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.

‘Come, see and wrestle?’

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Pastor Joseph Graham.

‘God speaks in Baptism’

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Pastor Joseph Graham.

Sixth Sunday of Epiphany

Deuteronomy 30:19-20
Now choose life, so that you and your children may live;to love the Lord your God, listen to his voice, and hold fast to him, because He is your life.

            My dad was a big fan of Led Zepplin, and hearing God’s Word today reminds me of that ‘stairway to heaven’. ‘there are two paths you can go by but in the long run, there’s still time to change the road you’re on.’ Of course the woman thinks she can ‘buy her way into heaven’ which is entirely missing the right road, but we can still hear echoes of Christianity throughout our culture. Two ways, a wide easy road to destruction or the narrow and difficult way of salvation (Matthew 7:13). But this is not just some airy-fairy idea, Moses puts this to the Israelites as a choice, life or death, good or evil; it’s up to you.

            These Israelites had escaped slavery in Egypt by the mighty power of God obvious and indisputable. They heard God’s command and followed Moses into the desert. Then they grumbled against God and Moses because it looked like they had chosen a path of death. But God did bring them to the land He had promised, though they refused to trust God’s Almighty power, so God sent them back into the desert for 40 years. Now Moses addresses their children, still God’s people descendants of Abraham, the one He called out (Genesis 12). This book of Deuteronomy, the second law, tells the Israelites again about their relationship with God Almighty, and Moses ends it with this promise. If you choose life and good, God’s way, to love Him and listen to Him, you will live, you and your descendants because He is your life.

            This word was given to God’s people all those years ago, but now He brings it to you. I put before you, life and good, death and evil. Choose life every day, make that commitment to truly hear God’s Word that you receive His peace, joy and love and your life is changed; to truly love Him in all that you do, do it all for the glory of God (Colossians 3:17). And remember when I speak from here I am talking to myself too; no Israelite was excluded, no Christian is excluded. To choose life every day, to daily put on the full armour of God, to pray without ceasing for all our petitions with thanksgiving, being dedicated to God in everything we are (Ephesians 6:16, 1 Thessalonians 5:17, Philippians 4:6). This is what God calls us to, me and you. And we know what this means, to dedicate 8hrs a day to work, to dedicate an evening to your spouse, to dedicate an afternoon to your family; we are called to dedicate everything to God, to choose life not death. A very tall order. How can our salvation hinge on our own choice? Weather we choose life or choose death.

            This is where we come to one of the mysteries of the Faith. Do we focus on my choice or on what Jesus has done for me? This is very important for every Christian to understand, because if we confuse this, we ruin the peace God gives. Are you saved by choosing life? Are you saved by your continual decisions to listen to God and love Him in your everything? If you are, can you be sure that you are saved? That you have life everlasting? Or have we opened a door for doubt or even despair?

            I’ll ask another question, were the Israelites chosen by God, or did they choose to live such good lives that God noticed them and blessed them? Did those Israelites escape Egypt by their own strength and seek God in the desert to find Him and listen to Him? Did you baptise yourself and earn adoption as God’s beloved child, or was it God who loved you first and brought you into new life in His Son (1 John 4:19; 2 Corinthians 5:18)? Moses was addressing the people of God, a rebellious people, stubborn as an old German Lutheran mule, but still chosen and loved by God (Exodus 32:9). It was God who brought them out of Egypt, who led them by His voice to Sinai, who taught them and brought them to the promised land. And Moses told the Israelites just earlier in the passage that when they go into the land, reject God, go into exile and God brings them back He will ‘circumcise your heart and the heart of your offspring, so that you will love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul that you will live’ (30:6).

