship, etc. So, I spend some time applying this point that Jesus makes to those of us who are educators and to all Christians who attend church.)

In short, don’t be stupid!

Personal note: This year year marks my 30th year as a social worker, my 13th year as a university educator, my 3rd year as an Anglican clergy person and my 13th real birthday (I was born on 29 February). A year of threes! I give thanks to God for all of the opportunities God has given me to do God’s work in the world through various intersecting ministries. It has been an amazing journey so far, and I look forward the years ahead. I am at your service, Lord.

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Featured image from https://sunvalleycc.wordpress.com/2015/08/13/build-your-house-on-the-rock/

Look! The Lamb of God

Click here to listen to this 23-minute message.

This message is a call for us to see and look at Jesus, the Lamb of God. And to point him out others. This was the mission of John the Baptist, and it as much ours today.

We are still in the period of Epiphany, where we focus on the manifestation or revealing of Jesus Christ as the Son of God, as God’s Chosen One. Our reading for this Sunday is John 1:29-37:

29 The next day John saw Jesus coming toward him and said, “Look, the Lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the world! 30 This is the one I meant when I said, ‘A man who comes after me has surpassed me because he was before me.’ 31 I myself did not know him, but the reason I came baptizing with water was that he might be revealed to Israel.”

32 Then John gave this testimony: “I saw the Spirit come down from heaven as a dove and remain on him. 33 And I myself did not know him, but the one who sent me to baptize with water told me, ‘The man on whom you see the Spirit come down and remain is the one who will baptize with the Holy Spirit.’ 34 I have seen and I testify that this is God’s Chosen One [or Son].”

35 The next day John was there again with two of his disciples. 36 When he saw Jesus passing by, he said, “Look, the Lamb of God!” 37 When the two disciples heard him say this, they followed Jesus.

Bruner, who has written a wonderful (1200 page) commentary on John, translates some of these verses differently, emphasising the use of present and continuous tenses in the original Greek, notably:

29 The next day John sees Jesus coming toward him, and he says, “Look! The Lamb of the God, the One who is taking away the sin of the world!

36 And John looked intently at Jesus as Jesus is walking by and he says, “Look! The Lamb of God!” 

I focus on these two verses in this message, as I have felt God speaking to me particularly insistently this week about verse 29. And I make five points:

  1. John sees Jesus coming and walking towards him. Jesus is always coming towards us, even if we are moving away from him. His trajectory is always in our direction.
  2. Look! John twice says, “Look!”. I like Bruner’s addition of the exclamation mark, as it emphasises that this is a call, an imperative. John wants us to stop drifting through life blindly. Or from being so focused on other things that we don’t notice Christ coming towards us. So he calls out, in excitement, perhaps even in alarm, “Look! Look out!”
  3. Jesus is taking away the sin of the world. This is a pretty packed little sentence:
    • John speaks about ‘sin‘, not ‘sins’. It is the condition of being sinful that Jesus takes away, rather than the individual sinful acts that we do.
    • John says that Jesus ‘is taking‘, emphasising that this is a continuous activity, that has already begun, is presently happening and will continue to happen in the future. While Jesus’ death on and resurrection from the cross are surely pivotal in salvation, God has been saving humanity through the Son from the time of the fall, throughout the First Testament, through Jesus’ incarnation, life and ministry, through his death, resurrection and ascension, by the outpouring of Holy Spirit, and continuing to today and into the future. The Son of God has been and continues to be in the business of taking away sin.
    • It is the sin ‘of the world‘ (the ‘cosmos’) that Jesus takes away, not just the sin of those who repent, those who believe, those who are members of certain churches or religions, those who adhere to certain church rules or doctrine. Scripture abounds with verses that reinforce that salvation is for and of the whole world (the cosmos). It is a radical inclusion of the entire created order – the cosmos!
  4. Salvation is thus possible for all, but we have to take hold of it. That’s why John keeps saying, “Look!”, and why we are told in verse 37 that John’s disciples leave John to follow Jesus. Jesus is the Lamb of God who is taking away the sin of the world. In the Eucharist or Mass, we celebrate and re-member this great work of God the Son.
  5. And finally, we, like John and his disciples, and like Jesus’ disciples (about whose calling we learn in the rest of John 1), are invited to continue John’s ministry of pointing people to Jesus. We remind people that Christ is coming towards them. We call them to ‘Look!’ We point them not to our denomination, our pastors, our worship, ourselves; but towards Christ himself. And we show through our lives, our inclusivity, our radical love and our walking towards others that he is indeed taking away the sins of the world .

