These stones

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Our reading for today is a passage from the book of Joshua 4:1-7. It tells the story of the Jewish people crossing the Jordan river from the desert or wilderness where they had wandered for 40 years, into the promised land. As they cross the river, which parts much like the Red Sea parted when they fled from Egypt, the leaders of the 12 tribes of Israel are instructed by Joshua to each collect a large stone, and carry it on their shoulder to the other side, into the promised land, into the camp where they would rest that night.

Joshua explains that these stones are

“to serve as a sign among you. In the future, when your children ask you, ‘What do these stones mean?’ tell them that the flow of the Jordan was cut off before the ark of the covenant of the LORD. When it crossed the Jordan, the waters of the Jordan were cut off. These stones are to be a memorial to the people of Israel forever.”

In today’s sermon, which I encourage you to listen to or watch, since it is too rich and compact to write down here, we review God’s engagement with humanity from Abram (later to become Abraham), Joseph, the migration of Jacob’s family to Egypt, the 100 or so years of good relations Jews had with Egyptians, and then the 100 or so years of slavery under the heavy burden of the Egyptians, the rise of Moses following his encounter with God in the burning bush, the plagues and the Jewish people’s escape across the Red Sea, their long and circuitous journey through the desert for 40 years, the death of Moses, the election of Joshua, and finally (in Joshua 4) the crossing of the Jordan river into the promised land.

In this long narrative, which extends over hundreds of years, we see repeatedly God’s engagement with and grace towards God’s people. And we see humanity’s faith in God rise and fall. And we see the remarkable things that happen when people align with God.

Thus, Joshua gathers these 12 stones to create a memorial that will remind the people of everything that God has done. As he says later in this chapter (4:21-24):

“In the future when your descendants ask their parents, ‘What do these stones mean?’ tell them, ‘Israel crossed the Jordan on dry ground.’ For the LORD your God dried up the Jordan before you until you had crossed over. The LORD your God did to the Jordan what he had done to the Red Sea when he dried it up before us until we had crossed over. He did this so that all the peoples of the earth might know that the hand of the LORD is powerful and so that you might always fear the LORD your God.”

For us today, we need things (objects) that help to remind us of the good God who is well-disposed towards us and who desires us to flourish. We need things to remind of all that God has already done for us in the past, to nourish our faith that he will continue to do so in the future. These things – these stones – may be personal objects, or something in our church. For example, the eucharist we celebrate is a weekly reminder of God’s goodness – a memorial. For our parish of St Stephen’s in Lyttelton, South Africa, the church building is itself such a thing – these stones. It was built by hand by the members of the parish, from the digging of the foundations to the laying of the roof. We see a testimony in the very building within which we worship of what is possible when God’s people bring their time, their abilities and their finances to the work of God, and partner in faith with God for building God’s Kingdom.

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Peace, Division, Faith

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Today’s Gospel presents us with some of the most baffling words from Jesus:

“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” (Luke 12:49-58).

It is hard to reconcile such divisive, anti-peace language with the Jesus who repeatedly says, “Peace be with you” and “Love one another as I have loved you”. It may be helpful to differentiate between prescriptive statements and descriptive statements. A prescriptive statement is an instruction or command, such as, “Love your neighbour as yourself”. In such statements, Jesus is telling us the desire and intention of God for us. A descriptive statement, on the other hand, merely describes what is, without necessarily defining it as good or desirable.

This passage from Luke is phrased as a descriptive statement. Jesus is not prescribing the absence of peace or the presence of division – he is rather describing how things will be. His later critique in Luke 12:56, “How is it that you don’t know how to interpret this present time?”, suggests that the entire passage is a description of how things will be and a challenge to our faith to make sense of such divisions.

Last week, Rev Marti addressed the topic of faith in some detail. Her sermon was beautiful and encouraging. Remember Jesus’ words in Luke 12:32, “Do not be afraid, little flock, for your Father has been pleased to give you the kingdom”. She commented on how lovely it is to be a little lamb in God’s little flock. Today, we continue to reflect on faith, but faith that is tested; faith that is under pressure; faith that must stand in the gap.

So, let’s go back to our First Testament readings to see how these may help us make better sense of our Luke passage.

Isaiah 5:1-7

Isaiah 5 pens with a story of a beautiful and very much-loved vineyard in vv1-2. It could easily have been found in Song of Songs – it is quite sensual. But all too soon, in v7, there is deep disappointment in God, as he looks for justice, but sees only bloodshed; looks for righteousness, but hears only cries of distress. How is it possible to go from something so beautiful to something so dreadful in just a couple of verses? God laments in v4, “What more could have been done for my vineyard than I have done for it? When I looked for good grapes, why did it yield only bad?” God is baffled by the capacity of the people of Israel and Judah to transform something so good into something so bad. Consequently, God destroys and tramples the beloved vineyard, he makes it a wasteland, uncultivated, dry and desolate.

This passage presents us with a sobering example of the failure of faith. What God has desired – what he expects of his faithful people – is social justice and righteousness. This is the prescription or command of God. But when we fail to live up to this expectation – when we become faithless – God is grieved, and the consequence can be destruction. The destruction is described, not prescribed – it is the natural result of our turning from God.

