Archive for September, 2015

On the other hand

Saturday, September 19th, 2015

Mark 9:30-37

 

StMarksJesus never held a position of power in Society, and though that be the case, this doesn’t mean it is wrong for anyone in our society to hold important positions of authority, like Governor General,  Commander of the Armed Forces, or Prime Minister. We need people in such positions of authority. The New Testament tells us to honour heads of government and to pray for them, and of course to obey them. These people rule as God’s servants so we live in peace and safety.  Through their rule we enjoy freedom from chaos and evil. We honour these rulers for the important role they play, and not necessarily because they are always wonderful people.

Jesus obeyed the earthly rulers like Pilate, even when they used their power to have Jesus executed as a criminal.

Luther understood God’s rule to be seen in our world in two ways. He used two hands as examples of this rule by God.

God rules countries with his right hand through people in authority, like monarchs and presidents and prime ministers who keep law and order in our societies. These people may not be Christians, or religious people, but they might still rule well in their important role. With history also showing that some of the worst rulers in Europe have been Christians.

God’s left hand rules the Kingdom of Grace. People are won for this Kingdom by God’s love, and not by force. People enter this Kingdom by God’s grace.

Jesus builds the Kingdom of Grace. Things had not been going well between people and God. One could say, things had not been well at all for thousands of years. Jesus came to change that. He came out of loving concern to win people with God’s love. It is a love which cost Jesus his life. This is his important role, his moment of honour and glory, to take the place of the marginalised people, the victims of evil in society, the people with broken relationships with God and their neighbours and partners. Jesus suffers the consequences. It cost Jesus his life.

Jesus comes to win people through his love, and not by using force or supernatural powers. Even his closest disciples can’t understand this. They want Jesus to use his power to set himself up as a powerful earthly ruler. In his miracles they see that Jesus has tremendous power from God. They dream of setting him up as their King who would use his power to drive out the Roman rulers who had invaded their country.  His followers were prepared to fight, like Peter who drew a sword and lashed out to defend Jesus. His closest followers expect Jesus will build an earthly kingdom of power. Maybe that is why some of them follow him. They want to be up there on the dais with him when he is in power. Jesus tries to explain that this is not his role. He even goes into hiding with them so he can have time alone with them and tell them of his impending death, his sacrifice. His victory dais would be a rough wooden cross. Verse 30 describes how:

Leaving that region, they travelled through Galilee. Jesus tried to avoid all publicity in order to spend more time with his disciples and teach them. He said to them, “The Son of Man is going to be betrayed. He will be killed, but three days later he will rise from the dead.” But they didn’t understand what he was saying, and they were afraid to ask him what he meant.

It was no use. They had their hearts set on becoming important. Jesus even asked them, “What were you discussing out on the road?” But they didn’t answer, because they had been arguing about which of them was the greatest.” Their aims are so human, and earthly and natural!

We can find people like that in the Church. They aspire to positions of power and might even look down on other people, especially those who don’t get to worship very often.

Jesus doesn’t look down on people. He gets alongside of them, even those who are usually despised in their community. The love of God is so deep. The love of God is so expensive it cost Jesus his life. In verse 35 we read how Jesus sits down with the disciples:

Jesus sat down, called the twelve disciples, and said to them, “Whoever wants to be first must place himself last of all and be the servant of all.”

To become a follower of Jesus is not to grasp for power, or to use others as a ladder to climb up higher. It is to get alongside the weak, the hurting, the broken hearted and the despised people. To give a practical and down to earth demonstration Jesus actually takes a child as an example. A child is an obvious example of someone who has no power. A child was to be seen and not heard. A child is one who takes orders from adults. A child wouldn’t boss an adult around. Jesus puts his arm round the child, and says to the disciples:

Whoever welcomes in my name one of these children, welcomes me; and whoever welcomes me, welcomes not only me but also the one who sent me.

 

Jesus rules unlike any earthly ruler. Jesus wins people with God’s love for a kingdom that lasts forever. He even invites us to come and eat and drink at his table out of his great love for us.