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Featured image: Saint John the Baptist Bearing Witness, by Annibale Carracci, ca. 1600, downloaded from: https://www.metmuseum.org/art/collection/search/438813

Christ our light

Click here to listen to this 26-minute message:

Today we celebrate the Feast of the Epiphany (which actually takes place on 6 January tomorrow). ‘Epiphany’ means ‘manifestation’ or ‘revelation’. Something is revealed and made known to us. What is this thing? Let me answer in thee steps.

1. Jesus is the light

Our key reading for today, from Matthew 2:1-12, about the visit of the Magi to the young Jesus, refers repeatedly to the star that the Magi see, interpret and follow. It is a light that they see that reveals the coming of a King, a saviour, and the follow it:

1-2 After Jesus was born in Bethlehem in Judea, during the time of King Herod, Magi from the east came to Jerusalem and asked, “Where is the one who has been born king of the Jews? We saw his star when it rose and have come to worship him.”

7 Then Herod called the Magi secretly and found out from them the exact time the star had appeared.

9-10 After they had heard the king, they went on their way, and the star they had seen when it rose went ahead of them until it stopped over the place where the child was. When they saw the star, they were overjoyed.

John 1:1-9 tells a similar story about John’s cosmology of Christ as the incarnate light:

1-3 In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He was with God in the beginning. Through him all things were made; without him nothing was made that has been made.

4-5 In him was life, and that life was the light of all mankind. The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it.

6-9 There was a man sent from God whose name was John. He came as a witness to testify concerning that light, so that through him all might believe. He himself was not the light; he came only as a witness to the light. The true light that gives light to everyone was coming into the world.

The prophecies of old also speak to the coming of light into the world, as we see in Isaiah 9:2:

2 The people walking in darkness have seen a great light;
on those living in the land of deep darkness a light has dawned.

Simeon, a righteous, devout and Spirit-filled man of God, prophesies similarly over the infant Jesus when he was brought to the temple for a blessing, in Luke 2:29-32:

30-32 “For my eyes have seen your salvation,
which you have prepared in the sight of all nations:
a light for revelation to the Gentiles,
and the glory of your people Israel.”

While all of these references to the light refer to Jesus as the light, Jesus himself refers to us as the light, in Matthew 4:14-16:

14-16 “You are the light of the world. A town built on a hill cannot be hidden. Neither do people light a lamp and put it under a bowl. Instead they put it on its stand, and it gives light to everyone in the house. In the same way, let your light shine before others, that they may see your good deeds and glorify your Father in heaven.”

So, the narrative of Jesus being the Light is compelling. But what does it mean? What is he the light of?

2. Jesus is the light of God

Central to our (Western Church, i.e., Protestant and Catholic) understanding of the Epiphany, is that Jesus is revealed as the Son of God, as the Anointed One, as the Messiah, as God in the flesh. This leads us to the concept of the incarnation, which is foundational to everything we understand of Christ and his work among us. (Click here to listen to a previous message I’ve preached on the incarnation or here and here to read reflections on the incarnation and the kenotic U.) The incarnation is the idea that God emptied God’s self, pouring himself out to become smaller and smaller, more and more finite and situated, into a single cell, into an embryo.

For our friends in the Eastern Orthodox churches, however, Epiphany focuses not on the Magi but on the Baptism of Christ, where the revelation is not just about Christ, but about the Trinity: Father, Son and Holy Spirit. So, in essence, Epiphany lead us to a manifestation of the Triune God, made visible in the light that Jesus Christ brings into the darkest of places.

(If you are listening to this message, you might like to watch this video during this section of my sermon. It was playing on the screen while I presented it. Be patient – it takes several seconds before you’ll see anything. And be at peace – it was designed to be a subtle visual cue in the background, not a wildly exciting video.)

