How well do you measure up.

Luke 6:35
Love your enemies, do good to them, and lend to them without expecting to get anything back. Then your reward will be great, and you will be children of the Most High, because He is kind to the ungrateful and wicked.

            Who you are matters. And what you do matters. If a parent doesn’t parent the child they gave life to things aren’t right, if the police don’t police there can be death, and if a child rejects their parents, rejects those who gave them life, something is terribly wrong. We all know that stereotypical teenage rebellion, where the teenager refuses to listen to their parents, rejects their teaching and way of life, and goes after something else; or when they finish school, they leave cutting ties with the rest of their family and living a new and different way. Unfortunately today sometimes it’s even the parents who reject who they are to their children and run off. But who you are matters and what you do matters.

            Your Christian Faith matters. Itis not, ‘God’s done it all so you can relax’ rather it’s ‘God’s done it all now you can live!’ It’s as if you are a dead man, or woman, God comes and raises you to new life because of course you can’t do it yourself; yet now you are alive, you can choose to act like a living person, or choose to act like a dead one again. The Christian Faith is ‘God’s done it all now you can live!
Yes Christ has defeated sin, death and the devil; and yes the Holy Spirit unites you to Him saving you; and yes Our Heavenly Father dearly loves you and wants the best for you and all His Creation. The Most High God is kind to the ungrateful and the wicked, we know this and confess this, and this is why He is kind to you and adopts you. For we know that Jesus forgives those who crucified Him, and St Stephan, truly living as a son of God, forgave those stoning him as he saw Jesus standing in the Highest. The Most High God is kind to the ungrateful and wicked, that is why He sent His only begotten Son to save sinners (1 Timothy 1:15). You who are ungrateful, wicked, sinners; God saves you from your ungratefulness, from your wickedness, from your sin. He saves you so that you may be grateful, righteous and complete, that you may live as His children.

This is why Jesus Himself says, then you will be children of the Most High. When you listen to Jesus, the Word of God, and trust His teachings; when you love your enemies, do good to those who hate you, and lend without expecting any returns. Then your reward will be great and you will be sons of the Highest. But are you not already children of God? In Holy Baptism He adopted you into His family, the Church; He united you to His Son, and so as part of Christ’s body you too are called God’s son (Romans 6; 8:15). So then what does it mean to be children of the Most High?

            You have been adopted, no one can take that from you; yet here is a question, “are you really your father’s son?” or are you ‘a son of a gun’? Is my son Nathaniel really a father’s son, or is he more a son of his mother? As it happens at the moment, Nathaniel is more a son of his father and Karissa more a daughter of her mother; but they still have a lot of growing up to do. Now you have been adopted by the Most High God, Creator of Heaven and Earth; you are His child. Do you live like Him or do you still live like the family you came from? He has adopted you, because He is kind to the ungrateful and wicked; this might even be your lived experience for you who came to Faith later in life. Now Jesus calls you to live like your adopted Father, to be kind to the ungrateful and wicked. To be merciful as your Heavenly Father is merciful. And He is merciful, we know this because we know Christ. WE know because of His example.

            So here is His challenge for you who are adopted in Christ. How well do you measure up to Him? Do you trust your Heavenly Father like Jesus trusts Him? Do you love your enemies so much that you are willing to die for them, to forgive them with your life as Jesus does? Do you lend not just your possessions and your time, yet also your entire life to those around you not expecting any returns; just as Jesus does? Today I leave you with a question, as the baptised children of God, newly forgiven, spoken to and strengthened by Him today, will you live as a child of the Most High God?

            As you answer that question, the peace of God which surpasses all understanding guard your hearts and minds in Christ Jesus, now unto the Resurrection of all God’s family. Amen.

Pastor Joseph Graham.

“Resurrection: the Lord Jesus stands forever”.

1 Corinthians 15:17, 20
If Christ has not been raised, your faith is empty; you are still in your sins. But Christ has indeed been raised from the dead, the firstfruits of those who have fallen asleep.

            If your mother hadn’t born you, you would not have family, you could not stand, you would not have life. But your mother did bear you, you are born and here you live; this truth stands forever. Now, there are many today who do not believe that Jesus rose from the dead, that He didn’t awake and rise from His final sleep.

But that’s not what we’re talking about today. There are also those who don’t believe that at the end of time, all who have died will rise again in their bodies. Instead, many believe that the soul resting in Heaven and the body left in the grave is the end, functionally that there is no New Creation, no final victory over sin, death and the devil. But then what is Easter? Those who reject the final fulfillment of Christ’s Resurrection, the resurrection of the dead at the end of time, question whether Jesus’ death has truly dealt with your sins, whether He stands in victory over sin, death and the devil or not. And when you sin, or worry over our own death, or fall to temptation; you live as though there was no Resurrection, as though you are still dead in your trespasses and sins (Ephesians 2:1), as though you are not baptised into Christ.

            But He has baptised you (Ephesians 5:25-27), your mother has born you, and Jesus did rise and stand victorious from the grave. This is truth stands forever. You are baptised, united with Christ in this, His death and rising from death, you now live and stand in His Resurrection (Romans 6). This is something that can never be taken away from you, you are baptised, it’s a historic fact. Just as Christ’s rising from the dead is a historic fact. And we can’t change the past, we all know that.

Yet you can, now, choose how to live, how faithful you will be, but you can not change what has happened; your birth, your baptism, and Christ’s Resurrection still stand. They last forever. And this is one of the things we mean by that first Lutheran slogan, “The Word of the Lord stands forever!” (1 Peter 1:25; Isaiah 40:8). His Word to you in your baptism stands forever, His Word to you in the Absolution stands forever, His Word to you in the Gospels, in Holy Communion, in the Aaronic Blessing stands forever. That Word of forgiveness, life everlasting and holiness for you stands forever. This is our sure and certain hope, I am baptised.

