Jesus’ Law

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In Matthew 5:17-20, Jesus presents (albeit very briefly) his most comprehensive teaching on his view of Law of Moses. He says that he has not come to abolish the law, that the dot on every i and the cross on every t is vital, that the Law has not passed away, and that we need to practice and teach it. Many commentators (naturally) read this to mean that the First Testament Law is as binding on Christians today as it was on the people of Israel in years between Moses and Christ.

However, when we look at Jesus’ teaching and behaviour, even just within Matthew’s Gospel, we see him repeatedly massaging the Law, challenging the Law, even brazenly disobeying the Law – certainly as the Law was understood by the Pharisees of his day. For example:

  1. Matthew 5:21-48. Through the rest of chapter 5, Jesus uses the formula: “You have heard that it was said… But I tell you…” In this formula he, by his own authority, reinterprets the Law and in cases appears to overturn it. At its heart, he shifts the focus from the external letter of the Law, towards the heart attitude underlying the Law. And is so doing, makes keeping the Law much harder.
  2. Matthew 9:14-17. Here Jesus breaks the fasting laws. He is challenged on this, and explains that since the he is there, they should celebrate.
  3. Matthew 12:1-14. Here Jesus breaks the Sabbath laws – very important laws! He walks, he harvests and he eats, all on the Sabbath, and with his disciples. When challenged by the Pharisees, he even uses the Law to justify his breaking of the Law! And then he goes on to heal a man. In the parallel story in Mark’s Gospel (2:27), Jesus justifies his breaking of the Sabbath Laws by saying, “The Sabbath was made for man, not man for the Sabbath”
  4. Matthew 15:1-20. Here Jesus breaks the dietary (Kosher) laws (specifically not washing their hands before they eat). His answer is quite wide-ranging. He says, “What goes into someone’s mouth does not defile them, but what comes out of their mouth, that is what defiles them” (v11). And then he later explains in more detail: “Don’t you see that whatever enters the mouth goes into the stomach and then out of the body? But the things that come out of a person’s mouth come from the heart, and these defile them. For out of the heart come evil thoughts—murder, adultery, sexual immorality, theft, false testimony, slander. These are what defile a person; but eating with unwashed hands does not defile them

How do we reconcile Matthew 5’s apparently strict teaching with the rest of Jesus’ teaching and his daily behaviour? They do appear to be at odds with each other!

I suggest the following:

  • Under the First Testament Law, people believed that keeping the Law lead to Righteousness (i.e. to a right relationship with God). Because of this, they invested in keeping the Law down to the smallest letter (the jot and the tittle in the King James version). And the Pharisees, in particular, were highly devout in unpacking what each Law meant, and how it had to be lived out in the daily life.
  • Under the Second Testament, Jesus teaches that Righteousness (i.e. having a right relationship with God) leads to the keeping of the Law. We are made right with God through Jesus’ incarnation, ministry, death and resurrection. He is the one who, through his grace, makes us right with God, and we receive this righteousness through faith. Because of this, and in the power of the Spirit, we are enabled to keep God’s Law. But even this Law is not a legalistic ‘jot and tittle’ law, but a living, heart-based, relationship-centred Law. It is the Law of Love.

I end with a paraphrase of Matthew 5:17-20 by RT France (2007, pp. 190-191) in his commentary on Matthew’s Gospel:

“Do not suppose that I came to undermine the authority of the OT scriptures, and in particular the law of Moses. I did not come to set them aside but to bring into reality that to which they pointed forward. I tell you truly: the law, down to its smallest details, is as permanent as heaven and earth and will never lose its significance; on the contrary, all that is points forward to will in fact become a reality (and is now doing so in my ministry). So anyone who treats even the most insignificant of the commandments of the law as of no value and teaches other people to belittle them is an unworthy representative of the new regime, while anyone who takes them seriously in word and deed will be a true member of God’s kingdom.

“But do not imagine that simply keeping all those rules will bring salvation. For I tell you truly: it is only those whose righteousness of life goes far beyond the old policy of literal rulekeeping which the scribes and Pharisees represent who will prove to be God’s true people in this era of fulfillment.”