So, who is this light for?

3. Jesus is the light of the world

The importance of the Magi is that they were not Jews. They came from a long way away (for those days) – Persia (now Iran) or Yemen (where the ingredients for Frankincense and Myrrh are produced and a conduit of gold from Africa to the Middle East). Wherever they came from, their symbolic significance is that they were Gentiles, and thus represent everyone else who is not part of the ‘inner circle’.

In Jesus time, and even in the early church, this meant those who were not Jewish. The fact that Gentiles were among the first to worship Jesus (let’s not forget the shepherds, who represent rural, blue collar workers) indicates that the Gospel is for them also.

Today this means that the Gospel is for the LGBTQI+ community, for Muslims, Hindus, Buddhists, atheists and agnostics. For the smart and not so smart. For the morally good and for the morally bad. For young and old, black and white, rich and poor. For everyone. No person is excluded from the great project of God to redeem humanity, as we read in many passages of the Bible, e.g.,

God made known to us the mystery of his will according to his good pleasure, which he purposed in Christ, to be put into effect when the times reach their fulfillment—to bring unity to all things in heaven and on earth under Christ. (Ephesians 1:9-10)

In him was life, and that life was the light of all mankind. (John 1:4)

For my eyes have seen your salvation, which you have prepared in the sight of all nations. (Luke 2:30-31)

In short, Epiphany reminds us that:

Jesus is the light of God for the whole world

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Featured image from https://www.patheos.com/blogs/standingonmyhead/2014/01/where-did-the-wise-men-come-from.html

Doubt seeking faith

Click here to listen to this 25-minute message.

Our text for today is Matthew 11:2-11. It is a story about doubt, questioning and uncertainty and about faith. It is about doubt seeking faith.

When John [the Baptist], who was in prison, heard about the deeds of the Messiah, he sent his disciples to ask him, “Are you the one who is to come, or should we expect someone else?”

Jesus replied, “Go back and report to John what you hear and see: The blind receive sight, the lame walk, those who have leprosy are cleansed, the deaf hear, the dead are raised, and the good news is proclaimed to the poor. Blessed is anyone who does not stumble on account of me.”

As John’s disciples were leaving, Jesus began to speak to the crowd about John: “What did you go out into the wilderness to see? A reed swayed by the wind? If not, what did you go out to see? A man dressed in fine clothes? No, those who wear fine clothes are in kings’ palaces. Then what did you go out to see? A prophet? Yes, I tell you, and more than a prophet. 10 This is the one about whom it is written:

“‘I will send my messenger ahead of you,
    who will prepare your way before you.’

11 Truly I tell you, among those born of women there has not risen anyone greater than John the Baptist; yet whoever is least in the kingdom of heaven is greater than he.”

There are three main points in this message:

  1. John the Baptist, Jesus’ cousin, is highly regarded by Jesus, who sees him as the greatest human to have ever lived. He is the only prophet in the Bible who was himself prophesied about (Malachi 3:1). He was the one who came before Christ, to prepare his way.
  2. Yet this John – this greatest of all humans – expresses doubt, uncertainty, questioning. Despite having witnessed the heavens opening and the Spirit descending and the Father speaking at Jesus’ baptism – performed by John’s own hand – he asks, “Are you the one who is to come? Or should we expect someone else?” John is not the only one in the Bible who has doubts – so too did Peter, Thomas, all the disciples and even Jesus. Doubt is part of the faith journey – it is not the antithesis of faith – it is an integral part of faith. It is doubt seeking faith and faith seeking understanding.
  3. Jesus does not rebuff John, but rather answers him. He draws on patterns of First Testament prophecy to shape his response to John, particularly Isaiah 35:1-6 and Isaiah 31:1-3. Being steeped in the First Testament, John would have heard these echoes and known that Jesus was the God who has come, as promised. Jesus’ answer speaks to what Jesus was currently doing in his ministry and also reminds John of the long passage of God’s working throughout history.

