Continuous God

Click here to listen to the audio recording of this 15-minute message. Or watch the video on Facebook here (the message starts at about 22 minutes into the video).

We live in a world that is fraught with challenges and unpredictabilities. We think of Russia’s war on Ukraine, the continued challenges of the people of Palestine and the various conflicts in Africa. We think in South Africa of increasing unemployment, rising inflation, the upcoming petrol price hike. We think of loadshedding and the ongoing challenges of Covid. We think of the water crisis in Nelson Mandela Bay and the devastation of the floods in KwaZulu-Natal. The world is unpredictable. Our lives are often unpredictable. Sometimes, we may feel disoriented and anxious because of the many challenges that we face at personal, national and global levels.

In these times, it is reassuring to recognise that while life may be unpredictable, God is consistent. God persists. God has always, continues to and will always engage with us. When life feels chaotic, we have a God we can rely on.

Today’s reading from John 14:23-27 is particularly strong in reassuring us of God’s continuity. Jesus starts in v23 with himself: “Anyone who loves me will obey my teaching.” And then he immediately continues, “My Father will love them.” Here is the first affirmation of consistency – between God the Son and God the Father. Jesus draws the immediate and strong link between himself, his Father and us – rooted in love – our love for Christ and the Father’s love for us. And he continues with these amazing words, “and we will come to them and make our home with them”. I love this use of ‘we’ and ‘our’ – here Jesus is referring to himself and his Father as operating together, as a partnership, and of coming dwell with us as a partnership. What a great reassurance of the continuity between the Father and the Son. And Jesus continues further, “These words you hear are not my own; they belong to the Father who sent me” – yet further reassurance of continuity and consistency between God the Father and God the Son.

Jesus then continues, introducing the Holy Spirit as “the Advocate, the Holy Spirit, whom the Father will send in my name”. In this short phrase we have Father, Son and Holy Spirit, collaborating together – the Father sends the Holy Spirit in the Son’s name. And the role of the Holy Spirit will be to “teach you all things and [to] remind you of everything I have said to you”. Here again, we have continuity and consistency – Holy Spirit does not start a new work in us, but rather continues the work of the Son, by reinforcing his teachings in us.

The result of all of this continuity from the Father of the Old Testament, the Son of the Gospels and the Spirit of the New Testament church is peace. Peace! Jesus says, “Peace I leave with you; my peace I give you. Do not let your hearts be troubled and do not be afraid.” We can breathe out, we can rest in God, we can trust that God has been consistently and persistently at work throughout history, from the creation until now and into the future. Do not be troubled. Do not be afraid. Be at peace.

And these reassurances of God’s continuity extend into the future. Revelation 21:10 and 21:22-22:5 paint a compelling image of the heaven. John is taken by the Spirit – the same Spirit Jesus has spoken about in John’s Gospel – and sees the new Jerusalem, the Holy City coming down out of heaven from God. It is a glorious sight! There is no temple there, because God (the Father) and the Lamb (the Son) are its temple. God’s light shines out brilliantly. The gates of the city are always open. There is a river running through the city, with the water of life, and the tree of life, with leaves for the healing of the nations. We can see God’s face.

John’s vision is a deep reassurance of God’s continuity – what have seen in the Father throughout the first Testament, what we have seen confirmed in the life of the Son in the Gospels, and what we have been promised and experienced in the coming of Holy Spirit in the early Church and continuing until today, will continue into the future, until the day Christ returns.

We can rest deeply into the continuity of God, into God’s steadfast faithfulness and persistence. We can hold onto a God who is faithful, even when our own faith is frail or when life’s burdens overwhelm or depress us. We can hold fast to God’s continuity.

Featured image: John of Patmos watches the descent of New Jerusalem from God in a 14th-century tapestry (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/New_Jerusalem)

Desperate times

Click here to listen to the audio recording of this 25-minute message. Or watch the video on Facebook here (the message starts at about 35 minutes – unfortunately the volume on the video is very soft).

There are times in our life when things are desperate. These two years of Covid, and the losses, restrictions and challenges it has brought us, have given us additional reasons to feel desperate. There are times when life is exceptionally hard and we feel that the world is pitted against us – that even God is pitted against us.

Psalm 22 knows something about this:

1 My God, my God, why have you forsaken me? Why are you so far from saving me, so far from my cries of anguish? 2 My God, I cry out by day, but you do not answer, by night, but I find no rest. 6 But I am a worm and not a man, scorned by everyone, despised by the people. 7 All who see me mock me; they hurl insults, shaking their heads. 8 “He trusts in the Lord,” they say, “let the Lord rescue him. Let him deliver him, since he delights in him.” 14 I am poured out like water, and all my bones are out of joint. My heart has turned to wax; it has melted within me. 15 My mouth is dried up like a potsherd, and my tongue sticks to the roof of my mouth; you lay me in the dust of death.

