Tuesday, February 4, 2020

having an unadulterated passion in a sex saturated society (Matthew 5:27-30)

On Sunday morning I had my laptop, external hard drive and flash drive stolen. It means I don't have a script  of this message to place on my blog...

Much of it was based on an old message I preached which is on my blog...

However here is the audio of the message I preached on 02022020.

I've also included two images in this post which are important for understanding what I am saying as I reference them in my message.

the first is a cartoon about male dominated society.

the other is a picture which sums up I think Jesus teaching that the time to self discipline is not when you are crashing but at the start of the gaze...

Monday, January 27, 2020

right way up in a topsy turvy world: introduction to preaching plan for the year and the Beatitudes (Matthew 5:1-12, Isaiah 61)

It's hard to preach a message which tries to do too many things. This message serves as an introduction for an extended series of messages on the five blocks of Jesus teaching in Matthew's gospel. It also provides some points and reflections on the Beatitudes... here is the audio link of this message. 

I lost my glasses out at the beach over Christmas. I came back from a couple of hours in the surf and couldn’t find them anywhere. I couldn’t find them in my bag, I couldn’t find them in the car, I couldn’t find them in a pocket, or on my towel, or on the ground, and definitely not on top of my head. So I’ve had to get new glasses. At the same time, I’ve got to the life stage where my arms have got too short because as well as having trouble seeing at a distance reading up close is getting hard. So I’ve got progressive lenses and I’m having to learn how to see the world in a totally different way. To tell you the truth it’s kind of disorientating, I’m assured that it will transform my life, but at the moment it’s just weird.

I made a joke about it on facebook, by posting a photo and saying ‘conservative evangelical minister learns to see world through a progressive lens’. I find it rather strange that using a progressive lens means I now look down my nose at other peoples’ perspectives and opinions, no it is not a posture of superiority I simply do it to be able to read what is written, through these glasses.  Apparently the best way to get used to these new lenses is to put your glasses on first thing in the morning and leave them on all day. To live seeing things in a new way…

At the same time I’ve been reading a book that talks about the word ‘repent’, and the authors say that we misunderstand this word, we can think it means to simply feel bad about things that we have done wrong, and so ask for forgiveness to stop feeling so bad. Feeling bad does not really lay a solid foundation for true change we need to have a vision of a preferred future. We are even used to repent meaning to turn around from going our own way to going God’s way, usually as a one off event, a conversion experience. The authors suggested that the greek word can mean to see things in a different way, in a new way. When Jesus starts his ministry in Matthew’s gospel he says repent for the kingdom of heaven has drawn near… come and see things in a new and different way. View the world through the lens of the Kingdom of Heaven, breaking into the realms of humanity in the person of Jesus the messiah. That will transform your life.  Repent…View and live in the world through this new reality.

In the ethos section of our Proposal to Join Together and Become One (the document that forms the basis of our three churches coming together) it states that “We aspire to truly understand, embody and proclaim Jesus’ Good News about the Kingdom of God.” We have a clear vision for having a clear vision of the Kingdom of God and living that out. This year to help us see that vision become more a reality in our morning services we are going to be working through Jesus teaching in Matthew’s gospel that speaks about the Kingdom of Heaven, Matthew’s way as a Jew writing to Jews of saying the Kingdom of God.

The series is called ‘A 2020 vision of the kingdom of heaven: The manifesto, mission, meaning and means of the much awaited kingdom of heaven’. Good preaching alliteration and yes a play on the use of 2020 as the date and prescription for perfect vision, which I did think was clever when I thought of it last year but know I see it’s a cringe worthy cheesy cliché.

We are going to look at five blocks of Jesus teaching that Matthew presents in his gospel… the sermon on the mount Jesus teaching on kingdom living, Matthew 5-7, Jesus teaching on mission when he sends out the twelve in chapter 10, the parables of the kingdom in Matthew 13, his teaching on being the church together in Matthew 18 and what’s known as the Olivet discourse in Matthew 23-24, about what is to come and what it means to wait for the kingdom to be consummated, to come in its fullness.

We start today with what’s known as the Sermon on the Mount. It’s an election year and by the end of it we are going to be bombarded with party manifesto’s. People telling us what it will be like if we elect them to govern in our country. It’s election year in the US and that may over shadow our own elections as we see a ding dong battle over whose vision of America and the free world that nation wants. The Sermon of the Mount has been called the manifesto of the Kingdom of God. We don’t like the idea of the gospel being political, but we tend to forget that Good News, gospel was a political word, and politics is about how we live together as a society. In the ancient world, a certain ruler would come and conquer a people and say Good News Guys I’m the boss now I have kindly come and conquered you and it means that you will live together as a people in this way. In Jesus day you had the Romans say this is the Good News of Caesar Augustus, live this way and pay us taxes for the privilege, and these will be the benefits, peace, prosperity, commerce, protection…blessings. Matthew’s birth narrative focuses on Jesus as the long awaited ‘king of the Jews’ and now Jesus teaches his Good News of what it means that ‘Jesus is Lord.’  

