Archive for February, 2011

Looking worried

Friday, February 25th, 2011

Epiphany 8

Matthew 6:24-34

“You look worried”, one man said to another. His friend answered, “I’m so worried that if anything happens to me today, it will be two weeks before I can worry about it!”

Dear friends in Christ,

Test your memory. Try to recall the things you worried about this day last week. Those who are habitual worriers have been called back-seat drivers. Worry has been likened to a rocking chair: it gives you something to do, but gets you nowhere. All the talk in our newspapers about the difficulty people are now having in making ends meet due to the rising cost of living is increasing the worry and anxiety of many folk in our community.

It has been estimated that 40% of things we worry about never happen, another 30% have to do with things we cannot change, and 12% of our worry has to do with needless health fears. Most of the time, the troubles of tomorrow are unexpected, rather than things we have already worried about. Many people worry because they have no invisible means of support. The words of Jesus in today’s Gospel are some of the most liberating words ever spoken. The freedom from anxiety our Lord speaks of comes like a welcome song from a lost paradise. To help us get our cares and concerns into perspective, Jesus adds a note of humour to his message.

Have you ever seen a bird drive a tractor and pulling a seeder? Or drive a harvester and then carry bags of wheat into a barn? Of course not. But it makes a humorous picture, doesn’t it? Then Jesus adds the picture of flowers spinning cloth to make garments. Our Lord isn’t opposing all planning for the future. Rather, he wants to liberate us from worries that so consume us that there’s no room left for joy and thanksgiving. Worry is due to an over-focussing on negative factors, and failing to factor God and his goodness into our thinking. We are so easily tempted to want more than we have. When we’ve got the more that we longed for, there are still more things we feel we’ve just got to have. “Life doesn’t consist in the abundance of what we possess”, Jesus reminds us. A proverb advises us, “If you want to make someone happy, don’t add to their possessions. Rather, diminish their desires.” Jesus wants any self-serving wishes and desires we have to leave us, and to make room for new desires of love, kindness and trust in God. He wants us to believe that God is at work in the economic affairs of our state and nation, and yet not only there.

Our gracious God is also at work in the regular and normal activities of daily life, in the rising of the sun, the falling of the rain, and the growth of flowers, plants and trees. Everything speaks to Jesus of the activity of his heavenly Father, from the tiny mustard seed to the blowing of the wind. We can view a sparrow’s death without questioning the goodness of God’s creation, because even such an insignificant creature doesn’t die unnoticed by its Maker. The things that happen in nature have a spiritual meaning as well as a natural one. Creation speaks to us of God’s unmerited goodness: “God makes his sun rise on the evil and on the good and sends rain on the just and on the unjust (Matthew 5:45).”

Rain and sunshine speak to us of God’s kindness to his enemies. Every bird we see and every flower growing on its own, uncultivated by human hands, is a sign from God telling us of his care for us and His provision for our needs. In today’s Gospel, our Lord displays an appreciation of the beauty of nature without parallel elsewhere in the Bible. No one led a fuller life than Jesus. Yet he took time to delight in and enjoy the beauty of “the flowers in the field.” They are more beautiful than the gold and jewel-studded robes of King Solomon.

Those things we consider of insignificant value, like wildflowers, are esteemed so highly by their Maker that he adorns them with an excessive profusion of colour and varied shape and style. God doesn’t begrudge the space they occupy. Flowers tell us how much God treasures us. Their beauty is of no less value because of their temporary nature. Instead they tell us a powerful message about God’s Word: “Flowers fade, but the Word of our God endures forever (Isaiah 40:8).” Jesus speaks of native flowers as someone who is very fond of them. They remind us not to fuss and fret over what we should wear. The famous inventor Thomas Edison avoided this hassle by wearing the same kinds of clothes everyday!

Perhaps there was a stork or swallow flying overhead as Jesus invited us to “look at the birds of the air.”

