Beleaguered

Click here to listen to this 24-minute message.

Probably all of us go through times, at least now and then, when we feel beleaguered (click here for a definition of this word).

Jesus certainly did. The closer he got to the cross, the more the leaders of his time circled him, plotted against him, slandered him, entrapped him. By the time Judas became willing to betray him, Jesus had scores of vultures circling him. Our reading for today, from Luke 21:5-19, comes at just this time in his life. In it, Jesus speaks about the future – both the near future of the time of the destruction of the Jewish (second) temple, which would take place about 40 years later in AD70, and the distant eschatological future of the End Times, when Jesus prepares to return. In both times, followers of Christ will suffer persecution. They will be beleaguered.

Even though we are probably not living in the End Times, we as Christians may already have experience of being beleaguered. Sometimes we become beleaguered in our workplace, when we stand up for Kingdom values: integrity, honesty, fairness, justice, inclusion and vulnerability. Or in families, someone who converts from the family’s faith into the Christian faith may be ostracized, even expelled and cut off. Churches are attacked and people at workshop are killed, as in Sri Lanka on Easter Day 2019. Even within the church, people can become beleaguered by leaders who are threatened by their vision, their Spirit-filledness, their willingness to ask for change and their desire for greater inclusion. Much as the church ought to be a place of sanctuary and community, it can become a place of persecution and exclusion.

In Luke 21:5-19, Jesus presents four words of advice – words of wisdom – for those of us in such situations.

  1. Know that God knows. Sometimes, when we are under such pressure, we feel alone and abandoned. But Jesus emphasizes that God knows and is mindful of our situation. In v9 he says, “When you hear of wars and uprisings, do not be frightened. These things must happen first, but the end will not come right away.” In other words, since God knows what is still to come, such as the destruction of the Temple, God also knows your situation. God knows. God cares. God is present. God is in control. Psalm 121 reminds us that “he who watches over you will not slumber; indeed, he who watches over Israel will neither slumber nor sleep.”
  2. Persecution is an opportunity for witness. He says in v13, “And so you will bear testimony to me.” While we are being persecuted and beleaguered, witness might not be uppermost on our minds, but Jesus says that this is the time to embody Kingdom values. But our capacity to witness is not something we do alone – no! He emphasizes that we need not stress about what we will say as witnesses (v14), because “I will give you words and wisdom that none of your adversaries will be able to resist or contradict.” We see such inspiration particularly in the life and death of St Stephen, in Acts 6 and 7.
  3. God protects his own. With God at our side, we have God’s protection: “But not a hair of your head will perish” (v18). Jesus appears to contradict himself here, because just two verses earlier he said, “they will put some of you to death“. We get some clarity about this from another passage that also speaks about the hair on our head, Luke 12:4-7, where he says, “The very hairs of your head are all numbered.” This follows a passage in which Jesus distinguishes between the death of the body and a more permanent death (which he there refers to as being thrown into hell). Jesus wants us to understand that to die does not mean to perish. Our bodies may suffer and even die, but we do not perish – those who are in Christ continue to live in the presence of God. (See my previous sermon on this passage in Luke 12.) So, yes, may may suffer when we are beleaguered and persecuted, but God protects us when it counts most.
  4. We are called to endure. Jesus concludes this passage saying, “Stand firm, and you will win life.” We are called to stand firm, to endure, to persevere, to be resolute, to hold the faith and (in South African idiom) to vasbyt (literally, to bite tightly). Paul says something similar in Ephesians 6:13, “Therefore put on the full armor of God, so that when the day of evil comes, you may be able to stand your ground, and after you have done everything, to stand.” This endurance is more than just standing still; it is about continuing to do God’s work. In Luke 8:15, in the parable about the seeds the fell on different types of ground, Jesus says, “But the seed on good soil stands for those with a noble and good heart, who hear the word, retain it, and by persevering produce a crop.”

Jesus never promises us an easy life, despite what many pastors and churches preach. Indeed, if anything, Jesus promises us that life will be difficult. But he provides us with the reassurance that God knows what we are going through and is present and in control, and that God will protect us, and ultimately whatever happens we will fall into his arms. He calls us to use these opportunities to witness to his values and Kingdom, and he calls us to stand firm and to produce good fruits, not matter what is going on around us.

If you are in such beleaguered circumstances, please know that I do not aim to diminish your suffering – not at all. Rather, I hope to encourage you with the words of Jesus, who suffered much, that God is right there with you and holding you through it all.