Psalm 80

Psalm 80 could have been written by Isaiah – the narratives have so many similarities. vv8-11 describe a beautiful vineyard, tended and cared for, sheltered and protected. This is followed immediately by a lament (vv12-13). Here the lament is not from God, but rather from God’s people: “Why have you broken down its walls so that all who pass by pick its grapes?” As in Isaiah, God destroys the vineyard, but now it is the people who lament. And in contrast to the Isaiah passage, there is now a turning back to God, asking for reconciliation. In vv14 & 19 they say: “Return to us, God Almighty! Look down from heaven and see! Watch over this vine. … Restore us, Lord God Almighty; make your face shine on us, that we may be saved.”

And in their prayer for restoration, they prophecy about the coming Messiah. In v15 they say, “Watch over this vine, the root your right hand has planted, the son you have raised up for yourself.” And in v17, “Let your hand rest on the man at your right hand, the son of man you have raised up for yourself.” Who is this son, this man at God’s right hand, this raised-up son of man, if not Christ? Here we see a restoration of the faith of the people, as they give voice to the prescription of God – that we entrust ourselves to God and to his anointed son.

In this narrative, God’s destruction of the vineyard, though terrible, gives rise to new faith. It reminds me of the fires over the mountains in Cape Town. They are destructive and devastating. But out of the fire, new fynbos and protea grow. Many of you may have seen, driving over Ou Kaapse Weg for example, the new green-green shoots of life emerging out of the blackened ground. The destructive fire, as hard as it is, is tied up with the new life that emerges from the ashes.

Hebrews 11:29-12:2

And then we pick up in Hebrews 11 where we left off last week – a reminder of the many ways faith has persevered through difficult times in the First Testament. Despite the many adversities they face, there are people of faith who come through these fires – Rahab, Gideon, Barak, Samson, Jephthah, David, Samuel and many others. The writer of Hebrews even points out in v39 that many of them never saw the fruit of their faith – for example, Abraham was promised, but never saw, the great nation that would flow from him; and Moses never crossed into the promised land, despite all his faithful efforts in leading his people out of Egypt and through the wilderness.

And now for us, who come after Christ’s incarnation, life, death, resurrection and ascension, how much more are we able to be people of faith. As Hebrews 12:1-2 says, given this legacy of people of such faith and everything that Christ has done for us, we must “run with perseverance the race marked out for us, fixing our eyes on Jesus, the pioneer and perfecter of faith.” Jesus himself scorns the shame of the cross, because he has deep faith that it is through such testing and trials that God’s Will will be accomplished.

Luke 12:49-58

So, let us then return to today’s Gospel reading. What does Jesus mean when he says, “Do you think I came to bring peace on earth? No, I tell you, but division.” Jesus is not prescribing division, but describing it. Division is, strangely, a consequence of faith! Jesus did not come to make human life comfortable and easy. We are not playing nicey-nicey. No! On the contrary (as a member of our parish said so well yesterday in Morning Prayer), Jesus is a revolutionary! He came to disrupt the corruption, hypocrisy, injustice, violence and exploitation of this world. Throughout the Gospels we see Jesus standing against such evils. His vision for humanity and for the whole of creation is magnificent and prescriptive – we must live up to the ideals of God.

But when we live up to God’s ideals of love, social justice, radical inclusivity, forgiveness, reconciliation, tolerance and righteousness, we will inevitably create conflict. Indeed, let me say that we should inevitably create conflict. This is not a prescription, but a description of the inevitable. Revolution is not nice! It causes division.

We can think of many contemporary examples of such division and the absence of peace, as a result of diverse issues in the world. For example, let’s consider the continuing question of the place of LGBTQI+ people in the church – their membership, their ministry, their marriage, their ordination. This is such a divisive topic for Christians. Many years of discussion in the Anglican church have brought little common ground.

At the Lambeth conference over the past couple of weeks – the Anglican communion’s global meeting – the Archbishop of Canterbury proposed a kind of live-and-let-live compromise for everyone: each country decides what they believe is right and good. Is this a solution? I’m sorry, but I don’t think so. Does it bring peace and unity? No, I doubt it; it might even achieve the opposite.

Indeed, before the conference was over, conservative Anglican bishops had already gathered and reiterated their rejection of gay relationships.

My own view on this is that when we place sexual morality or our views of gender ahead of radically inclusive love, then we have strayed far off the path that Jesus walked. I am firmly convinced that the pattern of life that Jesus established leads inevitably to the inclusion of members of the LGBTQI+ community in the life, sacraments and ministry of the church, even if one believes that homosexual acts are wrong. But many of you here today may disagree with me and this may lead to a lack of peace between us, perhaps even disunity. So be it.

And of course, there may be many other issues we could fall out over: the conflict between Palestine and Israel; our stand on abortion; global warming; our affiliation to political parties in South Africa. The opportunities for conflict and discord are numerous.

I suggest, though, that what we are learning from Jesus in Luke 12 is that such tensions are inevitable and tolerable. They may be uncomfortable. And we pray that they do not tear us apart. But they are not fundamentally wrong or bad. After all, Jesus himself says, “I came to bring division”.

But towards the end of this passage, Jesus makes some important points about divisive issues in the Christian community. In Luke 12:54-56, he criticises people for being able to interpret the signs in the sky and the earth, such as predicting the weather, but being unable to interpret the signs of the “present time”. It is as if Jesus is saying, “Look! Wake up! Open your eyes! Wragtig julle!” We cannot control the weather, but we can discern and shape human behaviour and its impact on the world.

For example, the eight women who were recently gang raped by dozens of men in Krugersdorp. How can we allow this continue? What is wrong with us in this country that we have the highest rate of rape in the world? What are we doing about it?

