John 12:23-28 narrates Jesus’ thoughts about his journey towards the cross.
Regarding his own death he shares:
Jesus describes his crucifixion as his “glorification”. He recognises that his journey to and through the cross will culminate in his glorification. So he ironically uses these terms interchangeably.
Jesus makes sense of his journey through the metaphor of ‘one for many’: if a single seed refuses to die, it remains one seed; but if it dies, it produces many seeds. In other words, through the the death of one man (himself) there is life for many (salvation of humankind).
Jesus is genuinely troubled, disturbed, in dread of this path that he has been called to follow. The journey to the cross is not easy for him. He wishes there could be an easier route. Let us not be glib in our perception of Jesus’ mission.
Yet he resolves himself to his mission, his reason for coming and to the glory of God.
In the midst of this narrative, Jesus calls us to follow this same path:
If we want to serve him, he says, we must follow him and be where he is. And where he is at that moment is on the journey towards the cross. That is where we must follow him.
For sure, when we follow him, there will be glory – just as for him. Our Father will honour us if we serve Christ. But that is in the future. For now, we are called to a present path of suffering.
He cautions us to not hang tightly to this life, to be in love with this life. If we do, we will lose it. Rather, we must almost hate this life, by comparison, and rather invest in the life that is yet to come.
Many churches are teaching that Jesus’ desire for us is for our wealth, happiness, success, possessions and power. But there is no hint of such teaching from Jesus in John 12. Rather, we are to spurn such trappings of this life, and journey with him on his path.
During these last days of Lent, Jesus is calling us to journey alongside him towards the cross. Let us immerse ourselves in his journey. Let us walk close beside him. Let us accept the path of humility, service, laying ourselves down, suffering and dying to self and to this life.
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
I am taking a funeral later today for a parishioner who died of Covid. I asked his wife if she would like to pick a Scripture reading that she or her husband liked, and she selected Acts 24:15. I was quite surprised! I’ve participated in many funerals over the years and can never recall this verse being used. But it is a very apt passage, as I hope you will see.
I admit that I worship the God of our ancestors as a follower of the Way, which they call a sect. I believe everything that is in accordance with the Law and that is written in the Prophets, and I have the same hope in God as these men themselves have, that there will be a resurrection of both the righteous and the wicked. So I strive always to keep my conscience clear before God and man. (Acts 24:14-16)
Paul was currently under house arrest due to charges laid against him by the Jewish leaders. This continues for a number of years under various Roman rulers, and eventually he is transferred to Rome, where he spends the rest of his life. So, in today’s passage, Paul is both defending himself and declaring his faith. He is giving a testimony of what he believes. And this has four elements:
He is a follower of the Way, which is how people referred in those days to Christians. Christianity was known as ‘the Way’ and Christians as followers (of the Way).
He believes in the First Testament scriptures (the Law and the Prophets). In this way, he regards the First Testament as part of a Christian bible.
He hopes for the resurrection, as did some, but not all, Jewish people in that time.
He strives to keep a clear conscience with God and people, that is, to be on good terms with everyone.
The centre of the passage, however, is the third point about the resurrection.
First, he says that he has hope there will be a resurrection. This hope implies that there is more to life than just this life. Some people then and today believe that this life is all there is, and when we die, that’s the end. Paul says instead that there is a life after this life, the resurrection life. And so, while this life will end, there will be continuation of life in the resurrection life. And this implies that what we do in this life has implications for the next life. Our pattern of living is shaped not only by a present morality, but also by a recognition that how we live now will shape how we live the next life.
Second, Paul says something unique here – that both the righteous and the wicked will be raised. This means we are raised for judgement. As Jesus says, to separate the sheep from the goats. And judgement determines our eternal future.
Therefore, Paul says, he strives always to keep a clear conscience before God and humanity. Because this life impacts the next life, what we do now impacts our life then, and therefore it is important that we maintain good relations with God and humanity.
How do we do that? Paul says two things. First, we are urged to follow the Way of Christ. To model ourselves on him, to learn from him, to shape our behaviour on him, to assimilate his values. Second, we are urged to believe the Scriptures. We may not always understand them, we may prefer some passages over others; but we do have to engage respectfully and thoughtfully with the Scriptures. It is all Spirit-breathed and useful for living out our faith. So, Paul emphasizes that both our beliefs and our behaviour are important for Christian living.
