Who said you could do that?

The Text: Matthew 21:23-32

“By whose authority are you doing these things?”

“Who said you could do that?”

“Who says so?”

These are words of protest, accusation, and doubt, but they’re also words of rebellion. The person who usually asks these questions is challenging the authority of the other person. It’s a basic question of who’s in control; who’s the boss right here, right now.

As Australians, we typically like to challenge every authority. We like to disobey or question our parents, thinking we know better than them. We like to see how much we can get away with at work, like attempting to fool our bosses by taking sickies on long weekends (unless of course we don’t trust any other bosses and want to be self-employed). We flash our lights at oncoming traffic to ‘stick it’ to the police who may have a speed camera up ahead. We like to rubbish or lampoon our Prime Minister or parliamentarians. Basically, if anyone thinks they’re above us in any way, we’ll soon cut them down to size!

But when we do these things, we’re attempting to set ourselves up as our own authority, our own boss, or even our own little god who controls our own little world.

When we complain about our parents, our boss, our Prime Minister, or our pastor, we’re really complaining about God who placed them in their position of authority in the first place. They don’t even have to be Christian for God to place them there, after all, even Jesus tells Pontius Pilate he recognises his authority to crucify him (or not) because it was given to him from above (Jn 19:10-11).

In this sense, whenever we challenge or question those in authority over us, we’re challenging or questioning God’s authority, which brings us to the gospel reading for today.

Jesus had entered Jerusalem on a donkey and overturned the marketing tables in the temple. The local authorities (which were the chief priests and elders) came to challenge Jesus by asking whose authority he was doing these things. In other words, “We’re the local authority, and we reckon you have no authority here, so you better come up with your authorised credentials quickly or you’re in big trouble!”

He, in turn, asked them a question about authority. He wanted them to answer by who’s authority had John the Baptist been baptising people? Was he doing this with heavenly authority (which meant it was authorised by God), or was it from humans (which meant it was false, unauthorised, illegitimate, and therefore possibly evil)?

Now, as the local authority experts, they had the choice to back John’s baptisms as authorised by God himself (and therefore give their theological and pastoral blessing to it), or else reject it as false and evil. Since they hadn’t acted on stopping or getting rid of John earlier, you’d think they’d side with his baptisms being authorised by heaven (which many of the lay people believed it was), but they stopped short of doing this for one reason: fear!

The local authorities were afraid of the people and their opinions. Giving up their authority to say what was of God and what wasn’t, they now disqualified themselves from their position of authority. As disqualified leaders who lacked the courage to trust the work of God, Jesus wouldn’t entrust these people with the answer to their question.

When we’re afraid of what people will think of us and our faith, we’re often too afraid to listen to, and trust, God’s authority.

Because we’re afraid of what people will say, or think, or do to us, we give others a kind of fake authority which entraps us into more fear. Instead of letting God have the final authority and the last word on a matter, we listen to the opinions of others. When we’re afraid, we don’t listen to God properly. In response God will often challenge the authority of what we’re afraid of, but we often let our fears deceive us into a false sense of security.

Jesus goes on to teach these disqualified authorities through a parable of two sons – one who said ‘no’, but later obeyed his father’s authority, and the other who said ‘yes’, but then rebelled. He compared these two sons with two groups of people – the ‘tax-collectors and prostitutes’ who will enter the kingdom of heaven and the ‘chief priests and elders of the law’ who won’t.

One group lived rebellious lives but believed John’s and Jesus’ ministry and so acted accordingly in faith, while the other group did and said all the right things on the surface (and so seemed righteous in many people’s eyes, including their own), but didn’t believe their ministry was from God and therefore wouldn’t enter the kingdom.

But notice it wasn’t just faith itself (as if only believing in our own head or heart is enough), but a faith which trusted and acted according to what he or she believed, and so participated in the life and ministry of God’s authorised representatives.

“By what authority are you doing these things?”

Well, let’s see. Pastors, as called and ordained servants of the Word forgive us all our sins. In the stead of, and by the command of, Christ, they forgive us as Christ’s personal ambassadors. Of course, we could believe our own opinions or thoughts which might want to challenge those words. We could believe others who will keep reminding us of our failures or mistakes or regrets. Or you could trust when Jesus says we’re forgiven, we’re forgiven. He has the authority to forgive us and has passed on this heavenly privilege to his church, which is enacted through its authorised servants.

Similarly, at the end of Matthew’s gospel account we hear Jesus has been given all authority and now hands this authority to the church to baptise and teach. We enact this heavenly authority whenever we baptise people.

Whenever we celebrate the Lord’s Supper Christ’s words are repeated and Christ’s authority is enacted. Here again God’s word does what it says so that the bread and wine we eat and drink is also the very body and blood of Christ himself given for us for the forgiveness of sins and the strengthening of our faith.

Of course we could believe our own opinions about this meal and think it only a symbolic reenactment, or on the other hand we could trust Jesus’ authority to share with us his very own body and blood for us, which means heaven itself, in all its fullness, touches us here.

You see, it’s not just by whose authority we’re doing all these things, but how this authority is enacted. In the reading from Philippians this morning we hear how Jesus didn’t use his authority to lord it over you and me, but he emptied himself and became a suffering servant to do his Father’s will.

He trusted and obeyed his Father’s authority by enduring the cruel cross and dying for you and me. You could say he’s unlike the sons in the parable. He’s never changed his mind – his answer has always been, and always will be, a ‘yes’ for you and me – both in intention and in action.

Jesus Christ always exercises his heavenly rule and authority according to the upside-down ways of God’s kingdom for us. He comes as a servant for our sake. He serves us by forgiving us, washing us clean, adopting us as his brothers and sisters, feeding us with his own body and blood, teaching us his ways, and blesses us in order that we may also serve as his own authorized, humble servants wherever he’s placed us.

He’s given us the authority to serve – to faithfully serve as a child, a parent, a citizen, or a boss, under the authority of God. Like Christ himself, we don’t use this authority to rule, but to serve humbly in such a way we don’t think of ourselves as better than anyone else, but as if others are better than us. Because we’re united with the suffering Servant, we don’t look for ways to serve our own interests, but we instead serve the interest of others.

This means, instead of thinking ‘What’s in it for me?’ we may instead think ‘How may I best serve you today?’

Don’t be like those who grumble about those in authority above them, or like those who seek to deceive out of fear, but let your ‘yes’ mean ‘yes’ and your ‘no’ mean ‘no’ as we all submit ourselves under the authority of God to serve each other in humbleness and grace. And the peace of God, which surpasses all human understanding, which will guard our hearts and minds in Christ Jesus. Amen.

“That’s Fair!”.

Matthew 20:1-16
“That’s Fair!”

If you follow any code of football, you will know that it’s the season for the finals – and usually there is also a ‘best and fairest’ medal count.  During the medal count, fans watch in suspense as points are tallied up, match-by-match, until finally a winner is declared.  Occasionally there is some big news in the weeks leading up to the medal count when the favourite for the ‘best and fairest’ medal is penalized by the tribunal for rough conduct and is rubbed out of contention for the medal. “It’s not fair!” the fans will complain.

If that’s not fair, then try and imagine the complaints there would be if a footballer who had played only a few games at the end of the season was also awarded top points and the ‘best and fairest’ medal.    “It’s not fair!” the fans would complain. The ‘best and fairest’ medal is awarded on the basis of a match-by-match accumulation of points.  You have to play the games – and play well in all the games – to get the prize. 

That may be a situation very much like Jesus’ parable of the workers in the vineyard. In Jesus parable, workers were hired at different times during the day and therefore expected to be paid for the hours they worked, but when pay time came, all the workers received the same amount.  The ones who had worked only one hour received as much as those who had worked all day in the heat of the sun.

It is not surprising that they accused the boss of being unfair.  These workers were operating with the common assumption that people must get what they deserve; the wages must match the work.  At one stage, even Jesus had said to his disciples, “A worker should be given his pay” (Luke 10:7), but here is the same Jesus telling a story that seems totally unfair.  He’s using it as an example of how the Heavenly Father rewards people who come into his kingdom at different stages of their life.  He rewards them all with the same gift, regardless of their time in his kingdom.

Hearing such things may appeal to our inner sense of justice, especially in matters where our own welfare is concerned.  We see it in children when they compare what they have received with what others have received and say, “That’s not fair!”  We see it in adults who cast an envious eye over what others have and say, either openly or inwardly, “That’s not fair!”

