Turning towards God

Click here to listen to this 11-minute message.

Today is Ash Wednesday, the first day of Lent. Lent is the period of 40 days of fasting and prayer that leads up to Easter. It is a time of preparation for Calvary.

We have three key readings today:

  1. Matthew 6:1-16,16-21. Jesus emphasises that when we do things like giving to the needy, praying and fasting in a way that draws people’s attention to ourselves, our reward for doing it is people’s attention. God is no much impressed. But when we do these things quietly, secretly, then God (who sees what is done in secret) will reward us with treasures that last for eternity.
  2. Psalm 51. In this Psalm, David acknowledges his brokenness and comes before God with empty hands. He does not pretend that he is something when he’s not. And he is honest about his sinfulness. He concludes that God will not despite or reject a broken spirit or a broken and contrite heart.
  3. Isaiah 58:1-12This passage (titled ‘true fasting’ in the NIV translation) emphasises that our fasting my (1) be wholehearted, not merely a performance or duty, and (2) must be matched with how we live out our faith in deeds of justice, compassion and rightness. When we just go through the motions, God will not answer. But when we are sincere and ‘walk the talk’, and call on God, he will say, “Here am I”.

In light of this, I make four key recommendations for prayer and fasting during Lent:

  1. Turn to God – quietly and privately.
  2. Repent of your sins – sincerely.
  3. Align yourself with God – wholeheartedly.
  4. Act on this alignment – purposefully.

Finally, I recommend a prayerful reading of Psalm 51 (NRSV).

1 Have mercy on me, O God,
according to your steadfast love;
according to your abundant mercy
blot out my transgressions.
2 Wash me thoroughly from my iniquity,
and cleanse me from my sin.

3 For I know my transgressions,
and my sin is ever before me.
4 Against you, you alone, have I sinned,
and done what is evil in your sight,
so that you are justified in your sentence
and blameless when you pass judgement.
5 Indeed, I was born guilty,
a sinner when my mother conceived me.

6 You desire truth in the inward being;
therefore teach me wisdom in my secret heart.
7 Purge me with hyssop, and I shall be clean;
wash me, and I shall be whiter than snow.
8 Let me hear joy and gladness;
let the bones that you have crushed rejoice.
9 Hide your face from my sins,
and blot out all my iniquities.

10 Create in me a clean heart, O God,
and put a new and right spirit within me.
11 Do not cast [fling] me away from your presence,
and do not take your holy spirit from me.
12 Restore to me the joy of your salvation,
and sustain in me a willing spirit.

13 Then I will teach transgressors your ways,
and sinners will return to you.
14 Deliver me from bloodshed, O God,
O God of my salvation,
and my tongue will sing aloud of your deliverance.

15 O Lord, open my lips,
and my mouth will declare your praise.
16 For you have no delight in sacrifice;
if I were to give a burnt-offering, you would not be pleased.
17 The sacrifice acceptable to God is a broken spirit;
a broken and contrite heart, O God, you will not despise.

Or listen to Bach’s Cantata based on Psalm 51 (music adapted from Pergolesi’s Stabat Mater)

 

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

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Coming down from the mountain

Click here to listen to this 20-minute message.

Put your feet in the sandals of the disciples. They hear Jesus’ call and leave everything to follow him. They witness amazing events: healings, exorcisms, resurrections and the feeding of thousands. And they hear new teachings, unlike anything they have heard before.

And at the point that Peter realises that Jesus is the Christ, Jesus starts talking about suffering and dying, and that his disciples must follow him on this path. Crazy talk! Things had been so great; now they were falling to pieces.

Our own faith journey is often like this. We go through periods where we feel deeply connected to God, and experience God’s working in and through our lives, and being a Christian seems wonderful. But then, like a cloud on a hot day, it vaporizes, and it feels like God is absent. Up and down, up and down.

It was at a point like this, that the transfiguration takes place (John 9:28-36). Jesus takes Peter, James and John up a mountain, where he is transformed before their eyes. The appearance of his face changes, his clothes shine like a flash of lightening, they see his glory. It is as if the veil that separates our world from the heavenly realm was cracked open a little, and celestial light poured through. What a moment!

But, Peter’s attempt to hold on to it was thwarted, and soon the four of them trundle back down the mountain, and continue with the work of healing and teaching, spreading the good news of the Kingdom of God and – now they realise – journeying towards the cross. This mountain top experience served to strengthen them all for the coming challenges. It was not the destination; they had to come down the mountain.