Right away Jesus calls us to see things in a different way. He starts off with what we know as the beatitudes, a list of people and attributes that are blessed and what that blessing entails. Right off the bat it feels very disorientating, because we are not used to thinking about people who are poor, physically and of heart as blessed, people who mourn, or thirst and hunger as blessed. We tend think of the powerful, not the meek and humble, those who have peace not those who make peace as blessed, those who are popular and highly thought of as blessed, not when they are being oppressed and persecuted, put down and spoken falsely against. We see those who have their hearts desires meet, not the pure of heart as blessed, maybe we are Ok with the mercy one, but we tend to think people should get what they deserve. Commentator Matthew Woodley talks of a friend of his shaking his head and walking away when he read the beatitudes because they just didn’t make sense to him. Jesus flips the way we see who and what is blessed on its head, upside down. Or is it that we are so used to seeing things the wrong way up, in a topsy-turvy manner and in Jesus and the Kingdom of God things are being set right, put the right way up.

We tend to view things through our western materialistic worldview, but for Jesus and Matthew and the disciples and crowd, their hope their expectations were shaped by the scriptures of the Old Testament and in particular passages like Isaiah 61 that we had read out to us that gave hope to the exile suffering physical and spiritual hardship, but continued to trust in God, that a time when God would establish his kingdom, and put things right. In fact in Luke’s gospel Jesus starts his ministry in synagogues by quoting from Isaiah 61 say that the spirit of Lord is upon me, to preach good news to the poor recovery of sight to the blind, to set free the prisoners, to declare the acceptable year of the lord” and in the beatitudes Jesus proclaims that reality.

This is an introduction to the series, and so we are not going to get the chance to delves too deeply into the beatitudes but I want to make a series of quick comments about what the beatitudes say to us about God’s kingdom.

The first may sound rather obvious but it is all about Jesus. The context for Jesus teaching in verse one and two was that Jesus called his disciples to himself and began to teach them. The teaching is for those who already had made a commitment to follow Jesus, who had been captivated by him. The crowd in this case listen in and hear and for them it is to help them know about who Jesus is and what it means to follow him. But also we may think the beatitudes give us a list of characteristics of a disciple that is unrealistic and over the top, but in actual fact they paint us great picture of who Jesus was and is. Jesus speaks of being meek and gentle and lowly of spirit, trusting in God even on the cross, he shows mercy, he is the ultimate pacemaker between humanity and God, calling us together across the divides of humanity to be God’s people together, he mourned for the restoration of God’s people. Paul will later call Jesus follows to imitate Christ.

Secondly, the beatitudes are this wonderful amazing welcome to all into the Kingdom of heaven. Specifically, those who the religious people of Jesus day saw as being outsider, or in no way blessed by God. The poor the sick, the lame the broken and the hurting, those beset by difficulty and tragedy, even though despite those things they still longed for God’s help and love. At the heart of the Kingdom of heaven is the great offer of God’s love and Grace.

Sometimes we think of the Beatitudes as a list of qualifications for God’s blessing. To be blessed by God we need to be more like this, and we forget that it is a proclamation of good news, the blessing is God’s welcome and love and care and consolation. We forget that at the heart of the gospel is God’s offer of grace. We want to jump right to the how do I earn it. You know in the old testament we can often read the ten commandments as a to do list to earn God’s favour and we can forget that they come some twenty chapters into the story of God redeeming Israel out of Egypt, fulfilling God’s gracious promises to their ancestors. It is about how do we respond to the gracious love and saving activity of God, not earn it. You are loved and invited in by God, the broken will be whole, our poverty met with the resources of god’s kingdom, our sorrow comforted by God, as we experience that in Christ our hearts are turned to peace making and mercy and being meek; working for the common good and not being turned aside by hatred, slight, false accusation or persecution.

It invites us to see people through the eyes of the kingdom of heaven, through Jesus eyes.   The beatitudes calls us to see the people we might not consider as blessed with dignity and not as being marginalized but important to God and his kingdom. The rest of the sermon shows us how to show that dignity and love.

One of the challenges when it come to studying and understanding and applying the beatitudes is the difference between Luke and Matthew’s versions. Luke’s version focuses on the physical needs, the poor, hungry, those who weep and those who are persecuted and he reinforces that with a series of Woes for those who are invested in being fulfilled in this life. The rich the full, those who simply seek amusement, and doesn’t that say something to our devise distracted culture today, those who seek public acclaim and popularity. Matthew is often accused of spiritualising Jesus teaching, but the reality is that they speak to the kingdom of God being about the both, in fact they are intertwined and they call us to be both about evangelism and also about justice and peace in our world. It invites us to have the passion for the lost of a billy graham, the compassion for the least of a mother Theresa and the courage to dream and dare for difference and justice of a martin Luther king Jr.  That might set bar rather high, but all three are examples of God’s kingdom at work in the world.

I find comfort in the fact that in the beatitudes Jesus shows us that being blessed is not tied to our circumstances, rather it comes from God’s goodness and God’s promise and god’s provision. When we face difficulty and trouble when we find ourselves joining the psalmist in the prayer “how Long O God” that we can trust That God is setting things right. When it comes to that we live in the tension between the already and not yet, we can experience it in God’s presence and moving in our lives now, because Jesus has come and inaugurated the Kingdom, in his life death and resurrection, and we can have hope that it will have a future fulfillment when Christ returns to finally set all things right.