Maybe you’ve felt it also in your life as a Child of God.  Hearing this parable may even invoke feelings of “That’s not fair!” How fair is it to think of a person who has lived a wicked or wayward life, making a deathbed repentance and receiving the same gifts from God as the faithful church member who has ‘borne the heat of the day’, serving God all his life, sacrificing himself, taking up his cross and following Jesus? “How come he gets the same reward?” you may ask. “That’s not fair!”

To understand Jesus parable properly we need to see beyond what seems to be the injustice of God and understand that it is also a parable about the generosity or amazing grace of God which is available to all people.

If we human beings really want to take up the matter of the justice of God, then we’re in for a rude shock.  If God really did what was fair or just, no one would receive any reward for God.  We are all sinners and none of us deserve his love, his forgiveness or his gift of eternal life.  As Paul wrote to the Romans, “All have sinned and fall short of the glory of God” (Rom.3:23).  What we rightly or justly deserve is his punishment, not his reward.  If we’re interested in justice, that would be fair.

But God is interested in more than justice.  He is also very loving and generous.  That’s why he sent his only Son Jesus Christ to live a perfectly good life in our place and to die, also in our place, for our sins.  Jesus did that to satisfy the demands of God’s justice.  He did it so we could be ‘justified’, put back into a right relationship with God. I don’t think too many Christians would say, “That’s not fair!” to that.

That’s because everything we receive from God is a gift.  The spiritual blessings we receive are never to be considered a wage, but a free gift.  As Paul also wrote to the Romans: The only wage we deserve is death; but the free gift of God is eternal life in Christ Jesus our Lord (Rom.6:23).  We have received God’s gift of love, forgiveness and eternal life, not because we have worked for it, but because God is so generous.  It is not something we earn like ‘best and fairest medal’ points, or wages.

In Jesus’ parable, the employer said that he gave the workers whom he had hired last the same amount because he wanted to and because he had a right to do as he wished with his own money.  In God’s kingdom, he gives all people his love, forgiveness, and eternal life simply because he is generous.  He wants to and has a right to hand out his grace and love as freely as he wishes.

No one in God’s kingdom should ever need to feel cheated because they have worked harder for their spiritual blessings than another.  Instead we should learn to rejoice that God’s love and forgiveness is great enough to give even the worst of sinners who have lived the wickedest of lives, the gift of eternal life.  We should learn to rejoice that God’s gifts of forgiveness, life and eternal salvation are available to all who are led to trust in Jesus, right up ’til their dying breath.  We should learn to rejoice because we have received those gifts, even though we don’t deserve them.

It is good news that the sacrifice Jesus made on the cross for sinners was big enough to save the worst of sinners in the latest of deathbed repentances.  Like the angels in heaven, we should learn to rejoice at their salvation rather than falling into the trap of thinking, “That’s not fair!”

Whether we were baptised as an infant and led a faithful Christian life for 80 years or more, or whether we repent on our deathbed after a shameful life, we still have reason to rejoice in the generosity of God and in his gift of forgiveness, life, and salvation.

Just as the workers hired first had agreed on their reward when hired (v.13), we who become Christians early in our life also know what Christ offers us.  At the end of our life he gives us no less than he had promised and he will give us no more because he has promised us all he has to give.  He has held nothing back.

So, instead of feeling, “That’s not fair!” or seeing the Christian life as some sort of medal count, let’s learn to rejoice, first of all, in what Christ has promised us in our baptismal covenant right at the beginning of our Christian life:  his free gift of forgiveness, new life and eternal salvation.  Let’s treasure and nurture that gift as we ‘bear the heat of the day’ – offering our lives as living sacrifices in service of God and others.

Let’s also learn to rejoice that God’s love is generous enough, and Jesus’ sacrifice on the cross is big enough, to offer that love and forgiveness to anyone who turns away from their sin and puts their trust in Jesus, at whatever stage in their life. 

It wasn’t really fair that Jesus, who did no wrong, should have been punished for what we did, but he did it for us.  Now he gives freely and generously of his love and forgiveness to all who turn from sin and put their trust in him. I think we all have to admit, “That’s fair!” and praise God for his glorious grace.  Amen.

And may the peace of God, which passes all understanding, keep our hearts and minds in Christ Jesus. Amen.

7 Strikes and you’re out?

Joseph Stalin’s biographer said this of his subject. ‘Stalin never forgot nor forgave an injury done to him. He bided his time and, in the end, always hit back.’ The death of countless millions can testify to the murderous intent of Stalin’s unforgiving heart. He turned the energy of a grudge nursed into the fullness of evil.

 A Christian GP ran a workshop on the topic of forgiveness. She began the workshop by quoting this statistic from a Christian psychologist in the US: “Non-forgiveness, resentment or bitterness is the leading cause of death in the U.S.A.” She went on to explore the physical effects of not forgiving others: depression, which can sometimes be internalized anger, and anxiety, for which people may resort to drugs or alcohol in order to cope. Resentment requires energy, and this comes via the adrenal gland, which pumps out hormones. We know it as the fight or flight response, but when it’s perpetually primed, it can suppress the white blood cells and the antibodies which fight illness.

I’m certain that each of us knows in our own lives the heartache of an issue that remains unresolved. Perhaps it’s a long estrangement between family members. Or a simple dispute with a neighbour which has taken the form of an ongoing, unresolved border dispute. Or perhaps someone we trusted has passed on something we told them in trust, and now we refuse to have anything to do with them.

Suggesting that the solution to all these issues is forgiveness is seen by many people to be the easy way out, featherbedding people who deserve to suffer for what they’ve done wrong. Witness the ‘law and order’ debate which comes around every election time. Some states have what is called ‘mandatory detention’ of defenders after a third offence; ‘three strikes and you’re in’ legislation. The third conviction places a person in jail, no matter what the crime.

Perhaps this is the origin of Peter’s proposal to Jesus. “Lord, how many times shall I forgive my brother when he sins against me? Up to seven times? (Matthew 18:21, NIV) Seven is more practical than three, given how much we offend against each other, but it still involves keeping tally of people’s faults. It just requires better accounting and a more powerful memory. Then I wipe them out of my life.

Jesus replies: “I tell you, not seven times, but seventy-seven times. (Matthew 18:22 NIV) Peter does the maths and rocks back on his heels, and we wonder whether Jesus is another one of these do-gooders, blind to the potential of human beings to hurt each other. That’s when Jesus decides to tell a story about kingdom accounting. The numbers in this parable are mind-blowing. A slave comes to the king owing the equivalent of a middle-size country’s gross national product. His debt is enormous. A talent was the largest coinage known at the time. And ten thousand was the largest number conceivable.

Amazingly, unbelievably, the king is moved by his servant’s plea for mercy. There’s nothing in it for the king. The debt will never be repaid, but in his compassion, he forgives it. He throws the abacus out of the window. What to do now that life has opened up again. Aren’t you shocked that the freed servant chooses the way he has just escaped from? How could he continue to account for other people’s wrongs against him, when he has been forgiven so much? Our anger begins to rise at his audacious behaviour. He grabbed him and began to choke him. ‘Pay back what you owe me!’ he demanded. (Matthew 18:28, NIV) A big debt, no doubt, 100 day’s wages, but minuscule in proportion to the one he had blithely walked away from.

What was he thinking? Forgiveness might be good for God, and the do-gooders around the place, but it doesn’t work in the real world. You can’t let people take advantage of you. You’ve got to show them who’s boss. But the king, the one has just pardoned him, gets to hear about what he’s done, and is shocked, and mightily angered too:  33 Shouldn’t you have had mercy on your fellow servant just as I had on you?’ 34 In anger his master turned him over to the jailers to be tortured, until he should pay back all he owed. (Matthew 18:33-34, NIV)

Do you and I get stuck in accounting mode? Even though we know that we have been forgiven by God, do we transfer this grace across to the way we treat those who have wronged us?  This is where Peter starts this conversation: he asks Jesus for a number. He wants to know just how much is reasonable. And so he suggests what he thinks is a more-than-sufficient amount of forgiveness.  

In turning forgiveness into a transaction, we dismiss grace. And we leave people locked in the prison of our hate. Who have you imprisoned? Who do you still want to punish because they hurt you? What can’t you let go of because it seems unfair that your hurt will be forgotten and therefore not validated?