The Covid pandemic is confronting us with the fragility of life – how quickly it can be snuffed out, and how easily we can lose life, even if we are young. It reminds us how precious this present life is and how we need to use it fully to develop and live out our faith. Acts 24:14-16 encapsulates the heart of Paul’s faith. Let us listen to Paul and follow Christ’s Way.
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 is the first Sunday in Advent, a season in which we look forward to the coming of Christ into the world – historically 2,000 years ago (which we celebrate at Christmas), in this very moment (Christ is continually coming into the world) and one day in the near or distant future (when Christ comes again). Today we reflect on the last of these – Jesus’ second coming.
Our reading is Isaiah 64:1-9, which opens with these powerful words, “Oh, that you would rend the heavens and come down!” While this sounds like a joyful call for Christ to return, the passage is filled with caution and a call for critical self-reflection.
Let me summarise the flow of thought. Initially, there is a call for Christ to come down, to make the mountains tremble, to set fire to the world, to cause the nations to quake and to make his name known to his enemies. This passage seems to work from the assumption that there are clear enemies of God, and implicitly that we are in the right:
Oh, that you would rend the heavens and come down, that the mountains would tremble before you! As when fire sets twigs ablaze and causes water to boil, come down to make your name known to your enemies and cause the nations to quake before you! For when you did awesome things that we did not expect, you came down, and the mountains trembled before you. (Isaiah 64:1-3)
Second, there is a similarly smug and self-satisfied view that God is inevitably on our side – that we are right, and everyone else is wrong, because we wait for Christ, we gladly do right, and we remember his ways. There is a complacency that we are right and thus God is for us – a complacency that easy slides into arrogance – an arrogance that easily slides into hatred and judgement of everyone else:
Since ancient times no-one has heard, no ear has perceived, no eye has seen any God besides you, who acts on behalf of those who wait for him. You come to the help of those who gladly do right, who remember your ways. (Isaiah 64:4-5a)
But third, it seems that Isaiah pauses and reflects. He becomes self-critical, as he writes, “But…” That ‘but’ initiates a series of recognitions that there is little difference between ‘us’ and ‘them’. He faces up to our continued sin, our uncleanness, that even the best we do is like filthy rags, that we are shrivelled like a leaf, that the wind of our sins will sweep us away, and that we neglect to call on God’s name or to strive towards him. Isaiah recognises that, as a result, God hides his face from us and gives us over to our sin. And so he says, “How then can we be saved?”:
But when we continued to sin against them, you were angry. How then can we be saved? All of us have become like one who is unclean, and all our righteous acts are like filthy rags; we all shrivel up like a leaf, and like the wind our sins sweep us away. No-one calls on your name or strives to lay hold of you; for you have hidden your face from us and have given us over to our sins. (Isaiah 64:5b-7)
And then, out of this stepping down, stepping back, looking within, critically self-reflecting, challenging himself and his religious community, Isaiah comes to some important realisations. He starts the next passage with, “Yet”, signalling that he has recognised something new. He discovers afresh that God is our father and we all are his children. That God is the potter and we are but clay in his hands. That God is merciful and does not store up anger against his children. That God sees us as we pray. And that we all are God’s people, all the work of his hand.
This last line is perhaps the most the important of all – having started by dividing the world into right and wrong, good and bad, saved and lost; and then realising that we also are wrong, bad and lost – he realises that God is for everyone. God desires to save everyone. God longs to reconcile with all of us. And that we can be reconciled only through the work of Christ, not by us being ‘more right’ than anyone else:
Yet you, LORD, are our Father. We are the clay, you are the potter; we are all the work of your hand. Do not be angry beyond measure, LORD; do not remember our sins for ever. Oh, look upon us we pray, for we are all your people. (Isaiah 64:8-9)
As much as we long for Christ to return – for the rending of the heavens and the coming down of Christ – let us recognise that we are little different from anyone else. We are as dependent on Christ for our salvation as anyone else, because we are as sinful as anyone else. That when we become smug about our salvation or about how spiritual or righteous we think we are, we are actually moving away from God, not towards him.
And so let us be cautious, humble, critically self-reflective and watchful. As Jesus says at the end of Mark 13:24-37,
St James wrote only one letter that is included in our Bible – a letter to all the churches. James is not one for subtlety. He pulls no punches. He says things as he sees them. His goal is to build up the church, and he is quite willing to challenge us to do so.
So, today’s message is an “if the shoe fits” message. If what I say today fits you or your church, put on the shoe. If it doesn’t, treat it as merely an interesting teaching or pass the shoe on to someone at another church who might need it.
