You could come & fly

The text:  Isaiah 40:31                              

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

From the early pages of history people have looked at the birds and wanted to fly.  You have seen people jump out of perfectly good planes and ‘fly’ at least for a while, but gravity does its job and the skydiver has no choice but to pull the ripcord on his parachute.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

You see over the years a subtle exchange had taken place.  They exchanged their faith in God for a kind of do-it-yourself kind of attitude.  We do the exact same thing!  This DIY kind of Christianity excludes God from certain areas of our lives. I know God is there but I can handle this myself.

“Let’s see, my work, hmm, no that’s not God’s problem.

Finances, no. I can fix that.

Relationship problems, no.  That’s my responsibility.

My love life, no God doesn’t know anything about that, that’s my area.”

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

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

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

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

Jesus affirmed what Isaiah said when he said: “Come to me, all of your who are carrying heavy burdens, and I will give you rest”. 

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

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

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

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

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

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

Freedom to do whatever.

The Text: 1 Corinthians 8:1-13


Just because we can do something, doesn’t mean we should.

You might recognise this type of phrase if you have one of those pedantic parents who like to use every opportunity to educate you on the technicalities of the English language, such as when you asked such a question like: “Can I have a Tim Tam?”

Your mother may have answered: Yes, you can, but you may not.”

When you look at her with frustration she may have then gone on to say something like: “’Can I?’ is a question which asks about ability, where the question ‘May I?’ asks permission. So, yes, you can have a Tim Tam biscuit because you’re quite capable of going and getting it, holding it in your own fingers, and feeding yourself. However, you may not be permitted to have a Tim Tam right now because it’ll spoil your appetite for dinner.”

So yes, there are many things you can do, but that doesn’t mean you should.

St Paul uses a similar argument in regard to our freedom as Christians.

An example Paul cites is one about food offered to idols (which at first glance doesn’t seem like it would apply to us today).

The context for this question is this:

In Corinth there were many temples and shrines to various idols and false gods, which used animal sacrifices as part of their offerings so their idols and gods might favour or bless them. These sacrificial meats would either be a) left at the altar to these false gods, b) eaten by the people who worshipped there for their special celebrations with family and friends, or c) later taken to the marketplace and sold.

The question raised was: are Christians allowed to eat any of these meats, even though they’ve been sacrificed to false gods? And, even if they could normally avoid buying some of these meats, what happens if they’re invited to a friend’s house who are serving up meats originally offered to idols? Do they refuse and risk offending their hosts? Or, do they eat these meats without a care in the world, but risk alienating some of their own fellowship who would be offended by the fact they’re eating these meats?

In response, it’s quite likely some Christians were saying: “But we know those are false gods. We know the idols are just wood or gold or stone. We know there’s just one true God. We know this food isn’t going to get us any closer to Jesus or push us further away. It’s just plain food because those idols don’t really exist anyway. So therefore, why don’t we just go ahead and eat these temple meals!”

On the other hand, some might be also saying: “But we’ve left those types of practices in our past because we now have faith in Jesus as our Lord and God. He’s the only one we should worship. He’s the only one we should call upon to bless our food and families and service. Plus, if we live like everyone else, then how will anyone know we’re Christian? Look, I believe it’s so serious that, if any of you eat these meats, then I’m not sure your faith is genuine anymore and I’m scared you may be in danger of falling away from faith in Jesus and going back to your old ways of idolatry!”

So, what’s Paul’s advice to this divided congregation who couldn’t agree on a solution, especially where there’s no clear instruction from God about what’s commanded or forbidden?

His solution is both a ‘yes’ and a ‘no’, but he also explains why, which will also help us when faced with similar dilemmas.

Firstly: “Yes, you can eat this meat, at least in the privacy of your home, since you know the idol is false and misleading, and you don’t at all mean to worship it.”

But later on, in chapter 10 (where he talks about eating this meat in public), he says: “No, you can’t be a part of those temple meals in public, even if it’s just a social gathering. In that public meal at the temple you’re participating with any demons who may be present there. To eat that meal in public would also give the wrong witness to those who are struggling to stay faithful to Jesus.”

But you may wonder, what does it matter if they were to eat these meats privately or publicly?

Well, because it’s not all about you.

The exercising of any rights by individuals in a Christian congregation should always be less important than the common rights of a Christian community and for the sake of its unity, especially if there are some within its midst who are weaker in conscience.

In this case, because it might offend your brothers or sisters in Christ, you can eat these meats (at least in private), but you may not (especially in public) for the sake of their faith.

You see, love (and especially Christian love which always considers everyone else as more important than you) always builds up. Your love for your fellow Christians is always more important than your own individual freedom or rights.

This argument can then be used for almost every other situation in the church.

For example, imagine a congregation which is considering relocating the church’s bible from the altar to the lectern. While many like to have the bible on the altar to show its centrality to our worship, it also makes sense to put it where we’ll actually use it. The bible readings are read from the lectern instead of the altar, so that would be a more practical and liturgical place to put it there.

Let’s say this congregation discusses the pros and cons and puts it to the vote. The result is nearly unanimous that they should move the bible to the lectern. Then one member might stand up and say: “If that bible moves off the altar, I won’t attend worship here!”

Now, no matter what you think of such ultimatums, this congregation, out of love for this one person, might in the end agree they could move the bible, but choose not to. They might exercise both their Christian freedom and their love for their fellow member. They might choose to build up the body of Christ in love instead of dividing it over rights and entitlements and democratic votes.

Of course, this doesn’t always happen.

How many times have families and churches become divided because one person (or a number of people), choose to exercise their own rights or privileges over against their love for their brothers and sisters in Christ? How many times has the unity of the church been held to ransom by an individual or a minority group? How many times have people stopped coming to worship because of what they saw and heard fellow Christians saying or doing what they shouldn’t have?

The basic problem is our selfish desire to serve ourselves, which often puts us on a slippery slope of confrontation and division within communities.

For example:

Let’s say I want something. It may even be a good thing to want or expect. But then I have an unmet expectation because I’m not getting what I want. I still think I’m right (or at least I believe I have a right to my expectation or desire), and so I get frustrated because I’m not getting what I want. Because I’m frustrated, it doesn’t take long before I start demanding to be satisfied. When my demands aren’t met, I’m then likely to judge you’re getting in the way of what I want, and so I’ll punish you!

How quickly we often go from having a desire to becoming judge, jury, and executioner!

But an unintended result of our own desires or demands or expectations is (no matter how noble they are); when weaker Christians see or experience our lack of love for each other, they can quickly despair of their faith and fall through the gaps of a fractured community.

Too many times love and unity have taken a back seat (or been locked away in the boot), when love and unity should have been driving all our thoughts, words, and actions.

So, when St Paul talks about food sacrificed to idols (which at first doesn’t seem to apply to us today), we unintentionally become the self-made idols or gods who expect everyone else to sacrifice themselves to our whims and desires.

We make it sound like they must all bow to our desires. They must pay the price when they don’t do what we want.

The common theme running through most of the New Testament letters (and especially from those written by St Paul), is for Christians to practice love and unity. If anyone is to sacrifice themselves and their own desires or intentions, it is the stronger Christians who will always give up their rights and privileges for the sake of others.

Now, this doesn’t mean we should reduce our teachings or our practices to the lowest common denominator, because there are certain things which are clearly commanded or forbidden by God. We don’t compromise on what God teaches in his word. But it’s often in those matters which are neither commanded nor forbidden that we often make into the most divisive ultimatums and fodder for our fights.

Paul is saying here that Christian love will always seek to build those weaker in conscience. Christian love will always seek to build up the church and sacrifice itself for unity in the body of Christ. Christian love will always concern itself with the conscience of those weaker in conscience. Christian love will always model itself on the person and loving sacrifice of Jesus Christ.

You see, Jesus didn’t come to demand or punish or condemn; saying that we should be sacrificed for his sake. He was sacrificed for our sake.

He came to satisfy his Father’s demand for someone to pay for all the times we’re selfish. He came to be punished for all the times we try to get our own way (as if we’re the idol or god who should be obeyed). He was the one condemned and sacrificed for self-serving people like you and me.

Thankfully, no matter how much we’ve hurt or offended others because of our own desires or demands, we’re reminded that, where the blood of Cain once cried out for justice, Jesus’ blood instead now cries out for our forgiveness and mercy, and through faith we’re now innocent and washed clean by this undeserving grace and sacrificial love.