Jesus uses this Psalm to express his desperation and despair as he hangs dying on the cross. He feels God-forsaken, utterly desolate. Where is God in all of this? Why am I abandoned?

The Psalmist shows a flicker of faith – just a flicker, though:

9 Yet you brought me out of the womb; you made me trust in you, even at my mother’s breast. 10 From birth I was cast on you; from my mother’s womb you have been my God.

And he cries out with a desperate, but muted plea:

11 Do not be far from me, for trouble is near and there is no one to help.

Job knows something about desperate times, having lost everything, despite being a righteous man of deep faith. He loses everything – everything – and grapples to make sense of what feels like God’s abandonment of him. Instead of imploding in despair like the Psalmist above, Job explodes outwards in anger and wants to confront God (Job 23):

2 “Even today my complaint is bitter; his hand is heavy in spite of my groaning. 3 If only I knew where to find him; if only I could go to his dwelling! 4 I would state my case before him and fill my mouth with arguments. 5 I would find out what he would answer me, and consider what he would say to me.

Job pushes towards God, seeking confrontation, to put his case to God, to demand to know why God would let him struggle like this. Job is desperate, and his desperation evokes anger and outrage at God.

Yet God makes himself unfindable:

8 “But if I go to the east, he is not there; if I go to the west, I do not find him. 9 When he is at work in the north, I do not see him; when he turns to the south, I catch no glimpse of him.

How frustrating it is when the person we want to confront is unavailable, inaccessible. God disappears and Job is left both desperate and angry, with nowhere to vent his anger. And yet, Job is also afraid of God – God is dangerous, and a confrontation with God could be a disaster for Job:

13 “But he stands alone, and who can oppose him? He does whatever he pleases. 14 He carries out his decree against me, and many such plans he still has in store. 15 That is why I am terrified before him; when I think of all this, I fear him. 16 God has made my heart faint; the Almighty has terrified me.

In the end, Job does not offer up a muted plea like the Psalmist. Instead, he shakes his fist at God:

17 Yet I am not silenced by the darkness, by the thick darkness that covers my face.

23 “How hard it is for the rich to enter the kingdom of God! 24 … Children, how hard it is to enter the kingdom of God! 25 It is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for someone who is rich to enter the kingdom of God.”

The disciples also experience similar desperate times with Jesus. While we think and teach about Jesus as always available, receptive and loving, sometimes he is not. We know the story in Mark 10 of a young man who rushes up to Jesus, falling on his knees and asking what he must do to inherit eternal life. Jesus seems, from the get-go, to treat him harshly, eventually telling him to give away everything he has, and the young man is crestfallen and “went away sad”. Jesus then turns to the disciples and says:

The disciples are amazed and shocked – presumably at both Jesus’ response to the earnest young man and Jesus’ words about how impossible it is to saved. Peter cries out in desperation:

26 Who then can be saved? [and] 28 But we have left everything to follow you!

You can hear Peter’s despair. He has left everything – family, work, home, community, his place in society, everything – to follow Jesus, and now Jesus says that it is impossible for man to be saved and how hard it will be for anyone to be saved. It seems to Peter and the disciples that everything they have sacrificed is for nothing.

This is a low point for Peter. He hits rock bottom as it seems to him that he has lost everything. His sense of purpose is fracturing.

Sometimes, we find ourselves in similar places to the Psalmist, to Job and to Peter. Our world seems to be falling apart, the challenges of life pile up and seem unduly heavy, God seems to have abandoned us, where is he to be found?, we feel alone and desperate. It as this lowest point that transformation can come.

Peter missed something that Mark noticed. In Mark 10:21a, Mark writes, “Jesus looked at him [the rich young man] and love him.” Jesus looked at him and he loved him. Jesus looked at her and he loved her. Jesus looked at me and he loved me. Jesus looks at you and he loves you.

The writer of Hebrews helps us understand that a fundamental change occurs in the life of God, through Christ’s experience here on earth. Before the incarnation, God could see what human life was like, but could not feel what it was like. But with Jesus’ coming into this world in human form, God now knew first hard what human desperation feels like. Hebrews 4

14 Therefore, since we have a great high priest who has ascended into heaven, Jesus the Son of God, let us hold firmly to the faith we profess. 15 For we do not have a high priest who is unable to empathize with our weaknesses, but we have one who has been tempted in every way, just as we are—yet he did not sin.

And because Jesus understands fully what it is like to be human, and because he truly understands what it is like to be desperate, and because he loves us utterly and to the very end, the writer to the Hebrews invites us to come to God:

16 Let us then approach God’s throne of grace with confidence, so that we may receive mercy and find grace to help us in our time of need.