In chapter 4, James provides a series of cautions and advice to churches that are experiencing internal troubles. And out of that I wish to draw three words of advice:
First, examine yourself. In the opening three verses, James asks, “What causes fights and quarrels among you?” And his answer is that it is things within ourselves – our own discontent, own own illicit desires, our own wrong motives. We have to start by critically examining ourselves, looking into a mirror that does not show us as we’d like to see ourselves, but that reveals our shadow side – our inner being. In short, deal with yourself first.
Second, submit to and focus on God. In verses 7-10, James calls us to turn away from ourselves and towards God. The primary purpose of coming to church is God. Fellowship with each other is vitally important, but follows after fellowship with God. When we take our eyes off Christ, we inevitably begin to devour each other and we put our souls in peril. We are to humble ourselves before God, to submit ourselves to God – these are words that speak of our recognition of how much we need God.
Third, stop breaking each other down. In verses 11-12, James says that when we slander or speak against our sisters and brothers in the church, we are breaking the second of Jesus’ Great Commandments – love your neighbour as yourself. James asks, “But you? Who are you to judge your neighbour?” There may well be individuals in a church who are harming the church – members and leaders of the church – and of course they must be challenged on this. But James cautions about judging, slandering and breaking down our sisters and brothers, turning against one another – it is not good for the church.
We need to be part of God’s solution for the church. We do NOT want to be part of the problem, working against God’s solution for the church.
Matthew 18:15-20 speaks about church discipline. Jesus provides us with both principles for church discipline and some practical steps that can be followed.
This specific passage is located within the larger narrative of Matthew chapter 18:
Jesus starts by advocating for humility; a warning particularly to those who think they are important people in the church, including church leaders (Matthew 18:1-5).
Jesus says we should be considerate of our sisters and brothers, not causing people to stumble while we stand on our rights (Matthew 18:6-13).
Jesus tells the parable about the lost sheep – the shepherd leaves (and even risks) the 99, while he goes in search of the one (Matthew 18:10-14).
Then we have today’s passage on church discipline (Matthew 18:15-20).
Immediately after that, we have Peter asking how many times he should forgive a sister or brother who sins against him. Seven times? (which to Peter probably felt very generous!) But Jesus, says, no! 70 times 7. And goes on to the parable of the unmerciful servant who was forgiven much (as we all are forgiven very much by God) but was unwilling to forgive another person a little (Matthew 18:21-35).
In combination, this chapter strongly emphasizes relationships of love. Love that is humble and little, love that is considerate, love that see the individual as of inestimable value, love that forgives and forgives, love that recognized how we have been blessed and seeks to pass it on.
This is the context within which Matthew wants us to hear Jesus’ words about church discipline.
While we are instructed to challenge or confront sin – Jesus says, “Go! And point out their fault” – nevertheless, the way in which we do it, our purpose, our understanding of ourselves in this challenging role and our understanding the person being confronted, are all to be shaped by the deep love, consideration, valuing and forgiving that Jesus has presented to us in this chapter.
Perhaps the first thing to recognize in practice is that we are all sinners, so this is a case of one sinner confronting another sinner. This is not a situation of the righteous confronting the sinner. “For all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God” (Romans 3:23). The steps are really quite sensible:
Go directly to the person whose sin you have become aware of and point it out to them. Have a conversation with them, according to the principles set out above. And hopefully they will be able to hear you and the prompting of Holy Spirit and repent. (In the sermon, I share an example where I was the one being confronted regarding my own sin against another person in the church.
But if they don’t listen, go again with another one or two people, and try again. These other people are witnesses and may see that actually you are in the wrong in your assessment of the situation. They provide a third perspective.
But if the person still does not listen, then bring it to ‘the church’, by which Matthew probably mean the whole church, though perhaps today it would be better to bring it to the church leaders or elders. This is now a more formal and confrontational situation
But if the person still does not listen, then “treat them as you would a pagan or a tax collector”.
This final step appears to suggest excommunication or ‘shunning’, though Jesus does not make explicit what he means. There certainly are other passages in the Second Testament that make provision for casting someone out of the church community. However, when we look at how Jesus treats pagans and tax collectors, we see that he reaches out to them, engages them, works to reconcile them and save them:
The Canaanite woman in Matthew 15:21-28 was a pagan. Jesus engaged with her when she approached him, proclaimed her faith to be incredible, and healed her daughter from demon possession.