 

Turn to God

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Today is the first Sunday in Lent, when we reflect on Jesus’ 40-day fast in the desert, and the way the devil tempted him during this time (Luke 4:1-13). Here’s the point I believe God wants us to hear from this passage today:

  1. Fasting from something makes that something a point of focus for spiritual tension.
  2. As a result, we’ll experience an increase in temptation related to that something.
  3. That creates increased opportunities to choose to turn towards God or to sin.
  4. Thus, fasting creates opportunities for us to turn to God.

Jesus experienced this during his 40-day fast. We experience it when we fast. Fasting creates these intensified opportunities to turn to God. It is the gift of the fast.

How can we turn to God? Here are two ways:

  1. Select a Bible verse that is meaningful to you and and relevant to what you’re fasting from. Memorise it. Whenever you feel tempted, recite the verse.
  2. Select a brief prayer that you can easily memorise and recite, e.g. the Jesus Prayer: “Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me, a sinner.” Whenever you feel tempted, say the prayer.

Use the verse or prayer to remind you that you have made a commitment to God. Use it to help turn your focus towards God. Remind yourself that while breaking your fast may, actually, be trivial, remaining true to God is not.

Blessings as you journey through Lent.

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Turning towards God

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Today is Ash Wednesday, the first day of Lent. Lent is the period of 40 days of fasting and prayer that leads up to Easter. It is a time of preparation for Calvary.

We have three key readings today:

  1. Matthew 6:1-16,16-21. Jesus emphasises that when we do things like giving to the needy, praying and fasting in a way that draws people’s attention to ourselves, our reward for doing it is people’s attention. God is no much impressed. But when we do these things quietly, secretly, then God (who sees what is done in secret) will reward us with treasures that last for eternity.
  2. Psalm 51. In this Psalm, David acknowledges his brokenness and comes before God with empty hands. He does not pretend that he is something when he’s not. And he is honest about his sinfulness. He concludes that God will not despite or reject a broken spirit or a broken and contrite heart.
  3. Isaiah 58:1-12This passage (titled ‘true fasting’ in the NIV translation) emphasises that our fasting my (1) be wholehearted, not merely a performance or duty, and (2) must be matched with how we live out our faith in deeds of justice, compassion and rightness. When we just go through the motions, God will not answer. But when we are sincere and ‘walk the talk’, and call on God, he will say, “Here am I”.

In light of this, I make four key recommendations for prayer and fasting during Lent:

  1. Turn to God – quietly and privately.
  2. Repent of your sins – sincerely.
  3. Align yourself with God – wholeheartedly.
  4. Act on this alignment – purposefully.

Finally, I recommend a prayerful reading of Psalm 51 (NRSV).

1 Have mercy on me, O God,
according to your steadfast love;
according to your abundant mercy
blot out my transgressions.
2 Wash me thoroughly from my iniquity,
and cleanse me from my sin.

3 For I know my transgressions,
and my sin is ever before me.
4 Against you, you alone, have I sinned,
and done what is evil in your sight,
so that you are justified in your sentence
and blameless when you pass judgement.
5 Indeed, I was born guilty,
a sinner when my mother conceived me.

6 You desire truth in the inward being;
therefore teach me wisdom in my secret heart.
7 Purge me with hyssop, and I shall be clean;
wash me, and I shall be whiter than snow.
8 Let me hear joy and gladness;
let the bones that you have crushed rejoice.
9 Hide your face from my sins,
and blot out all my iniquities.

10 Create in me a clean heart, O God,
and put a new and right spirit within me.
11 Do not cast [fling] me away from your presence,
and do not take your holy spirit from me.
12 Restore to me the joy of your salvation,
and sustain in me a willing spirit.

13 Then I will teach transgressors your ways,
and sinners will return to you.
14 Deliver me from bloodshed, O God,
O God of my salvation,
and my tongue will sing aloud of your deliverance.

15 O Lord, open my lips,
and my mouth will declare your praise.
16 For you have no delight in sacrifice;
if I were to give a burnt-offering, you would not be pleased.
17 The sacrifice acceptable to God is a broken spirit;
a broken and contrite heart, O God, you will not despise.

