An alternative to the wish-list

Mark 8:34,35

“He called the crowd with his disciples, and said to them, “If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me.  For those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake, and for the sake of the gospel, will save it.”

All of you are familiar with the concept of “wish list”s.  They pop up—sometimes at our specific request, and sometimes with no prompting at all!—they pop up around Christmas, or birthday, or in the more sophisticated form of the “bridal registry”.  It seems to be an innate capacity of ours to identify and list all the things we need, or want.
I see wish lists in people’s lives in other forms, too.  It may be talking about “what I am going to do when I grow up”, or “what degree I’m going to get when I finish VCE”, or “how many children I’m going to have at which years in my marriage”, or “what I’m going to do when I cash in my super”.
The positive thing about a wish list is that it gives us an insight into someone, an opportunity, a focus, an understanding, a goal.  The danger of a wish list is that if it doesn’t eventuate—none of it!—(Not even one thing on my list, but all this other junk instead!)—we may end up desperately disappointed, disillusioned, even hurt, and angry.
The school of experience has taught me to value instead what I call the “prerogative of the giver”.  Giving is the prerogative of the giver.  A gift is the prerogative of the giver.  It may well be that the gift is, in fact, exactly what I wanted, perfect, just right!  But it is, before that, what the giver has wanted to give, is able to give; it is, first of all, a gift that is generated by the excitement, the love, the desire of the giver.
Jesus says, “If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me.”  I think that probably 99% of the occasions on which I have heard those words, I have readied myself to do something, to take something up—“my cross”.  But go back a couple of verses in the Gospel today and you are reminded that when Jesus talks of the cross he is talking not of something that you carry, but something that carries you, that fixes you, that leaves you powerless, naked, stopped—
At that moment—taking the cross (or being taken up by it)—you lose life.  And from that moment life becomes, again, as it was in the beginning, a gift, and the prerogative of the Giver.
A little later, you’ll recall, Jesus—nailed to the cross—prays, “Father, into your hands I commit my spirit.”
And then it is up to the Father.  What will the Father give?  In his teaching Jesus once made a point of talking about the Father’s giving.  He pointed out that if we understand that even evil fathers know how to give good gifts to their children, “how much more will your Father in heaven give good gifts”!
Easter is the prerogative of the Giver, the gift of the Father.  The life Jesus lives is the gift of the Father.  The life we live, in Christ, is the gift of the Father.  The life we have seen one person after another receive in recent weeks in baptism, is the gift of the Father.  The life given to you, body and blood, at the altar today, is the gift of the Father.
To put it quite bluntly, in denying yourself and taking the cross, you render yourself open to the gift.
This isn’t how we always think when we consider our “faith life”, or our “spirituality”, where we might prepare a list of what we think we should do…what we think we should pray for…how things must be.  Sometimes we think that “denying yourself” is giving up ‘chocolate’ or ‘wine’ or ‘take away’ or ‘TV’ and choosing to improve yourself by spending more time on much more pious but probably less exciting indulgences.
The example of Abraham is rather interesting.  Abraham is often touted by us as a man of great faith.  Indeed he was!  But the exercise of his faith is somewhat perverse.  God promises many descendants and a wonderful land.  And in order to actually receive these gifts Abraham has to—and this doesn’t happen easily:  he often resists, he second-guesses God, he lies, he manipulates—in order to actually receive the gift of the promise of family and land Abraham has to accept that he and his wife are barren, and then give their home away!  Abraham receives the promise by giving away.  It is completely counter-intuitive.
We have watched some close neighbours in the last few weeks lose everything.  Some of us have made little lists of what we would take if we were threatened by something that could very well take everything.  What would try to keep?  What would try to save?  We’ve seen people in tears celebrate the poverty of life, of family when everything else is gone.  We’ve been unsettled in ourselves.  What is important?  As the economy falls away, or as health deteriorates, or as age catches up, or as plans collapse, or as windows of opportunity slam shut, or as reference points shift, or as friends disappoint—
“My God, my God,” Jesus cries, “why have you abandoned me?”  And yet, “Into your hands I commit my spirit.”
That is the emptiness of taking the cross.  That is losing your life.  That is trust that the God into whose hands we give everything is “for us”; that he who gave everything up for us, will not give us up!; that, in fact, he will give us all good things—clothed better than the flowers, fed better than the birds, loved better than  the child loved by the best of earthly parents.
Taking up the cross is not about devising a spiritual discipline, praying a prayer list, giving something away (for Lent!).  Taking up the cross is about relationship.  It is about will.  It is about identity.  Ultimately it is about shifting our minds from “what could I do?” and “what could I want?” and “what could I be?” to “what has God done, for me?” and “what does God will for me?” and “what has God made me to be?”.
There is an old phrase that we use in the Church that talks about God’s “plan of salvation”.  When we “take up the cross” we are not taking that plan into our control, but are recognizing that God’s plan of salvation takes us up into it, into his will, into his love.  Abraham was taken up into that by giving up country, culture, home, status, security and receiving in return all the wealth of all the blessing of God—all of which had not been part of his plans, nowhere on his list.  But out of it he became a conduit of God’s blessings to all the nations of the world.  St Paul, who we heard today talking about and admiring the faith of Abraham, had had a similar challenging lesson about being taken up into God’s plan.  Paul had been turned around in his own life, giving up his ‘religiosity’, giving up his ‘expertise’, giving up his perfection and status and authority and power, giving up his sense of security and even giving up his concept of what constitutes real ‘health’ and ‘strength’ and, in return ended up knowing the liberation of grace—of receiving rather than earning or commanding.  He gave up what was his whole world and received an unexpected gift which, in turn, he would never give up even if the whole world were offered back to him.
Pastor David Stolz gave us, the pastors in his care, a little wooden cross he had made for each of us—just the right size to hold on to comfortably—big enough to fill your hand.  In prayer, in thinking, or in sharing with another who needs to be reminded of the grace of God…
In a way you might say that in order to take up the cross, we have to put the “wish list” down.  In holding the cross (and being held by it) our hands are actually freed, our eyes are freed, our minds are freed, our lives are freed to focus fully on the gracious will of God.  [In the garden Jesus prayed, as he was about to be taken up on the cross, “not my will, but your will….”]  The emptiness which comes from handing it over to God actually frees us to receive what does not necessarily appear on our self-made “wish lists”s, and opens us up to experiences of contentment, or healing, or recovery, or service, or generosity, or patience…or love…that we may not otherwise have planned.
In losing what we often think of as “life”, and in taking up the cross, we take up and are taken up by the fullness of God; we hold and are held by the eternal love of God.  The cross and the resurrection are the one place, the one event, the one gift.
James 1:17:  “Every good and perfect gift is from above, coming down from the Father….”  It is the prerogative of the Giver!

