Feeding of the five thousand.

Pentecost 8
John 6:1-15

Today’s reading is the story of the feeding of the five thousand. It is the fourth sign, or miracle story, included in John’s Gospel. And it is the only miracle recorded in all four gospels. It is also one of several stories in John’s Gospel centred around a meal. And it’s a big one, the biggest sit-down meal described in the Bible.

Meals are important. We learn much by eating with others. It is around meals that people get to know each other, talk about important things, welcome one another. Bishop Robert, who is retiring the end of this month, has a theory that a congregation that is growing will eat often together. Whenever he hears of a congregation that is beginning to grow he asks how often they share meals. And when he hears of congregations that are struggling, he asks the same question. His informal findings over the past couple of years is that the more we eat together, the more people will see the love of Christ among us.  I think John might have had a similarly high view of the importance of meals. So much of John’s Gospel revolves around meals. Five of the final chapters of John’s Gospel take place in the context of Jesus’ last meal with his disciples. During his last resurrection appearance with his disciples John tells us that Jesus cooked them breakfast (fish and bread again!). Jesus’ first miracle, in which he showed he was creator by turning water into wine, took place in the context of a wedding feast. And in today’s text, we find the largest sit-down meal described in the New Testament, a meal in which everyone is fed ‘til they are filled, and with food left over.

But this story is not just a meal story. It is a miracle story.

As we have seen in our series on John’s Gospel, John does not include the things the other gospels have included. He focuses on stories and teaching that had not been told. John records only seven miracles, or signs, that Jesus performs. We have already seen the changing of water to wine, the healing of the official’s son at a distance, and the healing of the lame man on the Sabbath. And now sign number four: the miracle of the feeding of the multitude. But why include a well-known miracle that the other Gospel writers have already told us about?

A good place to start is to look at things John tells us about this story that Matthew, Mark and Luke have not. John, as usual, gives his telling very much the feel of an eyewitness account by including little details that only someone who was there would think to include. John, for instance, is the only one who mentions any of the disciples who were there by name. Philip, who was from that area, is asked where food might be found to feed such a large group. If there were anywhere nearby to purchase enough food for so many, then Philip would know about it. But Philip, rather than coming up with a solution, only adds to the difficulty of the problem that it would take almost a years wages to buy enough food to feed such a crowd.

And John also mentions Andrew, for it is Andrew who brings the boy with five loaves and two fish to Jesus. The other gospels do not explain where the bread and fish came from. Surely if they had asked around widely they would have found more food than this among so many. But likely this young boy, who had his simple packed lunch with him, must have heard the disciples talking about where to find food. So he approaches one of them, Andrew, with his generous but hopelessly naïve offer to share his lunch. And Andrew, who seems to show some spark of faith here, decides to bring the boy and his five loaves and two fish to Jesus. We can well imagine John, hearing the accounts of this event read from the first three gospels, and wishing people knew more of the story of where the bread and fish came from.

But surely there is more to John’s inclusion of the feeding of the multitude than his desire to add a few more interesting details. If this were his motivation, he would have included expanded versions of many other accounts that had been included in the other gospels.

John points us in the direction he is taking us when he tells us that this miracle takes place as the Passover is approaching and people are making their way to Jerusalem. This is a fact the other three gospels do not mention. It helps explain why there is such a large crown out and about on this side of the Sea of Galilee. Entire families will beginning their annual pilgrimage to Jerusalem. John’s reference to the Passover also reminds us of Moses. It sets up Jesus’ explanation later in this chapter that he is the true bread of life, and image which draws both upon the eucharistic symbolism of the Passover, and also the mana that came from heaven in the time of Moses.

A key new detail that John includes in found in verse 14. ‘When the people saw the sign that he had done, they began to say, “This is the prophet who is to come into the world.”’

Remember, each of the seven signs or miracles that John includes are signs pointing to who Jesus is. John includes this miracle, even though it is a story his readers are already well familiar with, because it points clearly to who Jesus is. John highlights this by telling us that as soon as the people had finished eating, they drew the conclusion that Jesus was the prophet, promised and predicted already by Moses. This is an allusion to Deuteronomy 18:15, where Moses says ‘The Lord your God will raise up for you a prophet like me …’ So references to ‘the prophet’ whom the people awaited is a reference to this promise from Moses, which marks the beginning and foundation of the Jewish expectation of a Messiah. So convinced were the people, in fact, that they were ready to take hold of Jesus then and there and declare him their king. So Jesus has to slip away. The point is that the people present immediately understood what this sign of feeding the multitude said about who Jesus was.

By why did the crowd respond in this way? Why did they see this miracle as a sign not just that Jesus was a prophet, but was the prophet?

In order to understand what the crowd was thinking when Jesus performed this miracle we need to recall the Old Testament reading from this morning. Elijah and Elisha were the classic prophets of Israel. The messianic expectation was that the coming messiah would be a prophet of this type and order – just as he was to be like Moses. Both Elijah and Elisha were well known for performing miracles of ‘extension’, that is, of extending food to meet the needs of those who were hungry. There was the instance of Elijah and the widow of Zarephath and the oil and meal that did not run out for her, her son and the prophet during the famine (1 Kings 17:8-16); and Elisha and the widow’s oil that filled many vessels and allowed her to feed her son (2 Kings 4:1-7). But more important was the story of the miracle we heard read this morning in which Elisha fed one hundred people when he had only 20 loaves of barely bread and some ears of grain. And there was food left over!

John’s inclusion of the fact that the loaves of bread the boy had were barley bread, the bread of the poor, is important. It is meant to remind of the story of Elisha. The fact that there was food left over is also meant to recall this story.

So in the feeding of the multitude, Jesus is not only providing food to the people, as God did in the time of Moses with the mana from heaven, but he also replicates a miracle of one of the classic prophets, one of the prophets whose ministry pointed to that of the Messiah. But Jesus does more than simply emulate or match the miracle of Elisha.

A recent news story told of an Australian coming close to matching the record for hotdogs eaten in ten minutes. I believe the number was an incredible 54. Of course, records are made to be broken. And soon someone will eat one or two more than this. That is beating the existing record. But what if someone suddenly ate a 1,000 hot dogs? That would not even be in the same category of achievement.

Elisha feed one hundred people.  That was the well known story. That was the ‘record’ so to speak for miracles of extension. Then Jesus comes along and feeds five thousand men. And the account in Matthew confirms that, according to the method of counting crowds and taken census at this time of counting adult males, this did not include women and children. The disciples were able to make a rough count of those present as they asked the people to divide  themselves into groups of about 50 men, each with their families. So there would have been about 100 such groups. Now if the average family of that time included a man, his wife, and three children (a conservative estimate) that would give us about 25,000 people. So Elisha feeds 100 people (and is one of the greatest of all the prophets). And Jesus feeds 25,000.  Now numbers are important in this story, as they are int eh story of Elisha. That is why the details are included in both the OT and the Gospel text. So just how much greater is Jesus’ miracle than Elisha’s based on these numbers? Anyone have it worked out? The disciples and other witnesses would certainly have noticed. Jesus’ miracle exceeds that of Elisha by a magnitude of 250.

But as they say in those late night commercials, ‘but wait, there’s more!’  Elisha fed 100 people with 20 loaves, but Jesus had only 5 loves to begin with. This means Jesus and only a quarter the amount of bread to work with as Elisha did. So when we take this additional ‘handicap’ into account, this extends Jesus’ miracle to something in the order of 1,000 times the magnitude of that of Elisha! Jesus is not simply meeting or surpassing what Elisha did. Jesus is in a category all of his own.

So what’s the point?

The point John is making is this. Jesus is not simply a great prophet in the order of Moses, or Elijah, or Elisha. Jesus is the prophet, the one that Moses first promised. Jesus surpasses the great prophets of Israel in the signs that he does by such a magnitude that they are not even in the same class.

Jesus is not just a great prophet. He is the promised Messiah. He is God come to us in human flesh. It is the same thing John has shown us in the previous three signs or miracles that he related.

As we said earlier, meals are important. In this meal story, through the sign of feeding so many with so little, Jesus again shows us who he is. In the breaking of bread, he reveals himself to us.

So next time you are enjoying a simple meal, perhaps even with a bit of bread and fish, remember that in just such a simple meal, Jesus revealed to us that he is the promised Messiah, God in human flesh, who has come among us to be our bread of life.

Amen.

Pastor Mark Worthing
Port Macquarie.

My Father is always at his work.

Grace to you and peace, from God our Father and from our Lord and Saviour Jesus Christ, Amen.

Verse 36 states – “I have testimony weightier than that of John.  For the works that the Father has given me to finish – the very works that I am doing – testify that the Father has sent me.” 

Today we are continuing the journey through the book of John.  Before we go too far let’s recap on where we have come from over the last couple of weeks.  You may recall Jesus gets himself into trouble by healing a lame man on the Sabbath, and then telling him to pick up and carry his mat – both of which were prohibited on the day of rest. In his defence, he says “My Father is always at his work to this very day, and I too am working.” This gets him into more hot water, adding the even more serious charge of blasphemy. Last week, we saw Jesus outline his defence: he’s not setting himself up as a rival god. On the contrary, he’s learned alongside the Father like a son learning the family business, and has come to do his work, which indeed is his own work. Now this is a big claim Jesus makes, but can he prove it? This is what today’s part of the trial is all about.”[1]

Reflecting back on my high school days of legal studies (which no doubt qualifies me as an amateur legal expert),  I loved the thought of going to a courthouse and seeing a real-life case.  I recall visiting the Ipswich Court House on a school excursion, where my classmates and I were shuffled into the room, bowing before the judge upon entry.  As I scanned the room, I can vividly see the observers, the jury and judge, the legal teams with their stacks of documents, and finally the big, burly, tough biker gang member, the accused, surrounded by Police.  He glared at us with anger chiselled on his face.  Just then, the bang of the gavel by the Judge brought the room to attention and with a monotone voice stated – ‘the defence can call its first witness.’ 

Now the words ‘witness’ and ‘testimony’ in today’s text are closely related.  The definition of testimony is “Evidence of a witness; evidence given by a witness, under oath or affirmation; as distinguished from evidence derived from writings, and other sources.”[2]  The Greek verb, testify, is repeated 11 times by Jesus in today’s gospel. This places a strong emphasis on the testimony and witness in today’s gospel.[3]

Jesus brings his witnesses forward with a simple argument.  That he is not guilty of saying false things about God if he actually is God.   The Jewish leaders, of course, did not accept this.  To support this argument in Jewish Law in Jesus’ time, Jesus required 3 credible accounts or witnesses.[4]  Now Jesus could make outlandish claims in his own defence, but as Jesus himself says, one would question the credibility or validity of this self-testimony.  Anyone can make bold, and outlandish statements without credible support.  You only need to turn on the TV and watch an episode of Media Watch for examples of this.   As with every Judge or Jury, they look at the collection of evidence, of witness statements and testimony, consider the facts and develop an informed conclusion and opinion.  So, today is not about Jesus asking us to take a blind leap faith.  He reminds us in John 5:31 “If I testify about myself, my testimony is not valid.”

With that in mind, let’s step into the court room as Jesus calls his witnesses to the stand.

John the Baptist[5]

The first witness Jesus calls is John the Baptist, whose ministry many of the Jews had accepted.

5:32-34 ‘There is another who testifies in my favour, and I know that his testimony about me is valid. You have sent to John and he has testified to the truth. Not that I accept [OR need to take for myself] human testimony; but I mention it that you may be saved.’

In fact, John had earlier testified as to Jesus’ identity:

John 1:29b ‘Look, the Lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the world’

John 1:34 ‘I have seen and I testify that this is the Son of God.’

So, Jesus reminds them of John’s testimony, as his opening argument. In some ways it’s a bit like our own testimony to what God has done in our lives.

But Jesus extends this testimony to something even more compelling than human testimony – whether it be John the Baptist’s or ours:

5:35-36 ‘John was a lamp that burned and gave light, and you chose for a time to enjoy his light. I have testimony weightier than that of John. For the works that the Father has given me to finish—the very works that I am doing—testify that the Father has sent me.’

Jesus is saying, don’t just accept who I am based on what another person has said about me, but look at what is happening around you.  Look a what I am doing!  See with your own eyes that which the Jewish authorities seem to be oblivious if not blinded to.

Moses

The next witness Jesus brings to the stand is is real surprise. It is the star witness of the prosecution! They were quoting the Ten Commandments against Jesus. They recited the words from the books of Moses as charges against Jesus. But Jesus turns their witness against them by calling Moses to the stand![6]

45 “Yet it isn’t I who will accuse you before the Father. Moses will accuse you! Yes, Moses, in whom you put your hopes. 46 If you really believed Moses, you would believe me, because he wrote about me. 47 But since you don’t believe what he wrote, how will you believe what I say?”

Jesus is making a very big statement.  The Jewish people loved the Law of God.  He reminds them that they know Moses.  Not the person, but Moses in the form of the first five books of the Bible, the Torah.  The Law that the Jewish authorities diligently study and strictly adhere to.   However, they missed that Moses pointed to a great prophet to come. With all their study they still did not recognise God in the flesh, staring them in the face.  As the old saying goes – ‘they couldn’t see past the nose upon their face.’

The Father himself[7]

And if that weren’t enough, Jesus goes on to call one more witness.  An even bigger deal and adding weight to the witness of Moses.  Jesus calls God the Father himself:

5:37a ‘And the Father who sent me has himself testified concerning me.’

How does the Father testify about Jesus? The Father would have testified about Jesus through the miracles Jesus has just referred to. He could also have been referring to  the voice from heaven at Jesus’ baptism – which isn’t actually recorded in John’s gospel. I think, given the past tense Jesus uses, that he is referring mainly to the witness of the Scriptures, the OT which points to Jesus. This is what Jesus is referring to a few verses later:

5:39-40 ‘You study the Scriptures diligently because you think that in them you have eternal life. These are the very Scriptures that testify about me, yet you refuse to come to me to have life.’

That is, the Jews should have recognized Jesus because their own holy writings point toward him. They were in a privileged position, having the plan of God revealed to them. Yet they ended up worshipping the plan instead of God himself. They placed their faith in possessing the word of God, rather than actually responding to it. And when God himself actually turns up, they don’t recognize him. They were so busy dissecting his word that they didn’t have time for God himself. He didn’t fit their preconceived idea of what God should be like.

Now before we jump too quickly to their culpability in the matter, let’s apply the warning to ourselves. How much are we in danger of merely possessing the gospel message, without having any sort of relationship with its author? Of having the words of eternal life that remain for us only on the page and don’t find their way into our hearts, into our minds, into our behaviour. Having a Bible and studying it diligently, knowing the gospel, being able to explain the atonement – that doesn’t save us. We only ‘have life’ if we truly come to the one to whom the Scriptures testify.[8]

You may recall a picture of Martin Luther shared with us previously by Pastor Mark. The image is from St. Mary’s Church in Wittenburg where, Luther preached from 1514 onward.  At the centre of the auditorium, you can see the “Reformation Altarpieces” (paintings of communion, confession, and other ministries). One contains a picture depicting Luther preaching; showing how we should view the Scriptures, and how we should view the preaching of the Scriptures.  It’s a beautiful picture of what is intended to do every week: A finger on the text, pointing people to Jesus, with all eyes on Jesus, not on the preacher. It’s all about Jesus.[9]

And the same is true for us today.  Whenever people are confronted by the claims of Jesus, and ask us “why should I accept what Jesus says?”[10] What will be our response?  We are called to form an opinion.  We need to investigate the evidence.  Either Jesus is right or he’s wrong. Either he’s from God or he’s not.  And if we believe that Jesus is God, what we do or don’t do is critical.

Do we share the joyous news of the Gospel, the saving redemption through the resurrection and the promise of eternal life.  As with the image of the preaching Martin Luther, in which direction do we point the focus and attention?  Do we place the shining light under the table? Or do we find the courage through the power of Holy Spirit to reveal the light in the same way as John the Baptist,  bathing in the warming glow that comes from a Christ-centred perspective.

May God grant us the clarity of heart, the conviction and strength of the spirit to point to the one redeeming saviour, so that all may come to Jesus Christ and find the life that is truly life.

Amen.

Let us pray – May the peace of God that passes all understanding keep our hearts and minds in Christ Jesus unto life everlasting.  Amen.

References

https://timmacbride.com/2015/06/18/john5d/

https://sermons.logos.com/sermons/685661-witnesses-for-the-defense-john-5:31-47

https://idcraleigh.com/wp-content/uploads/2018/08/John-5.31-47-1.pdf

[1] https://timmacbride.com/2015/06/18/john5d/

[2] https://thelawdictionary.org/testimony/

[3] S. Renn, Vine’s Expository Dictionary of Bible Words, Hendrickson Publishers, 2005, p.1053.

[4] https://sermons.logos.com/sermons/685661-witnesses-for-the-defense-john-5:31-47

[5] https://timmacbride.com/2015/06/18/john5d/

[6] https://sermons.logos.com/sermons/685661-witnesses-for-the-defense-john-5:31-47

[7] https://timmacbride.com/2015/06/18/john5d/

[8] https://timmacbride.com/2015/06/18/john5d/

[9] https://idcraleigh.com/wp-content/uploads/2018/08/John-5.31-47-1.pdf

[10] https://timmacbride.com/2015/06/18/john5d/

“Like Father, like Son”

Pentecost 6
John 5:16-30

Less than a year ago my father died.  I was able to be there for his final days, but not for his funeral. I sent a message to be read out by oldest son. In it, one of the things I said was this:

“My father was seemingly full of contradictions; very talkative and yet also shying away from social functions. He loved working with machinery but wouldn’t have anything to do with telephones or computers. He worked hard, even when the time came that there wasn’t much that needed doing. And he had a life-long obsession with moving dirt from one place to another that none of us, including my mother, could ever really understand. Entire hills on the farm disappeared and slowly reappeared elsewhere. And none of us could every really explain why.

But I also remember my father’s strong faith in Christ. I remember that when he gave his word, he meant it. I remember who he cared deeply about justice and doing the right thing. I remember him being generous in helping others. And I also remember that for much of my life, I worked very hard (as many of us do) to not be like my father. But now I cannot think of a better complement than when someone to says, ‘You remind me of your Dad’”

We are all more like our parents than we might like to admit. Our parents, or those who raised us in place of our biological parents, are the people who shaped us. They are our first and most important and influential teachers. They are our first and primary role models. So when we read the opening words of Jesus’ response to the religious leaders who objected to his healing of the lame man on a Sabbath, Jesus seems to begin by reminding his listeners of just such a truism about parents and children. In this case, about fathers and sons.

If we read the opening words of today’s text as ‘a’ father and ‘a’ son’ rather than ‘the’ Father and ‘the’ Son it would sound like a typical wise saying, much like the common ‘like father, like son,’ or ‘like mother, like daughter’ that we still hear today. They reflect a very ancient truth that we are all much more like our parents than we might like to admit.

In fact, some commentators have thought that just such a saying lay behind this statement of Jesus, and that he was drawing his listeners in by adapting a well-known truth. ‘A son can do nothing on his own, but only does what he sees his father doing, for a son does whatever his father does. A father loves his son and shows him everything that he does.’

But Jesus takes this saying much further. He talks about ‘the’  Father and ‘the’ Son. Jesus makes it clear the Father he is speaking about is God, and he himself is the Son. Suddenly a truism about life and relationships becomes a lesson about the nature of God.

This speech of Jesus, of which we have heard only the first half this Sunday, is the first of several long speeches of Jesus that John includes in his Gospel. The other gospels have parables. John includes none. What John instead shares with his readers is a number of Jesus’ substantial teaching talks. And this is the first of these. In it, Jesus brings up a topic that continues throughout John’s Gospel – the relationship between the Father and the Son.

And it fits naturally in this context because Jesus has just been criticised for healing a man on the Sabbath. And his defense is simply this: ‘My Father is still working, and I also am working.” The Jews taught the God rested from creating on the seventh day. But they also held that God did not rest from being God, or giving life. They taught that on the Sabbath, God’s people rest, but God continues being God, working for his people.  So this is a big statement on Jesus’ part. Jesus is saying that he is not simply allowed to heal on the Sabbath, but that he must by nature do this because he is not just a miracle worker or prophet. He is God.

Jesus begins his talk with an image we can relate to. It is the image of a son watching and learning from his father. Notice in verse 19 that the Son ‘sees’ what the Father does, and in verse 20 we read that the Father ‘shows’ the Son all that he does. Jesus begins by showing us a close relationship between a father and son that was also, typically for that day, a relationship between teacher and apprentice.

But what work does the Father do that he shows the Son? Jesus progresses the analogy when he says, ‘Just as the Father raises the dead and gives them life, so also the Son gives life to whomever he wishes.’  Suddenly we are talking about much more than making tables and chairs! The authorities were concerned that Jesus healed a lame man. Jesus lets them know that he can, and would, do greater things that this. Only God can give life. When Jesus says that he too can give life, can and will raise the dead, and can do this for whomever he wishes, there is only one way the Jewish leaders can interpret this statement. Jesus is claiming to be on the same level with the Father. He is claiming to be God.

Jesus goes on to underscore this point. Whatever the Father is, that is also what the Son is. Whatever honours the Father, also honours the Son, and vice versa.

  • The Father gives life, the Son gives life (verse 21)
  • The Father who is judge of all, give the role of judge to the Son (verse 22)
  • Just as the Father is honoured, so the Son is to be honoured (verse 23)
  • Just as the Father has life in and of himself (something only ascribed to God) so the Son has life in himself (verse 26)

So Jesus’ relationship with the Father is not simply that of a human son following in the footsteps of his father or looking to his father as a role model. Jesus identifies himself with the Father in every way that was important for the Jewish conception of God.

It is because of who Jesus is, that he can talk about a future coming in judgement, of raising the dead at the end of the age, and giving eternal life. The Son and the Father are one God not just during Jesus’ earthly ministry, but into all eternity. Jeus does all these things with and through the Father. They are one in honour, one in life, one in judging and granting eternal life. They act together, as one. As Jesus will explain in a later speech about his relationship with the Father that, ‘I and the Father are one.’

The religious authorities of the day were upset about a formerly lame man carrying his mat on the Sabbath. When they confronted Jesus, demanding an explanation, he calmly explained to them who he was.

It was an explanation they could neither grasp nor accept.

John started his Gospel with the claim that Jesus was God who created the heavens and the earth. Jesus made his own claim to be God through a unique set of miracles that only God could do. And now, Jesus states clearly who he is. He is allowed to heal on the Sabbath because he is lord of the Sabbath. He is judge and giver of life.

John tells this story and records these words of Jesus not to keep us in suspense over what the religious authorities will make of this claim. We already know what they will decide. Their rejection of Jesus as God among us is a foregone conclusion. John relates this story and this speech of Jesus, rather, for us, the readers. It is for those of us who were not there, who would only have the accounts of what happened.

We should not get caught up in how the Pharisees, Sadducees and priests respond to Jesus’ claims. The question put before us is how we will respond. How will we see Jesus? What does it mean for us that the Creator and giver of life, the judge of all, lived and walked among us?

Amen.

Pastor Mark Worthing.
Port Macquarie.

A Healing and an Inconvenient Mat

Pentecost 5
John 5:1-15  

In this morning’s text we have the third of John’s seven miracle stories. Remember, John calls these events signs, because of what they point to. As you will recall, both the turning of water into wine and the healing of the court official’s son were signs that pointed to the divinity of Jesus, but in different ways. This third sign does the same thing, in yet another way. It does so by showing that Jesus is Lord of the Sabbath. And as John points out, what Jesus did and said caused great anger among the Jewish religious leaders because they understood that Jesus was ‘making himself equal to God.’ This point about who Jesus was is one John has been making since the opening of his Gospel. And he does it again in this miracle story.

But instead of focusing once more on what should be becoming obvious to us, I would like to look at this story from a different perspective – from that of the lame man and religious leaders of the time, both of whom were so preoccupied with their own concerns that they failed to see God at work before their very eyes.

So, in today’s text we have a miracle account in John that looks a bit like the miracle stories included in the other Gospels. But there are some differences that make it stand out. What strikes us immediately is that this man, unlike the desperate father in last week’s reading, does not seek out Jesus, nor does he ask for healing when Jesus finds him. In fact, when Jesus prods him to ask for healing – which he clearly wanted after 38 years waiting beside what the locals believed to be a miracle pool – he simply complains about never being able to get into the pool first when the water was stirred, likely by a intermittent spring under the pool. After 38 years waiting to be healed you would think he would know why he was there. You would think that he would have answered, ‘Yes, of course I wish to be made well,’ when Jesus asked him. But over the years he had been conditioned to expect nothing to happen. But even though he does not ask to be healed, even when prompted by Jesus, Jesus heals him anyway.

It is a reminder that God can freely work in our lives whether we ask for his help or not. Healing (like the even greater gift of forgiveness that Jesus alludes to when he encounters the man again later that day in the temple) is not a reward for asking in the right way, or for strong enough faith. The lame man in this story does not ask for healing, not even when invited to. And beyond that, he had no idea who healed him until later that day. So the man is not healed because of any amount of faith on his part. This was a pure act of grace.

In some ways he was not dissimilar to the Pharisees and Priests in the temple. They had been conditioned to see their faith as simply about rules and their enforcement. It was all they could see. So when the man showed up at the temple for the first time in 38 years – walking – what did they see? Not a lame man who had been healed after a lifetime of being unable to walk. All they saw was a man carrying a mat on the Sabbath, which was one of the items that they listed as a ‘burden’ that should not be carried on a Sabbath, as this would constitute work.

So how did the Pharisees miss this point and become hung up on a trivial rule? And how did the lame man seem to forget why he had been going to this pool every day for the past 38 years?

It is because we tend only to see what is important to us. We tend to see what we have been conditioned to see. And sometimes, that means we miss the bigger picture of what is happening.

When I was eight years old I wanted a bicycle in the worst way. Many of the kids in school had bikes. And the ‘townies’ used to ride their bikes to school when the weather was good. Their bikes all were of the same style, with banana seats and butterfly handlebars. They were completely useless as bikes, but easy for kids to ride. And I wanted one of those. After many weeks of asking, my father brought home an old bicycle someone had given him for free. What he brought home was not a kid’s butterfly handlebar bike with banana seat, but an old single speed Schwinn with balloon tyres and pedal brakes. And it was an adult size so I could not reach the pedals.  My Father said if I could ride this bike 100 yards (100 metres) he would get me one of those bikes like the other kids at school had.

So to ride this I would lean the bike against a tree at the top of small hill, climb up, then push myself off.  It took several days of trying before I was able to roll forward at all before the bike fell over. My little sister was a frequent and interested spectator in my efforts. We measured out the distances I rode by pacing them out after each ride. After a couple of weeks I was able to make it about 10 metres before falling over. Well short of the goal. I finally worked out that without being able to pedal I was not able to get of enough speed to maintain balance. What I needed was a bigger hill! So with my sister in tow, we went to a long dirt track at the back of our farm which had a hill of just over the required 100 yard distance. It was a long steep incline with quite a few tree roots across parts of the track. But it was the best chance of getting enough speed to stay up on the bike. All I had to do was make it to the bottom, where the track turned sharply to the left and headed back toward our house. We found an oak tree near the top of the hill and I climbed up, as I had with the smaller hill, and balanced myself. My sister prepared to push me off when I was ready, as we had been doing on the smaller hill. A small voice at the back of my head was saying that this was a bad idea. But I was eight, so I ignored the voice and shoved off, my sister pushing to help me get up speed. It worked. The faster speed from the hill allowed me, though wobbly, to keep upright. I soon passed my previous record and was still going. I hit the first patch of tree roots and managed to stay on the bike. I was actually riding! And gaining speed. But because I could not reach the pedals I could also not brake.

About 100 metres down the hill the dirt track took a sharp turn to the left. I didn’t’ have the bike handling skills to make the bike turn with the track and went straight instead, and right into a pile of firewood that tapered down at a 45 angle to the ground. Somehow I managed to hit the wood pile straight on and my speed sent me up the woodpile like it was a ramp. I flew into the air above the wood pile, then came down on top of the woodpile on my back, with the bike landing on top of me, then skidded off the side onto the ground, the bike now tangled around my twisted and bleeding legs. I was winded and not able to breathe or speak. The pain was intense and instant. I remember hearing my sister running up behind me to see what had happened. She said “I’ll tell Mum,” and rand off toward the house. I lay in agony waiting for my mother to come and tend to my wounds. And I kept waiting. But no one came. Finally, I managed to pull myself free and limp home. I came through the kitchen dripping blood onto the floor. My Mum exclaimed: ’What happened to You! Are you okay?”

“No,” I said. ‘Didn’t April tell you I crashed into the wood pile at the bottom of the hill?”

“No,” my Mum said. ‘She only said, ‘Mark rode his bike farther than he ever has before.”

For my sister, the main thing she took out of what happened was the fact that I had succeeded in breaking my previous record for bike riding distance. And that I had clearly made it to the bottom of the hill, meeting my father’s challenge. The dramatic crash at the end that left me broken and bleeding and tangled within my bike on a pile of firewood did not seem to have registered with her as important. I was quite upset with her. How could she not notice my pain? How could she not bring help?

All she could say was that she thought I would want our Mother to know that I made it to the bottom of the hill.

Today’s story of the healing of the lame man by the pool by the Sheep Gate is like that difference in perspective between my sister and I of what happened with the bicycle. In almost comic fashion the Jewish religious authorities, upon seeing a man who has been lame for 38 years suddenly walking and carrying the mat he had been laying on, seem to completely overlook the enormity of the miracle and the joy of the man’s healing. And this was surely the main thing they should have noticed. After all, didn’t they want to celebrate a miracle. Didn’t they believe that making the lame walk was one of the sign that the Messiah had come?

But the only thing that seems to have caught their attention was that the man was carrying his mat. And as no burden was allowed to be carried on the Sabbath, and the authorities of the day had included bed mats on the list of things that were a burden to carry, the man was clearly in violation of the rules.

Sometimes we become so focused on some minor point or get hung up on some rule that we lose sight of what is most important.

In many ways we are all like both the man who was lame, who seems to have forgotten why he was going to the miraculous pool every day in the first place when someone came along and asked if he wanted to be healed. He only complained about the unfairness of not being able to get to the pool first after the water was stirred. And the religious leader in the temple couldn’t see that a miracle had occurred. That a man’s life had been transformed. That this could be a sign the Messiah had at last come. All they could see was the offending mat.

So what things in our lives have we become hung up on? What things have we become so conditioned to see as important that we fail to see what God is doing in our lives and in the lives of those around us?

Perhaps we are overly concerned with some political issue and this is all we see. Perhaps we have become so convinced that Christian faith is about behaving in a certain way or following certain rules, that like the religious leaders in the temple, we completely miss the big things God is doing before our very eyes. Or perhaps, like the lame man, we have become so accustomed to things not going our way, and so upset about the unfairness of it all, that when Jesus offers us his love we take no notice and keep on feeling sorry for ourselves.

Today’s Gospel story points once again to who Jesus is: God in human flesh who has come to live among us. But it also reminds us to open our eyes to see what God is doing in us and around us, and not be so caught is so many other petty concerns that we can no longer see the bigger picture of God’s love active in our lives and in our world.

Amen.

Pastor Mark Worthing.
Port Macquarie.

‘When belief becomes faith

4 Pentecost 4
John 4:43-54

John is very sparse in his miracle stories. He includes only seven of them. And unlike the other Gospel writers, he does not call them miracles, but signs. What is important, for John, is what they point to.

You will remember the first of the seven ‘signs’ that John recorded was the turning of water to wine at the wedding in Cana. It was, and remains, in the view of many, a rather odd miracle for Jesus to begin his ministry with. But remember, the point is that it was chiefly meant to be a sign. And while many have wondered over the years what was really the point of rescuing a poorly planned wedding celebration, the sign performed was no ordinary miracle. Many prophets and others, through the power of God, had performed miracle of provision of food or water, great acts of healing, even reviving the dead. But the Jewish understanding of miracle also included a category of the miracle of creation. Of making something that did not exist before. This was a miracle that in the biblical record, only God could do. So when Jesus begins his ministry with turning water into wine, instead of healing a blind person or raising someone from the dead, it might seem rather understated to us. But for those who understood the symbolism, it was a clear message. This was no ordinary miracle worker. This was God himself. No one else could create wine when there was nothing but water to begin with.

And now John comes to what he indicates is Jesus’ second sign. But, of course, we know it is not. John himself makes a point of telling us that Jesus had performed many signs, or miracles, in Jerusalem.  What John means is that this is the second sign that he wants to tell us about. Like the first one he relates, it is symbolically important. And once again, it takes place in the little Galilean village of Cana, not far from Nazareth where Jesus grew up.

So here is the background to the second miracle or sign in Cana.

John begins by telling us that Jesus is heading back to Galilee from Jerusalem. He has just passed through Samaria where he encountered the woman at the well. He was delayed there two days teaching the people of the woman’s village. This gives time for other pilgrims from Galilee to return home, and also for news of what he did in Jerusalem (cleansing the temple, teaching with authority, performing many signs) to make it back to Galilee – including to the court of King Herod Antipas, the man who had imprisoned and then executed John the Baptist, and whose father had sought the death of Jesus as an infant.

A second point to note is that before John begins the account of this second miracle in Cana he relates that after two days in the village of Sychar in Samaria Jesus continued on from Jerusalem on his way to Galilee. Then John adds this comment, ‘because as Jesus himself had said, a prophet has no honour in his home country’ (v. 44). Now this is interesting because the other three gospels have this same saying. But in each of them it takes place when Jesus is being rejected either in Nazareth or in Galilee more generally. But John turns this around.

In John’s account Jesus is leaving Jerusalem where he had taught and done wonders, and has been rejected. He has just been accepted by a town of Samaritans, and now he is on his way to Galilee where the text says ‘the Galileans welcomed him, since they had seen all that he had done in Jerusalem at the festival, for they too had gone to the festival’ (v. 45). And, of course, the story of the sign that comes is further evidence of his being accepted, not rejected, in Galilee.

Many have wondered whether John has made a mistake here and somehow misplaced this saying of Jesus. The explanation is rather to be sought in the emphasis John puts on Jerusalem and the temple throughout his Gospel. As the Messiah, the descendent and heir to David, Jerusalem is Jesus’ true home and country. And it is in Jerusalem, John wants to point out, and not in Galilee, where Jesus was not accepted. So what takes place next is also part of the case against Jerusalem and the authorities there.

Then John tells us that Jesus comes to Galilee. And he goes to Cana. To get there he would have had to travel past the Sea of Galilee and several major towns. And John points out that it was in Cana where Jesus had turned water into wine. So this is an indication that we might expect something to happen again here. And it does.

And now the miracle story.

There was an important official in the court of King Herod who was based in the administrative centre of Capernaum, about 30 kms away from Cana. The name used in the Greek to describe the man is basilikos, which literally means ‘little king’ and was often used of a prince or an important court official. Whether the man was a Jew or Gentile we do not know. Herod would have had both in his court. While some think him to be the same man described as a centurion, or Roman officer, in the synoptics who was also from Capernaum and had a servant who was ill, it is more likely that John is describing an entirely different incident.

The man’s son is very sick and is near death. If any of you have ever had a child who is seriously ill, then you can relate to the desperation of this man. With his influence he would have had access to the best physicians connected to the king’s court. But they could do nothing. His son was dying and there was nothing he could do about it.

When our youngest child was born he was born with two-thirds of his diaphragm missing and only one semi-functioning, undersized and partially collapsed lung. Surgery was done the next day to rebuild the diaphragm. But there was nothing they could do to restore the lungs. We were told he would likely not survive more than a few days before his lung wore out from being on the highest level of the ventilator.

We were desperate. We asked every question. Explored every option. We arranged for him to be baptized before his surgery. My wife thought if the bishop did the baptism that might help. So she called him and insisted he come immediately. And he did. Like the father in today’s story, she was a very desperate and very insistent parent. Our son clung on for two weeks before his lung function began to deteriorate. I was home minding out other children and Kathy was keeping vigil when the call came. I dropped the children off at the home of friends who lived near the hospital, and hurried in to say my goodbyes to our son.

We waited with him all through the night and the next day. He did not improve, but he also has stopped deteriorating. And then his lung began slowly to strengthen and the ventilator was turned down ever so slightly. Against all odds he turned a corner. He was going to make it. But it was a horrible and frightening time in which we felt both desperate and helpless. And that is how the father in today’s story is feeling.

He is so desperate, in fact, that when he hears Jesus is in Cana, he gets some men together, and sets out immediately to find Jesus.

Now there are a couple of points that we should take note of. Firstly, how does the man know about Jesus? Jesus had just begun his ministry and the only thing he had done in Galilee before heading to Jerusalem was the turning of water to wine in Cana. It is not the sort of occurrence that would likely have been taken note of in King Herod’s court. What is more likely is that reports had preceded Jesus’ return to Galilee. During the two days Jesus lingered in Samaria, messengers surely would have come to King Herod’s court to report that a Galilean preacher had made a big scene in the temple, casting out all the money changers, and had performed many miracles. This would have been of special interest to Herod and his officials who had only recently dealt with the last troublesome Galilean preacher, John the Baptist. So this court official likely had only in the past few days, that is, after the onset of his son’s serious illness, heard of Jesus of Nazareth.

The second thing to note is the risk the man was taking in going to Jesus. His boss, King Herod, had arrested and then executed John. The same John who had pointed to Jesus as his ‘successor’. Now Jesus, who many were saying was John the Baptist come back to life, perhaps to see justice and vengeance against Herod, was seemingly picking up where John had left off. It is unlikely that Herod would have been pleased for one of his high officials to go to Jesus for help. And it is very unlikely that the man had sought Herod’s approval. His son’s life hung in the balance. He was willing to deal with the consequences of his going to Jesus later.

When the man finds Jesus, he does not ask him to come and help his son. He begs him.

Jesus responds to the man using the plural for ‘you’, hence speaking to the entire crowd, including his disciples. ‘’Unless you see sings and wonders you will not believe.” This is not a promising response for the desperate father, but he persists.

‘Sir, come down to Capernaum before my little boy dies!’

Then Jesus says, ‘Go. Your son will live.’

And the man believe the words Jesus spoke to him and starts for home.

And this is interesting. The father did not ask for proof. He did not ask how Jesus knew his son would live. But he believed Jesus was telling the truth and started straight for home, so eager was he to return to the side of his son. But it was already afternoon and he would not make it back that night. So he camps with his men along the way and gets up to continue the journey early the next morning.

At the same time, back in Capernaum, something both remarkable and unexpected has happened. The fever left the boy who was near death. And some of the man’s servants were so keen to tell him the good news that they left immediately to head for Cana, for they knew where their master had gone and why.  They likely would have met up along the narrow, rocky path through the hill country of Galilea sometime just before noon the next day. The man’s servants share with him the good news and he rejoices. Then he asks the question, ‘When did the fever break?’ And they tell him that is was about 1 p.m. the previous day, the very hour in which Jesus had said to him, ‘Your son will live.’

Now this is the key point to this miracle story and the one we often overlook. It is why the man went from believing the words Jesus said to him about his son, to he and his whole family believing in Jesus himself.

A prophet or soothsayer could perhaps predict that someone might recover from a serious illness. And as Jesus was clearly something along those lines from all reports the man had heard, and he said with such confidence that his son would live, the man believed his words.

But when he learned that his son suddenly recovered at the very time that Jesus had said he would, it was immediately apparent that Jesus and not successfully predicted his son’s recovery. Jesus had caused it. He had healed him. This was a whole other level from simple prediction. Not only that, but he had done so from a distance. There was no precedent for this.

And this is the point John wants to make. It is why this is one of only seven miracles of Jesus he chooses to tell us about. Like the changing of water to wine, it is not a spectacular miracle. There was nothing for the crowd present to see. But it is a sign of who Jesus is. In all the biblical miracle accounts, healings and other miracles only take place when the one God is working through is immediately present. There are no healings or miracles at a distance. But Jesus heals this boy from thirty kilometres away. In this second sign we see once more that in Jesus we are not simply dealing with a miracle worker or a prophet, even a very great one. Something much bigger is happening here. God himself is living and acting among us.

And so the man goes from believing the words Jesus has spoken to believing in Jesus.

And that is the challenge still for us today. Jesus speaks wise and good words. We have many of them recorded in the Gospels. We can easily believe Jesus is the speaker of truth, without really believing in Jesus himself. It is the difference between knowledge and faith. The desperate father understood that his son would live. He understood that Jesus spoke the truth. The next day he came to have faith that Jesus was God in flesh, and he and his whole family became followers of Jesus, despite the risks.

And the challenge and call is that we too move from simply believing what Jesus says to believing in who Jesus is for us. May we move from a knowledge about Jesus to faith in Jesus – as faith so strong, that like the father in the story we cannot help but to tell our family and friends about Jesus.

May we go from looking for a miracle, like the father in the story, to understanding that Jesus is the miracle. God in human flesh, come to dwell among us.

Amen.

Pastor Mark Worthing.
Port Macquarie.

Too important not to share.

May the grace and peace of our Lord, Jesus Christ, be with you always.  Let’s join in a word of prayer: Lord God, You know all there is to know about each one of us.  You reveal all that we need to know about You to receive salvation. We gather here in fellowship to receive your living water, and to be reassured of your great love for us.   We worship You and we praise You for this great love.  Guide our time together so that we may be encouraged by your message for us. Gracious heavenly Father, hear our prayer in the name of our risen Lord Jesus.  Amen.

A while back, a Mercedes-Benz TV commercial showed one of their cars colliding with a concrete wall during a safety test. After viewing this advert, someone from the press asked a Mercedes engineer why their company didn’t enforce their patent on their car’s energy-absorbing car body. The Mercedes’ design had been copied by almost every other car maker in the world in spite of having an exclusive designer’s patent.

The engineer replied in a clipped German accent, that I couldn’t copy, “Because in life, some things are just too important not to share.” (King Duncan, Collected Sermons, www.Sermons.com)

 What a great statement. ‘Some things are just too important not to share.’

      As Christians we believe that the good news of Jesus Christ is one of those things that is too important not to share. We accept that Jesus Christ should be shared with our friends, our neighbours, the world. The work of sharing the good news of Jesus Christ is simply witnessing our faith. Most often we do this with our attitudes, our words and our actions that quietly demonstrate our faith as we live our ordinary lives. But faith in a Saviour who is anything but ordinary.   

      At times, Christian faith has been advanced more intentionally by people who were willing to step outside of their comfort zones to witness the good news of Christ.  Even with our best efforts to make a difference with our witness, I want to reassure that we are not always going to get it right.  And that is OK.  God can use what we give to his purpose and advantage.

     John gives us an example of the pattern for witnessing the good news of salvation by our faith in the Son whom God sent.  If we remember, last week we spent some time with Nicodemus.  A man in the know, accustomed to being at the heart of things in the Jewish world.  A leader of the Pharisees, and a person of learning.  When Jesus spoke to this reluctant believer, it made all the difference for Nicodemus. ‘Some things are just too important not to share.’

     This week, in John’s Gospel, we spent some time with the very opposite of Nicodemus.  An unnamed Samaritan woman, accustomed to being on the outside of society.  Being controlled by the various men in her life, and serving at the whims of chance.   

     When Jesus spoke to her, she showed unexpected wisdom, and Jesus made all the difference in her life.  ‘Some things are just too important not to share.’

     Nicodemus came to Jesus with uncertainty, to discover the source of his authority in the world. Jesus explained that his source is the Holy Spirit,  a mystery that eludes human understanding.

     The Samaritan Woman came to the well with a certainty born of pain.  Then Jesus spoke to her and awakened within her an excitement held captive by circumstance.    

     In our lives, whether we come to Jesus with a certainty of our circumstances, or the uncertainty of our future, Jesus makes all the difference.  We can approach our Saviour in the words of Scripture, the gift of the sacraments, or even the quiet prayer and praise in all the times of our lives.

     Like Nicodemus, the Samaritan woman could only relate the words of Christ Jesus to the human experience of life.  Remember, when Jesus confronted the inquiring spirit of Nicodemus with the words,  “no one can enter the kingdom of God without being born of water and Spirit,”? Nicodemus’ immediate reaction was to plant this reality next to the human experience of being born in blood and flesh.  And to raise a new question.  “How can this be?”

     When Jesus shared with the Samaritan woman, “Everyone who drinks this water will be thirsty again, but whoever drinks the water I give will never thirst. Indeed, the water I give will become a spring of water welling up to eternal life.”  Applying this eternal truth against her human experience, she said to Jesus, “Sir, give me this water so that I won’t get thirsty and have to keep coming here to draw water.”

     In dialogues with both Nicodemus and the Samaritan Woman, the questions raised seem to be left without answers.  But Jesus reveals himself as the answer:  ‘the way the truth and the life’.  ‘The very thing that is just too important not to share.’

     So often, when we confront Christ Jesus with the questions that plague us, it seems that he is silent in our presence, as he reveals himself as our answer:  our way, our truth, our life.  And that reminds us that we are so often asking the wrong question.     President John F. Kennedy in his inauguration speech, said some famous words, “Ask not what your country can do for you.  Ask what you can do for your country.” 

In  the dialogue with the Samaritan woman, we might hear the unspoken words of Jesus, ‘Don’t ask to be given living water.  Rather believe in the Messiah who has come, and receive the living water of the Holy Spirit, by faith in me.’

     Jesus approached her with an intimacy that speaks of friendship, of compassion, of understanding.  How refreshing that must have been for her.  In response to this witness from the source of light and life, this unnamed Samaritan woman returns to her village and witnesses the Good News of the Messiah that they were waiting for.

      It is significant for me that she left her water jar behind.  Far more concerned about the living water that Jesus offered her. And that made all the difference for this remote Samaritan village. After all ‘Some things are just too important not to share.’

Because of her witness, pagan and Jew alike came  to Jesus and believed in him. As John writes, ‘Many of the Samaritans from that town believed in him because of the woman’s testimony, “He told me everything I ever did.” So when the Samaritans came to Jesus, they urged him to stay with them, and he stayed two days.   And because of his words many more became believers. 

 They said to the woman, “We no longer believe just because of what you said; now we have heard for ourselves, and we know that this man really is the Savior of the world.”’   When important things are shared, we might suspect that no one really cares.  But the Holy Spirit can take the things we share and use them to make a difference.  We may never know the result of the kindness we share, but this woman at the well saw the result.

In our daily lives, we follow the patterns of work and responsibility, of leisure and rest, with maybe even a bit of time for Scripture and prayer.    

But we rarely expect to encounter Jesus, interrupting our routines.  Confronting us with ultimate concerns over life and salvation.  Calling us to be his witness in our small corner of the world.

And yet, God’s Holy Spirit seems to choose the most awkward times to engage us.  Just as Jesus did with the woman at the well.  

It seems so exciting and yet unsettling, when Jesus takes time from his eternal care and kingship over the entire creation, to dialogue with us individually. Through thoughts and intuitions that almost seem foreign to our human nature.  And yet, God in his eternal presence in the world always has us in his sight, and always cares for us. 

This is a mystery that will intrigue us until we are with him in eternity.  Even from his cross, Jesus thought of us.  “Father, forgive them for they don’t know what they are doing!”   and “I tell you the truth, today you will be with me in paradise.”  Jesus was speaking to every repentant sinner, every faith-filled believer, every inquiring mind, when he spoke these words.

And yet, we shouldn’t be surprised.  In those times when we most need a reassuring word from someone, Jesus speaks to us.  He speaks through the Scriptures, through our intuition, through our quiet moments of prayer, through our friends and family.  He speaks with the same intimacy, friendship, compassion and understanding.    

Jesus has much to teach us in this encounter.  We can come to understand that our witness in this broken world is important.   But it is the Holy Spirit of God, who touches the hearts and minds of people through even our simple witness, and through the word of God, and through sacraments.  That makes all the difference in our lives and our world.  So, it is true that  ‘Some things are just too important not to share.’

May the grace and peace of God, which passes all our human understanding, keep our hearts and minds in the calm assurance of eternal salvation in our living Lord, Christ Jesus.  Amen.

Rev David Thompson.

‘The Good Pharisee’

John 3:1-21

As soon as the today’s text begins with, ‘There was a Pharisee …’ we know where this is going. The Pharisees, a group of very devout and quite legalistic experts in the Hebrew scriptures, are regular foils for Jesus in the Gospels. They always come to him with some sort of flattery, then try to lay a trap for him. We have no reason to expect anything different here. But this Pharisee is different. He really does want an answer to his questions – for personal reasons.

His name is Nicodemus. And he was not just any Pharisee. He was a wealthy and influential man, a highly regarded teacher, and one of the few Pharisees who served on the Jewish ruling council in Jerusalem known as the Sanhedrin.

And he comes to Jesus as night. For this act he is forever known. When John introduces Nicodemus twice more later in his Gospel he is always referred to as the one who came to Jesus at night.

Most of us think we know why he came at night. At night, of course, it is harder to recognise people on the street. There is less chance that Nicodemus’ visit to Jesus will be noted and reported to any of his Pharisee friends or his students. And perhaps this was, in fact, the reason he came by night, or at least part of the reason. But if Nicodemus really wanted to have a serious conversation with Jesus, the evening is when he would have come. Firstly, the crowds would have gone and it would be easier to have a private conversation. And secondly, the Pharisees taught that the evenings were the most appropriate time to have serious conversations about theology when the business of life had dissipated and there was time and space to think. So there might have been a very practical reason for Nicodemus to come at night, to find Jesus at home and away from the crowds. He may also have wanted to indicate to Jesus that this was not a set up or shame discussion to try to trap him, but that he really did want to have a serious conversation with Jesus.

Nicodemus would have come to Jesus at some personal risk to his own reputation. So it would have been more than mere curiosity that brought him to Jesus that night, early in Jesus’ ministry.

It seems clear that Nicodemus had a question. And it was a big one. One that kept him up nights. One that he came to suspect that Jesus might be able to answer.

But what was that question?  Ironically, Nicodemus never gets to ask it. Jesus ‘answers’ him immediately after Nicodemus’ polite greeting and his recognition that Jesus must have come from God because of the many ‘signs’ he was able to perform.

But perhaps Jesus’ answer to Nicodemus, which has become both very famous and also much misunderstood in the history of the Christian Church, suggests what Nicodemus’ question was. Perhaps it was Jesus’ way of showing Nicodemus that he knew already exactly what was on his mind, and in his heart.  We read in Luke 17:20 that the Pharisees asked Jesus, ‘When is the kingdom of God coming?’  They expected, as did most Jews of the day, the coming of a literal, physical kingdom. But this coming had seemed very long delayed. And the Pharisees had come to believe that God would not bring the kingdom until the people all did the right thing – or at least enough of them did the right kind of things. So as a man who had committed his life to teaching about the kingdom of God, and who very much desired to see it come, Nicodemus wanted to know from Jesus – from this man who clearly had been sent by God, just what needed to be done to see the kingdom established. That is most likely the question Nicodemus came to ask Jesus.

But as Jesus often does, he anticipates the question, and takes Nicodemus very quickly beyond it to something deeper and more personal.

Jesus answers Nicodemus: ‘Truly I tell you, no one can see the kingdom of God without being reborn from above.’ (v. 3).

Jesus has now set the tone of the conversation. Nicodemus most likely wanted to know what the people as a whole needed to do to see the kingdom established. Jesus makes the question very personal. He tells Nicodemus what he (or any other individual) must do if they wish to see the Kingdom of God. And it is not what Nicodemus was expecting. It was not any level of good works, or enough people keeping the law, or even the people taking matters into their own hands and beginning an uprising against Rome – for all of these were common ideas at the time for how to hasten the coming of God’s promised Kingdom and the promised Messiah who would usher in the kingdom.

Jesus instead tells Nicodemus that he must be born again, or reborn from above. The language used is deliberately open to more than one interpretation. The Greek word an-o-then that John uses here could mean ‘born again’ as it came to be initially translated into English. But it could also mean ‘born from above’ which makes good sense in light of the many references to ‘above’ in this text. Or Jesus may well have meant both at the same time, hence the translation I prefer: ‘reborn from above’.

In any event, Nicodemus takes the literal meaning and ends up an impossible image. And this is far from surprising if he has come to Jesus with a question about how to see a literal, physical kingdom of God established on earth. That is where his mind and thinking is at. So taking the more literal option, he ends up with a rather ridiculous image in his mind and asks Jesus how it can be possible that he or any other grown person could enter back into their mother’s womb and be born once more. His almost comical misunderstanding then becomes the foil for Jesus to explain what he means in more detail.

So what do we and Nicodemus learn about what it means to be reborn from above in order to see God’s Kingdom? I think there are three main points to be gleaned from Jesus’ words to Nicodemus about being reborn from above.

First, the experience of rebirth from above is a personal one. It is not about what the whole population must do for God’s kingdom to come, it is about what we must experience in order to be a part of God’s kingdom. In Nicodemus’ age there was a tendency to think more communally. So this may have been a difficult concept for Nicodemus to understand. But for us in the modern world, with our emphasis on individualism, this aspect of Jesus’ teaching on what it means to be reborn from above is easier to understand. Jesus is talking here about a personal and transforming experience of God.

Second, it is a rebirth of both water and spirit. ‘No one can enter the kingdom of God without being born of water and Spirit. What is born of flesh is flesh and what is born of the Spirit is spirit (vv 5-6). There are two meanings here: First, there is physical birth and spiritual rebirth. We do not need only to be physical beings, born and living in the world. We must also be reborn spiritually. But there is also unmistakable baptismal imagery here. While these story pre-dates Christian baptism, we must remember that John is writing for an audience steeped in the practice and symbolism of baptism, in which baptism with both water and the Spirit is one divine action (from above). Jesus is probably, once more, referring to both, indicating two different levels of meaning here.

Finally, the rebirth Jesus is speaking of is ‘from above’. This means it is something that God does, that God initiates. It is not our work. Jesus seeks to explain this to Nicodemus in his illustration of wind (or Spirit of God) blowing where it choses and in ways we cannot predict. This is the point we have most understood. In the recent history of the church the movement of ‘born again-ism’ has arisen based on this text. And it’s emphasis has been on what human beings must do. It has been used to press people to make a decision. But ironically, the text is making the exact opposite point. Not that there is no personal component of a human decision. There clearly is. But the point here is that the experience of being reborn is something that originates from above, that comes through the free and unpredictable movement of God’s Spirit. Being reborn from above is a profoundly human experience. But it is not a human work.

The dialogue with Nicodemus ends and the voice of John the Evangelist comes through, explaining further point being made. And it what would seem clearly to be the voice of the narrator explaining the significance of these words, we find the famous John 3:16, in which John reiterates that the whole action begins with God’s love for the world. We do not hear anything further about Nicodemus in this story.

So what happens to Nicodemus? Does he finally get it?

Well, yes he did. John mentions him again in 7:45-52 when there is plotting again Jesus by the chief priests and Pharisees (apparently at a meeting of the Sandhedrin), and the question is asked if any Pharisee has ever believed in Jesus. Nicodemus cannot remain silent but is not yet able to commit. He argues instead for a ‘fair hearing’ for Jesus, and is intimidated into silence when asked if he too is one of Jesus’ followers. So at that stage, Nicodemus is not yet there.

But then Nicodemus appears again in John 19:39, together with a man named Joseph of Arimathea. They come forward publicly to Pilate to claim Jesus’ body, and to do the anointing rituals and place him in a tomb. With the disciples in hiding, the masses having abandoned him, and everyone assuming his cause is lost with his death, Nicodemus comes forward publicly as a follower of Jesus.

Why then?

Well, I think it had something to do with the famous conversation with Jesus that occurred almost three years earlier. When Nicodemus asks, ‘how can this be?’ or ‘how can this come about?’ referring to being reborn from above through the power of the Spirit, Jesus reminds him of the story of Moses and the bronze serpent in the wilderness. In the same way, Jesus says, when the Son of man is lifted up, whoever believes in him will have eternal life. I think that when Nicodemus saw Jesus lifted up on the cross, he remembered these words – words he had been pondering ever since Jesus had spoken them. He understood at that point exactly what Jesus had been referring to and all doubt in his mind about who Jesus was disappeared. It didn’t matter that Jesus was now dead. Nicodemus came forward publicly as one of his followers.

In the same way, Jesus calls each of us to follow the Spirit’s call upon us, to allow God, from above, to make us new, to be reborn through the waters of baptism. The process might be complex and far from straight-forward, as was the case with Nicodemus. But process and time frames are not important. What is important is whether we, like Nicodemus, in the end open our eyes to the Kingdom of God through the work of God’s free Spirit working in us ‘from above’ to make us his children.

Amen.

Pastor Mark Worthing.
Port Macquarie.

Do you have Talents?

The Text: Matthew 25:14-30 

Often when we read the parable of the talents we see the word talent and we immediately think of abilities and the things we are good at. We often say of someone who is good at something—you’re talented. But when we look carefully at this parable we see that these talents are in fact large portions of money that are given to each servant to manage. So what might this parable be about?

Jesus uses this parable to teach us about the kingdom of heaven.

Jesus’ parable begins with a man who was about to leave on a journey. And he entrusted his servants with the task of managing his financial affairs while he was away. He divided this responsibility amongst his three workers according to their ability. He gave five talents to one worker, two talents to another worker and one talent to another worker. I guess you could call this ‘diversification’—putting your eggs in several baskets rather than one. Dividing your assets to provide more opportunities for growth and reduce risk.

And then, when the master returned, he called his workers before him to give an account of how they managed his money. Two of the workers doubled what they were first entrusted with and the master was full of praise for them.  He said, ‘Well done, my good and faithful servants. You have been faithful in handling these small amounts, so now I will give you many more responsibilities. Let’s celebrate together!’

But the third worker did nothing with the one talent that he was entrusted with. He had simply buried it. When this worker gave account of his actions, the money was taken from him and given to servant with ten talents.

Now, in Jesus days a talent was used in two ways: it was used as form of currency and also as a measure of weight. Bible scholars believe that for the average worker one talent was worth more than 15 years of wages.

Now if we look at this in today’s environment what might a talent be worth today? In Australia, in 2020 a person on the minimum wage working full time would earn about $40,000 a year. This suggests that in today’s context a talent could be worth at least $600,000 Australian dollars. Can you start to see what an incredible responsibility the master has entrusted to each of these three workers!

Even the person who has received one talent has received an incredible responsibility and an awesome opportunity. If only this servant had recognized this opportunity!

Now like all the parables, we need to look for the principles that Jesus is teaching us through them and ask: what does this mean for us?

Firstly, notice the trust that the master puts in his servants. How he delegates responsibility for so much of what belongs to him to his servants. He believes in his servants. He has full confidence in his servants. Secondly, notice the way he divides the responsibility – that he does not divide it evenly but he divides it according to their ability. In other words he knows the ability of each of his servants and divides responsibility appropriately.

In this parable we may choose to see the Master as Jesus, and we, his church, are his servants. He has given each of us responsibilities. In giving us responsibilities he recognizes our unique ability and gives us responsibilities according to our abilities.

This parabIe has often been interpreted as a frank and simple call to work hard at developing the gifts and talents that God has given us. Sadly, too many of us feel we have failed to fulfill the responsibilities God has given to us.

Maybe we feel we have failed to recognise the responsibilities God first gave us and have failed to try, to take risks, to learn, to grow, to ask questions. Maybe we feel we have failed to use our abilities to fulfill our responsibilities.  The challenge we face is to recognize our responsibilities and use our abilities to fulfill our responsibilities while we have them.

While it is true that God wants us to use his gifts and to multiply them for the benefit of his Kingdom, we are not judged according to the quantity of the work we do for God, nor even by the quality of that work. Rather, we are judged by our attitude: by our willingness to do as God wants us to do, by our willingness to risk all that we have been given for the sake of the Kingdom just as Jesus risked all of himself for our sake.

As Paul writes in his letter to the Ephesians “For it is by grace you have been saved, through faith–and this is not from yourselves, it is the gift of God–not by works, so that no one can boast.” (Ephesians 2:8-9).

But if we reduce the parable of the talents simply to saying that we must be productive for God or else be condemned, then we miss what is so good about the Christian life! We miss the good news of Jesus Christ, the good news of the grace and mercy won for us on the Cross.

If we see this parable as all about productivity, we will end up like the servant who failed to invest the talent that his master gave him. We will end up being afraid—worried more about how well we are doing in the eyes of God than we are about actually doing anything at all.

Consider the servant who buried the talent entrusted to him. He was afraid and he took no risks. He did not see the potential for growth and he buried what he had to keep it safe. He did nothing. In what areas of your life are we burying our responsibilities and not exercising them according to our abilities?

The parable of the talents is not a lesson about success or our degree of productivity. It is a lesson about our attitude and responsibility. It is about faithfully stepping out with God’s treasure in our hands for the sake of others.

The servant was afraid – and so he did not try. What counts is not whether we win or lose, but whether or not we even try. What counts is whether or not we dare to risk those things that God has given us.

What counts is whether or not we invest ourselves in God’s kingdom:
– Whether we take what we have and use it for God’s purposes.
– Whether we pass on the blessings we have received.
– Whether we seek to build community and bring hope to the strangers among us.
– Whether we reach out to those in need and show them the love that God first showed to us.
– Whether we try to multiply joy and divide sorrow.
– Whether we willingly use what we have been given in the service of God.

Do we work with the resources that God has given us for his sake or do we focus on the fact that we might fail and so refuse to try? Do we use the gifts we have been given to build up the church and to bring praise to God or do we use those gifts only for our own benefit?

God gives us many gifts and resources. Why he does so is not always clear, but what God expects of us is clear. God expects us to develop the good things we have so that the world around us can benefit from them, so that those gifts might be fruitful in us, and add to the good things that God’s world needs.

God, like the master in today’s parable, trusts us to do well with his love, to develop the gifts he gives us so that all the citizens of his kingdom may benefit from them. God has blessed you with the priceless gift of salvation. Therefore we have nothing to fear! We can love God and love life. We can take risks with what God has given to us so that others may experience God’s love and his kingdom may grow near and far. Amen.

Are you wise?

The Text: Matthew 25:1-13

 

A famous teacher of the church once said: There are only two types of people in the world – fools who think they are wise, and the wise who know they are fools. What he meant was that the first step towards true godly wisdom is to know you are not wise, for there is always more to learn along the journey of faith. A person who thinks they have no more to learn is the person who still has a great deal more to learn.

In the Scriptures, to be wise does not necessarily mean having a head full of facts and figures. To be wise is not necessarily to be smart. The smart are not always wise, especially when it comes to the things of God; and the wise are not always smart, particularly when it comes to the things of this world.

In an earlier parable, Jesus describes the wise as those who build the house of their faith on the Rock (that is, on himself). He says that the wise are those who not only hear the word of God but also do it; that is, live it out in their daily lives. The fools, on the other hand, though they may hear the word of God, don’t do it; don’t live according to it. Instead they build their houses on the shifting sands of personal desires, opinion, culture, fashion.

Notice in the parable that both the wise and the foolish virgins are waiting for the Bridegroom. In other words, this is not a parable about believers and unbelievers, but about two different types of believers. The wise are wise because they have prepared for every contingency by keeping their lamps filled with oil. The foolish, on the other hand, presume that they have enough oil to get them through to the end. In this parable, oil is faith. The wise keep their faith continually replenished. The foolish think the faith they have now is sufficient until Christ returns.

It is only when the point of crisis comes – the delay of the bridegroom – that they two groups are finally distinguished. Just as the two groups of builders are distinguished only when the storm comes. So, what are we to do? Well first we are to recognise that we cannot manufacture our own oil. Faith is not something we work up in ourselves; it is God’s gift that we keep on receiving from him through the means that he has provided. That’s why true disciples are those who continue in Jesus’ Word. This means not only reading and hearing it but also doing it, for that is faith’s purpose – to shine with the light of Christ, just as the oil’s purpose is to allow the lamp to stay lit.

Wisdom, therefore, is both knowing and doing. Not only does it keep faith replenished and thus prepared for any eventuality, but it also maintains one’s spiritual health. The story is told of someone talking to an old school friend who was telling him about his mother who is dying of emphysema. He said that she now has to be hooked up to an oxygen tank for 15 hours a day, and that the doctors have given her little time left. But the really sad part of the story is that in spite of this, she still chain-smokes more than a packet of cigarettes a day, removing her mask to take another drag. Now that is foolish – not only because she knows better, but also because she is knowingly continuing in the very behaviour that has made her so sick in the first place.

We do the same in a spiritual sense when we continue in a sin, fully knowing that it is wrong and that by continuing in it we are hurting ourselves (and others) and endangering our faith. I think we all have experienced such folly. We all know the lack of peace, the joylessness, the regret, the shame, the hiding and the self-deception and the self-loathing that comes on the heels of committing a deliberate sin. And we know who it is that we abandon when we do so; for sin is not just a ‘no’ to God’s law but to God himself, who is love, and the secret of joy.

That is why true wisdom begins with the fear of the Lord, with the wisdom of repentance; of knowing what to do and what to leave behind. Presbyterian minister, Frederick Speakman, tells the story of shaking hands at the door one Sunday when the service was over. As he came back down the aisle on the church after everyone had left, he noticed that some things had been left behind. A bulletin with a shopping list in the margins. In this pew, a pair of gloves; in the next, a pencil on the floor and a lolly wrapper on the seat. As he reached the altar he looked once more at the empty sanctuary and thought to himself, “I wonder what else has been left behind.”

Wouldn’t it be every pastor’s dream to come down the aisle after worship and find other items there. You know, in this pew someone’s deep grief; there, another’s bitter disappointment or sense of failure. In another section some secret sin, real or imagined, not all that important now it had been discarded. Further on, the bulkier rubbish of a badly bruised ego, or the remains of a heated argument on the way to church; or a deep, longstanding resentment between members. Anger, guilt, hurt – all this stuff that so easily beats us up and burns the oil of faith out of us – all swept up and thrown out with the rest of the leftover trash. For it is forgiveness that both replenishes our spiritual resources and greases the community of faith. “Received forgiveness – God’s grace as a renewable resource,” Speakman whispered to himself, “that’s the only thing that keeps us going, keeps our lamps burning.”

In many ways life uses us up; we get burnt out and depleted. But the message of the gospel is that there is also the possibility of replenishment. Drained, we can be refilled as we continue to draw our life from God through the forgiveness of sins. So, if you feel the flame of your faith burning low, then listen again to words the prophet Isaiah wrote so long ago, “a bruised reed [the Lord] will not break, and a dimly burning wick he will not quench.” Remember: the folly of the foolish was not that they didn’t believe that the Bridegroom was coming; it’s that they figured had enough oil to last, that they could do it on their own, without God’s ongoing help. But they couldn’t and we can’t, and it is wisdom to realise that.

Meanwhile, we wait for the Lord, and as we wait, we have the option either to stay prepared, or not. It is up to us. So let us be and remain prepared by replenishing our faith through prayer and God’s word and shining Christ’s light to others through our heartfelt works of love and Christian example. And don’t worry that you will get burned out; for Jesus not only gave himself for us on the cross, but he gives himself to us at every step of the journey. “Ask, and you shall receive.” That is his promise to each of us. Ask, and you will find that there is rest and replenishment! There is forgiveness. There is hope. And the wise still trim their lamps with the oil of his grace. In the name of Jesus. Amen.

Who likes paying tax?

Matthew 22:15-22 

Who likes paying taxes?
Who thinks paying tax is good?

Some of the biggest political questions today are: Who should pay taxes? How much should you pay? Who should decide how your tax money is spent and what it is spent on?

If we had Jesus standing here today, and if I asked Jesus those questions, what would he say? And would you like the answers? It was a political question back then too, even more political than it is today.

When you have an election you get a say in who gets our tax money, and how they might spend our tax money. The overseer of the government in 1st Century Palestine was a king, Herod Antipas. He wasn’t elected to this position but was the king because he had agreed to exercise his rule within the great Roman Empire.

He would remain king as long as he toed their line, which included paying plenty of tax money to Rome. Herod exercised his authority with military might and the political will of the Roman government.

So there was a lot of political feeling about this question about whether a good Jew should pay taxes to the Roman Emperor. If you paid your tax money you were supporting the enemy. If you didn’t pay your tax money you could be arrested for treason.

The Pharisees were good politicians. They resented Jesus, because he was a threat to their petty power and religious status. They wanted to embarrass Jesus, discredit Jesus, keep him quiet, or get rid of him any way they could. They knew how to play the political games.

First, they butter him up. Jesus, we know that you always tell the truth. And that you are impartial, because you don’t consider people’s status.

And then they put the question. They know how to use a question that will force him to incriminate himself or to embarrass him in front of the people.

They have made sure that they are in a crowd where there a lots of witnesses, including people who are opposed to the Romans.

But they have also made sure that there are some supporters of King Herod there as well, who will report him if he says anything against the government.

Their question: Is it right to pay taxes to the Emperor, or not?

Jesus is not a politician, and he is not going to get sucked into their political games.

First, he exposes their devious motives: You hypocrites, he calls them. Why are you trying to trap me?

He knows that their respectful approach is just flattery. And he knows their question is meant to be a double-edged sword.

Their question: Is it right to pay taxes to the Emperor,
really means: is it right in God’s eyes, according to God’s will, in accordance with God’s commands of the Old Testament?

But he knows that they are not really interested in God’s will, except in using God’s commands when they suit their own purposes.

An astute politician would probably say: No comment.
Or try to evade the question. So instead of beating around the bush with their question, he gives them a much bigger picture of life, of life in their community, and life in God’s world.

He uses the question to teach the people a true God-pleasing relationship to their society. And a true God-pleasing relationship to God.

He asks someone to show him a coin. They all had coins in their pockets or purses. You all have coins and notes in your pockets or bags or wallets.

If you look at the coin, whose image is on the coin? Or the note? Queen Elizabeth, as symbolic head of state?

Whose image was on those old coins? Whose name was written there? Emperor Tiberius!

And that is significant. The government is responsible for pressing coins, and printing money. Can you print your own money? Governments tend to frown on people who print their own money.

The government has the right to print money, and if you have the right to make coins that shows that you are the government. And the government has the responsibility of maintaining the value of money.

If you have this money in your pockets, if you use this money for your daily life, then you have a responsibility to the government who provides the coins. Yes, you have a responsibility to pay your taxes.

Money was a very important invention that allowed societies to grow and become more complex. Now you produce something or provide some service, and you earn money. And you use that money to buy something that someone else has produced. That is the basis of the very complex financial systems that we have today.

But for Christians there is another dimension. Work is not just work – work is serving. Whatever you do, do it to glorify God, and to serve the needs of people.

How can you serve people who are long way away, whose needs are beyond your ability to help? Money can be a way of reaching them, as you give for their welfare according to their needs, so that they can afford to get the help they need.

This brings us back to taxes. What are taxes? You can think of taxes as a means of service. Taxes are the means of serving the community as a whole. Our taxes provide for our roads and our hospitals and our defence and our education. You are serving the people of your community, as together you are providing for your own needs.

You are also providing for the needs of people in your community who do not have the means to provide for themselves. If you have needs, you may also be benefitting from those means. So your taxes are a way of sharing, according to needs.

There are still always questions of how taxes should best be administered. But when you compare a community that has fair taxes, with a community that has no taxes, because it is has no effective government, then you can even be thankful for taxes.

You may even be able to pay your taxes with a smile. And you may be able to dedicate your taxes – God use these taxes for the benefit of many people.

So give back to the Emperor what belongs to the Emperor. Pay the coins that have the image of the Emperor stamped onto it.

But that is only half of Jesus’ answer. And pay to God what belongs to God.

What belongs to God? We often think that this means give some of your money to the government and give some of your money to God.

But I do not think that is what it means, and I do not think that is what Jesus intended.

Pay to the Emperor, because the Emperors image is on your coins. Pay to God, what bears the image of God.

Where do you find the image of God? Where do you look if you want to see the image of God? Look in a mirror. Look at yourself.

Think back to the story of creation. God created the world, everything in the world, and every creature in the world. Then God created human beings. In the image of God he created them. Male and female he created them. God created us, as human beings, in his own image.

What does that mean? It means that we are different to all of God’s other creatures. It means that God has put something of himself into us. Not in a physical sense, because God is beyond any physical image, but in a spiritual sense. God has breathed his Spirit of life into us.

It means that God has created us to share in his creation, and to pass on his gift of life. It means that God has created us to share a relationship with himself.

It means that God has given us a will to serve his will, to know and choose and do what is good and right and holy. It means that we have been created to live with God forever.

But we know that we have sinned against our God. As a human race, and each of us individually, we have sinned against our God.

Which means that this image of God in us has been spoiled. We have trouble seeing the image of God in one another. We have trouble seeing the image of God in ourselves.

Our sinful selfishness gets in the way. It ruins this relationship with God. It blots out life the way it should be, the life that reflects the image of God.

Our God has given us Jesus Christ.

Jesus is God coming into our world. But now God is in a form that we can see, God with a real physical human presence. St Paul says that Jesus is the firstborn of all creation, the image of the invisible God.

Jesus is God coming to us. And Jesus shows us what human life, our life, is, and what our life should be.

Not only shows us. Jesus brings us back to God. Jesus overcomes our sin. Jesus restores our life. Jesus gives us God’s Spirit anew. Jesus gives us a whole new life,
a life formed again according to the image of God.

So where is the image of God? The image of God is in you. You have been created in the image of God. As Christians, you have been re-created by the salvation of Jesus Christ into the image of God.

Now, pay to God what belongs to God. Pay to God, give to God, what has the image of God imprinted onto it. Give to God yourself. Give to God your own life.

That is the challenge that Jesus gives. To receive our life as God’s precious gift, God’s precious gift given twice over. And then to give our live to him. Because we belong to him.

To give our lives for serving him. For worshipping him. For loving him. To dedicate our lives as we trust him. And then to dedicate ourselves to serve as Jesus serves.

With a deep love that reaches out to other people, in all their needs, a love that embraces them into the love of God.

Jesus challenges us to see ourselves, and all of our lives, as an opportunity to live for our Lord, to serve and to give.

Now, it is not just how much money do I think I should give? Yes, our money belongs to God too, the money that we present as an offering, but also all the money that we need and spend for every purpose.

Now there is no room for silly political questions. Now there is just one question, one spiritual question. How can I best give myself to my God and Lord? Amen.