Or listen to Bach’s Cantata based on Psalm 51 (music adapted from Pergolesi’s Stabat Mater)

 

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Coming down from the mountain

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Put your feet in the sandals of the disciples. They hear Jesus’ call and leave everything to follow him. They witness amazing events: healings, exorcisms, resurrections and the feeding of thousands. And they hear new teachings, unlike anything they have heard before.

And at the point that Peter realises that Jesus is the Christ, Jesus starts talking about suffering and dying, and that his disciples must follow him on this path. Crazy talk! Things had been so great; now they were falling to pieces.

Our own faith journey is often like this. We go through periods where we feel deeply connected to God, and experience God’s working in and through our lives, and being a Christian seems wonderful. But then, like a cloud on a hot day, it vaporizes, and it feels like God is absent. Up and down, up and down.

It was at a point like this, that the transfiguration takes place (John 9:28-36). Jesus takes Peter, James and John up a mountain, where he is transformed before their eyes. The appearance of his face changes, his clothes shine like a flash of lightening, they see his glory. It is as if the veil that separates our world from the heavenly realm was cracked open a little, and celestial light poured through. What a moment!

But, Peter’s attempt to hold on to it was thwarted, and soon the four of them trundle back down the mountain, and continue with the work of healing and teaching, spreading the good news of the Kingdom of God and – now they realise – journeying towards the cross. This mountain top experience served to strengthen them all for the coming challenges. It was not the destination; they had to come down the mountain.

In most churches around the world, this coming Wednesday (6 March 2019) is Ash Wednesday, the first day of Lent. Lent is a period of fasting and prayer that runs up to Easter. During this time, we immerse ourselves in the painful journey that Jesus takes, accompanied most of the way by his disciples, towards the cross. It is not an easy journey. The transfiguration, which we celebrated today, served to remind us that the one who is journeying towards that cross is not merely a great man, but the Son of God.

May God journey closely with you over this coming Lenten period.

Listen also to my 2012 message called “Pressing on to Glory”, based on the same passage

The featured image of this post is an Orthodox icon of the transfiguration. More information about this icon can be found here.

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Truth

Click here to listen to this 17-minute message.

What do you believe? What do you hold to be true? How certain are you that these truths are in fact true? Are you open to the possibility that what you think is true might actually be incorrect? Are you open to possibility that other truths, that are different from your own, might be true? Or are you certain that you are right and they are wrong? In the pantheon of all that you believe is true, is there a central truth – a core truth – that you hold with the greatest certainty? That you’d be prepared to die for?

Truth is a big deal in contemporary society. We live in a post-modern era, where we regard truth as socially constructed, and where one person’s truth is acceptably another person’s fiction or even falsehood. It is a time of relative belief, of ‘live and let live’, of ‘each to their own’.

Yet, for many Christians, truth is absolute and unquestionable. What the Bible says – at least, what those passages that we choose to read – is absolutely true and must be imposed on others as being undoubtedly truly for all people everywhere.

The Apostle Paul presents what appears to be a core truth for himself in 1 Corinthians 15. It centres on the resurrection of Christ. He argues that Christ’s resurrection is so central, that if you don’t believe it, then everything else that you think you believe is flawed and futile.

What is your core truth?

I believe a lot of things about my faith strongly. For example, I believe that God created everything, that God is three distinct persons in one being, that Jesus Christ was the incarnation of God into the world, and that Jesus has uniquely facilitated the restoration of our relationship with God. But I’m not entirely certain how God created everything, whether God is just three persons or if there may yet be additional persons in the Godhead whom we’ve not yet met, or when and how the incarnation took place, and whether there is any limit on the reach of Christ’s reconciliation of people to God. I have thoughts on all of these, and I believe them quite strongly, but I’m open to the possibility – even the likelihood – that I may be wrong.

Yet, for me, I have an unshakable core belief that the heart of God is filled to overflowing with generous, extravagant, fierce love. This one core belief is the centre of my faith. I’m willing to lay down my life for that belief. And everything else that I believe emanates from that central truth. It is why I wrote the book Being God’s Beloved.

What is your core truth?

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Courage!

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There are times in life where we are called upon to stand up for truth or justice, or simply to challenge someone in our family or workplace. Sometimes, we back off from these situations because it seems too intimidating. It is at times like this that we need courage – courage that comes from God.