Martin Luther’s comments on our Lord’s words here are peerless: “He (Jesus) is making the birds our schoolmasters and teachers. It is a great and abiding disgrace to us that in the Gospel a helpless sparrow should become a theologian and a preacher to the wisest of people.” Luther prefers birds to be free and not kept in cages. “Their singing of Lauds and of Matins to their Lord early in the morning before they eat is more excellent and more pleasant.” The birds of the air continually challenge us to trust God for the needs of tomorrow.

Jesus tells us that we are much more than a body to be fed and clothed. He treasures us so much he did all he could so that we might live forever. Jesus says to each one of you, “You’re blessed because you’re already in My care.” To cure you of endless worry about yourself and your future, “cast all your cares on Him, for He cares for you (1 Peter 5:7).” Come to Jesus Christ when you’re weary and can’t sleep because of worry. Jesus said, “Come to Me all you that are weary and are carrying heavy burdens, and I will give you rest (Matthew 11:28).” And especially bring your “trivial” cares and concerns to your Lord. Turn your cares into prayers then everything will look different, delightfully different.

Barry Chant and his wife’s business seemed to go all wrong. Their deli was low on stock. There were bills to pay. Then the deep freezer broke down and they lost a lot of frozen goods. A few other calamities happened as well. Barry went to bed miserable and woke up miserable. “I wonder what will go wrong today”, he’d think each morning. One night, however, he turned the whole situation over to God in prayer and left it in God’s hands. For the first time for weeks, Barry went to sleep peacefully and easily. Next day, he woke up happy and confident. Nothing had changed externally. The freezer still needed fixing. The shop’s stocks were still low. But he’d changed. Barry was a changed man. He went about his work that day singing. He and his wife had proven that you can really trust God in a time of stress, and it does make a difference!

Today’s text is full of encouragement to those whose faith is fragile and needs to grow. A fragile faith, a little faith that’s keen to grow, can do great things. Even Christians with a small amount of faith need not fear the future. Never underestimate what Christ can do for you. Instead, pray with the father of that mentally ill child in Mark 9, “I believe; help me where my faith falls short.” Prayer and the study of the Scriptures are more than spiritual resources. They influence how we feel and shape our values and our priorities. The more important Jesus Christ is to you, the more blessings you will receive from him.

Jesus invites you to do what needs to be done each day and leave the results in God’s hands. Accept each new day as fresh from God’s hands and let him worry about tomorrow. Trust his promises to you. Your prospects are as bright as the promises of God. Each breath, each heartbeat, each beautiful sight or sound is his gift to you. There’s no quicker slayer of worry than gratitude. In prison, Dietrich Bonhoeffer tells a friend, “Please don’t ever get anxious or worried about me….My past life is brimful of God’s goodness and my sins are covered by the forgiving love of Christ crucified. I’m most thankful for the people I have met.”

Thank God for all the folk who have enriched your life. It’s gratitude that makes life rich. The larger place gratitude has in your life, the less room there is for worry. Finally, Danish Lutheran philosopher Soren Kierkegaard recommends walking as a wonderful way of getting rid of worry. He got rid of his burdensome thoughts by walking.

“Don’t worry about anything, but pray about everything. With thankful hearts offer up your prayers and requests to God (Philippians 4:6).”

Amen.

Who’s in charge of the rain.

Saturday, February 19th, 2011

Epiphany 7

Matthew 5:38–48

Imagine if we were put in charge of the rain and the sunshine in Australia this year!

Some Christians might suggest we send rain regularly for the Christian farmers who go to Church, but when they need it, not in the flood proportions we’ve seen this year – and no rain at all on the unbelievers! After some time farmers who had never been near a church might start going every week so they could get a good share in the rainfall. They’d be going to Church for what they could get, and not to praise God in response to his gifts of love.

I wonder do we sometimes worship God in the hope we might get some special goodies, or do we always come as a response to God’s generous love and care for us?