We can come to the throne of God, not with a muted plea, not with anger, not in desperation, but in confidence, knowing that at that throne we will find grace and mercy to help us in our time of need. We can be confident to wrestle with God, to plead with God, to challenge God, to lean into God. Because he love us and because he knows first hand how hard this life can be. Jesus (in Mark 10:29-31) does not promise an easy life – he promises both reward and persecution.

But he does promise that we can always have direct access to the throne of grace and mercy. Such is the love the Father has for us. God is always accessible, always nearby, always connected, always empathic, always in the midst of adversity with us.

Featured image from https://www.cdc.gov/nceh/features/hurricanepreparedness/index.html

Bread of Heaven (Part 5)

Click here to listen to the audio recording of this 25-minute message. Or watch the video on Facebook here (the message starts at 30 minutes). Or read the text summary below.

We complete our five-part series on the Bread of Heaven, this week focusing on John 6:56-69. Over the past four weeks, Jesus has been consistently redirecting us to himself and presenting himself to us as the source of life. Among other things, he has show that:

  • He cares about us.
  • He feeds us, meets our physical needs, abundantly.
  • He redirects us from earthly things to heavenly spiritual things.
  • He directs us towards himself.
  • He invites us repeatedly into a relationship with him.
  • He says he is the bread of life, come down from heaven
  • He invites us to feast on him.
  • He offers us and the world eternal life.

Now the question is: How will you respond to all this?

There are two sets of responses in our reading: the response of the larger group of Jesus’ disciples and then the response of the 12 disciples, voiced by Peter.

The response of Jesus’ disciples

Today’s reading indicates that Jesus’ teachings are hard – who can accept them? What is it about Jesus’ teaching in John 6 that is hard to accept, offensive? In part, it is his claim that he came down from heaven (John 6:42) and in part that he invites us to eat his flesh and drink his blood (John 6:52). On the one hand, he is too heavenly and on the other hand he is too earthly and fleshy. He is too high and too low!

Jesus responds to the first point by asking how they will feel when they see him ascending back into heaven (John 6:61-62). If his claim to have come down from heaven is hard to accept, how much more witnessing him ascending back into heaven! And he respond to the second point by saying they should forget about earthly flesh and concentrate on spiritual flesh and words, which are full of Spirit and life (John 6:63).

But, recognising that his teachings are hard to understand, Jesus acknowledges that some do not believe and some who believe will fall away. It is our choice whether or not we believe in him. Yet, it is important for us also to know that God the Father enables our faith, enables us to believe and even to accept hard, difficult teachings. Indeed, three times in this chapter, Jesus emphasises that it is the Father who inspires and enables our belief:

  • The Father gives us to Christ (John 6:37).
  • The Father draws us to Christ (John 6:44).
  • The Father enables us to come to Christ (John 6:65).

God is sovereign. God does the drawing of our hearts towards Jesus. We rely and depend on God to enable and inspire our faith. And so we pray to him when our faith frays.

Nevertheless, many of Jesus disciples turn away and leave him. God does not force them to stay or force them to believe. We have free well to listen to God’s call and to follow him. God may give, draw and enable our faith, but he does not coerce – we still choose.

The response of Peter

Finally, Jesus turns to the 12 disciples – they are not among those who turned away and left. He asks them, “You do not want to leave too, do you?” (John 6:67). The phrasing of the Greek implies a ‘no’ answer. Jesus is hoping that they will not join the others who have turned away.

Peter’s reply is wonderful:

“Lord, to whom shall we go? You have the words of eternal life!” (John 6:68) Peter knows the options out there, and concludes that they are all wanting. Even if Jesus’ teaching is hard to fathom, he can think of no better options. And besides, despite the difficult of Jesus’ teachings, he recognises that these are words of eternal life. Not words about eternal life, but the words of eternal life! Jesus very words are Life itself! As Jesus said earlier (v63), “the words I have spoken are full of the Spirit and of life.”

“We have come to believe to know that you are the Holy One of God.” (John 6:69) Here Peter describes a process – the same process that we have been following these past five weeks: there is a process (“we have come”) of learning to trust Jesus and to entrust ourselves into Jesus (“to believe”) that leads to knowledge about who Jesus is and what he means to us (“and to know that you are the Holy One of God”). There is a process of trusting Jesus that leads to us knowing him.

All of this (this entire chapter 6 in John’s Gospel) has been about drawing us closer into a trusting relationship with Jesus, redirecting us from the things of the world to himself, and learning to trust that he himself, as the bread that has come down from heaven, is the source of all the nourishment that we need, of life, of Spirit.

Again, the question is: How will you respond to all this?

Featured image of sourdough bread from https://www.independent.com/events/how-to-make-sourdough-bread/

Bread of Heaven (Part 1)

Click here to listen to the audio recording of this 22-minute message. Or watch the video on Facebook here (the message starts at about 31 minutes). Or read the text summary below.

