We live in a world that seems to be increasingly self-centred, selfish, self-serving, self-obsessed. A world that seems often harsh, intolerant, judgmental, hostile and exclusionary. We are seeing a growth in nationalism – people putting their country’s needs first and subordinating or even rejecting the needs of the global community. Perhaps the world has always been this way. But it seems to me to be a growing trend over the past several years.
What do we as Christians do in such context?
When we want to know how to be behave in the world, the best place to go is to the Gospel narratives, to see how Jesus behaved. And to hear how Jesus spoke – not just his teachings, but what he said to people informally and how he spoke to and engaged with people.
In Matthew 15 we find the story of Jesus feeding the four thousand with a few fish and loaves of bread. The story starts with Jesus healing people of a wide array of afflictions, leaving the crowds amazed. But in the middle of this story is a profound verse that ties the entire story together:
Jesus called his disciples to him and said, “I have compassion for these people; they have already been with me three days and have nothing to eat. I do not want to send them away hungry, or they may collapse on the way.”
What we see here in Jesus is kindness. He is kind. We could say ‘compassionate’ and that would be correct. But ‘kind’ is a much simpler, shorter word. It is the word a child is likely to use.
If we scan through the pages of the Gospels, we will see more and more examples of Jesus being kind. He is thoughtful, considerate, sensitive, responsive, engaged, attentive, slow, open, willing, touchy, generous. in a word: kind.
Psalm 23 is also a set reading for today: The Lord is my shepherd. The shepherd also is kind. Indeed, there are numerous passages in the first and second testaments about shepherds who care for and protect their sheep, who seek lost sheep, who bind up and heal injured sheep, who fight off wild animals. These images of shepherding are images of kindness.
Today is the first Sunday in Advent, a season in which we look forward to the coming of Christ into the world – historically 2,000 years ago (which we celebrate at Christmas), in this very moment (Christ is continually coming into the world) and one day in the near or distant future (when Christ comes again). Today we reflect on the last of these – Jesus’ second coming.
Our reading is Isaiah 64:1-9, which opens with these powerful words, “Oh, that you would rend the heavens and come down!” While this sounds like a joyful call for Christ to return, the passage is filled with caution and a call for critical self-reflection.
Let me summarise the flow of thought. Initially, there is a call for Christ to come down, to make the mountains tremble, to set fire to the world, to cause the nations to quake and to make his name known to his enemies. This passage seems to work from the assumption that there are clear enemies of God, and implicitly that we are in the right:
Oh, that you would rend the heavens and come down, that the mountains would tremble before you! As when fire sets twigs ablaze and causes water to boil, come down to make your name known to your enemies and cause the nations to quake before you! For when you did awesome things that we did not expect, you came down, and the mountains trembled before you. (Isaiah 64:1-3)
Second, there is a similarly smug and self-satisfied view that God is inevitably on our side – that we are right, and everyone else is wrong, because we wait for Christ, we gladly do right, and we remember his ways. There is a complacency that we are right and thus God is for us – a complacency that easy slides into arrogance – an arrogance that easily slides into hatred and judgement of everyone else:
Since ancient times no-one has heard, no ear has perceived, no eye has seen any God besides you, who acts on behalf of those who wait for him. You come to the help of those who gladly do right, who remember your ways. (Isaiah 64:4-5a)
But third, it seems that Isaiah pauses and reflects. He becomes self-critical, as he writes, “But…” That ‘but’ initiates a series of recognitions that there is little difference between ‘us’ and ‘them’. He faces up to our continued sin, our uncleanness, that even the best we do is like filthy rags, that we are shrivelled like a leaf, that the wind of our sins will sweep us away, and that we neglect to call on God’s name or to strive towards him. Isaiah recognises that, as a result, God hides his face from us and gives us over to our sin. And so he says, “How then can we be saved?”:
But when we continued to sin against them, you were angry. How then can we be saved? All of us have become like one who is unclean, and all our righteous acts are like filthy rags; we all shrivel up like a leaf, and like the wind our sins sweep us away. No-one calls on your name or strives to lay hold of you; for you have hidden your face from us and have given us over to our sins. (Isaiah 64:5b-7)
And then, out of this stepping down, stepping back, looking within, critically self-reflecting, challenging himself and his religious community, Isaiah comes to some important realisations. He starts the next passage with, “Yet”, signalling that he has recognised something new. He discovers afresh that God is our father and we all are his children. That God is the potter and we are but clay in his hands. That God is merciful and does not store up anger against his children. That God sees us as we pray. And that we all are God’s people, all the work of his hand.
