Live light

Click here to listen to the audio of this 13-minute message. Or watch the YouTube video below, or read the text summary after that.

Matthew 16:21-28 is sandwiched between two remarkable narratives of Jesus’ revelation. Just before (Matthew 16:13-20), Peter recognises Jesus as the Messiah, the Son of God, and is praised by Jesus for his insight and promised a great future in the Kingdom of God. Just after (Matthew 17:1-13), Peter sees the transfiguration, where Jesus shucks off his human form and reveals himself as God the Son. In between these two remarkable stories, Jesus rebukes Peter strongly, “Get behind me, Satan! You are a stumbling block to me; you do not have in mind the concerns of God, but merely human concerns” (v23). It is quite a fascinating narrative sequence!

We learn something about Jesus’ view of life and death from this passage. Just before Jesus rebuke of Peter, he was explaining that he would soon die and then be raised to life again (v21). Peter could not accept such crazy talk about death, particularly after everything that had just happened. After the rebuke, Jesus continues by explaining that if we cling to the life we have in this world, we risk losing our life in the world to come: “What good will it be,” he asks, “for someone to gain the whole world, yet forfeit their soul?” (v26).

While Jesus clearly makes the most of this life and enjoys it – we see him living life to the full and remember how much he achieved in just 33 or so years of life and probably just three year of ministry – he reminds us that this is not all there is. There is a far greater, longer and more fulfilling life awaiting those who belief – life eternal.

We are encouraged not to cling too tightly to this life, but to hold this life lightly, much as we might hold a baby bird who has fallen out of its nest. Don’t squeeze it!

Our faith tells us about an eternal life that we will enjoy with God and those who died in faith. But too often Christians live as if they have no faith – we are afraid of dying and we cling to this life as if it is all there is.

Let us rather enjoy this life – live it to the full – while also not being afraid of death and looking forward to the eternal life that is still to come.

Featured image from https://za.pinterest.com/pin/79305643409374403/

Who do you say I am?

Click here to listen to the audio of this 16-minute message. Or watch the YouTube video below, or read the text summary after that.

In Matthew 16:15, Jesus asks his disciples, “But what about you? Who do you say I am?” This is arguably the most central question of our faith as Christians. We are, after all, Christians. We are followers of Christ. Who Christ is – this person we follow, this person whose name defines our faith -is thus of central importance.

Jesus first asked, in Matthew 16:13, “Who do people say the Son of Man is?” and the disciples run off a list of names: “John the Baptist, Elijah, Jeremiah or one of the prophets.” These are all great prophets, and in some ways Jesus is the preeminent prophet. A prophet reveals God’s mind to us, opens up the truth of God to us. And certainly Jesus does do that. But they stop short. Jesus is so much more than ‘just’ a prophet.

So, if your answer to Jesus’ question is things like (for me) – my friend, my brother, my healer, my whole-maker, my teacher, my example, my comforter, my safe space, and so on – these are right (they are certainly not wrong!), but they don’t go far enough.

This is the only place in Matthew’s Gospel where Jesus engages in discussion about himself. He is doing identity work here – discussing who he is with his disciples. This takes place in chapter 16 of a 28-chapter book. So, it appears in the second half of the Gospel. Jesus is half-way through his journey with his disciples, and only now does he ask who they say he is. This is meaningful.

As Christians, particularly evangelical Christians, we tend to have an expectation that people must make a statement of faith in Christ as a prerequisite for conversion. But here, Jesus has allowed his disciples to walk alongside him and witness his life and his engagement with the world for a long time. And only now, much later, does he ask for a statement of faith.

The understanding of who Jesus is is not the prerequisite for faith, but the result of the journey of faith.

I converted to Christianity at age 16. At that moment, on the evening of 21 October 1984, I really didn’t know who Christ was. All I knew was that God was calling me and I had to respond to his call. It was only over years of journeying with him, through all the ups and downs of faith, that my understanding of who he is and of who he is for me has become clearer. And I anticipate in the following decades of my life, this understanding will continue to mature and deepen.

