Filled with the Spirit

Click here to listen to the audio recording of this 13-minute message. Or watch the video of the message on Facebook video (the message starts at about 25 minutes). Or read the text summary below.

Today we commemorate and celebrate Jesus’ baptism by John in the river Jordan. Mark 1:10 tells us that “as Jesus was coming up out of the water” the Spirit descended “on him like a dove”. Jesus’ ministry starts with him being filled will the Spirit. Surely, if the Spirit is important for his life and ministry, the Spirit must be important for ours also.

Indeed, all of our readings for today speak about the work of the Spirit. Genesis 1:2 tells us that when God was creating the heavens and the earth, “the Spirit of God was hovering over the waters”. Holy Spirit was there, partnering with God in creation. And Psalm 29:3 echoes these words: “the voice of the Lord is over the waters … the Lord thunders over the mighty waters” – suggesting that the Spirit and the Lord are one and the same God. Holy Spirit is active in creation.

In Acts 19:1-7, Paul met up with some of John’s disciples and asks them if they received the Holy Spirit when they believed. They say they did not – indeed, they did not even know there was a Holy Spirit. Paul lays his hands on them and “the Holy Spirit came on them and they spoke in tongues and prophesied”. Much as we see in the story of Pentecost in Acts 2, Holy Spirit equips people for ministry.

Clearly, the Spirit is essential for creation or creativity and for ministry. Luke 4:1 tells us that after his baptism, Jesus was “full of the Holy Spirit” and that it was the Spirit who led him into the wilderness, where he was tempted. If Jesus needed to be filled with the Spirit, how much more do we need the filling of the Spirit? Paul is emphatic in Ephesians 5:18: “Be filled with the Spirit”.

Hopefully you are convinced that we need to be filled with the Spirit. If so, the question is ‘how?’ How are we to be filled with the Spirit?

Let me start by affirming that if you believe in Jesus – if you are a Christian – then Holy Spirit is already living in you. Paul makes this clear in 1 Corinthians 6:19: “Do you not know that your bodies are temples of the Holy Spirit, who is in you, whom you have received from God?” You cannot become a Christian without the working of the Spirit. So if you are a Christian, you already have the Spirit in you, whether you know it or not. Being filled with the Spirit then is something additional to this. (Remember that Jesus was already the Son of God when he was filled with the Spirit.)

How can we be filled with the Spirit? There is no formula for being filled with the Spirit. I offer some suggestions based on my own experience and the experiences I’ve heard from or seen in others:

  • Say a prayer asking Holy Spirit to fill you.
  • Ask someone to lay hands on you and pray for you to be filled with the Spirit.
  • Say a prayer in which you tell the Spirit that you surrender to the Spirit.
  • Bearing in mind that the Spirit is already in you, but that the Spirit might be shackled or chained, thus prevented from working fully, say a prayer in which you you unchain, unshackle and free-up the Spirit to work in you.
  • Identify specific areas of your life (e.g., your finances, marriage, mental health, sexuality) that you are keeping back from God and invite the Spirit to fill these areas of your life.
  • Do a walking prayer, saying “Holy Spirit fill me” as you breathe in and “I surrender to you” as you breathe out.
  • Or anything else that works for you…

I encourage you to seek the infilling of the Spirit. Not as a once-off thing, but as a regular thing. Being filled with the Spirit is not an event, but an ongoing way of life, in which we keep in step with the Spirit, like breathing. When we are filled with the Spirit, our faith will grow and flourish, our prayer life will deepen, we’ll more easily understand the Bible, and our ministry will strengthen and expand. This is what living in the Spirit is about.

Be filled with the Spirit!

Featured image from https://dg.imgix.net/why-was-jesus-baptized-en/landscape/why-was-jesus-baptized.jpg

The battle

Click here to listen to the audio recording of this 13-minute message. Or watch the YouTube video below. Or read the text summary after that.

Covid-19 has been spreading at an alarming rate in recent weeks. We have more new cases and more deaths than we had at the height of the first wave back in July and August 2020. And we hear of whole families infected with Covid and even dying of Covid. We ought to be greatly concerned about Covid. Let us think of Covid as the enemy of humanity and an agent of the devil. Covid does everything that is the antithesis of God and works against God’s vision for humanity.

We draw on Exodus 17:8-13 for today’s message:

The Amalekites came and attacked the Israelites at Rephidim. Moses said to Joshua, “Choose some of our men and go out to fight the Amalekites. Tomorrow I will stand on top of the hill with the staff of God in my hands.” So Joshua fought the Amalekites as Moses had ordered, and Moses, Aaron and Hur went to the top of the hill. As long as Moses held up his hands, the Israelites were winning, but whenever he lowered his hands, the Amalekites were winning. When Moses’ hands grew tired, they took a stone and put it under him and he sat on it. Aaron and Hur held his hands up—one on one side, one on the other—so that his hands remained steady till sunset. So Joshua overcame the Amalekite army with the sword.