If we humans were in charge of the rain I think we would be tempted to use it as a weapon against our enemies. We might flood them out, and if they survived that tragedy we might frizzle them with sizzling sunshine.

Out of his generosity God sends the rain and the sunshine on the believers and the unbelievers. If there is a drought, the Christians share in it along with the unbelievers. We need to learn to live with what God gives us through nature. We worship God because of his generous love for us, and not for what we can get.

I notice that some of us came to Church today in cars. This was only possible because in this world God’s laws of physics are absolutely consistent for everyone. This is true of our car wheels turning on the axles, to the brakes working, to the controlled explosions in the engine that give it power to move along. Imagine the trouble we would be in if the laws of physics only worked sometimes – haphazardly – like in the steering wheel, and in the engine, for example. Think of the traffic on the highways in our cities if the rules of physics only worked now and then!

God’s laws in nature work absolutely consistently – for both the believers and the unbelievers. I think we tend to take them for granted. We also need to respect these laws of physics. God isn’t going to change the universal laws of physics so we won’t have an accident if we drive dangerously or carelessly on our way home today. If God were to jump a Christian’s car over another car to avoid an accident, how many times should God do this for the Christian? Would three times be fair? If we are involved in a serious accident, our bodies are subject to the same laws as for unbelievers, and we can be killed too.

We thank God today for the miracles of technology we enjoy in our time. All of the laws in nature – in our universe – are part of the genius of God’s creation. We humans never invent these laws of physics. We only discover them!

The danger with our discoveries is we humans use them in technology against our enemies. I think it is to our shame that much research goes into developing weapons to kill our fellow humans, and people starve to death.

Technology doesn’t make us better people. It doesn’t make us more loving people. For example, we don’t build better marriages in our day. We need to look elsewhere for help to become more loving and caring people. We look to the Spirit of God to touch our hearts and minds with God’s love.

We worship God in response to his love, and not for the things we can get for ourselves. We need the love of God to flow through us to the people God puts us next to.

It is to this world of rain and sunshine and laws of nature that Jesus comes. I wonder who would like to swap places with him? Laid in a manger, in the place for animals. He never got to buy a piece of land, let alone build a house to call his home. He relied on catching a fish with a coin in it to pay his taxes! He was tortured, crucified and died. The laws of nature are used against him. There is no favouritism for God’s son. Do we deserve better than Jesus? Jesus goes through it all out of loving care and concern for you and me. We come to Jesus, not for what we can get, but to say ‘Thank you’ above all for his generous love and care for us.

I think the wonder is that God provides food and clothing to the ungrateful, the selfish, and the wicked people, whether they thank him or not. He knows their needs, as well as he knows yours and mine. Isn’t God so much more generous than you or I? God uses the sunshine and the rain to bless his enemies. He is so generous, we might even take his blessings for granted. Or we might become obsessed with the gifts and have no time for thanks for the Giver.

God’s gifts are always gifts of love. He blesses the ungodly with his gifts, and his gifts are blessings to us too. God gives out of a generous heart of loving concern and care.

We need to become more like the loving God we have. A key to us growing in love, is to accept and treasure the love of Jesus for us. He paid the cost for our heartless love, so his love could flow on to others.

What we build up and make with God’s blessings can occupy much of our time. I can think of computers, cars, supermarkets, kitchens and workshops full of gadgets, vast mining projects, oil drilling plants out in the oceans as well as on land, tapping into resources God supplies.

What is far greater to God than all the gifts we might enjoy is for us to have a thankful heart. The gifts from God come in one direction – from God to us, and sometimes the line stops there. But when our hearts respond in thanksgiving to God, and our praises ascend to God, then the line goes full circle, and we are at one with God. We praise God for his delicate laws in nature. We stand in awe before God’s creation. For the rain and the sunshine. We see the gifts, and God sees the thanksgiving. He loves the trust in your heart that receives his gifts with joy.

