John the Baptist is the one who prepares the world for the first coming of Christ, some 2,000 years ago. We, today, follow in his footsteps in continuing to prepare the world to receive Christ when he comes again. The world we live in now continues to grapple with many challenges.
Currently, we think of those many who have died of Covid-10: in South Africa, since the start of the pandemic, some 102 000 people have died, amounting to an average of about 102 per day since March 2020.
We continue to grapple with HIV and AIDS: 14% of South Africans are living with HIV or Aids, an average of about one in seven people.
We continue to see high Aids-related death rates: 86 000 this year alone, an average of 235 deaths per day – and the death rates have been rising over the past five years.
And gender-based violence remains a scourge of our society, with an average 115 women raped every day this year – a total of 45 000 so far this year.
It is into this broken and wounded world that we prepare for the coming of Christ. How do we do this? What are the guidelines we’re given in the scriptures set for today?
Matthew 3:1-12 presents John’s call to repentance, confession and baptism. He strongly confronts the religious leaders of his day: “You brood of vipers!” His words are confrontational and damning. He calls them to produce the fruit of repentance – it is one thing to repent, and another to demonstrate that repentance in your behaviour – the fruit. And he warns, all very challengingly, that if they fail to do so, they will be chopped down like an unproductive tree, or burned up in the fire, like the chaff from winnowing.
The story of John’s ministry in Mark’s gospel is a little softer: there he speaks of a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins. Matthew doesn’t make any mention of forgiveness. And Luke’s version incorporates both what Matthew and what Mark say. (And John provides a quite different version altogether.)
John, then, sets a pattern for us that is both encouraging and challenging. But what else can we learn from today’s readings about preparing the world for Christ?
Isaiah 11 presents a prophecy of the branch that will come from Jesse – King David’s father and, many generations later, forefather of Jesus. This passage opens with a repeated emphasis on the Spirit: “The Spirit of the LORD will rest on him— the Spirit of wisdom and of understanding, the Spirit of counsel and of might, the Spirit of the knowledge and fear of the LORD” (Isaiah 11:2). Clearly, we cannot do anything without the enabling of the Spirit of God.
And in the following verses, Isaiah emphasises God’s concern for those who are vulnerable: “He will not judge by what he sees with his eyes, or decide by what he hears with his ears; but with righteousness he will judge the needy, with justice he will give decisions for the poor of the earth” (Isaiah 11:3-4). Righteousness and justice are the keywords here.
And this is followed by the imagery of wolves, leopards and lions living in harmony with lambs, goats and yearlings, under the leadership of children (Isaiah 11:6). This is the kind of egalitarian and harmonious society that we are called to bring into being as we prepare for Christ’s return.
Psalm 72 continues some of these themes from Isaiah, notably God’s defence of the poor, vulnerable, needy, marginalised, silenced and outcast: “May he defend the afflicted among the people and save the children of the needy; may he crush the oppressor” (Psalm 72:4). Here we see God taking sides – he aligns with the poor and against the oppressor. God is not neutral – he sides with those who are vulnerable. The Psalmist goes on, “For he will deliver the needy who cry out, the afflicted who have no one to help. He will take pity on the weak and the needy and save the needy from death. He will rescue them from oppression and violence, for precious is their blood in his sight” (Psalm 72:12-14). In those days, life was in the blood, so when the Psalmist says, “precious is their blood in his sight”, s/he is in effect saying that God sees their lives as precious and worthy of protection. Theologians call this “God’s option for the poor” or “God’s preference for the poor”.
When we wonder where we should stand on things, the Biblical answer is unequivocal – stand with those who are vulnerable. That is always where we will find God. And that is where we should be found.