            Just as He chose the ancient Israelites and continued to love them even though they rejected Him, He has chosen you, promising that He gives you new and renewed life everlasting in your baptism, that your Heavenly Father has drawn you to His Son and sent the Holy Spirit to continue to guide you on His way; to choose life everyday (Romans 6:4; John 6:44; 14:17). Hear God’s Word for you today, love Him in all you do that this obedience and service may be a blessing to you and all around you. God has given you life and He is the only one who sustains it, He is the one who makes you holy circumcising your heart, He is the one who works and the one who saves you. I asked before, what do we focus on? We focus on Jesus the author and perfecter of our faith (Hebrews 12:2). Yet in doing this we are choosing life and good by the strength of the Holy Spirit, this is why we say if one is saved it is God’s work, if one is condemned it is their rejection of life. But again for the Christian to choose life and not death is a daily thing, it’s not just the end; and we see this throughout the Old Testament, the earthly results of clinging to God or rejecting Him. So I tell you today, with the Light of Christ shining into these ancient words, God loves you and hears you, He has already saved you and will perfect you. Cling to Him for He is your life.

Joseph Graham.

Fifth Sunday of Epiphany

The Text: Matthew 5:13-20

“Be What You Are”

 Some years ago the story was told of a 30-year-old man who spent most of his life as an imposter: at the age of 16 he posed as an airline pilot; at 19 he posed as a paediatrician. Later, he was an assistant district attorney. He was caught in the end. But by that time he had passed cheques amounting to 2.5 million dollars. He was not what he appeared to be.

 Sometimes people tell us that they want nothing to do with the church. The reason?  Because, so they say, there are too many hypocrites there. The trouble is that Christians don’t always know who they are, and they don’t act accordingly. Christians need to be genuine. They dare not be a phony or a hypocrite. The world is quite right in judging the truth of Jesus by the sort of people faith in Jesus is able to produce. 

 So the question for us, as Christians, is this: what are we? The answer to that question comes from Jesus. In the first two verses of today’s Gospel he says that we are salt and light!  Listen carefully! Jesus does not say you ought to be salt, or that should be light, but rather “You are salt…You are light.” What a tremendous saying! After all, what Jesus is saying is this: “You disciples standing here before me—you are the salt of the earth and the light of the world.”

 One wonders if anyone in that bunch of people, squatting in the dust of that Galilean hillside, could take it all in. And what about us? The church was in its numerical heyday fifty years ago when Christians felt as if they were the majority. Numerical significance and cultural superiority was the self‑understanding of most churches in the Western world at that time.  We were the majority faith. This was our country, as we saw it, our world. Today, can you imagine that there ever was such a time, when they closed the petrol stations on Sunday mornings and refused to play football matches on Sundays? Were you endangered in the stampede leaving your neighbourhood this morning on your way to church? I doubt it. Here, when we go to church on Sundays even in a rural or middle‑class neighbourhood, we are a minority with just a bit of occasional hostility and derision.

 It’s been said that it is a dubious sign if the world lives too peaceably with the church. We’re all familiar with the saying about rubbing salt into a wound. Salt always bites and stings at those points where we men and women have wounds, where our sore-points are. So where there is salt in a church and it’s preaching there is bound to be a negative reaction against it. But where there is no bitter reaction to the message what then? Perhaps what is lacking is a biting salty truth that will sting in some people’s pious wounds. To be salt and light, Christians must be different from the world.

 From the point of view of purely quantity, the proportion of practicing Christians to the whole mass of people in the world is comparable to the few grains for salt in a big pot of food. And when we Christians get discouraged as we think of how we few stand alone in our family, the place where we work, or among our friends and acquaintances; when we are afraid and confused, then we do well to take comfort from this saying of Jesus. He did not say: “You are the great power-bloc of the world”. No, he said: “You are the pinch of salt in the world!” And that, by its very nature, is a very small quantity.

 But actually, how often can the power of this one pinch of salt turn out to be mightily effective? When one person does not join in the gossip around the dinner table, then that pinch of salt seasons the negative group conversation. When one teenager refuses to go along with the group’s plan for the night, then that can be a change of direction. When one Christian practices forgiveness in a company that is poisoned by hatred and the desire for revenge, then all of a sudden there can be a healing factor in the situation. When one Christian is willing to stand up for his or her faith where this is hard to do, then suddenly the whole atmosphere of a meeting can be “salted” as ears that were closed before may now be opened. When one person in any group paralysed by fear communicates something of the peace of God to others simply by being who they are and where they are, then the salt is doing its work in the midst of corrupting strife and disorder; then the light is shining in the darkness of fear and distrust.