            But what does baptism mean? What does it mean to be united to Christ in baptism, to be raised with Him and be united with Him in His Resurrection? And what do those words mean, raised and resurrection? Well, raised or rise in Greek and Hebrew mean just that, ‘to rise’ also rouse from sleep or to awake. But resurrection is the funny one, to most it’s always refers to rising from the dead; and yet it sounds a lot like insurrection. Resurrection, insurrection; resurgence, insurgence; now Insurrection refers to a standing against, Resurrection is a standing up. And the word, resurrection/standing up, is used both for Jesus at Easter, and more so for the dead at the end of this age.

So then what does it mean that Jesus stands up; and that at the end of this age, when death is destroyed, that all the dead will stand up? What does it mean but that He and all will stand while those things that seek our fall, sin death and the devil will not; that Jesus stands forever, He lasts forever, but sin, death and the devil stand no more. His standing, His Resurrection, is His victory over sin, death and the devil. And our union with Christ’s life in Baptism; our union, our participation with His Resurrection; is how we are no longer slaves to sin; how death has no power over us; and how, though they protest and assault, the demons will not defeat us who are in Christ.

This is why we ‘work out our faith in fear and trembling’ (Philippians 2:12), why we like all Christians from Pentecost to today, devote ourselves to the apostles teaching, fellowship, Holy Communion and prayer (Acts 2:42). That when the evil comes we stand in the full armour of God, looking to Him and relying on the gifts He gives (Ephesians 6). And this is why when you fail, when you fall, you come back to receive again from God His service, His Divine Service, to stand you up again, to participate again in His Resurrection longing for the end when those united with Christ receive His blessings in full. So what is baptism? What does it mean? It means union with Christ and the promise of His Resurrection, His victory over your sin, your death, and your devils here today and everyday in Christ.

            You cannot change the past, and yet we know what will last. For Jesus stands forever, sin, death and the devil do not. And Jesus stands forever for your sake, that you might stand with Him in victory today, and at the end stand together with all His kingdom as the kingdoms of sin death and the devil fall to lay in the dust forever. God has baptised you, it cannot be undone, The Holy Spirit draws and unites you to Christ in His Resurrection, His victory is yours today. This is the Good News, the Gospel for us to speak, by God’s Word of promise, you are forgiven, purified, and provided life everlasting in Christ.

            And so, the peace of God which surpasses all understanding, guard your hearts and minds in Christ Jesus, now and until we all stand forever with Him. Amen.

Pastor Joseph Graham.

Is a person a fisherman if he or she never goes fishing?

 

Luke 5:10
Then Jesus said to Simon, “Fear not; from now on you will catch men.”

Fishing, it’s a hobby some of you love; to go fishing with friends and family, cast a line, have a chat and see what you catch. Now there are many different ways to fish, the good old fishing rod, the line, the net, the trawling and trolling; but at its core fishing is about lowering something into the water to pull something precious out, letting down nets into the deep to catch the fish. And yet Jesus says today to this fisherman Simon, called Peter, from now on he will catch men. What’s going on here? What’s this connection between fish and men? Why does Jesus, God Almighty, choose a fisherman to be His disciple, even four fishermen? And what does this account of fishing have to do with you?

            To answer our first question, we’ll look at the other words God has spoken to us today, from the call of Isaiah. From Isaiah chapter 6 we heard God come down, like a fisherman down to the water, to show Himself to Isaiah. Like a fisherman He lifts Isaiah up into His presence, Although His throne is a bit fancier than a deck chair. Isaiah lifts his eyes to the Lord and cries out, ‘I am a man of unclean lips, and live among a people of unclean lips.’ Isaiah lives deep among a people who live in darkness away from God’s light; they do not speak or hear God’s Word, but dirty their lips with lies, hate, and gossip. Like an ocean fish Isaiah lives deep in this darkness. Yet God sends down a burning coal like a hook to catch him, to touch his lips and bring him up and our of a life of sin; of course the same happens in Holy Communion, He Himself coming down to forgive your sin in touching your lips and bringing you up into His life. So even for Isaiah, God is a fisherman, He goes down to the water and pulls sinners up out of the depths to live with Him.

            Then why might Jesus choose fishermen to be the first and core of His disciples? He had seen Andrew, Simon Peter’s brother, before after His baptism by John in the Jordan river (John 1:35-42). … Hmm, that’s another time with water He went down and came back up. And in Luke’s account today He asks Simon, Andrew’s brother, to use his boat to teach. Now here’s another interesting thing the Holy Spirit has preserved for us to help us know Jesus. Jesus stands in a boat, that ancient image of the church, and proclaims the truth to many people, you could say He casts the Gospel out to the crowd like a net. How many people does He catch? Don’t know.

Yet then He turns to Simon Peter, who’d been fishing in the dark before Jesus had arrived, fishing without God, and had caught nothing. Jesus guides Simon where to fish, and shows His power to Peter. Simon Peter can’t handle it himself, not even with His brother Andrew’s help, he calls out to James and John to come help with the catch; but still the catch is so great they struggle to bring it to shore. Here, the Holy Spirit in His wisdom has shown us what it means to be fishers of men, and why the first disciples were fishermen. They knew what it meant, the hard work of casting out, the need for God’s help, the need for community to live with each other and help each other, and now Jesus reveals how big the catch will be! Peter and Andrew, James and John, will preach to nations, casting the net wide and with each other’s help and the Lord’s catching many people into life. Many more came to help down the centuries and down to today.