If our Christian ministry is to be effective, we need to be like Jesus: we have to get alongside of people, and at times put our arms round them, and not Lord it over them. That is God’s challenge to us. Where this costly love is genuine, people will respond. Think of the way Australians respond positively to the people of the Salvation Army: they are people who are known widely in our community as the people who get alongside the people in need.

It is not always easy to meet this challenge. We need to sacrifice any dreams of power and authority we might harbour and instead become servants, we need to receive nourishment from the Lord’s table – new life and love – so that we can share this with others. And we need to remember the ultimate sacrifice made by Jesus, and when we do the view of ourselves is changed to that of hope and security in him alone, and our view of others seen through Christ becomes the same, as we see Him in them and them in Him, and see them as ourselves. Knowing their joys and sorrows and see there is no difference between us in wants and needs, and no difference in Christ’s love and see that in all ways and in all things – we serve to and receive from those that the Lord puts before us, all the while joyously knowing- that nothing in our hand we bring, but to the cross alone do we cling.

 

The peace of God, which passes all understanding, guard our hearts and minds in Christ Jesus. Amen.

You can’t put toothpaste back in the tube

Saturday, September 12th, 2015

James 3: 7-10

StMarksWhat are the most welcome words you’ve ever heard? Were they “You’ve got a promotion”? or were they “I love you”? Good words like “I love you” can be life-transforming. Said by the right person, you never feel the same again. On the other hand, careless and unkind words are difficult to erase from our memories. Sarcasm, rudeness or slander can devastate a person’s morale, and cause them to despair. Have you caught yourself saying things you have never meant to say? “I shouldn’t be saying this, but …”, and before you know it, you end up saying words you regret for ages afterwards.

Our magazines and newspapers cater for people’s desire to know personal details about others. Magazines have full-time gossip columnists. Their latest revelations about famous folk sell extra copies. Fallen human beings seem to enjoy hearing about the failings of others, because it takes the focus from themselves. When a failing of ours is pointed out, we defend ourselves by blaming someone else. When we’re accused of something, we often reply with accusations aimed at the other person in return.

“Stop doing the devil’s work”, a woman heard in her dream. She then prayed to the Lord: “How am I doing the devil’s work?” And then the pastor’s sermon text from last Sunday came to mind: “The devil is the accuser of our brothers and sisters (Revelation 12:10).”  So, one evening she gathered her family together in the living room and shared with them what had happened to her. She mentioned folk her family had heard her criticise and continued: “God doesn’t have to consult me about the way others lead their lives. God may have purposes and plans I don’t understand. I grieved Him when I was critical.” Later she said, “As I finished our conference, I sensed a sweet release. Now, when the temptation to criticise comes back, I know it’s time to re-examine my heart and mouth.”

As prayer is valued so much by God, so criticism is valued by Satan. The Bible condemns the kind of criticism known as “judging”. Jesus says: “Judge not and you will not be judged (Matthew 7:1).”  It’s been said that half of our sins are sins of the tongue. James paints a bleak picture of the damage our tongues can do. He does this so we act on what he says. You see, our words are a good indicator of the state of our hearts. Jesus says: “The mouth speaks what the heart is full of (Matthew 12:34).” There’s no substitute for self-control. Those who can control their tongue, can control everything else about themselves. James says loveless words are sinful because of the damage they do to the speaker as well as to the listener. On the other hand, kind, caring and considerate words have a positive effect on both speaker and listener. Those who speak kind words end up feeling kinder towards others.

James speaks of our ability to tame animals. At a circus we might see a wolf and a rabbit that have been trained to romp playfully together. But James believes it is beyond our human ability to tame our tongues. This is something that only God’s grace can do. That’s why James goes on to tell us that God is a Giver, a greater Giver of more grace (James 4:6). The more God demands of us, the more grace God gives us to meet what He desires of us. Our gracious God gives to us what He requires of us. God’s Word and sacraments are the wonderful means by which He provides us with all the life-changing grace we need for daily living.