This last line is perhaps the most the important of all – having started by dividing the world into right and wrong, good and bad, saved and lost; and then realising that we also are wrong, bad and lost – he realises that God is for everyone. God desires to save everyone. God longs to reconcile with all of us. And that we can be reconciled only through the work of Christ, not by us being ‘more right’ than anyone else:
Yet you, LORD, are our Father. We are the clay, you are the potter; we are all the work of your hand. Do not be angry beyond measure, LORD; do not remember our sins for ever. Oh, look upon us we pray, for we are all your people. (Isaiah 64:8-9)
As much as we long for Christ to return – for the rending of the heavens and the coming down of Christ – let us recognise that we are little different from anyone else. We are as dependent on Christ for our salvation as anyone else, because we are as sinful as anyone else. That when we become smug about our salvation or about how spiritual or righteous we think we are, we are actually moving away from God, not towards him.
And so let us be cautious, humble, critically self-reflective and watchful. As Jesus says at the end of Mark 13:24-37,
There are many valid reasons for us to feel depressed and discouraged this year. Covid has had many negative impacts on our lives – on our freedom, our health, our ability to move around. We may have lost people to Covid. Our own health may have suffered. We may have lost our jobs or income Research has shown significant increases in mental ill health this year.
But the scriptures repeatedly exhort us to express thanksgiving, gratitude and joy. We could say that the Bible encourages an attitude of gratitude. Actually, neuroscience is showing that expressing gratitude or thankfulness really does have direct impacts on our brain chemistry, facilitating well-being and happiness. And these effects can be sustained over months – it is not just a quick fix. Read this article from the Greater Good Magazine about how gratitude changes your brain.
Rejoice always, pray continually, give thanks in all circumstances; for this is God’s will for you in Christ Jesus.
The last phrase about God’s will refers not to our circumstances, but rather to our continual rejoicing and prayer. It is God’s will for us in Christ Jesus that we should always rejoice and continually pray. That we should adopt an attitude of gratitude!
Rejoice in the Lord always. I will say it again: Rejoice! … 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.
Paul continues to emphasise the importance of joy and giving thanks. And then goes further to encourage us to think more about the things of God. We might even say that Paul was a proponent of positive psychology or rational emotive behaviour therapy!
Gratitude is an expression of faith, because even though we might not perceive a reason to be grateful, we nevertheless express gratitude. We are grateful, even when it seems there is nothing to be grateful for. Neuroscience now helps us understand how thinking and behaving with gratitude actually changes our brain and generates feelings of well-being and happiness. And our faith helps us recognise that as we express gratitude to God, we begin to recognise God at work in us and in the world. Our perspective on life begins to shift. We begin to perceive the world from God’s perspective.
The Psalm set for today is Psalm 98. It speaks beautifully of the power of God to take care of his people, and calls us to gratitude. This translation is from the Jerusalem Bible:
Sing Yahweh a new song for he has performed marvels; his own right hand, his holy arm, gives him the power to save.
Yahweh has displayed his power; has revealed his righteousness to the nations, mindful of his love and faithfulness to the House of Israel. The most distant parts of the earth have seen the saving power of our God.
Acclaim Yahweh, all the earth, burst into shouts of joy!
Sing to Yahweh, sing to the music of harps, and to the sound of many instruments; to the sound of trumpet and horn acclaim Yahweh the King!
Let the sea thunder and all that it holds, and the world, with all who live in it; let all the rivers clap their hands and the mountains shout for joy, at the presence of Yahweh, for he comes to judge the earth, to judge the world with righteousness and the nations with strict justice.