Getting down and dirty

Text: 1 Peter 3:18
Christ died for sins once and for all, a good man on behalf of sinners, in order to lead you to God.

In 1993 Bette Midler recorded and popularised a song called, ‘From a Distance’. When it first came out there was a buzz of excitement because there was a song about God on the radio. Each verse starts “From a distance’ and the words express the need for harmony and peace in the land and no guns, no hungry people and no disease. And then follows the chorus,
God is watching us. God is watching us.
God is watching us from a distance.

But is that really what God is like? God doesn’t watch. We watch. We watch TV. We watch children playing in a playground. We watch circus performers do all kinds of amazing things as they balance, tumble, juggle and perform high above our heads. Watching is a kind of aloof activity; in fact, it can hardly be called an activity. It is passive. When you watch a group of children playing cricket, you aren’t actively participating in the game. You are watching them from a distance.

God doesn’t just watch. He gets in there where the action is. He bats, he bowls, when a kid falls and grazes a knee, he picks them up and dusts them off, wipes a tear from their eye, and with a word of encouragement sends them back into the game. God doesn’t just watch what is happening here on earth from a distance. He comes right down into the thick of things; born in stable, living in a war torn country ruled by unjust and unkind rulers, experienced pain, hunger, thirst, even tempted just as we are, as we heard in the gospel reading today when Jesus was tempted by Satan in the wilderness.

As we begin this Lenten season again we become aware once again that God isn’t watching us from a distance, in his Son Jesus he gets down and gets dirty. The reading today from Peter’s First Letter highlights this when the apostle says,

“Christ died for sins once for all”, and then a few verses later says, “Christ suffered physically” (4:1) and a bit earlier we hear “Christ suffered for you” (2:21). Peter is saying what the New Testament states again and again, as in Romans 5:8, “While we were still sinners that Christ died for us!”

We have heard words like “Christ suffered” and “Jesus died” so many times that I wonder whether we have lost the true impact of what these simple, yet very complex words, are saying to us. It’s only when we look at other words connected with Jesus suffering that we start to get an idea of what is being talked about. Words like ‘abused’, ‘rejected’, ‘beaten’, ‘whipped’, ‘mocked’, ‘pain’, ‘agony’, ‘wounds’, ‘crown of thorns’, ‘nails’, ‘put to death’. When we hear these words we realise that the word ‘suffer’ is a very intense word. We talk about the pain that a paper cut sends through our finger to our brain or the suffering that a backache causes us or a twisted ankle. But this kind of suffering pales into insignificance when we talk about the extreme suffering that Jesus experienced. It’s true some people have suffered extreme pain to a similar degree as Christ suffered and maybe it’s these people who have a sense of something of the suffering that Jesus went through.

But here is the dilemma with which the New Testament confronts us. When we say that Jesus suffered, we are saying, God suffers, God feels pain. To our human mind this is not possible. When we think of God we think of him being so different to us. We are mortal, God is immortal. We are weak, God is strong. We have limited knowledge, God knows everything. We are sinners, God is holy and perfect. It would be natural to follow on and say, “We suffer, God doesn’t suffer”.

But that’s precisely the point that the New Testament is making. God does suffer. There are those who say that God is just a creation of over active imaginations. But if God is just made up by the human imagination, I’m certain that the God we would create would not be a suffering God. Paul backs this up by saying to the Corinthians that the whole idea of God suffering on a cross is utter foolishness to our human way of thinking – ‘a stumbling block to the Jews and foolishness to the Gentiles’ (1 Cor 1:18-31).

Some Christians don’t like to focus too much on the suffering and death of Jesus. Some prefer to talk of him being Lord and King and that’s okay but let’s not forget that he is also a suffering God, a servant God. Suffering God and Servant God might seem like a contradiction in terms but that’s they way God is.