God’s physical care for everyone is a miracle. Similarly his spiritual gifts are given in the same way. God’s eternal Word, like manna from heaven, continues to rain down on you and me. His Word brings the best gifts that God has for us. Forgiveness. A new start. Peace of heart and mind. The best gifts God has are for everyone.

Amen.

Real guidelines.

Friday, February 11th, 2011

Epiphany 6

Matthew 5:21-37
We’re inclined to be very negative about the Pharisees, but we need to begin today by giving them some credit. They were totally committed to the law of God, which had been revealed to Moses on the mountain. You couldn’t accuse them of being slack. The Pharisee we heard from the other week in the temple was a pious man: ‘I fast twice a week and give a tenth of what I get.’

Jesus doesn’t criticise the Pharisees because they are interested in God’s law, but because they’ve gone about things the wrong way. They were interested in the outcome; God was interested in the attitude.

Jesus shows us that the Law of God, that is, his will for the way human beings should relate to another, is not something that we, as Christians,  can ignore. Jesus said: ‘Do not think that I have come to abolish the law and the prophets; I have not come to abolish them but to fulfil them.’ Jesus wasn’t tearing down the precious gift of God’s law, which he had given to Moses all those centuries ago. Through his life, he showed us how the law of God should be lived. From the heart. It wasn’t just a matter of going through the motions, and making sure you didn’t get caught out on the big things. That’s why the Ten Commandments are still God’s guidelines for the way people should relate to one another, even today. Which is why they’re also an integral part of our Catechism.

The Pharisees tried hard to obey the letter of the law. And failed. If we try the same approach we are doomed too. It’s mission impossible. If you’re not convinced, what Jesus says today about life in the kingdom will convict you.

Following God’s law isn’t a matter of not getting caught on the big things and ignoring the little failures. Take, for example, the fifth commandment. ‘You have heard that it was said to the people long ago, ‘Do not murder.’’ It was said to Moses by no less than God himself. So it’s the authoritative word of God. ‘But I tell you’ Jesus says. ‘There is more to this commandment than you’ve been taught. It’s not just the act of murder that’s the problem, but the attitude that leads to it.’

You and I can sit here comfortably while Jesus talks about murder. But suddenly Jesus widens the net, and we’re caught. ‘Anyone who is angry with his brother will be subject to judgement.’  Who hasn’t been angry? Who hasn’t cursed or muttered about someone else, someone here today in this church as well. What kind of impossible standard is Jesus laying down. It’s not so hard to evade the letter of the law, to make ourselves as small a target as possible. Murder is a big thing. But anger. Everyone gets angry.

Or what about the other commandment that Jesus focuses upon. ‘You have heard that it was said, ‘Do not commit adultery.’ Does that mean that if I haven’t committed the physical act, I’m safe. No, Jesus says. ‘I tell you that anyone who looks at a woman lustfully has already committed adultery with her in his heart.’ It’s not just the act but also the attitude. You and I aren’t off the hook just because we haven’t done the deed in the flesh.

What is Jesus asking of us, by tightening up the law of God so much that we have nowhere to run, nowhere to hide? He’s pointing to the inherent dishonesty in our human nature, that makes us think that we can appease God by only committing little offences. God sees into the heart. He is showing us that our need for him and what he brings us is greater than we ever appreciated. We simply cannot obey God’s law as natural human beings.

What’s needed is a whole new approach, a change of attitude. Which is exactly what we, as kingdom people, have received from Jesus. A new heart and a new mind. The Holy Spirit to safeguard our thoughts and direct our actions. God’s law, as Jesus teaches us here, forces us to examine ourselves. Jesus asks us to be honest about out deception, our self justification, in which we excuse our anger, or our lust, because we can’t help it.

And even then, we still fail. We aren’t always people of integrity. We drag our old nature around. ‘Don’t hide your failures’, Jesus says. ‘Bring it out in the open, repent of it, and aim for kingdom values.’ ‘When you fail, remember that I died for you, so that your sinful failures would be forgiven. Remember my words at the Last Supper: ‘this is my blood, which is poured out for many for the forgiveness of sins.’