Zacchaeus in Luke 19:1-10 was a tax collector. Jesus initiated dialogue with him, invited himself to his house to share a meal with him, and concludes by saying, “Today salvation has come to this house, because this man, too, is a son of Abraham. For the Son of Man came to seek and to save the lost.”
Regarding both pagans and tax collectors, we Jesus working to reconcile, restore, include, forgive, save. Combining these examples of Jesus’ actual behaviour with pagans and tax collectors, and in light of the words just before this passage – “your Father in heaven is not willing that any one of these little ones should perish” (Mat 18:14) – and the words just after it – “[forgive] not seven times, but seventy-seven times” (Mat 18:22) – we should conclude that the fourth step in Jesus’ practice guidelines is not about excommunication, but rather about persistent attempts to challenge and restore.
Paul summarises this very neatly in Galatians 6:1:
Brothers and sisters, if someone is caught in a sin, you who live by the Spirit [meaning we need check our own faith and conduct before we step in to confront someone else] should restore that person [not dump on them, not humiliate or belittle them, not shame them, not cast them out] gently [with kindness, consideration, sensitivity and above all, authentic love]. But watch yourselves, or you also may be tempted [be humble, watch out for pride, arrogance of complacency, because you might easily be the one caught in a sin next week].
Even though I emphasise God’s love as the central essence of God’s being, we see God behaving in angry, wrathful and violent ways. How are we to make sense of this? This message defines justice as follows
Justice is God’s love working to protect those who are vulnerable
As much as God stands up against those who harm God’s loved-ones, God also reaches out a hand of reconciliation, rooted in repentance and contrition. And God desires reconciliation between people, rooted in forgiveness. We call this restorative justice – love and justice.
Click here to listen to this 6-minute message. Or watch the video below. Or read the brief summary below the video.
As we move through the days of Holy Week, the set readings become increasingly somber and serious. We are progressing closer and closer towards Jesus’ death on Good Friday. Today’s reading is John 13:21-32, which tells of Jesus’ betrayal by Judas. In verse 21, John writes,
Jesus was troubled in spirit and testified, “Very truly I tell you, one of you is going to betray me”.
The disciples immediately say to each other, “Surely not I! Who could he be referring to?” Jesus says,
“It is the one to whom I will give this piece of bread when I have dipped it in the dish.”
He dips the bread into a dish and hands it to Judas. I imagine Judas, who was indeed planning to betray Jesus, looking at the piece of dipped bread in Jesus’ hand and wondering what to do. I imagine his thoughts racing, prevaricating – do I or don’t I?
He takes the bread from Jesus and eats it. I chooses betrayal. And so, Jesus’ path to the cross is set in motion.
This passage challenges us to recognise that each of us is also complicit in Jesus’ betrayal. Judas acts on behalf of me and of you. Our sin does not have a be dramatic or public; it can include the little things that we do and also the things we neglect to do. We each have helped pave the way to the cross.
We are thus called to repentance during these days of Lent and particularly over the coming few days. Let us pray Psalm 51:
1 Have mercy on me, O God, according to your unfailing love;
according to your great compassion blot out my transgressions.
2 Wash away all my iniquity and cleanse me from my sin.
3 For I know my transgressions, and my sin is always before me.
4 Against you, you only, have I sinned and done what is evil in your sight;
so you are right in your verdict and justified when you judge.
5 Surely I was sinful at birth, sinful from the time my mother conceived me.
6 Yet you desired faithfulness even in the womb; you taught me wisdom in that secret place.
7 Cleanse me with hyssop, and I will be clean; wash me, and I will be whiter than snow.
8 Let me hear joy and gladness; let the bones you have crushed rejoice.
9 Hide your face from my sins and blot out all my iniquity.
10 Create in me a pure heart, O God, and renew a steadfast spirit within me.
11 Do not cast me from your presence or take your Holy Spirit from me.
12 Restore to me the joy of your salvation and grant me a willing spirit, to sustain me.
13 Then I will teach transgressors your ways, so that sinners will turn back to you.
14 Deliver me from the guilt of bloodshed, O God, you who are God my Savior,
and my tongue will sing of your righteousness.
15 Open my lips, Lord, and my mouth will declare your praise.
16 You do not delight in sacrifice, or I would bring it; you do not take pleasure in burnt offerings.
17 My sacrifice, O God, is a broken spirit; a broken and contrite heart you, God, will not despise.