Of course, there’ll still be many more questions the church will be faced with. Some of them will threaten to divide us or trouble the consciences of those weaker in conscience. In each case, God’s word (which includes the divinely inspired letters from Paul and other New Testament writers), is our guiding light to decide on all matters of faith, doctrine and life.

But we also learn today that, whenever we come across a question of “Can I?” or “Can we?” in matters which are neither commanded or forbidden, we’re to instead ask: “May we?”

After all, just because we can do something, doesn’t mean we should, especially if it affects the body of Christ or those weaker in conscience. Amen.

When we consider these questions, we’re to remember the guiding principle of the love of Christ which always seeks to build up the Christian community and preserve it in loving unity. That loving unity is more important than getting our own way, no matter how noble our desires are. Amen.

Good news from God

Mark 1:15

You may have noticed how journalists carefully followed Catherine, the Duchess of Cambridge, and Prince William, when Catherine was pregnant. The journalists analysed every sentence spoken, the slight movement of Catherine’s hand across the ‘baby bump’, and even what the Duchess wore in order to glean a bit more information about the yet-to-be-born royal baby. A magazine journal thought it had a scoop when it published an article saying that twins were about to be added to the royal family. A TV presenter announced that the royal baby would be a princess because the Duchess wore a pink coat. Really! Are we supposed to believe such trashy news?

Today we hear from the gospel writer, Mark. He records the first words from Jesus after his baptism.  Mark says this is “Good News from God”.  We wait with expectation.  What will Jesus say?  Will he say something eloquent, wise, deep and meaningful?  Will everyone gasp and swoon as he speaks this glad announcement from God?  To paraphrase, he says, “The time has come, and the kingdom of God is within reach, so turn your life around and get on board”. Is that all?  I checked Matthew and Luke and they don’t even have this much. Not really a grand entrance.  The heavens didn’t open to reveal the Messiah as prophesied. No “Tada, here I am after centuries of waiting; the messiah you’ve been waiting for”. No three cheers from the crowd. 

In fact, Jesus talks about the Kingdom of God, but he never stops to define what he means.

So let’s talk about kingdoms in general for a minute. If I asked around the room what images come to mind when one thinks of the word ‘kingdom’, I believe we would get quite a few different responses.  Some might think of the kingdoms of fairy tales, others, the ‘Game of Thrones’ or ‘Lord of the Rings’ type of kingdoms, and others, like myself, who enjoy medieval history might have a much darker image of kingdoms with heartless kings, greedy nobles, poverty and disease. The word is surrounded with a lot of baggage.

If I had the time I would take you on a study through the Old Testament to understand the rule of God, his kingdom and how the concept of the kingship took on messianic and futuristic qualities.  The kingship of God doesn’t carry with it any of the negative authoritarian, oppressive, implications of Israel’s past kings.  This Old Testament understanding of Kingdom of God included hope, joy, peace, a new beginning, a new king, a new Israel and the great feeling of coming home. 

I’m going to use the word ‘culture’ to explain God’s kingdom.  Now that might seem a strange word to use, but let me explain using the following example. 

There was a couple who had three lovely granddaughters, whose mother was French.  Her parents live in a small, pretty French village in the Loire Valley.  When they visited them, they had to forget about their own culture and the way they did things and totally immerse themselves in everything that is French: speaking only the French language, preparing food the French way, how it is eaten the French way, including how you break, not cut, your baguettes, the way an aperitif is served before dinner, the way you eat your evening meal over several hours with several courses and wine to suit each one, and eating only one type of food at a time – not mixing everything together as is the custom in Australia.

You see, culture is us. Culture is who we are and how we do things, and what we value and stand for.  Culture shapes the way we behave, what we say. It shapes our whole life. 

I think you might understand why I chose the word ‘culture’ to explain the impact of Jesus’ announcement that the Kingdom of God is here.  Jesus is announcing that with the coming of God’s kingdom there is a culture shift. Now is the time to abandon (repent, turn away from) the values of the culture of this world and get on board.  It’s time to immerse yourself in God’s new culture, God’s new way of living, a new way of looking at the past, present and future, God’s new values of hope, love, forgiveness, compassion, boldness, and so on. To be immersed in the culture of God is major change in a person’s life. 

The disciples Jesus called that day along the shore of Lake Galilee heard Jesus say simply, “Come with me”. “Come with me and turn away from the culture, the lifestyle that is focussed on yourselves, your sinfulness.  Come with me and turn away from the culture of this world with all its distractions and self-centredness that drives a wedge between you and God, and get on board God’s culture; God’s new way of living that changes the way you think about the world and others, the way you see nature, the people around you and yourself, the way you interact with the pain and hurt and suffering in the community around you.  Come and get on board with this radical new turnaround”. 

As we heard in the anecdote about getting to know the French culture, it takes a while to be fully immersed in a culture that is a radical shift from what we are accustomed.  That day along the shore of Lake Galilee, the disciples made the first big step getting on board with the new culture of the Kingdom of God.  It took a while for them to fully realise what this meant – it took them the next 3 years and the rest of their lives.  Mark records the beginning of their new journey – “At once they left their nets and went with him” (v18). 

So what has all this to say to us today?  I dare say many of you have you been participants in the church for many years, maybe a lifetime, others a shorter time but no less dedicated.  That doesn’t matter.  It’s easy to take for granted the Kingdom of God and the radical shift this brings into our lives.  It’s easy to miss this culture change, because that part of our inner nature that constantly urges us to become self-focussed, inward looking, putting me-first, stating I-want-my-way, gradually and unnoticeably takes over.  In actual fact, without us even realising it, a coup takes place – a culture other than the Kingdom of God takes over; we adopt ways and values that we realise are all wrong.  We might have been on board once, but somewhere along the way we’ve got off.

Throughout Paul’s letters he urges his readers to follow the way of Jesus not the ways of the world.  You see, as Christians we live in a situation of constant tension between what is God’s way and what is the way of our own desires and the world.  As people who follow Christ, who live in the culture of the Kingdom of God, as those who have been baptised in Christ and put on the nature and characteristics of Jesus – his love and compassion, his gentleness and forgiveness, his patience and self-giving, his focus on the needs of others before his own needs – as we live in this kind of atmosphere and culture this will often bring us into a conflict with ourselves and also with the values and acceptable standards of the people around us, many of whom we know and love dearly.  Being “in Christ” is a tough call.  Getting on board with the culture of the Kingdom of God is a real challenge.

Let’s hear from the apostle Paul.  He says, Don’t copy the behaviour and customs of this world, but let God transform you into a new person by changing the way you think.” (Rom 12:2) or as he says in Ephesians, “Since you are God’s dear children, you must try to be like him. Your life must be controlled by love, just as Christ loved us and gave his life for us” (Eph. 5:1,2). 

In Philippians he says, “All I want to know is Christ”.  Paul is talking about a Christianity that’s not just in our heads but influences and affects and infects everything in our lives.  Not one corner of our being is to be left untouched by the “new thing” that Jesus brings into our lives.  We are to be totally immersed, soaked, saturated in the culture of the Kingdom of God. Paul often talks about becoming more and more “like Christ”.

Coming up on our calendars is Australia Day – a day when we celebrate the good things about our country, and without a doubt, we have so much to be happy about and to thank God.  There are many good things to celebrate in our Aussie culture.  But let’s not be so patriotic that we don’t see that Australian culture will put us in conflict with the culture of the Kingdom of God.  Being “in Christ”, “bearing the image of Christ”, being “like Christ” is a challenge in our modern world.  It’s easier to blend into our Aussie culture and accept even what we know goes against our calling to be “like Christ”.

We know that the apostle Paul struggled within himself about how well he followed Christ’s way.  He said that he knew what was the right thing to do, but for some reason he kept on doing the wrong thing.  That sounds very familiar doesn’t it?  And like Paul, we know that in the Kingdom of God we find the forgiveness and newness that Christ has won for us.

The world, our nation, needs you and me to be “like Christ”. Which culture do we allow to shape our hearts, minds, attitudes, lifestyles, relationships with people nearby and faraway—and not the least with God himself?  What is it that forms our identity – is it the culture of the world or is it the mind of Christ?  The Kingdom of God, the culture of God, has come to you.  Christ is in you; you are in Christ! Amen. 