Let us think of the Amalekites as Covid – our common enemy. Everyone is working to fight off this enemy:

Joshua and his soldiers are like those who are fighting Covid directly – frontline health workers, those developing vaccines and the President and his team.

Moses, together with Aaron and Hur, are up on the hilltop praying for Joshua and his team as they battle the enemy. Let us imagine that we are Moses, Aaron and Hur.

We can and ought to be praying against Covid. Prayer is not just a psychological thing that we do. It is real engagement with God and has a real impact on the real world. Prayer is hard – Moses struggles to keep his hands above his head holding the staff of God. We have to persist, to persevere in prayer.

And as Moses struggles, Aaron and Hur come alongside him. They help him to sit and then each help him hold up his arms, so that Moses can continue his work of prayer. Aaron and Hur work together to support Moses, who prays on behalf of Joshua.

In a similar way, we need each to do our part in supporting our collective efforts against Covid. These are quite simple: wear a mask, maintain physical distancing and avoid large gatherings. When we each do our part, we make a collective difference and contribute to the common good of all humanity.

And finally, let us take heart that God is present also in this collaborative effort: Aaron and Hur work to support Moses as he prays to God to enable Joshua and his team to fight off the enemy. There is no ‘let go and let God’ in this narrative. Each member of Israel had a role to play – each did their part. Together, working collaboratively, working in partnership with God, they were able to win the battle.

Dear friends, let us pray for God’s salvation and let us each do our part to support and protect each other, so that we win the battle against Covid.

Featured image from https://i.pinimg.com/originals/af/a1/53/afa153c86da28cdfcf52e0091fc0035e.jpg

Radical inclusion

Click here to listen to the audio recording of this 12-minute message. Or watch the video on Facebook (the message starts at about 29 minutes). Or read the narrative summary that follows.

Today we celebrate Epiphany – the revelation or revealing of Jesus Christ to the non-Jewish world, specifically, to the Magi. Traditionally, these were the three wise men or the three kings. The readings set for today (for Epiphany) tell the narrative of a great opening up (or revealing or understanding) of God’s salvation for all humankind.

We start in Isaiah with several prophecies of the nations (Gentiles, non-Jews) coming recognise the special call of Israel to be a light to the world. For example, Isaiah 59:19 says, “From the west, people will fear the name of the Lord, and from the rising of the sun [that is, from the east], they will revere his glory”. In Isaiah 60:3, we read, “Nations will come to your light and kings to the brightness of your dawn”. And Isaiah 60:6 seems to prophesy the coming of the Magi (the traditional ‘three kings’ or ‘wise men’), “All from Sheba will come, bearing gold and incense and proclaiming the praise of the Lord.”

In the times of the First Testament, God had chosen to work with the Jewish people. They were his chosen people – the people of the covenant. But throughout that Testament, we see references, like those in Isaiah, to Israel leading everyone towards God. They were to be a priestly nation who would mediate God to the world.

Then, in Matthew 2:1, we read, “After Jesus was born in Bethlehem … Magi from the east came to Jerusalem and asked, ‘Where is the one who has been born king of the Jews? We saw his star when it rose and have come to worship him’.” When they found Jesus, “they bowed down and worshipped him” and “presented him with gifts of gold, frankincense and myrrh” (Matthew 2:11), in fulfilment of the prophecy in Isaiah 60:6.

The importance of the Magi is twofold. First, they recognise Jesus as a king – not merely as a child. He was a person of great significance. And secondly, because they came from the east (probably somewhere in Persia or even further east) and were not Jewish, they represent the gentile nations. Their visit to Jesus and their recognition of him as King is the fulfilment of the First Testament prophecy, that the Messiah of the Jewish people would be a Messiah for all people. This is the epiphany – the revelation of Jesus to those outside of the Jewish faith.

Jesus’ ministry, as recorded in the Gospels, was primarily to the Jewish people. Jesus says as much (e.g., Matthew 10:5-6). However, there are numerous examples of Jesus reaching beyond the Jewish people to Gentiles. Still, the Good News that Jesus preached was primarily good news for Jews.

The outworking of the fulfilled prophecy comes with Paul and is explained very clearly in his letter to the Ephesians. Speaking to the Gentiles, Paul says “you were separate from Christ, excluded from citizenship in Israel and foreigners to the covenants of the promise, without hope and without God in the world” (Ephesians 2:12). Paul is reiterating the First Testament position, that only the Jewish people were God’s chosen.

But Paul then shares his “insight into the mystery of Christ, which was not made known to people in other generations as it has now been revealed by the Spirit of God’s holy apostles and prophets” (Ephesians 3:4-5). And what is this mystery? It is that “through the gospel the Gentiles are heirs together with Israel, members together of one body, and sharers together in the promise of Christ Jesus” (Ephesians 3:6).

Paul proclaims the great opening up of the Gospel message to all people, as was prophesied in the First Testament and according to the sign of the magi from the East. God’s chosen people are no longer only the Jewish nation, but anyone who believes in Jesus Christ. “In him and through faith in him, we may approach God, with freedom and confidence” (Ephesians 3:12). “The barrier, the dividing wall of hostility” (Ephesians 2:14) has been destroyed. The doors to the Kingdom of God have been flung wide open and all are welcome to enter!

What does this mean for us today? It means that our church doors must also be flung wide open so that all feel welcome to enter. There should be no barriers to people coming to Christ and coming to church. Every person, no matter who or what they are, should feel that they are welcome, loved and included when they meet us. We should be generous and inclusive.

If we are honest, we will admit that Christians can be some of the most judgemental, critical and exclusionary people on earth. And often also hypocrites – saying one thing but doing another. Christians frequently do not put into practice the open and inclusive Gospel that Jesus proclaimed, which was prophesied in the First Testament, and which we see unfolding throughout the Second Testament.

Jesus’ ministry was one of radical inclusion. He seems to go out of his way to embrace those who the world would regard as sinners and marginalised – prostitutes, tax collectors, Roman oppressors, lepers, demon possessed people, women, Samaritans, the dead and dying, and so on. Jesus repeatedly positions himself with those who one might think could not be the ‘chosen people’. He does this show, unequivocally, that the Gospel is a generous and inclusive message and that doors to the Kingdom of God are wide open.

And thanks be to God for that! Because this is what enables most of us – who are Gentile – to be included among God’s chosen people. Let us then walk in the footsteps of Jesus and of Paul, in the way we as individuals engage with people around us – always welcoming, always generous, warm, kind, tolerant, inclusive. And let us as a church – the parish of St Stephen – similarly be a church with wide open doors that welcomes anyone and everyone into the presence of God.

Featured image “Adoration of the Magi” by Albrecht Dürer (1504), from https://artsandculture.google.com/asset/adoration-of-the-magi/zwFGJLYuIszRRw?hl=en-GB

The world

Click here to listen to the audio recording of this 21-minute message. Or watch the YouTube video below. Or read the text summary that follows.

1 John 2:15-17 presents us with a challenging text:

Do not love the world or anything in the world. If anyone loves the world, love for the Father is not in them. For everything in the world—the lust of the flesh, the lust of the eyes, and the pride of life—comes not from the Father but from the world. The world and its desires pass away, but whoever does the will of God lives forever.

How is it that John tells us not to love the world? Must we hate the world? Or distance ourselves from it? And from the people who live in it? These questions are made yet more challenging because John uses the Greek word agape for ‘love’, which is the kind of self-sacrificial love we use for Jesus’ love for us. How then do we make sense of this passage?

When presented with difficult passages, we should always look at the text in context. The immediate context is the letter that John is writing. And a broader context that I often find useful is the life and teaching of Christ – what we learn in the Gospels. From Jesus, we learn much of value about loving the world, for example, in John 3:16-17, Jesus says to Nicodemus:

For God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son, that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life. For God did not send his Son into the world to condemn the world, but to save the world through him.

Clearly, from this passage, God loves the world extravagantly, so much so, that he sent his Son, Christ, into the world. Not to condemn or judge the world, but rather to save it, to heal it, to reconcile it to God. Indeed, this teaching comes across in numerous places throughout the Second Testament. John, as the author of both the Gospel and the letter, cannot be meaning that we must hate the world or even not love it. His meaning must be more nuanced than that.

Let’s look at another passage, from Luke 10:25-37. Here Jesus is asked by an expert in the Law what he must do to inherit eternal life. Jesus answers with the Great Commandment – to love God and to love one’s neighbour. Because ‘neighbour’ could easily be interpreted to mean just those close to me, people who are like me, the expert rightly asks Jesus, “And who is my neighbour?” Jesus then tells the parable of the Good Samaritan – the Samaritan is the neighbour – a person who was not part of the Jewish community or faith. In effect, Jesus says, ‘Everyone is your neighbour’. Or even, ‘The world is your neighbour’. Again, John can certainly not be implying that we love only other Christians and not love ‘the world’ – this would be against Christ’s own teachings.

When we look more closely at John’s letter, we read:

For everything in the world—the lust of the flesh, the lust of the eyes, and the pride of life—comes not from the Father but from the world.

Here John gives a more nuanced explanation of what he means by ‘the world’. It is not actually the world itself or its people, but rather worldly values, which are often at odds with the values of Christ.

All too often, Christians assimilate the values of the world and turn them into pseudo-Christian values. As wise Christians, we need to be critical about what we hear and what we accept. We need to look at the values of our church, the values that our pastors/ministers/priests preach about, and how our church behaves, and critically evaluate whether they are aligned with the values and behaviour of Christ. This is John’s message.

Let me give three examples:

  1. Materialism. The world has become increasingly materialistic, and this passion for money and things, for wealth and possessions, has come into the church in the form of prosperity teachings – that God wants you to be rich and that being rich is a sign of God’s favour. But this worldly value “comes not from the Father but from the world” (1 John 2:16). Rather, Jesus’ life was characterised by simplicity, contentment and generosity. Material things, that Christians so often chase after, will “pass away” – they are but dust.
  2. Me first. There is a growing self-centredness in the world’s values. We see this at the individual level, but also at national levels, with the rise of nationalism (e.g., my country first) and the withdrawal of countries from regional or global collectives. But this is a worldly value, not seen in the life and teachings of Jesus. Jesus’ life is characterised by other-centredness, not self-centredness and by an attitude and practice of service or servanthood. His ministry and the life of the early church was rooted in collectivism – things held in common and shared, so that everyone had enough. The self becomes one part of the Body of Christ, which is his Church, each one playing their part for the greater good.
  3. Entitlement. Emanating from the previous two is a sense of entitlement – that I am owed and deserve everything good, and that everything bad is an unfair imposition. This intolerance for difficulty in life is a worldly value, not Christian. Instead, Jesus embodies the path of suffering. While, as God the Son, he was entitled to power and authority, he poured himself out and became nothing, taking the form of a servant. He teaches that we should not expect rewards here on earth, but rather that we should build up treasures in heaven, as those are the ones that will last, that count. And he sacrifices himself for the good of the world. There is no entitlement in the life of Christ, and no place for it in the lives of Christ’s followers.

Dear friend, let us heed John’s warning to not become entangled in the values of this world – the lust of the flesh, the lust of the eyes, and the pride of life – and in particular to not allow these values to be assimilated into Christian teaching in our church. As John says, “The world and its desires pass away, but whoever does the will of God lives forever.” Let us hold firm, then, to the life pattern and teaching of our Lord Jesus Christ.

Featured image from here

I would like, at the end of this year, to pay tribute to the people in (I think) the Democratic Republic of the Congo who wove the Kuba cloth that has been my backdrop for all my sermons during 2020. I purchased this cloth in Zambia several years ago and have treasured it as a work of great skill among African artists. I have been pleased to have it as my backdrop this year.

Next year, I’ll be using another beautiful African fabric called mud cloth (bogolanfini), probably handmade in Mali. Click here for the history of mud cloth.

New Year’s resolve

Click here to listen to the audio recording of this 19-minute message. Or watch the video on Facebook here (sermon starts at about 20 minutes).

Today we read about Jesus’ bris or circumcision, eight days after he was born, in Luke 2:21-40. We meet two incredible people of great faith in the temple: Simeon and Anna. Both immediately recognise Jesus (remember he’s just eight days old) as the Messiah, the long-awaited one.

Given that New Year is almost upon us, I thought it might be useful to see what we can take from this passage to inform our New Year’s resolutions for 2021. Or rather, to inform our resolve for 2021. (‘Resolve’ has far greater strength of determination and commitment that a mere ‘New Year’s resolution’, which most of us probably break on 2 January!)

  1. Let us be resolute in our to devotion to Christ. Simeon is described as a righteous and devout man, filled with the Spirit of God, while Anna is described as an 84-year-old prophet, who virtually lived in the temple, worshipping, praying and fasting. Both of them embody a deep commitment to devotion to God. We can be determined to walk in their footsteps, through our devotion to Christ.
  2. Let us resolve to live out salvation for all of humankind. Simeon says, in vv 30-32, “My eyes have seen your salvation, which you have prepared in the sight of all nations: a light for revelation to the Gentiles, and the glory of your people Israel.” Initially, the salvation that would come through Jesus was thought of as being only or primarily for the Jewish people – indeed Jesus’ ministry was mostly to Jews. But there is a growing awareness (with deep roots in the First Testament) that the salvation that comes through Christ is for the whole world. We can live this out in the way we live, work and speak. And at this time, in how we handle the challenges of Covid.
  3. Let us resolve work always for peace. In vv 34-35, Simeon recognises that Jesus’ life and ministry will not result only in peace and joy; there will be those who oppose him, there will be conflict, and eventually there will be death. But Jesus’ ministry is one of peace-building, love, forgiveness and reconciliation. Let us live out such a deep commitment in our daily lives. And let us also resolve to pray for the world, which is marred by so much discord, conflict and violence.