Our primary readings for today are Matthew 25:31-46 and Ezekiel 34:1-24. Both readings focus on Christ as King – Ezekiel in the form of a prophecy and Matthew in Jesus’ own words about the return of the Son of Man. And both passages tell us the same thing about what Christ will do when he returns:
Christ will separate humanity
Christ will divide us in two groups: those on his right who will inherit eternal life and those on his left who will go away to eternal punishment. This splitting of the world into two distinct groups is hard for us to grasp and accept, but this is what the passages say.
Matthew divides the world into the sheep on Christ’s right and goats on Christ’s left. Ezekiel prophesies two further divisions. First, the sheep on the right and neglectful shepherds on the left. And second, a dividing of the sheep into the lean sheep on the right and the fat sheep on the left.
This separation that the Son of God will create leaves:
Sheep (lean/thin sheep) on the right
Goats, neglectful shepherds and fat sheep on the left
Surely, we want to be on Christ’s right!
Our passages give us clear, detailed reasons for this separation, which show that we have a great deal of control over which group we may be assigned to in future.
Matthew 25 makes it clear that the division is not based on our belief in Jesus as the Son of God, of our adherence to Christian doctrine, our participation in Church, our tithing, etc. No! Instead, the separation is based on kindness to those who are vulnerable. That’s it. Such a simple thing, it might seem. Just kindness. Compassion. Caring. The sheep who go to the right hand of Christ as those who care for the hungry, the thirsty, the naked, the ill and the imprisoned. Jesus says, “Whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers and sisters of mine, you did for me” (Mat 25:40).
Ezekiel 34’s first separation is the shepherds from the sheep. The shepherds here are the leaders of Israel. In our time, the shepherds are the pastors of the church – ministers, priests, clergy – as well as lay leaders – wardens, councillors, elders, ministry leaders. God’s charge against the shepherds was that they did not take care of their flock. They were neglectful, so that the flocks became vulnerable to wild animals. Even worse, the shepherds were eating the sheep entrusted into their care! Thus the Lord says, “I am against the shepherds and will hold them accountable for my flock” (Ez 34:10). Stated positively, the separation here is based on caring for the flock, specifically by those into whose care the flock has been placed, i.e. church leaders.
And Ezekiel 34’s second separation is a separation within the flock of sheep – the fat from the lean. This is not a commentary on body size! Instead, the fat sheep are those members of a church who inflate themselves at the expense of others. The Lord says, “You [the fat sheep] shove with flank and shoulder, butting all the weak [lean] sheep with your horns until you have driven them away” (Ez 34:21). The separation is based on bullying, criticising and breaking down each other in a church. Stated positively, the separation here is based on caring for each other within the flock.
How then do we turn to Christ’s right?
We as individuals – and we as a church community (for my congregation, it is the parish of St Stephen’s in Lyttelton) – can and should live our lives in such a way that we keep turning to Christ’s right, turning to the right, turning to Christ’s right. And we can do that on a day-to-day basis by showing kindness and compassion to those who are going through hard times, by caring for the God’s people if we hold positions of leadership in the church, and by treating each other kindly within the church community.
St James wrote only one letter that is included in our Bible – a letter to all the churches. James is not one for subtlety. He pulls no punches. He says things as he sees them. His goal is to build up the church, and he is quite willing to challenge us to do so.
So, today’s message is an “if the shoe fits” message. If what I say today fits you or your church, put on the shoe. If it doesn’t, treat it as merely an interesting teaching or pass the shoe on to someone at another church who might need it.
In chapter 4, James provides a series of cautions and advice to churches that are experiencing internal troubles. And out of that I wish to draw three words of advice:
First, examine yourself. In the opening three verses, James asks, “What causes fights and quarrels among you?” And his answer is that it is things within ourselves – our own discontent, own own illicit desires, our own wrong motives. We have to start by critically examining ourselves, looking into a mirror that does not show us as we’d like to see ourselves, but that reveals our shadow side – our inner being. In short, deal with yourself first.