            So, what does this mean for you? It means, we all confessed with Isaiah, with Simon, and with each other the truth of who we are. We fail to love as Christ loved, we don’t always speak good truth to others, we sin against who we are in God. I am a sinner with unclean lips. Basically, we can’t do it by ourselves, just like Simon’s failure in fishing the night before without Jesus. We need help. And God sends it. He comes down to us today in the reading and hearing of His Word, in the Absolution, and most specially in Holy Communion; He comes down to catch you, and to clean you, to heal you and to bring you to Himself. It’s the Divine Service, It’s God’s fishing trip.

And that’s one thing you can catch and take away today, but He didn’t just forgive Isaiah, He didn’t just say, ‘fear not’ to Simon. He sent them out. Isaiah was sent out to help people see their need, their sin and failure, and to promise the coming Messiah the coming Good News. Simon Peter was sent to cast the net of that Gospel, the Good News of Jesus Christ, His victory against our real enemies. And you too are called into God’s service, forgiven and made New by God’s merciful grace. You are called to join Isaiah, Peter, Paul, all Christians and Jesus Himself, in going down to bring others up. Maybe you are not called to preach to nations as the Apostles did, maybe not to cities and great crowds as the Martyrs, maybe not to whole congregations, to priests and popes as Luther and countless faithful pastors have; yet you are called to cast out the net of the gospel even if it is just to encourage the faith of your family and friends and each other here today.

So, relying on God’s strength, encourage each other today and go out forgiven to help with the fishing.

And the peace of God which surpasses all understanding guard your hearts and minds in Christ Jesus, now until we all reach the Promised Land. Amen.

Love is action and God never fails

1 Corinthians 13:7
Love bears all things, trusts all things, hopes all things, and endures all.

            What a wonderful thing love is! I love it! But then I also love lasagne; and pet owners love their pets. I wonder, what is love? And have you ever wondered, what is love to you?

            Is love a feeling? Those butterflies in your stomach when you met your spouse, the draw you felt toward your newborn child? Is love saying, ‘I love you’ for the first time, or for the thousandth? Is love a preference for pizza over something like celery? Is love a complete and utter acceptance of a person including their harmful and destructive habits? Is love something that can be lost? Is love God? What is love to you?

            Many people today think of love as a feeling, yet Scripture speaks differently. For both the Greek and Hebrew speaking people, love is action. It’s not a feeling that comes and goes, you don’t fall out of love; rather love is something you do, it’s charity, it’s feeding, cleaning, helping, all those good things a mother does for their child. For us as Christians especially, love is an action.

            And Paul reflects this throughout 1 Corinthians, all the words used to describe love are action words. Technically it’s not patient, it’s suffers long, or bears continually; it’s not kind, it’s does good for the benefit of the one loved. Love doesn’t covet, or boast, doesn’t toot its own horn. Love doesn’t act rudely, seek its own benefit, isn’t provoked to anger easily, and keeps no record of wrongs. Love doesn’t delight in unrighteousness, rather love rejoices with the truth. Love bears, trusts, hopes, and endures all things. Love is action.

            It’s an action directed toward the object of love. It doesn’t mean you have to like the person or thing, or even feel like loving them; because we all know feelings come and go. Rather love is about living for the benefit of what we love. If you love eating lasagne, for example, you will suffer through burnt onions, through a quick trip to the shops for cheese, through the work of putting it all together for the sake of eating lasagne. Your love is that humble, patient, faithful work for the benefit of eating lasagne. You don’t delight in a lasagne that isn’t right, is unrighteous; rather you rejoice with the truth of the lasagne, a good lasagne is delicious! And your love is also that joyful sharing with others, both eating lasagne with them and telling others of the wonders of lasagne. Love is not a feeling, for we love even when we feel tired, sad, irritated, and often those acts of love bring us joy, like the joy of a good lasagne.

            Although, now of course, Paul is not writing about the object of our love. I am a Minister of the Holy Mysteries of God, not a chef. Jesus has already taught the object of our love, first and foremost it is to be God Almighty the Creator of all, and His Creation (Matthew 22:36-40). The Holy Spirit has inspired Paul to write that without this love you are nothing. If you do not bear up under things, if you do what is harmful; if you envy, boast and puff yourself up; if you dishonour others, seek only for yourself, are easily provoked, keep records of wrongs; if you delight when you see another’s misfortune and rejoice with lies; you are nothing. You are dust, for all the other things you might hold, power, wealth, knowledge, even God’s special spiritual gifts, all these things pass away to nothing. You might desire excellence, but as Paul wrote, love is the most excellent way (1 Corinthians 12:31).

            And Love never fails. And God is love (1 John 4:8). He always bears you, your failure, your sin, even your rejection of Him; remember from the cross Jesus loves, “Father forgive them for they do not know what they do.” (Luke 23:34). He always hopes, that you will live with Him in joy, peace, and love, that when you fail you repent, turn back to be with Him again. He always endures, the hurt of those who reject Him and turn from Him, the harm done to all His Creation, and all the hardships we face together. He never fails. And when all is said and done, when Christ comes revealed in all His glory, at the end, the perfection of the world; love remains. Not my library of books, not your wealth given to those in need, not prophecies revealing a truth; all this will pass away. Yet Christ’s love for you will never pass away.

            What is love? It is Jesus ever seeking what is best for you, for all His Creation; victory over sin, death and the devil; and by God’s grace it is us living together with Him.

            And so the peace of God, which surpasses all understanding guard your hearts and minds in Christ Jesus, now unto the coming perfection. Amen.

Pastor Joseph Graham.

You said we’re a team.

