Compass stuck? Second Sunday before Lent, 2021

Isaiah 40:21-31

1 Cor 9:16-23

Mark 1:29-39

Audio Recording

What are you looking for? life or Life?

From one ancestor God made all nations to inhabit the whole earth, and he allotted the times of their existence and the boundaries of the places where they would live, so that they would search for God and perhaps reach out to grope for him and find him—though indeed he is not far from each one of us. Acts 17:26-7

The North of England is a place of strange goings on and customs. From the obscure practices of hill farmers to old men in flat caps and whippet racing, there’s lots to confuse the merely curious.

On the outskirts of small towns in Lancashire and Yorkshire are huts, where for generations usually the male of the family in an effort to get a bit of piece has retreated to tend to his prize possessions – his racing pigeons. This is where ‘the little man’ lives his dreams, becoming the equivalent of sheiks and Rosthchilds with their thoroughbred horses.

Every few weeks a truck will collect baskets of pigeons and drive them to somewhere in Southern Europe from where they will be set free . . . and one morning the old man’s gaze will pass to the horizon where a dot becomes the prize pigeon, having flown almost unerringly home . . .

It’s thought this sense of direction is helped by magnetic particles in their beak . . . and humans are not dissimilar. We all have within us a homing instrument – the only problem we have is most people don’t know what it’s for . . .

Paul who has become all things to all people that he might by some mean save some preaches about this to those wise Athenians, saying, From one ancestor God made all nations to inhabit the whole earth, and he allotted the times of their existence and the boundaries of the places where they would live, so that they would search for God and perhaps reach out to grope for him and find him—though indeed he is not far from each one of us.

We were made to search for God. It is intrinsic to being human. As much as the pigeon, we are made to search for home. Our problem is that we don’t always realise that. We put this ‘homing instinct’ to different uses. We don’t know what it is . . .

Years ago, Sarah and I were out on the highest fells in my home, the English Lake District. It was mid-summer and the weather was, typically, cold and very wet. We’d spent the day crossing mighty Scafell with it’s rock gulleys, all ready to swallow the unwary, then onto the highest point in England, Scafell Pike. Sarah was tired and a little hypothermic, so we were making our way down the Corridor route towards Borrowdale, when we spotted two youngsters coming up the hill from the direction of Wasdale. Realising they were either foolhardy or lost, we waied for them to get to us. They were lost. They, like us were looking for Borrowdale but had descended 3000 feet into the wrong valley. After we’d ascertained that we asked to see there map so they could get safely down. ‘Map? Oh we haven’t got one, but we’ve got a compass . . .’ Proudly they brought out probably the most expensive compass I’ve ever seen, a wonderful sighting compass, extraordinarily accurate . . . but entirely useless without a map . . .

We put them on the Corridor path, told them to follow it until they reached a lake, then turn left until they reached the emergency stretcher box. Pause there and give thanks you haven’t need it, then turn right alongside the path following the outflow stream of the Lake until you come to the valley . . . Their faces which had been wracked with worry lightened and they set off, much faster than us, and we hoped not too fast . . .

We all have that compass. We are all equipped to find our way home. The problem is the compass only makes sense with a map. Someone who has made the journey, who knows the way.

The prophet Isaiah gives us the map –

Have you not known? Have you not heard?
The Lord is the everlasting God,
   the Creator of the ends of the earth.

Has it not been told you from the beginning?
   Have you not understood from the foundations of the earth? 
It is he who sits above the circle of the earth,
   and its inhabitants are like grasshoppers;
who stretches out the heavens like a curtain,
   and spreads them like a tent to live in; 
who brings princes to naught,
   and makes the rulers of the earth as nothing. 

Wake up to where you are, and who is with you . . . And now, God himself has come to show you the way . . .

Jesus is on the move. He knows where he is going. As he goes like a compass swinging round in the presence of magnetic rock,  that homing instinct wakens in those he encounters. First Simon Peter, Andrew, and James and John . . . following their deep instinct, not knowing why. They have to go after him.

As he goes Jesus draws a crowd. Reality – Real Life – springs into existence around him. Like those iron filings in school science experiments, the world is transformed around him, pointing people towards him. Demons come out of people. Simon Peter’s mother in law is healed. Then the fever left her, and she began to serve them. Like a compass needle that is stuck, then freed, Her life is immediately begins to orient itself towards Jesus and those around him.

She rises from sleep to serve Jesus and his disciples. She has found her direction. In the presence of Jesus her homing instinct finds its True North. Jesus then takes his time in leisurely prayer, checking out his own orientation, his own homing instinct, his Love for the Father . . .

In the morning, while it was still very dark, he got up and went out to a deserted place, and there he prayed.

Yet Simon and his companions hunted for him. How could they do otherwise? In Him they’ve found life, as Jesus has to be with the Father in prayer, so they have to be with Jesus.

When they found him, they said to him, ‘Everyone is searching for you.’ Of course – Everyone is created to search for God, and God has shown up.

Jesus answered, ‘Let us go on to the neighbouring towns, so that I may proclaim the message there also; for that is what I came out to do.’ And he went throughout Galilee, proclaiming the message in their synagogues and casting out demons.

 And the disciples go after him.

‘Everyone is searching for you’ We all have that compass needle. We are created to Know God – intimately. To find our home in him. But our needles get stuck. We lose contact. That Orienting instinct sets out to try and find home, but instead settles for a career, or the right education for our children, or good health, or a million and one things. That essential part of us, the spirit which is for God, gets bound up with the world, our ‘fixations’ – those things we can’t help but think about, our sins. Literally Sin means ‘missing the mark’ That compass which is given us that we might seek after God and find Him settles on something else. Something which we think is more real. We’re created for the Life which comes from God – which we call ‘Eternal’ Life – Life which isn’t bound by time and place – but we settle down, our homing compasses stuck in the wrong direction

It is only when we encounter The Real One, The Human being, Jesus that that needle is set free.

The Apostle Paul had been very sure of what life was, what religion was. He’d ascended the ranks. He was a Pharisee of the pharisee, a Hebrew of the Hebrews. His worldly religious credentials were right up there with Bishops and Archbishops . . . His needle was stuck. Until he encounters Jesus. He’d set his heart on the wrong things, but in the presence of Jesus he is unstuck, he is undone. Serious work needs to take place in Paul. Unlike Simon Peter’s mother in law, he is very very stuck. Some people are far more stuck than others. Their hearts almost set in concrete, almost . . . but never entirely. Paul needs to be freed and this takes time. He is blinded by the presence of Jesus, it will take time for him to be reset.

But set free, all that ‘religious energy’ finds it’s true home. He loses himself. He is free and thus free to become the servant of all – I am free with respect to all, I have used my freedom to make myself a slave to all, so that I might win more of them. To the Jews I became as a Jew, in order to win Jews. To those under the law I became as one under the law (though I myself am not under the law) so that I might win those under the law. To those outside the law I became as one outside the law (though I am not free from God’s law but am under Christ’s law) so that I might win those outside the law. To the weak I became weak, so that I might win the weak. I have become all things to all people, so that I might by any means save some. I do it all for the sake of the gospel, so that I may share in its blessings.

Paul is Free and now he lives for Jesus, his orienting beacon in whom he has found his true home. Are we similarly free? Or are our hearts and minds set on other things? What are we looking for. Are we content with life, or in the presence of Jesus have we awoken to Life and set out on the journey to where we don’t know, to never be the same, to come Home.

May we like Paul  find ourselves freed from the world’s illusions. May our homing instinct awaken to its true North, God in our midst

Amen

Back to Basics – Hearing Jesus

Sermon for the fourth Sunday after The Epiphany

Year B, 2021

Mark 1:21-28

‘Let those with ears to hear, hear!’ Matthew 13:9

Well, it’s still January. Just. Did the turn of a the year fill you with a resolution to change something about your life? New Year, New start?