Peter’s answer, after having walked with Christ, is strong and certain: “You are the Messiah, the Son of the living God.” In the Greek, the phrasing is, “You are the Christ, the Son of the God, of the Living One”. There were, in Peter’s time, as in our time, many Gods. He feels the need to qualify who he is referring to when he says ‘God’. He is not referring to just any God, but to the God who is alive, the Living God.

It is important for us to incorporate into our experience of who Christ is for us the insight that he is the Christ, the Messiah, the Anointed One, the Son of God, God the Son, the Logos, a member of the triune Godhead, the one who has been present since before time and will continue to present after time itself has ended. This is who Jesus is!

But what about you?
Who do you say I am?

Wrestling Jesus

Click here to listen to the audio of this 31-minute message. Or watch the YouTube video below, or read the text summary after that. I’m sorry this message is so long, but today’s reading is a seriously difficult passage and requires careful work. I do encourage you to watch the video and learn some profound lessons about Jesus and about faith.

Our reading today is from Matthew 15:21-28. The following translation is by Frederick Dale Bruner, in his commentary on Matthew. I’m using this because he keeps closely to the sentence structure in the Greek, which I will show is important for making sense of this passage:

21. And Jesus left there and withdrew into the territory of Tyre and Sidon.
22. And look! a Canaanite woman from that region approached and was crying out, “Have mercy on me, Lord, Son of David; my daughter is horribly possessed by a demon!”
23. But he did not respond to her with a single word.
And his disciples came up to him and repeatedly asked him, “Get rid of her, will you; she keeps screaming at us!”
24. But he responded and said, “I was not sent to anyone except to the lost sheep of the house of Israel.”
25. But she came up, bowed down worshipfully before him, and said, “Lord, help me!”
26. But he responded and said, “It is not good to take the children’s bread and throw it to the dogs.”
27. But she said, “Oh yes, Lord! Yet even the house dogs get to eat the scraps that fall from their masters’ table.”
28. Then Jesus responded and said to her, “O woman, your faith is terrific; let it be done for you exactly as you want.” And her daughter was healed that very moment.

This is such a difficult passage, because Jesus expresses what appears to be deeply disrespectful, pejorative, discriminatory, xenophobic, racist views towards the Canaanite woman. In our contemporary society, which is so riddled with racism and hostility to all who are other (including immigrants, LGBTQI+, women, etc.). It reads like (what we would today call) hate speech.

So, I have titled this message Wrestling Jesus because there are three layers of wrestling taking place here.

First, I and we have to wrestle with Jesus. His words are very hard to understand and swallow. We have to engage honestly, thoughtfully, carefully with Jesus words. We have to avoid sanitising his words, while also making sense of his words.

Second, I suggest what we are reading is Jesus wrestling with himself. I suggest what we reading is like a Shakespearean soliloquy, in which Jesus speaks out loud his internal grappling or wrestling. I’ve done some colour coding to emphasise the structure:

  1. All of the sentences (except the last) start with ‘and’ or ‘but’. I suggest that what this does is to suspend time, to create a pocket of timelessness in which something can emerge. This continues until the last verse which finally has a ‘then’ – and then the story moves forward. We have a similar event in John 8:1-11, where Jesus kneels down and doodles in the same, while the men accuse the woman of adultery.
  2. Jesus’ name is not mentioned except in the first and last verse. In the middle verses it is just ‘he’. This depersonalisation contributes to the timelessness of the narrative.
  3. In two of the three ‘responded and said’, we are not told who he responded to. It is not clear who he is speaking to. It seems he may be just speaking, to himself; saying out loud what he is thinking in his mind.
  4. v24 suggests that Jesus’ wrestling is between his mission to the people of Israel (and they would subsequently have the mission of bringing the Gospel to the nations) and the needs of this individual woman in front of him who is not an Israelite.
  5. v26 has the terrible words that seems to say that Canaanites are dogs. In my view and that of some commentators, this is a well-known racist expression that was commonly used in those days, much as we have racist expressions for groups of people today. That Jesus would say these words in the presence of this woman is hard to swallow – it is painful and anti-pastoral. But perhaps Jesus is saying out loud what people say about women like her. And perhaps this is his wrestling.
  6. What he seems to come to through all this is that PEOPLE ARE MORE IMPORTANT THAN MISSION (or law or religion or sexual orientation or politics or nationality, etc, etc, etc.). PEOPLE MATTER! Jesus seems to learn this from her.
  7. And then, in the final verse, we get a Then! Now time starts again and the story moves forward. “Then Jesus responded and said to her.” This is the first time he speaks to her directly. Everything before this, I suggest, is soliloquy. He is wrestling with his role and he learns from her what is most important, that people matter.