We’ve all been stuck in a place like this, and these thoughts and emotions become a prison which entraps us. An unforgiving and unrepentant attitude causes harm to us as much as it does to other. It’s corrosive to faith and it sets us on a collision course with God who has treated us so graciously in the forgiving way He has embraced us through our Baptism and blessed us with a living relationship with Himself.

“The servant’s master took pity on him, cancelled the debt and let him go.” (Matthew 18:27, NIV)

This word “pity” is used by Matthew to refer only to God’s love. God was wiped the slate clean. In the words of Psalm 103:as far as the east is from the west, so far has he removed our transgressions from us. (Psalm 103:12, NIV) But in choosing to remember and account for each wrong, we are rewriting our history. We are throwing back in God’s face the fact that He has rescued us from spiritual bankruptcy. And if that’s what we want from God, then sadly that’s what He will give us. “This is how My heavenly Father will treat each of you unless you forgive your brother from your heart.” (Matthew 18:35, NIV) If you and I want to keep count, so will God. And He has a far better memory than us.

But this is not the way of full life which Jesus promises those who trust in His love and grace. God is ready and waiting for us to return to Him to seek His forgiveness, and to pray to Him for strength to forgive those who have hurt us. And this can be immensely difficult, for forgiveness is not the easy way out. It is much easier to ignore other people’s hurts, our underestimate the pain they’ve caused us. But when we do that, we file the hurt away, and we brood on it. It grows and develops a life of its own, and we can’t resist the desire for revenge. But this isn’t love in the name of Christ. Remember what Paul says in the famous chapter, 1 Corinthians 13. Love … keeps no record of wrongs.” (13:5, NIV)

Forgiveness is powerful. It’s not a cop out, nor a helpless acceptance of what happened to us.

In his book, The Art of Forgiving, Lewis Smedes outlines the process of forgiveness. It has four steps, if you’re counting:

Acknowledge the hurt.

Blame the person who has hurt you; something has happened that makes it impossible to carry on relationship as if nothing has happened. “Forgiveness is not saying, ‘What you did I understand and it’s all right with me…Forgiving is going to a person and saying, ‘I don’t understand. I’ll never understand. And it wasn’t OK, and it isn’t OK. But I forgive.”

Decide you are going to live with the scales of justice unbalanced. It means not engaging in the cycle of revenge. It means that you choose to live the prayer that you daily pray: “Forgive us our sins, as we forgive those who sin against us.” You also choose to live in obedience to God’s Word through Paul: “Bear with one another and, if anyone has a complaint against another, forgive each other; just as the Lord has forgiven you, so you also must forgive.”

Begin to revise your feelings toward the person who has wronged you. The person who hurt you gradually rejoins the human race. God has dealt with both your sin, and the sin of the person who has hurt you through the cross of Jesus. You stand on the same ground.

Forgiveness is not delayed retribution. It’s not a strategy to bide our time. It’s bringing our rightful hurt and pain into God’s heart, and seeking the healing that He wants to bring, to us and for the person who has wronged us. Forgiveness is the oil that lubricates the wheel of Christian community. Forgiveness is a human need, but a divine endowment. In Him (Jesus) we have redemption through his blood, the forgiveness of sins, in accordance with the riches of God’s grace. (Ephesians 1:7, NIV84) And in our forgiving, “we set a prisoner free.  We discover that the prisoner we set free is ourselves.” Free as God intended us to be in Christ.


Father, give us the power to do what You have done for us, so that we might live in harmony with one another, and at peace with You and ourselves. Amen.


Imagine your clasic sofa

The Text: Matthew 18:15-20

Imagine in your minds a picture of your classic sofa. Now I am interested to know from you, what things come into your mind when you imagine it? What things do you associate with the classic sofa? Obviously, there are very many things we use the sofa for such as watching TV, gaming, iPads, and phones, reading, lounging on, sleeping on when tired, eating on it, talking, sharing with a loved one. It has all the associations with comfort doesn’t it? But it also has another very useful function which can be both good and bad, depending on what you are going through. Young people might really love the sofa for some other interesting reasons especially when Mum or Dad ask you to do some chores; like the dishes, or dishwasher, tidying your room and all those things.

It’s other very important function is escape! It is the place where we want to stay when we don’t wish to go somewhere else. It is the place of comfort to get away from everything, we don’t like. It is the classic place to go to if we’ve had an argument with a loved one, coupled with the famous TV remote to truly hide ourselves away from our problems. It also curiously has that mesmerising effect on both adults and children where you just cannot seem to get up from it when someone asked you to do something, to which we cry: ‘Oh, do I have to?!  And of course, for men and especially older men, the sofa is can also be the classic ‘grandpa snoring’ chair. Once he’s sat down, he‘s fast asleep in no time.

Now friends, if the sofa has some strong associations with the need for ‘escape’ or withdrawing ourselves away for things we don’t like, then today’s Gospel reading in Matthew 18 is going to be quite a challenge to that. Today’s reading is Jesus’ instructions on how to reconcile and make peace with people who’ve wronged us, or we have wronged.

You see, the sofa or comfy chair is a symbolic place we tend to lounge around on, when there is a long-term problem with someone else. So when we have had a bad argument with a friend, spouse, family member or loved one, to comfort ourselves we try and find an emotional sofa for comfort and protection from all the pain of the fall out that we’ve suffered. Now that is okay at the start to find forms of comfort and strength to cope with something traumatic, but you know sometimes we can stay just a little too long on our emotional sofas, feeling the initial comfort and protection but then choosing not to get up from them. We may know people who have stayed put on their sofa’s for over thirty years, holding a grudge, always feeling like the poor victim who needs special treatment. They distract themselves with all sorts of comforts and treats, but they never feel the need to get off the chair to go and speak to someone they love deep down, but who they just can’t forgive.

Jesus knows our human nature very well and indeed the hurt we can inflict on others as well as the hurt we receive. He knows our tendency to sweep sin under the carpet, so we don’t have to face anything too difficult. Which is why he gives in today’s text a helpful step-by-step process for reconciliation.

The good news is that it starts small and simple but has potential for stumbles along the way. Jesus first says: ‘If your brother (or sister) sins against you, go and point out their fault, just between the two of you’. In other words, keep it private, in person and it is recommended to do it quickly. I strongly recommend not to write an email or send a text message. In most cases they can backfire and cause more hurt. In the isolation of our own private world we can too easily become fixated upon our own thoughts and prejudices and fail to see the neighbour for whom Christ was crucified to save.

No one can see your face when you write, and so your words, although carefully worded, can still get misunderstood and taken the wrong way. So go to the unreconciled brother or sister in person, rather than ‘stewing’  or mulling over it from the comfy sofa.

Now if the one-to-one experience goes wrong, and nothing you say seems to be taken the right way, then get one or two others to help mediate your discussion. Third parties can hear and see things that the heat of argument blinds you from seeing, and often it can be very helpful and make both hurt parties to feel safer to discuss things. 

Each of these steps so far has the potential for forgiveness and the matter to be over with, but occasionally you’ll argue with people who always have to be right about everything, who can’t tolerate any form of negative feedback. These types of people need Jesus’ third step; the church or the ‘ekklesia’ or wider gathering of believers to help sort the problem. In this setting the stubbornness to resolve things in someone who does not even listen to his pastor or his/her church elders, is now verging on something much bigger and more problematic. For if the person despises the counsel and advice of elders and pastors of the faith who have spiritual authority and giftings to discipline and reconcile people who become so bitter and enraged, then the person needs ‘time out’. Jesus says: 17 If they still refuse to listen, tell it to the church; and if they refuse to listen even to the church, treat them as you would a pagan or a tax collector.

The translation here isn’t the clearest in English because Jesus is definitely not saying to intentionally be unkind, reject or persecute someone just like a pagan or Gentile, but he is using the analogy to say that sometimes we need to put people in ‘time out’ (put someone outside our social circles) so that we cannot not be continually hurt by someone trapped in bitterness. Also, it is done this way, so the other person has space to come to their senses and repent. In these situations, the door is always open for an angry brother or sister to come back, as the church is certainly not in the business of excluding people unless a person is a distinct threat to themselves or others. But in these times too it gives the wider church time and focus to pray for the person and break the power of the enemy.