For me, it was a decision to learn how to play the guitar. This may surprise some of you. For the discerning amongst you, it may well be met with the reply, ‘and not before time’.

I remember years ago taking a baptism service back in England. It was in the afternoon and my organist wasn’t available, so we sang songs accompanied by yours truly.

Following the service a fairly elderly man as he came to shake my hand said, ‘you clearly don’t know how to play a guitar’. He was of course right. I’d been found out.

I am in truth an occasionally enthusiastic self taught strummer of a guitar, and any judge would find me guilty of a duty of lack of care and abuse of a fine instrument.

Self taught, making it up as I went along, I had picked up all sorts of bad habits, and my guitar playing looked little like the real thing. So this year I took the decision to go back to basics. I’ve enrolled on a course starting from the beginning, stripping our some bad habits and hopefully make a little progress . . . To date, all I seem to have for my efforts are sore fingertips!

Stripping back to the basics.

It’s when we strip back to the essentials that we discover the true nature of our existence. Buried deep under the accretions and the years of bad habits and wrong turnings we touch on something we’d lost touch with, Life itself.

Often this stripping back happens against any will. We thought life was fine, then something terrible happens. As folk have said to me so many times, it really showed me what was important . . . We are found out. We realise we don’t know what we thought we knew. The life we’d been living was not life at all.

We realise that despite everything we thought we knew, in so many ways we are powerless. We don’t have what it takes. We are found out. Exposed before God – we are naked and ashamed . . . and all too often we pile up all those things that keep us from that life encounter. The place is too painful, too boring, too awkward, and way too uncomfortable. Too stripped back, too basic . . . well, this is year B. The Gospel for this year is Mark and Mark has no time for comfort.

His is the Back to basics gospel. There’s no fancy accretions. It is utterly unpretentious, and its strange kindness is as blunt as that man who pointed out the truth about my guitar playing all those years ago. (This was the way amongst those with whom I grew up . . .)

Mark’s Good News of Jesus Christ is angular – it has sharp corners and edges. We keep getting jolted by it. It’s repeated word is ‘suddenly’. If we are hearing the words well then they jar. You think you know where it’s going, then ‘suddenly . . .’. ‘Suddenly’ is Mark’s version of Behold! Wake up! Something is going on. Mark won’t even smooth things out for us with a post resurrection sighting of Jesus. The disciples are told that he’s gone ahead of them, we have to follow, to Galilee . . . which is where we begin. Jesus has returned.

Jesus is passing by the sea of Galilee and seeing Peter and Andrew commands them, “Follow me!” And Suddenly, Immediately, they dropped their nets and followed him . . . our gaze follows them. Further along the lake He sees James and Andrew, the sons of Zebedee, hard at work fishing. Immediately on seeing them he calls them and they too drop everything and follow him . . .

Where does our gaze go? Are we left asking about Zebedee and the hired men? Has Mark’s gospel left our pretentions to be followers of Jesus on the rocky shore of Galilee? Hey Jesus, we shout after his back, what about them . . . and he continues to move onwards . . . what about me? Where are you going? Come back! . . .

Jesus seems unconcerned. He’s on the move. We can stay put or we can follow him, but there’s not even the time to choose, for he’s not hanging around . . .

We respond or we allow the accretions to gather once more . . . “But where is he going?” Questions, questions . . . hesitations, waiting, and slowly like the bad habits on my guitar playing, our faith settles down comfortably . . . We come up with lots of answers which secure us in our existence. Like the John Bell hymn, having asked ‘will you go where you don’t know and never be the same?’, we follow up with lots of answers not to where Jesus is going – but where he has gone, answers that leave us where we are . . .

Jesus is not hanging around and as he goes on his way everything he does wakens people in astonishment. What Jesus does is calls people from the sleep of death, to Life, but as the parable of the sower teaches, we can awake and then go back to the sleep of death. Reality breaks in, and we pull the covers back over our heads for we have no root. The desire for Life doesn’t go deep enough.

I may or may not improve at the guitar, it depends if the root goes deep enough, if I am thirsty enough, if I want it enough . . . I may or may not improve at the guitar if I don’t allow many other things to get in the way . . . Far more important though , I might find out where Jesus is going if I go with him to where I don’t know . . . Seek, Jesus says, and you will find . . . but am I thirsty for what he offers . . . Must I know where he is going?

In Jesus do I see or hear something which . . . which wakens me to something worth giving up everything else for, abandoning all distractions for  . . .

The Good Shepherd comes looking for His lost sheep. The sheep follow Him because they know his voice. Knowing his voice entails following Him

Follow me, Jesus commands Peter and Andrew, James and John. Look! They go with him, where?

They went to Capernaum; and when the sabbath came, he entered the synagogue and taught. They were astounded at his teaching, for he taught them as one having authority, and not as the scribes.

Jesus speaks and things happen . . . this has never been seen since the creation of the world. God said ‘let there be light!’ And it was so! Jesus said ‘Follow me!’ and Immediately they went. Jesus words go deep. He casts his net into the depths of human hearts, to a place we didn’t even suspect existed. There we were, in charge of our own lives. Knowing what was right and what the day held before us, and where we were going . . . and then a voice. A voice from both beyond us and within us . . . We wake up! He gets his hook into us, and we go . . .

“The Scribes – well we hear them a lot, We sit around and discuss their teachings . . . What they say seems to make sense when we think about it. We can take it or leave it. It does not take hold of us.” I sometimes wonder if house groups are a bit like this . . .

We live in a world where we think it is all about us taking hold of things, grasping them, Figuring things out . . .  for ourselves. But this is not the Kingdom of God.. The KoG is about our being taken hold of. The formlessness and void of our lives apart from God are taken hold of by this Word – and leaps upwards in response. ‘he taught them as one having authority’.

Authority! Authority demands a response. We know this at one level. When you see those flashing lights in your rear view mirror, you know this is Authority demanding a response. And you pull over! You don’t drive on thinking, well I need to figure this one out for myself . . .

That is the nature of authority. As the Centurion sad to Jesus, I say come, and they come: I say go and they go! He recognizes Jesus’ authority for he knows the nature of authority. Authority makes things happen

Authority is not about sitting around and deciding for ourselves . . . Authority is about letting go of that. We can endlessly ponder the plight of Zebedee and the hired men, we can wonder if there is another way . . . and sat by the shore we will come up with lots of reasons. The moment will have passed. We have failed to recognize Authority. We have ears, but we haven’t heard. That place within us that flickered momentarily goes back to sleep, and so do we . . .

Suddenly! Immediately! Look! there was in their synagogue a man with an unclean spirit, and he cried out, ‘What have you to do with us, Jesus of Nazareth? Have you come to destroy us? I know who you are, the Holy One of God.’

Stripped back to basics – hidden away, terrifying things, and in the presence of Jesus the secrets of hearts are revealed – from the heart of this man comes uncleanness . . . He is exposed before God . . .

This is what Jesus does, reveal the secrets of our hearts, things hidden even from ourselves in the depths of our being. He casts down into the depths . . .

The hidden thing is brought into the light, the man is healed . . .

When we follow, we follow from death to Life, from darkness to Light. But for some the Light is too bright, the Life is too real. We return to the world of darkness and dreams. Of comfortable illusions about ourselves, about Jesus and about God. Stories that leave us where we are. We don’t want to be found out . . .

The Guitar Judge found me out. I had to return to the beginning . . .