 There is still this other important attribute of both salt and light. Both become useful only when they give of themselves, when they are mixed with something else and sacrificed, as it were. Light goes into darkness and salt loses itself in the food. Each individual Christian is given a great promise: he or she is a grain of salt. But this one Christian also has the responsibility to share this promise. And, of course, if we are to fulfil this responsibility, then we must get out of the “salt-shaker” as it were. Salt works, salt remains salt only as it gives of itself. Or a Christian puts his light under a bowl simply because he is afraid that the winds that blow in the evil world, among his unbelieving friends in the factory or office or school will blow out the light of his faith. But when that light is kept under a bowl its light helps nobody, and what is more, it exhausts the oxygen and nothing is left but a nasty, shapeless wick.

 You don’t need to be super-confident to ask your neighbour to come with you to worship. You can do it faithfully in weakness, and in fear and trembling. You don’t need to be brimming with slick ideas of how to get through to seventh graders to teach Sunday School. You don’t need to be comfortably sure of what to say in order to visit a fellow member in the hospital. You don’t have to be financially secure, guaranteed of a surplus for life, to be a steward who tithes. You don’t need to feel sure of your faith to begin to pray regularly for others. You can stumble over the words, praying in weakness.

 And if you do—when you do—you will find not that you miraculously have done everything perfectly, amazing people with your skills. But you will find that the Lord keeps his promise, and that somehow the words you stumbled over—the awkward condolence, the wavering word of love, the blurted invitation—found a home in another human heart.

 A Christian dentist moved into a new house. He soon found neighbourhood teenagers littering his yard and riding their bicycles over his lawn. None of this encouraged him to love his new neighbours as himself. One night the leader of the teenage group had a bad toothache. The boy’s mother sent the boy to the dentist for a check-up. The dentist found the tooth in need of expensive repair and offered to take care of it. The boy refused. He said his family couldn’t pay the bill for a job like that. In the end the dentist persuaded the lad to let him do the repairs. The dentist did not send the boy a bill. Soon he forgot the incident. That summer the dentist left town for an extended holiday. When he returned, he found that his lawn had been well looked after during all that time by the teenager whose tooth he’d fixed. The dentist tried to pay the boy. But he refused. Shyly he said: “A tooth for a tooth”.

 With day-by-day efforts like that, we make our light shine. We bring rich flavour to a tasteless society, and so become the salt of the earth. God gave his only-begotten Son for this world. Therefore we are called upon to be salt and light for this same world. And certainly the world is worth saving by our sacrifice because this one man Jesus Christ first sacrificed himself for all of us. We are to be the little grains of salt for the little bit of earth that God has entrusted to us. We are to be the glimmer of light for that little part of the world in which we live and move and have our being. Amen.

Fourth Sunday of Epiphany

Text: Matthew 5:1-12

When are you really blessed?

More and more people were hearing about Jesus, more and more people were coming to look for Jesus. They had heard what Jesus was doing, as he healed the sick and helped people in their needs. Now they wanted to find out what Jesus was all about.

Jesus had been telling them that the Kingdom of heaven was coming, the Kingdom of heaven was coming to earth. Jesus was bringing the Kingdom of heaven to earth.

So what was this kingdom like? What did it mean to live in this kingdom?

Where is the kingdom of heaven today? Is it up there? Is it also down here? What does it look like?

Are you citizens of the kingdom of heaven?

Hey, come and follow me.

Matthew tells the story of Jesus going up a mountainside, calling his disciples to himself, and teaching them. His teaching is what we now call the Sermon on the Mount. Matthew does not tell us where this mount is but the traditional belief is that the Sermon on the Mount was given on the slopes leading up from the lake.

If you go to Israel, to Galilee, this is the place that they will show you as the site of the Sermon on the Mount. There is a church built there, a rather beautiful church in a lovely garden, called the Church of the Beatitudes.

It’s a beautiful, peaceful setting. And the Sermon on the Mount gives us some of the best known and most loved words that Jesus ever spoke. Among them are the opening words that we heard as our Gospel today. We know these words as the Beatitudes, which means the Blessings.

