Fourth Sunday after Epiphany


The Text: Mark 1:21-22        

These days when we sit in front of the TV we are faced with an overabundance of authorities on gardening, cooking, the stock market, sport, diets, the latest news, electronics, global warming, education, and world economics.  The media loves to trot out authorities on almost any issue that arises.  If the Prime Minister does something that the media thinks is a bit out of the ordinary, they will find an authority somewhere to make a comment.

What makes it interesting is that authorities can disagree with one another.  They aren’t interested in listening to anyone else’s ideas.  They are often manipulative and don’t care if we take their advice and it all goes wrong.  They often forget what humility is and don’t know how to admit that another person might have an equally as good an idea as theirs.  And so quite rightly we become sceptical and cynical of authorities and those proclaimed to be experts. 

Today’s Gospel reading from Mark tells us about Jesus’ first preaching engagement in the synagogue at Capernaum.  How come this young carpenter from Nazareth was given the job to preach that day?  We need to understand how small synagogues worked.  A synagogue in a local town had a “ruler”; someone who would take care of the synagogue and organise meetings, but he wasn’t a preacher.  That was left to the lay men who took it in turns.  On this occasion Jesus was asked to read and explain the Scriptures.

We don’t know what he read or what he said about the Scripture reading but it certainly left an impression.  We are told, “The people who heard him were amazed at the way he taught, for he wasn’t like the teachers of the Law”.  It’s clear that the people there that day had heard many people speak about the Scriptures before, and maybe about the very passage that Jesus had read, but there was something different about the way Jesus spoke. 

You see when the teachers of the Law and other experts spoke, they referred to other teachers of the Scriptures. They relied on the authority of other people – scribes and teachers of the Law who were very well respected and were held in high honour as interpreters of the word of God – but Jesus was different.  He spoke with authority.  He was the authority.  He didn’t need any other experts and authorities.

I would love to know what Bible passage Jesus spoke about that day.  Jesus would have had their attention to the point that every mouth was open and every eye wide open as they heard the voice of God speak to them.  Jesus spoke to them with authority.  Jesus needed no other human authority. He spoke with the authority of God the Father and the Holy Spirit who had pronounced their blessing on him at his baptism.  He is God and spoke with the authority of God. 

I’m sure there might have been some who were more astounded and shocked than amazed.  Jesus, the carpenter from Nazareth, had just broken the long-held tradition of quoting the much respected teachers of the Torah…but there was no getting around the fact that “he taught with authority”.

Here already in chapter one, Mark establishes that Jesus has an authority that is different to every other human authority.  We heard in the reading this morning about a man who came into the synagogue screaming and shouting and disrupting the gathering.  Jesus ordered the evil spirit to come out of the man and again the people were completely amazed and said, “This man has authority to give orders to the evil spirits, and they obey him”.  We hear the same thing repeated numerous times as Jesus heals the sick, raises the dead and calms storms. Jesus has authority over sickness, death, nature, and even Satan.  On occasions when people witness Jesus’ authority, say over the power of a storm they are left asking the question, “Who is this man?  Even the wind and waves obey him”.  They have never seen anything like it before.

What does all this have to say to us today?  How do Aussies like us, who are so cynical about authority and people who claim to speak with authority, deal with someone who speaks with such absolute authority in our 21st century world?

I think this can be a real barrier for some people who are not used to someone speaking with such certainty and absolute authority.  We live in a society where almost anything goes and to hear someone say, “I am the only way to eternal life and only those who live and believe in me will live forever” is regarded as offensive. 

But regardless of how offensive this might sound, the truth is the truth and still needs to be spoken.  As time went on during Jesus’ time on earth, many were cynical about Jesus’ authority to speak the way he did or to do what he did, but he had so much to tell those who were hungry to hear God’s Word that he couldn’t be stopped.

Jesus said with authority, “I am the Light of the world”.  Other religious leaders and prophets have claimed to be divine lights shining in our world but only Jesus can back it up with authority.

Only he can give us security;

only he can guide us,

only he can help us through the darkest storms;

only he can light up the path that leads to peace and joy even though everything is going crazy;

only he can show us the path to eternal life;

only he can say it and mean it: “If you follow me, you won’t be stumbling through the darkness, because you will have the light that leads to life.”