Jesus comes to us. God is walking in the garden in the cool of the day – We are found out . . . do we hide? Or do we respond to his voice, and his invitation to us to let go of our ideas, and to go where we don’t know . . . to trust him that whatever is revealed in us he will heal us of . . . to go where we don’t know, and never be the same

Let those with ears to hear, hear

‘Don’t just stand there, Follow Me!’ – Sermon for the 3rd Sunday after Epiphany

So I awake early one day this week and, unable to go back to sleep, switch on a podcast regarding the question of the body of God, as I am sure we all would  After all, Scripture speaks of the face of God, the arm of God, and when God first shows himself in Scripture he’s out for a stroll . . .

Which set me thinking. About how despite all our attempts to keep him in His place, to nail him down – or up – God is always on the move in Scripture.

God is a God who is on the move. If you’ve ever read the bewildering account of Ezekiel’s vision of the Glory of God by the Kebar river, it is if nothing else a vision of God in Motion. Creatures, Eyes, wheels, wings, moving NSEW as the Spirit commands.

Right at the beginning, when God appears in Creation He is ‘walking in the garden in the cool of the day’ – the sound of which causes the Man and the Woman to hide. They’ve just sought to secure their own existence, but God is on the move. They hide after all a moving God might disrupt their incipient ‘life on their own terms’. God is not Safe.

When God rescues Israel from Egypt, to go with Him they must go on a journey, and always ready to move. The God of the Exodus asks only for a Tabernacle, a tent. For Israel must be ready at a moment’s notice to dismantle it as the people follow the pillar of cloud and fire.

And God seems less than impressed with attempts to build a Temple for his presence in Jerusalem, to ‘domesticate’ him. To give God a place to settle down in, so we can pay attention to our own lives without wondering where he’s going. We build a place in our lives, a quiet half hour in the morning, a visit or two to church each week to visit the domesticated God. The Rest Home God . . . But God is not having anything to do with our programmes of domestication

So significant is this aspect of the Life of God, that when Paul preaches the gospel to those wise Athenians, he begins with this very point The God who made the world and everything in it, he who is Lord of heaven and earth, does not live in shrines made by human hands, nor is he served by human hands . . . You and I can’t do anything for God. We can’t be busy on God’s behalf and turn up once a week to give him a progress report on everything we’ve done for him. As God rebukes King David, ‘will you build Me a house?’

And then Paul finishes off, While God has overlooked the times of human ignorance, now he commands all people everywhere to repent. You got God wrong. He’s not your domestic household God, or even your State God with his fine buildings, he is the dynamic Living God!

The Living God is looking for a house, but not one made of stone, but a living house, one that moves, indeed that walks. It is instructive how in Greek the verb to Live is the same as that to walk, which makes one wonder if in our sedentary age – and sitting kills you – then we are less in the image of the Living God who walks, who is always and everywhere on the move, as the wind blows wheresoever it will, not according to our whims and desires . . .

So when the tabernacle, the dwelling pace of God reappears – The Word became flesh and tabernacled amongst us – he is moving. ‘after John was arrested, Jesus came to Galilee . . .’ ‘As he passed along the Sea of Galilee . . .’

As he passed along the Sea of Galilee, he saw Simon and his brother Andrew casting a net into the lake – for they were fishermen. And Jesus said to them, ‘follow me’. – literally ‘Come along after me’, walk behind me . . .

The announcement of the Kingdom of God at hand and the call for repentance is followed up by a call to move, to Follow . . . of course for God is not a stationary God.

But what does that mean? What does it mean to Go after Jesus, to Follow him?

In the early years of the Church, before the faith became domesticated it was far from respectable. And so when ‘they were first called Christians’ it was a term of abuse. In these days, it must be said, for various reasons it is again becoming less than socially acceptable to be a Christian. So some folk look for alternatives, like ‘Jesus Follower’. Cool, eh?

But what does it mean? What does that phrase summon up for you? Hearing the words ‘Follow me’?

If we are at all alert, then that question begs another question, a question asked by Thomas Lord, we do not know where you are going! How can we know the way? Follow Jesus! Yes! But where?

We’ve just sung ‘Will you come and follow me, if I but call your name’ Of course in this case Jesus doesn’t even call them by name . . . But will you? . . . Are we up for being Jesus followers?

Yet the next line . . . ‘will you go where you don’t know, and never be the same’

(Much as I appreciate the ministry of John Bell, I think that if he’d left it at that, rather than supply lots of suggestions as to where this might lead it would have been a more truthful if less popular hymn . . . after all it’s a lot easier to come up with our own definitions of what it means to follow Jesus than to follow him . . .)

Jesus said to them ‘Follow me, and I will make you become fishers of men’. Jesus has fished for men, and they have followed him, they in their own part will fish for followers who will go with them . . . but where?

Come with me, where you don’t know, and I will change who you are . . .

To follow Jesus means changing location, it means moving from where we are to somewhere else . . . but where?

To move is to change. If we go somewhere else in any meaningful sense we change. Tourists never really go to the places they visit – they think that other countries exist for their benefit, and as we know all too well here in Aotearoa, we get by by existing to fulfil the fantasies of the tourists.

But when you go somewhere to live there, to live in and become residents of another country, you change.

Our story is that of Abram who is called to leave his country for a land the Lord will show him, to Live there.

Which perhaps is why we like to keep this God fixed, in a Temple, or in some convenient idea which is pretty much the same thing, so we don’t have to go anywhere. Certainly not go somewhere we don’t know.

If we know one thing about Jesus’ disciples they don’t see where he’s going, until it’s too late . . . but they go anyway.

Jesus said to them, ‘Follow me and I will make you fish for people.’ And immediately [Behold!] they left their nets and followed him. Mark’s ‘behold!’ word is ‘immediately. After all there are these fishermen doing what they’ve always done, and What?! Without a word, they just go after him? Their action would have jarred their family and friends, woken them with a jerk. The Living God is at work. Look! They left their nets and followed him . . .

To follow Jesus entails a journey of change – to become different people. Perhaps that’s why we prefer to worship a god who is happy to be in a Temple, rather than the one who moves?

On the other hand, perhaps we too like the fishermen might go with him? And allow him to make us to become different people?

Lent is soon upon us – our study material is on precisely this movement and change – we are all invited to the journey

Amen

Christmas 2020

St Paul says – ‘We look to things that are unseen, for the things that are seen are passing away. But the things that are unseen are eternal’

We gather upon this Holy Night in the darkness of a church lit only by candles. It is moment in time for faith, for faith looks to things that are unseen. It is when the glare of so much artificiality is taken from our eyes that we can begin to adjust to a different way of seeing that is at the heart of how we experience our Christian faith.

On this Holy Night, we gather to celebrate a Light coming into the World, a Light unlike any other, a Light which shines in the darkness, a Light which the darkness cannot overcome.

All the light we see, and think we see by, is eventually overcome by darkness. The light of these candles if we leave them will expire in a few hours. The light of our own lives, as Shakepeare puts it so poignantly, ‘out, out brief candle’. The light of the Sun – even this one day will expire.

But there is a Light which no darkness overcomes – a unseen Light which paradoxically may shine all the brighter in the darkest night. For faith does not look to things seen, but to things unseen.

The Light of Christ coming into the world  – a light in the darkness. A Light which the blind see – ‘Jesus! Son of David! Have mercy on me!’, cries out blind Bartimaeus. The man who cannot see, sees!

But those who think they see . . . who see by the lights that are overcome, those who see by simplistic explanations for the Wonder of existence, which paradoxically remove all joy, beauty, hope and of course Love, everything that we know but cannot See . . . that which comes from the Light which darkness is powerless against

And a Voice, A Word, which the deaf hear, yet in a sea of words those who think they hear fail to detect. In the beginning was the Word, before any Light and beyond any Light.

