Waiting for Christ

Click here to listen to this 23-minute message.

I preached this message on 1 December 2019, the first Sunday in Advent, but did not have a chance at that time to publish it. I thought today would be a good day to post it, given that so many people in South Africa and globally are staying away from church to promote physical distancing during the Coronavirus (COVID-19) crisis. In the recording, I apply the message to Aids and violence against women and against children. But in this blog, I apply it to the Coronavirus.

This message draws on Matthew 24:36-44, where Jesus speaks about That Day when he will return – one day still in the future (as of writing this blog!). Jesus’ teaching in his passage tells us two main things:

First, God does not want us to know when he will return again.

Indeed, he explains that NO-ONE knows. Not even the angels. Not even the Son of Man! If God wanted us to know, God would have told us. Or at very least, God would have told the Son. This means for us:

  1. We need to stop worrying about when he is going to come back and should stop believing people who think they’ve worked out the date.
  2. We need to believe and accept that Jesus WILL return. One day, perhaps not in our lifetime, or perhaps tonight, he will return.

Second, Jesus’ return will be unexpected.

Whenever it is that he returns, we will be caught off guard. Jesus uses the story of Noah and the flood as an example – in those days, life was just going on as usual. There were no signs to warn anyone of the flood, until the day the flood started – then it came unexpectedly. This means for us:

  1. “Therefore, keep watch” – stay awake, be alert – so that when Jesus comes, we will awake to see him.
  2. And keep watch not for the signs, but rather for Jesus himself. It is for Jesus we need to keep a lookout.

Coronavirus

During this time of the Coronavirus – as we watch the death toll rise by the hundreds day by day, and as we experience countries closing borders, hear of people stopping work, see the empty streets – we may think that these are the signs of the end times.

But no! Jesus’ teaching in Matthew 24 clearly indicates that because we might think these are the signs, he will not be coming back now. If we are expecting him to return, he is not returning.

There are many things we may learn from Coronavirus, but it is not about the End Times. Rather, it is about the present times. What may we learn?

  • We may learn how reversable the negative impact of humanity on the environment might be.
  • We may learn how important human relationships are, while we have to keep away from each other.
  • We may recognise the vulnerability of certain groups of people, such as those in precarious employment, older persons and single parents.
  • We may learn that we are not really in control of the planet and that nature can, if it wants, profoundly disrupt human society.

These are not lessons for the End Times. Rather, they are lessons for the present time and for life after the Coronavirus. Just imagine how stupid we’d have to be to exit the Coronavirus crisis and revert to our former ways of living. How dumb would be? I don’t believe God has sent this virus to punish or teach us. But I do believe God desires us to learn something important from this virus.

The summary of this message:

Live your life in such a way that, when you are surprised by Christ’s return, you will be ready for him!

Whoever has ears, let them listen!

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Image from https://www.nbcnews.com/video/flags-of-countries-struck-by-coronavirus-projected-onto-rio-s-christ-the-redeemer-80958021701

Fast of the heart

Click here to listen to this 14-minute message.

Lent, which kicks off on Ash Wednesday (26 February this year), is usually associated with fasting, and this, together with prayer and giving to the needy, is the topic of the first half of Matthew 6 (part of Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount). In this passage Jesus differentiates between fasting that is done for public approval and fasting that is done in secret and for God. It is this latter fasting (and prayer and giving to others) that Jesus esteems. It is this fasting, done in secret, that Jesus says “your Father, who sees what is done in secret, will reward you.” And we know that this reward is eternal, in heaven, as this is where Jesus encourages us to store up our treasures.

For those of you who are fasting during this Lent, I encourage you to fast for yourself and for God, and keep your fasting secret and hidden. It is in this fast of the heart that we allow ourselves to experience discomfort and difficulty. And this reminds us of the discomfort and difficulty Jesus faced as he journeyed towards the cross.

Have a blessed Lent.

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Featured image from here.

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

To be saved

Click here to listen to this 19-minute message.

Our Gospel reading for today is the rather curious passage from Luke 20:27-38, which involves a convoluted story about a woman who was married and remarried to seven brothers in succession, with the hope that one of them would impregnate her. The question asked of Jesus by the Sadducees was which of them would be her husband at the resurrection. It is a rather awful story, filled with patriarchal beliefs about women, marriage and child bearing.

I did not feel God leading me to preach on this passage today.

However, the point of the story is of interest. Jesus affirms that there IS a resurrection, that there is an afterlife, and that it will be wonderful. And this affirmation of Jesus – that life does not simply end when our bodies die – prompts us to think about salvation and what it means to be saved.