Second, submit to and focus on God. In verses 7-10, James calls us to turn away from ourselves and towards God. The primary purpose of coming to church is God. Fellowship with each other is vitally important, but follows after fellowship with God. When we take our eyes off Christ, we inevitably begin to devour each other and we put our souls in peril. We are to humble ourselves before God, to submit ourselves to God – these are words that speak of our recognition of how much we need God.
Third, stop breaking each other down. In verses 11-12, James says that when we slander or speak against our sisters and brothers in the church, we are breaking the second of Jesus’ Great Commandments – love your neighbour as yourself. James asks, “But you? Who are you to judge your neighbour?” There may well be individuals in a church who are harming the church – members and leaders of the church – and of course they must be challenged on this. But James cautions about judging, slandering and breaking down our sisters and brothers, turning against one another – it is not good for the church.
We need to be part of God’s solution for the church. We do NOT want to be part of the problem, working against God’s solution for the church.
Too often in my life, and perhaps in yours also, I ask God for something, but when that prayer is answered, I don’t thank God for it. In part, this is because I don’t notice the change, I don’t see the answer. And in part, it is because I don’t connect my prayer to God’s answer – I see the change as something natural and ordinary.
Luke provides us with a narrative about answered prayer and gratitude in Luke 17:11-19. Ten lepers call out to Jesus for pity or mercy. Jesus says to them, “Go, show yourselves to the priests”. That’s all Jesus says. He doesn’t do anything or saying else. But as the lepers obey Jesus, they are cleansed. Luke writes, “As they went, they were cleansed.”
This ‘as they went’ points to the quiet, unobtrusive actions of God. Miracles can happen as we are going about our everyday life. God’s work is often not dramatic and sensational – it is quiet, ordinary and easy to miss. Indeed, it seems only one of the ten lepers recognised that he had been cleansed: “he saw he was healed”.
This one comes back to Jesus, praising God (loudly), throws himself at Jesus’ feet and gives thanks to him. This one gives thanks! Jesus says to him, “Rise and go; your faith has made you well.” Indeed, his faith and Jesus healing ability had already made him well, while he was walking to the priests.
What, then, was the benefit of gratitude in this man? And what is the benefit of gratitude for us?
Because of his gratitude, this man gets an opportunity that none of the other nine got – to spend time with Jesus, and not at a distance as they were at the start of the story, but right at his feet. He gets to speak with Jesus. He gets some one-on-one time with Jesus.
When we are grateful for God’s work in our lives, we have two opportunities to engage with God: first at the beginning when we ask for God’s help, and then again later on when we give thanks. This double time with Jesus is the greatest gift of all – far greater than the answered prayer that we experienced.
Matthew 25:1-13 tells the story of 10 young women who were waiting to meet the bridegroom. They all brought their oil lamps with them, knowing it might be a bit of a wait, but only half of them had the sense to bring extra oil. They all fell asleep waiting, but when the groom arrived, they woke up. The five without extra oil realised that their lamps were going to go out soon and asked the ones with extra to share with them. The wise, mean girls said no – go buy yourself some. The girls with the extra oil went into the wedding banquet, but by the time the other girls got back from buying more oil, the door had closed and they were turned away.
This parable – quite strong in its wording – is narrated during the week leading up to Jesus’ crucifixion. Chapters 24 and 25 focus on the end times, and the preceding three chapters have some strongly worded messages. Chapter 22 has another story about a wedding banquet, which ends “Many are invited, but few are chosen” – meaning, few actually will attend the banquet.
Three lessons we can take out of Jesus’ parable:
Come to the banquet! The banquet is the party of parties. The bridegroom is none other than Jesus himself. It is a great celebration and we want to be there! God invites us all to attend – it’s an open and free invitation. We just have to accept the invite and pitch up.
Be prepared! Half the girls came without extra oil. They really didn’t think anything through. They seized the opportunity for the party, but did nothing to get ready for it. We are urged to be prepared for the party, which we can do by pitching into the preparations. We can work in God’s Kingdom. We can exercise our ministry. We can give of our time and money. We can come to church and build the fellowship. In short, we can stewards ourselves, our communion, our things and our world.