 

2019.11.17_Beleaguered churchFeatured photo of St. Sebastian’s Church in Negombo, Sri Lanka, which was bombed on Easter Day, 21 April 2019. May the souls of those who died rest in peace in God’s loving embrace. From https://ie.gofundme.com/f/victims-of-st-sebastian-church-negombo-sri-lanka

Let’s talk about Jesus

Click here to listen to this 13-minute message, preached on 3 November 2019.

Anyone who spent a year in Sunday School as a kid will surely remember the story of Zacchaeus – a short-statured tax collector, who climbed a tree to see Jesus passing by (Luke 19:1-10). Here’s the story:

Jesus entered Jericho and was passing through. A man was there by the name of Zacchaeus; he was a chief tax collector and was wealthy. He wanted to see who Jesus was, but because he was short he could not see over the crowd. So he ran ahead and climbed a sycamore-fig tree to see him, since Jesus was coming that way.

When Jesus reached the spot, he looked up and said to him, “Zacchaeus, come down immediately. I must stay at your house today.” So he came down at once and welcomed him gladly.

All the people saw this and began to mutter, “He has gone to be the guest of a sinner.”

But Zacchaeus stood up and said to the Lord, “Look, Lord! Here and now I give half of my possessions to the poor, and if I have cheated anybody out of anything, I will pay back four times the amount.”

Jesus said to him, “Today salvation has come to this house, because this man, too, is a son of Abraham. 10 For the Son of Man came to seek and to save the lost.”

In this message, I explore the mechanisms that led to Zacchaeus’ transformation, emphasising the importance of talking about Jesus. In short, I make three main points:

  1. Zacchaeus climbed the tree because he had heard people talking about Jesus: what he had done, including the miracles Jesus had performed, but perhaps more importantly, about the parable of the Pharisee and the tax collector in the previous chapter (Luke 18:9-14). Had it not been for people talking about Jesus, Zacchaeus would probably never have met Jesus.
  2. After Jesus comes into Zacchaeus’ house for tea, people start judging, grumbling, moaning, criticising, etc. They criticised Zacchaeus for being a dishonest tax collector, which was probably true. And they criticised Jesus for hanging about with ‘sinners’, which certainly was true, frequently! In response, Zacchaeus stands up and talks about his faith response to Jesus. He speaks directly to Jesus, not to the critical crowds, and he professes his faith. Jesus responds affirmingly: “This man, too, is a son of Abraham”.
  3. Two thousand years later, we are still reading about Zacchaeus! The question for us is: are we talking about Jesus? Are we following in the footsteps of the people of  Zacchaeus’ time and talking about Jesus? Are we following in footsteps of Zacchaeus and talking about our faith in Jesus? Are we, like we imagine Zacchaeus doing after this story, living out our faith, moment by moment, by the way we embody the values of Christ: compassion, inclusivity, justice, human dignity and rights, challenging the abuse of power and pointing to a God of extravagant love?

2019.11.03_Zacchaeus_Tissot

Zacchaeus in the Sycamore Awaiting the Passage of Jesus (Zachée sur le sycomore attendant le passage de Jésus), by James Tissot (French, 1836-1902), painted 1886-1896. Opaque watercolor over graphite on gray wove paper, Image: 7 1/8 x 9 15/16 in. (18.1 x 25.2 cm). Brooklyn Museum, New York. This image downloaded from https://www.newemangelization.com/meeting-jesus/catholic-mens-daily-devotional-and-bible-study-31st-week-in-ordinary-time-sunday-cycle-c-luke-191-10/

Who am I?

Click here to listen to this 23-minute message.

Today we ask the question, Who am I? Or more specifically, What is my identity as a Christian? This is the first of five themes in a series on stewardship, where we reflect on our role in taking care of God’s business in the world.

In this audio message, I make the following points:

  1. In John 15:1-10, the passage where Jesus says he is the vine and we are the branches, 11 times Jesus uses the term ‘remain’ (or ‘abide’ in the old Authorised Version): “Remain in me … and you will bear much fruit“. Here Jesus calls us to be rooted into him, to remain grafted into him. We recognise that without him, we can do nothing. So we depend on him.
  2. In the same passage, Jesus also speaks of remaining in us: “Remain in me as I remain in you“. This suggests an interdependence between God and us, in which God binds himself to humanity. We this most strongly evident in four moments in cosmic history: creation, covenant, incarnation and Pentecost. In each of these, God in some way limits himself or enters into agreement with humanity, binding himself and his work to us.
  3. Psalm 23 reminds us that God is both the source of our life (“The Lord is my shepherd, I lack nothing”) and its destination (“Surely your goodness and love will follow me all the days of my life, and I will dwell in the house of the Lord forever”). In John 14:6, Jesus similarly emphasises that he is the way and the truth and the life. In other words, he is everything – there is nothing in our lives that falls outside of our connection to Christ.
  4. Our interdependence with God is rooted in our relationship with God. Sometimes the church gives us rules or procedures or recipes we’re supposed to follow in our relationship with God. But this relationship is like any other relationship in our life. It is unique, personal and authentic. It is different for each of us, because, though God is the same person, each of us different, so his relationship to each of us different. God meets us right where we are. Whatever you find works for you in your relationship with God, do more of that.
  5. As much as our interdependence with God is rooted in our relationship with God, it is also rooted in our relationships with each other. God did not create a single person (Adam or Eve); God created a couple (two people in loving relationship with each other), and immediately mandated them to procreate and become a family. 1 Peter 2:9-10 similarly emphasises that we are a community of people in relationship with other people: “a chosen people, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, God’s special possession … the people of God”. So, we have to invest not only in ourselves and our relationship with God, but also in our relationships in the church (however you want to define that) and the work of the church.
  6. Finally, our readings today call for decisiveness. Moses, speaking just before the nation of Israel crosses into the promised land, calls them to a decision (Deuteronomy 30:19-20): “This day I … set before you life and death, blessings and curses. Now choose! Choose life! … For the Lord is your life”.

Image may contain: 1 person

This banner, hanging at St Stephen’s Anglican Church, Lyttleton, created by Eleanor Jappie.

Featured image from here.

Not peace, but division

Click here to listen to this 18-minute message.

Jesus says, in Luke 12:49-53:

“I have come to bring fire on the earth, and how I wish it were already kindled! But I have a baptism to undergo, and what constraint I am under until it is completed! Do you think I came to bring peace on earth? No, I tell you, but division. From now on there will be five in one family divided against each other, three against two and two against three. They will be divided, father against son and son against father, mother against daughter and daughter against mother, mother-in-law against daughter-in-law and daughter-in-law against mother-in-law.”

This is a challenging passage because it seems so contrary to what Jesus appears to stand for: love, peace, reconciliation, forgiveness. How do we make sense of this?

We start by testing out whether Jesus really did not come to bring peace on earth. We locate this specific passage within the broader narrative of his life and ministry. When we do that, we find that Jesus definitely did come to bring peace on earth. Here it is from Luke’s version of the Gospel:

Prophesies about his ministry

End of Song of Zechariah:  “to shine on those living in darkness and in the shadow of death, to guide our feet into the path of peace.” (Lk 1:79)

Angels proclaiming the birth of Christ:  “Glory to God in the highest, and on earth  peace to men on whom his favor rests.” (Lk 2:14)

Jesus’ actual ministry

To the sinful woman who anointed his feet:  ‘Jesus said to the woman, “Your faith has saved you; go in peace”.’ (Lk 7:50)

To the bleeding woman:  ‘Then he said to her, “Daughter, your faith has healed you. Go in peace”.’ (Lk 8:48)

To the disciples after his resurrection:  ‘While they were still talking about this, Jesus himself stood among them and said to them, “Peace be with you”.’ (Lk 24:36)

Jesus’ instructions to his disciples

To the 72 followers:  “When you enter a house, first say, ‘Peace to this house.’ If a man of peace is there, your peace will rest on him; if not, it will return to you.” (Lk 10:5-6)

It is hard to read all of this from Luke’s Gospel and conclude that Jesus did not come to bring peace on earth. Then what does he mean when he says, “Do you think I came to bring peace on earth? No, I tell you, but division.”

I suggest that Luke 12:49-50 informs us that to accomplish his mission (to bring peace on earth), Jesus must first go through a great confrontation and that this informs us that peace-building brings him into conflict with the forces of darkness, with Satan and his minions. And the Luke 12:51-53 informs us that peace-building can bring conflict even within the family home; and thus also in churches, communities, workplaces and nations.

I provide three examples of this, from my experiences in church, the ‘secular’ workplace and the nation. In each case, standing up for the values of Christ’s kingdom values – love, dignity, respect, compassion, human development, social justice, peace, etc. – has the potential to bring about conflict and division. The values of the Kingdom of God are contrary to all the values of the kingdom of darkness and to the path of sin. Small wonder, then, that championing these values brings about conflict and division. 