The reality of forgiveness means that we can honestly confront our failures. Our anger at our spouse. Simmering disputes with people in this congregation. Threats and spiteful words against workmates. Lustful thoughts, even the act of adultery itself. The sad dissolution. breakdown of a marriage, which breaks the promise of a life-long union. All the things which Jesus today brings to our attention. We can let God’s word convict us and lead us to say, ‘I’m sorry.’ It’s then that we are freed from our failures, to begin fresh and energised.

Free to live in a loving, constant relationship with Jesus, who promises us; “I am with you always, to the end of the age.’ There’ll never be a time when we’re on our own. Free but guided and protected by a loving God, who asks that we call him Father, and who is always listening for our prayers.

This is the background against which we must place the words of Jesus today. Words which people have criticised for being unrealistic, harsh, impossible. Today Jesus gives some shape to his call that we are to be ‘the salt of the earth…and the light of the world’

What Jesus never meant to do in the Sermon on the Mount is to give us a complete handbook entitled ,’How to be a Christian in 3 easy lessons.’ Instead, he focuses on certain aspects of life and teaches us how kingdom values are to be lived out in that environment.

As kingdom people, Jesus urges us to let go of the mistakes and failures of the past and to aim to live like him. He specifically addresses our life in relationship with others and with a spouse. Don’t let anger rule. Let the fruits of the Holy Spirit be in evidence. Love. Peace. Joy. Patience. Self control, etc. Seek reconciliation with people who have wronged you. Why? Because that what God has done for you. He has sought you out and made peace through Jesus. God doesn’t nurse grudges. Nor should you. Try as hard as you can to live in peace with other people. Don’t let things deteriorate to the point where legal action is contemplated. Be aware of the temptations to adultery that you face. Work hard at growing you marriage relationship. Give it your all.

These are some of the ways that kingdom people live out their personal relationship with Jesus. This is just a tiny segment of the whole shape of kingdom life. Place yourself at God’s service, and let him fill in the whole picture of life under his guidance. Amen.

Shining light

Friday, February 4th, 2011

Epiphany 5
Matthew 5:13-20

Whenever we wish to stress someone’s solid worth and usefulness, we may say of him or her that they’re “the salt of the earth”. I’ve never heard anyone called “the light of the world”, but that’s what Jesus says about everyone who belongs to him and follows him. We are, in fact, “the hope of the world”. That’s how great we are because we belong to the greatest King. We walk through the world as visitors. What a gracious greatness Christ Jesus gives us. To be called “the light of the world” is no mean title. It shows how much our Lord values us and counts on us.

We are amazed that he should exalt us so. And because he exalts us so, there can be no room for any Christian to have an inferiority complex. We are instead filled with immense gratitude and an eager desire to get on with the work our Lord calls us to do. Jesus says this about us to fill us with courage and confidence, because we believe that what we do for him will have results and be effective for all eternity. What a tremendous encouragement it is to know that the good works we do will have an impact on the world, so that the world will have to reckon with us.

Let’s look at what it means that we are “the salt of the earth”. The ancient world felt that there was nothing more useful than salt and light. Salt was seen as indispensable. A bag of salt was reckoned to be as precious as a person’s life. They believed that without salt, human life could not be sustained. The term “salt” is used for that which is permanent, that which lasts, and also to describe a person’s worth and wisdom.  Salt, however, is only of use if it gets out of the salt shaker and loses itself in the soup. Salt gives zest to food, making tasty that which tasted flat and stale.