And Jesus goes on immediately in vv57-58 to urge us to think for ourselves about what is right and what is wrong. And to make reconciliation our aim, rather than to be adversarial. His prescription for Christian living, even in complex times, is clearly stated here – think about what is right and do reconciliation.

The tensions between peace and division, and the handling of complex ethical and moral questions are complex. How do we then go about discerning what is right and wrong in the world, and interpreting the signs of this age? How can we be revolutionary, as Christ was, while also working for peace and unity, as Christ did? Let me suggest two central principles that may help us navigate these challenging paths**:

  1. The primacy of love. If there is one thing that stands out so strongly in all of Jesus’ teachings and actions, that we cannot deny it and still call ourselves Christian, it is the priority that Jesus gives to love. I refer to his love as ‘radically inclusive love’, because Jesus never turns people away on the basis of gender, ethnicity or race, religion or morality. He may criticise people’s behaviour, but he always reaches out in love and includes them in his loving presence. Love is the most important!
  2. God’s preferential option for the poor. Quoting Wikipedia, God’s option for the poor “refers to a trend throughout the Bible, of preference being given to the well-being of the poor and powerless of society in the teachings and commands of God as well as the prophets and other righteous people.” We see this particularly in Jesus’ ministry and especially in Luke’s Gospel. In practice, this means that “through our words, prayers and deeds we must show solidarity with, and compassion for, the poor.” It implies that we do take sides, and that we take sides with the ‘poor’. (‘Poor’ is defined inclusively to refer not only to those who are economically poor, but also those who are marginalised, oppressed, discriminated against, lacking voice, and so on).

In conclusion, we persevere in our faith in God in a complex world by engaging thoughtfully and critically with the world around us. We protect and build the vineyard that God has entrusted into our care. We work for social justice and righteousness. We disagree and might even divide. We trust in God, that even out of these fallouts, new life and new faith will emerge. And we work to engage collectively in reading the signs of the times according to the key principles and values Jesus sets out for us.

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You choose – one way or the other

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The theme of our readings for today – particularly our Gospel reading – is “You choose – one way or another”. The readings are quite challenging and unsympathetic. Jesus is quite matter of fact about saying that it up to us to decide what we do.

Luke 9:51-62 presents four stories in rapid succession. In the first story, Jesus and the disciples are on their way to a Samaritan village. But the villages are not interested in meeting Jesus. The disciples are outraged and want to call down fire from heaven to wipe out the village. They’re really emotionally invested in the villagers being receptive to Jesus’ message and so feel anger that they are not receptive. But Jesus rebukes his disciples, not the villagers, and says they should go off to another village. It is like Jesus shrugs his shoulders or says ‘meh’ or ‘whatever’. His attitude seems to be that they are free to choose whether they want to engage him – free to choose one way or the other.

This gets reinforced with the three very short stories at the end of the chapter about three men, two of whom say they will follow Jesus and one whom Jesus calls. But each has some or other excuse about not following him right away. The reasons are reasonable and valid – a desire for some comfort, the need to bury one’s father or wanting to say goodbye to his family. These are hardly terrible crimes. But Jesus is quite unsympathetic – follow me or don’t follow me – you choose. To the last man, Jesus says, quite harshly, “No one who puts a hand to the plough and looks back is fit for service in the kingdom of God”.

We get a similar attitude, albeit in a different context, in 2 Kings 2:10, where Elisha is preparing to take over Elijah’s ministry. He asks Elijah for a double portion of his spirit. Rather presumptuous and ambitious, remembering that Elijah is arguably the second most important person in the First Testament (after Moses). Elijah’s response has a similar shrug to Jesus. He says, “It will be yours – otherwise, it will not.” This time is less about Elisha’s choice and more about God’s choice, and of course God does choose for Elisha. But there is still this shrug.

When we get to our third reading in Galatians 5, we get a softer response from Paul about these choices we’re called to make. Paul is more invested in trying to persuade us of the importance of following Christ. He exhorts us: “do not let yourself be enslaved” (v1); “So I say, live by the Spirit” (v16) and “Let us keep in step with the Spirit” (v25). And he provides some warnings about the consequences of not following Christ: “If you bite and devour each other, watch out or you will be destroyed by each other” (v15) and “I warn you, that those who live like this will not inherit the kingdom of God” (v21). And then he goes still further by listing for us the “acts of the flesh” (vv19-21) (sins that distance us from God), which he says are “obvious”, and the “fruit of the Spirit” (vv22-23) (behaviours and values that align us with God).

God is not begging us to follow him. He does not pressure us. He does not force us. Rather, God presents himself to us – here I am, I am God, I am the Son – and invites us to choose – one way or the other. We get to choose. And we mostly know what God wants for us. We mostly know God’s values, ethics and love. And we mostly know what God does not desire. We just have to choose whether we follow in God’s way or we don’t. It’s up to us to choose.

It is thus striking the extent to which we persist in doing the things God tells us not to do and to not do the things God wants us to do. This often plays out most strongly in our relationships with our loved ones.

The worst thing that can happen to us with God is not God’s wrath – at least then God is engaged with us. The worst thing is when God just moves on. That Samaritan village had such a remarkable opportunity to meet God in the flesh – and they said “no thanks”. And Jesus said, “cool” and moved on to the next village. How terrible it would be for us to have all these opportunities to know about God and to know God, and to throw it away because we repeatedly choose not to follow his path, but rather our own. We really owe it to ourselves to look critically and carefully at our behaviour and values, and interrogate to what extent they are aligned with God’s. Let us choose God, choose life.