Grace is a precious gift which we receive as beggars from God’s throne. Isn’t it wonderful to know that God’s throne of grace is at the centre of the universe, a throne where we can go to receive help in time of need? The more we seek and embrace God’s costly grace, the more it can mould us into gracious speakers and listeners. “Be quick to listen”,  James urges us, because the first sign of a grace-tamed tongue is that it listens before it speaks. First of all, we listen to our Lord and let His words impact on what we do or say: “Bless those who curse you”, Jesus says in Luke 6:28.

Our text speaks both of blessing God and bestowing God’s blessing on those who have offended us, or with whom we don’t readily get on. To bless God means to acknowledge God as the source of all our blessings. The Bible abounds in words of blessing. To bless God is to recognise his presence among us, and to acknowledge with gratitude His grace and goodness to us.

In Holy Communion, God offers us His cup of blessing, so we can be a blessing to others. “Bless, for to this you have been called, that you may obtain a blessing (1 Peter 3:9).” Blessing is the language of heaven. When we bless someone, we commend them to God, so that God can fill their lives with peace and joy. To bless someone is an expression of goodwill, harmony and well-being. The simple blessing we give one another, “God bless you”, means “May you experience God’s goodness and grace in good measure.”

 Our Lord invites us who treasure His words of comfort,to speak the truth in love to our neighbours. To speak well of our neighbours and family members is a joy, because by doing so, we draw attention to the gifts Christ has blessed them with. We’re encouraged to put the best construction on their actions, and explain them in the kindest way we can. Our words are to be calm, apt, honest and kind. The Bible reminds us that a gentle answer will calm a person’s anger: “A soft answer turns away anger, but a harsh word stirs up anger (Proverbs 15:1).” Harsh words win no arguments. There’s no such thing as winning an argument, only winning an agreement.     

 Admitting your mistakes removes barriers between yourself and those with whom you speak. People warm to those who admit their imperfections instead of boasting of their own virtues. Apologies have a soothing effect as they create warmth between people and make conversation easier. The essence of any good relationship with another person is knowing when to listen and when to speak. Compassionate conversation is the bond between friends and spouses. Love dies when the dialogue stops between those under the same roof. Silence may be golden, but prolonged silence is cruel. Small talk between family and friends keeps family members and friends close to each other.

Words shape lifelong relationships. The Bible reminds us “The right word spoken at the right time is as beautiful as golden apples in a silver bowl (Proverbs 25:11).” The influence of calm words is especially potent: “A gentle word can get through to the hard hearted (Proverbs 25:15).” Calmness allows time for tempers to cool and a fair hearing to occur. Here courtesy is a wonderful help. Courtesy can help your dialogue partner to calm down and not say things that may be regretted later. Colossians 4:6 champions courtesy in speech when it says: “Be gracious in your speech. The goal is to bring out the best in others in a conversation, not put them down (The Message, p.505).”

 We can be tempted to think lightly of words compared with deeds, but words are deeds. They can be the most revealing deeds in which we’re involved. The wise are those who use words wisely, the Book of Proverbs tells us. Proverbs 18:20-21a says: “You will have to live with the consequences of everything you say. What you say can preserve life or destroy it.”

 Let our words be in the life-preserving, life-enhancing business. So don’t say everything you think. It may not be helpful. Before you say something, ask: “Is it true? Is it loving? Is it necessary?”

Finally, we pray with the Psalmist: “Lord, place a guard at my mouth, a sentry at the door. Keep me from wanting to do wrong (141:3-4a).” Blessed by our Lord’s words of grace and forgiveness, we seek to practise the Bible’s wisdom, as given to us by Ephesians 4:29:

“Do not use harmful words, but only helpful words, the kind that build up and provide what is needed, so that what you say will do good to those who hear you.”

 The peace of God, which passes all understanding, guard our hearts and minds in Christ Jesus. Amen.

What price my integrity

Saturday, September 5th, 2015

James 2:1-24, Mark 7:24-37

StMarksAn aspiring young driven leader was sent by senior management to work alongside me for a period of time. He had many desirable abilities, including his honesty where he openly talked of his willingness to burn anyone that gets in his way to make it to the top. Amongst other things one day I was discussing the scenario of where if he had trained up a person from his team so well that upon them both applying for the same higher position, that should the person that answered to him be successful and as such become his superior, that he should not only be very happy for that person, but also content in his role of having helped form that person’s leadership skills to the point that it over shadowed his own.