May 2021, which will continue to have its major Covid-related and other challenges, be a year in which we are more intentional in our resolve to be devoted to God, to live out his inclusive salvation and to work for peace.

Featured image “Simeon’s Moment” by Ron DiCianni, from https://www.tapestryproductions.com/product/simeons-moment-artwork-by-ron-dicianni/

Emmanuel – God with us

During Advent (the four Sundays leading up to Christmas) we have been preparing ourselves for the coming of Christ into this world – God in human form – Emmanuel – God with us. Today, that advent – ‘the arrival of a notable person or thing’ – has come to fruition. We are not waiting for God to come to us; God is here with us. Christ is born!

I’m sharing two messages today – one that I preached last night, based on John 1, and one that I preached this morning, based on Luke 2. Both are about the coming of God into the world, but from different perspectives:

John presents to us the grand narrative about the coming of Christ into this world:

“In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God … Through him all things were made … In him was life, and that life was the light of all humanity … The Word became flesh and made his dwelling among us … We have seen his glory!” (John 1:1-14)

Here we meet ‘The Word’ – the very Word of God, the thoughts of God, the knowledge of God, the power of God – who is the second person of the Trinity (Father, Son and Spirit). This Word is the foundation of the cosmos. He was there from before the beginning of time and space, working in partnership with Father and Spirit in the creation of everything that is. He is the very source of the fundamental elements of our existence: life and light – making all things possible.

And then, at a point in time and space, this Word transitioned from eternity, from infinity, from perfection, into this human world – the Word became flesh and “moved into our neighbourhood” (the Message). God became one of us, bringing life and light into our immediate vicinity. We could see him, touch him, speak with him.

God continues to live among us, in our neighbourhood. The Word made flesh. He makes his dwelling among us in this world.

And he makes his dwelling in you, in me, in every person who will allow him. Perhaps he has already set up his dwelling place – pitched his tent – in every person, and is just waiting for an invitation to move in. His space is there, ready and waiting, but just needing us to answer the knock on the door, the subtle invitation, the quiet whisper.

Luke presents to us a more domestic narrative about the coming of Christ into the world:

“Joseph went up from the town of Nazareth in Galilee to Bethlem to register with Mary who was pledged to be married to him and was expecting a child. While they were there, the time came for the baby to be born, and she gave birth to her firstborn, a son. She wrapped him in cloths and placed him in a manger, because there was no guest room available for them. And there were shepherds living out in the fields nearby, keeping watch over their flocks at night.” (Luke 2:1-20)

Luke presents the coming of Christ as a family story, set against the political landscape. Rome – a colonial oppressor in Israel – required everyone to travel to their home town for a census. Mary – a teenager – pregnant and as-yet unwed – travels with Joseph. But they are unable to find a place to stay, and settle into what may have been a barn or cave or a corner of a house, with the animals. And there she gave birth to her son, Jesus. Such a simple way to tell us that God the Son had just entered this world – ‘and she gave birth to her firstborn’. No fanfare, no witnesses, no family support, not even a decent place to stay. In that place, God came into this world.

And then it is to the shepherds that God reveals this good news. They’re out looking after their sheep and the sky fills with angels who sing out, “Glory to God in the highest heaven, and on earth peace to those on whom his favour rests”. It is these shepherds to go to visit Mary and Joseph and the infant Jesus. (The Maji appear in Matthew’s version and Mark and John don’t describe Jesus’ birth at all.)

We learn something of the humility of God from Luke’s narrative. It is mostly so underplayed. Only the shepherds see the angels, no-one else. In the first Testament, God is typically portrayed as great, awesome, powerful, the Creator of all. John’s narrative similarly presents us with ‘the Word’ – the cosmic Christ. But here we see God presented to us as a newborn – the most vulnerable and helpless of all humans, utterly dependent on his caregivers for his survival.

And we learn something of God’s willingness to work through the ordinary, and particularly through ‘the poor’ – those who are displaced, marginalised, labourers, homeless, hungry. We will see this again and again in Luke’s gospel particularly, but indeed in all the narratives about Jesus’ life and ministry. God leans towards those on the edges.