Romans 15 invites us to take on the attitude of Christ: “May the God who gives endurance and encouragement give you the same attitude of mind toward each other that Christ Jesus had, so that with one mind and one voice you may glorify the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ. Accept one another, then, just as Christ accepted you, in order to bring praise to God” (Romans 15:5-7). The result of thinking like Christ, is that we will accept one another – here again is a call to inclusivity and now also being non-judgmental. Indeed, in the previous chapter, Paul explicitly tells us to stop judging others: “Therefore let us stop passing judgment on one another. Instead, make up your mind not to put any stumbling block or obstacle in the way of a brother or sister” (Romans 14:13). This was in the context of conflicts of various dietary laws of the diverse group of Jewish and Gentile Christians. But regardless of the topic of conflict, the principles remain: accept and do not judge. Be tolerant and inclusive. Celebrate diversity.
As we strive to be Christians who, like John the Baptist, are preparing the way for Christ’s return, we need to take up the examples we are given in the Scriptures: honest words, an invitation to repent and receive forgiveness, the presence of the Spirit, values of righteousness and justice, an option for the ‘poor’, and acceptance and tolerance. These constitute the mind of Christ. And as we embody and live out Christ’s mind, we will be preparing the world for his return.
Today we celebrated All Souls, also known as the Commemoration of the Faithful Departed. In fact, it should be celebrated on 2 November, but we moved it today, since it’s Sunday. It is the day on which remember all those whom we have loved and lost – parent, family, friends, and others who have died. Later in the service we came up to light candles to remember and appreciate them.
Strictly, the ‘faithful departed’ mean those who died in the faith. But what about those who died outside the faith? What happens to them? And, indeed, what happens to the faithful departed? In this message, I try to explain the main teachings in the scriptures about what happens to us after we die. The truth is that the Bible presents rather mixed and even contradictory accounts of this, which can leave us a bit confused. Perhaps because no-one who has died, has come back to explain what happens. But what we can rely on in all this, is the grace and love of God, whose heart is open to humanity.
Psalm 130: 3-4 says, “If you, Lord, kept a record of sins, Lord, who could stand? But with you there is forgiveness , so that we can, with reverence, serve you.” And late, the same Psalm encourages us to “put your hope in the Lord, for with the lord is unfailing love and with him is full redemption”.
So, what happens to those die in the faith?
There are some verses that say our spirit goes immediately into the presence of God. Luke 23 tells of Jesus hanging on cross and saying to the one criminal hanging next to him, “Truly I tell you, today you will be with me in paradise.” Today means today – not sometime in the future, but this very day. 2 Corinthians 5:8 is also thought to say that we transition immediately into the presence of God.
But other passages suggest we go to sleep for a period, until the last day. 1 Thessalonians 4:13-15 speaks three times about believers who were asleep – all those who died before Christ’s second coming would remain asleep, until he returned and woke them up with a the trumpet call of God.
Either way, it seems that our bodies will be resurrected only on the last day, when Christ returns – the second coming. Whether you’ve been cremated, or long buried and decomposed, or recently buried, God seems able to raise up our bodies. 1 Thessalonians 4:16 speaks about this, as well as several other passages about the resurrection, e.g., 1 Corinthians 15:12-58.
And will the faithful departed then be judged? John 5:24 and 29 say ‘no’: “Very truly I tell you, whoever hears my word and believes him who sent me has eternal life and will not be judged, but has crossed from death to life … Those who have what is good will rise to live”. But 2 Corinthians 5:9-10 say ‘yes’: “So we make it our goal to please [God], whether we are home in the body or away from it. For we must all appear before the judgement seat of Christ, so that each of us may receive what is due to us for the things done while in the body, whether good or bad.”
It’s all a bit confusing! Although we may not know the specifics of the mechanisms of what happens after we die, we can surely rest assured that we will experience the love, grace and forgiveness of God.
And what, then, about those who die without faith in Christ? What happens to them?
In John 3:36, Jesus is pretty blunt: “Whoever rejects the Son will not see life, for God’s wrath remains on them.”
And John 5:29 reinforces this: “Those who have done what is evil will rise to be condemned.”