Epiphany is about God revealing Jesus


The Text: John 1:43-51


The season of Christmas celebrates the coming of the Son of God in human flesh to save and rescue His people.

The season of Epiphany is about God revealing that this Jesus, born in Bethlehem and raised in Nazareth, is the promised Messiah. Jesus in the long promised and much hoped for rescuer from God, and He manifests His divine power in the spoken word, and in signs and wonders.

Epiphany begins with the sign of the star in the sky which guides the Gentile wise-men to Bethlehem, and the rest of Epiphany shows how Jesus was revealed as the Son of God to all who would hear Him.

God must reveal Himself to us or we would not know where or how to find Him. Many people think they can find God through religious experiences, charismatic leaders, and even participating in non-Christian worship practises. But such things don’t lead us to God, they lead us away from Him and place us in spiritual danger.  

God cannot be found by humans. God finds us. He often comes to us through someone who already knows Him. This someone trusts in God. They know His life changing love and they want us to have it too.

This is the pattern we see in the Bible. A Jewish servant girl told Naaman about the prophet of the Lord who could heal him and he was cleansed of his skin disease and given faith (2 Kings 5). Four friends brought their crippled mate on a mattress to Jesus and he was cured and made whole in body and soul (Mark 2:1-12). Philip spoke with the Ethiopian about Jesus and he was baptised (Acts 8:26-39). Believers in Jesus bring those in need of God’s grace to Jesus.

This is what we see happen to Nathanael when Philip asked him to come and see Jesus. Philip knew Jesus. The Lord had said, “Follow Me” and Philip did, and he knew the Lord. He heard and saw that Jesus is the One whom Moses in the Law and also the prophets wrote about. The Spirit filled Word of God revealed to Philip who Jesus was. Everything he heard from Jesus and saw Him do confirmed it. His eyes were opened. His heart was transformed. Philip is so excited that he goes and tells his friend Nathanael that the promised Redeemer has come, and he wants Nathanael to know the Lord too.

Someone did that for you. It was probably your parents or maybe a friend. They pointed you to Jesus saying come and see. Come and see the Saviour who has fulfilled the Law and everything God’s prophets said He would. Come and hear what He has done for you.

Christian parents bring their children to be baptised, and in water and the word a child sees and hears Jesus at work—cleansing, forgiving, creating new life and giving a new identity. Without Baptism’s gifts of rebirth and faith no one could find God. The old nature is too strong for any of us to overcome.

In Baptism you received the most wonderful gift from God. You were found by Him. He gives you His salvation. The joy and comfort you have in knowing Jesus lasts more than that moment. Knowing Jesus means a life time of forgiveness and mercy. Jesus is the One who saves us, and in Him we see God.

The Jesus we don’t really want to look at, is the bloodied body of Christ hanging on the cross. Most Christians prefer baby Jesus in a manger or ‘Jesus my friend’ or glorified Jesus in heaven. And He is those things, but Jesus is no friend, and no Saviour, and has no glory, without the cross and death.  

It is not pleasant to see Jesus suffer God’s judgment for us. To see Him dying. To see on Him all those sins we shrug off or consider a normal part of life. It’s horrifying. But take a look and see.

Because once you do, then you realise the immensity of God’s love for you. Then you realise that Jesus fulfils the Law of God and the words of the prophets, and to do that is no small thing. The Father gave up His Son into death, for you. The Son laid aside His divine powers, to die as an atonement for you. And He wanted to do that, so you can have freedom and life.

And so, Philip goes to his friend Nathanael to tell him that God’s Saviour has come. But Nathanael could not believe it. This Jesus didn’t sound like the Saviour he had been looking for. After all, “Can anything good come out of Nazareth?”

Philip doesn’t try and convince Nathanael of who Jesus is, he simply invites him to, “Come and see.”

But before Nathanael sees Jesus, the Lord sees him. Jesus knows Nathanael. He knows his heart. Jesus knows all our faults and yet in love He still welcomes us.

We heard in Psalm 139 today that God knows us. He knew us before we were born. He knows our words before we speak them. There is no where we can go to hide from Him. This can sound threatening, because God can see our darkest sins and desires. But despite this, He welcomes us that we may be made holy, washed and forgiven.

And so, Jesus sees Nathanael, and Nathanael will speak the Gospel because he saw and heard the grace of God and was changed by it. Like the patriarch Jacob, Nathanael will see heaven open before him, but not in a dream, it will take place when he sees Jesus die on the cross and be resurrected three days later. Jesus comes from heaven to open its doors by shedding His blood, so that sinners like Philip and Nathanael and you and me may believe and enter into paradise.

How often do we desire God like Nathanael did, and yet overlook Him because we can only see our problems and hurt and shame? Turn your eyes from them and look at Jesus on the cross. That’s how He wants you to see Him. Look and see your condemnation and judgment on Him, because if it is on Him, then you are declared righteous. If your sins are laid on Him, then they are not on you—you are free of them. If your death is laid on Jesus, then you will no longer die, but live. If His rising again is for you, then salvation and life everlasting are yours. Heaven’s doors have been opened wide for you to one-day pass through them. In God’s eyes you are already there.

But we are not there yet; living in eternity. We live here and have no end of troubles and pains. The sins of others impact us and we hurt others with our sins. We have fears and worries and sometimes we wonder, “where are you now Jesus. I can see you on the cross, and I’m thankful for that, but what about now; in my pain, carrying my crosses, living life here?”

The Good News is that Jesus is here now, for us. He is here, speaking, washing, feeding, forgiving. He is here strengthening our faith and growing us in hope and trust. This doesn’t mean it is going to be easy. Life is never a breeze, the devil makes sure of that.

But He who has called us is faithful. He has made us a part of His body; He cannot forget us or abandon us. He has overcome the darkness of death and He will lead us through every dark time we face.

This is the Good News of Jesus on the cross. Forgiveness and salvation are ours as a free gift and this has changed us. We are comforted by our crucified Saviour. We have joy that God smiles on us, and this shapes the way we live now, desiring others to come and see Jesus, that they would know Him too. As a child of the heavenly Father we can pray for His Spirit to open their hearts to know Jesus, even as we ask them to come and see.

The invitation to come and see Jesus is for all His disciples, throughout our whole life. There is always something new to discover, or something old to learn again, and the depth of God’s love for us is new for us every day.

And so, we need to come and see Jesus, often, and not dwell on our sins and or focus on our troubles. Come and see and hear the Gospel and be assured that He has opened heaven gates for us. Amen.

God is constantly preparing his heroes


“God is constantly preparing his heroes; and when the opportunity comes, He can fit them into their places in a moment.” (author unknown)

Dear friends, we are among those who have been called to the Epiphany that Jesus Christ is Lord and Saviour of all, prepared to share our faith. May the grace and peace of our Lord be with you always.  

Epiphany is defined as a moment of sudden and great revelation.  In our Christian journey, our lives are filled with such moments of sudden and great revelation that God is with us, God loves us, and God has an ultimate plan for us.  A plan worked out in the life and salvation of our Lord Jesus Christ, Son of the living God.

The Apostle John records the words of John the Baptiser after his epiphany, “There is the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world!”  Let’s join in a word of prayer: Lord God our loving Father, today, we are together to celebrate the epiphany of both the humanity and the divinity of Your Son, ‘the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world.’  We worship You and we praise you for the gift of salvation received through His human birth, life, death and resurrection.  Guide our time together so that we may hear your call to each of us and follow your plan for our lives. Gracious heavenly Father, hear our prayer for the sake of our risen Lord,  Amen.

Over Christmas, we followed the human birth of Jesus.  What I hold onto from the Christmas worship is another witness of the Apostle John, “the Word became flesh and lived among us, and we have seen his glory, the glory as of a father’s only son, full of grace and truth.”(Jn 1:14 NRSV)  

Scripture reveals that Jesus was born in Bethlehem, and dedicated in the temple at Jerusalem.  He was taken to Egypt for protection, raised in Nazareth, and at just the right time, arrived at the Jordan river to begin his mission by being baptised. 