The Text: 1 Corinthians 12:28

The movie Coach Carter is the true story of Ken Carter, a successful sporting goods store owner, who in 1999 became head basketball coach for a high school in a poorer city suburb. The first thing he noticed was the attitude of the players he was about to coach and their extremely dismal performance on the court. So Carter sets out to change this by imposing some strict conditions including: respectful behaviour, dress code, and good academic results as a prerequisite for participation in the team.

One player, Timo, thought that all this was just over the top and quit the team, only to return later with a desire to be reinstated. Timo asked Coach Carter what he must do to play. Carter deliberately sets him an impossible task – he must complete 2,500 push-ups and 1,000 suicide drills by Friday.

By Friday, Timo had tried but hadn’t completed the tasks the coach had set him. Although impressed by the effort, Carter asked him to leave the gym. Timo has failed.

Unexpectedly, another player, Jason, who previously had a personality conflict with Timo, stepped forward. “I’ll do push-ups for him,” he tells the coach. “You said we’re a team. One person struggles, we all struggle. One player triumphs, we all triumph. Right?”

Coach Carter watched Jason drop to the floor and begin doing push-ups. One by one the entire team joined to help Timo reach his goal. They had been acting only as individuals, but now they were working together as a team.

Nature provides us with a multitude of examples of the teamwork of animals and birds. Geese fly in a “V” formation and take it in turns flying up front where the going is harder. When the lead bird gets tired it falls to the back where the updraught caused by the birds in front make flying easier. When penguins experience extremely cold weather they huddle together and as the penguins on the outside get cold they are moved further into the centre and keep on rotating so that they all keep warm. It would be a disaster for them to be selfish. When those outside died from the cold there would be none left to keep those in the centre warm.

The Bible reading from 1 Corinthians which we heard earlier makes some important points about being together.

First of all, it says that we are Christ’s body. Note that it doesn’t say, “we are like Christ’s body”, but “we are Christ’s body”. We are a group of people linked to Christ: that’s what we have in common.

It’s true that we are individuals and that Jesus has saved us as individuals, but we have been joined together in baptism with Jesus. We have been called together into God’s family as brothers and sisters – together we are God’s own people (1 Peter 2:9, Col 3:12).

Secondly, we all have the same Spirit who links us to each other. We have all received the same Holy Spirit who calls us to worship the one Saviour, believe in the one true God who supports and comforts all of us in our times of need.

Our “oneness” is in God our heavenly Father who created us and loves each of us with such intensity that He freed us from our sin and adopted us as His own children. Our oneness in Christ our Saviour and the Holy Spirit, who calls us into God’s Church, breaks down barriers and division

One of the most revolutionary things about Christianity in its early history was the way it broke down barriers. It turned the world of its time on its head.

For the first time: master and slave met in the same building for the same purpose, shared the same meals, stood or knelt side by side in worship.

For the first time male and female were able to worship without the marked divisions which Jewish worship demanded.

For the first time Jew and Gentile were able to meet together as equals before the one God whom they worshipped.

The reality was that the church broke down barriers which society put up and  practised. The church was at the forefront of change. It refused to follow the ways of the world, but set a different standard which eventually the world partially adopted for itself. The church did that because it was linked to Christ as one body.

The third thing this passage emphasises is that while each of us has separate, individual gifts, we all belong to each other, need each other., We, all together, make up what we call church. Paul used the picture of the body to help us grasp the reality of the church.

There are two points to Paul’s picture of the church as a body.

One: we are all of value and all have a role to play in the church. And two: we can’t do without each other. Just as a hand can’t decide to live in isolation from the rest of the body – if it does it’s either a disconnected hand or it’s not a hand at all – so we can’t live in isolation from each other. There’s no such thing as a Christian who lives in isolation from everybody else. To be a Christian means that we exist in relation to others – we need others just as they need us.

Paul summarised this new “oneness” which people shared when he said, “All of you are Christ’s body” (1 Cor 12:27). Now remember to whom Paul was writing these words. Here was a congregation of very gifted people who:

  • couldn’t get on,
  • argued,
  • showed little care for certain sections of the congregation,
  • big-noted themselves and thought of themselves as more important and more spiritual than the rest,
  • took one another to court,
  • had all kinds of problems when it came to worship and agreeing on how things were to be done.

And yet, in spite of all of this, Paul opens his letter by calling them the saints at Corinth and then says, “Each one of you is part of the body of Christ.”

He doesn’t say to them, “Now listen here, you guys, this is what it should be like and I know that you will never achieve this”. Instead he deliberately and firmly says, “You are the church, the fellowship of believers, in fact, the body of Christ, and this is how it is”.

It’s not like life out there in the world. You can’t use worldly ways when it comes to the body of Christ. Out there people use one another, unfairly and rudely criticise one other, run others down to promote themselves. Out there people get all huffy and abusive if they don’t get their own way, are jealous of those who get more attention or given greater status, or who use their skills and time selfishly for personal gain only.

  • In the church things are different. Here our function and purpose is for the good of each other.
  • If one is sad, then we all share that sadness.
  • If one is disadvantaged, we all feel that disadvantage.
  • If one is sick then we long for them to be well.
  • If one is separated, we want for them to have a sense of belonging.
  • If one is struggling to cope, we sense that struggle.
  • And conversely, if one gets a promotion we’re glad for their success.
    If a person deserves praise, we’re liberal in giving them some praise.

We encourage each other to use their respective gifts to the fullest. We look around and recognise that some don’t seem to have a particular outstanding talent but we honour them too, so that there is no discord, no bitterness and no ill-feeling in the body of Christ.

In the church, in the Christian fellowship, there’s a different set of values from those of the world which should affect the way we operate. This doesn’t happen naturally. This only happens, and can only happen, when individuals are linked to Christ. And, then it follows that the stronger the link to Christ, the more the God pleasing interaction and togetherness becomes a reality.