Our reading this morning is from John 6:1-21. We will be spending five weeks on this chapter. I think that this is the most consecutive Sundays we spend on any chapter in the Bible. (I stand to be corrected.) This is because we receive here some of Jesus’ most profound and important teaching – about the Bread of Life, the Bread of Heaven. It starts with a story about ‘real bread’ and becomes a story about ‘Real Bread’ (Bruner’s commentary on John).

In the first 15 verses of John 6, we are introduced to bread. It sets the scene for the rest of the chapter. We can read this story at two levels: on the ground floor, it is a story about Jesus feeding 5000 men from five small barley loaves and two small fish – a story of compassion and care; on the first floor, it is a story about an invitation to faith – faith in Jesus, who is the Bread of Life.

The ground floor – a story about caring

Jesus is on the mountain side and he sees a large crowd heading his way. John writes “Jesus looked up and saw”. Jesus is always looking up and seeing. We get this again and again in the Gospel narratives. He has his eyes open and sees the needs of those around him. If you listen to my messages over the past month, you’ll hear it over and over. He sees. And he has compassion.

So he asks his disciples how they can arrange bread to feed the people. It is a huge ask, of course, with 5,000 men, plus children (we know there are children there, because soon we meet a ‘boy’ in v9) and women (if there are children, there are surely women). So, there were perhaps 15,000 or 20,000 people! Andrew brings a boy who has a little bit of food – not much more than a snack. Jesus gives thanks for the food and distributes it to the people. (One wonders what the boy thought about having his lunch annexed by the Andrew and Jesus!) Everyone eats their fill, so much so, that there are 12 large baskets (big baskets that could hold a man) of leftovers of the barley bread.

Many of us believe that Jesus performed a miracle, in which he multiplied that little bread into much bread. Others believe that when people saw Jesus’ (and perhaps also the boy’s) generosity and compassion, they were moved to share what they had with those who had less. And so, what we see is a social miracle about people moved to caring and sharing. Either way, this is a story about Jesus caring for others – caring for our everyday needs. As we often pray, ‘Give us this day our daily bread’. Bread is life in come communities. In others, it is maize meal porridge. In others, it is rice. Every society has a staple food that provides the foundation of life. Jesus cares about this and wants people to have food in their stomachs. And to have it abundantly.

The first floor – a story about faith

The feeding of the 5000 is an important miracle story in the Bible. It is the ONLY miracle, taking place between Jesus’ baptism and his entry into Jerusalem on Palm Sunday, that appears in ALL FOUR Gospels. There is no other miracle that appears across all four Gospels, except this one. And in John’s gospel, it introduces a lengthy chapter about the spiritual meaning of Real Bread. Still, even on the first floor, the real bread is just bread. But the interactions between Jesus and the others are an invitation to faith.

John tells us that the event takes place just before the Passover festival (v4). The Passover symbolised, as it still does, liberation and redemption from slavery in Egypt, God standing up for the people of God, God caring for God’s chosen ones. It is central to Jewish faith, like the cross is central to Christian faith. This cues us that this is a story about faith.

Seeing the large crowds, Jesus invited Philip to faith: “Where shall we buy bread for these people to eat?” For sure, this is a big ask – it is a big crowd. But Philip was there in John 2, when Jesus changed water into wine – a lot of wine, a lot of really good wine! Jesus invites Philip to have faith. A faith response might have been, “Lord, I can’t imagine where we could get or afford so much bread. But I know you can make a plan! If anyone can feed this many people, it is you!” That would be a faith response, particularly after witnessing the water into wine miracle. Instead, all Philip can see is the large crowd. He loses sight of Jesus. His faith fails him.

Andrew shows a little faith, however. He finds a boy with some food. He emphasises the smallness of what the boy has: “five small barley loaves and two small fish” (v8). And then his tiny bubble of faith pops: “But how far will they go among so many people?”

Yet, that is all Jesus needed: a tiny morsel of faith. He takes those small loaves and small fish and gives thanks for (literally ‘eucharists’) them and feeds 5000+ people. Jesus is not constrained by the size of our faith. Andrew’s faith is feeble, small and easily fizzles. But what is important is not so much our faith, as the one in whom we place our faith: Jesus is more than capable of calming our storms, feeding us, healing us, helping us. He is the Lord of lords and King of kings. He is God incarnate. He can do anything.

It is only in the collecting of the leftovers that the disciples and the people recognise a miracle has taken place. I think Jesus instructs the disciples to collect the leftovers so they can see and touch the miracle, much as Jesus does with Thomas in John 20 – “Put your finger here; see my hand”. As Thomas was invited by Jesus to see, touch and respond in faith, so were Philip and the other disciples invited to see, touch and respond in faith. And so are we. Particularly during times of turmoil, illness, loss, distress and hunger.