He did not agree with such an outcome and in all seriousness, though I meant what I said it was easy for me because I was never promotionally focussed. But what if it was something important to me? What price my integrity?

Integrity: genuineness, authenticity, reliability, honesty, honour, uprightness.

The saying is that everyone has a price and mine certainly wasn’t getting promotions. But what about reputation, money, friends, family? What if the thing we hold dearest was on the line? Would we resort to returning fire with fire, payback, bringing them down publicly by tarnishing their reputation with well- placed half-truth’s all the while giving ourselves the comfort that they either deserve it or that we are doing it for the right reasons.

The book of James both from last week’s readings and this week’s gives us some interesting if not challenging advice for us as Christians: Be quick to hear, slow to speak and slow to anger. Be doers of the word and not hearers only. Love your neighbour as yourself and show no partiality or judgement based on appearance, wealth or status-either way be it upon what may appear lowly or vice versa an attack like that of the tall poppy syndrome.

What price our integrity?

The refugee crisis unfolding in Europe. Hundreds of thousands fleeing their home countries with just the “shirt on their back.” Many once successful business people and all that once called a location home but for safety have no other choice than to flee.

From afar it’s disturbing. But what price our Christian integrity should we see the nation’s leaders in order to broker peace revert to a time like after world war two and re-align nations and their borders and for our part it is decided that the nation of Syria Mark II will be self-governed and located in a region encompassing the northern part of NSW and a Southern section of QLD.

What price our Christian integrity when to be quick to hear, slow to speak and slow to anger. To be doers of the word and not hearers only and show no partiality or judgement based on appearance, wealth, status colour or creed when to do so will mess with something we hold very dear to us like that of Abraham who when asked to do so offered up his Son Isaac on a mountain top alter.

“Big ticket items” that prey we never have to contend with because it would seem it’s enough for us just trying to have two congregations of the same Christian identity not throw stones at each other never mind Christian groups that assert that they are the one and only true way to salvation and so it’s no wonder that upon becoming a born again Christian shock rocker and once legendary hard living Alice Cooper wrote that “Drinking beer is easy. Trashing your hotel room is easy. But being a Christian that’s a tough call. That’s rebellion.”

So what price of our Christian integrity? I for one, after reading the Book of James know that many times mine has been far too low. So low at times that James words today in isolation are unsettling.

That if “You love your neighbour as yourself, you are doing well. But if you show partiality, you are committing sin and are convicted by the law as transgressors. For whoever keeps the whole law but fails at one point has become accountable for all of it. For he who said, do not commit adultery, also said, do not murder. If you do not commit adultery but do murder, you have become a transgressor of the law.”

But what then of today’s Gospel where Jesus heals a man and a women simply because of their belief, their faith that He could do so.

The key is the context. The context of James whose audience is Jewish converts with works based backgrounds who ultimately are being led to ask the question of “That if we are saved by both faith and works, then how many works must we do to be placed in the saved column?” An answer of participating in salvation through works that can never be answered never mind give any comfort.

But the answer seen in the context of Jesus’ dealings with the two in the Gospel who not only were healed simply through faith, but just as important in context is that they were the dreaded and unreligious gentiles.

What our Christian integrity? Is it borne of legalism that serves not salvation but to that of removing the hope and joy of serving Him out of gratitude?

Or is it borne from when Jesus on the cross cried “it is finished” that we know that in faith in Him alone have our sins been forgiven.

So what price our Christian integrity? A price we could never keep, but the price paid by Jesus Christ who showered his riches upon us at the cost of His own life.

The riches and genuineness of your faith, of greater worth than gold, and to which glory and honour to Jesus Christ is revealed.

The riches of Christ showered upon us that lets us heed to His call from John 9:4 that “As long as it is day, we must do the works of him who sent me. Night is coming, when no one can work.”