Wake up! All the girls fell asleep. Not just the foolish five, but all of them. Indeed, there are several stories of Jesus’ disciples falling asleep: In Luke 9:28-36, the disciples fell asleep before Jesus’ transfiguration; and in Matthew 26:36-46, the disciples repeatedly fell asleep as Jesus prayed in the Garden of Gethsemane. The absence of church during Covid may have made us similarly ‘sleepy’. We are out of the practice of coming to church, participating in worship, fellowship together. We’ve become dozy. It is time to wake up and to build up these muscles again!
Jesus invites us to a fabulous celebration – the wedding banquet. Let’s be sure to be prepared and be awake, so we don’t miss out!
Over the past four weeks we’ve been reflecting on stewardship: stewarding our selves, our communion, our things and our world. The reading set for today is Luke 14:25-33, which the NIV titles, ‘The cost of discipleship’. I suggest that there is a similarity between discipleship – which means to follow Christ and model ourselves on him – and stewardship – which means to take care of the things God has entrusted to us to help build the Kingdom of God.
This passage makes it clear that stewardship (like discipleship) is not easy. Two key points emerge:
First, Luke 14:25-27 tells us that stewardship will cost us. This passage is very hard to swallow – Jesus says if we don’t hate our family, we are not worthy to follow him. When we consider Jesus’ Great Commandment – to love God and love our neighbour – we must however conclude that Jesus is not telling us actually to hate our family. That would completely contradict what he repeatedly says and demonstrates in his ministry – to love our neighbours as ourselves.
But he is saying that our love for and commitment to God must be radical. We need to give of ourselves to God, to a point of discomfort, to a point where it is hard. Our giving should not be easy and flippant. It requires something of us that is sacrificial.
Second, Luke 14:28 and 31, and the examples attached to these verses, tells us that our stewardship (or discipleship)must be thoughtful and careful. In both verses he asks something similar: When you prepare to do something, won’t you first sit down and estimate the cost of doing it or consider whether you actually are able to do it? We are not called to a reckless discipleship. It is careful, thoughtful, considered, sober, rational.
Our love for and commitment to God must be considered. We need to give in a way that we can actually give. We need to commit to the long haul. We move into ministry with sober judgement and careful thought.
Father almighty we offer ourselves to you as a living sacrifice in Jesus Christ our Lord. Send us out into the world in the power of the Holy Spirit To live and work to your praise and glory.
We end each Eucharist service with this prayer. It is the endpoint of the entire service of communion. We do come to be filled, restored and healed; we do come to worship and praise God; we do come for fellowship; we do come to learn; and we do come to celebrate the Eucharist. But the purpose of all of this is to equip and fill us to go out into the world and serve the Lord.
The church is a refuelling station, in which we are filled up and restored, so that we can go out and do God’s work in the world.
Today is the fourth and last Sunday in our stewardship programme.
In the first week, we considered stewarding ourselves;
then stewarding our communion (our church fellowship);
and last week, stewarding our things, particularly our money.
Today, we reflect on what it means to steward the world.
Genesis 2 presents the narrative of God’s creation of humanity. God then placed the man he had created in the Garden of Eden and commissioned him to ‘tend and care for it’; that is, to steward the world. We continue to carry this commission.
Stewarding the world includes a focus on the planet – the earth itself – with all its natural resources: the sky, the oceans, the water, the land, the minerals, the renewable and non-renewable energy resources. We are commissioned to take care of the earth (and indeed the cosmos) – not to exploit, plunder, rape and destroy. ‘Tend and care’ are gentle, kind, caring, nurturing words, to describe the relationship we ought to have to the world around us.
In addition, stewarding the world includes a focus on its people – on all of humankind – regardless of anything (religion, race, gender, politics, nationality, sexual orientation, gender identity, age, disability, and so on). We are to be Christ’s presence among humanity – his hands, his feet, his eyes, his mouth, his heart (as Saint Teresa of Ávila may have written – see video below). It is unfortunate that many Christians see their Christ-like presence in the world as reduced just to fighting against two issues: human sexuality and abortion. While these are important topics to engage, Jesus’ own presence in the world focused pervasively on fighting for love, kindness, justice, inclusion. To steward the people of this world is to imitate Christ’s engagement with humankind.