We know much of course of false lights and voices – hopes and dreams we call them. We look forward to them, we place them in front of us to show us the way as we make our plans, but then . . . well 2020 did for an uncountable number of such illumination . . . Those lights we had lit for ourselves – Yet there is Light

The Light which shines in the Darkness . . . which shines out of Darkness

Recently I’ve been giving much thought to black holes. God has not left himself without testimony in His Creation, even if you have to look in the strangest of places.

Black holes – the centre of all galaxies from which or into which spiral untold millions of stars. Apart from which they would not exist. Light with darkness at the centre. Where does this light and life come from? Where might it go? Beyond our vision, beyond our sight – A Light in the darkness, a Light out of Darkness

Black holes in a sense are not properly named, for they do emit lots of radiation, but it is not visible radiation. It is if you like a light that we do not naturally see by, but light all the same.

We say we see, but we are blind to almost all of Reality

This theme of Light we do not see repeats throughout Scripture.

Scripture seems uninterested in Proving God to us – indeed He is the God whom no one can see and live. The God of Israel does not permit images to be made of him.  He is not to be seen by our eyes, and thus subject to our control.

And He comes into the world but hidden from the glare of the false lights . . . He was in the world, and the world came into being through him; yet the world did not know him. He comes unseen as a babe born in an obscure part of the world, in an age lacking in mass media . . . relying on the testimony of a few unreliable and at times unsure witnesses . . .

The world came into being through him – yet the world did not know him, did not perceive him, did not see him . . . And Scripture seems unembarrassed.

Scripture lacks that passionate ardour of the evangelist – to prove it, to show us. Jesus says ‘a wicked a perverse generation asks for a sign’ – the only sign is that of Jonah, of walking into the darkness to emerge three days later.

In the darkness which grips so much of the world in these days – we would do well to listen to the voice of the angles echoing the most repeated phrase in these obscure Scriptures – Do not be afraid.

We would so well to ponder this Christmas tide the words of the prophet Isaiah who questions the people of God thus

Who among you fears the Lord
   and obeys the voice of his servant,
who walks in darkness
   and has no light,
yet trusts in the name of the Lord
   and relies upon his God?

It is a question which all the baptised should ask, for at our baptism we are addressed with these words –  ‘you have received the Light of Christ – Walk in this light all the days of your life.

Walk in this light

The Light no darkness can overcome

Walk in this Light

which was born into our world

Walk in this light

Even at the last as your eyes close to the light of the world

Walk in this light – which passes through the darkness of suffering and even of death,

To rise to be God’s bright new dawn

Jesus, the light of the world – to paraphrase CS Lewis – not a light to be seen, but a Light by which to see. The Light shining in the darkness . . . Eternal Light, Now and Always. Amen

Sermon for Advent 4

This week I was asked to preach at another church, and to pick my own texts, always a dangerous business! Anyway, here are my thoughts on ‘Space for God’

Sermon for Advent 4

St Matthew’s, Dunedin

Luke 1:26-38

Luke 10:38-42

Space for God

My thoughts this week are on ‘Space for God’. I wonder what those words summon up within us.

Perhaps the title of a book which was very popular about twenty or so years ago – ‘Too busy not to pray!’ by Bill Hybels, and other such ideas – fitting God into our busy lives.

In the C 17 in England, near Liverpool there was a battle in the Civil War, before which one Jacob, First Baron Astley prayed before his troops, ‘Lord you know how busy I must be this day. Should I forget thee, do not thou forget me’

We have such busy lives. How to find space for God? And I guess you might be expecting me to exhort you to find more space for God, but I’m not . . .

 We are in the season of Advent and like each of the church’s seasons, it is given to us as an opportunity to remind ourselves of essential aspects of our faith. For Advent, that is ‘Waiting for God in Hope’. Contemplating the second coming of Christ. You might say that the primary way that the Church is different, that Christians are different in the world is that our minds are elsewhere

Yet, on the first day of this month I received an email from SUNZ. It’s opening was ‘ Well, it’s December 1st, so I can officially wish everyone ‘Happy Christmas’.

We ought to forgive the Prime Minister and Mike Hoskings for exchanging their Christmas presents way too early, but when the church loses touch with its own seasons? When it misses the point, but perhaps in thinking about Space for God, we too are missing the point. Perhaps there is something much more significant and life transforming hidden in that seemingly innocuous phrase?

Nd we begin to explore it in the second of our two readings.

I must admit I have a degree of reticence preaching on the story of Martha and Mary, for however carefully I exposit the text, without fail someone fails to get it. You proclaim the Word, and someone is guaranteed to push back on it – on this text . . .

It seems that few people really believe Jesus when he says ‘Mary has chosen the better part and it will not be taken away from her’ (I ought to add at this point that believing Jesus is Exactly what it means to ‘believe in’ Jesus. As he says in John’s gospel, ‘if you obey my words, you will abide in my love’. Jesus over and over says ‘Amen! Amen!’ ‘Truly Truly!’ I tell you . . . His word are Truth and we live by the words that come from his mouth)

So when Jesus says that Mary has chosen the better part, then that is the Truth . . . but somehow the world is full of apologists for Martha. People for whom books like ‘Too busy not to pray!’ were written. People like Baron Astley who has important work to be doing. I mean if your work is ‘really important’ – this story is a bit of a problem

For many many years, Martha has been held up as the example of the Active Life – ‘Busy for Jesus’. Like the car sticker says ‘Jesus is Coming! Quick look busy!’

Yet Jesus gently rebukes her – indeed he perhaps seems unimpressed by our work on his behalf –

After all, doesn’t He say ‘Many will say to me in that day, ‘Lord Lord! Didn’t we do many wonderful things in your name?’  and he will respond – Away from me, you doers of evil, I never knew you!

Martha lets be clear has made a good start. She has noticed Jesus come to her village and has welcomed him into her house. Classic hospitality – which in itself actually was not at all uncommon, and amongst some people groups remains common. Welcoming in the stranger.

I think that to read this well, we could say – she has welcomed him into her life, the arena of her agency, her work. Yet, that initial welcome has been set aside – for her ‘many tasks’. Martha now sees Jesus not as the honoured guest, but as a means to her ends ‘Lord! Do you not care that my sister has left me to get on with all this work on my own? Tell her to help me!’

We can be ‘busy’ for Jesus in our ‘important’ lives, or we can be imploring Jesus to sort things out for us, but in both cases, we are at the Centre.

And we are empty of Life . . . There is a busyness that at the end of the day asks ‘What Was that all about?’  A good number of years ago now, I got into such a state. Working phenomenally long hours – reminding myself continually that I was ‘doing the Lord’s Work!’, until one by one, all the wheels began to fall off . . .  After 6 months away from work, I finally awoke to the realization that it was the Lord’s Work, not mine. That I was meant to be the beneficiary of His Work of Salvation. That I couldn’t save a single soul . . . left me wondering what I had got caught up in. One can easily preach grace, but live works, not least in a culture which idolizes the self made hard working individual, who is lauded at their funeral . . .

My life was full, of me. And so those who see Martha as the one who does the work that must be done, fail to realise that Christ himself has done the Work that must be done . . . and welcomes us into his rest. ‘Come to me all you who are weary and heavy laden, and I will give you rest’ –  and how we need to hear those words, in Truth in these days.

We get So used to our own agency, we struggle to comprehend a life of Grace, and the Church is often dominated by those who in the world’s terms make a good show, hence I suspect Martha’s many supporters, despite what Jesus says . . .