He says, “I am the Light of the Word” because he has the authority to say it.  He is the Son of God, once nailed to a cross, now, resurrected, ruling and reigning in heaven.  He is the greatest authority there is in eternity.

With authority Jesus says, “If you remain faithful to my teachings you will know the truth, and the truth will set you free” – you will be free from fear, nagging guilt, discouragement and hopelessness.  You will be free from death and the door will be open to life forever. 

Jesus told many parables and talked a lot about the Kingdom of God and what it means to live in the Kingdom of God.  Sometimes his words were comforting and gracious reminding us of the goodness and mercy of our heavenly Father, and sometimes he spoke words of warning and judgment, reminding us that it’s too easy to forget God’s ways and follow the ways of the world.  Sometimes he spoke provocatively and with vivid images to make people sit up and listen like: “It’s easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a rich person to enter the Kingdom of God!”

His word has come down to us today and it’s powerful and comes with the same authority as if he were here speaking it in person. 

When we hear the words, “Your sins are forgiven” this is true.  It’s spoken with authority regardless of whose lips are speaking those words. 

When we read, “I will be with you always” it’s true, regardless of the state of your mind or body at the time. 

When someone reads to you Jesus’ words, “I am leaving you with a gift—peace of mind and heart. And the peace I give is a gift the world cannot give. So don’t be troubled or afraid” (John 14:27 NLT), this is his word of authority.  Believe it because he means it. 

When we hear, “This is my body and blood given and shed for you for the forgiveness of your sins” this is his word of promise to us that what was achieved on the cross is ours.  We are God’s children, loved, forgiven, an heir of heaven – this is Jesus’ word of authority to us.

I don’t need to go through the whole of Scripture to emphasise that our Christian faith is not some airy fairy wishful thinking but is based on God’s amazing words of authority.  When Jesus speaks he always speaks with the human condition in mind.  He speaks with love because he knows we all need forgiveness and without forgiveness we have no hope of entering heaven. 

There are times in our lives when we wonder, “Lord, there is so much happening, I can’t cope. I’m going down a fast flowing river in a row boat without any oars.  It’s out of control.  I’m afraid that around the next bend I’ll be smashed on rocks and go down.  The stress and the worry are more than I can handle”. 

It’s just at that time we cling to the strong word of Christ.  It has authority and power. It promises us the support, the strength, and the ability to endure that only God can give.  When we listen to the word and hold on to it no matter how feeble our grip might be, like the people in the synagogue, we too will be amazed. Amen.

The Festival of the Conversion of St Paul

Sermon text: Acts 9:1-22


Today we commemorate perhaps the most famous conversion in the history of the Christian Church. Saul, the murderous Christ-hater and persecutor of Christians, is transformed by the grace of God over a three day period beginning on the road from Jerusalem to Damascus. One of the most feared men in the days of the early church becomes one of the most faithful apostles and preachers of Christ crucified. Saul’s conversion is so spectacular, so unexpected that there’s the risk we focus on the wrong things. It’s very easy to view this conversion as kind of Jekyll and Hyde transformation. It’s true that evil is transformed here and that good flows from it. But there’s so much more going on that is significant for us still today.

From our perspective it’s easy to identify Saul as an enemy of the church. Arresting anyone who followed Christ, supporting their persecution and murder, and actively trying to break this growing movement. We can see his treacherous behaviour, but Saul didn’t consider himself an enemy of God. As Saul went above and beyond the call of duty in persecuting Christians, you get the feeling he actually enjoyed his work. He believed he was answering the call of God to wipe out this religious enemy of Judaism. It was Saul who watched on approvingly as Stephen was martyred; and it was Saul who had men and women dragged from their homes because they believed in the Lord Jesus. As we think about Saul’s conversion it would be easy to focus on his obvious sins of murder and hatred, but in so doing we fail to get to the bottom of his problem.