Appropriately, today is All Saints Day, the day on which we commemorate and celebrate the lives of the saints. My church is named after St Stephen, who is described in Acts 6-7. Carrying his name, we in our parish are invited to adopt Stephen as a model or example for our lives. Stephen was a young deacon, whose ministry lasted less than a year. A deacon is a servant, who works out in the community, helping the poor and marginalised. Stephen is described as being “full of faith and of the Holy Spirit”. He was a bold preacher, delivering the longest sermon in the book of Acts. It resulted in his murder, at the age of 29. As he died, his last words were to forgive those who stoned him.
Stephen is a shining example of stewarding the world. He was a servant to the people of God and to people seeking God.
Let us each take up our own role, in our own place, in our own way, using our own Spirit-given gifts, to love and serve the world.
Go in peace to love and serve the Lord In the name of Christ. Amen
The ‘reversal of fortunes‘ is one of the central themes in Luke’s Gospel of Christ. The reversal involves a switching around of power and privilege in society. We think of Mary’s, “He has brought down rulers from their thrones but has lifted up the humble” and, “he has filled the hungry with goo things but has sent the rich away empty” from Mary’s song in Luke 1:46-55. And of Jesus’ manifesto in Luke 4:16-21 (though the reversal is less clear), where he says, “he has anointed me to proclaim good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim freedom for the prisoners and recovery of sight for the blind, to set the oppressed free.” And Jesus’ famous, “There are those who are last who will be first, and first who will be last” in Luke 13:30. Indeed, there are numerous examples in Luke’s Gospel.
But this reversal of fortunes is demonstrated most unequivocally and powerfully in Jesus’ death and subsequent resurrection in Luke 22-24. When all seems lost – when the worst imaginable outcome occurs – we still remember Jesus’ words that he would rise on the third day. And indeed he does! What was intended as an annihilation of the Son of God and indeed of God’s entire plan for the salvation of humankind, turns into the absolute accomplishment of that plan!
Blessed are you who are poor, for yours is the kingdom of God. Blessed are you who hunger now, for you will be satisfied. Blessed are you who weep now, for you will laugh.
We see again the reversal of fortunes in this passage (mirrored in the woes that Jesus proclaims in Luke 6:24-25 a couple of verses later):
Poor > yours is the Kingdom of God
Hunger > satisfied
Weep > laugh
But what is additionally striking in this passage is the emphasis on time. Particularly in the second and third blessings, Jesus contrasts ‘now’ with the future “you will”. This suggests that what is true now, will not be true for always. While in the first sentence, the phrases are both in the present tense – “are” and “is” – which suggests that the future improvement to our lot can be tasted now already.
It seems that there is folding in of time in Jesus’ understanding of human life. Past, present and future are not as differentiated for God as they are for us humans. For God – being outside of time and space – past, present and future all co-exist. But for us – being bound within time and space – Jesus’ message here is that the reversal of fortune – from struggle to contentment – is something sure and guaranteed that we can look forward to, and even enjoy in moments right now.
All of this points us towards adopting an eternal perspective in which we are encouraged to look at the world and our life circumstance, not just as it is right now, but as it is within the context of out eternal existence. This life, with its challenges and troubles, is not all there is. Indeed, this physical life is but a blink in the life we can continue to enjoy in the presence of God for eternity.
And much can change between now and then. The reversal of fortunes principle continues to emphasise that God will set right what is wrong in the world. And that whatever suffering or oppression or poverty we experience at this time, will not last forever. It will switch. God will set all things right.
As we continue through our stewardship programme, and particularly this week as reflect on how we steward our things and especially our money, let us hold this eternal perspective and the reversal of fortunes in mind. What we do now, has an impact on the future. Our giving of our hearts to Christ now will bring a return on investment, sooner or later. Giving generously now may be uncomfortable, but will repeat rewards that are greatly to be desired.