In most churches around the world, this coming Wednesday (6 March 2019) is Ash Wednesday, the first day of Lent. Lent is a period of fasting and prayer that runs up to Easter. During this time, we immerse ourselves in the painful journey that Jesus takes, accompanied most of the way by his disciples, towards the cross. It is not an easy journey. The transfiguration, which we celebrated today, served to remind us that the one who is journeying towards that cross is not merely a great man, but the Son of God.

May God journey closely with you over this coming Lenten period.

Listen also to my 2012 message called “Pressing on to Glory”, based on the same passage

The featured image of this post is an Orthodox icon of the transfiguration. More information about this icon can be found here.

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Truth

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What do you believe? What do you hold to be true? How certain are you that these truths are in fact true? Are you open to the possibility that what you think is true might actually be incorrect? Are you open to possibility that other truths, that are different from your own, might be true? Or are you certain that you are right and they are wrong? In the pantheon of all that you believe is true, is there a central truth – a core truth – that you hold with the greatest certainty? That you’d be prepared to die for?

Truth is a big deal in contemporary society. We live in a post-modern era, where we regard truth as socially constructed, and where one person’s truth is acceptably another person’s fiction or even falsehood. It is a time of relative belief, of ‘live and let live’, of ‘each to their own’.

Yet, for many Christians, truth is absolute and unquestionable. What the Bible says – at least, what those passages that we choose to read – is absolutely true and must be imposed on others as being undoubtedly truly for all people everywhere.

The Apostle Paul presents what appears to be a core truth for himself in 1 Corinthians 15. It centres on the resurrection of Christ. He argues that Christ’s resurrection is so central, that if you don’t believe it, then everything else that you think you believe is flawed and futile.

What is your core truth?

I believe a lot of things about my faith strongly. For example, I believe that God created everything, that God is three distinct persons in one being, that Jesus Christ was the incarnation of God into the world, and that Jesus has uniquely facilitated the restoration of our relationship with God. But I’m not entirely certain how God created everything, whether God is just three persons or if there may yet be additional persons in the Godhead whom we’ve not yet met, or when and how the incarnation took place, and whether there is any limit on the reach of Christ’s reconciliation of people to God. I have thoughts on all of these, and I believe them quite strongly, but I’m open to the possibility – even the likelihood – that I may be wrong.

Yet, for me, I have an unshakable core belief that the heart of God is filled to overflowing with generous, extravagant, fierce love. This one core belief is the centre of my faith. I’m willing to lay down my life for that belief. And everything else that I believe emanates from that central truth. It is why I wrote the book Being God’s Beloved.

What is your core truth?

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God cares for you

Click here to listen to this 20-minute message.

The story of Jesus changing water into wine at the wedding in Cana (John 2:1-11) is well-known to most people. It is, in John’s version of the Gospel story, the first act by which Jesus reveals his glory to people. It is an epiphany – an appearance or manifestation of the glory of God in Christ, showing Christ to be God incarnate, the Son of God, the second person of the Holy Trinity.

But before all of that, the changing of water into wine is an act of kindness that reveals to us the interest and care that God has for us. God is interested in and cares about all the daily events in our lives – our concerns and worries, the stumbling blocks and hurdles that we encounter, and our hopes and aspirations. God is not so preoccupied with the great events of the universe that God has no time to attend to the small details of our personal life. Jesus’ assistance with the wedding in Cana, where the wine for the celebrations had run out, is evidence of this.

That the first miracle Jesus performs in John’s Gospel is at a wedding is itself no coincidence. It points to God’s interest in human relationships, in love, in the connections between couples and between families. This reveals the heart of God, which is filled with love for us.

The miracle itself is also performed quietly and unobtrusively, unlike many of the miracles churches sell to people today, which are spectacles. Without any fanfare, Jesus asks some servants to ‘fill’, ‘draw’ and ‘take’, and only they and his mother knew that a miracle had been performed. It was almost done in secret.

As a result of this, his disciples entrusted themselves to Jesus; they put their faith in him, they believed into him. Because they saw that he had both power and compassion.

This miracle, however, also has layers of meaning that deepen our appreciation for this story. First, there are many pointers towards this being a story of Christ’s work to bring salvation to humanity, which we commemorate in the Eucharist (also known as the Holy Community or Lord’s Supper). Second, the wedding banquet is an image used throughout the Bible to point towards God’s great plan to reconcile the world to God’s self, culminating in a great eschatological wedding between us and God and a generous banquet.