The New Testament doesn’t avoid talk about God suffering because this is central to God’s plan to save all people. Already in the Old Testament there is a connection between the saviour, the Messiah and suffering. In Isaiah we read,
“He was despised and rejected by men,
a man of sorrows, and familiar with suffering ….
He was despised, and we esteemed him not;….
he was pierced for our transgressions …
and by his wounds we are healed.” (Isaiah 53:3-6)

We have a God who suffered. When we see God in pain on the cross, we know that this God understands my pain. You see God knows and understands what it’s like to lose a child, to be abused, rejected, humiliated, a social outcast because he hasn’t just watched from a distance, he hasn’t even saved humanity from a distance.
He came to earth and was hated, tortured, made a laughing stock, abused, humiliated, and suffered to the point of death, even death on a cross. As we go through Lent which includes the events that happened between Palm Sunday and Good Friday, we need to remember, more than ever, that our God is a suffering God.

That’s the reason why a cross is so central to a Christian place of worship. We can sandpaper and smooth down the cross. We can make it into a nice piece of jewellery. Whether the cross is plain empty cross, or a crucifix with the image of Jesus on it, it doesn’t matter. No matter how much we pretty up the cross, it is always in instrument of suffering; a reminder of excruciating agony and death. In Jesus’ case, the cross is a symbol of an innocent man suffering because of the wickedness of others. The cross can never be anything else but a symbol of suffering and death.

When we see Jesus on the cross, blood dripping down his face, his naked body bleeding from the cruel whipping, hands and feet nailed to its beams, it’s hard to imagine that this is God. In faith we can see beyond all that and realise that this is God’s love at work on the cross bringing us salvation and eternal life. Through the vulnerability and weakness displayed on the cross, God brings his love, power and grace to us. We may think that this is a strange thing for God to do but it’s all about God’s love for us.

Peter goes on and reminds us of another strange way that God comes to us when he says, “baptism now saves you”. Again this is a very strange thing for God to do. Very unimpressive. Very boring. Very ordinary. But very God!

Water, very ordinary water renews, cleanses, brings us under God’s grace and claims us as his children. When we look at water it’s hard to see how God can do anything fantastic through something so plain, so uninteresting. But that’s the way God often chooses to work in our lives. He calls ordinary people like you and me. In baptism God calls people who have ordinary jobs, ordinary lives, and live amongst ordinary people and joins their name with his name. In this way we are joined with the powerful God who empowers and enables ordinary people to do extraordinary things.

There is a message here for our lives as Christians. The question that confronts us then is this: Are we Christians ‘from a distance’? Just as Jesus didn’t deal with humanity’s problems from a distance neither are we called to deal with the hurts, troubles and pains that afflict the people around us from a distance. Often it means getting down to be with them and understand them and getting dirty to help them. Is this what Jesus was getting at when he washed his disciples feet on the night before he suffered and died? He was a true servant, getting down on his knees, taking dirty feet into his hands and washing them. This was a foreshadowing of the kind of servant role that he will take up as he suffers on the cross. Doesn’t he also say, “I, your Lord and Teacher, have just washed your feet. You, then, should wash one another’s feet. I have set an example for you, so that you will do just what I have done for you”?

This is what discipleship is all about.
It might be risky.
It might mean being a friend to someone whom everyone else ignores.
It might mean giving others time, money and help that you can’t really afford.
It might even mean putting your comfort and reputation on the line.
But in the end it’s the only way that we can be true disciples of Jesus. Up close and personal, understanding and full of compassion for where the person is at, ready to do whatever is necessary to provide relief and comfort. End goal of discipleship does not include ‘watching from a distance’.

As we move through this Lenten season we ask that the Holy Spirit would prepare us for the suffering God, the God who mixes it with the muck of our lives, who mixes with our pain, who suffers alongside us. Let’s thank God that he was prepared to do more than watch us from a distance but was prepared to get up close and personal for us. We pray that we might do the same for others.

© Pastor Vince Gerhardy

Return to the Lord your God

Joel 2:1-2; 12-17.

(1) Blow the trumpet in Zion; sound the alarm on my holy hill. Let all who live in the land tremble, for the day of the LORD is coming. It is close at hand– {2} a day of darkness and gloom, a day of clouds and blackness. Like dawn spreading across the mountains a large and mighty army comes, such as never was of old nor ever will be in ages to come. {12} ‘Even now,’ declares the LORD, ‘return to me with all your heart, with fasting and weeping and mourning.’ {13} Rend your heart and not your garments. Return to the LORD your God, for he is gracious and compassionate, slow to anger and abounding in love, and he relents from sending calamity. {14} Who knows? He may turn and have pity and leave behind a blessing– grain offerings and drink offerings for the LORD your God. {15} Blow the trumpet in Zion, declare a holy fast, call a sacred assembly. {16} Gather the people, consecrate the assembly; bring together the elders, gather the children, those nursing at the breast. Let the bridegroom leave his room and the bride her chamber. {17} Let the priests, who minister before the LORD, weep between the temple porch and the altar. Let them say, ‘Spare your people, O LORD. Do not make your inheritance an object of scorn, a byword among the nations. Why should they say among the peoples, ‘Where is their God?”