Something new happened on the shores of the Jordan River.  God sent John the baptiser out to prepare the way for the Messiah to be revealed.  To baptise with water in recognition of repentance for the cleansing of the soul.   Then along comes the Messiah himself.  But at first John didn’t recognise his cousin as the long-awaited Messiah. 

How true it is that “God is constantly preparing his heroes; and when the opportunity comes, He can fit them into their places in a moment.”     

After the light dawned for John, and before Jesus was baptised, John faced a challenge.  Should he follow God’s plan and baptise Jesus, or kneel himself to be baptised by Jesus. We know the answer of that.  And, of course, after Jesus was baptised, John saw the Spirit of God descend upon Jesus like a dove, and Matthew tells us that John heard the voice of God, “This is my Son, the beloved, with whom I am well pleased.”    As we read today, John proclaimed “I have seen it and I tell you that he is the Son of God.”

Tradition has it that John was an Essene, with traditions that called for daily washing and prayer.  But only for members who accepted the Essene way of life and were accepted into their community.   John’s baptism was new, in that he invited anyone with a repentant heart to receive baptism.  John’s baptism was still Old Testament baptism though, and not the gift of God received in the name of the Father, Son and Holy Spirit.

Jesus allowed himself to be baptized because He wanted to demonstrate to everyone that He was truly human.  God chose to save the human race by becoming human while retaining the exact imprint of God’s divinity.  We see His humanity in a very real way as Jesus was baptized.

The main point of today’s celebration for me is not when and how Jesus was baptized.  The why of his baptism is important for me.  It shows us his humanity. It shows us that Jesus does understand the human predicament of sinner and saint. In Baptism we are made saints, living as children of God.  But at the same time, we are living the sinfulness of this world. We are at the same time,’ both saint and sinner’, as Luther says.  In baptism, we receive the Holy Spirit, who remains with us throughout our lives in this broken world, just as Jesus promised.

Christ Jesus fulfilled all the righteousness of God, by entering humanity for our salvation, teaching us about God’s love in words and in miracles, and demonstrating God’s love by dying for us on the cross, being raised to life eternal, and returning to his rightful place at the centre of God’s Kingdom.  

Something new happened in Capernaum as well. Remember, “God is constantly preparing his heroes; and when the opportunity comes, He can fit them into their places in a moment.”

From the reading in Acts, Peter is called to attend the home of a Gentile, Cornelius, to present the Gospel.  Like John the Baptiser in the presence of Jesus the Messiah, Peter was at first reluctant.  Peter had not yet witnessed Christ Jesus to Gentiles.  But God showed Peter his plan for the salvation of all who would believe. 

And so, Peter followed God’s plan and spoke with the passion of John, before he baptised the family of Cornelius.  Just as the Lord had revealed to John, Jesus Christ baptised this new family of believers with the Holy Spirit even before water was poured and words were spoken.  An act of God, demonstrating the authority of the Son of God, and fulfilling the epiphany of faith for both Jew and Gentile. And Peter’s response is recorded in the reading for today: “I now realize how true it is that God does not show favouritism but accepts people from every nation who fear him and do what is right.”

In our lives, we can trust our baptism.  We can trust the authority of Jesus Christ over our lives.  We can trust the guidance of the Holy Spirit who speaks to our spirit the very wisdom of God.  We can trust that God is preparing us to be heroes too.  And when the opportunity comes, He will fit us into our place in his time, whether a moment or a lifetime.  So we shouldn’t worry about when or how this will happen.  Just trust our Lord and Saviour Jesus Christ.

Some time ago, I discovered a terrific little metaphor for the event of epiphany that will prepare us to respond to Christ with faith, hope, peace and love.

There was a pastor from a small rural congregation who visited an old farmer from time to time in an attempt to share the gospel with him. Each time the farmer would tell the pastor, “I believe in God. It is impossible not to when you look around at the beauty of this earth and the way in which life is created. It’s just Jesus I don’t understand. Why would a perfect and all-powerful God have to come down as a man, and then die, just to make things right.” The pastor always struggled to come up with an answer that the farmer would find satisfactory.  It’s just a matter of faith.

Then one night, as the farmer was sitting in his living room, he heard a thump on his window. He went to see what it was and outside he saw a group of birds floundering in the snow. They were trying to get into the warmth but they couldn’t figure out how, and so they were dying in the snow.

So the farmer went outside, opened his barn doors, turned on the lights, and tried to herd the birds into the warmth of the barn, because he realized it was their only hope for survival.  But the more he tried to direct them the more they scattered. At that point the farmer thought, if only I could become one of them then I could lead them into the warmth. At that moment, he had an epiphany, and he began to understand faith that we struggle to put into words.  That God did for all of us what he could not do for the birds. Enter our humanity to bring salvation.

 In our Baptism, faith begins as God declares we are his.  Our faith begins a journey for us as we live in Christ and trust him for our salvation. It is a trust that is played out in all the circumstances of our lives, through every new year of our lives. A constant epiphany of “the glory of the Father’s only Son, full of grace and truth.”

 We can be joyful that we are Christians.  We are children of God and people of the Saviour who are comforted by the Holy Spirit every day of our journey through the new year ahead.    We can trust that God is preparing us to be heroes too.

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.

‘Layers of Grace’


John 1:6-9, 15-18

In the midst of the opening to John’s gospel, in which he beautifully describes God becoming human flesh and dwelling among us, the language suddenly changes from poetry to prose and the character of John the Baptist is introduced. This might at first seem out of place. Why interrupt such a beautiful and power piece of writing to tell us about a crazy prophet in the desert? Why mention John the Baptist by name before Jesus is mentioned by name? But there is a purpose in what seems an odd interruption. John the Baptist is a key figure in the early chapters of John’s Gospel.

The introduction of John the Baptist so early in the gospel brings the story of God taking on human flesh and dwelling among us into a concrete human place and time. John is a real flesh and blood person, living in a particular place and at a particular time.  The Gospel writer is no longer talking about the eternally existing Word that is somewhere ‘out there’. God in flesh is now in our history.

But such a great event must be witnessed and the witnesses must testify to what they have seen. Over and over in John’s gospel he will talk about all those who witness or testify to the truth of who Jesus is, including the God the Father, Jesus himself, the disciples, and many others. But John the Baptist is the very first witness introduced in John’s gospel. And this is no accident. The Gospel writer has chosen his lead witness carefully, and for a reason.

There had not been a prophet in Israel for 400 years. And then John the Baptist shows up on the scene. He comes preaching repentance, and also proclaiming that the long-awaited Messiah has come. John makes a point of clarifying that he is not that Messiah. Sometimes we can get so excited by the message that we confuse the message and the messenger. But John makes it very clear that he is pointing to someone else. And the gospel writer opens his case for Jesus as the Messiah, as God in human flesh, with the testimony of John the Baptist.

After the first five verses of the prologue to the fourth Gospel the pace suddenly changes, and the tone shifts, and we read this: ‘There was a man sent from God, whose name was John. He came as a witness to testify to the light’ (v. 6).

If you have ever sat through a court case, or perhaps followed one in the papers, you will know that a lawyer seeks to set the tone of their argument at the very beginning. Their first witness, or lead witness, is part of setting this tone. Everything else builds on that.  Everyone in the courtroom for a big case waits with expectation as the lawyer says, ‘your honour, I call to the stand’ (then a pause for suspense) and the name is given. This is the first key indication of where the argument in the case is going.

Well, imagine that is what the Gospel-writer, who uses the words witness and testify frequently in the early part of the gospel, is doing. He has just made his opening statement. And it is a big one. Now he calls for his first witness …. Wait for it … the crazy prophet living along the banks of Jordan river and eating grasshoppers and wild honey – John the Baptist. The crowd gasps. It is a bold and unexpected move.

It is a bold move because some were saying that John the Baptist was not as crazy as he appeared. They thought he might be a real prophet, like in times past. Not only that, but he might even be the forerunner of the Messiah? The one who was meant to pave the way for the coming king? So the alert reader can see where the Gospel writer might well be going with this choice of lead witness.

So what is the testimony of John the Baptist?

First, John testifies that Jesus is the light.

Five times in the space of three verses some form of light is mentioned. We are told twice that John comes to testify to the light. That he himself is not that light. We are told that this light will enlighten everyone. And we are told that this light is coming into the world.

One of the great themes of John’s gospel, that Jesus is the light of the world, begins here with the testimony of John the Baptist.