And the riches of Christ that bring understanding to His words from Galatians 6:10 and Ephesians 2:8

That “not that of works should we boast”, but “to that of the cross of our Lord Jesus Christ, through which the world has been crucified to us, and we to the world.”

“For was by grace are you saved through faith; and that not of yourselves: it is the gift of God:

For we are his workmanship, created in Christ Jesus unto good works, which God hath before ordained that we should walk in them.”

Because of the Work of Christ, saved in Christ we are and saved in Christ we shall remain, as to in Christ shall in this world we strive.

Good habits

Wednesday, September 2nd, 2015

             

Mark 7:1-8,14,15,21-23

StMarksTraditions, habits, routines, customs, practices – call them what you like. We all have them.

It could be as simple as washing your hands you’ve been to the toilet, having a cup of coffee or beer at set times during the day or night, watching TV from a certain lounge chair, mowing the lawn or planting a crop the same way each time, sticking to ‘Holden’ or ‘Ford’ when buying a new car, or saying grace at mealtimes and bedtime prayers.

Even today,perhaps you are sitting in the same spot you usually sit.

You may have a good reason why you sit there, but maybe you sit there simply because you’ve always sat there! Your routine, your practice, your habit, your custom, or your tradition is that you sit there.

If you sit somewhere else, worship just isn’t the same, is it? If someone else is occupying your usual seat, you might even get quite upset and try to bore holes with your eyes into the back of the head of the person who ‘stole’ your seat!

Now there’s nothing wrong with having traditions, in fact we even need them.

While some may argue routines can make life boring, routines can also structure our life in such a way that we feel safe and secure to live in freedom and joy.

You could  say traditions or routines are a bit like ‘home’. Sure, it’s nice to be on holiday for a while and have a break from normal routines, but it’s also nice to get ‘home’ and back into the security of routine.

The problem with traditions is that we might try to impose them on others.

Take the Pharisees and scribes for example.

They were faithful religious people, perhaps not unlike you.

They would read the Word of God and try their best to live by it. In fact, to make sure they lived out the Word of God, they created certain traditions or customs to live by so they wouldn’t break any of the commandments and therefore live as holy people of God.

One such custom was they would wash their hands a certain way before every meal. Now, washing hands before meals is simply good hygiene and necessary for our health and the health of others. But when these people saw Jesus’ disciples eating food without washing their hands, they were horrified and openly criticised them, and even criticised Jesus for not correcting them.

Now, whether Jesus’ disciples didn’t wash their hands at all, or whether they didn’t wash their hands the correct way like the Pharisees’ custom, we don’t know.

What we do know is that the Pharisees and scribes, those ‘faithful people of God’, were imposing their own set of traditions or customs on others, and judging them accordingly. They were looking down on the disciples and wanting them punished for their lack of faith,

simply because they didn’t wash their hands the right way before eating!

But where in the bible does God command us to wash our hands before eating?

He doesn’t! This isn’t a command of God, but a tradition of men. It’s OK and even helpful to have traditions, but to impose them on others or punish them for not keeping our own personal traditions, is wrong.

Despite the Pharisees’ best intentions, they had made their own man-made tradition or custom into a law that sat equal with, or perhaps even above the commands of God! Put another way, they were trying to make themselves look holy by doing their good little works.

No wonder Jesus calls them hypocrites!

They’re acting out their faith, living up to their own man-made traditions and customs to make them look like they’re faithful people, yet as soon as they open their mouths with criticisms or insults toward others, everyone can clearly see their hearts for what they are: callous, cruel, harsh, bitter, and sinful.

Despite their good intentions, they had set up their own little traditions as their idols; over and above God.

Now we probably all want to say we’re glad we’re not like those judgmental and cruel Pharisees and scribes, but here’s some bad news: unfortunately there’s a Pharisee in all of us, eager to come out and assert itself.

Just think about it…have you ever criticised, either in words, or even by your thoughts, the actions of someone else in worship?

A scenario:

Perhaps you sit during Confession, but the person next to you kneels.

“Look at them kneeling, as if that’s going to make you a better Christian – it’s all a pious act, a great show of repentance, but I know how you live!”

Or maybe you kneel, but the person beside you sits. “Look at them sitting as if they’ve done nothing wrong to repent of, don’t they take their confession seriously?

Are they truly sorry for their sin?”

Now, there are good reasons to kneel during confession. But the action of kneeling or sitting during confession is not commanded by God.

To look down on others because they sit or kneel is to place a human tradition above God’s Word. By judging people to be ‘no good’ because they sit or kneel, is to set up a human practice into an idol.

The only time we should place a human tradition so highly is if the Gospel of Jesus Christ is at stake. So in any congregation, is his Gospel at stake whether you or the person is a ‘sitter’ or a ‘kneeler’? No! Is it necessary all kneel? No.

In a similar way,

you may appreciate a worship service where the pastor chants liturgical parts, where hymns are played on an organ, and where the whole service is quite structured and formal, or you might prefer a worship service where a band plays songs,

where a pastor tries to avoid any hard to understand theological terms, or where we might use drama or dance to communicate the Gospel.

You might like one or the other, or even a mix, but a personal preference should remain as such.

When you impose your own set of traditions, customs, desires, or preferences on others and criticise them when they don’t do it or don’t like it, is to do what the Pharisees where doing.

However faithful and well-intentioned you may be, if you impose your own set of traditions or preferences on others, you’re setting up salvation by works. And this goes for the Pastor too, because

Attending ‘traditional’ worship won’t save you.

Attending ‘contemporary’ worship won’t save you. This said, a good worship service will always point to Jesus and deliver his gifts.

But kneeling or sitting during confession won’t save you. Sitting in that same seat every Sunday, or even sitting in a different seat every Sunday won’t save you.

Washing your hands the right way before eating won’t save you (although it might save you from possible infection). The good news is that Jesus saves you.

Jesus knows we’re naturally idol worshippers. We naturally worship ‘things’, but we also naturally worship our routines and practices.

In this way, many of our practices, no matter how ancient or recent, and no matter how well-intentioned, can be either helpful or harmful.

They’re helpful when they’re a natural expression of our faith in Jesus alone who saves us. They’re harmful when we’ve turned a tradition or custom into an idol and we sacrifice those ‘heathens’ around us who don’t worship your same idol.

The trouble with idols is they always demand sacrifice. All too soon, our idols progress from a desire, to a demand, to a judgment, and into punishment. That’s no way to live in the light of the Gospel of Christ!

We don’t have to throw out all our traditions, routines, customs, practices, or habits. We don’t have to impose any new ones either.

But if we’ve turned any of our desires or customs into idols that others should also practice, then we need to turn to Jesus.

Our outward appearance and actions that others see won’t make us clean.

Our ‘righteous works’ won’t save us.

You can wash the outside of a rotten apple as much as you like, but it still remains rotten. The rottenness of our heart is exposed by our evil thoughts and desires: stealing, murder, adultery, jealousy, low or no moral values, taking advantage of others, pushing the boundaries of decency, disrespectful speech, arrogance, and foolishness. Our ‘traditions’ can’t hide our rottenness.

There’s only one who can create a clean and holy heart: that place within us that motivates and directs our thoughts, words and actions. Jesus alone can make our hearts clean so that what comes out of us is also clean and holy.

As we attend worship, the Word of God settles on our hearts to wash it clean and to bring forth the fruits of faith through our actions.

Although baptism might seem like an outward act, it makes the whole person clean. Although eating and drinking the Lord’s Supper may seem just a tradition, actually the grace and love of God is at work.

Through faith, Jesus enters us to clean us from the inside out. Only he can get rid of the rottenness of sin within and help us live in grace, mercy, forgiveness, peace, and love.

If we’re going to impose anything on anyone, let it be the love and forgiveness of Christ on each other.

If they don’t live up to our standards or agree with our traditions, love them. If they don’t live out their faith the same as us, accept them as our brother or sister in Christ.

If their words or actions annoy us or frustrate us, forgive them. Our ‘traditions’ won’t save us.

Jesus saves us and thank God for that. Amen.