As we begin this Lenten season, God through the prophet Joel sends out the call to us, to wake up: to sound the alarm: we are facing a very serious situation: Which on the face of it has dire consequences. The day of the Lord is coming; and in fact, we are reminded that it is close at hand; and that most people are not ready or prepared for it. So it is going to be a day of darkness and gloom: a day of clouds and darkness. A day of destruction as has never been seen before: A day when many people will be wiped out – caste into Hell. So wake up – sound the alarm bells – because that day is near at hand.
But, ho hum – everybody goes back to sleep: they hit the snooze alarm. What’s the big deal! Who cares? I have got other things to do and think about. I’m busy and all the rest.

No, wake up! Wake up! This is God – the Lord’s – call. This is important stuff. It is not some media beat up or some panic merchant talking about some insignificant issue. This is God Almighty himself telling us to wake up – to sound the alarm bells. There is not much time left and unless there is an urgent change of heart, the destruction that will take place will be unprecedented. Remember, here the Lord himself is trying stir us into action: to wake us up from our apathy and make us aware of the seriousness of the situation of life that we are facing and the destruction that will befall us if there is no change of heart. In a sense, he is saying that here is a last chance to avert this impending doom.
Even now, he says – even now – return to me: return to me with all your heart; with fasting and weeping and mourning. Please; please, come back: Take this message and me seriously, and do it recognising the seriousness of the issue, and the harm and the devastation that you are bringing on yourselves. Return to me; he says. Come back! Come back now, before it is too late.

So this Lenten season rend your hearts and not your garments. Be fair dinkum about God and the Christian life. Now is not the time for outward show. It is not simply a matter of church attendance, finances, and a few good deeds. We need to recognise that at the core of our being there is a serious problem: Our hearts are not where they should be; they are focussed inwards and not upwards, and so there is a serious need for a change for the better. Tear your heart open, because it is a matter that is too grave and too important. Remember this is a life and death issue, and we are facing death and destruction if we do not take God and his Word seriously: and we deserve nothing less if that be the case.

Let us all heed the call here to return to the Lord our God, for he is gracious and compassionate; slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love. He does relent from sending calamity, and yes, he wants to help us and save us. His love for us is such that does not want to give us a hard time or destroy us. Even though we don’t deserve it, he still cares about us and wants better for us. There is still hope.

Look God has changed his mind before; on a number of occasions. Think of Jonah and the people of Nineveh for instance. When they realized what was about to happen to them because of their waywardness, they repented: they sincerely turned their backs on their former ways, with great sorrow. And we hear that God did not bring the calamity on them that he had promised. So let us return to Lord our God, while we still have an opportunity: who knows, he may turn and have pity on us and leave behind a blessing, so that we can again give thanks to our God.

Let us gather together everyone, so that we can call on the Lord our God to spare us: To call on him so that he does not wipe us out, and give further evidence for others to ridicule Christianity, and continue to say that obviously this God of ours is not for real. Look what he has done to us. No, let us call on him to help us; to save us; and make us the people that he wants us to be again: Imploring him to restore us again as his people: as people who look to him as their Lord and saviour.

This Lenten season let us heed our Lord’s message here. Let the alarm bells ring to stir us out of our complacency, and to remind us again that we cannot take the Lord our God for granted and ignore the fact that his day of judgement is coming; soon. Then he will deal with those who continue to place their trust in themselves or elsewhere other than the Lord Jesus Christ; as he must, once and for all.

So let us hear his call to return to him with all our heart, soul, mind and strength; cut to the heart because of our sins; sorrowful for our waywardness; yet knowing that he is a gracious and compassionate God who loves us immensely: so much so in fact that he sent own Son into our world to take that punishment we deserve for our sin, on himself: So that we can have forgiveness and the assurance of salvation.
Knowing that he has died and risen again for our forgiveness and salvation, let us return to him with confidence. Yes deeply aware and sorrowful for our waywardness and sin, which brought about Jesus’ death on the cross, but with that assurance that he is slow to anger and abounding in his steadfast love toward us.

Then may we again confidently, give our gracious God thanks and praise for all of his goodness, and that we then also go forward with this message that others may look and say, Yes, here is their God also. A holy and awesome God: one who is above all and over all: gracious and compassionate. Here is that One who is truly the only real God there is. Yes, may we all take him seriously and give our all to him.
May God’s Holy Spirit be with us all this Lenten season, and draw us all back into his loving fellowship, so that the day of the Lord may be a day of rejoicing for us his people. God be with you all this Lenten season. AMEN.

Pastor Roger Atze

High on a mountain by themselves

Mark 9:2-9

And after six days Jesus took with him Peter and James and John, and led them up a high mountain by themselves. And he was transfigured before them, and his clothes became radiant, intensely white, as no one on earth could bleach them. And there appeared to them Elijah with Moses, and they were talking with Jesus. And Peter said to Jesus, “Rabbi, it is good that we are here. Let us make three tents, one for you and one for Moses and one for Elijah.” For he did not know what to say, for they were terrified. And a cloud overshadowed them, and a voice came out of the cloud, “This is my beloved Son; listen to him.” And suddenly, looking around, they no longer saw anyone with them but Jesus only.