Postscript

Immediately after the story of the feeding of the 5000, we have John’s version of the story of Jesus walking on the water (see my sermon on this same story from Mark’s Gospel, a month ago). The disciples are alone in a boat on a lake in a storm and struggling to make headway. Jesus sees their plight and walks across the water to them. They are terrified to see him, but he says, ‘It is I; don’t be afraid“, and he climbs into the storm-rocked boat with them – he chooses to be in the boat in the storm with them – and immediately, they find they have reached the other side of the lake, where they were headed.

Jesus remains more than capable of riding out and calming the storms in our lives.

Featured image from https://www.kitchensanctuary.com/artisan-bread-recipe/

Great is God’s faithfulness

Click here to listen to the audio recording of this 19-minute message. Or watch the video on YouTube. The whole Eucharist service is available (65 minutes), and the message starts at 20 minutes, and a song (Great is thy faithfulness) at 36 minutes. (With thanks to Symphonic Distribution Inc for not blocking the singing of this hymn.)

In Ephesians 1:3-14, Paul sets out in great depth and compact detail, his views on God and God’s relationship with us. This message is so timely in these days when we feel beset by Covid, together with the many other challenges we face in society. In a time like this, we need these words in Ephesians to take root in our hearts, where they grow and flourish. Paul’s writing is dense and compact, so I’ve extracted the words and phrases he uses and clustered them under three headings as follows:

The generous love of God

Blessed us, in the spiritual realm, very spiritual blessing, in Christ, in love, according to God’s pleasure, he has freely given us, redemption, forgiveness of sins, riches of God’s grace, bring unity to all things, under Christ, he lavished on us, according to his good pleasure.

These words speak about the extravagant, lavish, abundant, never-ending love of God that God pours out in a continuous and faithful stream into our lives. We are washed, saturated and soaked in the love of God. There is nothing, absolutely nothing, that can separate us from this love.

God’s plan and God’s sovereignty

He chose us, before creation, he predestined us, according to his will, all wisdom, all understanding, he purposed, when the times reach their fulfilment, predestined, according to the plan of him who works out everything in conformity with the purpose of his will.

God is King. God is in charge. God has a plan, God’s will shall deliver on that plan, God is sovereign. Sometimes it may feel that God has lost control and we are floating free in the ocean, battered by the storms of life. But God is always in control, and we are always in the palm of God’s hand, even (perhaps especially) when it doesn’t feel that way.

Our place as God’s beloved

You also were included, you were marked in him, with a seal, (the sign of Christ), a deposit, a guarantee, an inheritance, God’s possession, adopted, sonship.

God holds us firm. God has marked us with the seal of the Spirit. We were marked at our baptism with a cross, the sign of Christ – that sign does not fade or dissolve. God can spot us in the largest, densest crowd. God knows those who are his own – he does not lose sight of us. He has adopted us as ‘sons’ – as those who receive the full and complete inheritance of God, even though we are not God’s own offspring. We are utterly precious and valuable to God.

Featured image from: https://thepreachersword.files.wordpress.com/2018/01/ephesians-1-3.jpg

Thorn in the flesh

Click here to listen to the audio recording of this 22-minute message. Or watch the video on YouTube. The whole Eucharist service is available (59 minutes), and the message starts at 14 minutes.

What is Paul’s thorn?

  • Our English translation ‘thorn’ could be a thorn/splinter, or a stake/spike/pole, or anything pointed – differing views on which is more likely – a stake implies something shattering and devastating, while a thorn implies a low grade but constant irritation/infection
  • Could be ‘in the flesh’ or ‘for the flesh’, i.e. ‘for the inconvenience of the flesh’
  • ‘Flesh’ can mean the physical body, in which case the thorn would be some physical malady, e.g., his poor eyesight, possible epilepsy, maybe malaria, migraines. Paul seems generally strong, resilient, tough, so a physical ailment seems unlikely.
  • Paul’s appearance – some disfigurement that made him ugly.
  • Flesh also means our human nature, particularly in Paul’s writings, so this could be some aspect of his human nature, mostly probably pride.
  • ‘Sins of the flesh’ are almost always understood to be sexual sins, so this could be a sexual sin or temptation that Paul grappled with. But it would not have to be so narrowly defined – it could refer to any and all sins or temptations to sin.
  • It could the persecutions Paul suffered – the repeated attacks on his ministry, which could well have felt like a thorn in the flesh. Numbers 33:55 has a parallel: “But if you do not drive out the inhabitants of the land, those you allow to remain will become barbs in your eyes and thorns in your sides. They will give you trouble in the land where you will live.”
  • The thorn as a ‘messenger of Satan’ might best support the thorn as persecution. Other passages speak of Satan impeding God’s work: 1 Thes 2:18 – “For we wanted to come to you—certainly I, Paul, did, again and again—but Satan blocked our way.”
  • “To torment [or buffet] me” suggests this was a long-term issue, not just a temporary one. The Greek word means “to strike a blow with the fist” or “to maltreat” in a way that brings shame, humiliation and indignation. Jesus was himself humiliated by the beatings he endured before the crucifixion.
  • He later refers to his ‘weaknesses’ – it the thorn the weakness, or does the thorn cause weakness?
  • We really don’t know what the thorn was and whether it was a thorn or a stake. If it was important that we know, Paul would presumably have told us. Let’s consider than any and all of these could have been his thorn or stake, and that for us, it can be any or all or others.

How did Paul handle or make sense of his thorn?

  • Paul prayed for its removal, three times, but it was not removed. God declined his repeated request. God does not always give us what we want.
  • But the response he got from God seems to inspire him, not discourage him.
  • God’s response – ‘he said to me’ – is in the perfect tense, it is a past tense that is definitive – what God said was definitive at the time, and remains definitive in the future, that “God’s grace is sufficient”. It was almost tattooed on his hands.
  • He is unworthy, unnecessary, dispensable = our human condition
  • Yet, God chooses to work with, in and through him because God chooses to do so = grace
  • The more dependent he is on God (i.e. the weaker he is) the more God is free to shape and use him (i.e. grace) and so he ‘boasts’ and ‘delights’ in his weakness, so that Christ’s power will rest on him. ‘Rest on him’ is shekinah in Hebrew: literally, “may pitch his tent upon me” or “may tabernacle on him”
  • This is not a masochistic spirituality! It is a recognition that Christ can and does work in and through his frailties and keeps at bay any pride/boasting: Any delight Paul gains is ‘for the sake of Christ’, not for the challenges themselves.
  • ‘Then I am strong’ implies ‘strong in the Lord’, not ‘strong in myself’. He is ‘weak in himself, but strong in the Lord’.
Featured image from: https://keziaominde.files.wordpress.com/2017/09/img_5832.jpg?w=640

Riding the storm (part 2)

Click here to listen to the audio recording of this 18-minute messages. Or watch the video on Facebook here (the message starts at about 30 minutes into the video). Or read the short summary below.

Last week, we read and reflected on the story from Mark 4:35-41 about Jesus calming the storm (see last week’s message – Riding the storm – here). It’s worth watching or listening to if you missed it. I emphasised three key points:

  1. Jesus is in the boat with us in the midst of the storm. He is not sitting far off watching, dispassionate. No! He is right in the storm with us, in the boat with us.
  2. Jesus controls the storm that buffets and scares us. He is more than capable to put the storm in its place.
  3. Jesus reminds us of the many times before that he has been faithful and capable, so that we can have faith in him, confidence in him, even during the storm.

Today, I want to add two additional stories to this one, so that we can build up our faith muscles when we are weathering a storm. This is particularly important, given that we are in the midst of the third wave of the COVID-19 pandemic, and given that our churches have, once again, closed their doors and moved online for services.

The first story is an echo of the one above and comes from Mark 6:45-51. The disciples are again in a boat on the Sea of Galilee, but this time Jesus is up on the hillside praying. He can see that the disciples have encountered a storm and are struggling. So he walks down the hill and across the top of the water towards the disciples’ boat. They are terrified, thinking he’s a ghost, but he calms them, saying, “Take courage! It is I. Don’t be afraid.” Then he climbs into the boat with them, and the storm calms down. Mark does not say Jesus calmed the storm, but it seems an unlikely coincidence that the storm just happened to subside when Jesus arrived. We learn three important lessons about Jesus when we are in a storm:

  1. Jesus sees the disciples plight and comes to them and speaks words of comfort to them: ‘I am here, it is I, don’t be afraid.’
  2. Jesus climbs into the boat. In the previous story Jesus was already in the boat when the storm arrived. In this story, Jesus climbs into the boat with the disciples in the midst of the strong winds. He chooses to enter the difficult place where they are.
  3. Jesus calms the waves, demonstrating (again) that he is more than capable.

The second story is a healing story, that is located within a larger healing story. The larger story is about Jairus’ daughter who is mortally ill and (it seems) dies before Jesus gets there, because Jesus is delayed by the inner story, which is recounted in Mark 5:24-34. The story is set in a large crowd – many people, all jostling around and up against Jesus, as he walks the streets.

The crowd feels like a storm – buffeting, noisy, knocking up against, pushing, threatening. (Hence the picture for today’s message.)