What I take from this passage is that there is need for us to stand up for Kingdom values. This is part of peacebuilding. But standing up for peace may well lead us towards conflict and division. Let us not be too scared by this.

2019.08.18_Peace dove

Featured image from https://images.app.goo.gl/WcNWwMLn4eci585V7

Poverty

Click here to listen to this 24-minute message.

Poverty is one of the great challenges facing South Africa today, with unemployment rates above 25% for the population as a whole and around 55% for young adults, and with poverty still running along racial and gender lines (StatsSA). It is a challenge for the country and for the church. It is a challenge we try to deal with in our mission to the world, and it is a challenge we try to deal with among ourselves. Many of us are ourselves struggling with poverty.

What is it that God expects of us regarding poverty?
And how do we do something about poverty, when we ourselves are poor? 

Luke 12 presents to us Jesus’ perspective on poverty, which is essentially that we should not worry. “Don’t be afraid, little flock”, he says. “Do not worry”. “Do not be afraid”. He regales us with analogies of ravens, sparrows, flowers and hairs on our head. Analogies that speak of God’s provision, God’s providence, God’s care. “You are worth far more than many sparrows”.

How does Jesus expect us to ‘not worry’ about things that are so worrisome? Are we simply to sing the “Don’t worry, be happy” song? or Hakuna Matata?

Jesus reveals in Luke 12 that not worrying about poverty (or any other life challenge) is not about switching off to poverty or denying reality. Rather, it about seeing a more powerful reality that lies beyond the present; a world that lies beyond this present world. He invites us to recognise that there is a world to come that is more important than this one and more enduring. It is not that this world, this life, is unimportant! Clearly, from Jesus’ behaviour and teaching, we know that this life and its challenges are important. But there is an even more important world to come. And it our investment into that world that really matters, that counts in the short and long run.

Our capacity see that world rests in faith. It is “by faith” that we see that world. Faith is the central topic of Hebrews 11. The writer reminds us that “faith is confidence in what we hope for and assurance about what we do not see” (Heb 11:1). Paul similarly writes, “we live by faith, not by sight” (2 Cor 5:7). In this chapter from Hebrews, the writer uses the phrase “by faith” 21 times to emphasise that the legacy we inherit from our biblical ancestors is one of faith. While we typically want an instant return on our faith investment, our ancestors were willing to wait generations for the return:

All these people were still living by faith when they died. They did not receive the things promised; they only saw them and welcomed them from a distance, admitting that they were foreigners and strangers on earth (Heb 11:13).

Abraham was able to see the future through God’s eyes. He heard and believed God’s promise that he would become the father of many nations (Genesis 12:2, 15:5 and 22:17), even though he did not see this for himself in his lifetime. He could see it because he could see through God’s eyes. Through the eyes of faith. It is these eyes that we need to be able to see the world beyond this one, to see God’s provision in the midst of hardship, to see God’s promises fulfilled even if not yet. These are the eyes of faith. These are the eyes of God.

And so Jesus says,

Sell your possessions and give to the poor. Provide purses for yourselves that will not wear out, a treasure in heaven that will never fail, where no thief comes near and no moth destroys. For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also (Luke 12:33-34).

This is a message not just for those with money (though we, especially, should heed it), but also for those without (think of the story of the widow’s mite in Luke 21:1-4). This what God calls his people to:

Learn to do right; seek justice. Defend the oppressed. Take up the cause of the fatherless. Plead the case of the widow (Isaiah 1:17).

It starts at home, within the church community:

All the believers were one in heart and mind. No one claimed that any of their possessions was their own, but they shared everything they had. …And God’s grace was so powerfully at work in them all that there were no needy persons among them. For from time to time those who owned land or houses sold them, brought the money from the sales and put it at the apostles’ feet, and it was distributed to anyone who had need (Acts 4:32-35).

Featured image from: https://images.app.goo.gl/iy3XkCppMMj5g2QG9

Doing mission

Click here to listen to this 23-minute message.

Our Gospel reading for today is Luke 10:1-11, 16-20. It is the story of Jesus sending out 72 of his followers (having previously sent out the 12 disciples at the start of Luke 9) to do missionary work. It’s an important narrative, because it provides insight into Jesus’ teaching and training of his followers in missionary work. In this recording, I do an almost verse-by-verse Bible study of the passage, to tease out what happens, what Jesus says and how Luke conveys Jesus’ teachings to us.

I start by disclosing that I am a useless evangelist. I was trained in and did cold-calling as a university student, while a member of Campus Crusade for Christ. But, being a naturally shy and introverted person, walking up to strangers to share the Gospel with them was the hardest thing in the world for me.