And as they were coming down the mountain, he charged them to tell no one what they had seen, until the Son of Man had risen from the dead.

May the words of my mouth and the meditations of our hearts be acceptable in your eyes, O Lord, our rock and our redeemer. Amen

This is Transfiguration Sunday, the last Sunday before the season of Lent when we are reminded of the revelation of Christ’s glory before His suffering and death. It is also Harvest Thanksgiving, when we give thanks to God for all the good things He has provided us with and offer a portion of His gifts back to Him as thanks. It also is our parish Annual General Meeting, many things we can be thankful for and many things where we try to allow God’s glory to shine, so lots of things today.

One of the many things we thank God for is His Word, and so let’s have a bit of a look at it. Just before this passage we have Jesus asking His disciples who He is, Peter replies, ‘You are the Christ!’ This Jesus was the promised saviour and King, the one who would restore Israel and bring God’s righteousness to the World. After this Jesus teaches His disciples that He will suffer many things, be rejected by the spiritual heads, be killed and after three days rise again. Peter doesn’t think this is very fitting for The Great King of the New Israel and tells Jesus off, Jesus replies with that famous phase, ‘get behind me Satan’.

Then after six days here is our story.

Jesus brings His inner circle, James and John, and this Peter guy, the one who confessed Jesus as the Christ and rebuked Him as well. And so Jesus takes them up this mountain. I’m not going to do this justice, but  … Jesus is transformed before them and becomes brilliantly radiant, you could say the Light of the World, the glory of Jesus is shown to these three disciples. Then there was also Moses and Elijah, two key people of Israel’s past, one the lawgiver and the other the prophet, both talking with Jesus. Peter, terrified by the Glory of Jesus, offers to build tents for the three, so they can stay a while perhaps doesn’t know what he’s saying. Maybe they might be able to guide the people from this Mountain where it appears God’s glory resides with three actual people.

Can you imagine that? Maybe you have a disagreement with your daughter, dad, friend, brother in Christ, and you want it to be resolved, just go up the mountain and ask God. Maybe you don’t know if you should buy that car, date that person, conquer that country, well God’s up that mountain, just line up and ask Him. Or maybe you don’t know what we as a parish should focus on and support, there’s God up there in all His wisdom and speaking in a way we can easily understand.
Sounds great, hey!

But is that God’s plan, to send Jesus to stay here and advise us from this mount on how to keep His law?
Or was it what Peter rebuked Jesus for suggesting? That the Christ must suffer and die, then rise from the dead?

Then comes the part I want us to remember. God’s glory in the cloud covers the mountain, and a voice from heaven booms, “This is my beloved Son, Listen to Him!” This isn’t a suggestion from God, it is a command. Listen to Him!

And what does Jesus say? What do we hear from Him?
Read His teaching, read the gospels, indeed Jesus is the Word of God, so read God’s Word that He has so graciously given us.
Read that it is God who provides everything we need, Deuteronomy 8 (verse 12-14, 18), “when you eat and are satisfied, when you build fine houses and settle down,  and when your herds and flocks grow large and your silver and gold increase and all you have is multiplied,  then your heart will become proud and you will forget the Lord your God … it is he who gives you the ability to produce wealth”.
God grants us life, Job 33 (verse 4), “The Spirit of God has made me, and the breath of the Almighty gives me life.”
and, of course, salvation and eternal life “God so loved the world that He gave His only Son, that whoever believes in Him will not perish, but have eternal Life.” John 3:16.

God our Heavenly Father, created all things, this we confess in our creed. To Him we own thanks for all things, most importantly, His beloved Son who saves us by His death and resurrection. We’ll hear that story and promise again in the coming weeks. The promise of Christ.

Listen to Him.

Too often we listen to other things; to advertisements, what you really need is … whatever; to this world, telling us to ‘work harder’, that ‘you need a break’, ‘don’t get caught up about religion, we’re all the same anyway’; we even listen just to ourselves at times, ‘I’m a failure, useless’ or ‘I’m the greatest thing ever! Even better than sliced bread!’ This is not good, it’s not what God has told us to do and it takes us away from Christ’s promises, that promise of salvation, forgiveness and life. Listening to others means we do not hear the Gospel.

So let us hear the Good News that God has given us, Listen to Jesus.

He told Peter, James and John on that mountain to tell about this experience after He had risen from the dead, and so let’s tell our brothers and sisters in Christ about what Jesus has done, about what He has done for us. And be thankful for this, for Jesus’ glory and power shown here, but moreso in the crucifixion and His resurrection. Be thankful for all that God has given us, for all that we have, for our lives and for His sure promises of forgiveness and salvation.

Thank you Father in heaven for all things you give us, help us not forget but rather to listen to your beloved Son, Jesus.
And may the peace of God which passes all our human understanding guard your hearts and minds in Christ Jesus, now and forever. Amen.

Joseph Graham

Flying like eagles

Text: Isaiah 40:31
Those who trust in the Lord for help will find their strength renewed. They will rise on wings like eagles; they will run and not get weary; they will walk and not grow weak.

Ever wondered what it would be like to fly? I don’t mean flying in a plane, or dangling beneath a kite or parachute.I mean sticking your arms out like a bird, or out front like superman if you like, and soaring above the earth; banking over the forests; skimming over the rivers; darting through mountain canyons; diving down and scaring the living daylights out of the members of your family; breathing deeply in the fresh air of free and effortless flight! And if you are someone who is scared of heights, imagine if you had no such fear. You could come and fly with the rest of us.

From the early pages of history people have looked at the birds and wanted to fly. You may have seen on TV people flying in a wind tunnel but that’s not soaring high above the clouds. You have seen people jump out of perfectly good planes and ‘fly’ at least for a while, but gravity does it job and the skydiver has no choice but to pull the ripcord on his parachute.

I’m sure every kid at some time has wanted to fly. Maybe it’s been a theme in your dreams but like all dreams there comes a rude awakening when you wake up and discover that you are still a prisoner of gravity. As much as we really wish we could fly, we have to walk to the bathroom, walk out to the kitchen for breakfast and walk to school or work. We aren’t built for flying.

As adults we don’t think about flying as we did when we were kids. Not only aren’t we built for flying but we also carry a lot of baggage – we carry too much weight. Not only the kind of weight that shows up on the bathroom scales but the weight of worry, anxiety, paying bills, keeping the boss happy, and how our health crisis will turn out. All this weighs us down.

If you own your own business and you wonder if you’ve thought about everything and planned for every contingency. You do care about those who work for you, and you realise that there may come a time when you will have to put off some of them. And this weighs you down.

Then there’s your family. The people you love. You see your parents getting older; perhaps becoming infirm. You see your children struggling in this or that. Perhaps you’ve hit a rough patch in your marriage. When you were a kid love wasn’t so difficult and so demanding. But that’s because you were mostly on the receiving end of it. And now you are called to be the one who gives it; called to be the one who loves. This too can weigh you down.

So what about those dreams of flying high above the world in complete freedom and in the open spaces where there is not a worry in the world? Nah! Not anymore! Life is way too heavy to entertain such thought. Flying – that’s okay for kids to dream about because they don’t have the worries we have but for us the world is too real. A bit like gravity – we can’t ever get away from it.

And yet, what does the text from Isaiah say? “Those who trust in the Lord for help will find their strength renewed. They will rise on wings like eagles; they will run and not get weary.” Hmmm. “They will rise on wings like eagles”. With renewed strength they will soar above the earth with the powerful wings of an eagle. I don’t know about you, but Isaiah’s got my attention! Suddenly my childhood interest in being able to fly is renewed. Floating, drifting, circling, free as a bird. Is there a way to overcome the gravity of our lives, a way to lighten our loads, a way rise above it all? Is this just a dream, wishful thinking, belonging to the world of fantasy along with fairies, flying dragons and magic carpets?

Just to put these words about flying like eagles into context. The prophet Isaiah was writing to the people of Israel during a time, when they felt like their strength was sapped and they had no hope. Like us, they were worried. The news wasn’t good. The dreadful Assyrians were breathing down their necks, and later it would be the Babylonians who would take them all away to live in exile. As they thought about all the stuff that was happening around them, they were weighed down and overwhelmed by the seriousness of their situation.

They started to say things like, “God doesn’t really care about me! How can he? Look at all this bad and difficult stuff that is happening all around us. He’s not really in charge of things!” (Isaiah 40:27).

You see what was happening here? They began to see their problems as being bigger than God himself. They forgot that the creator of everything, the everlasting Lord, whose love for his people means he will never grow tired of helping them, just might be able to help them with all their worries.

You see over the years a subtle exchange had taken place. They exchanged their faith in God for a kind of do-it-yourself kind of attitude. We do the exact same thing! This DIY kind of Christianity excludes God from certain areas of our lives. I know God is there but I can handle this myself.
“Let’s see, my work, hmm, no that’s not God’s problem.
Finances, no. I can fix that.
Relationship problems, no. That’s my responsibility.
My love life, no God doesn’t know anything about that, that’s my area.”

Without even giving it too much thought we exclude God from different aspects of our lives. We can fix it we say and maybe it works okay for a time. But then we begin to feel the weight. Our blood pressure rises. We toss and turn. We get sick. We become depressed. The joy goes out of our lives. We despair. We slowly realise that the DIY approach isn’t all that successful after all.

I’m sure that a lot us, including myself, have to admit to doing this at some time, if not more often than we care to admit. We sideline God and try to be our own god. We believe that we can do it alone, but that’s something God never intended us to be. God didn’t make us to stand alone against everything that threatens our safety and happiness. God made us to rely on him.

This is where Isaiah comes in and we have this wonderful passage that was read earlier. He asks, “How can you be so dumb. Don’t you know who stretched out the heavens, made the earth and filled it with people? Don’t you know that it is God who created the stars? There are millions of them, and yet he knows when one of them is missing and if God knows each individual star, it follows that he knows each one of us personally and calls us by name. He knows when we are in trouble. No one can ever accuse God of turning a deaf ear to our needs.

Then comes these wonderful words,
“Don’t you know? Haven’t you heard?
The Lord is the everlasting God; he created all the world.
He never grows tired or weary.
No one understands his thoughts.
He strengthens those who are weak and tired. 
Even those who are young grow weak; young people can fall exhausted. 
But those who trust in the Lord for help will find their strength renewed.
They will rise on wings like eagles;
they will run and not get weary;
they will walk and not grow weak.” (40:28-31)

Jesus affirmed what Isaiah said when he said things like, “Come to me, all of your who are carrying heavy burdens, and I will give you rest” or “Your heavenly Father knows all about the sparrows even though there are so many of them and he knows when a hair falls from your head. In the same way, he knows each of us intimately and personally” or “I am the good shepherd and I know each of my sheep and if one should get lost, I will go so far as to sacrifice my life to rescue that lost one”.

Jesus assures us that there is not a moment when we are not under his love and care. Yes, there will be times when we will intentionally and unintentionally lock him out of our lives. There will be times when we could have saved ourselves a heap of stress and pressure if only we had trusted in the Lord for help and realised that he is ready, willing and able to give us renewed strength and a fresh outlook on life and its problems.

The apostle Paul realised that he knew what he ought to do and trust God more but found more often than not that he did what he knew he shouldn’t do. There were times when he was physically exhausted and drained, not knowing what will happen to him next. But in each case he came back to this one point, “God can raise me above all this. His love is so powerful that I can be confident, content, and certain no matter what the circumstances. The Lord will help me to face each thing that terrifies me and give me the strength to continue”. In the end Paul says, “I can do everything through him who gives me strength” (Philippians 4:13).

As Isaiah said, “Those who trust in the Lord for help will find their strength renewed. They will rise on wings like eagles; they will run and not get weary; they will walk and not grow weak”.

In other words, trusting in God to give us the strength that is beyond our own strength to deal with any situation, we can rise on wings like eagles. We can fly. We can soar high above our problems; we can fly free with the sky as the limit. God wants us to fly like eagles.

When we trust in God and his love for us and entrust our lives to the one who gave his life for us on the cross, everything else is dwarfed in comparison to the largeness and authority of the Lord. He is bigger than any problem we might face. And as we learn to trust him, we begin to see things from his perspective. He draws us upward in faith, so that we begin to get a bird’s eye view of things, or more correctly, a God’s eye view of things.

Remember the dreams about flying, the fantasy stories like Peter Pan where children could fly; well they are not too far off the mark. We too can fly even though our feet never leave the ground. We can rise above everything threatens our security with a strength that comes from God. “Those who trust in the Lord for help will find their strength renewed. They will rise on wings like eagles”.

© Pastor Vince Gerhardy


People do change

Text: Job 3a,4-5
Jonah obeyed the Lord and went to Nineveh and proclaimed, “In forty days Nineveh will be destroyed!”  The people of Nineveh believed God’s message. So they decided that everyone should fast, and all the people, from the greatest to the least, put on sackcloth to show that they had repented.

A  young girl was reading her Bible on a bus.  A grumpy looking, overweight man sat down next to her and noticed what she was reading.  After some muttering and mumbling that she didn’t really understand he asked, “Do you believe everything in the Bible?”  And she said, “Yes, I do.”
He kept on, “You mean to tell me you believe that Jonah lived for three days in the belly of a whale?”
The girl answered, “Yes.”  The man persisted, “Well then how do you explain that?”
The girl answered, “I can’t, but I believe it.”
The man became more agitated and said.  “Young lady, you should be able to explain what you believe!”
The girl then said, “I don’t know exactly how Jonah survived but I’ll ask him when I get to heaven.”
Then sarcastically, the man asked, “And what if Jonah didn’t make it to heaven?”  And she replied, “Then you can ask him.”

The story about Jonah and the big fish has always been a favourite with children.  It has something of a fairy tale quality about it.  It’s a story that appeals to the imagination.  This is a story about one of God’s most reluctant prophets who is told to go to Nineveh – that hated, despised, despotic Near Eastern power that had caused so much suffering in Israel.  Jonah is to preach against their wicked ways but he doesn’t want to do it.

The Ninevites had caused so much grief and pain to the people in the surrounding countries so why should he go there as God’s messenger and call them to change their ways?  They won’t change and Jonah didn’t want them to change. They only deserved God’s condemnation and punishment.  Jonah knew that God was loving and merciful and that he was great on giving second chances (see 4:2) but as far as the Ninevites are concerned they don’t deserve a second chance?  Why should such a horrible, cruel and merciless people be given the opportunity to repent and change their ways?  Besides, people like that don’t change.

Even though Jonah tries to ignore God’s call and boards a ship for a place on the edge of the world, God persists and sends a storm and a big fish which swallows Jonah and rescues him from a briny death.  In the belly of this fish Jonah relents and after three days Jonah is coughed up on the beach.

Jonah walks through this enormous city calling out a simple message – not a call to repentance, not a message of God’s love, only a threat, “In forty days Nineveh will be destroyed!”  It seems as if Jonah is making his message as offensive and as blunt as he possibly can.  Was he trying to prove a point to God, “See, people like this don’t change”?

Jonah wasn’t rejected as a crackpot.  A miracle happens.  The entire city from the king down to the poorest peasant believed God’s message.  Even the sheep and cattle are involved.  Everyone wears sackcloth and ashes and prays that God will not destroy them.