The procedure in Matthew 18 is wonderfully helpful and truly healing when we wish to abide by it. We have a spiritual tool to sort out our problems as they arise, but the power of the emotional sofa of avoidance can stifle the process from its very beginning. It can make something, that could have been solved in a matter of hours, to sadly last all of one’s lifetime. And sadly too, many people die without resolving issues with their friends and loved ones, and these will be some key matters that Jesus will address with them when they meet him at the end of time face to face. 

But the comfort through all of this is that we do have access to God’s help! It’s not a situation of sinful human beings trying to find their own way through it all, but often a case of a spiritual battle taking place too. The benefit of having others involved in reconciliation is that the matter can attract powerful prayer. Jesus says this in verse 19:  “Again, truly I tell you that if two of you on earth agree about anything they ask for, it will be done for them by my Father in heaven. 20 For where two or three gather in my name, there am I with them.”

Some powerful things can happen when people agree on something in prayer. The original word here is ‘symphoneo’ meaning to resound together in agreement or ‘singing the same tune together’.  So when there is a serious argument between two people our prayers can resound with the song of healing and repair, and we pray for the hurt parties to pick up the tune and pray too for their bitterness to fade away. In these moments of prayer and repair, Jesus says he is there among them.

Finally friends, we remember also, that Jesus did not offer himself the comfy chair or sofa to cope with us as human beings. He took on our horrible treatment of turning against him head on. He sacrificed himself on the cross to reconcile the world, even though the world was not willing to reconcile with him. As it says in Romans 5:8: ‘Whilst we were still sinners, Christ died for us’. Christ died for us even though we as human beings were sitting there bitter on our sofas scoffing at him and hating him.

No longer do we remain isolated from each other in sin, or isolated from God in his judgement against our mistreatment of our neighbour. The Good News is that Christ has come to mend broken relationships and put back together again our messed-up lives. Through the church, his body of baptised believers, he comes to us in his absolving word which declares to the broken-hearted and the sorrowful that you are forgiven, you are free. For those locked up in their sin, not desiring forgiveness, they remain bound to their sin because they refuse the victory that Jesus has won for them. If we distant ourselves from God and his love it is not God’s fault but our own.

Jesus knows those here today or those you know who have a humble and forgiving heart who are still receiving the hurts, isolation, rejection of someone unwilling to get off their sofas and make peace with you.

The only thing you feel able to do is pray. Prayer is the thing to do to make doors open, and even if it takes a long time for someone’s heart to soften, we pray too for patience for that to happen.

We pray for our amazing and Holy God to encourage anyone of us be reconciled with that brother or sister we have hurt or who has caused hurt. For we not only have a God who helps us and gives us his power to heal and repair we have a Holy God who will help us to give unconditional love even if we don’t receive it in return. 

Jesus says, ‘love one another as I have loved you’ (John 13:34).


What is the price of life?

The text: Matthew 16:21–28

Well, I suppose that might depend on the context of the question.

If you were asked by a life insurance salesman what the price of life is, he would usually value it as the sum of your financial commitments and the price of setting your loved ones up without those commitments; therefore, the price of life will vary by age.

For example, if you were 10 years old, you wouldn’t have any financial commitments, so, therefore, you wouldn’t need very much life insurance cover, if any at all.

But if you were 40 years old, with a mortgage and car loan, and have a spouse and two children, then your life insurance cover should be for at least these commitments, plus a very generous amount so that your family could live comfortably without any need to take out any other loans etc.

Yet if you were 70 years old, and no longer have any financial commitments or family to support, then your need for life insurance reduces again.

So, what is the price of life according to a life insurance salesman? It is the calculated cost of liabilities and perceived needs to cover any loss of life.

But what if a mother dies in an accident? What is the price of life then? How is it measured?

Well, the family may receive a payment from a life insurance company, but no matter how much money they receive, it never makes up for the life of a wife and mother. The same could be said for the loss of a father or the loss of a child. The price of life in this case can’t be calculated financially. Money, property or anything else is almost useless and empty of comfort and meaning.

The Beatles sang that ‘money can’t buy me love’, but it also can’t buy or replace life. It’s strange that at the time of death, the value of life suddenly crystallises: family is important, relationships are important, people are important. A lifetime chasing after money, property, fame or other worldly attractions is suddenly put into perspective. None of these things are important when a life is lost. Any time spent chasing after these things is seen as time wasted.

What if a death was the result of an accident or a murder?

Then the price of life will often change, and it becomes possible to calculate the price of life again. The price of life is justice or revenge. An eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth, and a life for a life!

If someone hurts us, then we want to hurt them back with interest. If someone takes away a loved one, then we want them to receive the same punishment, or worse, if possible!

But even if we were to have someone receive every punishment we wished them to receive, would that really make things better? Would revenge bring our loved one back? Would we ever be truly happy with the payment? Would the price of revenge or justice be payment enough for our loved one’s life? We often discover that even with revenge, the price of life still remains immeasurable.

So, even though the cost of life for insurance is often calculated financially, and the cost of life when someone has taken away a loved one is often justice or revenge, the price of life often can’t be calculated.

Knowing the price of your life can’t be estimated or valued by any earthly measurements, how much would your eternal life be worth? If you struggle to name a large enough price for the life of your loved ones who you have known for only a few years, then how on earth do you calculate the price for their eternal life, or even your own eternal life? If, at the time of death, you suddenly realise all things on earth are almost worthless when compared with the life of loved ones, then how much are you willing to pay or give up to ensure you will receive that eternal life with Jesus and your loved ones in faith?

Your eternal life is beyond price. Even if you were to give up your whole life and everything you have, it wouldn’t be enough. Nothing you say, think or do will pay for or measure the cost of your eternal life. Even if you gave up everything you have, it still wouldn’t be enough. The price for your life, especially for your eternal life, is too high … at least for you.

But the price of your life, even your eternal life, has been measured. Your price is the suffering, death and resurrection of Jesus Christ. That is how much your life is worth. It’s a price you can’t pay; yet Jesus has willingly paid the full price. The suffering and death of God’s own beloved Son is your price for life. It was necessary for him to go to Jerusalem, to suffer many things, to die and rise again so that your relationship with God would be restored. It was necessary he did these things, because this is the price of your lives and the price for God’s justice.

Yet what many people misunderstand is that even though Jesus has paid the full price for their lives, there is a cost involved for us. The cost is your obedience, yet don’t think that the price you pay in your obedience actually contributes or makes up for the suffering and death of Jesus, or that what you do actually earns you ‘brownie’ points before God.

Jesus has paid the full price for your eternal life. There is nothing more to pay. Your obedience doesn’t pay for your lives or the lives of others in any way, shape or form, but there is a danger you can exchange this undeserving gift for other fleeting worldly things through your disobedience.

For example, if you try to deny Jesus and what he has done for you by living according to the world’s thinking, then you will forfeit your eternal life. You can’t gain eternal life by your obedience, but you can lose it by your disobedience, because your disobedience shows your rejection of Christ and the life-price he paid for you. You can live as if worldly things are more important and more valuable, or you can live as if your eternal life is more important and more valuable. There is no in-between.

If you lose your life for Jesus’ sake, dedicate yourselves to following him, deny the deceptive advice of this world, follow God’s guiding word, and obey his instructions for life, then you will enjoy the blessings of eternal life in heaven.

Since the payment for your life involved sacrifice on the cross, your own life of following Jesus also involves a cross. The crosses you bear as you follow Jesus are the crosses of sacrifice and suffering on account of your following Jesus.

Paul’s letter to the Romans gives us an example of what this means. He says hate what is evil; hold onto what is good; be patient in your troubles; pray at all times; share your belongings with needy believers; open your homes to strangers; bless those who persecute you; weep with those who weep; don’t be proud but accept humble duties; don’t pay back wrong for wrong; don’t take revenge; and so on.

Following Jesus into eternal life is not easy and glorious. It often means living in a way that is different from others around you. It means being obedient to God’s word, even if you don’t fully understand the reasons for his instructions. It means giving up precious time on earth to listen to Jesus speak to you. It means giving up your need to satisfy yourselves with money, possessions, fame and other wants. It means giving up living the way you want to for your own pleasure, and trying to live Jesus’ way of service and sacrifice.

Following Jesus also means you will be persecuted and insulted for living according to Jesus’ way and not the world’s. You will not always ‘fit in’. The world will try to set the agenda as to what is acceptable and right, but this will not be the same as what Jesus says. The people of this world will continue to gain a name or a profit for themselves, but you will live unselfishly and in humbleness as you follow Jesus. You must obey God and not the world; after all, the things of the world will not last and will actually lead you away from Jesus and the life he has gained for you.