This is the story of the woman who had been bleeding for 12 years and all her efforts to find a cure were futile. He hears about Jesus and believes that even if she can just touch just the hem of his outer clothing, she will be healed. Even though she is unclean due to her persistent bleeding, she enters the crowd and manages to just touch Jesus’ clothes. And she is fully healed! Jesus can feel that power has gone out of him and wants to see who was healed. We learn three important lessons about Jesus when we are struggling in life’s storms:

  1. Jesus cures her. She merely needed faith, and without him even knowing or intending it, without even actually touching her, she is healed. It is as if Jesus’ natural instinct is to heal and make whole, so it just pours out of him when someone has faith in him.
  2. Jesus knows her. He initially doesn’t know who touched him, but he knows someone did, and when she owns up, he fully engages with her as if the crowd is not even there – like the still centre of a tornado.
  3. Jesus restores her. Her healing is primarily physical. But the result of that physical healing is that she becomes clean again, and thus able to touch other people, able to engage in the life of her family and community, able to participate in her faith.

There are many storms raging around us. Covid is the most public and universal. But there are others: financial concerns, loss of work, mental health issues, substance abuse, marital problems, divorce, illness, death, loneliness, addictions, and so on and so on. The list is almost endless.

But there are three important take-home messages for you today:

  1. Jesus sees you. He sees and knows you right where you are. He knows everything about you and your circumstances, no matter how private you are and no matter how alone you might feel. He sees you.
  2. Jesus joins you. He does not remain remote. He does not watch from a distance. He climbs into your boat, into your life, into your shoes. He is right there with you – so close, there is no gap between you and him.
  3. Jesus acts for you. Jesus calms storms, he banishes fear, he heals disease. He is more than capable and he is more than willing. We just have to reach out to him, to touch the hem of his robe.
Featured image from: https://www.popsci.com/what-to-do-crowd-crush-panic/

Riding the storm

Click here to listen to the audio recording of this week’s 12-minute message (followed by some singing). Or watch the video here on Facebook (the message starts at about 35 minutes).

The disciples find themselves in a boat in the midst of a ferocious storm (Mark 4:35-41). They cry out to Jesus: “Don’t you care?” We sometimes find ourselves in a similar situation. The world seems to swirl around us, exploding, destabilising. We wish for a granite foundation, but instead we are in a boat in the storm; at sea. But the disciples learn three things in this experience:

  1. Jesus is in the boat with them. He is not standing at a distance, watching. He is right with them in the boat, in the midst of the storm.
  2. Jesus demonstrates that he has the power to subdue nature. He is more than able to overcome any adversity we may experience, to calm any storm we may experience.
  3. Jesus reminds his disciples that they have experienced his capability in the past; and so should remember it in the present. “Do you still have so little faith?” he asks them.

When we are in the midst of the storm – as we are now with the third wave of Covid threatening to overwhelm us – we need to keep turning back to Jesus. He is the source of strength, healing and wholeness.

Featured image by Bernard Allen at https://twitter.com/bernardallenart/status/900703185479897090
I appreciate how we see Jesus both sleeping (in the lower left) and calming the storm (in the upper right), with the sea reflecting the storm and calm in the two sections.

Fall and rise of faith

Click here to listen to the audio recording of this 32-minute message. Or watch the video on Facebook (the message starts at about 24 minutes). Or read the summary below.

The final chapter of Luke’s Gospel (chapter 24) tells us of the fall and rise of faith. Ordinarily in English, we’d talk about the ‘rise and fall’ of something, but in this narrative, the order is truly first the fall of faith and then the stumbling, feeble rise of faith. It is a story of the fragility of faith, and tell us about some of the key ingredients that help to build faith: walking, friends, scripture, fellowship, the Eucharist, and worship. It is through our encounters with these elements – in all of which Jesus is fully incarnated and present – that we discover faith. With all its ups and downs and faltering.

v1-10: The women visit Jesus’ tomb early on the third day, on Easter Sunday, and find it empty. But they encounter shining men, like angels. They rush back to tell the men.

v11: But the men “did not believe the women”. Just so. Perhaps a clear example of patriarchy, because Peter immediately goes to verify what they have said. Or perhaps a clear sign of the fall of faith.

v12: Peter finds the tomb empty, but is baffled. We goes away, wondering to himself what had happened. We applaud his thoughtful reflection. But there is a sense of Peter feeling disoriented and lost – wandering alone. His faith falters and falls.

v13: Still on that same day, two of the disciples leave Jerusalem to head to a village called Emmaus. It’s still Easter Sunday and already we see the start of a scattering of the disciples, a fragmenting of the fellowship that had sustained them for three years, and of a movement away from the centre of the Easter narrative – away from Jerusalem. Faith falters when we fall out of fellowship with each other and when we walk away from the church.

v14-18: As they walk a man joins them – it is in fact “Jesus himself” – but their eyes are kept from recognising him. So they engage him as a stranger, and we get insight into their true feelings and thoughts about current events.