This is a preacher’s dream. A whole city of people turning to God.
In spite of his reluctance,
regardless of his lousy attitude that the people of Nineveh weren’t worth it,
and apart from his very blunt message,
the whole city fell on its knees in repentance and prayer.  Jonah had only just begun walking through this huge city; with such little effort on his part the response was overwhelming.

Jonah’s half-hearted efforts resulted in Nineveh’s wholehearted response.  Jonah was wrong.  People like that do change.  The one person in the whole story who found it difficult to change was Jonah himself.  Reading on further in the book of Jonah we find that he becomes angry and disgusted with God’s whole attitude in this affair.  Jonah becomes angry because God is not.  Jonah wanted justice not grace, punishment not forgiveness.  In fact, by the end of the story we aren’t even too sure if Jonah himself changed.

What are we to make of this whole story about Jonah?  As I said at the beginning this Old Testament story makes a great story for children but what message does God want to convey to us today?

Well, most importantly this is a story of God’s love and mercy.  Look how often God was patient with the hard-headed and ignorant Jonah.  If it was up to us we would have given up on this idiot long ago.  We would have come to the conclusion that he will never change, he is too wrapped up in his own ideas and his own world that he will never change.  He is too set in his attitude about the Ninevites about the judgement he thinks they deserve, it might be better to choose someone else.

But notice how God comes back to Jonah again and again.  He doesn’t give up.  He rescues him from a watery grave and orders a big fish to swallow Jonah.  He is patient with Jonah’s half-hearted effort in delivering his message, and to top it all off he hangs in there when Jonah becomes angry with God saying, “I knew it!  I knew you would be loving and merciful.  I knew that you would go back on what you said and save the people of Nineveh!”  God was trying to convince Jonah that he loved the people of Nineveh as much as anyone else.

God hasn’t changed one bit from the days of Jonah.  We know how frustrated and impatient we can get with other people and so you can imagine how frustrated and impatient God must get with us. The way we hurt the people around us through our selfishness and lack of consideration and the way we hurt God with our sin must leave him upset and offended.  And yet he doesn’t let this get in the way of his love and mercy and, like he did for Jonah, he comes back to us again and again wanting us to love him, trust him and turn our lives around from self-centredness and sin to lives of love, and patience and understanding.

Just as God spoke his word through Jonah, as poor and inadequate as Jonah’s effort was, he speaks to us through the Bible, through other people, through parents, neighbours and friends, calling us to trust him and believe in him as the God who loved us so dearly that he sent his Son, Jesus into this world to be our Saviour.

The Son of God came to earth and from his earliest days on this earth, he was hated and hunted down by kings and rulers and religious leaders.  He did this because of his love for us.
He lived in this world and endured hunger, pain, thirst, sadness and death that he would not have endured had he stayed in heaven.  He did it for us.
He died, not a peaceful and quiet death, but with nails in his hands and feet, a crown of thorns pressing on his head, because of his love for you and me.
Jesus came to this earth to tell us that believing and trusting in him is the only way to eternal life.  He said it clearly and plainly, “I am the way, the truth and the life, no-one goes to the Father except by me.”

He loves us, loves us, and loves us more and will do anything to ensure that we will live forever in heaven.  Jesus has promised to walk with us all the days of our lives through the ups and downs.  He has assured us that he will always be there for us to call on in times of sickness, sadness, trouble, even death.  The love that God has for us is stated over and over again in the Bible.

That’s how God felt about the people of Nineveh and grumpy Jonah.  That’s the way God feels about you!  But I don’t want to give you the impression that God is an old softie and that he will never condemn anyone.  He does!  Those who insist that believing and trusting in God is nonsense will one day face God’s disappointment and anger.  And who can blame him.  He has given us every opportunity to trust in his love for us and still people turn their backs on him.

The other point that I wish to bring out is that people can change.  There are those who say, “You can’t teach an old dog new tricks.  I’ve lived without God, Jesus and the church for all these years, I can’t change now”.
Others say, “I’ve lived with this hatred for so long I can’t stop,”
or “My sexual sins, my compulsive gambling, my alcoholism (or whatever) are so much a part of my life I can’t stop,”
or “I can’t help being rude and unkind to that person.”

A counsellor of many years once said that the one thing he had learned in counselling people with problems is that “people almost never change.  Change, real change, is rare.”  Perhaps that counsellor was having a bad day when he said that.  Perhaps he was like Jonah – not believing that God has the power to bring about change in the lives and hearts on the people of Nineveh.

This is where faith comes in.
Faith is the willingness to be amazed, shocked by the surprising changes that God can bring about in our lives.
Faith is the willingness to be surprised at the depth and power of God’s love for us and his constant willingness never to give up on us.
Faith is the willingness to believe the power that the Gospel can have in changing the direction of our lives.
Faith is the willingness to believe that with God’s power in our lives we can change.

The first words Jesus preached after his baptism were “turn away from your sin and believe.”  They are as relevant to us today as they were when they were first spoken.  When we take God seriously, don’t be surprised when he challenges us to make some radical and risky changes in our lives.  In fact, just when we have our world settled, fixed, finished, God comes along with his amazing grace and turns our whole life around.  That’s what happened at Nineveh when Jonah preached.  And that’s what happens when God and his never-ending love touches our lives.

© Pastor Vince Gerhardy