For that, we turn to our Second Testament reading: 2 Thessalonians 2:13-17 (I’ve bolded some of the key words):

13 But we ought always to thank God for you, brothers and sisters loved by the Lord, because God chose you as firstfruits to be saved through the sanctifying work of the Spirit and through belief in the truth. 14 He called you to this through our gospel, that you might share in the glory of our Lord Jesus Christ.

15 So then, brothers and sisters, stand firm and hold fast to the teachings[b] we passed on to you, whether by word of mouth or by letter.

16 May our Lord Jesus Christ himself and God our Father, who loved us and by his grace gave us eternal encouragement and good hope, 17 encourage your hearts and strengthen you in every good deed and word.

What do we learn about salvation from this passage?

  • First, God chose us – God called us. Salvation is always God’s initiative. And God chooses and calls every person into fellowship with God. God’s mission is to reconcile the WHOLE world to God’s self, under the headship of Christ (Ephesians 1:9-14). When God calls us, God calls us by name. It is personal. God wants YOU personally. It is not just that God wants to save everyone, like some anonymous conglomerate of humanity. No! It is that God’s has chosen YOU personally, by name, and called you to be in fellowship with God, to be saved.
  • Second, we are saved through two main actions (according to this passage):
    • First, we are saved through the sanctifying work of the Spirit. When God calls us, Holy Spirit comes and resides in us. Spirit makes a home in our hearts, comes and lives inside of us (1 Corinthians 6:19). God works to transform us into the image of Christ, from the inside out, through the sanctifying work of the Spirit.
    • Second, we are saved through our belief in the truth. And what is this truth? Jesus Christ is truth (John 14:6; John 8:31-32). We can do nothing to attain salvation; salvation is in its entirety the result of Christ’s work, through creation, his incarnation, his ministry, his death, his resurrection and his ascension to the right hand of God. We can’t add to this. All we can do is respond to the truth of it. And ‘to believe in’ something or someone is much the same as ‘to trust in’ someone or even better, ‘to entrust ourselves’ to someone. We entrust ourselves into the truth of Jesus.
  • Third, the result of this salvation is that we get to share in the glory of our Lord Jesus Christ. It is not so much that we become glorious, but that we bask in the radiance of God’s glory. We can be confident that when we die, we enter into the enjoyable and wonderful presence of God. Jesus spoke about this in our earlier reading (Luke 20:36): “they can no longer die; for they are like the angels. They are God’s children, since they are children of the resurrection.”
  • Finally, because of all of this, we are encouraged to stand firm and hold fast to our faith. Sometimes, maybe often, our faith is frail and feeble. Sometimes life gets on top of us. Sometimes we succumb to sin. Sometimes pain, suffering and illness burden us. Sometimes evil in the world – violence, hatred, exclusion, oppression, poverty and injustice – overwhelm us. In these times, especially, God calls us, urges us, to stand firm in and to hold fast to Christ.

In Paul’s final words in this brief passage, he offers a blessing. I liked this blessing so much, we read it four times during the service, twice as a blessing, with my hand outstretched. I again stretch out my hands to you in blessing, saying:

May our Lord Jesus Christ himself and God our Father, who loved us and by his grace gave us eternal encouragement and good hope, encourage your hearts and strengthen you in every good deed and word.

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Christianity made simple

Click here to listen to this 22-minute message.

The theme I was allocated for today’s sermon was ‘Make it simple’. Make it simple! What a theme!! I’m good at making things complex, nuanced and sophisticated; not at making the complex and (ultimately) unknowable simple.

So I start this message by sharing my testimony of how I became a Christian on 21 October 1984.

I then use the four readings allocated for today to pull out two main themes:

  1. Psalm 116 uses the phrase “I call on the name of the Lord” four times, emphasising that in response to both the highs and lows of life, we are to choose to call on God’s name.
  2. Joshua, in Joshua 24:14-18, calls people to choose this day who they will follow: God or not God.
  3. In Ephesians 4:25-5:1, Paul exhorts Christians to “be kind and compassionate” to other people and to “walk in the way of love”.
  4. And in Luke 6:27-36, Jesus says, “to you who are listening I say: Love”. This is always his command and call, the most basic command that he gives and the one that he gives most frequently. This time, he ups the ante by calling us to ‘love our enemies’, because loving those who love us is something everyone does. We who follow Christ, however, are called to more than that.

Together, these readings present to us a very simple (albeit not easy) approach to Christianity:

Choose God

Choose love

It is really as simple as that. And while these sound like two things, they are in fact one, because God is love (1 John 4:8). So, in truth, at its simplest level, being a Christian means:

Choose the God of love

Let it be so.

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