Fast of the heart

Click here to listen to this 14-minute message.

Lent, which kicks off on Ash Wednesday (26 February this year), is usually associated with fasting, and this, together with prayer and giving to the needy, is the topic of the first half of Matthew 6 (part of Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount). In this passage Jesus differentiates between fasting that is done for public approval and fasting that is done in secret and for God. It is this latter fasting (and prayer and giving to others) that Jesus esteems. It is this fasting, done in secret, that Jesus says “your Father, who sees what is done in secret, will reward you.” And we know that this reward is eternal, in heaven, as this is where Jesus encourages us to store up our treasures.

For those of you who are fasting during this Lent, I encourage you to fast for yourself and for God, and keep your fasting secret and hidden. It is in this fast of the heart that we allow ourselves to experience discomfort and difficulty. And this reminds us of the discomfort and difficulty Jesus faced as he journeyed towards the cross.

Have a blessed Lent.

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Featured image from here.

Turn to God

Click here to listen to this 18-minute sermon.

Today is the first Sunday in Lent, when we reflect on Jesus’ 40-day fast in the desert, and the way the devil tempted him during this time (Luke 4:1-13). Here’s the point I believe God wants us to hear from this passage today:

  1. Fasting from something makes that something a point of focus for spiritual tension.
  2. As a result, we’ll experience an increase in temptation related to that something.
  3. That creates increased opportunities to choose to turn towards God or to sin.
  4. Thus, fasting creates opportunities for us to turn to God.

Jesus experienced this during his 40-day fast. We experience it when we fast. Fasting creates these intensified opportunities to turn to God. It is the gift of the fast.

How can we turn to God? Here are two ways:

  1. Select a Bible verse that is meaningful to you and and relevant to what you’re fasting from. Memorise it. Whenever you feel tempted, recite the verse.
  2. Select a brief prayer that you can easily memorise and recite, e.g. the Jesus Prayer: “Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me, a sinner.” Whenever you feel tempted, say the prayer.

Use the verse or prayer to remind you that you have made a commitment to God. Use it to help turn your focus towards God. Remind yourself that while breaking your fast may, actually, be trivial, remaining true to God is not.

Blessings as you journey through Lent.

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Featured image from https://thewellarmedwoman.com/blog/fork-in-the-road/

Turning towards God

Click here to listen to this 11-minute message.

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

We have three key readings today:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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Coming down from the mountain

Click here to listen to this 20-minute message.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Seeing from the Cross

Click here to listen to this 18-minute message.

Today is Good Friday – a poorly named day in my view. It should be Dark Friday. The Passion Week is transformed to good on Easter Sunday, but not before. There is nothing good about Friday. But my opinion is unlikely to change centuries of tradition!

Today, at my Anglican community church in Irene, South Africa, we participate in a three-hour service, from 12pm to 3pm – the hours that Jesus hung on the cross. It is a kind of vigil, like the women who kept watch as Jesus hung there. It is one of the best attended services at our church, and most people stay the full time. Today, we used the Seven Last Words of Christ to structure our service. The priest, deacon and lay ministers shared the preaching. I preached on the passage from John 19:25-27, where Jesus says “Woman, behold! Your son. … Behold! Your mother.” (my translation).

The central thing that stands out for me is that Jesus SEES his mother and his friend (thought to be John, the disciple). And seeing them and their need, he invites them to SEE each other (the Greek for ‘behold’, or ‘here’ in other translations, means ‘Look!’ or ‘See!’). So, in this sermon I suggest four layers of meaning:

  1. The passage foregrounds the humanity, dignity and worth of women, as central to the story. We need to stand against patriarchy, violence against women, the silencing and marginalisation of women, the exploitation of girl children.
  2. The passage speaks about Jesus’ commitment to family and to intimate relationships. We need to invest in these relationships, in the domestic, because this is of interest to God.
  3. The passage suggests the great potential of the church to recreate the world. We should examine our own churches, asking if we are really doing what God wants us to, are we being who God wants us to be?
  4. The passage advances God’s concern and love for the whole of humanity. God sees us, knows us, recognises us, loves us, champions us, cries for us. And we should also.

Wishing you a blessed and joyful Easter 2016.
Adrian

P.S. I struggled to find a picture that depicts what Jesus would have seen from the cross. The arts are almost entirely focused on Jesus on the cross – rightly so. But I found this one by James Tissot, a French painter, painted in c. 1890. For those receiving this by email, you won’t see the featured image for each of my sermons. Follow the link to my blog to see them.

Being God’s Beloved: Day 40: The Spirit in Action

And so we come to the end of this journey. Or, rather, we come to the end of this stage of the journey. Our daily reflections have run their course and we now continue to journey forward into the world. My hope and prayer is that you have cultivated a greater, deeper and more secure sense of yourself as being God’s beloved. And that this empowers and motivates you to not only be God’s beloved but to live as God’s beloved. Holy Spirit breathes into us the power and love of God, and that breathe stirs our spirits to be the presence of God in the world. Imagine a world in which every Christian consciously and deliberately worked to be the love of God, to be Spirit in action. What a world that would be!

Jesus tells the parable of the Good Samaritan in Luke 10:25-37. Asked what one must do to inherit eternal life, Jesus quotes the Great Commandment (which we discussed on Day 23). The second part of the Great Commandment is to love one’s neighbour as oneself. The man asks, “Who is my neighbour?” and Jesus proceeds to tell him story of the Good Samaritan.

A travelling man is assaulted and mugged by a band of robbers and left for dead on the side of the road. A priest and then a Levite, both people you’d think would be aligned with God’s values, pass by on the other side of the road, looking away. Then a Samaritan, who was not esteemed by Jewish people in those days, stops to help him, takes him to an inn on his own donkey and pays for him to stay there until he is well. Jesus implies that the Samaritan leaves before the man recovers, so there is no chance of being thanked.

Jesus asks, “Who was a neighbour to the man who fell into the hands of robbers?” The man of course had to respond, “The one who had mercy on him” – he could not bring himself to say, “It was the Samaritan.” And Jesus says, “God and do likewise.”

Jesus spends much of his ministry, in continuity with God’s self-revelation throughout the Old Testament, demonstrating that humanity is much loved by God. There are no conditions to God’s love – God loves us because God loves us. It is God’s delight and pleasure to love us, because we are God’s creation, because we are created in God’s image.

But God also desires us to be loving. It is part of God’s vision for humanity, part of God’s original design – that we would love and care for each other in community. And so Jesus calls us to love all those whom we meet, even those we’d rather pass by. God wants us to be like the Good Samaritan. God does not want us to be like Jonah, who had no love for the Ninevites. Jonah, in fact, throws God’s loving nature in God’s face, as he says, “O Lord, is this not what I said when I was still at home? That is why I was so quick to flee to Tarshish. I knew that you are a gracious and compassionate God, slow to anger and abounding in love, a God who relents from sending calamity. Now, O Lord, take away my life, for it is better for me to die than to live” (Jonah 4:2-3). Jonah correctly understood the nature of God’s heart – that God loved the people of Nineveh and desired their salvation. But Jonah’s heart was not aligned with God’s heart – he could not love them. God does not want us to be like Jonah – God desires for our hearts to be aligned with God’s heart.

When we are filled with the Spirit of Christ, filled with the Love of God, how can that love not overflow to those around us? In the same way that God’s superabundance of love spills out into the creation of the cosmos, the abundance of God’s love in us, as we are filled with Spirit, should pour into our relationships, our work, our play, our church, our world.

Jesus speaks about this in John 7:37-38, “If anyone is thirsty, let him come to me and drink. Whoever believes in me, as the Scripture has said, streams of living water will flow from within him.” Knowing that people might ask, “What is this water?” John explains in the next verse, “By this he meant the Spirit.” When we drink up God’s love, we are filled with Holy Spirit, and Spirit then flows out from within us like a stream of living water.

In this way, we are called to be God’s presence in the world. Holy Spirit dwells within us, so wherever we are, God is also. Christ, the incarnate Son of God, is no longer with us in the flesh, as he was some two thousand years ago. But wherever we are, God is, and God is there in our flesh. In effect, we are the body of Christ in that place. St Teresa of Avila, some 500 years ago, wrote about this in a beautiful prayer: [1]

Christ has no body but yours,
No hands, no feet on earth but yours,
Yours are the eyes with which he looks
Compassion on this world,
Yours are the feet with which he walks to do good,
Yours are the hands, with which he blesses all the world.
Yours are the hands, yours are the feet,
Yours are the eyes, you are his body.
Christ has no body now but yours,
No hands, no feet on earth but yours,
Yours are the eyes with which he looks
compassion on this world.
Christ has no body now on earth but yours.

On Day 16 we talked about what Christian love meant. Let me quote what I wrote then:

Christian love – that is, our love for others – is modelled on God’s love. Linda Woodhead has defined it as “an active desire for the well-being of the neighbour, and for communion with him or her, based on a recognition of the neighbour’s unique worth”.[2] Her definition is helpful, if challenging. Christian love is initiated by ourselves, and in this way unconditional – we choose to love because we choose to love, not because the person is love-worthy. We love because of the inherent worth of the other as one of God’s creatures, but we do not whitewash all people with the same inherent worth – a bland, faceless love for everyone. Rather, Christian love emphasises recognition of unique worth; that is, I extend myself to seek out particular aspects of that individual that are loveable and even likable. And it is two-way, seeking not only to express love at arm’s length, but also to establish relationship, communion, fellowship. And all of this is just the way God loves me and you and the other person.

This kind of love is transformative. It not the anaemic “I love everyone” that we sometimes say. This is a love, targeted not at the whole world, but at those in our immediate environment, which seeks to bring about authentic experience of human relationship. When we invest this kind of love in the way we do our work, the way we engage with those we encounter in our daily living, the way we relate to our families, and the way we relate to people at church then we will begin to see the Kingdom of God come. This is because the Kingdom of God is rooted in God’s most deeply cherished value, and that is Love.

We often pray the Lord’s Prayer, “May your Kingdom come, may your will be done on earth as it is in heaven.” What is God’s will? The centre of God’s will is that we love God, love each other, love the world and love ourselves. This is what relationship is all about and this is what God created us for – to be in loving relationship with God (spirituality), others (sociology), the world (ecology) and ourselves (psychology). As we begin to invest our love in these four sets of relationships we begin to answer the Lord’s Prayer – God’s Kingdom does indeed come, because God’s Will is indeed done!

This sounds rather idyllic. You and I know that this does not happen easily. Love in the abstract is simple and clear. But love in the real world, in real relationships, in real workplaces and families and communities is not so simple. If love were simple and easy, we’d all be doing it! But in fact, there is a dearth of love in the world.

We cannot love like God in our own strength. We have to rely on the Spirit of God, the Love of God, to enable us to love. It is as we allow Spirit to fill us with God’s love that we something to offer. And it is as we hear Spirit’s call, recognise Spirit’s equipping, respond to Spirit’s prompting that we actually begin to not only be God’s beloved, but to actually live as God’s beloved. And this is God’s ultimate goal. This is the good life.

Meditation for the Day

Reflect back over the past 40 days. Perhaps scan through the table of contents. Identify those points that have most struck you, that you hope to take forward with you beyond today. Make a commitment to continue to journey in the love of God, to be God’s beloved and live as God’s beloved.

Prayer for the Day

Spirit of Love, Son of God, Heavenly Father. Fill me today with an abundance of your divine love. Create opportunities for me to express your great love as I live my life today.

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[1] This is widely available on the internet. I got this from http://www.journeywithjesus.net/PoemsAndPrayers/Teresa_Of_Avila_Christ_Has_No_Body.shtml. There is also a wonderful sung version of this prayer by John Michael Talbot, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=XH8R0mmuH9U

[2] Woodhead, p. 56.

Being God’s Beloved: Day 39: The Spirit of Community

The vision that John receives of heaven is of a new community, of a place of whole and reconciled relationships, in which God dwells among the people in intimate fellowship:

Then I saw a new heaven and a new earth, for the first heaven and the first earth had passed away, and there was no longer any sea. I saw the Holy City, the new Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God, prepared as a bride beautifully dressed for her husband. And I heard a loud voice from the throne saying, “Now the dwelling of God is with men, and he will live with them. They will be his people, and God himself will be with them and be their God. He will wipe every tear from their eyes. There will be no more death or mourning or crying or pain, for the old order of things has passed away.” He who was seated on the throne said, “I am making everything new!” (Revelation 21:1-5)

Notice how John uses social metaphors and words to describe what he sees: a city, which is a place where people live together; a bridal couple, which reminds us of Genesis 2:24’s the two “will become one flesh”; dwelling together, emphasising God’s presence in the intimate places where people live; the mutual belonging, which reminds us of chesed (covenant-based loving-kindness); and the passing away of suffering. John’s vision of heaven is a vision of a community!

Right near the end of Revelation we have the great invitation: “The Spirit and the bride say, ‘Come!’ And let him who hears say, ‘Come!’ Whoever is thirsty, let him come; and whoever wishes, let him take the free gift of the water of life” (Revelation 22:17). Spirit is present with the Father and the Son in inviting us to this great banquet, the heavenly wedding feast, where God sets all things right. This is the future glory that we mentioned yesterday, when we reflected on groaning and hoping in Romans 8.

Paul had a good sense of this Holy City. And he understood that living in the Kingdom of God today means that we should experience some of what was revealed to John. The Holy City has not yet come – we continue to hope and persist until that great and glorious day – but we can and should experience at least some of it today. An appetiser. A foretaste of what is yet to come.

Paul writes most clearly about this in 1 Corinthians, where he speaks into a Christian community that did not look much like a Christian community. The Corinthian church did not embody what John saw in the Holy City, and Paul writes to help them actualise that vision. 1 Corinthians 12 and 13 are particularly illuminating for us, because here Paul writes about Holy Spirit and about love – the two themes that are central to our last reflections in Being God’s Beloved.

1 Corinthians 12 opens with, “Now about spiritual gifts, brothers, I do not want you to be ignorant.” Apparently, the Corinthians were, in fact, ignorant! Paul wants to set them right. The rest of chapter 12 speaks to the topic of spiritual gifts – wisdom, knowledge, faith, healing, miracles, prophecy, discernment, tongues and interpretation of tongues. This is one of the key lists of spiritual gifts in the New Testament.

It is clear from reading 1 Corinthians that these gifts were being exercised by the Corinthian Christians. However, it seems that they had misunderstood the purpose of these gifts. They were using them as status symbols, to raise their own egos and to boast their spiritual greatness. Paul needs to set things right. He makes five important points.

First, Paul emphasises the triunity of God, as the theological starting point for understanding gifts in the Christian community: “There are different kinds of gifts, but the same Spirit. There are different kinds of service, but the same Lord [Christ]. There are different kinds of working, but the same God [Father] works all of them in all men” (1 Corinthians 12:4-6). He writes this to emphasise at least three points:

  1. All spiritual gifts come from God, not from ourselves, as gifts of God. We must remember the origin of all things and the privilege of receiving them.
  2. All three persons of the trinity cooperate in the work of God. The triune God operates as a community – egalitarian, harmonious, in fellowship, sharing, as a partnership. So too should the church.
  3. The diversity of gifts come from the unity of the triune God. As much as there are many different kinds of gifts, they all come from the one God with one purpose.

Second, Paul reminds us of the purpose of the gifts: “Now to each one the manifestation of the Spirit is given for the common good” (1 Corinthians 12:7). Gifts are not for ourselves. They are for the community, and for the good of the community as a whole, as a collective. This is a sobering reminder that we, like Christ, are called to serve: gifted for others, not for ourselves.

Third, Paul emphasises that it is Spirit who distributes the gifts according to his own judgement of who needs what: “All these are the work of one and the same Spirit, and he gives them to each one, just as he determines” (1 Corinthians 12:11). Gifts are not a free for all. Gifts are not given just because we want them. Rather, Holy Spirit assesses what gifts are required and who requires them, and dispenses them according to his own good judgement.

Fourth, Paul writes at length about the church as a body, having many parts, each with their own unique and invaluable functions, but operating as a unity with a common goal: “The body is a unit, though it is made up of many parts; and though all its parts are many, they form one body. So it is with Christ” (1 Corinthians 12:12). This metaphor of the church as the Body of Christ is one of Paul’s great and profoundly insightful contributions to Christian faith and life. Every part of the body, even the “unpresentable” parts, has a vital role and place in the body. The body cannot operate without every part.

This is model of unity in diversity. It is a model of the trinity! As much as God is three-in-one, and as much as a married couple is two-in-one, the church is many-in-one. This theme echoes throughout the pages of scriptures. It is part of God’s eternal plan and vision that we should be diverse individuals united by a common purpose. And so Paul writes, “But in fact God has arranged the parts in the body, every one of them, just as he wanted them to be” (1 Corinthians 12:18). This is God’s vision because this is how God is: three-in-one.

Fifth, in the very next passage, we get the very well-known passage on love: “Love is patient, love is kind. It does not envy, it does not boast, it is not proud” (1 Corinthians 13:4). We hear this so often at weddings that we often think that Paul is here writing about marriage. But while this certainly speaks meaningfully to marriages, in fact, Paul is here writing about the church!

He opens this chapter with the words, “And now I will show you the most excellent way” (1 Corinthians 12:31). In a church where so many people are chasing after gifts, Paul seeks to remind the Corinthians that there is a much more important path to follow – the path of love. Half of chapter 13 says that gifts without love is worse than useless. The other half emphasises that gifts will pass away, but love never fails. Rather than chasing after gifts, we should chase after love. Rather than chasing after the gifts of the Spirit, we chase after Spirit himself. Rather than chasing after personal ambition, we should chase after loving relationships.

What we really need, says Paul, is the Spirit of Love. If we have him, then we have first prize. Second and third prizes go to faith and hope. But Love is the greatest prize. Love is the thing we should strive after more than anything else. Once we have Love, everything else will fall into place, including spiritual gifts.

Paul’s vision for the church is a community in which love is central, binding together diverse individuals into a united body, centred on Christ and enabled by Holy Spirit. This is also John’s vision of the Holy City. And this is also a vision of the triune God. This is what Spirit is so good at – bringing unity in diversity, cultivating loving fellowship, building communities. We really cannot do it in our own strength. But with Spirit, the Spirit of Love, it becomes possible.

Meditation for the Day

What are things like in your church or your home group? Is it a community that resembles the Trinity? If not, why not? What can you do to form the kind of Christian community that Paul and John write about?

Prayer for the Day

Spirit of Love, Spirit of Fellowship. Work among the members of my church to build us into a community that reflects the love and unity that we see in the triune God.

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