Along with all pious Jews Saul had bought into the lie that he could make himself righteous, that he could perfectly obey the Law of Moses. His persecution of the church was simply a part of this perverted way of thinking. Anything or anyone who threatened the way he saw things had to go – and those who followed Jesus were a particular problem because they taught that we could not make ourselves righteous, that our sin always stopped us from achieving perfect obedience. Saul was an enemy of the church because he murdered and persecuted those with faith in Christ. But he was also an enemy of the church because he wanted to trust in his own self-righteousness and not in the righteousness God offers us in Christ. In this way he was so much like many enemies of Christ and His church – all those who speak lies that encourage us to rely on our spiritual and moral power and strength, instead of relying on Christ alone.

So while Saul’s murderous activities set him apart, his underlying rebellion against God is no different than that which we all struggle with. The fight we have within ourselves between trusting in God and trusting in ourselves. But Saul’s outward behaviour makes it easy for us to identify his inner wickedness. This is a man we probably would’ve written off.

I wonder what the prayers of the faithful in Damascus had focussed on in the days leading up to his visit. Perhaps they prayed that Saul would be waylaid on his journey. Maybe they prayed that he would be thwarted in his efforts to destroy the church. But I doubt many of them would’ve prayed for his conversion. Because when you look at the figure of Saul in the earlier chapters of Acts it seems obvious that this bloke is a lost cause. His heart is completely hardened against Jesus and His people. He’s obsessed with wiping out the church and there seems to be absolutely no chance of conversion. So why bother wasting your breath praying for him?

That’s one of the most important points of this story. Despite his wickedness and hard heartedness, God does not give up on Saul. Instead He goes after him, breaking his self-righteous spirit and creating faith in Jesus where there wasn’t even a hint of trust. How? In the same way as God continues to grow faith in us: by confronting us with our sin through the Law, and by bringing us forgiveness through the gospel.

Picture Saul before the risen Lord Jesus appears to him on the way to Damascus. How confident and cocky this fella must have been. Striding toward Damascus, he had the authority to turn the town on its head as he rooted out the growing number of Christians. His own sense of importance and belief that he was an agent of God’s wrath must have driven him on with anticipation. But then it happens. The Lord is revealed to him and as Jesus speaks, Saul realises he’s put his trust in the wrong things. Everything he’s done against Jesus’ followers, he’s been doing against Jesus Himself. The Law crashes down upon him as he realises the sin that has consumed him. He’s now a shadow of the man he was. Blinded. Helpless. Utterly dependant on his companions. Saul makes his way into town and doesn’t eat or drink for three days. His entire world has been torn apart as Jesus’ words hang around his neck accusing him of the wickedness he has embraced.

If Saul’s story was to end here there’d be good reason for despair. After all every one of us when confronted with the word of God must confess that we find ourselves crushed by our sin. That’s the proper work of God’s Law – exposing us to the core and revealing our need for a Saviour. And that Law revealed Saul’s sin – his murderous activities as well as his misplaced trust in himself. But once the Law has done it’s work the Lord Jesus points Saul to the same source of comfort and peace He still points us to – to the Holy Gospel – the good news of forgiveness and life proclaimed in the words of God’s servant, Ananias, and enacted in holy baptism. Despairing of himself, Saul is revived and has his eyes opened to the grace and mercy of God through word and Sacrament. He is converted in the same way you and I were transformed from darkness to light, from unbelief to faith. His experience was different to ours, but the means God used were the same.

We rejoice today as we remember Saul’s conversion because this great enemy of the church, by God’s grace became perhaps the greatest apostle and preacher of Christ crucified. He is our apostle – the apostle to us gentiles – the one through whom the Lord clearly revealed that we are saved by grace through faith. But Saul’s transformation is not a Jekyll and Hyde story. It’s not about being changed from evil to good. As St Paul would later write of himself, sin remained a struggle for him as it does for all of us. No, this is a story about a change from trusting in our own self righteousness, to trusting in the love and mercy and forgiveness of God in Christ Jesus. It’s about the miraculous transformation that occurs as God speaks Law and Gospel into our lives, breaking down our false gods of self righteousness and good works, and lifting high the cross so that we might live as His redeemed people.

There’s a real temptation to simply preach some kind of moral lesson from this text: to remind ourselves that we are called not to write people off and trust in God’s ability to change even the most hardened enemy of the church; to point out that even the Osama bin Laden’s of this world have hope in Christ. And of course there’s abundant evidence of that truth in Saul’s story. But the good news of this text is not found in our loving acceptance of our enemies.