Therefore, let us heed the words of hymn 336 in the Lutheran Hymnal, which says:

Then let us follow Christ, our Lord,

Bearing the cross appointed,

And, firmly clinging to His Word,

In suffering be undaunted.

Who will not bear the battle’s strain

The crown of life shall ne’er obtain.

What is the price of life? The suffering, death and resurrection of Jesus Christ. The price for your life has been measured and paid in full. Even though you do not measure up, Jesus willingly allowed himself to suffer and die for you. Jesus paid the price of your disobedience by his obedience. He remained sinless to save those who are sinful. In other words, he suffered and died for your life.

Your own journey as you follow Jesus will also involve suffering and a dying to your own selfish desires, but it will also lead to eternal life with Jesus and all others who follow in faith.

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

Who do you say I am?

The Text: Matthew 16:13-20

Stories that feature a person with an unknown identity seem to be quite popular.  We might think of Batman, Spiderman, Superman, Zorro, and the Lone Ranger.  The other characters in those stories are left to wonder, ‘Who is that masked man?’

Even though Jesus didn’t wear a mask, his identity was often in question. For example, when Jesus was arrested and put on trial, one of the problems for his accusers was to try and work out who Jesus was. Herod, Pilate and the religious leaders all knew that Jesus was the man called Jesus of Nazareth, who went around teaching and healing. But who was he really? They saw him as a threat, a blasphemer, a law-breaker, a pretend king.

As we heard in the gospel lesson, at one time Jesus himself had asked his disciples what people were saying about him. ‘Who do people say that the Son of Man is?’ he asked them. There were a lot of answers to that question. The disciples reported that people were saying that he was John the Baptist, or Elijah, or Jeremiah, or one of the prophets. It seems that the people noticed that Jesus was some kind of godly person.

Then Jesus made the question personal. It was no longer about what others might think. He said to his disciples, ‘But who do you say that I am?’ As we heard, Peter answered with his confession, answering for them all, ‘You are the Messiah, the Son of the living God.’ Peter answered for all Christians really. The church believes and teaches that Jesus is the Messiah, the Son of the living God. However, the question is also personal for each one of us. ‘Who do you yourself believe and say that he is?’

This question about who Jesus is can never really go unanswered. Even if people avoid answering or refuse to answer, then that is also in fact an answer to the question. People might want to leave their options open or offer a variety of different alternatives, but ultimately the question comes down to this: Is Jesus the Son of God or not? That’s a decisive question for the Christian faith. Is Jesus my Lord or not?

The world has no shortage of different ideas about who Jesus is. Some might only see Jesus as a godly man, a good man, a good teacher, a good guide for a morally upstanding life. For them, Jesus existed in the past to show people the way they should live. This is a weakness with the ‘What would Jesus do?’ approach to life choices. In that approach Jesus can be regarded as an example in the past, rather than known as the Lord who lives with us now and calls us to trust him and follow him. A Jesus who is left in the past can’t bring us into a living relationship with God, where we are forgiven and set free to serve. Then the Christian faith stops being life and salvation, and becomes another moralistic way of living, coloured by guilt or pride. 

Who do you say that I am? asks Jesus.

Another fairly popular idea is to see Jesus as the supplier of our needs. He becomes the supplier of perceived needs, someone who will keep us comfortable and our stomachs full. When Jesus fed the crowds, they wanted to make him king. They saw Jesus as someone who would solve their problems, perhaps freeing them from the Romans, feeding them and keeping them happy. Today, some people see Jesus in a similar way. They turn to him with their wants. They think that his main role is to keep them happy and comfortable, supplying the new house they want, or the new job which would let them know that they enjoy God’s favour. That’s not a living faith, a living relationship with God, and is really an outpouring of selfish human whims and desires.

Who do you say that I am? asks Jesus. There is indeed no shortage of wrong answers to that question.

It was Peter who answered for the other disciples, for the church and for us. We say, with Peter, Jesus, you are the Messiah, the Son of the living God. Jesus told Peter that his answer was the work of God. God the Father had revealed the true nature of Jesus to him. It always was and is God’s work to create faith. This is what God continually does in the church. God brings us to faith in Jesus, letting us trust him and confess him as God’s Son, the Saviour he has sent us.

The name Peter means rock. This was the name Jesus gave to Simon, the son of John. Jesus cleverly used that name for emphasis. Jesus declared that he would build his church on the God given faith articulated by Peter. This God given faith is a solid foundation. Not even death will stand against the church. That’s because the church isn’t built on a fallible human, like rocky Peter. No, the church is built on the One whom Peter confessed. There is one foundation upon which the church is built by God. That foundation is the Crucified Jesus, God’s Son, who lovingly gave His life away so that the world might be drawn from death into life with God forever.

Jesus promised to build his church solidly and securely. Jesus promised Peter that he would be given the keys of the kingdom of heaven. Jesus was promising that the doors of heaven and hell would be unlocked and thrown open for people through the proclamation of Jesus the Saviour. We live in that promise. We can all declare Christ’s forgiving presence to each other, showing one another the open doors of heaven. The presence of the living Lord Jesus forgives sin and throws open the doors of heaven. 

We are invited to live in Jesus’ promises, and his question is in the present tense for us: “Who do you say that I am?”

God’s Spirit has shown us that Jesus is God’s Son, our Saviour. God’s Spirit moves us to joyfully declare to one another that Jesus is with us, that he forgives sin, that he has smashed open the prison of death and that he has thrown open the gates of heaven. Yet the disciples were sternly ordered not to tell anyone that Jesus was the Messiah. That might confuse us at first. 

The difference, between us now and the disciples then, is that Jesus has died and risen again. The danger then was that if the disciples said that Jesus was the Messiah, then the people would want him to be the Messiah of their expectations.  It finally became clear what sort of Messiah Jesus is when he willingly allowed himself to be killed in order to save the world. Once sin and death had been defeated, then Jesus sent the disciples out with the promise of his eternal presence.

Who do you say Jesus is? Luther gives us a good simple answer in the Small Catechism. “I believe that Jesus Christ is my Lord. He is truly God – he has always been the Son of the Father. He is also a real human being, the Virgin Mary’s son.  Jesus rescued me when I was lost and sentenced to death. He set me free from all my sins, from death, and from the power of the devil. It cost him more than gold or silver; it cost him his life. Even though he was holy and innocent, he suffered and died for me. Jesus did this so that I can belong to him, and he can rule over me as my king. I can live under him and serve him, innocent and happy forever, just as he was raised to life, and lives and rules forever. This is certainly true.”(Second part of the Apostles’ Creed.)

The peace of God which passes all understanding, keep your hearts and minds in Christ Jesus.

Made clean

The Text: Matthew 15:10-28


Have you heard the saying: “cleanliness is next to godliness”?

I don’t know about today, but in the past this saying was used by parents to encourage their children to wash well in the bath or shower. The saying implied that a clean body somehow brought us closer to God.

Like most sayings, there’s a grain of truth in that. When it comes to matters of God, cleanliness is important, although not necessarily whether have dirt behind our ears or not. It has more to do with spiritual or moral cleanliness.

You may not have had much teaching on cleanliness. In part, I think, it’s because “cleanliness” is seen as an Old Testament concept. Since Christians no longer need to obey all the Old Testament purity laws (found, for example, in Leviticus), many think cleanliness is redundant or has been superseded. This understanding, however, would be like “throwing the baby out with the bathwater”. Spiritual cleanliness is still at the heart of how we relate to God, and today’s gospel reading gives us the opportunity to explore its implications.

Before we can talk about cleanliness, we need to understand the concept of “holiness”. Holiness is a property of God. It is His good, creative, life-giving power. Holiness is often likened to the sun which gives out light and heat to sustain life on earth.

Diametrically opposed to God’s holiness is evil, including sin, death and demonic powers. These are naturally likened to darkness. The two cannot coexist: God’s holiness will always destroy evil just as light will banish the dark. Darkness cannot exist where light shines.

In between these two realms (of light & dark, holiness & evil) is the natural realm, which we inhabit. In this realm we can be “clean” or “unclean”. People who are clean need not fear God’s holiness. They can approach Him and, in so doing, become holy themselves.

The opposite is also true: clean or holy people who come in contact with evil become unclean; they become defiled. Unclean people can no longer approach God; His holiness would destroy them just as it destroys all evil.

In the Old Testament, God gave the people of Israel a “purity code” to help them remain clean. He taught them to avoid things that would defile them. For example, certain foods, contact with death or disease, and sinful actions – we read this in Leviticus 5:2-3 “‘If anyone becomes aware that they are guilty—if they unwittingly touch anything ceremonially unclean (whether the carcass of an unclean animal, wild or domestic, or of any unclean creature that moves along the ground) and they are unaware that they have become unclean, but then they come to realize their guilt; or if they touch human uncleanness (anything that would make them unclean) even though they are unaware of it, but then they learn of it and realize their guilt.

He gave them ways to restore their cleanliness if it was lost, through ritual washings and sacrifices.

God did this because He loved His people and wanted a relationship with them. He wanted to meet with them in person without destroying them with His holiness; first in the tabernacle, and later in the temple. He wanted them to be holy too.

For this reason, God also gave the people of Israel the land of Canaan where they could live in purity and build a permanent dwelling place for God to meet with all peoples. This meant it was necessary to displace the people there, including the Canaanites, who were involved in worshipping false gods and in evil practices such as child sacrifice.

God also forbade the Israelites to intermarry with the Canaanites, in case they succumb to their idolatry and so become unclean (read more in Exodus 23:23-33). It’s important to note that God didn’t do this because Israel was a particularly worthy people; already clean and holy. Rather, God chose to make a covenant with Israel. God made the people clean and holy, and their responsibility was simply to keep on living in ways God knew was good for them. It was a relationship based on trust. The Israelites were to trust that God would care for them as He had promised, and that His commands were good.

Sadly, the people of Israel failed to trust God fully. They failed to obey God’s commandments. They were unable to remain clean and holy. They intermarried with the Canaanites and other tribes opposed to God, and defiled themselves and the land with their practices. And so, God allowed Israel to be taken into exile for a time.

Upon return to the land new challenges arose against God’s plans for Israel. Groups such as the Pharisees were formed. By all accounts the Pharisees had an honest desire to obey God’s commands and follow His plan to keep themselves and the land pure. But rather than just trusting that God’s commands were sufficient, they added layers of tradition to “help” people.

This is what was behind Jesus’ scathing criticism of the Pharisees. They had come to Jesus asking why His disciples didn’t observe their tradition of ritual handwashing before the meal. The Pharisees claimed that by not washing, the disciples were making themselves unclean.

Jesus responded with the words we read at the start of the sermon. Firstly, He rejected the Pharisees’ rituals as merely human traditions and not commands from God. Secondly, Jesus explained that even God-ordained rituals didn’t make people clean in and of themselves, but that the reason for which the rituals were done was critical. It wouldn’t matter that everything on the outside was observed perfectly if the heart inside was rotten. For it is out of the heart that uncleanness truly comes: evil thoughts lead to evil speech and actions, and all three defile a person.

On the other hand, a heart which is clean will make the whole person clean before God. How do we get a heart like that? A truly clean heart is purely a gift from God, received in faith. And, what’s more, God extended this promise not only to Israel, but to all peoples who trust in Him – as we heard in our Old Testament reading from Isaiah 56.

Finally, God has delivered on His promise through Jesus Christ, as we saw in the story about the Canaanite woman when He cleansed her daughter of an unclean spirit. In Jesus, who is the “new temple”, God has come close to all people; not just to the people of Israel in Jerusalem. In Jesus, God brings cleansing to both Jew and Gentile, so that none of us need fear that His holiness will destroy us. In Jesus, we can all become clean and holy so that we can enter into God’s presence.

How does this happen in practice today? How does Jesus continue to make us clean? The main way He does this is here in worship, particularly when enacted through the liturgy of worship. Although liturgy is seen by some Christians as a redundant “tradition”, it has been carefully shaped by the church, based on God’s Word, over millennia, to help us receive God’s life-giving gifts.

Our liturgy is not the only way to worship, but it’s a good way. It leads us through an encounter with God so we can approach Him as clean people who want to be made holy by His presence. We start the service in the Name of God Father, Son and Holy Spirit, the name into which we were baptised. This “invocation” reminds us that in baptism we were washed clean and made members of God’s holy people. In baptism, Jesus took our sin on himself and gave us His holiness in exchange, and He also gave us His Holy Spirit to start changing our hearts to trust in His promises.

Next we have a time of confession and forgiveness. We need this because we are not yet fully holy. We still make ourselves unclean in thought, word and deed. We still murder and commit adultery in our hearts, we still steal, and we still lie and slander others with our mouths. And so, before we can approach God, we need to be cleansed again, lest His holiness destroy us.

Confession and forgiveness is also an opportunity to give up to God sins that others have committed against us and that make us unclean through no fault of our own. At this time in the service we can forgive other people and ask God to forgive them. Forgiveness in itself is a real blessing, as God takes away our emotional and spiritual dirt, leaving us clean and pure. But He wants to give us even more in worship. Once made clean, we can then enjoy time with God. We can pray to Him and praise Him, thank Him for the good gifts He has already given us and ask for anything else we might need.

Throughout the service, we also listen to God. In the liturgy itself and in the readings, hymns and sermon we hear God speaking to us. As we receive God’s Word we continue to be made clean and holy. The prayer used at the start of the sermon is not a “magical formula” or pious wish. It is an echo of Jesus’ own prayer in John 17:17 that God the Father would sanctify His disciples (make them holy) through His Word.

The high point of the service with Holy Communion comes when we celebrate a feast with God. At the Lord’s Table Jesus Himself serves us with His holy and precious body and blood. For those who are properly prepared – members of God’s people, made clean through His Word – this meal further blesses us by ushering us into the Holy of Holies; into the presence of God the Father Himself.

But those who are not yet members of God’s family, or do not repent of their sins, are asked to refrain from eating at this table. We do this not because we want to be exclusive, or because we think we are better than them, but because we want to protect them. We understand the danger of an unclean person coming into the presence of a holy God, and have responsibility to warn them of the danger.

Finally, we are sent out by God with His blessing. Like the people of Israel, God doesn’t make us clean and holy just for our own sakes, but for the sake of other people – all of them. We are to be examples to the world, and heralds of God’s goodness so that all people may come to know Him and share in His holiness.

To do so we are to speak up against human “traditions” that continue to make people “unclean” today, even though doing so is unpopular. For example, we speak up for the right-to-life of the unborn, and against calls that the aged or sick have a right-to-death. We speak up for the goodness of marriage between man and woman, and the blessings of reserving sex for the marital relationship. We speak against the trend towards fake news and call it out for what it is: lying. We encourage people to instead speak the truth, for the building up of others. We reject hate speech, particularly based on race or gender. We are to accept people who are different from us, and love them as Jesus loved and accepted all people, including the Canaanite woman; including us Gentiles.

But note that love and acceptance don’t mean we have to agree with people on everything. Love is not contingent on affirming attitudes or actions which are harmful and make people unclean before God. Cleanliness is not arbitrary or negotiable, the church hasn’t simply made up its rituals on a whim, and so sometimes we will offend people when God’s Word clashes with human “traditions”.

But as we speak these truths, we need to do so carefully, remembering that outward actions do not make for a clean heart. We all need Christ to make us clean on the inside, so that we can also be clean on the outside. Only Jesus’ transformation of our hearts allows us to speak and act cleanly too. And we can only ever receive this cleanliness as a gift. As the Canaanite woman herself testified, we are no more deserving than dogs who feed off their master’s crumbs.

Yet the wonderful news, for us and for all people, is that God’s “crumbs” are more than enough. Even the leftovers of God’s generosity can make us clean and holy and give us eternal life with Him. But the best news of all is that God hasn’t contented Himself with leaving us as dirty dogs and feeding us crumbs. Instead, through Jesus, He has made us clean and made us part of His family. God calls us His children and feeds us not with scraps, but with the bread of life.

What a wonderful gift for us to enjoy, and to share with anyone who will listen!


A helping hand.

The Text: Matthew 14:22-33

Has someone ever offered you a helping hand when you needed it most? The writer of this sermon relates this story: I was mountain-climbing with a couple of friends when I developed a cramp. We were near the top of the mountain, and my friends said it would be easier to help me to the summit, rather than go down the way we came. Why? Because they knew that the slope on the other side of the mountain was very gentle and gradual. I have experienced our Lord’s protecting hand on many occasions. On our farm, it was a miracle I escaped being savaged by our bull. In Melbourne, I was involved in a car accident in which I felt our Saviour’s protecting hand guarding me from serious injury.

Don’t we sometimes go on our way, confident that we can meet any kind of danger? What really throw us are the unexpected dangers that we never anticipated. There are people who, when they fear for their life, cry out to God for help. God, for them, is like a fire extinguisher: “FOR EMERGENCY USE ONLY”. Our Lord wants to be our first resource in any and every difficult situation in daily life, rather than our last resort when all else fails. Jesus isn’t simply an optional extra for those with time on their hands. The busier we are, the more we need to seek His blessing on what we do well, as well as seeking His help when things go wrong. When dangers loom, we sometimes feel we’re left to our own devices. We can be too overwhelmed by fear to even remember to pray. A good prayer to pray each day is, “Lord, if I should forget you today, remember me.”

In last week’s Gospel, our Lord had shown immense concern and care for 5,000 hungry people by feeding them. After this extraordinary act of kindness, witnessed by His disciples, Jesus sends the twelve on a boat trip across the lake while He goes elsewhere to pray. When a storm threatens the twelve apostles’ lives, they panic, thinking that Jesus has abandoned them. Overwhelmed by fear, they fail to realise that Jesus was near. In fact, while they were battling the wind and the waves, Jesus had been praying for them.

Just when we think we’re all alone, our Saviour’s prayers for us may be surrounding us with His guiding hand, though we may not be able to see it at the time. For us Christians, things are never quite what they seem. The main concern for many of us is not to be able to “walk on water”, but simply to keep our head above water. “

We don’t always recognize Jesus when He comes to our aid. The twelve apostles, too, imagined Jesus as an apparition that would only make their perilous situation worse, rather than shouting for joy at the sight of Him actually walking on the water to come to their aid. Haven’t we sometimes felt the same? When Jesus approaches us with His help through an illness, setback or greater responsibility, we fail to recognise Him, and instead of being certain that He hears our prayers, we panic.

Only Christ’s word of comfort can give us assurance of His presence and silence our fears. “Be of good cheer, have no fear, it is I”, Jesus says. Jesus’ disciples needed nothing more than our Lord’s reassuring voice. Full of joy, Peter now acts on impulse, as he so often does, and asks if he too can walk on water. And all goes well at first, while Peter stays focussed on Jesus. It is remarkable, isn’t it, what we can do when we forget our problems and dangers, and place our whole trust in Christ alone. Peter had faith strong enough to get him out of the boat, but not strong enough to cope with the storm. Peter’s faith bounces back when he realises he cannot manage on his own, but that everything now depends on Jesus. “Lord, save me”, Peter cries out. Jesus let this happen so that Peter could experience our Saviour’s protecting hand.

As we go about our daily duties, we sometimes see examples of our Saviour’s protecting hand, sparing His people from what could have been very dangerous car accidents. In heaven, we’ll all learn how often Jesus protected us from harm and danger from day to day, when we were least aware of it.
A man involved in a terrible train accident told a friend how he thanked God that he emerged unscathed. His friend asked: “How often have you travelled safely along that train line?”
“At least 50 times” was the reply.
“Have you thought of thanking God for all those times you travelled safely?” 

Dietrich Bonhoeffer found that God gives us the help we need when He sees it is best, and not before. Bonhoeffer writes: “I believe that God will give us the staying power we need in each situation, not before, in order that we rely not on ourselves, but Him. With such faith must we overcome all fear of the future.” We may not know what the future will bring, but we do know Him who holds the future in His hands, and we can trust Him to care for us.

Our Saviour sometimes seems to abandon us. He does this so that we cling all the more firmly to Him. Jesus can use our fears and anxieties to draw us closer to Him. Nothing can separate us from His almighty love. Faith means realising that our Saviour’s protecting hand hangs onto us when we can no longer hang onto Him. Divine grace is more like a mother cat grabbing its kitten by the scruff of its neck, rather than like a baby monkey which clings to its mother. We stake our lives on the Lord’s promise: “I will never leave you or forsake you … underneath are the everlasting arms.”  Some 366 times, God says to us in the Bible: “Fear not.” That’s enough times for every day of the year, including leap year. We haven’t been promised a life of ease and comfort, or a trouble free existence. Maturity in faith and love develops as we face life’s discomforts and troubles with God, who has promised to be “a very present help in trouble (Psalm 46:1).”

Troubles are the tools God uses to shape us for better things.

We’re safer in a storm with Christ, than anywhere else without Him. The boat in our Gospel reading represents Christ’s Church. I would rather face life’s challenges with Christ and fellow Christians, than to be on the outside trying to cope with the storms and stresses of daily living on my own. When the pressures of daily life get too much for us to cope with on our own, Jesus gives us fellow Church members to lean on, to uphold us, and to pray for us. Our Saviour extends His protective hand to us through His Church. His Church is His protecting and sheltering hand over our faith, guarding it from doubt and despair. Through His Word and sacraments, Jesus continues to strengthen our faith from all the attacks it faces week by week.
 God moves in a mysterious way / His wonders to perform;
 He plants His footsteps in the sea / And rides upon the storm.
 Ye fearful saints, fresh courage take; / The clouds ye so much dread
 Are big with mercy, and shall break / In blessing on your head.  

Hymn 414, v.1 and 3


What do you have

The Text: Matthew 14:13-21                                                   

What do you have? Do you have a roof over your head, a bed to sleep in, clothes to wear and food to eat? Do you have a car or have access to some form of transportation? Do you have a bank account and does it have any money in it? What luxury items do you have and what other odds and ends are lying around your place? Could you pack all of your possessions into a suitcase or would you need a removalist van to make a shift?

In 1964 Donald Horne, a Sydney journalist, referred to Australia as the ‘lucky country’. This phrase stuck and has since been used to describe everything from our weather and wide-open spaces to our overall quality of life. Many don’t realise Horne’s quote has been taken out of context. He actually said: Australia is a lucky country, run by second-rate people who share its luck’.

You may sometimes think the people running our country are still second rate, but most of us would agree that we are blessed to live here. Australia consistently ranks in the top countries in the world in terms of our quality of life. It has always been seen as a land of opportunity, a desirable destination for migrants and refugees alike who are seeking to start a new life.

But there are still the ‘haves’ and the ‘have nots’ in our society. The gap between the richest people in the land and the poorest is significant. Where do we see ourselves on the wealth spectrum? Is it easier for us to focus on what we have or on what we do not have?

Our Gospel reading deals with the very well-known incident in the life of Jesus where he miraculously fed a crowd of thousands. It features in all four Gospel accounts – Matthew, Mark, Luke and John, which is why it is very familiar to us.

Jesus had just heard news of the death of John the Baptist so he had withdrawn to a remote place to regroup and grieve. But the crowds came from the surrounding towns and followed him out there. Despite his grief, Jesus had compassion on them and still set about healing their sick. The day passed and evening came. Jesus had met their needs and it was time for the people to go home and get some dinner. But Jesus said they didn’t have to go away and he instructed his disciples to feed them.

The disciples didn’t have the resources to feed this large crowd – 5,000 men, with the women and children to be added to this number. In addition to this, it wasn’t actually required. You could see this as an ‘unnecessary miracle’. This wasn’t a life or death situation of poverty-related hunger. The people could easily go and get their own food.

No one asked to be fed. No one expected to be fed. There was no need.

But Jesus insisted. He took the food they had – five loaves of bread and two fish – and miraculously turned it into a meal that fed all of the crowd of thousands. There were more leftovers than what they had to begin with. So what is the moral of the story?

Is it a call for us to meet the needs of our hungry world – ‘you give them something to eat’? When you think of what we do have here in Australia then it is easy to see this miracle as an encouragement to share what we have with those less fortunate than us.  

It is easy to use this account to focus on what we have, to be reminded of how richly blessed we are in comparison to elsewhere in the world. The moral then becomes one of counting your blessings and sharing your blessings. No one is going to arc up about such a conclusion. It’s only fair and reasonable to expect us to give from what we have, whatever that is.

Only…that’s not our text! It is not how the story played out.

What did the disciples have? They had nothing really – only five loaves of bread and two fish. And in John’s account we hear that even this meagre amount wasn’t what they had at all. It belonged to a boy (John 6:8-9). This miracle is not about getting us to give from what we have. There is nothing especially miraculous about that. We do that all the time to varying degrees: depending on our generosity and on the perceived need.

Most of us are moved to give from what we have when we hear about an urgent need: a severe famine in Africa; a child requiring life-saving surgery; a natural disaster that devastates a community. We respond to these crises and so we should! But again that’s not what our text is on about.

In the Old Testament book of 1 Kings (17:7f) we hear of how the prophet Elijah miraculously provided oil and flour for the widow at Zarephath [pronounced Zar-eh-fath]. On that occasion, the life of the widow and her son were at stake. With the feeding miracle in our Gospel account there was no such crisis; no life was at stake. There was nothing urgent or special about the situation.

As the disciples said: the crowd ‘can go to the villages and buy themselves some food’. It is because the miracle is so unnecessary that you start to wonder why Jesus did it and what is he trying to teach through it.

The natural order of things is that we take care of ourselves. We try and get ourselves to the point of self-sufficiency; to the point where we have enough. If we have more than enough for ourselves then we can share. But this mindset and natural order of things is such a limiting one really. It is limited not only by what we have but also by what we are willing to release, to let go of what we have. And we are notoriously bad at doing that.

This miraculous feeding occurred once the disciples realised what they didn’t have; that they had nothing to offer. In Matthew’s Gospel account, we see the greatest miracles occur when people bring with them the least. It isn’t what we have that makes us effective disciples in God’s kingdom.

Earlier the religious leaders presented their credentials to John the Baptist by saying: ‘we have Abraham as our father’ (Matthew 3:9). But John wasn’t overly impressed with that, telling them that God could produce children from stones. It isn’t about what we have but about what God can do with what we don’t have.    

We see this throughout Jesus’ ministry. He was brought those who had diseases, those who had severe pain, those who had demon possession, those who had seizures, those who had blindness and those who had paralysis (Matthew 4:24; 15:30). It is not the greatest list of attributes to bring to the table; and yet Jesus healed them all.

For, what did Jesus have? In the world’s terms he didn’t seem to have much at all. He told his followers: “Foxes have dens and birds have nests, but the Son of Man has no place to lay his head” (Matthew 8:20). So he didn’t have a roof over his head. And when he came to Jerusalem to claim his throne as king all he had was a borrowed donkey (Matthew 21:3).

But he did have authority: he had the authority to teach the truths of God’s kingdom (Matthew 7:29) and he had the authority to forgive sins (Matthew 9:6). And in the lead up to this latest miracle we see that he had compassion on the large crowd that had come out to see him (Matthew 14:14). We have a God who loves us and cares for us. We have a God who wants to give us each day our daily bread. We have a God who wants to heal our hurts and bring us life and make us whole. It turns out that he doesn’t need a whole lot or even anything from us in order to make these things happen.     

So what do we need to have? We need to have ‘ears that hear’ (Matt.13:43); that is, the ability to perceive that God’s kingdom follows a different pattern to that of the world. And we need to have ‘faith as small as a mustard seed’ (Matt.17:20). And God has provided even these to us because we don’t have them naturally. For even when we have so little (or nothing at all) God can still move mountains. God can use us to feed the hungry and heal the broken through what he provides, rather than through what we have. God will see to it that his kingdom comes, on earth as it is in heaven. Amen.       

Your kingdom come?

The Text: Matthew 13:31–33, 44–52

Christians around the world love to pray the Lord’s Prayer both personally and with other Christians. Can you imagine how many times the Lord’s Prayer is being shared around the world on this day alone? This prayer is being prayed millions of times.

Amongst other petitions, the Lord’s Prayer includes the petition “your Kingdom come.”

We say this often, but what exactly do we mean by “Your kingdom come?” It is God’s Kingdom we want to see come.

Luther says: in his explanation: “God comes to rule as king even if we do not ask for this to happen. But in this prayer we are asking: “Father come and rule over us”.

Luther goes on to pose a question: “How does God’s kingdom come?” Luther answers his own question by saying: “God our Father comes to rule over us by giving us the Holy Spirit, so that by God’s goodness to us we believe his holy word and live as his people on earth now and in heaven forever.”

In today’s Gospel reading Jesus helps us grow in our understanding of God’s kingdom—God’s eternal reign of love.

In Matthew’s gospel, God’s rule is called the ‘Kingdom of Heaven’.  And each of today’s parables give us another glimpse of what his kingdom is like. What we discover in these parables is that God’s kingship changes everything about our world, our values and our priorities. These parables may look simple on the surface, but when understood in their original context they are full of surprise!

In order to fully understand today’s parables, we need to recognise just how controversial they were when Jesus first shared them. It is then that they will bring new vision to our world, our values and our priorities. Let’s start with the parable of the mustard seed—v31-32.

On first glance this is a charming story about how God might make use of things beyond our common expectation. The mustard seed, a tiny seed becomes a home for birds to nest in. We might quickly conclude that God can use even the smallest of faith to grow something great—even abundant, enough to bless others.

The Mustard Seed parable might be easily reduced to the saying: “From little things big things grow.” But there is much more in this parable: You see, the mustard plant is closer to being a weed than it is to being a precious valued plant. When we think of mustard we often think of the yellow squeeze bottles of mustard sauce that we might add to hamburgers and hot dogs. That might make the mustard plant sound palatable.

But in reality the mustard plant grows like a weed—more like soursobs or thistles or dandelions.

Once one mustard seed gets a corner in your field—watch out—it will take over!  Maybe the strangest part of this parable is that the mustard seed will never grow into a big strong tree like a cedar tree. Yet, Jesus chooses to use it as a picture of God’s kingdom.

The Mustard seed has a natural ability to reproduce and spread far and wide—it is hardy.

If we look back over the history of the world over the past 2000 years we can see how the rule of God in Christianity has spread like a mustard seed weed around the world! It has transformed the world bringing God’s love to life for many and it continues to do so in a humble earthy way.

Let’s move onto the next parable—he parable of the yeast in verse 33.  Again, this parable would have immediately grabbed the attention of those who first heard it.

Why? Because of the yeast. Elsewhere in scripture yeast is used to represent the world and is almost always used as a negative symbol of corruption. Here yeast is presented as something good!

And the amount of bread being made by the woman would have also surprised the hearer. Usually they would make just enough for themselves, but here the woman is making enough bread to feed more than 100 people at once!  We could simply conclude that this parable shows how a little can make a lot. But deeper, it also indicates that God’s rule may take hold in hidden and unexpected ways and bring about change in ways that are beyond our imagination.

Our text then jumps to verses 44-46 and shares two more parables. One about the treasure found in the field and the other about a precious pearl.  In these parables we could focus on how the labourer cunningly went and sold all he had just to buy the field where the treasure was hidden. But maybe more importantly we can focus on how the treasure in the field changed his life! God’s rule in our life transforms our life for the better!

There is also another way we could read these two parables: In the parable about the pearl and the treasure, we easily focus on how the person sold everything in order to obtain the one prized thing… But what is this treasure? And who is this person who gives up all so that the treasure can be his?

What if we were to understand God as the person making the discovery and we are the treasure he wants to have as his own?

Think of who Jesus is. We confess Jesus to be God’s one and only Son.

God gave up his one and only Son to suffer and die as the payment for sin so that we could be his prized treasure forever!   This might be how we could understand our baptism. In our Baptism God has come and found us and valued us so highly that he paid the price so that we could be his forever!  

You are God’s great treasure and by the Grace of God alone all who are baptised live with the promise that they belong to God forever. We are part of God’s eternal family.

How exciting! What a joy that God now says to us: ‘you are my treasure’.

Together as we encourage one another, we can help each other grow to know that we are loved by God and that we are part of God’s eternal family. For Jesus has paid the price to claim us as his!

In our fellowship we can lead one another to know that – there is nothing that can separate us from God’s love. We can give thanks for the ministries of the church here on earth that help to nurture our identity as people who are precious to God and belong to God’s kingdom.

Our regional and church wide Children youth and family ministry teams do so much to help our young people grow in their identity as children who are loved and treasured by God. The many Christian Life week camps that are held in many places each year bring this blessing to many.  At these camps our youth are encouraged and mentored by Christian young adults to see themselves as loved by God.

God’s kingdom has come to us in the mystery of baptism and his word. God brings us community and connection, life and light. And he continues to transform our world in unexpected ways!

May the Spirit that God gives you lead you to believe his word and live as his people on earth now and in heaven forever. Amen