A pinch of salt is effective out of all proportion to its amount. It has been said that it only takes 5% of active Christians to have an impact on society. Salt’s power lies in being different from its environment. We transform the world by being different from it. Only those who are not like the world can transform it. We are the salt God rubs into the wounds of the world. In the context of verse 12, Jesus is saying, “You are those through whose persecution the earth will be seasoned, purified and preserved.” With such a high role assigned to us, there can be no room for complacency about our calling. Salt is concerned with self-sacrifice, not self-preservation. Our words are to have an impact on the social thinking of our world. As long as we preserve our distinctive character, we will make the world a more palatable place to live. People aren’t impressed by a character a little better than theirs, but by lives directed and inspired by motives and principles that are unmistakably different.

We posses something essential, something non-Christians don’t have, so that we change the tone of daily life. Like salt, we act as a leavening influence in our world. We long to do ordinary things extraordinarily well, so that non-Christians are led to ask, “You’re so different! What makes you tick?” To not laugh at a cruel joke can season the atmosphere of a group. A healing factor enters in when we forgive someone who is difficult to pardon, whose actions seem unpardonable. Those to whom Jesus said these words were ordinary people, just like most of us. Jesus saw people in terms of their potential, in terms of what they could still become. When a person is united to Christ, he or she is no longer an ordinary person. That person no longer feels useless or worthless. When Christ affirms us, we become strong enough to withstand anything, to “take on the world”!

To be called “the light of the world” would have to be the greatest compliment ever paid to us. We’re light of the whole world, not just the light of the Church. Salt works quietly and internally, but light works visibly and externally. Christians stay in the world, touching even its questionable activities, in order to transform them. We don’t remain aloof from society, where we cannot affect it, but we become immersed in its life. Those who have the mind of Christ bring about a pervasive sweetening of life and of all human relationships.

Light is certain to be noticed. Something built on a hill will be seen. Christian character is a positive force for good in the world. Light enters into the darkness to dispel gloom and bring illumination and enlightenment. The darkness can never overcome it. We shine with the radiance that comes from Christ’s presence in our hearts. The radiance of a bride comes from the love she bears in her heart. We are light of the world, both by what we are and by what we do. The word Jesus uses for “good” here means that this is winsome, beautiful and attractive. What we do must not only be good; it must also be attractive. There needs to be a certain winsomeness in Christian goodness. This happens when all we do is done for God’s glory rather than for our own self-promotion.

Light makes growth possible. As light reveals beauty, so, too, we radiate with the joy of our salvation. As light was the first creation of God, so too we are the first fruits of his creation, who seek to brighten up life wherever we are with our acts of practical helpfulness. We cannot therefore hide ourselves in privacy or obscurity under the pretext of modesty. We exert influence just by being in a situation in prayer and love. We can be of good cheer because Christ has overcome the world. To confess Christ is like letting a lion out of a cage. Where we stand up for Jesus, life is refreshed as with a cool evening breeze. The gifts of Jesus are not just for personal enjoyment. We receive them to pass them on to others. Our value and worth is affirmed as we give of ourselves to others. The greatest contribution we will make to the conversion of others will be through the kind of lives we lead. We are more valuable to Christ than we could ever imagine. The glory of belonging to him is infinitely great.

Jesus’ Church here on earth isn’t some insignificant, unimportant organisation. It isn’t just another ingredient in the world, but it is the decisive one, because it is the one organisation that exists also for the sake of its non-members. So, let what God has done for you shine forth. The light itself is more important than the lamp. We let our light shine in this world in gratitude that God so loved this world that He gave us His only Son.

To those who are tempted to feel inferior to the high and mighty of this world, Jesus says, “Fear not, little flock, for it is your heavenly Father’s good pleasure to give you the Kingdom.” His Kingdom alone abides forever. You are the hope of the world. Hope sees the invisible, experiences the intangible and attempts the impossible. When everything looks hopeless, then hope becomes a virtue.

Dare to be different for Jesus’ sake. He’s counting on you. Go out into the world this week full of confidence and courage, sure of Christ’s blessing on all you do in his name. What a privilege it is to be “salt of the earth”, “light of the world” for your Lord.

Amen.