The good news is found in Jesus’ transforming love for all of us who were once His enemies. It’s found in the recognition that His Word of grace can break the hardness of our own hearts and create faith where before there was nothing but darkness and sin. If Jesus’ word of forgiveness and life spoken by Ananias can create faith in Saul, how much more won’t this word proclaimed in the church today work to reshape your life? If baptism can wash clean the bloodied hands of a Christ hating murderer, how much more won’t it wash your sins away? While the risen Lord Jesus may not have appeared to you in a dazzling display of light, He has worked in you in the same way He worked in Saul: forgiving you regardless the sin; loving you despite your unworthiness and recreating you so that you may join with Saul in confessing Him as Son of God and Saviour. Amen.

‘Come, see and wrestle?’

John 1:46
And Nathanael said to him, “can any good come from Nazareth?” Philip says to him, “Come and see.”

            Three years ago I was getting ready to come up and see you all for the first time. We met and introduced ourselves, letting each other know something of ourselves. And today we remember and hear again the meeting of our Lord and a few of our siblings in Christ; Philip, Nathanael and Samuel. When He met them, He let them know something of Himself, and this is how we know God, by meeting Him and hearing His Word. And today you come into Christ’s presence, as a servant to the King, we meet Him again and He reveals Himself by His Word and through the Sacrament, where He serves you with Forgiveness and Life! He doesn’t argue with us, or debate, try to convince us; He simply tells us the truth, simply He is serving you now. So, I join with Philip, “come and see.”

            This is the call of the evangelist, the preacher, parent, and here especially of the friend. “We have found the one whom Moses and the prophets wrote about.” Like those shepherds 4 weeks ago, this is Good News, and Philip tells it to his friend with joy! And you who have had your sins taken away according to His promise (), Christ takes away your guilt and you need not steal it back; taking away your guilt and giving you wonderful joy and peace according to the Word of God (). And so Philip goes to Nathanael, and appeals to what interests him, God’s Word, the Law and the Prophets; Nathanael first questions, because he knows God’s Word, there’s no prophecy of the Christ coming from Nazareth. And he says, “can any good come from there?” Now, Philip doesn’t argue or try to convince, just responds, we can imagine with excitement, “Come and see.” And Nathanael does.

             Come and see Jesus. How I wish it was so obvious none could deny. Come and see Jesus, His life at work in the Church, the Creed, the Liturgy (being prepared to hear His Word and receive His gifts, then following Him out under His blessing), our Church year; and Jesus’ life in yours. When I meet with parents to baptise their child I bring out this small catechism, this summary of the Christian life, the Life of Christ at work in His Church and His people. Come and see God’s Word at work in the life of the Christian; the 10 Commands, Creed, Lord’s Prayer, Baptism, Holy Communion, Confession, our daily prayers and our callings. If they don’t have one or don’t know where it is, I give it and ask them to take that 20min to read it and maybe talk it over; and by God’s grace they may show and teach Christ’s life to their child. It’s no argument, no debate, just stating things as they are. And Luther himself never understood the depths of this little booklet, the life of the Christian, so let’s all reread, come and see that the faith is not just Sunday, in the evening and bible studies, come and see the help God gives through daily prayer and meditation on His loving Word for you. His joy, strength and trials.

            But Philip didn’t show a catechism, or his own life, so what does Nathanael see? Jesus, a man who saw Him under a fig tree. But the epiphany today is what Jesus tells Nathanael when they meet, “Amen, amen, I say to you: you will see the heavens open up and the angels of God ascending and descending on the Son of Man.” The angels ascending and descending on Jacob’s ladder, to strengthen Jesus in prayer on His final night and to announce His resurrection (Lk 22:43; 24:4, 23). That ladder Jacob, whose name is deceiver, saw in a vision and so named the place Bethel, house of God (Genesis 28:12-19). The same man who wrestled with God and saw Him face to face, being given the name ‘Israel’ (Genesis 32:24-30). As Jesus said, Nathanael is a true Israelite, in whom is no deceit; he wrestles with God’s Word and sees Jesus face to face, just as Jacob become Israel did, and Nathanael leaves behind the deceit of Jacob and bluntly declares the truth, even though He don’t understand it yet, ‘Jesus, you are the Son of God, the King of all who wrestle with God and see Him’.