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Continuous God

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We live in a world that is fraught with challenges and unpredictabilities. We think of Russia’s war on Ukraine, the continued challenges of the people of Palestine and the various conflicts in Africa. We think in South Africa of increasing unemployment, rising inflation, the upcoming petrol price hike. We think of loadshedding and the ongoing challenges of Covid. We think of the water crisis in Nelson Mandela Bay and the devastation of the floods in KwaZulu-Natal. The world is unpredictable. Our lives are often unpredictable. Sometimes, we may feel disoriented and anxious because of the many challenges that we face at personal, national and global levels.

In these times, it is reassuring to recognise that while life may be unpredictable, God is consistent. God persists. God has always, continues to and will always engage with us. When life feels chaotic, we have a God we can rely on.

Today’s reading from John 14:23-27 is particularly strong in reassuring us of God’s continuity. Jesus starts in v23 with himself: “Anyone who loves me will obey my teaching.” And then he immediately continues, “My Father will love them.” Here is the first affirmation of consistency – between God the Son and God the Father. Jesus draws the immediate and strong link between himself, his Father and us – rooted in love – our love for Christ and the Father’s love for us. And he continues with these amazing words, “and we will come to them and make our home with them”. I love this use of ‘we’ and ‘our’ – here Jesus is referring to himself and his Father as operating together, as a partnership, and of coming dwell with us as a partnership. What a great reassurance of the continuity between the Father and the Son. And Jesus continues further, “These words you hear are not my own; they belong to the Father who sent me” – yet further reassurance of continuity and consistency between God the Father and God the Son.

Jesus then continues, introducing the Holy Spirit as “the Advocate, the Holy Spirit, whom the Father will send in my name”. In this short phrase we have Father, Son and Holy Spirit, collaborating together – the Father sends the Holy Spirit in the Son’s name. And the role of the Holy Spirit will be to “teach you all things and [to] remind you of everything I have said to you”. Here again, we have continuity and consistency – Holy Spirit does not start a new work in us, but rather continues the work of the Son, by reinforcing his teachings in us.

The result of all of this continuity from the Father of the Old Testament, the Son of the Gospels and the Spirit of the New Testament church is peace. Peace! Jesus says, “Peace I leave with you; my peace I give you. Do not let your hearts be troubled and do not be afraid.” We can breathe out, we can rest in God, we can trust that God has been consistently and persistently at work throughout history, from the creation until now and into the future. Do not be troubled. Do not be afraid. Be at peace.

And these reassurances of God’s continuity extend into the future. Revelation 21:10 and 21:22-22:5 paint a compelling image of the heaven. John is taken by the Spirit – the same Spirit Jesus has spoken about in John’s Gospel – and sees the new Jerusalem, the Holy City coming down out of heaven from God. It is a glorious sight! There is no temple there, because God (the Father) and the Lamb (the Son) are its temple. God’s light shines out brilliantly. The gates of the city are always open. There is a river running through the city, with the water of life, and the tree of life, with leaves for the healing of the nations. We can see God’s face.

John’s vision is a deep reassurance of God’s continuity – what have seen in the Father throughout the first Testament, what we have seen confirmed in the life of the Son in the Gospels, and what we have been promised and experienced in the coming of Holy Spirit in the early Church and continuing until today, will continue into the future, until the day Christ returns.

We can rest deeply into the continuity of God, into God’s steadfast faithfulness and persistence. We can hold onto a God who is faithful, even when our own faith is frail or when life’s burdens overwhelm or depress us. We can hold fast to God’s continuity.

Featured image: John of Patmos watches the descent of New Jerusalem from God in a 14th-century tapestry (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/New_Jerusalem)

All who are thirsty

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From the dawn of time, God has had his arms outstretched to receive and embrace us. God has always been open and receptive to us. He always has been like this, he is like this today, and he will remain like his into the future. This is permanent posture of God. Arms open and looking towards you.

When we feel disconnected from God, can’t perceive or feel him, feel abandoned – it is not God who has turned away. It is we who have turned away. Sin is one of the main causes of us feeling cut off from God – sin is us turning away from God. But God has not moved – he is still there.

Luke 13:1-9 tells of people coming to Jesus saying that some people who had died horribly must have sinned terribly to suffer such a death. But Jesus challenges this, and says they were no worse than anyone else. And then he cautions those who said this: “Repent, else you too will perish!” He then tells the parable of a fruit tree that was unproductive. The owner wanted to cut it down, but the gardener interceded for is, saying he’s car for it for three years and see if it produced fruit: if so, good; if not, then cut it down. The parable is not particularly confident about the tree becoming fruitful and being saved. Sin is serious – it can lead to our deaths.

1 Corinthians 10:1-13 also speaks of sin. The people of Israel wandering through the desert for 40 years saw the most remarkable miracles – the plagues against the Egyptians, the parting of the Red Sea, water gushing from a rock, manna from heaven every morning, the pillars of fire and smoke and so on. Yet, they repeatedly turned from God and engaged in all kinds of sin. And many died as a result. Paul says these are warnings for us, of how NOT to live our lives. And he offers a bit of hope: that God will not let us be tempted beyond what we can bear and that there will always be an escape route.

These two readings focus on the real risks of sin causing us to be estranged from God. But I say again: God has not moved! He is still there! His arms are still open to us!

Listen to God’s words in Isaiah 55:1-3:

“Come, all you who are thirsty, come to the waters; and you who have no money, come, buy and eat! Come, buy wine and milk without money and without cost. Why spend money on what is not bread, and your labor on what does not satisfy? Listen, listen to me, and eat what is good, and you will delight in the richest of fare. Give ear and come to me; listen, that you may live. I will make an everlasting covenant with you, my faithful love promised to David.”

Hear these repeated words from God: Come, come, come. Listen, listen, give ear. Eat and drink. Free, without cost. Good, delight, richest, everlasting, faithful, love, promise. These are words of God who is always facing us, with his arms always outstretched. This is the invitation to come to him, to quench our thirst, to eat and rest.

Isaiah summarises for us (vv6-7):

Seek the LORD while he may be found; call on him while he is near. Let the wicked forsake their ways and the unrighteous their thoughts. Let them turn to the LORD, and he will have mercy on them, and to our God, for he will freely pardon.

And listen to David in Psalm 63:

You, God, are my God, earnestly I seek you; I thirst for you, my whole being longs for you, in a dry and parched land where there is no water. I have seen you in the sanctuary and beheld your power and your glory. Because your love is better than life, my lips will glorify you. I will praise you as long as I live, and in your name I will lift up my hands. I will be fully satisfied as with the richest of foods; with singing lips my mouth will praise you. On my bed I remember you; I think of you through the watches of the night. Because you are my help, I sing in the shadow of your wings. I cling to you; your right hand upholds me.

Again, hear David’s response to the God of love, the God with open arms, the God who is always present and always available.

I encourage you, if you are feeling burdened and challenged by life, or if you are feeling that God is remote, to come to our Lord, who is the fountain of life, who offers food and drink to refresh your soul, at no cost, with no conditions.

Featured image from: https://media.nationalgeographic.org/assets/photos/186/480/0e077d4d-9209-40d5-9fd5-4e51aeed7b37.jpg

Revealing God to the world

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We are in the season of Epiphany – epiphany meaning, God’s revelation of God’s self to the world.

John 2:1-11 tells the story of Jesus’ first miracle according to John: turning water into wine in Cana. I unpack this under three headings:

  1. Gifting. In this story, Jesus seems, perhaps, uncertain about his gifts. But his mother, Mary, is much more certain. She prompts Jesus to do something about the wedding banquet running out of wine. And even though Jesus is reluctant to get involved, she tells the servants to “do whatever he tells you”. She has confidence in Jesus, she recognised his gifting, and she prompts him to exercise his gifts.
  2. Common good. You’d think Jesus’ first miracle would be spectacular. A extraordinary miracle would help establish his brand as the Messiah. But instead, his first miracle, while exceptional (he made around 600l of choice wine), was rather everyday and ordinary – common. He addressed the rather domestic needs of a couple who had just got married. I really love Jesus for this miracle for the common good – it reminds us that he is interested in and willing to intervene in our daily lives.
  3. God’s revelation. John concludes this passage in v11 by saying, “What Jesus did here in Cana of Galilee was the first of the signs through which he revealed his glory; and his disciples believed in him.” God’s glory is revealed through this miracle – the epiphany! And as a result of that, his disciples believed in him.

As Jesus exercised his gifting, for the common good, God was revealed and people believed.

1 Corinthians 12:1-11 tells us about the gifts of the Spirit, and is part of a larger chapter about the church – the body of Christ – being made up of many parts, each of which is vitally important to the whole. I unpack this under the same three headings:

  1. Gifting. Paul tells us that Holy Spirit gives a gift or gifts to every believer. Every Christian receives one or more gifts, Gifts of the Spirit, according to the good judgement of Holy Spirit. Whether we recognise our gifts or not, whether we recognise them as gifts of the Spirit or just natural talents, we have gifts from Holy Spirit. People often don’t recognise their gifts – often others recognise them first, like Mary did with Jesus. In those cases, we may need to prompt someone else to recognise their gift.
  2. Common good. Paul tells us that the gifts are given not for personal use and benefit, but for building up the common good. Here ‘common’ refers not to the ordinary, but to the ‘collective’. The gifts are for the benefit of the community of believers, and indeed for the world. They are not intended to benefit us, but rather to help us benefit others. The only way we can contribute to the common or collective good is to exercise the gifts we have.
  3. God’s revelation. As we exercise the Gifts of the Spirit, God is revealed and people can come to believe in God. Our exercising of our gifts reveals the character and values of God, and shows people who God is and what interests and concerns God, and that reveals God and can draw people to God. We, as the collective – the church – need to reveal God, and we do this best when we exercise the gifts God the Spirit has given us.

And so, when we recognise, accept and exercise our gifts, we contribute to the good of the collective, and God is revealed to the world and people may come to believe.

Featured image from https://media.swncdn.com/cms/CCOM/67388-gettyimages-ipopba-gifts.1200w.tn.jpg

Advent: Hope

Click here to listen to the audio recording of this 15-minute message. Or watch the video on Facebook here (the message starts at 42 minutes).

Last week we learned some Advent yoga – reaching back and seizing hold of the promises God made and fulfilled in Christ, which God has fulfilled, which feeds our faith; and reaching forward and grasping at the promises God has made that still will be fulfilled in Christ, which gives us hope. Today we focus forwards towards the hope of things yet to come. Central among this is Jesus’ second coming.

Our readings today (Malachi 3:1-4; Luke 1:68-79; Philippians 1:3-11 and Luke 3:1-6) all speak about the anticipation of Christ’s coming, including his second coming. Malachi (and Jesus) speaks about the second coming as being sudden, unexpected, which gives us a fright. We don’t know when to expect him. Malachi also says, when the Lord comes, the messenger we long for, the Son of Man, who will be able to stand? It will be daunting. (Though Jesus prays in Luke 21:36 that at the end times “you may be able to stand before the Son of Man”.)

Malachi, John the Baptist, Jesus and Paul all tell us we need to prepare for the coming of Christ. We must be ready. We must repent of our sins and receive God’s forgiveness, then we are made right God, and ready to receive Christ. Malachi speaks about purification – metal purified by fire and clothing cleansed with launderer’s soap.

There will be a sifting, a separation. Malachi calls it a sifting – of flour from chaff and sand and stones. Jesus speaks about it as a separation of sheep and goats, of pruning away and discarding unproductive branches off a fruit tree.

But it is not all challenge and judgement. It is also about hope. HOPE! The hope that comes through Jesus Christ and the great work he has done for us. Zechariah, praying over his new-born son, John (the Baptist), uses words of hope like: salvation, mercy, rescue, forgiveness, peace, covenant, righteousness, tender mercy, sunshine, rising sun. And Paul, writing to the Philippians, speaks of love that may abound more and more in knowledge and depth of insight.

Let us prepare for Christ’s return. And let us hope for what he will accomplish in and around us. Let us articulate and pray for what we hope for – our lives, our world as a better place, as redeemed and sanctified. Let us pray with hope for the world we desire God to make real for us.

Amen

I really love this song!
Featured image from https://revivalfellowship.nz/wp-content/uploads/2016/07/12_LUMO_Ascension_1920.jpg

Desperate times

Click here to listen to the audio recording of this 25-minute message. Or watch the video on Facebook here (the message starts at about 35 minutes – unfortunately the volume on the video is very soft).

There are times in our life when things are desperate. These two years of Covid, and the losses, restrictions and challenges it has brought us, have given us additional reasons to feel desperate. There are times when life is exceptionally hard and we feel that the world is pitted against us – that even God is pitted against us.

Psalm 22 knows something about this:

1 My God, my God, why have you forsaken me? Why are you so far from saving me, so far from my cries of anguish? 2 My God, I cry out by day, but you do not answer, by night, but I find no rest. 6 But I am a worm and not a man, scorned by everyone, despised by the people. 7 All who see me mock me; they hurl insults, shaking their heads. 8 “He trusts in the Lord,” they say, “let the Lord rescue him. Let him deliver him, since he delights in him.” 14 I am poured out like water, and all my bones are out of joint. My heart has turned to wax; it has melted within me. 15 My mouth is dried up like a potsherd, and my tongue sticks to the roof of my mouth; you lay me in the dust of death.

Jesus uses this Psalm to express his desperation and despair as he hangs dying on the cross. He feels God-forsaken, utterly desolate. Where is God in all of this? Why am I abandoned?

The Psalmist shows a flicker of faith – just a flicker, though:

9 Yet you brought me out of the womb; you made me trust in you, even at my mother’s breast. 10 From birth I was cast on you; from my mother’s womb you have been my God.

And he cries out with a desperate, but muted plea:

11 Do not be far from me, for trouble is near and there is no one to help.

Job knows something about desperate times, having lost everything, despite being a righteous man of deep faith. He loses everything – everything – and grapples to make sense of what feels like God’s abandonment of him. Instead of imploding in despair like the Psalmist above, Job explodes outwards in anger and wants to confront God (Job 23):

2 “Even today my complaint is bitter; his hand is heavy in spite of my groaning. 3 If only I knew where to find him; if only I could go to his dwelling! 4 I would state my case before him and fill my mouth with arguments. 5 I would find out what he would answer me, and consider what he would say to me.

Job pushes towards God, seeking confrontation, to put his case to God, to demand to know why God would let him struggle like this. Job is desperate, and his desperation evokes anger and outrage at God.

Yet God makes himself unfindable:

8 “But if I go to the east, he is not there; if I go to the west, I do not find him. 9 When he is at work in the north, I do not see him; when he turns to the south, I catch no glimpse of him.

How frustrating it is when the person we want to confront is unavailable, inaccessible. God disappears and Job is left both desperate and angry, with nowhere to vent his anger. And yet, Job is also afraid of God – God is dangerous, and a confrontation with God could be a disaster for Job:

13 “But he stands alone, and who can oppose him? He does whatever he pleases. 14 He carries out his decree against me, and many such plans he still has in store. 15 That is why I am terrified before him; when I think of all this, I fear him. 16 God has made my heart faint; the Almighty has terrified me.

In the end, Job does not offer up a muted plea like the Psalmist. Instead, he shakes his fist at God:

17 Yet I am not silenced by the darkness, by the thick darkness that covers my face.

23 “How hard it is for the rich to enter the kingdom of God! 24 … Children, how hard it is to enter the kingdom of God! 25 It is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for someone who is rich to enter the kingdom of God.”