Jeremiah 1:4-10 tells the story of such a time:

  1. God commissions Jeremiah, with an amazing promise: “Before I formed you in the womb I knew [or chose] you, before you were born I set you apart; I appointed you as a prophet to the nations.”
  2. Jeremiah responds with consternation (fear, anxiety, trepidation): “Alas, Sovereign Lord, I do not know how to speak; I am only a child.”
  3. God responds with words of encouragement, to give Jeremiah courage: “Do not say, ‘I am too young.’ … Do not be afraid of them, for I am with you and will rescue you. I have put my words in your mouth. See, today I appoint you over nations and kingdoms to uproot and tear down, to destroy and overthrow, to build and to plant.”

This three-fold pattern – commission, consternation, courage – is often true in our lives.

We see it also in Jesus’ ministry. In Luke 3:21-22, Jesus is commissioned at his baptism, when God the Holy Spirit fills him and God the Father speaks words of affirmation. In Luke 4:1-13, Jesus experiences (arguably) consternation, when he is tempted by Satan in the wilderness. And in Luke 4:17-27, Jesus displays courage by proclaiming his ministry manifesto and speaking truth to the people in the synagogue. Specifically, Jesus challenges their assumption that Jesus had come just for them, and argues that God had come for the whole world.

But let us not be obnoxious! Sometimes Christians can be self-righteous, harsh, uncaring and rude in the way we stand up for truth. Let us, rather, be the embodiment of love. 1 Corinthians 13 makes it perfectly clear that anything that we do that is not infused with love is worthless.

When the time comes for us to stand up to power, to challenge someone, to confront injustice in the world, let us remember that we (like Jeremiah) are commissioned to be Christ’s ambassadors and to work for the values of the Kingdom (e.g., love, justice, human dignity, compassion, community). And despite feeling consternated or fearful, let us take courage from knowing that God is with us and we are empowered by Holy Spirit, and let us speak up.

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God cares for you

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The story of Jesus changing water into wine at the wedding in Cana (John 2:1-11) is well-known to most people. It is, in John’s version of the Gospel story, the first act by which Jesus reveals his glory to people. It is an epiphany – an appearance or manifestation of the glory of God in Christ, showing Christ to be God incarnate, the Son of God, the second person of the Holy Trinity.

But before all of that, the changing of water into wine is an act of kindness that reveals to us the interest and care that God has for us. God is interested in and cares about all the daily events in our lives – our concerns and worries, the stumbling blocks and hurdles that we encounter, and our hopes and aspirations. God is not so preoccupied with the great events of the universe that God has no time to attend to the small details of our personal life. Jesus’ assistance with the wedding in Cana, where the wine for the celebrations had run out, is evidence of this.

That the first miracle Jesus performs in John’s Gospel is at a wedding is itself no coincidence. It points to God’s interest in human relationships, in love, in the connections between couples and between families. This reveals the heart of God, which is filled with love for us.

The miracle itself is also performed quietly and unobtrusively, unlike many of the miracles churches sell to people today, which are spectacles. Without any fanfare, Jesus asks some servants to ‘fill’, ‘draw’ and ‘take’, and only they and his mother knew that a miracle had been performed. It was almost done in secret.

As a result of this, his disciples entrusted themselves to Jesus; they put their faith in him, they believed into him. Because they saw that he had both power and compassion.

This miracle, however, also has layers of meaning that deepen our appreciation for this story. First, there are many pointers towards this being a story of Christ’s work to bring salvation to humanity, which we commemorate in the Eucharist (also known as the Holy Community or Lord’s Supper). Second, the wedding banquet is an image used throughout the Bible to point towards God’s great plan to reconcile the world to God’s self, culminating in a great eschatological wedding between us and God and a generous banquet.

At this grand level of the whole of cosmic history,

and at the level of Christ’s work for the salvation of humankind,

and at the level of a wedding in a small village where the families ran out of wine

– at all these levels – this story speaks of God’s care for us. Yes, God loves us. But, in addition, God cares. God cares about and responds to the little and the big things in our lives and God willing and able to respond to them.

 

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