I wrap up with three main points (RAP):

  1. Our Responsibility. We are responsible to be faithful to God, to make God known in the world. But we are not responsible for how people respond to us. Our responsibility is to lay a foundation and prepare the way for Holy Spirit to continue Christ’s work in the life of other people.
  2. Our Attitude. We are invited to enter the lives of others with an attitude of peace – to be calm, quiet, respectful and deferential. And we are invited to accommodate them and their ways, not to impose ourselves on them. Paul writes at length about this in 1 Corinthians 9:19-23.
  3. Our Presence. We are assured (and reassured) that since Christ dwells in us – has taken up residence in us – wherever we are, Christ is. And wherever Christ is, the Kingdom of God is (since Christ is King of the Kingdom of God). Thus, merely being among people who do not know God brings the Kingdom of God near to them. This, ultimately, is what Jesus emphasises to his followers (Luke 10:8-11):

“When you enter a town and are welcomed, … tell them, ‘The kingdom of God has come near to you. But when you enter a town and are not welcomed, go into its streets and say … be sure of this: The kingdom of God has come near.”

Whether we realise or intend it or not, the truth is that we are always Christ’s ambassadors. We are always revealing Christ to the world. We are always preparing the way for Christ’s coming. We are always doing mission. But we could be doing mission in a way that better aligns with Jesus’ teaching on mission and that does indeed prepare the way for him.

2019.07.07_Mosaic of Jesus Christ in Florence Baptistry

Featured image is a 13th century mosaic of Jesus Christ from the ceiling of the Baptistry across from the Duomo (Santa Maria del Fiore) in Florence. https://www.flickr.com/photos/bbmaui/719415433/

Discomfort zone

Click here to listen to this 18-minute message.

Most of us like to remain within our comfort zones. They are, by definition, comfortable. So, we tend to stay within our comfort zone.

In Galatians 3:23-29, Paul explains that while we were formerly imprisoned by Law, we are now set free from such bondage. We’re set free by Christ, who brought a new kind of faith. We are now clothed with Christ. The result of this, is the breakdown of divisions among us: race (Jew and Gentile), class (slave and free) and gender (male and female). Elsewhere, Paul describes this as the destruction of a barrier, a “dividing wall of hostility” (Ephesians 2:14-16). We are made into one people. A diverse people.

As Christians, we are thus freed up to cross the boundaries that divide us. Choosing to cross boundaries is not easy for most of us. We tend to stay without our comfort zone. And that zone is typically populated by people who are similar to us. Engaging authentically with people who are of a different race, class or gender pushes us into a discomfort zone. Christ has freed us to step into these discomfort zones.

Indeed, we are mandated to step into our discomfort zones, because this is exactly what Jesus did. Again and again! Luke’s Gospel is particularly attentive to the ways Jesus deliberately and consciously – sometimes even flagrantly! – stepped over the boundaries that divide, placing himself and others in their discomfort zones.

A great example of this is Luke 8:26-39. Here Jesus crosses into gentile territory and engages a profoundly demon-possessed man, who is naked, uncontrollable and living wild among the tombs. In numerous ways, this man takes Jesus into his discomfort zone; Jesus breaks several Jewish taboos to be with this man. It is in this this context of discomfort that Jesus heals him, saves him, transforms him. When the community sees the man again, he is clothed, sitting at Jesus’ feet and in his right mind. Jesus does this reconciling work in his discomfort zone.

And this pushes the people of that region into their discomfort zone. They are afraid; overcome with fear. They beg Jesus to leave. They want their discomfort removed, and that means getting rid of Jesus. So Jesus leaves. He leaves them in their comfort zone. Separated from the loving presence of Christ.

But the man himself begs to follow Jesus. However, Jesus sends him back into his discomfort zone, back into the community from which he has long been feared and excluded. Jesus commissions him to be a missionary – perhaps the first gentile missionary to the gentiles! And it is into this zone of discomfort that the man goes, telling everyone what Jesus had done for him.

God wants us to step out of our comfort zones and into discomfort zones. God knows this is not easy. But God also knows that it is in these places that healing, transformation and reconciliation take place. So, what are your discomfort zones? And what can you do to cross into them deliberately?

2019.06.23_Statues-The-Divide-Northern-Ireland

Featured image called “Hands Across the Divide” in Derry, Northern Ireland. From http://www.bbcamerica.com/anglophenia/2013/11/snapshot-18-photos-of-u-k-statues