This is a key issue – how can we expect to be the body of Christ when we don’t know Christ and His will is for us? It is through reading the Scriptures, studying them, learning from them, receiving Holy Communion, asking Jesus in prayer for His guidance and help, and allowing the love of God in Jesus to really affect our daily lives that we know Christ and see our place within His body, the church. The church is just another group of people or club if we don’t know and follow the Saviour and recognise that He is always calling us together to be His people to bring his blessing to this community.

There is plenty of room for repentance and change. There is plenty of room to do a stocktake of what Jesus and His church means to each of us. There is plenty of room to acknowledge that we have often adopted the attitude of “what can I get out of the church” rather than “what can I give to Christ through the church”.

Some of us may have to admit that we have preferred to sit back and let everyone else do things rather than offering to work with our fellow members of the body of Christ. It is very easy to not be involved in the life of the church – after all, we do have our lives to live!

There is little doubt that there are many things which we don’t like about the human side of the church.

The church is church only because of Jesus. We are called into the church to be with Christ and with those whom Christ has saved (and for those He is yet to save). We are here because of the love which Christ has for us and the forgiveness He has won for us on the Cross. This is what makes the church different to every other organisation in the world. We are motivated by the love of Christ to be like Christ to others – welcoming the outcast, accepting the sinner, comforting a little child, welcoming the cheat, encouraging the depressed.

In many ways we do reflect the concept of the body of Christ in this church. There is a sense of caring for each other, of showing concern, of building up and encouraging and helping when it’s most needed.

But we can improve. We can be more diligent:  at building up rather than tearing down, at strengthening rather than weakening, at thinking as a body, rather than individually. We can commit ourselves to be an organism, a living body which works, and so benefit each other. In our own small way, we as “church” and as individual members of the church can shape the community in which we live.

How do we see the church and our place in it?

As this year gets under way we are challenged to think about what this congregation means to us.  We can continue to develop a sense of belonging here. Don’t just talk about this church as “(name of local congregation inserted here)” but as my church or our church (we all know it is really God’s church).

Here we try to help each other on Sunday mornings focus in the one direction as we:

  • focus on the God we believe in,
  • show each other that He’s important to us by our presence here,
  • receive strength for the days in-between worship,
  • receive a sense of being part of a big family which is important to us, which we can count on, to which we can give what we are able to give and we can be a body which functions the way God intends it to function.

Why bother with this? Because it is here amongst the people of God that we find Jesus and His love for us and the world. We tell each other through words and practical ways that God loves us and is ready to do whatever is necessary to help us be the Christians God wants us to be in this place. It is this love of God which has called us together – as different as we might all be – to be part of his church.

Paul says to us, “Together you are the body of Christ”.

And we respond, “We are the body of Christ! Amen!

How embarrassing

The Text: John 2:1-11

There is nothing worse than inviting guests to your place for dinner, having a mental picture of what there is in the fridge and on the shelves, only for that mental picture to be very different from reality…like when you offer your visitors a cup of coffee only to realise you have enough milk for 4, not 6 cups…or falling short with the meat on the BBQ so that you have to pile the plates up with salad to cover up the half a sausage underneath. Embarrassing, isn’t it? Which is just what happened in today’s Gospel reading: the hosts of a wedding in Cana of Galilee had run out of wine.

How embarrassing for the hosts of that wedding celebration! What could be done? They couldn’t just duck into town to the IGA, and there were no drive thru bottle shops in the small town of Cana. What an embarrassing situation to be in! An embarrassing situation that is actually far worse than we first realise. For Jewish wedding celebrations were not just an afternoon or evening event that we are accustomed to, but could go on for up to a week! So the hosts who have run out of wine have not just run out for that day, but days! They’ve got no hope to rectify the situation!

But this is a far more serious matter than just social embarrassment. In the Ancient Near East there were strong social customs involving generosity between hosts and guests . For example it was possible to take legal action against a guest who had failed to provide the appropriate wedding gift. But on the other hand, hosts failing to fully discharge their duties of hospitality were financially liable. What the end of the wine supply means for the Groom and his family in today’s Gospel reading is that they are facing a lawsuit. They are guilty and have a debt to pay.

Then Jesus’ mother pipes up. By no means is she the centre of this account, nor is she to be reverenced in the manner some do, but there is good reason to focus on her here. Her words to her Son “They do not have any wine” show that she trusted in Jesus’ resourcefulness. What did Mary expect of Jesus? The answer must be extraordinary help. She actually doesn’t even ask Jesus to do something, she simply states the difficulty and expects Him to do something. After all she knew Jesus to be the Messiah because of what the angels spoke about Him before His birth, the virgin conception and so on. Perhaps she tried to make Him take such action so as to show Himself to all as the Messiah she knew Him to be.

Not yet time for that though. That will only be fulfilled when Jesus is crucified on the Cross and His tomb is afterward found empty. And so Jesus responds: “Woman, what does this have to do with me? My hour has not yet come.” Or in other words: “The time’s not right, Mum.”

Yet Mary still anticipates that Jesus will act compassionately and so she says to the servants: “Do whatever He tells you to do.”

Then Jesus does tell them to do something: “Fill the jars with water.” These stone jars had a capacity of around 30 gallons each. They were standing nearby in accordance with the purification rules of the Jews who washed not only their hands but also dishes, cups and kettles such as we read in Mark 7:4. They thought by doing so they were being cleansed of external contamination and making themselves ceremonially clean before God. So before this wedding feast in our text, the servants would have poured water over the hands of every guest as well as washing all utensils used. A big amount of water would have been required—thus the need for these 6 jars which had a collective capacity of approximately 680 litres.