And so God is waiting to work in you and in me, to be born in us today. It doesn’t matter how old or young you are, how educated or illiterate you are, how gifted or ordinary you are, how powerful or weak you are, how well-adjusted or dysfunctional you are, how rich or poor you are. God wants to be born in you and to grow up in you.

And so, if you have been skirting the edges of a commitment to Jesus or if you have made a commitment to him but are iffy in how you live that out day-by-day, perhaps this Christmas is the time when you want to say YES to the Son of God, and to allow the Word to move into that tent that he has already pitched in your heart. Perhaps this Christmas is the moment when you say YES to the birth of Jesus in your heart, and when you say YES to nurturing him as he grows in you in wisdom and stature and in favour with God and people. Perhaps now is the time to say YES to God.

The Nativity, by Gari Melchers, from https://the-end-time.org/2018/12/10/jesus-was-not-born-in-a-stable-more-on-the-nativity-art-by-gari-melchers/

Journey of faith

Click here to listen to the audio of this 20-minute message (this has the lowest data usage and the best sound quality). Or watch the service on Facebook (the sermon starts at about 30 minutes – unfortunately the sound quality is very poor today). Or read the text summary after that.

The journey of faith is seldom easy or straight-forward, even when people present it in this way. And holding onto faith when we are in the midst of the storm or facing a rolling crisis like COVID19 is not always easy. In his first letter to the Thessalonians (5:18), Paul writes, “Give thanks in all situations for this is God’s will for you in Christ Jesus.” Paul makes it sound simple – just accept that your challenging situation is God’s will for you in Christ – give thanks for it. Of course, it is not simple!

We have a great master class in how to journey in faith in the person of Mary, the mother of Jesus of Nazareth. Mary, who we revere because she is the Christ-bearer (the Christotokos, or even more remarkable, the God-bearer or Theotokos), shows us that faith is not simple or straight-forward. She shows her own journey of faith. This journey is not a template or recipe for us – it is simply one example of someone making this journey But it may help the rest of us – particularly those of us who struggle with faith – to make peace with our journey of faith.

The well-known story is told in Luke 1:26-38.

Mary, an engaged but not yet married teenager from a small village called Nazareth, encounters an angel. He greets her warmly and kindly, “Greetings, you who are highly favoured! The Lord is with you.”

But Mary’s first response is to be “greatly troubled at his words” and wonder “what king of greeting this might be” and to be “afraid“. The response of fear when encountering an angel seems to be almost universal in the Bible – most people who encounter an angel respond first with fear: Zechariah, John’s father, in Luke 1:12-13 and the shepherds in Luke 2:9-10, for example. But, let us recognise that Mary does not immediately respond with faith or joy when the angel appears to her – her response is one of fear, trepidation, uncertainty, anxiety.

The angel – much as angels do in other passages – reassures her (“Do not be afraid”) and says that she has found favour with God. He explains that she will conceive a child and call him Jesus and that he will become a great king forever.

In Mary’s second response, we see that she is no longer afraid. She is now thinking, critically, about what the angel has said: “How will this be? Since I am a virgin?” Mary does not immediately accept the angel’s message. She asks what is surely an obvious question – how can I be pregnant if I’ve not had sex? Mary is realistic, pragmatic, critical. She does not just accept what the angel is saying to her. Let us imagine also (though this is not explicit in the passage) that she realises that a pregnancy at her age and without a husband will be scandalous and difficult. Let us imagine that she has some intuition about the implications of being the mother of the “Son of the Most High”. And let us imagine that she even anticipates the tragic loss that she will suffer as her son is taken from her. (These imaginings are captured so well in the song, Mary did you know)

The angel accepts Mary’s questions. He does not reprimand or challenge her. Instead, he provides further explanation and clarifies also that even her aunt, Elizabeth (in her old age), has conceived a child – John.

And now – only now – Mary accepts the angel’s message, saying “I am the Lord’s servant. May your word to me be fulfilled“. She accepts God’s will for her life, as Paul wrote in 1 Thessalonians 5:18. But at this point, her acceptance is just that – an acceptance, even a blind faith. It does not seem to be based on a full understanding. She submits, relinquishes, surrenders to the will of God – do with me as you wish.

Mary then visits her aunt Elizabeth and they stay together for some time. Luke 1:39-45 gives a clear indication that they talked about their experiences of pregnancy and of their place in God’s plans. One can easily imagine that they spent a great deal of time talking, sharing, reflecting, praying, seeking understanding.

And out of this sharing, Mary achieves faith with understanding, which is expressed powerfully in the Magnificat in Luke 1:46-55. Mary understands, for example, that God is a God of love and mercy – “His mercy extends to those who fear him, from generation to generation.” And she also understands that there will be a righting of wrongs (a reversal of fortunes) – “He has brought down rulers from their thrones but has lifted up the humble.” She understands that through the great things God has done for her, God will bring justice for all those who are marginalised and oppressed.

Although we esteem Mary greatly, her journey of faith is not instant. She grapples and wrestles with what God wants from her, with the storm that she finds herself in. Her own journey is one of fear, questioning, acceptance and then understanding. Her faith journey is a process over time, not a turning point in time. Indeed, even in narratives where it appears that faith emerges at a point in time (such as Paul’s Damascus road experience in Acts 9), a closer read around the experience will show that there is a journey and that the turning point is a culmination of a longer process that came before and that works its way out after.

Mary’s faith experience is not a template for us. It an example of a journey of faith, of one whom we can revere as most highly favoured and blessed of all humans. If her faith journey is not not simple or straight-forward, why should yours be? If you are doubting your faith because it seems complicated, fragile, questioning, confused, and so on, be reassured that Mary’s faith was all these things also. And yet, she bore the Son of God. Faith is a journey. Just keep on with the journey and know that God is faithful.

 ‘The Annunciation’ (1437-46) by Fra Angelico from https://medium.com/thinksheet/symbols-in-art-the-annunciation-7347bddb89d

Reconciliation

Click here to listen to the audio recording of this 15-minute message. Or watch the YouTube video below. Or read the text summary that follows.

Today (16 December) in South Africa we celebrate Reconciliation Day, a day on which we remind ourselves of the great need for us to reconcile with each other, after generations and generations of racial oppression and exclusion. We still have a long way to go with this!

In 2 Corinthians 5:16-20, Paul writes at length about reconciliation. He explains that God has reconciled us to Godself; that God has been working all along to reconcile the whole of humanity – indeed, the whole of creation – to Godself; and that God has now entrusted this ministry of reconciliation to us:

So from now on we regard no one from a worldly point of view. Though we once regarded Christ in this way, we do so no longer. Therefore, if anyone is in Christ, the new creation has come: The old has gone, the new is here! All this is from God, who reconciled us to himself through Christ and gave us the ministry of reconciliation: that God was reconciling the world to himself in Christ, not counting people’s sins against them. And he has committed to us the message of reconciliation. We are therefore Christ’s ambassadors, as though God were making his appeal through us. We implore you on Christ’s behalf: Be reconciled to God.

Given that God has done so much to reconcile us to God’s self and given that we are given this great commission to carry out in Christ’s footsteps, how sad it is that there is still so much division among Christians! I do not refer only to divisions between denominations, but also divisions within a local parish, between members of the same local church. Such divisions are completely out of step with everything that God has been doing with humanity since the Fall. We are called to work for relational reconciliation among ourselves in the church.

Paul then goes on in Galatians 3:26-29 to emphasise that the work of Christ has been not only to towards relational reconciliation, but also towards structural or systemic reconciliation:

So in Christ Jesus you are all children of God through faith, for all of you who were baptized into Christ have clothed yourselves with Christ. There is neither Jew nor Gentile, neither slave nor free, nor is there male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus. If you belong to Christ, then you are Abraham’s seed, and heirs according to the promise.

These categories that Paul writes about – Jew/Gentile, slave/free, male/female – are the classic sociological topics of race, class and gender. These are the systemic and structural lines according to which most societies are still divided. Employment, poverty, inequality, social exclusion, crime, agency, violence, salaries and so on all run along the lines of race, class and gender – those very things that Paul says should have disappeared in Christ. Yet in the so-called ‘Christian world’, these lines run deep into the earth.

As followers of Christ, we are called to work to undermine and subvert and dismantle these lines. To stand up against racism, classism and sexism or patriarchy. Not to perpetuate them!

And Paul then goes still further in Ephesians 5:21 to emphasise that this reconciliation should be not only in church and the world, but also in our intimate relationships. Within our households, we need to work towards domestic reconciliation and harmony:

Submit to one another out of reverence for Christ.

Such a simple verse! Christians tend to emphasise the next line (wives submit to your husbands), but Paul’s headline for this passage is that we all must submit to each other: husbands to their wives, wives to their husbands, children to their parents and parents to their children. When we are all submitting to each other, out of reverence for Christ, who has reconciled us to God, we will be united and harmonious. Mutual submission to one another builds reconciliation, dismantles inequality and fosters unity.

Let us reflect deeply on the reconciliation that God has already worked for us between us and God, and in grateful response to that, work for relational, structural and domestic reconciliation.

