Turn to God

Click here to listen to this 18-minute sermon.

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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Featured image from https://thewellarmedwoman.com/blog/fork-in-the-road/

Turning towards God

Click here to listen to this 11-minute message.

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)

 

Featured image from https://www.catholiccompany.com/getfed/ash-wednesday-beginning-lent-5548

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Coming down from the mountain

Click here to listen to this 20-minute message.

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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Courage!

Click here to listen to this 17-minute message.

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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Featured image from: https://www.iamashcash.com/wp-content/uploads/2015/12/Managing-Up-3-420×420.jpg

Radical inclusion

Click here to listen to this 16-minute message.

Luke 1 presents a compelling narrative about two women and two unborn babies. It is a remarkable way to start a story. Four individuals who, in various ways, are at the margins of society – an old barren woman, a teenage girl barely out of childhood, a six-month old foetus and a newly-fertilised egg. This is hardly a group of individuals that one would think would change the course of global history!

Yet, it is this very group that God chooses to initiate God’s major intervention in human history. It points to a pattern that we see in much of God’s work among humans – radical inclusion. God seeks to draw unexpected people into the centre of God’s working, people who society might often think of as ‘less than’ or ‘other’. Often, it is not the powerful, influential, reputable, wealthy, intelligent or educated that God places in key roles. Rather, God often chooses the outcast, the downtrodden, the humble, those who recognise their limitations and those who feel they have little to offer.

In this sermon, I tease out some of the remarkable insights we gain into Elizabeth and Mary, and the unborn John and Jesus, that Luke presents to us in the opening chapter of his Gospel narrative. I show the many ways in which we see God’s grace working itself out in profound and striking ways among this unlikely group of individuals.

From this, we get the message that there is no-one with whom God does not want to work. Every person – every single individual – has a part to play in God’s great work to redeem the cosmos. There are no exceptions. No matter how insignificant or inadequate or unavailable you may perceive yourself to be, God has a place for you, a role for you. We have to trust that this is indeed true. We have to relinquish ourselves to participate. As Mary so gracefully says, “I am the Lord’s servant. May it be to me as you have said” (Luke 1:38).

Conversely, we have to accept that God chooses to work with people we may feel God should not be working with. We (humans) tend to be far less tolerant and gracious than God! It is important for us not to become an obstacle to others who seek to play their part in God’s work. Even when we feel they are not right for or up to the task. Who are we to interfere with God’s judgment on who is worthy of participating in God’s work?

God’s radical inclusion is presented to us in Luke’s gospel as a cornerstone of God’s means of working. Through Luke, we see marginalised people, particularly women, being brought into the centre of Jesus’ ministry and God’s mission. We as individual Christians, and as a collective Church, should be emulating this approach.

Feature image cropped from: https://www.pexels.com/photo/grayscale-photo-of-two-pregnant-women-1253592/

Alignment

Click here to listen to this 13-minute message.

This message was preached on a special day: the first service I led as an ordained Anglican priest in the Diocese of Pretoria, South Africa. There’s a picture of me below, flanked by The Rev’d Marti Slater (Assistant Priest) and The Rev’d Siphiwo Bam (Rector of our parish) after the service.

In this message, I share a little of my journey of being called into ministry, which goes back about 30 years since I first heard the call (and began avoiding it) and 14 years since I accepted the call and began journeying towards ordination. There is a long story, the details of which I don’t go into in this message. Suffice it to say that it has not been easy and that I and many others are delighted that this day has finally arrived.

In the process of this journey, particularly in the past year or so, and especially during this past week of preparation for yesterday’s ordination (Saturday 15 December), I have come to understand that God has been working to increasingly align my life – the whole of my life, both interior and public, both in church and in the ‘secular’ workspace – with God’s will and desire. Alignment has become the word I use to express my experience of this journey towards ordination.

Looking at the Advent reading for today, from Luke 3:7-18, we see John the Baptist calling people to prepare for the coming Messiah, to make their hearts and their society ready to receive him. He says, “Produce fruit in keeping with repentance” (vs 8a), which I interpret as a call to alignment. Repentance is an internal and spiritual act, between oneself and God. Producing fruit, on the other hand, is a public and social act, between oneself and the world.

After exhorting his congregation to repentance, people ask him, “What should we do then?” and John gives three responses that point to a message of social justice – about treating people fairly, honestly, kindly and with integrity. His message of repentance is, in many ways, a social message. But then he goes on to warn people that one greater than he will come, who baptizes not with water but with Spirit and fire. This message is a religious and spiritual one.

John is not presenting a muddled message. Rather, he is calling for an alignment between our private and public lives, between our ‘sacred’ and ‘secular’ lives. He is anticipating Paul’s disclosure of the mystery of God’s will, viz. “He [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).

Ultimately, there is no distinction between our private and public lives, between our ‘sacred’ and ‘secular’ lives. All are within the sphere of God’s interest and mission. All need to align with God. As we journey towards alignment, we help to make straight paths for the Lord, rather than crooked ones. We help to fill in the valleys and make low the mountains, so that rough ways become smooth. Then all people will see God’s salvation (Luke 3:4-6).

Here is a definition of Christian alignment that I have been working on. Alignment is:

  • The will of God the Father,
  • Enacted by God the Son,
  • Empowered by God the Holy Spirit,
  • Illuminating our hearts and minds,
  • Expressed through our values in action, and
  • Transforming the world.

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The video below is a song written and performed by Gregory Porter called Take me to the Alley. I have been listening to this song over the past week, and during retreat it was ever in my mind. I find the words profound and the style of the song very moving. I think it is an Advent hymn.

 

Feature image from: http://mxtrianz.me/stone-stack/stone-stack-9-stack-of-stones-and-sea-splash-stock-footage-video-4820351/

 

There will be signs!

Click here to listen to this 20-minute message.

Today is the first Sunday in Advent – the four Sundays leading up to Christmas – during which time we reflect on our preparation for Christ’s comings into the world – his first coming some two thousand years ago, and his second coming some time in the future.

Today’s Gospel reading, Luke 21:25-36, presents part of Jesus’ prophecy about the future, specifically, the Day of the Lord, or the day on which he will return, aka the ‘second coming’. He opens this passage with the words, “There will be signs…”

We all look for signs – signs about our past, to explain where we come from; signs about the future, so we know where we’re going; and signs about the present, to help us make sense of our current situations. In this passage, Jesus gives us insights into all of these.

Advent is a time of going back more than 2000 years, so we can look forward to the birth of Christ, whose birthday we will celebrate in a few weeks. In those days, people were looking for signs of the long-awaited Messiah. Now, today, we are looking forward to his second coming, and looking at the signs that foretell this.

Jesus’ teaching in Luke raises both the light and dark of Jesus’ second coming, some time in the future. He cautions us about the dangers and risks of that time. And he also encourages us to be faithful during these times.

Drawing on Christ’s teaching, I suggest that he calls us – in our faith, and also in our private and public lives – to cast one eye on the future and the other on the present. I explain why he says this and why it is a useful approach for contemporary living. I argue that we should live in the present, with roots in our past and looking forward to the future.

Feature image from: https://blog.obitel-minsk.com/2017/05/orthodox-understanding-of-the-second.html