Again, in Luke 13:27, Jesus speaks about the narrow gate through which few will get, and the door closing and the owner saying, “I don’t know you! Away from me!”
It seems then that there is no hope for the ‘unfaithful’ departed. But, we must remember the repeated messages through the entire Bible about God’s great, extravagant and all-embracing love. This gives us hope, that maybe somehow God will find a way to win over the hearts of all or at least many people who died outside of faith.
For example, Lamentation 3:31-33 says, “For no-one is cast off by the Lord for ever. Though he brings grief, he will show compassion, so great is his unfailing love. For he does not willingly bring affliction or grief to anyone.” This points us to the heart of God, which seeks good for every person.
Col 1:17-20 also speaks of God’s desire to save every person: “He is before all things, and in him all things hold together. And he is the head of the body, the church; he is the beginning and the firstborn from among the dead, so that in everything he might have the supremacy. For God was pleased to have all his fullness dwell in him, and through him to reconcile to himself all things, whether things on earth or things in heaven, by making peace through his blood, shed on the cross.”
And similarly in Ephesians 1:9-10 tells us that the mystery of God’s will is “to bring unity to all things iun heave and on earth under Christ”.
Since Christ died for the sins of the whole world, and not just for the sins of the faithful, universal salvation is at least a possibility. God’s love is radically inclusive, not exclusionary, and so there is the possibility that all could be saved. But God does not force himself on people – we have the right reject God. But it is perhaps hard to imagine unbelievers encountering the God of love face to face and denying his existence or rejecting his offer of a relationship. His love is almost irresitable.
And so, we try to win over those who do not believe, through our witness, our words and our prayers. And we continue to pray for those who have died outside the faith, that God will make a way for them to find salvation. We don’t have to understand how – that’s God’s business. But we can pray and hope and trust in the expansive and extravagant love of God.
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.
One of the hardest responses of God for us to handle is God’s disappointment with us. It is somehow easier to accept God being angry with us when we mess up. But when God is disappointed and feels let down by us, that’s hard to handle.
Jeremiah 2:4-13 reflects this disappointment. God had brought the people of Israel out of generations of slavery in Egypt, across the Red Sea, through the desert and into the promised land. But they seemed ungrateful and discontent. God says,
I brought you into a fertile land to eat its fruit and rich produce. But you came and defiled my land and made my inheritance detestable. The priests did not ask, ‘Where is the LORD?’ Those who deal with the law did not know me.
And so God continues:
My people have committed two sins: They have forsaken me, the spring of living water, and have dug their own cisterns, broken cisterns that cannot hold water.
God gives his people such a precious gift – freedom, a land of their own, a God who loves them – but they turn away from this God and seek to dig their own cisterns. They have at their disposal the water of life, which God offers, but they spurn it for fractured cisterns of their own.
Psalm 81 provides a similar sentiment. God reminds his people of what he has done for them and of his generosity:
I am the Lord your God, who brought you up out of Egypt. Open wide your mouth and I will fill it.
This image of God filling our wide-open mouths, like baby birds, is so evocative of the generosity and willingness of God to take care of us. But, alas, his people are not interested:
But my people would not listen to me; So I gave them over to their stubborn hearts to follow their own devices. … If my people would only listen to me, if Israel would only follow my ways, … you would be fed with the finest of wheat; with honey from the rock I would satisfy you.
Here again, there is a stubbornness in the people of Israel to follow their own ways, to spurn the God who had already demonstrated himself to be faithful, and as a result to lose out on all the good things God had in store for them.
One of the ways that we let God down is through neglecting our marriages (or other intimate relationships). Hebrews 13:4 says,
Marriage should be honoured by all, and the marriage bed kept pure.
Marriage is of central importance because, as we read in Genesis 1:27-28, God created a couple, not an individual. And it is this couple who is created in the Image of God. We thus most closely reflect the character and nature of God, when we have good, healthy, mutual, respectful relations with our partner or spouse. Marriage is a great gift from God – the first gift given to humanity, according to Genesis.