We see Jesus grow and learn. We see him rediscovering the truth that people matter. More than anything – including our theology, doctrine, denomination, politics, nationality, race, sexual orientation – people matter!

Third, the Canaanite woman wrestles with Jesus. She has a great need – her daughter is horribly possessed by a demon – and she is desperate for Jesus’ help. Even though she is not Jewish, she recognises who he is: Lord (the Messiahs, the Christ), Son of David (the culmination of Jewish prophecy about the line of David). Her faith, perhaps fuelled by her desperation, helps her to hear between the lines.

  • After her first appeal to him in v22, Jesus does not respond. He is silent. What she hears is not a disinterest, but “He’s not chased me away. He’s still here. I still have a chance.” And so she persists.
  • The disciples want Jesus to send her away, but Jesus says that he was sent to the house of Israel. What she hears is not that she is not part of the house of Israel, but that he has not said ‘no’ to her. There is still a chance. And so he persists. She grovels in front of him and cries out, “Lord, help me!”
  • Then Jesus quotes this racist expression. What she hears is not that she is trash, but that she can be a pet dog at his table, who is eligible to eat the scraps that fall from it. There is still a chance. And so she persists. She takes ownership of the label ‘dog’.
  • Now she is brilliant! She takes the expression that Jesus spoke out loud and turns it to her advantage. She turns his words against him. She wrestles him to the ground. She makes it impossible for him to say ‘No’.
  • Then Jesus responded and said to her, “O woman, your faith is terrific!” He sees her, speaks to her, recognises her, acknowledges her, yields to her. He uses the word ‘you‘ or ‘your‘ three times in v28. He recognises her as a person who matters, and he gives her what she has asked for with such faith and tenacity.

This woman teaches us to never, never, never give up prayer. Pray without ceasing. Do not lose hope. Wrestle God to the ground until he gives you what you are asking for.

Featured image: The Canaanite Woman, from the Très Riches Heurers du Duc de Berry. The Conde Museum, Chantilly. Downloaded from https://www.friendsjournal.org/woman-refused-take-no-answer/

Eternity just here

Click here to listen to the audio recording of this 10-minute message. Or watch the YouTube video below, or read the text summary that follow.

Jesus goes up the mountain with Peter, James and John to pray (Luke 9:28-31). While he prays, the appearance of his face changes and his clothes become as bright as a lightning flash. And he is seen talking with Moses and Elijah, the great heroes of the Jewish community.

The boundary that separates the ordinary, daily, lived world that we inhabit from the world of the divine, of eternity, of spiritual beings, of God – that boundary is momentarily breached. It is like a dividing curtain has been pulled aside and we are given a glimpse into heaven itself.

These two worlds – the earthly finite world and the heavenly eternal world – are always touching, pressed right up against each other. Indeed, there are people crossing over from one to the other every minute, as they die.

The materialistic world view – that we believe in only what we can see and touch, measure and weigh – has become so prominent in the world today. Many people have given up any belief in a spiritual realm, in an afterlife, in God.