After an interlude in which the Evangelist goes back to the theme of the Word being made flesh in verses 10-14, he returns again to the Baptist in verse 15. He tells us that John the Baptist also  testified to the Word made flesh. So the case is building. The light of the world and Word made flesh are seen to be one and the same person.

John the Baptist goes on to testify that that this Jesus was the one of whom he had said ‘He who comes after me ranks ahead of me because he was before me.’ Once again John the Baptist is making sure that his testimony points to Jesus and not to himself.

Perhaps you have followed a court case in the news where there is a celebrity witness in a trial. When they get up to speak everyone forgets that it is not about them. The media show images of them coming into and leaving court. It is reported what they are wearing, and everything they say. And sometimes it can be forgotten that they are a witness only. John the Baptist wants to make sure that he does not become a celebrity witness who distracts people from Jesus, the Word made flesh and the light of the world.

It is here that the Gospel writer begins to reveal the meaning and importance of John’s testimony. This is the part that sets the tone for what will follow. This is the part where we find out why this Word made flesh and this light of the world are important for us. This is where the Gospel writer begins to flesh out for his readers just who Jesus is and what he does.

And this is where the Gospel writer explains the significance of John the Baptist’s testimony. This is what the coming of the light, the coming of the Word made flesh, means to us.

‘From his fullness we have all received grace upon grace. The law was given through Moses, but grace came through Jesus Christ. No one has ever seen God. It is God the only Son, who is close the Father heart, who has made him known.’ (vv 16-18).

In Christ we receive grace upon grace. It is simply one layer after another.

Have you ever bought what looked like a great cake at the bakery. You bring it home with great anticipation. They you cut into it and disover that only the top layer had chocolate swirls and strawberries? What was underneath was simply filling.  Imagine the life we have from Jesus, the light of the world, as being like a cake of many layers.  But when we cut into it we are not disappointed. Each layer is as good as the one above it. In Jesus we receive one layer of grace upon another.  There is no hidden law buried underneath. There are no hidden requirements to earn what we have received. The transforming light of the world is one experience of grace after the next. The life of forgiveness in Christ is grace all the way down. That is what is means that from Jesus’ fullness we have all received grace upon grace.’

The Law indeed came through Moses, we are told. And the Law was not a bad thing. In fact, the Law was and still is very useful. But the Law does not reconcile us with the Father. The Law does not bring us forgiveness. The Law is not life-giving. That is why the gift of grace that Jesus brought to us trumps the Law. The grace we have in Jesus transforms us, sets us free, and brings us peace with God.

Not only that, but the grace we have in Jesus brings us to the Father. In the Old Testament no one had seen God face to face. No one could bear to see God in his glory. Not even Moses. But in Jesus we are brought into the very heart of the Father.

That is why we celebrate Jesus as the light of the world. That is why in Jesus, we experience nothing but grace upon grace.


You get the picture

Dear heavenly Father, send your Holy Spirit on us so we may not continue to carry around anger or lust, but seek to live holy lives for the sake of Jesus Christ. Amen. 

Let’s see if you can understand the picture…

Two people come together – a husband and his wife. They kiss and cuddle and caress and…well, without going into too much detail, the woman becomes pregnant!

At first there are no outward signs. The conceived child grows in secret from a few cells to quickly form a human body with emotion and purpose. Soon afterward the physical changes can be detected by a medical professional or by the woman as her body adjusts. A little later the changes are soon noticed by others. Finally, at the right time, a child is born and the lives of all those around are changed irreversibly.

But let’s try another picture…

Two people come together – in this case it could be a husband and wife, but it could also be a parent and child, a brother and sister, a boss and a worker, or any other possible combination of two people.

In this case they misunderstand each other; have different goals, expectations or interests than each other; or they compete with each other over limited resources, and…well, without going into too much detail, they have a conflict…and one or both of them become pregnant. Of course, there’s no physical child, but they’re ‘pregnant’ with anger.

At first there are no outward signs of this ‘pregnant’ anger. Some of us are very good at hiding our anger by denying our feelings or by running away from the situation. While the physical and emotional changes are small at first, it can be detected by feelings of anxiousness, sleepless nights, outbursts of frustration and tears, withdrawal from relationships, or by depression. By this time others may notice some of these symptoms as we lash out with our tongues and fists, by our refusal to talk to someone, or by our moodiness. Like it or not, anger conceived and left to grow in the heart will sooner or later give birth in words and actions to affect the life of its ‘parent’ and all those around, perhaps even irreversibly.

Or another picture…

Two people come together who aren’t married to each other – either in reality or virtually. This means it can be two people face to face, but it can also be one person looking to be with a pornographic magazine, internet site, movie, or TV show with nudity and sex scenes. As they come together, they…well, without going into too much detail, they become pregnant…when lust and longing is conceived in the heart.

At first there may not be any outward signs, and if there are, there are attempts to hide them. While many are taught ‘its ok to look but not touch’, we too often forget (or want to ignore) what the effect of ‘just looking’ does to our hearts and minds, and how this in turn affects our relationships. Soon we’re no longer content with those God gave us and instead lust after those God intends for someone else. Then, if the pregnant lust is born into action and adultery is committed, well, relationships are shattered, trust is broken, and the lives of all those affected may be changed irreversibly.

Now, why do we talk about anger and lust in this way? Because Jesus knows our sinful words and actions are only the birthing of what was first conceived in our hearts.

We often associate the heart with emotions, but in the bible the heart is the control centre of our will. This means when our heart (or our will) is set on something, we’ll find a way of achieving this. So, when anger or lust is in charge of our will, this will always lead to sinful thoughts, words, and actions.

When Jesus-interprets the 5th and 6th Commandments (which teaches us not to kill and not to commit adultery), he helps us realise the intention to kill or the intention to commit adultery is conceived in the heart, and even more importantly, what’s conceived in the heart and mind is just as real as an unborn child in the womb of a woman.

Dealing firstly with the pregnancy of anger, Jesus isn’t telling us we should never get angry. The sin is, many of us won’t forgive, so we carry anger around inside us. By carrying it, it often becomes our master which controls our actions and reactions, and so restricts our joy, harms our relationships, and limits our service and love toward others.

Knowing God sees our hearts, we don’t just carry a ‘pregnant deed’, but in God’s eyes the thoughts and emotions within us are already public acts and real deeds which we’re answerable for.

Of course, the anger we carry inside is often born bit by bit as we lash out in many ways, including verbally. The old saying ‘sticks and stones may break my bones but words will never hurt me’ is rubbish!

Resentment or harsh words ‘kill’ or harm more people than the combined effects of all the drugs, alcohol, and smoking in the world. You could say the worst pollution in the world is our anger, and these days there’s a lot of anger dwelling in people’s hearts!

God sees the anger we carry in our hearts. So instead of carrying our anger against each other to the altar, he asks us to first be reconciled with each other.

In this case a good start is to recognise the anger or bitterness within yourself, or to recognise the subtle signs of anger toward you within someone else. You may know (or at least suspect), someone may hold something against you.

In this case, don’t wait for them to come to you, but Jesus says (as one loved and forgiven by God) you’re to approach them. When you approach them, rather than pointing out their faults, misunderstandings, anger, or failures, firstly admit your own. Confess your sin to them in order that they may forgive you and be reconciled with you. Then, as reconciled people, come to the altar and celebrate the undeserving forgiveness and peace won for you through Jesus Christ at the Lord’s Supper.

Now, in regards to the pregnancy of lust (which is much like the pregnancy of anger in the way it can enslave you), it also seeks to put people down. Where anger puts people down by hatred or fear, lust puts people down by desire. Both times you become a ‘god’ who decides who is—and who is not—worthy your time and effort.

Where the 5th Commandment protects life, the 6th Commandment protects marriage. Even though these days marriage is rubbished, criticised, re-defined, or even dismissed, God reveals he loves marriage so much he institutes and blesses marriage, and so he seeks to protect marriage. In order to protect marriage, God doesn’t just prohibit touching outside the bonds of marriage, but even the looking. What Jesus condemns is the looking in order to lust. Lust, like anger, will happen, but when we want to continue the happening, or sustain the feeling of lust (through our looks or stares), that’s what Jesus challenges.