At this grand level of the whole of cosmic history,

and at the level of Christ’s work for the salvation of humankind,

and at the level of a wedding in a small village where the families ran out of wine

– at all these levels – this story speaks of God’s care for us. Yes, God loves us. But, in addition, God cares. God cares about and responds to the little and the big things in our lives and God willing and able to respond to them.

 

Featured image from https://i.pinimg.com/originals/b4/fe/af/b4feaf55ff1f500f40c530ff0edf21cb.jpg

Jesus’ Anointing

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We continue through the season of Epiphany in my church, which is the season in which we reflect on the manifestation or appearance of God in the world. This is particularly so in his Son Jesus Christ, who is the great shining forth of God’s presence in the incarnation of Christ, the Son of God, the second person of the Trinity.

Today we focus on the baptism of Jesus by John. In Matthew and Mark’s accounts of the baptism, God the Father speaks and God the Holy Spirit descends as John baptises Jesus and as Jesus comes up out of the water. But in Luke’s version of the baptism (Luke 3:15-22), things look quite different and it is less about his baptism and more about his anointing.

John is removed from the scene a few verses earlier, Jesus’ baptism is mentioned only in passing as background, and the appearance of God happens as Jesus prays. Moreover, the language used (passive voice and infinitive clauses – people were being baptised, Jesus was baptised, heaven was opened, a voice came from heaven)) creates a sense of time being suspended. It is as if the globe stops spinning and all falls silent, as the heavens are torn open, the Spirit descends in bodily form and the voice of God is heard. It is a moment of mystery. It is an epiphany!

Luke accentuates this by echoing imagery and language from the prophetic literature and the Psalms of the First Testament, e.g.

  • Ezekiel 1.1 and 2:1-3:1, where the heavens open, Ezekiel is filled with the Holy Spirit and God appears, reaching out of the heavens towards Ezekiel, and commissions him for ministry.
  • Psalm 2:7, where God says “you are my son”.
  • Isaiah 42:1, where God speaks of his chosen servant, who he fills with Spirit, to bring justice to the world.

These passages reinforce what follows Jesus’ baptism in Luke: Jesus goes out in the desert for 40 days (Luke 4:1-13) and then into the synagogue, where he proclaims his manifesto – “The Spirit of the Lord is on me, because he has anointed me to preach good news to the poor” (Luke 4:14-30).

How wonderful it would be if we ourselves experienced such an epiphany! Sadly, for most of us, God speaks quietly and subtly, not in such dramatic ways. Yes, let us not doubt that God does call us, manifest himself to us, anoint us with Holy Spirit and commission us for service. We are as much called into God’s work as Jesus was.

 

Featured image from: https://www.desiringgod.org/interviews/why-was-jesus-baptized

The Word became flesh

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In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God and the Word was God (John 1:1).

These majestic words open the Gospel according to St John, and continue over 18 verses in one of the most majestic hymns to the Christ. On Christmas Day, we celebrated the birth of an infant, a little child who promised hope and new life. But he was, after all, just an infant. By contrast, John presents us with the pre-existent second person of the Trinity, the Son of God, the Holy One. Magnificent, eternal, powerful, unfettered, transcendent.

We really cannot dissect and analyse such an image of Christ. Rather, we must merely apprehend it, gaze upon it, marvel at it. My own church tradition is low church, not high, but it is on days like today that I wish we had incense in my church, as its fragrance and appearance would serve to lift us up out of the intellectual to the mystical, and to merely and deeply appreciate the mystery of the Word.

This Word, who became flesh, and who made his dwelling among us (John 1:14). How amazing that God should became human, that God should shrink down to be merged with a single human cell at conception, and develop into a neonate, a son.

We, like John the Baptist, like John the beloved disciple, can only witness this gift of love, to see it and hear it and know it. And then to be witnesses to it, to proclaim it. The Word made flesh!

Here are today’s key readings:

Featured image from: https://www.nbcnews.com/mach/science/what-big-bang-theory-ncna881136

Opening bars of Strauss’ Also sprach Zarathustra, performed by the Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra, under the baton of Gustavo Dudamel: https://www.amazon.com/Strauss-R-Also-sprach-Zarathustra/dp/B00EYVGAO6

Wondering where that music comes from? Here you are:

Radical inclusion

Click here to listen to this 16-minute message.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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