Martha welcomes Jesus into her life, but her life is full, there is no space in it. She is Pre-occupied. Her life is meant to be a space for Jesus, but it is full of her stuff. Advent is meant to be such a space, but it has become full of Christmas . . .

That’s the point. It is not that she is to make space for Jesus, Her life is meant to be a space for Jesus, indeed that is what it is created to be, Space for the Living God.

Which brings me to the other reading, and the other Mary. Oh, yes, ‘That’ Mary . . .

Not long after Sarah and I were married, we welcomed a teaching colleague to our house to spend the night. John was unmarried but had a partner. We kindly asked them to occupy separate rooms. (Actually looking back, I’m not sure how this was possible as we had a tiny house!) John actually wasn’t put out – he rather liked the idea that people had standards which they kindly asked their guests to observe. Although jokingly he called me ‘a hot prot’ 

Well this hot prot was on the end of one of many God’s practical jokes when I was appointed head of department in a large Roman Catholic High School . . . Wherein during every assembly the pupils dutifully prayed words taken from our gospel, Hail Mary, full of Grace, the Lord is with thee. Blessed art thou amongst women, and blessed is the fruit of thy womb Jesus. Holy Mary Mother of God, pray for us sinners, now and at the hour of our death . . .’ Well they prayed it every assembly until I became a Year Dean! And then it stopped – except once a year when the Principal walked in without notice to take the assembly, and I promptly walked out – I was a Very Hot Prot in those days.

The School as it happened was an old convent. My office was one of the former bedrooms of the nuns. One year, in a much needed building reordering, some work was being done on my corridor at the end of which stood the largest statue of Mary, in her guise as The Queen of Heaven from Revelation 12. (Funny how this ‘bible believing Christian’ hadn’t made that particularly awkward connection)

Anyway, the builders needed to move the statue and when they did, the colleague who shared my office, a Liverpudlian Catholic by the name of Paddy Devlin was the only person around. ‘Where should we put this?’ they asked. ‘Oh, I know Just the place . . .’ And so it was that The Queen of heaven spent six months right beside my desk – ‘Where our lady can keep an eye on you, Eric!’

You had to admire the sense of humour – teaching this Hot Prot a thing or two . . .

It is all too common for some Christians to have a less than easy relationship with Mary – yet from the beginning of our faith she has been held in the highest esteem, and her significance is huge.

Mary, put simply is the first true disciple and model for all Christians.

She consents to be The Dwelling Place of God. Space for God in the World

Where does God live? For many years the Jewish people had of course said that God dwelt amongst them, in the Temple in Jerusalem . . .

But Jesus opened his ministry with the declaration, ‘destroy this temple and in three days I will rebuild it’ . . . meaning the Temple of his body.

In his humanity Jesus revealed the remarkable truth that just as He is God amongst humans, he is also, being full of the Holy Spirit. God within the human being. As AW Tozer puts it in the title of one of his little books, ‘Man, The Dwelling place of God’

As St Paul says to those in Athens, ‘God does not dwell in a house made by human hands’ No he dwells within those who believe His Son. ‘

Abide in me, says Jesus, as I abide in You. ‘Your body is a Temple of the Holy Spirit’

Mary in the early church was referred to as Theotokos – God bearer . . . and as The Ark of The Covenant – indeed that very imagery is at play in several places. There is an old story, form the first century, of how as an infant, Mary danced in the Holy of Holies in the Jerusalem Temple. In those days of course it was a vast empty space, the Ark of the Covenenant long lost. The Ark wherein and above which the Glory of God dwelt. And now a young girl who will bear the Word of God herself comes and dances in that space . . .

She becomes Space for Jesus

Space for God

I guess that hearing the phrase ‘Space for God’ we might well think of that holy ald hour we give to God, Baron Astley’s prayer – but he desires much more. He has been born into the world in his Son that he might live in it in those in who believe his Son, who Hear his words, who live by his words, His Life in them. As Mary sat at the feet of Jesus . . .

You and I by grace not work, have become the dwelling place of God . . . and that I think deserves our attention

As St Paul says in his letter to the Colossians

Now I rejoice in my sufferings for your sake, and in my flesh I am filling up what is lacking in Christ’s afflictions for the sake of his body, that is, the church, of which I became a minister according to the stewardship from God that was given to me for you, to make the word of God fully known, the mystery hidden for ages and generations but now revealed to his saints. To them God chose to make known how great among the Gentiles are the riches of the glory of this mystery, which is Christ in you, the hope of glory.

Christ in you . . .

As the Body of Christ, among you because he dwells in each of you

That prayer that we twitch at – ‘Holy Mary’ – That in which God dwells is Holy

We are Holy not by our own efforts, but made so by the indwelling of God . . .

Mary reveals to us the True Christian Life that we are God bearers . . . And that is I think is worth allowing ourselves to realise during this season. That we understand the centre of our existence is the living God – that it is not about finding time to pray in our busy lives, but allowing the Holy Spirit of God to pray in and through us. To discover the wonder of who we are created to be, Space for God in the World

Amen

Simple Faith that Saves

Advent 3

1 Thessalonians 5: 16-24

The Christian life is immensely simple – and paradoxically in an age of complexity, immensely difficult. We have perhaps lost sight of simplicity

The Christian life is Simple as it requires just One thing of us – that we attend to God, without distraction. That Is the Christian Life in its entirety.

Attentiveness to neighbour is simply the outflow of that life which comes to us from God in our attentiveness – as the flow of a river from its source. If we stand in the stream and look to the source, the river flows out behind us.

Jesus is the undistracted one. The Life flows from Jesus often without direct request – such as in the healing of the woman with the flow of blood . But even when it is by request it is the request of faith – which simply looks to him as the source, with nothing to give or to bring except attentiveness to Him that is Faith. Not a belief – but a direction of our life

Some understand the necessity of preparing for the return of Christ to be a call to action – Jesus is coming – Look busy!

Yet when he comes, Jesus seems unimpressed with our busyness. ‘Many will say to me on that day – Lord Lord did we not do this AND that AND the other in your name? And I will say to them – ‘Away from me, you doers of evil, I never knew you’’

I never knew you

Knowing him is what it is all about and you cannot know someone unless you attend to them – or put another way, love them It is the same thing. Attention is the one constant aspect of our lives – it is love. Our true loves are revealed in what we spend our lives doing, in that to which we give our attention.

Jesus says that knowing Him is eternal Life – it is the fount of blessings and it is the source of all God’s goodness coming into the world. As we attend to God his life flows towards us and through us

So we train ourselves in that attention, by following the advice of St Paul in his first letter to the church in Thessalonica. A church going through hardship the like of which we have but little inkling. Persecuted and weak, small and struggling – all they have is faith, which is why they are the Blessed. Yet, Paul calls them to that labour once more, to the undistracted gaze upon God in Jesus Christ in simple practice

Rejoice always,

pray without ceasing,

give thanks in all circumstances; for this is the will of God in Christ Jesus for you.

These seem to us like counsels of perfection which in a sense they are – perfection properly understood is simplicity – but we might hear them and cry out ‘but what about . . . this or that or the other’ – Like those this or that or the others we would parade before Jesus in our concern to prove ourselves to him – to place ourselves at the centre of the story, and look in a mirror rather than gaze undistractedly upon God, our life coming towards us

Do not quench the Spirit.

Do not stop that flood of life by averting your gaze . . .

Do not despise the words of prophets, but test everything;

hold fast to what is good;

abstain from every form of evil.

It is Simple. It is we who have woven webs of complexity for we are tempted all the time to think that life is about us, and not about God . . . yet St Paul closes these words with the reminder that it is All about God

May the God of peace himself sanctify you  – entirely;

The Work of perfecting your Life is God’s if we would turn to him in faith

and may your spirit and soul and body be kept sound and blameless at the coming of our Lord Jesus Christ.