While there’s nothing new under the sun, the discipline to control one’s own sexual desires is very difficult today because access to sexual content in movies, on TV, or over the internet (including our phones) is so easy!

Yet Jesus knows how our misdirected desire for pleasure and sex becomes a god which controls and binds us. Too often people get the message that our usefulness and acceptance within the community is tied up with our attractiveness, and so in order to feel loved and valued, we seek sexual fulfilment.

Yet the more we seek to make ourselves more attractive on the outside to others, the more we can feel de-valued and unloved because they no longer see the person within. We become objects of sexual desire to lust after, and not persons with value who should be loved and cherished.

Again, confession and forgiveness can heal guilty or ashamed consciences. Confession and forgiveness can restore broken marriages when there’s been addictions to pornography or infidelity, although admittedly, once trust has been broken, even forgiveness may not easily restore what was torn apart. It takes a lot of courage for a married person to open oneself up to the possibility of further hurt by someone who has previously been unfaithful.

While many of us might boldly boast ‘we’ve never killed anyone or committed adultery’, Jesus warns us the pregnant thoughts and desires which we carry about in our hearts and minds are just as real as having enacted them with our bodies. In God’s sight, the thought is already the action, which makes all of us murderers and adulterers.

Despite this there’s good news! For the sake of the innocent suffering and death of our Lord and Saviour, Jesus Christ, we’re forgiven for all our sinful words and actions, but also for our sinful thoughts and desires which were conceived in our hearts!

Yes, Jesus calls us to repent and live faithfully as God’s holy children in a world where anger and sexual promiscuity is rampant, but Jesus is also the incarnation of our God who is gracious and merciful, slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love.

He loves us and forgives us for our carried angers and lusts and sends us his Holy Spirit to replace them with love. As forgiven and loved people in God’s sight, we may in turn seek the forgiveness of those around us and then together come to the Lord’s Altar with joy and thankfulness.

In the same way, we may also receive the grace to forgive those who sin against us. This forgiveness isn’t by our own power or goodness, but with the help of the Holy Spirit.

With the Spirit’s help, let us live holy lives, even as Christ has made us holy, aborting all anger and lust and living in peace and love with those around us.

And in this way, the peace of God, which surpasses all human understanding, will guard our hearts and minds in Christ Jesus. Amen.

The Lord desires kindness and justice

The Text: Isaiah 58:1-12 The Lord desires kindness and justice

“Shout it aloud, do not hold back. Raise your voice like a trumpet. Declare to my people their rebellion and to the descendants of Jacob their sins. For day after day they seek me out; they seem eager to know my ways, as if they were a nation that does what is right and has not forsaken the commands of its God. They ask me for just decisions and seem eager for God to come near them. Why have we fasted,’ they say, ‘and you have not seen it? Why have we humbled ourselves, and you have not noticed?’ “Yet on the day of your fasting, you do as you please and exploit all your workers. Your fasting ends in quarrelling and strife, and in striking each other with wicked fists. You cannot fast as you do today and expect your voice to be heard on high. Is this the kind of fast I have chosen, only a day for people to humble themselves? Is it only for bowing one’s head like a reed and for lying in sackcloth and ashes?
Is that what you call a fast, a day acceptable to the Lord? “Is not this the kind of fasting I have chosen: to loose the chains of injustice and untie the cords of the yoke, to set the oppressed free and break every yoke? Is it not to share your food with the hungry and to provide the poor wanderer with shelter— when you see the naked, to clothe them, and not to turn away from your own flesh and blood? Then your light will break forth like the dawn,

and your healing will quickly appear; then your righteousness will go before you, and the glory of the Lord will be your rear guard. “Then you will call, and the Lord will answer;  you will cry for help, and he will say: Here am I. If you do away with the yoke of oppression, with the pointing finger and malicious talk, and if you spend yourselves in behalf of the hungry and satisfy the needs of the oppressed, then your light will rise in the darkness, and your night will become like the noonday. The Lord will guide you always; he will satisfy your needs in a sun-scorched land and will strengthen your frame. You will be like a well-watered garden, like a spring whose waters never fail. Your people will rebuild the ancient ruins and will raise up the age-old foundations; you will be called Repairer of Broken Walls,       Restorer of Streets with Dwellings

In today’s Text, it’s important to note who God’s talking to. He’s about to make a very big announcement and is calling people to listen. In this case he’s not making this announcement to non-believers. He’s talking to his own people, the people of God, the people he loves, forgives, and saves.

So what’s this important announcement God makes? He says you’re all guilty of rebelling and sinning!

Now you might argue you know you’re a sinner, but you also know God to be gracious and merciful, a god who is slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love; this is why you keep coming back to worship, to seek his love and mercy, to be forgiven again and again. You come to hear his gracious words of love and peace, and how you may do his will.

God acknowledges this, saying he knows you seek him daily, intent on knowing his ways and activities. He sees how you perform all the right religious motions and say all the right things at church, but he can also see those times when you expect him to be good to you or bless you because you’ve done all the right things!

Then, when he doesn’t answer you the way you want, you argue with God saying something like, ‘Hey God, I’ve done all the right things, I go to worship regularly, I say my prayers before bed, but I’m not receiving the blessings I reckon are due to me! I’ve been good to you, why aren’t you good to me?’ Why won’t you help me?

But God doesn’t dish out blessings based on what is deserved. If he did, we wouldn’t get any! ‘Deserving’ talks more about judgment, not about mercy. We want mercy from God, not judgment. But now, if God wants to be merciful and bless you, then that’s up to him. It’s his gift and he can give blessings when and where he chooses.

 Many people attempt to ‘show off’ their faith in some way or another. Some do it by  Cutting out (fasting) but not replacing, others do it by trying to hide their sinful self and act righteous. Well, God says he doesn’t want you to fast or act this way. He tells you:

Fasting isn’t just abstaining from foods, but abstaining from wickedness.

Fasting is forgiving enemies even though they hurt you.

Fasting is loosening the yoke of the oppressed, unburdening people instead of burdening them with your demands and expectations.

Fasting is definitely not making people work harder, but taking the burden off them.

Fasting is sharing your food with the hungry.

Fasting is bringing the homeless into your home.

Fasting is covering the naked.

Fasting is removing your accusing fingers and not causing fights and arguments.

Fasting is when you stop speaking foul language, stop lying, and stop verbal abuse.

Fasting is listening to people’s desires and satisfying them.

Interestingly, most of these things God lists have very little to do with worship on Sundays, but how we live during the week. Remember, people can tell what our relationship with God is like by watching how we treat those around us.

If you put people down by insults or jokes, you may not be right with God. If you’re pushy and bossy with people, thinking you deserve certain privileges, you may not be right with God. If you argue or fight with others, you may not be right with God. If you treat people badly out of spite or revenge, you may not be right with God. If you take advantage of, or exploit others, or think you’re better than everyone else, you may not be right with God. If you put on an act in order to gain attention for yourself, you may not be right with God. Even if you do the right things with the expectation God will be good to you and give you what you want because you do the right thing, then you may not be right with God.

Well, this hasn’t been a lot of good news so far, has it? Yet, there is good news. You see, God still loves you. Some say God loves you just the way you are, and he does. But he loves you even more than that. He loves you so much he doesn’t want you to stay the way you are.

To be contuined next week.

True happiness

Text: Matthew 5:3-10 (NIV)

True happiness

Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.
Blessed are those who mourn, for they will be comforted.
Blessed are the meek, for they will inherit the earth.
Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they will be filled.
Blessed are the merciful, for they will be shown mercy.
Blessed are the pure in heart, for they will see God.
Blessed are the peacemakers, for they will be called sons of God.
Blessed are those who are persecuted because of righteousness, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.

No doubt, some of you have watched Survivor. This immensely popular TV real life game show is watched by millions of people around the world.

Imagine putting 16 people together from different backgrounds – trying to survive together and at the same time competing against one another for individual survival. After each round, the participants meet together to cast their votes to see who will be dismissed from the group. It can be for any number of reasons such as –
I think you’re not pulling your weight; you cheated by having some kind of contraband; you are too old, too selfish, too uncooperative; or simply, because I don’t like your face.