Jesus talks about being blessed. Blessing means sharing in the goodness of God, receiving the gifts of God.

Yet, when we listen to what Jesus says about being blessed, it is hugely challenging. That’s because Jesus’ idea of what being blessed means and our idea of what being blessed means are hugely different from each other.

You have probably been told to count your blessings. Maybe you have told others to count their blessings. OK – count your blessings. What are the blessings you have, that you really appreciate…?

Now let’s see what blessings Jesus talks about when he talks about your blessings.

“Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.”

Are you blessed when you are poor?

We like to think that the things we have make us rich. Or we don’t expect to be rich, but we do like to be comfortable. The opportunity to live a comfortable life; that is a blessing.

We don’t want to be poor. Sometimes people have to put up with being poor, but it is not a blessing. Yet Jesus says: “Blessed are the poor.”

OK…he says: “Blessed are the poor in spirit.” So he is talking about spiritual things, not material things.

Do you want to be spiritually poor? I think we want even more to be spiritually rich, to have a spiritual life where we feel wonderfully exalted.

Jesus says: “Blessed are the poor in spirit.” You are blessed when you have nothing, when you come with nothing, because then you are ready to receive everything that God wants to give you. You are blessed when you let go of all your own spirituality, and you live in the grace of God.

You are blessed when you have nothing, nothing of your own and when you rely on God for everything; when you rely on God for every spiritual gift.

And what does God give you?

“Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.”

God gives you a place in the kingdom of heaven. This means that you receive life from God, life that is full and free, life that is lived with God.

“Blessed are those who mourn, for they will be comforted.”

Count your blessings. Surely the greatest blessings are the people in your life, people who belong to you and you belong to them, people whom you love, people who love you.

How can you be blessed when you lose someone who is a blessing? How can you be blessed, when you mourn such a loss?

Jesus says you are blessed even in the face of loss and tragedy. You are blessed by his presence and by his promise. He has promised to be with you—when your need is greatest, his gift is even greater.

You will be blessed, even when you mourn great loss. You will be comforted, covered with the grace of your loving Father.

“Blessed are the meek, for they will inherit the earth.”

We are taught that we have to be strong, that we have to be assertive, that we have to stand up for ourselves. We like to believe that we are blessed when we can make our own way in the world, when we can stand up for our rights, when we can get what we deserve.

Jesus says: “Blessed are the meek.” Meek is not weak. But meekness is a different sort of strength.

Being meek is being strong enough that you do not have to prove how strong and tough you are. Being meek is being strong enough to forget about yourself, and give of yourself for the sake of others. Being meek is being more concerned about caring about the rights and the needs of others, than your own rights and your own needs.

“Blessed are the meek, for they will inherit the earth.”

Blessed are you when you are meek, when you are prepared to give up what you think is yours, because God will give you much more. You will inherit the earth. Your life on earth will be rich and fulfilling, because you will be living as citizens of heaven even while you are living on earth.

“Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they will be filled.”

None of us like to be hungry. None of us like to be thirsty. Hunger tells us that we need food. Thirst tells us that we need something to drink. Hunger and thirst are fine, as long as we can eat and drink when we need to eat and drink.

And most of us eat and drink much more than we need. We eat and drink to savor the richness of taste, to enjoy food and drink to the fullest.

There is another kind of hunger and another kind of thirst. It is spiritual hunger and spiritual thirst. It is feeling that deep need for spiritual nourishment and spiritual fulfilment.

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

We might try to convince ourselves that we have enough righteousness, that we are good enough to satisfy ourselves and to satisfy others, and to satisfy God. But then we are living a lie, and our blessing is an illusion.

You are blessed when you come to God with complete honesty, knowing that you need righteousness from God, knowing that you need God to forgive your sins and make you whole and healthy and strong. When you come to God with that need, and when you come to God with that faith, then you will be filled, and you will be blessed.

“Blessed are the merciful, for they will be shown mercy.”

We like to think that blessings are all the things that make life good for ourselves. And we are pretty good at complaining when we think life is not fair. We are quick to blame someone, anyone, and maybe we blame God if life does not give us what we think we deserve.