            And Jesus gives you something to wrestle with, you know it better than I. One thing is that Jesus is Jacob’s ladder, the meeting of heaven and earth. You might meet Him in many places, yet He has promised to be here in the gathering of His people, to reveal more of Himself to you, and to reveal more of yourself to yourself, that we might truly know God and see Him face to face. To come and see Jesus.

            And as you do, the peace of God which surpasses all understanding guard your hearts and minds in Christ Jesus, now to when we see Him face to face. Amen.

Pastor Joseph Graham.

‘God speaks in Baptism’

Mark 1:11
And a voice came from heaven, “You are my beloved Son; with you I am well pleased.”

            We’re in a new season of the church year now, but you might not have noticed because everything is still the same white as Christmas. But we’re in the season of Epiphany, or realisation, which began on the 6th with the epiphany of the Wise Men, that Jesus is King, Priest, and sacrifice for not the Jews only but also us gentiles. Today we celebrate another epiphany, the revelation of the Triune God at Jesus’ baptism. But what does this have to do with you today? We don’t have that Ethiopian tradition of Timkat, a public re-enactment of baptism, but then what does Jesus’ baptism have to do with yours? And what does His baptism even mean?

            John’s baptism was for repentance, forgiveness of sins; but Jesus never sinned, why was He baptised? Maybe there’s an epiphany for us in God’s Word. So let’s hear a bit again. Jesus came to the Jordan river to be baptised there. When He came up from the waters the Spirit came down to Him as a dove. And also, a voice came from the clouds of heaven. What is important about these things, a dove over waters, a voice from heaven and the river Jordan? What does this tell us about Jesus and baptism?

            Maybe we’ll get some help from the last few weeks when we heard that all creation is gathered under Christ and that He fills all things, simply He is the New Creation as we say. And God shows us this in the Holy Spirit above the waters of Jesus’ baptism. What does this remind us of but the first creation (Genesis 1:2). St John told us last week, that it’s through the preincarnate Son of God, the Word, that all creation was made (John 1:1-3). And we heard that powerful Word again today, “let there be light” and there was light; no wonder the psalmist sings of God’s Words that shake the mountains, it created them (Psalm 29:6). So, there is this connection of creation to the baptism of Jesus.

            But the Spirit didn’t just hover, He came as a dove over the waters. Just like the dove holding the olive branch returning to Noah on the ark (Genesis 8:8-11). Over those flood waters that destroyed the wicked and renewed the world, only the blameless Noah and his family were saved through the waters of the flood (Genesis 6:5-13). The Spirit came as a dove, that symbol of God’s peace and rest, reminding us as well of the renewal of the world, destruction of wickedness and the salvation of the holy. So, another connection with a renewal of creation in Jesus, the death of the old sinful ways and preservation of the blameless.

            Now it wasn’t just the Spirit descending, there was also that voice from the clouds of heaven. The voice of God that shakes the foundations of the earth, that breaks the mountains; the voice of God that spoke to the ancient Israelites at Mount Sinai during the Exodus (19:9). And the Exodus is in many ways the beginning of the Israelites as the chosen people of God, He promised land and rest to their ancestor Abraham yet they lived in a foreign land, enslaved. God did not abandon His promise though, He called Moses to lead His chosen people out of Egypt and they fled. They fled through the waters of the Red Sea, and again the waters destroyed the wicked oppressors saving the chosen people of God (Exodus 14). When the Jews heard the thunderous voice, it would certainly have reminded them of the first time their ancestors heard God in the Exodus. Another connection of Jesus’ baptism to water that destroyed the wicked and saving the chosen people of God from slavery.

            Those chosen people that came to this same river, the river Jordan. This river that God dried up to bring His chosen people into the promised land of His rest (Joshua 3). It was a paradise for these wanderers of the desert, peace and joy at last at the fulfilment of God’s promise (Genesis 15:18-21). Yet just a foretaste of what is to come in Jesus. Again, this connection of a new beginning in Jesus, of life with God, here in the same Jordan, the entrance to the paradise.