With my new glasses I am learning to see things differently, hopefully to see things more clearly, and with the beatitudes Jesus invites us to start seeing things through the lens of the kingdom of God… to start to see things in our topsy turvy world the right way up.
Lets pray

Tuesday, December 24, 2019

Unpacking the Nativity: Jesus (John 1:1-18)

This is the message from Christmas day 2019 at HopeWhangarei here is a link to the audio... Hope whangarei

Leading up to Christmas this year I’ve been inviting people to join in a family tradition from back when I was young. Unpacking the nativity scene. We used to have a nativity scene that was kept in a box with a blue lid and we knew Christmas was on the way when it would be found, unpacked and placed on the mantle piece in the lounge. During Christmas our attention would be drawn to many different things. The growing pile of presents that made wonderful sounds when you shock them, the bang of Christmas Crackers and those silly hats and the wonderful smells that came from the kitchen before the family meal. But the nativity scene drew us back to think again about Jesus and his birth.

This year as we’ve unpacked the nativity scene it hasn’t just been taking figures out of  polystyrene packaging and tissue paper but looking at each of the people that these figurines represent and what they have to say to us for our lives and faith today.

We looked at Joseph a man of righteousness and compassion and Mary, a woman of faith and courage. We saw these as the qualities God chose in the parents that nurtured his son and that men and women need to develop in their lives today.  The shepherds and angels told us that the one born in the stable was Good News to be shared with great and small and the magi told us that this good news was for all people and that we should seek to know the truth in Jesus Christ.

In a nativity scene you will notice however that while these figures are big and take up much of the room that everyone one traditionally is looking towards a central spot and that is because the most important person in this scene is the child in the manger; Because Christmas is about Jesus.

Luke and Matthew in their gospels focus on the story of Jesus birth but John draws back and gives us a big cosmic picture. He looks back not 2000 years but into time before time when there was only God and he says that before the beginnings of anything there was the word and the word was with God and was God and that through this word God created everything that was made, and boy we could spend a lot of time simply unpacking that one sentence.  When you feel that peace as you sit by a lake or find yourself awed by a mountain vista or the panorama of the night sky, or the pillars of creation in the eagle nebula, dust clouds of a previous comic event, through the Hubble telescope you are touching or being touched by the very unique breath print of God’s word in creation. In Jesus, john tells us, this eternal creating Word, that was with and was God, became flesh.

John uses a metaphor to explain this coming. He speaks of human being living in darkness and that God has made a light to shine for them. He is looking back to a prophecy about the coming of God’s messiah, a saviour and righteous king from the book of Isaiah and saying in Jesus this Hope this promise has come true.  We tend to think with our modern street lights, quarts halogen lamps and LEDs that we have banished the dark but there is still a darkness that dwells in the hearts of humanity and it was into this darkness that God chose to shine his light in the person of Jesus Christ.

Then John says that this light this God word become flesh and dwelt amongst us. The big word is tabernacled, which brings to mind the tent used to acknowledge the presence of God with the people of Israel during their wilderness journey. In john’s prologue it’s as if we have swept across the whole of the Old Testament narrative and that it is fulfilled in Jesus born at Bethlehem. Yet also how more Kiwi can the bible get than to talk of the coming of God as a human being as God pitching his tent in our neighbourhood? In fact it my very cheesy joke that New Zealand is really into the Incarnation at Christmas we all jump into our cars and head off to our summer holidays at the beach, we literally become an in car nation.

And if you’ve ever spent your summers camping by the beach or in those temporary suburbs we call camp grounds you’ll know that when all that’s between you and your neighbours is a few feet and a bit of canvas that well you’re very much on display. John tells us that while no one has ever seen God face to face in Jesus Christ we beheld him full of glory and grace.

The idea of God being so vast and huge makes it hard for us to comprehend that God cares about us and could love us. In fact when religions approach God is with the idea of awe and fear. or we try and have rules and regulations and rituals to make our deity approachable. We often view God like Michael Angelo does on the Sistine chapel ceiling. God distant reaching down from a cloud towards Adam, man and almost touching figure tips with him. But not quite, there is still this distance… In fact in the image of that part of the painting you can see cracks appearing between the almost touching fingers. However Christmas tells us that God is so much more approachable. That God draws even closer, and we don't need our religion or ethics or philosophies to bridge the gap, in Christ God became one of us and bridged the gap himself.

When each of my four children were born the most amazing thing I remember was putting my finger on their hands and having them wrap their hand round it. They all had good grips. It made me feel wonderful to have this connection with what up to know had been a wriggling bump in their mothers mid-drift. It wasn’t even spoiled when someone told me it was simply a reflex action not a genuine connection.  That is how close God chose to come to us, in such an intimate and profound touch. That’s how approachable God is. A baby grasping a figure, those hands as Jesus grew would hold Mary’s hand for stability as he learned to walk and would learn skill with wood and tools as he worked alongside Joseph in the carpentry shop. Those Hands that would invite people to come and follow him and reach out to heal the sick, welcome children to him to be blessed, embrace the outcasts, gesture as he told us God’s word. They are also hands that human being would nail to a cross and would be folded over his dead body as it was buried. They are also Hands that would cook fish for disciples and be touched and checked out when he rose from the dead. The word became flesh and dwelt amongst us God is approachable, knowable.