When we are journeying through doubt towards faith, I take two main points to heart:

  1. I should listen for what God has done in my own life – what I have witnessed first hand, and also what those who are close to me say about what God is presently doing in their lives. It is in hearing the present activity of God in the lives of his beloved that we kindle our faith.
  2. I should look for the long history of God’s working in the history of cosmos, which we find primarily in the words of the scriptures. It is in hearing the historical activity of God in the lives of his people through the millennia that we root our faith.

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Featured image from here.

Beleaguered

Click here to listen to this 24-minute message.

Probably all of us go through times, at least now and then, when we feel beleaguered (click here for a definition of this word).

Jesus certainly did. The closer he got to the cross, the more the leaders of his time circled him, plotted against him, slandered him, entrapped him. By the time Judas became willing to betray him, Jesus had scores of vultures circling him. Our reading for today, from Luke 21:5-19, comes at just this time in his life. In it, Jesus speaks about the future – both the near future of the time of the destruction of the Jewish (second) temple, which would take place about 40 years later in AD70, and the distant eschatological future of the End Times, when Jesus prepares to return. In both times, followers of Christ will suffer persecution. They will be beleaguered.

Even though we are probably not living in the End Times, we as Christians may already have experience of being beleaguered. Sometimes we become beleaguered in our workplace, when we stand up for Kingdom values: integrity, honesty, fairness, justice, inclusion and vulnerability. Or in families, someone who converts from the family’s faith into the Christian faith may be ostracized, even expelled and cut off. Churches are attacked and people at workshop are killed, as in Sri Lanka on Easter Day 2019. Even within the church, people can become beleaguered by leaders who are threatened by their vision, their Spirit-filledness, their willingness to ask for change and their desire for greater inclusion. Much as the church ought to be a place of sanctuary and community, it can become a place of persecution and exclusion.

In Luke 21:5-19, Jesus presents four words of advice – words of wisdom – for those of us in such situations.

  1. Know that God knows. Sometimes, when we are under such pressure, we feel alone and abandoned. But Jesus emphasizes that God knows and is mindful of our situation. In v9 he says, “When you hear of wars and uprisings, do not be frightened. These things must happen first, but the end will not come right away.” In other words, since God knows what is still to come, such as the destruction of the Temple, God also knows your situation. God knows. God cares. God is present. God is in control. Psalm 121 reminds us that “he who watches over you will not slumber; indeed, he who watches over Israel will neither slumber nor sleep.”
  2. Persecution is an opportunity for witness. He says in v13, “And so you will bear testimony to me.” While we are being persecuted and beleaguered, witness might not be uppermost on our minds, but Jesus says that this is the time to embody Kingdom values. But our capacity to witness is not something we do alone – no! He emphasizes that we need not stress about what we will say as witnesses (v14), because “I will give you words and wisdom that none of your adversaries will be able to resist or contradict.” We see such inspiration particularly in the life and death of St Stephen, in Acts 6 and 7.
  3. God protects his own. With God at our side, we have God’s protection: “But not a hair of your head will perish” (v18). Jesus appears to contradict himself here, because just two verses earlier he said, “they will put some of you to death“. We get some clarity about this from another passage that also speaks about the hair on our head, Luke 12:4-7, where he says, “The very hairs of your head are all numbered.” This follows a passage in which Jesus distinguishes between the death of the body and a more permanent death (which he there refers to as being thrown into hell). Jesus wants us to understand that to die does not mean to perish. Our bodies may suffer and even die, but we do not perish – those who are in Christ continue to live in the presence of God. (See my previous sermon on this passage in Luke 12.) So, yes, may may suffer when we are beleaguered and persecuted, but God protects us when it counts most.
  4. We are called to endure. Jesus concludes this passage saying, “Stand firm, and you will win life.” We are called to stand firm, to endure, to persevere, to be resolute, to hold the faith and (in South African idiom) to vasbyt (literally, to bite tightly). Paul says something similar in Ephesians 6:13, “Therefore put on the full armor of God, so that when the day of evil comes, you may be able to stand your ground, and after you have done everything, to stand.” This endurance is more than just standing still; it is about continuing to do God’s work. In Luke 8:15, in the parable about the seeds the fell on different types of ground, Jesus says, “But the seed on good soil stands for those with a noble and good heart, who hear the word, retain it, and by persevering produce a crop.”