The servants do what Jesus commands. They fill these jars up to the brim with water. And when Jesus tells them to take some out and carry it to the MC, they do that as well. And upon tasting it the MC’s response leaves no doubt that Jesus has just performed an astonishing miracle. The MC summons the Groom and says: “Every person puts out the good wine first and when they have drunk, then the inferior. But you have kept the good wine until now.” This is no water. This is top shelf stuff. Better than South Australia’s Penfolds 2004 Block 42 Cabernet Sauvignon which sells for $168,000 a bottle!

Jesus has stepped in and given the wedding couple a gift worth far more than that bottle of Penfolds. He has provided an abundance of wine for the wedding and saved the family from social disgrace. But Jesus’ gift was thus doubly important. He takes away the legal judgement and penalty for the banquet hosts.

This is the first of the signs Jesus performs in John’s Gospel. Signs do not point to themselves, but to a deeper reality behind them. Jesus’ signs show us that He is true God, the Christ promised to the Jews and given as the Saviour of the world, the One who has authority and power over the laws of nature and time and space and life and death.

In doing so Jesus doesn’t just give the wedding couple a beautiful gift and compassionately free them from the judgement of the Law. He does something beautiful and special which is also for us. The purpose of these water jars was to hold so-called purifying water—water that would make people ritually clean in God’s sight. By ordering them to be filled to the brim—so that they cannot possibly hold anything else—and transforming the contents from water to wine, Jesus effectively shows that He has come to free us from the Jewish ceremonial washing rituals—and any works righteousness as a way to earn God’s favour. For this ritual washing was a useless human tradition which took the place of God’s own commands. It isn’t the uncleanliness of a person’s hands that separates them from God but our hearts. In Mark 7:17-23 Jesus says:

“…nothing that enters a person from the outside can make him ‘unclean’ For it doesn’t go into his heart but into his stomach, and then out of his body.
“What comes out of a person is what makes him ‘unclean.’ For from within, out of people’s hearts, come evil thoughts, sexual immorality, theft, murder, adultery, greed, malice, deceit, lewdness, envy, slander, arrogance and folly. All these evils come from inside and make a person ‘unclean’.”
Jesus makes these water pots vessels of grace. He transforms the water which was used legalistically to the gift of wine that frees from debt. But we too are like the wedding hosts. We are faced with a lawsuit. Not for what we fail to provide as hosts of banquets, but because we fall short of what God requires. We come under God’s just sentence. We need urgent help. Jesus transforms the water into wine. This miracle is for you too. It points ahead to the Cross where He once for all fulfils the sacrificial system, where it is His shed blood which purifies you from all your sin.
Cana and the Cross are therefore connected. In today’s text Jesus declares that His hour has not yet come. In John 17 just before His arrest, Jesus begins His High-Priestly prayer to His Father with the words: “Father, the hour has come.” In both the wedding at Cana and His crucifixion on the Cross Jesus’ mother is present, the only two appearances of Mary in John. But Mary isn’t named. She is simply referred to as “The mother of Jesus”. None of the people are named: the servants, the disciples, the wedding couple.
Why?
Most likely, so that we, the hearers, can place ourselves in the account. The mother of Jesus is a model of faith. She trusts that Jesus will bring help in the situation they are in. She expects He will do something after she has stated the problem. The servants do as Jesus commands. The disciples put their faith in Jesus; not just a belief that He is God, but a trust, a living faith that, as the mother of Jesus says, will “do whatever He tells you to.” As you step into the Gospel account, as one of these characters, do you have the faith of Mary, the disciples, the servants?
Faith is not about being super-spiritual and having it all together. We never have it all together. Faith says to Jesus: “I don’t have it all together. Here I am again today; a stone water jar…and a cracked one at that. Do something new in me today—and every day. Help me to change…to humble myself under your word and help me to do whatever you tell me to—instead of me wanting to do what I want to do. Help me to not just believe in you, but to put my trust in you, like your disciples, expecting that you will continue to provide well beyond what I could imagine, like your mother did. Transform me every day so that I have a spark of the conviction of your servants to do whatever you say.”
For the turning of ordinary water into the best of wines reflects the radical change Christ effects in us sinners, so that by the transforming grace of Christ we don’t allow pride to take hold but release the insistence that I must always be right, and instead embrace humility. So that we don’t judge others in spite and refuse to forgive them when they wrong us. So that we do start to consider that maybe it’s me that needs to ask for forgiveness too. So that we come to Jesus and live a Christian life even when it doesn’t suit us. So that we give our time and talents with an overflowing heart to those who need them.
At Cana Jesus transformed water into the gift of wine and on the Cross He transformed death into new life for us. We share in this life—His very own—having been purified in the waters of baptism where all our sins were washed away. The wine Jesus serves us at Communion assures us of this, because it is His true blood, to assure us that nothing can separate you from His love; that we are His very own, forgiven, and holy precious children. This communion meal is a foretaste of the banquet in heaven to come, where we will be the guests of honour, because of Christ’s abundant mercy and love he has lavished upon us. Amen.

There is always a bit of a dilemma at this time of the year.

The Text: Luke 3:15-17, 21, 22; Matthew 2:11

 

There is always a bit of a dilemma at this time of the year. Two important observances on the Christian calendar coincide at this time. On January the 6th it is the day of Epiphany. Epiphany commemorates the first revelation of Jesus Christ to the Gentiles (the non-Jews), represented by the visit from the Magi (those exotic visitors from the east, more commonly known as the three wise men). The festival of Epiphany originated in the Eastern Church (the Orthodox Church), where it at first included the actual celebration of Christ’s birth, and was second only to Easter in its importance.