Yet, we so easily squander and waste it, as the people of Israel did in their relationship with God in Jeremiah 2 and Psalm 81. I am dismayed at the numbers of Christian couples whose marriages are broken, damaged, abandoned. When we neglect, belittle, criticise, abandon, assault, betray or in other ways harm our partner, we are profoundly harming our relationship with God and desecrating a sacred thing that he has entrusted to us.
Marriage is not easy – it takes work and often we may fail. But let us hold central and sacred this most precious gift and make every effort to make things work. Let us not throw in the towel easily and head for divorce or separation. Let us invest our everything to make this gift of God something that God can be proud of.
In our Gospel reading for today (Luke 13:10-17) we read a less familiar story about Jesus healing a woman who has been crippled – bent over double – for 18 years. He heals of her on the Sabbath, and for that he (and all those present) are reprimanded for seeking healing on the Sabbath. Come on any of the other six days of the week for healing, the synagogue leader says, but not on the Sabbath.
Jesus then compares the situation of his healing of this woman, with helping an oxen. He says,
“You hypocrites! Doesn’t each of you on the Sabbath untie your ox or donkey from the stall and lead it out to give it water? Then should not this woman, …whom Satan has kept bound for eighteen long years, be set free on the Sabbath day from what bound her?”
Jesus here is calling out the synagogue leader for his deep patriarchy, even misogyny. Because he regards a donkey as more important than a woman. The church has a long history of supporting patriarchy. Even in our Bible, there are numerous patriarchal passages. And the church too often upholds patriarch – that women are less than, less than men, less than human. Even women contribute to patriarchy. Research in South Africa by a colleague of mine (Prof Shahana Rasool) shows that women (mothers and aunts) are often the first person to tell a battered woman to return to her abusive husband. So, while today’s message is in many ways particularly for men to take up, it is indeed for all of us.
In this passage in Luke, we see Jesus doing five transformational anti-patriarchal things in these few verses (vv12-13, 16):
He sees her – he picks her out among the crowds, recognises her as a human in need.
He calls her – in the synagogues then, men and women were kept separate, like in orthodox synagogues today – he calls across the synagogue and calls her to him
He speaks with her – he speaks words of healing to her: “Women you are set free from your infirmity”
He lays his hands on her – he doesn’t merely touch her politely on the shoulder. He “put his hands on her” – almost unthinkable in those days.
He affirms her – and then later he refers to her as a “woman, a daughter of Abraham”.
These five acts set for us an example of recognising the full humanity, and indeed, the divine createdness of women. There is absolutely no space here for patriarchy, and even less for misogyny. Jesus see her as a unique and individual daughter of God, a person in need, who is as deserving of the ministrations of God as any one else.
Indeed, we find narratives like this throughout the scriptures. Many women and some men have given up on the Bible, because it is so saturated in patriarchy; and unfortunately, this is true. I struggle with it myself, constantly. But, when we read the Bible closely, in the context of its own time, we find that the Bible frequently challenges deeply held cultural beliefs about the relationships between men and women, and about the the status and place of women in God’s plan. Scripture is, in many ways, countercultural when it comes to patriarchy. And these challenges seem as relevant today as they were thousands of years ago.
Four quick examples – two in Genesis and two in John:
In Genesis 1:27-28, the writer describes the creation of humanity – God created man in his image, male and female he created them, in the image of God he created them. Both are fully created in God’s image. It is not that man is in God’s image, and woman is in man’s image. No! Both man and woman derive their image directly from God. And then God goes on to mandate both of them (not just the man) to rule over earth, its plants and animals – both of them! There is nothing that says Adam should rule over Eve – no! Both of them are equally commissioned with the authority of God to jointly rule over the world. This is how God created humanity! Yet, so many churches teach something different about the differential authority of women and men. It does not exist here in Genesis 1!