The one who calls you is faithful, and he will do this.

Just look to his appearing

In this season of Advent – we watch for his coming. This season is like every other season of the church’s year – given us to train us in our faith. So this watching for his coming is a daily, moment by moment work of our faith – it IS faith, you would truly say

And as we learn to watch for him, we learn to hear Him, ot despising the words of the prophets  – and we hear him say Lo! I am with you always even unto the end of the age. I am Always Coming towards you if you did but have faith

Amen

Call of the Wild

Sermon for Advent 2

Mark 1:1-8

John the baptizer appeared in the wilderness, proclaiming a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins. And people from the whole Judean countryside and all the people of Jerusalem were going out to him, and were baptized by him in the river Jordan, confessing their sins

There is a not uncommon way of speaking of Christian faith that supposes one might lead what are considered by prevalent standards a respectable life and also follow Christ. One might accumulate money and honour in the world and still be truly one of Jesus’ flock.

However in this year of Mark’s gospel evidence for this is to say the least, scant. Mark  throws a bucket of cold water over any presumption that being a Christian is in any way in tune with ‘the ways of the world’, that it is a way of comfort. The Way of Jesus cannot be accommodated to our plans for ‘living a good life’. The paths diverge so radically in Mark that we are left with a stark choice – to face in one direction, into what the world calls darkness and in faith proclaim it as light, or to go along with the crowd bedazzled by its deceptive alure.

That is clear from its ending – Jesus last words in Mark are ‘my God, my God, why have you forsaken me?’ After that we neither see him not hear him. Mark’s gospel ends in darkness which only faith can call light.

 If you’re going to get on in the world’s terms, the Way of Jesus is a bad joke. We might say that to be a successful Christian is to be marked out as a failure – certainly that is true of Jesus himself.

The gospel begins with what sounds like that joke. ‘The beginning of the gospel of Jesus Christ, the Son of God’. Son of God. We are so used to hearing those words that we cannot begin to imagine how they sounded in the ears of those who heard them first. For they in all likelihood lived in Rome under the Emperor, the Son of the Divine Emperor. Son of God in Roman terms, was to be at the top of the pile, and Mark has the audacity to claim that a homeless Jew, one amongst countless others, crucified on a rubbish heap outside the walls of Jerusalem, was the Son of God.

This message most deliberately disorients us. It has the temerity to suggest that what we call ‘the world’ with all its power and the rest is an illusion. That its light, its glory is a sham, and that it is in the way of darkness that true light is known.

Mark above all the evangelists speaks of Jesus in terms of the Servant of the Lord from Isaiah and the words of Isaiah in the 50th chapter speak of Him, and of the contrast

Who among you fears the Lord
   and obeys the voice of his servant,
who walks in darkness
   and has no light,
yet trusts in the name of the Lord
   and relies upon his God? 


But all of you are kindlers of fire,
   lighters of firebrands.
Walk in the flame of your fire,
   and among the brands that you have kindled!

So when the gospel opens it is with the call from outside of the world – away from the city, the place where we kindle our own fires, away even from the pastoral fields gold with corn and covered in flocks of sheep. It is a Voice crying in the wilderness, in the figure of the otherworldly John the Baptist, dressed as Elijah was in camel hair and with a leather belt round his waist, the one who had previously called power to account, who had declared that the LORD not King Ahab was God. Elijah who travelled deep into the wilderness before her met God. Away from the noise and the clamour, the deception of the world, where true encounter takes place. In the sound of sheer silence. The silence of God. And so

people from the whole Judean countryside and all the people of Jerusalem were going out to John the baptiser in the wilderness

The wilderness is something that has all but disappeared from our consciousness and indeed the planet. The human footprint and desolation is seen everywhere. You cannot escape from wifi, from piped music. I was in Naseby last week, 2000 ft above worry level, but the sound of the chain saw, the lawn mower and hedge trimmer still filled the air.

I remember once sharing a car with Kelvin Wright and we were speaking about this very thing and he said he longed for a place that might possibly kill him. From my own experience the wild mountains of the far North of Scotland on my own, high on rocky ridges without a rope, where a slip would be my last were my experience of that, but such places are increasingly rare as we seek to domesticate the Wild. Increasingly one met folk on the mountains as if they were on the high street as GPS gave them a sense of ‘having never left home’

Here and there a few intrepid folk can still find the wilderness. A recent TV series – was about folk who were dropped off with basic survival gear in Northern Canada, to try and survive for 100 days. But even with their wilderness skills, they were competing with wild animals for the few fat rich animals which might possibly sustain them through three months of Arctic winter. Porcupine for example. And one by one, the wilderness proved too much and they had to be rescued.

In the wilderness you come to yourself – all the ways in which we hide from reality are stripped away and you are vulnerable. In the wilderness you discover your own insignificance, and in the wilderness you might possibly encounter God. As your own ‘I am’ is reduced to its meagre frame and I AM becomes Reality.

people from the whole Judean countryside and all the people of Jerusalem

To go out from the artificiality of the city, and it is most literally artificial, to leave even the carefully tended fields – to go beyond the boundaries of what is ‘safe’ – to go off the edge of the map hedged around with warnings ‘here be dragons’ – that is where we are to go in response to John

That is the place of repentance. There you awaken to your true vulnerability. And in that awakening, awaken to the possibility of God.

Advent is a season of this stripping back

The promise is The Holy Spirit – the life of God himself, but The World noisily intervenes and distracts. Just this week I received an email from a Christian organisation. It began – Today is December 1st so I can now officially say ‘Merry Christmas’. Even Jacinda and Mike Hoskings have exchanged ‘Christmas’ presents on air.

‘Christmas’ so called invades the space – fills any void – like the relentless playing of ‘Christmas’ music. In this seaosn of The Voice in the Wilderness when we are called away from the clamour – The World pursues us relentlessly.

But for those who like the Pilgrim in ‘Pilgrim’s progress’ put their fingers in their ears, who ignore the siren cries of the world, and respond to the Voice in the wilderness, then and there they might encounter the one who will in time come and baptise with the Holy Spirit.

Unlike those TV wilderness experts, We don’t need to be rescued from the Wild, we need to be rescued from the illusion of life which the World provides. That is we will accept it is the gift of Advent

We wait for Him – For apart from him, we know that we have no good thing

Behold! Christ the King!

Sermon for Christ the King, Yr A 2020

Ephesians 1:17-18

Matthew 25:31-46

‘Now you say you see . . .’

I pray that the God of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Father of glory, may give you a spirit of wisdom and revelation as you come to know him, so that, with the eyes of your heart enlightened, you may know what is the hope to which he has called you, what are the riches of his glorious inheritance among the saints . . .

With the eyes of your heart enlightened.

How we see is fundamental to our lives. So much so that we talk of understanding in terms of sight ‘Oh! Now I see!’ we say. The problem is that sight, the sense which we put most trust in, is also the one most easily deceived. Think how many magic tricks depend on that, compared with your sense of smell, or hearing . . . and of course in the age of the captivating screen this deception is amplified.

Illusion in the magic sense depends on what you think you are going to see, because that is the controlling factor. We don’t talk about ‘the elephant in the room’ because we don’t expect to see the elephant in the room, because most of the time there is no elephant in the room. We have our stories about reality and without realising, we see the world as we are. Unconsciously (?) we filter out that which doesn’t fit our way of ‘looking at’ the world.

Which brings us to our parable, that of ‘the sheep and the goats’, but first we need to return to last week’s parable – of the talents. As I said last week I want to flip it on its head. Because what we see depends on how we see.