Luke tells us that Peter and his companions were very sleepy, but that when they became fully awake, they saw his glory (Luke 9:32). He emphasises this because we all know that when we sleep and dream, anything is possible. The rules of this material world do not apply when we are asleep. Had the disciples been ‘sleepy’ when they saw Jesus transfigure, we could put their story down to them just dreaming. But Luke emphasises this – they were fully awake – all of their critical, rational faculties, all of their empirical senses were fully active when they saw the glory of Jesus revealed.

How wonderful it would be if we were all fully awake so that we too could perceive the eternal that is just here.

2020.08.06_Saint_Catherines_TransfigurationFeatured image of the apse mosaic of the Transfiguration scene from St. Catherine monastery in Sinai, available here. This is the oldest known image of the transfiguration, dating to AD 565-6.

Visit this website to learn more about this piece of art, as well as other artists’ depictions of the transfiguration: http://tamedcynic.org/the-transfiguration-through-art/

Jesus’ heart

Click here to listen to the audio of this 15-minute message. Or watch the YouTube video below, or read the short summary thereafter.

Today we focus on the Jesus’ feeding of the 5,000 in Matthew 14:13-21. This is the ONLY miracle story to appear in ALL four Gospel accounts. It is clearly an important story for the Gospel writers. Perhaps something about it exemplifies Jesus and his ministry.

Usually, we focus on the miracle of the feeding, but today I invite you to focus on what we learn about Jesus’ heart. And Jesus’ heart reflects God’s heart. Here are five important things we learn about Jesus, that are relevant for each of us today:

  1. Jesus feels. The story opens with Jesus hearing of the execution of John – his cousin, friend and prophet. And he feels distressed about John’s death, he feels emotions, his heart is soft and responsive. So he withdraws, privately to a solitary place. Jesus grieves and feels. He is not unmoved.
  2. Jesus’ heart goes out. Even though Jesus tries to get away to be alone, crowds of people – thousands of people – follow him on foot. And instead of being irritated with them, he has compassion on them, his heart goes out to them. As he sees us and our difficulties, his heart softens, his heart fills with care.
  3. Jesus heals. As his heart fills with compassion, Jesus moves into action and heals people of their illness. The Greek word for ‘ill’ in v14 is used nowhere else in the New Testament. It is best translated ‘wretchedness’, meaning unhappy, broken-hearted, poor, downtrodden, ill. Jesus makes people whole, he restores them.
  4. Jesus embraces. The disciples want to send the crowds away, as they sent away children, lepers and others who wanted to speak to Jesus. But Jesus refuses. Instead, he instructs the disciples to feed the crowds, and invites the people to sit down on the grass. Jesus is crowd-centred, other-centred, generous, inclusive.
  5. Jesus multiplies. Jesus takes the tiny supplies of 5 loaves and 2 fish, and multiplies them to feed thousands. He is able to see through the smallness of what we offer, to the enormous good that God can do through them. He has eyes of faith that sees the potential of the tiny to do great work.

As continue to grapple through Covid, and the many challenges it presents to us, let us look into, let us gaze upon the heart of Christ – he who feels, whose heart goes out, who heals, who embraces and includes, and who multiplies. This same Christ is present for us today. Let us look for him and sit down with him and be fed by him.

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Featured image: Sacred Heart of Jesus by Joseph Fanelli (Oil on Linen) 1993 from here

In his joy

Click here to listen to the audio of this 5-minute message. Or watch the YouTube video below, or read the short summary thereafter.

This is the order Jesus gives for Christian life: we find the treasure, this fills us with joy, so we sell all our possessions (which are worth a fraction of the treasure), and we acquire (take ownership) of the treasure (Mat 13:44). The treasure is there at the start and the end; the joy is the immediate consequence of finding the treasure; and the sacrifice of possessions is really no sacrifice at all. This is the Christian life. Let’s find our joy in Christ!

Featured image from here.

Baking with Jesus

Click here to listen to the audio of this 13-minute message. Or watch the YouTube video below (highly recommended, as this is a message to watch, not just to listen to) or read the summary text after that.