Two chapters later, in Genesis 3:16, we read the story of the fall of humanity. Both Adam and Even eat of the Tree of Life – both sinned. And God pronounces consequences of their sin on each of them. One of the consequences for the woman is that her husband “will rule over you”. There are Christians today who argue that this rule of husbands over wives is God’s plan for how gender relations are to be structured following the fall. Honestly, this is absolute rubbish! A consequence of the fall of humanity is patriarchy. It is not God’s desire for humanity. If it were, then all men should be out toiling in the fields to produce crops by the sweat of their their brow, because this is a consequence God gives to the man in v18. Yes, men are not doing that – they have invented machines to do it for them, or hired migrant labourers to work on their behalf for nearly nothing. Singling out this ONE facet of the fall, from all of the others, and raising it up to God’s plan for humankind post-fall, is a clear sign of patriarchy, and indeed of misogyny. It is NOT God’s desire! Indeed, Christ’s mission is to undo the effects of the Fall, including patriarchy, not to reinforce them!
Let’s move to John’s Gospel. Jesus meets the Samaritan woman at the well on a very hot day (John 4:1-42). Knowing who she is – Samaritan, not Jewish; a woman of ill repute – Jesus engages with her in a deep theological conversation. They don’t talk about baking or raising children. They talk about complex matters of faith. And she becomes the first female evangelist, as she returns to her community to tell them all about this man she had met. Jesus engages with her as a human being; not as a woman per se. Her gender, and the social norms around the relationship between men and women, are completely irrelevant to Jesus – he simply walks over them. Patriarchy is no barrier!
Lastly, let’s look at John 8:1-11, the story of the woman caught in adultery. The male religious leaders bring the woman to Jesus and ask Jesus what they should do, in accordance with the Law. Note that the man is no where to be found! It’s takes at least two to commit adultery – but where is he? They say, “This woman was caught in the act of adultery”, meaning they were were caught in the act of having sex. So he was there having sex with her; where is he now? And Leviticus instructs that both the man and the woman must be stoned – not just the woman. In this highly hostile context, Jesus kneels down and doodles in the sand. I imagine that in response, all the men shift their focus from the woman to what Jesus is doing. In so doing, he redirects the ‘male gaze‘ away from her and towards himself. He spares her the shame and humiliation of this gang of men staring at her. He champions her dignity as a human being, as a child of God. And then he challenges the men, and of course they must go. And then, at the end, he holds her accountable for her sin – she really had sinned, she has the capacity and agency to make both bad and good choices – and he forgives her and sends her off to choose to sin no more. But in the process, he has dismantled the deep patriarchy and misogyny that was at work in this narrative.
There is a great deal of patriarch in the Bible – the Bible was written in patriarchal times, mostly or perhaps entirely by men. We live today in patriarchal times. Our world is full of domestic violence (physical and verbal); of women getting passed over for promotion in favour of men; of the ways men silence, dismiss and diminish women; of the brutal rape of women and girl children; and of the exclusion of women from leadership in the church. There is certainly a lot of patriarchy in the Bible and in our church.
But there is no patriarchy in Jesus. No patriarchy in God. Our Triune God celebrates the full humanity of both men and women, and all gender fluid and nonbinary people. Jesus saw her, he called her, he spoke words of healing over her, he laid his hands on her and he celebrated her as a daughter of Abraham. How much must we follow in his footsteps.
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 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 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.
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.
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.
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**:
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!
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.
Today we celebrate and remember Jesus’ transfiguration, where he revealed his divine glory to Peter, James and John on the mountain top (Luke 9:28-36). We must remember that this moment was a transfiguration, not a transformation. A transformation implies that Jesus changes form, e.g., from ordinary human to divine being. But this not how we understand what happened on that mountain – there is no change of ‘form’ as if there are two Jesuses – one human and one divine. Instead, what changes is the ordering or configuration of Jesus – his divinity has been inside him since his conception. It was just set behind his humanity – what changed is the order what we see: his divinity comes to the fore for that short time. Hence, it is a transfiguration.