But at this same time we have the first Sunday after the Epiphany which focuses on the baptism of our Lord in the Jordan River. Epiphany means manifestation and it is at the baptism of Jesus where he is clearly manifested as the Divine Son of God. So, we are left with the dilemma of which important theme to focus on: the revelation of Jesus as a Saviour to the Gentiles or the manifestation of Jesus as the Son of God in his baptism. Well, this year we can take the ‘bull by the horns’. And given that a bull has two horns we can deal with both events, making comparisons between them.

Firstly, we have the Magi from the east who sought out this new king. They saw signs in the heavens that a great ruler had been born in the land of Judah. And so, they travelled hundreds of miles to present their gifts of gold, frankincense and myrrh. These gifts were indicative of the homage they were paying to this newborn child.

The gold was obviously a precious gift, representative of the worth the Magi saw in this child. The frankincense and myrrh were also historically associated with royalty. In the Old Testament book Song of Songs we hear both mentioned in relation to King Solomon: Who is this coming up from the desert like a column of smoke, perfumed with myrrh and incense made from all the spices of the merchant? Look! It is Solomon’s carriage… (Song of Songs 3:6-7). Gold, frankincense and myrrh were certainly gifts fit for a king.

But in the life of the Israelites these items were significant for another reason. Worship was the lifeblood of the people and their worship took place in the Temple in Jerusalem. This was an elaborate building made according to the specifications of God himself. God was both the architect and the interior decorator of the Temple complex and he determined the way worship was to be conducted. And in Exodus chapter 30, we read of three important items featuring in this worship: gold, frankincense and myrrh.

The myrrh was used in the high priest’s anointing oil which was used to consecrate the most important vessels in the Most Holy Place in the Temple (Ex.30:22f). The frankincense was used at the entrance to that same Most Holy Place to help symbolise the presence of the Almighty God with his people (Ex.30:34f). And the altar upon which the frankincense was to be burnt, and which was itself anointed with myrrh, was overlaid with pure gold (Ex.30:3f). So, these were fitting gifts for a king, but they were also items that represented the presence of God with his people.

These were very appropriate gifts to be presented to the child who was also known as Immanuel – which means, ‘God with us’! We have no idea whether the Magi were aware of the symbolic significance of their gifts. But it is more than a little ironic that these non-Jewish, Gentile visitors bowed down and worshipped Jesus as king with the same items used in the Jewish Temple worship! Quite a significant offering!

And then some 30 years later we come to the baptism of Jesus. Even though only three decades separate them, this event in the Jordan River seems worlds apart and centuries removed from the visit by the Magi. It is hard to imagine that the two events occurred in the same lifetime. The visitors from the East seem almost mythical and unreal in comparison to the baptism of Jesus – as though they were mere phantoms in the night.  

Far more believable and indicative of human nature is the incident at the Jordan River. The people in this instance travelled for miles to come and hear what John the Baptist had to say – but from the surrounding region rather than from an exotic land far away.

The response of the people was reserved and uncertain. They were waiting expectantly for something – but they weren’t sure what. They wondered in their hearts if John himself might possibly be the Christ. On the other hand, the actions of the Magi in worshipping Jesus were far more decisive. And the people did not come to the banks of the Jordan bearing any elaborate gifts. They came empty-handed, unless of course you count the offering of their sin and their need to repent. Hardly gifts fit for a king!

But herein lies the unique nature of this king Jesus. John the Baptist indicated that Jesus was the one more powerful than he, the thongs of whose sandals he was not worthy to untie. But although he deserved all honour and glory and praise Jesus did not come to receive gifts from his people. He came to bring them.

Jesus does not in the first instance require us to offer him our wealth, for he came to seek us out in our poverty. Augustus Toplady, the author of the hymn Rock of Ages, recognised this truth when he wrote:       

Nothing in my hand I bring, simply to your cross I cling;

Naked, come to you for dress; helpless, look to you for grace.

Jesus our King comes bearing gifts more valuable than gold, frankincense and myrrh. He comes bearing a cross. He comes bearing our salvation. And having won for us our salvation through his death and resurrection he now gathers us into his kingdom and bestows on us his wealth through the gift of baptism.

As John the Baptist declared: He will baptise you with the Holy Spirit and with fire (Luke 3:16). And when it comes to our baptism into Jesus Christ the gifts from the Magi can help us get a handle on what we receive through baptism.

Firstly, we have myrrh which was used to anoint kings and special items in the Temple. At his baptism Jesus was anointed by the Spirit and God declared: you are my Son, whom I love; with you I am well pleased (Lk.3:22). In baptism, Paul told Corinth, God anoints us, sets his seal of ownership on us, and puts his Spirit in our hearts as a deposit, guaranteeing what is to come (2 Cor.1:21-22). Our baptism therefore acts as our coronation. To the Galatians Paul wrote: You are all sons of God through faith in Christ Jesus, for all of you who were baptized into Christ have clothed yourselves with Christ (3:26-27). In baptism we receive royal robes of righteousness, fit for those belonging to the kingdom of God. 

In addition to this, myrrh was also used in embalming. Nicodemus brought a mixture of myrrh and aloes to help preserve the dead body of Jesus (John 19:39). This acts as a good reminder of the death that takes place in our baptism. The old Adam is drowned and a new creation arises from the water. As Paul wrote to the Romans: Don’t you know that all of us who were baptised into Christ Jesus were baptised into his death? We were therefore buried with him through baptism into death in order that, just as Christ was raised from the dead through the glory of the Father, we too may live a new life (6:3-4).

Secondly, the frankincense symbolising the presence of God acts as a reminder of how we receive God’s presence in baptism. We hear in the book of Acts the call to: Repent and be baptised, every one of you, in the name of Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of your sins. And you will receive the gift of the Holy Spirit (Acts 2:38).