Matthew 13:31-33 presents two tiny parables about two tiny things in the world: yeast and mustard seeds:

Jesus told them another parable: “The kingdom of heaven is like a mustard seed, which a man took and planted in his field. Though it is the smallest of all seeds, yet when it grows, it is the largest of garden plants and becomes a tree, so that the birds come and perch in its branches.”

He told them still another parable: “The kingdom of heaven is like yeast that a woman took and mixed into about 30 kilograms of flour until it worked all through the dough.”

These parables emphasise:

  1. Jesus’ interest in the little things of life and God’s desire to work with the small things we bring to the Kingdom of God. Jesus speaks about little things regularly: sparrows that are worth so much, faith the size of a mustard seed, the individual hairs on our head which God counts, little children to whom belongs the Kingdom of God.
  2. God’s capacity – through the power of Holy Spirit and the love of Christ – to transform little things into big things, helpful things, things that build the Kingdom of God. A mustard seed grows into a large tree that provides shelter to humans and animals. Grains of yeast that turn a lump of heavy dough into an airy loaf of bread.

Recipe for poppy seed rolls

Ingredients

Dough

500 g all-purpose (cake) flour
1 sachet instant yeast
1 tsp salt
100 g granulated sugar
250 ml milk lukewarm
80 g butter, melted
2 eggs

Filling

200 g poppy seeds, ground in a blender until they form a paste
100 g butter
200 g walnuts, ground in a blender until they just begin to form a paste
100 g icing (confectioner’s) sugar
Grated rind of 1 lemon
10 ml ground cinnamon
4 egg whites

Frosting

180 g butter unsalted, softened, or margarine
360 g powdered sugar also known as icing (confectioner’s) sugar
120 g cream cheese at room temperature
1 tsp vanilla extract
0.25 tsp salt

Instructions

Mix the first four dry ingredients, then add in the next three wet ingredients. Mix the dough and knead for 10 minutes, until elastic and smooth. Place in a bowl, smear with a bit of oil and cover with a sheet of plastic wrap. Allow the dough to rise. (Hint: heat your oven to 100 degrees Celsius, then switch it off, and place your bowl in the oven.)

Meanwhile, melt the butter in a pot and cook the ground poppy seeds in the butter for 2 minutes, then mix in the remaining ingredients to form a thick black paste.

Knock the risen dough down and roll out into a large thin rectangle, about 50-60 cm wide. Spread the poppy seed paste evenly over the dough. Roll the dough to form a long sausage about 50-60 long. (If it is a bit short, gently massage it until it reaches the required length.) Using a sharp knife, cut the roll into about 35 even pieces (about 1.5cm each).

Line a roasting tin with parchment and lay the circular buns in the pan. Prove for about 30 minutes or until about double in size. Bake at 180 C for about 20 minutes until golden brown.

Blend the frosting ingredients, beating well with an electric mixer until light and fluffy. When the rolls are cooled, spread generously with frosting.

If the rolls are a couple of days old, heat in the microwave for 15 second to get them back to a fresh state.

To offer ourselves

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Romans 12:1-2a:

Therefore, I urge you, brothers and sisters, in view of God’s mercy, to offer your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and pleasing to God—this is your true and proper worship. Do not conform to the pattern of this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind.

This passage offers us two sets of verbs:

  • Offer, sacrifice, worship – which speak to giving ourselves to God
  • Transform, renew – which speak to an inward-focused process

The passage also offers us two nouns:

  • Our bodies – which speaks to the embodied being that we are, crafted from clay and in-breathed by God’s Spirit
  • Our minds – which speaks to the immaterial being that we are, mind, emotion, thought, spirit

Together, these two verbs and these two nouns call us towards a complete offering of ourselves – a surrender, a relinquishment – to God.

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Feature image from https://www.patheos.com/blogs/emergentvillage/2013/03/off-the-cliff-of-surrender/

Be audacious!

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In Matthew 10:7-14, Jesus sends out his 12 disciples on their first solo mission, and his instructions seem to be grounded in this message:

Be audacious!