Mercy is knowing and understanding the needs of others, and forgetting about our own needs and wants. Mercy is being prepared to give of ourselves for the sake of others. Mercy is sacrificing ourselves, and what is ours, rather than being worried about getting for ourselves.

Blessed are you when you are merciful. Blessed are you when your heart and mind are tuned to other people, people who are close to you and people who might be far away, but people who have great needs, physical needs, are politically oppressed and in danger, and suffer from spiritual emptiness.

When you see those needs, when you feel those needs, when you respond to those needs—that is mercy. And when your heart and mind are tuned into the needs of others, somehow your needs don’t seem so urgent at all.

“Blessed are the merciful, for they will be shown mercy.”

Blessed are the merciful, for they will receive God’s own mercy, the mercy of forgiveness and the mercy of pain and anguish relieved, the mercy of being loved and supported. When you are merciful you are committing yourself to the mercy of God, and God gives mercy richly and fully.

“Blessed are the pure in heart for they will see God.”

We like to think that we are smart and sophisticated, and being smart and sophisticated means that we can see and do whatever we like. We think that we can play with all sorts of things that are evil, because that is what is flaunted in our world. We like to think that makes us clever and wise, and that if we are smart enough these things won’t do us any damage.

Jesus says: “Blessed are the pure in heart, for they will see God.”

When we fill our minds with all sorts of experiences to prove that we are mature and that we can handle them, we lose sight of what is really precious and enriching. We lose sight of God.

When we hear the word of God and focus on what is good and holy, even in the middle of the most demanding and degrading sights, then we learn to see God in every situation, and we are blessed as we seek the will of God everywhere, always.

“Blessed are the peacemakers, for they will be called children of God.”

We all want peace. But we also want things to be done our way.

We want to hold control. We want others to serve our purposes.

We generate conflict, in our own personal life and at every level right up to international power-plays and wars.

It takes great wisdom but also great will power to become a peace maker, to overcome the conflicts in your own life, and to work with others to overcome conflicts in their life. It means sacrifice. It means forgiveness. It means understanding life is more than getting your own way.

“Blessed are the peacemakers, for they will be called children of God.”

God is the great peacemaker, breaking down the hatred and rebellion that people throw against him, and leading people to reconciliation and restored relationships. Peacemakers are children of God, for they are learning from God, and following in the footsteps of their heavenly Father.

Making peace is a vital part of Christian life. Learn how to be a Christian peacemaker.

“Blessed are those who are persecuted because of righteousness, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.”

I don’t like pain. I don’t like to be rejected. How can you be blessed when you are being persecuted?

Being persecuted is not a blessing. But being persecuted can show that you have a blessing which is much greater, a blessing that no one can take from you, no matter how much they try.

Christians have been persecuted, and Christians are still being persecuted, when they stand up for their faith. Persecutors think that they can enforce their will, and destroy Christian faith by using ridicule, threats, pain, violence, and even death.

Jesus says that you are blessed even when you are persecuted. That’s because righteousness, the gift from the righteous God, is stronger and more precious than any persecution.

People might turn against you, and take away your property and your comfort, your reputation, your freedom, even your life. What have you got left?

“Blessed are those who are persecuted because of righteousness, for the kingdom of heaven is theirs.”

Those persecuted because of righteousness have the kingdom of heaven. That is God’s gift, and no one can take that away. That is the greatest blessing.

So Jesus teaches us about being blessed, about being really blessed.

He strips away so many things that we think are blessings. He shows us the blessings that go much deeper, blessings that are much more precious, the blessings of living with God in the kingdom of heaven.

Do you still want to protest: “But I don’t want to let go of all the blessings that I want”?

Look at Jesus, look at the way he lived. He was poor in spirit, dependent on his heavenly Father. He suffered great loss, and great deprivation. He was pure in heart, and merciful, and meek. He was persecuted, to the point of the cross. He gave it all away for the sake of bringing peace.

When are you blessed? You are blessed when you are with Jesus. May you share his blessings in the kingdom of heaven, now and forever. Amen.