God’s Holy Spirit is the abiding presence of God received by us in baptism. As Paul told Titus: God saved us through the washing of rebirth and renewal by the Holy Spirit, whom he poured out on us generously through Jesus Christ our Saviour (Titus 3:5-6). We might not see a manifestation of the Spirit on us as Jesus did in the form of a dove at his baptism. But we do see evidence of the Spirit in us as we make our confession of Jesus as Lord (1Cor.12:3) and as the Spirit himself testifies with our spirit that we are God’s children, as Paul told the Romans (8:16)

And finally, the gold is symbolic of the precious and eternal nature of God’s kingdom to which we belong through baptism. Martin Luther in the family seal he developed, known as Luther’s Rose, had his seal circled with a ring of gold to symbolise that the bliss of heaven is endless and eternal, more precious than any other joy or treasure.

Through our baptism into Christ we inherit that eternal life. That is what it means to be sons and daughters of God through our connection to Jesus Christ. We have, in the words of the Apostle Peter, been given new birth into a living hope through the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead, and into an inheritance that can never perish, spoil or fade – kept in heaven for us (1Peter 1:3-4). 

So, there you have it, those who are baptised into Jesus Christ the King of kings receive more than they could ever hope for. Jesus was revealed at his birth as a Saviour to all the peoples of the earth. The gifts he received from the Magi, the gold, the frankincense and the myrrh, were really only tokens of the wealth that was to be found in him. And later, when he was revealed at his baptism as God’s only Son, it soon became apparent how great a gift to our world he is.

We are baptised children of God. Our King has come to us through our baptism and he has come bearing the gifts of his kingdom. As Paul told the Corinthians: Your body is now a temple of the Holy Spirit, who is in you, whom you have received from God. You are not your own; you were bought at a price (1Cor.6:19-20). We are now gifts to the world because as a baptised, holy children of God we represent the presence of God in the world. May we offer our lives in service to God and to the world so that others can come to know and experience the incredible riches of God’s kingdom of grace. Amen. 

Fifth Sunday after Epiphany

Mark 1:31
And having come to her, He raised her up by the hand, and separated the fever from her, and she began to serve them.

Been a while so I’ll tell a little story of our trip. We got back into Dubbo on Monday, opened the garage door, drove in and immediately got Karissa out of the car. Into the house settling down our crying daughter, and thinking about what we were going to do for food. I suggested pizza, Rehab agreed, so pizza it was. Weary we went to bed, then I got up took Karissa and Nathaniel’s monitor, a little bit of prayer and rest. Then with Nathaniel up, immediately get the toast ready, the table, water, and then immediately get to work on service preparation. Sounds like a busy and full time right? Just like our passage today.

Jesus was baptised, immediately taken out to the temptations in the desert. He comes back, begins His ministry and calls some disciples who follow Him immediately. They go to town, He’s immediately in the synagogue, teaching and preaching, then a possessed man comes up and Jesus tells it to shut up and get out, and it does. Immediately His fame spreads, and immediately he leaves and goes to Simon Peter’s house, which is where we picked up the story.

And Mark is a good story teller, who’s favourite word happens to be ‘immediately’. And this tells us of the business and importance of Jesus’ work, of His drive. Jesus comes to this house, the brothers tell Him about Peter’s mother-in-law, and he came, raised her by the hand, took her fever away, and she, being healed, began to serve to the glory of God and the benefit of others. Jesus healed this mother-in-law of a fever, but is this what Jesus came to do? Heal mothers-in-law of fever? Is this what Jesus is driven toward? To take away our colds and sweats? He who is God Almighty, who we have heard sits enthroned above creation, incomparable and without equal. “Do you not know? Have you not heard? Jesus is the everlasting God, the Creator of the ends of the earth. He will not grow tired or weary, and his understanding no one can fathom. He gives strength to the weary and increases the power of the weak.” (Isaiah 40:28-9). No! Jesus comes to do so much more. And this is what Mark’s account is about, Jesus is the Almighty Healer.

And so, Mark summarises Jesus’ ministry in this one verse, He came, raised her by the hand, took her fever away, and she began to serve. Now words are important, that raised and took away, are also the words we use for resurrection and forgiveness, raising from death to life and taking away our sins. This is why Jesus came, what He was driven to accomplish. And then we hear that the town comes for healing, all those possessed by demons, or those having disease, dis-ease, in the Greek, having bad. All those having bad, so if you have bad in you, unease in heart, bad health, wicked life, come to Jesus for the healing. And yet, it’s not just to heal our bad, fevers and colds, not to make us completely healthy for this life of suffering; yet rather He came primarily to heal us all from death, to bring eternal life. This is why the church is a hospital for sinners, why Holy Communion has been called the medicine of immortality. His Most Holy and Precious Body and Blood, maybe won’t protect you from all viruses, from all injury or disease; yet it does so much more, separating you from your sin, guilt and failure, and raising you from death to eternal life in Christ’s Body. You have been raised to New Life and your sin taken from you in Baptism, today God brings you this gift again, and at the End He has promised, we will be finally and completely resurrected and forgiven together in Jesus. So take the example of Peter’s mother-in-law, get up and serve in your New Life of Forgiveness, serve to the glory of God and the benefit of those He has placed around you.

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

Pastor Joseph Graham.

Fourth Sunday after Epiphany

 

The Text: Mark 1:21-22        

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Only he can give us security;

only he can guide us,

only he can help us through the darkest storms;

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

only he can show us the path to eternal life;

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Festival of the Conversion of St Paul

Sermon text: Acts 9:1-22

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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