Jesus is not saying, be arrogant, insolent, obnoxious, offensive, dogmatic or judgemental. But he is saying, be brave, be courageous, be reckless, jump in the deep end!

Here’s what we are to do:

  • We proclaim the good news that God is present in the midst of human life. God is near, right here, present, engaged.
  • We heal, cleanse, raise and cast out illnesses in all its manifestations, at both personal and social levels. Healing is, in Jesus’ understanding and practice, not only physical, but also relational and social.
  • We are generous in our investment in the lives of others – freely we have received, freely we give. We don’t hold back, we don’t over think, we don’t over risk manage.
  • We don’t take provisions with us, we don’t over plan, we don’t pamper ourselves. We simply go – a bit reckless.
  • We don’t take from the people we go to. We don’t go to enrich ourselves. We go to give.
  • We find people who are receptive to what we have to offer, and we spend time with them. And if people are not receptive, we just move on, shake the dust off our feet. It is almost blasé – if people want to listen, we talk with them; if they don’t, we don’t worry, we just move on.

Be audacious, be courageous, be reckless, be blasé. Don’t worry, don’t over plan, don’t over think. Jump in! Be brave!

Be audacious!

Feature image from here.

Come to me

Click here to listen to the audio of this 14-minute message. Or watch the YouTube video below, or read the text summary below.

Our reading today is Matthew 11:28-30

“Come to me, all you who are weary and burdened, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you and learn from me, for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy and my burden is light.”

It seems strange that Jesus’ solution to our feeling burdened is to offer us a yoke, which is a heavy wooden pole used to join two oxen together so they can plough fields. This does not sound like a relief! However, in v30, Jesus equates the yoke with the burden. The truth is, we are already yoked – yoked to and burdened by the world and its worries. What Jesus offers is to replace our own heavy yoke with his yoke, which is ‘easy’ and ‘light’.

A yoke connects two animals together, so that they can work in partnership with each other, as they walk through their work in the world. This is what Jesus offers us: to be yoked to him, in partnership, walking together as we journey through life’s challenges. The idea of working together with Christ, as a team, as partners, is quite remarkable.

The idea of working together, of walking together, leads us to the next point, which is to “learn from” Jesus. Not “learn about me” but “learn from me”. He invites us to see how he moves through the world and to learn from that. We learn from what he says – particularly in the Sermon on the Mount, in Matthew chapters 5-7, which came shortly before today’s reading. And we learn from how he behaves – how he interacts with those who are powerful and oppressive and those who are meek and humble. Chapter 11 speaks a great deal about these two groups. What better way to learn from a master, than to be yoked to them.

Jesus chooses to emphasise that we should learn from his gentleness and humility: “for I am gentle and humble in heart“. It is remarkable that God, the Son, the Second Person of the Trinity, who co-created the universe with the Father and the Spirit, chooses to describe himself as gentle and humble (or simple). His use of ‘in heart’ suggests that these qualities are essential to his being – they describe who he is, not merely how he acts. He is, deep in his being, gentle and humble. If God the Son chooses these qualities as essential to a description of himself, how much more should we not embody these same qualities of humility and gentleness.

The result of all this is that we will find rest for our soul. For those who are weary and burdened, soul-rest is very much what we need – rest, refreshment, deep peace. God promises us this frequently, e.g.

The Lord is my shepherd, I lack nothing. He makes me lie down in green pastures, he leads me beside quiet waters, he refreshes my soul. (Psalm 23:1-3)

The sovereign Lord says: I myself will tend my sheep. I will make them lie down. I will search for the lost. I will bring back the strays. I will bind up the injured. I will strengthen the weak… I will shepherd the flock with justice. (Ezekiel 34:15-16, with slight rephrasing)

This is the kind of rest that we get, when we put down our burden, and take on Christ’s yoke, and walk together with him.

Featured image by Yongsung Kim, from Pinterest.

Two songs that were running through my mind all the while I prepared today’s message: