God has always been working for our salvation and continues to do so today. This work culminates the life, death and resurrection of Christ, hence Jesus says we need to be born again. This salvation work is motivated by God’s great love, kindness, mercy and grace towards us (Ephesians 2: 1-10). Even though we were dead in our transgressions and sins – deserving of God’s wrath – God does everything to save us. Jesus himself says, “For God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son, that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life. For God did not send his Son into the world to condemn the world, but to save the world through him” (John 3:14-21).
God’s stance towards you is always open armed – always.
God is always open towards you even if you don’t believe in him – always.
God is always moving towards you – always.
God is always turned towards you, even when you turn away from him – always.
God is always turned towards you, even when you sin – always.
God always reorientates himself towards you as you move through life – always.
God is always positively disposed towards you – always.
God always loves you – always.
God is always kind towards you – always.
God is always full of grace and mercy towards you – always.
God is always hoping you will respond to him – always.
We can liken our relationship with God to a marriage. There are many passages in scripture that do this. God’s covenant with us is much the same as a marriage covenant or contract. When we reflect on this similarity, we can imagine the very best of what a marriage can be as reflecting a good relationship with God.
However, as in marriage, people sometimes commit adultery against God. We go off to other gods to have our needs met. We seek fulfilment outside of the marriage. Indeed, we can think of all of our sin (not only sexual sin) as adultery in our marriage to God. We read about this in Jeremiah 3:6-10:
During the reign of King Josiah, the LORD said to me, “Have you seen what faithless Israel has done? She has gone up on every high hill and under every spreading tree and has committed adultery there. I thought that after she had done all this she would return to me but she did not, and her unfaithful sister Judah saw it. I gave faithless Israel her certificate of divorce and sent her away because of all her adulteries. Yet I saw that her unfaithful sister Judah had no fear; she also went out and committed adultery. Because Israel’s immorality mattered so little to her, she defiled the land and committed adultery with stone and wood. In spite of all this, her unfaithful sister Judah did not return to me with all her heart, but only in pretense,” declares the LORD.
Here, both Israel and Judah sought fulfilment from other Gods, which the Lord describes as adultery. And although Judah did return God, it was not whole-hearted, but only in pretence – a charade. God knows the inner working of our hearts. A sham marriage is no marriage at all.
The result of this adultery and half-hearted fakery is that God divorces her. It is hard to imagine a worse fate than to be divorced by God!
But God’s capacity forgive and reach out is infinite. God says in Jeremiah 3:11-14a:
The LORD said to me, “… Go, proclaim this message toward the north: “ ‘Return, faithless Israel,’ declares the LORD, ‘I will frown on you no longer, for I am faithful,’ declares the LORD, ‘I will not be angry forever. Only acknowledge your guilt— you have rebelled against the LORD your God, you have scattered your favors to foreign gods under every spreading tree, and have not obeyed me,’ ” declares the LORD. “Return, faithless people,” declares the LORD, “for I am your husband. I will choose you…”
We read a similar story in Hosea, in which God instructs Hosea to marry an adulterous and promiscuous wife. Hosea obeys and, of course, it goes badly. But then God instructs Hosea to reconcile with his wife:
The LORD said to me, “Go, show your love to your wife again, though she is loved by another man and is an adulteress. Love her as the LORD loves the Israelites, though they turn to other gods and love the sacred raisin cakes.” So I bought her for fifteen shekels of silver and about a homer and a lethek of barley. Then I told her, “You are to live with me many days; you must not be a prostitute or be intimate with any man, and I will behave the same way toward you.” (Hosea 3:1-3)
As we continue our journey through Lent, nurturing on our relationship with God and repenting of our sin, let us renew our marriage vows with God and to live as a faithful, monogamous and whole-hearted spouse.
Our Old Testament readings over Lent provide us with highlighted of the long story of God’s salvation of humanity. I thought that today we should look at all of these readings – the five Old Testament Sunday Lent readings, and today’s New Testament reading.
I summarise the development of God’s work for salvation as follows:
God’s unconditional covenant with humanity
Genesis 9 (God’s rainbow covenant)
‘Covenant’ is mentioned seven times
God promises never to destroy humanity with a flood
The rainbow reminds God of this covenant God has made with us
This covenant is entirely God’s doing and initiative, and unconditional for all humanity
God’s everlasting covenant, plus circumcision
Genesis 17 (God’s covenant of circumcision)
‘Covenant’ is mentioned 10 times
In three of these God says the covenant is everlasting
However, now the covenant has conditions:
Abraham must walk before God faithfully and blamelessly (v1), and
Males must be circumcised.
Males who are not circumcised fall outside God’s covenant (v14)
God’s external law, which humanity must obey
Exodus 20 (God’s 10 commandments)
God now sets external laws by which we must abide
Now the responsibility for maintaining a right relationship with God is entirely humanity’s
Paul’s problem with this approach is that we inevitably break the law and thus fall out of favour with God
The solution of the Law alienates us from God
Punishment for sin, but grace for salvation
Numbers 21 (God’s bronze snake)
But now we see a shift in God’s engagement with humanity
Still, law is important, and those who sin were bitten by poisonous snakes
But God instructs Moses to make a bronze snake which is lifted up
Those who look to this snake are saved/healed
This is a sign of grace – we look to God and God saves
The is a foreshadowing of the cross – we look up to Jesus on the cross, who saves
God’s internal law; God’s choice to forgive
Jeremiah 31 (God’s law written on our hearts)
God says he is now setting out a new law that replaces the old – we see God shifting
This new law is written in our hearts – not on tablets or paper
And God chooses to forgive, out of God’s own initiative (v34b)
Christ wins once-for-all salvation through faith
Romans 2-4 (God’s salvation by grace through faith)
Now, after Christ, salvation is by grace – it is won by Christ for us
We can add nothing to the salvation he has made possible
God chooses to forgive us, and indeed has already forgiven us and our descendants already – this is grace (a free gift)
We receive this grace through faith – we simply open our hearts and receive what is already available to us
We don’t earn our salvation – Christ has already done that – we merely receive it
There are three summary messages from today’s teaching:
God has always been working for our salvation, since the creation – and continues to do so today
God’s ways of working with humanity shift over time – God is not a stone – God is a person who adjusts their style of interacting with us
Christ has fully accomplished our salvation – we can and need add nothing to it – we are invited merely to receive it
Jesus tells us that God views the source of our behaviour in our hearts. As a result, God is more interested in what is in our hearts than how we behave. Our motivations, our inner thoughts, our orientation towards God – all of which come forth in our speech and behaviour – is where God’s attention is. We are urged to attend to our inner lives and orientate ourselves towards God.
Today we celebrate the festival of the presentation of our Lord at the temple, in Luke 2:22-40. For Simeon, encountering the infant Christ was the pinnacle of his life, and so he says, “Sovereign Lord, as you have promised, you may now dismiss your servant in peace, for my eyes have seen your salvation.” Seeing or encountering Christ is the high-point of our lives; everything else is a bonus, icing on the cake. Let us remember our first encounter with Christ, and put the rest of our life in perspective.
Our readings for today speak about the balance between knowledge and action – between what we know in our heads and what we do with our bodies. What we’ll see is that in the Gospels, Psalms and Paul’s letters, actions are more important than knowledge. It is not the knowledge is unimportant – no! Knowledge is important. But acts of love are even more important. The hallmark of a Christian is not so much what they know as what they do.
In our Gospel reading for today (Mark 1:21-28) we read about Jesus first ministry. We read that Jesus went into the temple and was teaching. And people were amazed at the authority of his teaching. The people later conclude, “What is this? A new teaching – and with authority!” Clearly, Jesus’ teaching, based on his knowledge, is important.
However, only 1 verse describes him teaching, and we don’t know what he actually taught. But there are 4 verses describing is actions. While he was teaching a demon possessed man came and challenged Jesus. Jesus cases out the evil spirit and the man is made well. This act of love, this work of love, gathers more attention than his teaching. And the people conclude, “He even gives orders to impure spirits and they obey him.”
While both knowledge and actions are present in this Gospel passage, actions are far more detailed and compelling.
If we then turn to Psalm 111, we find a similar pattern. Verses 7 and 10 speak about God’s precepts. A precept is a general guideline or principle; not a ‘law’, which is far more specific and prescriptive. v7 says that God’s precepts are trustworthy and v10 that all who follow the Lord’s precepts have good understanding; it is the beginning of wisdom. Clearly, knowledge of God’s precepts is important.
However, 7 of the 10 verses speak about God’s works: the words of the Lord (v1), his deeds (v3), his wonders (v4), he provides food (v5), she showed his works (v6), the words of his hands (v7) and he provided redemption for his people (v9). Wow! So much attention is given to the actions of God. And these actions are described as being great, delightful, glorious, majestic, righteous, gracious, compassionate, powerful, faithful, just, holy and awesome! These are acts of love, and Psalm 111 is drenched in them.
While both knowledge and action are present in this Psalm, actions are far more prolific and compelling.
And finally, let’s look at 1 Corinthians 8, in which Paul provides some rather complex teaching about eating food offered to idols. I do not want us to get too bogged down in the specifics of the teaching, but rather to focus on what Paul says here about knowledge and action. In the opening verses, Paul says, “We all possess knowledge. But knowledge puffs up while love builds up.” This sentence is so direct and clear – knowledge makes us feel bigger and more important, while actions of love build up the community. And then he continues, “Those who think they know something do not yet know as they ought to know.” He cautions against over confidence in knowledge – that we may think we know a lot, but we may actually be wrong. And he continues again, “But whoever loves God is known by God”, though there is an alternate reading (in the footnote of the NIV), “But whoever loves truly knows.” Paul’s warning about knowledge is balanced with an emphasis on love. Acts of love are what are most important, says Paul.
In the rest of this passage Paul explains about eating food sacrificed to idols, and the crux of his argument is that acting on the basis of right knowledge rather than on loving consideration of the needs of others harms these other people. Indeed, Paul says that they are “destroyed by your knowledge” and that this is to “sin against them” and indeed to “sing against Christ” (vv11-12). And he concludes this passage saying that he would rather act against his own knowledge, to protect others from falling (v13).
In other words, what is most important is not for us to act on what we believe to be right, or even on what is actually right, but to act out of love for others, so as not to harm others. In summary, it is better to be kind than to be right.
All three passages today give us the same clear, strong and compelling message: Knowledge, while important, is not what is most important to God. What is most important to God, is that we act in love towards others.
What, then, will you do with this knowledge? How can you put into practice this precept, that loving actions towards others are more important than all the knowledge in the world?
Let me make one practical suggestion. Or rather, let me present this to you as a challenge and urge you to make a decision now to act on this. With the lockdown, churches have had to close their doors and we no longer see our sisters and brothers like we used to. This results in a fragmentation of the church community, and as a result, people may feel disconnected and alone, and their faith may wane.
I challenge you to identify two or three people who would normally have spoken to at church, but because you’ve not seen them for a while, you’ve not spoken with them. Give them a call or drop them a note. Reach out to them. Ask how they are doing. Ask if they need anything. Ask what you can do to support them. Show them the love of God. In so doing, we will work to build up our church community, the body of Christ.
Today is surely a watershed moment for the world: 20 January 2021, the end of Donald Trump’s administration. Whether or not one is an American, this change of administration will surely impact the world in one way or another.
This is not a sermon about America or American politics, however. Rather it is a sermon about what defines a Christian. When we look at the American right and left, who are so profoundly divided at this time, and yet who both comprise large numbers of Christians who believe that their politics is aligned with their Christian faith, we must ask, What does it mean to be a Christian? How can Christians, who follow the same book of teachings, be so polarised when it comes to their beliefs, practices and policies?
Perhaps one of the reasons is the weight that different groups of Christians give to different parts of the Bible. While we (are exhorted to) believe that “all Scripture [that is, the whole of the Bible] is God-breathed and is useful for teaching, rebuking, correcting and training in righteousness” (2 Timothy 3:16), if we base our Christian beliefs, practices and policies on the first Testament (the Old Testament) more than on the Gospels, or even on the rest of the second Testament more than on the Gospels, then something is wrong.
The Gospels present to us the very life, ministry and teaching of God the Son. These are not subsequent interpretations of Christ’s ministry, but Christ’s ministry itself. If we want to see God, we must look at his Son; and we get his Son in the Gospels. Jesus Christ’s life, as recorded in the Gospels, must be the template for Christian belief, practice and policy. And all the rest of the Bible must be interpreted through the Gospels.
Ironically, our reading today is not from the Gospels, but from Paul’s letter, where he writes about the central message we get from the Gospels: live a life of love.
Be kind and compassionate to one another, forgiving each other, just as in Christ God forgave you. Follow God’s example, therefore, as dearly loved children and live a life of love, just as Christ loved us and gave himself up for us as a fragrant offering and sacrifice to God. (Ephesians 4:32-5:2)
The life of a Christian must be rooted in love. This passage is not about love for other Christians, but love for all humanity. Paul emphasises the love that God had for us before we were saved – the love that led to God’s forgiveness of us and of Christ’s offering of himself as a sacrifice to God – these are about God’s love for us before we were saved, and thus the example is for how we love the whole world.
Love is the foundation of Christian life. Indeed, these verses are part of a larger passage which opens as follows:
So I tell you this, and insist on it in the Lord, that you must no longer live as the Gentiles do, in the futility of their thinking. They are darkened in their understanding and separated from the life of God because of the ignorance that is in them due to the hardening of their hearts. (Ephesians 4:17-18)
In other words, Paul sees this ‘life of love’ as constituting a fundamental difference between Christian life and non-Christian life. Our love for others is what is supposed to define us as Christians and differentiate us from everyone else. Indeed, Christ himself gives us this great command:
A new command I give you: Love one another. As I have loved you, so you must love one another. By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you love one another. (John 13:34-35)
This love for other people (and indeed for the whole of creation) is fundamental to what it means to be Christian. It is only after all this, that Paul then says, “But among you there must not be even a hint of sexual immorality” (Ephesians 5:3) and then goes on to talk about morality. Morality is important, but the life of love is even more important. When we place morality above love, we are out of step with Christ, who consistently placed love above everything else. If you are placing morality above love, you must go back to the Gospels and see how Jesus lived, what he said and how he related to people.
What is most important and definitive in the life of Christ is the life of love, which is a love that is radical and inclusive. It is this kind of love that is supposed to inform our beliefs (how we understand God, ourselves and the world), our practices (how we life our life moment by moment) and our policies (or politics).
We pray for the people of America and their new president. We pray for a drawing closer together of the American people, a reduction in polarisation and anger, and a greater rooting of life in the Gospel message of love for one another. And we pray also for ourselves and our nation, which has its own challenges.
Jesus begins his ministry by calling people to follow him. In John 1:43-51 Jesus calls Philip – “follow me”. Philip goes to call his friend Nathanael to meet Jesus, becoming one of the first evangelists. As Nathanael arrives, Jesus says some things about him, showing that he knows Nathanael, before they had even met. And then Jesus reveals that he saw Nathanael sitting under a tree even before Philip had called him.
In this message, I share my own experience of being called by Jesus to follow him. It is not definitive, but provides just one experience of being called and (eventually) responding to God’s call.
Jesus remains the same today – he knows us and sees us. He knows where we are in life and in our relationship with him, and he sees where we are and what we are doing. And it with this knowledge of us, that Jesus calls us to follow him.
I thus urge you also to respond to the call of Jesus – to follow him. Put in the effort to build a relationship with Jesus – talk with him, read the Bible, come to church, talk with Christian friends, think about Jesus. He is ready and waiting for you. He is calling you to follow him. You just need to reach back.
Today we celebrate Epiphany – the revelation or revealing of Jesus Christ to the non-Jewish world, specifically, to the Magi. Traditionally, these were the three wise men or the three kings. The readings set for today (for Epiphany) tell the narrative of a great opening up (or revealing or understanding) of God’s salvation for all humankind.
We start in Isaiah with several prophecies of the nations (Gentiles, non-Jews) coming recognise the special call of Israel to be a light to the world. For example, Isaiah 59:19 says, “From the west, people will fear the name of the Lord, and from the rising of the sun [that is, from the east], they will revere his glory”. In Isaiah 60:3, we read, “Nations will come to your light and kings to the brightness of your dawn”. And Isaiah 60:6 seems to prophesy the coming of the Magi (the traditional ‘three kings’ or ‘wise men’), “All from Sheba will come, bearing gold and incense and proclaiming the praise of the Lord.”