Featured image from: https://www.thesouthafrican.com/news/day-of-reconciliation-24-years-democracy-south-africa-reconciled/

Click here to listen to a previous sermon, from 2016, on this same theme, but from a different angle.

Rest

Click here to listen to the audio recording of this 8-minute message. Or watch the YouTube video. Or read the text summary after that.

As we come towards the end of 2020, many of us are feeling quite exhausted and worn down. COVID-19 has placed tremendous pressure on us and caused great damage to our world.

In Matthew 11:28-30, Jesus says,

Come to me, all you who are weary and burdened, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you and learn from me, for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy and my burden is light.

Come to Jesus. Put down your burdens. Rest. Ease into him. Destress. Unwind. Relax. Unwind. Settle down. Restore. Recover. Heal.

Featured image from: https://theconversation.com/curious-kids-how-was-the-ocean-formed-where-did-all-the-water-come-from-98382

What kind of people are we?

Click here to listen to the audio of this 18-minute message (best sound quality). Or watch the video on Facebook (the sermon starts at 25 minutes). Or read the text summary below.

Today, the central question I am asking is, What kind of people are we?

Or phrased differently, What kind of people ought we to be?

John the Baptist was the last in the line of First Testament prophets. He, like those who came before him, pointed the way to Messiah, the Christ, who appeared as Jesus of Nazareth. Mark 1:1-8 introduces John to us, telling that he came as a messenger in advance of the coming of Jesus, the Son of God, to prepare the way for the Lord.

John did this preparation by preaching a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins. This was his clear message. And instead of pointing to himself or puffing himself up, he continually pointed to the one who was still to come, saying:

After me comes the one more powerful than I, the straps of whose sandals I am not worthy to stoop down and untie. I baptize you with water, but he will baptize you with the Holy Spirit. (Mark 1:7-8)

When John was a new-born, his father Zechariah said much the same about him in Luke 1:67-79. After eight verses about the coming Messiah, Zechariah finally gets to his own son, and in just four verses proclaims his mission:

And you, my child, will be called a prophet of the Most High; for you will go on before the Lord to prepare the way for him, to give his people the knowledge of salvation through the forgiveness of their sins, because of the tender mercy of our God, by which the rising sun will come to us from heaven to shine on those living in darkness and in the shadow of death, to guide our feet into the path of peace. (Luke 1:76-79)

And all of this was prophesied hundreds of years before by Isaiah in chapter 40:1-5. where he says:

Comfort, comfort my people, says your God. Speak tenderly to Jerusalem, and proclaim to her that her hard service has been completed, that her sin has been paid for, that she has received from the LORD’s hand double for all her sins. A voice of one calling: “In the wilderness prepare the way for the LORD; make straight in the desert a highway for our God. Every valley shall be raised up, every mountain and hill made low; the rough ground shall become level, the rugged places a plain. And the glory of the LORD will be revealed, and all people will see it together. For the mouth of the LORD has spoken.” (Isaiah 40:1-5)

All of these passages have this in common:

John prepared the way for the coming of Jesus by preaching repentance, forgiveness and comfort

John came, Jesus followed and John died. And then Jesus died, rose again and ascended to heaven.

We are now waiting for him to return. And while we wait:

We are to prepare the way for the second coming of Jesus by preaching repentance, forgiveness and comfort

So, as we prepare for Jesus’ return, we need to consider who we are pointing to and what message we are proclaiming through our actions and words. In 2 Peter 3:11, Peter asks this penetrating question, “What kind of people ought you to be?” He asks this in the context of second coming of Christ Jesus. Given that he is coming back soon,

What kind of people ought we to be?

We at my parish, St Stephens in Lyttelton, South Africa, are currently conducting a survey among our parishioners about what kind of church we are and what kind of church we aspire to be. One of the questions we asked was, “What qualities, values or characteristics you would like St Stephen’s to embody?” We’re still busy with the survey, but here is what we’ve learned so far:

  • God focus:
    • Focus on God, honour God’s commandments, serve God
    • Prayer, spirituality, faith, hope, wisdom
  • Relational focus:
    • Love, care, kindness, compassion, tolerance
    • Friendliness, companionship, good relationships
    • Sense of community, collaboration
    • Honesty, authenticity
    • Equality for all
    • Family values

These qualities, values or characteristics align well with Paul’s encouragement in Philippians 4:8:

Whatever is true, whatever is noble, whatever is right, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is admirable—if anything is excellent or praiseworthy—think about such things.

A church that embodied these kinds of values and qualities would surely be a church people would want to attend, and would surely help to prepare the way for the Lord’s return, and would surely be pleasing to God.

Let us be this kind of church!

Featured image: St. John the Baptist Preaching, c. 1665, by Mattia Preti