We have heard many sermons about what happens on the mountain and response of the disciples. I don’t want to repeat that today. Instead, I’d invite us to reflect on what it means for us, for our daily lives as Christians.
2 Corinthians 3:3-18 speaks of this event and contrasts it with the similar glory that Moses displayed after he had met with God on Mount Sinai (Exodus 34:29-35). Surely, the glory that Moses radiated was impressive. But Paul’s emphasizes that Moses’ glory was based in the old Covenant of the Law, which was written on tablets of stone, which was transient and which had now passed away. Instead, the glory in Paul’s time was based in the new Covenant of Christ and the Spirit of God, which are enduring and which are so much more glorious.
Paul goes on to emphasize that while Moses covered his face, because God’s glory that radiated off him made people afraid, we go around with our faces uncovered. He encourages us to be bold and let God’s glory be seen for what it is. And this glory is transformational (now this is the right word to use), in that it changes us from the inside out, into the image of Christ.
So, let’s cycle back to the question asked: What does the transfiguration mean for us, for our daily lives as Christians? Most importantly, we are urged to accept that the glory of God – through Christ and through Holy Spirit – resides within us. We might not feel it and we may not adequately reflect it in life; but it is a true reality. Put your hand on your chest and press it a bit – here is where the glory of God resides – within us, in our heart, as Paul writes, “written with the Spirit of the living God on tablets of human hearts” (2 Cor 3:3). And, so where we are, the glory of God is.
And this truth, even if we don’t embody it very well, can inspire us to be bold, to be holy and to be compassionate.
I am fortunate to belong to a church named after a great figure in the early church – St Stephen. He was one of the first second-generation leaders in the church (meaning people who came after Jesus’ ascension). Stephen fills up two chapters of Acts (chapters 6 & 7). The first person to become a leader after the first disciples was Matthias, who replaced Judas as the 12th disciple (Acts 1:23-26) – Matthias is not mentioned anywhere else in our Bible. Next, were seven deacons, who were appointed in Acts 6:5-6. Stephen is one of these seven, and the only to be discussed in any detail. Saul (who later becomes Paul) is introduced right at the end of the story about Stephen, as being present at Stephen’s stoning (Acts 7:58).
Stephen is described in some detail in the first verses of Acts 6, as being full of faith, full of the Holy Spirit, full of God’s grace, full of wisdom and full of power. He is also described as having “the face of an angel” (which might refer to a look of power and authority, more than pale cherub-like skin).
Stephen’s primary role as deacon was to take care of the widows in the early church. But he is described also as performing great signs and wonders and teaching authoritatively (as we see in his 50-verse sermon in Acts 7). Stephen was the first follower of Christ to die for his faith – the first Christian martyr. And he demonstrated his profound faith while being stoned to death and, like Jesus, forgave his murderers as he died. In many ways, Stephen exemplifies what Jesus says to his disciples in Matthew 10:17-22: “You will be hated by everyone because of me, but the one who stands firm to the end will be saved.”
While we are primarily followers of Christ, we are also all followers of St Stephen, particularly in the following ways:
We should strive to be filled with the Spirit – filled with God – in the same way that Stephen was. He was saturated with power, grace and faith through the Spirit. Perhaps, before we even climb out of bed, we should ask God to fill us anew every morning.
We should care for others, both within and without the church. Stephen’s primary role was to take care of those who were struggling. His calling was to serve the poor and vulnerable, hence we call him a ‘deacon’ (a servant). We similarly should be always alert to the opportunities to serve and care.
We should be public about our faith. This does not mean forcing our beliefs or values on others, nor necessarily about preaching on street corners. But it does mean that people should know that we are followers of Christ – Christians – and that they should know this not only by what we say but also by what we do. Our lived lives should exemplify the values that Jesus showed during his earthly ministry.