Jesus never promises us an easy life, despite what many pastors and churches preach. Indeed, if anything, Jesus promises us that life will be difficult. But he provides us with the reassurance that God knows what we are going through and is present and in control, and that God will protect us, and ultimately whatever happens we will fall into his arms. He calls us to use these opportunities to witness to his values and Kingdom, and he calls us to stand firm and to produce good fruits, not matter what is going on around us.

If you are in such beleaguered circumstances, please know that I do not aim to diminish your suffering – not at all. Rather, I hope to encourage you with the words of Jesus, who suffered much, that God is right there with you and holding you through it all.

 

2019.11.17_Beleaguered churchFeatured photo of St. Sebastian’s Church in Negombo, Sri Lanka, which was bombed on Easter Day, 21 April 2019. May the souls of those who died rest in peace in God’s loving embrace. From https://ie.gofundme.com/f/victims-of-st-sebastian-church-negombo-sri-lanka

Let’s talk about Jesus

Click here to listen to this 13-minute message, preached on 3 November 2019.

Anyone who spent a year in Sunday School as a kid will surely remember the story of Zacchaeus – a short-statured tax collector, who climbed a tree to see Jesus passing by (Luke 19:1-10). Here’s the story:

Jesus entered Jericho and was passing through. A man was there by the name of Zacchaeus; he was a chief tax collector and was wealthy. He wanted to see who Jesus was, but because he was short he could not see over the crowd. So he ran ahead and climbed a sycamore-fig tree to see him, since Jesus was coming that way.

When Jesus reached the spot, he looked up and said to him, “Zacchaeus, come down immediately. I must stay at your house today.” So he came down at once and welcomed him gladly.

All the people saw this and began to mutter, “He has gone to be the guest of a sinner.”

But Zacchaeus stood up and said to the Lord, “Look, Lord! Here and now I give half of my possessions to the poor, and if I have cheated anybody out of anything, I will pay back four times the amount.”

Jesus said to him, “Today salvation has come to this house, because this man, too, is a son of Abraham. 10 For the Son of Man came to seek and to save the lost.”

In this message, I explore the mechanisms that led to Zacchaeus’ transformation, emphasising the importance of talking about Jesus. In short, I make three main points:

  1. Zacchaeus climbed the tree because he had heard people talking about Jesus: what he had done, including the miracles Jesus had performed, but perhaps more importantly, about the parable of the Pharisee and the tax collector in the previous chapter (Luke 18:9-14). Had it not been for people talking about Jesus, Zacchaeus would probably never have met Jesus.
  2. After Jesus comes into Zacchaeus’ house for tea, people start judging, grumbling, moaning, criticising, etc. They criticised Zacchaeus for being a dishonest tax collector, which was probably true. And they criticised Jesus for hanging about with ‘sinners’, which certainly was true, frequently! In response, Zacchaeus stands up and talks about his faith response to Jesus. He speaks directly to Jesus, not to the critical crowds, and he professes his faith. Jesus responds affirmingly: “This man, too, is a son of Abraham”.
  3. Two thousand years later, we are still reading about Zacchaeus! The question for us is: are we talking about Jesus? Are we following in the footsteps of the people of  Zacchaeus’ time and talking about Jesus? Are we following in footsteps of Zacchaeus and talking about our faith in Jesus? Are we, like we imagine Zacchaeus doing after this story, living out our faith, moment by moment, by the way we embody the values of Christ: compassion, inclusivity, justice, human dignity and rights, challenging the abuse of power and pointing to a God of extravagant love?

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Zacchaeus in the Sycamore Awaiting the Passage of Jesus (Zachée sur le sycomore attendant le passage de Jésus), by James Tissot (French, 1836-1902), painted 1886-1896. Opaque watercolor over graphite on gray wove paper, Image: 7 1/8 x 9 15/16 in. (18.1 x 25.2 cm). Brooklyn Museum, New York. This image downloaded from https://www.newemangelization.com/meeting-jesus/catholic-mens-daily-devotional-and-bible-study-31st-week-in-ordinary-time-sunday-cycle-c-luke-191-10/