            As God has revealed, Jesus brings all these things together. His baptism is a New Creation, a New Flood, a New crossing of the Red Sea, and a New entrance into Canaan. We hear these things again and again in the letters of the New Testament, that the baptism of Jesus is new life, separation from sin and wickedness, and entrance into the peace of God’s Kingdom as His chosen and holy people in Christ (Romans 6; Colossians 2:12; 1 Peter 3:21; 1 Corinthians 10:2; 12:13; Galatians 3:27). The Baptism of Jesus fulfills all these promises, Jesus gathers these wonderful events in this one epiphany of the Triune God and His promises. And it’s not as if we are standing outside in. No! This is the most wonderous thing, all this is yours, according to God’s promise, by your baptism into Christ; your baptism in the name of the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit (Matthew 28:18-20). By the Holy Mystery you are joined to Christ’s life, receiving the Holy Spirit who brings the gifts of God. By this Holy Mystery God says to you, “You are my beloved child, with you I am well pleased.” (Galatians 4:5). You are baptised, children of God in Christ Jesus. Joined with Him who is the New Creation, separated from sin and wickedness, receiving everlasting life, coheirs of our Father’s Kingdom. You have this promise already, forgiveness and life in Jesus. Hear God’s Word to you and live by it, You are the beloved child of God!

            And the peace of God which surpasses all understanding guard your hearts and minds in Christ Jesus, now to life everlasting. Amen.

Pastor Joseph Graham.

It’s a big Greek word

Ephesians 1:10
In the plan of the fullness of time, to bring together all things in Christ, the things in heaven and the things in the earth.

            Today as we come toward the end of the Christmas season and the beginning of the New calendar year, I want to focus on one word; might help with New Year’s resolutions. Anakefalaiosasthai. It’s a big Greek word that I hadn’t seen before. Kefale is in there and that means head, like the medical condition microcephaly or having a small head. But the big word itself means something like, gathering into a head, or union under one thing. So like how those people with five or more dogs, gather the leads into their hand, or the dogs being under their authority, at least sometimes. Another example is really any organisation, our LCA is gathered under our Bishop John Henderson, our country is gathered under our Prime Minister Scott Morrison, or maybe under Queen Elizabeth; either way, we know what it is to be under a head, to listen to someone above us calling the shots, or having people under us listening to our words. One example all of us have seen is parents.

            Now why do I bring this concept up? Well, Paul wrote to the Ephesians that God’s mysterious plan was revealed after Christ’s resurrection and then spread by Christians; and that plan is that at the fullness of time, in the incarnation as we heard last week, all things would be gathered together, everything above and below, spiritual, fleshy, doesn’t matter, all creation would be gathered in Jesus Christ, the head. Now what is the Holy Spirit telling us about God? About Jesus who is human, fully reconciled with divine, creator and creation as one person. What does it mean that Jesus is the head over all things? That Jesus gathers all things into Himself?

            Now we’re gonna talk about that later, but let’s think about how a head works for ourselves. Just your body. You have a head, it does the seeing, the thinking, all that stuff; then you have parts under your head, arms, stomach, nether regions … Now I have control over my arms don’t I? … Yes, I make them move. But sometimes my arms go against my head, against what I want to do; like my stomach when it tells me ‘I need to eat’, or tells me ‘I need more cake’, ‘I should have another beer’. Sometimes I tell my stomach to ‘get back into line’, ‘be quiet I’m in charge’, I bring my stomach under my headship. And other times we let our lower parts take control and things start to get out of hand, maybe even fall apart, which of course is where we get the word ‘dickhead’ from.

            So we see that we have a head, a goal, the one our body listens to, … or doesn’t. And we have those lower parts that might not always want to be who God has told us to be, those desires that seek to take control and take focus off of Christ, our goal. We call Christ our head, the church His body (Ephesians 5:23). So then what does this word, anakefalaiosasthai, mean for you? We are being gathered in Christ and under Him, by God the Father (John 6:44). So as our head, we listen to His Word, He is The Word (John 1:1), as He calls us to a new everlasting life in Him, to forgiveness and separation from your sin, to be children of God as He has called us to be (Mark 9:7). Being conformed, brought in line with, Jesus, God’s Son (Romans 8:29).

            And so hear His Word again: the peace of God which surpasses all understanding guard your hearts and minds in Christ Jesus, now and to life everlasting. Amen.

Pastor Joseph Graham.