This Christmas I hope that you might draw close and touch afresh our approachable God, who in Christ pitched his tent in our neighbourhood. Not just be reminded of him by a nativity scene or some other family ritual but that you might embrace him and place him at the centre of your life all year round. You’ll notice that in the image we’ve been using for the whole series the manger is empty and so is the cross in the background. Christ was born, Christ lived and died, but is raised to life again and we can meet and know him in our lives by the Holy Spirit, not just in here but in our everyday life… Immanuel God with us… Christmas is time for family and as John reminds us, in Jesus, God approaches us and invites us into his family, he came to his own and to all who accepted him he gave the right to become the sons and daughter of the most-high God. And that knowing him afresh this Christmas you would allow him to use your hands your life to show his love to this world that God loves.

christmas and the pale blue dot (john 1;1-18) christmas eve 2019

This is a message i preached at the wonderful Candle light Christmas eve service at HopeWhangarei. 

I don’t know about you but I often find myself distanced from the Christmas story that we had read to us this evening. Not just by time and place, not just because its two thousand years ago, not just because it is way over on the other side of the world. But distanced by the fact that we have come to view it through the Lens of the rush to get it all done in time for  summer holidays, the lens of the great and wonderful  festivities we associate with it, the lens of tinsel and lights, and those wonderful baubles on Christmas trees. A lens very well captured by the image we used to advertise the service this year (see above). The Christmas story has become in danger of being simply a nostalgic Hallmark moment. That we are more used to thinking of it as a silhouette on a card from a distance relative than a real life event that has real life transforming power for us today.

As an amateur photographer,  over the past few years I have developed the discipline of looking at the Christmas story through the lens of some of the most significant photos of the past few decades. Using them to reflect on how the story we had read from the gospels connects with us today. For example, in an opinion piece for the Northern Advocate this week, I used this image of a single man
standing in front of the Chinese army tanks heading to break up a pro-democracy rally in Tiananmen square in Beijing.  2019 is the thirtieth anniversary of that massacre, and it casts itself as a foreboding long dark shadow over the prodemocracy protests we have seen in Hong Kong this year.  But it is an image of Hope, the possibility of change that one person can make. The hope that so many people have put in the coming of the child Jesus. Whether or not you believe in Jesus as the Son of God, you cannot deny the impact of that one solitary human on the hope and history of the world.

Tonight I want to use a different image to reflect on Christmas. Ironically it is a very long distant image that I want to use to help close the distance between us and the Christmas story. I hope it’s not too much of a long shot.

As the Voyager 1 space craft exited the solar system, it preformed one last task it turned round and took a final photo, looking back through the solar system a photo of the earth from a distance of about 6 billion km’s.
It’s been described as the world’s most expensive selfie, and if you were alive on February 4th 1990 you are in that photo… although even with your glasses on, or through a microscope, or a telescope you won’t be able to make yourself out.  But trust me you are in it.
The earth is 0.12 of a pixel in this image, and it looks like a mote of dust caught in a beam of sunlight. A speck lit up by the sun in a cold dark universe. The photo is called the pale blue dot, and the name came from a famous quote from astronomer Carl Sagan when he said,

“Look again at that dot. That's here. That's home. That's us. On it everyone you love, everyone you know, everyone you ever heard of, every human being who ever was, lived out their lives… on a mote of dust suspended in a sunbeam

Our posturing, our imagined self-importance, the delusion that we have some privileged position in the Universe, are challenged by this point of pale light. Our planet is a lonely speck in the great enveloping cosmic dark. In our obscurity, in all this vastness, there is no hint that help will come from elsewhere to save us from ourselves… Like it or not, for the moment the Earth is where we make our stand.”

While as we face the challenge of how we are impacting the environment of this pale blue dot, this fragile place on which we live, Carl Sagan’s words need to be heeded as sage advise, we need to care for this home of ours.  

 Chirstmas, however tells us a different story. It tells us a story of hope. John in his gospel, does not start his story of Jesus life with the tale of the baby in the manger but like Sagan looks outward to cosmic proportions and cosmic beginnings. He says that we are not alone rather that in the darkness of the void of space and in the darkness of the worst of our humanity, that God has shone a light. That Jesus born at Bethlehem is that light. In Jesus the God who created it all became one of us. We started this evening with the lament “O Come, O Come Emmanuel” and the word emmanuel means God with us and in Jesus John tells us that God is with us and for us as we live out our existence on this precious mote of dust. It tells us the story of a planet which God so loved that he sent his only son. God offers us hope and help if we will turn to Jesus. The one who came at Christmas came to offer us abundant life…a fresh start and his abiding presence to bring hope, peace, love and joy.  Enabling us to live in a new way that is hope filled for this pale blue dot of ours…

Another photo and the story behind it brings that down to real life…

This is perhaps the most famous photo of the last century. It has come to encapsulate the horror of war and the civilian price of our conflicts. June 8 1972 the United States and South Vietnamese forces drop napalm on the village of Trang Bang. Nick Ut took the photo of six-year-old Kim Phuc running from her burning village her back and arm badly burned.

Kim Phuc’s life is radically changed by this moment. She goes through years of pain and suffering. The communist government use her as a propaganda tool of how merciless and vile the American forces were. In the midst of all that she hears the good news of Jesus Christ and it changes everything.