The disciples also experience similar desperate times with Jesus. While we think and teach about Jesus as always available, receptive and loving, sometimes he is not. We know the story in Mark 10 of a young man who rushes up to Jesus, falling on his knees and asking what he must do to inherit eternal life. Jesus seems, from the get-go, to treat him harshly, eventually telling him to give away everything he has, and the young man is crestfallen and “went away sad”. Jesus then turns to the disciples and says:

The disciples are amazed and shocked – presumably at both Jesus’ response to the earnest young man and Jesus’ words about how impossible it is to saved. Peter cries out in desperation:

26 Who then can be saved? [and] 28 But we have left everything to follow you!

You can hear Peter’s despair. He has left everything – family, work, home, community, his place in society, everything – to follow Jesus, and now Jesus says that it is impossible for man to be saved and how hard it will be for anyone to be saved. It seems to Peter and the disciples that everything they have sacrificed is for nothing.

This is a low point for Peter. He hits rock bottom as it seems to him that he has lost everything. His sense of purpose is fracturing.

Sometimes, we find ourselves in similar places to the Psalmist, to Job and to Peter. Our world seems to be falling apart, the challenges of life pile up and seem unduly heavy, God seems to have abandoned us, where is he to be found?, we feel alone and desperate. It as this lowest point that transformation can come.

Peter missed something that Mark noticed. In Mark 10:21a, Mark writes, “Jesus looked at him [the rich young man] and love him.” Jesus looked at him and he loved him. Jesus looked at her and he loved her. Jesus looked at me and he loved me. Jesus looks at you and he loves you.

The writer of Hebrews helps us understand that a fundamental change occurs in the life of God, through Christ’s experience here on earth. Before the incarnation, God could see what human life was like, but could not feel what it was like. But with Jesus’ coming into this world in human form, God now knew first hard what human desperation feels like. Hebrews 4

14 Therefore, since we have a great high priest who has ascended into heaven, Jesus the Son of God, let us hold firmly to the faith we profess. 15 For we do not have a high priest who is unable to empathize with our weaknesses, but we have one who has been tempted in every way, just as we are—yet he did not sin.

And because Jesus understands fully what it is like to be human, and because he truly understands what it is like to be desperate, and because he loves us utterly and to the very end, the writer to the Hebrews invites us to come to God:

16 Let us then approach God’s throne of grace with confidence, so that we may receive mercy and find grace to help us in our time of need.

We can come to the throne of God, not with a muted plea, not with anger, not in desperation, but in confidence, knowing that at that throne we will find grace and mercy to help us in our time of need. We can be confident to wrestle with God, to plead with God, to challenge God, to lean into God. Because he love us and because he knows first hand how hard this life can be. Jesus (in Mark 10:29-31) does not promise an easy life – he promises both reward and persecution.

But he does promise that we can always have direct access to the throne of grace and mercy. Such is the love the Father has for us. God is always accessible, always nearby, always connected, always empathic, always in the midst of adversity with us.

Featured image from https://www.cdc.gov/nceh/features/hurricanepreparedness/index.html

Bread of Heaven (Part 5)

Click here to listen to the audio recording of this 25-minute message. Or watch the video on Facebook here (the message starts at 30 minutes). Or read the text summary below.

We complete our five-part series on the Bread of Heaven, this week focusing on John 6:56-69. Over the past four weeks, Jesus has been consistently redirecting us to himself and presenting himself to us as the source of life. Among other things, he has show that:

  • He cares about us.
  • He feeds us, meets our physical needs, abundantly.
  • He redirects us from earthly things to heavenly spiritual things.
  • He directs us towards himself.
  • He invites us repeatedly into a relationship with him.
  • He says he is the bread of life, come down from heaven
  • He invites us to feast on him.
  • He offers us and the world eternal life.

Now the question is: How will you respond to all this?

There are two sets of responses in our reading: the response of the larger group of Jesus’ disciples and then the response of the 12 disciples, voiced by Peter.

The response of Jesus’ disciples

Today’s reading indicates that Jesus’ teachings are hard – who can accept them? What is it about Jesus’ teaching in John 6 that is hard to accept, offensive? In part, it is his claim that he came down from heaven (John 6:42) and in part that he invites us to eat his flesh and drink his blood (John 6:52). On the one hand, he is too heavenly and on the other hand he is too earthly and fleshy. He is too high and too low!

Jesus responds to the first point by asking how they will feel when they see him ascending back into heaven (John 6:61-62). If his claim to have come down from heaven is hard to accept, how much more witnessing him ascending back into heaven! And he respond to the second point by saying they should forget about earthly flesh and concentrate on spiritual flesh and words, which are full of Spirit and life (John 6:63).

But, recognising that his teachings are hard to understand, Jesus acknowledges that some do not believe and some who believe will fall away. It is our choice whether or not we believe in him. Yet, it is important for us also to know that God the Father enables our faith, enables us to believe and even to accept hard, difficult teachings. Indeed, three times in this chapter, Jesus emphasises that it is the Father who inspires and enables our belief:

  • The Father gives us to Christ (John 6:37).
  • The Father draws us to Christ (John 6:44).
  • The Father enables us to come to Christ (John 6:65).

God is sovereign. God does the drawing of our hearts towards Jesus. We rely and depend on God to enable and inspire our faith. And so we pray to him when our faith frays.

Nevertheless, many of Jesus disciples turn away and leave him. God does not force them to stay or force them to believe. We have free well to listen to God’s call and to follow him. God may give, draw and enable our faith, but he does not coerce – we still choose.

The response of Peter

Finally, Jesus turns to the 12 disciples – they are not among those who turned away and left. He asks them, “You do not want to leave too, do you?” (John 6:67). The phrasing of the Greek implies a ‘no’ answer. Jesus is hoping that they will not join the others who have turned away.