My brother was talking to a wealthy individual recently. He knew this man well and he epitomised one way of looking at the world. He looked around him at all he had and said ‘the fruit of all my hard work’. You might say he looked at the world and said, if you play by the rules, work hard, you will do well for yourself. So, he would perhaps read the parable of the talents and say, exactly! The hard workers, people like me get what we deserve, and the idlers . . . well they get what they deserve as well . . .

It’s a common enough story. But there’s another one. My brother, who is sensitive to these things remarked upon the person who cleaned for this individual. He knew that she held down three full time jobs, just to make ends meet . . . she certainly worked hard, but . . . He went on to note that this man hadn’t worked hard for a long time, rather having got a certain amount of money, his money was doing the work.

Perhaps you have enough money to buy a second house. You let it out. Now your money is making money.

Now, imagine you hear the parable of the talents and Jesus’ final words – to those who have much , much will be given, to those who have little, even the little they have will be taken away . . . first as my brother’s wealthy friend, and then as the cleaner? Perhaps not to enjoy a long happy retirement despite working her fingers to the bone to make ends meet?? To those that have will be given more . . . to those who have not, even the little they have will be taken away . . . And we look out at the world and . . . say to my soul, Soul, you have ample goods laid up for many years; relax, eat, drink, be merry.

Which brings us to the second parable . . . you see those who have much, who see the world in a particular way, will hear this. The sheep are those who shared what they had, and the goats are those who didn’t. This is the way we are pretty much set up to hear this parable.

If as we do, you live in a hierarchical society then part of the story of such a society is that those at the top are supposed to help out those at the bottom – it is called paternalism. It is the way we see the world. So we hear it and think ‘I need to clothe the naked and feed the hungry and visit those in prison . . .’ But what if you are the one who is naked or hungry or in prison?? What then do you hear?

Regarding those in prison there is an eye opening book which I recommend called ‘Reading the Bible with the Damned. It is an extended reflection on what happened when the author started regularly to go into a high security prison amongst those on life sentences and read scripture. All of a sudden his ideas were stood on their head . . . these men saw the world very differently.

As we have been reminded these past weeks, these parables of Jesus are admonitions to his disciples to be ready for what is coming. But what Is coming? Who is shut outside? Who finds themselves in the placing of gnashing of teeth and outer darkness? Or, who finds themselves, to put it another way ‘hungry, naked, in prison’? After all, didn’t Jesus start out by saying ‘blessed are those who are poor? Those who are hungry? Those who mourn?’ Did he not say ‘Blessed are those who are persecuted for righteousness’ sake, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven. ‘Blessed are you when people revile you and persecute you and utter all kinds of evil against you falsely on my account. Rejoice and be glad, for your reward is great in heaven, for in the same way they persecuted the prophets who were before you’

Did not Jesus himself die ‘outside a city wall’?

Why is our focus on the sheep and the goats and their fate? Are we, as those who in one sense have done well set up to ‘see’ the whole story in terms of ‘just desserts’, ‘you get what is coming to you’. Is such a way of seeing, seeing in truth or is such an interpretation simply a reinforcement of our story about the way things are – to those who have much, more will be given . . . and perhaps ‘of those who have much, much will be required’?

Our attention falls on the sheep and the goats, their actions and their fates . . . which is odd, for Jesus’ says that neither the sheep nor the goats see . . . Hearing this gospel  as a moral tale about helping those less fortunate than ourselves or else . . . copying the sheep to gain a reward or avoid ‘the other place’ is then simply the blind following the blind . . .

Neither the sheep nor the goats see, but Here’s another question – Do We?

More specifically, neither the sheep nor the goats ‘see Jesus’ . . . but do we?

You ‘see’, This parable is not the judgement of Jesus’ people, it is the judgement of the nations. The Judgement of those who have not seen him, yet, who as St Paul says will be judged according to whether they have obeyed the law written in their heart. Perhaps they have seen the people of Jesus in those days when to be Christian was to be shut out from the world’s bounty, often to be ‘hungry, naked, strange and in prison’ and so tended to Christ himself in his people.

The parable assumes that the people of Jesus are those who when Jesus sits down on the mountain are those who have come to him, those who Know Him, who See Him . . . for those who say they belong to Jesus, who Know Jesus, that is the assumption, that they See Him. For they are his and he is theirs.

We have come to the end of the church Year. Christ the King Sunday. It is the end of our year of Matthew, but if we step back from Matthew and look at it not merely as a collection of ‘bits and pieces’, but in its entirety, something stands out.

Bookending the gospel is The Command which calls us to Life, a command to the people of God; “Behold!”

Behold! the virgin shall conceive and bear a son,
   and they shall name him Emmanuel’,
which means, ‘God is with us.’

And again, Jesus closing words to his people, even as he was taken from the sight of their eye . . .

‘Behold! I am with you always, even to the end of the Age’

And So St Paul prays for those who have faith in the Lord Jesus and their love toward all the saints,

“that the God of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Father of glory, may give you a spirit of wisdom and revelation as you come to know him, so that, with the eyes of your heart enlightened, you may know what is the hope to which he has called you, what are the riches of his glorious inheritance among the saints, and what is the immeasurable greatness of his power for us who believe, according to the working of his great power.

That whenever and in whoever Christ appears, we who Behold might recognise Him in whatever guise he is hidden from the eyes of the sheep and the goats

Put another way, give up on your stories about ‘getting just desserts’ or whatever other story you have about the world, because if we can’t see Jesus, why do we think we can see anything else??

Our Duty, and our Joy – The Parable of the Talents

Sermon for the twenty third Sunday after Trinity

Year A 2020

Matthew 25:14-30

The Fruitfulness of Joy, and of Duty

So the cry goes up – get out of bed, it’s nearly time for church! “but I don’t want to go to church!”, but you Have to go to church, Why do I have to go to church? Because you’re the Vicar!

Recently I was in conversation with the pastor of another church here in Dunedin, and he pointed out how so much in this day we are told to ‘follow our heart’, and that it was important to ‘live an authentic life, and be your real self’.

He’s right. If you follow the titles of popular books there are many on such themes . . . [individualism vs shared life] but such an approach privileges the individual over the group because it starts from the presumption that I have no necessary obligation or duty towards others.

This Zeitgeist can be ‘spiritualised’, and spiritialising things is very dangerous for us as Christians although it is rampant amongst us. We say ‘oh I have no call’, or ‘I do not sense the Holy Spirit prompting me to do this’ Without realizing what we are doing, we break the third commandment and take the name of the Lord in vain, using God to back up our often unconscious biases, or our captivation to the Spirit of the Age

Doing things out of duty seems is very much against the Zeitgeist, the Spirit of the Age, which is a huge problem when it comes to the Christian life for God’s commands are at least requirements. Loving your enemy and doing good to those who hate you is not something we do because we feel a sense of call.

Of course for some, the Way of God’s commands is the way of joy,  but if we are ever to discover that joy, then we have at least to acknowledge the duty, even if we don’t understand, or ‘heaven forbid’, they don’t speak to our heart

Last week we heard the parable of the wise and foolish virgins. If you remember these parables are told by Jesus in the few days between the complete breakdown of relations between himself and his opponents and the events of Holy Week. So Jesus is warning his disciples to get ready to be ready, for The Day of the Lord is Now.

The Day of the Lord is like a wedding, and last week we thought about how getting ready for a wedding involved lots of people taking their obligations seriously . . . and to be honest, it is very rare in our familie sexperience for people who had a role to play to do so out of anything less than Joy. They en ‘joyed’ serving and stepping up to help. Now perhaps there may well have been people who only turned up because they felt they had to, out of obligation or duty, but turn up they did anyway . . .