In 1996 Kim Phuc, then living in Canada, was invited to speak at the Vietnam War Memorial.
“ Dear friends” she says…
… as you know, I am the little girl who was running to escape from the napalm fire. I do not want to talk about the war because I cannot change history. I only want you to remember the tragedy of war in order to do things to stop fighting and killing around the world. I have suffered a lot from both physical and emotional pain. Sometimes I thought I could not live, but God saved me and gave me faith and hope. Even if I could talk face to face with the pilot who dropped the bombs I would tell him we cannot change history but we should try to do good things for the present and for the future to promote peace…’
(Denise Chong: The Girl In The Picture, 1999. pp362)

In the Crowd was John Plummer who was involved in planning the raid on Trang Bang. He had been haunted by the picture…They meet that day. He explained who he was and he cried, “I’m sorry…I’m so sorry…” Kim Phuc embraced him and said, “I forgive, I forgive”.

She  worked for many years for UNESCO as an ambassador for forgiveness, peace and reconciliation. Her life gives us hope of the change that the Christmas message can bring to our pale blue dot even in the face of our worst inhumanity. This is the other famous Photo of Kim Phuc taken by the same photographer. It is almost Madonna and child like and speak volumes as to the healing of Kim's life.

“It was fire that burned my body, it was the skill of doctors that mended my skin but it took the power of God to heal my heart.”

JB Phillips in his story ‘the visited planet’ has a senior angel telling a young angel the wonders of when the son of God had visited that small insignificant planet, the pale blue dot and as they look at the dark globe before them there is a great flash of light when the angelic army sing God’s praise at Jesus birth and then an even greater flash as the power of God raises Jesus from the dead, Christmas leads directly to Easter the cross and the resurrection,  but after that the planet seems dark again, then like a series of small candles being lit at a vigil in the dark night… slowly small lights come on all round the world as one person tells and shows another the wonder of God coming amongst us In Jesus Christ.
We are going to stop there and the choir is going to sing for us… A joyful song proclaiming the new life and hope that comes from Christmas then I’m going to invite you to join us in singing that wonderful Christmas carol ‘ O come all ye faithful’ and as you sing it to do what is says and come a light one of these small candles from one of the big candles up here and place it on the tables down the front. To symbolically say this Christmas I want to know the light of Christ, or I want to let that light shine through me or simply to say this Christmas I want to be more about taking light into the world.

Monday, December 23, 2019

Unpacking the nativity: the Magi (Matthew 2:1-12)

This is a sermon I preached at HopeWhangarei on December 22nd 2019. It a re working of an older message, part of a series called unpacking the nativity scene. here is a link to an audio of the message

When I was growing up we had a nativity scene that took pride of place in our lounge it was a way, in the midst of the tinsel, food, catching up with distant relatives, festivities and phonetic pace of Christmas, of focusing back on the reason for the season: Jesus birth. We knew Christmas was coming when the naivety scene would be unpacked from its box with the blue lid with the plastic window and put in its place of honour. This advent we’ve been inviting you to join in that family tradition by unpacking the nativity scene with us.

No, Not just removing those figurines from polystyrene packing and tissue paper but looking afresh at each of the characters that we traditional associate with this scene and see what they have to say to us as we celebrate Christmas  

Today I want to look at the Magi, these mysterious figures who Matthews tells us came from the east where they had seen a sign in the heavens that heralded the birth of a special child, one born to be king of the Jews.

In the orthodox Christian traditions the coming of the magi is celebrated at Epiphany. In countries where the orthodox faith is strong Epiphany is the major festival for giving gifts not Christmas. Epiphany is celebrated twelve days after Christmas usually on January 6th. That’s where you get the twelve days of Christmas from.

I guess because we know so little about these men and where they came from that they have become very much wrapped up in Christian tradition and legend to fill in the void in our knowledge.

 We don’t know how many of them there were, old traditions talked about twelve, then later it became three. This number was based on the number of gifts they gave to the Christ child.

We don’t know what they looked like or their names, but they have been given persona's in tradition. The one who gave the Gold is known as Melchior, he was old and had a grey hair and a long grey beard, Asian in his colouring and appearance. The one who gave the gift of frankincense is known as Caspar and he was young and clean-shaven and ruddy in complexion, European type. The third that gave the gift of myrrh is known as Balthazar, he was dark in his colouring and had a beard, African perhaps.  I Love the Christian art of Chinese artist He Qi (he chi), because it allows us to see the gospels in (for me as a person from European decent) a different cultural perspective and the Images we’ve had behind me are his depiction of the Magi as wise men coming from China and also in the orthodox understanding of being from different continents.  

Well what do we actually know about these visitors that is helpful to us as we approach Christmas.

We know that Matthew called them magi. A strange word and when I was young I wondered why the packet soup we ate when we were in a hurry had been named after them. (maggi soup)  E. Ellis in a article  New Bible Dictionary article says Magi is a word used by ancient historians to refer to a priestly tribe of the Medes. In Daniel (1:20, 2:27 and 5:15) it is used to refer to a class of wise men non-Jewish religious men who were astrologers and interpreted dreams and message of the gods. This is probably what Matthew has in mind when he calls them Magi. By New Testament times Magi had become synonymous with anyone who practised magic for example Simon called Magus, who the apostles encounter in Acts chapter 8. Who wanted to buy the power to bestow the Holy Spirit on people.

So firstly we do know that they would have been gentiles and this is the reason why they appear in Matthew's gospel they are a foreshadow of the amazing truth that in the coming of Jesus Christ God’s salvation was for all people: That the messiah had not come just to save his own peculiar people but to save all God’s people, all humanity all who would seek him. For Matthew writing for his predominantly Jewish audience it was important to let them know that right from the beginning the good news of Jesus Christ was not only for the Jews but also for the Gentiles. Maybe the way in which the major racial types have come to be represented in the traditions surrounding the magi is a reflection of this fact that the kingdom of God would become a worldwide revolution of grace. For the Jewish readers of Matthew it would be shocking to have these men of another religion and race come, recognise and worship their messiah first. As revolutionary perhaps as it is for us today to realise in a world where Christianity in the west is in decline that it is booming in places like Africa, Asia, Latin America and that china by the year 2030 just maybe the country with the largest number of Christians. So the average Christian today is not a white fat cat American man, but rather an unimaginably poor, brown skinned woman living in a third world mega city. They are our sisters and brothers in Christ. 

Secondly, what we know about the Magi is that they sought after truth. They saw a new sign in the heavens and then they went searching for the truth it revealed to them. It shows us something of the way in which the Holy Spirit is at work even in the lives of people of other religions to bring them to know the wonderful good news of Jesus Christ. They are not the enemy they are on a quest for truth. The Magi didn’t know the full extent of what the sign in the heavens meant they deduced that there was one born king of the Jews. This was enough to lead them on a search for that one.

Both the powers of that day and the indifference of the religious leaders they met along the way didn’t put them off seeking the truth. Seeking Jesus.  Herod’s self interest and paranoia, his desperate desire to eliminate any threats, could have led them to just about ruin everything. But open to the voice of the spirit they are warned in a dream not to go back to him but to go home a different way. The religious people in Jerusalem knew where the messiah was to be born but did not seem willing to venture with these people from another religion to find the messiah they were all waiting for.  They were too busy and too caught up in their temple rituals to look beyond that for the truth. The magi persevered in their quest for the truth and were rewarded with a chance to be amongst the first to worship Jesus ‘the way the truth and the life’.

In recent times this quest has turned into a Christian slogan or clique “Wise men still seek him today…’ That’s true while interest in organised religion is on the wain in the west people are still fascinated by Jesus Christ. People who seek spiritual truth from all faiths or no faith are drawn to Jesus. They are longing for a real personal encounter with a real spiritual truth. In the western world maybe many of us have become like the political and religious leaders who met the magi along the way. We have become more interested in persevering our social status and influence or our rituals and traditions and have lost the zeal to meet with the person of Jesus Christ and so people who seek the truth and seek to meet Christ who follow God given signs often pass us by.  Leonard Sweet puts it like this

“Christianity is in decline where faith is being passed on by churches for whom the real presence has vanished from the world, churches that no longer have confidence in scriptures or the spirit, churches whose cold Christ can no longer warm the heart. Christianity is growing where churches are crazy enough to expect that ‘every day life’ and every day, will be invaded by the unknown.”

 I pray we are crazy enough as to expect to encounter the Christ of Christmas everyday of the year.

Thirdly we know that the magi bought gifts through which to pay homage and worship to the king. People have seen different aspects of Jesus ministry in the gifts that he was given.

Gold is a gift for a king, and Jesus was a man born to be king, but in a totally different way than we would expect as William Barclay says he would reign, not by force but by love; and he was to rule over people’s hearts not from a throne but from a cross.”

Frankincense was a gift for a priest; it was used in temple worship and in temple sacrifice. The function of the priest was to open a way to God for human beings. The Latin word for priest is pontifex, which means bridge-builder and this, is what Jesus did for us he opened the only way to God, he built a bridge that we may enter into the very presence of God. 

Myrrh was a gift to someone who was going to die. Myrrh was used to embalm the bodies of the dead. Jesus came into this world to die. A picture by the painter Holman Hunt illustrates this. It shows Jesus as a young man at the door of the carpentry shop in Nazareth stretching after being bent over the workbench all day. The setting sun casts his shadow on the wall of the shop and it forms a picture of the cross. In the background is Mary reacting with horror as she sees it and remembers the words of Simeon spoke to her in the temple “that a sword will pierce her soul.” Jesus came to die and through his death to make build A bridge to life with our heavenly father. The gifts foretell Jesus as the true king the perfect high priest and in the end the supreme sacrifice and saviour for us all.

So be on the look out for Magi this Christmas, they may not fit our picture of someone seeking truth but we can with the holy spirits guidance help them find the truth and the one they are looking for.  Maybe they are people that the spirit is going to use to lead us to encounter our messiah in fresh ways and places.

People join the magi this Christmas and seek Jesus. Seek him to worship him and acknowledge him as your saviour and king. Don’t just seek to revel in the rituals and traditions that surround the season they are great and can point the way like the star did for the magi. Seek Jesus, become quest-ers who are willing to come from a far to encounter the one born king of the Jews. AS Arch Bishop Welby said in a speech to the diocesan of Barth and Wells… become captivated again by Jesus Christ… so you are prepared to leave that place of comfort and familiarity and go on an epic faith journey.  Bring your gifts to the king in worship and know that the one we are celebrating this Christmas is good news for all.

Thursday, December 5, 2019

Mary: A woman of faith and courage (Luke 1:26-38,46-56)

once again a reworked message from many years ago... But new to HopeWhanagrei and also on the internet as an audiofile as well...  here is the audio link 

When I was growing up we always knew Christmas was near when my mum would go to the hall cupboard and open it. She would get a chair so she could reach the top shelf. She’d search through the impossible amount of boxes and stuff stored up there. She would slowly shuffle and lift down one box after another till she found the one she wanted. A ragged batted box with a blue lid that had a plastic window in it. The box would then be taken into the lounge and opened and the nativity scene inside would be lifted out dusted off and carefully positioned in pride of place on the mantle above the fire. This would happen even before the Christmas tree growing in a pot out on the veranda was bought in from its near year round exile and neglect and adorned with all the baubles and treasured decorations. It was our family tradition, so amidst the tinsel and food, presents and festivities, hustle and bustle we would be reminded of ‘the reason for the season’, the birth of Jesus. God in person coming, as it says in John’s gospel, and tabernacling with us in a very New Zealand Christmas Holiday way pitching his tent in our neighbourhood.

When my mum died we cleaned out her house and there in a different cupboard still impossibly packed with boxes and boxes of precious memories was the batted blue box. Its plastic window ripped and some of the figures looking somewhat worse for wear, I think Mary had lost her head!  The nativity scene was beyond repair. It hurt to throw it out. But kris bought us a nativity scene for our family, that we unpack every year, that has pride of place on our coffee table at Christmas time… this year it even got taken out to the lawn at Hope Tikipunga for a photoshoot for the poster for ‘carols on the grass’

Leading into Christmas this year I want to invite you to join in my family tradition of unpacking the nativity scene and placing it at the center of our thoughts. Unpacking it not simply by taking the figures from out of a box and arranging them in a certain way. But unpacking them on a theological level. In the sense that we look again and afresh at each of the figures from that scene and look past the way they have become very much stylised caricatures, more at home in children’s paintings and the nostalgia of hallmark cards  that being real people in real life.  Unpacking them to see what they have to say to us as people of faith as we too allow the one born at the stable to have a central role in our lives as he did in theirs.

This week I want to invite us to reflect on Mary, a woman of faith and courage. Maybe she is the hardest figure for us to unpack because she has become a figure of deep religious devotion and adoration. The cover story of a ‘Time’ magazine in march 2005 reported on the way that Mary was growing in importance even in protestant circles. Despite this how she should be honoured has been a focus for division and argument between various Christian traditions.  This perhaps hides a lot of what she has for us today.

The best sermon I ever heard about Mary was from a 16 year old girl from our youth group at St John’s in the City, Rotorua. Leslie was a gifted speaker and when I had asked here to speak on Mary all I had given her as a starter for the talk was well Mary would be a girl about your age, and Leslie really related to it. You see Mary was a young woman possibly no more than in her mid-teens. Leslie talked of the feelings of fear and uncertainty, at the angels message and the great amount of trust and faith it took to answer” I am the LORD’s Servant. May your word to me be fulfilled”.

Mary came from a lowly place. She lived in a small town in a small unimportant province in occupied Israel. In her society she had little importance, position or status. In fact even Luke, who of the gospel writers is most prepared to use women’s remembrances and perspectives, starts not by naming her but referring to the name, lineage and occupation of the man she is betrothed to. She would have been a virtuous Jewish girl and we can see from her song recorded in Luke that she had a deep faith. Like most Jewish men and women of her time she would have been praying for the coming of the messiah to deliver Israel.

In Phillip Yancy’s book “the Jesus I never Knew” he reflects  that in religious art Mary is always shown as accepting the angels visitation like it was a benediction but this does not reflect the gospel narrative. It tells us that she was troubled by the angel’s message.

She is troubled at the angels affirmation that God is with her and that he has blessed her greatly. The angel goes on to tell her that she will become pregnant and have a son and name him Yeshua or as we know him by the Greek equivalent Jesus. The angel tells her that this child will be the messiah taking on David’s throne and reigning forever. This does nothing to alleviate her troubled mind and she asks how it is possible for her to have a son, as she is a virgin. We only think that it is our skeptical age of science that would see such a thing as impossible, but Mary grasp on human biology is sufficient that she knows what the angel is saying is not possible.

The angel says that this will happen by a miracle, God’s power would rest on her. The angel then points to another pending miraculous birth, Mary’s relative Elizabeth who was barren and deemed too old to have a child is now six months pregnant and the angel concludes ‘there is nothing that God cannot do’: Which is by the way a good definition of a miracle. This is a unique God moment where like the resurrection God steps in and exerts his creative power, it is the seed of new creation, that will fall to the ground and die and produce an abundant harvest.

Mary’s reply shows her faith she says, “I am the Lord’s servant, may it happen to me as you have said”. AS her relative Elizabeth will say to her how blessed you are to believe that the Lord’s message to you will come true. Mary continues to show her faith in her song, known as ‘The Magnificat’ that points to the profound effects that this child will have and God’s goodness to his people. She has been described, as being the first disciple, declaring the Kingdom of God her son would usher in. Her song sets the tone of an Upside down kingdom which is good news for the poor and recovery of sight of the blind, release to the captives and a declaration of the acceptable year of the LORD.