Peter’s reply is wonderful:

“Lord, to whom shall we go? You have the words of eternal life!” (John 6:68) Peter knows the options out there, and concludes that they are all wanting. Even if Jesus’ teaching is hard to fathom, he can think of no better options. And besides, despite the difficult of Jesus’ teachings, he recognises that these are words of eternal life. Not words about eternal life, but the words of eternal life! Jesus very words are Life itself! As Jesus said earlier (v63), “the words I have spoken are full of the Spirit and of life.”

“We have come to believe to know that you are the Holy One of God.” (John 6:69) Here Peter describes a process – the same process that we have been following these past five weeks: there is a process (“we have come”) of learning to trust Jesus and to entrust ourselves into Jesus (“to believe”) that leads to knowledge about who Jesus is and what he means to us (“and to know that you are the Holy One of God”). There is a process of trusting Jesus that leads to us knowing him.

All of this (this entire chapter 6 in John’s Gospel) has been about drawing us closer into a trusting relationship with Jesus, redirecting us from the things of the world to himself, and learning to trust that he himself, as the bread that has come down from heaven, is the source of all the nourishment that we need, of life, of Spirit.

Again, the question is: How will you respond to all this?

Featured image of sourdough bread from https://www.independent.com/events/how-to-make-sourdough-bread/

Bread of Heaven (Part 3)

Click here to listen to the audio recording of this 16-minute message. Or watch the video on Facebook here (the message starts at 26 minutes). Or read the text summary below.

We continue with our series on the Bread of Heaven, this week focusing on John 6:35-51. Last week (Part 2) we saw how Jesus persisted in redirecting people from worldly work and food to heavenly work and food, from our actions to Christ’s actions, from our small vision to God’s grand agenda, and from bread to Christ. Everything was focused on getting us to redirect ourselves towards Christ, to orientate ourselves towards him.

Our passage today continues that theme, as Jesus unpacks what it means to orientate ourselves to him and how he takes the leading in enabling us to do that. I’ll be extracting five word themes from the passage. We’ll see that Jesus is once again persistent in using the same phrases over and over to drive home his message.

Christ’s invitation – come to me

First, Jesus repeatedly uses language that speaks to us coming to him, believing in him, eating of him, looking to him. Eleven times in 14 verses he uses these terms. He issues us an invitation, an open and generous invitation, to come to him. It is the central message of today’s text – come to me!

35 Whoever comes to me will never go hungry
37 All those the Father gives me will come to me
37 whoever comes to me I will never drive away
44 No one can come to me unless the father draws them
45 Everyone who has heard the Father comes to me
35 whoever believes in me will never be thirsty
40 everyone who believes in him shall have eternal life
47 the one who believes has eternal life
50 anyone may eat and not die
50 Whoever eats this bread will live forever
40 everyone who looks to the Son shall have eternal life

God’s grace – the Father’s will

Our ability to come to Christ is, however, by God’s grace. It is through the will of Father, and not through our own efforts or initiative that we can come to God. Only by grace, through faith in Christ. Six times, Jesus emphasises that it is through the work of the Father that we can come.

37 All those the Father gives me will come to me
39 this is the will of him who sent me
40 For my Father’s will is that
44 the Father who sent me draws them
45 They will all be taught by God
45 heard the Father and learned from him

Christ’s initiative – Christ comes down

As much as our capacity to come to Christ is through the grace and will of God, Christ himself also assists in coming down to us. We don’t have to go far to find him – he has already come to us. In the three places where Jesus refers to his coming down from heaven, he uses three different tenses: I have come, I am coming right now, I came. This suggests that his coming is timeless: yesterday, today and tomorrow, Christ is coming down from heaven.

38 I have come down from heaven
50 here is the bread that is coming down right now from heaven
51 I am the living bread that came down from heaven

Christ’s inclusivity – each one and everyone

Jesus conveys his inclusivity in the way he refers to people in both the singular (9 times) and plural (8 times). It seems that he wants us to think of ourselves as being of special importance – just me, every single person, you the individual. And he also wants us to appreciate that he includes everyone, a radical inclusion that, in the last verse, encompasses the whole world!

35 whoever comes to me
35 whoever believes in me
38 whoever comes to me
39 I shall lose not one
44 No one can come to me
46 Not one has seen the Father
47 the one who believes has eternal life
50 any one may eat and not die
51 Whoever eats this bread will live forever

37 All those the Father gives
39 raise them up
40 my Father’s will is that everyone
40 raise them up
44 raise them up
45 They will all be taught by God
45 Everyone who has heard the Father
51 for the life of the world

Christ – the Bread of Life

And finally, Jesus repeatedly refers to himself as The Bread. Six times he calls himself the bread. In Parts 1 and 2 of our series, we encountered this only once – in the same verse that opens today’s reading. But here, he drives home that the bread we hunger after, the bread that sustains life, the bread that fills us up, is indeed Christ himself. If we are hungry and thirsty for something, Jesus is the one who satisfies us.

35 I am the bread of life
48 I am the bread of life
50 here is the bread that comes down from heaven
51 I am the living bread
51 Whoever eats this bread will live forever
51 This bread is my flesh

Today’s reading emphasises, repeatedly, that Jesus is the one we are after, that he is the one who, with the support of the Father, initiates the invitation for us to come to him and makes it easier by coming to us, so that each and everyone of us and all of us together can feast on the bread of life that has, is and continues to come down from heaven.

Come to Jesus!

Featured image of roti from https://www.cookhalaal.com/recipe/my-mothers-roti-recipe/