So we are not told whether the wise bridesmaids filled their lamps with oil out of a sense of duty, or joy, but they knew what was required of them and so they were ready. The foolish knew what was required but didn’t prepare. The Lord of the feast said to them when they found the door closed, ‘I do now know you’ . . .

Which takes us to our parable this week. Again we need to remember that parables of Jesus are not simple stand alone stories. This is about The Day of the Lord, and the accounting that Jesus has already warned his disciples about.

Before he starts out on the parables he tells them Who then is the faithful and wise slave, whom his master has put in charge of his household, to give the other slaves their allowance of food at the proper time? Blessed is that slave whom his master will find at work when he arrives. Truly I tell you, he will put that one in charge of all his possessions. But if that wicked slave says to himself, “My master is delayed”, and he begins to beat his fellow-slaves, and eats and drinks with drunkards, the master of that slave will come on a day when he does not expect him and at an hour that he does not know. He will cut him in pieces and put him with the hypocrites, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth.

Again, there is a work to be done, and again we have no insight into whether or not the hearts of the servants were in the work . . . whether your heart is in it is not it seems the most important thing.

So the parable of the talents is part of this. It is not simply a story about using or not using what you have been given, it’s a story about doing what is necessary, or doing the work you have been given.

Last time this came up I remember noticing something I hadn’t seen before – that the first two servants both have an element of joy about their service.  Behold! I have made five more talents! Behold! I have made two more talents! They are excited about their work and how it has born fruit. They have served with Joy and their service has born fruit.

Again we remember that Jesus is merely reiterating his teaching from the Sermon on the mount – By their fruit you shall know them. The good bear good fruit, the wicked bear bad fruit and then tells them that bearing fruit is simply a matter of hearing the words of Jesus and doing them. Loving your enemy, doing good to those who hate you, loving one another as jesus has loved us. As Jesus says to the man trying to justify himself, ‘do these things and you will live. Whether you feel like it, or not. Whether you have a sense of call or not, if you do it it will bear fruit.

This explains the response of the master to the third servant. The third servant is clearly not interested in the work of his master. He has told himself a story about his master in order to justify his failure to do his will. Isn’t this what we do when we say ‘Oh, the Spirit has not moved me in this direction’??

He is alienated in his mind, he has become his own God, judging his master – And we do this, do we not? What we ought to do is often clear, but then we come up with a justification for not doing it . . . something along the lines of ‘oh, its not my gift . . .’, or ‘my heart isn’t in this . . .’ or some other such thing. And what we do is put ourself at the centre, not God. And when we are at the centre then we are alienated from God.

You see the master at base just asks that if for no other reason, you act out of a sense of duty. You should have put the money on deposit with the bankers . . . you work for me, you have an obligation. It seems that this grudging obedience would have been enough, but the third slave wasn’t having anything to do with his masters business, he cuts himself off from the life of his master and finds himself therefore cut off.

Jesus uses the imagery of fruitfulness a lot. We know the season is near for the fig tree is coming into fruit, I am the vine you are the branches – bear much fruit to show you are my disciples. Fruit bearing is at least a duty – may God so change our hearts that it becomes our Joy and gladness and we enter into His Joy

This is The Day! Trinity +22, Year A

Matthew 25:1-13

“Behold! Here is the bridegroom! Come out to meet him.”

The Condemned man ate a hearty breakfast, we are told

On my wedding day, I ate a hearty breakfast . . . I ate a hearty breakfast because my best man, Mike, who faced a highly significant role in the day’s events, had never been to a wedding before. And he was nervous.

He was nervous because he took his responsibilities with great seriousness, as indeed he does to this day. So he couldn’t eat his breakfast

So I did . . . as well as my own

Of course a Wedding requires lots of people to show up not just in the sense of attending, but in the sense of playing their part, taking their responsibility seriously. Thus they honour the significance of the occasion. Not to do so is to fail to recognise and dishonour the significance of the day.

And the significance of the day is huge.

The condemned man ate a hearty breakfast – for to be married is to agree to die to the person you are, and to submit to the Way of love, which is to be changed. The two become one flesh. That cannot happen unless each dies to their own interests.

As we have explored from time to time, both in our evening talks and on a Sunday morning, to love is to be changed. To refuse to change is to refuse love.

So the wedding day is like a death . . . and a new birth . . . it is a day of great significance and everyone has to be ready to play the part appointed to them on that Day

Our Gospel is a Wedding Parable. Jesus has been talking about this day all along.

And now The Day has come! ‘The Rain fell, the floods came, and the winds howled and beat against the house, and the house on the . . .’ Was the house ready?? The Day will reveal it

So far in Matthew, this has been flagged up clearly in the sermon on the mount, Those who have heard his words and done them . . .’ they are ready. They are ‘The Wise’ Those who have heard his words and not done them; they are the foolish. Why? For the Day is coming

Jesus’ actions and words have drawn the attention of the Pharisees and others. They have been questioning him, over and over. By whose authority do you do these things? Is it lawful to pay taxes to Caesar? If a woman is married seven times, in the resurrection whose wife will she be? But Jesus having confounded them, then flips the tables. Whose Son is the Messiah? ‘David’s’ Really? How then does David call him Lord? ‘After this they durst ask him no more questions’

The die is cast.  We find ourselves now in a very brief window in which  Jesus prepares his disciples for what is to come, the Day fast approaching. He tells them of the destruction of the Temple, and then over and over with symbolic actions like the cursing of the fig tree, or in parables he gives them one clear message – This is Near! Be ready! You, My disciples, the day is near – it is time for you to play the part I have appointed to you . . .

Having had more than a passing role to play in weddings – there are strong parallels. The courting, the engagement, the save the date, the booking of venues, sorting out how everyone will have plenty to eat, the dress, the flowers . . .The Day is Coming! The Day is Coming!,  and all around people given roles and responsibilities. The Invitations . . . and so the day dawns, and everything is to click into gear, and it is time for those who have roles need to step up

“Ten bridesmaids took their lamps and went to meet the bridegroom. Five of them were foolish, and five were wise. These bridesmaids, or better ‘virgins’, have a role. They are to light the way for the bridegroom. Yet, When the foolish took their lamps, they took no oil with them” . . . Jesus has given out this role to his disciples. 

You are the light of the world. A city built on a hill cannot be hidden. No one after lighting a lamp puts it under the bushel basket, but on the lampstand, and it gives light to all in the house. In the same way, let your light shine before others, so that they may see your good works and give glory to your Father in heaven.’

This is their work – nothing else. Obedience to the teaching of Jesus. Many turn up at the end of the sermon saying, ‘Lord, Lord . . . haven’t we done all these [other] things’ He says ‘I never knew you’. So too the foolish bridesmaids – ‘Lord, Lord! Open to us.’ ‘I never knew you’

In a few moments we shall baptise Wyndelyn. Following her baptism, we shall give her a lit candle and call upon her ‘Shine as a light in the world, to the glory of God the Father’ We say to her, through Ethan and Sara, Christ has made you his own, he has made you one of his disciples, and he has given you a work

Christ gives that commission to everyone here. I am giving my Life for you, I am giving my life to you – Be full of my life – Be full of the oil of the Holy Spirit – Be full of God! To Know Him. That is your work.

It is huge. It is why we have this community the church, to encourage one another in this massive responsibility Christ has given to us. It is why we don’t baptise except into the church  – into the body of Christ.

It is where we surrender our own lives to receive His Risen Life

It is the marriage feast of the Lamb – Death for the sake of Love which rises to new life

We stand upon the great Stage – the lights are going up and the curtains are being drawn. This is the Day!

“Behold! Here is the bridegroom! Come out to meet him.”

Amen