In the times of the First Testament, God had chosen to work with the Jewish people. They were his chosen people – the people of the covenant. But throughout that Testament, we see references, like those in Isaiah, to Israel leading everyone towards God. They were to be a priestly nation who would mediate God to the world.
Then, in Matthew 2:1, we read, “After Jesus was born in Bethlehem … Magi from the east came to Jerusalem and asked, ‘Where is the one who has been born king of the Jews? We saw his star when it rose and have come to worship him’.” When they found Jesus, “they bowed down and worshipped him” and “presented him with gifts of gold, frankincense and myrrh” (Matthew 2:11), in fulfilment of the prophecy in Isaiah 60:6.
The importance of the Magi is twofold. First, they recognise Jesus as a king – not merely as a child. He was a person of great significance. And secondly, because they came from the east (probably somewhere in Persia or even further east) and were not Jewish, they represent the gentile nations. Their visit to Jesus and their recognition of him as King is the fulfilment of the First Testament prophecy, that the Messiah of the Jewish people would be a Messiah for all people. This is the epiphany – the revelation of Jesus to those outside of the Jewish faith.
Jesus’ ministry, as recorded in the Gospels, was primarily to the Jewish people. Jesus says as much (e.g., Matthew 10:5-6). However, there are numerous examples of Jesus reaching beyond the Jewish people to Gentiles. Still, the Good News that Jesus preached was primarily good news for Jews.
The outworking of the fulfilled prophecy comes with Paul and is explained very clearly in his letter to the Ephesians. Speaking to the Gentiles, Paul says “you were separate from Christ, excluded from citizenship in Israel and foreigners to the covenants of the promise, without hope and without God in the world” (Ephesians 2:12). Paul is reiterating the First Testament position, that only the Jewish people were God’s chosen.
But Paul then shares his “insight into the mystery of Christ, which was not made known to people in other generations as it has now been revealed by the Spirit of God’s holy apostles and prophets” (Ephesians 3:4-5). And what is this mystery? It is that “through the gospel the Gentiles are heirs together with Israel, members together of one body, and sharers together in the promise of Christ Jesus” (Ephesians 3:6).
Paul proclaims the great opening up of the Gospel message to all people, as was prophesied in the First Testament and according to the sign of the magi from the East. God’s chosen people are no longer only the Jewish nation, but anyone who believes in Jesus Christ. “In him and through faith in him, we may approach God, with freedom and confidence” (Ephesians 3:12). “The barrier, the dividing wall of hostility” (Ephesians 2:14) has been destroyed. The doors to the Kingdom of God have been flung wide open and all are welcome to enter!
What does this mean for us today? It means that our church doors must also be flung wide open so that all feel welcome to enter. There should be no barriers to people coming to Christ and coming to church. Every person, no matter who or what they are, should feel that they are welcome, loved and included when they meet us. We should be generous and inclusive.
If we are honest, we will admit that Christians can be some of the most judgemental, critical and exclusionary people on earth. And often also hypocrites – saying one thing but doing another. Christians frequently do not put into practice the open and inclusive Gospel that Jesus proclaimed, which was prophesied in the First Testament, and which we see unfolding throughout the Second Testament.
Jesus’ ministry was one of radical inclusion. He seems to go out of his way to embrace those who the world would regard as sinners and marginalised – prostitutes, tax collectors, Roman oppressors, lepers, demon possessed people, women, Samaritans, the dead and dying, and so on. Jesus repeatedly positions himself with those who one might think could not be the ‘chosen people’. He does this show, unequivocally, that the Gospel is a generous and inclusive message and that doors to the Kingdom of God are wide open.
And thanks be to God for that! Because this is what enables most of us – who are Gentile – to be included among God’s chosen people. Let us then walk in the footsteps of Jesus and of Paul, in the way we as individuals engage with people around us – always welcoming, always generous, warm, kind, tolerant, inclusive. And let us as a church – the parish of St Stephen – similarly be a church with wide open doors that welcomes anyone and everyone into the presence of God.