We should be steadfast in our faith, even under pressure. There is a saying, “The true flavour of a teabag only comes out in hot water.” Similarly, our faith is really revealed and proven when we go through hard times. In Stephen’s most pressured moment, he forgave, like Jesus forgave. He turned his eyes towards God and entrusted himself into God’s care.
What a great privilege it is to be a follower not only of Christ, but also of Stephen. His life reflects many of the qualities of Jesus that we appreciate and that we should emulate.
Today we read Jesus’ instruction to his disciples on how to pray (Luke 11:1-13). It is a rich and invaluable teaching. Prayer is not easy for many of us, and Jesus’ template for prayer is worth using. Today, we focus on two words from the Lord’s prayer: “Father” and “daily”.
Jesus starts his prayer with “Father”. Not “Our Father”. It is an indicating of his intimacy with God the Father, and the invitation to us to be similarly intimate and close with God. It also speaks of an informality that we can have in our communication with God. We’ve not all have good experiences of fathering – referring to God as our ‘Father’ might not be comforting for everyone. But in this passage, Jesus emphasises the goodness of Father God.
In Luke 11:11-13, Jesus describes God as a good parent, who gives his children good things. He reminds us that even if we did not have good fathering and even if we (who are fathers) are not good fathers, we all have a mental picture of a ‘good and loving father’. We many not have experienced it ourselves, but what we do know what it is. Jesus emphasises in this passage that God lives us to our ideal of good fathering.
Colossians 2:13-14, another of today’s readings, also emphasises the good God, who takes away our sin, who wipes us clean, who accepts us in love.
And even in Genesis 18:23-25, also one of today’s readings, we see Abraham reminding God of who God is – righteous, loving, forgiving, patient, tolerant.
God is a good parent and we are invited to be intimate and informal with God in our prayer.
In Luke 11:3, Jesus prays, “Give us each day our daily bread”. We are encouraged to bring our every day needs to God – our need for bread, a staple of life. God is not interested only in big challenges and global issues; God is also interested in the daily struggles of life. We are invited to bring everything to God.
We’re also invited to come to God every day in prayer. This verse uses ‘day’ or ‘daily’ twice. The bread we ask for is daily bread. We do not buy it in bulk for the month – we buy it fresh each day – it is daily bread. And we come every day (‘give us this day’ or ‘give us each day’) to God to receive it. God invites to come daily to God to pray for today’s needs.
Later in this passage (Luke 11:9-10), Jesus invites to ask, to seek and to knock. He reassures us that we we do so, we will receive and find and the door will be opened. Although we have all had experiences of prayers not answered, Jesus encourages us to continue asking, seeking and knocking. We don’t need to be shy in coming to God with our needs.
Luke 11:5-8 also tells the story of a man who comes to his neighbour in the middle of the night asking to borrow some bread, as he has unexpected visitors. His neighbour is not interested in getting up so late at night to give him bread. But Jesus tells us that the persistence of the man will eventually get his neighbour out of bed. He encourages us to persist in prayer. My NIV uses the phrase “shameless audacity” to describe this persistence – just keep on knocking and knocking, keep engaging with God.
We see this shameless audacity in Abraham in Genesis 18:26-33, as he haggles with God for mercy on the people of Sodom. He starts with 50 righteous or innocent people, and negotiates God down to just 10. Actually, Abraham shows a great deal of trepidation and caution, as he recognises he’s bargaining with the Creator. But he persists and is indeed audacious in the way he negotiates with God for mercy.
Engaging the Father daily
In many ways, this is the crux of our readings for today. God wants us to engage with him, persistently, shamelessly, audaciously. He is our Father – it gives him joy when we engage him. And he invites and encourages us to come daily into his presence. There is nothing too big or too small, too shameful and terrible to bring to God. He is the good parent who loves to engage with us.
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.