v19: When they describe Jesus to this traveller, they use language associated with Moses – a great man, but just a man. A powerful prophet, but just a human prophet. All sense of Christ’s divinity and majesty, all the prophesies he mentioned, linking himself to the suffering servant in Isaiah, are forgotten. Faith has fallen.

v21: “We had hoped” they say – meaning the hope they had had, has now been lost. And they mention that “it is the third day since all this took place”. Somewhere they remembered Jesus saying that on the third day he would rise again. It was now the third day and there was no sign of him (or so they thought). Whatever shreds of hope – of faith – they had had were rapidly slipping away. Faith falls further.

v22-24. They mention the women – that the women “amazed” them – and confirm that the tomb was found just as they said. “But they did not see Jesus.”

v25-29: The traveller (Jesus, but still not recognised) then explains to them how everything in the first testament scriptures point towards Jesus. But still they do not recognise him. Though they appreciate him enough to persuade him to stay and join them for dinner.

v30: “At the table with them, he took bread, gave thanks, broke it and began to give it to them.”

v31: THEN!! Ah, this wonderful THEN! “Then their eyes were opened and they recognised him!” It was in this moment of sharing a meal together that they recognise him. No fanfare. No miracle. No sermon. No revelation. Just a simple meal, where Jesus took, blessed, broke and gave the bread, just like at any other Jewish meal. And then their eyes were opened. Faith surges!

v32: And though he disappears from their sight, they then remember that as he taught them from the scriptures, their hearts were burning within them. Faith rises!

v33: Two two rush back to Jerusalem, still that same Sunday night. They rush back towards the fellowship with the other disciples and the women. Back towards the ‘church’ – the gathering of the believers in Christ.

v34: Simon had, in the meantime, also seen Jesus, and the disciples were exclaiming, “It is true! The Lord has risen!” Jesus, no longer just a prophet, but The Lord. Faith rises some more! And the two disciples share their story with the group. Through sharing faith continues to rise.

v36: In that moment Jesus appears among them, with his familiar post-resurrection assurance, “Peace be with you.”

v37-38: Immediately, however, they are startled and frightened, thinking him a ghost, troubled and doubting. Faith so quickly falls.

v39: Jesus’ response is to provide evidence: “look, touch, see”.

v41: But “they still did not believe it”! When faith falls, it struggles to rise.

v42: Jesus provides more evidence by eating food, to demonstrate that he is no ghost, but flesh and blood. But still no faith response.

v44-49: Then Jesus teaches, as he taught the two on the road to Emmaus. And he “opened their minds so they could understand the Scriptures”. We are not, however, told how the disciples received this and how it influenced their faith. Indeed, curiously, neither of Jesus’ teachings (in vv25-27 and vv45-49) appears to prompt a rise in faith.

v50-51: Jesus then goes out, blesses them and is taken up before their very eyes into heaven.

v52-53: THEN!! Ah, this wonderful THEN again! “Then they worshipped him and returned to Jerusalem with great joy, and stayed continually at the temple, praising God.” Finally! Faith rises. In v32, faith rose through the simplicity of a shared meal, friendship and the symbolic breaking and sharing of bread. In v51, faith rose through the lifting up of the Son of God and of the disciples’ eyes towards heaven – a visual lifting up towards God.

Your faith, like my faith, like the disciples’ faith, rises and falls, falls and rises. It is seldom a nice smooth, continuous, upwards line. It ebbs and flows, waxes and wanes, rises and falls. But we see in this narrative, with all the real humanity of humans, the important ingredients of walking, friends, scripture, fellowship, the Eucharist, and worship.

Featured image: “Supper at Emmaus”, by Caravaggio (1601-02) depicts the moment the disciples recognize Jesus, from https://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/3/3a/Caravaggio.emmaus.750pix.jpg

Into the dark

Today is the Wednesday of Holy Week. In tonight’s reading, from John 13:21-30, we read the catastrophic narrative of Judas’ decision to betray Jesus. Judas makes a conscious decision to betray his Lord, and thereafter Satan enters him, and then he goes into the night, into the dark. He makes a choice to turn away from the light. He abandons his belief in the light, ceases to walk in the light (choosing rather to walk in the dark) and relinquishes his sonship of God – all the things we reflected on last night in the message ‘Into the light‘. It is a tragic story, as when Judas finally realises what he has done, he can find no forgiveness and takes his own life. There is a cautionary tale in this – to believe in the light, to walk in the light and to become children of light.

Watch the video of this message at https://fb.watch/4AvYOqTk25/. The reading starts at about 20 minutes into the recording, while the sermon starts at about 31 minutes and runs for 14 minutes.

Featured image from: https://assets.archpaper.com/wp-content/uploads/2020/09/DarkMatterUniversity_Primary.jpg