The ultimate goal is to not get voted out. And the way to survive is to make sure that there are people on your side – alliances are made – and broken – leaving behind a trail of betrayal and suspicion. This is real life played out in a game show. That’s perhaps the reason why Survivor has been so popular – it brings out the best and worst in people – more often the worst than the best. The winner is not the person who is kind and considerate, but who makes friends, uses them and then turns against them. The winner is not the person who is the better or the nicer person but the one who is ruthless and hurtful, who has no feelings for the others.

One person who was asked about his view of the show hit the nail on the head when he said, “It’s sorry that our society is this way, but the people who are conniving and back-stabbing are the ones who make it. Unlike the movies where the scriptwriter controls the plot and good triumphs over evil, in Survivor, no one controls the plot and how things eventually turn out. It is a sad commentary on the way the world is.”

As we think about what it means to be happy or blessed we might say —
Blessed are those who earn six figure incomes.
Blessed are the famous.
Blessed are those who don’t have anything to worry about.
Blessed are the powerful.
Blessed are those who have the determination and ruthlessness to eliminate everything that hinders the fulfilment of their dreams.

Our view of happiness depends so much on our circumstances and environment. A young woman might think that true happiness is to find the right man, to marry and have a family, only later to find herself thinking that true happiness would come if she could divorce her abusive husband.

Teenagers may think true happiness is getting their first car, but it’s not too long before they think that they would be truly happy if they could have a certain car that was sleeker and faster.

Happiness is a common desire. Yet, so few people seem to have true happiness that we put happiness in the same category as four-leaf clovers and the pot of gold at the end of the rainbow – that which is elusive, unattainable, and impossible. Happiness is a goal that we all strive for, but when that goal is reached, we realise that there is always something else that we think would make us truly happy.

I’m sure you can think of things that you would like to see changed in your life so that you can be truly happy. So we go about arranging and re-arranging our environment and circumstances so that we will be happy. On this basis, people have assumed that, if they are unhappy, it is because of this wretched washing machine, this wretched heart, this wretched person I am living with… They believe that they will become happy by changing their lot in some way.

Seeking happiness becomes a never-ending quest. Happiness, we assume, must be fun and laughter and expressing our own personalities by “doing our own thing”. In order to be happy, we think, we must be free from suffering, sorrow and hardship. It’s no wonder that we can’t ever say that we have reached our goal – true happiness. There is nothing wrong with the desire to be happy; there is everything wrong with the way we often go seeking it.

And that’s exactly what Jesus is talking about today in the Sermon on the Mount when he talks about true happiness. He says,

“Blessed are the poor in spirit.”

We would hardly regard ‘the poor in spirit’ as “happy” because they are aware of how much their sinfulness is out of control; their faith often wavers; they lack the spiritual resources to cope with the upsets in life and easily become depressed and miserable.

“Blessed are those who mourn.”

They are the least likely to be called “happy” because they are upset by the injustices in our world; they grieve for the starving, the homeless, refugees and those suffering in wars; they are distressed over their own stupidity and sinfulness; they are sad because of what death has done.

“Blessed are the humble,”

Those whom the world regards as the least likely to be “happy” because they are always busy doing things for others; they are gentle in their dealings with others, refusing to do anything for their own personal gain at the expense of others;
they don’t push themselves forward and are satisfied helping others.

“Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness.”

These people can hardly be called “happy” because of their deep sense of what is right; they are passionate about justice for the underdog and won’t rest until something is done. They are unhappy about the treatment of refugees, unnecessary logging, the treatment of prisoners. They are also those who are “unhappy” with their own lives and want to live more as God intended them to live.)

“Blessed are the persecuted.”

Being persecuted can hardly be called a “happy” experience. Persecution is an unhappy event when you are suffering because you are a peacemaker, or because you have shown mercy and compassion on someone whom everyone else thinks doesn’t deserve it, or because you are pure in heart – you know what is the right thing to do but no one else sees it that way.

Can you see that Jesus’ definition of what it means to be blessed doesn’t depend on us and what is happening around us? The Beatitudes present us with a whole new idea of what it means to be happy and blessed. True happiness has to do with knowing God, belonging to God’s Kingdom, being a part of God’s family. You might say that this is hardly a popular view, especially when worldly happiness depends so much on money, a house, the right car, and being free from sickness, death and anything that upsets our “happiness”. But Jesus was one for making true statements. True happiness is to be found in God. The fact is that we don’t find happiness by seeking happiness. We find God, and discover a deep level of happiness.

Or it is better said that God finds us.

In the middle of all the difficulties we have living out our Christian faith in our daily lives; when we are sad and upset; when we are despondent and depressed;
when others reject us and ridicule us for our faith or for sticking up for what we believe is right; when we are trying to show mercy and love or bring about peace and we are told to butt out; God meets us, he strengthens us, he comforts, he helps us endure, he gives us the courage to move on.

A woman was the victim of abuse as a child. She understood what had happened – she didn’t like it – she had been angry but God had helped her through her anger and now she prayed for her father. She also helped her brother to come to terms with what had happened and to rebuild his relationship with his father. She had suffered a great deal and yet she would say that she was blessed. The inner and outer scars will always be there, but she was happy because God was with her. He had helped her though it all and now God was using her to be a peacemaker.

George Matheson was a great preacher and hymn writer who lost his sight at an early age. He thought of his blindness as his thorn in the flesh, as his personal cross. For several years, he prayed that his sight would be restored. Like most of us, I suppose, he believed that personal happiness would come to him only after the handicap was gone. But then, one day God sent him a new insight: The creative use of his handicap could actually become his personal means of achieving happiness!

So, Matheson went on to write: “My God, I have never thanked you for my thorn. I have thanked you for my roses, but not once for my thorn. I have been looking forward to a world where I shall get compensation for my cross, but I have never thought of the cross itself as a present glory. Teach me the glory of my cross. Teach me the value of my thorn.”

George Matheson had found God’s kind of happiness—the kind of happiness that is not only a future hope, but also a reality in the here and now.

That’s the kind of happiness that enabled the apostle Paul to write to the Philippians from his gaol cell, “Rejoice in the Lord always. I will say it again: Rejoice!” (4:4).

That’s the secret of true happiness!
You may be suffering a great deal from sickness; you may be persecuted for doing what you consider the right thing; you may be upset about your own sinfulness or the weakness of your faith; you may even be upset by those who have failed to show love toward you; whatever the case, you can still be “happy” in the knowledge that you are one of God’s precious children, that he sent his Son to die for you, and that when all is said and done, there is a place for you in heaven where there will be no more unhappiness.

This is the kind of “blessedness” or “happiness” that no circumstance or person can take away from those who trust in Christ.


Jesus begins his work

MATTHEW 4:12 Jesus, having heard that John had been imprisoned, withdrew into Galilee. 13And having left Nazareth He went and lived in Capernaum by the seaside in the region of Zebulun and Naphtali, 14in order that it may be fulfilled what had been said through Isaiah the prophet:

            15Land of Zebulun and land of Naphtali,

            way of the sea across from the Jordan, Galilee of the Gentiles—

            16The people dwelling in darkness and gloom have seen a great light

            And among those dwelling in the field of the shadow of death

            A light has risen for them

17From then Jesus began to preach and to say, “Repent! For the Kingdom of Heaven is near.” 18Then walking beside the Sea of Galilee, he saw two brothers, Simon called Peter and Andrew, his brother, casting a large fish net into the sea, for they were fishermen. 19And Jesus said to them ‘Come, follow me and I will make you fishers of people.’ 20And they immediately left their nets and followed Him. 21And moving on from there He saw two other brothers, James the son of Zebedee and John his brother, in the boat with their father Zebedee, repairing their nets, and Jesus called them. 22And they immediately left the boat and their father and followed Him. 23And Jesus went throughout all Galilee, teaching in their synagogues and preaching the Good News of the Kingdom and healing every sickness and every infirmity among the people.

Apparently, as seen from space, Las Vegas is the brightest city in the world. In New York City, Times Square is home to the ABC ‘SuperSign’ a whopping 3,685-square foot screen with wavy LED ribbons. The Eiffel Tower in France is illuminated by 20,000 bulbs. Closer to home the light towers of the MCG have a total of 844 2000 Watt lamps. Each have an individual angle that is computer generated to provide maximum coverage of the arena without any shadowed areas or dark spots. A few years ago, Sydney’s cloudy night sky was seemingly turned into bright day when the city ushered in the New Year with 7 tonnes of fireworks including 1000 that were launched from the Opera House sails, as well as glittering waterfalls of fire that cascaded over the harbour. This paled into insignificance when compared to Dubai’s Guinness World Record effort in which over half a million fireworks were used spanning 94 kilometres of the Dubai Coast, costing nearly $7 million.