But we see that Mary not only had faith she also has courage. For Elizabeth there was great rejoicing and praising God for her pregnancy and the birth of her son. Luke tells us her neighbours and relatives rejoiced with her and celebrated the baby’s birth. In Jewish custom the Village choir would gather and sing for the birth of a baby boy, as this maybe was the coming of God’s promised messiah. But for Mary it was a troubling time. She was a young girl only betrothed to Joseph and her she was pregnant. Maybe the impact of that has been lost in our society today where there are many teenage pregnancies but it was a great scandal. Her husband Joseph could have easily publically rejected her, and she would have been stoned for adultery. Matthew tells us he was going to give her a quite divorce until the same angel visited him.

We are never told how the grandparents reacted to this situation but perhaps from friend and family dealing with similar situations you may guess some of the anguish they went through. Despite all this Mary faces the situation with faith, trusting in God. It may have been wise for Joseph to take Mary away from her home village for the birth of the child, as she would not have to put up with the shame of not having the rejoicing and support of everyone. It is rather ironic that the village choir would not have come to sing for this particular birth because of the stigma of the child’s possible illegitimacy. How could this be the messiah! It fell to the angels to herald this child’s birth.  She would have had the child without the comfort of relatives, as a mere male it’s interesting to note that when each of my children was born my mother in law appeared, God bless her, and that was of great comfort to Kris. It took courage for Mary to face all  this alone, with Joseph, away from her support structures.

Malcolm Muggeridge questions whether it would have been much different today, with family planning clinics offering convenient ways to fix mistakes that may bring embarrassment to families. He says  “it is point of fact, extremely improbable, under existing conditions, that Jesus would have been permitted to be born at all. Mary’s pregnancy, in poor circumstances, and with the father unknown, would have been an obvious case for an abortion; and her talk of having conceived as a result of the intervention of the Holy Spirit would have pointed to the need for psychiatric treatment, and made the case for terminating her pregnancy even stronger. Thus our generation, needing a saviour more, perhaps, than any that has ever existed would be too humane to allow one to be born.” Maybe the thing that would stop that is Mary’s faith and her courage.

Courage and faith exemplify Mary throughout the gospel accounts. When she goes to the temple a week after Jesus birth Simeon the one person in the Christmas story who seems to be able to look beyond the child to see the shadow of the cross tells Mary that a sword will pierce her soul she stores even these things in her heart. In John’s gospel we see her prepared to approach Jesus about the wine problem at the wedding in Canna, looking to her son to do something, even though his time had not come. Maybe in a moment of doubt and confusion in Marks gospel it tells us that she and Jesus brothers came to bring him home fearing that he had become deranged, it took courage to question what she had stored in her heart. She is a widow and had come to cope with the sorrow and pain of her husband dying young… She is there at the cross, as her son is brutally and unjustly crucified. She receives his kindness as Jesus asks his much beloved friend to care for his most beloved mother. She is also there in the upper room at Pentecost, knowing her son has risen from the dead and faithfully standing with his disciples. In her old age she shares her story and what she had known and experienced with Luke and it was included in the Gospel, along with a song that would have become more and more poignant as time had gone on. This is the woman of faith and courage that God chose to carry and nurture his only begotten son.

For us today there is there are two things I want to draw from Mary.

Firstly, that we need both faith in God and the courage to live that faith out. Seeing the kingdom of God being born into the world today not only takes convictions it takes the courage of our convictions. Our faith needs to be put into action. Mary’s words “ I am your servant may it happen to me as you said” are not words of passive resignation to fate they are an active embrace of God’s will and purposes, despite the challenges and dangers. Allowing a new reality a new hope to have birth and life through her… that is God’s call to us as well.

It takes courage and faith to allow God’s kingdom to be our priority. For example in Mary’s song it tells us the good news of Jesus Christ will mean that the poor receive their fill and the rich go away empty handed. We tend to want to think that the rich are blessed, that we are blessed in this country with what we have, but the gospel call on people who have much, is that much is expected. Jesus calls us to side with the poor and the powerless in our world and it takes courage to go against the flow of consumerism and materialism. It takes courage to speak up and say that we follow a different set of values and truths when the situation demands it. To sing Mary’s song, It takes faith and courage to be prepared to act and live in a way that reflects Jesus, knowing the resistance we will face, the possible scorn and being written off.

Secondly, we need to realize that God is able to use the humble and lowly to achieve great things for him in our world and place. I once said in a sermon that Mary was just like us, and boy did I get a tongue lashing from a fiery South American women with a Catholic background, she had been taught that Mary was special and unique, she had been exalted to her self being somehow the product of an immaculate conception. But scripture does not substantiate that. It does affirm and acknowledge that she is favoured amoungst all women, and I did and have said today her faith and courage are amazing. However the fact that a young Jewish girl of faith could be chosen to bear the son of God shows that we too who ever we are, how lowly we are, can be used to achieve God’s plans and purposes in the world if we will be prepared to respond with faith and courage to his call on us, to follow and witness to Mary’s Son Jesus Christ, crucified and raised to life again. We know that it is not an easy road, it is meet with suspicion and disdain, it leads down a road where our hearts as well will be pierced, it is the road that needs us to have the faith and the courage of Mary.