All this light in the world – it is not true light. The world is still in darkness—the darkness of greed, selfishness, broken homes, violence, theft, destruction, substance abuse, injustice and exploitation…and everything else that comes with worshipping the self as number 1. And so these man-made lights are a symbol of the extravagance and decadence that place the self on a pedestal to be served with whatever society wants to be served with.

A few years ago it was questioned by one mainstream newspaper why millions habitually flock to parties and what they actually celebrate when the same selfishness characterised by injustice and violence and family and social breakdown continues and calamity and strife surround us on a daily basis. Really isn’t this the picture we hear of from the prophet Isaiah cited by Matthew today?

The people of the Land of Zebulun and Naphtali are dwelling in darkness and gloom—God’s chosen people, the Jews, as well as Gentiles, were in darkness, error, unrighteousness—that 3 letter ‘s’ word that dare not be mentioned: sin. The people are ‘living’—that is, barely existing—in the state of sin, and therefore dwelling in the field of the shadow of death. That was the situation of the human race during the time of Isaiah’s prophecy. It was the situation when Matthew wrote…we see that with the opening verse of our text: John the Baptist had been imprisoned by Herod because John was faithful to God’s Word and reproved Herod for unlawfully taking Herodias, the wife of his brother Herod Philip I. On Herod’s birthday, Herodias’s daughter Salome danced before the king and his guests. Her dancing pleased Herod so much that in his drunkenness he promised to give her anything she desired. Prompted by her mother, she asked for the head of John the Baptist on a platter. Although Herod was appalled by the request, he reluctantly agreed and had John beheaded in prison. What had John the Baptist done? Faithfully proclaimed God’s Word.

As our nation celebrates its greatness and the achievements of its people today, how much room will be made for public thanksgiving to God for His blessings? For all our greatness as a nation, the Australia I see is the land and the people Isaiah and Matthew spoke of centuries ago—a country that is desperately in need of the light of Christ. A country that rejects God’s Word—lost, stumbling, consumed with the decadence and self-worship of the Western world that will do away with anything that stands in the way—even God Himself.

It’s a chilling thought, but we too have inherited that condition—the condition that has the potential for us to be the next tyrant who we are sickened by. The condition that makes us all enemies of God because it shows itself in all the ways we know of or deny that are contrary to God’s will expressed in His Word. We were among the people of Zebulun and Naphtali who sat in gloom and darkness, even in the very shadow of death, needing rescue. So behold, the gospel, for you this day:

Land of Zebulun and land of Naphtali,

            way of the sea across from the Jordan, Galilee of the Gentiles—

            The people dwelling in darkness and gloom have seen a great light

            And among those dwelling in the field of the shadow of death

            A light has risen for them

That light is Jesus and His Gospel. The first words Jesus proclaims in our text is: “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is near.” Jesus is talking in a geographical sense. In the person of Christ, heaven has come to earth. Wherever Jesus is, God’s kingdom is present and at work. Every other religion requires us to ascend to God through our good works. God shows his grace in that even though the world is darkened by sin and in bondage to it, blind to the true God and unable to free itself, God came down with love in the person of Christ, to bring freedom from the bondage of sin and dare I say it—ourselves. He came to trample over death with His own and make a mockery of the demonic realm of darkness with His redeeming work on the Cross.

Matthew tells us today that this Christ went throughout all Galilee, teaching in their synagogues and preaching the Good News of the Kingdom and healing every sickness and every infirmity among the people. This is the light that has risen for the people. These healings are a witness that Jesus is indeed the Son of God with all authority over the created order, over sin, death and Satan, and the authority to forgive sins. The forgiveness of sins which is the greatest of blessings even in the depths of our brokenness and despair because it is only through forgiveness that we enter into God’s presence as His holy children and have peace and life with Him forever.

All of this is an undeserved gift to a people helpless to help themselves. So repentance is the only appropriate response to such lavish love; a love that none of us deserve but a love that is given without condition, a love that does not count our wrongs against us but counts them against the Christ who was crucified in our place to take our sin from us and exchange it with His holiness and righteousness. A love that welcomes the least into the family of God through His Son to be co-heirs with Him. Entry is through faith alone in the promise that there is a righteousness apart from the Law; the righteousness that comes through faith in this Messiah, Christ the light of the world.

Jesus says to us today: “Repent, for the Kingdom of Heaven is near.” Where is the Kingdom of Heaven? Wherever Jesus is, the Kingdom of Heaven is present—God’s gracious rule. Where is Jesus? In His holy word and sacraments. Just as He taught in the synagogues, preaching the Good News of the Kingdom, Jesus is truly present again today, preaching and enacting the gospel through the readings, the liturgy, this sermon. Preaching the Gospel to you that will not return to Him empty but accomplish everything He desires it to do. He is the host of the holy meal we are about to receive, speaking His word that does what it says, making ordinary wafers and wine His true body and blood that He places in your hands, so that as you eat and drink there is no mistaking that the forgiveness and redemption that He won for the world He gives to you and you receive personally through faith in His promise: given and shed for you, for the forgiveness of sins.

You too have seen this great light shining in the darkness. It is not spectacular in the way the world understands spectacular, but it is far more powerful for this light has freed you so that you are no longer captive to your sinful nature but captive to Christ, who made you His very own in the waters of holy baptism. What a gracious God we have to come into our world and give us these holy gifts to bring us into personal relationship with Him! And in these waters, you too were called by our Lord to be His followers in your daily life and work. Just as Jesus called Simon Peter and Andrew, James and John who immediately follow Jesus, not because they have a better faith or greater willpower or have sinned less than others, or for any quality within themselves. They are able to follow Jesus because He calls them to do so. The words that Jesus, God Himself utters: “Come, follow me, and I will make you fishers of people” are not just words, but words that do what they say they will do…because what Jesus says, happens. We are reminded of God’s words in the creation of the universe: “Let there be light…and it was so; let there be…and it was so; let there be…and it was so.” Here in our text the Lord of creation brings about a re-creation in these fishermen through His speech: “Come, follow me”—the same re-creation He works in your life.

Not only has Jesus won forgiveness and salvation for undeserving sinners, but in His task of building His church, chooses to use them in this work, leading and guiding them in the harvest of souls. And so the people you live and work with see a great light when they see how you live God’s word in your life. Just before our text today was Matthew’s account of the devil’s temptation of Jesus in the wilderness. Without food for forty days Jesus is hungry. The devil knows Jesus has the power to turn the stones around Him into loaves of bread and tempts Him to do it. But Jesus answers: ‘Man does not live by bread alone, but on every word that comes from the mouth of God.

Jesus isn’t talking about simply existing. He doesn’t say ‘Man does not exist on bread alone, but live on bread alone; real living. And so when you live—really live—meeting with Jesus Himself through His word, receiving the Holy Spirit He sends through the Scriptures, you have peace and contentment and strength no matter what your situation is because the Spirit is at work bearing His fruit. People see that in your life and they know there’s something different about these ‘churchy people’ as we’re often referred to. They see the light of Christ at work because you are a little Christ, to borrow Luther’s terms, in the darkness of the world around. When others see how you say grace at Maccas because you want Christ to be present and bless the food for you, when others see you come to church on a Sunday instead of sport or sitting on the header or sleeping in, when others see how you interact in a patient and forgiving way to those who have wronged you, when others see how you care for others, when others see how you respect authority, when others see how you cherish God’s name rather than using it habitually, when others see how you handle a crisis or live in integrity, when others see you feasting on the Word of God to really live, they see Christ the light of the world, living in and building His church among you.

It is not because of any effort on our part, but this only happens because Jesus has first preached the good news to you, and as he continues to preach to you and teach you through the scriptures, he continues to inspire and enable you to serve others and witness to him. Again today, He is in this church right here and He sends forth His gospel to make you everything He wants you to be, so that even as we live in the shadow of the valley of death of this life, His eternal light lights our way and—by his work in us and through us—shows the world a glimpse of the incredible love of its Saviour. Amen.